I love Sarah Vowell’s hip hop style of writing and she is hooked on an interesting fellow. The Marquis de Lafayette arrived in the American colonies at the age of nineteen as an anti-British militant on loan from France. He was useful, too, for an American army that George Washington was having a very difficult time organizing into anything more than a rabble with pitchforks and guns that don’t shoot straight. Lafayette remains a friend of the newly founded country for decades and decades. Unfortunately, and I cannot imagine why she chose to write this way, Vowell never bothered to break her monologue into chapters or sections. The whole thing is one long stream of consciousness, which periodically is rather enlightening, sometimes entertaining, and more frequently, breathlessly disorienting.
Margo Jefferson is nearing the end of a successful career as an English professor and brings all of her skill as a cultural analyst and textual critic to bear on her life as an elite African American. What emerges, beyond a lot of references to literature I haven’t read, and cultural icons of the 1950s and 1960s that I barely recall, is the grinding, irrepressible tank tread of American racism. Jefferson is buffeted on one side by the burden of having to be forever superior to low blacks, black blacks. Always, because whites are watching and evaluating, and as her parents instructed her, she must be a model for her race. And yet no amount of education, intellect, acumen, or accomplishment can erase a skin color that immediately draws suppositions, most of them discounting, some of them denigrating, from white Americans. Despite claims to the contrary that her intentions were otherwise, Jefferson’s book is agonizingly tedious, monotonous in its inability to escape the premise that race pollutes everything in America. And I think that is the point.
Somewhere near the end of Keret’s memoir covering the seven years between the birth of his son and the death of his father, Keret writes about his experience living in a narrow house in Warsaw, Poland. The invitation to live in the house comes from a Polish architect who felt compelled to construct a house for Keret that matched the building codes of Keret’s short essays. The house is tiny, only four feet wide, efficient, fitting between two existing buildings, and yet bursts out the top. It is three stories in height. And as life imitates art and vice versa Keret’s recounting of his stay in the house is at first odd and funny and finally brings you to tears when it turns out the house is constructed in the gap between the former Warsaw Ghetto and the slightly less Nazi-occupied parts of Poland. Keret’s mother, a young girl during WWII, made nightly runs, at the risk of death if she were ever caught, to collect what food she could for her family, all of whom save Keret’s mother, died. No other writer can wring so much emotion, plot, or character from only three pages. In this, Keret’s first book of nonfiction, layer upon layer of the humor and tribulations of living in contemporary Israel, a country of profound joy and horror, capture a man and his country like few others.
These graphical biographies cover the early years of John Lewis, now a congressman, but formerly a preacher and activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Book one revolves around the desperate attempts by African Americans to desegregate southern restaurants. It sounds simple enough: walk up to the counter and ask for a cup of coffee and perhaps a couple of slices of toast. In reality, nearly all southern commercial establishments from the Civil War through the 1960s were designated off-limits to people of color. The act of entering, sitting, and ordering was illegal and could be met with beatings and incarceration (and though it is not covered in the book, terrorism, see The Warmth of Other Suns). To chose a nonviolent response while whites screamed, hit, kicked, and spit on you was an act of remarkable bravery. Book two describes the 1961 Freedom Rides by blacks protesting segregation on interstate buses and bus terminals. Protesters were met with firebombs, the KKK, and police beatings. The cartooning and simple language make the books accessible to readers of all ages, who, if they are paying attention, will recognize that current protests over #black lives matter have deep roots and that the work of generating equality has not yet been achieved in America.
On the surface this is a fictionalized account of two women who made one another famous during The Great Depression: Dorothea Lange, a government employed photographer, and Florence Owens Thompson, the subject of what may be the most famous photo of the era, Migrant Mother. Using available historical information (I know because I checked), Marissa Coin, the author weaves together the lives of these two women and brings to life the endurance of strong women getting by during extraordinary times. Underlying the narrative is a discussion of the nature of history and photography. History being a series of perhaps unreliable and haphazardly preserved recollections interpreted by future observers and photographs turning out to be exactly the same. Pictures are no more than the preservation of a second in time that might or might not reflect reality and whose interpretation relies as much on the viewer as it does the photographer or the subject.
52 Loaves is one of those memoirs where a guy sets out to do something a little ridiculous, bumbles along, has silly adventures, and learns something meaningful along the way. See, for example, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and The Know it All and The Year of Living Biblically, both by A.J. Jacobs. In this instance, Alexander bakes a loaf of bread every week for a year until he manages to make the perfect loaf. As befits this type of book, Alexander opens with many weeks of dense, tasteless, uninspiring loaves that test his patience, make his children long for croissants, brioche, and real bread, and cause his long-suffering wife to roll her eyes every weekend at her her inept husband’s kitchen flailings. With time, of course, Alexander learns the science of bread making, the art of bread making, and the six-thousand year history of bread eating and presents it all in a way that is warm and light, much like the bread he ultimately learns to bake from sourdough (did you hear that, fans, SOURDOUGH) in an ancient Abbey oven in the remote French countryside.
It’s a cartoon memoir of the passing of Roz Chast’s, a New Yorker cartoonist, parents. Her parents lived into their 90s and died the long, slow decline of Americans that can afford resuscitation, hospitalization, round-the-clock care, and reasonable nursing homes. Only the book isn’t entirely about dying. Rather, Chast captures with painful honesty the relationship any adult has with an aging parent, which I have to say, includes almost everyone who is not yet an orphan. So a cartoon book is an excellent way to describe the relationship between children and their parents which so readily alternates between being laugh aloud funny, guilt-inducing despair, unbridled, and occasionally insufficiently requited love, and bone-breaking frustration.
Prior to the outbreak of WWII, the British citizen Eddie Chapman spent his youth blowing safes and robbing banks. Passing in and out of jails, Chapman learned new techniques for thievery and when he wasn’t incarcerated, he fell in love, seriously in love, with a series of women. When war erupted, Chapman was languishing in a cell on the isle of Jersey which fell under Nazi occupation and after failing to escape a couple of times figured his best chance for freedom was to volunteer to become a Nazi spy, that is, a British citizen employed by the Nazis to spy on the British. A year or so later the Germans took him up on his offer, trained him, and air dropped him into Britain for the purpose of blowing up a British airplane factory. Chapman’s apparent success led him to become one of the most decorated Nazi spies in history, only soon after landing in England, he also because one of the most celebrated spies in the British secret service, where he acted as a double agent spying on the Nazis. Using newly released documents McIntyre uncovers a fascinating history of the spy war raging between Allied and Axis forces.
The war after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq consists of 500,000 broken soldiers, men and women returned to the United States suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI). Five hundred thousand with invisible wounds to their brains. Asked to fight in invisible wars that most Americans failed to track, they served two and three rotations against enemies they could not find, but whose specialization in guerilla tactics ensured that our soldiers spent many of their days searching for improvised explosive devices. They watched their closest friends blown to small pieces, or had their own heads rattled against the roof of an exploding humvee. And when they could not function any longer they were sent home. The result, in addition to an ever-increasing rate of post-combat suicide, has been a half million cases of severe depression, unrelenting insomnia, flashbacks, anger, guilt, uncontrollable rage, and anxiety. This book reduces the painful numbers to a handful of real people struggling to reassemble their lives. Their plights are heart breaking in large part because Finkel’s writing is so delicately caring and insightful.
Billy Crystal is turning 65 years old and writing his memoir. It’s one-third stand-up (far and away the best part), one-third autobiography, and one-third Hollywood hokum. Really, every famous name he drops is his best friend and a wonderful human being. His life is interesting enough. He’s a hard worker and a nice guy. You can’t help but think he would be a really pleasant dinner guest. It is his comedy, however, that makes the book worth reading, or better still, worth listening to. Several chapters are read aloud before a live audience and his take on the trials of getting old, at least for us oldsters, is painfully accurate. We have hands that look like chicken feet, balls that hang to our knees, and urinate in morse code, and more if only we could remember what it was we were talking about. Also, if you are listening, his impersonations of Muhammad Ali, Johnny Carson, Howard Cosell and other legends of the air that our children never heard of are delicious.