Poverty by America, by Matthew Desmond****

“Hungry people want bread. The rich convene a panel of experts. Complexity is the refuge of the powerful.”

Desmond is the author of Evicted, the Pulitzer winning examination of urban homelessness. Desmond himself grew up poor, and his family was forced out of their home when he was a child. These things give him a different and more authoritative perspective than most urban ethnographers.

 My thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the invitation to read and review. This book will be available to the public tomorrow, March 21, 2023.

This book is written for a general readership, and it’s more readable than any other nonfiction work I’ve seen on this subject. His tone is conversational, and his research is impeccable, drawing from a wide variety of sources, well integrated and organized. He addresses the past and present roles of racism, explaining how the overtly discriminatory statutes and policies of the past have morphed into more subtly framed, yet still ubiquitous ones of today. He tells us “why there is so much poverty in America and…how to eliminate it.” He speaks to an audience of middle and upper class readers, warning that we must “…each of us, in our own way, [must become] poverty abolitionists, unwinding ourselves from our neighbors’ deprivation and refusing to live as unwitting enemies of the poor.”

In revealing the roots of American poverty, Desmond is thorough. He discusses the role played by medical costs, and the many workers that still cannot afford health care; the withering of unions, and the way that gig workers and independent contractors have replaced permanent employees; incarceration, and the debilitating effects it has, not only on the person sent away, but on their families for generations to come; the way that government assistance programs have been legally diverted to programs having nothing to do with the poor; the way that poor people are forced to pay more for the same goods and services that the better off pay. He discusses the ways that those living in poverty are cut off from political and economic opportunities. He does these things better than anyone else is doing them right now, and it makes me mad as hell, seeing millions of ruined lives all laid out so starkly.

It is when he approaches solutions that things become a little muddy. There are a few of his suggestions that I genuinely disagree with, but most of them are sound; the problem is that, despite his assurance that all of these changes can be made without much incursion into the lives of the wealthy and powerful, the chances of these people agreeing to implement such changes are somewhere between slim and none. He assures us that he is no Marxist (and that’s the truth, alas,) and that the rich can still have plenty; yet in reality, it’s clear to this reviewer that the kinds of changes that are needed are ones that working people will have to force from the tightly closed fists of the rich. This is where the fifth star falls off of my rating.

Nonetheless, Poverty by America is well worth your time and money, and I recommend it to you.

When the Moon Turns Blue, by Pamela Terry*****

Once in a while the odd thing happens,

Once in a while the dream comes true,

And the whole pattern of life is altered,

Once in a while the moon turns blue.

The tiny Georgia hamlet of Wesleyan is preparing to bury one of its own, and Mother Nature is preparing to cover the entire town in ice. But nobody—well, almost nobody—knows that a source of local tension is about to go nuclear, as someone is planning to topple and destroy the statue of a Confederate general in the park inside the boundaries of Old Man Griffin’s land. “The fight was just getting going good, and now somebody’s declawed the cat.”

This riveting, curiously charming and sometimes hilarious novel is the second by Pamela Terry, whose outstanding debut novel was The Sweet Taste of Muscadines. This one may be even better. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

With the death of Harry Cline, we find ourselves at his funeral, a massively attended affair. But his wife, Marietta, develops a disabling, blinding migraine, and although they have been on the outs for years, Butter, her (former) best friend, comes to the rescue. By the time they’ve snuck out the side door of the church, we already know at least a little about both women, and now we want to know everything.

With just two novels published, Terry has already proven herself to be among the best authors when it comes to character development. Soon we’ll meet others—Marietta’s obnoxious brother, Macon and his beleaguered wife Glinda, who will have a large part in this story and is one of my favorite characters, as well as a host of others, who have smaller roles but are each so unmistakably established that it’s no work at all to keep track of them. But perhaps her finest achievement here is in creating a masterpiece that is ultimately a feel good book, despite the use of a red hot real world controversy within its pages.

I generally read several books at a time, and this one is the one that I saved for bedtime, because I wanted to be able to read it uninterrupted, and it is the one I wanted in my head when dreams came. It didn’t let me down.

This inspirational work of Southern fiction stands shoulder to shoulder with the finest classics, To Kill a Mockingbird and Fried Green Tomatoes. I wholeheartedly recommend it to you.

Love Is Loud: How Diane Nash Led the Civil Rights Movement****

Just in time for Dr. King’s birthday! This lovely biography by Sandra Neil Wallace introduces a little-known leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Diane Nash. Nash fought for equal rights for people of color, and had a significant part in the changes that were won.

My thanks go to Simon and Schuster for the copy I received for review purposes. This book is for sale right now.

Most of us have never heard of Nash, who was active during a time when Black people and women were sometimes overlooked, and at other times, excluded in historical narratives. She grew up in the South side of Chicago, where there were many skin colors and cultures, but not many Caucasian people. It was when she went to college in Nashville that she gained firsthand experience of Jim Crow laws, which required separate (and generally inferior) facilities for African-Americans. And Diane was having none of it.

This sumptuously illustrated picture book details the key stages of her development and achievements. My one concern is with the references to “love” in the title and text which are never explained. Is the love in reference to her religion, a philosophy, or something else? The word is thrown in there several times with no context at all. If her mission was to bring change about using nonviolent methods, as Dr. King chose to do and encouraged others to do as well, it is not mentioned. Did she see Gandhi as a role model? We aren’t told. Instead, it appears that the word is injected to sanitize, to offset the word “fight,” perhaps because this story is written for young people. But children aren’t stupid, and without any cohesive portrayal of Nash’s character and underlying motivation, I fear they may forget her. Literature has power, and so although I am glad to see Nash introduced to young people, the effect is diluted when proper character development—which is necessary, even in a children’s picture book—is not provided.

That said, the literacy level is perfect for upper elementary students, and would also make a fine read-aloud for a teacher to frame a single lesson around. It would also be first rate for a sub plan, and teachers know that’s something we always need on hand.

Bryan Collier is the illustrator, and his artwork fills every inch of every page, with the text superimposed on top of it. This is lush, gorgeous work that elevates the story with its presence.

Recommended for classrooms, libraries, and to parents and other guardians of children in grades 4, 5, and 6.

Marked for Life, by Isaac Wright, Jr. *****

Marked for Life is the legal memoir of Isaac Wright, Junior, and it is a compelling story. At age 28, Wright was framed as a “drug kingpin,” though he had never used or sold drugs, and when he rejected the plea deal offered him, he was convicted and sentenced to life plus seventy years. Through his own efforts, he was able to prove his own innocence and regain his freedom. This book is for sale now, and you should get it and read it.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Macmillan Audio for the review copy. Listening to the recorded version is all the more powerful, because the author reads it himself. Readers should know that this book starts out painfully harsh, with the blow-by-blow events of the day he is arrested, and his subsequent treatment. There’s not a tremendous amount of physical violence, but the emotional toll could just about bring me to my knees; imagine how it must have been for Wright, who lived through it! I begin to fear that I will dread listening to it, and so I promise myself that this will be my car book; I will listen to it while I am driving around, and when I get home, I will turn it off. However, only the beginning is harsh, and once I am twenty percent of the way into it, it becomes so interesting that I quickly change my mind, and it joins me in the kitchen. So reader, don’t be afraid of this book. The rough part is all in the first few chapters.

Wright is targeted by corrupt local officials, who are under the misapprehension that he has a small fortune socked away in the safe in his bedroom. In fact, Wright is a successful businessman; he starts as a music producer, then moves into management, touring with Run DMC, and indeed, he and his family live well. Although he doesn’t say as much, part of me wonders if that is his crime, in the eyes of the local cops and courts: he’s a Black man with money. As soon as he is arrested, the shakedown begins. Give us the money, Wright, and we’ll make it all go away.

He doesn’t, and they don’t.

The most fascinating part of this is learning how a prisoner is able to study the law and represent himself. Obviously, not everyone is as literate and intelligent as Wright is; he makes himself indispensable to other prisoners by assisting them with their own cases also. His ability to juggle a lot of moving parts—his own appeal, his fellow inmates’ cases, and the rigors and restrictions of the prison system, along with the endless pressure on him from those that framed him—is impressive. A lot of his success lies in his perception of what other people want. What does the warden want? What do his fellow prisoners want and need? If this had been me, I don’t think it would have gone well. I’d have been good with the research and the paperwork, but I doubt I could have read the wishes and intentions of those around me as successfully as Wright has done. Ultimately, it is an inspirational story, and I highly recommend it to you.

The Black Cabinet, by Jill Watts***-****

3.5 stars, rounded upward.

The premise sounds exciting: a cabinet consisting of African-American luminaries that advised Franklin D. Roosevelt, widely regarded as the best president the U.S. has ever had; well, as far as white folks went, anyway. Wouldn’t it be cool if he had Black advisors, even if it was kept away from the public eye?

It would have been cool, except mostly, he didn’t. Not really.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Grove Atlantic for the review copy. This book is for sale now; in fact, it’s been for sale for a long time. I’m very late with this review, because I was very late finishing the book, because it depressed me so deeply that I couldn’t face it.

Watts is a fine writer and has done the research. The issue for me is that this cabinet, which consisted of outstanding academics and other highly respected Black professionals, had incredibly little clout. They were kept secret. They were unofficial. And it sounds as though FDR tolerated them more than he appreciated them. Despite all of their labor and their eloquence, the New Deal left people of color standing in the rain without an umbrella.

The 1930s were a dreadful time for African-Americans, to be sure. The Jim Crow stranglehold on the South, along with less formal, mostly uncodified discrimination in the North, made it more or less impossible for most bright young Black men to make any headway in their chosen professions, apart from within the Black community (and for Black women? Fuhgeddaboudit.) So, it made my heart sing to learn that there was this exceptional group that advised FDR; but actually, they got crumbs off the president’s table. It makes me a little bit ill to see that this huge study turned up so very little.

For those still interested: there it is.

Mecca, by Susan Straight*****

Susan Straight is a force to be reckoned with. I knew this after I finished reading I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots after it came out in 1992, and after I sought out, bought, and read everything else she’d written that was available. When I discovered that her new novel, Mecca, was available on Net Galley, I leapt on it. My thanks go to Net Galley and to Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Mecca, an ironic title if ever there was one, is a story of race, class, and gender, and the way that they play into the “Justice” system in California. Add a generous seasoning of climate change and its horrific effects in dry, dry Southern California, and a fistful of opioid addiction, and you have a heady mix indeed. But these are all well worn ground at this point, and this book is exceptional, not because it examines complex current events, but because of Straight’s facility in building visceral characters we care about, and launching them into this maelstrom in a way that makes it impossible to forget.

We begin with Johnny Frias, an American citizen of Latino heritage. As a rookie and while off duty, he kills a man that is raping and about to murder a woman named Bunny. He panics and gets rid of the body without reporting what’s happened. Frias is on the highway patrol, and he takes all sorts of racist crap all day every day. But his family relies on him, and when push comes to shove, he loves his home and takes pride in keeping it safe.

Ximena works as a maid at a hotel for women that have had plastic surgery. One day she is cleaning a room and finds a baby! What to do? She can’t call the authorities; she’d be blamed, jailed, deported, or who knows what. She does the best thing she can think of, and of course, there’s blowback anyway.

And when a young Black man, a good student with loads of promise that has never been in any trouble at school, or with the law, is killed because the cops see his phone fall out of the car and decide it’s a gun…?

I find this story interesting from the beginning, but it really kicks into gear in a big way at roughly the forty percent mark. From that point forward, it owns me.

As should be evident from what I’ve said so far, this story is loaded with triggers. You know what you can read, and what you can’t. For those of us that can: Straight’s gift is in her ability to tell these stories naturally, and to develop these characters so completely that they almost feel like family. It is through caring about her characters that we are drawn into the events that take place around them, and the things that happen to them.

This is a complex novel with many moving parts and connections. I read part of this using the audio version, which I checked out from Seattle Bibliocommons. But whereas the narrators do a fine job, I find it easier to keep track of the characters and threads when I can see it in print. If you are someone that can’t understand a story well until you’ve heard it, go for the audio, or best of all, get both.

Highly recommended.

The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich*****

I wasn’t able to get a galley this time, and so I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons. This turned out to be the best possible way to read it, because Erdrich narrates it herself.

The Sentence is set in Minneapolis during the pandemic, from November 2019 to November 2020. It starts with the world’s most hilarious crime, one which sends our protagonist, Tookie, to prison; however, most of the meat of the story takes place once she’s out again. Tookie develops a love of writing (“with murderous intent,”) while she’s incarcerated, and so, once she is released, what more natural place is there for her to look for work, than a bookstore? But this bookstore is special. It’s haunted.

Tookie’s story is wrapped around a number of social issues and current events; most prominently, of course, is that of American Indians’ rights; this is the time and place of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin, and so the demonstrations of outraged citizens are folded into the novel as well. And of course, this is not one bit funny.

I came to read Erdrich late in the game, when The Night Watchman, which won the Pulitzer, came out in 2020. That one novel persuaded me that from now on, I would read every blessed thing Erdrich writes. The Sentence strengthens this resolution.

Highly recommended.

Chevy in the Hole, by Kelsey Ronan***-****

3.5 stars, rounded up. Chevy in the Hole is Kelsey Ronan’s debut novel. I love strong working class fiction, and the title and book cover spoke to me. But while it shows a good deal of promise, it’s also a cautionary example of how, in trying to do too much, one can do too little. My thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copies. This book is for sale today.

The protagonists are Gus Molloy, who is Caucasian, and Monae Livingston, who is Black. The book opens as Gus is being revived with Narcan on the floor of a dirty restroom in Detroit. We follow him as he meets Monae, a student working at a farm outside of Flint. Their stories are told alternately with bits and pieces of the lives of their predecessors.  

The story is promoted as a love letter to Flint, and a tribute to the resilience of its people; it’s a story of “love and betrayal, race and family.” And we do surely see all of those things, but as soon as one aspect or another is touched on, I wink and poof, it’s gone. Gus and Monae are both sympathetic characters, and I can’t help pulling for them, but I suspect the author could have developed them more fully had we not spent so much time and detail on fragments of their parents, grandparents and so on.

If the author’s purpose is to use these characters from the past to showcase the various struggles through which Flint has gone—sit-down strikes, Civil Rights marches, and now, this horrifying industrial sludge that has polluted the town’s drinking water—it could have been done in a paragraph or two, or through some other device than shifting the point of view. The frequent changes of character and time period make it confusing as heck, particularly while listening to the audio version; that’s a shame, because Janina Edwards is a warm, convincing reader.

But we frequently shift from one protagonist to the other, even after they are married, and all of these people from the past have to be sorted by both time period, and by which protagonist they are related to.  A story like this should flow. As it is, it’s work listening to it, and had I not been granted a digital review copy as well to refer to, I might have given up.

My other frustration is that both the labor history and the Civil Rights issues—with Black people shut out of company housing in the past, and the issues with cop violence as well as the pollution that is visited most within the Black community—are huge. The pollution problem is immense, and ties back into both of the other issues. This book could be a powerhouse, a call for change to reward to the plucky souls that have stuck with this place through hell and high, toxic water. Instead they present almost like postcards; oh, look at this! Now look at that! Okay, never mind, let’s go on back to the present.

That being said, the author’s mission is an ambitious one, and her word smithery is of high caliber. I look forward to seeing what else she publishes.

If you choose to read this book, I recommend using the printed word, whether digitally or as a physical copy.

Black Cake, by Charmaine Wilkerson****-*****

“I was not the first person to go through the world living two separate lives, one out in the open and the other locked up inside a box.”

Elly Bennett dies and leaves a detailed recording for her children. Wilkerson’s novel is about Elly’s life, but more than that, it’s about secrets. Everyone in this book has one or has been impacted by one in a major way, and for most, both are true. Elly and her late husband had a whopper, and they built their lives and their family around it. Their two children are Byron and Benny, and Benny’s secret is all consuming for much of her life; it has had a role in estranging her from her once-adoring older brother and parents. Meanwhile, there’s a child—now grown to middle age—in Europe that is herself a secret, and whose very identity has been obscured by one. Elly’s closest childhood friend carries a particularly potent secret, and so does the nanny that raised her. Even the lawyer that handles the estate has one.

When is it safe to let go of a secret?

I was invited to read Wilkerson’s debut novel by Random House Ballantine and Net Galley, and I thank them for the review copy. This book is for sale now, and everyone is talking about it. You’ll want to get in on it.

Our story unfolds with seventeen year old Coventina Brown, known as Covey, quietly launching a plan to join her boyfriend, Gibbs, in London. He’s gone there to go to school, and when she’s done with school, she will join him. That is, until her father, who has raised her alone, gets into big trouble with a loan shark, a local thug who now holds title to her father’s store and his home, and now wants the one thing this father has left: Covey. If Covey marries this nasty old man, the debt will be squared. Most fathers would send their daughters to safety, and then square their shoulders and solve their problem, even when their own lives hang in the balance. But alas, Johnny Lyncook is not most fathers. He’s not a particularly nice man. As one of our characters will observe later, “A shit is a shit, young or old.”

Covey escapes on her wedding day (at which Black Cake, similar to fruitcake, is traditionally served), and her experiences from that time forward will form the foundation of her own life, her (future) husband’s, and their children and other loved ones.

The story is told in the third person omniscient, with the point of view changing by chapter, along with the time period. Readers will find themselves wretchedly confused if they fail to note the chapter titles, which are the key to everything that follows. The result is a story that is assembled like building blocks, and although it works out in the end, with everything coming together for a satisfactory resolution, I am frustrated at times, because just as a character begins to take shape for me, we leave them and join someone else.

I would have enjoyed more integration and perhaps a wee bit of streamlining. For example: we learn that Johnny, Elly/Covey’s father, is ethnically Chinese, and that there are a lot of them in the Caribbean, but there appears to be no reason whatsoever to include this. It is as if Wilkerson wants to include every interesting fact about life in the Caribbean, and so there are components her that add nothing to the narrative. It’s a distraction. The story is complex enough without tidbits thrown in for no benefit. There are some small credibility issues as well. Two people within the story become famous enough to be recognized on the street, and receive breaks that they ordinarily wouldn’t; one is a distance swimmer, and the other an oceanographer. I can imagine how one or the other might be charismatic and photogenic enough to achieve this, but two? Name a famous oceanographer. Name a famous distance swimmer. See what I mean?

Nevertheless, this is in many ways a story for our time, and as such, it will make meaty discussion material in book clubs and in classrooms.  When is a person black enough, and must a biracial person choose one side of their heritage over the other? How much information do adoptive parents owe their child, and when should they provide it? What about biological parents? When is it acceptable to keep secrets related to their children’s heritage, and when not? There are MeToo and other women’s issues at play, and there are issues of race. You could probably read this thing three or four times and still come away with observations, ideas, and questions that you hadn’t found the other times.

I am grateful that this story never devolves into a cookbook.

As debuts go, this is a strong one, and I look forward to seeing what else Wilkerson publishes. I recommend this novel as a welcome distraction from the stormy months ahead.

Black Cloud Rising, by David Wright Falade*****

Black Cloud Rising, the historical novel that’s already been excerpted in The New Yorker, is the book I’ve always wished someone would write. Author David Wright Falade tells the story of the African Brigade, a unit of former slaves tasked with rooting out pockets of Confederate guerilla fighters in the Tidewater region of Virginia and in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. This outstanding work of historical fiction is one of the year’s best surprises, and it’s for sale now.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Grove Press for the review copy.

Sergeant Richard Etheridge is our protagonist; he is the son of a slave and her master. This is the only small criticism I have here; it seems like every time I see a fictional former slave that goes on to do momentous things, he’s the master’s progeny. However, Sergeant Etheridge did exist in real life; I have been unable to discover whether this aspect of his beginnings is fact or fiction. If it’s fact, then I withdraw my objection.

One way or the other, this is nevertheless a fantastic novel. In fact, since I taught the American Civil War for many years and have never heard if this sergeant, I wonder, initially, if his story is even true. But a little research shows Etheridge to be have been real. I had known about the existence of this brigade, but the only aspect of it I’d seen was–oh how embarrassing—from the movie, Glory, in which an all-Black military unit volunteers to lead the charge on Fort Wagner. But there, the story is told not from the viewpoint of infantrymen, but from the Caucasian officer chosen to lead them. It’s not as if I failed to do research; but during my years in the classroom, I couldn’t find a single thing that reflected the memories and experiences of the former slaves that fought for the Union. And although this book comes too late to help me teach the upcoming generation, it will be greatly useful to teachers that come after me.

At the outset of our story, Richard approaches his master at dinner, a thing that is generally not done, to tell him that he is going to enlist in the Union Army. Because he is the master’s son, he is able to get away with this, and this has also allowed him to learn to read and write, which in turn makes him officer material. Richard is a well developed character; it is wrenching to see his loyalty and devotion to his father, as well as to his half-brother Patrick, who is the legitimate heir to his father’s estate. Repeatedly the narrative points out that “the son will always seek out the father,” and it makes me ache for this young man. Nevertheless, he does go to war against his father’s wishes, and he demonstrates leadership and skill under pressure.

There is one visceral scene in which the Caucasian master of a plantation who is linked to the guerilla Confederates, is dragged to his own whipping post and beaten by his former slaves. I find it deeply satisfying. In the end and after much bloodshed, the unit is successful in its mission to clear the area of the guerillas that threaten the Union effort.

In many ways this is a coming of age story, but those that will love it most are those that enjoy military history and all things related to the American Civil War, as well as those interested in the Black struggle. It’s a great selection for Black History Month, but it will make excellent reading during the other eleven months as well. Highly recommended.