Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Two by Simenon

Posted by nliakos on September 17, 2018

Maigret au Picratt’s (English version: Maigret in Montmartre), 1950

Maigret en meublé (English version: Maigret Takes a Room/Maigret Rents a Room), 1951

(in Tout Simenon Vol. 5, Presses de la Cité 1988)

I was recently inspired to re-read Maigret au Picratt’s when I watched it on my local PBS station, starring Rowan Atkinson (aka Mr. Bean) as Maigret (likable, but not at all how one imagines Maigret while reading). I was pleased to find that it was in one of my four Tout Simenon volumes (it’s a 25-volume set, each of which has about ten novels and whodunits), so I immediately started to read. When I lived in France in the early 1970s,  I used to love reading Maigret mysteries, which for some reason were not difficult for me to understand (compared to the novels), and I read a lot of them. I guess there was a lot of repeated vocabulary from one to another. I don’t remember looking up words as I read, and all these years later, I can still read them without relying on a dictionary, but it was so easy to check a word on my phone (with a choice of monolingual and bilingual dictionaries!) that I sometimes opted to do that (mostly finding that the words meant what I had thought they did, thus demonstrating the effectiveness of Understanding Vocabulary in Context).

Maigret au Picratt’s follows Inspector Maigret as he investigates the murder of Arlette, a young stripper at a bar named Picratt’s. The night before she was killed, Arlette had gone to the neighborhood police station to report that she had overheard two men in Picratt’s talking about murdering a countess. They didn’t believe her until she herself was found strangled in her room. Maigret takes over the investigation from the long-suffering Inspector Lognon (who is used to ceding his authority to Maigret), but he is not fast enough to stop the killer from murdering the Countess von Farnheim in her apartment the following day. Then it’s all hands on deck to catch the killer before he strikes again. The countess was a drug addict, and the investigation takes Maigret into the seedy underground world of addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes,  and petty criminals. Maigret’s signature investigative style of immersing himself in the culture of the killer and victim is in evidence here, as well as in Maigret en meublé, which I also read because it followed immediately after Maigret au Picratt’s (both were written while Simenon was living in Connecticut, 1950-1955).

In this story, Inspector Janvier, one of the detectives who works very closely with Maigret, is shot while staking out a suspect in the Rue Lhomond, and Maigret becomes obsessed with finding the shooter. Since Madame Maigret is away from home, Maigret rents a furnished room in the building in front of which Janvier was shot, and he immerses himself in the life and people of the little street, chatting up the tenants and the young woman (la grosse fille, in the language of the day) who owns the building and knows more than she will reveal, the neighbors, the shopkeepers and the owner of the bar where he goes to eat and drink beer and white wine. (In doing so, Maigret absents himself from his other duties at the Police Judiciaire, other than checking in on the phone from time to time, but as always, his boss (le chef) seems okay with that.) Maigret becomes increasingly frustrated as his investigation turns up nothing, but eventually, he seems to figure out what must have happened, and then he sets about getting those involved to admit their guilt.

Written in the early 50s, these stories were probably set in the 40s. What strikes a modern reader is that in a time before cell phones, investigators on the street were very limited in their ability to communicate with their colleagues; if they were tailing a suspect, they would have to duck into a café or a bar to use a public telephone. To get from one place to another, they took taxis. Of course, there was no DNA evidence. There were no body cameras. But Maigret and his inspectors generally seem to respect the humanity of the people they are investigating and interviewing. I have no idea how accurate this depiction of the Paris police is!

Anyway, when I went to my local library recently, I checked the fiction and mystery shelves for Simenon’s books and was surprised to find only one Maigret mystery (Maigret’s First Case) and no novels. I checked it out, so soon I may be reading about Maigret in English. However, as usual, I borrowed more books than I can possibly read (four), and then I ordered Fear: Trump in the White House on my Kindle, so who knows if I will have a chance to get to it? 🙂

For a review of Pierre Assouline’s 1997 biography of Simenon, visit https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/97/08/10/reviews/970810.10bairlt.html. Hmmm. . . . not an admirable person. I much prefer Maigret!

For an interesting summary and discussion of Maigret en meublé on the website Maigret of the Month, try https://www.trussel.com/maig/mommeu.htm.

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Posted in Fiction, Mystery | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Americanah

Posted by nliakos on August 31, 2018

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Borzoi/Knopf, 2013)

I bought this e-book to read while we were in Greece last year, but I never got round to reading it until recently. I loved it! In seven parts and 55 chapters, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells the stories of Ifemelu and Obinze, soulmates and lovers, in their native Nigeria and in their adopted countries of the United States and the United Kingdom. Ifemelu, the eponymous Americanah, experiences culture shock in the U.S. as she adapts to her life first as an international student and then as an employee, and then re-entry shock when she returns, by choice, to Nigeria, giving up her popular blog on race and the experiences of non-American blacks (excerpts of which often end the chapters, making me wonder if the author had just such a blog). Obinze, in contrast, does not find success in the U.K. and is ultimately deported, to his extreme humiliation. The reader follows the adventures of these two individuals, hoping that they will somehow find each other and reconcile. Life, meanwhile, seems to keep them apart.

Reading about Nigerian (and Nigerian ex-pat) culture was interesting, but it did not make me want to experience it!

Adichie’s prose is exquisite, and the reader really comes to care about the characters, which to my mind is a necessity in fiction. (If I can’t identify with a character, if I have no affinity with at least one character, I don’t like the novel. The best example of this is Gone with the Wind, which I have never liked for precisely this reason.)

 

 

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The Fiddler

Posted by nliakos on August 20, 2018

by Beverly Lewis (Bethany House 2012)

I found this, my fourth Beverly Lewis novel, in the little library of my local senior center.  I took a break from Amerikanah, which I am really enjoying, to gobble down this Amish cupcake of a novel. You kind of know how it’s going to turn out, but Lewis keeps you guessing as to how she is going to get there. It is the love story of violinist Amelia Devries and Amishman Michael Hofsteder, set mostly in and around the invented Amish community of Hickory Hollow, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Both Amelia and Michael are at a crossroads in their lives. Amelia has the talent to be a star violinist, and her father and her agent are pressuring her to go that route, but she wants a husband and family, and she wants to play music because she loves it–not for money or fame. Michael doesn’t fit very well in his Amish community. At twenty-five, he has yet to join the church, and he gotten a GED and continued on to higher education despite the disapproval of his father. He wants to leave the Amish life and become English, but he is held back by his love for his family and hometown. He wants to be there, but without the limitations that the Plain life require. So the reader can see where this is going, especially since Amelia and Michael are attracted to each other from the first moment they meet, on a stormy night in a remote cabin where Michael has fled after an argument with his father, and Amelia has wound up after getting lost. A visit to Hickory Hollow follows, and Amelia falls in love with the people she meets and the serenity of the place, so different from the high-stress city life of an up-and-coming musical celebrity.

Everything works out in the end, and the twists and turns of the story kept me engaged for the day or so it took me to read it. Back to Amerikanah!

English language learners will probably not find this difficult, but they will have to deal with the occasional Deitch (Pennsyvania Dutch) words (italicized).

Posted in Fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me & Nearly Broke My Heart

Posted by nliakos on August 17, 2018

by William Alexander (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2014)

At the age of 56, Bill Alexander decided he was going to learn French. At about the same time, he grappled with some serious cardiac issues. (That’s the heartbreak part.) Predictably, learning French, and particularly at his age, proved to be…difficult. One might even say, not possible, since Alexander’s goal was to become fluent in the language. He didn’t. Along the way, he tried different strategies, including online tutors and conversation partners, CD-ROMs, actual classes, and a two-week immersion at a school in France. None of these provided the miracle he was searching for (as I could have told him). Nevertheless, he persisted (!), and he did make some progress with the language.

Having studied French (at a younger age!) and lived in France for several years, and having taught English as a Second Language for over forty years, I was not surprised by anything Alexander wrote about language acquisition (and failure to acquire), but I enjoyed the story and learned some interesting tidbits about French idioms, the history of the language, and the culture.

French-speaking English language learners would enjoy this book.

Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Leave a Comment »

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton

Posted by nliakos on August 2, 2018

by Elizabeth L. Silver (Crown 2013)

Noa is on death row in Pennsylvania for the murder of her father’s young girlfriend, Sarah Dixon. The novel mostly consists of Noa’s memoir, about her childhood and young adulthood, culminating in the night that Sarah died. Noa’s voice sometimes gives way to that of Sarah’s mother Marlene, a hotshot Philadelphia lawyer who attempted to use Noa to force Sarah to leave her lover (Noa’s ne’er-do-well father), and then following Noa’s trial and conviction, turned against the death penalty and is trying to appeal for clemency with the help of a young Welsh lawyer, Oliver Stansted. (Marlene’s point of view comes from the letters she writes to her dead daughter.) Oliver visits Noa many times during the six months prior to her scheduled execution, and he begins to harbor doubts as to her guilt. Noa, for her part, refuses to tell anyone what actually happened. . .  until the final chapters. But her memoir will likely never see the light of day, nor will Oliver ever have the opportunity to read it.

I would have liked the book better had Noa been somewhat more likable, I think. She is not portrayed negatively, but I couldn’t really identify with her or feel emotionally close to her.

 

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Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story

Posted by nliakos on July 25, 2018

by Dame Daphne Sheldrick (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)

I had never heard of Dame Daphne nor of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, but apparently, in the community of advocates for African wildlife (and in particular, elephants and rhinos), they are very well known. Following a harrowing accident when she failed to recognize one of “her” grown-up orphan elephants and instead got too familiar with a wild elephant, Dame Daphne decided to write her memoirs: “This will be my legacy. I will set down everything I have learned in my efforts to contribute to the conservation, preservation and protection of wildlife in this magical land.”

A native white Kenyan (her grandparents immigrated from South Africa, though her family originated in Scotland), Daphne grew up on a farm where she already showed an inclination to love and care for the wild animals that were so numerous, in addition to the dogs and cats and other domesticated animals on the farm. At seventeen, she married a man who worked for the Kenyan National Parks as an assistant warden. His assignment to Tsavo National Park put Daphne in close contact with Park Warden David Sheldrick, who was to become her second husband and soulmate.

For me, by far the most interesting parts of the narrative, however, are the parts about the many orphaned animals that Dame Daphne (with her husbands’ and daughters’ help) rescued and returned successfully to the wild. I think it is well known that wild animals who are reared by humans have a hard time surviving with their own kind in the wild; many never make it. But Dame Daphne’s orphans, time and time again, given the freedom to decide when and how they would rejoin their wild cousins (with some limitations due to age), were almost always able to reintegrate successfully (although they were of course subject to the same dangers and risks as their wild cousins once they had reintegrated). One important factor in this success for the many elephant orphans she raised is that when they were no longer dependent on milk, they were given over to the care and tutelage of the elephant cow Eleanor, herself a former orphan, who raised and returned so many orphans to the wild that I lost count.

Along the way, Dame Daphne was the first person to figure out what kind of formula could be used to save infant elephants. She also raised many other kinds of orphaned animals, including rhinos, warthogs, and many different types of antelopes, from the tiny dikdiks to elands and kudu. Amazingly, Eleanor accepted all of these different animals into her motley family. A lot of cross-species friendships were formed–not only humans with wild animals, but rhinos with zebras and water buffalo, antelopes with elephants, and more. There are photos showing Dame Daphne’s young daughters feeding the orphans and riding on a rhino. She tells of welcoming the orphans into her house and sometimes actually in her bed! Having believed all my life that wild animals can never be trusted, I was astonished at how gentle these animals were with Sheldrick and with her children (although they were often mischievous, especially when they were young). Her deep love for all animals and the special bonds she cultivated with her elephants are a joy to read about. Elephants are amazingly similar to humans in so many ways, especially when it comes to their emotional lives. They seem to lack our penchant for violence, though–at least among their own kind.

In addition, she explains the Mau Mau revolution in Kenya in the fifties, the issues related to Kenyan independence in the sixties (included the impact on the National Park system), and the ongoing fight to save African wildlife from poaching. An absolutely fascinating read.

Update: I googled Dame Daphne Sheldrick and discovered to my sadness that she passed away only a few months ago, on April 12, 2018. I also found this documentary, which tells the story of both Dame Daphne and her elephants and of Birute Galdikas and the orphaned orangutans that she raises in Borneo. Unfortunately, the video is full of annoying ads, but if you can ignore them, it’s really interesting to watch.

Posted in Autobiography, History, Non-fiction, Science | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Little Women

Posted by nliakos on July 14, 2018

by Louisa May Alcott (Grosset & Dunlap Illustrated Junior Library 1947)

I was not one of the many girls who adored Little Women when I was younger. I am pretty sure I read it (but not Little Men or Jo’s Boys), but probably just once. It doesn’t feature animals, for one thing. And perhaps I found it too saccharine. It is kind of a goody-goody story. But I enjoyed the performance on PBS this year and resolved to re-read it. I bought it very cheap for my Nook app and alternated between that and a friend’s somewhat dilapidated 1947 edition (Ex Libris: Carmen Valenzuela) featuring color plates and line drawings by Louis Jamber.

This time around, I preferred Part Second, when the sisters are older, to Part First,  during which Mr. March is away ministering to the Union troops in Washington. Almost all the main characters are introduced in these chapters:  next-door neighbor Teddy “Laurie” Laurence, and his crotchety grandfather; equally crotchety Aunt March; and of course, mother Marmee and the four sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. I think it is common knowledge that Alcott modeled Jo after herself, and I think she is most readers’ favorite character. Jo is a tomboy;  had the story been written now, she could be a lesbian or even, eventually, a trans-gender man. (Even though in Part Second, she bows to convention, falls in love, and marries.) She is a more natural character than Marmee, Meg, and Beth, who are all rather saintly, and more likable in Part First than practical Amy, who will grow up to decide that she should marry for money (so that she can take care of her poor relations). But in Part Second, the girls, now young women, take on more authentic characteristics. Meg, the first to marry, almost squanders her husband’s love and attention by paying too much attention to her children; Beth, facing her own death, inspires her family with her courage and kindness; Jo struggles with her ambition, her sharp tongue, her inability to reciprocate Laurie’s love for her, and the loss of her beloved Beth; and Amy finds true love and a fortune in the person of Laurie, once he has gotten over his crush on her sister. Through it all, the parents are founts of wisdom and good advice, especially Marmee. All of these things are pretty well known. But I cried over Beth’s passing and cheered for Jo and her Professor. Despite its moralistic tone, Little Women can still delight.

 

Posted in Fiction | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

The Map of Salt and Stars

Posted by nliakos on June 23, 2018

by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar (Touchstone 2018)

This novel by Syrian-American author Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar is actually two novels in one. The first one, set in Syria, Jordan, and North Africa in 2011, is the first-person account of the escape of one Syrian family from the conflict in their homeland. This family consists of the mother, a cartographer, and her three daughters, Huda, Zahra, and twelve-year-old narrator Nour. The family had been living in New York, where Nour was born, but decided to move back to Syria after the death of the husband and father to cancer. They have barely settled in to their home in Homs, and Nour’s Arabic is still quite rudimentary, when the house is destroyed by a shell, and they find themselves homeless. Joined by the father’s best friend, Abu Saeed, they begin to make their way westward, through Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, and finally Morocco, seeking safety. They confront dangers of many kinds, lose one person when the ferry they are on sinks, are separated when the mother has to remain behind to take Huda to a hospital, and are finally reunited in Ceuta, the Spanish city across from Gibraltar, where the novel concludes.

We experience this harrowing journey through the eyes of Nour, who happens to be a synesthete; her descriptions are accordingly vivid, such as “a dog barks silver purple”, “the bare walls will be splashed with color from everybody’s singing”, and “I smell the brown-red brakes before we see the bus terminal”. (I wonder: Is Joukhadar also a synesthete?) She is still grieving for her father, as they all are, in their different ways. She idolizes her eldest sister Huda, but has to learn to love middle sister Zahra, who can be hard to like but who undergoes her own transformation as the novel unfolds. This is Nour’s coming-of-age; it could not happen in a more challenging setting.

The other novel within the novel is the story of another journey, undertaken nine centuries earlier in the same part of the world, that of Rawiya of Ceuta, who disguises herself as a boy so that she can apprentice herself to the famed (actual historic) mapmaker, al-Idrisi, as he travels throughout the then-known world to make the first accurate map of it for the Sicilian king, Roger II. Rawiya (aka Rami) is a kind of super-hero(ine), smart, courageous, highly skilled and seemingly indefatigable. Rawiya and al-Idrisi, together with another apprentice, Bakr, and the poet/singer Khaldun, make their way over the same lands as Nour and her family do, although some of the names are different (Aila for Aqaba, Barneek for Benghazi). This is a story that Nour’s parents have told her over and over again, a story that she tells herself, trying to take on the attributes of Rawiya, who never seems to be afraid, never panics, never loses sight of her goal, whether she is fighting people or mythical monsters (giant serpents, the roc). It is Rawiya’s story that will help Nour to reach the place where she and Zahra are reunited with their mother and Huda.

Both stories were engrossing, both protagonists admirable and likable, and I enjoyed the novel very much.

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Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart * How We Come Together

Posted by nliakos on June 10, 2018

by Van Jones ( Ballantine 2017)

I don’t watch CNN much, and I have never seen Van Jones’ show, The Messy Truth. In fact, I had no idea who he was (progressive activist, CNN political contributor, author, attorney, founder/supporter of numerous progressive organizations). However, reading this book has made me curious to know more (if you know when The Messy Truth airs on CNN, please let me know!).  In it, Jones speaks as a progressive, but he speaks to both liberals and conservatives. He believes that both share responsibility for the mess we are in today, and both have the power and the responsibility to fix it. In fact, he says, we need each other, because neither side has the whole answer. He writes, “In the end, the promise of America is liberty and justice for all. My fellow liberals are so focused on justice we too easily forget about liberty. Conservatives can be so committed to liberty that you become blind to cases where injustice curtails freedom. We need each other. We cannot improve this country alone.” He couches the progressive/conservative split as a difference in which values are prioritized. It’s a simple thing, but I had never really thought about it in that way before. I think perhaps he is right. Government can be too big and too intrusive. Regulations can be too onerous than necessary. Not every conservative goal ends in injustice. We do need a balance between the sides; the discussion between them slows down the process and gives everybody a chance to consider all the options and possible consequences of change, and forces everyone to think about and clarify their ideas and their consequences.

Chapters Two and Three are “open letters” to liberals and conservatives, in which Jones speaks first directly to his fellow progressives and then to those on the conservative side. As a lifelong liberal, I read the “Open Letter to Liberals” with interest and introspection, and found Jones’ conclusions to ring true. (Example: Democrats take the African American vote for granted, not bothering to make good on their promises to this group: “The party should dramatically increase its paltry investments in the one community that has backed it unconditionally” [92% of the African American vote generally goes to Democrats.]).

Jones has great compassion for the poor and working-class white voters who have been abandoned by the party that should prioritize their interests–the Democrats. He understands that not all of these voters are racist bigots. He understands how globalization, trade deals, wars, and other decisions made in the interests of the big parties and big business have stolen the ability of many to support their families as they were accustomed to doing by working in factories and mines, for example. But he doesn’t excuse them for supporting Trump despite his offensive statements. He writes, “I understand where [they] are coming from. I hear their pain, and I want to give voice to that. . . . [but] as much as I want liberals to understand where blue-collar families . . . are coming from, I want Trump voters . . . to broaden their political agenda to include real compassion for the pain experienced by Americans who are black and brown. I want them to understand that the impact of their choice has created a living hell for American Muslims living in fear, for Latino workers facing deportation, . . . for Native Americans fighting the imposition of leak-prone pipelines, for those Americans . . . who will face longer prison sentences under the reignited drug war.” He concludes, “Trump’s stoking of racial animosity was one factor, but not the only factor, in his victory. Liberals need to keep that in mind–lest we paint too many people with the wrong brush and push persuadable people deeper into Trump’s arms.”

In Chapter Five, “Prince, Newt, and the Way Forward’, Jones describes some of his personal relationships with people on both sides of the great divide, like his college journalism teacher and mentor, E. Jerald Ogg (a white, conservative Republican), Newt Gingrich (an unlikely friend for a liberal Democrat, but nevertheless), and Prince, the rock star. The part about Prince was especially interesting to me. I was never a fan of his music (probably because I never heard much of it or recognized it as his, and I was surprised at the outpouring of emotion when he died. Jones, who became great friends with Prince, describes how he would donate large amounts of money to many individuals, projects, and causes, but generally anonymously, because he wanted to avoid attention for his generosity; and how Prince stood by him and advised him during a particularly dark time in his life. Jones and Prince together created a program to encourage young African Americans to learn computer coding so that they would have the skills to work in the new 21st century jobs. He writes, “Prince touched people’s lives in countless ways. . . . His music will be his legacy, always and forever, but I will always remember him for his generous commitment to giving back. He notes how people of all races, religions, and ethnicities were among his fans: “Somehow everyone was in on the secret of the purple magic he created, and everyone belonged.” Jones’ words turned Prince from a mere celebrity  into a human being that I think anyone would have admired.

The final chapter is devoted to four ideas to help bring Americans together again:

(1) fixing the justice system that incarcerates more people than any other country, and sometimes spits them out after their sentences are served, deprived of their fundamental rights or any way to make an honest living. Specifically, he recommends keeping disruptive students in school rather than suspending, expelling, or arresting them; eliminating excessive fees and fines; doing away with money bail; decriminalizing addiction and mental illness; not sending people to prison for low level crimes; abolishing mandatory minimum and solitary confinement, increasing access to education and family visits; supporting ex-offenders’ ability to make a living; and restoring their voting rights.

(2) ending the opioid addiction crisis by ending the “detox and die” method; making naloxone  readily available; providing medicine and counseling to incarcerated addicts; requiring insurance companies to cover addiction treatment; training medical professionals to deal with addiction; and treating addiction like the illness it is rather than like criminal behavior.

(3) recognizing that “technology is great for consumers. But it can be bad for workers.” And really training people for work in the tech industry.

(4) Supporting clean technology and cleanup of industrial pollution.

Reading this book renewed my hope that perhaps things can get better again, if we would just respect one another and seek innovative solutions to some of our most pressing problems.

Posted in Non-fiction | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America

Posted by nliakos on May 28, 2018

by Ari Berman (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2015)

Despite all the recent GOP squealing about imagined, unproven voter fraud, I guess I thought the problem of voter suppression was mostly solved by the Voting Rights Act back in 1965. Wrong. This carefully documented history of the VRA showed me how the GOP, having lost the battle to legally deprive African-Americans of their right to vote with absurd literacy tests and poll taxes, set immediately to finding other, more creative ways to suppress the minority vote. During the Reagan and G. W. Bush administrations, they received a lot of support from the Executive Branch in their fight for inequality; and Reagan was able to tilt the Supreme Court so far to the right with his conservative appointments that it became more of an adversary than an ally (and still is!).

My state, Maryland, generally makes it easy to register and vote. Marylanders can register to vote at MVA offices and in schools. They can vote early, absentee, or on Election Day, as they choose. Even if their legitimacy as voters is questioned, they can cast provisional ballots, which are counted after being validated. But residents of many other states (in particular, states of the former Confederacy) are not so lucky. For them, ground gained in the late 20th century is being lost in the 21st.

After describing how President Johnson managed to get the VRA passed in 1965, Berman walks his reader through the various reauthorizations of the Act (1970, 1975, 1982, 1992, and 2006) and the landmark Supreme Court decisions which either strengthened or weakened the law:

  • Allen v. State Board of Elections (1969) – this challenge to election laws in parts of Mississippi and Virginia raised the question of whether Section 5 of the VRA might be used to prevent states from setting district boundaries in such a way that African Americans never constituted a majority, effectively barring them from winning elective office, since whites in the south did not vote for persons of color–in other words, rendering racial gerrymandering illegal.
  • White v. Regester (1973) – This decision found that at-large elections discriminated against black candidates, who were more likely to be elected when they ran in smaller districts where they constituted a majority (aka minority-majority districts).
  • City of Mobile v. Bolden (1979) – This decision essentially reversed White v. Regester, reflecting the more conservative makeup of the Supreme Court.
  • Thornburgh v. Gingles (1986) –  prevented minority vote dilution by racial gerrymandering.
  • Crawford v. Marion County Election Board (2008) – allowed states to restrict voting in response to the “threat” (as opposed to the actual existence) of voter fraud
  • Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 (NAMUDNO) v. Holder (2009) – did not actually change the VRA but encouraged further challenges
  • Shelby County v. Holder (2013) – This shameful decision essentially gutted Section 5 of the VRA by invalidating Section 4 (I did not understand well how one thing led to the other), thus removing the teeth from the law; states/counties with a history of vote suppression no longer have to have all changes to their election laws pre-approved by the Justice Department. By making it impossible to prevent abuse, this decision has undone much of the progress made possible by the VRA. As a direct result of this decision, voter turnout in 2014 plummeted; the number of voters turned away at the polls for failure to comply with some obscure procedure (or because the lines were too long) skyrocketed; and the GOP increased its stranglehold on state governments. Shame!

Berman explains the crucial importance of Section 5, which forced sixteen states (or counties within those states), mostly in the former Confederacy, to have any changes to their election laws “precleared” or pre-approved by the Department of Justice, giving the federal government the ability to block so-called second-generation voting restrictions which these states liked to use “to subvert the power of the growing minority vote”. Southerners hated being singled out for preclearance, even though relatively few abuses occurred elsewhere in the country. (Presumably, requiring preclearance in all fifty states would be prohibitively expensive, but it might have shut them up.)

Other concepts discussed in the book include voting rights versus states’ rights (to control their own elections); and simple ballot access vs. the right to be represented by someone like you. (The original VRA focused on access; subsequent reauthorizations added prevention of voter dilution, or representation.) Ballot access can be suppressed with tactics such as literacy tests and poll taxes, which were outlawed in the original VRA; in addition, measures that increase voter access, such as opportunities to vote early or by mail, adequate equipment and staff at the polls, sufficient hours of open polls, convenient locations of polls, use of provisional ballots, same-day registration, and no need for special identification which voters are unlikely to have, can be manipulated or gotten rid of (in areas where there are many minority voters), thus effectively suppressing the minority vote. Representation is mainly a result of racial gerrymandering.

The cast of characters includes the good guys (such as John Lewis, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King, Lani Guinier, Nicholas Katzenbach, Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy, Eric Holder, Barack Obama, James Sensenbrenner, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and a lot of poor, black, and elderly voters) and the bad guys (such as Strom Thurmond, John Roberts, Brad Reynolds, Abigail Thernstrom, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, William Rehnquist, Richard Nixon, Hans von Spakovsky, and Brad Schlozman).

I was appalled at the tactics employed by many Republican politicians and others to deprive minority voters of their most precious right in our democracy. I wonder, how did they justify these actions to themselves? Or maybe they truly believe in white supremacy.

During the Reagan administrations, the people appointed to run the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (Schlozman, von Spakovsky) were precisely the people who did not wish all Americans to have equal civil rights. Talk about putting the fox in charge of the henhouse! I was reminded of the EPA under the leadership of EPA-hater Scott Pruitt, who has turned the Environmental Protection Agency into the Environmental Destruction Agency. In both cases, many career civil servants working in those agencies, who believed in the mission of those agencies, resigned or were reassigned. Ugh.

Berman ends on a hopeful note–young activists inspired to fight on by past activism. But we shouldn’t have to fight this battle anymore. It was supposed to have been fought and won in 1965. I am thoroughly ashamed of my country.

 

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