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Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America, Cavafy’s Stone and Other Village Tales, and more!

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Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America by Cameron McWhirter (Henry Holt and Company, $32.50).
   In this excellent new historical analysis, Cameron McWhirter, a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal’s South Division, advances the theory that the summer of 1919—often overlooked in the history of race relations—was, in fact, the bellwether for later civil rights activism, paving the way for the intense political changes of the 1950s and ‘60s.
   1919 saw violent race riots in numerous cities around the country, including Chicago, where the de facto segregation that prevailed in northern cities certainly extended to Lake Michigan beaches. In late July, when a young black male named Eugene Williams inadvertently “crossed the color line” and swam into the waters of a whites-only beach, he was killed by an irate mob, and massive race riots across the city’s entire South Side ensued. An intriguing fact: the first Mayor Daley had graduated from high school on the South Side one month before this terrible episode. A second intriguing fact: only two weeks before the riots, Carl Sandburg had published a series of articles in the Chicago Daily News about life in the “Black Belt,” predicting that unless things improved, conflict was inevitable. Omaha, San Francisco, Washington D.C., New London, Connecticut, and a host of Southern cities experienced similar racial turmoil that summer.
   McWhirter suggests a number of explanations for why tensions were coming to a head so suddenly in 1919, such as the return of African-American soldiers from the European front, where they had been treated as equal partners; the recession of 1919, which made jobs scarce, and competition from newly urbanized blacks unwelcome; the growth of the Ku Klux Klan; the growing power and importance of the NAACP. In every chapter, Red Summer reveals exhaustive research, with complete and precise documentation. McWhirter enlivens his analysis with poems, quotations and other commentary from the Harlem Renaissance—writers who were flowering at this time.
   Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, declared in 1959, “At best Americans give but a limited attention to history. Too much happens too rapidly, and before we can evaluate it, or exhaust its meaning or pleasure, there is something new to concern us.” Red Summer is a powerful reminder of the foolishness of ignoring history. In the lovely coda to his book, McWhirter calls the violent summer events of 1919 “a painful rheumatic flare-up striking the body politic;” then, by recounting an event in Carswell Grove, Georgia in 2010 he is able to bring the events of his book full circle and end optimistically. Even a diehard cynic can read this book and take heart.—Julie West Johnson.

Cavafy’s Stone and Other Village Tales by Harry Mark Petrakis (Wicker Park Press $24.95).
   Harry Mark Petrakis’ recent collection of short stories, Cavafy’s Stone, clearly confirms that his octogenarian status enhances his understanding of the human condition. These poignant vignettes beautifully capture the simplicity as well as the complexity of classic fables. Petrakis is obviously enjoying a rich surge of creativity, a blessing for all of his fans.
   Crafted with this master storyteller’s usual clarity and elegance, the fifteen short stories set in the small Greek village of Fanaron embrace the joys, tragedies, foibles, martyrs and heroes of everyday life. Aggressively addressing many of the social taboos from closeted homosexuality to parental lusting, Petrakis takes the reader empathetically through the emotions and trauma generated by greed, lust, perversity, the ravages of old age. Most affecting are his moments with the elders of the village and his tender descriptions of devotion and sacrifice enveloping commitment to marriage and family. Using the wise priest and his beloved wife as bookends, the reader slips into the village to observe the passions, charms and intrigues that weave through their daily lives.
   Particularly powerful are The Matchmaker and The Priest’s Wife—in both of these stories humor and wit balanced beautifully with the tender finales. Once again, Petrakis offers up a rich assortment of colorful characters confronting life, many of them teasing the reader who would like to linger longer in their world. Cavafy’s Stone is not only a must for Grecophiles and HMP fans but all readers who are moved by the art and magic of storytelling.—Maria Lagios

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (Random House $45.00).
   In Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand tells the tale of another unlikely hero who survives adversity and triumphs over seemingly insurmountable odds; Seabiscuit, the small, lazy horse, and Louis Zamperini, the delinquent, incorrigible boy who have much in common.
   Louis Zamperini was a boy who got into any kind of trouble his mind could conjure, including—but not limited to—theft, drinking and housebreaking. This time in his life ended when, at his older brother’s urging, he went out for the high school track team and discovered a talent for running which took him all the way to the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
   With the advent of World War II, Louis found himself the bombardier on a B-24 bomber—an unwieldy and unreliable aircraft that went down over the Pacific. One of three survivors aboard a small life raft, they were constantly menaced by sharks and survived on albatross and the few fish they could catch. One of the three died and the other two were so near starvation that they even considered, but rejected, the idea of cannibalism.
   On Day 46 the two men found the Marshall Islands. On Day 47 the Japanese found them. One in 100 Americans who fell into German or Italian hands perished; while one out of three captives in the Pacific theater did not survive. The Japanese wanted Louie alive for his propaganda value as a famous athlete. However, he also attracted the special attention of a particularly sadistic guard, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, known as “The Bird.”
   After beating, starving, and humiliating the POW’s, The Bird was finally transferred to another camp and things became marginally more tolerable. The final blow came when Louis was sent to an infamous slave labor camp, only to find that Watanabe was also there. During the liberation, the desperately ill Louis feared that the Allied bombs would kill him and accomplish what the Japanese could not.
   To her credit, Hillenbrand does not make this part of the book a litany of cruelties and indignities, but rather an uplifting tribute to the defiant spirits of the men who endured them.
   Following a pattern only too recognizable today, Louie returned home, recovered physically, but fell prey to alcohol, PTSD, flashbacks and nightmares. This changed drastically when he met a young Billy Graham and was converted to evangelical Christianity and would go on to found a camp for troubled boys. Hillenbrand covers in a very few pages a dramatic life change which could have used further explication. Later on, CBS offered Louis an opportunity to confront Watanabe, and Louis wrote a letter offering him forgiveness and suggesting they meet. The Bird consented but later reneged on his agreement. Whether man or horse, Hillenbrand makes her subjects intriguing and keeps us rooting for them despite their flaws. Louie, now 93, has outlived his wife and family and most of his contemporaries. Laura Hillenbrand suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome and was forced to conduct most of their interviews by telephone, which makes her uneasily broken herself. Perhaps overcoming her own obstacles has been an inspiration for her writing or, perhaps, the converse, and her subjects have inspired her to endure.—Cynthia Taubert

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Scribner, $30.00).
   This is a book that stirs the soul. A cancer physician and researcher, Mukherjee addresses a topic that no one else has, in a way that is compassionate as well as thorough—describing the nature of cancer from a patient’s perspective. It is a “biography” of cancer which describes the battles to conquer this disease along with the human frailties of the researchers and physicians who were at the forefront of this work throughout history. He describes the dead ends, misconceptions and frustrations of the doctors who tried to understand the disease. He goes back to ancient Egyptian and Greek documents to illuminate the first discoveries of the disease and traces those observations to today’s perception of cancer that it is the worst of all maladies, despite the mission of the “War on Cancer” of the 1970s. The search for treatments for this mysterious illness has become a labor of survival as patients and physicians try to understand the nature of this disease, hoping to find tomorrow’s cures. This is a book that readers—from patients to historians—will not be able to put down.—J. Taylor

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (Picador, $6.00).
   Franzen, the author of the bestselling book, Freedom, wrote The Corrections several years before Freedom. The story of The Corrections centers around a family that is facing a Christmas reunion cooked up by the family’s mother and reveals the disfunction that revolves around the upcoming event. There are few of us who can escape the associations and observations Franzen describes in this book. There are skeletons throughout, and the most humble and enduring character is illuminated towards the end of The Corrections, revealing a clue that binds the odd behaviors of the family members together as they go about rewriting their family history. The rich characters are manipulative and unlikeable, but they unveil a farcical story that sucks you in and twists your mind. You can’t help but identify with the family members and their fears and self-serving actions. Franzen describes a tragic, but ironic perspective of human nature in our times. I couldn’t stop reading this book and I doubt that you can either. If you missed Freedom, you will want to indulge in Franzen’s latest after you read this memorable book.—Connie Nelson

Boomerang by Michael Lewis ($19.71).
   Lewis, the author of several blockbusters relating to the economy including The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine and Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, writes about the financial collapse of Iceland, Ireland and Greece, describing the quirky nature of the people who inhabit these countries and how their naive attitudes towards money and habits lead to their financial meltdowns. Lewis’ style is breezy and filled with anecdotal color. But you cannot help but see how American greed, the lure of instant gratification and magical thinking have influenced our economy too. Lewis says it well, with interviews with regular folk, bankers and politicians. Novices in economics will find this book informative—an easy-to-understand account of the pickle we Americans are finding ourselves in today.—J. Taylor

Published: December 04, 2011
Issue: 2011 Philanthropy Issue