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Hello, my name is Valorie. I have a Master's Degree in History and a license to teach-- I have been both university professor and public school teacher. Currently, I am a middle school social studies teacher. I love horror movies and spooky things. Every day is Halloween. I am also a passionate book blogger.

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Book Review: 23:27 by H.L. Roberts

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Book Review: Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Raymond Arsenault

Title: Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice
Author: Raymond Arsenault 
Genre: Nonfiction - History 
Finished: March 23, 2010 

In what author Raymond Arsenault calls the first historical study of the Freedom Rides, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice is a journalistic and chronological narrative that separates, but does not isolate, the Freedom Rides from the broader context of the Civil Rights movement. Arsenault’s revisionist styled history addresses the lack of historical focus on the Freedom Rides itself, which he claims has so far only been discussed by historians as a “prelude to the climactic events” of later civil rights efforts and never on its own for its own significance (7). To Arsenault, the Freedom Rider movement was a transformative event that ushered in an era of citizen politics vital to the entire civil rights struggle (8). To tell a story that speaks of personal sacrifice and bravery, and a willingness to place oneself in personal harm for the most basic recognition of rights, the human element cannot be ignored. 

When the Freedom Riders decided to challenge their right to desegregated interstate bus travel, a right upheld by the Supreme Court, they took a personal and dangerous stand against the vehemently racist Deep South. To portray the humanity of the Freedom Rides, Arsenault says he will let the players speak for themselves throughout his monograph (9). In this, Arsenault is very successful. Using a vast archive of manuscripts that includes personal papers and scrapbooks, as well as court decisions, newspapers, government publications, and interviews, Arsenault imbues Freedom Riders with a poignancy that cannot come from chronological narration and analysis alone. For example, to depict the chaos of the Montgomery, Alabama riot of May 20th, Arsenault chooses to use the words of John Lewis himself, whose emotional and personal account of the event lends to the story an element of dramatic immediacy that academic language could never do justice to (212). To assume that Arsenault’s intent is to strictly isolate the Freedom Rides from the larger picture would be incorrect. 

The Civil Rights movement as a whole was dominated by different groups and people, all of whom engaged in an interplay of alliance, faction, and inspiration. In one of the most extensive studies of Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) by David Garrow, Bearing the Cross, little attention is paid to the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and their involvement with King and the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). In Garrow’s interpretation, the relationship between King and FOR was based on FOR’s curiosity about King and the Montgomery boycott. When members of FOR found out King was interested in Gandhi and passive resistance, they helped provide resources to teach him more about it. ((David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Leadership Conference (New York: Perennial Classics, 2004): 67-70.)) Arsenault contributes a new element to the dynamic relationship by instead insisting that the link between the two was stronger than mere curiosity and sideline influence. According to Arsenault, King and the MIA was dependant on FOR’s leadership, and it was the FOR movement that instilled the ideas of Gandhian nonviolence into King, which he would utilize passionately (70). To Garrow, it was a matter of refinement of an already adopted idea. To Arsenault, it was because of FOR that the MIA adopted the practice. Arsenault does similarly when he describes the legacy of the Freedom Rides. Due to what he sees as an historical lack of importance attributed to the Freedom Rides, it is essential for Arsenault's to define what the importance of the Freedom Riders was and remains. This required him to look outside of the Freedom Rides themselves and account for how the Freedom Rides inspired future civil rights developments. Arsenault states that the Freedom Riders nationalized their movement and would later move on to direct, participate, and inspire future acts of civil defiance such as the March on Washington, the Freedom Summer, and various voting registration drives (507). Arsenault is perhaps a bit guilty of overstating the importance of the movement itself. While the Freedom Rides no doubt inspired many, and many future Civil Rights activists would look back to the bravery of the riders for guidance, the Freedom Riders were one of several groups functioning. King and the NAACP had voting registration projects distinct from anything the Freedom Riders did, for instance. If anything, the experience gained by all of the Freedom Riders as they challenged racism head on would equip them to lead and teach others, and Arsenault is right to point this out. By participating in the Freedom Rides, many young students developed a taste for action. After surviving the violence of the KKK in Alabama and Mississippi, there was little left for them to fear of the white South, though they never underestimated the violence possible. This bravery would disseminate throughout the movement and inspire, and tested practices of nonviolence and passive resistance would be adopted by other groups. Arsenault was correct in this conclusion. 

The Freedom Rides was part of a whole rather than a pinnacle. Another one of the major successes of the book is how Arsenault fits the Freedom Riders into the political culture of the time, and also within what is happening throughout the world. Again, Arsenault removes the rides from isolation, and this time to surround them in a national and world context. In terms of the federal government, Arsenault adequately shows that the Freedom Riders exposed the tensions between federal and state governments, and also forced the national government to act in favor of them if only to protect the image of the country from bad media coverage. The federal government, as Arsenault depicts, was relatively inadequate to the task of forcing state and local governments to comply with their terms. The weaknesses of the Kennedy Administration, Hoover and the FBI, and the Supreme Court is at center stage with the Freedom Riders. Yet Arsenault rightfully too inserts further complexity in matters of election; President John F. Kennedy could not risk losing support and thus had to act in a manner that would anger his supporters the least (221-222, 244-246). Attorney General Robert Kennedy worried over whether to send federal marshals into Montgomery to quell the hostile situation there because he did not want the moral authority of the United States to be mitigated by much publicized white violence (221). The Freedom Riders, too, were very aware of what was happening in the world. African Americans throughout the United States simultaneously applauded South African apartheid protestors and lamented their similar struggles, and felt that if Africans could bring an end to colonialism and gain independence, so too could they gain their freedom (201, 431). The Freedom Rides were a complex series of rides with a rotating cast of participants who came and went over the course. Different organizations and student groups started rides of their own such as the Nashville group who decided to continue after the first Freedom Ride lest white violence become the norm against them. As a result, tracing the pattern of rides and people can get a bit difficult to follow. Thankfully, Arsenault provides maps that trace the routes of different groups, and maps that section parts of major cities off to give a geographical sense of the project. However, his text would have been easier to follow had he found a way to identify the different Freedom Ride groups in a distinct and consistent manner. Referring to every different ride as just Freedom Ride or the riders as only Freedom Riders makes for a confusing chronology. It would benefit readers more had Arsenault named each group in a manner that would recognize them more specifically, such as Nashville Freedom Riders or Mississippi Freedom Rides like he does on his map routes. The consistency alone would help connect the text to the maps and make them work in better support of each other. This does not in any way diminish the work Arsenault has produced. He states that he has set out to describe the Freedom Rides and place them back on the list of momentous Civil Rights events, and he does. The Freedom Rides are no longer just a marginal event overshadowed by King or NAACP, but an individual movement that too would motivate others while drawing the overall movement into the national eye.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Comic Review: Lenore: Noogies by Roman Dirge

Title: Lenore: Noogies
Author: Roman Dirge 
Genre: Graphic Novel - Horror
Finished: March 13, 2010 

I like cute and disturbing. They don't call me Morbid Romantic for nothing, right? Which is why dead and macabre little Lenore is just up my ally. I admit that I have never been much into comic books, and I have always tried to avoid the Hot Topic brand of dark and spooky. Yet there is something charming about a book that features a dead girl with skulls in her hair, cradling a dead cat. I thought to myself... hey, this just may be good. So I felt very fortunate to get my hands on the hardbacked Noogies color edition. This was my first experience with Lenore, so big fans of the series please forgive me for my fandom ignorance. Within the book are a number of chapters that contain various short length comic stories featuring Lenore, Mr. Gosh, a poor cat named Mr. Puffy who sends himself flying from a window, and a host of creepy and unsettling creatures that you sometimes both pity and also feel utterly revolted by. Roman Dirge is clearly a very disturbed man who may need a lot of help. And what a wonderful thing he is. I thoroughly enjoyed pulling up the covers, turning on a dim light, and reading through this volume. By it's nature, even with the appreciation of the art, this book reads very fast. I liked to skim and take in the disturbing images, my favorite Mr. Gosh, who reminded me of the villain in Nightbreed with his bag head. I will have to say that The Return of Mr. Gosh was my favorite of the comics. I just loved his initial crawl out of the ground scene... it was cute, okay? I am a sucker for love, after all. Love never dies, or so the moral of the story is. If a moral was ever intended. It was a wonderful read. For anyone who likes horror, who likes the disturbing, who doesn't mind a bit of light humored baby murder and animal slaughter. There is a little bit of ghoul in all of us. I absolutely look forward to collecting the rest of these hardbacked color editions to add to the collection. I think Lenore is simply too adorable, and I love her even more that she can make me go, "ugh" from time to time. After all, who wants a world of rainbows and cupcakes? Well, okay... me. I would love a world of rainbows and cupcakes. Yet I can't imagine this without there also being a few coffins and skulls.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Book Review: Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Leadership Conference by David J. Garrow

Title: Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Leadership Conference
Author: David J. Garrow 
Genre: Nonfiction - History 
Finished: March 3, 2010

David J. Garrow has provided an extensive study of Martin Luther King Jr. and his work within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in his book Bearing the Cross. With a title that portrays the religious and spiritual aspect of King’s personal civil rights vision, as well as the exhaustive extent of the undertaking that would take its toll on King both physically and mentally, Garrow too has undertaken quite a task in writing his in depth and fact filled study. Using hundreds of sources, in fact over 600 interviews alone, Garrow has compiled a complete record of King’s civil rights journey from the moment he entered the Montgomery Improvement Association’s (MIA) bus boycott all the way to his death. However, the book is about more than just King, and that is one of the greatest strengths of Bearing the Cross. The story is really the story of a wider Civil Rights Movement, one in which King would become a leading figure and icon of. 

Bearing the Cross is undoubtedly a personal story, and everything within is connected to King in some form be it through his participation, association, support, or opposition. King had so many connections in the Civil Rights Movement that to tell his story is to tell each individual story, which Garrow attempts to do when he delves into subjects such as the Freedom Rides, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Selma, the Voting Rights Act, Northern ghettos, and Vietnam, just to name a few. Not only does this portray just how much momentum the movement had, which grew in fervor and activity as the years progressed, and how large it grew, but also what King himself took on when he shouldered the responsibility of becoming one of the major leaders. As reviewers David Herbert Donald and William C. Stinchcombe have noted, Garrow misses occasional opportunities to analyze King, and we are therefore sometimes made to take King at face value with just a selection of his decisions or quotes to flesh out his intentions and feelings. ((David Herbert Donald, “Review: [untitled],” The Journal of Southern History 54, no 1 (February 1988): 135-137; William C. Stinchcombe, “Review: [untitled],” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 19, no. 2 (Autumn 1988): 367-369.)) While there are moments when we can see the personality and intentions of King come through his words as he speaks for himself to explain his motivations, especially when he talks about his passion for the Civil Rights Movement and his willingness to die for it, other times are a bit more obscure and we are left to wonder why King did some of what he did. For example, Garrow writes that King had expressed some hesitation to be included on a petition to help activist Carl Braden out of a charge of contempt of court. The wife of Carl, Anne, was disappointed that she would likely not get King's support. However, King changed his mind and phoned her to ask that she place his name on the petition because he had prayed over it and decided it was right (155). This would have been a perfect time for Garrow to attempt an analysis of the whys of King's action, yet he does not take advantage of the opportunity to use his vast knowledge of King to explain this change of heart, or why King would put himself in such a politically precarious position by association. Perhaps in the cases where Garrow did not analyze, he hoped that his facts would speak for themselves and he was wary of trying to get into the head of King for fear of making too many assumptions that he could not support. Yet Garrow attempts to create a narrative out of the intense amount of facts he includes, and this leads him in some cases to make a few assumptions of King that he cannot, or rather does not, substantiate. For instance, in one of the many discussions of the SCLC's financial mismanagement, Garrow writes that King brushed off the accusations made at the SCLC’s leaders, but felt they were accurate when he truly thought about it (469). Garrow leaves the statement at that and does not attempt to follow up with any evidence to support it. It seems that Garrow is trying to create a more enjoyable story by including elements of intimate understanding, yet they are not always satisfactory and the text is still dense with dates and an intense volume of fact. That is not to say that a reader will come off not knowing who King was. 

In fact, Garrow is very adept at including aspects of King's personality and life that many people do not know or consider. There is a definite evolution of character from King's kitchen revelation (58), to his trip to India where he refined his own method of resistance as he learned more about Gandhi (114), all the way to his ultimate loss of faith in white men and democracy (604). It is also surprising to learn that King, known as such a great rhetorician, often had others write his speeches and chapters in his books. This aspect almost makes it seem as if King was a popular figure speaking out the ideas of groups, and more pessimistically, a pawn of other thinkers since so many of his ideas were molded by others who could influence or persuade him (139). This does not, of course, tarnish his reputation or his much deserved respect, it merely opens up a new facet to King's overall focus on collectivity. King did, after all, assert many times that he acted for his people and that the movement did not depend on him and would continue on without him, which means there were other thinkers in the background. Also surprising were the revelations Garrow made about King's misogyny and views on sex (141 & 374-376). King is an icon, certainly, but now also a man who had his own faults, and at times very fatalistic (232). One other objection to be taken with this novel is its treatment of the NAACP. Garrow is in no way objective when he discusses the animosity that began to grow around the NAACP and King/SCLC. As described by Garrow, the NAACP on various occasions attempted to smear the SCLC or hinder them in their progress in voting rights. The NAACP would naturally take a special exception to King's assertion that attempting to change the country in front of a judge and appealing for change was not the proper approach, but rather that resistance such as they had been done in Montgomery was vital (87). The two groups had a natural ideological difference. Garrow is unfair in his language, and even goes so far as to include the statement, "With allies like the NAACP, SCLC's effort had little chance of success" (103). Granted, the NAACP was in conflict with King, Garrow should have exercised a little more neutrality and fairness when discussing these occasions. 

A final thing must be said about Garrows endnotes. Though he provides a glossary of his abbreviations in the back of the text, his endnotes are still confusing and hard to sift through. Maybe it is his sheer volume of sources that complicates the system, but it does not help that much of his citations are made up of letter and number combinations. When perusing through to find a source, one must flip back and forth to try to make sense of what is being identified and where to finally find it. Though the short form of the citations clears up space, it leads to too much confusion for students and scholars who may want to follow up on his research. It may seem as if there is nothing good about this book since most of what has been written about it so far has been critical, but the sheer extent of Garrow's research should be praised. When writing on a figure as big and as important as Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who has had much already written about him, one naturally has an understanding of him that they approach studies of him with. Even lacking in the occasional analysis, Garrow provides a vast array of information that pieces together King's life into one continuous and chronological story. Even if we do not come off understanding the finer details of King's mentality, we still see how events flowed along a never ebbing, but wavering line, and how ideas melded and split. It is this dynamic that is important to understanding the larger picture of the Civil Rights Movement. So much is encompassed in Garrow's story that it is almost too much to read and remember in one reading. Despite some of its faults, it is without a doubt a vital book to the history of African Americans, Civil Rights, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Book Review: The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries by Carlo Ginzburg

Title: The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
Author: Carlo Ginzburg 
Genre: Nonfiction - History 
Finished: March 1, 2010

In The Night Battles, Carlo Ginzburg looks at a small group of northeastern Italian people from the area of Friuli who claimed to be 'benandanti.' The benandanti, according to their legend, were people born with "the caul," and battled witches to protect the harvest and people, and to heal people bewitched. A second strand of benandanti claimed to be witness to processions of the dead. Using a small set of inquisition documents to do his microhistory, Ginzburg claims that he can reconstruct the progression of benandanti identity from their perspective from those who battle witches to those who are witches. This new identity was imposed, according to Ginzburg, by the inquisitors who used leading questions and other devices such as fear to convince the accused benandanti into altering their confessions to fit the new model of witchcraft, which can be traced through the confession transcripts. The book contains four chapters and an appendix with a few of the transcripts included for reference. Chapter one introduces the benandanti, their beliefs, and the inquisitors; chapter two describes the benandanti who associate with the dead and traces possible links of origin; chapter three returns to the benandanti and the inquisitors, and to the evolution of the benandanti identity; and chapter four sees the conclusion of the benandanti fitting themselves into the accepted mold of witchcraft. There is no way Ginzburg can support, with his available evidence, what the true intentions of the benandanti were when they confessed to witchcraft practices. Was it that they became convinced of their own evil, or simply became indoctrinated out of fear and insistence to change stories to fit what they knew the inquisitors wanted regardless of what they knew to be truth? There is simply no way to know if the benandanti were only saying what they felt needed to be said, or if they actually accepted it as truth. Ginzburg does, unfortunately, make a lot of claims that cannot be substantiated. For example, he tells the story of a woman named Anna la Rossa who he admits never claimed to be a benandanti (35). Yet later on, Ginzburg refers to her as one of the benandanti (41 & 43) without ever proving that she was one. If anything, Ginzburg is merely reasserting that many different beliefs had origins in the same pagan traditions, or that ideas filtered through geographical space. In another case, Ginzburg claims that the trances during which benandanti left their bodies were ointment induced or caused by illness (59). Again, this is not something he can adequately support and therefore cannot state it as unquestionable. Regardless of this, Ginzburg's greatest achievements are two. First, he does a good job in his outlining of the various pagan traditional origins of witchcraft and other cults. Second, he has great success in showing how the inquisitorial process was able to impose beliefs with such effectiveness that people would admit to them even when they knew giving the answer that was desired would surely bring harm to them. It sheds light on the nature of the witch hunts and trials, and the confessions rendered.