Book Reviews

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    Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything
    Author: Randy Cohen
    Publisher: Chronicle Books, August 2012
    Pages: 319
    ISBN: 978-1-452107-90-5
    Your favorite customer has forgotten some important paperwork and, since he considers you a friend, he’s asked you to cover for him — sign here, backdate, no problems. You know this is wrong and it makes you feel uncomfortable, but you hate to say no. You’d like to save his bacon but if he were caught, you’d be the one to fry. How do you get out of such situations with your principles intact? In Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything, by veteran New York Times Magazine ethics columnist Randy Cohen, you’ll tackle the complexities of “right” and “wrong.”

     

    Take your place of business. If it has an elevator and you’re on the ground floor, is it ethical to refuse to pay an elevator fee? What about posting a sign that says you’re protected by a security system if you’re not? No one is hurt by these things … are they? What do ethics have to do with government bailouts? The guy down the street was given a break on his mortgage, while you’ve conscientiously paid yours. It’s irritating, yes, but is it unethical? Are there other “actors in this drama” who’ve behaved even worse? Then there’s hiring. These days, you have to be extremely careful with applications, interviewing and beyond. Is it OK to Google prospective employees or employers? Is it necessary to bring your personal life to the table?  Is it permissible to use a first initial to skew the callback process?

     

    On the subject of salaries, Cohen takes the side of transparency and permission to peek at documents carelessly left out. Should you allow anonymous posting of comments on your website? Cohen says “yes,” and it’s OK to ask an intern to run for coffee. Should a pregnant employee come clean about her ambivalence toward work after maternity leave? Should you put a stop to texting during meetings? And what should you do if you accidentally find porn on the boss’s computer?

     

    Cohen’s advice is thoughtful, with a twist of humor and occasional sarcasm. Readers who have disagreed with his counsel are also featured in Be Good; and Cohen seems to invite further discourse, which lends certain vitality to the book. There’s plenty of common sense in Be Good, but there’s also lots to ponder about right and wrong.
    — Reviewed by Terry Schlichenmeyer


    Men We Reaped: A Memoir
    By Jesmyn Ward
    Bloomsbury, September 2013
    $26, 272 pp.
    At one point in the book Men We Reaped, Demon Cook says to Ward at a crawfish boil  — when they were both younger, and she had decided to become a writer  —  “You should write about my life … It’d be a bestseller.” His life was that of a young Black man in the South, who, like many young Black men across America, faced the world every morning already weighed down by difficulties due to poverty, a lack of hope, a lack of job opportunities, a lack of trust, and several other “lack of” reasons, along with the company of personal demons that hitch a ride. Cook died at the age of 32. Ward’s memoir not only meditates on her growing up poor in rural Mississippi and Louisiana, but also offers her feelings as she searches for answers to a question that many Black Americans have probably asked themselves: What can been done to save our young, Black men? Ward’s splendid memoir chronicles the lives of five young men, including her brother, who died way too soon. The portraits she shares and her storytelling are so compassionate and so, so real.

     

    Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II
    By Farah Jasmine Griffin
    Basic Civitas, September 2013
    256 pp., $26.99
    Harlem Nocturne centers on three extraordinary Black women artists who moved to Harlem and flourished in the 1940s, when the city was bursting with creative and political energy. Writer Ann Petry, dancer Pearl Primus, and musician Mary Lou Williams came from different backgrounds and crossed various artforms, yet once in Harlem a thread connected them. Griffin comments that each woman was “…inspired by her times to produce highly innovative art that communicated the aspirations of everyday people.” While the cultural vitality of Harlem fueled the creative passions of these women, the social and political climate of the times also played an impactful role and constantly reminded them of the importance of their work as both artists and activists. With a welcoming tone, Griffin weaves important historical details into the narrative; and the personal emotions she reveals about each woman is most captivating.
    — Reviewed by Clarence V. Reynolds