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My Winter Reading Weekend Recommendations

Posted on 13 February 2012 by Barbara Beckwith (3)

When the Emperor Was Divine, by Julie Otsuka (Random, 2002). A slim, wondrous first novel with such straightforward, clean, yet vivid writing. A Berkeley CA immigrant family of Japanese heritage is sent to internment camps after Pearl Harbor is bombed: “the mother,” “the boy,” and “the girl” are sent to a Utah camp, but “the father” is sent to a Lordsburg, NM camp for enemy aliens because he refused to say “yes” when asked if he would renounce allegiance to the Emperor, reasoning that doing so would imply any allegiance, which he didn’t. The description of each character’s experience and the feelings and thoughts that remained largely unsaid, is spare, specific, and moving. Her second novel was a 2011 National Book Award finalist.

My Dyslexia, by Philip Schultz. This Pulitzer Prize winning poet describes growing up being assumed, and believing himself, to be dumb: it was not until he was 58, when his 2nd grade son was diagnosed with dyslexia, that he realized that he too was dyslexic. He describes how his non-diagnosis led to him acting out, to covering in many ways, to loving books but disliking reading, to discovering ways to teach writing (he created a Writers Studio). Ironically, his publisher, Norton, seems to have a disability, as well: it let slip a misspelling (dyslexia) and a blurb implying that he won a Nobel Prize in science rather than poetry. Gail Mazur loaned me this book (she knows the author).

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver (1998). A novel whose narrator shifts between five female characters, a Rashomon-like format that fascinates me. A fundamentalist Baptist minister takes his four daughters to an isolated village in the Congo, just as the Belgian colonizers (who used to cut off the hands of mineworkers who didn’t meet quota) hand over control. The people have just elected Patrice Lumumba, who the U.S. soon after arranges to be killed. The saga goes from 1959 to the 80s. It’s an excoriating vision of clueless, ineffectual Christian missionaries, of racial prejudice that personal interactions (except in the father’s case) break down, of individual women whose talents and goals and thoughts remain largely unsaid, but are eventually fulfilled. I wanted to finish the 530 page book by the end of our stay, so I raced through the last 100 pages, but the rich portrayal of each person’s experience and of the dynamics and consequences of colonialism will stay with me. Kingsolver funded (until recently, through the National Writers Union’s Service Organization) the Bellwether Prize: $25,000 plus publication of a fiction mss. with social justice themes.

Lone Holdout: A Memoir, by Linda Cox (Charles Street Press, 2010). Cox worked in the editorial department of an unnamed Boston publisher for 12 years, but after a successful class action sex discrimination case in which she was one of five named plaintiffs, she became co-owner of a Charles Street (Beacon Hill) bookstore. She describes serving on a jury for the first time and becoming the one jurist who doubted the prosecutions’ police witnesses. The book goes through the testimony, noting her questions and doubts. On trial was a young Dominican immigrant, charged with selling drugs and weapons violations. Her refusal to convict caused a hung jury: the young man was then retried and convicted. Convinced of the imprisoned man’s innocence, she rounded up pro bono lawyers and raised money to pay for private detectives. A judge finally granted a motion for a new trial, based on documentation of exculpatory evidence, and the inherent unreliability of single-witness identification cases. The arresting officer was proved to be a rogue cop who had been the subject of 27 internal investigations (for brutality, extorting money and sex from drug dealers and their girlfriends, etc.). He was convicted of attempted extortion and larceny and got a 4-6 year prison term. Cox is honest about the young man she defended: after 18 months in prison, he couldn’t get a job that paid a living wage. After taking a ride with someone who had drugs in car, he was sent to prison for a year and then deported to Dominican Republic. This case happened in 1988: it took Cox 20 years to write the book, which was almost made into the film, but in the end was self-published. I read self-published books by people I know because I like to make up my mind about their quality, and not react to mainstream-media hype. And I was proved right: her independently published book was chosen to be listed in Publishers Weekly new (as of last year) self-publishing section (25-pgs long) and one of 25 reviewed by Publishers Weekly!

Uncovering Race: A Black Journalist’s Story of Reporting and Reinvention, by Amy Alexander (Beacon Press, 2011). Alexander used to live in Cambridge: I read her the book she co-wrote with Dr. Alvin Poussaint on African Americans and suicide, Lay My Burden Down. She wrote for the San Francisco Examiner while still in college, risked danger to cover the 1991 L.A. “riots” for the Sacramento Bee, only to have a copyeditor insert “savage” and “rampaging” into her otherwise carefully reported article. She later writes for the Miami Herald, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. She names what the few publishers who effectively diversified their staffs did so: by tying news managers’ raises and bonuses, in part at least, to the rates of minority hiring and retention. She is frank in her evaluation of the National Association of Black Journalists, calling it “toothless” except for its professional training programs.

Learning From the Sixties: Memoir of an Organizer, by John Maher (self-published 2011). I don’t remember how I heard of my neighbor’s book but the title intrigued me: what can we learn from the Sixties? He grew up with an Irish-background poor to riches businessman father, which gave him some economic leeway to devote much of his life to organizing. He was an organizer of SDS, Vietnam Summer, Neighbor to Neighbor, and also taught in the Somerville and Boston schools. He was involved in the Progressive Labor Party, but eventually left it, considering it a cult. His FBI file is 2000 pages long (maybe in part because his brother was an open Communist Party member). To organize lower-income people, he decided to work in a Cambridge rubber manufacturing plant, but left because it felt inauthentic to hide his Harvard background. Each chapter ends with a list of principles/practices he learned in each organizing effort. He is frank about the mistakes he made, but also clear about one-on-one, door-to-door, in-person dialogue that he sees essential. I may have been one of the people he recruited to go door-to-door to rally opposition to the Vietnam War (and later to get rent controlled passed in Cambridge, although I don’t remember him, which fits one or his campaign organizing principles – to listen more than direct.

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