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 February Short Takes

White Is A State of Mind
Melba Pattillo Beals
356 pp.



When in 1957 Melba Pattillo became one of the Little Rock Nine fighting to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, she became as well a heroine of the civil rights movement and a target of KKK death threats, a famous name to be studied in textbooks and an outcast in her own community. In the long, difficult year she spent in Central High, she was taunted, assaulted and threatened at every turn. Yet home was no refuge; there she was angrily denounced by many of her neighbors and former friends, whose livelihoods and safety were dependent upon the caprice of a now enraged white community. In the midst of all this, "I just wanted to be a normal sixteen-year-old with a date for the senior prom," Melba writes in her memoir, White is a State of Mind.

The sequel to her award-winning Warriors Don't Cry, White is a State of Mind is the story of Melba Pattillo Beals's life in the aftermath of that fateful year, and recounts both how much she gave up for the sake of the battle for school integration and how much she unexpectedly gained as a result.

When word comes to Melba's family that her life is truly in danger from the KKK--"They're wanting to get you as an example," she is told, with a $10,000 reward for her capture and murder--she is spirited away by the NAACP to safety in California. Expecting to find shelter there with a black family, she instead is stunned to find herself living in the home of a white Quaker family and enrolled in the nearly all-white local high school.

She expects at any moment for her host family to treat her as a servant. Her first day of school she is so terrified by the sea of white faces, too like those she has left behind in Little Rock, that she literally flees. Only gradually--when her opinions are solicited by her host family, when no angry words are spoken, no raw eggs smashed over her head, no feet thrust out to trip her or fists slammed into her back at school--does she begin to let down her guard and allow herself to believe that kindness and friendship and respect are not everywhere determined by the color of one's skin.

Beals's memoir traces her struggle thereafter to find a place that is home. Having tasted the freedom of California--where she is no longer required to cast her eyes down when speaking to a white person, where there are no signs reading "Whites Only," where dinnertime conversation does not focus on negotiating the minefield of ever-present white hostility--she is unwilling to return to the bleak prospects of segregated Little Rock. Yet she often feels isolated and groundless in her new home, cut off from everything familiar to her, too much torn between two worlds to join fully in the carefree enthusiasms of her white California friends.

Throughout the book, what is most poignant about her story is her yearning for the simple comforts of ordinary life--unreserved friendship, the embrace of community, meaningful work. Often disappointed where she seeks it, she is equally surprised where she finds it. At its most powerful, however, the book serves to remind us that incredible courage can sometimes wear the uncertain face of a girl who just wants to go to the prom.

--Caroline Kettlewell

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The Seekers: The Story of Man's Continuing Quest to Understand His World
Daniel J. Boorstin
352 pp.



I confess. I skulked around Daniel J. Boorstin's The Seekers: The Story of Man's Continuing Quest to Understand His World for weeks, casing the joint, before I broke in.

I tried the front door, read the preface and liked what Boorstin had to say: that while his two companion books, The Explorers and The Creators, dealt with people like Columbus and Shakespeare who seem unapproachable in their gifts, in The Seekers he is dealing with people who were, after all, just like us in a way--they were looking for truth, for a better way to live.

I perused the first part, about the prophets of the Bible. No dice. Trying to penetrate this book by reading the chapters about Moses and Isaiah and Job was, for me, like trying to make love with a giant portrait of my grandmother staring at me from over the bed. No, don't picture it. Just take my word for it. Couldn't do it.

I had to find another way into this book. So I skipped around, sneaking into the book's back yard, and found an unlocked window--an entertaining chapter on André Malraux near the end. There was this quote: "The Greek genius," Boorstin quotes Malraux as writing, "is better understood by opposing one Greek statue to an Egyptian or Asian statue than by getting to know a hundred Greek statues."

Wonderful! I was in.

I prowled the halls by flashlight, skipping around, trying doorknobs, reading chapters on this seeker or that one in no particular order. In one room, I jimmied the lock on the safe and found a wonderful chapter on Francis Bacon, of all people. Who knew Bacon wrote so well? Here's a quote I found while rummaging in the jewelry case: "The human intellect makes its own difficulties," Bacon wrote on man's ability to perceive the world. "The human understanding is like a false mirror, which receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it."

Brilliant! I slipped that jewel into my pocket and kept prowling.

There were some lusterless offerings I left on the dresser, like a chapter on American Communist John Reed and another on Karl Marx. Maybe I just don't like ideologues, but to my perhaps untrained appraisal, they were not pearls but paste.

All the same, The Seekers is a delight if you skip around. Boorstin has the eye of a jewel thief for good quotes. Just don't get greedy and try to carry the book's entire contents out of the house in one sack. It's best savored in small doses. Maybe I didn't find a better way to live, but I stole some priceless bits that I'll always keep safe, marauding reader that I am.

--Arthur Alexander Parker

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Bad Chemistry
Gary Krist
368 pp.



Kate Theodorus, an ex-cop from Chicago, never thought to ask herself if she really knew who her husband Joel was, until he had an argument with his business partner and disappeared without warning, hours later. Nor did the fact that the business partner's dog had been set on fire during the party (right after the argument, in fact)--or that the business partner had been the one who found the empty kerosene can afterwards--seem to impress anyone. The local, small-town police were uninterested in the dog attack, just as they were uninterested in Joel's disappearance. After all, men leave their wives all the time, right?

But Kate is too strong to accept the cops' indifference without a fight. So when someone breaks into the house and erases her husband's computers the day after his disappearance, she insists that the investigating detective do something, this time. So he does--but it's not what she expects. Instead of tracking down her husband, he finds a load of peyote buttons and magic mushrooms hidden in Joel's basement office. She'd known about Joel's interest in "smart" drugs, but the stash of illegal hallucinogenics sets her back. Who, she asks herself, is--or was--her husband, exactly?

Bad Chemistry is the sort of rare, smart, gratifyingly well-written thriller that will keep you up reading all night even if your usual tastes tend more to Faulkner than Baldacci. The characters and storyline are strong, the setting descriptions are convincingly smooth, and Gary Krist has a good ear for dialogue. But it's his talent for moving the novel's bigger parts around--flashbacks, character backstories, etc.--that makes this such a good read, I think. It's rare to find a thriller that's written with a serious writer's attention to the art behind the glitter and flash, but Krist (who has previously written two prize-winning collections of short stories) manages to pull it off brilliantly.

Highly recommended.

-Daphne Frostchild

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James Joyce
Edna O'Brien
Penguin Lives
176 pp.


James Joyce was not a dutiful son, a humble artist or a bountiful provider, and Edna O'Brien, in her new addition to the Penguin Lives series, isn't going to try to convince her readers otherwise. When Joyce's long-suffering wife, Nora, sent him a complaining letter, for instance, O'Brien writes that "all he could do was blow his nose on it. He noted also that her style, a marvel of illiteracy, would have perfectly fitted the sensibilities of Thomas Hardy's woebegone servant girls." Another time, when she is writing a letter of grievances against Joyce in his presence, he "looked over her shoulder [and] suggested icily that she should try using the capital letter for the word 'I.'" Nora wasn't the only one who saw Joyce's many faults. His employers at the Berlitz School where he briefly taught "thought him gifted but also conceited and absurd, a man of contradiction, fragile and hysterical, refined and ascetic yet one who gravitated toward the mud. Soon they saw his great partiality to drink."

In his own defense, of course, Joyce might have pointed out that he was a damn good novelist, and all those complaints paled by comparison. (Of course, he might also have taken a wild, drunken swing at detractors with his ashplant or merely demanded, loudly, for Hemingway to "deal with" them, if the issue came up in a Paris bar.) O'Brien, as it turns out, is more than happy to swing at detractors herself, despite her fervent documentation of Joyce's many flaws. She's not out to crucify him for his sins; it's just that the sins are central to the creation of Joyce the artist. Indeed, she even implies that they're a necessary part of his makeup:


Do writers have to be such monsters in order to create? I believe that they do. It is a paradox that while wrestling with language to capture the human condition they become more callous, and cut off from the very human traits which they so glisteningly depict. There can be no outer responsibility, no interruptions, only the ongoing inner drone, rhythmic, insistent, struggling to make a living moment of both beauty and austerity. For Joyce, people were becoming more remote and would eventually be specters.


Once Joyce has declared himself an artist in Paris, his biographer's work is easy: document his publishing woes, his problems with his eyes, his suffering over his daughter's increasingly violent insanity. The biographer's real work lies earlier, in explaining Joyce's passage from a devout altar boy to an angry young man prone to spit venom on nearly everyone around him (including his family, the Church and Ireland). It is, in fact, surprisingly complicated, and while Joyce's artistic ambitions are apparent early on, his obsessive concern with himself (and his novels' heroes) as the Outsider makes for tricky going. O'Brien does well here, though. While she doesn't dwell overly long on Joyce's motivations, she certainly documents the passage thoroughly (which is all she should be expected to do, given the brevity of her book).

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of O'Brien's biography is its idiosyncratic voice. In some passages, she parrots Joyce directly; in others, she spins her own Joycean puns. It doesn't always work, but it's a fun, fast biography nonetheless. Richard Ellmann remains Joyce's greatest biographer, of course, but O'Brien's book meets the demands of the Penguin Lives series quite nicely: it's a superb, impressionistic primer that works well as a biographical introduction to Joyce and a critical introduction to his works.

--Daphne Frostchild

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Things a Man Should Know About Marriage
Scott Omelianuk and Ted Allen
Riverhead Books
152 pp.


Apparently, Scott Omelianuk and Ted Allen have a lot of faith in their advice. Five months ago, they published Things a Man Should Know About Style (click here to read WAG's review). Now, apparently under the assumption that their deportment advice worked its magic, they've produced a book designed to help their newly well-dressed readers arrange the marriages made possible by their first book.

Like Things a Man Should Know About Style, Things a Man Should Know About Marriage makes for fun, light reading--Omelianuk and Allen are genuinely funny writers, with a superb sense of comic timing. But inside all those jokes, they actually manage to slip in a Wedding Time Table and some good, level-headed advice. A few examples:


  • "Contrary to the Hollywood stereotype, prenuptial agreements are more often about protecting both your assets from the state and greedy divorce lawyers than about protecting a rich spouse from a poor one."


  • "It is better for the two of you to pick out a new home together than for one of you to move into the other's home.

"Because the newcomer will invariably feel like a guest in the other person's castle."


  • "When reserving a block of hotel rooms for out-of-towners, make it clear to the hotel and the guests that this doesn't mean you're buying.

"Because a lite beer from the minibar costs $7.50, that's why.

"Here's how: On a card enclosed with the invitation and the directions, provide the name, address, and phone number of the hotel, and indicate the rate.

"Conversely, if you're getting married on an island off the coast of Brazil where there are no hotels, the cost of the hut rentals fall to you."


Things a Man Should Know About Marriage won't replace the shelves of books offered to brides trying to decipher the arcana of wedding etiquette rules (Omelianuk and Allen rightly call it a "complex, fetishistic subculture"). But then again, this isn't being pitched to the brides. It's for the guys, right? And the groom really needs to know a lot less to make the wedding a success, frankly.

With that in mind, it would make a perfect 'joke' present from the best man should he enter the planning early enough--but he should first carefully tear out page thirty-eight, where his primary duties are listed ("Deliver groom to all events at the correct time; supervise the groomsmen; put the kibosh on tasteless pranks; present an amusing toast at the reception; serve as manservant and therapist to the groom, who will occasionally fret about his decision to wed; and (oh, yes) keep track of the rings and the plane tickets for the honeymoon").

--Daphne Frostchild

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