Sunday, June 29, 2014

Invisible Colored White by Richard Rizzo

It is a truth universally acknowledged that just because someone has an interesting background it does not that he can write an engaging memoir. It is also true that when someone has an interesting history and can write, his memoir can be extraordinary. Richard Rizzo's Invisible Colored White: Being White in a Black World falls into the second category.

Rizzo was born in Brooklyn to an Italian-American family, and spent the first nine years of his life in Bensonhurst, an Itallian/Jewish neighborhood. His parents divorced shortly after his father returned from WWII, "but that wasn't a big thing"—his father lived nearby in the house he'd been born in.

In 1949, Rizzo's mother, Rose, joined the Communist Party and fallen in love with one of its leaders, Pettis ("Pete") Perry. "My mother had said that a white person and a Negro couldn't get married in New York City . . . There probably weren't any laws against it in1949 in New York but that doesn't mean inter-racial marriages were common. According to an article I read recently in the Journal of Family History only 150 inter-racial marriages were performed in the entire U.S. during the decade of the 40s." Rose and Pete were married in Connecticut.

Pete, Rose, and Rizzo moved into an apartment on the fringe of Harlem at 138th Street and Amsterdam Avenue—and Rizzo began to see their situation through the eyes of the white people with whom he'd grown up. "We were freaks in their eyes: something so difficult to imagine, and so revolting, that just the sight of us was intolerable. I began to realize that strangers were looking away, and not seeming to notice us, when we were out in public. People who didn't avert their eyes were even worse; they would make no attempt to hide their hostility and disgust."

Because school was such a trial (in his Harlem elementary school, Rizzo and a friend, cutting class, discovered the body of a student hanging in the boy's room), he was truant so much he barely squeaked through high school. Although his mother and stepfather were committed Communists, and although Rizzo found things to admire about the Party, it never took. By watching Pete, "I had seen what it meant to be in the Party: it was all about discipline, jut just the obvious kind (being able to hold your liquor or whatever), being in the Party demanded mental discipline. Your mind had to lock itself into the Party's program. It wasn't just the literal political plan (the flip-flopping, top down, group consensus) that you had to agree with; you had to close off consideration of all peripheral possibilities."

Invisible Colored White has 52 short chapters—some no more than three pages—organized by "Childhood," "Youth," and "Identity." Rizzo shows us his fears and experiences living in Harlem, visiting his father and Brooklyn relatives, his life as one of two white children in public school, his grandmother's funeral (at which his grandfather cleared the funeral home doorway of racists so Pete and Rose could enter), his visit to the Federal Prison in Danbury where Pete was serving a three-year sentence for sedition. The family moves to California and Rizzo compares and constrasts his life in NY with life in LA and Rizzo participates in civil rights demonstrations—each vignette crisp and sharp.

At the end of this engaging and masterly memoir, Rizzo writes, "Rose's decision to marry Pete provided me with a unique vantage point from which to watch the unfolding of American history. Luckily my desire for invisibility—probably a necessary survival mechanism given the situation—didn't make the suffering of others invisible to me." Fortunately for readers, Rizzo has been able to communicate the scenes, stories, people, and ideas that he encountered along the way.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Any Other Name by Craig Johnson

What makes a good mystery novel? Not, I think, the puzzle itself, although it has to be complex enough to hold the reader's interest but not so complex as to be artificial and preposterous (the problem these days with many of the Agatha Christie murder mysteries). The mystery novels that work best for me have vivid, interesting protagonists: Sherlock Holmes, Travis McGee, Commessario Guido Brunetti, Kurt Wallender, Harry Bosch, Mickey Haller, John Rebus, and now Walt Longmire.

Longmire, the creation of Craig Johnson, is a contemporary sheriff in Absaroka County, Wyoming. He's in his 40s, a widower, has a married adult daughter, drinks Rainier beer, does not carry a cell phone, is a font of arcane knowledge (a third of all motel owners in the U.S. are called Patel, a surname that indicates they're members of a Gujarati Hindu subcaste), and can shoot both right and left-handed. He has a brash undersheriff, Victoria Moretti, formerly a Philadelphia homicide cop, he's friends with Henry Standing Bear, and his mentor and retired sheriff of Absaroka County, is Lucian Connally (who, finally out of patience with a cafe's service, shoots the coffee urn).

Any Other Name is Johnson's eleventh novel and from the first page we know we are in the hands of someone who knows exactly what he's doing. A former sheriff has committed suicide and his widow has asked Lucian to look into it. Turns out that the suicide was investigating some missing-persons cases and one thing leads to another. Aside from his powerful descriptions of Wyoming (Johnson lives in Ucross, WY, pop. 25), his dialogue is great. Here's a snippet;

Walt enters a modest post office with Dog, his dog. The postmaster says,

"This is a federal government facility, and dog's aren't allowed."
"He could be a service dog."

He looked at Dog and then at me doubtfully. "And what kind of service does he provide?"
I walked to the counter, and Dog followed as I leaned a hip against the edge and pulled out my badge wallet and watched it flip out of my hand again and fall onto the floor. Dog nudged it with his nose and then looked at me.
Stooping down, I scooped the thing up . . . "Obviously, he's not a retriever."

Longmier is sympathetic and resourceful, he has good friends and true, the bad guys are believably bad, the Wyoming landscape in winter is itself a character, and the puzzle is satisfyingly complex. What more can you want in a mystery novel?

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Memories of Me by Laura Hedgecock

Hedgecock's subtitle is "A complete guide to telling and sharing the stories of your life." She says she didn't start paying attention to her roots until after she stumbled over some of them. "Now I spend a lot of my time looking for more family stories and memories." Her book shares not only some of her family stories, it also—and far more importantly—stimulates readers to find and record their own stories.

Many of us regret not asking our parents and our grandparents about their lives when we had the chance. I suspect this regret comes with age. When we are young we tend to be so self-involved we're simply not all that interested in how dad met mom or what their childhood homes had been like. Until we reach a certain age, most of us I believe, don't care about dad's story of spending three weeks on a troop ship crossing the Pacific or mom's story of her first prom. But just because our children and grandchildren don't ask now (because they're distracted? timid? unfocused) does not mean they will never want to know.

Memories of Me is filled with good advice, suggestions, lists, worksheets, links to online sources and more. As I read the book, it stirred up memories of events, stories, anecdotes from my life, incidents and people I had not thought about for years. To give you a sense of the book's scope (in only 235 pages) here are some subjects you might write about: things you want to remember, friends, children, you childhood home, grandparents, family lore, heirlooms, traditions and recipes, animal stories, lessons learned, school days, and everyday questions (Is there a God? How do you make life matter? What would my ancestors think of me and my lifestyle? How do you teach kids to do the right thing?).

Hedgecock believes, based on her life experience, that a Treasure Chest of memories is valuable for both the writers and their families. It is "a collection of memories and reflections that we believe are worthy of perpetuation.... Because each of memories and experiences...have had some impact on the person we have become, less earthshaking events also belong in your collection." It is the dailyness, the routine that memoirists often overlook. She also points out there is a place to include the difficult times (physical or psychological abuse, relationship problems, a crisis of faith, and more) and suggests how to write about them.

She concludes her book by suggesting readers write a letter to a child. It's not for everyone, she notes, "but it can be a way of bridging chasms, expressing the thoughts and feelings that are hard to say, and generally crystallizing th things you love about your child and the happiness and aspirations you hope for them."

Memories of Me is more than a guide. Followed conscientiously, it can, I believe, enrich a reader's life.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Plato at the Googleplex by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein subtitles her provocatively titled book "Why Philosophy Won't Go Away." She has a doctorate in philosophy from Princeton and has written three novels, The Mind-Body Problem, Properties of Light, and 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed 36 Arguments which includes an appendix (available on the web) that points out the logical flaws in every argument. I.e., just because we can't explain it doesn't mean that God did it.

Plato at the Googleplex is a hybrid. It is both an explication of Plato's key thoughts and imaginative dialogues between a 2,400-year-old Plato and contemporary figures: A Google engineer, a Freudian therapist and a tiger mother, an advice columnist, a cable news host, and a neuroscience researcher. In alternating chapters, Goldstein alternates chapter between a history of Plato's life and times and an account of his classic dialogues: What is a good life? What is knowledge? What can we know? The Myth of the Cave. The Death of Socrates. And more.

Following each chapter on Plato and his thought is a chapter in which Plato confronts contemporary issues: Could crowd-sourcing be better—more valid, more accurate, more true—source of moral thought than experts? What can you say to a Freudian psychoanalyst and a tiger mom who disagree on the proper way to raise a child? How would Plato respond to a cable talk show who denies there can be morality without religion? And, perhaps more basically, what has Plato to say to a neuroscientist who claims that science has answers all questions of free will and moral agency? Now that science has either answered (or seems able to answer eventually) all the Big Questions, what do we need philosophy for? Let alone the thoughts of some Greek who lived 2,400 years ago.

Goldstein argues—persuasively to my mind—that we need philosophy to address questions like these: Do the 1 percent really contribute more to society than the 99 percent, and if they do, should their contributions be recognized in the form of increased privileges or increased obligations? Is the role of the state to protect us or perfect us? Are there dangers of mixing entertainment values with politics, and if so, what are they? Do professional thinkers who come out of universities and think tanks have a role in statesmanship? Is their expertise useless or worse in the practical political sphere? Are ethical truths inextricably tied to religious truths? Are all truths—ethical, religious, scientific—no more than cultural artifacts? Is reason sufficient—or even necessary—to guide us through life...? And more and more.

Plato at the Googleplex is wonderfully stimulating and readable. For someone with no background in philosophy, the book is, I think, a first-rate introduction to Plato and his thought with its relevance to today's issues. For someone who has a background, it is thought-provoking and challenging. I suspect there are philosophy professors all over the country reading the book and looking for flaws in Goldstein's arguments and scholarship. I wish them luck. Meanwhile, the rest of us can enjoy an intellectual banquet.