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Following the end of WWII, the Atlanta Police Force reluctantly added eight African American police officers. Their beats were restricted to Darktown, the part of Atlanta without streetlights, and it almost goes without saying, without white people. Two recently hired war veterans, Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, stumble across an inebriated white man with a young black woman in his car. After they see her get punched and then escape from her driver they later find her body buried among trash in a vacant lot. Superficially, the novel is a 1940s murder mystery in the south, but the real story is the unflinching detail with which we observe Boggs and Smith endure Jim Crow. They are forbidden from arresting criminals, only white officers can, so they must subdue adversaries, run to a telephone, and call for a squad car whose white officers may or may not arrive. They may not question, nor even look into the eyes, of white officers, or for that matter, white men. They may not be seen alone with, nor speak to white women without fear of subsequent lynching. Boggs and Smith choose to uphold the law where they can while circumventing a white police force that alternately extorts, threatens, shoots, and convicts Atlanta’s blacks and despises its colored comrades. As with most elements of Jim Crow I don’t know whether I am more offended by the inhumane behavior of America’s white racists or the fact I was never taught anything about Jim Crow at any point in my education. The heat in this extremely well written mystery is as intense as a breezeless summer day in Atlanta. The audio version of this book is excellent.
This is the third in the Cormoran Strike series of murder mysteries written by J.K. Rowling under the Galbraith pseudonym. In this case, a psychopath murders women, pulls apart their bodies, and as the book opens, he hand delivers a severed leg to Strike’s assistant, Robin Ellacott. Four potential suspects immediately come to the mind of private detective Strike. While Strike and Ellacott investigate four bad men have a motive for wanting to ruin Strike by accosting his assistant, the British police bumble about like Keystone cops. Meanwhile, what was obvious to us in book one, now dawns on Cormoran and Robin: they are in love with one another. Unfortunately, Robin prepares to get married to her long-time fiancee and Cormoran dallies with a sexy, but not very interesting girlfriend he has picked up on the rebound from his last relationship. Rowling’s strength lies in her observations. She lands her protagonists in a town, and I know now, after having been to some of the places described in this book, describes every important storefront and unusual curve in the road with delightful accuracy. She hears every dog bark, recalls what everyone she met along the way was wearing beneath their overcoat, and reproduces accent and dialogue with impeccability. For sense of place and character she is a fine read. This mystery was gruesome, the budding love affair formulaic, and her lengthy descriptions were sometimes tedious.
Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for her oral histories of Russia and the Soviet Union. Secondhand Time includes exquisitely curated accounts of members of the Former Soviet Union beginning with old-timers that can still recall Stalin. She speaks with citizens still longing for the stability Stalin’s rule ensured and intermingles enough survivors of the gulag to make clear that nothing was worth the bloodshed and destruction that accompanied Stalin’s tyranny. She continues with accounts from the post-Stalin era through the Yeltsin restoration of order and Gorbachev’s opening to capitalism. Her interviewees make abundantly clear that replacing the communist ideal of equality for all with the frenzied shark attacks of capitalism has not been a smooth nor beneficial transition. The oligarchs have profited beyond anyone’s wildest needs and the needy have been left to struggle to survive. Young people that have never known anything but capitalism, according to their elders, worship materialism over community and mutual support. Like many Russian pieces of literature, Secondhand Time is extensive and thorough, almost as if you were in kitchen after kitchen drinking Russian tea and then vodka deep into the night. The final picture is masterful, with one caveat. Alexievich never really describes her methods and there is some evidence that she has moved quotations from one speaker to another in different publications suggesting some of her books might be as much fiction as non-fiction. That changes how you read her, I’m afraid.
This is the final installment of the biography of Congressman John Lewis’s youthful campaign for civil rights for America’s black population. Books One and Two cover the fight for desegregation in the later 1950s and early 1960s. Book Three details what it took to force President Johnson to introduce legislation allowing the federal government of the United States to override southern states that forbid blacks from voting. For years John Lewis led the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee through peaceful demonstrations to enable Americans with dark skin to register to vote like other Americans. Repeatedly, men and women approaching courthouses hoping to register were met with police beatings, enabled posses of armed white men, obstinate white judges, and murderous Klansmen. The story is a bloody one and sprinkled throughout are references to an event that was unimaginable in 1964: John Lewis, the Congressman, attending the inauguration of Barack Obama. And yet, today, gerrymandering of voting districts mean that Republicans (with negligible support or accountability to black voters) control the Presidency (who did not win the popular vote), both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, and a majority of governorships and statehouses. Everyone should read this book. And consider kneeling during the National Anthem.
An Irish murder squad is called upon to investigate the cult-like death of a child in the village of Knocknaree. Bob Ryan and Cassie Maddox are the lead detectives and we, the readers, are taken to grapple with mysteries on several levels. The obvious question is whodunnit to the kid found atop an alter stone in the middle of an archaeological dig, but there are deeper layers. Bob Ryan was once a child himself in Knocknaree and the only survivor when two of his friends disappeared. That case was never solved and Ryan has no memory of the event during which his childhood mates were presumably murdered. Can Ryan investigate a murder and his own childhood, especially if the two cases are linked, without losing his sanity? Ryan and Maddox are best friends, so close they behave like long-term lovers, raising another mystery of why they are not. Uncovering the perpetrator is standard fare: difficult to figure out with suitable suspects and red herrings. Revealing the psyches of contemporary Dubliners is what moves the story from page to page.
In the year 1899, in New York City, a golem and a jinni chance upon one another. A golem is a a mythical Jewish monster made of clay; a jin is a magical desert genie with fantastic powers. In this account, both golem and jin are bound to masters, only Chava, the golem, is female, inquisitive, thoughtful, helpful (to a fault), cautious, and actually quite lovable in spite of her terrific strength. Ahmed, the Jin is handsome, spontaneous, creative, chivalric, and impetuous. So, rather than being mythical and distant, in many ways, Ahmed and Chava, are too human. They struggle to understand the limits of free will while the constrained by friends, family, and magic potions. They chafe at being immigrants in a new city. They are conflicted by their responsibility to others when they also need to take care of themselves. The book is slowly paced, but Wecker’s characters and themes are provocative.
It is a great idea for research that is long overdue. Michael Twitty explores the role of enslaved Africans in shaping American foodways. Think about it. Africans captured in Africa and transported for sale to American owners brought with them foods and methods of cooking they knew from home. In America they were forced to work in the kitchens of slave owners and to keep themselves from starving to death too quickly — fieldwork for Africans was no different in duration or difficulty than it was for horses and mules — they grew small household gardens when they could. In short, their influence on what we know of today as southern cooking was deep and wide. Twitty is fascinating just by himself: black, gay, Jewish, historian, and foodie. Where the book falters, unfortunately, is the confusing intertwining of food history, Twitty’s autobiography, and his search for his genetic roots. By themselves, each story is a fine thread. Together, they are a hopelessly tangled series of knots and broken leads.
At the end of the nineteenth century, because no one had ever been there, the virtual consensus among geographers was that the North Pole resided in a warm, open sea. One needed only to sail a ship through the ice surrounding it to reach the open ocean. In 1879, Captain George DeLong and a crew of 30-plus sailors set off for the North Pole. At end of the their first year, their ship, having failed to find open water, was instead frozen in place, where they remained out of communication with the rest of the world for three years. Half of their time was in near total darkness and nearly all of their days and nights were below freezing. Finally, sheets of ice crushed and sank the U.S.S. Jeannette. The crew walked and sailed for hundreds of days across ice floes and freezing oceans with hopes of reaching the coldest landmass on earth, the north coast of Siberia. The test of human physical and psychological endurance is simultaneously contemporary and otherworldly. The relationship of European and American men to the environment, native people of the Arctic, to women, and stoicism is history not to be overlooked.
Before Colson Whitehead ever gets to the story of Cora’s attempted escape from enslavement, he sets the stage in Africa. Cora’s grandmother and mother are captured beginning a saga of human beings herded, branded, chained, transported, discarded when insufficiently healthy, and sold like so many pieces of meat. Some are consumed, others are tossed overboard or left to rot. Whitehead’s descriptions of the relationship between white slave owners and the human beings they own is a delicately painted portrait of white men using all their faculties to subdue the humanity of their black workers with rape, torture, and psychological brutality. For this portion of the book alone, the real-life portrayal of slavery in the south, The Underground Railroad should be required reading of all Americans. Whitehead’s description of plantation work for slaves also makes the idea of escape almost logical. The alternatives are equally daunting: staying on the plantation means ceaseless labor, sexual assaults, tongue extractions for speaking up, castrations for being black and male and therefore a threat to white men’s sense of superiority, and beatings so severe that infections beneath missing skin are inevitable. Leaving for the underground railroad, in contrast, means fearing owners so desperate to regain their lost property that dogs trained to shred human tissue and professional slave catchers brandishing chains and iron collars will be sent even into free states to recapture lost goods. Cora’s lifelong sprint for freedom is harrowing, accurate, and the story of an underdog for whom you can’t help but root. Her plight is also an important reminder that in the age of Charlottesville the legacy of slavery has not yet been overcome.