Mar 312014

Sycamore_Row_-_cover_art_of_hardcover_book_by_John_GrishamIt is the mid 1980s in Mississippi and Seth Hubbard, a cantankerous old buzzard, and self made millionaire hangs himself.  Just before setting out for a sycamore tree with a rope and a ladder, he writes a new will cutting his immediate family out of any of his inheritance.  Instead, he leaves 5% to his long-lost brother, 5% to his church, and the remaining twenty-odd million dollars to his black housekeeper of only three years, Miss Lettie Lang.  Grisham is the master of the legal thriller and he does not disappoint.  Lawyers, Hubbard family members, relatives Lettie Lang didn’t know she had all dive at the money like birds of prey.  And while the legal maneuverings informed by greed are all fascinating, what really stands apart is how unapologetically this book faces up to issues of race.  Rural Mississippi, at least in the 1980s, is defined by an undying antipathy of whites toward blacks and a history of racial discrimination so embedded it borders on toxic.  Grisham tells it like it is.

Feb 232014

we-need-new-names-3e60731d6539be68A young girl growing up in the disintegrating country of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe escapes by moving in with her aunt in Detroit, Michigan.  Her account is covered in this two-part, highly autobiographical novel of life in two cultures.  Part one is the joy and hunger of growing up with your friends on the streets in Zimbabwe.  Darling, the main character, and her friends play outside all day long.  They steal guavas from rich people to squelch their gnawing stomachs.  Their clothes are torn, dirty donations.  Their elders are away in South Africa searching for income or contracting HIV.  Even as children, they are not nearly so ignorant of the world as we Westerners perceive: they know how to play the aid organizations, how deceptively palliative the churches are, and with surprising accuracy what opportunities exist in the U.S.  Part two in some ways is more predictable.  Life in America is hard for immigrants torn from the tastes, aromas, dust, and relatives back home.  Darling finds American culture confined to computers, texting, shopping malls, school exams, cars, and cable.  Coming of age is hard; doing so in a foreign country is harder; forsaking your homeland, even in search of opportunity, is always wrenching.  The contribution of this book is its contemporary view of the experience.

Jun 212013

Sugar-in-the-BloodWhile investigating her genealogy, the author, Andrea Stuart, learns she is the descendent of both a slave owner and a slave.  She gets all the way back to the first British settlers of Barbados in the Sixteenth Century, finding a great, great (probably a dozen greats) grandfather who left Britain in search of bounty and who manages to scratche out just enough to start a lineage of sugar plantation owners.  It’s an interesting idea for a book, because Stuart has enough information to fill in the gaps for a dozen generations.  She covers politics, slavery, agriculture, and adventure.  Unfortunately, it reads like a long Master’s thesis.  A lot of research, but not that much fun to read.

Nov 152012


An African American soldier returns from fighting in Korea with his mind in tatters.  The army was integrated and ordered, but his experience was profoundly horrifying.  Back in a segregated United States, where a black man can and often is abused for the color of his skin, he wanders dark streets, loses his money, drinks to excess, and suffers from what we call today PTSD. Slowly he heads south, into the belly of the beast, to rescue his sister, abused by a doctor doing the kind of research performed too readily on minorities in the 1940s and 1950s.  In the end, the men of this book are beaten physically and spiritually.  All the women are strong.  And all the children are largely invisible.  To learn more about unethical medical research, read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, but to really understand the plight of African Americans in the Jim Crow U.S., read The Warmth of Other Suns.

Oct 282012

Third in Caro’s serial biography of Lyndon Johnson, this massive volume covers Johnson’s decade in the Senate.  For most of the 1950s LBJ ran the senate with an iron fist, at once the youngest and most skillful man to do so perhaps in the Senate’s history.  In following Johnson’s story we learn how the Senate really operates; a civics lesson far in excess of anything any one ever (used) to learn in school.  We see the deep divide among red states and blue states over issues of business versus labor, wealth preservation in opposition to support for the needy, the Cold War, and greater than any other issue, race relations.  Through the 1950s most black Americans in the south were prohibited from voting, fully segregated from whites in schools, stores, hospitals, and anywhere else blacks and whites might find themselves in extended proximity, and subjected to mob justice.  Whether the stranglehold on black lives could be addressed by the United States federal government divided the South (opposed to Federal usurpation of States’ rights) from the north and Johnson gets credit in this book for managing a compromise that for the first time cracked the door open to let a slim ray of light expose the darkness of southern discrimination.  Partly what makes the book so fascinating is how complex is Johnson’s personality:  driven, ambitious, cajoling, vicious, denigrating, sycophantic, manipulative, caring, and insufferable.  Taking on any of Caro’s books is a commitment — they are very long — but his able technique includes stories both small and large that together assemble into a complete tale of America in the mid-20th Century.

Apr 012012

Mr. March, in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, heads south to fight the Confederacy at the opening of Alcott’s novel and returns on Christmas a year later.  This is Brooks’ imaginings of what March would have encountered as an idealistic preacher from Concord heading into the heart of a Civil War.  Not surprisingly, he learns war is hell, slavery is worse, racism is painfully ugly and not the sole purview of southerners, and that his personal attempts at action and intervention are pitifully ineffective.  Look, if you are going to read a book about slavery, by all means begin with Andrea Levy’s The Long Song, the recounting of slave life and uprisings in Jamaica.  Levy’s characters are real people.  Brooks’ has an interesting idea — she won a Pulitzer Prize for this book — but like most of her books the characters in March are uni-dimensional, interesting in a TV sort of way, but utterly forgettable as soon as the book is completed.

Mar 012012

This book covers Haiti’s history from the first importation of enslaved Africans to the months immediately following the devastating 2010 earthquake.  It is as thorough as a textbook and just about as readable, which is to say every paragraph carries a topic sentence followed by a dense recounting of data and information.  There is a big reward for bulling through, but honestly, I found myself reading a lot of topic sentences and skipping the meat.  The meat, Dubois points out most emphatically, is quite rancid.  Haiti is the only place in the world to undergo a successful slave revolt (1803).  Ever thereafter Haitian blacks refused to be dominated and the rest of the world did everything in its racist power to penalize, marginalize, and overwhelm Haiti for the better part of two centuries.  France would only recognize Haiti’s independence, for example, in exchange for crushingly large indemnity payments for lost property.  That property, of course, consisted of enslaved human beings.  The debt was so enormous that Haitian governments embarked on a borrowing treadmill it never escaped.  It took any income it made and paid off debt, never having anything left for infrastructure.  Economic and political instability led the United States to support the needs of its large multinational corporations desire for a stable workforce.  The marines invaded and ran the island as a fiefdom for 35 years at the beginning of the twentieth century (around the same time it was invading and running the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Nicaragua). Dubois’ account is unflinchingly pro-Haitian, but leaves the reader wondering why there is the continuous backdrop of political instability inside Haiti.  No blame is ever really placed within the island.  In this account Haitians, from their first days of slavery to the present, have never had agency over their own destinies.

Feb 052012

This is the story of Miss July a house slave in Jamaica from her birth in the cane fields to her post-slavery restitution living in the house of her accomplished son, his wife, and according to Miss July, her son’s three excessively pampered daughters.  This memoir of sorts is chirpy and upbeat as seen through the ordinary lives of enslaved Africans.  Yet their lives are so horrible and awful that no amount of rationalizing on my part could let me understand how a slave owner could treat other humans worse than penned chickens.  Masters had to maintain the concurrent belief that slaves were no more capable of higher thoughts than feral goats and simultaneously worry that his slaves were so clever and devious that a deadly revolt or uprising could erupt at any moment.  The voices of both masters and slaves are so real in the hands of Andrea Levy’s skillful pen that they creep inside your head to linger for days.

Jan 272012

Hampton Sides gimmick as a writer is to start two or three parallel stories and watch as they converge in a single moment in history.  I strongly recommend Ghost Soldiers by the same author, the story of the Bataan death march in the Philippines.  In this case we travel with Martin Luther King Jr. during his last fateful months before his assassination.  Simultaneously we track the movements of his killer, James Earl Ray, as he prepares for the shooting.  All the while we get inside the head of J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI, and lifelong enemy of King.  On the upside the author does an excellent job of recreating a time and place in American history: the devastating racism of the deep south in the 1960s and the virulent paranoia of Hoover’s cold war FBI.  Somehow, however, I did not feel the suspense.  Maybe I recall too much of the events from my childhood and the book would be more successful for younger readers and maybe it just wasn’t that suspenseful.  Everyone knows the outcome long before the first page.

Jan 092011

Immediately following the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation most  African Americans in the south were subject to what we today would call a campaign of terror.  Any southern black could be subject to beating, harassment, hanging, mutilation, and economic abuse.  Attacks could come with or without warning and as we know today only a handful of terror attacks can create widespread fear and panic.  Witness the consequences of 9/11 or the national psyche of Israel to observe the psychological repercussions.  As a result of severe abuse, forced labor, and economic subjugation that regularly crossed from illegal withholding of pay (re-enslavement) to outright immorality. African Americans fled the south en masse to save their lives.  Isabel Wilkerson documents the lives of these internal migrants, focusing on three individuals, in particular, as they participate in The Great Migration that lasted from the immediate post-Civil War period to 1970.  Along the way she delivers the back story for the ethnic cleansing of blacks from the south, busts some myths about the quality of those that left, and places these migrants within the scope of others who fled economic or political persecution, e.g., the Irish, Eastern Europeans, Italians.  Because of the color of the their skin, however, blacks in the north would wait more than five generations to see any real progress in their lot; a stark contrast to their white immigrant counterparts.   I’m ashamed about what I didn’t know about conditions in the south after the Civil War.  This book should be required reading for every American.