Love Is Loud: How Diane Nash Led the Civil Rights Movement****

Just in time for Dr. King’s birthday! This lovely biography by Sandra Neil Wallace introduces a little-known leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Diane Nash. Nash fought for equal rights for people of color, and had a significant part in the changes that were won.

My thanks go to Simon and Schuster for the copy I received for review purposes. This book is for sale right now.

Most of us have never heard of Nash, who was active during a time when Black people and women were sometimes overlooked, and at other times, excluded in historical narratives. She grew up in the South side of Chicago, where there were many skin colors and cultures, but not many Caucasian people. It was when she went to college in Nashville that she gained firsthand experience of Jim Crow laws, which required separate (and generally inferior) facilities for African-Americans. And Diane was having none of it.

This sumptuously illustrated picture book details the key stages of her development and achievements. My one concern is with the references to “love” in the title and text which are never explained. Is the love in reference to her religion, a philosophy, or something else? The word is thrown in there several times with no context at all. If her mission was to bring change about using nonviolent methods, as Dr. King chose to do and encouraged others to do as well, it is not mentioned. Did she see Gandhi as a role model? We aren’t told. Instead, it appears that the word is injected to sanitize, to offset the word “fight,” perhaps because this story is written for young people. But children aren’t stupid, and without any cohesive portrayal of Nash’s character and underlying motivation, I fear they may forget her. Literature has power, and so although I am glad to see Nash introduced to young people, the effect is diluted when proper character development—which is necessary, even in a children’s picture book—is not provided.

That said, the literacy level is perfect for upper elementary students, and would also make a fine read-aloud for a teacher to frame a single lesson around. It would also be first rate for a sub plan, and teachers know that’s something we always need on hand.

Bryan Collier is the illustrator, and his artwork fills every inch of every page, with the text superimposed on top of it. This is lush, gorgeous work that elevates the story with its presence.

Recommended for classrooms, libraries, and to parents and other guardians of children in grades 4, 5, and 6.

The Black Cabinet, by Jill Watts***-****

3.5 stars, rounded upward.

The premise sounds exciting: a cabinet consisting of African-American luminaries that advised Franklin D. Roosevelt, widely regarded as the best president the U.S. has ever had; well, as far as white folks went, anyway. Wouldn’t it be cool if he had Black advisors, even if it was kept away from the public eye?

It would have been cool, except mostly, he didn’t. Not really.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Grove Atlantic for the review copy. This book is for sale now; in fact, it’s been for sale for a long time. I’m very late with this review, because I was very late finishing the book, because it depressed me so deeply that I couldn’t face it.

Watts is a fine writer and has done the research. The issue for me is that this cabinet, which consisted of outstanding academics and other highly respected Black professionals, had incredibly little clout. They were kept secret. They were unofficial. And it sounds as though FDR tolerated them more than he appreciated them. Despite all of their labor and their eloquence, the New Deal left people of color standing in the rain without an umbrella.

The 1930s were a dreadful time for African-Americans, to be sure. The Jim Crow stranglehold on the South, along with less formal, mostly uncodified discrimination in the North, made it more or less impossible for most bright young Black men to make any headway in their chosen professions, apart from within the Black community (and for Black women? Fuhgeddaboudit.) So, it made my heart sing to learn that there was this exceptional group that advised FDR; but actually, they got crumbs off the president’s table. It makes me a little bit ill to see that this huge study turned up so very little.

For those still interested: there it is.

Elvis and Me, by Priscilla Presley****

Priscilla Presley is the ex-wife of the king of Rock and Roll. I was a teenager when he died, and neither I nor most of my peers were fans; in the event his name did come up, we’d invariably ask, “Wait. Do you mean young hot Elvis, or old pudgy Elvis?” But I do love a good memoir, and those written by or about musicians are high on my list. My thanks go to Net Galley and Macmillan Audio for the review copy. This audio version of the author’s 1985 memoir is for sale now.

The relationship between Priscilla and Elvis took place in a completely different time, with completely different sexual mores and assumptions. That said, this was still a truly messed up pairing. Today, Elvis would probably be considered a predator, but within the context of the American South in the 1950s and early 1960s, he was regarded as a romantic, and women threw themselves at his feet. A quick online peek at old film and television clippings says it all.

Priscilla grew up in a strict but loving household. Her stepfather, the only father she knew, since her own died when she was an infant, was a military man, and so the family moved often. It was while they were stationed in Germany that one of Elvis’s employees saw Priscilla and invited her to meet with Elvis, who was doing his own tour of duty.

I have to feel for the bind her parents were in. On the one hand, she was just fourteen years old, and Presley was twenty-four, a grown man. On the other hand, if they refused to let her go, she would never have forgiven them; this was an invitation that literally millions of girls yearned for. Seeking a happy medium, her stepdad set boundaries: they were to be chaperoned, never alone together, and he wanted her home at a certain time. He groused about the fact that someone other than Elvis would be transporting her, but the reason was a legitimate one: Elvis could not drive himself anywhere without the car being mobbed. It was genuinely unsafe.

Rather than being the single event that the family anticipated, Elvis made their visits regular ones; when her parents balked, Elvis spoke to them personally, turning all of his charismatic charm on them, and telling them everything they wanted to hear. Most of it was untrue, of course, but the one thing he adhered to was not having sexual intercourse. During this time period, the Madonna-Whore dichotomy was alive and well, and any girl or woman known to have sex outside of marriage was likely to be ostracized by former friends and in some cases, family. It’s hard to imagine now, but at that time, no birth control pill had been invented, and a pregnancy outside of marriage was likely to ruin a young woman’s entire life.

Priscilla reads this memoir to us herself, and that makes it much more fun to hear. As we age our faces and our bodies change a lot, but our speaking voices change very little. Remembering some of the silly moments from that time, the author lets out a brief, girlish giggle, and it’s almost impossible to believe that she is now a grandmother.

Priscilla acknowledges that this was a monstrously unequal relationship. Elvis dictated whom she could talk to, what she wore, and sometimes even what room in the house she was supposed to be in. At one point, when he is going to be touring for months on end and she will be left at home with his grandmother, she goes out and gets a job. She’s so proud of herself. He makes her quit immediately. When he phones from the road, she had by God better be there. Priscilla compares this to Pygmalion. He has all the power, and she is in his thrall before she has even had a chance to grow up.

I have read two other Elvis biographies, and as dreadful as all of this sounds, the other authors were less gentle. In fact, this is part of Priscilla’s stated reason for deciding to tell her own story.

There are advantages to reading this particular biography. The official version of events is often what is published, but Priscilla is positioned to know the real story, more often than not. For example: when Elvis is drafted, the official story is that, although stars of his caliber are often offered soft assignments that involve singing to the troops, or making inspirational training films, Elvis insisted on doing the same job as every other American man.  On the other hand, Priscilla states that this is all his manager’s doing, because it will make Elvis appear noble. Enough new songs were taped in advance for there to be regular new releases on the radio throughout his tour of duty; toward the end, Elvis feigns illness because he’d prefer to be in the hospital being swarmed by nurses than marching around and getting dirty.

Her memory of Elvis, despite everything he put her through, is mostly a tender one. The spiral that led to his death, his issues with mental health, back before much was known, coupled with the immense number of strong prescription drugs he used to wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night—or to NOT go to sleep at all, and just stay up, night after night—set him up for relationships with unscrupulous characters, and nobody could rein him in, because he was the King.

Recommended to those that like vintage rock music or well-written memoirs of famous musicians.

Scorpions Dance, by Jefferson Morley****

The Watergate burglary’s fiftieth anniversary has passed, and Jefferson Morley, a longtime journalist and political biographer, has written a history of that event; the focus is Richard Helms, the man that ran the CIA and had to walk a tightrope between the demands of President Richard Nixon, and what best served the CIA. This book is for sale now.

If you are searching for just one book to read about the Watergate debacle and/or Nixon, this isn’t it. However, if you are a hardcore Nixon buff, as I am, or if you are a researcher, looking for specific information for academic study, you can hardly do better.

My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the invitation to read and review.

Helms was a slick operator, walking a tightrope as he sought to protect the reputation of the agency while maintaining cordial relations with Nixon and those around him. For some of this, there’s a heavy irony involved here; how can anybody ever make the CIA look less than sleazy? But of course, leftists like me are not the ones Helms wanted to impress in the first place.

As the administration sought to damage political enemies that might prevent Nixon’s reelection for a second term, its shady dealings—hiring thugs to ransack a psychiatrist’s office in search for dirt on an opponent, and planting bugs in the office of the Democratic Party in the Watergate Hotel—proved to be the president’s undoing.

Two of the ugly characters in service to Nixon were in charge, for example, of interviewing candidates for a “riot squad” of counterdemonstrators to oppose the anticipated throngs of antiwar demonstrators that were anticipated in Washington. “One of them was Frank Sturgis, whose reputation for violence preceded him. ‘The men were exactly what I was looking for,’ Liddy rumbled in Will, his best-selling memoir. ‘Tough, experienced and loyal. Hunt and I interviewed about a dozen men. Afterward Howard told me that between them they had killed twenty-two men, including two hanged from a beam in the garage.’”

The burglaries had too many moving parts to be kept completely under wraps, and consequently, the president and his top advisors were soon looking for scapegoats below themselves, men that could be packed off to prison while the country regained confidence in the administration that had supposedly brought them to justice. At one point, they had Helms in their sights as a possible fall guy, and the former CIA director, McCord, who was retired, caught wind of this and was having none of it. In a letter, he said, “If Helms goes and the Watergate operation is laid at the feet of the CIA where it does not belong, every tree in the forest will fall. It will be a scorched desert. The whole matter is at the precipice now.”

There are moments when I wonder if the ghost of Richard Nixon haunts the White House, cackling with glee to see a former president in far more trouble today than he himself experienced when he was there. Who knows what the old dog would have thought about the political machinations unfurling today?

Morley has a conversational narrative tone that works wonders. Because I had fallen behind, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and narrator John Pruden does a fine job bringing it to life. But the most impressive aspect of this book is the research behind it, with treasure troves of primary documents and brilliant integration of data from multitudinous places. The endnotes are impeccable, enabling other researchers to trace back the facts to their original sources if they need or desire it.

For a niche readership of researchers, this is a five star work, but I suspect most interested parties will be of a more widespread readership; for them, this is still a fine read at four stars. Most satisfying.

The Road Less Traveled, by Philip Zelikow***

Is this going to be on the test?

My thanks go to Net Galley and Public Affairs for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

I am initially drawn to this title when I see the subtitle—an opportunity to make an early peace that went unanswered—and I also want to read more about World War I. I love military history, and am sick to death of World War II material, so this felt like it might be a breath of fresh air.

Or not.

There is no doubt that Zelikow knows his field, and his research is above reproach. Students and researchers may find this book useful, albeit with a careful eye toward a very conservative point of view that affects his analysis. However, for those of us just in it for the joy of learning, I must caution that this is a slog. I read the first half in the digital format I was given, and after publication, I also availed myself of the audio version available at Seattle Bibliocommons, and it’s difficult to focus on either for long at a time, because it’s just Zzzzzzzz

Oh, I’m sorry! Was that me? Let me try again. The research is splendid; the analysis is reactionary; the presentation is a little zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

I might have spared myself some frustration had I researched the author. Once I was able to focus long enough to get a feel for his political leanings, I ran a brief Google search, and discovered he’d been with the U.S. State Department under the Reagan and Bush administrations.

Oh.

At this point, you know enough to decide whether you want to read this thing. If you have a strong interest in the topic and aren’t squeamish about drawing information from the far right, then this is your book. Not mine, though.

Blood and Treasure, by Tom Clavin*****

Daniel Boone’s story is legendary, but few of us know any of the particulars of his life and achievements, beyond the forging of the Cumberland Gap. When I saw this book, I leapt at the chance to read it. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

Boone’s life is often held up as a testament to what an individual can accomplish if he is hardworking and determined; yet though he was both of those things, this bit of lore is also partly myth. Boone is born into a well-to-do family, pioneers to be certain, but not ones forced to build fortunes from scratch. After parting ways with the Quakers in Pennsylvania, the family moves south.  Daniel is in love with the wilderness, and his physical strength, health, and stamina, combined with courage, resourcefulness, and a capacity to think on his feet make him a natural born explorer. He is an excellent hunter, and so he makes his living by selling animal pelts; also, it turns out that bears are delicious. (Sorry, Smokey.) But as others move westward, the game begins to dry up, and so he moves further westward than anybody else.

Boone is renowned as an Indian fighter, but the truth is complicated, and it’s political. There were a great many tribes involved, and often as not they were enemies with one another, at least in the beginning. In some cases, land was sold by a tribe that actually had no claim to it in the first place. This explodes the notion taught to us as children, that the Native peoples found the notion of selling land incomprehensible because of its sacredness; we see one tribe for whom this is true, but there were plenty of instances where a treaty was knowingly made, yet other factors also made it unenforceable. Most of all, Caucasian Americans failed to understand the lack of a top down decision-making structure within the tribes, and so often a chief or other leader would sign, but others within his tribe weren’t bound by his individual decision.

Then too, there’s the little matter of the American Revolution. Alliances are constantly made and broken, involving the British, French, Spanish, and Patriots. At one point, Boone loses his considerable acreage because his land is granted him by the Spanish, but the Louisiana Purchase renders his title null and void.

But it is the detailed recounting of Boone’s explorations (almost never alone, except in an emergency, so there goes the myth of the rugged individual) that makes this book fascinating. The scrapes he gets into, and how he gets out of them; the harrowing fates that befall those around him. He is captured and escapes multiple times.  And although the women in his life get little ink, my heart goes out to Rebecca, his wife, who is left alone with the younger children for months and months on end, often without any idea as to where his travels have taken him, and whether he’s coming back. There are so many ways to die out there, and it’s not like anyone can send her a telegram to let her know if everyone is killed. At one point, she gives him up for dead, and when he finally shows up, she is pregnant, and the baby cannot be his! She tells him that she believed herself a widow, and so she turned to his brother; Boone decides this is understandable, since that’s pretty much what widows are expected to do, and since his brother looks like him, it won’t be obvious to others that he isn’t the father.

Even more interesting, however, is his daughter, Jemima. Her strength and cunning in dangerous circumstances—particularly when she is kidnapped and plays a part in her own rescue—make me wish she had her own biography. Were gender roles not so restrictive, she would have made an outstanding lieutenant, and perhaps successor to her father.

I initially didn’t believe I could give this work a five star rating, because the sources provided aren’t well integrated, and Clavin has relied tremendously on one source, a biography written long ago by Draper. But after I read the endnotes, I realized that even if he had been merely rewriting Draper’s book for a modern audience, it would be a great service. The social and political perspectives dominant when Draper’s book was written would make most of us blanch today, particularly with regard to race and gender, and yet, Draper did a masterful job with research, extensively reviewing Boone’s family and others still living at the time. I came away convinced that Clavin knows his subject well, and though I taught American history and government for decades, I learned a great deal from this one nifty book.

Highly recommended.

The Eagle’s Claw, by Jeff Shaara*****

Shaara is one of my favorite authors, and so I was delighted when I received an invitation to read and review. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine; this book is for sale now.

Like everyone else, I bring my own experiences and biases to this novel, and this one is a potential hot potato. I am married to a Japanese citizen, and my in-laws still reside in Japan. The implicit, and at times overt racism that many authors bring to this topic—the Pacific theater of World War II, between the U.S. and Japan—ruins my mood for days, and consequently, I won’t even go near most nonfiction or historical fiction that focuses on this aspect of American history. When Shaara published To Wake the Giant, I signed on to read and review with great trepidation; I was afraid that I would not only hate the book, but emerge from it unhappy enough to abandon the author entirely. Imagine my delight when I found the opposite was true.

Shaara’s signature format is to portray the events that unfold through the eyes of key participants, delivering staggered narratives that include admirals and pilots on both sides as well as a code breaker on the American side. Shaara sticks to the truth, and by now I know this, so I’m not distracted by the need to fact check information that is new to me. His research and attention to detail is matchless, and his capacity to develop characters on the page makes me feel I would know these men if I ran into them on the street. My review copy, sadly, did not have the maps added, merely noting on what pages they would later be added; however, I once more defer to this author’s track record. I would bet my last dollar that the maps are also excellent.

One aspect that is usually a deal breaker for me is the frequent use of the period’s predominant racist slur, when Americans mention the Japanese. There are three syllables in this word, and they should be used. For those that plead that the one syllable word is authentic to the time and place, I would invite them to imagine a similar tale featuring a hypothetical African enemy during the same time period. What would be the expected, authentic term by which Caucasian Americans would refer to such enemy combatants, and to the government from which they hail? For the obtuse, I’ll tell you, it would be the N word. So would you just go ahead and drop it in there for the sake of accuracy, or would you use greater sensitivity and explain the alteration in an author’s note? You’d do the latter. Of course you would. In fact, likely it would be the only way your novel would see the light of day, and rightly so.

But here as well, Shaara gets a pass from this reviewer despite his use of the term I abhor, and the reason is his candor, addressing the racism of the time period right up front. Though you might think it obvious, I have never seen a successful author of World War II historical fiction do this, and he is absolutely clear about it. In fact, I began highlighting the introduction—don’t skip it! And when it was done, I found I had highlighted nearly all of it.

Whether you are drawn to this book from a love of history and the desire to learn a few things painlessly, or for the escapist entertainment that great novels provide, you can’t go wrong here. This is a damn fine book. I highly recommend it to everyone.

The Dead Are Arising, by Les Payne*

I haven’t been this disappointed in a long time. From the moment I saw this book listed on Net Galley, I was eager to read it, given that the promotion promises a lot of new information about this courageous man, a powerful advocate for the rights of people of color. When I didn’t receive a galley, I awaited the book’s release, and I went out and bought it. Less than halfway into it, I was absolutely sickened.

For starters, not all new information is important or necessary information. There’s a lot of minutiae here, as well as a fair amount of Black History 101 material, interesting to those unfamiliar with the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow, Northern red-lining practices, and so forth, but a real snore for those of us already steeped in these things. But beyond that—and one could argue that these historical basics are necessary inclusions for a lot of readers—Paine goes to a great deal of trouble to destroy Malcolm’s legacy.

Academics do this sometimes, and surely it’s no coincidence that the top three examples that come to mind are all biographies of African-Americans that fought for their rights, and aren’t alive now to object to what is being said about them. (In addition to Malcolm, recent biographies of Frederick Douglass and Muhammad Ali come to mind, the latter two slandered by two different authors.) Picking through the tiny, often insignificant details of their lives and combing through their speeches and writing, these authors go to great pains to “expose” small details that conflict with one another, or other signs of inconsistency, with the clear implication that the subject was a liar and a fraud.

For shame!  

Let’s talk about that for a minute. I am a grandmother myself, and I can think of important aspects of my life, especially my younger years, for which my own motivations were and are complicated, and if asked about them I am sure I would have given different answers in my twenties, my thirties, and so on. Our own thoughts and motives have a lot of layers. Perhaps we become more insightful later in life, or perhaps our memories are no longer as sharp as we believe them to be. But because we are not famous, or notorious, depending upon points of view, we are unlikely to have some academic interviewing everyone that ever fucking knew us, or combing through every speck of written documentation we leave behind us, searching for all possible details that may bring our integrity and veracity into question.

For me, it matters very little whether Malcolm’s early life was exactly as he told it. It is his ideas, and his courage in expressing them, that made him a legend, and that’s what I look for in his biography. In the 1960s, almost no African-American (or colored, as they preferred to be called during that period,) Civil Rights advocates dared to come right out and say that Black people were not only as good, but in some cases better than Caucasians. And it is Malcolm’s political evolution during the last year of his life, the time when he broke with the Nation of Islam and embraced a working class perspective that included fighters of every race, that galvanizes me. Malcolm raised a powerful voice in opposition to the U.S. war against the Vietnamese people, quipping after President Kennedy’s assassination that it was a case of “chickens coming home to roost.”

This takedown of an iconic Civil Rights warrior is shabby in every sense. For those interested in Malcolm’s political and social evolution, I recommend the book titled Malcolm X: The Last Speeches. Usually, the best way to learn about someone is to see what they themselves had to say. In this case it’s doubly true.

I don’t recommend this book to anyone.

The Children’s Blizzard, by Melanie Benjamin****

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy, and to Seattle Bibliocommons for the audio version when I realized I was running behind. This book is for sale now.

I wanted to read this novel because it is different from everything else in my queue. I have a history degree and have taught American history, but I’d never heard of the Children’s Blizzard, which was real. The story is set mostly in and around “Godforsaken Omaha,” and I seldom see fiction set in Nebraska, so that is also interesting.

But once I had the book, I had second thoughts. Here we were, in the midst of this miserable, frightening pandemic, and for the first time ever, I wasn’t able to host my family for Christmas; I couldn’t see my grown children or tiny grandchildren in person…and I was going to read a book where small children froze to death in the snow? What exactly had I been thinking of, to request such a book? And so I shuffled it onto the back burner.

Then I saw that my online friends had liked it, and so with a deep breath, I pulled out my review copy, turned on the audio copy and began. And my friends were right; this is a good story.

The thing that makes the difference is that the blizzard is done before the story is even halfway over! I had envisioned slow, agonizing deaths that would take up the whole novel, and that isn’t what Benjamin does at all. While the deaths are indeed sad, she doesn’t draw them out gratuitously—and not everybody dies. Instead, the story is primarily about the aftermath, the way that these Scandinavian settlers respond to what has occurred, and the role of the ambitious reporter that covers the tragedy.

Benjamin does a fine job developing the characters, primarily the women involved, and I especially appreciate her unsentimental approach. Friends, if you ever find yourself feeling starry-eyed about the distant past, wishing things were simpler and done as they were long ago, this book will snap you out of it quickly. Believe it.

I recommend The Children’s Blizzard to those that enjoy historical fiction, and I especially recommend the audio book to you. The reader does a nice job of incorporating a Scandinavian accent without overdoing it, and it makes it easier to relate to the characters. I enjoyed it, and would happily read Benjamin’s work in the future.

Celebrate Women’s History Month With This Terrific New Release

I reviewed this excellent novel in January, based on a true story of American women that travel to France to help civilians during World War I. If you haven’t checked it out, have a look by clicking the link below the picture.