Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Raymond Arsenault's THE SOUND OF FREEDOM reviewed in the Boston Globe

Three score and 10 years ago, a concert emancipated a dream

By Saul Austerlitz
April 26, 2009; Boston Globe

"The crowd condenses. It's standing room only, flowing the length of the reflecting pool and down West Potomac Park. The floor of this church is grass. The columns of this nave are budding trees. The vault above, an Easter sky." The date is April 9, 1939, the setting is the Lincoln Memorial, and the assembled audience is gathered prayerfully to hear Marian Anderson sing. Delia Dailey, proud scion of a "Talented Tenth" family, is about to meet the love of her life, physicist and German Jewish émigré David Strom. Black and white, African and European, intersect and commingle, and the dream of a race-blind, mulatto future is, if only for a brief hour, attained.

Delia and David are only figments of the imagination of novelist Richard Powers in his masterful 2003 work, "The Time of Our Singing," but his choice of Anderson's concert as heady symbol of racial integration is deliberate, and in its own way perfect. The story of how Anderson ended up on the steps of the memorial, performing before a crowd of tens of thousands that included her most prominent champion, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, is a tangle of the miraculous and the enervating and is well told, if overly padded, by Raymond Arsenault in "The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America."

It all began with little thought for posterity. Anderson - acclaimed by conductor Arturo Toscanini as "a voice such as one hears once in a hundred years" - was planning an American tour, after a triumphant European season. Washington, D.C., an important concert stop both for its status as the nation's capital and because of its large African-American community, was the largest city in the country without a municipal auditorium. In fact, the only venue of any size was Constitution Hall, owned and run by the Daughters of the American Revolution, a conservative women's organization.

The DAR flatly refused to book the black artist to play their whites-only hall. "No date will ever be available for Marian Anderson in Constitution Hall," her manager Sol Hurok was informed. The hideous irony of a group devoted to the ideals of the American Revolution turning an African-American performer away from a venue named after the document that guarantees freedom and equality to all was not lost on anyone. "I don't know what Constitution Hall will be used for that night," the Washington Post acidly observed. "Probably for a lecture on how everybody is free and equal in the United States."

For the full review, click here.

Raymond Arsenault's THE SOUND OF FREEDOM featured in The New Republic

April 26, 2009; The New Republic

The Civil Rights Struggle Was Not So Long

I am not doctor tout va bienovich. But a review in Sunday's Globe of The Sounds of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America by Raymond Arsenault makes a tonic historical point. I know that many of our young readers (and some of our middle-aged readers, too) don't know who Marian Anderson was. She was an ear-riveting gospel singer and truly amazing operatic soprano (permitted on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera only near the beginning of her decline) who in 1939 was denied the rental of Constitution Hall which was owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Oh, yes, before I forget, Anderson was a Negro when "negro" was an advance on colored.

The D.A.R. was not, as we always knew, committed to the ultimate principles of our revolution but to the narrow and confining habits of racial disdain. In any case, Franklin D. Roosevelt heard about this travesty--or perhaps it was Eleanor--and offered Anderson's impresario, Sol Hurok, the Lincoln Memorial as a venue for the singer's concert.

It is seventy years now since Marian Anderson sang to a mixed crowd on the Washington Mall. Close to that anniversary, the American people marked the first hundred days of Barack Obama's presidency which, of course, was inaugurated on that very mall. History crawls slowly, and its achievements never come fast enough. But, on reflection and even accounting for the bravery and pain experienced in the civil rights struggle, the journey to the end, which is also the journey to the beginning, was not so long.

Moying Li's SNOW FALLING IN SPRING reviewed in Inkweaver

Posted by NathanKP
April 2, 2009

“Snow Falling in Spring,” is a historical biography by Moying Li, about her life growing up during the tumultuous Chinese Cultural Revolution. Moying Li begins her book with a description of her innocent childhood before the Cultural Revolution, playing in the courtyard of her family home with her friends and the family pets. Then she describes the beginning of the Cultural Revolution and its first manifestation in her childhood world: a large furnace for producing iron and steel. This furnace was erected in the courtyard where she liked to play.

During the Cultural Revolution the Chinese government announced that China could catch up to Western countries in one Great Leap Forward, if every citizen worked hard to increase the output of goods, food, etc. The Chinese eagerly embraced this bold plan. Moying Li describes how her initial apprehension about the steel furnace turned into wholehearted approval. She even went to the kitchen to pull out pots and pans to melt in the furnace. Despite the energy and enthusiasm put into the furnace project, though, the result is failure:

In the courtyard, Da Jiu and our neighbors sat on the woodpile, their heads bowed like those of defeated soldiers. The fire in the furnace had died, leaving a lingering smell of burned wood.

“What happened, Da Jiu?”

“The iron and steel we made was not good enough.” He sighed. I stared at him in disbelief. “We simply did not know enough to make it right,” he added.

Now I was sad, too. Climbing up the woodpile to sit next to him, I leaned my head against his shoulder, as crestfallen as he and our neighbors.

“But we tried so hard.”

“Yes,” he said. “We did.”

The failure of the furnace sets the tone for much of the rest of “Snow Falling in Spring.” Although the Cultural Revolution had grand goals, carrying out the plans was more difficult than it seemed and often had unanticipated results. For example, Moying Li mentions another government plan: to eliminate the sparrow. The idea was that this small bird ate seeds and crops, so by killing off the species in China food production would be boosted. Although the war against sparrows was highly successful and millions were killed, the next year saw crop failure as insects that would have normally been kept in check by the sparrows ravaged the fields.

Perhaps the most memorable statement in “Snow Falling in Spring” is found at the beginning of the fourth chapter.

Most people cannot remember when their childhood ended. I, on the other hand, have a crystal clear memory of the moment. It happened one night, in the summer of 1966, when my elementary school headmaster hanged himself.

Moying Li starts by describing her early days in school. She paints a vivid picture of caring, fun loving, teachers and interesting assignments that kept her busy and happy. But the atmosphere in Moying Li's school changed when the Red Guard movement began to gain momentum. Basically the Red Guard was a vast student group that developed as a backlash movement in response to Western ideology being taught in Chinese schools. The Red Guard felt that much of the instruction in Chinese schools was really propaganda designed to corrupt Eastern minds and turn young students away from Communism, toward Democracy. Whether this was the case or not, the Red Guard made it their job to expose school officials that they felt were not showing enough support for the Communist government.

Moying Li does an excellent job of showing the steps that led the Red Guard from watchdog status to full fledged militant terrorism. Then she shows how Red Guard violence touched people progressively closer to her, first her favorite teachers, then the school headmaster, and finally her own family.

For the full article, click here.

Robin Abrahams, author of the forthcoming MIND OVER MANNERS, featured on the Today Show

Robin Abrahams, author of the forthcoming Mind Over Manners, was featured on the Today Show to discuss unemployment etiquette.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Walter Lewin, author of the forthcoming FOR THE LOVE OF PHYSICS, featured in Time

College Too Expensive? Try YouTube

April 9, 2009; Time

In 2002, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched the MIT OpenCourseWare with the plan to make virtually all the school's courses available for free online.

As a visitor, one almost feels like you've somehow sneaked through a firewall. There's no registration and within a minute, you can be watching Prof. Walter Lewin demonstrate the physics of a pendulum by being one himself. (See the 50 best websites of 2008.)

Last December, MIT announced that OCW had been visited by more than 50 million people worldwide. But why would institutions that charges a huge price for admission give away their primary product?

Ben Hubbard, program manager of the webcast project for the University of California, Berkeley, believes it has always been a part of a university's vocation. "The mission of the university has been the same since our charter days back in the 1800s," said Hubbard. "It's threefold: there's teaching, research and community service. Probably in the 1800s they weren't thinking of it as the globe, but technology has really broken down those barriers of geography."

In 1995, Berkeley launched its webcasts with video and audio webcasts of classes.

In 2007, Apple created iTunes U, a service that allows schools to make material accessible only internally by students or externally by anyone. Most schools do a little of both.

To read the full article, click here.

Ramin Ganeshram, author of the forthcoming CURRY CHRONICLES, featured in Forbes

Trinidad: The America Of The Caribbean

With a three-year economic lag behind the U.S., Trinidad should be preparing for the worst.

By Ramin Ganeshram
April 20, 2009; Forbes

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad -- When I was a child visiting my father's country of Trinidad, where progress, it was often said, was roughly about 20 years behind the States, I could see this was true. By 1980, we had two color television sets in our home in New York, but the small 12-inch black and white TV my father brought to his family in Chaguanas was the only one on the block. The cases upon cases of beer and soda he bought to stock the kitchen when we visited were a wonder of excess to the neighbors, and our American clothes and shoes were a source of endless fascination to the local kids. Except for Coca Cola, Pepsi and some Nestle products, there were few American conveniences to be had at the local supermarket, which was little more than what would be called a corner shop in New York.

By the 1990s, progress had leaped to being just 10 years behind the States. My father's village had become a bustling metropolitan area in its own right. American jeans, T-shirts and sneakers jammed shops vying for space with locally made Panama suits and East Indian clothes. Major American health and beauty companies peddled their locally branded lotions and cosmetics on the shelves of the local chemist shops. Bootlegged CDs sold on the street featuring both American pop music and as-yet-unreleased soca and calypso tracks.

When I was there in 2005, the gap had reduced to five years. Malls had popped up around the country, mostly featuring Trinidadian versions of American products. "Bling" abounded: cellphones, baggy pants and thick gold chains on young men; girls with belly shirts and cleavage, a far cry from the socially conservative society I knew, influenced by Hindu, Muslim and conservative Christian mores, carnival-time being the only exception.

To read the full article, click here.