The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #39: Triumph

Guess what! You can read more of my weird commentaries on my personal blog! What’s that you say, you have better things to do? Well…tough…read it anyway! (Here at the Scruffy Rube)

Running is a writer’s world. Alone with the sound of your breath and the pounding of your feet against pavement, you have all the time in the world to imagine and create stories, legends and myths. You can take your time to chronicle each and every alteration of the weather and the body until you have a big pile of overwrought imagery and irrelevant symbolism.

Jeremy Schaap cuts through a lot of the running falderal with his book about the Track and Field battles during the 1936 Olympic Games. Naturally the focal point is Jesse Owens, and he devotes most of the book to both illuminating and complicating the Buckeye Bullet for readers who know him only as a name from the history books. Owens is a reluctant father and an uneasy political figure who has no choice but to accept his position in the athletic pantheon. At times, he seems to be little more than a cliche spouting, anti-septic athlete, but that has less to do with Schaap’s writing and more with the carefully reassembled hodgepodge of quotes given to sportswriters of the day (making the plethora of cliches much more understandable). And a fair amount of time is spent reflecting on the Nazi ne’er-do-wells whose dreams of a demonstration of aryan supremacy were foiled by Owens, including Goerbles, Goering, Leinie Reifenstahl and, of course, Hitler himself. Their villainy is despicable to be sure, but in the context of their political standing, not wholly different from how the Olympics are sought after today.

Triumph is at its best when it focuses on Owens’ interactions with lesser known luminaries of his time, including AAU chairman and manipulative mastermind Avery Brundage, sprinting rivals Ralph Metcalf and Uliss Peacock, coaches Charles Riley and Larry Snider and the reluctant Nazi/Owens-ally-to-be Lutz Long. The audiobook’s narrator (Michael Kramer) doesn’t ape accents, but offers subtle variations on a slow, well measured drawl, to give each quote a degree of gravitas. There are some characters (including several inconsequential sportswriters and the utterly irrelevant Eleanor Holm-Jarrett) who bog down the story rather than support it, but those are minor complaints of a broadly interesting and honest look at a defining moment in American sports history.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #19: The Red Pyramid

For more on young adult fantasy literature (especially meta-cognitive thoughts about the nature of YA Franchises) check out my regular blog: The Scruffy Rube.

Rick Riordan never really left the page. One year after finishing the Percy Jackson series he was back with not one but two series. The similarly Greek themed “Heroes of Olympus” and an Egyptian styled series called: “The Kane Chronicles”. My school happened to have a cache of The Red Pyramid the first book in “The Kane Chronicles”, so naturally I picked up a copy both to see if Riordan still had a deft touch for action-adventure with a dollop of mythological education, and to see if it was worth discussing in the classroom.

 

To be sure, Riordan has a teacher’s style, a strong ear for teenage dialogue and a fair sense of fun when delving into exposition heavy monologues. He attacks Egyptian mythology with the same sincere appreciation of history and coming-of-age stories that made Percy Jackson such a pleasure to read, and seems all too happy to guide readers beyond American shores into London, Paris and Cairo.

 

Beyond different deities, Riordan separates “The Kane Chronicles” from Percy Jackson in one major way: altering the narrative focus from a single first-person point of view, to a pair of narrators telling their story through an “audio recording” that comes close to second-person point of view. It’s a clever conceit, one that I haven’t seen done in young adult series before and it helps to equalize the power balance between his two protagonists, the siblings Carter and Sadie Kane.

 

Unfortunately, that conceit also mucks up the act of story telling. The story starts with a plea to go quickly and a sense of urgency, then the narrators fixate on prosaic style. I readily believe that teenagers (whether they’re descended from an ancient order of Egyptians or not) would record their every thought, feeling and interest. I don’t know as I can make the leap from that kind of teenager, to the kind who possesses an incredible recall for events of several months before or who casually incorporates description like: “His clothes were similar to those he’d worn the day before, and I had to admit the guy had style. His tailored suit was made of blue wool, he wore a matching fedora and his hair was freshly braided with dark blue lapis lazuli“particularly if there’s an urgency to telling the reader a particular story.

 

While Sadie and Carter often sound like teenage siblings (particularly in the bickering, squabbling, under-your-breath insult arena), they also sound far more worldly than any teenager/magician/possible demi-god has a right to. The narrative bogs down in their descriptions and whenever there’s a hint of an explanation coming up, both characters are hurtled into a fresh action sequence, jumping from one monster to the next with a seemingly interchangeable array of adult guardians.

 

Still, give Riordan credit. He knows enough about what fans want to read (action and a healthy dose of mythology) that he can satisfy them while exploring other avenues of his own artistic interests as well (altering the narrative format, expanding the world around him). He even gives a satisfying glimpse into social dynamics of a mixed-race family, even if that point gets largely subsumed by falcon heads, swinging swords, ravenous hippopotami and plenty of explosions. I might not have asked for an encore to Percy Jackson, but I can’t say that Riordan’s half-assing his way off stage.

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #18: Americanah

For more thoughts as I try to connect my fondness for Scotland, India and West Africa into one incredibly complicated post-colonial knot (and other more edifying writings) check out my regular blog: The Scruffy Rube.

You might recognize Adichie from her now famous TED Talk on “The Dangers of a Single Story”. She’s a marvelous raconteur, personable, sincere, and completely present amongst her audience. She knows what she’s talking about when she talks about an African’s experience in the modern world and the complex reactions to Africans in the west today.

 

AmericanahAmericanah serves as a platform for these observations. In chronicling the lives of Ifemelu and Obinze–as they do the business of girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl and boy live abroad, girl and boy return to eachother–she lets the characters serve as mouthpieces for ideas, perspectives and beliefs (not unlike how Oscar Wilde used his). While that’s great for sparking a discussion about race, gender, class, identity, academia, profiting off of immigrants, and an array of other topics, it doesn’t necessarily make for a thrilling story.

 

Instead Adichie seems to favor speechifying over storytelling. Her ideas are provocative and engaging, but might make better fodder for another TED talk or a serious blog (particularly since she occasionally includes blog-esque extracts from Ifemelu’s race conscious blog). The lengthy middle section of the novel (the part after girl loses boy), seems to almost lose the primary force behind the characters, leaving them to observe and opine rather than do much of anything. Maybe that’s the state of things for lovers in my generation–there are certainly fewer beasts to slay and grails to retrieve–but as interesting as the observations are they aren’t the same as a well honed story. Luckily, the beginning and the ends of the book are excellent expressions of young lovers, and every bit as engrossing as a dose of Downtown Abby drama.

 

I want to be part of a serious conversation about race, and I know that Adichie’s book can start one, I just hope enough readers aren’t so distracted by the lack of “plot” that they let Americanah fall to the ground unfinished. She’s a diamond-sharp-mind and an eloquent writer pursuing vital topics, whether or not this novel serves her goals of observation and story telling, I’m not sure.

geekchicohio’s #CBR5 Review #10: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

It wouldn’t be an understatement to consider Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness a paradigm shifting book. Many Americans are cognizant of the fact that the criminal justice system in America today is less than fair, but Alexander demonstrates that the racial disparity in incarceration is precisely the point. The system isn’t locking up African Americans at rates absurdly higher than those of whites because it is broken, it is doing so because that is precisely what it was designed to do.

The New Jim Crow is one of the most powerful, shocking, and infuriating books I have ever read. While I recommeneded Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars to anyone with an interest in national security affairs, I recommend The New Jim Crow to absolutely everyone who lives in the United States of America. It’s that important, and Alexander makes her point that impactfully.

The book argues that within a few decades of the racial caste system of “Jim Crow” ending, a new racial caste system was built in its place. Mass Incarceration began in the 1980s with the Reagan Administration’s war on drugs–a war declared at a time when drug use nationwide was actually declining. But according to the book, “Since 1980, the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses rose 1100%, from some 41K to over half a million, while drug use has remained relatively flat. 90% of those incarcerated are black or latino, despite whites making up a slight majority of drug users.”

Though what makes Mass Incarceration a true caste system is the fact that it extends far beyond simply jails and prisons. “Unfairness in criminal justice doesn’t end with prison. Legal discrimination exists in employment, civic involvement, housing, and welfare for those permanently labeled felons. Extensive use of probation and parole exacerbate the problem as more people were imprisoned for simple parole violations in 2000 than for ALL REASONS in 1980.”

Alexander writes that though the war on drugs is supposedly a war on a thing, the numbers belie that it is actually a war on people–specifically brown people: “Human Rights Watch reported in 2000 that, in seven states, African Americans constitute 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison. In at least fifteen states, blacks are admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate from twenty to fifty-seven times greater than that of white men.” By 2000, the incarceration rate of African Americans had increased more than twenty-six times the rates of 1983.

Of course the idea that the criminal justice system is INTENTIONALLY racist begs for skepticism, but Alexander speaks to exactly this fact. As the increase in drug arrests was due, not to an increase in drug crime, but to an increase in seeking out such arrests by law enforcement. Between the “crack epidemic” rhetoric of the Reagan Administration and other “us” vs. “them” media portrayals of drug criminals, the pump was primed for bias, intentional or otherwise. Then, when a check on majoritarian overreach was most needed, the US Supreme Court instead raised the bar necessary to prove discrimination and then effectively closed its doors to future challenges of racial bias in policing. Indeed, the Court let law enforcement off its leash, effectively carving a “War on Drugs” exemption into the Fourth Amendment.

Alexander writes:

The risk that prosecutorial discretion will be racially biased is especially acute in the drug enforcement context, where virtually identical behavior is susceptible to a wide variety of interpretations and responses and the media imagery and political discourse has been so thoroughly racialized. Whether a kid is perceived as a dangerous drug-dealing thug or instead viewed as a good kid who was merely experimenting with drugs and selling to a few friends has to do with the ways in which information about illegal drug activity is processed and interpreted, in a social climate in which drug dealing is racially defined. As a former U.S. Attorney explained:
I had an [assistant U.S. attorney who] wanted to drop the gun charge against the defendant [in a case in which] there were no extenuating circumstances. I asked “Why do you want to drop the gun offense?” And he said, “He’s a rural guy and grew up on a farm. The gun he had with him was a rifle. He’s a good ol’ boy, and all good ol’ boys have rifles, and it’s not like he was a gun-toting drug dealer.” But he was a gun-toting drug dealer, exactly.

Alexander shows that the US Supreme Court has immunized police from complaints in bias in policing, prosecutors from complaints of bias in charging and jury selection, and the system as a whole from complaints of bias in sentencing. It simply refuses to hear cases arguing for racial bias unless that bias is demonstrated overtly: explicitly race based, or racist language. Mere racist results are insufficient proof.

Another reason the war on drugs is waged against communities of color is that they simply lack the political might to raise a fuss. Where paramilitary tactics to break up perception drug abuse by soccer moms, ecstasy use by teens, or pot use by frats would silly in severe backlash. These tactics in the ghetto, by contrast, go largely unnoticed by most of society.

Yet the injustice doesn’t end with incarceration, the shame and stigma of a felony on ones record, paired with the legal discrimination against felons in employment, housing, welfare, healthcare, education, professional licensing, voting, serving on juries, custody make reintegration an almost unbearable hardship. Additionally, many ground face extremely high debts as a result of their incarceration, debts they struggle to pay in the face of bleak employment options, and which can paradoxically lead them back to prison if left unpaid.

Overcoming this system is daunting. First because it requires overcoming or own denial. It sounds exaggerated, even fanciful, to believe that in our colorblind age Mass Incarceration is a thinly veiled racial caste system, but an examination of the facts and myths surrounding Mass Incarceration can lead to no other conclusion.

But we must overcome this denial, end the legal discrimination, the ghetto to prison pipelines, end the dug war, and dismantle Mass Incarceration. More importantly, however, Americans must learn to care across racial lines: the reflexively conjured image of the face of a drug criminal must cease to be a brown one. Real economic opportunity must be extended to the ghetto.
There is no moral alternative.