Tag: Jim Ewing

‘We Were Eight Years in Power’ is a vital addition to nation’s racial conversation

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (October 1)

8 years in powerIn Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book of essays We Were Eight Years in Power (One World), he recalls that he felt at odds with himself when penning the first one for The Atlantic in 2007.

Barack Obama was running for president but, as a black man, was hardly thought then to be a full-on contender. Coates’ feeling of being adrift was shared with young black men and women across the country. They were “lost in a Bermuda triangle of the mind or stranded in the doldrums of America.”

Obama’s election changed that, he writes. But it also changed the nation’s dialogue on race, one that continues with an urgency underscored by the headlines of the day.

The book is composed of the eight essays he wrote for The Atlantic during each of the eight years of the nation’s first black presidency, along with current commentary. But it is Reconstruction in the South that the title of the book refers to, quoting W.E.B. DuBois, that: “If there was one thing… (whites) feared more than bad Negro government, it was good Negro government.”

With the rise of Donald Trump after a period of “good Negro government,” it can be argued we are witnessing from Washington and much of the country that frame of mind today. It’s manifested in displays by sports figures taking a knee in solidarity against police brutality against blacks, racial profiling, social inequality, disparities in education and opportunity, fueled by a president who finds no qualm in siding with Nazi protesters while calling those who demonstrate against it “sons of bitches.”

Before Obama, the idea of a black president lived as “a kind of cosmic joke,” Coates writes. “White folks, whatever their talk of freedom and liberty, would not allow a black president.” Witness, Emmett Till’s audacity to look at a white woman, the fact that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “turned the other cheek, and they blew it off.”

Lincoln was killed for emancipation, Freedom Riders were beaten for advocating for voting rights, Medgar Evers was shot down in his driveway “like a dog.”

“That a country that once took whiteness as the foundation for citizenship would elect a black president,” Coates writes, “is a victory. But to view this victory as racism’s defeat is to forget the precise terms on which it was secured.”

It encapsulates a paradox: America couldn’t elect “a black man,” but it could elect a qualified man who was black–as long as he didn’t evince blackness.

Coates’ outstanding previous book, Between the World and Me, was as much a plea for understanding race consciousness as a denouncement of racism in America.

The question it raised in 2015: Is this plea heard? By whom? And are the intractable problems of race solvable by a society founded on centuries of racial and economic inequality?

In Power, the pleas are gone. Instead, with its contextualizing commentary, it’s a questioning odyssey throughout the Obama years and now of the fact of racial polarization and misunderstanding that colors all attempts at recognizing progress or reversal. It’s an indictment of a nation where even black citizens who hold conservative, mainstream values are turned away from the party that espouses them because of its open appeals to people who hate them.

Power is an exploration in many ways to explain how a society based on Enlightenment values could ignore its essential white supremacy, that the foundational crimes of this crimes of this country are to somehow be considered mostly irrelevant to its existence, as well as those excluded and pillaged in order to bring those values into practice.

Through troubling to read, the aggregate is a journey of wonder, even when topics are troubling, for the deep mental explorations they offer, often without road map or easy conclusions.

Power is an exemplary, perhaps even vital, addition to the national dialogue on race in America.

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including his latest, Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them.

Englander’s ‘Dinner’ is a ‘spy novel’ that defies convention

By Jim Ewing.

Nathan Englander’s Dinner at the Center of the Earth is more than a spy mystery. Rather, it’s a puzzle that starts off fuzzy and indistinct and ends crystal clear, spinning off into the confounding greater madness that is the Middle East conflict.

It starts off with seven main characters:

  • Z, an American kept in secret prison;
  • The General, who, though not named, is presumably Ariel Sharon;
  • Ruthi, The General’s longtime aide, who is also the mother of Z’s prison guard:
  • The Guard, who becomes Z’s friend as much as captor, or exists somewhere in the gray zone of Stockholm Syndrome;
  • Joshua, a Canadian businessman;
  • The Waitress, who becomes Joshua’s lover; and:
  • Farid, a Palestinian businessman who funnels money to terrorists in his homeland.

dinner at the centerThe characters are built slowly, as the chapters flit between events in Germany, France, Italy, and Israel in 2002 and 2014. In the beginning, we don’t know the identity of Prisoner Z, or about the crime he committed to land him in prison.

The plot comes together like a Rorschach test: pieces of the puzzle becoming clear, almost as much from the reader’s memories and perceptions as the from deft touch of the author delineating the characters.

It slowly develops from specific events into a recognizable whole that, once realized, is complex and riveting as, midway through the novel, the deceptions and revelations become clear and the narrative picks up in real time.

We come to find that none of the characters we have come to know are truly who they say—or believe, or others believe—they are.

The “dinner” at the heart of the title is an event in the book, at its end, that may be seen as a metaphor for the muddle that is Midle Eastern politics, where right and wrong are often as blurred as the identities and possible motivations of the main characters.

And it may also be seen as a type of bizarre love story: where bitter rivals come to love each other, trust each other, need each other, even as they openly debate and sometimes wantonly deal death to the other.

Perhaps needless to say, Dinner is not your typical “spy” novel, as it begs more questions than it answers and spurs more honest soul searching than conventionally found in the genre. There are no “bad guys” here, no black and white hats, only shades of gray, tinged by unanswerable questions masking murderous norms.

Every character is flawed, vulnerable, in some ways endearing, and both a selfless hero and callous villain depending on one’s point of view.

All is relative. As Z tells the The Waitress when he confesses to her that he is a spy: “Some wrong things, in circumstances, are inherently right.”

But, as events unfold, the plot reveals that some possibly right things are inherently wrong.
Englander has put together a masterful spy novel that confounds conventions and will leave readers questioning the validity of their own convictions about right and wrong.

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including his latest, Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them.

Ace Atkin’s Quinn Colson is back as sheriff in ‘The Fallen’

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (August 27)

Fans of Oxford novelist Ace Atkins will savor the butt-kickin’ return of protagonist Quinn Colson as sheriff in The Fallen (G.P. Putnam).

atkins fallenAll the familiar denizens of the fictional town of Jericho, Mississippi, (faintly like the Oxford we all know, perhaps stripped to its roots) are there–if not in person, then in memory.

Loyal, tough-as-nails, and sharpshooter deputy Lillie Virgil is there–but for how long? The loyal one-armed mechanic, Boom, is there; this time, sleuthing out the mystery of two missing teens as the behest of Colson’s sister, Caddy, behind the sheriff’s back.

His Elvis-worshipping momma Jean is there, still dishing out heaping helpings of Southern food and sound advice.

The major clash is a trio of ex-Marines who, having returned from war, want excitement, cash, and blood through heists while brandishing weapons and wearing Donald Trump masks (complete with R-rated quotes from the president while robbing banks).

In many ways, book 7 in the Colson series is like many of the others: Colson, a former U.S. Army Ranger, enjoys tooling around in a big pickup (the Green Machine), smoking cigars (now Drew Estate Undercrowns over his previously preferred La Gloria Cubana), and finding himself in binds caused by the local good ol’ boy power structure while dealing with deadly scofflaws.

His love life is still hopelessly conflicted , with the rekindled romance of his high school sweetheart now a hurtful memory, the fling with the coroner Ophelia Bundren cut short after she threw a steak knife at him, and the continuing unresolved tension with Virgil.

But there’s a new woman in town, Maggie Powers, who it turns out, used to run with Colson when they were kids.

She’s grown up nicely–but has conflicts and dangers of her own.

This time around, there’s a new owner of the strip club/rent-by-the-hour motel on the interstate: Fannie, a striking redhead who oozes reserved sensuality, hiding her brutal upbringing with fine cars and clothes, but knows how to hurt and even kill with indifferent calculation.

The old guard–despite the old crime boss Johnny Stagg now in prison–is still quite virulent, though keeping in the shadows. And, in a foreshadowing of Colson books to come, it seems intent on regaining full power, with the help of the Southern mafia from the Coast.

All in all, The Fallen is a worthy contender in the series and the type of fast-paced mystery Atkin’s readers have come to expect.

There is one jarring issue that stands out in this book, a plethora of foul language. In previous novels, there was plenty of cussing, and, it’s perhaps to be expected among some of the characters, including military types and hardcore criminals. That’s easily shrugged off. But The Fallen abounds in profanity, even from children.

Atkins, a master craftsman with 21 novels, including the deftly written Spenser books, seems to have fallen into a trap of substituting cursing for dialogue. And there’s no difference in the spewing of it by the various characters, as if all were merely one person speaking out of several mouths. It flattens their texture, destroys any nuance, robs them of their individuality, and (the ultimate sin of the writer) distracts from the narrative.

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including his latest, Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them.

Dreams of a Life Outside: Jim Ewing reviews ‘News of the World’ by Paulette Jiles

By Jim Ewing. Special to the Clarion-Ledger.

news of the worldEvery once in a while, a book comes along that is so simple, rich, textured and real that you know some invisible line has been crossed, that something new has been created that will live on to become a classic.

Think of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea or Faulkner’s The Reivers—not big, grand splashy books, but elegant, elemental ones that simply endure to change our inner worlds.

Such is the case with Paulette Jiles’ novel News of the World(William Morrow.) It’s a gentle, yet at times raucous, leisurely, yet at times tumultuous, understated, yet at times definitive book that lives on long after it has been read.

The premise is novel in itself. The main character, Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of the War of 1812 and the war with Mexico, is facing the twilight years of his life in the post-Civil War America of the 1870s. He has fashioned a livelihood in Texas, traveling from town to town by horseback before the advent of radio, reading newspaper articles from around the globe to audiences who either cannot read or don’t have access to news outside of their immediate environs.

He brings them knowledge, ideas and perspectives, dreams of life outside of their dull and often harsh existence—all for the price of 10 cents and an hour or so of their time.

“His eyeglasses were round and rimmed in gold over his deep eyes. He always laid his small gold hunting watch to one side of the podium to time his reading. He had the appearance of wisdom and age and authority which was why his readings were popular and the reason the dimes rang in his coffee can.”

Such was the power of his message, and his appearances eagerly awaited, that “when they read his handbills men abandoned the saloon, they slipped out of various unnamed establishments, they ran through the rain from their fire lit homes, they left cattle circled and bedded beside the flooded Red (River) to come and hear the news of the distant world.”

Into this settled routine of meandering travel from town to town, Kidd is given a unique challenge. In Wichita Falls, he is paid $50 in gold—an enormous sum—to deliver a 10-year-old girl to her relatives across the sprawling, untamed state to a small town near San Antonio.

The task? She is a returned captive, snatched from her German immigrant parents murdered in a raid when she was 6 and raised as a Kiowa. She knows no English (just fragments of German and fluent Kiowa, which Capt. Kidd does not know) and despises those who “rescued” her and their European way of life.

The bulk of the novel is comprised of the difficulties they share—in battling the elements, highway men, their pasts, language and upbringing, their expectations of themselves and others, their own inner demons and the hopes and fears that shadow their lives.

Presenting seemingly impossible challenges, News is a heart-warming saga of an old man and a young girl who forge a bond of love, trust and respect across a great divide of cultures in flux.

This is a novel that leaves the reader in awe. It’s beautiful, simple, profound and poetic. And it lingers in the heart and mind long after the last page is turned.

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including his latest, Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them

Grisham’s ‘The Whistler’ balances social issues, storytelling

By Jim Ewing. Special to The Clarion-Ledger

whistlerNovelist John Grisham keeps churning out winners that manage to wrap social issues, the law, and intriguing characters into an explosive mix, with his latest, The Whistler, sure to be a controversial bestseller like many before.

Avid readers may recall his previous “issue” book Gray Mountain (2014) served as much to bring attention to the rapacious practices of coal mining destroying families, communities, and the environment, as it did to simply tell a gripping yarn.

The Whistler carries on that social issue imperative, following his previous more typical lawyer tale Rogue Lawyer (2015), by taking on casino gambling on American Indian reservations.

The locale is Florida, with its rich history of corruption. The culprits are a shadowy band of Southern criminals called The Catfish Mafia, which funds its web of lucrative, money-laundering strip malls, golf courses, gated communities, and condos with a crooked casino it helped found on an Indian reservation through murder and intimidation. The scheme relies on a circuit court judge all too willing to take bribes.

Enter a single woman lawyer named Lacy, mid-thirties, worried about the ticking of her biological clock, working for the sedate and respectable, if not boring, state Board on Judicial Conduct. She is suddenly thrust into the heart of the corruption and violence by a whistleblower.

The result is a masterpiece of criminal enterprise exposed in a methodical page-turner made all the more evocative for its subject matter. Tightly written, well crafted, the novel moves at a fast pace with whiplash plot twists.

The controversial aspect of “Whistler” is the unique nature of casino gambling as practiced on Indian reservations. Grisham portrays the tribe as being split initially on whether to allow gaming; some wanting the cash it would provide to bring them out of poverty; others worried that it would morally destroy the community. Both prove true.

Once the casino is up and running, many in the tribe suspect that corruption is taking place but are intimidated into silence by the fact that each member of the tribe profits to the tune of a check for $5,000 per month. The casino’s wealth has also provided good schools, roads, a health clinic, and jobs.

It provides an ethical dilemma: blow the whistle and risk losing everything–or look the other way and allow corruption, intimidation, even violence to flourish.

Grisham weaves his storyline through both the emotional and psychological aspects of this dilemma. He deftly describes the laws that govern tribes and casinos and how they as sovereign nations under treaty are — and aren’t — subject to judicial review or criminal restraint.

As a consequence, The Whistler provides not only a good read but serves to educate and provide plenty of fodder for discussion.

The Whistler yet again reveals Grisham as a premier mystery writer.

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including his latest, Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them.

Candice Millard’s ‘Hero of the Empire’ sheds light on forgotten Churchill history

By Jim Ewing. Special to The Clarion-Ledger.

Embedded in America’s consciousness is the picture of a rotund, cigar-chomping Winston Churchill, grimly resolving to fight the Nazis on land, sea and air during the darkest days of World War II.

hero-of-the-empireWith Candice Millard’s latest biography Hero of the Empire, Churchill’s image could well be shattered to superimpose a portrait of him as a young and daring adventurer.

Subtitled “The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill,” Millard’s biography zeroes in on Churchill when he was 24. Itching to go to war, the descendant of the 1st Duke of Marlborough and privileged friend to the Prince of Wales was desperate to prove himself on the battlefield.

No stranger to bloodshed even at this young age, the young aristocrat already had taken part in wars on three continents — Cuba, British India and the Sudan. But the Boer War in South Africa would thrust him on the world stage.

“Hero” chronicles his fighting as a supposed noncombatant journalist, his capture as a prisoner of war, and his grueling escape from behind enemy lines that captivated a nation.

Churchill, as “Hero” reveals, was larger than life and a study in contrasts. Impulsive, opinionated, an “opportunist, braggart and blowhard,” he also proved fearless, brave, heroic and forgiving of others, including former foes.

Churchill is known for his oratory, but few may recall that he first made his mark as a writer. Indeed, contemporary author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created Sherlock Holmes, called Churchill “the greatest living master of English prose.”

Hero is punctuated by fascinating details. For example, Churchill’s American mother was of Native American descent and of such dazzling beauty that literally thousands would attend any event where they could catch a glimpse of her. Churchill, the book relates, sought to hide a speech impediment (difficulty with the letter s) his entire life.

Situated in 1899, the Boer War does not meet much historical attention, stuck as it is between the American Civil War and the World Wars. But “Hero” deftly explains its importance to the past, present and future.

The Boers were farmers and didn’t fight in orderly fashion, but hid behind every rock and shrub. Before them was amassed the greatest fighting force the world had ever known — the mighty British Empire. The fighting scenes are enthralling as the immovable object of hidden and entrenched Boers fighting for their adopted homeland meet the irresistible force of the British Army.

But, again in contrast, Churchill’s escape is aided in part by the fact that the white Boers despised the black native majority they ruled, which sided with the British who had helped ban slavery on the continent. The parallels between the Civil War, the fortunes of empires, and the rise of mechanistic death over previously accepted rules of war as would rend the globe in years to come are absorbing.

Within the grand sweep of this bloody milieu, the harrowing tale of a young journalist hiding in ditches and boarding boxcars under cover of night, provides a saga of such magnitude as to be astounding in its scope. Major motion picture material here!

Meticulously documented with nearly 40 pages of notes, Hero is a gripping read, rivaling the finest fiction. Except, if it were fiction, no one would believe it — or that its improbable hero would come to be known as Britain’s iconic leader.

Jim Ewing, a former writer and editor at The Clarion-Ledger, is the author of seven books including Redefining Manhood: A Guide for Men and Those Who Love Them, now in bookstores.

Candice Millard will be here on Tuesday, October 11 at 5:00 to sign the October 2016 First Edition Club selection, Hero of the Empire.

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