Classics Club Spin #6

Classics Club

This will be the second time I have participated in a Classics Club Spin. When I last participated, Peter Fleming’s Brazilian Adventure was the chosen book, which I read by the deadline (Dec. 31, 2013) and reviewed here. Now I will again list twenty classics, and on Monday, a number will be picked and I will have to read that book by July 7th. Since I’ve read two very long books lately, this list is going to avoid the chunkster titles of my Classics List. So here goes, alphabetically:

1. Bab: A Sub-Deb by Mary Roberts Rinehart [1916]

2. The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery [1926]

3. Dispatches by Michael Herr [1977]

4. Dubliners by James Joyce [1914]

5. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym [1952]

6. Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway [1929]

7. The Good Earth by Pearl Buck [1931]

8. The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux [1975]

9. High Rising by Angela Thirkell [1933]

10. A House is Not a Home by Polly Adler [1953]

11. Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau [1964]

12. Mariana by Monica Dickens [1940]

13. Mrs. Mike by Benedict and Nancy Freedman [1947]

14. Original Letters from India by Eliza Fay [1925]

15. Penny Plain by Anna Buchan [1920]

16. Saplings by Noel Streatfeild [1945]

17. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby [1958]

18. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome [1889]

19. A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor [1977]

20. The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard [1922]

 

Of these twenty books, I am most hoping for The Blue Castle or Penny Plain. The book I am most dreading is Farewell to Arms. I haven’t read Hemingway since high school, but I did not like him then and don’t think I will like him now. If it is indeed chosen, I will try to keep an open mind, but I do not have high hopes for that book.

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Excerpts from my ancestor’s journal (April 1889)

It’s been a few months since I posted from my ancestor’s journal, mostly because I had fallen off in my transcription project. But! I worked on it last night, and have some fun excerpts to share.

March 1889 was a rough month for Emma as her eight-year-old daughter, Mattie, became very ill from pneumonia. A few entries were simply variations of: “Mattie very sick.” Finally, Mattie did pull through. In early April, calamity fell again to the household when Emma’s mother-in-law, who lived with them, fainted dead away and hit her head. Days later, her head still ached. From about this time, Emma wrote the following entry:

[Friday, April 12, 1889]

Shower during the night – sunshine, clouds and showers today. Men have been grafting and trimming the trees in the “clover lot” this week. Frank went from there to the depot soon after 4 o’c., and as he has not returned yet think he has gone out of town. Mother has made ginger-bread and doughnuts. I swept and cleaned the west chamber etc. Did mending this P.M. and evening. Henry was happy as possible this morning when he found that he was not to have to have on skirts any more – he looks nicely now his hair is cut. Heard thunder in the distance – we have had two thundershowers this spring – one in the night and one at noon.

The following is something that came to me in good time.

“Do thou thy work; it shall succeed

In thine, or in another’s day,

And if denied the victor’s meed

Thou shalt not miss the toiler’s pay.”

(Robert Moffat)

I like reading about the orchard work, especially as I’m reading about it in the springtime. Four-year-old Henry’s transition out of skirts is amusing, especially as the Victorian practice of dressing little boys in skirts is something I’ve wondered at before.

The quote, which initially struck me as so very New England Puritan, was actually written by a Scottish Congregationalist missionary. Robert Moffat (1795 – 1883) was a missionary to South Africa and was the father-in-law of the more famous missionary David Livingstone.

Another excerpt:

[Sunday, April 21, 1889]

Pleasant but very windy this P.M.

Grandpa, Prescott and Henry walked down to church. The meetings today had special reference to “The Constitutional Amendment.” Shall we vote Yes or No?

[Monday, April 22, 1889]

A beautiful morn – but wind clouds blew over and was so windy we could hardly get clothes on to the line.

Grass is up two inches high and is very green, and fresh.

The vote for the Amendment came in 11 or 13 ahead in this town. School did not keep – children all went after checker-berries.

Grandpa carried Mr. Wheeler down to vote.

Pease came home tonight.

The Constitutional Amendment was for state Prohibition. This did not pass in 1889. I know from later entries that Emma was at some point a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union but I’m not sure she was active in it in 1889.

I had never heard of checkerberries, but the plant also goes by the name American wintergreen or eastern teaberry.

Mr. Wheeler was a neighbor of the Richards family, and was mentioned quite often in Emma’s journal. As he was older and ailing, members of the family would frequently go down to his house and check on him. He died five days after the day Emma’s father-in-law carried him down to the vote.

J. Howard Pease was a hired hand who had started working for the family in December 1888. I loved this little bit from the end of January 1889:

Frank, Pease and I went down to the vestry to a sociable and chicken pie supper. We had a fine time. The young people went to the Town Hall afterward to a select dance. Frank went over and introduced Pease to the co. before we came home.

His presence around the household allows for a peek into Williamsburg’s more social scene, since Frank was often traveling for work and Emma was constrained by caring for her children and by housework. In April 1889, Pease went to see Comical Brown, an entertainer hailing from Maine, and he also attended a lecture given by a M. Kimball of Chicago.

I was able to find the table of contents for a songbook written by Comical Brown (whose real name was William B. Brown) through William & Mary’s library website:

Table of Contents:

  • The strong minded female. Words by Wm. B. Brown (first line: I’m a strong-minded female, from Boston)
  • The kiss at the door. Music by Wm. B. Brown (first line: We were sitting in the doorway)
  • William Henry White. Pathetic ballad, composed by Wm. B. Brown (first line: Come all ye people high and low)
  • Shun the broad road (first line: The happy home circle is breaking, my boy)
  • The Irish wedding (first line: Now won’t you hear what roaring cheer was had at Paddy’s wedding)
  • Pat Murphy’s employment. Words and music by Wm. B. Brown (first line: Pat Murphy’s my name, I’m a broth of a boy)
  • The wife-hunter. Written and composed by Wm. B. Brown (first line: I married a wife, a loving wife)
  • The ‘orrible tale. Composed and sung by W.B. Brown (first line: It’s an ‘orrible tale I’m a goin’ for to tell)
  • The little boy that died. Poetry by Dr. Chalmers. Music by Wm. B. Brown (first line: I am all alone in my chamber now)
  • Werry Mysterious. As sung by Wm. B. Brown (first line: O dear! what a world of misfortune and care).

I’m going to assume based on the titles that Mr. Brown wasn’t “comical” all the time. “The little boy that died” sounds like something out of Dickensian sentiment. Also, I am very curious to know the rest of the lyrics to “The strong minded female”!

My working theory for the identity of M. Kimball is that Emma had the first initial incorrect, and that the speaker was actually Edward A. Kimball, a Chicagoan who studied Christian Science under the movement’s founder Mary Baker Eddy in early 1889 at her Massachusetts Metaphysical College (located in Boston).

I love how transcribing this journal has turned into a portal for all sorts of great 19th century trivia. As I make more progress, I will be sure to post more excerpts.

 

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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."

Click to embiggen.

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."

Click to embiggen.

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

Click to embiggen

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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