The Wind in the Reeds

wind in the reeds

The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and a City That Would Not Be Broken, by Wendell Pierce (with Rod Dreher). Originally published in 2015. 352 pages.

I’ve read Rod Dreher’s recommendation of The Wind in the Reeds on more than one occasion, and a recent trip to the library reminded me that I had not read it. I’d always intended to, so I decided that now was as good a time as any to give it a read.

Wendell Pierce is a classically Julliard trained actor of stage and screen. He is best known for his role on a television show called The Wire. I am unfamiliar with the show beyond what he offers in this book, where he delves deeply into his passion for his craft and the importance of art -of all forms- in culture.

Wind in the Reeds is equal parts memoir, regional history, and racial commentary. The regional history is particularly interesting to me as my paternal roots are in Southern Louisiana, the region from which Pierce is offering his readers a history lesson.

The book begins as he flashes back to his 2007 benefit performance of the play Waiting For Godot, which was staged as a free outdoor event to benefit the city of New Orleans in the wake of its devastation from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

New Orleans is Pierce’s hometown. His family has deep roots there. After his introductory passages which expressed the depth and breadth of his emotions on the opening night of Godot, he pivots, taking the reader back in time with him. He recounts his family’s Louisiana history all the way back to a slave named Aristile who was sold away from his family in Kentucky and taken to a Louisiana sugar plantation sometime in the years preceding the Civil War. I’m going to pivot here; albeit briefly.

I have a bit of fascination with those rare numbers of black families who have a fairly reliable documented history. Whether it’s Pierce’s story, The Delany Sisters, or my husband’s maternal family, which actually has a family historian with a family tree going back nearly 125 years. It’s a short period of time in the grand scheme, but for slave descendants, it’s significant. Few Americans -of any race- know much about their families beyond their great grandparents. I have yet to meet an unsuccessful black family when those historical roots are watered generation after generation. It’s not that every member of such families is wealthy or fully successful, but there are recognizable strings of strong, hard-working, mostly intact families. Wendell Pierce’s family, as he describes it here, is no different.

After laying the foundation of his family’s Louisiana history, the book connects the industrial and racial history of Southern Louisiana as a region. I found that there were parts of Pierce’s commentary I fully agreed with and others where I strenuously disagreed. I am not, however, unfamiliar with this dynamic; the tension many successful blacks feel between their bedrock belief in personal responsibility and hard work and the idea that there is still so much work to be done on behalf of those who haven’t been able to make it in the same way.

In addition to his historical and racial commentary, Pierce uses two chapters to describe his journey to Julliard, the stage, and then the screen. As with the racial and social commentary, I was equal parts intrigued and equal parts unimpressed. Art is crucially important as Pierce rightly notes, but there is a wide chasm between the classic theater that he studied at Julliard and much of the drivel that passes as art today. His noble admonition for artists to eschew the temptation to allow businessmen and bottom-line concerns to trump their creative integrity isn’t a view that seems to be shared in his industry.

As he ends the book, Pierce turns back to where he started; with the devastation that his beloved city endured in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and his memories of the shock that awaited him as he flew home that very weekend, thinking that as the storm had hit and left Florida, the crisis had passed. What he didn’t know was that after hitting Florida as a Cat 1 storm, Katrina had re-strengthened to a Cat 5 and was heading straight towards the much more vulnerable basin city of New Orleans. He describes the storm, its aftermath, and its effects on his immediate family, who fared far better than most precisely because of his success as an actor.

This was a moving memoir, and its history was informative and interesting. Despite areas of divergent philosophy or politics, one thing was crystal clear: Wendell Pierce is a man who loves his family and takes great pride in the legacy into which he was born.

In honor of Veteran’s Day, which is only a few days away, I’ll wrap up this review with the same excerpt that Dreher posted over at the American Conservative. In 2009, more than six decades after the end of World War II, Wendell Pierce’s father, Amos Pierce, was finally to take possession of the medals he earned in the war but which were denied him when he returned stateside. You’d think a man who was so slighted by the country he fought and nearly died for would be more than a little bit bitter. Amos Pierce wasn’t, as exemplified by this moment Pierce recalled from his childhood:

This was the late sixties or early seventies, when the Black Power movement was in full swing. That ethos demanded that when the national anthem was played, black people protested by refusing to stand in respect.

That night at the Municipal Auditorium, the national anthem began to sound over the PA system, signaling that the fights would soon begin. Everyone stood, except some brothers sitting in the next row down from us. They looked up at my father and said, “Aw, Pops, sit down.”

“Don’t touch me, man,” growled my dad.

“Sit down! Sit down!” they kept on.

“Don’t touch me,” he said. “I fought for that flag. You can sit down. I fought for you to have that right. But I fought for that flag too, and I’m going to stand.”

Then one of the brothers leveled his eyes at Daddy, and said, “No, you need to sit down.” He started pulling on my father’s pants leg.

That was it. “You touch me one more time,” my father roared, “and I’m going to kick you in your f—-ng teeth.”

The radical wiseass turned around and minded his own business. That was a demonstration of black power that the brother hadn’t expected.

That was a powerful recollection that very few of us will be able to relate to as the years go by.

3 out of 5 stars.

My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir

thomas-memoirMy Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir, by Justice Clarence Thomas. Originally published in 2007. 304 pages.

The memoir of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, My Grandfather’s Son is an engaging book. While most Americans associate Justice Thomas with Anita Hill and the scandalous nature of his Senate confirmation hearings, there is much more to his story than that unfortunate saga. In fact, the story of his growing up years was so compelling that I almost forgot that it was the Anita Hill fiasco that made him a household name to begin with.

The book’s title references Thomas’ maternal grandfather, who took him and his brother in when their divorced single mother couldn’t give them the life she thought they needed to be successful. Justice Thomas makes it clear that in all the ways that matter, he is indeed his grandfather’s son. His grandfather taught the boys about life, work, manhood, and how to rise above their circumstances growing up in the Jim Crow south.

I always found it a bit odd that Clarence Thomas was painted by the media and the left as a man disconnected and unconcerned with the plight of the people he “left behind” in the black community. I found this odd despite the fact that I was a faithful, idealistic, 20-year-old card-carrying Democrat at the time of his contentious and tawdry confirmation fight. I was interested in politics even then because my parents were interested in politics. I was aware of what was happening and I wondered: How could a  man born and raised in 1950’s Georgia be indifferent to the plight of the people who shaped him into the man he was?

Of course, I learned later and his memoir confirmed that he was far from indifferent. The problem was that as a thinking person rather than a blind  follower he concluded that the politically correct, liberal, state-centered solutions being offered were not in the best interest of anyone, least of all black people. That isn’t a popular position to take, and it’s even less tolerable coming from a black person as Thomas found out the hard way.

He was still quite a young man when he began to notice the propensity of the liberals in academia and government to use the policy of appease and acquiesce in response to every demand made by black “leaders” even if the demands were illogical and damaging to black people over the long-term. What’s more, he realized that the soft, paternalistic racism of the left was just as bad if not worse, than the overt, virulent racism he’d witnessed growing up. At one point he reiterates this by noting that the first time he was ever called “nigger” he was not in Georgia, but Massachusetts.

The parts of Thomas’ book where he describes his gradual awakening to the reality that liberal policies that purport to help the black community actually choke the life out of the community, destroyed the family, and discourage self-sufficiency resonated with me.

If there was one part of Thomas’ story that left me a bit saddened, it was his account of the ending of his failed first marriage. His leaving because he was simply disillusioned and unhappy signaled that he hadn’t been fully immune to the liberal line of thought that gained its foothold during his coming of age years. The fact that he and his ex-wife to her credit, understood that the task of raising their son and ushering him to manhood would be best handled by Thomas himself rather than his ex-wife was the one redeeming element of that period of his life as retold in the book.

He and his current wife took on the mantle of his grandfather, who raised Thomas and his brother, by taking in his young nephew from a troubled home and raising him as their own. Thomas clearly understands the challenge facing young black men and has put his time and money where his mouth is, unlike may of his liberal detractors.

By the time the book gets to the Anita Hill scandal, it is an afterthought. The most interesting parts of Thomas’ life story occurred long before his nomination to the Supreme Court. Of course, his version of those events are what many readers are looking for, so he told his side of the story. His retelling is fairly dispassionate, except when he describes his return to the Christian faith, guided by Senator and ordained minister John Danforth, as the entire ordeal began to wear on him and his wife.

As Thomas once again declared his innocence, I recalled the media coverage of the confirmation hearings. As I watched them I was staunchly opposed to Thomas political views.  Or so I thought, as this was before I started thinking through these issues. Even then I remember having a difficult time believing Ms. Hill’s accounting of events. I told myself that truth is often stranger than fiction so it was probably true, but I never really believed it. Though his confirmation was successful,  Thomas claims he didn’t  care if he was confirmed. That he stuck it out to clear his name and nothing else.

One of the standout passages in the book was Thomas’ recounting of a private interview he had with a senator particularly hostile to him. The only thing that mattered to anyone on the left and most people on the right was, “How’s he likely to vote on abortion cases?” There was no judicial paper trail so the senators tried to gauge his position through the way they posed their questions. Thomas’ retelling of one of these interviews was priceless:

Howard Metzenbaum was the other kind of senator, and I already knew how he felt about me. It would have been charitable to call him unlikable, though he went through the motions of civility during my visit. At one point he actually tried to lure me into a discussion of natural law, but I knew he was no philosopher, just another cynical politician looking for a chink in my armor, so all I did was ask him if he would consider having a human-being sandwich for lunch instead of say, a turkey sandwich. That’s Natural Law 101: all law is based on some sense of moral principles inherent in the nature of human beings, which explains why cannibalism, even without a written law to proscribe it, strikes every civilized person as naturally wrong. Any well-read college student would have gotten my point, but Senator Metzenbaum just stared at me awkwardly and changed the subject as fast as he could.

That was a superb response and one of the things I enjoyed most about this book. It was written by a person who has taken the time to observe and think about the world around him rather than allowing someone else to do it for him.

It’s a quick and engaging read, and offers a lot of insight into the life and mind of one of the most controversial Supreme Court Justices in recent memory.

Grade: B

*This review is a re-post, which sprang to remembrance as election coverage heats up.

The Glass Castle: A Memoir

the-glass-castle The Glass Castle: a Memoir, by Jeanette Wells. Originally published in 2005. 289 pages.

One of our daughters asked me about 6 months ago if I had ever read The Glass Castle. I answered in the negative, but assured her that I would get around to it. I hadn’t gotten around to it as of a month ago, either. So when our local library dropped it on my doorstep I knew immediately who had ordered it and that I needed to get reading. Obviously the book had impacted her enough that she wanted someone to share her thoughts on it with.

If you don’t want to sink, you’d better learn how to swim.

This well worn axiom, uttered by Jeanette Walls’ father while he “taught” her to swim jumped out at me for several reasons. The first was that it is the way my husband described his father’s parenting philosophy. Second, was that the Walls’ kids had better learn to swim because if they found themselves sinking, their parents were in no way equipped to throw them a life raft, even if they wanted to.

As I began reading this memoir I was hooked from the first page, finding myself pulled in to a dysfunctional and chaotic life that was just another day at the office for Jeanette Walls, her parents, and her three siblings. Her recounting was equal parts astonishing and heart rending, but I was horrified enough that neither of those emotions were able to take root as I continued to read the book.

Rex and Mary Walls were highly intelligent and gifted people who were also far too eccentric and self-centered to be good parents. On the one hand they educated their children much more effectively than any school they attended or could have attended. But what good was that when the children were dirty, the family often went without food, and the children were reduced to scavenging dumpsters for a bite to eat?

They taught their children to be strong and make their way in the world by refusing to be overprotective. However, their utter refusal to protect their children when it mattered most revealed that any self-sufficiency they acquired was a result of that sink or swim dynamic I opened this post with. It certainly wasn’t a calculated parenting strategy.

My thoughts on the overall presentation of the book are mixed. Quite frankly, I have a pretty big wall of skepticism when it comes to recounting early childhood memories in vivid detail the way Walls does in this book. Whether it was that skepticism or the utter disbelief I felt that such gifted people could be such terrible parents, I often found myself incredulous and looking at the book as if I were reading a novel rather than a memoir.

The chapters were short, snippets of moments which one can assume must be those things that left the greatest impression on the author. That the children were able to escape, with three of the four experiencing unexpected levels of success, is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

Walls’ descriptions of her parents, despite their failings, are wrapped in the residual affection of a woman who as a young girl was awed by her father and fascinated with her mother. Her understanding of her parents’ clearly unbalanced nature softens the veracity with which she reveals the shortcomings which caused she and her siblings so much pain and instability throughout their childhoods.

Worth a read.

Grade:B-

Content advisory: Mental illness, domestic violence, alcoholism, instances of child sexual abuse (not at the hands of the parents)

 

 

 

 

 

Musical Interlude:Father’s Day Break Edition

I wrote the date down today. Is it June already? Father’s Day is in two weeks and for the first year -ever- ours is going to be markedly different. June 1st marked 4 months to the day that my family of origin’s ship lost its rudder.

Husband and I don’t do things for one other on Mother’s or Father’s Day for several years now. We -well he– figured that if we’re going to do the thing at all it should be done right. Let the children honor their parents. I agreed and still do, but this day wasn’t in my head at the time.

In contemplation of my new Father’s Day normal, I went looking for songs honoring fathers. The selection and quality were -as you might have guessed- pretty terrible. But I found Nancy Sinatra’s song, It’s for My Dad, poignant and sweet:

 

I have a lot of good books on tap so in a couple weeks I hope to put up a review.

Until some time after Father’s Day then!

Edited to add: Got sick and had too much time on my hands. So I’m back a little bit before Father’s Day.

Fatherhood Memoirs

It was suggested that I might want to consider writing a memoir of
my father. The thought has remained with me. I could do it; for my own peace and the edification of my family even if, as is likely the case, it were never published.

As I contemplated the idea I started looking for fatherhood memoirs; books written as tributes to fathers from their children and very soon now I should be receiving at least a couple at my front door. But while I wait, I decided to dig a little more, and research reviews or obscure books that may not have been as well known which fit the genre.That’s when I ran across this Guardian article from 2013.

As I dug into the article and the synopses of the fatherhood memoirs which the author labeled among the “10 best”, I found that I was frozen with the idea of writing such a book. The glimpses of the books presented seemed to indicate that the children of the men explored felt compelled to tell all sides of the story, no matter how unpleasant their memories of their fathers seemed to be. I wondered where the admonition to honor your father fit into all of that. The author put it thus:

The concept of father memoirs is a fascinating one. Confronting fathers directly and publicly is not, and never has been, easy: the patriarch should judge and not be judged. To write about the father is to sit in judgment upon him, and for most cultures this was a taboo too strong to be overcome. The Greeks, despite their searingly perceptive stories about father-child interactions, did not attempt to do so – nor did the Romans, the Italians of the Renaissance, the Elizabethans or even the Romantics. Paradoxically – but not surprisingly, given the rigid paternalism of the age and the attendant psychological pressures – personal father writing, like radical feminism, is a product of the Victorian era.

In 1907, six years after the death of Queen Victoria, Edmund Gosse published Father and Son. Once the taboo was broken, writers were quick to take advantage of the new possibilities. The 20th century saw a steady increase in the number of father memoirs and, now that the boomers are ageing and seeking to immortalise themselves, such memoirs are becoming as ubiquitous as tattoos. As with tattoos, some are visceral works of art.

I look forward to reading and reviewing at least two of the fatherhood memoirs listed as the summer months unfold, as well as this one which I find particularly intriguing.

The twists and turns of life have opened me up to a genre of writing I never would have considered 3 months ago.

That is the power of the written word.