Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Autobiography of Malcolm X and The Given Day

I was wandering around the library's non-fiction shelves a few weeks ago when I noticed several copies of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, one of Time magazine's 10 most important non-fiction books of the century, and on the new arrivals shelves, Dennis Lehane's The Given Day, and as I've been wanting to read Lehane's work, thought that I would give this a try. I'm writing about these two books together, as I happened to read them at the same time, and felt that both books (although one is non-fiction, and the other, historical fiction) were great illustrations of the struggles of a United States emerging from war (in The Given Day, a post-WWI US; for Malcolm X, it was WWII). And as it is the country in which I'm currently residing in, I'm interested in reading more about it, as there is so much I do not know.

"In its searing pages, Malcolm X the Muslim leader, firebrand, and anti-integrationist, tells the extraordinary story of his life and the growth of the Black Muslim movement to veteran writer and journalist Alex Haley. In a unique collaboration, Alex Haley worked with Malcolm X for nearly two years, interviewing, listening to, and understanding the most controversial leader of his time. Raised in Lansing, Michigan, Malcolm Little's road to world fame was as astonishing as it was unpredictable. After drifting from childhood poverty to petty crime, Malcolm found himself in jail. It was there that he came into contact with the teachings of a little-known Black Muslim leader named Elijah Muhammed. The newly renamed Malcolm X devoted himself body and soul to the teachings of Elijah Muhammed and the world of Islam, and became the Nation's foremost spokesman. When his own conscience forced him to break with Elijah Muhammed, Malcolm founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity, to reach African Americans across the country with an inspiring message of pride, power, and self-determination. The Autobiography of Malcolm X defines American culture and the African-American struggle for social and economic equality that has now become a battle for survival. His fascinating perspective on the lies and limitations of the American Dream, and the inherent racism in a society that denies its non-white citizens the opportunity to dream, gives extraordinary insight into the most urgent issue of our day. The Autobiography of Malcolm X stands as the definitive statement of a movement and a man whose work was never completed, but whose message is timeless. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand America."

One cannot help but be in awe at Malcolm X's life story. The book's an easy read and at the same time, not an easy one. It's written in a casual way, much like hearing it from his own lips. But it is hard to read of such troubled times, what he had to struggle with. And after reading Alex Haley's epilogue, I have to admire Haley's ability to translate his conversations with Malcolm X - two to three hours at a time, usually late at night, usually interrupted by phone calls - into such a readable book.

While there is much to admire about Malcolm X, I think what I found the most moving was his constant thirst for knowledge:

"Every time I catch a plane, I have with me a book that I want to read - and that's a lot of books these days. If I weren't out here every day battling the white man, I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity - because you can hardly mention anything I'm not curious about. I don't think anybody ever got more out of going to prison than I did. In fact, prison enabled me to study far more intensively than I would have if my life had gone differently and I had attended some college."

From The Given Day's blurb:

Filled with a cast of unforgettable characters more richly drawn than any Lehane has ever created, The Given Day tells the story of two families — one black, one white — swept up in a maelstrom of revolutionaries and anarchists, immigrants and ward bosses, Brahmins and ordinary citizens, all engaged in a battle for survival and power. Beat cop Danny Coughlin, the son of one of the city's most beloved and powerful police captains, joins a burgeoning union movement and the hunt for violent radicals. Luther Laurence, on the run after a deadly confrontation with a crime boss in Tulsa, works for the Coughlin family and tries desperately to find his way home to his pregnant wife.

Here, too, are some of the most influential figures of the era — Babe Ruth; Eugene O'Neill; leftist activist Jack Reed; NAACP founder W. E. B. DuBois; Mitchell Palmer, Woodrow Wilson's ruthless Red-chasing attorney general; cunning Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge; and an ambitious young Department of Justice lawyer named John Hoover.

Coursing through some of the pivotal events of the time — including the Spanish Influenza pandemic — and culminating in the Boston Police Strike of 1919, The Given Day explores the crippling violence and irrepressible exuberance of a country at war with, and in the thrall of, itself. As Danny, Luther, and those around them struggle to define themselves in increasingly turbulent times, they gradually find family in one another and, together, ride a rising storm of hardship, deprivation, and hope that will change all their lives.

Lehane's book, on the other hand, is quite ambitious. My copy has a whopping 702 pages. It is long. It spans many historic events. It brings in many influential figures. But it was quite exciting and well-paced, and, boy, can Lehane write dialogue. However, I have to agree with Jonathan Yardley's review, that the bits with Babe Ruth were quite redundant. It opens with a baseball game with Babe Ruth and some black men, among them is Luther Laurence, one of the main characters. Babe Ruth pops up again in a few other parts of the book but his appearances don't add much to the story, instead it's more like a cameo in a movie (which this book probably will be soon, as its rights have been sold).

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