Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford; Part 1

Silly Decca
Author: Jessica Mitford; Editor: Peter Sussman
Category: This is the first time I’ve read this book.
My thoughts: I have decided to do two posts about this book, because it’s over 700 pages—it seems that Jessica Mitford spent a lot of her life writing letters. So far, I’m absolutely loving this book. Jessica, or Decca, as she was called, was funny and sarcastic, and seems like she would have been fun to hang out with.
 I had heard about the Mitford family over the years, and when I was in college, I read Decca’s sister Nancy Mitford’s novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Decca was the second-to-last child of Lord and Lady Redesdale, British aristocrats. Aside from Decca, the family consisted on Nancy (the novelist), Diana and Unity (the Fascists), Debo (the duchess), and relatively quieter siblings, Pam and Tom. Aside from Tom, who went to Eton, the siblings were not formally educated. Decca was a born rebel, and at 18 she eloped with Esmond Romilly, Winston Churchill’s nephew-by-marriage, to Spain during the Civil War there. The two of them later moved to the United States, and became friends with Virginia and Clifford Durr and Katharine Graham. When World War II began, Esmond joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and he and Decca had a baby, Constancia. The letters from Decca to Esmond when he was away during the war are seriously precious. Sadly, Esmond was killed in 1941. One letter in this section, written in 1943, is from Decca to Winston Churchill, in which she expresses disdain that her sister Diana and her husband Oswald Mosley, who was head of British Union of Fascists, had been released from prison (Diana and Oswald had been locked up in 1940, after Britain declared war on Germany). Indeed, Decca made it clear in many of her letters that she loathed Diana because of her politics. I think Decca blamed folks like the Mosleys for Esmond’s death. In one letter to her second husband Bob Treuhaft (from 1955), written when Decca was visiting her family in England, Decca expresses anger at her mother for having lunch with the Mosleys. Decca wrote that she told her mother that she and Constancia (who she calls Dinky, Dink, Donk, and Dinkydonk in various letters) won’t attend because they “do not care to break bread with murderers.” As the kids today would say, Decca knew how to throw shade.
Decca and Bob were also members of the Communist Party during the early 1950s. And in her letters she details the harassment she and her husband endured from “Red Hunters” of the time. She was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and she and Bob had their passports confiscated. It makes one livid, as Decca would say, how folks were treated during this time. Decca was also really passionate about civil rights issues. In California, where she and Bob lived, she fronted for black couples who wanted to buy houses, in order to get around real estate discrimination. She once did this in a neighborhood that the District Attorney, her nemesis, lived in—he put his house up for sale when he found out a black couple was moving into his neighborhood. In the early 1960s, Decca was in Montgomery, Alabama, visiting the Durrs when the Freedom Riders also came to town. She visited a church where MLK was giving a speech and ended up being trapped inside the church with him and many others all night while an angry white mob surrounded them (the Durr’s car, which Decca borrowed to drive to the church, was destroyed in the melee).
Decca also writes about her efforts as an author. She worked on her autobiography, Hons and Rebels, while in England, and mentioned, in her letters, how curious her family was about the contents. In 1963, two things happened: Decca published her bestseller The American Way of Death and JFK was assassinated. The latter event is notable because Decca’s sister Debo, the Duchess of Devonshire, was friends with him—JFK’s sister Kathleen was married to Debo’s brother-in-law, Billy Hartington. Billy was killed in World War II, and Debo kept in touch with the Kennedys. In fact, Debo told Decca that Bobby Kennedy actually read The American Way of Death, and used a bit of advice from the book while choosing a casket for his brother’s funeral.
That’s a lot of information, and it’s only about the first half of the book! Stay tuned for part 2.
Great passage (from a letter to her mother-in-law in 1959): The dinner party was a riot. There were about 8 rather dullish people there, including Peter’s rather dullish wife, and his daughter who popped in and out between dances…We were invited for 7, and between then and 9 there wasn’t a sign of any food, just enormous drinks of whiskey. At 9, Peter set a table for 8, groaning and complaining bitterly as he did so about what a lot of trouble it was; on it he set a small platter of bought cold meats, legs of chicken and the like, and a tiny salad. As I was served first, I took almost everything. And that was all, except for some strawberries and cream (strawberries are currently selling for about 25 each). No coffee, bread, vegs, almost no nothing. Masses of wine, tho, with dinner, and brandy after. This is just what Cedric was telling us about that sort of English person; if they don’t have servants, or if the servants are out, they simply give up, and would rather starve than cook.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is

Editors: Maegan Parker Brooks and Davis W. Houck

Category: I have a friend who asked, via Facebook, if anyone wanted to borrow this book. Of course I did.

My thoughts: If I had to use one adjective to describe this book it would be “powerful.” The strength—emotional and otherwise—of this woman is an amazing thing to think about. The main speech of Fannie Lou Hamer’s that I knew about prior to reading this book is the one she gave before the Credentials Committee at the Democratic National Convention in 1964. I heard that LBJ was so scared by the potential effect of her speech that he pre-empted it. I like the fact that the words of a sharecropper from Ruleville, Mississippi, could make the President of the United States shake in his boots.

However, this fierce woman, thankfully, gave several more speeches over the years. In some of them, she detailed the incredibly vicious beating that she suffered in Winona, Mississippi in June 1963—just a few days before Medgar Evers was killed. Her descriptions of her beating were really hard to read. She was arrested at night while on her way back to Ruleville from a voter registration workshop in South Carolina. She and other folks with her were detained in Winona, and while in jail the town sheriff told her, “We’re going to make you wish you were dead.” He then proceeded to force two black prisoners to beat her with a blackjack. How she survived that, I have no idea. There is a section of the book in which she gives testimony to the Justice Department about her assault. Spoiler alert: no one was ever convicted for what was basically her attempted murder. Dear reader, have things changed since that awful night in 1963?

The day after I borrowed this book, I went to Sunflower County, Mississippi (where my stepfather is from), which is composed of Indianola, Moorhead, and Ruleville. There’s a sign, as seen above, dedicated to Fannie Lou Hamer in Ruleville. Parchman Prison is also in Sunflower County, but that’s another story for another day. While in Sunflower County, I thought about the Great Migration, written about so wonderfully by Isabel Wilkerson. A lot of folks from that area of Mississippi left for Chicago or Detroit during the Great Migration. Reading this book, you can really sense the kind of brutal racial oppression that existed that make people want to leave. So it’s remarkable that folks like Fannie Lou Hamer had the courage to do what they did in such an environment. Personally, I think of people like her, who truly gave blood, sweat, and tears, every time I exercise my right to vote. And every time, I am thankful that people like her had the courage to fight.

Great passage: “Some of the white people will tell us, ‘Well I just don’t believe in integration.’ But he been integrating at night a long time! If he hadn’t been, it wouldn’t be as many light-skinned Negroes as it is in here. The seventeenth chapter of Acts and the twenty-sixth verse said: ‘Has made of one blood all nations.’ So whether you black as a skillet or white as a sheet, we are made from the same blood and we are on our way” (from a speech delivered at a mass meeting in Indianola, MS in September 1964)

Thursday, July 7, 2016


Even Rainbow Dash wants to read about Keith Richards.
Author(s): Keith Richards with James Fox

Category: I’ve wanted to read this for several years.

My thoughts: I had wanted to read this book years ago, but I think I was put off by the length.  But honestly, I believe that books come into our lives at the right time. And this book came at the right time. Although I am definitely more of a Beatles fan, there are several Rolling Stones songs that I really like: "Tumbling Dice" (great song to play while getting ready in the morning), "Gimme Shelter" (which is practically de rigueur for a Martin Scorcese movie soundtrack), and "Angie" (good for listening to while nursing a broken heart).

Years ago, I read a beautifully written article about Patti Hansen (Mrs. Richards) and her battle with bladder cancer. And of course, I heard all the stories about Keith’s drug use (the rumors are very very true, and it’s a wonder that he’s still alive). But his autobiography reveals that there is more to him than guitar solos and drugs. Keith Richards is basically a music nerd who has lived a really wild life. He writes about how growing up, he loved listening to blues artists from Chicago, and how he originally wanted the Stones to be a blues band. He was really influenced by Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, and other Chicago blues artists, and has a tremendous amount of respect for his musical influences.

Keith is actually rather harsh on his bandmate Mick Jagger. I suppose that when you work with someone for the better part of fifty years, they are going to get on your nerves a few times. However, I think the shadowy figure in this story is Brian Jones. If there was one person I’d like to know more about after reading Life, it’s Brian Jones, although it seems like he was kind of a jerk. He was very gifted musically, but one gets the impression that Brian Jones more altered by the drugs than Keith Richards.

Keith Richards is pretty awesome, and this book is such a joy to read. It took me awhile to finish it, because it is rather long. It’s funny and filled with great stories. Toward the end, Keith tells of rescuing and adopting a stray but scrappy puppy in Moscow, getting him all cleaned up and naming him Rasputin. I like this little story because it shows how this guy who has been famous for most of his life is still human. After reading this book, you just want to hug Keith Richards, buy him a drink, and listen to all his stories. I bet there are some really good ones that weren’t included in the book!  

Great passage: What is it that makes you want to write songs? In a way you want to stretch yourself into other people’s hearts. You want to plant yourself there, or at least get a resonance, where other people become a bigger instrument than the one you’re playing. It becomes almost an obsession to touch other people. To write a song that is remembered and taken to heart is a connection, a touching to bases. A thread that runs through all of us. A stab to the heart. Sometimes I think songwriting is about tightening the heartstrings as much as possible without bringing on a heart attack. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Rose Under Fire

By Elizabeth Wein

Category: This is the first time I’ve read this. I decided to read it because it has the same author as Code Name Verity, and I really loved that book.

My thoughts: This was hard to read, but really good—although, not as good as Code Name Verity. It was engrossing, but difficult to read because it was so heartbreaking.

The heroine of Rose Under Fire is Rose Justice, a young American transport pilot working in England during the latter half of World War II. The events in this book take place after those of Code Name Verity—Maddie Broddatt from Code Name Verity works with Rose. In late 1944, Rose is captured by the Germans and sent to Ravensbrück, a German work camp for political prisoners. There are French Resistance prisoners, Russian prisoners, and Polish prisoners. The Polish women are called “rabbits,” because they are subjected to gruesome medical experiments. Their legs are horribly misshapen as a result. Some of the monsters who performed those “procedures” were tried for War Crimes.

I never really thought about how many nationalities occupied the German concentration and work camps. In addition to American Rose, there’s Roza, a very young Polish prisoner who was one of the Rabbits, and Lisette, a French novelist (this isn’t portrayed in the novel, but I read that there were also British prisoners there). This blend of nationalities reminded me a little bit of Casablanca , how people from several different countries gathered in Morocco for refuge. Specifically, the scene where Victor Lazlo leads everyone in a sing-a-long to "La Marseillaise" sometimes popped into my head whilst reading about Ravensbrück —because in the camp, people from other nationalities came together against a common enemy. A very heartbreaking sidenote: I read somewhere that when the Red Army liberated Ravensbrück in 1945, Soviet soldiers raped some of the women in the camp. How horrible is that?

Ok, one thing about this novel is how brutally realistic it is concerning the day-to-day life at the camp. One horrid thing that I’ve never read anywhere else in any account of life in a German work camp…is about what happened with their bodily functions. Elizabeth Wein doesn’t shy away from mentioning this. The toilets at Ravensbrück had long stopped working by the time Rose was there, and the ladies had to go to the bathroom in a ditch. And because of the diseases that ran rampant in the camps and ravaged the women’s poor bodies—diseases that cause runny diarrhea…well, some folks liked to sleep on the top bunks so they didn’t get “rained” on.

There’s an ongoing refrain in this novel: “Tell the world.” The other day, there was a conviction for genocide that happened during the Bosnian War, which I remember hearing about on the news in the ‘90s but, like so many things, only began to understand during adulthood. World history has too many stories about mass tragedy (Cambodia, Somalia, Rwanda…). I am thankful for the fact that usually there are a few brave souls who do stand up and tell the world.

Great passage: Lift is made when the air pressure under a wing is greater than the air pressure over the wing. Then the wing gets pushed upward. That’s how birds fly. That’s how kites fly—a kite is basically just a solitary wing. That’s how airplanes fly.

But people need lift, too. People don’t get moving, they don’t soar, they don’t achieve great heights, without something buoying them up.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Adventure of the Speckled Band

Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Background: I am a huge fan of Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Recently, there was a “special episode” of Sherlock set in the Victorian period. It made me want to read the original Sherlock Holmes stories.

My thoughts: Good story! I kept reading until I was finished, because I had to know what happened—which is the mark of a good mystery, in my opinion. I read somewhere that this was ACD’s favorite Sherlock Holmes story. In “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” Holmes and Watson are chilling at 221B Baker Street. A woman named Helen Stoner comes and tells them about the bizarre and unexplained death of her beloved sister. When her sister was alive, the two of them lived with their stepfather, a doctor named Dr. Grimesby Roylott (that names sounds like that of a Harry Potter character). Their stepfather had been living in India, but after he beat an Indian man to death and went to prison for it, he returned to England with a pet baboon and cheetah (oh, the Empire...)

The ending of the story was satisfyingly creepy. It reminded me of something one would see on the show Forensic Files. I’ve read a couple of things about “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” and it seems as though there are parts that are not exactly rooted in biological truth. Oh well. It is a really good story. And, after reading the story (as happens after I watch the series Sherlock), I felt the need to be more observant of things. Like Sherlock himself.

Great passage: “So tall was he that his hat actually brushed the cross bar of the doorway, and his breadth seemed to span it across from side to side. A large face, seared with a thousand wrinkles, burned yellow with the sun, and marked with every evil passion, was turned from one to the other of us, while his deep-set, bile-shot eyes, and his high, thin, fleshless nose, gave him somewhat the resemblance to a fierce old bird of prey.” 

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Hoop Dreams

Author: Ben Joravsky

Category: First time I’ve read this.

My thoughts: Every few years, I become a little obsessed with basketball (I grew up watching my brother play). And 2015 was one of those years. It started with watching an excellent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about Christian Laettner , which brought back memories of watching early ‘90s basketball (I remember when Duke and UNLV were powerhouses in college basketball). Then I started listening to Jalen Rose’s podcast. All of this pretty much led me to read Hoop Dreams.

Full disclosure—I’ve never seen the documentary on which this book is based. Which is a shame, since I love documentaries. I will rectify this soon. But I really enjoyed the book. Hoop Dreams is the story of William Gates and Arthur Agee, adolescent basketball stars in inner-city Chicago who are offered enrollment at tony St. Joseph’s High School, the alma mater of Isiah Thomas. The background of the players’ families reminded me of the greatest book of all time—The Warmth of Other Suns. Both Arthur and William’s families have Southern origins. Hoop Dreams is ostensibly about William and Arthur, but Isiah Thomas is sort of a third protagonist. Like I said before, Isiah went to St. Joseph’s, and serves as an inspirational figure to William and Arthur. I vaguely remember Isiah Thomas’s basketball career—but truth be told, my brother was more into Michael Jordan, so that’s who I was more familiar with. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate scrappy point guards like Isiah Thomas, Bobby Hurley, John Stockton, and Memphis’ own Mike Conley. Actually, Isiah Thomas’ mother herself migrated to Chicago from Mississippi. Seriously, The Warmth of Other Suns rings so true in so many ways, literary and otherwise.

The fortunes of the two young men take different paths, and eventually Arthur has to leave St. Joseph because his parents failed to pay the tuition. William, however, shines at St. Joseph and at one point goes to a summer basketball camp with three members of the Fab Five —Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, and Jalen Rose. The city of Chicago also functions as a character in Hoop Dreams. In that instance, the book reminded me of the There Are No Children Here. Like There Are No Children Here, Hoop Dreams takes place in Chicago in the 1980s, when gangs struck fear in people and ruled with brutality and drugs ran rampant—Arthur’s father, Bo, was a drug addict at one point. William and Arthur both see basketball as a means to escape their bleak surroundings. At the time, their choices were limited—as the Notorious B.I.G. famously said about getting out of the ghetto, “Either you’re slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.”

Speaking of documentaries, there are two great ones that I came across while reading this book. One is another documentary from ESPN’s excellent 30 for 30 series, about Isiah Thomas’ tenure with the Detroit Pistons. The other one is about the Robert Taylor housing projects in ChicagoAfter watching the former, I wondered how the Pistons got away with so much pushing and shoving. After watching the latter, I wondered what happened to the family in the film. 

Great passage (which explains William’s feelings when he found out he’d be a teenage father): William had the opposite reaction: instantaneous joy. He had intentionally stopped using condoms because he wanted to make Catherine pregnant. He wanted to create life. William knew so many people who had been murdered. Death was becoming routine as gang wars erupted again around Cabrini-Green. He had nightmares of his own death—another innocent victim caught in the line of fire. “If I die without leaving behind a baby, it’s like I never existed,” he told Catherine.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Dark Places

Author: Gillian Flynn

Category: Ok, after I read Sharp Objects, I wanted to read another Gillian Flynn book.

My thoughts: Dark Places was just as good as Sharp Objects, but way creepier.
Dark Places is narrated by Libby Day, who survived a brutal attack on her family that left her mother Patty and two sisters, Michelle and Debby, dead. Her brother Ben, who was fifteen-years-old at the time, was accused of murdering his family as part of some sort of Satanic plot, and convicted of the murders. As an adult, Libby is contacted by the Kill Club, a group of true crime enthusiasts. Libby needs the money, so she agrees to work with them. Many of them believe that her brother is innocent. As her work/investigation goes deeper, Libby discovers the events that led to the murder of her family.

This novel reminded me of the murders of three young boys West Memphis in 1993. I remember that case vividly. I remember at the time there was a strong belief that there was Satanic worship involved. Dark Places definitely creeped me out in the same way that Night Film did. A colleague who read Dark Places said that it had a “Lifetime movie” sort of ending. And it sort of did. At some point I’ll read Gone, Girl—to complete the Gillian Flynn trifecta. Also, there’s a movie version of Dark Places, with Charlize Theron (who definitely looks nothing like the way that Libby Day was described as looking…)