Richard Prince's Book Notes™: Focus on D.C.
As the days get longer and voters turn up the heat on our national leaders, Washington becomes the setting for most of the nonfiction work listed here, at least it's where many of the authors make their livings.
The election of Barack Obama was a shot in the arm to the book industry, and it isn't slowing down. But journalists of color were attracted to other subjects as well: the legendary boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, the Little Rock Nine, the workings of the U.S. Senate, financial security and, of course, the news media. Laura Ling, who spent 140 days in North Korean custody along with fellow reporter Euna Lee, has a newly published account of her captivity, co-written with her sister, Lisa Ling. Lisa Ling's counterpoint describes her efforts, in Washington and elsewhere, to get the women freed.
Robin Givhan, fashion writer at the Washington Post, provided the text for "Michelle: Her First Year as First Lady, a Photographic Journal" (Triumph Books, paper, $14.95). Givhan won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2006 for her commentary in the Post, and this coffee table-style book is a Post production.
"It is illustrated with some of the most candid photos I’ve yet seen by Post photojournalists Marvin Joseph and Bill O’Leary," Jean Patteson wrote in the Orlando Sentinel. "This is not the first book featuring the first lady. But it is the first that is more — much more — than a mere clothing catalog." Patteson called the book "insightful and thought-provoking. And wonderful though the photographs are, it is the text that is the real gem. 'Michelle' is written by someone very like the first lady — an intelligent, successful and articulate African-American woman. And although the author’s pride and affection for the first lady is palpable, she doesn’t hesitate to point out some of Mrs. O’s shortcomings and missteps."
A sample: "It may be that no matter what she does during her tenure as first lady, nothing will surpass the cultural resonance of her mere presence. Michelle Obama is Clair Huxtable made real. She is undeniable evidence of what accomplished, stylish black women and their functional black families had known for so long. We exist. Michelle is extraordinary. But she is not exceptional. She represents a community larger than herself — a world of middle-class success and achievement. A black community free of pathology and dysfunction. A place of normalcy that seemed beyond the capacity of Hollywood, Seventh Avenue and even Madison Avenue to truly imagine. And it is thrilled to be brought out of the shadows."
Wil Haygood, reporter for the Washington Post, wrote "Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson" (Knopf, $27.95).
Tim Rutten said in the Los Angeles Times, "With this book, Haygood — a feature writer for the Washington Post — completes a biographical trilogy that includes earlier prize-winning volumes on Sammy Davis Jr. and the Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., pivotal African American personalities whom the author clearly sees as having tilled the cultural furrows in which the seeds of the civil rights movement ultimately took root.
" 'Sweet Thunder' is by far the best of these books and, in describing an athlete now universally acknowledged as the greatest prizefighter who ever lived, better also than Robinson's own collaborative autobiography." (That would be "Sugar Ray," written with the New York Times' Dave Anderson and published in 1969.)
Haygood touches on Robinson's relationship with the press. On the whole, Haygood said at Washington's Politics and Prose bookstore, Robinson "did not like sportswriters at all. He had no friends in the media. The sportswriters thought he was uppity and arrogant. I think that was a shame." In 1952, Robinson asked W.C. Heinz, a highly respected New York sportswriter, to help him write his autobiography. Heinz refused after determining that he could not resolve conflicting stories about whether Robinson had gone AWOL during World War II. (The fighter claimed amnesia, and his early honorable discharge was said to be given for expediency.) Heinz would later say of Robinson, "He was a guy you'd like to have as a friend. But you couldn't trust him. He was a great con man."
Robinson said of his time promoting the book, released in October: "The amazing thing personally is that some of Sugar Ray's old friends — dancing partners, former sparring partners — have come out to see me give readings. A youth boxing team came out to see me in Watertown, NY, where Sugar Ray made his amateur mark back in the late 1930s, and they presented me with a pair of boxing gloves.
"Also, I gave a reading in Sugar Ray's Harlem that was so touching. It was at Hue-Man bookstore and Cong [Charles] Rangel, who knew Sugar Ray, was there. The New York Times even wrote a feature about me giving the reading in Harlem; feature was written by Corey Kilgannon," Haygood said via e-mail.
Gwen Ifill, the moderator and managing editor of PBS' "Washington Week" and senior correspondent of PBS' "The NewsHour," has written a new afterword for her best-selling "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama" (Doubleday, $24.95; Anchor Books, paper, $15.)
"Ifill's fine book is the first to put the Obama phenomenon in the larger context of African-American political empowerment," the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson wrote for theRoot.com after the book's Inauguration Day publication. "A new generation of black politicians has indeed found new ways to win elections and govern effectively." Ifill's afterword for the paperback edition, published in October, updates readers on the African American politicians she examined and reports on the surprise of others that Obama's election did not bring a "post-racial" society.
The public first heard of Ifill's book when she was about to moderate the Joe Biden-Sarah Palin vice presidential candidates debate in 2008. Although the chapter on Obama had not even been written, the book's very title, critics suggested, betrayed a vested interest in an Obama victory. As it turned out, the book really is not all about Obama, as Robinson noted:
"There are full chapters on Alabama congressman Artur Davis, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. Another chapter offers mini-profiles of a host of other rising stars, such as former congressman Harold Ford Jr., Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty . . . One of Ifill's most striking discoveries is the extent to which these ambitious young turks have encouraged, supported and learned from one another."
One rap on Ifill's book was that she was too dispassionate in her analysis — "If anything, in her book she is too neutral a moderator," the Post's Alan Cooperman said. But in her afterword, Ifill is anything but neutral about the need for more conversation about race. As she promoted her book, she wrote, "I discovered that once the pressure valve is released, people are desperate to talk about race — as long as the conversation is leached of accusation, guilt and blame. Unfortunately, this is seldom the case."
Jon Jeter, a former Washington Post foreign correspondent who also was a producer for "This American Life" at Chicago Public Radio, wrote "Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People" (W.W. Norton, $25.95). Jeter builds on his experiences as a bureau chief in Southern Africa and in South America to bring readers to impoverished communities there and in the United States.
He argues that, "From Argentina to Zambia, from Chicago to Soweto and D.C., to Rio, the restructuring of the global economy has ripped a hole through the earth, city by city, block by block, house by house. Globalization has widened inequality, corrupted politicians, estranged neighbors from one another, unraveled families, rerouted rivers, emptied ports of ships and flooded streets with protesters."
Writing in the Boston Globe, Rich Barlow said, "In the end, Jeter fingers a real problem, exaggerates its consequences, and manages to propose a sensible solution. Two out of three ain't bad."
Laura Ling and Lisa Ling have just published "Somewhere Inside: One Sister's Captivity in North Korea and the Other's Fight to Bring Her Home" (William Morrow, $26.99).
Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for Al Gore's San Francisco-based Current TV, spent 140 days in North Korean custody before they were pardoned and freed last year after talks between former president Bill Clinton and the reclusive communist leader Kim Jong Il. The women had been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for entering the country illegally in pursuing a story.
The chapters of "Somewhere Inside" alternate between Laura's account of her captivity and the efforts of her sister, Lisa Ling, a correspondent for the "Oprah Winfrey Show," to secure the women's release. The book promises insights into the media campaign Lisa Ling undertook to free them, taking us "deep into the drama involving people at the highest levels of government," according to the publicity material.
"Laura Ling's story, obviously, is the more compelling. Hers is a sometimes harrowing, sometimes surreal, sometimes mundane account of her nearly five months in prison," Julie Williamson wrote Sunday in the Deseret News of Salt Lake City.
"The written word is not these broadcast journalists' forte, and passages of 'Somewhere Inside' that should pull at the heartstrings are dry and flat. Yet the bond between the two sisters and the account of their ordeal is compelling enough to keep readers turning the pages."
Laura Ling writes that she is hoping for "an increased awareness of what's happening along the Chinese-North Korean border. North Korean defectors have endured unimaginable hardships and suffering within their homeland and beyond its borders, and their stories are in grave need of attention."
Adds Lisa Ling, "There are literally thousands of people who live in the shadows, unable to be free in China because they fear being caught and repatriated to North Korea, where they would face near certain death. Their stories are heartbreaking."
A portion of the authors' proceeds is being contributed to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and the group Liberty in North Korea, which aids the refugees the women describe.
Lisa Frazier Page, articles editor at the Washington Post Magazine, co-wrote "A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School" by Carlotta Walls LaNier (Ballantine/One World, $26). LaNier is the youngest member of the Little Rock Nine, the black students who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957. She soon commemorates the 50th anniversary of her 1960 graduation — the only woman of the Nine to participate in a graduation exercise. Two others received diplomas, but the schools were closed during that time.
In the Washington Times, John Greenya wrote, "The author, with the very skillful help of her co-author Lisa Frazier Page (who must be credited for infusing Carlotta Walls LaNier's first-person account with just the right amount of anger and indignation, and letting the brutal facts speak for themselves), takes us inside Central High. The reader walks the halls and experiences, vicariously, being hit by gobs of saliva, jostled so books fall to the floor and then being knocked over by the next faceless assailant, feeling her heels being stepped on from behind, day after day, as well as any number of other small indignities that add up to a mountain of hurt.
"But Carlotta Walls survived. She did get to college, and she did graduate, but she did not become a doctor. Just as she had feared, the turmoil of her high school years left her with an insufficient grasp of the science courses needed for medical school. Instead, she carved out a successful career in real estate, married Ira LaNier and had two children, and for many years told no one, in print, that she had been one of the Little Rock Nine. Until now."
Page told Journal-isms, "Her story is our story, our history. I thought I knew the story of the Little Rock Nine, but while working with Carlotta on this book, I learned so much that I didn't know. I think my colleagues will, too."
A paperback edition is to be published on July 26.
Andrea Seabrook, "Talk of the Nation," National Public Radio: 'A Mighty Long Way' From Little Rock
Byron Pitts, contributing correspondent for CBS-TV's "60 Minutes" and chief national correspondent for CBS News, wrote "Step Out on Nothing: How Family and Faith Helped Me Conquer Life's Challenges" (St. Martin's Press, $24.99).
After Pitts went to Haiti in the wake of its devastating earthquake in January, Kenny Irby of the Poynter Institute asked what advice he had for journalists covering such a tragedy. "On big stories the facts scream out, so whisper," Pitts said. "Get small. Go narrow and deep. Find the voiceless and give them voice. As a friend of mine told me once, 'Do the archeology.' Go deep. Find the nuggets."
For the paperback edition of "Step Out on Nothing," due this fall, Pitts told Journal-isms he is adding a chapter about Haiti "and the power lessons for all us about the strength we can find in the midst of struggle."
Struggle is one of the themes of Pitts' memoir, published last fall and immediately bolstered by appearances before the National Association of Black Journalists.
"I didn't learn to read until I was 12 and stuttered until I was 20. Today I'm on 60-MINUTES. Tell me God ain't good! :)," Pitts wrote to Journal-isms then.
He added, "I pray there is a word there for people of faith, people in the midst of struggle, people on the way up on the way down or just holding on in the middle of our profession. And a word to those who need encouragement and to those who encourage others (teachers, coaches, mentors, the old school souls in the newsrooms around the country)."
In another example of struggle, Pitts recalls that he was filling in as weekend anchor in a city he does not name, but the company wasn't offering him the job. "Finally, I pressed my news director, who was a friend. 'What's the deal?' I insisted. His response shocked me. His boss, a station executive, had said, 'A nigger would never anchor one of his broadcasts.' My news director reluctantly passed on the quotation.
"'You can sue if you'd like. Then you'll be blackballed and never work in TV. . . . Or you can press on,' he said, with a mix of sadness and disgust in his voice."
After praying and discussing the incident with family members, Pitts writes, he decided that "the point wasn't about a man's judgment of me; it was about what God had planned. Later that day, I went to my news director, thanked him for his honesty, and asked for his support when the chance came to move along. He agreed. A few months later I moved on.
"Perhaps I should rephrase that. I didn't move on. God moved me along."
Pitts says, "People who've read the book say they've been encouraged by my story. Gotten great support from journalists of course… but also teachers, parents and the faith based community."
Ishmael Reed, the social critic, novelist and poet, has a collection of essays, "Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media: The Return of the Nigger Breakers" (Baraka Books, Montreal, paper, $19.95).
"Reed's output has been labelled by some as incoherent, muddled and abstruse, and by others as multicultural, revolutionary and visionary. What is undeniable is that it is prodigious and multifaceted and has earned him international repute," Hubert Bauch wrote in the Montreal Gazette.
"The new book levels the charge that American mainstream media, dominated by white conservative-minded pundits, have set on a mission to 'break' the country's first black president," the reviewer wrote, "whose progressive ideals and objectives are anathema to the entrenched white moneyed establishment, which owns big media and manipulates it to inflame paranoid and racist sentiment among the white middle and underclass. He likens the process to the chastisement of insubordinate slaves in antebellum days administered by so-called 'nigger breakers' in what was the common American vernacular of the time."
Reed added in an interview with writer Jill Nelson, "Moreover, with the firing, and buyouts of the hundreds of minority journalists, black institutions, blacks in general, black celebrities and even the president are being judged by a mostly white media jury and a handful of acceptable right wing blacks, a few of whom are farther to the right than the white right."
Reed said he was unable to get the book published in the United States because "Serious fiction and non fiction by blacks are becoming extinct, except for that which upholds the current line coming from the media owners and the corporations that all of the problems of Africans and African Americans are due to their behavior."
The book gives a shout-out to reporting in "Journal-isms" and is partially dedicated "to the Maynard Dynasty" and to the memory of Nancy Maynard, co-founder of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.
Terence Samuel, chief congressional correspondent for U.S. News & World Report from 2000 to 2005, has "The Upper House: A Journey Behind the Closed Doors of the U.S. Senate" (Palgrave/Macmillan, $26.)
Samuel was deputy editor of theRoot.com and also worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer and AOL Black Voices. He is so plugged in that he helped kick off promotion of this book with an hour-long May 23 appearance on C-Span's "Q &A," followed two days later by an interview on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition."
When C-Span host Brian Lamb asked him about the effect of spending his early years in Trinidad, Samuel replied that he approaches his work — and this book— with a sense of wonder, bringing "an outsider's view of an inside system."
In "The Upper House," Samuel follows four people from the Senate freshman class elected in 2006: John Tester, D-Mont.; Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; Jim Webb-D.Va.; and Bob Corker, R-Tenn. "The more interesting personal portraits come when Mr. Samuel accompanies some of the senators to their home states," Claude R. Marx wrote Friday in the Washington Times. "We see Sen. Jon Tester, Montana Democrat, explaining arcane policies to constituents and fixing a faulty motor on his farm's tractor. Readers also get a side view of Minnesota Democrat Sen. Amy Klobuchar's encounters with the constituents and foods at the Minnesota State Fair.
"These vignettes give readers a more complete version of the lives of senators and the influences that shape their approach to lawmaking. Mr. Samuel's use of those stories, combined with an elegantly written analysis of the Senate's workings, make the book eminently worthwhile."
A friend commented, "I'm thrilled to see a black author receiving accolades for a political book that is not about Obama."
Michelle Singletary, syndicated personal finance columnist for the Washington Post, has "The Power to Prosper: 21 Days to Financial Freedom" (Zondervan/HarperCollins, paper, $14.99), her third book.
Singletary is the winner of this year's Community Service Award from the National Association of Black Journalists. She created and directed "Prosperity Partners Ministry," a program in which men and women who handle their money well mentor others who are having financial challenges.
"The key feature of this book is the financial fast," Singletary writes in the book. "But if you think you can do this 21-day financial fast on your own, you are mistaken. It's going to take faith. It's going to take examining your relationship with God. It's going to take discipline. . . . This isn't going to be like any fast you've done before or heard about. Rather than eliminating only food or certain types of food, you're going to curtail your consumption in everything you buy. The path to prosperity begins by breaking the yoke to buy and buy and then buy some more."