Book Review: My Grandfathers’ Son

Yesterday, Justice and Mrs. Clarence Thomas presented us with signed copies of his new memoir, My Grandfather’s Son. I looked forward to reading it, and took the opportunity to read the book in its entirety today on two flights and a weather-delayed layover in Charlotte. Thanks to bad weather on the last leg of my flight, the turbulence of the flight hit just as I began reading about the turbulence of Clarence Thomas’ confirmation to the Supreme Court.
The book provides a fascinating and at times touching portrait of a man who had to fight against anger most of his life, and most of that within himself. He talks frequently about having to have his anger on a leash that occasionally slipped. His drinking found its source in his anger and insecurities, the frustration of segregation and racial hatred and the effect it had on his family, and anger at the man who raised him as his son. Thomas discovers later in life how destructive all of this anger can be, especially to those who are closest to him, and he mostly works his way from anger to acceptance — at least until those confirmation hearings.
Most people will focus on Thomas’ recap of the confirmation process, and it does take up the last eighty pages of a 289-page book, so it’s not an unfair focus. It’s certainly proving to be the most noteworthy. Given that it will change few minds, however, I think his recounting of his life journey prior to his appointment to the bench is much more fascinating and introspective. His transformation from poor boy to seminarian, to radical to Danforth staffer, and from Monsanto executive to EEOC chair shows the courageous and often lonely path taken by Clarence Thomas throughout his life.
Thomas gets almost brutally honest with himself, especially when it comes to his relationship with his grandfather who raised in with strict discipline and not much outward affection. Thomas deliberately referenced him in the title, believing him to be the man most responsible for his success. However, Thomas also talks about his own inability to forgive the man his hard nature, the very quality that allowed him to raise Thomas and his brother and give them the tools they would use for success later. Time would run out before Thomas could bridge that gap, and his pain is palpable, as is his guilt.
His honesty comes through in other areas as well. One anecdote especially comes to mind, considering that it involves a well-known conservative figure, John Ashcroft. He first started working with Ashcroft when he served on John Danforth’s staff, and he recalls his envy at Ashcroft’s success. Even though Ashcroft treated him with Christian kindness, Thomas’ anger at the perceived inequality led him to react immaturely and lash out unkindly, which Ashcroft steadfastly ignored — and Thomas talks about the guilt he still carries for his treatment.
His rites of passage are recounted with clarity and analytical precision. He talks about his views on race, and how they never really fit anyone’s mold. He actually speaks with some appreciation of Black Muslims in his youth, not for their separatism or their support for violence but for their message of self-reliance. It’s a lesson his grandfather taught him, and even though for years he relied on his blame for white people for the status of his people, he eventually realized that he had a completely different idea about how blacks should free themselves from their oppression.
Thomas told us in our dinner that he isn’t angry and that this isn’t an angry book. It is a book about anger, however, and I would say that the final quarter of the book does slip into anger at the humiliation of his confirmation hearing. Who could blame him? After a life of care in his professional life — he talks often about the lessons of To Kill A Mockingbird and his grandfather about any hint of impropriety being fatal for a black man in Georgia — an enormous smear involving allegations of sexual impropriety threatened to provide a “high-tech lynching” to his reputation, and all of the hard work of his grandparents in their support of him.
Having established an honesty and self-deprecation in the first 200 pages, his defense of the Anita Hill allegations come through as very credible. Although he claims to have released the anger over this betrayal and the obvious hostility and duplicity of the Senate Judiciary Committee, especially Joe Biden and another Senator “against whom allegations of sexual impropriety had been made” — a rather clear reference to Ted Kennedy — he clearly relishes giving his side of the story. He does not mince words, either, using the same blunt approach that he uses for his own introspection earlier in the memoir.
As I said, the honesty of the book is its most compelling quality. I think Captains Quarters readers will find it enlightening, and find Clarence Thomas the man something very different than Clarence Thomas the media-narrative persona.

Clarence Thomas, Unbound

Sixteen years after he castigated the Senate Judiciary Committee for conducting a “high-tech lynching,” Justice Clarence Thomas may relish the opportunity to tell his side of the story. With his new book My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir hitting bookstores today, Thomas’ belated last word on the accusations of sexual harrassment and hypocrisy on racial preferences will undoubtedly transform his image from that of an isolated footnote to an active and powerful voice, both on the Supreme Court and in public life. He has placed himself in the unusually public place of a controversial author, seeking publicity where he and his colleagues have traditionally avoided it.
Last night, I watched his interviews on CBS’ 60 Minutes, conducted with taste and objectivity by Steve Kroft. At Heading Right, I review the interview and Thomas’ effectiveness. Thomas did well last night in providing the last word on the Anita Hill allegations and the “high-tech lynching” provided by Senate Democrats on the Judiciary Committee. It has implications for this cycle, as certain organizations have apparently started an intellectually dishonest cherry-picking campaign against conservative commentators to discredit them as well.
Tonight, I will meet Justice Thomas at a private function and have a chance to hear him talk about his memoir and his experiences. Tune in tonight at 9 pm ET to a special Heading Right Radio show to hear more. Meanwhile, you can order his book from the Captain’s Quarters bookshelf:

The Bookshelf Is Open

One feature at the new Captain’s Quarters has not yet been properly introduced. As part of my work as a blogger and radio host, I interview authors on a regular basis, and I will often include a link to their books. In the previous design, I had a small portion of the sidebar that would show those books and others that I recommend, but it did not get updated very often.
In the new design, we included a page called the Bookshelf. It shows all of the books that I have covered, with links back to Amazon. I participate in the Amazon Associates program, which pays me a small percentage of the sale price on every book sold through this blog. In fact, that’s true for any purchase made at Amazon resulting from a CapQ referral, so I have included a search widget on the page that will allow readers to find and purchase whatever they want through this site. It doesn’t add cost to the products, and it gives me a small revenue stream with which I can support the site.
If you haven’t checked out the Bookshelf yet, click on the link in the header just below the logo and take a look at the recommendations. If you’re going to shop at Amazon for anything, I’d appreciate it if you start your search here and help support the site.

Clarence Thomas: I Was Lynched For Abortion

Matt Drudge has a leak that had to come from CBS about their upcoming interview with Clarence Thomas. Airing on Sunday, the Steve Kroft segment coincides with the publication of Thomas’ memoirs, and Thomas doesn’t pull punches. In the book he talks about the “lynching” he received during his confirmation hearing, and he says it damaged everyone and set the stage for the impeachment of Bill Clinton (via Bluey’s Blog):

In his first television interview, in which he discusses his childhood, his race, his rise to Supreme Court Justice and his job on the nation’s highest court, Clarence Thomas says the real issue at his controversial confirmation hearings 16 years ago was abortion. Saying the issue was “the elephant in the room,” Thomas also tells Steve Kroft that the hearings he called at the time a “high tech lynching” harmed the country. The interview will be broadcast on 60 MINUTES, Sunday Sept. 30 (7:30-9:00 PM/ET, 7:00-9:00 PM /PT) on the CBS Television Network.
Thomas, whose Supreme Court positions on abortion issues have been conservative, says the confirmation hearings in which he was accused of sexual harassment by a former employee — allegations he continues to deny — were really about abortion. “That was the elephant in the room… That was the issue. That is the issue that people are apparently so upset about,” he tells Kroft. “[That is the issue] that you determine the composition of your Supreme Court and your entire federal judiciary, it seems now,” says Thomas.
He says the hearings harmed the accuser, Anita Hill, himself, and ultimately the country by setting a precedent manifested in other highly charged, media-infused events such as the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. “The process harmed her. It harmed me and we see sort of the precedent of this kind of thing begin to harm even people like President Clinton,” Thomas believes. “Things are out of control. That’s not good for the country. It’s not good for the court,” he continues, “What are we going to look like years from now if we can’t get people confirmed because everybody gets to attack them. They get to draw and quarter them,” he says.

One cannot deny the connection, and it exists on two levels. On the surface, the focus on sexual harrassment in the office pushed by Democrats led to legislation that criminalized caddish behavior. Corporate managers and employees suffered through millions of hours of lectures on power differentials between employment levels and how even flirting between executives and staff should be considered potentially abusive. The significance of this in connection to Monica Lewinsky should not be underestimated.
On a deeper level, it helped amplify a dynamic that had started during the Robert Bork confirmation hearing. Before that, judicial confirmations had largely been non-partisan and non-controversial. After Bork, and especially after Thomas, they became bloody brawls, and both parties made the federal judiciary a Christians vs the Lions forum. That’s not just a consequence of the Thomas “lynching”, but the result of decades of judicial activism, which has given the Supreme Court far too much of a legislative function.
I look forward to reading the Thomas book. He has remained very quiet in the sixteen years since he joined the Supreme Court, even while others wrote his story. His side of the argument should prove an intriguing read.

The Dichotomy Of Me

Earlier this summer, my good friend William Kent Krueger released his latest novel, Thunder Bay, the fourth in his Cork O’Connor series. Two years ago, Kent auctioned off one of the character names for a fundraising effort for Twin Cities Marriage Encounter, and I won the bid. He asked me what kind of character I wanted to be, and I told him “really evil”.
The Rake, a local literary magazine, found this intriguing. A few weeks ago, Max Ross interviewed me about this choice, and his article has now hit the newsstands. Max wonders why people seem willing to pay to be characters in novels, especially villains and victims:

Aside from the fact that both Morrisseys populate unreal realms—one, the dramatized version of Thunder Bay, Canada; the other, the blogosphere—there is really no similarity at all between them. The real one, whom Krueger describes as “a teddy bear of a guy,” bid mostly for the charitable benefits, and had no input or influence on his character’s development. “I just hoped [he] would be better looking than me,” Morrissey said. He says he has not been affected by his role in the book, nor does he feel any guilt or responsibility for his counterpart’s violent tendencies.
Krueger has put character names in his books up for auction on a number of occasions. “Most mystery conventions have a charitable component,” he said; in Morrissey’s case, the organization that received the auction proceeds is called Twin Cities Marriage Encounter, whose mission is to “nurture and support the marriage of a man and woman and their family life by offering an opportunity to experience a deep and loving communication with each other and with God.” “That was simply another good cause I thought might benefit in this way,” said Krueger. (Full disclosure: Morrissey is president of the Marriage Encounter organization.)
The broader literary world, always in need of ways to connect with its public, has picked up on this idea. Stephen King, Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers, Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket), Neil Gaiman, and several other writers of note have all put forthcoming names of various characters and entities in their books up for auction, with the proceeds to be donated to charities. (You can bid for them on eBay.) Morrissey paid for the opportunity to be someone evil; in the case of Stephen King, one lucky bidder will pay to be a murder victim.
This purchasing of character names raises a question, though. Aside from benevolent motivations, why pay good money for this privilege if one’s fictional namesake is only that—if this character is devoid of any of one’s personal characteristics? Is it possible that, even within the most magnanimous among us (a category that would seem to include Ed Morrissey, who exudes sincerity in a form rarely experienced these days, and who refers to his wife as his First Mate), there is still that (very small, probably subconscious) desire to be part of something larger (and possibly more glamorous) than oneself? Regardless of how remote—or nonexistent—the resemblance between the fictional and the real? It’s not such a selfish urge—rather, it’s an instinct not much different from what makes one pick up a book in the first place: that hope for minor, personal transcendence.

It’s a good question, and I think Max gets it right. People are always drawn to participate in something larger than themselves. I don’t expect to make a mark on the world as a character name in someone else’s fiction. Clearly, my friend Kent created the character and the universe of Thunder Bay; I just bought a label and provided a worthwhile cause a little more funding. It’s just fun being a part of Kent’s fictional world, and so when I said to Max that I was honored to be his villain, I meant it.
Read the whole article. Except for the illustration that implies that I have hair, it’s accurate and entertaining. Those who enjoy murder mysteries should pick up a copy of Thunder Bay, even if I am rotten in it. Or maybe especially because I’m rotten …

The Biography As A Comic Book

Slate will serialize the latest biography of Ronald Reagan this week — a “graphic” biography that will appear in five installments. After reading the first installment, I can report that it’s everything one would expect from a comic book. It lacks insight, fresh perspective, and any kind of context — and that’s just the text.
In the first 19 pages of what appears to be a biography of less than 100 pages, Andrew Helfer provides nothing but the same anecdotes that everyone who has read any Reagan biography already knows. We get the “lose the glasses” advice from a co-worker who made it to Hollywood, the ad-libbed baseball announcing, the alcoholic father — all de riguer material for any Reagan biographer. In fact, that’s all we get — the stories we know married to comic-book representations of the anecdotes.
The art, by Steve Buccellato and Joe Staton, hardly qualifies as even standard comic-book fare. It looks more like Office Clip-Art, with Reagan getting a Batman “Ooof” when his ad-libbing turns out to be wrong. In most of the images of Reagan before Hollywood, one would be hard pressed to distinguish the drawings of Reagan from those of Clark Kent. It’s flat, lifeless, and almost unrecognizable as the Reagan known from a multitude of pictures from that era.
Of course, one can’t expect much of a comic-book biography. In a comic book of less than 100 pages, which is what this appears to be, how much actual text — you know, the actual biography — can it contain? Twenty normal pages? Thirty? The notion that one can write a biography of any person of substance in such a short form is ludicrous, let alone a modern United States President. It’s nothing more than a long-form tract, a pamphlet with as much insight as a protest placard.
The biggest question this raises is not why it got written, or what attention-deficit audience it intends to reach. The biggest question is why Slate felt compelled to serialize such an intellectually and artistically bankrupt effort. Slate readers should feel offended that this is what Slate’s editors think of them.

On My Desk: Hard Call

John McCain has a new book hitting the shelves in a couple of weeks, and it isn’t about his presidential bid or his own personal story. He and longtime aide Mark Salter have written a book titled Hard Call: Great Decisions and the Extraordinary People Who Made Them, which appears to be somewhat similar to Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy. According to the book jacket, it recounts momentous decisions in history by “telling the remarkable stories of men and women who have exemplified composure, wisdom, and intellect in the face of life’s toughest dilemmas.” Sounds interesting, and I’ll probably get started on the book after I finish with Stephen Hayes’ new biography of Dick Cheney.
While not overtly political, at least at first glance, its appearance in this presidential cycle has an arguably-subtle message. If McCain can recognize composure, wisdom, and intellect in these instances, then isn’t he the best choice to deploy the same qualities as President? I don’t know if he can make that argument stretch to that degree — but as a person interested in history, I’m looking forward to his review of these critical instances of human decision.
Also, I just wanted to remind CQ readers about Thunder Bay, the novel authored by my friend William Kent Krueger. It jumped over a thousand places in the Amazon rankings this week after my last link. Let’s help Kent get into the top 100 It’s a gripping novel — I read it cover-to-cover as soon as I got my advance copy. I’m certain you’ll enjoy it, too.

My Villainy Hits The Bookstands Today

A month ago, I let CQ readers know that my good friend and award-winning author, William Kent Krueger, would publish another of his series of Cork O’Connor mystery novels, set here in Minnesota. The new book, Thunder Bay, has a new villain: me.
Kent and I both volunteer at Twin Cities Marriage Encounter, and he often offers to name characters in his novels as items in our fundraising auctions. When I won the bid over a year ago, Kent asked me if I wanted to be evil or good, and I immediately chose evil. He asked me if I wanted to just be nasty or really eeeeeeeevil — and I chose the latter.
He made me sign a release. Now you can find out why. You can order the book or the audio tape through the links below (full disclosure: I’ll make a few cents on every copy sold through these links) and find out just how eeeeeeeeevil Kent made me. I’ve already read the book — and I can tell you, you’ll not only enjoy it, but you’ll also want to read the other books in the series.
I’m hoping to schedule Kent for an interview soon!
UPDATE, 1:30 pm CT: Right now the book is ranked 2,319th on Amazon’s best-seller list. Let’s see how high we can push this!

759 Pages, No Waiting

I just finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7), which took me several hours while my Internet connection to my website refused to work properly, in any case. For fans of the series, it’s a brilliant and definite ending. There is no Sopranos-style artistic ambiguity here; J K Rowling has brought the series to an excellent conclusion.
How did it end? Hah! No spoilers here, at least not for the moment. I’ll have more this week, after I’m certain people will have had the opportunity to read it for themselves.
UPDATE: The site had its issues this morning, so my apologies for anyone who had difficulty hitting CQ today. As far as the book review goes, I’ll probably have it tomorrow night or Monday morning, with the appropriate protections on spoilers. If you want to find out the fate of Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Snape, Voldemort, or others before then — you should read the book!

Harry Potter: Live Blog

I decided that I would see for myself just how deep the Harry Potter phenomenon ran. I usually look at fads with more than a little skepticism, especially here in the Upper Midwest. If kids and parents go nuts for movies or games on the coasts, it would seem unlikely here in Middle America … or at least in the sleepy suburb in which I live.
Guess again!
Harry Potter's Final Night
That little patch of floor at the bottom of the left corner was about the only unoccupied space in the store. Witches, quidditch players, and plain old Muggles have stuffed the Barnes & Noble almost to capacity already, and I’m certain more will be arriving as we get closer to midnight. They just announced that the store has a live owl show up at the registers, and signs all over the store announce other activities, such as a Quidditch Toss.
I plan to wander around and take a few snaps between now and 12:15, when my group gets their book. I’ll post them as I go along — if I can actually move.
11:24 PM CT – I took a pass around the store, shooting pictures of the various stops. I’m going to see if I can put them into a slide show. It’s pretty amazing, but then again, retailers have had plenty of practice by this time. They have several activities to keep kids from becoming too restless, but the stress has begun to show with some. The smaller children seem to be handling it better than the older ones, but every adult I’ve seen in the place looks exhausted.
They’ll begin organizing the sales in a couple of minutes. They just called the “11:30 cashiers” to the register.
11:35 – They just called the holders of orange slips into line — and a hush fell over the store, I kid you not. The activities continued after a moment of silence.
11:39 – Here’s the slideshow. I saved the scariest character until last.

11:44 – They’re lining up now; the area in which I’ve been seated has pretty much cleared out. Pin The Tail On The Hideous Creature — the activity just across from me — has emptied out.
11:54 – Well, there’s always one in the crowd that has to politicize things. A middle-aged Muggle just walked past me with a T-shirt that read, “Republicans for Voldemort”.
11:57 — Gryffindor won the Quidditch toss — by one point! It’s just like the book — which a twenty-something sitting on the floor next to my chair reminded everyone.
12:00 – They’re doing a New Year’s Eve countdown — happy Harry Potter!
12:01 – Have the first confirmed spoilers hit the Internet yet?
12:05 – My battery’s running low, and if the B&N staff has their act together, my color group should get called to the counter in the next ten minutes. I don’t plan on staying for the whole party; I’ll hit the road as soon as I have my book. I’d stay but I can’t get within a half-mile of the coffee bar here, and without caffeine, I’ll be lucky to drive the two miles home.
12:52: Just got home a few minutes ago. They had it arranged pretty well, although they could have staged the line a little more efficiently. Not too many people stuck around for more festivities after they bought the book; most went immediately out the door.
It’s easy to tease, but I have to say that everyone there looked like they were having a great time, even the employees. It was a fun festival, a magical night in many ways for the smaller readers who probably rarely stay up this late for anything else. I didn’t see one tear or hear one complaint from the kids, and that’s pretty remarkable.
Blogging may be a little light this weekend, BTW ….