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Water Tossing Boulders: How a Family of Chinese Immigrants Led the First Fight to Desegregate Schools in the Jim Crow South by Adrienne Berard

Chinese immigrants to Mississippi challenged school segregation a generation before the famous Brown v. Board of Education case.

water tossing boulders

Thirty years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision made school segregation unconstitutional, a case originated in small-town Mississippi to challenge the same injustices. Journalist Adrienne Berard’s Water Tossing Boulders reveals the little-known experience of the Mississippi Delta Chinese population, including the Lum family, whose two daughters were sent home from the local white school they attended in Rosedale, Miss. The resulting case, Gong Lum v. Rice (1924), made it as far as the United States Supreme Court, but failed.

Berard has done rigorous research, as detailed in her author’s note, and offers a storytelling style with momentum. She expertly evokes her characters. Jeu Gong Lum and his wife, Katherine Wong, were Chinese immigrants who met and married in the Delta; their daughters had divergent personalities, Berda rebellious and Martha an ardent scholar. Their lawyer, Earl Brewer, spent his career fighting for social reforms. Ultimately an anti-lynching campaign would take his attention away from the Lums’ case, perhaps ruinously. Other legal players are profiled, including Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis and Chief Justice William Howard Taft, who penned the Court’s unanimous decision in favor of segregation. This is the story of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the tortured arguments of eugenics, racism and segregation as much as it is the story of a family who simply wanted a decent education for their children. Told with precision, sympathy and context, Water Tossing Boulders is a brief but incisive history of great significance.


This review originally ran in the October 28, 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 children.

A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot in the Houses of Parliament by John Preston

John Preston energetically recounts extraordinary crimes of British political high society.

very english

Novelist John Preston turns to nonfiction with A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot in the Houses of Parliament. In this thrilling story, a member of Parliament almost gets away with murder.

Jeremy Thorpe was an MP for the Liberal Party in the 1960s and ’70s, became his party’s leader and looked poised to lead a coalition government. His charisma enchanted everyone he met. But he had secrets. When the battle to legalize homosexuality was being fought, Thorpe had affairs with other men, harassed and abused them, and eventually–when one young man wouldn’t go quietly–conspired to have him killed. After years of posturing and payoffs, and a final dramatic scene of attempted murder worthy of fiction, Thorpe faced charges of conspiracy and incitement to murder at London’s Old Bailey.

Preston tells this salacious tale with a mostly straight face. The characters he portrays are often ridiculous: Thorpe’s relentless optimism and self-importance is countered by his victim Norman Scott’s sad struggles with mental illness, and the worshipful devotions of Thorpe’s friend and helper, David Holmes. Preston’s central source, Peter Bessell, is a fellow MP and fervent friend deeply mired in Thorpe’s intrigues. Bessell is perhaps the most vulnerable character in this drama: a bit absurd, but earnest, he is powerless to resist Thorpe’s magnetism. A Very English Scandal is a story of human weaknesses and outrageous spectacle. Preston’s play-by-play will captivate readers of true crime, British upper-crust history and classic tragedy alike.


This review originally ran in the October 25, 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 letters.

movie: The Finest Hours (2016)

Our very first television event in the new home. Hops (the littler dog) was so grateful to see a couch again!


finest-hoursI think I can sum this one up briefly. Good: astounding story (based on a true one), fine acting, very fine action & cinematography; exciting, suspenseful, moving. Bad: weak romance, lack of character nuance, laughably unrealistic action & technical details.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s rescue of much of the crew of the SS Pendleton tanker in 1952 – a true event – is an impressive story, and that was captured here. The broadest details of the rescue are hard to believe, but they are a part of recorded history. This action/drama is both an appropriate recognition of this event, and a little bit of a sullying, because it made such a mess of it in smaller ways.

The romance between hero Bernie Webber (who piloted the rescue craft) and Miriam is a little flat, and both characters are caricatures. The evolution Miriam experiences in the course of the movie is predictable and therefore less moving than it might have been, if the characters had been more complex and realized. I’m not sure the romance was necessary to make the movie work, although Miriam is of course a character in real life and so perhaps did deserve to be there… in which case I wish they’d either done more with her (let us see a multifaceted human), or done less (show that the man had a girlfriend who worried when he did his dangerous job; we can all extrapolate from that).

The technical details of the action scenes were flawed. In a huge storm, the rescue boat repeatedly goes under big waves – waves ten times its height – with two crew members sort of hanging on its deck. They remain there; one even keeps his hat. C’mon, guys. Could that little boat really submarine like that?? Lights on and everything, like it was meant for underwater use. I don’t know the answer to this question. But it looks implausible to this laywoman; and if indeed this was a true capability of a little teeny boat in the 1950’s, I wish they’d explicated that fact, because wow. The precise dropping of crew members from big tanker into teeny boat in high seas was wildly implausible as well. It’s very cold, but rarely does anyone’s breath show foggy, and repeated dousings do no harm to our rescue crew. Oh, and when their compass was swept overboard, I admit I laughed out loud at the notion that the Coast Guard wouldn’t have known to strap its compass down somehow (not to mention the 36 eventual passengers on this small vessel, seamen all, none of whom carries a compass in his pocket). Add to this goofs like the pipe wrench being used backwards… that’s the sort of small-scale mistake that wouldn’t have shown up or bothered this viewer much, if it weren’t for the bigger things. How about Bernie’s magical ability to steer straight towards the tanker, and then again straight back toward the docks of home, with no visibility or compass? Movies are about some suspension of disbelief. But the movie has to earn that, or confess itself a fantasy, and this one fell a little short.

Again: great story, great scenery, action and acting. Poor technical execution of a true history that probably deserved better. For entertainment, I do recommend it as an exciting ride. But if you’re as persnickety as I am, you may have some problems.


Rating: 6 or 7 knit hats on the boat, depending on your personal preferences.

Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital by David Oshinsky

This fascinating history of New York’s famous public hospital provides a microcosm of national and worldwide medical history.

bellevue

Bellevue is one of the oldest and most famous names in United States hospitals, known for housing violent criminals and mental health patients, the homeless and sufferers of rare and exotic diseases. The incredible, multi-layered history told by David Oshinsky in Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital covers medical and general history both national and global. This thorough narrative is wide-ranging and endlessly gripping.

The institution began in 1736 as an almshouse, where the indigent were housed and given rudimentary medical care. From these earliest days, “Bel-Vue” had a reputation for dealing with society’s unwanted. And as Oshinsky shows, in its many incarnations, this reputation is intact. The flipside is that this public hospital has always attracted service-minded professionals pursuing innovation. Before modern considerations of medical ethics, this often meant experimenting on Bellevue’s impoverished patients and their diverse range of ailments: in exchange for charity medical aid, the thinking went, they offered themselves for clinical trials–as painful and medieval as they could be at times. Nevertheless, the hospital became central over the years in battling the yellow fever epidemic of the 1790s, the “Great Influenza” of the 1910s, the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, the September 11 attacks and Superstorm Sandy. Bellevue would see hospitals shift from being considered a last resort, only for those too poor to afford a private doctor’s home visits, to becoming the best medical care available (the development of anesthesia, germ theory and infection control being crucial).

The hospital has enjoyed affiliations with several medical schools, among the U.S.’s earliest and best, including its continuing relationship with New York University. NYU students get training in a premier teaching hospital that still treats an enormous and diverse patient population, while Bellevue gets talented, passionate residents and interns, many of whom remain and make their careers there. The history of Bellevue reflects social struggles, as women, Jews and African Americans gradually gained access to the medical profession, and anti-immigrant vitriol was aimed in turn at Irish, Italian and Jewish populations, among others, as waves of struggling immigrants contributed to Bellevue’s patient population. Bellevue successfully treated New York’s sole Ebola patient in 2014. Its tenuous funding situation (mostly public, and always under attack), high standards of care and public service mission continue.

Bellevue’s beauty and staggering scope lies in these historic, social and interdisciplinary connections. William Burroughs, Sylvia Plath, Charlie Mingus and Lead Belly passed through Bellevue’s history; its physicians have traveled the world and played roles in the scientific advances that have shaped modern medicine. Bellevue hosted the invention of forensic medicine, and major developments in medical photography, child psychiatry and AIDS treatments. Oshinsky (Pulitzer Prize-winner for Polio: An American Story) generally adheres to an impersonal, journalistic style, but his moving portrayal can’t hide his admiration for this longstanding institution. Bellevue is that rare, page-turning history: engaging, smart, clearly written and of broad general interest.


This review originally ran in the October 14, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 five-gallon containers of fuel.

The Black Panthers: Portraits from an Unfinished Revolution by Bryan Shih and Yohuru Williams

Photos, essays and interviews with rank-and-file Black Panthers “complicate the Panther story in a good way.”

black panthers

With The Black Panthers: Portraits from an Unfinished Revolution, photojournalist Bryan Shih and historian Yohuru Williams seek to tell a nuanced story of the Black Panther Party, one different from the popular conception of gun-wielding “thugs,” chiefly male, in black leather jackets and Afros with the leadership–Huey Newton, Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver–centered in Oakland, Calif.

In pursuit of the rank-and-file perspective, Shih photographs and interviews Panthers or former Panthers, male and female, whose narratives express pride, humility, trauma, frustration and hope. Accompanied by essays solicited from scholars, this collection tells a more complex and sympathetic story. While not uncritical, the authors do champion an interpretation that emphasizes love and service over violence, featuring, for example, party programs like Breakfast for Schoolchildren (in more cities than just Oakland), free busing and ambulance services, free health care clinics and more. Shih’s photographs are striking and expressive, capturing the “humanizing details” he sought.

The Black Panthers is not the complete story: for instance, the “deep misogyny and sexism within the rank and file and leadership” is mentioned but not really addressed. Perhaps there is no complete story–as proven here, the party was made up of diverse members, with varied goals and motivations. Shih and Williams’s objective to expose this multiplicity, and inspire a second look at an energetic but ill-fated cause, is achieved with this intelligent, unapologetic book.


This review originally ran in the September 16, 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 humanizing details.

book beginnings on Friday: Water Tossing Boulders: How a Family of Chinese Immigrants Led the First Fight to Desegregate Schools in the Jim Crow South by Adrienne Berard

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

I am of course intrigued by what the back of this book calls a “vital, hidden chapter of America’s past.”

water tossing boulders

Water Tossing Boulders concerns a Chinese immigrant family in Mississippi, where the children were denied public education in 1924. It begins:

As with all rumors, the stories grew over time, in the long months between June and September, when the air is so thick that gossip is all that circulates. The new students wouldn’t bathe. They didn’t have money to buy books. They didn’t care about learning. They had so many brothers and sisters, their mothers didn’t even know their names.

I guess I’m fascinated to see how a tragic but familiar story of Southern segregation and separate-but-equal schooling applies to a community we don’t normally associate with that story. Stick around.

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

Love from Boy: Roald Dahl’s Letters to His Mother ed. by Donald Sturrock

Forty years of letters from a beloved children’s author to his mother offer an intriguing, entertaining perspective on both the man and the world.

love from boy

Roald Dahl, renowned for both children’s classics and eerie adult short stories, wrote his first letter home from boarding school in 1925, when he was nine years old; Donald Sturrock (Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl) edits this collection of previously unpublished letters from Dahl to his mother. In Love from Boy, Sturrock’s minimal narrative appears alongside the epistolary bulk of the text, accompanied by a small selection of Dahl’s photographs and drawings.

Organized in seven chapters by phases of Dahl’s life, the correspondence tracks the growth of a beloved imagination and literary career. Over 40 years, Dahl evolves from funny prankster to crafty storyteller to a more serious and cynical mind, particularly following World War II. Dahl had a thoroughly interesting life even before he began writing in earnest: from English boarding schools to travel and corporate work in colonial Africa, hours logged as a Royal Air Force pilot, diplomatic work in the United States and collaboration with Walt Disney in Hollywood. But Love from Boy also provides a personal perspective on his eye for detail and the absurd, his predilection for pranks, his knack for characterization–“He’s a short man with a face like a field elderberry, and a moustache which closely resembles the African jungle. A voice like a frog…”–and his quirky preoccupation with personal hygiene, especially dental care. Love from Boy is both an endearing glimpse of a much-loved author and a sober view of mid-20th-century world events.


This review originally ran in the September 6, 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 tubes of Euthymol.
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