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The Boston Globe

Books

in brief

‘Breaking the Line,’ ‘Son of a Gun,’ ‘The End of the Suburbs,’ and ‘The Art of Sleeping Alone’

BREAKING THE LINE: The Season in Black College Football that Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights

By Samuel G. Freedman

Simon & Schuster, 318 pp., illustrated, $28

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In the late 1960s, after the Civil Rights Act, after the March on Washington, and more than a decade after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, segregation stubbornly persisted, few places more visibly so than on the football fields of the American South. As late as 1969, the top two college teams, Texas and Arkansas, fielded all-white rosters. Increasingly, black players from the South accepted offers to attend college at integrated institutions north of the Mason-Dixon line. Despite consistent excellence that sent a growing number of their players to the slowly but surely integrating professional football leagues, coaches and players at historically black colleges faced indifference from the media and outright dismissal from peers at nearby all-white schools.

Veteran journalist Samuel G. Freedman masterfully sketches the landscape in which Grambling’s Eddie Robinson and Florida A&M’s Jake Gaither recruited and coached powerhouse teams through the intense 1967 season. The drama off-field — illness, politics, and protests — rivaled that on the field during a hard-fought series of games culminating in the teams facing off at the Orange Blossom Classic, the de facto black national championship. Two years later, the 1969 contest between Florida A&M and Tampa, a white school, really did transform football (at least in the South), but as Freedman points out, progress raised its own vexing questions: Would the white establishment ever value and reward leaders and mentors like Robinson and Gaither? And would black players fare as well as beneficiaries of “expedient integration” at white schools as they had at places like Florida A&M, “a sanctuary of black dignity and self-determination amid a landscape of hatred and degradation”?

SON OF A GUN

By Justin St. Germain

Random House, 242 pp., $26

When he hears that his mother has been found dead, shot by her husband, Justin St. Germain is grief-stricken, horrified, numb with pain. But not surprised, as he explains in this wrenching memoir; what he felt was “recognition, as if I had always known this moment would come.” It’s not just that his mother had terrible taste in men — her murderer was her fifth husband — or that her personality kindled a dangerous blend of thrill-seeking (she was a paratrooper in the Army) and self-denial: “She played the martyr until she became one,” her son writes.

If St. Germain had stopped at examining his mother’s psycho-social risk factors and how her murder affected him, this would still be a fine, moving memoir. But it’s his further probing — into the culture of guns, violence, and manhood that informed their lives in his hometown, Tombstone, Ariz. — that transforms the book, elevating the stakes from personal pain to larger, important questions of what ails our society. St. Germain visits his mother’s former husbands, the police who worked on the case, and, excruciatingly, a meeting of a support group for survivors left behind by gun violence. In the end, he’s left with more questions than answers, particularly “[t]he choice I make every day: what kind of man to be?”

THE END OF THE SUBURBS: Where the American Dream Is Moving

By Leigh Gallagher

Portfolio, 261 pp., illustrated, $25.95

The suburbs are dying. While conventional wisdom has noticed their obvious decline — housing costs failing to rebound as quickly as in urban areas, rising rates of poverty and crime — a new book argues that suburbia has been on life support for a while now, and not just because of the financial crisis we’re still climbing out of. Leigh Gallagher talked to builders, academics, city planners, and residents, and emerged feeling that “it’s hard to deny we’re at the beginning of a serious transformation.” A combination of demographic changes, energy costs, and shifting lifestyle priorities has us moving away from the sprawling, Levittown-style suburbs, whether that means relocating to a city or bringing urban elements (walkability, mixed-use neighborhoods, smaller houses and yards) into the burbs.

Gallagher, a Fortune magazine editor, marshals scads of statistics to bolster her argument, but they seem almost superfluous, so convincing are the narratives her sources relate. One Cambridge woman describes with relief life in a place where her kids can walk to school and activities; her previous home, in suburban Westborough, was much larger, but she summed up her daily life there thusly: “My car knows the way to gymnastics.”

THE ART OF SLEEPING ALONE: Why One French Woman Suddenly Gave Up Sex

By Sophie Fontanel

Translated, from the French, by Linda Coverdale

Scribner, 153 pp., $22

“We live in a culture in which people would die rather than admit to having felt listless about sex at one point in their lives,” writes Sophie Fontanel, a fact confirmed by glancing at the covers of magazines like the one she edits (Fontanel is editor of French Elle): from clothing to makeup to hair to fitness, all that we do is meant to help us succeed in our love lives, to snag that man, to sate our desires.

What happens when desire fades, goes missing, or submerges itself beneath more pressing personal explorations is the subject of Fontanel’s memoir, a chronicle of her decision to stop having sex. “I’d had it with being taken and rattled around,” she writes. “I’d had it with handing myself over.” The book is strange and subtle, a meditation on body and self, on men and women. You may not always understand Fontanel’s choices or opinions, but they are never less than fascinating.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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