The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race edited by Jesmyn Ward

Poems and essays by a range of writers address race in the United States.

the fire this time

Responding to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and so many others, the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement and a feeling that not much has changed, Jesmyn Ward (Salvage the Bones; Men We Reaped) felt moved to build a collection of words to counter the pain and injustice she saw. Essays and poems, many of them solicited by Ward, make up The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race. Its title, of course, answers James Baldwin’s 1963 The Fire Next Time, which addressed the same questions of being black in the United States.

Led by Ward’s powerful introduction, contributions from Natasha Trethewey, Isabel Wilkerson, Edwidge Danticat and more consider past, present and future–Legacy, Reckoning and Jubilee. Honorée Jeffers writes in defense of Phillis Wheatley’s husband, a man apparently wrongfully denigrated, and honors Wheatley’s legacy while questioning the way it’s been written by others. Kevin Young muses on Rachel Dolezal’s interpretation of race. Garnette Cadogan writes movingly of what it looks like to walk through U.S. cities as a black man. And Ward offers an essay on her own ethnic heritage.

These powerful words from a range of sources vary in specific subject matter, but all make the same vital demands: for black citizens to have true equality. The entries in the collection are a little uneven, but each is stirring in its way, and the finest among them offer poetry as well as truth.


This review originally ran in the August 9, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 names.

Teaser Tuesdays, hemingWay of the day and synchronicity: Love from Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother, ed. by Donald Sturrock

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

hembut2
Imagine my thrill to see Roald Dahl and Ernest Hemingway walking alongside one another, pictured in my galley copy of Love from Boy, a collection of previously unpublished letters from the beloved children’s author to his mother.

love from boy

I’m afraid you’ll have to buy the book to see the photo! (It’ll be worth it.)

The caption reads,

Wing Commander Roald Dahl and his literary hero, Ernest Hemingway, in London, 1944. Roald got to meet many of the great and good in the literary world while he was in Washington. He thought Hemingway ‘a strange and secret man’ for whom he felt ‘overwhelming love and respect.’

For me, this was another moment of chimes sounding, so to speak. I hadn’t realized these two had any contact; I guess I hadn’t thought much about their contemporaneity. What fun to find that Dahl – one of my favorite authors when I was a kid – shared my appreciation for Papa’s work. Strange and secret man, indeed.

I was also interested to see Hemingway looking quite short and fat, next to the tall, thin Dahl. I’ve seen a lot of pictures of Hem: mostly the flattering ones he liked released; fewer in which he appears fatter and wearing his glasses (which he generally avoided being photographed in). While he is a perfectly distinguished-looking man here, in a suit and tie and those offending spectacles, both hands in pockets, striding purposefully across a street, beard clearly dark-going-to-gray (even in black and white) – I suspect this is not a photograph he liked. This one, taken during his third marriage, to Martha Gellhorn, hearkens to a slightly older Hemingway.

I love that there is always more to know.


This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin

New research on the Patty Hearst case reveals a story as compelling and confounding as ever.

american heiress

Jeffrey Toobin (The Run of His Life) brings context, nuance and new sources to a dramatic story in American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst.

The 1974 kidnapping of heiress Patricia Campbell Hearst by the radical group self-styled as the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) was a media sensation. A nation watched with shock as the victim joined her captors in bank robberies and other crimes. Decades later, Toobin helpfully sets this salacious story against its backdrop: the influence of the Hearst name; the fledgling nature of televised media, particularly live news feeds; and the cultural upheavals underway via the radical political left, especially in the San Francisco area where Hearst lived. Surreally, a bumbling, incompetent SLA plagued by internal strife managed to elude federal investigators for many months. Jim Jones, Bill Walton and Ronald Reagan make cameo appearances.

American Heiress avoids firm conclusions about Hearst’s level of agency in her own crimes. As Toobin observes, the phrase “Stockholm syndrome” was not yet in use at the time, but psychological coercion was the focus of Hearst’s criminal defense. With the information uncovered, Toobin can reveal only a woman making the best of circumstances, “a clear thinker, if not a deep one.”

While most older readers will have preconceptions about the events, Toobin’s ample research and new sources offer a fresh version. An author’s note states that Hearst declined to comment, and explains the research methods. This history satisfies with its level of detail and emotional distance from a subject who remains mysterious.


This review originally ran in the August 2, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 shots fired.

guest review: The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, from Pops

Pops sent me this guest review – unexpected, unsolicited, but very welcome – with the note, “you will likely find it easy to tie this into your own readings.” Certainly; but he had no idea how timely, as I’ve just recently reviewed Jesmyn Ward’s forthcoming The Fire This Time, a collected of essays and poems Ward solicited from today’s minds, to answer Baldwin’s 1963 book. I read Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son and Go Tell It On the Mountain, and so have some idea of his voice & power, but I hadn’t read this title, so it’s excellent to have Pops’s perfectly-timed review. Synchronicity, we’ll call it.
the fire next time

I recently finished James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which is a strange bird in form as it consists of two essays that are pretty different: a short personal letter to his 14 yr-old namesake nephew, and a much longer autobiographical, contemplative ramble, a sort of musing, largely about religion. My book’s dust cover says it “caused a great stir upon publication in 1963 and landed its author on the cover of Time [magazine]” – while he was on a Civil Rights speaking tour of the US south. (He lived mostly in France beginning in 1948 at age 24.) In 1963 Baldwin was an established author, an “accepted” spokesman for the Black experience. His call in these two essays for integration & reconciliation during the outbreak of angry & nationalist activism is the likely source of that “great stir.” Indeed, the great value in reading these today is in appreciating the issues of that pivotal time in our history.

The short piece has a long title: “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the 100th Anniversary of Emancipation.” This is the one recently associated with the book title, compared to numerous other public letters by Black authors to the next generation. (This is a comparison where context is again important, as we are challenged to appreciate the Black Lives Matter movement as it matures.)

Baldwin describes his great-grandfather’s “terrible life; he was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him.” This begins a two track theme: an unbridled (almost bitter?) depiction of the oppression & tragedy of racism, with also a sober appreciation of the need for reconciliation & even love. On the former: “You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being.” Yet, after more of such clarity, he says, “The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them… and accept them with love.” In spite of all, he advocates for integration, “this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”

With this in mind, he closes by reminding young James that he is prepared for the future: “you come from sturdy, peasant stock… [who] in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable & monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.” This of course ties us back to the essay title; but oh, there is much more.

The words Baldwin quotes in italics are from a traditional spiritual. In fact, in his “I Have a Dream” speech, when MLK Jr. says “in the words of the old Negro spiritual…” he is referencing the same source, a spiritual now generally known under the title “Free at Last!” but also appearing under different titles and with varying lyrics. Here is the pertinent section of an “accepted” version that agrees with Baldwin’s quotation:

Free at last, free at last,
Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.
The very time I thought I was lost,
Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last;
My dungeon shook and my chains fell off,
Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last,
This is religion, I do know,
Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last;
For I never felt such a love before,
Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.

Further, MLK delivered his speech on Aug 28, 1963; Baldwin’s essays were published in book form in 1963 but had earlier been published in The New Yorker in 1962. Did MLK have occasion to read Baldwin during those turbulent months? Though I find no record in a quick search, it is quite likely; they ended close friends and Baldwin was widely read in the movement. In any event, I am quite satisfied & comforted just thinking in terms of “like minds.” And this is not the last time Baldwin invokes religious and musical references, both an essential part of the Civil Rights movement.

The second & longer (~90 page) essay is the autobiographical “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” the main title taken from a hymn quoted after the title page. It begins with the author at age 14 (same as nephew James, above) and describes how his abusive stepfather drives him to join a Pentecostal church, where he is successful as a preacher. In long and rambling paragraphs, suitable for exploring those “regions in his mind,” he relates his mixed experience with religion – and racism – up through adulthood, concluding, “the Christian world has revealed itself as morally bankrupt and politically unstable.”

His narrative path arrives at his moment of writing as he tells of his recent audience with Elijah Muhammad, which opens a lengthy account of his perspective on the Nation of Islam and racism as seeks a path to reconciliation, consistent with the first essay. As he does for young James, here again he closes with a measure of hope and a call for action, as he considers the prospect for continued racial strife: “at the center of this dreadful storm, this vast confusion, stand the black people of this nation, who must now share the fate of a nation that has never accepted them, to which they were brought in chains. Well if this is so, then one has no choice but to do all in one’s power to change that fate… I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand.”

His final line provides a caution for those who hesitate at key moments in history, and the title for the book, as he quotes a spiritual, a “slave song” called “O Mary Don’t You Weep”: “If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in the song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

movie: Walking Tall (1973)

walking tallIn this movie, Buford Pusser returns home, after a stint in the Marines and a career as a wrestler, to McNairy County, Tennessee with his wife and two children. The town has changed since he’s been away. Almost immediately, he gets beaten nearly to death at a bar where he busted the house cheating at craps. The sheriff wants nothing to do with the case, and tells him to drop it. Buford returns to the juke joint to beat the crap out of his attackers in turn; represents himself at trial for assault charges, and wins; and then goes on to run for sheriff, and win.

As the spunky new sheriff, Buford is determined to run the gambling, prostitution and illegal stills out of his home county. Corruption runs so high, however, that he is nearly a one-man crusade. He has a staff of deputies, a few of whom are loyal. But it’s uphill work.

This plot is based on a true story, and here I’ll confess that my interest is not in this movie in its own right. Instead, I am fascinated by the larger debate this movie is a part of: the legend and history of Sheriff Buford Pusser, in its various representations. I first heard of Pusser and Walking Tall in a couple of Drive-by Truckers songs. (Regular readers may recall this is my favorite band.) In “The Buford Stick,” I heard the perspective that Buford Pusser was a crooked sheriff and a bully, messing around with a system that had worked just fine before he came along, thank you. Or, from the lead-in to “The Boys From Alabama”:

We’re gonna take you up to McNairy County, Tennessee
Back in the days when Sheriff Buford Pusser ran things around there
Sheriff Buford Pusser was tryin’ to clean up McNairy County, Tennessee
From all them boot leggers that was bringin’ crime and corruption
And illegal liquor into his little dry county
And for his troubles he got ambushed, and his wife was murdered, and his house got blown up
And they made a movie about it called “Walkin’ Tall”
This is the other side of that story

And that’s what I knew about the movie.

One of the many things I love about the Truckers is that they are unafraid to look at the complexity of the real world, its ugliness, and they don’t turn to the easy out of choosing sides: they are neither consistently pro-establishment nor anti-authority, because it’s not that clear-cut, is it. In the case of Sheriff Buford Pusser, with these two songs, they experiment with the perspective of McNairy County’s criminal element – or, to put it another way, “a hardworking man with a family to feed.” In other songs and other cases drawn from real life, the Truckers continue to question corruption in positions of authority.

The movie shows Pusser in an on-balance-positive light; among other things, he pushes (not always gracefully) for civil rights for the black residents of McNairy County. But even in this portrayal, there are disturbing glimpses: he is not a fan of rights for the (alleged!) criminals he pursues, and I didn’t enjoy the scene when he is arresting a prostitute and slaps her ass. This history, like so many in life, was probably pretty complicated, with good guys and bad guys on both side of the law – or, good and bad within each guy.

I love this stuff: layers, ambiguity, and especially the intersection of art (movies, songs) and deeply serious real life. This is probably a great example of the interdisciplinary nature of life. (Even a teaching opportunity!) Literature and other creative, fictional forms comment on life, which responds to literature.

So I found the viewing experience engrossing, for reasons outside the movie itself. The movie itself is fine, and interesting; it certainly paints a picture of a time and place. And I think even without a backstory that it should provoke some consideration: like, just how “good” are the good guys? A social study, to be sure. I’d recommend this for any number of audiences.


Rating: 8 routine matters.

The Art of History: Unlocking the Past in Fiction & Nonfiction by Christopher Bram

A succinct survey of history in both fiction and nonfiction offers advice for writers and readers.

the art of history

Christopher Bram takes on the broad subject of what history has to offer literature–and vice versa–with The Art of History: Unlocking the Past in Fiction & Nonfiction.

Beginning with memories of a high school English teacher, Bram celebrates the interest and value of reading and writing history. His thesis is that history need not be written in dry, textbook form: in both fiction and nonfiction, a talent for storytelling and a keen eye for just the right details, in the right quantity, can render the near and distant past in enthralling fashion. “Details,” he says, “are the raisins in the raisin bread.” He examines works including Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and topics ranging through war, slavery in the United States, comedic perspectives and the blending of lines between fiction and nonfiction. An author in both disciplines, Bram does not claim objectivity: he is clear about his love for Toni Morrison’s Beloved and his disregard for Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, among others.

Books in “The Art of” series inspect craft from a perspective seemingly for writers and critics, and Bram offers good advice: “In both fiction and nonfiction, writing well means knowing what to leave out.” But The Art of History works for readers as well, as in an appendix of Bram’s recommended reading. Exploration, appreciation and instruction combine in this slim, accessible study of literary history and historical literature.


This review originally ran in the July 5, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 details.

Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises by Lesley M. M. Blume

This study of the creation of The Sun Also Rises illuminates both the compelling story and Hemingway’s complex and not entirely likable personality and behavior.

everybody behaves badly

Many books have been written about Hemingway, but it seems there is still more to be learned. Lesley M.M. Blume’s Everybody Behaves Badly zooms in on the creation of The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s first novel and the one that firmly established his reputations, literary and otherwise. As her subtitle promises, Blume seeks the true story: in this case, the real men and women whose lives inspired Hemingway’s fiction, which some claimed was not really fiction at all.

Everybody Behaves Badly is not a biography of Hemingway; it skips his childhood to open with his marriage to Hadley Richardson, and the couple’s move to Paris in pursuit of cheap living and a storied expat community. Blume portrays a devilishly charismatic young writer, ambitious and confident, who easily collected mentors and admirers. She follows that young writer to Pamplona with a group of friends in 1925, and through the weeks after in which he wrote feverishly. Unflatteringly immortalized, one of the people Hemingway transformed into a character spoke of lives divided into B.S. and A.S.: before Sun, and after. Blume’s study concludes as Hemingway’s career expands, his first marriage ends and his second begins.

A biography of a novel, then, Everybody Behaves Badly is itself an engrossing and varied tale: raucous and dissipated, pitiable and serious. Blume’s research offers new detail to a well-studied story, and her narrative style is as entertaining as the original. Obviously required for Hemingway fans, this engaging work of nonfiction will also please a broad audience.


This review originally ran in the June 7, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 slight changes.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 547 other followers

%d bloggers like this: