Midweek mischief

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Book Report: Echoes of the Holocaust

51-9fVVctULAuthor, editor, and writing coach Joan Dempsey slays. Period. This is How it Begins weaves present day issues of religious freedom, LGBT rights, immigration, and free speech into a deep, evocative, and compelling story.

Local school boards—at the direction of a charismatic pastor– have recently fired a dozen gay teachers, one of whom just happens to be the grandson of two Holocaust survivors, art professor, Ludka and retired Attorney General, Izaac. He’s also the son of the President of the Massachusetts State Senate.

“The Poles…no matter which century, had come to America largely to escape something: unemployment, foreign occupation, Communist oppression, and ethnic discrimination.”

The Redeemer Fellowship has plans to go nationwide. It has not only infiltrated school boards but has written bills and gained unwitting sponsors for “religious freedom” legislation.

“They’ve added a paragraph that allows the board of education to define sound moral character, which basically means that whatever characteristic the current board likes in their teachers—or, maybe more importantly, doesn’t like—the board gets. They just write it into their policies and guidelines…meaning people applying for teaching jobs could once again be asked about their religious beliefs and political affiliations.”

“Faith can be worse,” said Izaac. “It trumps reason all too easily. Reason? Reason is impotent. They see what they see, believe what they believe, and that’s that. Discrimination born of moral conviction is infectious.”

Dempsey keeps the tension tight throughout her novel. We feel empathy for her vividly drawn and complex characters who experience ambition, mistrust, hate, blackmail, violence, and arson. She reminds readers, “The Holocaust did not begin with the gassing of the Jews at camps. The Holocaust began here.”

Just as her characters are called to action, so are readers. Recommend.

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Author, Joan Dempsey

Book Report: On the trail of those little shoes

41Bwc+dgsyL._SY346_First, let me just say that having Reno author Pamela Everett, an attorney with the Innocence Project and a UNR professor of criminal justice, meet with our book club was a wonderful privilege. She told us about the very personal journey that ended with the publication of Little Shoes.

In 1937–long before most of us were born–in Inglewood, California three little girls were raped and murdered. Albert Dyer, a mentally challenged crossing guard, was arrested and confessed. He was quickly tried and executed. End of story.

Years later, teenaged Everett learns of her family’s connection to the story. Two of the three victims were her father’s younger sisters. Her aunts.

“Maybe that’s why he was so terribly strict. Maybe he saw his parents assume the best about people and he would spend his life assuming the worst, never for a minute risking his children to dangers, hidden or otherwise.”

“Thinking of their forgotten lives, something changed for me, something in my relationship to these girls who were my aunts, my dad’s little sisters. It was just so tragic, to have died as they did and then to be buried away—literally—as if they never lived at all. They’d been alone so long.”

Those little girls stayed with Everett and she began asking questions of surviving relatives and former neighbors of her grandparents. As if nudged by something unseen, she dug into court records, newspaper accounts, state archives. With each little piece of information, something kept pricking her conscience. Could they have gotten the wrong man?

We learn that reporters in 1937 were just as invasive and aggressive as today’s tabloid and cable reporters. The horror of the killer crossing guard soon became front-page news across the country. And although eyewitnesses were plentiful, they were and are quite unreliable.

“Eyewitness misidentifications have led to 75 percent of the wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence in our country, and many of those mistakes happen early in the process when police are desperately seeking a suspect…”

These were the days before Miranda rights and police interrogated Dyer for ten hours—without an attorney present. Dyer alternately confessed and denied his guilt. His confessions—while inconsistent– weighed more heavily and the police stopped pursuing any other suspects, even as witnesses came forward to say that Dyer was not who they saw with the girls.

During Albert Dyer’s incarceration it was determined he had an IQ of 60. He was essentially a nine-year-old boy, which goes a long way to explain why his confession might not really have been a confession.

“Confessions are the most powerful evidence in any courtroom, and jurors—indeed, most of us—cannot comprehend how someone can confess to something they didn’t do… In some cases, confessions will overcome overwhelming evidence of innocence such as eyewitness identification and forensic evidence, even DNA… Yet more than a quarter of the documented wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence in the United States have involved false confessions…”

In this case, the transcripts of the session reveal the interrogator telling the story of what happened and Dyer merely agreeing, “Yes, sir.” And with a riotous mob outside the jail and the pressure on police to bring a killer to justice, it wouldn’t be hard for police to convince their mentally challenged suspect that he was going to die—sooner or later.

Everett found holes in the prosecution’s case. She “couldn’t find testimony about the physical evidence that should have been admitted in this case… There was nothing? …no testimony whatsoever about the fingerprints or blood from Dyer’s clothing, nothing connecting Dyer to the knife or the ropes the prosecution introduced.” Furthermore, what forensic evidence was available was contaminated almost from the beginning. “…one of the more unbelievable case photos shows several investigators handling barehanded the tiny nooses and the girls’ clothes, with one of them even smoking a cigar over the pile of evidence.”

Everett manages to balance the horrific nature of the crime, the investigation by police, and the trial of Albert Dyer with the long-lasting impact it had on her family. So yes, there is some really bad stuff here, but just enough. And for someone like me, who never reads True Crime, I appreciated not spending any more time on the brutality than necessary. I was also grateful that the photos of the girls were ones while they were alive.

Certainly, suspects have more rights today and police procedures have improved. While Everett continues to question wrongful convictions, she recognizes the dangers.

“… we open old wounds, forcing victims and families to relive everything, and in many cases to fear the release of someone they believe is guilty… No matter how painful, we should share these histories so victims are not lost and so future generations can know all that came before them and what molded their parents, grandparents and others.”

Little Shoes offers much to contemplate the next time a crime is sensationalized in the headlines and we all jump to judgment. Recommend.

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Reno author, Pamela Everett

Book review: Between father and son

511ktu-msbl-_sy346_Between the World and Me

by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This book is an earnest and fervent warning from Coates to his son and in reading it, I felt his urgency in trying to protect the life–“the body” — of his teen-aged son. Three long essays detail why being black in America is dangerous in ways that those who are not black can never fully appreciate.

Coates understands the reality. He could spend years educating himself, developing a career, acquiring assets, being responsible, and one racist act could end it all. He cites examples from history, the news, and from his own life.

Rather than trying to summarize his thoughts, I’ll let Ta-Nehisi (tah-nuh-hah-see) speak for himself.

The big message:

“…you are a black boy, and you must be responsible for your body in a way that other boys cannot know… Indeed you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you… You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”

Race is a social, not a biological construct:

“As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissident; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.”

No sudden moves:

“Each time a police officer engages us, death, injury, maiming is possible. It is not enough to say that this is true of anyone or more true of criminals… It has nothing to do with how you wear your pants or how you style your hair.”

 “Should assaulting an officer of the state be a capital offense, rendered without trial, with the officer as judge and executioner? Is that what we wish civilization to be?”

No escape:

“When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of high learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing.”

  “We could not get out. The ground we walked was trip-wired. The air we breathed was toxic. The water stunted our growth. We could not get out. …my father beat me for letting another boy steal from me. Two years later, he beat me for threatening my ninth-grade teacher. Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not escape.”

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Author Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic.

I recommend this book as a brief walk in another person’s shoes. I think you’ll find it both troubling and enlightening, as I did.

Book report: It ain’t over till it’s over

confedsConfederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

By Tony Horwitz

Think you understand the Civil War? Think you understand its causes and the influence it still holds on America? This book may cause you to think again, especially about why some folks can’t let it go, 150 years later.

As a boy, the prize-winning war correspondent Tony Horwitz was fascinated by the Civil War, particularly the books of old photos he studied with his Jewish immigrant grandfather. That passion is rekindled when, after returning from assignments in Bosnia and the Middle East, he is awakened one morning by the musket fire of Civil War re-enactors just outside his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Those shots signaled the beginning of a quest.

Throughout his travels, Horwitz demonstrates his curiosity and courage, his sense of humor and of history as he introduces readers to a host of characters including a band of “hardcore” re-enactors who diet just so they can look like starved Confederates and who spoon to keep warm on long cold nights. At every stop, he chats up bartenders, bikers, store-clerks, elected officials, teachers, home-schoolers, park rangers, as well as the staff at small museums and visitors centers. He even embarks on a marathon odyssey (dubbed a “Civil Wargasm”) from Antietam to Gettysburg to Appomattox with the super hard-core Robert Lee Hodge (pictured on the cover) as his guide. Horwitz covers a murder provoked by the display of a Confederate flag. He searches for Tara and meets a young woman who makes a living as a Scarlet O’Hara look-alike. He spends a day with Shelby Foote, as well as time with the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

What emerges defies easy description.

“In the neo-Confederate view, North and South went to war because they represented two distinct and irreconcilable cultures, right down to their bloodlines. White Southerners descended from freedom-loving Celts in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Northerners—New England abolitionists in particular—came from mercantile and expansionist English stock.”

“For the past several weeks people had been talking to me about ‘heritage.’ But like the flag, this obviously meant very different things to different people. For the Sons of Confederate Veterans I’d met in North Carolina, it meant the heritage of their ancestors’ valor and sacrifice. For <others> it was the heritage of segregation and its dismantling over the past forty years. Was it possible to honor one heritage without upholding the other?”

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Tony Horwitz

The result of Horwitz’s inquiry is a complex mosaic–sometimes funny, sometimes frightening–full of irony and contradiction. He sees a hardening of attitudes on both sides from the mid-1980s onward. They are more contentious and less interested in facts. While this book is nearly twenty years old now, the conflicts Horowitz exposes resonate even louder today. Modern battlefields are “classrooms, courts, country bars” where the past and the present rub up against each other, in sometimes deadly ways.

“While I felt almost no ideological kinship with the unreconstructed rebels, I’d come to recognize that in one sense they were right. The issues at stake in the Civil War—race in particular—remained raw and unresolved, as did the broad question the conflict posed: Would America remain one nation? In 1862, this was a regional dilemma, which it wasn’t anymore. But socially and culturally, there were ample signs of separatism and disunion along class, race, ethnic and gender lines. The whole notion of a common people united by common principles—even a common language—seemed more open to question than at any period in my lifetime.”

After this last election, the half of us on the losing side can perhaps feel at least a little empathy for those who can’t let it go. Americans again face a bitterly divided country. Friends and family members find themselves at odds. And once again our survival as a free nation is at risk. That alone is worthy of our consideration and a look back at what happened last time.

Atticus is just a man after all

blog go setAt twenty-six, Jean Louise Finch comes home to Maycomb, Alabama for a two-week visit with her adored father, Atticus. He’s seventy-two now, quite crippled with arthritis but still mentally sharp and practicing law. In Scout’s mind as in the minds of readers who read and loved To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is the perfect father as well as a fair, courageous, and honorable man. He is the archetype of the parent we wish we had and the person we wish to be. His character has achieved mythic status.
But Scout’s world is shaken when she overhears his racist, ungenerous and patronizing remarks made at a citizen council meeting. She is devastated and made physically ill by the thought that she could have been so blind to his true colors. She feels betrayed by everyone in Maycomb, everyone she trusted.

“…You confused your father with God.”

Some of the remarks I’ve read regarding the book are critical of Atticus’s words and beliefs. Readers themselves perhaps feel betrayed by what they perceive as a failing in this father they have come to know and love. Their hero didn’t live up to their expectations and has toppled off the pedestal. Hmmm.

Harper Lee is under no obligation to the reader with regards to Atticus’s character. It is fiction, after all. The Atticus in Watchman is more complex and certainly a man of his time and place. And isn’t it also consistent with normal human development that it’s not until her mid-twenties that a somewhat naive Scout comes to terms with the reality of her father and not just the myth she idolized as a child? Our parents are human, not divine. The world is not black and white. Perhaps we are uncomfortable with the same issues as Scout. Perhaps this is our own coming-of-age story as well as hers.
Well-done, Miss Lee.