Thursday, March 16, 2017

Book Review: A Nation of Immigrants, by John F. Kennedy (1959, updated editions published in 1964 and 2008)

Cover of the 2008 edition of A Nation of Immigrants, by John F. Kennedy.

President John F. Kennedy in Ireland, June 1963.
When he was a young man, John F. Kennedy had dreams of being a writer. The second son of Joe and Rose Kennedy, he was not the golden boy his older brother, Joe Jr., was. Joe Jr. was hale and robust, while Jack, as John was known to his friends and family, was frail and sickly, plagued by a bad back and constant stomach problems. After Jack wrote his senior thesis, his father helped him get it published in 1940. Titled Why England Slept, it was an examination of the policy of appeasement under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s administration. Why England Slept became a surprise best-seller, and by the middle of 1941, sales totaled 80,000 copies. Not bad for a senior thesis.

After Joe Jr.’s death in a plane crash in 1944, Jack was thrust into the limelight. He picked up Joe Jr.’s nascent political career, running for the House of Representatives in 1946. But Jack still had literary ambitions. His second, and most famous book, Profiles in Courage, was released in 1956 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography, which added to Kennedy’s prestige and his rising national profile. From the moment Profiles in Courage appeared there were allegations that Kennedy himself didn’t write the book, and it’s now widely accepted by most historians that the book was largely the work of Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen.

Kennedy’s book A Nation of Immigrants is quite obscure compared to Profiles in Courage. I consider myself to be a fairly well-informed Kennedy buff, and I didn’t know about A Nation of Immigrants until just recently. I decided that 2017 seemed like an opportune time to read the book, given the current political climate.

A Nation of Immigrants was originally published by the Anti-Defamation League in 1959, when Kennedy was still a Senator. During his Presidency, Kennedy pushed for immigration reform, wanting to change the outdated quota system, and he also planned to expand and revise A Nation of Immigrants. He was assassinated before the revisions were completed, and the book was republished in 1964, with an introduction by Bobby Kennedy. The immigration reform bill that Kennedy had proposed to Congress in 1963 was eventually passed in 1965.

A Nation of Immigrants is a slim volume; there are just 51 pages of text by Kennedy, plus a generous photo section and a chronology of American immigration bringing it up to 85 pages in the updated 2008 edition. However, the book still makes an impact, as it is very clear that immigration was an issue of great importance to John F. Kennedy.

This is one of my favorite passages in the book:

“Another way of indicating the importance of immigration to America is to point out that every American who ever lived, with the exception of one group, was either an immigrant himself or a descendant of immigrants.” (p.2) This simple truth bears repeating, especially at this time in our history.

In Kennedy’s proposal to liberalize immigration status, he said, “Our investments in new citizens has always been a valuable source of our strength.” (p.81) This is quite true, as new groups add richness to the texture of America.

Another of my favorite quotes came from a Chattanooga Times editorial, written just after Kennedy’s proposal was announced in 1963: “The time to worry about immigration is when people stop wanting to come to this country.” (p.85) My thoughts exactly.

A Nation of Immigrants is not often discussed by Kennedy scholars. Robert Dallek’s 2003 biography of Kennedy, An Unfinished Life, doesn’t even mention the book at all. However, Thurston Clarke, in his 2013 book JFK’s Last Hundred Days, writes of A Nation of Immigrants “it is possibly the most passionate, bitter, and controversial book ever written by a serious presidential candidate.” (p.156) That judgement might need to be revised in the age of Donald Trump. I don’t know enough about all of the books written by presidents, or presidential candidates, to pass perfect judgement on Clarke’s claim. But certainly A Nation of Immigrants took a bold stance on an issue that was not always popular in Kennedy’s time, and is still a volatile issue in politics today.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Concert Review: Sting with Joe Sumner and the Last Bandoleros at Myth in Maplewood

Ad for Sting's 57th and 9th tour, 2017.
Sting on stage at Myth in Maplewood, Minnesota, March 2, 2017. (Photo by the Star Tribune.)

Last night I had the special chance to see Sting, rock and roll superstar, at Myth, a small club in Maplewood, a suburb of Saint Paul. I went to the show with my Mom, and it was fantastic. I had seen Sting once before, on the Police reunion tour back in 2007, but to see him in a small venue was a very different experience. 

Sting opened the show solo by singing “Heading South on the Great North Road,” from his most recent album, “57th and 9th.” He then turned things over to his son, Joe Sumner, who sang a few songs. Joe sounds a lot like his dad-they have the same high, keening voice. Joe then turned things over to the Last Bandoleros, a San Antonio-based group that performed catchy, poppy songs. I enjoyed the Last Bandoleros, they bring a lot of energy on stage, and they were fun to watch. They’ve only released one EP, so it will be interesting to see where their career goes from here.

Sting performed a lot of songs from “57th and 9th,” but his lengthy back catalogue was also well represented, going all the way back to “Outlandos d’Amour,” the Police’s debut album from 1978. Sting’s voice sounded great, and he’s still able to use his falsetto to great effect on songs like “Roxanne,” and “So Lonely.” 

Sting was in an expansive mood last night, as he told several stories about the songs he was singing. After “Message in a Bottle,” which turned into an enthusiastic audience sing-along, Sting recalled playing the song to his cat after he wrote it, and the cat didn’t seem too impressed by it. He then said how amazing it is that everyone knows the words to that song, even though it’s almost forty years old. He said, “I don’t take that for granted, I really appreciate it.” 

For me the highlights of the show were the beautiful “Fields of Gold,” and the Police oldies at the end of the set, “Message in a Bottle,” “Walking on the Moon,” “So Lonely,” “Roxanne,” which merged into a cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Next to You,” and the inevitable “Every Breath You Take.” Sting’s solo catalogue has covered as many genres as Elvis Costello’s, but there’s something about the rush of energy of those Police songs that remains unique in Sting’s career. Maybe it was just the energy and passion of youth. But that isn’t to say that his later work isn’t good, because it is. “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You,” from “57th and 9th,” hearkens back to the sound of the Police. 

Another highlight was the closing song, “The Empty Chair,” which Sting just performed at the Oscars on Sunday night. It was a beautiful and moving ending to a very memorable night. 

Set list:
Heading South on the Great North Road
Synchronicity II
Spirits in the Material World
Englishman in New York
She’s Too Good for Me
I Can’t Stop Thinking About You
One Fine Day
I Hung My Head
Fields of Gold
Down, Down, Down
Petrol Head
Shape of My Heart
Pretty Young Solider
Message in a Bottle
Ashes to Ashes-sung by Joe Sumner
Walking on the Moon
So Lonely
Desert Rose
Roxanne/Ain’t No Sunshine
Next to You
Every Breath You Take
The Empty Chair

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Book Review: Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, by Paul Theroux, with photos by Steve McCurry (2015)

The cover of Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, by Paul Theroux, 2015. The photo shows an old movie theater in Warren, Arkansas, by Steve McCurry.

Author Paul Theroux, photo by Steve McCurry. Theroux has written about 50 books.

Abandoned gas station on Route 301, Allendale, South Carolina. Photo by Steve McCurry.
Paul Theroux’s 2015 travel book Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, marks the first time that Theroux has written a travel book about the United States. Theroux has some specific criteria for his book: he stays away from the big cities of the South and only examines the tiny towns. He finds poverty that reminds him of Africa, but also friendly people who welcome him in and quickly pour out the stories of their lives to him.

Deep South has an interesting structure, as traveling in his own country and journeying on his own timetable allows Theroux to revisit some of the same people and places in different seasons. While this sometimes leads to a deeper and richer sense of place, it also makes for some inevitable repetition. 

At the start of the book, Theroux writes, “I was to discover that America is accessible, but Americans in general are not; they are harder to know than any people I’ve traveled among.” (p.10) Theroux explains further, writing that in contrast to other cultures, in America “One is more often greeted with suspicion, hostility, or indifference. In this way Americans could be more challenging, more difficult to get acquainted with, more secretive and suspicious and in many respects more foreign, than any people I have ever met.” (p.23) I found this to be an interesting observation from a traveler as seasoned as Theroux. I wonder if American’s attitudes toward a traveler would change if the traveler is from another country? Is Theroux sometimes greeted with suspicion because he is an American asking questions about America? An advantage to being a traveler is that you are an outsider, and therefore get to ask questions that no one else would.

Deep South fascinated me because the South is an area of America that I haven’t explored much. When I was 15, my Dad and I took a road trip from Minneapolis down the Mississippi to Memphis. Just like the Paul Simon song, we went to see Graceland. We drove into Mississippi to see Elvis Presley’s birthplace in Tupelo, but that’s as far south as we went. I still haven’t been to Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, or South Carolina. I’ve been to Florida, but Florida is really in its own special category. 

As someone who has spent most of my life in Minnesota, I haven’t encountered that many Southerners. (Why would anyone move from the South to a place known for cold and snowy winters?) When I spent a semester in Washington, DC during college, I had a friend in my dorm from Tennessee. As smart as he was, I remember him once insisting to me that Abraham Lincoln had owned slaves. (No, he didn’t.) One of my college history classes was “The Civil War,” and we had one guy in the class who was from the South. He ended up dropping the class, shortly after attempting to argue that Robert E. Lee was more liberal on slavery than Abraham Lincoln. I still don’t know many people from the South, but I'm good friends with a co-worker who grew up in Alabama. She’s reading Deep South now as well, and it’s been interesting to compare our notes on it. 

The urban-rural divide in America really fascinates me, so I was eager to learn more about the rural areas of the South that Theroux focused on. Theroux sometimes repeats himself, which is perhaps understandable over the course of a 440 page book. He constantly reminds the reader that various Southern towns remind him of ones he’s seen in Africa. This is perhaps justified as something that all travelers do-we compare things we are seeing for the first time to things we have seen before. Theroux also wonders many times why more isn’t being invested in the South-either by the state and federal governments or by private foundations, like Bill Clinton’s Clinton Foundation.

Throughout the book we see towns like Greensboro, Alabama and Allendale, South Carolina that have been devastated by the loss of manufacturing jobs.  An officer in a bank in Greenville says to Theroux, “Things are worse than they look.” (p.118) I couldn’t help but wonder if Theroux had traveled through rural towns in the North, what would he have found? Would he have encountered the same mixture of poverty and decaying small towns where industry has moved on? 

Theroux encounters his share of stereotypical southern tropes, such as when he attends gun shows. Religion also surfaces as a theme, as Theroux attends several different churches where the congregation is largely African American. After quoting a long list of signs that we are in the Last Days from an evangelical radio show, Theroux sums up his feelings towards those prognosticators: “Last Days? Don’t they know? These traits are the traits of all days, every day, everywhere.” (p.305) 

Theroux’s writing is sharp and incisive, and people instinctively trust him, as they open up to him and reveal their thoughts and worries. One of the most interesting people Theroux runs across is Randall Curb, a book lover who has now gone blind, living on his own in Greensboro, Alabama. Randall could surely be a character in a book of Southern fiction, an intelligent man who is very sensitive and also suffers from depression. 

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Theroux said that one of the differences between the North and the South is how friendly people are: “I have a new policy of always saying hello in the post office now, and I get very strange reactions. You say hello to a stranger in the North and they think you're drunk. Or if it's a woman, she might think you're a stalker. They might think you're insane. Why? Because you said hello. But in the South, it's a normal interaction. And for me, it's a very great advantage if people are approachable.” 

Steve McCurry’s photos at the back of the book are all excellent, but they seem almost like something of an afterthought. His photo for the cover, of an old movie theater in Warren, Arkansas, with the evocative name of “Pastime,” is just perfect. Pastime, so close to “past time,” bringing to mind the image of a South in a state of perpetual elegant decay. 

Deep South is a fascinating look at a part of America that doesn’t get much media attention, and although the book has its flaws, it’s well worth your time.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Book Review: Born in Blood and Fire: Latin American Voices, edited by John Charles Chasteen (2011)

Born in Blood and Fire: Latin American Voices, edited by John Charles Chasteen, 2011.

John Charles Chasteen edited Born in Blood and Fire: Latin American Voices, as a companion volume to his history of Latin America, and it’s full of fascinating primary sources. (I reviewed Chasteen’s book Born in Blood and Fire here.) I will quickly admit that I don’t know as much as I should about the history of Latin America, and Born in Blood and Fire: Latin American Voices gave me a taste of the region’s complex history and struggles through colonialism and independence. 

Chasteen has chosen a variety of sources; and along with the non-fiction that you might expect to find in such a book, he also includes a good helping of fiction, which gives the reader a feel for the places the authors are describing. My favorite fiction selection was from The Stock Market, an 1891 novel by Julian Martel. It’s about real estate speculation in Buenos Aires, and Martel’s sharp eye for social status indicators reminded me of Tom Wolfe. 

An anthology like this one inevitably has its limitations, as it isn’t the smoothest reading experience to be constantly switching authors and topics every few pages. However, for those interested in Latin American history, it pairs well with Chasteen’s narrative history.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Book Review: The Last Thousand: One School's Promise in a Nation at War, by Jeffrey E. Stern (2016)

Cover of The Last Thousand, by Jeffrey E. Stern, 2016.

Journalist and author Jeffrey E. Stern.
Jeffrey E. Stern’s 2016 book The Last Thousand: One School’s Promise in a Nation at War, is an examination of the Marefat School in Kabul, Afghanistan. Aziz Royesh is the founder of Marefat, and The Last Thousand is his story as well as the school’s. Royesh started Marefat in order to offer a more liberal education experience, and he has sought to produce life-long learners, people who will continue to be students long after their formal education is over. Royesh's task is much more difficult because he is a Hazara, a minority ethnic group that has long been oppressed in Afghanistan. The roadblocks to a Hazara starting a liberal school for other Hazaras were numerous, and Marefat actually started in Pakistan, when Royesh was living in exile during the period of Taliban rule. 

While the United States’ role in Afghanistan since the invasion of 2001 has been turbulent, it’s fascinating to see it from the perspective of the Hazaras. To them, the United States was their benefactor, and was helping to greatly improve the opportunities available to them in Afghanistan. When the United States announced that they would pull most of their troops out of Afghanistan, this set off an alarm bell for Aziz Royesh. He knew that violence toward Hazaras could increase as soon as the United States left. This becomes the main source of tension in the book, as Royesh counts down the months until his American protectors leave. 

On a personal note, one of the students of Marefat profiled in The Last Thousand, Ta Manna, is currently in my World History class. (I teach at a private school in Minnesota.) Reading The Last Thousand helped me to understand more about her background, and the hardships she has suffered as she has tried to pursue an education. 

The Last Thousand is a fascinating glimpse at the turbulent modern history of Afghanistan, and the staggering odds that Royesh faced to establish a thriving school in the face of much opposition. Stern has spent a lot of time with Royesh at Marefat, and this makes his book a valuable one. This is deep reporting at its finest.