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.
March: Book Three by Andrew Aydin, John Lewis, and John Noel Claude Lewis **** (of 4)
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.
In the Kingdom of Ice by Hamptom Sides **** (of 4)
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.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead **** (of 4)
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.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles **** (of 4)
The year is 1870. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, veteran of three wars, now age 72, is more or less handed a ten-year-old girl to return to her German family in south Texas. The girl was kidnapped by Kiowa Indians at the age of six and has been recaptured by bounty hunters. Her parents are dead and Captain Kidd is now responsible for returning the girl, who no longer speaks English nor German, to her nearest relatives. Everything about their adventure as the old man and his young companion ride a horse drawn wagon across unsettled Texas landscapes feels authentic. Whereas a less skilled novelist might vacillate between plot, character, and showing off research, Paulette Jiles simply puts us in the driver’s seat. The Texas hills and deserts roll by in perfect clarity. Storms rage over head, the sun beats down, and sometimes it just drizzles for days. Strangers — some friendly, a few weird, and a couple who are downright dangerous — ride up alongside and we face them with whatever skills we have at our disposal. Moreover, the groups who cohabit south Texas are raised beyond typecasting. Kiowa, Spanish, soldiers, women, homesteaders, and settlers are presented as you might expect real people to be. They are complicated. You like some and dislike others. It is a deeply informative and thoughtful ride.
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.
Regeneration by Pat Barker **** (of 4)
Most of the action takes place away from the European trenches of World War I. Instead, Dr. Rivers uses the new field of psychoanalysis to repair the shredded psyches of young British soldiers damaged by their experience. Soldiers in his psychiatric hospital have spent months standing in freezing water, watched their friends disemboweled by exploding shells, inhaled mustard gas, and charged across barbed wire at night in hopes of knifing another young man. Many have simply stopped functioning. They stare, stammer, rock, dream while awake, and scream through the night. Dr. Rivers compassionately encourages his charges to speak of their horrors and slowly nurses them back toward health. The catch being that when he succeeds the soldiers are returned to the front and we are left to ask whether the continuation of the war is sufficiently justified that young men should be reused like cleaned-off bullets. In the case of WW I, we know a soldier’s life expectancy on the front is on average only a few weeks and that young German soldiers are suffering the same traumas, but we also know that acquiescence to German aggression has consequences.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman **** (of 4)
Ove awakens at the same hour every morning and sees no reason to change any part of his routine that begins with close inspection of his immediate neighborhood. He scoffs loudly enough for everyone to hear him at a younger generation raised without learning to fasten the right screw into a wall. Cars should never be permitted where signs prohibit them, snow has to be removed immediately from walkways, foreign-made cars cannot be trusted. Ove, however, is also an immovable barrier standing grumpily and mightily with his back to his friends and family facing down any and all that might cause them harm. It makes most sense to hear his stories firsthand. Go meet him and don’t be put off he growls at you.
The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee **** (of 4)
Mukherjee begins with the ancient Greeks. They wondered from whom and how did children inherit characteristics that made them look like their parents. Mukherjee continues to follow the thread of investigation through the centuries to Mendel and his peas, to Watson and Crick and their double helix, on into cloning and genetic engineering. He dives headfirst into eugenics and its tragic outcome under the Nazs as they attempted to control the combination of chromosomes by eliminating undesirable characteristics and the hosts that carried them. After describing all the science of genes and chromosomes he asks us to consider the ethics of where we stand today: on the precipice of once again being able to engineer the outcome of human procreation and development.
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.