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.

Advertisements

Not Just Jane — Shelley DeWees Identifies Seven British Women Writers Who Are Probably New to You

Shelley DeWees’s Not Just JaneRediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature provides a fascinating look into seven successful, yet relatively unknown, British women writers of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Born of her love of Austen and Bronte, in this book DeWees sets out to discover other women writers who were pioneers of their times.  I had never heard of any of the writers featured in this book.  Charlotte Turner Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Robinson, Catherine Crowe, Sara Coleridge, Dinah Mulock Craig and Mary Elizabeth Braddon all enjoyed some success in their day.  Their stories tell us a lot about what was going on in England during their life times.  Many of them faced poverty and had few honorable options for earning a living.  They might become a governess or they might become prostitutes.  Faced with these options, one way or another these women became writers, and some of them became expert networkers as well.  Sara Coleridge’s story is a bit different.  She was well educated and didn’t suffer poverty, but her father, the famous poet Samuel Coleridge basically ignored her existence.  Under those circumstances it seems a shame that so much of her work was devoted to organizing her father’s work posthumously.

I have yet to read one of their books, but I certainly enjoyed reading about their lives and their environments. 

It Turns out Organization isn’t Necessarily a Dirty Word — Organized Enoough by Amanda Sullivan

Anyone who ever saw all the books in our apartment, not to mention the over-stuffed closets and piles of art supplies,  would howl at the idea of me consulting a book on organizing my stuff.  But Amanda Sullivan’s eminently helpful and encouraging Organized Enough has a pretty blue cover and there was no avoiding it since copies of this book filled an entire window of one of my favorite independent bookstores.  Under those circumstances, I naturally felt I had to buy the book and bring it home. That alone isn’t so shocking, but it was shocking that I actually read the entire book in palatable sessions and liked it.  The book is funny and non-judgmental, and it appeals to the reasonable person I aspire to be.   It has a simple organization and theme that guides an appealing narrative.  Ms. Sullivan is a cheerleader, but she’s not a cheerleader on steroids.

Organized Enough has actually inspired me to take a new approach to confronting clutter.  Although I have no illusions about becoming an organizational goddess.  Fortunately, Amanda Sullivan has shown me that I needn’t have such lofty goals.  Optimistically, I can see where improvements can be made without devoting entire weeks of my life to an overwhelming decluttering project.  For starters, I just need to start to think about why I have all this stuff, and then I need to get proactive about developing  an overall plan for my stuff and letting a lot of it go.  That’s right.  Through Sullivan’s organizing philosophy, not to mention her useful examples, I can see a path to letting go of more stuff and feeling rewarded by the process.  

Sullivan’s humor and lack of judgment are encouraging.   Organized Enough  appeals to my logical self.  Better yet, without sounding sappy or like some domestic maven, I have begun to consider that perhaps I ought to value my home a bit more and find some satisfaction in maintaining it in a slightly less cluttered state.  Plus, there is something to be said for knowing where stuff is, which is a lot easier to do if you have less of it and if it is maintained in some semblance of organization.  Such a result would be plenty good enough for me.

Sullivan is a professional organizer, and she has put what she knows in a very readable and succinct little book.  Her observations about why some of her clients hold on to things they don’t need and how their possessions can be more logically organized are very appealing.  It’s no small things that people allow her into their homes to work her magic.  Except it’s not really magic.  It is a solid skill set, and Sullivan’s reasonably contained enthusiasm for order is persuasive.  She has a clear eye and solid ideas about what works.  She is also human.  I liked her best when she admitted to being a bit neurotic on the subject of order and when she further admitted that she had drastically ratcheted down her expectations when it came to her kids.  In other words, she isn’t perfect, so it is a lot easier to consider what she has to say.  

Organized Enough is a useful, enjoyable and inspiring book for people who either already care a great deal about keeping their homes tidy and organized or who, like me, need a thoughtful, good-humored nudge to get their act together.  

Spies in Palestine — James Srodes’ Account of Early Jewish Settlers Who Spied on Behalf of Britain During World War I

James Srodes’s Spies in Palestine — Love, Betrayal, and the Heroic Life of Sarah Aaronsohn is a concise account of a relatively obscure bit of Israeli history — the spying activities of Sarah Aaronsohn and her family during World War I.   Sarah Aaronsohn stands out as a liberated woman from birth.  Her confidence and initiative were strikingly uncommon for women of her era and made her an unusually placed and fascinating feminist hero.  A very active horsewoman, Sarah  roamed widely with little apparent regard for convention.  The book recounts her relationships with various men in her life.  Although it does not appear that she and T.E.  Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) had an affair, Lawrence keeps wandering in and out of Sarah and her family’s milieu.  In comparison to boisterous energy of Sarah and her family, Lawrence comes across as a bit of an ineffectual wimp, not at all like the strong, gorgeous hero portrayed by Peter O’Toole in the epic movie Lawrence of Arabia.

The Aaronsohns were Romanian Jews who settled in Palestine under the Ottoman Empire in the 1880’s.  Sarah was born in Palestine and lived there most of her life, except for a short, unfortunate marriage that took her to Constantinople.  Her family was based in Zichron Ya’akov and was relatively well known.  Indeed, Sarah’s eldes brother Aaron developed an international reputation as an agricultural expert and used that to leverage international contacts and ultimately to begin spying on behalf of the British.  The Aaronsohns’ spying effort were inspired by the Turks’ oppression of Palestine’s Jewish settlers during World War I.  As it happens, the intelligence provided by the Aaronsohns  through their spy ring was largely unsolicited by the British and sadly lacked discipline.  In fact, it was almost comical how difficult Aaron and his family found it to help Britain.  The Aaronsohns aggressively acquired information on Turkish positions in Palestine in order for the British to plan an effective invasion, but the British did not particularly trust the information and were not particularly interested.  Even when the British decided to accept the Aaronsohns help they showed little concern for their safety and their military efforts were ineffectual.

Sarah become involved after she fled her marriage in Constantinople and returned to Palestine.  On her way home she had observed first hand the Turks’ outrageous treatment of Armenians, and her entire family was appalled by the Turks’ treatment of Jews.  Her brother Aaron had left Palestine to engage in efforts elsewhere, and so Sarah assumed leadership of the spy ring upon her return to Palestine.  Although the information provided the Aaronosohns was good, the group’a execution was amateurish, particularly since the British mixed their lack of interest with a healthy dose of incompetence. They were easily betrayed, and tragedy ensued.  

This is the story of successful espionage, but rather the story of an unbelieveably brave woman who voluntarily led a major effort to gather intelligence for Britain.  Although it did not end well, Sarah’s heroic efforts deserve to be known and honored.

I liked this book for a lot of reasons.  It was well-written and kept a good pace.  More importantly, I learned about an early Jewish feminist who played a significant part in the early history of Israel.  The historical backdrop of early twentieth century Palestine, Turkey and Britain, combined with the presence of the international Jewish community and a fantastic cast of characters made this a compelling read.

Leon Stein’s Epic Book about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is a Timely Reminder of How Poor Women Suffer When Rich Male Employers Make Their Own Rules

Leon Stein wrote The Triangle Fire in 1962.  Stein, who died in 1990 was the editor of Justice, the official publication of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.  

The Triangle Fire recounts the horrific story of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, when 123 young women and 23 men died in a New York sweatshop that had locked doors and utterly inadequate escape routes.  This is a very timely book.  This kind of tragedy is what happens when employers of defenseless and desperate poor women ignore fire laws (which weren’t all that great anyway) and lock their employees into their workplace, just to maintain complete control and perhaps make a few more dollars.  While industrial accidents are scarcely unknown in this country, they happen regularly and often on a much larger scale in third world countries where so many of our clothes, electronics and other consumer goods are made.  (William Greider’s excellent introduction to The Triangle Fire does an excellent job of recounting some of these more recent tragedies.)

 Stronger unions, better fire laws and arguably better fire enforcement all ensued after the Triangle Fire, but the fire didn’t need to happen and all those workers certainly didn’t need to die.  Ironically, Stein writes that because of the way the owners were permitted to overinsure their buildings, they may well have profited from the fire.  The sad fact remains that 146 immigrant women, mostly Jewish and Italians, were killed  — many of them by jumping out the windows of the sweatshop to avoid being burned to death.

This book is a strong reminder that workers need protection from their bosses, who cannot be relied upon to put safety first.  Safety regulations, effective enforcement and constant vigilance are required to prevent industrial tragedies.  Unfortunately the strong anti-government, anti-regulatory fervor that has gripped Washington doesn’t bode well for protecting our workers, and this country’s current leadership has given no indication whatsoever that it cares about the safety of American workers, much less the safety of third world workers who make so many of our products.  To the contrary, the focus seems to be on freeing the rich of all those nasty curbs on their freedom to get richer on the backs of everyone else.

This is a relatively short and very clear book.  I recommend it because it tells an important story about one of this country’s most disastrous industrial tragedies and because it reminds us how vulnerable this country’s workers still are.

The Queen of Katwe — The Improbable Story of a Ugandan Chess Champion

Before it was a successful Disney movie (which I have yet to see), The Queen of Katwe was a book by Tim Crothers.  Crothers initially came to Uganda to do a story on Phiona Mutesi, an impoverished teenager from the slums of Katwe who had become a chess champion through an improable series of events.  Crothers correctly recognized that Phiona’s story deserved a book, and he has written a fine one.  The Queen of Katwe does an excellent job of filling in the back story of Phiona’s family, as well as the story of Robert Katende, her coach and mentor.  

Crothers does the research and asks the fundamental questions — how and why does a barely literate young girl from one of the worst slums in the entire world creep into the world of chess and use it to launch a different life?  There is no satisfactory answer.  Despite Crothers’ diligent interviews of Phiona and the people around her, Phiona remains an inigma.  What is clear, however, is that many different people contributed one way or another along the way.  There is Katende, who couldn’t get a job as an engineer after he managed to graduate from university but then somehow lucked into a job with a Christian philanthropic community because of his soccer skills and then got the idea to teach a unlikely group of slum kids chess.  (Phiona wasn’t the only impoverished, hungry child to benefit from Katende’s inspired decision to teach kids who could barely read the fundamentals of chess.). Phiona’s impoverished family helped, too. Her mother calculated that it was better for her children to attend chess classes and get something to eat there than to earn a pittance in the marketplace.  It was also no small thing that Phiona’s  brother let her tag along.  Fundamentally, at important times, there were people who looked out for Phiona as she learned chess and as her success with chess led to her engagement with the world outside Katwe.  The list of helpers and mentors goes on, but ultimately Phiona was the one who decided to follow her brother to Katende’s class and to dig in and learn the game.   Other Katwa kids may have been equally diligent, but Phiona had a gift.

This is an inspiring book.  Even if Phiona remains an unknowable figure, her story and her unprecedented accomplishments are completely fascinating.  I was left wanting to know what happens next in her life.  (Wikipedia was moderately helpful here, so we will keep contributing!)

Finally, I really appreciated the author’s ability to take a back seat in his interviews, as well as his diligent efforts to talk to so many people and to keep trying to find out more about Phiona.  Also, as Crothers notes, the book could never have happened if Robert Katende hadn’t attended the bulk of the interviews to provide translations skills.  So kudos to Katende as well!

What’s the Matter with Kansas — Thomas Frank’s 2004 Book is All too Timely

Thomas Frank’s 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas is a very prescient piece of political writing.  Frank grew up in Kansas and looks back in bedwilderment at how the state has lurched to the right in defiance of the economic interests of its citizens.  In particular Frank is mystified by the conservative voting habits of Kansas working class whites, who keep voting for rich Republicans making lots of promises they never keep as they just keep lowering taxes for the rich.  The poor workers just keep getting poorer with less government support, and they keep voting for the most conservative candidates they can find.  Some of this can be attributed to carefully executed anti-abortion and other socially conservative strategies, but it is still hard to suss out why people would keep voting against their own self-interest.  It is kind of a reverse Roosevelt.

What’s the Matter with Kansas is entertaining and even funny, but it is also confounding.   Frank underscores how radical Kansas was years ago, which makes its current passion for to-the-right-of-Attila-the-Hun conservatism seem so bizarre.  I checked:  Kansas hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

So in his 2004 book, Frank sagely diagnoses the average white Kansan’s complete disaffection with the Democratic Party.  Since this book was written,the Republican Party has continued to follow disastrous economic policies that have led to recession and increased unemployment.  Obama’s national success in 2008 and 2012 may have masked the phenomenon to some extent, but the 2016 election has shown that Kansas’ self-destructive voting habits have been adopted enthusiastically by the Rust Belt.

This begs the question, what should the Democrats have done or what should they do to convince working class Kansans that their best shot at improving their lot in life lies with the Democratic Party.  Unfortunately, while Frank is very good at diagnosing the problem and its permutations, he is less successful at suggesting how Democrats or even centrists might pry these voters away from the far right.  Embracing anti-abortion and social conservatism might sway a few voters, but it would also eviscerate the Democratic party.  This is a massive problem that the Democratic Party needs to try to solve.  Logic suggests that it should be easy to solve, but Frank’s excellent book suggests that there is nothing simple about Kansas politics.

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.

To Tell the Truth Freely – The Life of Ida B. Wells — A Life Long Crusader Against Lynching

Ida B. Wells’s life is well-told in To Tell the Truth Freely – The Life of Ida B. Wells by Mia Bay.  Ida B. Wells is one of those African American leaders whose name is familiar, but I didn’t know enough about her.  Mia Bay’s excellent biography solves the that problem.  Much of it is based on Wells’ own unfinished autobiography.  This is a clear, focused book that fills a gap in civil rights history.

Wells was born a slave during the Civil War.  Her parents were sort of middle class by reconstruction standards, and they made sure Wells received an education.  Although she never received a college degree, Wells taught school for much of her early life.  Her relatively secure life was shattered when her parents both died and left her an orphan at 14 with a bunch of younger siblings.  Wells succeeded in keeping her family together and supported them by teaching school.  All that is remarkable enough, but then her life gets amazing.

From he beginning, Wells had a firm sense of who she was and her own personal liberties, so she didn’t hesitate to sue a railroad that refused to allow her to seat in the ladies section despite the first class ticket she had purchased.  The litigation was protracted and, although Wells prevailed at the trial court level, ultimately she lost on appeal.  It is really hard to imagine an African American woman having the nerve to sue a railroad for not treating her as she deserved in the late 1870’s.  Wells was tough and she was determined.

Wells was a writer and ultimately ran an African American newspaper in Memphis.  At the same time she found her lifelong cause – anti-lynching.  She called out lynching for what it was and never let go of the subject.  It wasn’t a particularly popular topic, but she pushed it relentlessly and actually helped save some potential victims.  Thanks to her anti-lynching activities she was run out of Memphis and her newspaper was burned out.  Along the way she became friends with Frederick Douglass and knew many of the other civil rights leaders of her day.   She and Booker T. Washington never got along — he was a sell-out in her view.  As the NAACP and other civil rights organizations were formed, Wells was frequently left behind.  She was female and she was not of the college educated African American elite of her day.  When others saw promise in enlisting white allies, Wells blazed on with her pamphlets and her lectures.  She never got the memo that she was supposed to sit down and shut up and let the men take the lead.    In that light, she was a precursor of Diane Nash, the amazing civil rights activist of the 1960’s who never got her due as the likes of Martin Luther King, Julian Bond and Jesse Jackson took center stage.  Unlike Nash, Wells refused to fade into the background.

Wells lectured all over the country and in Britain.   She ultimately settled in Chicago where she married in her 30’s and had four children.  Supported by her family, she kept up her political activities in Chicago and nationally, even as she had to take time out to make a living.   As a last point, she also engaged in direct social services activity for her community in Chicago and stymied lynching in Illinois — she was no “mere” journalist and lecturer.

There is obviously much more to her story.  I recommend this book about a strong, focused woman who was insufficiently appreciated in her day or in the years since.

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.