Monday, October 16, 2017

Banned In Biloxi

This year Banned Books Week was held September 24 – 30. During that time period we are supposed to take time to think about the great books that have suffered at the hands of the insufferable. Maybe we will even read one of these books. At least I hope that you will. If that was a few weeks ago then why am I talking about it now? The school board in Biloxi, Mississippi has decided, right after Banned Books Week, to ban a book. “What book is it this time?” we all ask with a groan. It is To Kill A Mockingbird. The classic 1960 work by the late Harper Lee. This novel is no stranger to controversy and has been banned before. Shortly after its publication the novel was banned in Hanover County, Virginia because it featured a trial about a rape.

Why is it under attack this time? It contains a word that “makes some people uncomfortable” says school board Vice President Kenny Holloway. This word is, of course, the pejorative “N” word used against African-Americans. In other words, it uses the word “nigger.” Did that make you uncomfortable? I hope so. It is an uncomfortable word. None of us should be comfortable when we hear or see that word used. That is exactly what Harper Lee was trying to convey when she wrote this masterpiece.

Great literature is not supposed to make you feel comfortable. It can be enjoyable, it should be challenging, it is almost always uncomfortable. Do you find comfort in Crime and Punishment? What about the Odyssey? Was 1984 a light read? Uncle Tom’s Cabin, now there was a cheery story that never challenges its readers. All good literature discomforts the reader. It stretches you. It confronts you with ideas, characters, and stories that move you out of your comfort zone and force you to confront something. That something could be a darkness that is within your society, your family, or within you.

Literature has a way of challenging us. Michael Gerson, writing an opinion piece in the Washington Post last year, said “Abraham Lincoln called Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the "little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." While not responsible for starting it, Lee was the little woman who made the values of the civil rights movement — particularly a feeling for the god-awful unfairness of segregation — real for millions.” How does Lee do this? She does it by showing us the ugliness of racism through the eyes of a child. Scout is an innocent. She doesn’t see the ills of society. We see those ills through her eyes. We see the ugliness of racism and hate through those innocent eyes. We see this and we are appalled at what we see. More than that we are appalled that a child must see these things. We don’t smile away the use of racial pejoratives. We see them in their stark ugliness when we compare them to the innocence of Scout. In this way white readers across the United States were forced to confront the ugliness of racism in our own nation.

To Kill A Mockingbird has the same impact today. We see the evil of racism. Not diluted in a way to make us comfortable, but in its stark and brutal ugliness. For nearly six decades this work of literature has confronted school children and adults with this ugliness. It asks us “what is in your heart?” Fifty-seven years later we are still discussing the treatment of African-Americans by the police. We don’t need to feel comfortable. We need to be roused from our comfort. If racist language makes you feel uncomfortable that is good. Don’t hide from it. Look it squarely in the eye. Great literature is a window into the past and into our souls.  Allow the literature to awaken what Abraham Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature.”

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

John Marshall by Harlow Giles Unger

John Marshall: The Chief Justice Who Saved The Nation
Harlow Giles Unger
Da Capo Press, 2014

John Marshall is one of the most important figures in American History, yet so few people know anything about him. Born in a log cabin in what was then the western frontier of the colony of Virginia he would rise until he became the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Marshall was far more than a mere Chief Justice. During his tenure on the court from 1801 – 1835 he would reinvent the Court and make it the powerful institution that it is today. In Marbury v. Madison, Marshall would assert the power of the Court to determine the constitutionality of a law passed by Congress. This particular duty of the Supreme Court is so taken for granted today that we forget how controversial it was at the time. President Thomas Jefferson, who did not want an independent judiciary, did his best to undermine and destroy the power of the Court. The Speaker of the House was a staunch Jefferson supporter and led the charge to impeach Samuel Chase, one of the Justices. The hope was to impeach and remove the judges who disagreed with Jefferson one by one until the Court was packed with Jefferson supporters who would then undermine the power of the Court. The trial of Justice Chase came back with a “not guilty” verdict and Jefferson was handed a strong defeat. After this Marshall and the Court would go on to carve out and define the power of the Court and establish precedents that exist to this day.

Florence King once referred to Harlow Giles Unger as “America’s most readable historian.” John Marshall proves once again that Mr. Unger has not lost any of those skills. This volume is not a reference heavy tome meant for the professional historian. It is an excellent introduction to both John Marshall and his world. You do not need any outside knowledge to understand this book and what is going on throughout this time period. Unger does not delve deeply into the side characters so if you want to know more about men like James Monroe, James Madison, and others then you will need to read about them. Fortunately, there are many excellent books on those sources. Unger is dedicated to his own subject and he does not fall prey to that Siren song that so often entraps the historian: the rabbit trail. This book is recommended for anyone who would like to know more about the history of the United States and the foundation period when so much that we take for granted today came about. Marshall is a fascinating subject and Unger brings him to life. We see the man willing to disappoint President Washington and turn down important government posts because of family duties. We see a man willing to stand up to Thomas Jefferson and fight for the right to an independent judiciary. Captain, Congressman, Secretary of State, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court are all official titles that he held from the period of the Revolution until his death in 1835. Those who knew him knew him as a son, husband, father, friend, patriot, a tireless worker for the new Union. Harlow Giles Unger shows us all of these aspects and gives us John Marshall.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

As The Crow Flies by Damien Boyd

Jake Fayter falls to his death during a routine rock climbing accident. At least that is what the report reads. His parents disagree. So they turn to their son’s old friend, Detective Inspector Nick Dixon.  Dixon was once Fayter’s climbing partner and has a hard time believing the report. He knows that there is no way that Jake made the mistake necessary to cause his death. So he begins to investigate. As he digs into his friend’s death he soon realizes that he is not going to like what he discovers.

As The Crow Flies is the first book featuring DI Nick Dixon. He is a quiet man who requested a transfer back to his home area instead of staying in London and working his way up the administrative ladder. Now he has a small place that needs furniture, a dog, and the peace and quiet of the countryside. Of course he also is on the trail of a team of burglars who keep breaking into the houses of the recently deceased. Now he has what appears to him to be the suspicious death of an old friend. Before it is over he will find himself dealing with a smuggling operation, drug dealers, and a killer who won’t go down easy.  Boyd’s is an excellent stylist. He brings his characters to life and allows them to develop as the story goes on. The book is full of great characters who you feel you want to know better.

As I read this book I couldn’t help but think that this story and these characters are perfect for a BBC mystery series. This is the kind of detective drama that so many of us have come to know and love over the years.  I read a lot of books. Usually over 150 per year. Some of the books are old friends, most are new. The majority of books that I have read I doubt that I will ever read again. Damian Boyd’s DI Nick Dixon novels fall into that rare category of books that I will definitely read and enjoy again and again over the years.  I look forward to more in this series. I suggest that you order this book right now. It is the perfect book to take with you on summer holiday. It is also the perfect book to curl up with in your favorite reading chair. In other words, it is just a great book. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

Trick Soldier by L. Ron Hubbard

An officer who meets an old nemesis, an enlisted man who hates to walk, and a temporary officer who is always losing things. These are some of the characters you will meet in this collection of three short stories from L. Ron Hubbard.

In "Trick Soldier" a spit and polish captain stationed in Haiti gets a new lieutenant only to discover that it is his old nemesis from his early years in the Corps. Now they are thrown together with a mutinous group of native soldiers on their hands. In "He Walked To War" we are introduced to Sergeant Egbert Zacharia Golingame, known as EZ Go to his comrades. All he wants is to get out of the infantry and into the air corps because he doesn’t like to walk. He gets his transfer and more than he bargained for. Finally in “Machine Gun 21,000” we meet Captain Blake who seems to have a knack for losing things. This time it is a machine gun. And the enemy has found it.

L. Ron Hubbard was one a very prolific author during the heyday of pulp fiction. Trick Soldier collects three of his action stories set in the jungles of Haiti and Central America. Hubbard’s writing was of his time, but he is not unsympathetic towards the natives that his characters face. The soldier’s are not gung-ho types. Instead they are realistic ideas of the type of men who served in the Marine Corps and went where they were sent and did their best in bad situations. This is a very good collection, though a little short.  It is well worth the time to pick up some old, classic short stories from the golden age of pulps and lose yourself in the fun.