Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954 – 63 by Taylor Branch

Parting the Waters

1988. Simon & Schuster. Hardcover. 924 pages (1064 pages including notes and index)

From: Borrowed from a friend

Review:

Parting the Waters is the first of a trilogy covering the Civil Rights era in the United States. After a couple of biographical chapters about Martin Luther King Jr.’s early life and influences, the book really kicks into gear with a vivid description of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Later chapters cover the Freedom Rides, the sit-ins, and the voter registration campaigns. The book concludes with the famous March on Washington, followed by the bomb at Birmingham 16th Street Baptist that killed four young girls, and the assassination of JFK.

In an earlier post on this book, I wrote that this book has helped me better understand my own country. Echoing others’ reviews that I’ve read on Goodreads, I feel like my understanding of the Civil Rights era had been shallow until I read this book. In my previous understanding, the Civil Rights revolution had the air of inevitability. After reading Parting the Waters, I am stunned by what the Civil Rights activists were able to achieve. Many people told these activists that they were trying to enact change too fast, or that there could never be a desegregated America. I’m so glad they didn’t listen; I’m so glad people like Martin Luther King Jr., Bob Moses, Septima Clark, Diane Nash, John Lewis, John Doar, Bayard Rustin, and countless others persevered. They were ignored or misunderstood by the media; they faced internal divisons; they were persecuted financially and legally; some were beaten and some were killed.

Branch won the Pulitzer prize for History with this book. It’s indeed a marvelous work. Thanks to his extensive research and interviews, Branch is able to provide tremendous detail to this historical narrative. What people said and how they felt is recounted, and I was towed along emotionally through all of the outrage and discouragement, as well as the joy and the inspiration.

Some moments that flash to mind from this book that I did not include in my earlier posts:

Group of student strikers

Students named in the initial suit. Photo taken for Life by Hank Walker in 1953.

- At a school assembly in 1951 Virginia, 16-year-old Barbara Johns led her fellow students to walk out of their school to protest of its poor condition,  contacted NAACP lawyers, and shamed the adults into their cause. “When the skeptical lawyers said that the NAACP could not sue for better Negro schools – only for completely integrated ones – the students paused but briefly over this dizzying prospect before shouting their approval” (p. 20). Their case would eventually go to the U.S. Supreme Court as part of Brown v. Board of Education.

William Lewis Moore holding a sign that says "End Segregation in America. Black or White Eat at Joe's"

William Lewis Moore

- In 1963, a white postal worker named William Lewis Moore decided to walk from Chattanooga to Mississippi wearing signboards calling for an end to segregation. He was later found dead on the side of U.S. Highway 11 near Attala, Mississippi, with two gunshots to the head. There was “press discussion about whether the childlike postman had been crazier or saner than the accepted world” (p. 750). Several protest marches were undertaken in his name.

- During the Birmingham movement of 1963, the Ku Klux Klan bombed Reverend A.D. King’s home (younger brother of MLK) and the A.G. Gaston Motel where many civil rights leaders had rooms. A riot ensued in the aftermath. As leaders preached nonviolence and the police attempted to assert control, radio reporters captured a black man’s voice shouting, “How come we have to go home every time they start violence?” (p. 795).

- Similar theme: a week after the Birmingham church bombing that killed the four young girls, author James Baldwin expressed his impatience with nonviolence, saying that in all American history, “the only time that nonviolence has been admired is when the Negroes practice it” (p. 896).

Later in 1963, Assistant Director William Sullivan reported to J. Edgar Hoover that there was little or no Communist involvement in the March on Washington. Hoover refused to accept the report as true and Sullivan consequently scrambled to save his career by reversing that assessment. A short time later, Robert Kennedy approved the FBI’s request to set a wiretap on Martin Luther King Jr.’s home.

—————–

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to gain a deeper insight into American history. If the size proves too daunting, you may want to consider Taylor Branch’s recently issued book The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement which is a compilation of excerpts from the America in the King Years trilogy but also apparently includes new passages. From reviews on Goodreads, it sounds like it is a decent book; at 224 pages, it constitutes a small taste of Branch’s epic history.

Links to my earlier posts:

Things I Didn’t Know about the Mongtomery Bus Boycott

“Baptism on Wheels” – reading about the Freedom Rides

The Albany Movement 1962: Much struggle, little justice

 

Excerpts from others’ reviews of Parting the Waters:

Alison from Goodreads – “ At times it feels overdone, until you’re recounting stories from the era like you were there.”

Clif from Goodreads – “From any perspective, Parting of the Waters is a masterpiece. Branch doesn’t let a person come into the story without a lively introduction including the character traits that will help the reader keep track of one person among so many that stand out during the years described.

David of Goodreads – “Branch also narrates events such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Freedom Rides with the you-are-there immediacy of an eyewitness reporter and the eye for detail of a novelist.

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April update: TBR challenge, bad books, inspirational people, and movie talk

The Triple Dog Dare TBR Challenge finished in March. Readers committing to the challenge are supposed to only read books from their own shelves for three months. Although I was perhaps not faithful to the letter of the rules, I do consider the challenge a success for me. My personal goal had been to keep the library books out of my house so I could focus on my own books, and more importantly, focus on the interesting but hefty history book I had borrowed from a friend. Hefty book is now 96% done (thanks Goodreads for the stat), so success! I did read a few of my own books as well – finally getting around to Into Thin Air, for example. I hope to be more moderate in my library borrowing this year, so I can read even more books from my own shelves.

Bad Books

The one exception to my hiatus from library books was to enable a joint reading experience with my friend/co-worker Kim. Inspired by The Millions post, “”Dumbest Thing Ever”: Scribbling in the Margins of Dan Brown’s Inferno”, we decided to take a similar approach to Becca Fitzpatrick’s YA paranormal book, Hush Hush. This book has an average 4-star rating on Goodreads, but has also been spectacularly panned by such bloggers as Raych at books i done read, who read it on a dare, and Ana at Book Smugglers. Since we borrowed our copies from the library, we couldn’t write on the pages like the author of the Millions post. So we armed ourselves with post-its and went to town.

Book text: [We] parked alongside the historic Topsham paper mill sitting on the bank of the Androscoggin River." Post-it: "Somebody was paging through the Maine Gazetteer." Scribbled above first post-it comment: "HA!"

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From book: "I went upstairs and pulled on a snug white cashmere sweater, dark jeans, and navy blue driving moccasins." First post-it: "What are driving moccasins??" Second post-it: "Schmidt on New Girl has had to put $ in the d-bag jar for wearing driving moccasins."

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From book: "I looked from the can to Patch. Just because my blood warmed at the thought of putting my mouth where his had been didn't mean I had to tell him." First post-it: "Who gets turned on by drinking from the same soda can? ew gross." Second post-it: "I have not been 16 in a few years, but I'm certain this is not a common blood warmer."

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Book text: "I was sixteen and could decide when and why I left the house." Post-it on book: "16!? Oh no she better don't!" - Rupaul

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Since we explicitly picked up the book to hate-read it, I’m not going to give it a real review. Judging from a few of the comments on The Millions post, not everyone understands the pleasure of being snarky with a bad book, but we had a great time with it. Our next book will actually be a sincere choice: Where’d You Go, Bernadette, but I would be totally game for a another future snarkfest, so feel free to throw any suggestions of suitable bad books in the comments.

Inspirational People

To get a little more serious, I had the pleasure of hearing two inspirational authors speak last week. The first, David Weinberger, is the author of the books Everything is Miscellaneous and Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room is the Room. I am in the middle of Too Big to Know, and it’s doing a good job of getting the wheels turning in my mind as far as professional implications.

The second author I heard speak last week was Matthew Vines, author of the upcoming book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. Vines spoke at my church about his journey, and about the goal of his book and of The Reformation Project, the non-profit he founded in the last couple years. I had the privilege of participating in a study with one of the Reformation Project leaders last fall, so I was very excited to meet Vines. Only 24 years old, he impressed me with his vision and his compassionate heart for all people. Although I am not a LGBT person, much of what Vines said resonated with me, as I also grew up in a non-affirming evangelical church community. I also was struck by how careful he was with Biblical interpretation. For example, a teenager in the audience asked him if there were any pro-homosexual verses in the Bible, and Vines said no there wasn’t, and it would be a mistake to try to claim that it did. Rather, to put it very very simply, the Bible is silent on committed same-sex relationships because that concept and the concept of sexual orientation just didn’t exist at the time the Biblical texts were written. So we must take our response to same-sex relationships from the Biblical values of love and equality. I’m really looking forward to reading Vines’ book, which will be released by Random House on April 22nd.

Movie Talk

In other news, I went to the movies three times in March, which was unusual for me. I saw and loved the Veronica Mars movie (with my friend and fellow Kickstarter contributer, Darcy). I highly enjoyed and was touched by Wes Andersen’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. One of the narrating characters is an author, and the movie struck a note of familiarity, as if I’d previously read a book in the same genre as the central tale of the film. The other movie I saw was Divergent and it was better than I expected it would be (I was a so-so fan of the book.) I wasn’t surprised by Shailene Woodley’s ability to carry the film, as she was wonderful in the Descendants and The Spectacular Now. Poor Kate Winslet got the worst of the dialogue, all expository and no fun. The soundtrack was very heavy on Ellie Goulding, who I generally enjoy, though I find it jarring to have familiar songs scoring a future dystopia. That said, the filmmakers’ were savvy to use Woodkid’s “Run Boy Run,” one of the most naturally cinematic pop songs I’ve ever come across. Since I’m not among the book’s biggest fans, I had few bones to pick with the film adaptation. I will say, however, that I wondered at the movie’s downplaying the deadly nature of the Dauntless initiation. I’m pretty sure that in the book a kid died trying to make that jump from the train to the roof. Also someone in the book got stabbed in the eye during the training section of the story.

Anyway, that’s all for now. Hopefully April and May will see some more book reviews from me. Until then, happy reading!

 

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An Interlude on TV Shows

Like many other book bloggers, my love of story is not confined to the written page. I thought I’d share some thoughts about TV shows I’ve watched in the past few months.

Shows I’ve enjoyed:

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (2012 – )

Dot (Ashleigh Cummings) and Miss Fisher (Essie Davis)

Dot (Ashleigh Cummings) and Miss Fisher (Essie Davis)

Saw this in my Netflix Recommendations, but was compelled to watch based on the praise of NPR’s Linda Holmes. It’s an Australian series set in 1920′s Melbourne, and has the costume appeal of Downton Abbey, while featuring a saucy feminist “lady-detective” Miss Phryne Fisher (played by Essie Davis). And book connection! The show is based on a book series written by Kerry Greenwood.

I’ve only seen Series One, which is available on Netflix Instant, and I can’t wait until Series Two. It’s refreshing to watch a show which features a single woman over 40 (not sure Phryne’s age actually, but that’s the actress’ age). And while there is a will-they-won’t-they vibe between Miss Fisher and Detective Jack Robinson (Nathan Page), it doesn’t overly dominate the screentime. As a viewer, I especially delighted in Phryne’s friendship with her Catholic maid, Dot (played by the adorable Ashleigh Cummings). At times, the fact that Phryne is always on the right side of social issues threatens to make her a little too much the rough saint, but even she is sometimes brought up short by others. In one episode, for example, when Phryne observes to a female suspect that she did not seem to be distressed at the death of her bookshop patron, the woman responds, “Because I didn’t break down in tears and bare my soul? How could you begin to know how I’m feeling?”

Anyway, I highly recommend the show if any of the above is pinging your sensibilities!

Terriers (2010)

Terriers

Terriers belongs to that club of shows the internet calls “Brilliant but Canceled”.  Many have opined that the title contributed to the demise, because it’s not about dogs, though there is a dog, but that dog is not a terrier (it’s a bulldog). Even for viewers who looked beyond the title, the premise may not have sounded very original at first glance: it’s “about” two (unlicensed) private investigators Hank (Donal Logue) and Britt (Micheal Raymond-James) who look into cases in Ocean Beach, California. The special sauce of Terriers is in its nuanced characterization and the fact that the plot is driven by characters rather than the other way around. Logue and Raymond-James are wonderful, as are actresses Kimberly Quinn and Laura Allen as Hank’s ex-wife and Britt’s girlfriend, respectively. And lest you think that the plot is perfunctory, I was genuinely surprised by some of the plot turns, both in the cases of the week and in the overarching season-long plot. I also appreciated that this is a show that doesn’t overlook consequences – Hank’s overreach in one episode will turn up to bite him near the end of the show. Anyway, superb show. I saw a Television Without Pity article that recommended it to Veronica Mars fans, and I can totally see that parallel. I saw Terriers on Netflix Instant (all my TV-watching is internet-based), and even with that availability, I’m annoyed it doesn’t have a DVD release.

The Good Wife (2009 – )

Unlike the previous two shows, this one is better known. Like Terriers, its title may hurt it some, but hey it’s at least still on the air. I’ve only seen the first two seasons, but Alicia Florrick is already one of my favorite TV characters.

Parks and Recreation (2009 – )

Possibly the only show that I keep up with as it airs (or, more accurately, when its episodes turn up in Hulu).

Call the Midwife (2012 – )

Though at times a little heavy-handed in its depiction of post-WWII social issues, I really do enjoy the humor and warmth of this show. Miranda Hart is spectacular in this.

Edited to add: Downton Abbey! I love/hate this show. It has so many wonderful quiet moments (like Branson’s friendships with his sisters-in-law), and then some storyline with Bates (the Mr. not the Mrs. – love Joanne Froggatt) will drag it down. This fourth season brought me back in love with Mary as a character, and kept me hoping in vain that something good would last for Edith.

Shows that were okay:

Bob’s Burgers – I watched the first two seasons, when I was searching for a half-hour show to watch on Netflix Instant. This show was an enjoyable way to pass the time, but I don’t have a strong feeling of attachment to it.

Lost Girl - I think I watched four or five episodes of this Sci-Fi show. I liked the character of Kenzi (the main character’s human friend), but overall I thought the writing fell flat.

New Girl – I flew right through this one at first, but as with Bob’s Burgers, there’s no strong bond there. Too much drama with Schmidt’s love interests, I think.

Show I used to love:

Doctor Who – I started watching this show in the Christopher Eccleston season, and he is still my favorite Doctor. I liked Rose and Martha, and sometimes I liked David Tennant, but sometimes I thought he was too shouty. I loathed all episodes with The Master (though I’m a fan of John Simm in other roles). I couldn’t get past the silliness of David Tennant’s finale episodes. I recently tried to revive my declining interest in Doctor Who by watching the first two Matt Smith episodes, and . . . I’m just not into it anymore. My friend has urged me to watch a few more Matt Smith episodes, which I may do, but with little optimism.

Current state of affairs:

I’m trying to decide which show to dive into next. I wish I was interested in House of Cards or The Walking Dead, because people are discussing them all around me, but I’m not. I’m thinking about rewatching my first season DVD of Friday Night Lights, and just blitzing right through to the end of the series (I watched that show when it was airing, up until the middle of the second season). There’s also the season of Freaks and Geeks – saw the pilot episode and thought it was decent. I tried two episodes of Arrow, but blah, so boring. Anyway, I’m open for show recommendations, particularly if they are on Netflix Instant.

For context, shows I’ve already seen all the way through and enjoyed: Arrested Development, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, Orange is the New Black, Slings and Arrows, Veronica Mars. I’ve also seen most of Sherlock, Community and The Office.

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Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Into_Thin_Air_Jon_Krakauer

1997. Doubleday. Mass Market Paperback. 378 pages.

In a nutshell:

In May 1996, Jon Krakauer and other climbers reached the summit of Everest. As they descended, they were hit by a storm. Krakauer was a client of Adventure Consultants Guided Expedition; two guides and two climbers of this expedition died. The head guide of another expedition also died. Into Thin Air describes the events of the expedition, mostly from Krakauer’s perspective, with added witness provided by interviews with the other surviving climbers. The book also provides the historical context behind Everest expeditions, and grapples with the controversies surrounding the commercialization of these expeditions.

Review:

Into Thin Air has been on my to-read list for a very long time, as well as Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Under the Banner of Heaven. I read it a couple of weeks ago, to pass the time while flying to Chicago and back. It was a fast read.

I am no stranger to harrowing nonfiction reads. Into Thin Air is not the emotional gut-punch of say Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun or Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Those books featured the horrors of what people can inflict on other people. But Into Thin Air is still haunting, in the way that the altitude and the blind fury of a storm isolates the climbers and circumvents their ability to help themselves and help each other. The altitude dulled their minds just when they needed to be the most focused, causing climbers to become dangerously confused and others slow to recognize a climber in trouble. The storm kept climbers in shelter from being able to search for the climbers who were lost just outside the camp. I was particularly haunted by the story of Beck Weathers, who was left for dead by the others, but managed to survive anyway.

Into Thin Air first existed as an article published in Outside magazine (which I was unable to find online). The article upset some people close to the story; it turned out that Krakauer was wrong about the circumstances about one of the guide’s death. The book corrected the earlier account, but was still controversial. In both article and book, Krakauer attempted to describe some of the mistakes that led to the deaths of the climbers. When I read Into Thin Air, I thought Krakauer came across as even-handed, as he pointed out the pitfalls of commercialization without demonizing the guides and clients who participated in the enterprise. He also pointed out his own mistakes during the expedition.

However, a relative of one of the deceased climbers wrote an excoriating letter to the magazine in response to the original article. The book includes her letter. While I want to give latitude to a grieving relative, she goes too far in her implication that Krakauer was a coward for taking shelter in his tent during the storm. I’m sorry, but if you’re not a guide and you’ve just hiked the highest mountain in the world, it seems a prudent action to then return to camp and go to sleep. That is not an act of cowardice. I’ve seen this criticism repeated in reviews on goodreads too, and it seems to boil out of another controversial aspect of Into Thin Air: Krakauer’s criticism of Anatoli Boukreev.

Boukreev was one of the guides for a different expedition, Mountain Madness (head guide was Scott Fischer, one of the fatalities of the disaster). Boukreev reached the summit of Everest and returned to Camp Four before several of the Mountain Madness clients made it back. Several of them ran into trouble (along with clients of Adventure Consultants) and got lost in the storm. Boukreev later rescued them. Krakauer intimates that Boukreev failed to do his job as a guide by returning to Camp Four faster than the clients of his expedition. In response, Boukreev co-wrote a book called The Climb where he presents his side of the story, and how his decisions helped him rescue the clients in trouble. Boukreev later died in an avalanche on Annapurna in 1997.

I haven’t read The Climb and in any case it would be ludicrous for me to try and assert my own judgment on what happened. But I bristle at the tone of some of the reviews I’ve seen of the Climb where reviewers disdainfully judge Krakauer for being a journalist and thus his word cannot stand against Boukreev who was a real mountaineer.

And several reviewers seem to misguidedly correlate Boukreev’s credibility to the fact that he saved the lives of several people and Krakauer did not (again the implication of cowardice). Displaying great courage does not mean one has the monopoly on the truth. In this light, I was appreciative of more even-keeled reviews like those of an Eric_W who said: “I have no way to judge the authenticity of either story, but common sense would seem to dictate that both could be right since they are both very personal stories told by the participants, all of whom were under an enormous amount of stress and whose perspective will naturally have been shaped by their very limited personal view of events.”

People continue to die on Mount Everest every year, and the ethics of such endeavors continue to be complicated. I don’t feel outraged about the loss of life, since all who climb Mount Everest choose to be there and know the risks. I may be sad for their deaths, but not outraged. There’s nothing necessary about climbing Mount Everest. I also think it’s a shame that the mountain is getting trashed as a byproduct of human ambition. (Krakauer mentions the trash in the book as well.)

I’m glad I finally read one of Krakauer’s books, and will continue with my plans to someday read the other two books I mentioned at the start of the review.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

At Home with Books – “It takes a while for the pace of the book to pick up, since he is very thorough in giving background information about all of the climbers who have important roles in the dramatic climb.  Reader’s will learn not only about the climber’s abilities and training, but also about their family life – allowing the reader to see them not only as climbers, but also as real people with friends and family who will mourn their loss.”

utter randomonium – “I’m not usually interested in sad stories, but the personality of Krakauer’s writing kept me going. The details are shared with such frankness and intimacy that I felt like I was there. Would I recommend this book? Sure, as long as you understand what you’re getting yourself into: there’s no redemption, no happy ending.”

Wendi’s Book Corner – “On occasion I found the book a little hard to follow, as some descriptions and accounts of people or places didn’t flow along with the story as well as I would have liked. That said, once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down.”

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The Albany Movement 1962: Much struggle, little justice

Parting the Waters

I know that continually posting on one book doesn’t add much interesting variety to my blog, but I don’t regret it. In reading this book, I feel like I better understand my own country. I’ve also been dwelling a lot on the nature of social change. Before I read this book, I had a simplistic view of the Civil Rights Era: it was a time of inspirational heroes overcoming terrible and often violent opposition, heroes advancing the cause of freedom and equality. And all of that is still true.

But I failed to fully appreciate that, especially in the early years, victory did not seem sure. Civil rights activists not only had to overcome violent opposition, but also more prosaic obstacles like disagreements among civil rights groups and personalities; distortions by the media; lack of resources. Segregationists were not always mob-like and thuggish; they could also be sly and clever and use the court system to hobble civil rights leaders (see perjury and other charges against Martin Luther King Jr., also New York Times v. Sullivan). And sometimes, as in the case of the Albany Movement, a whole community can mobilize against segregation and have their efforts be labeled a failure.

The Albany Movement started in November 1961, when a group of young people, aided by Charles Sherrod of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) decided to protest segregation. Soon the movement spread throughout the community and by December, Martin Luther King, Jr. was also involved. Hundreds of people were arrested for marching in protest, and most chose jail time instead of paying the fine. Martin Luther King, Jr. was also arrested and went to jail. But due to a variety of factors, the unity of the Albany Movement fractured and people became less willing to protest. From the local government to the presidential administration, the powers-that-be just wanted the movement to go away. Local and state officials used a variety of tactics to accomplish this goal, and the federal government was reluctant to intervene.

Perhaps the most absurd event, for me, was when segregationist U.S. District Court judge J. Robert Elliott “ruled that Negro protest marches denied Albany’s white people equal protection by draining police manpower and other public resources out of white neighborhoods” (p. 609). It was a clever move. If the civil rights activists defied this federal ruling, it would give ammunition for those states that were actively resisting the federal school desegregation orders. In the end, several hundred protesters did defy Elliott’s injunction, but Martin Luther King, Jr. painfully decided not to defy the order. The injunction was later lifted as it obviously had little legal ground to stand on.

Perhaps the most horrifying event that occurred in opposition to these protests was the beating of Marion King (no relation to MLK), a well-respected member of Albany’s black community. Marion King was standing outside of the jail in Camilla to catch a glimpse of Albany protesters that she knew. Around her, other visitors were singing. When the deputies ordered the crowd back from the fence, Marion King did not move as fast as the others. The sheriff struck her so hard that her three-year-old daughter fell from her arms to the pavement. Marion King was also knocked to the ground and kicked. She was five and a half months pregnant at the time and some weeks later she miscarried. You can see the interview with her here: http://crdl.usg.edu/cgi/crdl?format=_video;query=id:ugabma_wsbn_44817

The attack on Marion King did galvanize Albany activists further, but others in the community were not so committed to nonviolence and threw rocks and bottles at Albany police. Authorities of course used this to their advantage, and the chief of police remarked “Did you see them nonviolent rocks?” Major media coverage failed to note Marion King’s beating, leaving the wider public ignorant as to the cause of this near-riot.

In the end, the movement lost momentum, and segregation still reigned in Albany. King and others were criticized roundly for this “failure”, including from people associated with the NAACP. I found the following passage quite thought-provoking:

More burdensome to King than the multiplicity of his critics was their detachment. Since he viewed Albany as part of a universal moral issue, with only one clear and just resolution that ought to be as compelling to the white reporter in Iowa as to himself, it nettled him to see people of all opinions stand aside to analyze the results as though segregation might be vindicated, or nonviolence falsified, by his performance in Albany. King felt victimized at the hands of bystanders. He did not believe that the continued enforcement of segregation in Albany lessened the justice of his claims any more than a second-place finish by Jesse Owens would have ennobled Hitler’s ideas. [p. 631]

This passage, and really the whole book, has me thinking about the difficulties we still face when trying to call for change. We are still too easily distracted by score-keeping; too caught up in analyzing the personalities involved. During the Occupy Wall Street movement, it was easier for many to be dismissive of the protesters and their methods than to truly grapple with the problem of wealth inequality. I myself am conflicted about how OWS turned out, but I don’t think that makes that central concern any less valid. The struggle toward marriage equality gets mired by weird distracting episodes involving fast-food chains, but I don’t think that makes the cause less just. I think the move to make birth control more accessible is a worthy public health goal, but apparently many in society could only evaluate the merits of this goal based on one woman, Sandra Fluke, instead of the many women of all social strata who would benefit.

I know I’m wearing my political and moral beliefs on my sleeve here, something I usually steer away from in the online arena, but this book has a way of activating the passionate side I usually reserve only for in-person discussions with friends and family. My main point is this: I want to be better at seeing past the vicissitudes of the news-cycle, past the endless polarized discussions that go nowhere. I don’t want hurried reporters, calcified debaters, and news-bites from politicians to have the last word on what happened, what is happening, and what will happen. All of them are going to keep on generating noise, and I want to keep on seeking what is true and just. That requires patience and perseverance, to sift through information, to listen to people, to get beyond my own selfishness and laziness.

Now I have no idea if my description of the Albany Movement and my own ruminations seem connected – it’s possible that you’re not sure how I got from one to the other. I’ve been living and stewing around with this book for such a long time, that it may be one of those things where “it all made sense in my head.” Well, thanks for reading anyway. I hope to report before long that I’ve finished this book. And if it turns out that I miss reading it, there’s always the second two books of the trilogy!

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Brazilian Adventure by Peter Fleming

Brazilian Adventure1933. Marlboro Press. Paperback. 371 pages.

Recommendation from: Jenny of Shelf Love

Review:

I’ve written before on this blog that my favorite non-fiction genre is travel memoir, especially if things don’t go according to plan. In Brazilian Adventure, literary editor Peter Fleming (older brother of 007′s creator Ian Fleming) answers an advertisement in the London Times:

Exploring and sporting expedition, under experienced guidance, leaving England June, to explore rivers Central Brazil, if possible ascertain fate Colonel Fawcett; abundance game, big and small; exceptional fishing; ROOM TWO MORE GUNS; highest references expected and given.

The Colonel Fawcett mentioned in the ad was an explorer who famously disappeared in Brazil along with two other men in 1925. Fleming doubts that the advertised expedition, undertaken seven years after Fawcett’s vanishing, will unearth any new information, but is compelled to apply all the same in the role of a correspondent to The Times.

The resulting trip is beset by Brazil’s political instability, weather, and logistical challenges, all of which Fleming describes in a cheery, self-deprecating style. From the first page, he punctures any romantic imaginings the reader may have about such travel:

In treating of the Great Unknown one has a free hand, and my few predecessors in this particular field had made great play with the Terrors of the Jungle. The alligators, the snakes, the man-eating fish, the lurking savages, those dreadful insects – all the paraphernalia of tropical mumbo jumbo lay ready to my hand. But when the time came I found that I had not the face to make the most of them. So the reader must forgive me if my picture of Matto Grosso does not tally with his lurid preconceptions.

Indeed, the most significant obstacle turns out to be the expedition leader himself, Major Pingle (not his real name), who – after a falling-out with Fleming’s party – proceeds to try and sabotage Fleming’s passage out of interior Brazil.

I read and enjoyed Brazilian Adventure over my Christmastime vacation, as it was the book chosen for me by the last Classics Club Spin challenge of 2013. Not only was Fleming’s tale the type of book I generally enjoy, but I absolutely loved his witty writing style. Fleming is sharp but not mean with his wit; he plays quite fair in his descriptions of all the people he encounters, including the nefarious Major Pingle. This light tone is paired with an impressive verbosity. With a lesser writer, Fleming’s prolonged asides and anecdotes would have dragged, but I happily pressed on through his more complicated passages because he was so unfailingly clever and funny. One of my early favorites – a description of approaching Rio by sea:

The water front, still some way ahead of us, flaunted a solitary skyscraper. All sky-scrapers look foolish and unnatural when isolated from their kind. It is only in the mass, huddled and strenuously craning, that they achieve a sort of quaint crude dignity. Alone, cut off from their native background of competition and emergency, they appear gauche and rather forlorn. With this one it was particularly so. Ridiculously at variance with all that we could see, hopelessly irrelevant to all that we imagined, it had the pathos of a boor. It domineered without conviction, the totem of another tribe. It knew itself for a mistake, an oversight, an intrusion. It was like a bag of tools left behind, when the curtain rises, on a stage set for romance.

Later I was told that during the last revolution they threw a full-sized billiard table out of a window on its fourteenth floor. Then I forgave it. Where that sort of thing can happen to them, there is a place for sky-scrapers.

p. 53

The book was published in 1933, so there were a few cringe-worthy “of its time” moments; I was particularly appalled by the huge amount of animals killed for sport during the trip. The expedition literally left a trail of dead alligators in its wake. Fleming’s descriptions of Brazilians and the interior tribes are not entirely free of ignorance, but these passages are not in “white man’s burden” territory either. The amusement he derives from his adventures in a foreign land is, more often than not, at his own expense.

At times, Fleming’s cultural allusions were too British or too early 20th century for me to grasp, but the feeling of immersion in that time and place was well worth any minor confusion. The book has the dry and humorous sensibility of the great comedy films of its era. I’ve already added some of Fleming’s other books to my to-read list.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Old Scrolls blog: “[Fleming's] writing style is unusual for an adventure writer; full of subtlety, honesty and humor.  With him there was no stretching of the truth to manufacture heroics, which ironically makes his writing far more riveting and realistic than the tales of chest-banging type adventure writers.”

read_warbler: “I found it an odd mix of interesting and monotonous, to be quite honest. It got a lot better in the last third of the book when there was a race between two factions of the team to get back to civilisation.”

Shelf Love: “Fleming tells his story with style, in an offhand, witty-banter sort of way that makes you feel as if Peter Wimsey at his most urbane were ushering you up the Amazon. He talks as if piranhas are a big disappointment because they didn’t even try to devour him the second he dropped a pinky in the river.”

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“Baptism on Wheels” – reading about the Freedom Rides

Parting the WatersReading long books slowly is not conducive for frequent posting on a book review blog. When I first started reading Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters last year, I let myself be constantly distracted by other, shorter books. But now I don’t really have the desire to read anything else. Last night, I was racing through a chapter called “Baptism on Wheels” about the first Freedom Ride in May 1961. For those who may not know, Freedom Riders were African-American and white student activists who rode the interstate buses through Southern states to challenge the illegally segregated buses and terminals. (The Supreme Court had ruled that segregated buses and facilities were unconstitutional but the federal government did not enforce the ruling.)

I knew that the Freedom Riders had been confronted with violence, but reading the whole account of it, bolstered by eyewitness details, was incredibly intense. While reading, I kept audibly reacting to the events, especially as the government and law enforcement allowed angry mobs to savagely attack the students. One of the first attacks resulted in the bus fleeing the terminal, pursued by the mob in their vehicles. When the bus driver had to pull over because of the slashed tires, the driver ran off, and the mob broke inside and set the bus on fire. Fortunately, none of the students died but they were beaten and eventually taken to Anniston Hospital in Alabama. They weren’t to find relief there, either.

Among the alarms to reach [Birmingham preacher/activist] Shuttlesworth’s house in the next hour was a call of distress from Anniston Hospital, where Freedom Riders from the burned Greyhound bus were besieged. A large contingent of the white mob had pursued them there, and hospital personnel, intimidated by the mob, ordered the Freedom Riders to leave, saying their presence endangered other patients. Trapped between the mob’s anger and the hospital’s nerves, without means of transportation, the Freedom Riders huddled in one hospital corner after another, being told repeatedly to go somewhere else. [p. 423]

Greyhound bus

The chapter culminates in a different group of Freedom Riders arriving in Montgomery. Although the Montgomery police well knew that this group would be attacked by a white mob on arrival, there were no cops in sight when the nineteen young activists (seven women, twelve men) disembarked the Greyhound bus. As Freedom Rider John Lewis began to speak to the reporters gathered there, a large white mob attacked the students and the pressmen. Amid the violent chaos, the riders managed to place five of the women in a taxi.

[The taxi driver] told the Freedom Riders that he was going to abandon the taxi. While some of his passengers tried desperately to calm him, others looked back in horror at the loading platform. They, along with several Alabama reporters standing closer, saw a dozen men surround Jim Zwerg, the white Wisconsin exchange student at Fisk in Nashville. One of the men grabbed Zwerg’s suitcase and smashed him in the face with it. Others slugged him to the ground . . . As they steadily knocked out his teeth, and his face and chest were streaming with blood, a few adults on the perimeter put their children on their shoulders to view the carnage. A small girl asked what the men were doing, and her father replied, “Well, they’re really carrying on.” [446]

Zwerg

Zwerg, after the attack.

Meanwhile, John Seigenthaler, a Justice Department official working under U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, was in Montgomery, trying to negotiate the protection of the Freedom Riders by segregationist governor Patterson. Knowing the time of the Riders’ arrival, he drove toward the scene and saw Freedom Rider Susan Wilbur being attacked by a crowd of white women.

[Seigenthaler] drove up on the curb and jumped out . . . by the time Seigenthaler reached [Wilbur], the crowd of screaming, angry whites jammed in so tightly upon them that he could not push his way to the car’s back door. He grabbed Wilbur by the shoulders, managed to pull the right front door open, and, shouting “Come on, get in the car,” began to slide across to the driver’s seat. He saw in a flash that another white student – Sue Harmann, whom he had not seen before – had dived into the back.

Wilbur balked. Still absorbing blows, she shouted, “Mister, this is not your fight! Get away from here! You’re gonna get killed!”

Seigenthaler jumped back outside, where people were climbing over his car. “Get in the damn car!” he shrieked at Wilbur.

Wilbur, not sure who Siegenthaler was, kept insisting during the struggle that she was nonviolent and did not want to get anybody hurt. As she did, two men stepped between Siegenthaler and the car door, one of them shouting “Who the hell are you?” With Siegenthaler frantically telling them to get back, that he was a federal agent, the other men brought a pipe down on the side of Siegenthaler’s head. Then the crowd, crushing in to seize Sue Harmann, kicked his unconscious body halfway under the car. [448]

The chapter ends with the eventually rescued riders vowing to continue the ride, including severely beaten riders William Barbee and Jim Zwerg, who made this vow from their hospital beds. Barbee: “As soon as we’re recovered from this, we’ll start again.” Zwerg: “We will continue our journey one way or another,” said Zwerg. “We are prepared to die.”

William Barbee in his hospital bed

William Barbee in his hospital bed

I found a PBS documentary about the Freedom Riders and I think I will watch it after I finish reading about the Freedom Riders in Branch’s book: http://video.pbs.org/video/1925571160/

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