Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela*****

longwalktofreedomI read this memoir, one of the most important of our era, before I was writing reviews. I bought it in the hard cover edition, because I knew I would want it to last a long time and be available to my children and their children. It was worth every nickel. It’s lengthy and requires strong literacy skills and stamina, but if you care about social justice and are going to pull out all the stops for just one hefty volume in your lifetime, make it this one.

The first two or three chapters flow like molasses on a hot day. Mandela is laying his ground work, but it’s tedious at the start. Fight your way through it, because the story to follow–and we’re talking about the huge majority of the book here–is absolutely riveting, and in many ways is a tremendous lesson in struggle as well.

Mandela is gone, but he is still a luminary figure in world history. In writing his memoir, some of which he did in prison, he was not following any publishing house’s advice about grabbing the reader right at the get-go. He didn’t need to toss in the usual teasers or follow a blueprint, because he was Mandela. An immensely articulate individual, an attorney before he devoted his life purely to the downfall of Apartheid South Africa, he was capable of telling his story brilliantly in many languages, and he did it.

This autobiography chronicles Mandela’s life, first as the son of a tribal chief, then as an educated Black man under apartheid (a dangerous thing to be), then the journey, both outward and inward, from attorney to the leader of a revolution. You will read about his time on Riecher’s Island, the notorious prison, and the various experiences he had in the courtroom and in captivity. He tells of the cunning ways those who were jailed for political reasons created to communicate and to an extent, continue to lead from inside prison. And he breaks up the horror with an occasional vignette of a surprisingly kindly jailor or other authority figure who does small, decent things when no one is looking.

If you are interested in the history of South Africa and the defeat of Apartheid, this is a must-read. If you ever, as I did, had a “Free Nelson Mandela” poster in your living room…read this, and celebrate.

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 3, by Mark Twain****

autobiomarktwainv3Huge thanks go to Net Galley and University of California Press, who provided me with a DRC in exchange for an honest review. It has taken me some time to read and rate it because once I had the DRC for Volume 3, I decided I should hunt down volumes 1 and 2 and read those first. Now I am finally finished, and it was well worth the effort.

First let’s talk about the obvious thing: how dare I rate Twain four stars rather than five?  I considered the matter and reflected that if Twain himself were to rate it, he might say the same. The reason is that, as he plainly states more than once in his narrative, he is writing not for posterity, but for bulk. An unfair copyright law that was present at the time he began his autobiography permitted a copyright to stand for only 42 years, after which the work entered the public domain. Twain hired a lobbyist to attempt to gain an amendment offering the author the option to renew the copyright, and ultimately he won. But when he started the autobiography, his plan was to write 500,000 words and then republish each of his books with a portion of the autobiography attached so that it could be called a new work and thereby merit a brand new copyright. Twain’s wealth had been considerably depleted by dishonest people in his employ, not once but three times. He had made a fortune, but much of it was gone, partially due to an unscrupulous publishing agent and then later to two household employees he regarded as close to him as family. The double blow of losing so much money and learning of the duplicity of people he had loved and thought loved him was a bitter pill indeed.

So the book contains filler, and this he unabashedly admits. And at times I had found myself wondering why he included all of the letters he had received from cute children he had met onboard a ship, but until I found the bald statement that he needed 500,000 words, I had attributed it to his eccentricity. No, not so much. There is gold in this memoir, and if you like Twain, or history, or both, you should buy it and read it. He says things nobody else has said, and so even once you realize you have entered into a portion of the memoir that is just plain filler and you skim till that section ends, the next things you read will be worth your time and money.

I promise.

Twain stipulated that the autobiography in its entirety must not be published until he had been dead 100 years. He did this because if he wanted to say someone was a rotten scoundrel and then give details that might well draw a lawsuit, he could go ahead and say it; he also said he didn’t want to hurt the feelings of said people’s children or grandchildren. I’d say he succeeded. Some of those he consigns to the flames are individuals contemporary readers won’t recognize. However, he hated President Theodore Roosevelt with a fiery passion, and he doesn’t mince words where he is concerned.

Most of the memoir is not angry in tone, however; there are places where I laughed out loud. The way he talks about Carnegie, who mentally catalogued every compliment ever paid him and then went through the entire litany when one visited, adding new ones but never removing or abbreviating the old ones, just cracked me up.

Most of all, I loved his explanation of the privileges conferred upon us by old age, one of which was the right to pitch a fit if one felt like it:

“But indeed the older you grow, the less secure becomes the furniture. When I throw chairs through the window I have a sufficient reason to back it. But you–you are but a creature of passion.”

Toward the end  I wanted to sit down and cry with him. He lived a long life, but the outcome was that he outlived three of his four children—a little boy that died shortly after birth, as well as two of his three daughters—and also his lovely wife, whom he adored, and his best friends. The autobiography was to provide support for the two daughters that he feared would not see a nickel from his earlier works because of the copyright laws.

Then two things happened almost simultaneously: the law was changed, with the amendment he had fought for added so that his copyrights could be extended; and the daughter that still needed his financial support, a woman that had spent much of her life in an institution because of epilepsy but now had medication that made it possible for her to be at home with a private nurse, died in the night.

It was right before Christmas, and she had been planning a surprise for her father, a Christmas tree decorated in an unusual, very artistic and tasteful manner, as he discovered when he entered her private sanctuary after her death. There were over fifty Christmas gifts there in various stages of wrap, many of them for people Twain says he would not have even thought of shopping for, and so he just sits in that room with his memoir, and he sobs. His other daughter, Clara, has married an affluent man and is very happily married; she won’t need his money. And now Jean is gone. Twain records the fact that the purpose the autobiography was to serve no longer exists…and he stops writing.

It’s enough to break your heart.

And so it ends, but it is an epic work.

For those planning to get this memoir, I give two crucial bits of advice: first, look at the title of the book carefully. Make sure it is this exact title. If it’s turned around—if for example the title becomes “Mark Twain’s Autobiography”—that’s not the one you want; it’s a knock-off and it’s not really even readable. It’s cheaper, but it is a false economy. The Twain Project took painstaking care in sorting and assembling what amounted to two whole file drawers full (or ten feet of files) of Twain material, some of it duplicated, some of it in his own handwriting, and some of it dictated, then typed by someone else. It was a huge job, and UC did it right.

The second bit of advice is not to worry too much about reading volume 2, or if you do, purchase the book that includes volumes 1 and 2 together. For some reason, even after all the effort that was expended into the organization of this hefty memoir, there is some duplication that renders most of volume 2 the same as portions of volume 1. Maybe it was Twain’s intention to duplicate it and so the Twain Project did so to honor his wishes; I can’t say. But everything you need in order to read this memoir in its entirety can be found in volumes 1 and 3.

Even with the filler, it is amazing work, and I highly recommend it to those that love Twain; those that love history; and those that love great memoirs.

Live From Death Row, by Mumia Abu-Jamal*****

livefromdeathrowMumia is a former Black Panther. The facts support his having been framed in the murder of the cop, a crime for which he was nearly executed.

Live from Death Row, written before his sentence was commuted, is not, however, a vehicle he uses to advocate for himself or plead his own case to the public. He has written other books I haven’t read, and I don’t know if he did that there.

Instead, here he uses his own situation to discuss the racism inherent both in the U.S. court system; he also talks about racism on death row.

The mandatory fresh-air time, prized and treasured by men who rarely see the clear blue sky, is an Apartheid one, at least in Supermax, RHU,SMU, and SHU (ultimate maximum security prisons, which he says have swelled since jailhouse overcrowding has made prisons tenser places and more people are tossed into “the hole”). The vast majority of prisoners are Black, though they are a minority of the population at large, and in the Pennsylvania prison he describes, 80% of those maximum security cases, those who wear Black skin, are crowded into a courtyard. They can’t see green grass or the outdoors, only four brick walls and way up there, blue sky. Why? And where are the other prisoners going?

The other prisoners (who are also maximum security) who are not Black have a SEPARATE courtyard, which is surrounded by chain=link fencing with razor-wire, but has the view. The 20% have the perk of a much less crowded space and the capacity to see Mother Earth during their treasured time outside prison walls.

As to the racist system that places Blacks on death row at such a startlingly high rate, he offers the following statistics and footnotes all of them like the scholar he was before being incarcerated, and continues to be behind prison walls. He uses a Georgia case because it is one which caused the Supreme Court to recognize the following facts:

*defendants charged w killing Caucasian victims are 4.3 times as likely to be sent to death row as those charged w/killing Blacks;

*the race of the victim determines whether or not a death penalty is returned;

*nearly 6 of 11 defendants who received the death penalty for killing Caucasians would not have received the death penalty if their victims had been Black;

*20 of every 34 defendants sentenced to death would not have been given the death sentence if their victims had not been Caucasian.

He continues to pound one damning fact upon another, and cites court cases to back them up; those above come from McClesky vs. Kemp (1987). If the case sounds old, I would argue that precedents are set by very old cases indeed, and of course, this book was published early into the 2000 decade. I doubt a more recent gathering of data would return more favorable information; in the case of jail overcrowding, I suspect the recession has made it worse.

A person would have to be hiding under a rock or in a coma not to be aware of the level of violence visited upon African-Americans by cops and vigilantes within the past year.

I applaud Mumia for using his well-known case to set the facts before us, rather than trying to build momentum to save himself. There was a considerable amount of public pressure NOT to execute him, and I do think that had to do with his sentence being commuted; as it was, my kids’ urban U.S. high school was “barely holding together”, according to a counselor I knew there, the day that Mumia’s case was turned away by the U.S. Supreme Court.

If you are interested in reading about social justice issues, this relatively slender volume holds an astounding amount of really critical information. I appreciate Mumia’s relentless effort to make the public, both in the US and internationally, aware of the atrocities that continue to visit Black prisoners in the USA, and it’s more relevant now than ever!

And There Was Light: Autobiography of Jacques Lusseyran, Blind Hero of the French Resistance, by Jacques Lusseyran *****

  and there was light Lusseyran was sighted at birth, but a childhood accident caused him to lose his vision. Neither Lusseyran nor his parents–comfortable members of the petit bourgeoisie–let his blindness define him in the way that most people living in the more developed nations of the early 20th century would have done. Instead, they promoted his mental and physical development and sacrificed some of their own comfort to be sure their son continued to receive an education, although the law didn’t guarantee him one. In return, he gave not only his parents but the world a hero, one who became a leader of the French Resistance.

I have heard it suggested that those who lose one sense make up for it with the others, and so those whose eyes no longer see, or see nothing except shadow and light, hear, smell, touch and taste more acutely. Lusseyran claims that even as a child, he navigated his home town largely by smell; the baker was this way, and the creamery that way. And so the foundation was laid.

Though his education was challenged by instructors who were reluctant to have a blind student present, and who sometimes threw up nearly impossible requirements, such as reluctance to permit him the use of the braille typewriter his parents bought for him, yet others inspired him and moved him forward. Teachers, many of us at least, aspire to be someone like Jacques’s history teacher. He describes this man’s fire, and the bond that his passion for his subject and his vocation created:

“He wanted us to be exactly as we really were, funny if we couldn’t help it, furious if we were angry…his learning made us gasp. He made numbers and facts pour down on us like hail…the syllabus for history stopped at 1918…but for him this was no obstacle, for he would go ahead without any syllabus. He went past all the barriers…”

The teacher would continue to teach at the end of the school day, excusing anyone who wanted to leave (and here I think of the yellow school buses that constrict the schedules of US public school students so often now). He says that everyone stayed. “Naturally.”

The dynamic time in which he lived no doubt was responsible for much of their enthusiasm; history was clearly being created with each breath they took. Their history teacher told them–relying upon texts he had read in the original Russian–of the Bolshevik Revolution and of the Stalinism that had taken hold thereafter, of the purges. He spoke of the United States, Roosevelt, of initiative and imagination triumphant.

And so Lusseyran was not yet past adolescence when he felt he had a duty to change the world, to participate in driving out the Nazi occupiers. He tells us that it was understood for some time among himself and the friends he trusted to keep their dangerous knowledge confidential, that he would be the leader of their youth Resistance movement. Others would listen and observe to see what other individuals might join them, but of course, there were spies and each person they trusted could instead lead them to their own deaths. It was very dangerous.

And in such a circumstance, blindness became an unusual asset. New potential recruits would be led to their interview, but instead of an office or home, they were led through a labyrinth of boxes and crates in a completely unlit warehouse. Their interviewer waited at the end of this maze, and he interviewed them in the dark. He could detect falseness of character or fear of exposure from those who would betray the Resistance by listening to the nuances of their voices, and those individuals who weren’t deemed worthy were left to find their own way back out. Of course, the location sometimes had to change, but the setup was the same.

Lusseyran’s heroism is a testament to initiative and idealism. The reader will have to learn the rest of his story the way I did; the narrative is as skilled and engaging as the political work that preceded it. It is one of the most unusual and inspirational autobiographies I have encountered.

Highly recommended.

Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, by Alison Arngrim *****

confessionsofaprairiebitchThey say actors tend to have high IQs. This book is one more piece of evidence. Arngrim is super smart, and she can really write. And she is very, very funny.

Like a lot of comedians (which is what she did after being a child actor,at least for a time), her unerring comic instinct developed as a survival skill. Terrible families come in a wide range of dysfunction, but if domestic atrocities were a contest (and thank goodness they aren’t), Christina Crawford (Mommie Dearest) would be left eating Arngrim’s dust. The enormous temper tantrums and other vile forms of acting out inherent in the character she played were a recipe for mental health. How many other people get to go out and scream at other people for a living? And trust me, she needed all the help she could get. For the specifics, get this book and read it. It is worth the cover price.

Public reaction to Arngrim ranges from the hysterically funny to the almost unbelievable. She and her Prairie mom went to a fair as part of a publicity effort, to sign autographs etc, but they were attacked by an angry mob and had to slide out of there quietly. On a French television program, she was asked to explain her bad behavior, and she explained, as if she were her character, that she had been raised by a dreadful mother and was jealous of Laura. The studio audience and talk show hosts all understood entirely. It’s just too hilarious!

In real life, she has been close friends with Melissa Gilbert since their early days together on the set, and she spoke so well of Gilbert that I think I may read her memoir, too…and I was not even remotely interested in doing so before this! She also has some interesting things (I am dying to divulge, but won’t…READ THE BOOK!) about Michael Landon. Wowzers.

Not-so-funny is her experience losing a good friend to AIDS. I lost an old high school chum in the late 80’s, when a whole generation (or more) of gay men were unknowingly exposed to a deadly virus that at the time had no useful treatment. I applaud the years she has served as an advocate for HIV awareness and treatment. She has gone to bat for abused children, too. Again, you have to get the book! You just have to read it!

I always have 4-6 books on a string at a time, and I float more or less freely from one to the next. The only time I put this one down for another was at bedtime, because for awhile it was rollicking enough not only to keep me awake, but to keep me awake and laughing, or shaking the mattress with suppressed gales.

The Autobiography of Mother Jones, by Mary Harris Jones, Mary Field Parton (ed), Clarence Darrow (intro) *****

autobiomotherjonesMother Jones has been called “the most dangerous woman in America”. Some refer to her as an anarchist, but in her autobiography, she denounces anarchism, though allows that these folks have their hearts in the right place. She has been called a syndicalist (which is probably closer to the truth), but the fact is that she was motivated by what she saw right there on the ground in front of her. When the Russian Revolution unfolded, she was by her own account past 90, and by the account of another biographer, in her mid-80’s, so either way, she was very, very elderly, yet she championed its achievement at the Pan-American labor conference held in Mexico:

“…a new day, a day when workers of the world would know no other boundaries than those between the exploiter and the exploited. Soviet Russia, I said, had dared to challenge the old order, had handed the earth over to those who toiled upon it, and the capitalists were quaking in their scab-made shoes.”

Jones’ career as a political organizer began shortly after she turned 30. She was a married woman, her husband an iron worker, and she stayed home with their four small children. “Yellow fever” (which I think is malaria) came and killed her whole family, and then as if that wasn’t enough, the great Chicago fire swept away her home and all her possessions.

Some would have turned to suicide. Some would have gone looking for an elderly widower to marry. Some would have gone off to find distant relatives and live with them as little more than domestic servants.

Jones reinvented herself and gave the next fifty-plus years of her life to making the world a better place.

Still clad in a widow’s black garments, she put her hair up in a chaste bun and left Mary Harris Jones behind. From this time forward, she would be “Mother Jones”. Think of it! The cinders from the American Civil War were barely cold, and women had no position in American political life, including the labor unions. Yet by becoming a mother to workers everywhere, including the women and small children laboring in mines and textile mills, she became a force to be reckoned with. It was a brilliant piece of theater, entirely sincere in its intention and in many cases successful. She was one of the most ardent champions of the 8 hour day:

“The person who believed in an eight-hour working day was an enemy of his country,a traitor, an anarchist…Feeling was bitter. The city [Chicago] was divided into two angry camps. The working people on one side–hungry, cold, jobless, fighting gunmen and policemen with their bare hands. On the other side the employers, knowing neither hunger or cold, supported by the newspapers, by the police, by all the power of the great state itself.”

When Mother speaks, people feel they should listen, and if she speaks in their better interests, they listen harder. And in the early days, at least, the boss’s goons and the local law thought twice about putting a hand on Mother. It wasn’t nice!

Later, as her impact on their wallets hardened their resolve, they would deal with her less gently. She didn’t care. She spent nights in jail when she could have left town instead. Sometimes she traveled into a coal mining enclave where every bit of property besides the public roads was owned by the mine owners. Even homes that had been rented to miners were closed to her, as was made clear enough to break almost anyone’s heart. She describes a mining family that held a union meeting at which she was present in the coal fields of Arnot, Pennsylvania. The following day the company fires and evicts the family, and “they gathered up all their earthly belongings, which weren’t much…and the sight of that wagon with the holy pictures and the sticks of furniture and the children” made the local miners so angry that they decided to strike and refuse to go back to work till their union was recognized.

The quote most well known that shows up on tee shirts, posters, and coffee mugs among the liberal and radical milieu today is knocked clean out of context, in my view. “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living” was delivered in order to get working men out of the local church, where the priest was trying to cool down the heat and persuade the coal miners to wait for a reward in heaven. “Your organization is not a praying institution,” she reminded them, “It’s a fighting institution!” She tells them to leave the church and meet in the local school, which their own tax dollars had bought. And she later tells other miners that striking is done to provide “a little bit of heaven before you die.”

From Chicago to the coal fields of West Virginia, from New Mexico to Pennsylvania, she was found among railroad men and their families, machinists, textile workers, and above all, miners. She had no use at all for union officialdom, and though she occasionally praised a senator or governor who saw the light of day and called off the hounds of vengeance so that unions could be organized and the workers represented, more often than not she saw them as perfidious and untrustworthy.

When Eugene Debs became a candidate for U.S. president, she embraced his campaign, though she stayed among the workers, which I think was the correct thing to do. But when Debs comes to speak to coal miners and the union officialdom wants to meet his train quietly with a few representatives, Jones proposes all the union members go to greet him. They stampede down to the train, leap over the railings, and lift Debs onto their shoulders, she says, shouting, “Debs is here! Debs is here!”

I could have been finished with this slender volume quite quickly if I hadn’t been making notes (most of which, as usual, I cannot fit into my review, but then I should leave you some choice tidbits to find for yourself, and there are still many of them!) The chapters are brief, and so the book can be read just a few minutes at a time. And the introduction is written by one no less auspicious than Clarence Darrow himself.

You may look at the price and wonder whether you should pay that price for this slender little volume. The answer is, oh hell yes. Please remember that the words of the woman herself are worth twice as many from some armchair hack who wants to pick it apart and wonder whether she was really 83 or 85 at such-and-such moment? Spare yourself the blather and go straight to the primary source. It’s worth double the cover price!