Posts Tagged ‘nonfiction’

‘Carry the Rock’ elegantly explores the troubled history and contentious present of Little Rock, Ark.

May 22, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 22, 2017

Jay Jennings’s 2010 nonfiction book, Carry the Rock, is an excellent look at a small city in the American Deep South. The writer skillfully uses the 2007 football season of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., as a prism for examining the state capital’s fractured racial past.

Central — indeed, all of Little Rock — may be most famous for the contentious integration of the school in 1957, the anniversary of which was celebrated during the season Jennings tracked the Tigers football squad. Over the course of 230 expertly written pages, the author sketches the history of Little Rock from the time its eponymous riverside feature was first marked on a map (as le Petit Rocher) by a French explorer in 1722 up through recent years. Along the way, he introduces us to Central’s coaching staff, a few of the school’s notable players and alumni, and some of the current-day residents who shape the civic discourse of the city.

The man at the heart of Carry the Rock is Bernie Cox. Gruff, old-fashioned but soft-voiced, Cox had won seven state championships from the time he became Central’s head coach in 1975 until Jennings embedded with the squad. Cox developed a specific way of doing things over the years, and he demands the same consistency of his players:

Cox told the freshmen that when they went to the locker room that day, there would be a table and on the table would be a notebook and they were to print their names in the notebook, along with their student numbers — so if there were a dozen John Smiths in the school, there would be no mistaking which one it was — and the names of their parents or guardians. He never said “parent” without also saying “guardian” because he had learned over the years that many of his players didn’t grow up like he did, with a mother and father and siblings in the same home. Often the grandmother or grandfather would be the one in charge, or an uncle or aunt, especially when the mother or father was fifteen or sixteen when the player was born.

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Comedian Aziz Ansari surveys the state of ‘Modern Romance’ with his first book

June 2, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
June 2, 2016

One of the things I did on my trip to Colorado last fall, besides watch a Stanford football victory with my Sibling, was watch a few episodes of Master of None with my Sibling and Sibling-in-Law. This sitcom, a Netflix exclusive, was released the day before the Stanford-Colorado game and generated a fair amount of buzz. It was co-created by and stars comedian Aziz Ansari, a native of Columbia, S.C., whose parents emigrated from India.

We enjoyed the episodes. About two months later, come time of the winter solstice, that prompted my Sibling’s family to give me Ansari’s book, Modern Romance. Due to one thing and another, I began reading it in late February, but it wasn’t until last week that I finished the volume.

The book, Ansari’s first, is a comic examination of, yes, contemporary romance, mainly among heterosexuals in America. But some of the most interesting aspects of the text actually describe how modern domestic romance compares and contrasts with the way things used to be here and the way things are in four foreign nations — Japan, France, Qatar and Argentina. (To be precise, it mainly involves the state of things in those countries’ capitals.)

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Prison-keepers and conscience: ‘None of Us Were Like This Before’ examines American torture and the toll it took

November 23, 2012

Freelance journalist Joshua E.S. Phillips begins his 2010 book with an innocuous report on the 2004 death of Sgt. Adam Gray, a 24-year-old native of central California. The military deemed it accidental, but his family and some of his fellow soldiers suspected otherwise.

Gray had served a year in the Middle East with a tank unit, beginning in March 2003, but his training for armored warfare was never called into play. Instead, he and his unit spent much of their time in Iraq conducting patrols and guarding prisoners. He came back a changed man, a darker person. He rarely talked about his war experiences, but when he did, he discussed torturing detainees.

Gray was stationed in Alaska when, a few weeks before his death, he tried to hang himself. On Aug. 29, 2004, he succeeded. He was found in bed with a plastic bag twisted over his head.

In None of Us Were Like This Before: American Soldiers and Torture, Phillips argues persuasively that Gray was but one of many victims — including Afghanis, Iraqis and Americans — of torture. He also explores the many reasons why Americans tortured detainees, some of the myths surrounding torture and some of the corrosive effects that torture has had on practitioners and whistle-blowers as well as those who were its subjects.

Bush administration officials deliberately loosened some of the protections for individuals captured in what they called the global war on terror. Yet the administration also portrayed soldiers who were found to have participated in torture, such as guard as the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, a few bad apples.

It now seems clear there there were far more than a few bad apples, although there remains some dispute over how much torture of detainees was official policy and how much of it was taken by low-level soldiers working on their own initiative. Phillips argues that whether officers explicitly embraced torture or not, many likely turned blind eyes to evidence of it.

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Means vs. ends: Account of bin Laden’s assassination raises uncomfortable questions

November 14, 2012

Author’s note: I have written two posts inspired by Mark Bowden’s nonfiction book The FinishTuesday’s post reviewed the book. Today’s post considers some of the philosophical and moral issues raised by the book.


As Mark Bowden makes clear in The Finish, his new book on the killing of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, several different tales have been told about the notorious terrorist’s final moments.

Obama administration officials initially indicated that bin Laden sought to use his youngest wife, Amal, as a human shield, and that he was killed in a firefight. Bowden and Nicholas Schmidle, in The New Yorker, write that the wife moved between bin Laden and the Navy SEALs who were moving into the compound. I gather that No Easy Day, a memoir by the pseudonymous Mark Owen, a SEAL who participated in the raid, makes no mention of Amal but says bin Laden’s bullet-ridden body was in a much gorier condition than the two journalists have written.

A serious question — prompted in part because of the differing accounts of those final moments — emerged nearly as soon as the world learned that bin Laden had been shot and killed. The question: Why hadn’t the United States captured the architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks so he could be put on trial in a court of law?

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Bowden chronicles a top terrorist’s take-down in ‘The Finish’

November 13, 2012

Author’s note: I have written two posts inspired by Mark Bowden’s nonfiction book The Finish. Today’s post is a review of the book. Wednesday’s post considers some of the philosophical and moral issues raised by the book.


Mark Bowden is a respected investigative journalist with nine books to his credit, among them Black Hawk Down, the gripping true story of a military operation gone awry in the Sudan.

Given his background, it’s little surprise that the dramatic killing of Osama bin Laden — which is now perhaps the most famous special operations mission in history — drew Bowden’s interest. Nor is it a surprise that the author has produced a fascinating account of the mission that arguably made President Barack Obama able to win a second term in office.

By now the broad outlines of the raid on a large but obscure private residence in Abbottabad, one mile away from Pakistan’s military academy, are well known. As typically told, the story begins when Obama ordered American intelligence agencies to prioritize locating bin Laden, the notorious terrorist and al Qaeda founder who helped launch the deadly Sept. 11, 2001, assaults on New York and Washington, D.C.

When spies tracked down a courier linked to bin Laden, they discovered a familiar-looking thin, tall man pacing in the compound where the courier lived. Obama and top officials began sorting through probabilities and options. Once drone and missile strikes were dismissed as being too crude and leaving too much uncertainty, a special operations team began planning and practicing for a raid near the capital of what is ostensibly an allied nation.

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