Book Review – Freedom Walk by Mary Stanton

  • Freedom Walk – Mississippi or Bust
  • by Mary Stanton
  • University Press of Mississippi
  • Copyright 2003
  • 208 pages

Rating –   7/10

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Summary – Freedom Walk tells the stories of two dreamers – Bill Moore and Sam Shirah, Jr. Both attempted a protest march during the civil rights movement. Neither man succeeded and their stories are largely forgotten. Freedom Walk is good and holds the reader’s attention. However, author Mary Stanton misses some opportunities and that will frustrate her readers.

Review – In April 1963, an eccentric postal worker named Bill Moore announced that he was going to walk from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi. His walk was a protest against segregation. Moore never made it. He was shot to death near Attala, Alabama, on the third day of his walk. A grand jury declined to indict the alleged shooter. Freedom Walk’s first hundred pages focus on Moore.

After Moore’s death, other civil rights workers vowed to finish his walk. The second half of the book discusses their attempts and – unfortunately – strays much farther afield. Stanton includes the life story of Sam Shirah, Jr. – an Alabama-born son of a Methodist minister who was one of the marchers who tried to finish what Moore started.

The Shirah material is not bad. He was an interesting person, the rare southern white who had the nerve to speak in favor of civil rights. However, the shift from Moore’s story to Shirah’s isn’t entirely successful. The reader feels as though he or she accidently changed channels in the middle of a TV show.

What Might Have Been

At the very end of the book, author Mary Stanton recounts her attempt to retrace some of Moore’s steps in 2000. Floyd Simpson, the man who allegedly shot Moore, had died in 1998; however, when Simpson met Moore on the day of Moore’s death, he’d been with a friend named Gaddis Killian. Moore, Simpson, and Killian had a charged conversation a few hours before Moore’s murder.

In 2000, Stanton pulled up to Killian’s junk shop and talked to him about nothing in particular. Then, losing her nerve, she drove away without even mentioning Moore’s death. For the reader, it’s a huge letdown. To be blunt, Stanton’s unwillingness to ask a single question about Moore amounts to malpractice.

What’s Left

If the reader wants to look at the glass as half full, there’s a lot of good in Freedom Walk. A recurring theme is that most of the white volunteers in the civil rights struggle came from society’s fringe. If the white activists weren’t on the fringes when they started, they soon ended up there.

Moore fits into that mold. He was a dreamer who always needed somewhere to put his energy. The civil rights and disarmament movements provided him with outlets. Other aspects of his life were less successful. He spent years in a New York mental hospital and was living apart from his wife and stepchildren at the time of his death.

The reader is more ambivalent about Stanton’s portrait of Shirah. It takes you a while to comprehend the abrupt turn that the narrative takes when Stanton shifts from Moore to Shirah. Once you wrap your mind around the shift, the material is interesting, but not wholly compelling.

Shirah was a lot like Moore, a dreamer in search of a cause, who happened to come along at the time of the civil rights movement. The ties between the two men are ever so slight – they tried to complete the same, quixotic march. Predictably, Shirah’s life after the civil rights movement was nowhere near as compelling as what came before.

Footnotes in “The Movement”

Unfortunately, it seems as though the world may “little note nor long remember” Moore or Shirah. Neither was a Martin Luther King. But both played interesting parts in one of the most-important social movements in the past hundred years. Their stories are worth remembering and Stanton does a good job of ensuring that both receive a measure of our acclaim.

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What I’m Reading – Missoula by Jon Krakauer

I started reading Jon Krakauer’s Missoula in the evening. Before bed, I managed the first thirteen chapters (through page 157).

Missoula’s about the rape crisis at the University of Montana around 2010. So far, I’m ambivalent on the book. Krakauer does a good job of discussing the crisis, including some graphic descriptions of the indignities suffered by rape victims.

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At least so far, I haven’t seen much in the way of solutions. He discusses the Obama administration’s insistence that colleges use the preponderance-of-evidence standard to adjudicate rape allegations. That standard – and the hearings that colleges conduct to review the allegations – are controversial for the way in which they treat the accused.

Missoula’s a good book on a difficult issue.

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Book Review – That Championship by Jason Miller

  • The Championship Season
  • by Jason Miller
  • Copyright 1972
  • Publisher – Atheneum
  • 133 pages

Rating – 7/10

Summary – It’s been 20 years since the team from Fillmore High School won the state championship in basketball. Four of the five team members reunite with their coach to talk about old times. But there’s dissension, betrayal, and anger beneath the surface. The play is interesting, but it’s a bleak view of middle-class American men.

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Review – The last time I’d read a play was high school – and that was 27 years ago. But I’d always wanted to read That Championship Season. James Michener mentioned the play in his book Sports in America as a work that exposed the dark side of sports. That was enough for me.

Last week, I was over at the university library and checked out their copy. Championship is a quick, easy read that holds the your attention.

Yesterday’s Heroes and Yesterday’s Dreams

In 1952 the Fillmore High School basketball team won the Pennsylvania state championship. Twenty years later, four of the five starters have a reunion with their beloved coach. The players are –

  • Tom – a cynical alcoholic who has fallen on hard times and missed the last three reunions. He is a bomb thrower who often refuses to accept the rose-colored views of the past.
  • George – an insurance agent who has become mayor of the town. He’s viewed by the others as an incompetent and is in for a tough fight for re-election.
  • James – a junior high school principal who wants to be in politics like George. He laments that he had to spend his younger years taking care of his invalid, alcoholic father. James hopes that George will back him for superintendent of schools if he wins reelection.
  • Phil – a successful businessman who owns a strip mine. Phil loves flashy cars and young women.
  • Coach – who is now retired. He never married and encourages his former players to support each other as adults. The team meets at Coach’s home.

Martin, the fifth player on the team, has not been heard from in 20 years. But there’s a tortured story behind his absence and Miller’s just waiting to hit the reader with it.

“It’s high tide before you know it” –  Coach (p. 68)

Viewed 45 years later, That Championship Season is a product of its times. In 1972 Americans were reevaluating everything about the mythical American dream. Championship’s answer to the questions raised by that reassessment seems to be “The American dream is dead – and it never existed anyway.”img_0170

As the play progresses, it becomes apparent that all five men lead lives of quiet desperation. As the four classmates slide into middle age, they feel the frustration of all that they will never accomplish. Their coach – old, alone, and regretful – shows them what they may become.

Perhaps Miller expresses it most bluntly through Phil –

Sometimes I think that it’s the only thing that I can still feel, you know, still feel in my gut, that championship season, feel the crowds… my best memory to date, yeah, nothing matched it, nothing (p. 97).

Miller’s play strips away layer after layer of the men’s “successful” facades. Nothing is as it seems, not in their middle-aged lives nor in their pasts. Miller uses the five men to comment on America’s ills – greed, war, Anti-Semitism, racism, cruelty, cheating, etc. Unfortunately, some of these themes now seem tired because so many other authors have plowed the same ground.

Once you know where Miller is heading, you can anticipate how much of Champioship will play out. By the end, everything is exposed and the men have nothing left to lose. As a reader, you somehow still care about these flawed, hateful, egotistical men. However, you don’t feel that what happens to them in the future is all that important, they have already lost the game of life and are now just running out the clock.

At the Buzzer

Championship is well worth reading if you accept that it is a downer. Miller seemed to worry that people would miss his point if he didn’t apply it with a sledgehammer. But I still enjoyed reading the play and recommend it to those who want to think about life in America.

 

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Book Review – Pre-Suasion by Robert Cialdini

  • Pre-Suasion – A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade
  • by Robert Cialdini
  • Copyright 2016
  • Publisher – Simon & Schuster
  • 233 pages (+ about 180 pages of footnotes & other “back matter”)

Rating – 6/10

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My copy – hot off the press

Summary – You can’t go home again. Roughly 30 years ago, Robert Cialdini wrote the outstanding book Influence. 30 years later, he returns with the his follow up, Pre-Suasion. The new book isn’t bad, but you should start with Influence.

Review – One thing that research teaches us is that the higher our expectations, the harder we are to please. Maybe I should have realized that I was setting myself up for dashed hopes when I got so excited about Robert Cialdini’s Pre-Suasion. I’m certifiably cheap, but I went all in and bought Pre-Suasion new and in hardcover.

About 10 years ago, I’d read Cialdini’s Influence and thoroughly enjoyed it. In Influence, Cialdini provides six methods that we use to sway others. (They are 1 – social proof, 2 — commitment, 3 – reciprocation, 4 – liking, 5 – authority, and 6 – scarcity). Unlike most popular psychology books, Cialdini’s six principles are based on solid research.  Cialdini made his living as a faculty member in psychology at Arizona State University.

To Be Fair

While I don’t think that Pre-Suasion is particularly good, it does have its moments. The book’s thesis is that the actions that we take before we try to influence people are critical to our success. This is a good point and Cialdini does a good job of showing the implications of pre-suasion.

One interesting point is that people tend to believe that “what’s focal is causal.” This means that if we can see something, we tend to believe that it causes other things that are happening in the environment. For example, if people watch a recording of a police interrogation and the suspect is in the center of the picture, people are more likely to believe that the suspect did it. But if people see a recording of the same interrogation and the camera focused on the police officer, people are much less likely to believe that the suspect was guilty.

Another fascinating finding discusses which advertising appeals work in which situations. Cialdini and his fellow researchers hypothesized that – due to our evolution in a dangerous world – we would be more receptive to appeals emphasizing the popularity of products if we were watching scary TV programs (because there is safety in numbers when we feel threatened).

On the other hand, if romance is possible, we want to be separate from the herd so that we can receive our potential mate’s advances without the presence of competition. (Of course, being alone also gives us a chance to respond to the advances). So, when we are watching TV programs with romantic storylines, we are more receptive to ads that tell us we can “stand out from the crowd.”

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Back cover

Why I Wasn’t Pre-Suaded

I think that Pre-Suasion would be excellent as a 50-page addendum to Influence. But it is “padded out” – there’s just not enough material for a book. Cialdini labors to make it work, but – if you’ve read Influence – you can’t miss the redundancy in Pre-Suasion. 

The padding includes a section recounting Cialdini’s six influence principles (pp. 151-172). Also, Cialdini includes a mildly-interesting section on the ethics of persuasion and influence (pp. 209-223). I don’t know if Cialdini really cares about the ethical implications of persuasion or if he just needed more material.

My Advice – Maybe I’ll Influence You

Cialdini is a smart, interesting thinker. If this sort of material intrigues you, I recommend finding a copy of Influence, which has terrific material and is a lot of fun to read. If you enjoy Influence, you might consider also reading Pre-Suasion. 

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I’d read this one first. It’s terrific.

In summary, Pre-Suasion’s worth a look, but I don’t know that I would pay “full retail” for a copy.

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Book Review – The Skies Belong to Us by Brendan I. Koerner

  • The Skies Belong to Us – Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking
  • by Brendan I. Koerner
  • Copyright 2013
  • Publisher – Crown Publishers
  • 273 pages

Rating – 8.5/10

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Summary – The Skies Belong to Us is two nonfiction stories in one book. First, author Brendan Koerner tells the story of a bizarre, successful 1972 skyjacking. Second, Skies is a general overview of the rise and fall of skyjacking from the 1950s to the 1970s. Surprisingly, Koerner balances the two topics well and – as a result – the book is terrific.

Review – Back in summer 2013, I was spending some time out at Orange Beach, Alabama. One Sunday I treated myself to one of life’s great pleasures – the Sunday New York Times. The book review section discussed The Skies Belong to Us. Skies sounded good, so I put the book on my lengthy “to-read” list, but didn’t get around the reading Skies until I saw a copy at the local library a week or so ago.

Two Lost Souls 

The late-1960s and the early-1970s produced incredible turmoil. The rapid changes led many adrift from the straight-and-narrow paths that people had taken in the past. Roger Holder and Kathy Kerkow were two of those searching people.

Roger Holder was born in 1949, the son a career U.S. Navy sailor. His childhood seemed relatively good, but for a nightmarish stretch that the black Holder family spent in Coos Bay, Oregon. The Navy posted Holder’s father to Coos Bay, which had almost no black families. Shortly, the Holder family was run out of Coos Bay.

After leaving Coos Bay, Roger Holder’s life was turbulent. He dropped out of high school after getting a girl pregnant. He was soon the father of twin girls. Then, like his father, he joined the military. Roger saw much combat in Vietnam, volunteering to serve additional tours. Eventually, he drifted into drugs, which got him thrown into the stockade. When Roger got back to the U.S., he went AWOL and lived under an assumed name in San Diego.

Ironically, Cathy Kerkow – who was born in 1951 -also grew up in Coos Bay. Holder and Kerkow claimed that they had crossed paths during the Holder’s family’s brief stay in town. Cathy was the oldest of four children. She was forced to become a mother to her siblings when her father abandoned the family to pursue a career as a jazz musician.

After graduating from high school, Cathy also began drifting, attending junior college and running through a string of jobs. A high school girlfriend needed someone to share the rent in San Diego and Cathy jumped at the chance to move south. At the time that Cathy reconnected with Roger, she made her money by providing sexual favors in a massage parlor and by selling marijuana.

Cathy and Roger soon became lovers and Roger began plotting a skyjacking. Cathy’s only reaction when Roger told her what he was planning was “So, what do I wear to a hijacking?” (P. 103).  One frustration with Skies is that the reader doesn’t get enough of Cathy’s perspective. To make up for this, Koerner “gets inside her head” as an omniscient narrator who is privy to what she was thinking from moment to moment over forty years ago. This aspect of the book is unconvincing to the reader.

The Big Picture – Skyjacking

Koerner ties to make Skies more than “just a true-crime” book by interspersing the Holder and Kerkow’s stories with the tale of the skyjacking crisis that occurred as air travel became common. I had major worries about this thread, because I thought that Koerner was going to ruin his book by diluting its focus. Fortunately, Koerner shows a deft touch, and never allows the book to bog down. Wisely, he keeps Holder’s and Kerkow’s stories at the book’s center, and makes the “big picture” a subplot.

The thesis in the “big-picture” sections is that the skyjacking crisis emerged due to the political/social changes in the U.S. And due to the airlines’ lobbying against any meaningful attempts to improve airport security. (Airline executives believed that they lost less money by dealing with skyjacking than by putting unhappy passengers through security checks).

One interesting aspect of Skies is the fascination that many hijackers felt for Cuba and Fidel Castro. At a time when Americans were barred from visiting Cuba, many of the hijackers demanded to be flown there, in hopes of obtaining political asylum. As Koerner recounts, most of the hijackers were disillusioned by what they found –

Skyjackers who rubbed their G2 [Cuban] interrogators the wrong way, meanwhile, were dispatched to squalid sugar-harvesting camps, where conditions were rarely better than nightmarish. At these tropical gulags, inmates were punished with machete blows, political agitators were publicly executed, and captured escapees were dragged across razor-sharp talks of sugarcane until their flesh was stripped away. One American hijacker was beaten so badly by prison guards that he lost an eye; another hanged himself in his cell. (Pp. 45-46)

Though nothing can really top the Holder-Kerkow story, there are some good tales in this section of Skies. As Koerner recounts, skyjackers generally were desperate and willing to risk everything to change their fortunes. One story that I particularly enjoyed concerned a Utah man who hijacked a plane and then – as a member of the National Guard – was ordered to join law enforcement’s manhunt for the hijacker. So, he was searching for himself (pp. 97-98).

Adventures in Algeria and France

For all of the book’s political subtext, The Skies Belong to Us might work best as an amazing-but-true adventure story. In April 1972, Holder hijacked a jet with plans to a) free radical activist Angela Davis (who was on trial at the time) and then b) fly the jet to North Vietnam.

Holder and Kerkow were almost laughably inept as hijackers. Kerkow’s check for tickets bounced and they almost couldn’t get on a jet to hijack. Then Cathy remembered that her father had sent her a ticket so that she could visit him in Seattle. Kerkow cashed in that ticket and bought new tickets for both of them. But the jet that they flew on could not fly as far as North Vietnam.

Despite their incompetence, Roger and Cathy succeeded. They made it to Algeria where they received political asylum and associated with Eldridge Cleaver and the other Black Panthers who were living there in exile. The Algeria section is excellent, an adventure in and of itself.

Eventually, Holder, Kerkow, Cleaver, and all of the other American exiles got put out with Algeria. Holder, Kerkow, and Cleaver all ended up in France, setting up an involved battle for extradition. After Roger and Cathy arrived in France, their relationship took a turn. Roger, who had been the leader of the two to that point, began to experience mental problems. Cathy thrived in France and eventually became a part of Paris’ chic, artsy crowd.

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Back cover

Departure

Koerner does a nice job of tying the story together. However, there are many things that we still don’t know and that will frustrate the reader. Despite that, Skies is terrific. Readers interested in true crime, the counterculture, and amazing-but-true stories will enjoy it.

 

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Friday, 3 February 2017 – Backed-Up Book Blog

This week was crazy @ work, so I’ve been off “the book blog” for the past few days. I’ve been reading a lot, but I haven’t kept up on the blog.

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The book reviews are backed up. I have four to write – Freedom Walk by Mary Stanton, That Championship Season by Jason Miller, Pre-Suasion by Robert Cialdini, and one more that escapes me now. Time is the most precious thing that we have. It runs between our fingers. I also read a few pages in Clausewitz’s On War.img_0163

 

The fourth book was The Skies Belong to Us by Brendan I. Koerner. Not remembering was killing me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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E (my older daughter) got the lone bedtime story Friday. C (younger daughter) had her usual problems with tantrums.

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E chose Kitten Mealtime as her book. It’s a tiny, well-loved book that I read to her. She read something else while I read to her, so I guess the story wasn’t that important to her.

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Saturday, 28 January 2017 – The Library, Cialdini, & The Wall Street Journal

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When my daughters and I were down @ the public library, I found a discard book for 50 cents. It’s a book titled Local Color – A Sense of Place in Folk Art and it’s by William Ferris. the book has nine profiles of Mississippi folk artists that was published by The University of Mississippi Press in 1982. I read the Foreward by Robert Penn Warren and that was terrific.

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Saturday afternoon, I hit the wall on Robert Cialdini’s Pre-Suasion. My plan was to finish the remaining 25 pages, but my mind wouldn’t wrap itself around the material. The part that I was trying to read was Cialdini’s take on why businesses shouldn’t use Pre-Suasion. It just wasn’t very interesting and I’m ready to move on from the book.

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img_0148My most-enjoyable reading Saturday was a piece from Saturday’s Wall Street Journal. It was titled “In California, ‘Paper or Plastic?’ Is Against the Law” (by Allysia Finley, p. A9). The column concerns the impact of California’s referendum banning single-use, plastic bags.

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The WSJ loves to bait liberals, and Finley’s piece is very much in this vein – “While pot is now legal in the Golden State, plastic bags are contraband. Welcome to the liberal dystopia.” Finley states that just 3% of plastic bags are produced using oil, which counters the argument that banning the bags helps curb global warming. She goes on to state that reusable bags present their own environmental issues and that plastic bags are only a small portion of the litter in the U.S.

I enjoyed the article. I wonder about the other side of the argument.

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