[Review] Contempt of Court: The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching that Launched a Hundred Years of Federalism

contempt-court-turn-century-lynching-that-launched-hundred-leroy-phillips-paperback-cover-artMore than 100 years ago in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a black man named Ed Johnson was dragged from his jail cell and taken to the Walnut Street Bridge and lynched. That Johnson was almost certainly innocent, and that he was already condemned to die by hanging, mattered not at all to the mob that wanted to see "justice" done swiftly, and resented the federal government's intrusion into the state of Tennessee's justice system.

Contempt of Court is a detailed account of the trial of Ed Johnson, the futile attempts at appealing to state and federal courts to save his life, and the subsequent decision that opened the door to federal oversight of state courts.

It would probably surprise many people today to learn that it was generally not believed that the Bill of Rights applied to the states. That is, it was not assumed that states had to abide by the Bill of Rights — courts held that the rights against unreasonable search and seizure, the rights against self-incrimination, etc., were protections against the federal government only. Thus, a man like Ed Johnson tried in state court had no protections or guarantees of a fair trial granted by the federal government.

Written by Mark Curriden and Leroy Phillips, Jr., Contempt of Court is an extremely well-written and researched account from the impact on the individuals involved in the trial and lynching, to the impact of the legal decisions on the rest of the country.

It is a sad fact that Johnson's lynching was not unusual, excepting the resulting trial held by the United States Supreme Court that found the town sheriff and several members of the mob guilty of contempt of court. Curriden and Phillips take care to put Johnson's case in context, lest the reader think that Johnson's case received special attention because it was so horrific.

It was against the odds that Johnson's appeal would be heard by the Supreme Court, and the contempt charges that the court levied against the sheriff and members of the mob were unique. The Supreme Court had not held a trial of the sort before, nor since. 

The authors have done a masterful job of telling the story and making it engaging, without shying away from explaining the legal issues to the layperson. It paints a bleak picture of life in the 1900s south, and what it meant to a black person accused of a crime against a white person – or to be a white person who committed the sin of trying to defend a black man accused of a crime.

I give Contempt of Court very high marks on all counts. Its writing is solid and compelling. The book delivers on the promise of its title and topic, and it's really something that anyone living in the U.S. should read.

[Review] God is Not Great: How Religions Poisons Everything

God-Is-Not-Great-288183The biggest problem with God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is that its title and combative tone ensure that the audience that should be exposed to its arguments is the one that will avoid it at all costs.

The late Christopher Hitchens needs little introduction to those of us who are religiously unencumbered and cast a skeptical eye at the shenanigans of organized religion and its supporters. A devout atheist, Hitchens railed against religion at just about any opportunity – and used God is Not Great as a sort of catch-all for his many arguments against religion.

Rather than buying the book, I decided to get the audiobook so I could listen to this while walking or at the gym. While not a criticism of the text,  I would note that Hitchens' reading is a little monotonous and ever-so-slightly in need of better enunciation. I'd also note that, in hindsight, a book that often quotes other authors and cites ancient names with great frequency is probably better read than listened to.

As a polemic against religion, it mostly succeeds – though I have taken to understand that Hitchens was not quite as rigorous in fact-checking as one might have hoped. Mostly the arguments against God is Not Great have come from defenders of the faith, who've poked at overstatements or minor factual errors that don't actually detract from the overall arguments against religion.

The individual arguments are offered one per chapter, sort of haphazardly. For instance, Hitchens devotes an entire chapter on the proscription against pork ("A Short Digression on the Pig; or, Why Heaven Hates Ham"), others against the Old Testament, Eastern religions, whether religions constitute child abuse, and a final (weak) chapter on "The Need for a New Enlightenment."

If you are an atheist or agnostic, you might likely find this work enjoyable and perhaps a handy collection of additional arguments to add to your own against religion. But it's unlikely that many religious adherents are going to be persuaded by Hitchens work. For that reason, it falls down quite a bit – writing to the audience who already shares your opinion is, well, a bit masturbatory.

It isn't that Hitchens fails to make his points, it's that there's no attempt to enter a discourse with the opposing side that would even lightly tempt a believer to engage with the argument. The book may work with doubters, but even those who are on the fence may find the work entirely too combative and be repelled by its tone.

Did I personally find it enjoyable? Yes. And it made me a little sad to remember all the while that Hitchens is no longer an active voice in the debate about religion and its effect on society. While religion is weaker than it was in the past, it still is causing damage today – and we need more voices against it. (As a side note, listening to the work also caused me to realize the enormous gaps in my own education and reading. If nothing else, God is Not Great served me personally as an incitement to dig deeper and more broadly in my own reading.)

But we also need more progressive and less angry voices than Hitchens, I think. What I would wish of a book like this is something I could hand to a friend that still clings to religion and/or its trappings and say "read this" in the hopes it would be persuasive. God is Not Great does not persuade, it assails and demands to be accepted. Satisfying, perhaps, but not as effective as it could have been.

[Review] How to be Alone

How to be Alone: CoverI don't recall now how Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections first fell into my hands. I suspect it was a book that I picked up in an airport or bookstore in a city I was visiting when I'd run out of reading material. (A practice that has been obsoleted by owning a Kindle. This is good at 11 p.m. in a hotel with nothing to do, but bad in that I find fewer books through chance.)

What I do recall of The Corrections is that I tore through it obsessively, and enjoyed it immensely. So I picked up some of his other works (The Twenty-Seventh City, Strong Motion) hoping to revisit the feeling I had reading The Corrections.

The Twenty-Seventh City had a cooling effect on my interest in Franzen. It's a decent novel, and set in my home town (St. Louis) but it's not quite the book that The Corrections is. It's more of a suspense title, and much more impersonal than The Corrections.

After picking up How to be Alone a while back, it sat gathering dust because I wanted to check back in with Franzen,  but was a little less motivated to do so.  As it turns out, that was a mistake.

This collection of essays is a must-read for anyone who still loves reading, and cares about the novel. (A first- or second-hand familiarity with depression, or at least Weltschmerz, will also come in handy.)

The essays run the gamut, from deeply personal (such as "My Father's Brain," which deals with his father's decline and death, suffering from Alzheimer's) to the journalistic ("Lost in the Mail," which examines the declining postal service through the lens of Chicago's troubled postal system), to the academic and literary (such as "The Reader in Exile.")

It felt many times like Franzen had written a book for me personally. "Why Bother," is really the core of the book. Originally it was published in Harper's with the title "Perchance to Dream: In an Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels." Franzen re-worked the essay for the book and re-titled it, because many people mistook the intention of the original essay.

"Why Bother" wrestles with Franzen's "despair about the American novel." Any reader of fiction will find this essay simultaneously satisfying, depressing, and enjoyable. Satisfying and enjoyable because Franzen articulates what most of us already think about the the novel and its place in today's world. Depressing because there's no likelihood that the novel, or writing in general, will ever reclaim its position as a pre-eminent form of discourse.

I also heartily enjoyed "Mr. Difficult," which discusses the difference between schools of thought of how fiction relates to its audience. The "Status" model, which finds "difficult" works of fiction to have value even if the average audience finds it impenetrable and unenjoyable. The "Contract" model assumes that the writer has a contract with their audience to provide an enjoyable work that they can connect with.  (As with Franzen, I find myself firmly in the "Contract" camp, though I feel the "reader-response" school takes this a wee bit too far.)

The writing and arguments put forward in How to be Alone are excellent. I would recommend it to anyone who cares about fiction, reading, and to any fans of Franzen's fiction.

[Review] Night of the Living Trekkies

Night of the Living Trekkies Cover
Night of the Living Trekkies

Still winding my way through my to-read list for the rest of the year. I've gone astray a bit and picked up a few books that I didn't plan to read (Generation A; Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls; No Country for Old Men; They Eat Puppies, Don't They?; Born Standing Up; and I think one or two others…), and dumped one book off my list (The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight) after deciding it sucked too badly to continue.

Night of the Living Trekkies seemed like it'd be a good one after finishing How to be Alone and Rework recently. (I'll review How to be Alone soon.) Turned out, it was a great choice for summer reading.

I will note one thing that drove me a little bonkers about the book, which has nothing to do with the writing. The book is published by Quirk Books, which you may remember from such books as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook. I've thumbed through some of their other books, and they seemed professionally done. The cover and chapter headings were great, but the actual body type for Trekkies leaves something to be desired. Specifically, the kerning and/or typeface are off. The spacing, for example, between a period at the end of a sentence and the letter at the beginning of the next is too close – and it's accentuated when it's a T, W, or another letter that overhangs the previous space. Yes, it sounds like a tiny thing, but it bugged me all the way through.

That aside, Trekkies is a by-the-numbers zombie apocalypse romp. The premise puts Jim, fresh out of two deployments in Afghanistan, in a menial job in a hotel that happens to be hosting a Trek convention.

After a minimal amount of setup, things start going weird. The reader, and Jim, start getting clues that something is very wrong and it just might be… zombies. Sort of zombies, anyway.

When I say it's by-the-numbers, I really mean it. Trekkies embraces (and to some extent, subverts) both the Star Trek and zombie structures. Think Shaun of the Dead meets Galaxy Quest. On occasion, it's a little heavy handed. (In certain chapters, early on, it was like "and now we're going to set up Jim's motivation," and here we have to establish reluctance before embarking on a quest.")

It doesn't mean, however, that it doesn't work. On the contrary, I found myself enjoying the book quite a bit. If you're a fan of Star TrekStar Wars, and zombie films, there's plenty to enjoy and geek out to in Trekkies. Just check your critical lit thinking at the door (as you would for most zombie movies) and you'll be fine.

This is also a book that would work great as a film, with virtually no changes.

If you've enjoyed Shaun of the Dead and other humorous sci-fi and zombie fare, I'd strongly recommend picking this one up for a quick read. It's fun, quirky, and a great diversion.

[Review] The Handmaid's Tale

handmaids-tale_lAn embarrassingly long time ago, a friend gave me a copy of The Handmaid's Tale, with a lovely note and encouraged me to read it. And I planned to do so, and then it fell to the bottom of the "to-read" pile, and languished for quite a long time.

I was not entirely unfamiliar with Margaret Atwood, her poem Variations on the Word Sleep is one of my all-time favorites. And lately I've run into essays and short works that reminded me "really, you ought to just start the effing book."

There should be a word for "things which have been put off for years for a variety of reasons but turn out to be quite speedy and rewarding once you've begun." This is to say, once I started the book I was eager to read the next page, and the next, and so on.

If I had to sum up The Handmaid's TaleI'd probably say that it's much like Nineteen Eighty-Four, but living in a dystopia that would be all-too-popular with the Focus on the Family set. The government is (to quote Wikipedia) "a racist, homophobic, Christian nativist-derived, theocratic-organized cult." Clearly, this is far-fetched, but stick with me…

There's a rigid caste system in place where men's jobs determine what "quality" of wives and other servants they're entitled to (or not) and women are second-class citizens (or worse), forbidden to read and essentially powerless to make decisions on their own about much of anything. Some women are Wives to powerful men, and enjoy a great deal of status – but still far less than men at the top of the hierarchy. Aunts are sort of like nuns, who train the Handmaids for their role to bear children for Commanders whose wives are infertile. (For reasons not greatly explored in the book, infertility is rampant in Gilead, and so being able to bear children is not a given for most women.)

There are "Econowives" (yes, really – probably my only nitpick with the book, as this seems a little too on-the-nose for even a dystopian future) who are for the lower-caste men, and are expected to do all the duties that men require.

Aside from the Commanders, men may be soldiers (Angels), Eyes (secret police), and a lower caste of soldiers called Guardians. Clearly there are other men, but they're not discussed at length.

Where I see Handmaid's Tale differing substantially from Nineteen Eighty-Four is that Atwood's dystopia is only partially a warning about a nightmare future. Gilead is a framework for discussing the relationships between men and women, most specifically the ways in which women are second-class citizens even today. (Or, "even in 1985," which is when the book was first published. But I doubt Atwood would feel society has improved dramatically since Handmaid's Tale was first published.)

When Atwood writes about the imbalance created between the narrator ("Offred" as her post-coup name, and possibly "June," though it's never clearly stated in the novel) and her husband when the military coup begins, and all of the women are forced out of jobs, it's not hard to imagine that many women feel as the narrator feels: "He doesn't mind this, I thought. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other's, anymore. Instead, I am his."

Then, of course, there's the relationship between Offred and The Commander. Clearly, The Commander sees himself as a kindly figure who offers Offred diversions and perks that she's not supposed to enjoy, while his Wife ("Serena Joy") is oblivious. Imagine The Commander as a Don Draper type, lacking impulse control and taking risks with women that are socially damaging for the mistresses and emotionally damaging for his wife. (Not that Offred or Serena Joy are portrayed as entirely sympathetic, either.)

The book also serves as a critique of anti-feminist backlash from women themselves. Serena Joy seems to be a stand-in for the women on the religious right who have opposed women's issues since the mid-70s. (Or before, but I dimly recall the movement gathering steam in the mid-to-late 70s and early 80s. Maybe that's just because I was gathering steam in the mid-to-late 70s myself…)

The book begins In Media Res and it takes some time to become oriented in the setting. While I enjoy Atwood's theme, plot, and ideas, her raw skill at writing should not be overlooked either. I expect Atwood could write a book on the exciting world of income tax preparation and make it interesting. (All the same, I'm perfectly content that she doesn't.)

I strongly suspect that I'll be reading The Handmaid's Tale more than once, and will be picking up much more of Atwood's work soon. My only regret here is that I waited so long to actually pick this one up…

[Review] Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls CoverA friend of mine introduced me to David Sedaris a few years ago with Me Talk Pretty One Day. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, and I'm not sure I got a really good handle on Sedaris by reading Me Talk Pretty, either. I enjoyed it, but didn't really pursue any other books by Sedaris.

Since then, I've heard him a few times on NPR and have really enjoyed his work. When I found out he was coming to St. Louis for a book signing at Left Bank Books, I decided to grab tickets and catch him live.

That turned out to be a great decision. If you want the most out of Sedaris' material, hearing him perform it is the way to go. Not that it doesn't make for decent reading, but it's definitely at its best when he's performing it. It was also nice seeing an author who really seems to love interacting with his audience. He showed up early to sign books, did a reading of decent length, and then went back to signing books until 3 freaking a.m. (Luckily, we got ours signed before the reading, so we didn't have to wait in line until after 2 a.m. It takes a hardcore fan, and a hardcore author, to stick it out that long!)

So, what's it about? Really, it's a collection of essays, musings, character sketches, and remembrances by Sedaris. We're not talking great literature, but it's enjoyable if you happen to be of a similar mindset to Sedaris (e.g., I doubt that Rush Limbaugh's audience would be big fans). Some of the pieces I found riotously funny, some I found merely amusing.

If you're going to pick it up, I do strongly recommend the audiobook. Generally I prefer reading to listening, but this really begs to be performed rather than read. Not sure if you'd enjoy Sedaris? Check out one of the podcasts from NPR where he's featured.

Weekend Reading: "They Eat Puppies, Don't They?" and "No Country for Old Men"

Cover for They Eat Puppies, Don't They?Knocked down a couple of fiction books this weekend while traveling to and from Southeast LinuxFest. They Eat Puppies, Don't They? by Christopher Buckley, and No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy.

I've been a fan of Christopher Buckley since I picked up Little Green Men years ago, but he's probably best known for Thank You for Smoking. (It may be a cliche, but the book truly is better than the film – and the film's plot diverges pretty heavily from the novel.)

They Eat Puppies is billed as political satire of the relationship between the U.S. and China, but it's really a farce using China and U.S. relations as a framework. It was a quick read, I got a few chuckles out of it, but it's far from Buckley's best work. It's sitcom-quality humor, and makes for good light reading, but I would be hard-pressed to give it a strong recommendation. If you like Buckley's other work and want some lightweight reading, give it a try. If you haven't read Buckley's other work, pick up Thank You for Smoking and save They Eat Puppies for a long flight when you really just need a distraction. (It was a great palette cleanser after finishing The Corner.) 

No Country for Old Men is a quick read, but I don't think you could call it light reading. I suppose it's a great novel for people who find Steven King horror novels too uplifting.

On the surface, No Country is a tale about a welder who finds a satchel full of cash at the scene of a drug deal gone bad – and the unrelenting assassin who comes after the money and drugs. It goes deeper than that, though. The primary themes is societal decay, and how one person chooses to react in the face of the decay.

Having seen the movie, I was eager to read the book and get a little deeper into the characters and gather some understanding of Anton Chigurh. On that front, I was disappointed, as the book doesn't really get into any deep characterizations or go into Chigurh's thoughts. If you've seen the film, you can probably safely skip the book, unless you just really enjoyed the film and would like to relive it with a bit more detail. (I will say that the book is totally unambiguous on a point that the film is slightly queasy about showing explicitly.)

Thoughts, comments, and book suggestions always welcome.

[Review] The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood

The_Corner_book_cover A few years ago, I came late to The Wire, but caught up quickly. Usually I'm not one to buy the hype for television series, but I had to admit that The Wire was every bit as powerful, funny, and eye-opening as its fans claimed. It's a show that you tell friends "you need to watch this" rather than "you'll really enjoy it," because they really do need to watch it.

The Wire is necessary because it actually provides a glimpse into the reality of ground zero in the War on Drugs – a topic that any person (at least in the U.S.) should be well-educated on, but probably is not. And if The Wire is required watching, the book that preceded and inspired it should be required reading. It should be required reading, starting in jr. high if not sooner. 

The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, by David Simon and Edward Burns, is as gripping and compelling as any work of fiction I've ever read. But it has the virtue of being a true story, and true journalism. Simon and Burns spent months getting to know the subjects in the book, then a solid year following their lives on the corner. Interviews, observation, and follow-ups after the year was over. 

The Corner gives a first-hand look at what life is like for those living in the middle of one of the worst neighborhoods in the United States. It provides a look at what growing up in poverty is really like, and why it's not just as simple as "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps." It might surprise people to learn that the corner that Simon and Burns chose is near the birthplace of H.L. Mencken, the sage of Baltimore. The world of Mencken and the world of teen drug slingers and desperate dope fiends are separated only by a few decades and less than a mile.

And The Corner tells the tale from the beginning. Simon and Burns cover the scope of Baltimore's downfall, from the early 1900s when the McCullough family first settled into Baltimore, through four generations of McCulloughs. From stand-up citizen and family man, to his fallen son who essentially abandons his son to pursue his addiction, to a teen who plays at slinging drugs and fathers his own son while still too young to drive. This is how fast our cities decay.

You'll find some hope, but not much, at the end of the book. The book is set in 1994, and published in 1997. More than a decade and a half later, we know how the story goes for many of the people in the book. 

As a work of journalism, I'm simply in awe. We need so much more of this. I can't say that I "loved" the book in the same way I enjoy a good book of fiction or entertaining non-fiction. After 500+ pages, I was ready to leave this world behind and only regretted that there isn't more of Simon's work out there to take on next. (Simon has only two books to his name, this and Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.)  This book is a five out of five stars, perhaps six. It should certainly be required reading for anyone who aspires to have an opinion about the war on drugs or welfare policy in the United States.


My To-Read List for the Rest of the Year

To Read PileMy current to-read list for the rest of 2013. I'd like to finish all of these by the end of 2013, if not sooner.

This doesn't preclude my adding a few more titles, or moving them around.

I've already started Words and Rules and have almost completed Sacre Bleu and A Collection of Essays by George Orwell. (I'm finding Sacre Bleu much less interesting than usual for Moore's books, but I'm determined to finish it…)

  • Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore
  • 11/22/63 by Stephen King
  • A Choice of Days by HL Mencken
  • A Collection of Essays by George Orwell by George Orwell
  • A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn
  • Clarence Darrow by John A. Farrell
  • Contempt of Court by Mark Curriden and Leroy Phillips
  • Drink by Iain Gately
  • Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates by Tom Robbins
  • For Us, The Living by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens
  • How to be Alone by Jonathan Franzen
  • John Adams by David McCullogh
  • Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz
  • Night of the Living Trekkies by Kevin David Anderson and Sam Stall
  • Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
  • Strong Motion by Jonathan Franzen
  • The Boxer Rebellion by Diana Preston
  • The Corner by David Simon and Edward Burns
  • The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
  • The End of Faith by Sam Harris
  • The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight by Jimmy Breslin (Started and then tossed aside. Not worth finishing.)
  • The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor
  • Words and Rules by Steven Pinker

(Update: As I finish books, I'll try to remember to come back and put a strikethrough on the title…)

Book Review: Gulp by Mary Roach

Gulp Book Cover Mary Roach's Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal is typical of her books, which is to say it's a highly enjoyable read that belies the amount of research that's obviously gone into the work.

Like her other books, Stiff, Bonk, Spook, etc., Roach takes a topic that doesn't necessarily lend itself to polite conversation – and then takes the reader on an extensive tour of the topic by way of speaking to a slew of experts and extracting the most interesting trivia from previous research.

The bibliography in the book is 15 pages, and it's copiously footnoted throughout. What distinguishes Gulp and the rest of Roach's oeuvre from more traditional research is that she makes it entertaining and engaging.

Gulp starts at the beginning, as it were, with the role that smell plays in taste. (Which is to say, way more than most people realize.) From there, she looks at why humans and their pets prefer different foods, some of our past misconceptions about food and digestion (be thankful you're not expected to Fletcherize), all the way the lower colon and out again.

Along the way we learn that, perhaps, Elvis' death and "bloated" look may have had more to do with a genetic disease of the colon than drugs or overeating. Roach also touches drug smuggling in uncomfortable places (sadly, no Pulp Fiction references), how flammable flatus is, and (the word of the day) all about boluses.

The only thing I don't like about the book? The cover art. For some reason I find it really obnoxious, which is not at all fitting for the book or Roach herself.

I had the opportunity to meet Roach, briefly, earlier in April when she made an appearance arranged by Left Bank Books. The evening, which included some food that emphasized points made in the book, was punctuated by a forced intermission where we all decamped to the basement to wait out a tornado warning. Roach was undaunted by this and spent the time talking to attendees and signing books.

Rather than doing a reading from the book, she just talked a bit about her experiences writing the book and covered some of the information you'll find in the first few chapters. The rest of the time was spent answering questions or trying the food.

If you have the opportunity to see Roach in person, I strongly recommend it. She's intelligent, personable, and funny as hell. I also recommend picking up Gulp and/or any of her other books. Her work makes for fast reading, and you'll likely learn quite a bit you didn't know before about how your body works.

Rating: 5/5