Sunday, May 31, 2009

City On Fire- The Forgotten Disaster by Bill Minutaglio

The more things change the more they remain the same, or so they say. Reading this book gives you a good idea of what that means.

In 1947 America had just won the Second World War and was at the apex of it’s power. The Cold War was just beginning to emerge and Industry was King. No place was this more true than in Texas City, Texas- a conglomerate of chemical manufacturers and oil companies. Monsanto Chemicals, Republic Oil and Humble Oil were the chief employers and no one was going to rock this boat. Jobs, lives, industry and even the old reliable stand by of “National Security” were not going to let anything stand in the way of profits.

The town was divided into sections denoting class and profession. Dockside were the workers in the chemical plants and refineries, along with the Longshoreman. Further inland and in neighborhoods with sewer and water were the elite of management. The division was soon to be erased by tragedy.

On April 6th, 1947 Father Bill Roach, a Catholic Priest, was sitting with his brother John, also a Priest, when he remarked that “Blood will flow in the streets of Texas City- and soon.” Father Bill had been something of an oddity around the dock area- very unusual fellow this Priest. He was more concerned with the Social ills that confronted the city than with merely saving souls. He had, along with the towns $1 a year mayor, Curtis Trahan, approached the corporations and hatched the idea of incorporating the areas outside the town limits in an effort to tax the huge profits of the chemical companies and oil refineries. They were met with stiff opposition at every turn.

All that changed on the morning of April 16, 1947. A French steamer, the Grandchamps, had been loading 100 pound bags of ammonium nitrate the day before and was just completing that task when a longshoreman noticed smoke coming from in between the bags in the hold. In an effort to salvage the cargo the French Captain ordered the hatches closed and the space flooded with CO2 to smother the fire. Water would have ruined the cargo. Over the next 90 minutes the pressure built and built- the ship was actually bulging and breathing at the seams, like a live monster about to explode- and she did, at 9:12 AM just 9 days after Father Bills’ vision of “blood…in the streets of Texas City.”

The explosion shattered windows over 150 miles away. In ports like Houston, which did not allow Ammonium Nitrate to be handled at it’s ports, buildings shook.

What follows is a story of the greed that allowed this to happen, and the mistakes that were made in preparing for and reacting to the fire and subsequent explosion. This would be the first time that the United States was named as a Defendant in a trial for Liability. The litigation lasted over 9 years and in the end each life lost was deemed worth $1,000. And with the exception of a few changes life went on.

This is a multi-layered story. At first glance it is the story of one of the greatest industrial accidents in the history of America; beyond that there is the story of Father Bill Roach and Mayor Trahan and their visions for the future. It is also the story of General Wainwright ceding control graciously to the local leaders rather than standing on Presidential Orders to the contrary.

Mr. Minutaglio has carefully crafted a vivid and accurate account of the events and their aftermath. And you can trace the story on through the years to Union Carbide and Bophal, India; the Great Lakes and Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company in the 1970’s; the Valdez in Alaska and Exxon Oil in the 1990’s. The French were right- the more things change- the more they remain the same.

Monday, May 25, 2009

For 2 Cents Plain by Harry Golden

There is an exhibit in the Library at University of North Carolina Charlotte on the life and writings of Harry Golden, an author first introduced to me by the father of a friend when I was about 16. Mr. Herman had several volumes of Jewish American humor and Harry Goldens "For Two Cents Plain" was among them.

In 1940 Harry Golden arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina and shortly thereafter he began to publish a 16 page monthly newspaper called The Carolina Israelite. This was no small feat in the Jim Crow South of the day. The name of the paper alone was instantly controversial, as were the subjects of his articles, which ran the gamut from satire of race segregation to the still sensitive subject of Anti Semitism and inter marraige.

One of his most remembered articles is the Vertical Negro Plan, in which he notes that since whites and blacks are not permitted by law to be seated next to one another, and since this was causing so much trouble at lunch counters across the South- why not simply remove the stools and let everyone stand together? This would violate no law and the problem of segregation would be solved.

But he had a more serious side too. He could evaluate and eviserate with a surgeons skill, as evidenced in his famous (at least to me) "Teaching Shylock." This interpretation of Shakespeare's work stands, in my mind, as the final word on what the Bard was intending when he wrote "The Merchant of Venice."

His books are at once insightful, thought provoking and in some instances just plain funny.For those who have never read Harry Golden, this is a chance to look at some writing, done by a lone journalist (typesetting and all advertisements included)who wrote and self published in the style of O. Henry. His stand against bigotry and ignorance will be with us for a long, long time.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Bluegrass-A True Story of Murder in Kentucky by William Van Meter

Most of the time when reading a true crime story you come away with some feeling as to whether Justice has been served or not. You usually have an opinion of who is really guilty and who goes scot free. Not so with this book.

The cast of characters includes the scion of the wealthy Dollar General Stores chain, Luke Goodrum, accused of murdering and burning the body of a young Western Kentucky University female student, Katie Autry,in her dorm room. Also implicated, and later convicted, is Stephen Soules, a mixed race teenage boy who will ultimately spend the rest of his life in jail for a crime he participated in, but may not have planned.

The trial takes on the issues of race, money and influence in a world where money can put a spin on the most heinous of crimes,possibly influencing the verdict.

Bowling Green, Kentuck in 2003 is the setting for this crime that rocked the community. The family of the the accused Luke Goodrum, has at it's disposal the money and the technology to represent their son in court with charts, experts and even utilizes local polling to see how they will fare in court. The mixed race boy, with a poor, working class family, has none of these advantages. The victim, Katie Autry, is largely forgotten in some respects as the old and new order jockey for position in a trial that could cost one or both of them to lose their lives.

The outcome is almost clear from the beginning. What makes this book so interesting is that at the end you are still not sure if justice has been served- or cheated.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

No Book Today

We are in the midst of moving- not far- about 11 miles to the East and over the County line. I started 4 or 5 books this week- from Mike Wallace's memoirs to a deep philosophical tome on Descarte and a couple of light things in between. But with all the packing etc I just couldn't get into any of them enough to do them justice.

So I turned, as I often do, to rereading some of my favorite books. Like old friends they provide comfort in the familiarity of the characters I have come to know and love over the years. They, in turn, remind me of some of life’s lessons learned from some of the reading I have done.

Nowadays I read almost exclusively Non Fiction. But until about 20 years ago I was an avid fan of fiction by Clive Cussler, John McDonald, Herman Wouk and many others. But my real love was always with the so called "classics"- Dickens, Melville (is there anything more perfect than Moby Dick?) Twain, etc.

But one book that keeps coming around to provide me with solace is "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" by Betty Smith. Although not a prolific writer (aside from "Tree" she has written only one other major book- Majorie Morningstar) Ms Smith writes with a charm and elegance that will make you weep in joy or sadness and have you laughing at descriptions of people you have known in your own life. But most of all, her book rings true in relation to the human spirit.

In telling the story of an Irish immigrant family in 1912 Brooklyn, Ms Smith creates a true and compelling portrait of social issues as well as the human dramas we all face in life. This is not the story of just one girl coming of age- but the tale of an evolving immigrant society and their desire to assimilate and become something more. Even Johnny Nolan, with his character flaws and short comings, has dreams of something better coming down the pike. The book is bristling with optimism and even as the characters face some devastating events there is always the belief- not hope- but belief- that better days are just ahead.

The principal character, Francie, has an overworked mother, an alcoholic father and a pesky brother. But she also has an Aunt Sissy, as flamboyant a person ever introduced into a novel. The book draws a realistic picture of a long gone era when horses pulled milk wagons, cops walked a beat, kids were free to indulge their childhood passions and allowances were made for those that followed the beat of a different drummer. (It is interesting to note that the book was originally written as an autobiography and then rewritten at the suggestion of an editor.)

Life doesn't change that much over the years- just the "window dressing" of style and taste- but the core issues of morality, education and hard work never change.

And that is the great thing about this book- the challanges faced by the Nolan family in 1912 are largely the same as those faced by later groups of immigrants as they struggle to make a new life.

This is one of my all time favorite "comfort books" and alongside of "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee (an even less prolific author than Ms Smith!)stands the test of time and can be revisited now and again to reinforce or even to rethink some of my own positions on the issues that confront us all as humans.

So, onward with the packing and hopefully the reading will resume as usual once I settle in at the new house.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Corpse Walker-Real Life Stories - China From the Bottom Up by Liao Yiwu

Liao Yiwu is a Chinese dissident who was imprisoned for 4 years after writing a poem about the Tiananmen Square Massacre. In spite of his continued monitoring by Chinese officials he is still active and writing. This book was written and smuggled out of China for publication. The translation is by Wen Huang.

It is a most interesting book as it takes some of the occupations and trades that were banned by the Chinese Government and explores how these prohibitions affected the Chinese people through the years of Mao Tse Tung and beyond.

There are 27 professions examined through interviews with the members of China’s “forgotten classes”. Liao Yiwu asks the questions and the subjects let go with a “no holds barred” account of their lives and professions.

Here we have the Corpse Walker- an ancient art, whereby the corpse is “walked” to the funeral. The practice was banned as being superstitious. The “walkers” interviewed here tell the history of the profession and explain why they continue with the practice and what it meant to Chinese culture.

The Public Rest Room Attendant- a former landlord before his re-education- gives us his views on the “new” China and where it is heading. He sees all manner of people in his profession- toilets, you see, are the real equalizers in all societies.

From the Feng Shui practioner , Blind Street Musician and on to the Human Trafficker and Falon Gong member this is a unique perspective of where China has been, where it is, and where it may be heading. With a keen eye and a writers wit Mr. Liao has painted a portrait of China that is both a history and a narrative of a land that has always fascinated me.