Apr 292010
 

One of the best pieces of literature I’ve ever read with multiple layers about an African American who disguises himself as a Jew becomes a college professor at (Williams) and is accused of racism, sexism, agism, and in the end anti-semitism, nearly none of which are true. Very complex characters.

Apr 292010
 

A novella told mostly in the first person perspectives of an enslaved African woman, her daughter, a trader from the north, his wife, a Native American, and an addled child that escapes the wreck of a slave ship. Yes, it’s confusing at first because Morrison doesn’t explain who’s doing the talking, but her descriptions of the handful of lives involved feels more authentic and less contrived and romanticized than any accounting of early colonizer life I’ve ever come across.  June 2009.

Apr 292010
 

There’s a reason this book won the Whitbread Award for best book of the year, one of Britain’s most prestigious literary awards. It captures the huge themes of racism and class by examining the minutiae of the lives of just four characters: two Brits and two Jamaicans who are struggling to live in England immediately following World War II. The book succeeds because it reads like a play with perfectly captured dialogue and emotion. In fact much of the action takes place inside a single house as if the house were a stage. The Jamaicans leave their home island because it is too small and confining only to discover that England is also a small island. Cold, too. June 2005.

May 152010
 

The characters in this book – racist, southern white women in the early sixties and the black maids that work for them – are so believable, I rooted for my favorites, hissed beneath my breath at villains, celebrated triumphs, and felt gloomy for days when things went awry.  Stockett captures personalities and gives each person a voice so full of accent and southern charm that the entrapment of race relations in Mississippi at the very dawn of civil rights is played out in the language itself.  If you have any chance at all of listening to the Audio book, do so.  It won the 2009 award for best audio book and with good reason.  The actors will put you in a theater.

May 152010
 

Cells from Henrietta Lacks’ cancerous cervix were the first to ever be cultured in a lab in perpetuity making the woman they came from in some ways immortal.  The cells were taken just before her death and without her permission thereby becoming on the one hand a source of great scientific richness and on the other the bane of her surviving, very poor, largely uneducated African American family.  Skloot does an excellent job of explaining the science and personalizing the plight of a family overwhelmed by America’s medical research establishment.

Jun 172010
 

In the early 60s the Boston Strangler attacked, murdered, and then raped eleven women in and around the city. A black man with a criminal record was arrested, tried, and convicted for the murder and rape of the aged Bessie Goldberg on the basis of circumstantial evidence. Years later a shady handyman who worked in Junger’s home while his mother was home alone with him admits to the murders, also without providing concrete evidence. Junger recounts the stories of the two potential murderers and leaves it to the reader to draw conclusions. The story is more terrifying than any fictional murder mystery and simultaneously a strong lesson in the principles of the rule of law: better to have ten guilty men walk free than a single innocent man wrongly convicted. September 2008.

Jun 172010
 

Obama’s memoir of his earliest memories through his years as an organizer strike me first as the story of someone I could easily have gone to college with: a liberal, a bit angsty, interested in ideas, anxious to change the world and find his place in it. Which is to say his story is not that unusual for a smart guy who went to a good college. What is stunning about the book, however, is that Obama has lived in other countries, is African, African-American, and white, and above all has the insights to understand what each of those identities represents. That makes him unlike any President, ever. September 2009.

Jul 142010
 

This is such an accurate rendtion of 1960s Harlem I could smell the trash in the streets, sense the despair, hear the sirens, and feel like an invisible observer of slum-bound African Americans before civil rights. It was perfectly reproduced I could only envision the action on a black and white screen. Two black detectives, Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, search the bars, drug dens, steaming summer streets, junkyards, abandoned lots, whore houses, and jazz halls for a ring of thieves. It’s a period piece, but of a type not many people with this much insight ever put together. August 2009.

Oct 312010
 

Written in 1937, Hurston captures the lives of  post-slavery, southern African Americans battling to overcome poverty and profound segregation.  Janie, the story’s protagonist,  is married three times by forty.  The first two to black men insistent on domination.  Janie is an article of clothing meant to be silent and shown off.  Three times she runs off for a better man.  The last, Tea Cake, is as poor as the Florida muck he occasionally works picking beans.  But Tea Cake is a force of nature who insists that Janey also open herself to the elements of south Florida.  Forsaking class and respect, she becomes a human being.  The vernacular and characters Hurston chooses are so rich, complex, and authentic the story is still compelling literature seventy years later.

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.