The Song and the Silence — A Strong Account of Looking for Roots and Belonging — by Yvette Johnson

Yvette Johnson has written a brave and vivid account of her own personal struggles growing up as the African-American daughter of a professional football player and a fierce mother.  In The Song and the Silence —  A Story about Family, Race, and What Was Revealed in a Small Town in the Mississippi Delta While Searching for Booker Writght, Johnson analyzes her own substantial problems and conflicts.  She didn’t get what she wanted or thought she needed from her parents and found herself adrift.  She also struggles with mental illness.  But fortunately, curiosity and a great deal of personal strength prevail.  Johnson starts to dig into the remarkable story of her maternal grandfather, Booker Wright, who was the subject of a short but epic television documentary filmed in Greenwood, Mississippi, in the 1960’s.  Understanding what her grandfather’s world was like in the Jim Crow South leads Johnson to keep investigating.  Booker Wright may have been an icon, but he also led a very complicated personal life.  He did some fine things for the community and he spoke out bravely on television, but he also inspired alot of resentment within his community.

Johnson has written a great story in and of itself.  The writing is clear and compelling.  What makes this a great book is the author’s determination to keep working at unraveling the past and acquiring a better understanding of what happened and how the tragic effects have never completely gone away.  She forces herself to dig into the past, even when it tells her things she would rather not know.  She develops and shares a profound appreciation for just how horribly, horribly hard it was to grow up in the Jim Crow South and how those scars shaped people such as her emotionally remote mother.  This information is not obtained in one fell swoop.  Johnson’s patience in visiting repeatedly and lingering in Greenwood during some hot summer months yields a far greater understanding than a more sharply focused investigation might have done.

Determined not to settle for the hand she has been dealt, Johnson ends her book with some sound and encouraging recommendations for people struggling with mental illness.  I’m inevitably inspired by people who are candidly struggling with their own problems and still reaching back to help and inspire others.

I strongly recommend this book.  It goes beyond what I’d expected.

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Gweilo – A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood

Martin Booth has written a marvelous memoir about moving to Hong Kong and living there as a young boy in the early 1950’s.  Booth, an important British author, was moved to write Gweilo – A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2004.  The result of this last literary effort is a warm, amazing tale where Booth’s mother proves to be a major heroine and Martin emerges as someone we would all like to know.

In 1952, Booth’s father was posted to Hong Kong as a civilian employee of the British Navy.  As is sometimes sadly the case, Booth Senior’s importance to the Empire was in inverse proportion to his self-importance, and he was content to leave Martin, his only child, in an English boarding school.  Fortunately Booth’s mother was having none of that and insisted on bringing their son with them to Hong Kong.   And so in 1952 Martin Booth left an impoverished England, still struggling with post-war privation, and travelled to Hong Kong where he and his family lived for three years.  Martin and his mother loved exotic Hong Kong for all the reasons his literally gin-swilling father detested it.  Indeed the Booth family can be seen as a microcosm of the struggle between the old guard determination to hang on to the vestiges of the British Empire and the contrasting determination of a new generation eager explore new things and embrace variety and change.  

Martin was clearly his mother’s child, and remained resentful of his father for all sort of reasons.  The unhappiness of his parents’ marriage provides a sad back drop to what is otherwise a thrilling story of what happens when a seven year old boy is given license to explore an exotic city.  Allowing a seven year old child free rein to explore a new city, let along Hong Kong, on his own is unimaginable today, but that is what Martin got to do.  While Martin and his mother certainly did some exploring together, Martin’s independent solo forays provide the most amazing and exciting adventures in the book.  Happily Martin emerged from these adventures unharmed.  He also developed a deep empathy, understanding and love for Hong Kong.  His freedom enabled him to poke around, ask questions and learn to speak some rudimentary Chinese.  Martin encountered horrific poverty and encountered dangerous snakes and some pretty shady people, but he had a blast and learned a lot.  Indeed,  I found Martin’s adventures in the 1950’s to be considerably more thrilling and informative than my own trip to Hong Kong this past August.  Among other things this book shows what Hong Kong has lost, both good and bad.  

Martin’s mother deserves a major shout out.  Her openness and spirit of adventure educated and inspired her son to explore the city and its neighborhoods on his own.  Martin Booth learned a lot from watching his mother.  Observing how she coped with difficulties gave him some useful tools when he met his own difficulties.  Today this remarkable woman would undoubtedly be charged with child neglect, but this was the 1950’s, when many of us recall a lot more childhood freedom to roam and fend for ourselves than his common today.  Still, Martin’s mother comes across as uniquely permissive when it comes to letting her young son explore Hong Kong on his own.

The book ends when the family sails back to England after their three years in Hong Kong, but fortunately Booth got to return to Hong Kong a few years later.  I was so happy he got to return.

I loved this book.  It is a warm remembrance of a few years of childhood in exotic Hong Kong.

Berlin Diary – The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 – A Terrifying Read for Our Own Era

People really need to read this book!  William L. Shirer, the famous author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich – A History of Nazi Germany, kept a diary while he was stationed in Berlin from 1934 to 1941.  Shirer began as a print journalist but was converted to a radio journalist in Berlin the 1930’s and though 1940.  I recently read his diary from that period, Berlin Diary – The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941.  Shirer’s writing is clear and absorbing. His diary is a primary source, and it makes for harrowing reading.

Shirer was a foreign correspondent for various American outlets when he found himself in Germany in the 1930’s and through the pivotal year 1940.  His own experiences of struggling with censors and putting out his broadcasts in the midst of heavy bombing are justification enough for his book.  His visits to the countries Germany has defeated are fascinating and ominous all at the same time.  Many of his colleagues were kicked out by the Germans.  Shirer tries to stay on the grounds that his witness is important, but he knows the Germans are using him or at least think they are.  It is a fascinating game.  Shirer’s narrative bounces from visits to battlefields, to encounters with Nazi leaders, to every day life in Berlin, to worries about his own safety and self-respect.  He tries to figure out exactly what is happening and get the word out without getting kicked out of Germany.

The transcending importance of this book is that Shirer’s personal experiences occur within the malevolent atmosphere of Nazi Germany and the countries it defeated.  I found it impossible to read about the unrelenting cruelty and domination of the Nazi’s and not think about what is happening in the United States today.  Whereas here we have attempted censorship of the press and ham-handed efforts to exclude reporters, in Nazi Germany this is what actually happened as a matter of course.  Germans had long been denied accurate internal reporting of hardships and loss, so they became inured to it and stopped believing anything they read.  Now we find ourselves in an era of “fake news,” where our leaders feel no compunction to tell the truth or keep their promises.   Bullying has become an accepted political tactic.  Are Americans getting to cynical and complacent to resist?   Similarities with Nazi Germany are growing, and we should fear what might come next in our own country.

Shirer’s diary underscores the point that the truth ceased to matter in Nazi Germany and that the Nazi leaders felt emboldened to create an endless, self-agrandizing narrative to dress up and justify their criminal actions.  So, too, were they emboldened to villify Jews and other handy scapegoats because they felt they could. This is a terrifying blueprint.

Although Shirer’s book feels particularly prescient at this time and he openly states his opinions, he has not written a polemic. This is the diary of someone trying to be a journalist in the midst of Nazi Germany.  Shirer’s own American perspective is very much in place and enhances the value of his diary, which he obviously kept hidden while in Germany.

Lastly I should note that whereas liberals like myself may read this book and draw ominous analogies with current American politics, even if your politics are far to the right of mine, this book has profound historical significance and is an excellent read.  I recommend it.

The Clancys of Queens — A Beguiling Memoir

I loved everything about The Clancys of Queens, Tara Clancy’s warm and funny memoir of growing up in Brooklyn and Queens as the only child of a divorced Italian mother and Irish father.  As a child Tara seems to have spent more time figuring out how to stir things up than she did pondering her unusual family circumstances.  She doesn’t seem to have been a sad or particularly introspective child.  Instead, she happily careened around her family’s various homes and hangouts.   Presumably not everyone  appreciated some of her more daredevil efforts, but the book’s prevailing theme is of a group of adults who loved her, raised her, accepted her quirks and tried to help her find her way.  Oddly none of these otherwise caring people seems to have been particularly focused on her formal education.  Clancy clearly picked up a great deal just from hanging around adults, but she also enjoyed a great deal of freedom.  Only in her late teens did she stumble upon a copy of King Lear and get excited about literature and interested in higher education.  At that point, the same extended family that had paid little attention to her academics stepped up to the plate and helped her with college expenses.

This book is a wise, funny and non-mushy book.  I really recommend it.

In the Land of Invisible Women — A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom

Quanta Ahmed’s memoir In the Land of Invisible Women – A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom is an absorbing tale of Dr. Ahmed’s two years spent as a physician in Saudi Arabia.  The author, a Muslim woman of Pakistani descent, was educated in Britain and trained in the United States.  Her decision to go to Saudi Arabia just two years before 9/11 came about when she had to leave the United States at the end of her training.  Ahmed was a modern Muslim, who had never covered herself or been subject to male domination, so being enveloped in a stifling abbayah and losing her freedom of movement outside her apartment and the hospital in Riyadh was a considerable shock.  At times Ahmed got plenty mad, but fortunately she also got curious.  She used her time well and met and spoke with as many Saudi women as she could find during her time there.  

Ahmed was continually horrified by Saudi women’s lack of freedom and their vulnerability to the dangerous bullying of the religious police.  At the same time, she grew to appreciate the women’s devotion to their religion and their country and their insistence on enjoying their lives, no matter how circumscribed.  The female-only parties Ahmed attended sound like great fun and proved excellent opportunities for her to observe and speak with an impressive number of Saudi women when they literally had their hair down and their abbayah’s off.

The book is a huge mix of good and bad times.  Ahmed was tremendously moved by making the hajj to Mecca and reminded of all the things she treasured about Islam.  On the other hand, she hated and feared the religious police and was troubled by the extent to which her Saudi colleagues meekly accepted their abuse.  To some extent, the hospital provided a safe haven and rewarding opportunities to practice medicine, but even there Ahmed noted how hyper-strict religious observances and male supremacy often prevailed.  Sadly, there was a particularly jolting event at the end of Ahmed’s stay, but I won’t spoil it by divulging it here.

So the book convinced me that I won’t be going to Saudi Arabia unless they have an unforseeable turnabout on human rights in my lifetime.  At the same time, I loved the book and appreciated all Ahmed had to say.  Much of the book involved her sitting down and posing thoughtful questions to many different and very interesting Saudi women.  At times there is a bit of awkwardness to prose because of all the Q and A, but Ahmed asked the questions I wanted to know.  Her genuine respect and curiosity shines through.  In the end, I learned a lot and came to appreciate these Saudi women and their perspectives even as I thought of Charles Grodin’s immortal line to Kevin Kline in the movie Dave:  “Get out.  Got out as fast as you can.”

Ahmed currently practices medicine in the United States and is frequently seen on CNN.  I really recommend this book.

How To Be A Heroine — In Which the Author Attempts to Make Sense of Her Life Through a Study of Famous Fictional Heroines

Samantha Ellis is a playwright, journalist and avid reader of novels featuring intriguing women protagonists. It is a fine book that discusses Anne of Green Gables, Pride and Predjudice, Gone with the WindValley of the Dolls, Franny and Zooey, and a host of other classics; and that is the feast we have been given here.  Ellis, the British born daughter of Iraqi Jewish refugees, populates her book, How to Be a Heroine – Or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much, with an energetic roster of literary heroines.  Some, like Elizabeth Bennet, are pretty much completely wonderful without being annoying about it.  Others, like Scarlett O’Hara, are pretty reprehensible but their boldness and determination still take your breath away.  Many are insecure and of course most of them have been dealt a bad hand in life.  Ellis does a masterful job of looking at all these girls and women and their stories as she describes her own efforts to break free of a confining family and learn to be bold.  Ellis’s views change as she grows and makes her own way.  Indeed her defense of Mrs. Bennet as an inherently practical woman has considerable merit, although I will always have a soft spot for Mr. Bennet.  In any event, Ellis increasingly loses patience with the “good girls” and is more inspired by the brave and the bold, even if they are self-centered and obnoxious and their behavior is outrageous.

This book made me wish I had read certain classics, such as Anne of Green Gables.  I don’t think I’ll read up on Scheherazade, but Ellis’s evaluation is intriguing.   Ellis’s discussion of all these powerfully drawn heroines also gave me pause in some cases — perhaps my initial readings were too glib.  It is definitely time to reread a few of these great books and to try at least a few of them for the first time.

Most importantly How to Be a Heroine reminded me how important it was for me to be able to read about  strong women and their stories.  They inspired me and caused me to think outside the confines of my own life.  Feminism didn’t just happen — millions of us were inspired by reading about strong girls and women who dared to be brave and rescue themselves.  Hopefully How to Be a Heroine will give you the same powerful memories of your own reading adventures and obsessions.

Underground in Berlin – A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in the Heart of Nazi Germany


Underground in Berlin – A Young Woman’s Extraordinary Tale of Survival in Nazi Germany represents a fascinating and important contribution to Holocaust literature.  The author Marie Jalowicz Simon was a young Jewish woman who survived World War II by hiding in Berlin, often in plain sight.  She survived to complete her education and become a professor in Berlin.  Prior to 1997 Simon generally refrained from telling her story and angrily rejected requests for interviews.  But finally, in 1997 during the last year of her life, she dictated her story onto 77 tapes (900 pages of transcript).   Although she didn’t keep a written diary during her years of hiding, Simon had maintained a remarkable diary in her head.   Marie Simon died in 1998, and approximately fifteen years later, after substantial research and editing, her son published this important book.

Every survivor’s story is unique, but Simon’s is really unusual, mostly because of her attitude.  Simon was an educated woman in her twenties in Berlin.  Her parents had died and she had no one depending on her.   This gave her some freedom and mobility, but it also meant she had only herself to rely upon.  

To survive in and of itself was noble, and Simon insisted on surviving.  Apart from an unsuccessful effort to marry and relocate to Bulgaria, she stayed in Berlin and its environs.   She kept her health and had tremendous ingenuity and nerve.  Perhaps more importantly, she had just enough contacts to keep finding a series of short term places to stay.  Simon was furious at her situation and furious at the German people, so she wasn’t particularly grateful to those who helped her.  She never betrayed anyone, but neither did she waste much time mourning those who didn’t make it.  Simon comes across as a difficult person who probably wasn’t the easiest houseguest or the nicest person to have around.  But then, to hear her tell it, many of the people who took her in frequently weren’t very nice either.   They seemed to have jumbled motives and were frequently unpleasant.  

Not to digress, but an interesting study on what it takes to be a rescuer might be conducted just from looking at the lives of the people who stepped up to help Marie Simon.  They were a very diverse group of odd personalities from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds.  Unpleasant they may have been, but undoubtedly they stuck their necks out when they sheltered Simon.  In the end, we  see her rescuers only through Simon’s eyes, and she doesn’t dwell on how scared many of them must have been.

This book is particularly striking because of Simon’s strong voice.  Simon absolutely rejects the fate the Naxi regime is determined to impose.   At some level she holds all Germans accountable for the crimes implicated upon Jews and thinks that those helping her are only doing what they were supposed to do.  Her rage is impressive and constant, even as she is always on her guard and looking for her next place to hide.  The bottom line is that Simon was courageous and bold, and she succeeded in surviving for three years in Berlin during the last years of World War II.  It is a great story.

Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi – An Urgent Reminder of this Country’s Violent, Racist Past and a Call to Consider Its Continuing Impact

 

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Anne Moody’s 1968 memoir, Coming of Age in Mississippi, is a tremendously important book, particularly now when some people deny that police violence against African Americans is a pervasive problem and when the Black Lives Matter movement has become a favorite target of the angry right.   This book is searing reminder that the tradition of state-sanctioned violence against people of color was a real thing that hasn’t just faded away.  To the contrary, it rears its ugly head again and again,  sometimes in the context of unduly violent and selective policing and sometimes in the context of racial barriers to voting, aka gerrymandering and voter ID requirements.  Of course this is an incomplete list, but  whether these events are viewed as isolated or systemic, their effect is profound.

In the context of Coming of Age in Mississippi, incidents of racial violence against people of color aren’t individual, unrelated events.  They are more properly viewed as a continuum that cost people their lives.  In Anne Moody’s Mississippi any African American who spoke up risked his or her life.  

 Coming of Age in Mississippi brilliantly captures the fear, the rage and the inexplicable courage of a young African American woman in Mississippi in the very early 1960’s.  Anne Moody didn’t come from an activist family.  Her family was extremely poor, her parents were separated, her mother kept having children and there was no thought of getting ahead or fighting injustice.  Moody bitterly resented her circumstances from the very beginning and she refused to accept them.

As a young child, she experienced the dangers young children faced when both parents were forced to work and there was no safe child care.  As a young girl, Moody took on whatever work she could find.  Her most painful job was working for an incredibly racist and threatening white woman, who denigrated Moody in every way possible and yet hired her to tutor her dim-witted son and his friends.  

There were lynchings in Moody’s town, and people were driven away if they didn’t kowtow to the status quo.  It was an ugly, dangerous environment.  To really think about what Anne Moody experienced every day as a child frames the discussion of why the Civil Rights Movement came to be and why there seems little reason to forget and move on when racism remains so pervasive and when racism seems to be attracting new defenders on a regular basis.

Anne Moody is so interesting, because she didn’t just accept her lot.  She refused.  She got out of town and ultimately was introduced to the Civil Rights Movement where she found her calling.  Moody was an heroic activist, but she was no saint.  She was really angry and her book tells us why.  It also provides an intense reminder of why racism was and is such a big deal, and why expecting people to “get over it” makes no sense.   When people and their forebears have lived through the horrors of the Jim Crow South, why would anyone expect them to just be grateful that things are a bit better now?  Why should anyone be content with things being a bit better?  As someone recently noted, why should anyone be expected to forgive and forget slavery when the South keeps celebrating its Civil Ware generals and their victories and while the Confederate Flag still hangs too many places?

Finally, the strength of Anne Moody’s account is that it is unfiltered.   She wrote her book in her twenties and only a few years after her lunch counter protests, her jailings and her voting registration drives.  She isn’t particularly reflective.  She just writes about what she is feeling and what she experienced.  She doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to understand why others were less bold.  She bitterly resents her family’s efforts to stop her, even as she acknowledges that reports of her activism got back to her home town and threatened her family’s security.  She is even angrier at the ministers who gave lots of noble speeches and sermons, even as they personally tried to avoid going to jail.  Moody, on the other hand, felt that going to jail was a necessary sacrifice and was quick to contrast brave school children who went to jail with the ministers who seemed happy to send them there, but didn’t want to go there themselves. 

Anne Moody might have been a tough person to know, but she was heroic.   This is a great book.  The subject is fascinating, and it really advances our understanding of what it meant to be an activist in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement.  

 

 

The Butler’s Child – An Autobiography of a Civil Rights Lawyer

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Lewis Steel is a veteran civil rights lawyer, who has written a very thoughtful memoir, The Butler’s Childs – An Autobiography.  Steel’s background as a trust fund kid, educated at Culver Military Academy and Harvard, is oddly juxtaposed with his career as a civil rights attorney, who has spent a lot of time losing cases.  The premise for the book is Steel’s acute awareness that as a child and a young man he was served by an African American butler and his wife.  Steel felt close to this couple, but realizes that he spent most of his time telling them about his life while learning precious little about theirs.  Now he’s aware of his previous lack of awareness.

Clearly Steel likes to feel like a renegade, and yet he knows that his family’s wealth (largely thanks to a grandmother who married on of the Warner Brothers) has made it possible for him to live in some very nice real estate, educate his children at private schools and not really need to earn a living.  Steel acknowledges this and occasionally blames some decisions like private schools and an even fancier apartment on his wife, but all in all his choices are made with a reasonable amount of awareness, and there seems to be a certain amount of guilt behind it.

Steel has had a long legal career, mostly as a civil rights attorney with significant criminal defense experience, and he has been kicked in the teeth by judges and prosecutors across the country.  Famously, he was one of Rubin “Hurricane Carter’s” attorneys and stuck with Carter and his co-defendant through an unbelievable saga of prosecutorial malfeasance and willful judicial blindness.  As an attorney, I enjoyed Steel’s legal war stories, even as the numbing sameness of courts and communities’ willingness to overlook and perpetuate discrimination continued with few checks for decades.  Another whole book would be required to assess how much progress has actually been made, and Steel doesn’t really go there.  This isn’t a criticism – his legal career has evolved and he is looking back.  Referencing the recent police homicides that led to the Black Lives Matter movement, Steel is far from sanguine about any progress that may have been made.

Steel’s heart and advocacy were in the right place, but to hear him tell it he didn’t rein in his emotions and openly challenged judges.  Steel was a character, and his war stories are highly entertaining.  Nonetheless, it will always be debatable whether clients are best served in particular cases by aggressive, confrontational attorneys.  The fact remains that Steel was in the trenches and he had to make on-the-spot decisions about how to try his cases and create the record he would surely need for an appeal.  Of course it is also true that calling out judges for their biases must have been emotionally satisfying and cathartic for Steel.  As an NAACP attorney, he was involved in many generally unsuccessful, school desegregation cases, often in the North.  One has to admire his stubborn determination to see these cases through, even as he is initially terrified by the neighborhoods he frequents and his met by judicial indifference at best.

This book is well worth reading for many reasons, including the history of civil rights litigation and the circumstances that led to a privileged young man to join the civil rights movement and work for little or nothing as a civil rights attorney.  Why he chose that path doesn’t seem entirely clear even to Steel, but he obviously likes his life.  One theme that does come through is that Steel, who is Jewish, has faced discrimination in his own life and is one of those fortunate people who doesn’t feel the need to conform.  He is remarkably confident in his beliefs and comfortable doing what he feels he needs to do.  For the most part, he doesn’t seem to be looking for approval from anyone other than perhaps his wife and his colleagues in the trenches.  Steel’s willingness to own up to certain occasions when his behavior was lacking gives this book some badly needed balance.  It is so reassuring to have someone say, “I failed to act; I hurt someone I love; there is no excuse for it; I should have behaved differently.”

Steel doesn’t shy away from issues of privilege and race and his own failures.  He is very aware that he is an economically secure white man who will cannot understand what it means to be African American.  He acknowledges that it is absurd for him to live such a comfortable and secure existence, just because he was born wealthy and white.  He knows that he isn’t always living the courage of his convictions —  he works to integrate public schools across the country even as his children attend the best private schools and he lives in a large apartment in a predominately white neighborhood.   While Steel chooses to live and raise his family as he does, his efforts to understand and examine the irony of his circumstances is intriguing.  Fortunately his self-examination and arguably hypocritical lifestyle do not result in inertia.  It’s almost like yoga:  Steel observes his circumstances and how he is feeling at the moment, and then moves on to do what he needs to do.   In Lewis Steel’s case, that means a lifetime in the legal trenches as he tries to protect and enforce the rights of clients who have borne the brunt of all manner of discrimination and injustice.  In truth, someone probably had to lose all those early cases to pave the way for future progress, and Steel took on that task.  His was an historic crusade.