White Is A State of Mind
Melba Pattillo Beals
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
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
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.
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The Seekers: The Story of Man's Continuing
Quest to Understand His World
Daniel J. Boorstin
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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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
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.
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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
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.
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Things a Man Should Know About Marriage
Scott Omelianuk and Ted Allen
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
"Because a lite beer from the minibar costs $7.50, that's
"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").
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