Summary and book reviews of Jenniemae & James by Brooke Newman

Jenniemae & James

A Memoir in Black and White

by Brooke Newman

Jenniemae & James
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Mar 2010, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2011, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jo Perry

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About this Book

Book Summary

The true story of an extraordinary friendship between a brilliant mathematician and an uneducated, illiterate African American maid from Alabama. Jenniemae & James is an inspiring, heartwarming memoir about friendship and love across the racial barrier.

James Newman was a brilliant mathematician, the man who introduced the mathematical concept “googol” and “googolplex” (aka “google” and “googleplex”) to the world, and a friend of Einstein’s. He was also a notorious philanderer with an insatiable appetite for women and fast cars, a man who challenged intellectual and emotional limits, and a man of excess who oftentimes fell victim to his own anxiety.

Jenniemae Harrington was an uneducated, illiterate African American maid from Alabama who began working for the Newman family in 1948—and who, despite her devout Christianity, played the illegal, underground lottery called “policy,” which she won with astonishing frequency. Though highly implausible, these two dissimilar individuals developed a deep and loyal friendship, largely because of their common love of numbers and their quick wits.

Theirs was a friendship that endured even during an era when segregation still prevailed. For James, Jenniemae provided a particular ease and shared sense of irreverent humor that he found difficult to duplicate with his beautiful, intelligent, and artistic wife, Ruth. And when the Newman home was darkened by the tensions of the political climate during the Cold War, or by James’s affairs, or by Ruth’s bouts of depression, it was Jenniemae who maintained the point of gravity, caring for the family’s children when their parents were often lost in their own worlds.

From Jenniemae’s perspective, James offered more than just a steady income. He became an unlikely and loyal friend. He taught her to read, and he drove her to and from his upscale suburban house and her home in the impoverished section of Washington, D.C. (and sometimes, much to her chagrin, in his Rolls-Royce), after she had been raped by a white bus driver. Intrigued by her uncanny wins at the lottery, James even installed a second telephone line in the house so that Jenniemae could keep track of her bets—a decision that raised a few eyebrows at the time.

It is this extraordinary relationship that the Newmans’ daughter, Brooke, reveals in Jenniemae & James, as she elegantly weaves together the story of two very distinct and different people who each had a significant impact on her upbringing. In doing so, she also paints a vivid political and cultural picture of the time—when the world was terrified by the possibility of nuclear war; when America was reeling from the McCarthy hearings; when technological advances like televisions, satellites, and interstate highways were changing the country; when America was just beginning to venture into Vietnam; and when African Americans were still considered second-class citizens with limited rights, before the explosion of racial tensions in the early 1960s.

Jenniemae & James is an inspiring, heartwarming memoir about friendship and love across the racial barrier.

Chapter One

"Get up with the sun, get to work by the gun, go to bed when you're done."

Jenniemae Harrington was an underestimated, underappreciated, extremely overweight woman who was very religious, dirt poor, and illiterate. She was uneducated, self taught, clever, and quietly cunning. Born on an unknown day of an unknown month during the harvest season of 1923 on a small sharecropper farm near Hissop, Alabama, Jenniemae picked October 18 as her birth date because on that date, at the age of four years, she had for the very first time been permitted to wear flowers in her hair to church.It was as memorable a day as any, and a very good day in a long line of difficult days. There were not many simple pleasures for the Harrington family, but at least on Sundays everyone tried hard to greet the Lord's Day with a smile, and wearing flowers in one's hair was a special way to celebrate church day.

Home was the farm. The farm, like most sharecroppers' farms, was located on the least ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Jennimae & James is a smart and troubling memoir of bigotry and generosity, darkness and light, intellectual virtuosity and untapped talent, revelation and silence. The story of a family, it also records the routine and crushing injustice of life in segregated America, and honors the love African American women gave the white children and families in their care.   (Reviewed by Jo Perry).

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Media Reviews

New York Times - Dwight Garner

When [Mrs Harrington] is allowed to speak at greater length, it doesn’t get any better. Her dialogue is pure high-fructose corn syrup .... There’s a good book in here somewhere. Maybe even a movie. I bet those guys at Google could afford to pay for it.

Washington Post - Claire Hopley

Ms. Newman's account of the early-1960s, when the civil rights movement was having successes and the brinksmanship of American and Russian foreign policies was being exposed, is as suggestive as her description of growing up in the 1950s. Indeed, this memoir is a stimulating recollection of an era. It is also an impressive evocation of the characters of James and Ruth Newman. Jenniemae is less well-developed, not least, perhaps, because Ms. Newman knows only the part of her life she lived in the Newmans' house, not the life she lived in her own home and community.

USA Today - Carol Memmott

Newman's story is laced with what it was like to live in the nation's capital in the 1950s and 1960s when the civil rights movement was evolving. But most of all, Jenniemae & James is a love story — one that transcends class, race and stereotypes.

Booklist

Newman is unsparing yet loving in this complex portrait of her father, author of the classic The World of Mathematics, and the woman essential to her childhood.

Kirkus Reviews

A low-key, sweet portrait of an unusual friendship. Jenniemae is a scene-stealer, though, and the strongest parts of the memoir focus on her and her community.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The author, as a keen observer growing up in this fraught household, absorbed the emotional ramifications of Jenniemae’s presence, and fashions dialogue that is pitch-perfect.

Author Blurb Larry McMurtry
Jenniemae and James is a beautifully toned memoir about the depths as well as the vagaries of human affection: in this case the long, profound affection between the famous mathematician James Newman and his black housekeeper Jenniemae Harrington. A lovely book, giving us much to ponder.

Author Blurb Justin Kaplan
Brooke Newman's Jenniemae & James is thoroughly captivating and a standout among contemporary memoirs. Outside her book you're not likely ever to meet up with another pair of people so singular, stubbornly self-determined and memorably rendered as her father, a brilliant mathematician (and dedicated womanizer), and his household employee, an illiterate black woman with a gambler's feel for numbers.

Author Blurb Susan Cheever
Brooke Newman’s wonderful book is…a compelling and important story about being the daughter of a difficult and great man, about Washington, D.C. in the middle of the twentieth century, and most of all about the ways in which the stubborn human heart can find love even when it has to cross the great divides of class and wealth and race.

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Beyond the Book

The Googol, the Googolplex and Other Really Big Numbers

Bigger than the biggest thing ever and then some. Much bigger than that in fact, really amazingly immense, a totally stunning size, real 'wow, that's big,' time... Gigantic multiplied by colossal multiplied by staggeringly huge is the sort of concept we're trying to get across here.
- Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Most of us can get our head around what a million looks like, but visualizing a billion, let alone a trillion can be challenging. one billion dollarsThe image to the left is what a billion dollars looks like stacked on a pallet in $100 notes. Click the image to see what a trillion dollars looks like!

But a trillion pales into numerical insignificance compared to a googol, let alone a ...

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