The Price of My Soul, by Bernadette Devlin*****

ThePriceofMySoulDevlin write this, her autobiography, when she was all of 23 years old. Had it been anyone else I would have considered it ridiculous, a juvenile pretention, but Bernadette Devlin was one of the primary fighters for Irish freedom during the tumultuous 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, and given how events played out, it is likely that she wrote this while fully anticipating that she’d be killed in the struggle fairly early on. Goodness knows, the British cops tried. Here’s a bit of background information from Wikipedia:

 On 16 January 1981 she and her husband were shot by members of the Ulster Freedom Fighters, who broke into their home near CoalislandCounty Tyrone. The gunmen shot Devlin fourteen times in front of her children. British soldiers were watching the McAliskey home at the time, but failed to prevent the assassination attempt, indeed it has been claimed that Devlin’s assassination was ordered by British authorities and that collusion was a factor. An army patrol of the 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, entered the house and waited for half an hour. Bernadette Devlin McAliskey has claimed they were waiting for the couple to die. Another group of soldiers then arrived and transported her by helicopter to a nearby hospital. The paramilitaries had torn out the telephone and while the wounded couple were being given first aid by the newly arrived troops, a soldier ran to a neighbour’s house, commandeered a car, and drove to the home of a councillor to telephone for help. The couple were taken by helicopter to hospital in nearby Dungannon for emergency treatment and then to the Musgrave Park Hospital, Military Wing, in Belfast, under intensive care.

 Soon after her recovery, the author-activist went on a speaking tour, and this reviewer was able to hear her talk when she came to the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio.  Her intelligence, eloquence, and fierce, courageous nationalism left me spellbound. And yet, it was only recently that I learned she’d written a memoir over a decade earlier. I was even more amazed to find that it was available for sale, albeit used and fairly banged up; all praise to the internet. And so this time, instead of heaping praise upon the publishers, I will thank my youngest son for securing a copy for me at Christmas. It was worth the wait.

Devlin was orphaned, along with her sisters and brothers, when she was still a teenager. She and her siblings had a conversation and decided that they would raise themselves, rather than be parceled out to relatives and neighbors, broken up like pieces of a candy bar to be distributed willy-nilly by the church. But her parents left her a legacy, one that said not to let anyone shove a Devlin around. One of my favorite moments in her engaging narrative is early on, when her mother is being attended by a physician for a fallen arch in one foot. The doctor’s solution is to tightly bind it in hopes it will grow back to its proper configuration, but instead it becomes desperately deformed. One day when the doctor is rebandaging it, her mother complains of pain, and the doctor replies that there is no real pain; he says her mother is merely neurotic. In response, her mother raises her good foot and kicks the man across the room.

A woman after my own heart.

But the best passages, as the reader might expect, are those detailing the struggle for civil rights in Northern Ireland, and in particular the struggle based on social class regardless of religion. She tells of the horrific events of Bloody Sunday, when a peaceful parade including small children and babies in their strollers is gunned down by cops. Devlin speaks of the “evil delight” she sees on the faces of violent cops as they beat people down at an earlier demonstration.

There are lessons to be learned here, and now is the time to learn them.

Remarkably enough, there are still copies of this historical treasure for sale, used. Anyone that is interested in the Irish freedom struggle; cop violence; or Irish history should find a copy now, while you can still get them cheaply.

Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance*****

HillbillyElegyI confess I was miffed when I wasn’t granted a DRC for this title, and after reading a couple of reviews, I decided I could live without it. I began to wonder about my choice when I saw it hover on the best seller lists where it remains as of this writing nearly a year after its publication, But the clincher came when my younger daughter came to me and said that she had read it digitally and believed I would enjoy it. She said it had to do with the culture of mining families, and that the dedication was to the writer’s “Mamaw and Papaw”.

It hit me like a bolt of lightning.

A personal note of explanation: I am a grandmother myself now, and my own Mamaw and Papaw were both dead and gone by the time I learned that this was not a set of names that belonged to my family alone. I was the youngest among my cousins and siblings, and had somehow assumed that these grandparents’ names were the result of something said by one of the older kids when they were small. By the time I came along, they had left the mines of the rural Rust Belt and purchased a small working farm in central California. No one else I knew had grandparents with those names or had heard of them. Later my grandparents, aunt and uncle (who—I am not making this up—were an Aunt Sister and Uncle Brother) would relocate to the mountains of Southern Oregon, to the farthest outreaches, secret places up barely-there dirt roads that would make a survivalist happy. Neither California or Oregon is mentioned at all in Vance’s memoir, and so it makes me wonder just how far this culture has permeated across the USA.

Vance tells us that his memoir is particular to the culture of working class Scots-Irish people, primarily in the Appalachian Mountains. But of course, when one mine closes, miners follow the work, and so the culture has spread quite a long way. He himself didn’t grow up in Appalachia, because his grandparents had made a point of moving away from there when a factory opened in a small Southern Ohio town, and so that was where he spent most of his childhood. But the roots ran deep, and they often returned to the West Virginia area where most of the family remained.

The memoir itself is fascinating. His grandparents were enormously tough and tremendously loving. He recounts one experience in which a drug-addicted visitor appeared to be dying of a PCP overdose in the front room, and Mamaw ordered that the person be dragged to a nearby park, because “I don’t want him to die in my fucking house!”

Another time, the author’s immensely unstable mother had beaten JD, and Mamaw persuaded him to lie to the cops, who could never be a part of any solution to their family. Instead, once in the car, “We drove home in silence after Mamaw explained that if Mom lost her temper again, Mamaw would shoot her in the face.”

I am amazed at the similarities that exist between Vance’s culture and that of my father’s family. Over the years succeeding generations have become more educated and moved, for the most part, out of the tulles and to suburbs and cities. But many of the values and cultural nuances remain. And if this is true for me, a Seattle resident of nearly 30 years, how many others across the nation will recognize it as well? Perhaps this is part of the book’s tremendous success.

In closing I want to give a shout-out to Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon, the city where I grew up. Powell’s has a daily drawing for its reviewers, and each day someone wins a $100 gift certificate. My prize is what made it possible for me to purchase this glorious brand new, hard cover edition.

Highly recommended to those interested in the culture of Scots Irish mining families and their descendants, and to those that love excellent memoirs.

The Song and the Silence, by Yvette Johnson*****

TheSongandtheSilenceI was browsing the pages of Net Galley and ran across this gem of a memoir. Often when someone that isn’t famous gets an autobiography published by a major publisher, it’s a hint to the reader that the story will be riveting. Such is the case here; my many thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review. You can order it now’ it comes out Tuesday, May 9.

It probably says a great deal, all by itself, that I had never heard of Booker Wright before this. I have a history degree and chose, at every possible opportunity, to take classes, both undergraduate and graduate level, that examined the Civil Rights Movement, right up until my retirement a few years ago. As a history teacher, I made a point of teaching about it even when it wasn’t part of my assigned curriculum, and I prided myself on reaching beyond what has become the standard list that most school children learned. I looked in nooks and crannies and did my best to pull down myths that cover up the heat and light of that critical time in American history, and I told my students that racism is an ongoing struggle, not something we can tidy away as a fait accompli.

But I had never heard of Booker.

Booker Wright, for those that (also) didn’t know, was the courageous Black Mississippian that stepped forward in 1965 and told his story on camera for documentary makers. He did it knowing that it was dangerous to do so, and knowing that it would probably cost him a very good job he’d had for 25 years. It was shown in a documentary that Johnson discusses, but if you want to see the clip of his remarks, here’s what he said. You may need to see it a couple of times, because he speaks rapidly and with an accent. Here is Booker, beginning with his well-known routine waiting tables at a swank local restaurant, and then saying more:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GM-zG…

So it was Booker and his new-to-me story that made me want to read the DRC. Johnson opens with information from that time, but as she begins sharing her own story, discussing not only Booker but her family’s story and in particular, her own alienation from her mother, who is Booker’s daughter, I waited for the oh-no feeling. Perhaps you’ve felt it too, when reading a biography; it’s the sensation we sometimes feel when it appears that a writer is using a famous subject in order to talk about themselves, instead. I’ve had that feeling several times since I’ve been reading and reviewing, and I have news: it never happened here. Johnson’s own story is an eloquent one, and it makes Booker’s story more relevant today as we see how this violent time and place has bled through to color the lives of its descendants.

The family’s history is one of silences, and each of those estrangements and sometimes even physical disappearance is rooted in America’s racist heritage. Johnson chronicles her own privileged upbringing, the daughter of a professional football player. She went to well-funded schools where she was usually the only African-American student in class. She responded to her mother’s angry mistrust of Caucasians by pretending to herself that race was not even worth noticing.

But as children, she and her sister had played a game in which they were both white girls. They practiced tossing their tresses over their shoulders. Imagine it.

Johnson is a strong writer, and her story is mesmerizing. I had initially expected an academic treatment, something fairly dry, when I saw the title. I chose this to be the book I was going to read at bedtime because it would not excite me, expecting it to be linear and to primarily deal with aspects of the Civil Rights movement and the Jim Crow South that, while terrible, would be things that I had heard many times before. I was soon disabused of this notion. But there came a point when this story was not only moving and fascinating, but also one I didn’t want to put down. I suspect it will do the same for you.

YouTube has a number of clips regarding this topic and the documentary Johnson helped create, but here is an NPR spot on cop violence, and it contains an interview of Johnson herself from when the project was released. It’s about 20 minutes long, and I found it useful once I had read the book; reading it before you do so would likely work just as well:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xxeh…

Johnson tells Booker’s story and her own in a way that looks like effortless synthesis, and the pace never slackens. For anyone with a post-high-school literacy level, an interest in civil rights in the USA, and a beating heart, this is a must-read. Do it.

Infinite Tuesday, by Michael Nesmith****

infinitetues

Michael Nesmith is a veteran of the entertainment industry, but his name is most recognizable as the wool-beanie-wearing member of The Monkees. Nesmith has a treasure trove of experience and insight, and he’s very articulate. I really enjoyed this memoir, and if American musical and cultural history interest you, I recommend you get a copy when it comes out April 18, 2017. Thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Archetype for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for this honest review.

Nesmith came of age in Texas, the child of a single hardworking mother, and was mentored by the profane elderly Uncle Chick, whose spoken cadence Nesmith would later find in his own sense of musical rhythm. Because Texas was the exclusive province, at the time, of country and gospel music, Michael and his pregnant girlfriend loaded themselves and Mike’s guitar into his mother’s car and took off for Los Angeles. It proved to be a good move.

Those that cannot remember the birth of rock and roll have no idea how polarizing it was. The cliché term “generation gap” represented a genuine source of friction and alienation in a lot of families; some parents decided that rock was not an art form but instead a type of devil worship. Some disowned their children over it and didn’t take them back later. I’m serious. And so when Nesmith credits his mother for her patience and forbearance—he actually didn’t ask if he could take her only car, for instance—he’s not just being gracious. Here, let him tell you:

 

It was unthinkable to everyone who had just fought World War II that the music…the whole cultural imperative of the victorious warriors would be torn down by their kids as if it were ugly curtains in the den.

 

Soon Nesmith would be chosen as a member of The Monkees, which catapulted four little-known young men to instant fame; Nesmith recalls that although seventeen to twenty-year-old Beatles fans were incensed by the TV imitation, the nine to twelve-year-old television kids—of which this reviewer was one—saw them as a fact:

What followed was what Nesmith calls “Celebrity Psychosis”, a sense of disproportion and entitlement caused by instant stardom, obsequious handlers, and bizarre social circumstances. He humorously recounts strange experiences, such as singing at a local school and being pursued by screaming adolescent girls, and being “sighted” shopping in a grocery store.

He recalls his experience as John Lennon’s house guest in London, and he cites Jimi Hendrix as the best rocker that ever lived. He also drops a rather nasty slam at Bob Dylan without any real explanation, and I confess that is part of the missing fifth star. What the hell?

Bette Nesmith, Michael’s late mother, invented Liquid Paper while he entered show business, and her fortune helped finance some of his creative products. Nesmith was a pioneer in the field of country rock as well as the music video. He produced movies and won a Grammy for “Elephant Parts”, an early music video:

 

He is also an ardent feminist, and his recollections show that he was one before it was cool. Thank you, Mr. Nesmith.

I have to admit that I find the first half of the memoir more interesting than the second half. The author goes on in the latter half of the book to speak at length about his spiritual experiences with Christian Science and the ways in which wealth distorts a person’s character, though he recognizes the latter doesn’t garner a lot of sympathy.  “Never complain about the air-conditioning a private jet.” He also does a lot of brow-beating about having stolen a friend’s wife, and attributes the failure of that marriage—his second, or his third maybe—to guilt.

Despite the aspects that I didn’t enjoy, I do recommend this memoir, because it eloquently describes a wide, enormously dynamic period in American film, music, and television. Nesmith unspools the last half of the 19th century with the wisdom of his experience, and it’s a perspective completely unlike any other I have seen.
Recommended for those with an interest in contemporary American cultural history, as well as to fans of Nesmith and The Monkees.

Blind Ambition, by John Dean*****

blindambitionJohn Dean was counsel to the president during the Nixon administration, and was the first to testify against all of the Watergate conspirators, including Nixon and including himself, a bold but necessary decision that led to Nixon’s resignation—done to avoid imminent impeachment—and Dean’s imprisonment. Dean’s story is a real page turner, and Nixon-Watergate buffs as well as those that are curious about this time period should read this book. I read the hard copy version, for which I paid full jacket price, shortly after its release, and when I saw that my friends at Open Road Media and Net Galley were re-releasing it digitally, I climbed on board right away. This title is available for sale today, December 20, 2016.

Dean was a young lawyer whose career rose rapidly. When Nixon found out that men employed by the Committee to Re-Elect the President had been arrested for the burglary of the Democratic Party National Headquarters, which was housed in the Watergate Hotel, he quickly became enmeshed in a plan to bury the whole thing. Once he realized (belatedly) that he and his closest advisors had made themselves vulnerable to criminal charges, he had Haldeman, his right hand man, reach into the White House legal staff to find an attorney that could serve as an intermediary so that none of them would need to have illegal conversations with each other. Dean was sometimes called upon as a problem solver, but more often he was essentially the messenger between the president and his closest advisors. Nixon’s thinking here was that everything that passed through Dean would be covered by client-attorney privilege. When this turned out to have no legal basis and heads were going to roll, Dean learned that his own head would be among those served up on a platter by the administration in its effort to save itself. He chose to strike first by testifying against everyone involved in the conspiracy to obstruct justice, and eventually this included President Richard Nixon.

 

Those old enough to recall having watched Dean testify on television will be interested in the back story here. Dean has a phalanx of his own attorneys, but he decides to appear at the microphone without them; they are among the faces in the back on the TV footage. He also chose to speak in a dead monotone, because the information he was transmitting was itself very dramatic, and he had already been represented as a squealer in some media sources. Instead, he chose to portray himself as a small man, slightly balding, with his horn rimmed glasses and his notes, sitting alone in front of a microphone in order to bravely announce the truth to the Senate and the world.  And it’s effective. See what you think:

 

 

When I first read this book I was not long out of high school, and I met the text with snarky disapproval, based more on the very idea that a man as young as Dean could choose to affiliate himself with the Republican Party during the time the Vietnam War raged than on the skill with which the book was written. This time I come to it as an adult with a lot more experience related to writing, and my reaction is completely different.  Dean writes his story like a legal thriller. It’s fascinating and enormously compelling.  I find that what I think of Dean morally and politically is irrelevant when I rate this text; the writing is first rate. Most interesting of all is the way he is able to inject wry humor into the series of events that ended his legal career and sent him to jail. His sentence is not long, though, and much of it is spent in a relatively gentle confinement. He becomes a college professor and writer later in life, which he still is today.

 

Those that have real depth of interest will also be interested in a later book, The Nixon Defense, written once all the Nixon tapes were released to the public:

 

https://seattlebookmamablog.org/2014/09/01/the-nixon-defense-what-he-knew-and-when-he-knew-it-by-john-dean/

 

Both are riveting, and highly recommended.

Pancakes in Paris, by Craig Carlson****

pancakesinparisThe American dream has become harder for ordinary people to attain, but Carlson is living proof that it can happen; yet some of us may need to go somewhere else to find it. In his upbeat, congenial memoir, “the pancake guy” chronicles his journey, from the kid of a wretchedly dysfunctional home—and I don’t use the term lightly—to the owner of Breakfast in America, his own restaurant franchise in France. This title was a bright spot in my reading lineup last month, and it can be a bright spot in yours too. Thank you to Sourcebooks and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for an honest review.

Is this a thing that any kid in America could have done? Not so much. Carlson has a rare blend of  intelligence, organization, and social skills; above and beyond all else, he possesses unstoppable determination, clear focus, and a work ethic that never flags for one tiny minute until he discovers he is close to working himself to death. Those lacking talent and determination may never reach the end of the rainbow as this author has done; that much is clear. But oh, what fun to share the ride with him!

Given his family’s expectations for him, or lack thereof, it’s amazing he finished high school, and his acquisition of a college education is more remarkable still. But it is his junior year at a state college in Connecticut that plants the seed that will sprout and grow into a way of life; he is invited to spend his school year in Paris. Once he’s there, the tumblers click, and he knows that he has found his people.

As Carlson’s story unspools, he debunks stereotypes believed by many Americans, and a few of them are ones I believed too until I read this memoir. Carlson delivers setting in a way much more immediate than any number of Google searches can provide, but it’s his insights regarding French culture, law, and society that make his memoir so captivating. The prose is lean and occasionally hilarious. He plucks choice, juicy vignettes from his journey all along the way, and this makes us feel as if we are riding quietly on his shoulder taking it all in as he goes.

If you’ve never been to France and don’t intend to, you can still enjoy this book. If you don’t like pancakes or any aspect of the traditional American breakfast, it doesn’t matter. Carlson is enormously entertaining, and so his story stands on its own merits. I am furthermore delighted to see that the only recipe that is inserted into his narrative is actually a joke. A small collection of actual recipes is inserted at the end, and although I never, ever, ever do this, I intend to try one of them out tonight! But even if you skip the recipe section entirely, you should read this memoir. It’s too much fun to miss. The best news of all is that it’s available for purchase right now.

Get it, and read it!

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, by Jenny Lawson****

furiouslyhappyJenny Lawson is well known as The Blogess (the blogger that came up with Beyonce, the metal chicken). She won awards for her previous memoir, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.  The only DRC I saw for this title was for readers in UK and Australia, so I waited till I could scoop it cheaply and bought it digitally. Those that read my reviews often know I almost never do this. For the $3 it cost on an Amazon Prime daily deal, it was worth it to me.

Lawson is one of a handful of authors that talks candidly and often very humorously about her own struggle with mental illness and autoimmune disorders. Her capacity to create imaginary scenarios totally out of left field is her greatest strength, second only to the ability—sometimes—to find a way to laugh at the nest of spiders that occasionally takes over her brain. And sometimes she is painfully candid. Try this one on:

 

“Sometimes being crazy is a demon. And sometimes the demon is me…And some of us just carry around our tiny demon as he wreaks havoc in our mind, tearing open old dusty trunks of bad memories and leaving the remnants spread everywhere. Wearing the skins of people we’ve hurt. Wearing the skins of people we’ve loved. And sometimes, when it’s worst, wearing our own skins.”

 

She rants about the well intentioned but ignorant advice she’s received from clueless amateurs. At various times she’s been told to shake it off, to stop eating gluten, and to let Jesus into her heart in order to experience a full and immediate cure.

Sure.

Her musings about flying, which her fame requires her to do a great deal of, though she is afraid both of flying and of leaving home, are brilliant. This reviewer crowed out loud from glee at Lawson’s suggestion that flight attendants be permitted “to whack one person per flight with a piñata stick for being the stupidest damn person on the plane.”

My favorite section is the one in which she details the horrors of remodeling in a way that makes me howl. And goodness knows we all need to do that.

Lawson inserts women’s reproductive anatomy into almost any sort of discussion, and whereas I applaud the feminist spirit that demands the word “vagina” no longer be treated like a dirty word, I confess it was a bit much for me. But then, I am probably older than you are; this may be a generational thing. And there may also be plenty of women from the Boomer generation that think her use of the word is great.

Now and then there’s an odd moment in which I stop reading and stare at the text. What? Did she proof read this, and did her editors? There are occasional remarks that strike me as racially insensitive. She spins a thread about the wild things in the out of doors, and cautions us that since bears don’t play, we should shoot one first and ask questions later. Assuming said bear is in one’s back yard or trying to fit through a window of one’s home, I can see the point, but it came out of left field and made me wonder. Really? Just shoot bears? And the thread further spins itself into a bison-and-Native-Americans discussion in which she assures us that it’s not great to have bison in one’s yard, but it would be awesome to keep a lot of Native Americans out there. My e-reader says, “?!?”

But then she drops and is off onto another stream-of-consciousness spiel before I can fully digest what’s been said. She does it a couple of other times also. And it occurs to me that she has perhaps the ultimate excuse, having said up front that she has known for most of her life that she is “not right” in the head, but I still wonder that her editors didn’t look at that and say, “Umm…Jenny? This part right here…?” There are no overt racial slams or this review would have a lot of empty stars, but there are small moments where I wonder if she understands how others may read what she’s said.

Many of her entries if not all of them are drawn from her blog, and it’s possible that if you’ve read her blog faithfully, you won’t want to pay for this book. As for me, I found it worth the three bucks to be able to get everything at once in a well organized format—known as a book—that I could read comfortably. I confess I would not have paid full jacket price for it now that I get most books free and also have less money to spend on them than when I was working, but for others it may well be worth it.

On the whole, this is a courageous and often eloquent, fall-down-funny memoir, and with the small reservations mentioned above, I recommend it to you.

They Left Us Everything, by Plum Johnson***

theyleftus Plum Johnson is gathered, together with her siblings and other family members, at the family manse following the death of her mother. This memoir focuses on the things she’s learned and the insights she gains over the course of the year it takes to empty and sell the property. Thank you to Net Galley and Putnam Penguin for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

I knew when I requested this story that I was stretching my comfort zone. It paid off big time a couple of times recently–one of them was The Goldfinch—and since there seemed to be a lot of buzz generated around this title, I thought I’d go for it. And I have to admit, this time it was not a good fit. But I am confident that there are readers out there that will enjoy it. Different strokes and all that.

The first thing that jarred me was right up front, and it was a small thing, yet a big thing. The pet the author remembers so fondly—the one that’s buried on the property—was named Sambo. I felt like I’d been slapped, to be honest. If that was the pet’s name, I’d think an author today would have had the sensitivity to change it for purposes of publication.

Sambo???

Enough; let’s get on with the meat of the story. The author has spent years under the domineering gaze of her dying mother. The woman didn’t go fast, and she didn’t go out a pleasant person. In some ways it makes it harder to grieve when someone goes out ugly, because it sends all sorts of conflicting emotions rocketing through one’s senses, which are already jumbled sufficiently at the loss of a family member. And it is in taking time to go through her mother’s things, the more personal ones apart from the things that have resale value, the letters, the journals, the things she saved for so many years, that the author feels as if she really knows who her mother used to be.

I think there are a lot of us out here, Boomer-era adults that have said goodbye to parents or are still doing so, that can relate to this. Often it takes a fair amount of experience to appreciate our parents’ better moments, to realize that some of the things they did for us that we took for granted were not  the same things everyone’s parents did. Plum’s musings made me think of my own mother, a woman that died disappointed with life and darned cranky about it, but who told me about the internment of Japanese Americans and made me use standard English by the time I was five. Like Plum, I find myself wishing my mom could return for a visit to give me one more chance to thank her for the things she did right.

We get a glimpse of the author’s life, the choices she made and what her mother had to say about them. But it was difficult for me to relate to them, not only because of the level of affluence that is demonstrated here, but also because it’s depicted as being part of the everyday landscape. Plum doesn’t feel more fortunate than others, but rather this is what her normal looks like, and while I understand that for some people that is reality, I found it alienating. Art versus tennis? That’s the controversy? In addition, for most of the book we also assume that people are white, because that’s what normal looks like to Plum. There are a few places that break this up a little bit, and it is for that reason, together with the fluency with which the memoir is written, that I rated this 3 stars rather than 2.5.

Figure out who you are, and that will tell you whether this book is your book. It’s for sale to the public July 19, 2016.

The Butler’s Child: An Autobiography, by Lewis M. Steel****

thebutlerschildLewis M. Steel has a long, noteworthy career as a civil rights attorney.  He was an observer during the Attica Prison riots; worked for the NAACP during the Civil Rights movement, and later defended boxer Hurricane Carter against a frame-up charge of murder. And I was permitted to read this story free and in advance, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press in exchange for this honest review. I rate it 3.5 stars and round upwards; it is now available to the public.

When I first approached this title I expected to see what the life of a butler’s son was like. In fact, Steel’s social class is at the other end of the spectrum. An heir to the Warner Brothers fortune, he spent much of his time in the company of the family butler, and he was deeply affected by the emotional distance that this family servant, whom he had innocently regarded as a father figure, began to demonstrate as Steel grew older. Later, as an adult, he realized that this faithful retainer, an African-American man, surely had a family and life of his own that he went to visit on his two half-days off work, and he began to wonder what he might do to tear down the wall between the worlds of Caucasian families and Black folk. Ultimately he decided to become a civil rights attorney, and he credits the man that helped raise him as a key reason.

The NAACP of the Civil Rights era—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People– was deeply immersed in litigation as a means to end segregation. Again and again, racist judges sat in court, north and south alike, and they told the NAACP to go to hell even when their evidence and research was baldly, plainly in the plaintiff’s favor. The NAACP continued to push litigation over mass action because of a strong conviction that if they could get a case heard by the Supreme Court, relatively liberal in many regards and headed by Chief Justice Warren, then surely justice would be done.

It didn’t shake out that way. Outraged over the way the nation’s highest court failed to provide equal protection to its Black citizens, Steel wrote an article for Time Magazine titled “Nine Men in Black Who Think White”, and was summarily fired from the NAACP, who still wanted to curry favor with that court. Many of his colleagues walked out of the NAACP offices in protest.

A common question among Caucasians that want to fight for the rights of people of color in the USA is what can we do?  How can one use this white privilege that exists whether it should or not, to change US laws and society for the better? And this question is raised exponentially when one is an heir, a ruling class scion that can do a tremendous amount for the cause in which he believes.

This reviewer has a friend that found himself in this situation. The distant but only heir of a corset magnate’s fortune, he decided that the best way to seek justice was to walk his talk. Reserving a small percentage of the fortune for himself—which is still a tasty enough chunk to own a middle class home in Seattle, take a vacation abroad annually, and eat in restaurants instead of his own kitchen—he donated the vast majority of his personal wealth to the organization he thought best. He doesn’t live in an all white neighborhood; doesn’t have a household staff; and he does blue collar work on the railroad so that he can talk politics with other working people. Because to help people the most, one needs to be among them and facing similar circumstances to those they face. So he gets up at crazy o’clock in the morning, goes out and gets greasy and banged up with everybody else, and then he goes home and cleans his own house and mows his own grass. He gets that more people listen when you put your life where your mouth is, and he believes the future of the world lies with the working class.

So when Steel commences his hand wringing over how wealthy, how privileged he is and how bad he feels about it, I want to say, Cry me a river. Steel freely admits that he enjoys his lovely home that looks down on Central Park and allows him a lovely view of the Macy’s Parade every Thanksgiving. He enjoys the servants, and his neighborhood is all white. He sent his children to all white private schools even as he fought to integrate the public schools that he wouldn’t let his own children attend in any case.

At one point, Steel mentions that his therapist told him to stop whining, and I wanted that doctor here in the room so I could offer him a high five.

Now that I have addressed the elephant in the room, I have to say that Steel’s memoir, despite the wealthy liberal whining, is worth a read for those interested in Civil Rights history and in particular the part of it that has played out in the courtrooms. You don’t have to like the author to benefit from the treasure trove of information in the pages of this memoir. Steel has been involved in some landmark cases, and he is at his best when he talks about the cases he has taken and how they shook out.

Black lives DO matter, and those of  us that think so need all the information available to fight that fight, and there are many worthwhile lessons that still apply right here, this book is worth your time and money regardless of whose memoir it is.

This book was released earlier this month, and is available for sale now.

Fragments of Isabella: A Memoir of Auschwitz, by Isabella Leitner****

fragmentsofisabellaIsabella Leitner was a Holocaust survivor, and she scribed her memoir using brief entries similar to a diary in format. The length is just 120 pages, about the size of a novella. I was asked to read and review this memoir free of charge before it was released digitally. Thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media for the invitation. This title was just released, so it is available now for purchase.

I confess I struggle with Holocaust memoirs these days. Part of me has decided not to read any more of them. I am out of the classroom, so my ability to educate young people of today about the horrors of the past is nearly at a standstill, apart from the knowledge I pass on to my grandchildren. Reading another Holocaust memoir isn’t going to make the ending any better; it’s always going to be horrifying, and heaven help me if I should become so accustomed to reading about the Holocaust that it doesn’t affect me that way anymore.

So though I swear off Holocaust memoirs from time to time (and am doing so right now, again), when a particular memoir is offered, frequently there is some aspect of this one that sets it apart from the crowd, and so it is with Isabella’s memories. Not many survivors managed to get out with family members at their side; Isabella and her sisters were unusually clever and imaginative in finding ways to survive. This along with the invitation induced me to roll up my sleeves and revisit this calamitous part of history once more.

When the notorious Mengele motioned with his deadly white glove to send Isabella and one of her sisters to the extermination side, they found a way to creep back around and intermingle with the side selected to be kept alive as workers. At one point they escaped and found an outstanding hiding place…but before they were identified as missing, the Germans began cooking potatoes, a luxury Isabella and her sisters could not resist, and they slunk out of their haystack and into the food line. There are a number of these instances, and I found the short chapters merciful, because I could only read this in small bits and pieces.

Most powerful of all, as far as I am concerned, is the clear, unmistakable truth that Germans knew, absolutely had to know, exactly what was going on around them. As their own lives improved materially, they chose to look the other way as skeletal work crews of Jewish and other prisoners were marched directly down the main streets of towns and villages on a daily basis:

“Germany was one giant concentration camp, with Jews marching the length and breadth of the country, but these refined, sensitive Germans never saw us. Find me a German who ever saw me. Find me one who ever harmed us.”

The memoir is of necessity harsh in its remembrance. The teaser for this story bills it as having been written for young adults, but the background material required to understand some of what is said requires a good deal of pre-teaching.  In other words, if a teacher or home-school supervisor has run out of social studies time and is looking for a shortcut to make up for teaching about the Holocaust, this isn’t it. Frankly, this reviewer and teacher wonders how a full unit regarding the Holocaust could be lower on the chain of important social studies curriculum than anything else, apart from possibly the Bill of Rights (for US students). But if one is determined to substitute one memoir for a longer unit that gives more information, use Elie Wiesel’s Night, which stands on its own.

Finally, any teacher or prospective reader needs to consider exactly how searing this material is, and all the more so to the young mind; to Jewish readers; to anyone with triggers.

I should also mention that a bisexual guard at Auschwitz, a woman that was interested sexually in one of the prisoners, is referred to as “aberrant”, not for being a guard at such a place, but for her sexual orientation.

Do I recommend this memoir to you? Those that are studying the Holocaust should read it; the fact that it’s written by a survivor makes it a primary document. But those that are looking for an engaging, enjoyable slice of history should look elsewhere. There are no light moments, no surprisingly kindly individuals that go out of their way to help. It’s a cold, hard story, and the only joy is provided up front when we learn that she gets out alive and not alone, as so many Holocaust survivors found themselves.

It’s a hard, hard lesson, but given that revisionists are diligently trying to deny that the Holocaust actually occurred, attempting to rake over the evidence as if it were not nearly as serious as we may believe, it also has a great deal of value.

Because Isabella was there.