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Fear: A Novel of World War I (New York Review Books Classics)
Fear: A Novel of World War I (New York Review Books Classics)
by Gabriel Chevallier
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.67
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars “Quando la Guerra comincia, s’ apre l’inferno.". (When war begins, hell opens.), November 25, 2014
War is hell, as the old the Italian saying has it. But by now the idea is so well anchored in common understanding that it’s trite, a truism a maxim that has lost its bite. More more is required. “Fear” puts the hellfire back in Hades. Gabriel Chavallier’s account of the WW I French soldier's lot at the front in France and Belgium summons the horrific details the bring the words back to life. Every imaginable fear-inducing threat to life, sanity, and hope came raining in on the trenched-in troops day after awful day.

Chevallier’s book, written in French and first published there in 1930, came out as Europe finally found the necessary distance from the war to pull back the cover on the slaughter to look at the causes and costs of a war made ever so much worse by the abject failures of those in charge. Holding fast to the view that WW I was like the last one and could be fought as if it were, the visionless generals sent men by the tens of thousands to their certain death—and called them heroes.

Chevallier, by presenting us with this trenchant, gut-wrenching, heartbreaking account of the abject terror inflicted on the war’s participants, puts it to us. How, in light of the compound failures of leadership, the lack decent regard for human life, respect for the land and the cities, villages and farms he documents could it have happened? It is a testament to the strength of his book that Chevallier and his publisher agreed to withdraw it from sale in 1939 because of the adverse effect it might well have had on the coming war effort.

The book, published in the United States for the first time in 2012 by the New York Review of Books, wins high praise from Thomas Keneally in his New York Times review ( July, 18). He says “Chavallier’s narrative remains radioactive with pure terror, frightening in a way later accounts don’t quite manage.” He also praises the translation into English by Malcom Imrie .For a British soldier's view of the War see the following two account originally published at about the same time as "Fear": “Her Privates We” by Frederick Manning (1929) and Gary Chapmn’s “A Passionate Prodigality: Fragments of Autobiography.” (1933). Both are available in paperback and my reviews of both appear with the Amazon listings.

End note. The New York Times reporter Richard Rubin recently visited several WW I battle fields for ar the New York Times Travel Section series titled “Over There”. They appeared on August 21, September 18 and October 28 and are well worth reading with “Fear” or on their own.

Someone: A Novel
Someone: A Novel
by Alice McDermott
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.37
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another Fine Novel from this Fine Author, October 14, 2013
This review is from: Someone: A Novel (Hardcover)
If the novels of Alice McDermott are not as familiar to you as those of, say, Lorrie Moore or E. Annie Proulx, they deserve to be. "Someone", McDermott's new novel," makes the case for her standing among the contemporary authors of literary fiction now writing. In "Someone", McDermott offers us the life story of an Irish woman who never travels far from her home in a working class Irish enclave in Brooklyn. When her intended, not much of a catch as men go, drops her like an empty can of tuna fish for a woman of means, Marie Commeford despaired of her prospects of getting married, of ever finding anyone to love her. "Who's going to love me?" she asks her brother, Gabe. "Someone," he told her. "Someone will."

And sure enough, someone does. And when he shows up, the moment of connection is almost lost. "There was the awkwardness of a halting conversation with a stranger in a crowded room - would it continue or would one of us soon turn away?"

As so often happens in one of McDermott's carefully constructed stories; there is just enough connective tissue to keep the conversation going, and from it the life that follows. The richness here is in the dailyness, the way in which the characters' attention to and mindfulness of the ordinary tasks that make up a day go to make up a life. Shortly after that conversation, Tom, the man who is to become the someone, drops by the apartment ostensibly to visit Gabe, a friend of Tom's from the past. At the door Tom said, "I'll just have a few words and be on my way. I won't wear out my welcome." Marie goes for Gabe, then tells them both "to sit at the table while I put the kettle on. And it was the smell of the toast I thought to make for them, burning under the broiler, that brought my mother out of the bedroom in her robe and her long braid, and gave Gabe the opportunity to tell Tom, "my sister's helpless in the kitchen. Fair warning."

There, you know enough now to know what's coming, and you won't want to miss it.

End note. McDermott's novels, this is her seventh, are all good reads. If this is your first, and you would like to read more, "Charming Billy, which won the 1998 National Book Award for Fiction, or "At Weddings and Wakes" are bound to please you.

Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo
Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo
by Tim Parks
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.17
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5.0 out of 5 stars "Beautiful Respite", July 22, 2013
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How do others see us? What makes that question so interesting? Perhaps it's the fact that strangers are willing to take an objective look at the character flaws we tend to ignore on the theory that it's best to let well enough alone. When the stains build up to the point where it's time to take our national persona to the cleaner, along comes a book that does just that. Francesco Liberti's "An Italian in America (2001) did just that in a friendly, tongue in cheek way. Now Tim Parks, an Englishman who has lived the last 30 years of his life in Italy, has done much the same for that country.

Call it a travel book, cultural anthropology, or memoir -- it's more than a little of each - "Italian Ways Off and On the Rails from Milan to Palermo" belongs on every first time traveler's to Italy reading list, particularly if the trip involves train travel. As one whose Italian travel came before "Italian Ways" was published, reading it, I often wished that I had had the benefit of it as we tried to find the right platform for the 4:10 to Verona, and similar puzzles in other stations.

Parks, who has written other accounts of Italian ways, knows the country and its people as well as anyone from away could hope to. He brings all his experience to bear in this pleasantly readable, highly knowledgeable book. Structured as a before and after account, dealing both with the pre-modern train travel that endeared Parks to rail travel, and then the streamlined, far less personal, assigned seat version that replaced (most of) it beginning in the late 2000's, that found him wishing for the old days.

The account is generously sprinkled with the ups and downs of his experiences on Trenitalia. He does not hesitate to tell stories on himself including "my last and greatest bust-up with a "capotreno" (conductor/ticket checker/ ultimate authority). As you might guess, it involved the fine print that pulled the rug out from under the validity of his internet-issued ticket. The outcome convinced him that such arguments weren't worth it. He explains: "this whole culture of ambiguous rules, then heated argument about them without any clear-cut result, seems to serve to draw you into a mind-set of vendetta and resentment that saps energy from every other area of life."

Parks' epilogue sets forth his affectionate ode to Treinitalia and all the men and women who serve it and offers a bouquet to "any passenger with a book in his hand, any man or woman following the lines on a page, perhaps these very lines, as the wheels follow the rails across the landscape, hurrying forward through the world yet not quite part of it. What a beautiful respite a train journey is and a good book too, and best of all the book on the train, in life and out of it at the same time . . ."

Epilogue. "Italian Ways" is very much in the tradition of "Village in the Vaucluse", the book by Harvard professor Laurence Wylie who took his wife and two small children to live in the small Provencal village of Roussillon (which he calls Peyrane) in 1950. The book about their experiences is haunting, sympathetic, and revelatory of a way of life that is all but gone, if not completely so. We owe Parks for making sure that there is a similarly fine and richly detailed account of an aspect of Italian life that now exists only at the edges.

The Hot Country (Christopher Marlowe Cobb Thriller)
The Hot Country (Christopher Marlowe Cobb Thriller)
by Robert Olen Butler
Edition: Hardcover
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Embedded with Pancho Villa, July 12, 2013
Let's hear it for Robert Olen Butler (more on middle names later) and his first ever literary/history, espionage thriller (to use Wikipedia's term). It's a rip-roaring account of how Christopher Marlowe Cobb, a reporter for the Chicago Post-Express, found himself embedded with Pancho Villa's revolutionary forces along the Mexican-American border in the period just before WW I. The plot lines follow history, at least to a point, and call for Cobb, nick-named Kit, to deal with a German plot to induce Villa to attack the Alamo.

From the feel of it, it's clear that Butler knows the genre inside and out. He pulls out a number of reliable stops. A challenge to "Woody" Wilson and the Munroe Doctrine takes place when Kaiser Wilhelm sends a ship load of German arms to Vera Cruz, arms apparently earmarked for the German favorite among the rebel leaders vying for control of Mexico. Wilson sends a contingent of U.S. soldiers to keep the arms from being unloaded. Kit's dispatches keep his paper's readers abreast of the state of play.

Kit's drinks and talks shop with Richard Harding Davis and the other well known war correspondents on the scene who are there to cover the conflict.. Cobb's love interest quickly settles on Luisa Morales, a stunning local girl who can more than hold her own with Annie Oakley. She is hard to get and impossible to get over.

If the plot takes an unlikely turn here and there to get Cobb to the point in the story where he is riding with Villa, chock it up to Butler's enthusiasm to make sure he includes all the ingredients called for by the genre.

End note. Butler, one of the handful of American authors writing today who uses his middle name in his bylines, has a bit of fun at his own expense in discussing Cobb's middle name. His mother, an actress, chose it to honor Christopher Marlowe, her favorite playwright. Cobb refuses to let his editors use it to put his reports on equal footing with those of Davis, William Howard Russells and George Bronson Reas: "I find all those three-named news boys . . . make themselves sound pompous and full of self importance".

Loot and Other Stories
Loot and Other Stories
by Nadine Gordimer
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.71
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5.0 out of 5 stars "The Essential Gesture", July 1, 2013
This review is from: Loot and Other Stories (Paperback)
Accepting her Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, Nadine Gordimer said "Writing is . . . some kind of affliction in its demands as the most solitary and introspective of occupations. . . . We must live fully in order to secrete the substance of our work, but we have to work alone. From this paradoxical inner solitude our writing is what Roland Barthes called 'the essential gesture' towards the people among whom we live, and to the world; it is the hand held out with the best we have to give."

The ten stories in "Loot" came after those in "Six Feet of the Country" and,the as then yet untranslated, "A Soldier's Embrace" and "Something Out There" which were cited in her award. It seems safe to say `though, that this collection would have added its weight to the judgment that she should have the honor. They show her offering the best she has to give.

"Visiting George", the shortest of the stories, is my favorite. In it, the narrator spots on old friend, once a comrade, on a busy London street and resolves to pay him a long due visit. "Christ! he said, this old unbeliever. Where the hell have you been? People don't write letters anymore. We might all have been dead for all we've heard of each other." Reflecting on the visit later, musing about something missed, the narrator says "Will we ever know the significance of apparent trivial forgetfulness, what's ignored in anyone's life - keys to stages a relationship is passing through."

Gordimer's characters, often as not, find themselves in love affairs knowing that they are bound to end far less sweetly than they began. Such is the case in "Mission Statement," "The Diamond Mine," "The Generation Gap," "An Emissary" and in one of the five episodes in "Karma." Gordimer brings Alice Munro's voice to mind here. Gordimer sees the frailty, the folly, the fallacy that allows hope to triumph over experience, but always without casting judgment. This leaves the reader free to sort it all out for herself.

"Look-Alikes" casts a spell of its own as students at university come to see the likes of their favorite professors in the band of homeless hangers-on that have hoveled together on the borders of the campus. As with all the stories, it's good reading.

End note. Gordimer's novels are so well regarded and so well read that her short stories often receive less attention that they deserve. So, next time you are browsing among her books on your library shelf, pick up "Loot" or her "Collected Stories." You won't be sorry.

Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings: The Congress of Racial Equality in Brooklyn (Civil Rights and Struggle)
Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings: The Congress of Racial Equality in Brooklyn (Civil Rights and Struggle)
by Brian Purnell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $40.00
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Racism's Stranglehold on Brooklyn's Blacks, June 28, 2013
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George Wallace, Bull Connor, Orville Faubus, and the hard-shelled segregationists who fought against equality of opportunity for black southerners unwittingly provided cover to northern whites who wanted just as desperately to bar people of color from decent hosing, good jobs, clean, well-policed neighborhoods, adequate public transportation and schools that were up to grade. If northern racism was less violent, more covert, with its results regularly blamed on its victims' lack of personal and civic pride, it was systemic, devastatingly effective and hurtful, and responsible for hobbling black progress for generations.

"Fighting Jim Crow in the County of Kings," Brian Purnell's just published history of the heroic efforts of Brooklyn's branch of The Congress of Racial Equality to call out the nature and extent of racism in Brooklyn in the early 1960's and to advocate reform makes clear that big city racism in the north was as powerful and as destructive as that characterizing the Jim Crow South.

Brooklyn CORE confronted formidable opposition every step of the way. Deeply embedded belief in white privilege and superiority belied the community's view of itself as progressive. It pointed to Jackie Robinson's color-bar breaking exploits on the baseball diamond as a metaphor for its open-mindedness. Good public relations, bad facts. Systemic racism in both the public and private sectors stymied CORE's efforts every step of the way. No amount of evidence of racism-based exclusions persuaded or shamed the white power structure into making meaningful reforms.

Purnell documents CORE's efforts to expose and and overcome the patterns of housing discrimination that kept blacks and Puerto Ricans pinned down in Bedford-Suyvesant; to integrate the sales and bakery workers at a lily-white Brooklyn bakery; the effort to force the city's sanitation service to clean-up and better serve Bedford-Stuyvesant; to bring the neighborhood schools up to par with those of other areas and to win jobs in the construction trades. In each case, the odds were formidable, the power structure intractable, and the gains minimal, at best. The last chapter deals with the effort to call the City of New York to account for its failures to do equity by boycotting the opening day of the 1964 New York World's fair.

It is ironic that "Fighting Jim Crow" arrived in the bookstores just days ahead of the Supreme Court's 5 - 4 decision gutting the Voting Rights Act. While Brooklyn's blacks were not barred from the ballot box, virtually every other indignity that can be imposed on an American citizen was. For the Roberts Court to assert that times have changed would seem, in light of the persistent grip of racism and white privilege on American mores, to be a decision based more on wishful thinking than reality.

End note. "Fighting Jim Crow" is an important, thoroughly researched work about a significant chapter in our history on matters of race. Racism has had its stranglehold on our country's promise of equal opportunity at least since the first slave ship docked at Charleston. We have no reason to believe that the effort to purge ourselves of this scourge is complete.

Ocean of Words Army Stories
Ocean of Words Army Stories
by Ha Jin
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.63
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is the Army Comrade Jin, June 22, 2013
If you have never read a short story, start here. Begin with the title story, "Ocean of Words". Once you've read it, my guess is that you'll put aside everything else until you have read the other eleven stories in this first collection by Ha Jin, the former Chinese Army soldier who is now a creative writing professor at Boston University. It doesn't matter the order in which you read them. Start at the beginning, jump in at the midde, skip around. How come you'll be so enthralled? Because you are seeing the world up close through the prism of a grain of sand to put the matter as William Blake did. In each of these stories, to quote from Stephen Milhauser's essay "The Ambition of the Short Story," you will discover that "in that single grain of sand lies the ocean that dashes against the beach, the ship that sails the ocean . . . the structure of the universe." And should you not find the stories to your taste, try reading one of Ha Jin's novels. They have also won many of our great literary prizes.

The beach in this collection is the border between China and Russia in the mid-1970's. The grains of sand are the troops of the People's Liberation Army assigned to border patrol duty. The Chinese soldiers, under-educated, underpaid, under equipped, underfed, away from home and women, subject to constant indoctrination, might not seem interesting, but their stories are. Ha Jin's army background informs his writing. In the title story, Zhou Wen, a lowly radio operator, serving the last year of his enlistment, is on the outs with his comrades who "think I have read too much and am different from them." His prize possession, his late father's three-language dictionary, the ocean of words of the title, adds to his troubles because he refuses to sell it to his covetous commanding officer who wants it to help him improve his party indoctrination lectures. Because his c.o.'s superior knew the value of reading -- he had learned the hard way -- he stood up for Zhou: "As Chairman Mao taught us: The Gun and the Pen, we depend on both to make revolution and can't afford to lose either."

"A Lecture", a story with a neat twist, makes fun of "The Long March"--an historic episode in Chairman Mao's struggle to wrest control of China from Chiang Kai-shek's armies. "Miss Jee" tells the story of a young soldier, a slender lad whose voice and mannerisms resemble those of a girl. The other men make fun of him without pity, if without rancor. The couplets they compose to tease him are merciless. When Jee badly flunked the hand grenade throwing test, they came up with "Miss Jee threw a hand grenade / Only to have her looks remade."

End note. Ha Jin is the pen name of Xuefei Jin. He joined the People's Liberation Army at fourteen where he first learned to use his gun and his pen. From the Army he went to university both in China and then, in 1985, on a Student's Visa, to Brandeis. The Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 convinced him to stay in this country and to write in English. The twelve stories in "Ocean of Words" immediately established him as a writer of consummate skill, so good that one of his graduate school professors early on described him as "the Isaac Babel of the Chinese Army." This book of stories, which won the Pen/Hemingway Award, shows you why.
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A Sense of Place: Listening to Americans
A Sense of Place: Listening to Americans
by David Lamb
Edition: Hardcover
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Feom Seven Rivers, New Mexico, to Saigon, June 21, 2013
David Lamb, the distinguished newspaper correspondent, did the reporting for this book during his long career with the Los Angeles Times. Like the late Charles Kerault, he had an eye for finding and a knack for describing the lives of off-the-beaten track Americans. In his introduction Lamb states that he set out to "capture the heroism in everyday life" in the out-of-the-way places he visited.

The late Anne Mathews, the woman who played the radio soap opera star Stella Dallas from 1937 to 1956, is my favorite among Lamb's subjects. She gathered a bit of fame from her roll, then lived her life in a way that reflected the charm and virtues of her radio character.

A bit of a romantic, Lamb relished the opportunity to get away from the city and out into the country: such places as Tombstone, Arizona, Butte Montana and Seven Rivers, New Mexico. He recounts Seven Rivers' colorful cattle drive days history. Back then, the town had "several saloons and no church." A place as wild and wooly as any in Western fiction. No longer on the map, the town withered away until only its cemetery remained, and now it's gone, moved to Artesia to make way for a dam.

The title of the book, "A Sense of Place," strikes me as a bit misleading. It doesn't accurately reflect the book's subjects or its contents. The book is more history than sociology. The account of life in Seven Rivers during the cattle drive years is a good example. It describes the times but not the attributes which explain why its residents settled there and stayed put as long as they did. Lamb wants us to know that he found the country alive and well, spiritually intact, and his fellow citizens ready and able to keep it that way. (I wonder if would reach the same conclusion today.)

End note. David Lamb has reported on life in places all around the world. For one, He covered the fall of Saigon in April 1975 on a temporary assignment for The LA Times. Subsequently, so the story goes, he became the only U.S. newspaper correspondent from the Vietnam War to later live in peacetime Hanoi, Vietnam.

by Art Spiegelman
Edition: Paperback
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4.0 out of 5 stars "Floudering for Something to Draw", June 19, 2013
This review is from: Auto-Phobia (Paperback)
The master, if not the originator, of the graphic novel, Art Spiegelmn, did as much, if not more, than any other graphic artist to bring the form into the mainstream with the publication of "Maus, A Survivor's Tale" his graphic account of interviews with his father, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. "Maus" became the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. Spiegelman, a major force in this world for the past 40 years, reflects on his fear of writer' block in "Auto-phobia." "[D]issatisfied, but forced to acknowledge my own limitations, I trudge on to another page." He goes on to explain, "To shake this Fear of Drawing and the accompanying self-loathing, I started an organized sketchbook again." The effort lasted from March 12 to May 26, 2007.

Good effort. The sketchbook is reprinted in full in this 78-page trade paperback-sized edition with a self-portrait of the artist originally done for a 1985 notebook (see illustration). His doodles, sketchs, whatever, are in black and white, some quite simple, others more complicated, but nearly all of them revealing of what goes on in his mind when it's in the creative mode.

His entry for March 24 is a two-page drawing acknowledging his debt to Robert Crumb and Saul Steinberg. It shows Spiegelman walking a tight rope between two towers, "Crumb" on the left, "Steinberg" on the right, each constructed from the letters in their names drawn more or less as they would have. Then there is "Nudnik Descending a Staircase" depicting the artist's decline from "hippie" at the top of the stairs to "boomer" to "geezer". The sketchbook is replete with references to his own work and that of others, with play after play on words. "OXO Moron" is the caption for a character with a tick tack toe grid for a face. He goes on to depict the OXO family. The last image, of a tombstone with the grid completed then crossed (exed) out is captioned "Ex-OX." And so it goes.

The secondary meaning of autophobia, and the sense in which Spiegelman seems to use it here, is that of an irrational fear of oneself, intense self-fear that is groundless. There certainly is no reason to think that Spiegelman has lost his touch, his "Nudnik" cartoon to the contrary notwithstanding.

End note. This publication of his 2007 sketchbook appeared as one of the three parts presented in an interesting slipcase comprising McSweeney's 27. Hard to find, but worth tracking down. And if you are dying to have my copy of McSweeney's 27 it's yours for a fiver and postage. Unlike Spiegelman, I am at the geezer stage of life. My books, even this wonderful Spiegelman, must go.

Black Britain: A Photographic History
Black Britain: A Photographic History
by Paul Gilroy
Edition: Paperback
Price: $35.00
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Now There's Black in the Union Jack, June 18, 2013
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Paul Gilroy, himself black, experienced racial animosity from childhood. He studied it, chronicled it and fought throughout his life to free black Britains from that country's often virulent racism. It is not by chance that many of the photographs in Gilroy's photographic history of the black struggle against the "colour bar" reflect the campaign to "Keep Britain White" or, as the slogan went, "There ain't no black in the Union Jack." The book's main focus is on the period beginning wirh the post WW II migrations of blacks from the former colonies where they gained their British citizenship and ending in 2006, the year before "Black Britain" was published. Here's how he described what the "incomers" faced: "They met with vicious and brutal intimidation organised by a political movement oriented by the impossible and absurd imperative to `Keep Britain White' . . . . promoted by . . . racist and nationalist groups."

This is a photographic history prsented as a coffee table book. It suffers a bit from that treatment. One may be less inclined to take it as seriously as the subject demands. Gilroy's explanatory text carries the reader along through each phase of the struggle. The text is temperate and credible, if at times adversarial. In the final analysis the photographs carry his argument. They do for his history what Walker Evans' photographs did for James Agee's description of rural southern poverty in "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" and Dorothea Lang's long impounded photographs of the Japanese American internment camps do to describe the miscarriage of justice and indecency of the internment. One quibble: all but a few of the photographs were obtained from Getty Images and most of those are used without identification of the photographer or any indication of their prior use.

There are several stories at work here. The one that moved me most was the decency demonstrated by the people who were treated as second class, as somehow not British enough to be treated as ciitizens in good standing. They persevered against hostile, often violent opposition to their very presence. And by their steadfastness and determination to prove their place, prevailed. Among the pictures that spoke to me: the models Endy Cartnell and Selina posing for a Chelsea boutique in April 1973 (identified in the New York Times reproduction of it on February 3, 2008) and the photo of Chanler McGhee, a Jamaican immigrant, and his family at home.

End note. My review of "Impounded, Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment" titled, "It Can Happen Here. FDR's Day of Infamy", was published on Amazon on May 3, 2011. Paul Gilroy was the Charlotte Marian Saden Professor of African Anmerican studies and Sociology at Yale from 1999 to 2005. He is currently on the faculty of Kings College. The title for my review plays off the title of Gilroy's earlier study of this question,"There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack."

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