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.
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance **** (of 4)
The simple description is on the cover. J.D. Vance, a self-denominated hillbilly from Kentucky, describes what it took to grow up in a family devoid of education and reliable jobs, hounded by alcoholism and drug addiction, subjected to intransigent poverty, educated in mediocre schools, raised by a seemingly endless array of violent adults, and adjacent to families of nearly identical misery (each in their own way, of course.) Vance escaped. He joined the marines, went to college, earned a law degree at Yale, and became an excellent writer, who by the age of 32, could pen a memoir that gives insight into a culture as foreign to educated eastern liberals as any alien culture could be. Vance has been hailed by conservatives for his bootstrapping success and for his insistence upon calling out hillbilly culture for its own moral failures. He has been decried by left-wingers for failing to point to structural inequities in American society that make it so difficult for the poverty-stricken, black or white, to break free of their plight. The reason Vance won me over comes at the end of the book. When he asks himself what policies or programs need to be enacted to overcome the downward spiral of America’s white underclass, he responds with uncertainty. There is no simple solution, he argues.
A Spy Among Friends *** (of 4) By Ben MacIntyre
Kim Philby joined the British spy services and the Russian KGB as a young man fresh from university. The Second World War had not yet begun and Philby was a young leftist at a time when supporting a socialist agenda for the world and opposing Nazism and Fascism by whatever means necessary made sense. By continuing to spy for the Russians for decades, however, while he climbed ever higher in MI-6, Philby became the highest ranking double agent in the west, responsible for giving away British and American secrets and for disclosing the names of hundreds of British informants and spies that ultimately met their deaths in Stalin’s dungeons. Several insider’s views of spying are laid bare. One, British spies of the 1940s through 1960s evidently consumed their body weights in liquor every week. Two, to be a successful spy requires simultaneous trust of those upon whom you are relying for information and complete suspicion of everyone about you as your opponents are working exceptionally hard to feed you misinformation. Running an organization of spies, like the CIA, MI-6, or even the KGB, when everyone must be suspected at some level of potentially working for the enemy, has to be nigh on impossible. The use of Russian and American spies to plant false information or manipulate a foreign public’s perception of its leaders is an ongoing pursuit. If done successfully, say under current conditions, by hacking into a computer network, it might just sway an election toward a friendly, incoherent, demagogue.
Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard *** (of 4)
The United States was on rocky footing in the immediate decades following the civil war with the North wanting revenge and the south not yet over its stinging defeat. In the 1880s, James A. Garfield was an archetypal American politician. He grew up fatherless, impoverished, and in a homemade log cabin on an Ohio farm. He went to college, was self-effacing, and apparently had no ambition beyond working for justice and the equality of freed black men and women. His renowned oratorical skills put him in position to make a nominating speech as a young Congressman at a deadlocked Republican presidential convention. After dozens of inconclusive votes, without ever wanting to run for the office, and against his wishes, Garfield was selected to be the Republican candidate,. He was elected President without really campaigning, and would likely have been an outstanding leader had he not been shot by a lunatic and left to die because doctors at the end of the nineteenth century did not yet believe in antisepsis and Alexander Graham Bell’s feverish attempts to prepare a device that could locate the bullet lodged in his abdomen did not outrace the infections in Garfield’s body. Millard’s account is engaging, but in the end Garfield’s run as President was too short to be of real significance.
The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George **** (of 4)
It seems to me that even mediocre authors can write tragedies. As long as a protagonist is reasonably sympathetic and something awful occurs, the reader is left feeling sad. It is a whole lot harder to write a credible love story and yet Nina George has succeeded in assembling a novel of sublime passion about characters who love one another, lose one another and their internal compasses, and find love and themselves once again. Jean Perdu, a Parisian bookseller, has a lover that leaves him without explanation, irrevocably breaking his heart. A new, appropriately aged, attractive, female neighbor moves into an upstairs apartment, weeping copious tears over a recent divorce. Perdu prescribes books to enhance her crying. Then he leaves on a journey by boat through France’s canals and through his memories. France’s landscape and Perdu’s mind shine brightly. The production of this audio book were excellent, too, bringing the handful of characters in this tight little play lovingly to life.
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald **** (of 4)
Three parallel stories expertly told. In the first, the author trains a goshawk to fly from her glove to hunt pheasants and rabbits on the British countryside. In a second, Macdonald recounts the life of T.H. White, author of Arthurian novels, depressed, gay, abused, and also a goshawk trainer. And, in the third, she writes a memoir of the year that her father died unexpectedly, she acquired a hawk, named it Mabel, trained Mabel, lost her happiness, read everything of T.H. White’s, scrambled in the British woods behind her not always cooperative goshawk, and muddled through. We learn to see Britain’s hedges and forests through the eyes of an expert hawker and the eyes of a hawk, and Britain’s mid-twentieth century rigidity through the writings of T.H. White.
The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan *** (of 4)
This recounting of America’s dust bowl is a vivid, filthy painting of an American environmental disaster brought about by greed, hubris, and ignorance. After demolishing the Comanche and the bison, an American government anxious to “settle” the West gave away its prairie in huge chunks. Plows sliced prairie grasses from their deep roots creating caskets of bare soil over buried sod. Homesteader wheat, mining untapped soil nutrients and decomposing grasses, produce unimaginably profitable and prolific yields. When the Great Depression struck in 1929, jobless masses in East Coast cities could not afford to pay for food and wheat piled up in the Great Plains. In terrible need of income farmers expanded production, exacerbating the problem. Then one of the periodic droughts that has always cycled through the Great Plains struck the year following the crash of the stock market and stretched nearly a decade. Crops died. Then trees and streams, horses and cattle all withered. Great roiling winds picked up tons and tons of soil hurling black blizzards of sand and grit across the plains and finally people, their lungs so full of dust they could not draw sufficient oxygen, they, too, started to die and with them the farms and towns of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Kansas that should never have exchanged perennial grasses, bison, antelope, snakes, and hares for wheat, corn, and cotton. The soil of the Great Plains was eventually tied down by the Soil Conservation Service and new plants grown on water mined from the Ogallala Aquifer, which shortly will run dry.
The Long Way Home by Louise Penny *** (of 4)
Maybe the tenth in the series of mysteries for Chief Detective of the Quebec Surete, Armand Gamache. Having recently retired to Three Pines, now former chief Gamache is asked to locate artist, Peter Morrow, wife of Clara, who has been missing for a year. Author Louise Penny is returning to her roots, too, as the first in this series was also about the power of art and psychology of artists. Penny is also experimenting. There is no murder to open the story. In fact, the whole novel revolves around a missing person, which is to say, nothing really happens, and while the first half feels patient and funny, the second half is plodding and so devoid of action that it gets a little boring. Still, the main characters are warm and inviting and after a bit, I’m sure I’ll go on to subsequent mysteries.
Gold by Matthew Hart ** (of 4)
Matthew Hart purports to answer all your questions about gold. Why does it have value? How is it mined? What is the historical significance of gold? Why should anyone own any? After dispensing with theft from contemporary South African mines and the history of gold rather briefly, the book devolves into two rather dense sections. First, is a jargon-rich explanation, best understood by fellow economists, for the gold standard that backed much of the world’s currencies until the 1970s. Second, is a tedious description of how a few ounces of gold are chemically extracted from tons of useless rock. Interspersed are some not very compelling travelogues to some of the world’s most interesting gold mines. Though it is presented only as a passing thought the inevitable conclusion is that gold’s value is currently no different than the value of a famous painting. It is worth only as much as someone who collects such things is willing to pay.
The Son by Philipp Meyer **** (of 4)
This history of Texas is told through the lives of four generations of the McCullough family. Eli, the patriarch, is captured by Comanches as an adolescent in the 1840s, and lives as an Indian for three years. Learning about Comanches as real people is as interesting as coming to understand, say, Kazahks, Bantus, or Serbs. These Comanches are conniving, jealous, courageous, jokesters trying to stave off white settlers with thoughtfulness, wisdom, and blunder. Eli’s son is neighbored by Mexicans, raises cattle, and begets generations who make it big in the Texas oil boom. To list the family tree, however, makes The Son feel like a tedious long biography. On the contrary, the stories of each generation are told concurrently with suspense and drama while the history of Texas bravado and hubris unfolds behind it. Bison are hunted to extinction, water is used to exhaustion, Mexicans are demolished and yet return, and the question of the McCullough’s self-selected prestige hangs in the balance. The audiobook performers are outstanding.