../1198/space%20holder

Previous issue's reviews | Reviews in Brief | Jan/Feb Contents | Gazette Home




Memories of Greenwood
Covering sports and murder in a small Mississippi town. By Ben Yagoda

CONFEDERACY OF SILENCE:
A True Tale of the New Old South

By Richard Rubin C’88.
New York: Atria Books, 2002.
427 pages; $26.00. Order this book

The fish out of water is one of the more venerable and reliable scenarios in the history of narrative. Think of The Divine Comedy. Think of Alice in Wonderland. Think of My Cousin Vinnie.

Richard Rubin was undoubtedly thinking about these texts, and at least one more besides, in the course of writing his first book, Confederacy of Silence. The book, a non-fiction narrative, has just come out, but its story begins in 1988, after the author graduated from Penn. Having decided during his senior year that he really didn’t want to be a lawyer after all, Rubin found himself with limited employment prospects. One day he saw an ad for sports editor of a newspaper in Greenwood, Mississippi. He applied for the job and, despite the fact that his journalism experience was limited to editing his high-school newspaper and writing “a few columns” for The Daily Pennsylvanian, he got it. (With a salary of $240 a week, there probably weren’t many other contenders.) And so Rubin, who had lived in no place other than New York and West Philadelphia, found himself in the Mississippi Delta—the poorest part of the poorest state in America.

He stayed at the job for a year, then left for points north and a freelance writer’s existence. He returned in 1995 because of a telephone call a few months earlier from a friend in Greenwood. The friend said that Handy Campbell, the dazzling quarterback who had led Greenwood High School to the state championship the year Rubin covered the team, who was recruited by colleges all over the South and seemed destined for a career in the National Football League, was in jail on a charge of capital murder. (Rubin describes all this in a prologue, so I’m not giving away any key plot points.)

Rubin portrays his decision to go back to Greenwood as a way finally to resolve his conflicted feelings about the town, about the racism and the moral contradictions he found there: “Memories of Greenwood challenged everything I ever believed about right and wrong and human nature, waging such a good fight that at times they seemed poised to not only change my mind but to dismantle it. I had to make my peace with Greenwood, or expel it from my consciousness forever.”

He neglects to mention what must also have been in his mind, that it looked like a good yarn. And that brings up the other fish-out-of-water book referred to above, John Behrendt’s ludicrously successful Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which was published in 1994, a year before Rubin went back to Greenwood, and which featured murder and other extremes of behavior, seen though the eyes of a New Yorker in the South.

The same basic framework, true. But there were differences. One that works to Rubin’s advantage, making him a more striking narrator than Behrendt, is the immense distance of Greenwood from his native waters. One gets the impression that in his prior life, Rubin had never been south of Bainbridge Street. Now, people keep shouting things to him like, “Richit! Come over here, you ol’ Yankee Jew bastard!” The first football game he covers, he steps out of his car and finds hundred of fire ants using his foot for supper. (He had opted for the preppy look of sockless Topsiders.) More chillingly, he keeps running into people like 87-year-old Carl Kelly Jr., who, in the middle of an amiably superficial conversation, opines that he doesn’t take the newspaper because there are “too many pictures of niggers in it, for one thing. Got niggers in there every day, just about.”

But most of the differences from Midnight crank up Rubin’s degree of difficulty. Behrendt’s book, set in Savannah, Georgia, had an eccentric and capacious cast: libertine society folks, a brilliantly twisted inventor, a gay hustler, a transvestite diva. As Rubin discovered, poor people can’t really afford to be eccentric, and the populace of Greenwood, Mississippi, is nothing if not poor. Both in his original stint and on his return, he meets his share of marginal characters. But they tend to be either ignorant whites, who cling to a noxious racism in the absence of any other touchstones, or blacks drawn to crime by a lack of hope or prospects.

Another difference: Behrendt spent part of eight years in Savannah, enough to absorb the internal rhythms of the place and become something more than a fish out of water. Rubin, in Greenwood for a year the first time and three months the second, never is seen or sees himself as anything but an outsider. In almost all the encounters he describes, he is interviewing people, not interacting with them.

This has to do with the nature of the story, and the course taken by Rubin’s life. It is not his fault. What’s more, he’s skillful at evoking people, cultural landscapes, and his own reaction to them. But the comparative thinness of the material leads to some problems. The book often feels, in a word, padded. His interviews become long set pieces that go down easily enough but that do not—you realize after they’re over—add any significant facts, interpretation, or color. And Rubin’s exposition is not exactly economical. He will devote long sentences and paragraphs to material readers don’t really need to know, sometimes in a Faulknerian cadence that is regionally appropriate but otherwise puzzling. Here he tells us what he did after a judge ruled that Handy Campbell’s trial would be delayed and moved to another town:

“So I stood there on the courthouse lawn for a while, talking to [an acquaintance] and reading the inscriptions on the Confederate monument and the historic marker and jotting them down on the yellow legal pad I had thought I would be using to jot down opening statements and testimony and cross-examinations, and then I just stood there some more, not knowing what I was supposed to do next, and then I went and sat down at the base of the Confederate monument and watched people coming and going, all of them with some sense of purpose, while suddenly I had none.”

To which the reader can only respond: You and me both, buster.

The trial does eventually begin, thankfully for Rubin; courtroom scenes squeeze the narrative slack out of Confederacy of Silence, as they have for many other books, plays and movies (including My Cousin Vinnie.) I will not reveal the result of the trial, or the details of Handy Campbell’s downward spiral, or whether Rubin eventually made his peace with Greenwood. I will say the last hundred of the book’s 427 pages are really good: dramatic, well-told, and with a surprising and emotional finale that finally justifies the author’s high-pitched rhetoric.

My guess would be that, having gotten his first book out of his system, Rubin will make his next one shorter and more focused. I’m looking forward to it.


Ben Yagoda G’91 is a professor of English at the University of Delaware and author of About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made and Will Rogers: A Biography.


Briefly Noted A selection of recent books by alumni and faculty, or otherwise of interest to the University community. Descriptions are compiled from information supplied by the authors and publishers.

THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF QUMRAN AND THE DEAD SEA SCROLLS
By Jodi Magness Gr’89.
Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002.
238 pp., $26.00.
Order this book
Close to where the Dead Sea Scrolls were excavated, the Qumran archaeological site continues to be the object of intense scholarly debate. Dr. Jodi Magness provides an overview of the archaeology of Qumran and presents a new interpretation of this ancient community based on information found in the scrolls and other contemporary documents. Magness holds the Kenan Distinguished Visiting Chair in Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and has participated in 20 excavations in Israel and Greece.

THE SPIRITUAL ACTIVIST: Practices to Transform Your Life, Your Work, and Your World
By Claudia Horwitz C’88.
New York: Penguin Compass, 2002.
257 pp., $16.00.
Order this book
A practical guide to individual and social transformation, this book helps readers create opportunities to slow down, build stronger relationships at home and at work, and embrace the world around them. By using mindfulness, ritual, art, silence, movement, and the happenings of daily life, it shows, one can find unity between inner journeys and outer commitments. Dr. Claudia Horwitz is the founder of stone circles, an organization that finds ways to integrate faith, spiritual practice, and social justice, and a Rockefeller Foundation Next Generation Leadership Fellow.

THE SOUNDSCAPE OF MODERNITY: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933
By Emily Thompson, Faculty.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002.
500 pp., $44.95.
Order this book
This history of aural culture in early 20th century America charts dramatic transformations in what people heard and how they listened. What they heard was a new kind of sound that was the product of modern technology. They listened as newly critical consumers of aural commodities. By examining the technologies that produced this sound, as well as the culture that enthusiastically consumed it, Dr. Emily Thompson recovers a lost dimension of the Machine Age and deepens our understanding of the experience of change that characterized the era. Thompson is assistant professor of history and sociology of science and coeditor of The Architecture of Science.

THE VEGAN GUIDE TO NEW YORK CITY
By Rynn Berry C’68 G’71 and Chris A. Suzuki.
New York: Ethical Living, 2003.
64 pp., $9.95.
Order this book
Detailed reviews of more than 100 restaurants will lead readers to the best places in New York for a satisfying meatless meal that won’t strain your budget—or, in a few cases, the perfect setting for an elegant treat. The authors have included information on where to find cheap organic produce, bulk grains, and exotic spices, as well as a seasonal schedule of the greenmarkets in the New York area. Rynn Berry is historical advisor to the North American Vegetarian Society and the author of several books, including Famous Vegetarians and their Favorite Recipes.

SETTING YOURSELF FREE: Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Abuse in Family, Friendships, Work and Love
By SaraKay Smullens SW’65.
Far Hills, N.J.: New Horizon Press, 2002.
236pp., $14.95.
Order this book
A controlling mother raises an emotionally stunted son. Manipulative parents produce a fearful, helpless daughter. An empty, angry woman drives away meaningful friendships. All are caught in cycles of emotional abuse usually beginning in childhood that, if unchecked, will slowly poison their adult love and work relationships, family ties and friendships. This book identifies five major types of emotional abuse and offers advice on how to end the destructive cycles they create. SaraKay Smullens is a marriage and family therapist and best-selling author of Whoever Said Life Is Fair?

BACK THROUGH INTERRUPTION
By Kate Northrop C’91.
Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2002.
80 pp., $14.00.
Order this book
Kate Northrop’s first poetry collection is described as being “drawn ineluctably to the place where passion and intelligence collide—and often they end with passion having fled and intelligence standing alone, surveying ‘the way we travel into memory.’ But Northrop’s intelligence is so coruscating that it possesses all the passion of passion itself.” Back Through Interruption is winner of the 2001 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize. Northrop is assistant professor of English/creative writing at West Chester University in Pennsylvania.

A FISTFUL OF LENTILS:
Syrian-Jewish Recipes from Grandma Fritzie’s Kitchen

By Jennifer Felicia Abadi C’88.
Boston: Harvard Common Press, 2002.
372 pp., $24.95.
Order this book
Growing up a member of New York’s Syrian-Jewish community, Jennifer Abadi went to parties where the sounds of Arabic mixed with Hebrew and the smells of cumin and allspice mingled with rose water and almond. With the help of her grandmother Fritzie—now deceased —Abadi recorded more than 125 recipes, along with numerous family anecdotes, to celebrate her heritage. A graphic designer and illustrator, she now teaches cooking classes in the New York area.

PROFESSIONS OF FAITH: Living and Working as a Catholic
Edited by James Martin, S.J., W’82 and Jeremy Langford.
Franklin, Wisc.: Sheed & Ward, 2002.
183 pp., $12.95.
Order this book
Professions of Faith brings to life the interplay of faith and work in the Catholic tradition through the voices and experiences of 13 active Catholics working in the “real world.” Each author explains how faith influences his or her daily experiences at work, and likewise how work influences his or her day-to-day experiences of faith. James Martin, S.J., is associate editor of America magazine and is also the author of Searching for God at Ground Zero (Sheed & Ward, 2002, $12.95), a book about his time working among the firefighters, police officers, and rescue workers in the weeks following September 11, 2001.

WEDDING AS TEXT: Communicating Cultural Identities Through Ritual
By Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz G’80 Gr’83.
Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002.
308 pp., $29.95.
Order this book
A wedding can predict the future success of a marriage: if a couple is to manage cultural differences throughout their relationship, they must first pass the hurdle of designing a wedding ceremony that accommodates those differences. Dr. Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz documents the weddings of 112 couples from across the United States and examines how real people are coping with cultural differences in their lives. Leeds-Hurwitz is professor of communication at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside.

OF THE NEWEST FASHION:
Masterpieces of American Neo-Classical Decorative Arts

By Elizabeth Feld C’96 and Stuart P. Feld.
New York: Hirschl & Adler Galleries, 2001.
103 pp., $35.00.
Order this book
Celebrating its 50th anniversary in New York, Hischl & Adler Galleries has assembled photographs and descriptions of some of the finest examples of decorative art by the best craftsmen of the early 19th century, including cabinetmakers Lannuier, Duncan Phyfe, and Joseph B. Barry; silversmiths Fletcher & Gardiner; porcelain makers, the Tucker Factories; and the Boston Sandwich Glass Company.

LOST SOULS: Finding Hope in the Heart of Darkness
By Niles Elliot Goldstein C’88.
New York: Bell Tower/Crown Publishing Group, 2002.
190 pp., $22.00.
Order this book
This book is about the universal experience of being lost, whether the loss involves loved ones, a job, freedom, or anything else. To illustrate the different stages of despair, Rabbi Niles E. Goldstein uses biblical characters as well as people he has met through his work as a rabbi. He brings the message that going through this wilderness and emerging on the other side is a transformative and strengthening process. Goldstein is founding rabbi of The New Shul in New York’s Greenwich Village.



Previous issue's reviews | Reviews in Brief | Jan/Feb Contents | Gazette Home

Copyright 2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 01/05/03
../1198/Amazon.com%20icon
Book sales are made in association with Amazon.com. By purchasing a book using a link above, a percentage of the profits go to the University of Pennsylvania.

../1198/space%20holder

ALUMNUS PUBLISHER
 

Barry Cenower C’75 is publisher and editor of New York-based Acanthus Press, founded in 1992. The press specializes in books on architecture and design.
Here are two books published in 2002:

AMERICAN SPLENDOR: The Residential Architecture of Horace Trumbauer
By Michael C. Kathrens.
335 pp., $79.00. Order this book

This book represents the first extensive study of the renowned classical revival architect Horace Trumbauer, who overcame his modest background and education to become a leading practitioner of residential design on a grandest scale. (His firm also designed Penn’s Irvine Auditorium.) Working with prominent industrial and financial moguls living in Washington, Newport, New York’s Fifth Avenue, and Philadelphia and its suburbs, Trumbauer executed commissions whose finesse and elegance rivaled the work of CarrĖre & Hastings, Stanford White, and other leading architects of his generation. This book features hundreds of period photographs in duotone and floor plans, as well as an introduction by architectural author and critic Henry Hope Reed.

 

THE MAIN LINE:
Country Houses, 1870-1930

By William Morrison.
251 pp., $67.00. Order this book

Once a rural backwater, the suburban region northwest of Philadelphia known as “the Main Line” is today synonymous with quiet wealth and exclusivity. Beginning with the Pennsylvania Railroad’s development of the area in the 1870s and continuing through the 1920s, this book records the successful efforts to establish the region as the paradigm of aristocratic country life in democratic America and documents the architectural evolution of the American country dwelling. The text is illustrated with nearly 300 vintage and contemporary photographs, plans, and drawings.