Saturday, March 06, 2021

A Shot in the Moonlight by Ben Montgomery

A Shot in the Moonlight by Ben Montgomery is an excellent book that recounts the story of George Dinning and has the subtitle How a Freed Slave and a Confederate Solider Fought for Justice in the Jim Crow South.

The book jacket notes how Dinning in 1897 became the first Black man in the South to beat a lynch mob in court. Dinning was from Southwestern Kentucky, near the Tennessee state line, and 10 years old in 1865 when slaves were declared to be free. The day was commemorated under the name The Eighth of August and the Ku Klux Klan then surfaced in December of that year. Dinning bought from his former slave owner David Dinning in 1877 the land on which he lived, paying off the debt by 1884. He built a house, had a farm, and raised a family. In January 1897 Dinning had 25 white men come to his house at night, wrongfully accuse him of stealing livestock and shooting at the house. Dinning returned fire and a white man in the group died. Dinning a day later turned himself into the Sheriff, and that day his wife and children were told by another mob of men to leave the property and it was then burned.

While Dinning was in custody, Kentucky Governor Bill Bradley was instrumental in keeping him alive. There was a long history of blacks being taken out of police custody and killed by white mobs so the Governor sent troops to Frankin to protect Dinning. Also, prior to his trial for murder, the Kentucky Senate passed an anti-lynching bill that was signed into law by the Governor. About halfway through the book, Montgomery introduces Colonel Bennett H. Young. He was a lawyer who was on the side of the South in the Civil War, robbing a bank in the town of St. Albans, Vermont to fund the war effort, and yet after it was over, he helped people of color. The jury in Dinning’s trial found him not guilty of murder, but guilty of manslaughter, and sentenced him to seven years in prison. Public sentiment was that he shouldn't have been found guilty of anything and should be pardoned by the Governor. Bennett Young sent a telegram to the Governor urging a pardon, and then Bradley issued one, freeing Dinning two weeks after the verdict. 

Dinning moved with his family to Jeffersonville, Indiana and Young represented him in a suit against the men who came to his house that first night as well as those who came back when it burned down. It was the first time a black man brought suit for damages against a white mob and in Louisville in May 1899, Dinning was awarded $50,000, to be paid by the six men deemed most liable. This case paved the way for others in the South, including another by Dinning that was settled. Dinning changed his last name to Denning and grew old in Jeffersonville along with his wife Mollie, children, and grandchildren. The book closes with a man named  Anthony Denning, in 2019 in Jeffersonville where he grew up. His great-grandmother Mollie Denning died in 1944 close the age of eighty-nine and great-grandfather George died in 1930. 

It's a well-detailed and I'm sure thoroughly researched book that gives a solid telling of important events. Also, I thought excellent the bookends to the story, with the end having this mention of how the family legacy carried on, and in the beginning, Montgomery writing about the Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, which features a walkway through and under 800 coffin-sized steel boxes, each containing the name of an American county and the names of those lynched there, some 4,400 people.

Intangibles by Joan Ryan

Intangibles by Joan Ryan is a solid book subtitled Unlocking the Science and Soul of Team Chemistry.

Ryan worked as a sports columnist in San Francisco and then as a media consultant with the Giants and the book centers around team chemistry in baseball. She makes the point that baseball would seem to be the sport where team chemistry the least important as the players are each completing tasks on their own, but there’s some fascinating stories she tells about team chemistry in the sport. Featured are the Giants of the late 1980s led by Roger Craig, with Mike Krukow, Dave Dravecky, Kevin Mitchell, and Will Clark, as well as later Giants teams with Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent.

In terms of the relationship with a coach, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts is quoted as saying that players want to know three things about someone: Does he care about me? Can I trust him? Can he make me better? These ideas also are applicable to relationships between players. Ryan writes extensively about the bond that comes from having the back of your teammates, a principle that applies to soliders in combat, of course on a much more important level. Also, players will be more likely to come together and have team chemistry if they feel they’re a part of something important or in something together.  Also noted is oxytocin, which is released from the brain when someone has good feelings about something, and that people need to feel trusted and valued to have a team working effectively. 

Ryan writes as well about different personality types on a team, and how there's different types both needed and that can work together effectively. The best for team chemistry are super-carriers, with baseball nomad Jonny Gomes cited as an example of someone who actively cared about his teammates. There's also super-disruptors, and it's interesting to read of how Ryan describes Giants superstar Barry Bonds as not one. He wasn’t a great teammate in the super-carrier sense, but he performed on the field and his fairly aloof behavior didn’t negatively impact the team. Jeff Kent is cited as his teammate who was the same way, they weren’t personable with each other or their other teammates, but they both wanted to win, produced individually, and had each other's back when needed. The worst is the complainer looking for recruits. The second worst is the malingerer, the person who always needs to rest or is mildly hurt, not sacrificing. Seven archetypes that Ryan notes are the sparkplug, the sage, the kid, the enforcer, the buddy, the warrior, and the jester. Also, Warriors star Steph Curry is mentioned the rare super-carrier who has all seven archetypes.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Icebound by Andrea Pitzer

 Icebound by Andrea Pitzer is subtitled Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World and tells the story of sixteenth-century Dutch explorer William Barents and sixteen other men who on Barents' third polar exploration, lost their ship off the frozen coast of Nova Zembla, in what's now known as the Barents Sea. They spent the winter stranded and then the following summer set our to return to civilization, not on their still-stuck-in-the-ice vessel, but two small boats that would have to navigate icy and often frozen waters. 

The first trip taken by Barents north from Amsterdam was in 1594, with subsequent journeys each of the next two years. The idea behind the voyages was to discover a northern trade route to China, one hopefully via the "open polar sea" that many believed at the top of the world. On Barents' first trip, the boat he was on sailed north from Amsterdam and followed the Norwegian coastline to Russia, reaching the island of Nova Zembla hundreds of miles above the Russian mainland and farther north than any ship had ever reached from Europe. This initial voyage gave optimism for sailing past Nova Zembla and continuing on to the Far East. The second trip was designed to actually make it to China and establish trade. They ran into ice and turned back, believing they simply needed to time their departure better. It's remarkable that the ice he encountered on the first two voyages didn't make Barents more inclined to think about or prepare for ice on the third. 

The fateful voyage left in May 1596, with Barents the navigator and Jacob van Heemskerck the captain. They first went to Spitsbergen Island before continuing on to Nova Zembla, going over top of the island, reaching the Kara Sea. The boat got pinned in the ice late August, and remained stuck there, with little in the way of provisions for a winter stay. The men started framing a cabin on Nova Zembla, contending with the elements, polar bears, a lack of food, and crucially, a lack of vitamin C to head off scurvy. They moved into the cabin in mid-October, suffering terribly and surviving from trapping foxes, which not only provided food but amounts of the vitamin C the men desperately needed. Over the winter they had no sunlight at all, save for a false sunlight in late January, which came as the result of something that came to be known as the Novaya Zemlya effect, an inversion layer in polar regions that causes the sunlight to bend and refract above the horizon the sun actually sits below. The sun finally came out in late April and after having several crewmembers die on Nova Zembla, the men left on two small boats in mid-June 1957, leaving their ship behind.

They went back over top of Nova Zembla, staying close to the shore and going down to Vaigach Island just off the coast of Russia and Barents, who was one of the older members of the voyage, died shortly after they started back. The crew had many harrowing episodes working their way through ice, often having to bring the boats up onto solid ground to avoid being crushed in the ice. They also had to deal with polar bears stalking them and in late July came across their first encounter with civilization, in the form of two ships with Russian sailors. The Russians gave them some food and then after they separated, the two boats came across the spoon-wart plant, high in vitamin C and a tremendous help in combating their rampant scurvy. It was still very rough going as they continued on, but they came across additional Russian sailors, trading gold coins they had for provisions. They sailed across 160 miles of open water, landing at Kanin Nos, then reached Kildin Island late August and were told that Dutch ships were at Kola (near Murmansk, Russia). There they reunited with someone who had set out with them on his own ship the prior year, and who brought the remaining crew back to Amsterdam, where they recounted their remarkable tale of survival.

Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline

Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline is a follow-up to his 2011 debut novel Ready Player One that became a best-seller and was adapted into a 2018 Steven Spielberg movie.

Ready Player Two picks up where the first book left off, and as this review notes, it "trades the fun and wish fulfillment of its predecessor for a fundamentally flawed, inconsistent quest towards the singularity." 

The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley

 The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley is a very detailed book originally published in 1964, one which I became interested in from mention of Malcolm X in the book King of the World on Muhammad Ali. 

Malcolm X's autobiography traces his life, starting in Lansing, Michigan to then, shortly after he became a teenager, hustling in Boston and later New York City. He went to jail for robbery in his early 20s, and while incarcerated, was introduced to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and his Nation of Islam. Malcolm X started writing letters daily to Muhammad and also read voraciously over his seven years in prison.

After his release, Malcolm X began recruiting to get people to join the Nation of Islam, helped establish new temples, and became a minister himself. He became well known as he proselytized for the words of Muhammad and the idea of blacks needing to separate from whites. Eventually there grew to be a resentment of Malcolm X, a belief by some that his speaking of the Nation of Islam and teachings of Muhammad was actually about himself, and eventually Muhammad cast Malcolm X out of the Nation. 

This led to him going through a transformation, one where statements by Malcolm X on race changed and he set aside his prior preaching about racial separation and began to speak of how whites and blacks could live together. The story of Malcolm X feels an incomplete one, as there likely much more he would had added on the subject of race relations had he not been murdered by Nation of Islam members loyal to Elijah Muhammad.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Road From Raqqa by Jordan Ritter Conn

The Road from Raqqa by Jordan Ritter Conn is a compelling book on Riyad and Bashar Al-Kasem, brothers born in Raqqa, Syria and who remained close as their paths diverged. Riyad moved to the United States, eventually opening a restaurant outside Nashville, and Bashar stayed behind and later fled his war-torn Raqqa.

As Riyad became an adult, he felt the need to leave Syria and its despot leader, President Hafez al-Assad. He got the opportunity to come to the United States and landed in Los Angeles in 1990. It was interesting reading of how kind many strangers were to him and he married several years later, then became a U.S. citizen in 1996. After September 11, 2001, he encountered more racism then when he first arrived in the U.S., and eventually he and his family moved to her hometown of Hendersonville just outside Nashville. Riyad opened a restaurant, Cafe Rakka, that was featured on an October 2010 episode of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, and remains open today.

Bashar visited Riyad in America, coming to California just prior to 9/11, and then was effectively forced out of the country and back to Raqqa after being arrested for a minor immigration violation. Trouble came to Syria starting with the Arab Spring in 2011, with people protesting the government of President Bashar al-Assad, son of Hafez al-Assad. The protests moved beyond people wanting freedom from al-Assad to a situation with various factions coming into the country and fighting for power. Raqqa in 2013 fell to rebels, with eventually ISIS, known as Daesh in Raqqa, taking control of the city. Bashar and his family lived in fear of Daesh in the daytime, and in fear of the bombs dropped on the city by U.S.-backed coalition forces at nighttime. In 2015, he and his family fled Syria, first to Turkey, then took the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea, eventually settling in Germany. Daesh was forced out of Raqqa by coalition troops in 2017, and the United Nations estimated 80% of the city uninhabitable. 

The book is a really good tale well-told, with it a sort of survival story about Riyad and Bashar, and also about immigration, war, refugees, and people's attitudes towards their fellow man, both in the U.S. and abroad. 

Sunday, January 10, 2021

A Promised Land by Barack Obama

 A Promised Land by Barack Obama is a well-written book that covers a tremendous amount of ground. The book jacket includes mention of the reach and limits of presidential power, U.S. partisan politics, international diplomacy, the 2008 financial crisis, passage of the Affordable Care Act, and the raid that killed Bid Laden. The jacket then closes with how the book captures Obama’s conviction that democracy not a gift, but something founded on empathy and common understanding built together, day by day.

Obama notes how he wrote the first draft in longhand on legal pads. Related to this, it seems the work that went into his law degree likely helped shape his methodical approach to approaching problems by gathering information as well as honed his skills, first employed out of college as a lawyer and community organizer. He comes across as someone who is remarkable, but not someone that couldn’t be aspired to. He seems to care and put in the work, listening to viewpoints and trying to make the right decisions. He also mentions how the presidency a job, like those held by others, and our federal government a human enterprise. It was also interesting to read of how he describes Joe Biden, as someone decent, honest, loyal, and caring.

In writing about his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama covered the introduction of Sarah Palin as the Republican nomination for VP. He noted wondering if John McCain later regretted putting her on the ticket, helping further the political approach of criticism over understanding or knowledge, later morphing into the dangerous repudiation of truth and facts.

It's a good book and also includes mention of Obama's favorite photo from election night in 2008, a shot of people at the Lincoln Memorial listening on the radio to him give his speech at Grant Park in Chicago.