Best History 2018

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Invisible, by Stephen L. Carter****

InvisibleI received a review copy of this affectionate, well-documented biography free and early thanks to Net Galley and Henry Holt. This book is for sale now.

Eunice Hunton Carter was the author’s grandmother, and though her name is little known today, she was an exceptional woman, a scholar, political activist, and social diva that did extraordinary things during a time period when it was nearly impossible for women of color to rise professionally. Carter tells of her impact on what he calls “the darker nation” and in particular, of her role in taking down notorious gangster Lucky Luciano. She was largely invisible to the mainstream press; this was a time when Black people virtually never won acclaim, and women didn’t either, but it was she that devised the strategy that was needed to try to convict him.

The author is a Yale professor and has a number of successful books to his credit already. This biography is written with the professionalism one would expect; the tone is conversational and keeps the pages turning; transitions are buttery smooth; and the documentation is flawless and meticulous. Those interested in African-American history, or particularly in that of African-American women should read this book.

Carter was born into a well-to-do Atlanta family, leaders among the Negro petite-bourgeoisie. (The author uses the term “Negro” because it was the accepted, polite term during the period in which his grandmother lived.) However, the rise of terrorist groups like the Klan forced successful families of color out of the South, and so most of Eunice’s story takes place in New York City, and it is there that she became a famous woman.

Eunice was a die-hard Republican, and the author reminds us that in the early 1900s, it was still known as the party of Lincoln. Though she did not initially aspire to be politically active—a hat that her mother, Addie, already wore—she became involved in Dewey’s various campaigns after working with him in the prosecutor’s office.

The story is well documented and the voice is distinctive. Two things got in the way of my enjoyment of this biography. The first and technically most significant is focus. The author seems at times torn between his desire to write his grandmother’s biography and perhaps a desire to write about his entire family. I’ll be absorbed in the events that shape Eunice, but then her mother is mentioned—as is appropriate, since her mother is so influential in Eunice’s development—but then we’ll see more about her mother. More, more, more. Pages of Addie. When the author smoothly returns us to Eunice I sigh with relief, snuggle into my chair, and then a few pages later, there we are again. Numerous times I have typed into my reader’s notes, “Whose story is this, anyway?” Eventually I become so frustrated by Addie’s success in hijacking her daughter’s story that I stop making notes and highlight every transition, from Eunice to Addie, Addie, Addie, and ah, back to Eunice (and then to Addie again).

This irritating diversion, one that makes me feel as I am sitting in the parlor of some elderly, garrulous, lonely individual that has just poured me more lukewarm tea and picked up yet another photo album—Did I tell you about my cousin Rudy? Now there was a character, they say—mercifully abates about halfway into the story, as we move into the Luciano case. Here we are focused, and it’s a fascinating read. But during the last portion of the book, it is brother Alphaeus that needs editing down. Again, this brother has good reason to be here, since Eunice is convinced that her career suffers from his membership in the Communist Party USA; yet I feel as if a strong editor’s pen would be useful for this relative as well. Or better still: maybe let’s not read about Eunice. Maybe let’s have a biography of Alphaeus instead, since it is he that is driven to try to make the world a better place.

Because Eunice, it’s clear, is really out there for Eunice. The author makes no bones about this; yet his glee at her snobbery, social-climbing, and vast ostentatious displays of wealth is not inspirational.

When all is said and done, however, Eunice Hunton Carter deserves a place in history. Had she been born Caucasian and male, who knows? She might have become president, or at least governor of the state of New York. Her drive, talent, and energy seem to have been limitless.

As a read for general audiences, I’d say this is a 3.5 star read, rounded upward, but for those with a special interest in African-American history, or that are doing research for a more specific topic such as African-American women in politics or law, this is a must read.

Rising Out of Hatred, by Eli Saslow****

RisingOutOfHatredDerek Black was the heir apparent to the White Supremacist throne, godson of David Duke, and the son of the founder of the largest hate site in the U.S. This gripping biography tells the story of his transformation, from racist wunderkind to social justice proponent. Thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

As a young person bent on following his family’s toxic legacy, Black felt that part of the secret to gaining support was in softening the language that went with it. Rather than spewing angry racist jargon around, he argued, Caucasians should instead point to their own pride in ancestry. Everybody gets to be proud of who they are and where they came from, right? So his people just happened to be proud of being from Northern Europe. And then it follows that of course they would prefer to be surrounded by others like themselves. Thus, the call for a Euro-American homeland was, he argued, a reasonable demand.

Later he would hear some of his own catch-phrases used by members of the Trump cabinet.

Derek had never known anyone that wasn’t white; his parents had seen to that. When he went to the New College of Florida, he escaped the terrarium in which he’d been home-schooled, and he came to know a more diverse set of people. This story tells us not only of his own inner struggle and evolution, but also of the painstaking manner in which his new friends cultivated him and became an undeniable part of his life. They invited him to Shabbat meals regularly, gradually breaking down his resistance. In time he came to see the contradictions between the ideology in which he had been raised, and the reality of the real human beings that were now part of his life.

I am amazed at the patience and perseverance of the young people that changed his thinking. I myself would have beat feet far away from a character like this guy, particularly given the enormous stake he had in remaining exactly who he’d been raised to be. Befriend this person? Why would anyone? But they did it, and they met with success.

Black was inclined to withdraw from public life, to fade into the general population as quickly as possible, but his girlfriend persuaded him that since he had made a difference in the wrong way, he owed it to the world to counter that with a more public repudiation.

Saslow is a Pulitzer winner, and his writing is tight and urgent. I didn’t put this story down often once I had begun it. At the same time, Black’s story is told so intimately that it feels a little strange to suddenly realize that Saslow is in it, and we don’t get much information as to how he got there. I would have liked to see a more natural segue from his development, to his conversations with his biographer. It felt a bit abrupt to me.

This, however, is a small concern. The book is fascinating, and you should get it and read it.

Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society, by William Oldfield and Victoria Bruce***

InspectorOldfieldandtheBI received a review copy free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster/Touchtone. This book is for sale now.

Who knew that the U.S. Postmaster has the authority to commander an entire ship or airline in pursuit of justice? Needless to say, it doesn’t happen often; think of the press if that were to happen today! But Inspector Frank Oldfield was a man on a mission.

Once the introduction is over, I find an uneven quality to the narrative. The aspect that describes the gangsters and the formation of the Black Hand is fascinating; after the buildup, however, I find the inspector himself less riveting and the writing not as tight as I’d prefer. The research is a little spotty and the sources are not well integrated.

However, if true crime is your wheelhouse, you may want to get a copy of this one-of-a-kind biography.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight**-***

frederickdouglassprophetThanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Douglass is a key figure in American history, and Blight has made his career largely through his expertise on Douglass’s life. I expected to be impressed here, and indeed, the endnotes are meticulous and I would be amazed if there was a single error anywhere in this work. But aspects of the biography rub me the wrong way, and ultimately, I realized that the best way around this is to go back and read Douglass’s own autobiographies again.

Whether we read what Douglass tells us, or what Blight (or any credible biographer) has to say, there are two impediments that stop me short, and because I have never been required to start at the beginning and end at the end to complete a scholastic or professional assignment, I tend to read the beginning; recoil; abandon; and then return in an undisciplined, skipping-around manner that is uncharacteristic of my usual methods.

First we have the Christian aspect. Douglass was tremendously devout, and during his time it was much more common to discuss religion publicly and even in daily conversations, sometimes at length. It repels me. So that’s my first problem. It’s not Blight’s problem, but it’s one I have to deal with.

The second problem—again, not Blight’s, and it’s inherent in reading about Douglass—is that slavery was horrible. Douglass actually had a slightly better life than most of his peers, gaining an education and living in the master’s house, but it was nevertheless traumatic. It is unavoidable to see what he endured and not reflect on exactly how hellish life was for the four million that endured life in this dehumanizing, degrading system. After I read a certain amount of it, I feel as if I need to take a long shower to wash away the stain.

As for Blight’s book, there are some good moments here, and I learned some things. Who helped Douglass on his road to freedom? Free Black people did. Who knew that there were vastly more free Black folks in Maryland than there were slaves? The textbooks and other materials used to teach adolescents about slavery and the American Civil War overemphasize, to a degree amounting to deception, the participation of kindly white people, largely Quakers, and provide only a fleeting glimpse of the occasional African-American.

But I find that the eloquent passages that I highlight as I read this are not Blight’s words, but quotations from Douglass himself.

Meanwhile, the obstacles to appreciating this book are consistent and irritating. Blight makes much of inconsistencies in Douglass’s three autobiographies, and when he refers to the differences there is a superior, smirking quality to his prose that doesn’t sit well. I wouldn’t like it coming from any writer, but when the writer is a Caucasian, it adds an extra layer of insult. No matter how long Blight publishes, no matter his standing in the Ivy League, he will never be fit to polish Douglass’s boots. If he once knew it, I suspect he has forgotten it. So that’s a problem, and it’s hard to read around it.

The other issue, a more common one, is the tendency to guess at what is not known. This makes me crazy. The narrative will flow along in a readable, linear fashion, and then I start seeing the speculation, which is barely visible. Might have. Must have. Likely. It makes me want to scream. If you don’t know, Professor Blight, either don’t put it in, or address the unknown in a separate paragraph explicitly addressing the possibilities. Weed out the unimportant guesses and deal with the more critical ones head on. When these inferences are salted randomly into the text, we come away with tangled notions. Apart from the key events in his life, which of the finer details were fact, and which were surmise?

Excuse me. I need to find a nice brick wall so I can slam my forehead against it.

So there it is. For all I know, Blight may gain half a dozen prestigious awards from this work; it wouldn’t be the first time a book I’ve complained about went on to garner fame and glory. But I call them like I see them, and what I see is that it’s a better plan to read what Douglass says about himself, even though Blight appears to consider himself a more reliable resource than his subject.

If you want this thing, you can have it October 2, 2018.

Dagger John, by John Louhery ***-****

DaggerJohn I received a review copy of this book from Net Galley and Three Hills Publishing, which is affiliated with Cornell University, free of charge. This book is now for sale.

Since retirement, I have often taken my reading outside of my comfort zone, and at times I’ve been rewarded. I took a chance in requesting this biography because I have a peripheral interest in church history, and American history and Irish history are more direct interests. However, in this case there is too much assumed knowledge to be readily accessible to an acolyte of the region. My only trip to New York was a weekend tourist jaunt, and I have never been to the church in question.  However, I am drawn to the resistance he put forth during the “Know Nothing” period of anti-immigrant sentiment, and now is certainly the time to receive such a cautionary tale.

The claim that this man “made” Irish America seems overstated to me.

That’s not to say that it won’t interest you. The documentation is as unimpeachable as one would expect from a highly regarded university, and scholars with a specialized area of interest will likely find this a treasure because it is so specific. A niche audience may rate this title as four stars; I find it too dry a read to imagine five. But it isn’t intended to be a popular read but a scholarly one.

A solid niche read for those with interests that are aligned with the author’s.

Catfish Dream, by Julian Rankin****

CatfishDreamEd Scott Junior was one of the first Black catfish growers in the USA, a “Delta titan,” and he was the very first to own a catfish processing plant.  My thanks go to Net Galley and the University of Georgia Press for the review copy. It’s inspirational, well written, and well sourced. The book will be available to the public tomorrow, July 10, 2018.

To say that this story is out of my usual wheelhouse is an understatement. I’m a city woman, Caucasian, living in the Pacific Northwest. The two slender ties that drew me to this biography are my interest in civil rights, and my love of a good plate of catfish; yet I enjoyed it a lot, and I think you will too.

Scott was the son of a successful Black farmer, a former sharecropper that bought land incrementally until he owned hundreds of acres in the Mississippi Delta. The first third of the book explains how he did that, and the experiences that Scott Senior and Junior had with the Civil Rights Movement and the local power elite. It’s a little slow at the outset, but the narrative wakes up in a big way around the 35% mark.

As Scott’s farm grows, he encounters one obstacle after another, and the racism is naked and blatant. Local white agribusiness runs him out of the rice growing business—and he has the nerve to drive a better truck than some of the white farmers in the area, which is an affront they can’t let pass. Left with hundreds of acres and no seeds to plant, Scott decides to dig ponds. Rankin is clear: by ponds, he means bodies of water the size of 15 football fields. Big damn ponds.

Caucasian farmers are able to get subsidies and FMHA bank loans, but Scott is declined, not on the basis of his credit score, but because he is African-American. Bank officers and local government officials are so certain of their positions of power that they put their refusals on the basis of race in writing, and up the road, that is what Scott will use to bring them down.

Prior to the 1980s, catfish was not sold in supermarkets. It was considered a lowly bottom-dwelling fish by many, and so its consumption was limited to the families of sport fishermen and poor Southerners . When it made its debut and was purchased by “Midwestern homemakers”, this reviewer was among them, puttering in the back of a Kroger in Toledo, Ohio. “Huh,” I said, “Catfish. Now we’ve never tried that.”  I missed the cheap, readily available salmon I’d grown up with in the Pacific Northwest, and was jonesing hard for fish. I had no clue that an immense power struggle lay behind the little foam tray of fish in my shopping cart, but once I’d dipped it in a cornmeal mixture and fried it up, there was no turning back. Yummers.

I read multiple books at a time now that I’m retired, and some of the thrillers I favor make poor companions at bedtime.  This biography was perfect then. It’s linear for the most part, focused, and although I was angered by the way Scott was treated, I could tell he was going to emerge victorious, so it didn’t keep me awake after the light was out.

Rankin wants to be clear that there’s a whole lot that needs to change before we will be able to say that every race is treated equally in the Delta, or elsewhere the US. One might hope this would be obvious. But everyone needs to read victory stories to boost their morale and remind them of what is possible. If you need a story where the good guys win, then you should get this book and read it.

My Own Words, by Ruth Bader Ginsburg****

MyOwnWordsThis one is a crushing disappointment. I seldom buy books anymore, but I was so pumped about this collection that I went all out and got a hard copy, expecting to love it enough to keep it in my home library forever. Sadly, this isn’t what I expected.

Obviously, no U.S. Supreme Court justice is going to have enough time to sit down and write his or her memoirs, let alone an octogenarian justice, but I had hoped to find a collection of her meaty and sometimes even audacious opinions, particularly her dissents. Instead, this slender volume is packed with filler. There are two co-authors whose names are written on the cover in miniscule print, and it is they that write sometimes windy introductions to just about everything;  to make matters worse, they don’t tell us anything you cannot find in other biographies written about this feminist luminary.

And what of Ginsburg’s writing? I didn’t buy the book to see the precocious things she wrote as a child, as an adolescent, or in college. I just want to read her court opinions. That’s it. And that’s not what I got.

I can’t give anything that bears Ginsburg’s name a rating below four stars, but seriously, if your discretionary income forces you to buy books strategically, either skip this one or get it used. Surely at some point something more scholarly will be released, and then I’ll wish I still had the dollars that I spent here.

Robin, by Dave Itzkoff*****

robinWhere were you when you heard that Robin Williams had died?

I was so stunned and grieved at this loss that I honestly wondered if something was wrong with me. I had admired Williams since Mork “uncorked” in the late 1970s, and for decades I enjoyed his work, but after all, he was a complete stranger. I had never met him; why did my heart drop to my toes and stay there for a while when he left us? But as the internet exploded and friends also responded, I understood that it wasn’t just me. He was so raw, so vulnerable in so much of what he did on screen that he became, in a way unlike most entertainers, a part of who we were.

Huge thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Williams grew up in a well-to-do family, an only child that didn’t learn he had half-brothers till adolescence. His invented characters began in private during childhood with his large collection of toy soldiers, for which he invented complex lives and scenarios; in middle school he began assuming the voices of invented characters as self-defense socially. From his school days all the way through his life, those that spent time with him personally or professionally said that he was unknowable, and he admitted in an interview that in many ways, he was “performing to avoid.”

But none of us knew that when he burst onto the airwaves; all we knew was that this actor was manic, hilarious, audacious, insightful, and unpredictable. Itzkoff deftly segues in and through each period in Williams’ life, through his marriages, parenthood, and friendships, and of course, through the enormous body of artistic work that he amassed over his lifetime. There are perceptive quotes by those that knew him, some wry, some surprisingly hostile, and many of them pithy, and it boggles the imagination to consider how many of these the author began with before he whittled them down to just the right size and number, to provide as complete an account as is possible without allowing the pace to flag.

Here is one favorite clip taken during Robin’s early career:

Some of my favorite sections of the book share behind-the-scenes vignettes from the Robin Williams movies I most enjoyed. One interesting anecdote concerns the making of Dead Poets Society. Disney deemed the title to be too risky; nobody wants to watch something dead, they figured, and so why not change the title to “The Amazing Mr. Keating”? Robin and other cast members laughed; the producers laughed; then they told the Disney people that production would stop immediately if such an attempt were made.

Although usually even well-known movie actors have to audition for Disney animation voice roles just like anyone else would, an exception of great proportions was made for Williams, and in fact, the role of the genie in Aladdin was written for him specifically. Try to imagine that movie without him. Impossible!

I tore voraciously through this absorbing biography of this truly brilliant performer, but as the end neared, the pace of my reading slowed, because I knew, more or less, how it would end. I would have liked the chance to change it, but nobody can do that. It’s a sad, rotten thing to see such a bright star fall so tragically.

Itzkoff’s sources are strong ones, and his tone is intimate without being prurient, affectionate but not fawning. I would read this biographer’s work again in a heartbeat.

Highly recommended.

Grant, by Ron Chernow**

grantI’m tempted to add this title to my Southern fiction shelf. For a Pulitzer winner to be so careless with his facts is egregious. I got 200 pages or so in, and I found a glaring error. To be honest, I thought maybe it was me. I haven’t taught the American Civil War in 8 years now; am I slipping? Because I could swear that the famous tidbit about a single battle killing more soldiers than the American Revolution, War of 1812, and war with Mexico all added together was about the battle of Antietam, yet here is Chernow, saying it’s Shiloh.

This is when it’s nice to have a physical library nearby. I rummaged on my Civil War shelves and plucked Battle Cry of Freedom, which he (rightly) appears to cite more often than anything except perhaps Grant’s Memoirs, and I also grabbed McPherson’s book on Antietam, and I double-checked. Yup. The reference is to to Antietam, not Shiloh.

At this point I wondered what else might be amiss. There’s a Sherman quote that’s supposed to be in a section in BCF, but the page number Chernow cites is actually in a section about the nurses of the ACW. Well, of course there are different editions, so page numbers may shift a bit, especially in a lengthy source. But I chose–randomly, from the citations at the back–3 other quotes from BCF, and read 8 or 10 pages before and after the page where the quote or fact is supposed to be located, and didn’t find them. A more meticulous reader might have different results, but I am not running a courtroom prosecution; I am trying to decide if I now trust this author enough to believe him regarding other information. And I am not all that sure I do.

I have a lovely hardcover copy of this biography given me by one of my sons at Christmas, and I would hate to abandon it entirely at the 200 pp. mark; but I’ll tell you one thing. I’m rereading Battle Cry of Freedom again before I turn another page of this biography. Because at the very least, this is a work to be read critically, rather than with innocent faith in its author. I like some of the analysis Chernow offers, but I would hate to see a newbie miseducated by using this title as an introduction to Grant or to the Civil War. As for me, I am going to strengthen my own foundation before I approach this tome, which must be read cautiously.