Buses Are a Comin’, by Charles Person and Richard Rooker*****

I’ve read my share of Civil Rights memoirs, and this is one of the best. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Charles Person grew up in an all-Black Atlanta neighborhood in the 1950s and 60s. At the story’s outset, he describes how sleeping arrangements were juggled inside their two-room apartment, with four family members sleeping in the front room, and three, himself among them, back in the kitchen. Since everyone in the neighborhood had roughly the same economic standing, it didn’t occur to Person that his family might be considered poor. He was at the top of his class academically, college-bound. His family were faithful church goers, and his father worked two-plus jobs to provide the bare necessities, but they never went hungry. It was only later, when his neighborhood was featured on a news program addressing “Urban blight,” that he learned that the place he loved and called home was part of a “tenement.” The overall tone of his home life is set at the beginning, when he describes an incident from childhood. He and another child stole peaches off of a neighbor’s tree, and his mother marches them to the door, makes them confess—which meant looking the owner in the eye and using the word “stole,” rather than a softer euphemism—and pay for the fruit they ate. Thus we know there’s a definite moral compass here.

It isn’t until he’s grown that Person learns about racism. He gets his first job at a bowling alley, and he learns what parts of that place and the surrounding businesses he is allowed to access, and which are for whites only. Later, he insists on sending his test scores and application to a Georgia university, knowing his marks are excellent, but is notified by mail that the school will not admit Negro (the accepted term at the time) students. As the lunch counter sit-ins in North Carolina draw headlines, Person becomes part of a local student effort to end segregation at the lunch counters in their area. Person is thrown in jail, and when he is released a short time later, he is experienced, primed, and ready for more.

The story of Person’s life, and of the Freedom Rides, which make up most of the memoir, is riveting. It’s told in first person, in a you-are-there kind of narrative that drew me in. I listened to part of this story using the audio book that I borrowed from Seattle Bibliocommons, but although the reader generally does a serviceable job with the text, I recommend the print version. I winced when the reader mispronounced “mimeograph”; there are no mimes in there, honey. But mostly, there are a lot of freedom songs interspersing the story, as the riders sing in jail, sing in the bus, sing, sing, and sing some more, and I don’t know about you, but it sets my teeth on edge when in the audio version the lyrics are simply read, with or without rhythm. Many of these are well-known songs, and if I see the words on the page, I will hear the music in my head. Listening to someone recite the words in a bloodless, wooden recitation is just sad.

For anyone that misses the connection, Person draws the connection between the Freedom Rides and the struggle of the present:

“It is sixty years later, and politicians do the same today when the devalue and disrespect important African-American societal concerns by turning Black Lives Matter into All Lives Matter. Of course, all lives matter. No one argues against that, but changing the issue from “Black” to “All” steals the legitimacy of a vital concern that needs political attention and a political solution. The intentional and insidious shifting on an issue through language is a calculated move. It was by [Georgia Governor] Vandiver in 1960, and it is today. It avoids and insults at the same time.”

There is no better time to learn the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-1900s, and apply them to the struggle against racist cop brutality in the present. If this subject makes you sit up a little straighter, you need this book. Of course, it’s also great reading for anyone that likes a good memoir, but even so, read it actively. There’s so much more work to be done.

The War Before the War, by Andrew Delbanco****

You may not have had the grades or the money to attend Columbia University, but you can read Professor Delbanco’s book anyway. It’s meaty and interesting, and it clears up some longstanding myths about slavery in the USA. My thanks go to Net Galley and Penguin Random House for the review copy; this book is for sale now. 

At the outset I find this work a little on the slow side, and I wonder if I am in for five hundred pages of drone. Not to worry. By the five percent mark the whole thing wakes up. Slavery from the time of the early European immigrants to the American Civil War is mapped out, and I found myself wishing I had read it before I taught social studies instead of during retirement. Sacred cows are slain and there’s plenty of information that is new to me. For example, I did not know that the number of runaway slaves was always a fairly small, economically of little consequence but powerful in its example. I didn’t know that Caucasian people were retaliated against sometimes by sending them into slavery; since one couldn’t tell a person with a tiny amount of African-American heritage from a white person, it was possible to lie about someone whose roots were entirely European and send them down south. And although I understood that the great Frederick Douglass was hugely influential, I hadn’t understood the power of the slave narrative as a genre: 

“When [slave narratives] were first published, they were weapons in a war just begun. Today they belong to a vast literature devoted to every aspect of the slave system–proof, in one sense, of how far we have come, but evidence, too, of the impassable gulf between the antebellum readers whom they shocked by revealing a hidden world .and current readers, for whom they are archival records of a world long gone. Consigned to college reading lists, the slave narratives, which were once urgent calls to action, now furnish occasions for competitive grieving in the safety of retrospect.”

It is painful to envision a roomful of young people flipping through their phones or napping during a lecture or discussion about this damning aspect of U.S. history that haunts us even today; and yet I know it happens, because I have seen it among the teenagers I have taught. I want to roar, “Where’s your sense of outrage?” And yet it’s there; but many that are activists against cop violence and other modern civil rights issues haven’t yet made the connection between the present and our national origins. So I feel this guy’s pain. 

For the interested reader of history, the narrative flows well and the documentation is thorough and beyond reproach. Delbanco has a sharp, perceptive sense of humor and this keeps the reader further engaged. 

I recommend this book as an essential addition to the home or classroom library of every history teacher and reader. 

Best History 2018

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Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser

prairiethe_Are the classic “Little House” books memoir or historical fiction, and were they written by Laura or by her daughter? If you’re confused, you’re not alone. In this epic, absorbing biography of her great-grandmother, Fraser tells us. Between her congenial narrative and careful, detailed documentation, this author has created a masterpiece. Lucky me, I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Henry Holt Publishers. This book is now for sale.

Laura’s early life was considerably harder than the sepia-toned, heartwarming stories with which she recounts it. Little children could not stand to hear the grueling poverty and crushing losses her family sustained.

 

“Her autobiographical novels were not only fictionalized but brilliantly edited, in a profound act of American myth-making and self-transformation. As unpublished manuscripts, letters, and documents have come to light, we have begun to apprehend the scope of her life, a story that needs to be told, in its historical context, as she lived it. That tale is different from the one she wrote. It is an adult story of poverty, struggle, and reinvention—a great American drama in three acts…Showing American children how to be poor without shame, she herself grew rich.”

Wilder was a legend unto herself, a fierce, strong woman that could survive anything, anything, and everything. Her story recounts not only personal hardships, but the wide sweeping history that she lived through, from the Westward movement and Manifest Destiny to the suffrage movement, the Dust Bowl, and the Great Depression, as well as the elephant in the room: Indian removal and genocide.

The book, some 600-plus pages, recounts not only Wilder’s story, but that of her daughter, Rose Ingalls Wilder, who was, frankly, a real piece of work. Their lives were so intensely intertwined that to do this any other way would render Wilder’s story incomplete.  And I appreciate the scholarly objectivity with which Fraser treats her subject; it’s not without warmth, but she is clearly not manipulating facts, as some authors do when writing about famous relatives. PrairieFires

And although I previously named a different title as the go-to biography of 2017, I have to recognize that Fraser’s book is a contender.  Highly recommended.

If the Creek Don’t Rise, by Leah Weiss*****

IftheCreekDon'tRiseLeah Weiss hits the literary scene with electrifying Southern fiction August 22, 2017. If the Creek Don’t Rise is a story told with tremendous heart, and it’s one you won’t want to miss.  Weiss writes with swagger and grace, and her prose crackles with conviction. Thanks go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Our tale unfolds in the hills and hollers of Appalachian North Carolina in the mid-twentieth century. Moonshine stills are as jealously guarded as ever, but now a person can get killed over a Ginseng patch as well.  Formal education isn’t valued by everyone, and it’s hard to come by.  Baines Creek is home to only one educated man, and that’s the minister, Eli Perkins, whose haunting early memories include the exorcism of Pharrell Moody; imagine a phalanx of grim, weapon-bearing deacons converging on a dark woods.

But now, Eli looks forward to having an educated person to talk to. The new teacher, Kate Shaw is a great big woman, middle-aged. She wears trousers “like a man”, and gossip is thick in the air before she’s even met the community. She tells everyone that she was fired from her last job, a smart move since it takes some of the wind out of the venomous rumor mill that greets her.

But Eli is smitten.

Another person that likes Kate immediately is Sadie Blue. Sadie is seventeen and newly married; the nuptials were a combination wager and shotgun affair. Now she’s isolated, lonely, and illiterate, but in Kate, a kindly soul that listens to her without judging, Sadie sees hope. Eli asks what Sadie thinks of the new teacher, and she says, “Got her a globe that spins…Gonna teach me to read.”

Sadie’s mother left her when she was tiny, and so Gladys has raised her. Gladys is Sadie’s grandmother, and she raised her alone after the death of her husband. She doesn’t want Sadie to marry Roy, but she also knows she can’t raise Sadie’s baby herself.  Now Sadie is part wife, part captive, in the home of Roy Tupkin, a rattlesnake-mean abuser. Gladys isn’t the only one that doesn’t like Roy.  Marris, who is close to Gladys, observes that “Roy needs killing”, and the sentiment is shared by Kate, who tells the reader that she would like to dismember him limb from limb. “I’d use a rusty saw.”

To be sure, it’s a violent tale full of hardscrabble characters living in horrifying rural poverty. Running water? Maybe, but probably not. Food stamps? Don’t even think it. Worthwhile job skills in Baines Creek involve knowing how to drive in the pitch dark around narrow mountain switchbacks without falling off, and knowing how to package a body for burial when no coffin is ready to hand. There’s a hint of Deliverance here, along with a voice that bears a similarity at times to that of Sharyn McCrumb as well as Fannie Flagg, winking in and out in places, yet it is never derivative. The grimness is broken up with stark, surprising humor that dodges out from behind a tree and catches us unaware.

I highlighted multiple brilliant character sketches, but I can’t quote all of them here;  Birdie, Jerome Biddle, Marris, and Tattler Swann are all unforgettable.  I would want to see this movie if I were assured no one would change any part of Weiss’s narrative.

This story has created a great deal of buzz, and rightly so. Don’t let yourself be left out. This story is recommended to all that love great fiction and that have a strong literacy level.

Setting Free the Kites, by Alex George*****

settingfreethekites“Hope is a curious thing. It emerges in the most unexpected places.”

Robert Carter is an introverted boy with few friends and loving but preoccupied parents. His life changes forever when he is befriended by a new kid at school. Nathan stands up for him when he is being assaulted by a bully, and a friendship is forged that will last for life. Thank you Net Galley and Penguin Putnam for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review.

Our story is set in a small Maine town in 1976. Nathan’s parents are creative people, sculpting, writing, building one-of-a-kind kites, but tragedy strikes early in the story and Nathan’s mother retreats into herself, and is not available to her only child. Robert’s parents are fond of Nathan, who also befriends Robert’s terminally ill brother Liam, and soon Nathan has found a second home.

Most reviewers describe Setting Free the Kites as a tragic tale, and they’re right, but what few people mention is how many really funny scenes lie in between the somber stuff. George’s writing has tremendous voice, one that brings these adolescent boys to life as few others do. I actually laughed out loud more than once, and this not only makes this a more enjoyable read, but also underscores the tragedy, taking the reader through a whole wide range of emotions.

The genre crosses between adult and young adult fiction. If I were still teaching highly capable language arts students, I’d want half a dozen copies of this book to use in a reading circle; that said, the sexual content would also force me to send home permission slips, because conservative parents would otherwise rampage into the district office with torches, hot tar and feathers. However, I consider this an outstanding enough read that I’d jump through some hoops to use it.

In some ways, however, it is more suited to literate adults. George uses a high vocabulary and uses it well. It’s certainly not a story I’d recommend to someone whose mother tongue is not English, because there’s too much cultural nuance and subtlety for that audience, and likewise, most adolescents won’t benefit from such a novel.

There are a couple off odd extraneous reveals toward the end of the story that startled me, and that did nothing to enrich the story or develop its characters. However, the rest of the book is so outstanding that it’s a five star read regardless.

This book is available to the public February 21, 2017. Highly recommended to those that love great literary fiction.

Concussion, by Jeanne Marie Laskas*****

concussionYou don’t have to enjoy football to appreciate Concussion, the riveting new biography of Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian neurological pathologist that discovered CTE, a type of permanent brain damage caused by repetitive concussions, such as that experienced by football players. Not only the content, but the engaging voice with which it is told, make it worth everyone’s while. I was fortunate enough to read it free, courtesy of Net Galley and Random House, but when it comes out Tuesday, November 24, I recommend you get a copy for yourself. It’s information everyone really ought to have, especially those that play American football, or have family members that do.

As for me, several years ago the middle school where I taught was rocked by the news that a young man we had taught had been killed on the football field while playing for the high school next door to us. DeShawn had died in a way the Seattle Times assured its readers was unheard of, a terrible tragedy with little explanation other than that of the coroner, who said he died of a traumatic brain injury. Our in-house football coach, whose frustrated students were stuck playing the “dumb”, safe version known as flag football, opined that maybe DeShawn hadn’t burped his helmet. One of DeShawn’s team members, a friend of my son’s and a frequent guest at our home, considered that DeShawn hadn’t “kept his head down like Coach said”. But the fact is, he was gone, and he wasn’t coming back. Dead at 16.

So I was interested indeed to read about the discovery made by Omalu, the pathologist that by coincidence was in charge of the autopsy of Iron Mike Webster, who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But I was equally interested in Omalu’s own story, a man of great enthusiasm and character, a faithful Catholic who used “Gee!” and “Gosh!” with youthful vigor as he uncovered one discovery after another, certain, so very certain that the NFL would want his discovery announced right away so that they could modify the game and make it safer. That poor man.

Omalu left Nigeria, which some Boomers will remember as having once been Biafra, home of genocide and terrible corruption, and he could not wait to live the American dream. The USA was free and open; there were no checkpoints at any of the highways; it was the home of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. Oh yes, he could shake the dust of Africa off the soles of his shoes and never look back. He had a full scholarship to the University of Washington, so although he had no idea where Seattle was, he had a ticket through the gates, and he would never live anywhere else.

Laskas uses Omalu’s own narrative in places, a wonderful thing given his buoyancy and eloquence:

Having seen this game [football] played on satellite TV on a few occasions in Africa, all I knew was the players ran into one another a whole lot and banged their heads repeatedly like guinea pigs running around…What an odd and inelegant game…If it hurts so much that you have to bubble-wrap your body, maybe you should play something different.”

But until he examined the brain of Iron Mike, the local hero who had lost his sanity following retirement, tasering himself in the hope he would be able to sleep, trying to fix his rotting teeth back into his own mouth with crazy glue, this was a side issue. His interest was in pathology, in the stories the dead had to tell.

But to Bennet, it seemed obvious enough, when the topic arose, because

“Anybody who knew anything about the anatomy of the head knew…It was a simple matter of physics. The brain floats, is suspended in a kind of thick jelly inside the skull. If you hit the head hard enough, that brain is going to move, no matter what kind of protection you put around the skull. A helmet protects the skull. A helmet can’t keep the brain from sloshing around in that skull. If you hit your head hard enough, the brain goes bashing against the walls of the skull.”

The helmet, it turns out, is more a weapon than protection for the brain.

Huh. No wonder Europe didn’t rush to join us in playing this sport.

Omalu’s story, from beginning to old age, is vividly told, and he is such a fascinating individual that you won’t want to put this story down once you’re into it. I could tell you more, but why ruin it? You really just have to read it. Order it now, or go out next week and buy a copy. You won’t be sorry!

The Mysterious Disappearance of the Reluctant Book Fairy, by Elizabeth George ***

the mysteriousbookfairyJanet Shore is the book fairy, a librarian gifted with the supernatural ability to send another person into literature in a literal fashion. She sends them in to enjoy a specific episode, guesses at the time it will take for the event to unfold, and then brings them back. This 75 page long story is interesting, but was mislabeled as a mystery, which is the author’s principal genre; it’s really more a fantasy story. I was waiting for the mystery until toward the end, when I realized there really wasn’t one, apart perhaps from final moment, and even then, it isn’t a mystery to us. And where are my manners? Thank you to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media for allowing me a glimpse in advance. This story goes up for sale digitally June 16.
All is going well as long as Janet’s supernatural power is kept under wraps. Just she and a friend know. Then another person finds out and persuades Janet to come out of her book-fairy closet and advertise her services. She could “make a mint”. Janet is aghast at the vulgar implication, but the acquaintance persists. She needn’t keep the funds for her own use, she tells Janet; think of the causes she could help! So many deserving charities could benefit, all while making so many people’s—let’s face it, women’s—fantasies into the vacation of a lifetime.
But it’s too much. Tiny Whidbey Island (located off the shore of Washington State) can’t sustain this level of traffic. The locals are at first pleased at the amount of custom, then dismayed at the disruption. No one can buy anything without standing in a very long line. Their favorite quiet spots are now very noisy, busy spots.
On top of all of that, Janet is about to give out. She is exhausted, and still they clamor for more.
The voice with which this story is told is so different from the Thomas Lynley series (which I adore) that at first, I thought I had inadvertently picked up something by one of the other authors of the same name. But then, it’s set on Whidbey, where the Thomas-Lynley-George lives, and she even slips in a sly reference to Havers when discussing excellent literature. So yes, it is she.
Other reviewers thus far have been more enthusiastic about this piece if they are unfamiliar with, or don’t like, the Lynley series. For me, it took a long time to really engage. There are no chapters at all; it is just one long story, a little long for a short story, but maybe too short for a novella. I would have liked it organized, and I might also have enjoyed it more had it been told in something other than the third person. There’s too much narrative, too little dialogue.
In the end, though, I found it charming. It just took me awhile to climb on board. I was looking for a mysterious disappearance, and in this case, the surprise element, which I eventually saw coming, was a little disappointing. There’s no mystery to unravel, no detective in the mix.
In short, for those who enjoy fantasy stories, this is a winner, and it should be billed as fantasy, not mystery.