Saturday, October 31, 2015

Pimp: The Story of My Life by Iceberg Slim

The thing about Robert “Iceberg Slim” Berg, the reason he is so magnetic, is that he is actually not the “Iceberg” he pretended to be. In this memoir of his life on the streets, he revels in his successes but also agonizes over his failures. He seems to tell us straight: this worked, that didn’t. He concludes it is necessary to hide one’s feelings behind an icy exterior, hiding his fear and doubt and empathy from his stable of whores and from other con men on the street who would double-cross him.

'Berg reminds us several times how close pimping is to slavery, and where the crass brutality of it came from:
"[The book of pimping] was written in the skulls of proud slick Niggers freed from slavery. They wasn’t lazy. They was puking sick of picking white man’s cotton and kissing his nasty ass. The slave days stuck in their skulls. They went to the cities. They got hip fast.

The conning bastard white man hadn’t freed the niggers. The cities were like the plantations down South. Jeffing Uncle Toms still did all the white man’s hard and filthy work.

Those slick Nigger heroes bawled like crumb crushers. They saw the white man just like on the plantations still ramming it into the finest black broads.

The broads were stupid squares. They still freaked for free with the white man. They wasn’t hip to the scratch in their hot black asses.

Those first Nigger pimps started hipping the dumb bitches to the gold mines between their legs. They hipped them to stick their mitts out for the white man’s scratch. The first Nigger pimps and sure-shot gamblers was the only Nigger big shots in the country."

Slim introduces us to the slavery of the skin trade. Not liking the choices he had for getting ahead, Slim decides he will pimp his way to “some real white-type living.” It is a soul-crushing world of double-cons and triple-crosses and his first couple forays onto the streets bring him low. But Slim sucks up to Sweet, a master who pimps “by the book,” and learns how to beat his whores into submission for the scratch they could earn.

Robert “Iceberg Slim” Beck writes in street slang but also in full, richly detailed chapters that draw us in and sketch for us his shaky beginnings and long affiliation with the whoring trade. From time in the clink and from other street hustlers 'Berg learned the necessity of applying psychology to his treatment of his whores: he used the oftentimes horribly broken life-stories of the whores against them, and used bling and flash and cunning to dazzle his stable, their tricks, and his competition. He noted his emotional reaction times also slowed considerably when he had a noseful of coke.

But the beauty of this memoir is also in the writing. Slim was in and out of prison from the time he was twenty. In one of the best escape scenes I have ever encountered, Slim's description of his jailbreak from one prison crackles with tension and bravado. We are aching for him to make it outside.

In the end, it is not Iceberg Slim’s cold exterior that draws us to him but his vulnerability and susceptibility. His humanity is the most endearing thing. We have reason to hate this criminal and liar. Perversely, however, we come to admire him for surviving, and persisting in learning every day. He lets us in on those lessons. It may be his best and longest con of all, and we’re all his whores.

A few weeks ago I reviewed Street Poison, the Biography of Iceberg Slim by Justin Gifford. His introduction to Iceberg Slim led to my seeking out this memoir, first published in 1969. In a heartbreaking coda to Iceberg's vulnerability in learning the street game, this first book by Iceberg Slim had a wonky contract with the publisher that earned him little. He did, however, gradually earn international recognition, and the style and naked honesty revealed in this book spawned a culture in music, film, and literature that persists to this day. Years ago I'd first seen this book; at that time I believe it wore a shocking pink cover emblazoned with an eye-popping silver scrawl. There comes a time in a reading life when a book makes sense in the order of things. The time had come for me. I can promise you an unforgettable reading experience, and perhaps some insight into the life of one black man who believed his salvation lie on the street. It is a cautionary tale, and a worthy memoir of a black man in a white world.




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Thursday, October 29, 2015

More Holiday Titles from Penguin Random House

As promised in an earlier post, below I share a few titles that Penguin Random House has rescued from the Grosset & Dunlap archives and reprinted in time for the holidays. Established in 1898, G&D published many of the English-speaking world’s favorite story books for ages 0-12 years, including the Nancy Drew Series and The Hardy Boys. For the past several years G&D has reprinted several of its Wonder Book bestsellers of the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s for folks who want to share their childhood favorites with their children or grandchildren. This year, they have three titles on offer, including one holiday title. The comfortable old-fashioned look and feel of the stories revives some cultural touchstones and values.



The Baby Elephant
, written by Benjamin Brewster and Illustrated by Peter Burchard, is the story of a circus baby elephant who wandered away from his mother and found himself following a farmer’s cart away from the fair. Eventually he finds himself back with his mother, after some exhausting adventures. This is surely a book young children will enjoy again and again, imagining the fearsome prospect of wandering away from one’s mother in a crowd, and being returned safely. Ages 3-5.





The Fixit Man written by Irma Wilde and illustrated by George Wilde, tells the story of Jimmy Jinks who travelled far and wide to fix people’s equipment, making everyone happy. This is also billed as Ages 3-5, though it occurred to me that the vocabulary was such that a slightly older child (around 7 years old) could possibly read it to a younger one, learning a few new words along the way.





And finally, this year we also have the story of ”The Christmas Puppy written and illustrated by Irma Wilde. A little girl, Polly, is a little late in sending her gift requests to Santa and he discovers he does not have enough stuffed puppy toys for all the children asking for them. In what would surely be both joy & grief for a parent, Santa instead brings a real puppy, Inky, for Polly’s stocking. This book, with its detailed drawings, is sure to be a favorite, so maybe be careful if you absolutely do not want a pet for Christmas. Ages 3-5.
Below please find a list of some already published, or click here for a link to the G+D Vintage website.
• Bunny Hopwell’s Frist Spring by Jean Fritz
• The Too Little Fire Engine by Jane Flory
• The Noisy Clock Shop by Jean H. Berg, Illustrated by Art Selden
• My ABC Book Illustrated by Art Selden
• Mr. Wishing Went Fishing by Irma Wilde, Illustrated by George Wilde
• The Animals’ Vacation by Shel Haber; Illustrated by Jan Haber
• The Bingity-Bangity School Bus by Fleur Conkling; Illustrated by Ruth Wood


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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Islamic State: A Brief Introduction by Charles R. Lister

This book is short enough at 85 Kindle pages to be considered a pamphlet or monograph and yet it clearly outlines the genesis and development of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It focuses more intensely on ISIS strengths and weaknesses rather than ideology. Rather than detail accounts of successes in the field or Western attempts to combat ISIS, it assumes a conversant and sympathetic Western audience. He has a more in-depth treatment due to be published in the U.K. in November this year (Hurst) and the U.S. in 2016 (Oxford Univ Press), called THE SYRIAN JIHAD: AL-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency. Lister is a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, Senior Consultant at The Shaikh Group, and formerly head of MENA at IHS Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Centre in London.

While many radical insurgents originated in Saudi Arabia, Lister makes clear that is began originally as opposition to the Saudi monarchy, therefore correcting what might be a misapprehension among observers: since many radicals issued from Saudi, one might conclude that the country fostered them, when in fact, they caused them.* The fact remains that the Saudi government did little to curb radical ideologies originating on their soil, and did, in fact, make much of its opposition to the Shia sect’s power and control, as well as sponsoring or condoning the adoption of the variant of Wahhabism that is the ISIS creed.

Lister outlines the way ISIS has made itself financially strong: oil revenues from siphoned or takeover wells, levies on the transportation of goods within affected countries, taxes in areas it controls, outright theft, kidnap-for-ransom, extortion and protection rackets, and the sale of antiquities, among other things. It has a strict bureaucratic hierarchy which gives it some reach into the organizations it claims. It has gathered to itself disaffected and trained military men from throughout the Islamic world, has released from prison captured radicals and utilized their talents, and uses social media, including English-language outlets, effectively.

ISIS is not currently waging a war against the West. This makes it essentially different from Al Qaeda. ISIS is intent upon establishing a trans-national caliphate of their particular brand of Islam, which has, in effect, caused such sectarian strife in affected countries that ISIS may be able to capitalize in the vacuum of governance. This broad-yet-narrow outlook may be an exploitable weakness: their violence against Muslims who do not adhere to their stated tenets promotes violence against their movement, and governments accustomed to operating within state boundaries will oppose any incursion on their soils. The civilians on the ground may well oppose a trans-national caliphate based on Wahhabism but have fewer options available to them.

Lister’s work already seems a little out of date, for just yesterday we heard that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in talks with Russia and Turkey, stated a willingness to consider Assad remaining in power, while Lister defends the position taken by the U.S. last year: that Assad must go. But you will see in this analysis suggestions for Western strategy or policy in combating the ISIS scourge, with an emphasis on Western support of local actors rather than intervention. The trouble with writing about trouble spots is that things change so quickly and sometimes decisively. However, the bulk of this short book is detailed enough on actors and attitudes to be useful.

More reading on ISIS:
Black Flags by Joby Warrick
The Jihadis Return by Patrick Cockburn
Too Weak, Too Strong: Russia in Syria (essay in London Review of Books) by Patrick Cockburn
Understanding ISIS and The New Global War on Terror by Phyllis Bennis
ISIS: State of Terror by Jessica Stern & J.M. Berger
* Later (12/15) I have learned that Saudi has its own interpretation of the Koran and this interpretation is very restrictive of the rights of many classes of believers at the expense of others. So Saudi official interpretations of the Koran may, in fact, give sustenance to the interpretations of the Koran by radical groups.


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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Scary Vampire Stories from Simon & Schuster - HAPPY HALLOWEEN

Oh, boy, you’re in for a treat. Simon & Schuster has published a book of scary stories from our most popular fiction writers that will put you in the mood to sit around all weekend, munching through the candy meant for trick-or-treaters, and terrifying yourself enough to turn off the TV and keep your eyes peeled until the daylight brings friends to save you.

The collection starts off with Scott Smith’s “Up in Old Vermont” about a thirty-three year old waitress at a small town diner in Vermont looking to make a new life out of her broken dreams. Invited to do light housework and some cooking for an old couple she calls The Hobbits, Ally moves to the woods…far into the woods.

Sherrilyn Kenyon has a six-pager, “The Neighbors” that revives preteen terrors and parents who will not listen. In “On the Dark Side of Sunlight Basin,” Michael Kortya treats us to winter in Montana/Wyoming, where an experienced hunting guide has a Californian loser in tow, looking for a kill…Charlaine Harris gives us a couple of middle-schoolers, Susan and Taylor, a dead schoolmate, and a terrifyingly-composed teacher in “Mrs. Fondevant:” “Susan read more about vampire lore than a girl her age, of any age, should ever read.”

Kelley Armstrong takes on the vampire-doubters in “We are All Monsters Here.” Dan Chaon and Lynda Barry collaborate on a short story that is truly gut-wrenching: two single mothers living across yards of broad country meadow from one another have some weird psycho-sexual predator thing going on for each other’s children.

Rio Youers was a new name for me, but this British-Canadian writer recreates the strangely shallow cosmopolitan view prevalent in today’s plane-hopping culture. In “Separator,” an ambitious Canadian land developer hopes to cash in on a typhoon-devastated landscape in the Philippines while paying insufficient attention to the myths surrounding the customs of the country. Very creepy.

Those of you familiar with the work of John Ajvide Lindqvist will be delighted to find a story translated for you here, called “What Kept You So Long?” One is uneasy from the first sentences.

This terrific collection is edited by Christopher Golden, the American author of Horror, Fantasy, and Suspense novels for teens and adults. Someone managed to get these busy authors to pony up for a volume of uncommon perception about our fears, showcasing individuals’ talents and giving us a lasting opportunity to scare ourselves silly. Big. Bold. Vampiric.


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Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising by Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn may come as a surprise to American readers who do not follow his reports in the British newspaper The Independent. This book, published in November 2014, is a collection of his writings on Syria and ISIS and a summation of his opinion to that time. His assessment is not optimistic about stability in the region for some years to come and he is harsh in his judgment of the missteps that led us to this place.

When I first saw the depth and clarity of his analysis, I couldn’t understand why media outlets in the United States weren’t reporting what he was reporting. After I finished the book, however, I could see that Cockburn reserved some of his most lashing criticism for the U.S. government and big media. Cockburn believes Western alliances with states like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have precluded a clear-eyed view of those states’ promotion and assistance of regressive Islamic doctrines like Wahhabism that have since taken up by ISIS.

Cockburn is a very experienced reporter; part of this book is the best description of war reporting that I have ever seen. He downplays “the fog of war” excuse for the confusion in the Western press about successes or failures of certain specific battles or even the overall direction of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya. Reporting the war from embedded positions cannot capture the important component of political change in these countries, and allows temporary military victories to take on more importance than they warrant in light of the overall situation on the ground. “Irregular or guerilla conflicts are always intensely political.” Cockburn makes the point that, although most reporters are trying to do good work in a dangerous environment, they were being manipulated by rebel factions, their editors, the enemy, etc. and must not so easily accept what is presented to them, in English, by “opposition forces” in media-friendly environments.

It is difficult to imagine that anyone reading Cockburn would not concede, whether or not they agree with him, that he makes excellent points. I wish I had seen his work earlier, for then I could have been more discriminating in my own acceptance of official reports and government decisions.

Some reviews have complained that this work was not sufficiently edited, and that some material is presented twice. Each chapter is a self-standing article. Collected, they comprise this book. Some material is used twice in pieces that examine different aspects of the conflicts from various angles. It was not difficult for me to listen to some of the information twice: this is very complicated stuff and I had not seen some of this information before in my reading about the conflicts in the Middle East.

He does say the United States was disingenuous at best in its targeting Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11. It was Saudi Arabia and Pakistan who were funding the militants that had the U.S. in their sights, but because the U.S. was earning millions each year in military contracts with these two, we didn’t even criticize them in a meaningful way. The section on Saudi Arabia and its support for the resurgence of Wahhabism was something I had completely missed in the reporting I’d seen to date. Read it and weep.

Cockburn goes into some depth about the disintegration of Iraq and how that is both fueling and the result of the fighting in Syria. He mentions the corrosive sectarian atmosphere in Iraq as a root cause for the militancy of Sunnis, and cites the corruption in the Iraqi Army as a reason for why the army can’t or won’t fight. His description of corruption has the feel of truth; for years we’d known there were problems with troops unwilling or unable to fight but Cockburn’s description of generals buying their rank at great expense makes it all come together. Now it all makes sense. Cockburn doesn’t have much hope that Iraq can hold itself together.

As for the fighting in Syria, Cockburn thinks U.S. involvement on the side of rebels was a mistake. Assad was not a good guy, but the resistance did not have enough time to pull together a coalition of different interests and was still very splintered when we began sending arms. Saudi and other Gulf states were training and sending in groups which aligned with the more radical elements, causing less damage to Assad than to the populace and Western interests there. Some U.S. arms and equipment showed up in the hands of groups under the ISIS aegis, bought, given or captured.

The situation in Syria was catastrophic before the overt support for Assad by the Russians this year. Cockburn couldn’t address that directly since it happened after his book was published, but he does mention that Russia, Iran, and Turkey have serious stake in stabilizing the region and that the U.S. should never have made Assad’s ouster the linchpin of their policy. Cockburn’s argument is that what comes after Assad may be far worse, is already far worse, than allowing him to regain control.

ISIS in Syria apparently cooperates with lots of Sunni groups with competing interests, some not as radical as those who are spreading fear through the violence of their videos online. Saudi-funded groups, once on the ground in Syria, have surprised everyone by taking up with the “terrorists,” aligning themselves in ways that are making them independent from Saudi. Hence the confusion on the ground and in reporting.

I recently reviewed Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick and am forced to admit that Cockburn’s analysis is far more what I was looking for in terms of discussion of events, analysis, and information. Certainly the recapture of Mosul, Iraq by ISIS affiliates in 2014 was just one of the nasty surprises in store for observers with insufficient information. But unless one works up to familiarity with the players and situations in the region, reading Cockburn is like drinking from a firehose. I’m paying attention now.

By the time I learned about this title, prices for it in used paperback had risen to $3000+ per on Amazon. I downloaded the audible.com version, which I highly recommend. On the Goodreads.com site, different editions of this book have different titles and covers, some of which appear to be in Kindle format by Verso. The new title appears to be The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution and is probably are the same book, re-edited and re-issued only months after the first one was published. It is available at less than $3000, I am pleased to report. Read either version. This man is enlightening.

--------------------------------
In October, 2015 Cockburn updated his view of the conflict in Syria, in an article published in The London Review of Books. More reading on ISIS:
Black Flags by Joby Warrick
The Islamic State: A Brief Introduction by Charles R. Lister
Understanding ISIS and The New Global War on Terror by Phyllis Bennis
ISIS: State of Terror by Jessica Stern & J.M. Berger



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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Some Holiday Titles from Penguin Random House


The weather recently turned icy here in New England, with a few areas reporting snow flurries. The heat is on and our sweaters are out; naturally our thoughts turn to the holidays and Christmas as the last leaves fall. Penguin Random House, the world’s most global trade book publisher, wants to share with readers a couple of the books they have chosen to spice up the season. My next couple of posts will discuss a few of these titles, so stay tuned.

Johanna Basford, the biggest name in adult coloring books, has a spectacular new coloring book for adults called Lost Ocean: An Inky Adventure & Coloring Book that brings to mind all manner of meditation mandelas, craft projects, color theories, visual recognition games, to say nothing of the wonders of the underwater world. The pictures are dense and detailed, far too complex for a child to manage, but perhaps just perfect for a teen or adult, perhaps even a much older adult, who wishes to try out a color palette, or concentrate on something unrelated to daily life.

Apparently the adult coloring book market is large and growing world-wide phenomenon (who knew?), and Penguin provides a kit for groups of adults to work together on projects—a “community coloring club” is what they call these gatherings. They have also announced the release of a Coloring Club Kit which includes:
Recipes for refreshments.
Playlist. Johanna Basford tells us she likes to draw to music by bands like The xx, and Florence and the Machine, “anything with too strong a beat interrupts the flow of the coloring.” We’ve compiled a special playlist to help unleash your creativity.
Ice Breakers to get your coloring club members chatting.
• A special Q&A with the undisputed Queen of coloring books, Johanna Basford.
Below find a couple more sample pages, which will give you some idea of the intricacy of the designs. The prints are on heavy paper, so one could use watercolors, though pens or pencils might prove easier and more effective. Truthfully, I was thinking these might be a good solution for adult community centers, but I can imagine a craftsperson finding the designs intriguing for color design. If any readers out there know of a way to use this kind of book effectively, please leave a comment below. I'd love to know how others would use this book.

My sister is a docent at a seaside State Park that carries items like this in their museum store. Looks like a good seashore gift item generally, or a purchase a seaside Bed & Breakfast might find attractive. Keep your eyes peeled for this title in a bookstore or shop near you this season. On sale October 27, 2015, it can also be ordered directly from the Penguin Random House website.
Johanna Basford is the creator of the multi-million copy bestsellers Secret Garden and Enchanted Forest. In the Coloring Kit link provided above, Johanna answers questions about how she got her start in coloring books, how unsure she was how they would be received, and how surprised she was at the reaction of the public. Check it out. You may be surprised at your own reaction to her art.


Below I am posting a giveaway of this title until October 27, 2015, when the book is for sale in bookstores. I will use random.org to choose a winner and will contact the winner for an address. The book will be sent to the winner directly from Penguin Random House. U.S. residents only, please.

A Winner has been chosen! Thanks everyone.


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Sunday, October 18, 2015

Street Poison: the Biography of Iceberg Slim by Justin Gifford

“The best pimps keep a steel lid on their emotions…”

At a time when white folk are finally hearing what black folk have been telling us for decades, this biography of pimp-turned-writer Iceberg Slim by Justin Gifford rewards the reader by underlining the major lessons one complicated, flawed, and talented black man learned in his life: that his choices were constrained by his options. Life on the streets was very hard, but Beck excelled, if only for a time, living a life of glitz and glamour and cruelty.

Robert “Iceberg Slim” Beck was a pimp for twenty-five years. He was jailed over and over in his younger years, mostly for trafficking in young women, and in jail he learned much about how to improve his street game. He practiced in jail the rap he’d give to his stable of hookers when he got out again. His introspection and uncommon ability to apply lessons he learned from reading psychology texts gave him an edge on the streets that rocketed him high, only to land him back in prison until he feared he was too old to pimp any longer.

Beck’s street chic and verbal storytelling was so good that he was encouraged to write the stories down, thus beginning his career as author of novels of the street, influencing a generation of black youth, their music, literature, “blaxploitation” movies, style, and attitudes, which, if you have been paying attention in the past thirty years, is not always pleasant to hear.

But the pleasure of this book is reading the ‘how.’ A description of who Iceberg Slim was and what he accomplished does not give a reader the insights this book carries: how life for black people in cities across America was a litany of limited opportunities for meaningful, lucrative work and advancement, how crime and vice became institutionalized as a means to escape poverty, how the lack of access to bank loans for decent housing or small businesses as well as discrimination in real estate markets meant ghettoization in crime-ridden cities. Then those ghetto homes were chosen again and again to be razed when cities needed renovation, roads, upgrading.

Especially thrilling for book critics to read was the beginning of Slim’s writing career: how a small ad in the newspaper looking for “black writers” led to the collaboration of Slim and his then-wife Betty Mae Shaw on acting out, then writing down, vignettes of the street. The novel’s language carries the graphic tenor and tone found among folks in “the game,” and was among the first to use the vernacular to speak directly to the black experience.

Iceberg Slim’s most influential work was Pimp: the Story of My Life, published by Holloway House in 1967.
”He approached writing with the same principle he had used for pimping; both were essentially acts of strategic storytelling. Beck reasoned that the narrative had to be entertaining and fascinating, but it also had to be logical and tightly organized. ‘And, you had to answer, just as you do the whore, all the questions before they are asked. And, you can’t be heavy-handed with it. You have to do it in a casual way. But I didn’t know this was what they call painless exposition that the writing craft speaks about. For every principle I used in Pimp, there is a literary name.’…Beck’s first person confessional followed in a long African American autobiographical tradition, from the slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs to the recent memoirs of Malcolm X and Claude Brown, in addressing the racial inequalities of American society. Beck narrates in gritty detail his life as a pimp both to warn young blacks about the dangers of a criminal life and to hold American society accountable for producing the pimp in the first place.”

The recently announced 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction went to Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates’ twenty-first century search for his Dream of living peacefully in a quiet, leafy suburb is not so distant from the twentieth century experience of Iceberg Slim:
"Ain’t it a bitch? Ninety-eight percent of the black people back there in Hell will be born and die and never know the joys of this earthly Heaven. There ain’t but two passports the white folks honor. A white skin and a bale of scratch. I sure got to pimp good and cop my scratch passport. Well at least I get a Cinderella crack at Heaven."
Iceberg Slim went on to act out, then write, several other novels of the street, among his most famous Mama Black Widow and Trick Baby, as well as a collection of essays, vignettes and thoughts called The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim, modelled on W.E.B. Dubois’s The Souls of Black Folk. Beck’s books sold millions of copies, though allegedly Holloway House scammed his contract, enriching themselves while shortchanging the author.

Slim liked his life on the streets with black folk, and lived there to the end, receiving gifts from admirers and letters from fans. As he got older, he liked to watch conservative television talk shows "so that he could see what the enemy was thinking." He blamed Reagan and the New Right for subjecting black life to ever more vigilant police and state control. Beck died April 30, 1992 of a heart attack, brought on by complications from liver disease and diabetes.

The author of this biography of Iceberg Slim is Justin Gifford, an Assistant Professor of English at Nevada State University. In the statement on NSU English Department’s page introducing staff, Gifford writes, "I argue that the crime fiction of Chester Himes, Iceberg Slim, Donald Goines, Nathan Heard, Clarence Cooper, and Roland Jefferson provides a privileged window into the social, spatial, and racial cleavages that emerge at the pivotal moment of America's postwar 'urban crisis.'"

Below I attach a longish excerpt from the biography which gives some historical context to Robert Beck’s environment. I do not reproduce the included footnotes, though indicate with an asterisk where additional materials are cited.
"[Beck’s] next destination was Cleveland. Much like Milwaukee, Chicago, and Detroit, Cleveland had developed its own distinctive black community adjacent to downtown. During the first Great Migration, the Cleveland Real Estate Board started the widespread practice of using restrictive housing covenants to keep African Americans out of white neighborhoods.* Because of these restrictions, African Americans were crowded into a Black Belt that was located in the city’s Central District. It was bordered on the west by the Cuyahoga River and bordered on the east by Fifty-Fifth Street; Euclid Avenue enclosed it to the north, while Woodland Avenue was the main dividing line to the south. In this small rectangular expanse of the city, African Americans often slept in overcrowded kitchenette apartments,, storefronts, garages, and even train boxcars that were divided up to accommodate multiple families.* As in other Midwest industrial cities, blacks had initially come to Cleveland for the plentiful jobs. In the early twentieth century, it was the fifth largest industrial city in America, producing metals, automobile parts, varnishes, and garments. Black men were for the most part excluded from unionized labor and skilled trades; they were employed as barbers, servants, porters, elevator operators, and laborers on construction projects. They did the rough work in railroad yards, foundries, blast furnaces, and iron works factories. Much of this work was temporary and insecure; black men were often the last to be hired and the first to be fired. Black women were typically employed in household service, laundry work, and occasionally in box-making factories, where noxious fumes and dangerous machines made for unsafe and unpleasant work.*

As a result of these geographical and economic conditions, Cleveland’s Central District developed a thriving vice scene. Brothels, saloons, gambling houses, and speakeasies operated all over the black section. Among city leaders and police, there was an unspoken agreement to allow these vice industries to operate with impunity, as these criminal enterprises reaffirmed racist assumptions about the connection between blacks and immoral behaviors. It was also a way for civil authorities to monitor closely prostitution, gambling, and drinking without allowing them to spill over into “respectable” white neighborhoods.*”
Gifford’s thesis about the early-to mid-twentieth century has echoes today in the twenty-first century, if we would only hear it.


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Saturday, October 17, 2015

Between Me and The World by Ta-Nehisi Coates

"The craft of writing as the art of thinking."

I feel as though I have been waiting my entire life for a voice like this one to appear. Ta-Nehisi Coates, however, would be the first to demure. He cites his influences in James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Malcolm X, Lucille Clifton, Nat Turner, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Harriet Tubman, Charles Drew, Kwame Ture, Kenneth Clark, Chancellor Williams, Eric Williams, Carolyn Rogers…the list is nearly endless, and the names spike this narrative composed of a father's letter to his son. “It is important that I tell you their names, that you know I have never achieved anything alone.” The form is immediate, urgent, and intimate.

Jill Leovy’s 2015 book Ghettoside carefully illustrates that the crime in black neighborhoods cannot be explained except by looking at how we got here. And that is where Coates has come down as well. American history, no matter who writes it, bears witness to what the lives of black folk have been. It is brutal and dispiriting, and Coates is not the first to see and speak the bald horror of it. But somehow his voice is reaching us, finally, from this short book in the form of a letter to his son, and from a series of long articles published in The Atlantic magazine.

Prior to listening to an interview with Coates by James Bennet, his editor at The Atlantic, I was going to say something about how Coates seems to have recognized his historical moment. But he didn’t. He has been shocked by the response to his book. The truth is that Coates is riding the historical moment because he had been working for years to hone his writing skills, his understanding of history, his grasp of where he fits in the canon. Coates wrote this book quickly, in between his long, heavily researched articles for The Atlantic, illustrating that the creation process for an explosively meaningful piece of work is not necessarily in the actual writing, but in the preparation.

The work is compulsively readable, painful and exhilarating at the same time. He talks of his upbringing in a section of Baltimore where mostly what he felt was fear. Leovy and Coates both mention the fear: the fear of walking home from school, the fear of crossing an invisible line on some block, the terror awaiting the unwary or the young. He, and now we, realize it is a crime to have an entire race of people fearing for their lives on streets they cannot escape in a country of such plenty. Policies, deliberately crafted and enforced, have prevented entire groups of people from living well in this country. Those policies, "the product of democratic will," have been and are killing our young men.

I listened to the Random House audio production of this title, read by Coates himself. It is completely mesmerizing to hear him read this long letter to his fifteen-year-old son. Coates did not live in a time of slavery, Jim Crow laws, or civil rights protests. He lived in a time where every black child or man knew where the boundaries were in his neighborhood and took their lives in their hands every time they walked their own streets. And yet he knew that it was important to write this down, to bear witness, and to invite his son, and us, to bear witness.

There was not a moment in this recitation that is not deeply memorable, from the challenge in his opening lines “those Americans who believe they are white,” which he acknowledges is James Baldwin speaking. These things have been said before, but they have achieved a kind of resonance with the repetition that is almost physical, like a wave. The rules and laws that govern us created this idea of race as a defining characteristic rather than as a descriptor. The “one drop of blood” rule separates us artificially, and makes “other” of our countrymen.

Coates manages to survive his youth and a deadening experience at school, and shares with us his experience of leaving his hometown Baltimore, for university in Washington, D.C. Awakened to the wide variety of people that gather under the aegis “black,” his education and learning did not always take place in the classroom. The Moorland-Spingarn Research Center of Howard University preserves one of the world’s largest collections of Africana, writings on or about African Americans and the Africa diaspora. It is here that Coates really began to awaken to his place in the world. He captures those moments of lift-off, and we feel his velocity.

Coates’ language is fluent, relentlessly logical, and insistent. He describes his "intellectual vertigo" at university:
"It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that would not award me my own especial Dream [of a better life in a quiet, leafy suburb] but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness. There was so much terrible out there, even among us. You must understand this."
He talks about how he had accepted “racecraft” and how he “could no longer predict where [he] would find [his] heroes.” The way he intones and repeats throughout his narrative “my body…my body…my body” makes us realize that we may hurt his body, but we will never get his mind. That is his own, and he sees the injustices, and he will speak of the injustices.

He marries, and moves with his family to France, where he could raise his child without the fear. His experience of discovering a different world abroad seals our fascination with him. He highlights moments of breakthrough understanding, of what it means to be alive in the larger world, speaking a new language, away from the terrible yet comfortable environment of home. He sees he is American, not just black. That black was a label someone gave him and had used to define, not describe him.

Coates’ letter to his son is a terrifically moving and important addition to our understanding of how we in America define race, and how we use race to define ourselves. Other countries do not have such definitions, so it is America who has to examine her own history, her own soul. This book goes some way to helping us to do that, but it does not stand alone. So many other experiences must be examined, other books must be read likewise, in light of what we have learned here.

Below, I wanted to embed the Oct 14, 2015 James Barret interview with Te-Nehisi Coates, after Coates won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction for this title, but I could not get the link to work. Watch it. Coates has a magnetism that makes it difficult to look away. His success is not merely an accident of moment, but is rooted in his sense of justice, in his intellectual curiosity, and in his humility. Despite his stated desire to “be the best writer of his generation,” we suspect that he knows just what that will take and what it means. And we want him to succeed. We should be very glad he survived those mean streets.




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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Black Flags by Joby Warrick

ISIS appeared to us in the West to have come out of nowhere, but Joby Warrick's careful journalism shows its roots, its alliances, its continuance in light of Western involvement in the Middle East.

Warrick bookends his narrative nonfiction describing the origins of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) with the story of the failed suicide-bomber, Sajida al-Rishawi, who was executed in Jordan just this year, shortly after ISIS put to death-by-burning the downed Jordanian air pilot, First Lieutenant Muadh al-Kasasbeh in Syria in January. This bookending is entirely appropriate for it links the Jordanian thug-turned-radical Abu Musad al-Zarqawi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) with the later leader of ISIS, Iraqi Islamic scholar Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Just this week (Oct 2015) we learned that al-Baghdadi was targeted in an air strike as he convoyed to a meeting of senior ISIS leaders in western Iraq. It is not known if he has been wounded or killed.

I would be happy never to hear or read the name Zarqawi again, but here he is in the pages of this book. Abu Musad al-Zarqawi was the Jordanian national who created and led AQI during the Iraq War. He gained credibility and followers when American forces labelled him a threat in 2003, just before the American invasion of Iraq. Warrick traces the path of Zarqawi’s radicalism, beginning while he was in a Jordanian jail from 1993-99, through his contact with and split from Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda organization, through to his death in by American airstrike in 2006. After his death his organization, which had attracted many followers amongst the Sunni minority in Iraq, lost its thrust and seemed on the point of disintegration.

The American withdrawal from Iraq gave the remnants of Zarqawi’s group more freedom to operate. They continued to consolidate, now with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gradually rising to third in the leadership in charge of Sharia law by 2010. In 2010 an airstrike took out the other two top leaders, leaving Baghdadi to step into the vacuum and impose his own vision on the men under his command. He announced ISIS involvement in Syria in 2011 with a carefully shot and edited quarter-hour video heralded on Islamic websites for days before its release.

Warrick shows us how the radical insurgent movement could have begun, given impetus through a combination of American bombs and Arab prisons. Western ideology and invasion is an undeniable spur to Islamists of any sort, who resist any foreign influence and incursion into their lands, whether or not bombing was meant to help. Warrick adds Arab jails because this is where Zarqawi got his instruction and indoctrination. Inmates were segregated by creed, and the Islamists lived by Sharia law. Jails became, in effect, jihadi universities which helped extremists inculcate moderates, and fueled the insurgency inside the wire. Like Arab jails, the American military system of corralling all insurgents together as “bad guys” was “dysfunctional and counterproductive”, in Warrick’s opinion.

Baghdadi survived and thrived in prison. He was picked up in a sweep in early 2004 and sent to the American-administered jail called Camp Bucca. His academic expertise as a conservative, educated religious scholar gave him stature. He both taught and spoke classical Arabic and led religious prayers. When he was released in 2004 after ten months in prison, he finished earning his doctorate in Islamic studies and gravitated to the militants operating outside the major cities. By 2010 he was third in the leadership of radicals in charge of Sharia law and when an American airstrike took out two of the top leaders in late 2010, al-Baghdadi stepped up.

Now ISIS has Sunni, Shia, as well as Western governments and Russia, all seeking their demise. One reason is that the predominantly Sunni ISIS organization burned the Jordanian Sunni air pilot flying over Syria rather than behead him. Death by burning is something forbidden in the Koran—a retribution something only Allah can presume. There must be a reason an Islamic scholar would order such a death, but the effect was galvanizing. In the film posted online of the burning death, Warrick tells us the voice of Abu Musad al-Zarqawi intones a voiceover: “Lo and behold, the spark has been ignited in Iraq and its fires shall only get bigger…” drawing a clear connection between the former AQI under Zarqawi and the renamed ISIS under Baghdadi. We can only hope that fire will consume them in the end.

It was not this book alone, but my concurrent reading of a book of essays by Mohsin Hamid called Discontent and Its Civilizations that started the beginnings of a breakthrough in the development of my own opinion about American power in the world. Hamid’s essays discuss the American war in Afghanistan from the point of view of Pakistan. America cooperated with Pakistan, in a manner of speaking, for a time. My thinking runs something like this: if a situation in one’s own country gets so bad one thinks one wants to call upon the strength of the American army to save one, think again. Calling upon their superior forces may just wipe out what you were hoping to save.

American military power is a blunt instrument, no matter what they say about precision strikes. Add to that American reluctance to involve their own blood or treasure in a fight they do not perceive as their own. The tool one wishes would save one’s country or one’s faction may come so late (after the bitter wrangling in U.S. Congress) that one no longer really cares about war’s outcome and only wishes the fighting to stop before everyone is dead. Better not to wish for American military might, for that way lies destruction. Why must we learn this lesson again and again? Because the wise are dead, I suspect. It is painful to contemplate the future when one has no faith in discourse, arms, or aid.

I listened to the Penguin Random House audio production of this book, read by Sunil Malhotra. Malhotra reads slowly enough for us to grasp the complicated connections he relates, and reads the Arabic names with comprehension and precision. Great job.

More reading on ISIS:
The Jihadis Return by Patrick Cockburn
Too Weak, Too Strong: Russia in Syria (essay in London Review of Books) by Patrick Cockburn
The Islamic State: A Brief Introduction by Charles R. Lister
Understanding ISIS and The New Global War on Terror by Phyllis Bennis
ISIS: State of Terror by Jessica Stern & J.M. Berger


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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Discontent and Its Civilizations by Mohsin Hamid

This slim book of essays by Mohsin Hamid is one of the most interesting and important books per square inch of space that I have read in a very long time. I have had difficulty reading lately, with lots of distractions and changes in my own life. Hamid’s small book of nonfiction essays promised to be short, relevant, engaging, and international, like his fiction.

These essays were much more than that. Hamid surprised and delighted me with his political section at the end in which he shares with us the notion of Pakistan as it is experienced from the inside: huge, populous, diverse, and multicultural. It has been so difficult over these years of conflict to gain an understanding of the place if one simply read the newspapers or watched TV commentary. Hamid assures us that Pakistan has its problems but indeed is filled, as I knew it must be, with people not so different from ourselves, who strive every day to work, raise children, and live well, if they can.

In a world where tolerance is becoming increasingly hard to find, it was thrilling to find a thoughtful, educated person taking the time to tell us about an area of the world we have been bombing (with drone strikes) for the past decade and about which we have only the remotest sense. In an early essay, “In a Home for Water Lilies,” Hamid tells us he began writing essays and journalism after 9/11 when world events kept him from focusing on fiction. He wrote “a piece for an American publication about the fears of his parents and sister in Pakistan as the U.S. prepared to attack Afghanistan. The paper deleted a paragraph on reasons for the anger felt toward America in many Muslim-majority countries.” A similar piece for a British newspaper was published in its entirety.

Imagine that. While this is not the first I have heard of newspaper self-censorship, it is the first time I have of heard it happening for a fiction writer rather than for secret government documents. We need this man’s voice, for he does not shirk from telling us what we need to hear: that America’s military interventions are so clumsy that they tend to create larger problems and greater resentments than they solve. We have seen this in our time, and know it in our hearts. Hamid dares to tell us how that is.

Hamid has lived in and enjoyed New York, London, and Karachi. He likes them all, though his movements around the globe have given him a refreshingly clear view of each of these places and the countries in which they are rooted. His essays from the past fifteen years reprinted here recount recent history, the present, and risk imagining the future of Pakistan. It takes someone of courage to step outside his chosen field and write his conscience to address pressing issues. We may not agree with him, but the opinion of a thoughtful man is hard to dismiss.

This review was going to be about other, earlier essays in his collection in which Hamid shares his favorite books, his preference for print over eBooks, and an amusing discussion on the current crop of really very decent television serials and what that means for the future of the novel. In a very short essay called “Rereading,” Hamid makes the case that small novels with fewer pages of plot can be “electric with potential” in a way that longer, more ponderous novels cannot be—potential that readers can realize once, twice, or many times in their lifetimes, each time a little differently, depending on experiences in their own lives.

Mohsin Hamid speaks to me. I mean directly to me. In “Enduring Love of the Second Person,” Hamid describes the “amazing potential of the ‘you’…You are given an active role, an invitation to create. Together.” It worked immensely well in his novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and it works in his book of essays.

I highly recommend this title. It is a pleasure to read an author who excites, enlightens, and educates so profoundly in so few words.


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