Monday, May 21, 2018

Gilbert King - Once Again Revealing Florida's Dark Underbelly

Two young black men are refused use of the bathroom at Starbucks and the police are called. A black doctoral student at Yale falls asleep in the common room and the police are called. A Nigerian woman is refused her paid for seat on a United Airlines flight and escorted off the plane because of her body odor. Where, you might ask, will these and the hundreds of other indignities perpetrated on people of color in the United States ever end?

After reading Pulitzer Prize-winner ("Devil in the Grove") Gilbert King's latest account of racism, injustice, and corruption in Florida, I'm afraid that I've come to the conclusion that these incidents will never end as long as we live among our disturbingly incomprehensible fellow human beings. "Beneath a Ruthless Sun" moves from the late ' 40’s to the ‘50’s, ‘60’s, and even the ‘70’s, when you might believe that the situation would have improved for the black population of central Florida. But you would be wrong.

Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found

King’s primary subject is the notorious Sheriff Willis McCall, who oversaw a reign of terror for over twenty years before a new governor, Reuben Askew, finally removed him from office. McCall had been brought to trial many times, implicated in the torture and murder of young black men, but with the state’s attorney general in his pocket and the fear of God in potential jury pools, nothing every stuck.

Still there are plenty of heroes to go around in this true tale of a young white man with cognitive disabilities who, forced by McCall at gunpoint, confessed to a rape he did not commit. Jesse Daniels was shipped off to the Florida Hospital for the Insane in Chattahoochee without benefit of legal representation even though the victim, Blanche Knowles, wife of a prominent citrus baron, reported that her attacker had been a hefty black man. This man actually admitted to Blanche that he had been paid five thousand dollars to kill her but just couldn’t follow through when he saw that her baby was sleeping nearby. Her statement was never released to the public.

If this sounds like the complete inverse of traditional southern injustice where innocent black men were usually  the ones falsely accused, then just wait. The reasons for Jesse’s railroading, a perverse incident of racial and economic prejudice, will take years to uncover. In fact, for fourteen years Jesse’s mother, fueled by the passion of newspaper owner and journalist Mabel Norris Reese Chesley, fought to uncover the truth behind the travesty visited upon her gentle son who still slept with his teddy bear. Reese and her husband were hounded by the Ku Klux Klan, a cross burned on their front lawn, and eventually their unpopular editorial stance resulted in a loss of advertisers. Their publication, The Mount Dora Topic, was forced to close its doors.

Once again King, as evidenced by over twenty pages of meticulous notes, succeeds in exposing the outrageous corruption among too many judges, lawyers, and police officers, that flourished throughout central Florida even long after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. This haunting account serves as a timely reminder that, those of us who dream of a  post-racial world, may be waiting a very long time.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Lauren Groff's Florida Stories

Lauren Groff became the reviewers' darling after her successful novels "The Monsters of Templeton," and "Fates and Furies," came out. I read them both and I'm here to tell you that her collection of short stories, which will be published the first week of June, rise above her previous work. And I don't even like short stories! I reviewed this collection for my radio program at my local NPR station  but it won't likely be aired until the fall. I can't let you wait that long to be made aware of these powerful stories. Here's a reduced version of my opinion.

FloridaLauren Groff’s Florida is not the world of Disney princesses or performing whales that most folks associate with the sunshine state. No, Groff’s Florida is a borderline dangerous place where racial tensions run high, homelessness is rampant, and women and children are often imperiled. Humidity seeps into everything. Snakes, gators, and ants populate old cracker homes in the north Florida swamps where air conditioning is only for the wealthy. The atmosphere in these stories is as heavy and dank as the air.

But this is not a criticism. In fact, Groff’s words are luminous. Her characters are complex, often lonely, like Jude whose mother deserted him and his father in order to save her sanity. Back in Boston she owns a bookstore but by the time Jude finds her, his mother’s smothering need to atone for her absence drives him away.

Then there are the two sisters left alone during a storm in an old fishing camp. Before long the generator dies. Without food they resort to eating a chap stick they find in a drawer. They brave the saw palmetto scrub until they find a pond from which they draw water for boiling. The older sister is resourceful and clever. She reads to the little one, keeping her safe for as long as she can.

Most powerful of all are the personal essays that bookend this collection, each reflecting the stream of consciousness ruminations of the author, a wife who eschews the traditional role, and mother of two boys who fill her with love but also with the desire for escape. At night she runs through her neighborhood, burning off her anger at the present state of the world, fearful of the future her boys will face, and resentful of the partner who sleeps undisturbed through her nocturnal wanderings.
In the final story this same woman flees Florida’s summer steam and storms for the Normandy beach town of Yport, ostensibly to research Guy de Maupassant, but hoping to rekindle her collegiate love of all things French and instill it in her boys.
Painfully honest, deeply disturbing, sometimes redemptive, this collection of stories should be savored slowly, allowing Groff’s painterly language to awaken all your senses. You will be able to see, smell, hear, and almost taste the Florida she evokes with her words.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Adrienne Benson's "The Brightest Sun"

The Brightest SunIf your reader's imagination has ever soared to Africa, the world's second largest continent, then imagine no more. Debut novelist Adrienne Benson, ( informed by her girlhood when she was the precocious child of USAID workers, takes us there in a visceral way in this enchanting tale of mothers and their daughters as they struggle to define themselves in a world both alien and welcoming.

Leona's anthropological work with the Maasai tribes in Kenya is a way to distance herself from America, from an abusive father and a mother too busy to see what was happening under her own roof. So when Leona becomes pregnant from a one-night stand she worries that she too, will be an unworthy mother. She participates in a ritual that will proffer care of her daughter Adia to Simi, a childless Maasai woman and friend who faces the humiliation of expulsion from her husband's care if she doesn't have a baby to care for.

A biologist, Jane arrives in Nairobi under the auspices of the Elephant Foundation, an NGO that tracks and details the slaughtering of elephants for the valuable tusks. Like Leona she's fleeing an untenable family situation back in the states. Jane and her Kikuyu guide Muthega venture out to the Rift Valley before dawn each day following the glorious animals, taking DNA and dung samples, hoping to use scientific information to stop the illegal poaching. But an act of violence sends Jane in emotional tatters to the U.S. embassy where she meets Paul and subsumes her life and passions into his.

Through the lives of these two women, Benson has us crisscrossing the continent, from the green hills of Kenya to the seething heat and humidity of Liberia and north to the dry desert air of Morocco, then back to Nairobi where Adia and Jane's daughter Grace meet at school and become inseparable.

This is a deeply moving novel about complicated people whose paths in life intersect in unsuspected ways, women and men who allow their grim pasts to trample on their bright futures. As joys emanate from past sorrows each character opens to the possibility of, if not pure happiness, radiant contentment. The character of Adia is especially wonderful as she skillfully balances her life with the Maasai with her life among her actual blood relatives.

Though she says in the novel's acknowledgement that she is no Karen Blixen, I couldn't help but feel Blixen's presence in Benson's loving portrayal of Simi and the Maasai women, warriors all, and of the visual, almost painterly descriptions of the many faces of Africa. This book came out last month from Park Row Books. Check your library. You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Jonathan Rabb's Among the Living

A shout out to friend and avid reader Pat Abosch for recommending that I introduce author Jonathan Rabb to my repertoire. A professor of literature, currently at Savannah College of Art and Design, Rabb may have gotten the idea for "Among the Living," which was first published in 2016, from the glorious Savannah campus where the student center was once the first major synagogue in the city.

From the 1700's the city of Savannah was a haven for a burgeoning Jewish population which separated itself into Reform and Conservative factions and never the twain should meet. This irony, the fact that religious groups who all ostensibly worship the same god, discriminate against each other is hardly lost on this recovering Catholic who tempted god mightily by daring to sneak into a Congregational church once during my inquisitive youth. Mr. Rabb addresses this and many other important themes in this beautifully written novel.

Among the Living

For Yitzhak Goldah, arriving in 1947 at the Savannah home of cousins he's never met, it's a question of surviving versus actually living. Among the well-heeled friends of the well-meaning Jeslers, Abe and Pearl, Yitzhak is an object of pity and discomfort. Recently released from a German prison camp, Yitzhak cringes each time someone offers him too much food, takes him shopping for new clothes, and studiously avoids speaking of the elephant in the room.

The Jeslers are shocked when Yitzhak declines to attend Sabbath services, unable to imagine that he might no longer be a believer. They advise that things will go "easier" for him if he has a more American name, deciding on Ike.As "Ike" tries to assimilate into Savannah society, working at Abe Jesler's shoe store, he marvels at the naivety of the American people, at their inability to remotely fathom what happened back in Poland and Germany. He finds he has more of an affinity for the black people who work in the Jesler's kitchen and in the back room of the store.

And then he meets Eva, a war widow with a young son, who sees in Ike a man, kind, interesting, smart, and not just a symbol of the Holocaust. As their relationship deepens we sense that Eva might be the person who can restore Ike to the land of the living unless a surprise arrival from his past and the power of survivor guilt intrude on his new life.

The Jim Crow south, the publishing industry, northern union influence on southern businesses, and cultural and religious identity are all part and parcel of this deeply affecting book from a master storyteller. I did not want it to end.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Anita Shreve's Final Gift to her Readers

Unless her family uncovers a partially completed manuscript, "The Stars Are Fire" is most likely Ms. Shreve's last novel. Her death last month at the age of seventy-one came as a shock to me. It seemed one could always rely on a new book every two or three years and they were consistently good. Is it because she's gone that this one seems exceptional? I don't know. I can only tell you that, like the horrific fires that tore through the state of Maine in 1947, this novel begins slowly and builds to a terrible crescendo.

There's something special about fire and man's relationship to it. It can be mesmerizing and terrifying at the same time, its power and relentlessness an insurmountable obstacle. And during that searing summer and autumn of 1947 with the threat of fire a daily constant, tensions simmered between Grace and her inexplicably sullen husband Gene. It was almost a relief when news of the smoldering forests first spread and Gene joined the men of Hunts Beach in an effort to build a fire break around the town.

Shreve allows us to become intimately acquainted with Grace. We spend time in her head and have access to her complicated, intelligent thoughts as she goes through her humdrum days, finding joy in her two babies, Claire and Tom, in the smell of fresh laundry, or the first pull on a cigarette during a stolen moment at the water's edge with her dear friend Rosie.

But as the fires encroach on the town and Gene fails to return to his family, (was this his opportunity to disappear for good?) Grace has to use all her strength and brains to save her family. Historical records indicate that over twenty five hundred people were left homeless in Maine that fall. Our fictional Grace was one of them. How does one even begin to rise up from the ashes of such devastation?

It's a thrill to watch Grace fashion a life for herself and her children, talk her way into a job though she's never held one in her life, finagle a great deal on an automobile from a sexist car salesman, and basically learn to love herself and her body after years of disdainful condescension from her former husband. It's difficult to read of the abuse Grace suffered at Gene's whim, especially the insidious way that power, at a time when women had none and men had it all, was at its core. Disparate male/female relationships are Shreve's specialty and this book packs an emotional punch.