Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

The Blood Of Emmitt Till / Timothy B. Tyson

In the summer of 1955, Emmitt Till, a fourteen year old African American, traveled from Chicago to visit family members in Mississippi. After an encounter with a White woman storekeeper where he supposedly made inappropriate remarks and whistled at her, he was kidnapped and lynched by the woman’s male relatives. Over the course of several hours they severely beat and mutilated the boy before shooting him in the head and sinking his body in the Tallahatchie River. Such lynchings were common at the the time in the Mississippi Delta. However, what followed this particular killing was not. The publicity surrounding it shocked the nation and his death served as a catalyst of the Civil Rights movement.

A year before Emmett Till’s lynching, the Supreme Court had declared that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. This led to a wave of terrorism by Whites in the South intended to prevent integration of schools and to keep the Black population from voting. Unfortunately for Emmett Till, he arrived in Mississippi at a time when this angry backlash was gathering steam. While The Blood of Emmett Till outlines the background leading to the lynching, it focuses primarily on what occurred following Till’s death.

The key figure who ensured that the death of Emmett Till would not be forgotten was his mother, Mamie Till. When her son’s body was brought back to Chicago, she made the decision to organize a media campaign that made the death of her son front page news. This included a decision to have an open casket at Emmett’s funeral, allowing mourners to see for themselves how badly he had been beaten. Photographs of his mangled body were featured in newspapers across the country. And for years following his funeral, Mamie spoke at massive rallies to keep his name front and center in America’s consciousness.

Tyson goes into great detail to describe the trial of the men who killed Emmett Till. While everyone in the community knew these men were guilty of the crime, it was clear from the start that they would not be convicted. A corrupt, racist sheriff in charge of the case did his best to intimidate witnesses and disregard evidence. However, despite threats to their own lives, a good many people in the Black community and a few Whites did dare to testify against the defendants. Most of the Blacks who appeared in court had to leave the South after the trial to escape the death threats made against them. The courage it took for these people to testify left me humbled. I could not help but wonder if I could have done the the same in their shoes.

The Blood of Emmett Till is less a story of the real fourteen year old boy than a description of his legend and enduring memory. His name is still chanted in Black Lives Matter marches today. By focusing on this single incident, Tyson is able to encapsulate what life was like for Blacks in the Deep South during the 1950s. Only weeks after Till’s lynching, angry over the boy’s senseless death, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. As Tyson shows in this book, Emmitt Till’s death was indeed the spark that ignited the American Civil Rights movement.


A Manual For Cleaning Women : Selected Stories / Lucia Berlin

Lucia Berlin, who died in 2004, published three short story collections during her lifetime, some of which were published in various magazines over the years. Even so, she was not an author familiar to most readers. A Manual For Cleaning Women, a selection of her stories, a posthumous publication, seeks to introduce her to a wider audience.

While her stories are written in an unadorned, conversational style, her keen eye for detail enriches each of the ones included here. And a good many of them contain shifts and surprises at their end that are both unexpected and yet the perfect conclusion.

These stories were inspired by her childhood spent in various mining communities (Alaska, New Mexico, Chile, and Mexico). A bigger influence is her family’s history of alcoholism, a condition she battled as well (successfully for the last ten years of her life). Almost all of the stories in this collection are based on events in her own life. With such a rich history to draw upon, her subject matter is broad and fascinating.

In the years between 1971-1994, Berlin worked as a high school teacher, switchboard operator, hospital ward clerk, cleaning woman, and physician assistant. At the same time, she had three husbands, four sons, and battled alcoholism. Amazingly, she also found time to publish seventy-six short stories during her lifetime. In them, she captures not only the complexity of her own life, but the humor and melancholy of our shared time upon this earth. Without a doubt, her work deserves this reintroduction.

The Whites / Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt

One might think that this novel’s title is a racial term. Rather, in New York City police jargon, it represents a lawbreaker who has committed a heinous crime and “walked away untouched by justice.” And, in this story at least, detectives who have worked a crime scene have at least one White who continues to haunt them long after the case has been closed.

Billy Graves is a sergeant in his early forties who works in the Manhattan Night Watch, a small team of detectives who respond to the post-midnight felonies from Wall Street to Harlem. Graves has been assigned this graveyard shift after accidentally shooting a ten-year-old while struggling with a coke-crazed individual on a crowded street. At that time, he was part of an aggressive anti-crime unit known as the Wild Geese.

Years after that event, and married with two children, Graves has come to terms with the purgatory shift he has been assigned. All he wants to do is to do his job to the best of his ability. But there is a specific case from his time with the Wild Geese, in which the prime suspect walked, that continues to haunt him. As it turns out, every member of this group has their own “White” that causes them anguish in the dead of night.

The plot is set in motion after one of this group’s Whites, a suspect in the unsolved murder of a twelve-year-old boy, is killed when his neck is slashed by an unknown assailant. Shortly afterwards, other Whites haunting the Wild Geese begin to turn up murdered, including Graves’ suspect. A moral dilemma arises for Graves when he begins to think that the officers he once worked with might be the ones responsible for these murders. And to complicate matters, someone with a grudge seems to be threatening the safety of his own family.

All of this might seem standard crime fiction fare. In lesser hands, it would be. However, Price is a first class writer, and his prose elevates this book beyond the restrictions of its genre. The tale he tells is intricate, crackles with razor-sharp dialogue, and its pace leaves the reader breathless. There is barely a wasted word in this entire novel.

Crime novels are not high on my “must read” list. This book has transcended its label and should be simply considered a great novel. Prior to The Whites, Price had written eight novels. He is considered by many critics to be the best practitioner at portraying urban American life. For anyone hesitant to delve into crime fiction, this book will certainly surprise and delight as the pages fly past. After finishing it, all I could do is sit back and exclaim, “Wow.” There is a good reason why this book appeared on so many critics favorite reads in 2015 when it was first published.

Neither Here Nor There : Travels In Europe / Bill Bryson

In the early 1970s, Bill Bryson, then a college student, backpacked across Europe with a friend. Twenty years later, he decided to retrace that journey. He chronicles this second pilgrimage in Neither Here Nor There. On the earlier trip, he was interested in seeing Europe on the cheap, intent on sampling all the local beers while he tried in vain to meet women. When he returns in the early 1990s, he is nearing middle age, wants the comfort of nice hotels, and has a wife and children back at home in England. More importantly, most of the places he revisits have completely changed in twenty years’ time, and they do not match his memories of them.

I first read this travelog sometime in the 1990s. It was my introduction to the author. I found it delightfully funny and it caused me to seek out his other published works. Re-reading it now, some twenty-three years later, I find its humor still amusing. However, I cannot help but wonder, in this age of “political correctness,” how his sometimes crude observations would play with today’s younger readers. Without a doubt, Bryson’s remarks about cultures, countries, and nationalities can be blistering. However, most of this is done with tongue firmly in cheek. (The butt of his jokes is most often himself.) And along the way he mixes in a good bit of admiration and appreciation of the people and places he visits.

What took me by surprise was how out-of-date this book seemed in this present reading. It is like Bryson is describing an ancient civilization. In the early 1990s, there was no internet available for the traveler, and smart phones were only in the realm of science fiction. Even the use of credit cards was uncommon; travelers’ checks were carried by most when heading overseas. A scant twenty-five years later, reading Neither Here Nor There is like stepping into a time machine to visit a world that no longer exists.

For those who want to recapture the memories of their own youthful trips to Europe in the last century, this book will be the perfect catalyst to do so. That said, anyone interested in arm chair travel will take delight in following Bryson as he wanders haphazardly from Norway in the dead of winter all the way to Turkey with summer waiting in the wings. On this solo journey, Bryson does not stop to engage the locals in conversation, he merely walks through their cities and humorously reports on what catches his eye. Those new to Bryson’s travel writing, be prepared for his stinging wit and off-color asides. Thankfully, back in 1992, political correctness was not yet being strictly enforced.

Sense And Sensibility / Jane Austen

Despite my liberal arts education, I had not read any of Jane Austen’s novels. In a book store earlier this summer I came across The Complete Novels of Jane Austen, a massive tome that gathered her seven novels. My intent over the next year is to work my way through this collection and tick Austen off my “must read” list.

I have now finished her first novel, Sense and Sensibility. It tells the story of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, sisters who respectively represent the “sense” and “sensibility” of the book’s title. Marianne is a passionate young woman who wears her heart on her sleeve. When she falls in love with John Willoughby, she instantly believes she has met her true “love” match. Elinor, her slightly old sister, is more reserved and considered. While she too has met someone who has won her affection, it remains an unspoken attachment to the man himself or members of her own family.

The romance aspects of the story are front and center throughout. However, Austen’s humorous observations on the British upper class make it a comedy of manners as well. As the book opens, the Dashwood family has fallen on hard times (although they do still have servants). Thanks to the family’s former status, they are still able to interact with the gentry and peerage living in their neighborhood. This interaction allows Austen to poke fun at high society’s affectations. She also shows how status and money govern the rules of love among this group of people.

Gossip seems to be the primary activity of the characters, and keeping boredom at bay is the only job at hand for them. I kept thinking they all would be much happier if gainfully employed. There is no denying that this novel, loved by millions, is well-written. Even so, its charms failed to sweep me off my feet. Then again, I’m no romantic and this novel is primarily a romance. For anyone who likes that genre, this book is sure to delight.

The Hemingses Of Monticello : An American Family / Annette Gordon-Reed

This book presents the story of two families. Each of them grew up in the same household and were related to each other by blood ties. However, there was one glaring difference between them: one was white and free, the other black and enslaved. In The Hemingses of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed gives an in-depth history of Thomas Jefferson’s two families, one acknowledged, the other kept hidden.

The author proves beyond a doubt that Jefferson fathered six children with a slave on his plantation. When Jefferson married Martha Wayles as a young man, he also inherited her father’s slaves. It so happens that her father, John Wayles, had six children with one of his African-born slaves. These children, half-brothers and sisters to Martha, were moved into Jefferson’s house as slaves, where they were trained as artisans.

After Martha died in 1782, Jefferson began a relationship with her half-sister, Sally Hemings. At the time, she was a fifteen year old girl. Over the course of their thirty-eight year liaison, Sally bore him six children, four of whom survived into adulthood. Despite the fact that they were his children, all were raised as slaves and not given their freedom until much later in his life.

In this meticulously researched work, Gordon-Reed shines a spotlight on the Hemingses, tracing their family history from its origins in Virginia in the 1700s to the year of Jefferson’s death in 1826. The author contrasts what the Hemingses experienced as slaves with that of the two children he fathered with Martha. What is difficult for the modern reader to understand is how Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, could callously keep his children by Sally in slavery, despite the principles of human liberty that he endorsed and held dear for his white descendants.

Gordon-Reed’s intent is not to portray Jefferson as an evil slave owner. He treated the Hemingses with affection and kindness during his lifetime. Even so, he refused to publicly acknowledge them, although his relationship with Sally Hemings was common knowledge among his neighbors and political enemies. Even after his death, Jefferson’s white descendants continued to deny that he’d had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings. It was only with DNA testing that a genetic link between the two families was finally confirmed.

At times, the author belabors the points that she is trying to make. However, on a topic that is still contentious, it is clear she wants to prove her case beyond a shadow of a doubt. This masterful work goes a long way in insuring that the Hemings story will be included in our history books. The knowledge should not be used to diminish Jefferson’s many accomplishments, but rather, merely to show he failed to live up to the principles he extolled on the political stage.

While Sally Hemings and her children were freed following Jefferson’s death in 1826, the sad fact remains that many of the Hemings family members were sold at auction six months after his death. The Hemingses of Monticello is not just a story of two families, it illuminates the evils of slavery in this country and its lasting repercussions.

Dead Men Do Tell Tales : The Strange And Fascinating Cases Of A Forensic Anthropologist / William R. Maples and Michael Browning

Forensic anthropology involves the examination of human skeletal remains for law enforcement agencies to determine the identity of unidentified bones, as well as to provide evidence in murder investigations. Maples, a noted forensic anthropologist, worked at the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory at the the Florida Museum of Natural History.  Dead Men Do Tell Tales chronicles his career, highlighting his numerous high-profile or interesting forensic cases.

In the early sections of the book he comes across at times as a braggart, someone who likes to hog the spotlight. However, it soon becomes evident that he is a top-ranked expert in his field and truly passionate about the importance of his profession. Over the years he was involved in investigations involving many historical figures. The list is impressive, including Francisco Pizarro, the Romanov family, Joseph Merrick (i.e. the Elephant Man), and President Zachary Taylor.

Just as fascinating are the murder cases he was called in to help solve. Before reading this book I had no idea what the human skeleton could reveal in criminal investigations. With mere fragments of bone, a trained forensic anthropologist can deduce the age, gender, and ethnicity of the individual. More importantly, the skeletal remains often provide clues to the manner in which a murder victim was dispatched.

As this book shows, Maples was not only a gifted forensic detective, his insightful commentary also provides a detailed history, pre- and post-mortem, of the individuals he highlights. It was published in 1994, three years before his death from a brain tumor. In its final chapter, he expresses the fear that his laboratory might be forced to close for lack of funding. I’m happy to report that it is still in existence, now renamed the Maples Center for Forensic Medicine. For the families of murder victims, it is reassuring to know the laboratory is still helping to provide names to human skeletal remains. While Dead Men Do Tell Tales will appeal to fans of the TV show CSI, I recommend it to a wider audience who will appreciate its insights on the importance of a profession most know little or nothing about.