Florence Adler Swims Forever*****

It’s hard to believe that Florence Adler Swims Forever is a debut novel. Rachel Beanland has stormed our literary beaches, and I hope she does it forever. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The title character dies almost immediately, which is a bit unusual all by itself. The central storyline centers on Fannie, Florence’s sister, who is in the midst of a dangerous pregnancy. She’s already had one premature baby that died at 3 weeks, and so this one Is being closely monitored. Because of this, the family closes rank in order to prevent Fannie from knowing that Florence has died until after the baby’s birth, lest she miscarry. However, Fannie isn’t the main character; the point of view shifts between the present and the past, from one family member to another, eight all told, in fairly even fashion.

My first reaction to this premise—keeping her sister’s death from Fannie for what, two months—is that it’s far-fetched to think such a plan could succeed. But as the story unfolds, I realize that information was not a constant presence during the late 1930s, as it is now. There was no television yet; a radio was desirable, but not everyone had one. Fannie asks for a radio for her hospital room, but she’s told they’re all in use. Too bad, hon. Newspapers and magazines were explicitly forbidden for visitors to bring in; the lack of news is explained in general terms as “doctor’s orders,” and back then, doctors were like little gods. If “Doctor” said to jump, everyone, the patient most of all, leapt without question. And then I see the author’s note at the end, that this story is based on an actual event from her family’s history! It blows me away.

Besides Fannie and Florence, we have the parents, Joseph and Esther, who have a meaty, complicated relationship; Fannie’s husband Isaac, who is an asshole; Fannie and Isaac’s daughter, Gussie, who is seven; Florence’s swim coach, Stuart; and Anna, a German houseguest whose presence creates all sorts of conflict among the other characters. Anna’s urgent need to help her parents immigrate before terrible things happen to them is the story’s main link to the war. All characters except Stuart are Jewish.

Because I missed the publication date but was eager to dive into this galley, I supplemented my digital copy with an audiobook from Seattle Bibliocommons. This is a wonderful way to read, because when something seems unclear to me, I can switch versions, and in the end, I feel well grounded. The audio version is read by eight different performers, and the result is magnificent.

Read it in print, or listen to the audio; you really can’t go wrong. The main thing is that you have to read this book. As for me, I’ll have a finger to the wind, because I can’t wait to see what Beanland writes next.

The Sisters of Summit Avenue, by Lynn Cullen***-****

My thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the review copy, which I received over a year ago. I began reading this story numerous times, but I didn’t find it engaging enough to continue, and so each time I began it, I would end up returning it to my queue in exchange for something I liked. However, I recently began moving through my backlog with assistance from Seattle Bibliocommons, where I was able to get audio versions of those I’d left by the wayside. Ultimately, this is how I was able to follow through, and it’s a good thing, because the last half of this book is far better than the first half.

The story features three women, all of them in the American Midwest in the early 1920s. The sisters are Ruth and June, and their mother is Dorothea. June is the golden one, the prettiest and most successful. Ruth, who is younger, just resents the crap out of June. And she can tell that their mother loves June more.  June, on the other hand, is Betty Crocker; one of them, anyway. One of the few career opportunities open to women involves inventing recipes for Betty; answering Betty’s mail; and playing the part of Betty on the radio. Women visit the company expecting to meet Betty, and thy are outraged to learn that no such person actually exists.

Meanwhile, Ruth and her family remain in the family home with Dorothea, and the sisters are estranged. Their mother hates to see them this way, and she schemes to bring them together.

The narrative shifts between the three women, and from the past to the present. When we are taken back to their youths, we learn what has come between them, and what assumptions, grudges, and secrets each holds that has not been said.

The first half of this book feels like it will never end. The sloppy pop-cultural references grate on me, particularly when the shortcuts result in inaccuracy. For example, when the stock market crashes, Cullen has men jumping from skyscrapers left, right, and center, when in fact, this is mostly myth, or at best, hyperbole. At most there was a single jumper in real life. Historical fiction at its best teaches us in an enjoyable way, but when readers are presented with urban legends as reality, it is a letdown.

By the halfway point, I am only still listening to this book because I have to make dinner anyway, and having put in as much time as I have, I figure I may as well finish it up. My review is on its way to being three stars at best, and possibly two. So imagine my surprise when at the 55% mark, the whole thing wakes up! The female character that has been the least interesting up until now is Dorothea, but now we learn the meaty parts that she has kept secret, and there we find the key to everything else. I am so astonished that my jaw drops, and I stop chopping vegetables and gape at my tablet, which is streaming this story. Oh, heck! Seriously? This is why…? Oh, holy crap. Who knew?

From that point forward, it’s an entirely different ballgame. When I head for the kitchen, I’m already thinking about what I heard the day before, and looking forward to the next bit.

Those that enjoy character-based fiction could do a lot worse, as long as you take the historical parts with a grain of salt. Overall, I recommend that if you read this book, you should get it free or cheap, and prepare to be patient.

Paris Never Leaves You, by Ellen Feldman**-***

2.5 stars rounded upward. I was invited to read and review this novel by Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press.

World War II fiction is a crowded place, and I have left it, for the most part, having had more than my fill. I am initially interested in this story because it takes place in 1950s New York, and that’s a setting I haven’t seen much. However, this setting alternates with the protagonist’s memories of Paris during the war, and so there I am again, back in Europe during the war.

Charlotte is a young widow, working in a bookstore to make ends meet. Her infant daughter, Vivi, is often with her. A German soldier is drawn to her, and she snubs him repeatedly, but when he brings food and milk for her starving child, she caves. When Vivi becomes sick, he smuggles in medication. Yes, this is one of those I-hate-you-but-I-love-you stories. This isn’t new; I’ve seen plenty of forbidden love stories, especially with regard to German soldiers. I’ve also seen plenty of love-hate romances.

But what strength I see in this one is in the grey areas. Is it all right to fraternize with the soldiers that are responsible for the deaths of loved ones, if those you’re befriended by can save other loved ones, particularly children? Is it all right to let someone think you’re Jewish, once the war is over, if that means they will save you? Is it acceptable to be Jewish, whether inobservant or otherwise, but pretend you are not, if it increases your odds of survival? What if that means taking other Jews prisoner, serving your enemy?

I’ve said this before in other reviews, and I’ll say it again here. It irritates the bejesus out of me, this World War II forbidden-romance storyline that is always, always, always between a Caucasian European, or Euro-American, and a German. Maybe someone has been wildly creative and included an Italian, but I haven’t seen it if they have. What do we never, never see? Ever? Never? (I could go on all night like this, and don’t provoke me or I’ll do it!) We never, ever see a WWII relationship between a Caucasian civilian from an Allied nation and a Japanese soldier. Or civilian. Or anything. It’s almost as if there’s a whispered subtext that insists, “It’s okay. After all, we’re both white, and that’s what really matters.” And authors that are far too progressive, too modern, too civilized to use any of the zillion ugly epithets that were common usage at the time by Allied service people and citizens toward Germans and Italians, nevertheless decide it’s somehow acceptably authentic to use the J word for Japanese. You know the one I mean. And Feldman is a serious offender here.

Because I was having trouble plodding through this story’s text, I visited Seattle Bibliocommons and borrowed the audio version. (Laurie Catherine Winkel does a fine job as the reader.)  I had listened to about seventy percent of this story when Charlotte has a conversation with her landlord, sponsor, etcetera about his own war experience, and boy does he pour it on. I think I must have found the J word on damn near every page, sometimes more than once. I nearly stopped reading, and I nearly gave this book a single star. I fast-forwarded a bit, and when the passage involving this veteran’s way-too-long speech ends, I don’t hear the word again, so I take a deep breath and forge onward to see how it ends.

The ending is bittersweet, and it’s not formulaic.

So there it is. This book is for sale now, but my advice is to either give it a miss, or read it for free or cheap. And if another forbidden WWII white-on-white romance turns up in my inbox, it’s going straight to my round file. Stick a fork in me, cause I am done.

The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop*****

They say that old writers never die, and I hope that’s true. With her last novel, The Whole Town’s Talking, Flagg announced that she was done. It was her final novel. I was sad to hear it, but grateful to have been able to read every wonderful thing she’s ever written. She has given us so much! And then, imagine my joy when I opened my email to find an invitation from Random House and Net Galley to read and review this sequel to Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, which is possibly my favorite novel of all time. Over the moon, friends. And it’s for sale now.

The tricky part of a sequel to such an iconic story is in trying to live up to what’s come before. In this case, I don’t think anyone can. That said, this is nevertheless a delightful book, and I recommend it to you, although you won’t get the full advantage from it without reading the first magnificent book first.

The format mirrors that of the first novel, (and from here forward, I will refer to it by initials: FGTWSC,) with time periods and points of view that come from a variety of settings and individuals. Whistle Stop, Alabama is no more; the freeway passed the town by, and the rest of modern transportation and technology did the same. When we return there, it’s difficult to find; boarded up buildings, tall weeds, trash, and kudzu. In fact, the start of this book is depressing as hell, and for a short, dreadful time, I wondered if the author might be slipping; but no.

The protagonist is ostensibly—from the title—Buddy Threadgoode, son of the late Ruth Jamison. Again, I find myself scratching my head, because Flagg’s protagonists are women, girls, and women. And actually, that’s true here also. Buddy is an old man, and he’s been sent to live a Briarwood, a retirement home for the elite. His daughter Ruthie married the son of the local bourgeoisie, and consequently he’s been mothballed in the nicest possible place; but he hates it, of course. He doesn’t make a scene, but who wants to be warehoused if they can help it?

However, most of the action centers on his daughter Ruthie, and then later, our old friend, Evelyn Couch. (Friends have told me I resemble this character, and I’m good with that comparison.) Evelyn gained confidence in the first novel, much of it courtesy of Ninny Threadgoode, and now she’s done nicely for herself. Husband Ed has gone to that man cave in the sky, but she has recovered from the shock and then some. And it’s roughly halfway into the story that Evelyn enters the story in a big way, and with the groundwork well established, the story takes wing.

As with the original FGTWSC, the key to keeping up with the ever-changing settings and narrators is in the chapter headings. If you skip them, you will be lost. (This fact has been established by trial and error in teaching the book to honor students in literature class.)

Flagg is a feminist, and her work reflects her subtle but unmistakable passion for social justice. Again, with the first half of this book I feared she had lost her edge; once more, I see in the second half that I am mistaken. She was just warming up. Unlike so many of the novels I’ve read recently, this story gets better and better as it progresses. At 45%, it seems like a pleasant, harmless story, and a bit of a disappointment. At 56%, I’m sitting up straighter and noticing things. At 75% I’m laughing out loud. And from there to the finish, I don’t want it to end.  

I’ve seen some lukewarm reviews for this book, and it’s understandable, in a sad way, because those reviewers are weighing this book against its predecessor. And no, this one isn’t quite as brilliant as the first, but if I deny the fifth star on that basis, then I need to go back and weed out at least 96% of the other five star reviews I have written, because FGTWSC is a matchless novel. If instead I weigh this story against those others, it stands up proudly.

When push comes to shove, I think all of us need a feel-good story like this one—which it is, despite the sorrowful beginning—all of the time, but now more than ever. Civic engagement is important, but stepping away and restoring oneself is every bit as crucial. Do yourself a favor. Switch off your news feed for a couple hours and snuggle down with this book. You’ll be more effective later for having given yourself time to recharge now.

Highly recommended.

Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson*****

Isabel Wilkerson is the author of the groundbreaking, bestselling Pulitzer winner, The Warmth of Other Suns, and when I read it, I understood that from then forward, I would read anything Wilkerson published. Here it is, and you must read it. You may want to put on a pair of oven mitts when you do, because it is hot enough to scorch your fingertips; Wilkerson doesn’t sugarcoat the truth. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. It’s been perched in the top ten of every bestseller list since its August release, and you don’t want to miss out on it.

Wilkerson’s thesis is that Black people in the U.S. occupy, and have always occupied, the lowest position within our social and economic ranks; social class is changeable, but caste is fixed. She compares their positions to the Dalit, better known as the Untouchables, the lowest rung of the lowest caste in India, and to Jews during the Holocaust. If this seems like overkill to you, get this book and read it carefully. This writer is relentless when she seeks to prove a point. She documents, documents, and documents again. She turns all the stones, and nothing is left.

Her evidence is organized by eight key commonalities, which she refers to as “Pillars” of caste. These are aspects of society that are unchanging and that define the positions of those born into them. (She recognizes that there are other races in the US that suffer, but places Black people at the bottom of the order, and so this is where her focus is.) The more I read, the more convinced I am. This is not metaphor or hyperbole. These are literal truths, and by the time she is done, I am convinced that the US is guiltier than Germany, because Germany turned it around, whereas the US is still in denial.

The Warmth of Other Suns is absorbing and easy to read, its style near to narrative nonfiction. In contrast, Caste is brutally frank. Though Wilkerson salts her narrative with relatively minor personal vignettes, they don’t make it easier to read; if anything, they make it hurt worse. (The airline attendant that does his level best to send her to the back of the plane, even though she has a first class ticket; the plumber that assumes she is hired help rather than the homeowner; the man attending the conference at which she is to speak that asks her to freshen his drink…)

I find this material so painful that I realize I am avoiding my review copy in favor of gentler reads, and then I know I have to step it up. This is too important; there’s been too much rug-sweeping in this nation already, and we won’t change if we don’t recognize the reality in which we live. I resolve to read one chapter a day. One chapter, and then I can move to more congenial literature. By the time I reach the end notes, I feel as if I have witnessed a natural disaster, a typhoon perhaps, or an immense, life-ruining earthquake. I’ve never run from books about race in the United States, but having the truth condensed and presented as it is here has to change the way we think. African-American readers likely won’t be much surprised, and many may feel vindicated in the resentments that have built over the years. But I cannot imagine anyone reading this book and then forgetting what’s in it.

Black lives matter, my friends. They matter just as much as anyone else’s. If you are more concerned about broken windows than about generation after generation of Americans whose potential has been stunted and whose contributions have been minimized, then you need this book. If you know that what’s been happening to men and women of color in the USA is dead wrong but you have difficulty forming cogent arguments when you talk with others, you need this book. If you speak and read English and you have a pulse, you need this book. What more does it take?  Information is the root of social change. Here it is.

A Long Petal of the Sea, by Isabel Allende*****

Allende has long been one of the writers I admire most, one of the few novelists to gain permanent space on my bookshelves. Her stories are distinguished by her devotion to social justice issues, particularly in Latin America, and to feminism. She’s known in particular for her use of magical realism, which I confess makes me a little crazy when she imbeds it in her nonfiction titles, and also her wry, sometimes subtle humor. Much of what she writes is historical fiction, as it is here, and she is a stickler for accuracy. Her research is flawless. She has prestigious awards from all over the world. Literature teachers love her.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

In A Long Petal of the Sea, she takes on a particularly ambitious task, creating a fictional family and charting its course from Spain following the failure of the Spanish Revolution, to Chile, to other points in Latin America, and then back to Spain once more. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, with different threads for each that separate, then braid together again and so on. There are at least three generations here, but primarily the story is Roser’s.

It’s a well written story, though it is also the sort of literary fiction that takes a fair amount of stamina. If you’re in search of a beach read, this isn’t it. I confess I didn’t enjoy it as much as I often enjoy Allende’s work, but I also believe it’s unfair to judge an author solely by what they have already written. If this was the first book by this author that I had ever read, I would give it five stars, and so that is what I’ve done.

My one disappointment is that we don’t learn more about the Spanish Revolution and the Spanish Civil War. This is an event that’s very difficult to find in quality historical fiction and literary fiction, at least in English, and I was excited when I saw this book was based on it. Then by the 25% mark, we’re out of Spain and it leaves me sad, because I wanted to know more about that period and place.  I also missed the usual Allende humor, which she uses in other books to break up tense passages and shoot down sexist behavior in her characters; her last book, In the Midst of Winter, made me laugh out loud more than once. That humor is in short supply here. The feminist moxie, however, is in splendid form, and the class and internationalist perspectives that I treasure are alive and well.

A book should be judged on its own merits, and I’ve done that, but I want to add a shout out to an iconic writer who’s still publishing brilliant, ambitious books at the age of 78. My own goals for that age, should I be fortunate enough to see it: I’d like to be breathing; to be able to see and hear most of what’s around me; and I’d like to not be completely crazy. Publishing great literature? Perhaps not. I am delighted that Allende can do this, and I hope she has more stories in the works.

A note on the audio version: I supplemented my review copy with an audiobook I found at Seattle Bibliocommons. It’s an approachable way to get through a complex, multifaceted story, but I don’t like the way the reader voices the elderly male character. The harsh, guttural-sounding tones are too near to a stereotype. Happily, the story is mostly Roser’s, but the unfortunate noise pops in fairly regularly all the way through, and it makes for a less enjoyable listen. For those with the time and inclination for the print version, it may be your better choice.

For those that love epic historical fiction, I recommend this book to you, although if you haven’t read Allende, also consider some of her early work.

Queenie Malone’s Paradise Hotel, by Ruth Hogan****

When I requested the galley for this book, I was taking a chance. I do love good historical fiction, but I seldom enjoy a cozy mystery, and this story is but a whisker away from being one. I was afraid the story might be cutesy instead of quirky, cloying instead of life affirming. And how delightful it is to be wrong! I received my copy free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Harper Collins. It’s for sale now.

The premise is that Tilda has returned to the town where she and her mother lived after her parents separated. She was an only child, and her mother is dead, and so it falls to Tilda to tie up the loose ends of her mother’s small estate. And at this point, my snark is already peeking its beady eyes out, saying Oh geez, another story that starts with an only child cleaning up the estate. Lots of those lately! And a mean mother? That’s got to be my number one eye-roller right now!  And I tell you these things, reader, because it underscores what a job Hogan had ahead of her in order to break down my resistance; and yet, she did.

The narrative is divided into two points of view which alternate. The first is young Tilly, the little girl that doesn’t understand what is happening between her parents, and is devastated when her father moves out. The second is the adult Tilda, whose capacity for trust in other people is limited.

The first part of the book is a hard read in places, because Tilly is in so much pain, and it feels drawn out, although one could argue that time passes more slowly when we are young. Tilly’s parents are always quarreling; then her daddy moves out, and Tilly, who was a daddy’s girl, takes out all of her hurt and rage on her mother. Her mother is brittle and not very stable, and she’s at wit’s end. First they move from the house where the family had lived to the hotel in the title; then, against her wishes, Tilly is sent off to boarding school. Tilly had loved living at the hotel and didn’t understand why she was exiled.

Tilda learns what her mother was thinking when she finds and reads the journals that her mother had left for her, and again, it’s not exactly an original device on the author’s part, but it’s done so well that it doesn’t matter. Tilda also finds one of her mother’s old friends, and she learns some things that way as well.  There are some genuine surprises that are also believable and fit the characters and setting. It’s artfully done.

As to the quirky bits, they are what makes the story unique and successful. For starters, Tilly (and Tilda) see ghosts, not just now and then, but in some cases regularly. Let’s take, for example, the little dog named Eli. Not everyone can see Eli; Tilly can, and some others can as well, but most cannot. And our suspicion that Eli is not a corporeal critter is affirmed by the fact that decades later, this woman still has exactly the same dog, and he is as spry as ever.

Then—and I have saved the best for last—there’s the child’s narrative. Tilly explains things to us in the language, and with the frame of reference, of a small child of six or seven years. She is a bright girl, but she’s a child, and so her explanations for things are often a bit twisted, and her conclusions are often far-fetched ones that are based on the limited amount that the girl understands. My favorite bits are the mondegreens, and there are many. (A mondegreen is the word or phrase that results from someone that hears words that aren’t in her vocabulary, and thus replaces them with words she does know; one well known example is the American Pledge of Allegiance, starting with “I led the pigeons to the flag.”) My favorite of Tilly’s mondegreens is when she attends church and sings “The Old Rubber Cross.” And the thing I love most about Tilly’s mondegreens is that Hogan doesn’t explain them or beat them to death; she drops them in and then moves on as if nothing unusual has occurred.

I started reading this book using the review copy provided me, but because I was running behind, I checked out the audio version at Seattle Bibliocommons when I was a short way in, and I alternated versions. I especially want to give a shout out to Jane Collingwood, who reads the audio version. I can think of no more challenging narration than that of a child. Collingwood had to sound like a little girl half the time, but nobody wants to hear an actor’s version of baby talk at all, and surely not for half of a novel, so she has to walk a very fine line, not sounding like an adult, but also not sounding inane. On top of that, she must also voice the adult version, sounding like the same child, except grown up.  It’s a tricky assignment and she carries it off perfectly; I tip my hat to her.

The ending is optimistic, yet credible. Those in need of a feel-good story—and there are an awful lot of us that do, right now—could do a whole lot worse. Recommended to those that enjoy quirky novels and historical fiction.

The Brother Years, by Shannon Burke*****

The Brother Years is my first book by this author, but I hope it won’t be the last. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is for sale now, and if you treasure excellent, character-based fiction, you should get it and read it.

It’s tempting to call this a coming of age story, but the quality of the writing renders it unique and singular, defying categorization. The quiet authority and intimacy with which this story is told within the first person point of view led me to my desktop twice to make certain I was reading fiction, rather than memoir. In addition, I’m a sucker for any story that addresses social class, and class is the flesh and marrow of this tale.

Willie Brennan is the second born into a large family, and almost all of his siblings are boys. His parents are working class strivers, determined to rise, and particularly to help their children rise, through merit and hard work. In order to obtain the best possible education, they move into a substandard rental house in an otherwise upscale community. But social class shapes us, not only in terms of material trappings, but in more subtle ways having to do with culture. For example, when the boys get angry with each other, they are ordered to take it outside. The parents, who work multiple jobs in order to elevate their sons and daughter, are often not available to mediate disputes; moreover, the family is infused with a dog-eat-dog sort of Darwinism, and so sibling on sibling domestic abuse germinates and grows, along with genuine, abiding hatreds for protracted periods of time. This contrasts sharply with the more genteel, nuanced manner that more moneyed families deal with disputes and competition within their families, and between friends. And so, Willie and his older brother Coyle are set apart, not only by their house, family car, and clothing, but by the way they treat their classmates and each other. And we see much of how their classmates and neighbors regard them:

“They knew of our family. Our reputation had grown as we’d gotten older. We were Brennans. We did crazy shit.”

As the story begins, Coyle, the eldest, is the apple of his father’s eye, the achiever in every possible arena. Willie feels the terrible weight of expectation; how does one follow an act like Coyle’s? But in adolescence, Coyle rebels, and nobody knows what to do. Willie, next in line, bears the brunt of his brother’s bottomless rage.

This could be a miserable read in the hands of a less capable writer.  I have seen other writers tell stories of horrifying childhoods, both fictional and autobiographical, that simply made me want to put that book down and walk away. When pleasure reading is devoid of pleasure, what’s the percentage in forcing oneself through to the conclusion?  But Burke is too skillful to let this happen. While there are a number of truly painful passages, the distance projected by the narrator, speaking down the long tunnel between his present adult life and that tortured childhood he recalls, provides me with enough of a buffer that my sorrow for this poor child is eclipsed to a degree by my eagerness to know what will happen next.

This reviewer was also a child of working class parents, and also attended an excellent public school where most of my classmates came from families with money, in some cases a lot of it. No doubt this further fueled my interest. I am riveted when, as a revenge ploy, Willie accepts a friendship overture from Coyle’s nemesis, Robert Dainty, whose family is among the wealthiest and most

 privileged in town. Robert was “the epitome of the New Trier student: competent, self-satisfied, crafty, and entitled.” The interactions that take place within this alliance are fascinating, and I believe them entirely. In fact, I believe every character in this story, from the father, whose judgement and impulse control is dreadful; to the mother, who smolders and tries to make the best of things; to the older brother, classmates, and of course, the protagonist, Willie.

The author—and this reviewer—grew up in the mid-twentieth century, and it was during a time, post-Sputnik, post-World War II, when the United States and its people were passionate advocates of competition and domination. For this reason, I suspect that those from or close to the Boomer generation will appreciate this story most. But it’s hard to pigeonhole writing that meets such a high standard, and everyone that appreciates brilliant fiction, particularly historical fiction, will find something to love here.

Because I was running behind and could tell this galley was one that I shouldn’t let fall by the wayside, I supplemented my usual reading with the audio version I obtained from Seattle Bibliocommons. Toward the end, because it is so impressive, I listened to it and followed along in the galley. George Newbern is the reader, and he does a wonderful job. You can’t go wrong, whether with print or audio.

Highly recommended.

Life of a Klansman, by Edward Ball*

“White supremacy is not a marginal ideology. It is the early build of the country. It is a foundation on which the social edifice rises, bedrock of institutions. White supremacy also lies on the floor of our minds. Whiteness is not a deformation of thought, but a kind of thought itself…

‘The story that follows is not that a writer discovers a shameful family secret and turns to the public to confess it. The story here is that whiteness and its tribal nature are normal, everywhere, and seem as permanent as the sunrise.”

I read this book free and early; thanks go to Net Galley and Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux for the review copy.

Edward Ball writes about his ancestor, Constant Lecorgnes, known fondly within his family as “our Klansman.” The biography is noteworthy in that it is told without apology or moral judgement, as if Ball wants whites to feel okay about the racism, the rape, the exploitation, the murders, the terrorism that membership in the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia, and any and all of the other white supremacist organizations have carried out, and will continue to carry out, in the United States. Relax, he tells us, it’s normal.

Well, let’s back up a moment. The “us” in the narrative is always Caucasians. It apparently hasn’t occurred to him that anybody else might read his book. In some ways, the “us” and the “our” used consistently and liberally throughout this biography are even worse than the explicit horrors detailed within its pages. It’s as if there is a huge, entitled club, and those that don’t belong are not invited to read. Further, it’s as if all white people are of a similar mind and share similar goals.

Not so much.

Ball won the National Book Award some years back for Slaves in the Family, a title currently adorning my shelves downstairs. I have begun it two or three times, but it didn’t hold me long enough for me to see what he does with it. And this book is the same, in that the late Lecorgnes is not particularly compelling as a subject, except within the framework of his terrorism. He was not, Ball tells us, a key player; he was just one more Caucasian foot soldier within the Klan. And so, the reading drones along, and then there are the key pronouns that capture my attention, those that give ownership to his terrible heritage, and a couple of paragraphs of the history of the period, particularly within Southern Louisiana, follow; lather, rinse, repeat.

As I read, I searched for accountability. As it happens, I have one of those relatives too; but my elders, though not beacons within the Civil Rights realm by a long shot, understood that such a membership brings shame upon us, and consequently I was not supposed to know about him at all. I overheard some words intended to be private, uttered quietly during a moment of profound grief following a sudden death. My mother spoke to someone—my father? I can’t recall—but she referred to her father’s horrifying activity, and I was so shocked that I left off lurking and spying, and burst into the room. I believe I was ten years old at the time. I was told that the man—who was never, and never will be referred to in the fond, familiar manner that Ball does—was not entirely right in the head. He truly believed he was helping to protect Southern Caucasian women, but he was wrong. It was awful, and now it’s over; let’s not talk about it anymore. In fact, this topic was so taboo that my own sister didn’t know. She is old now, and was shocked when I mentioned it last spring. She had no idea.

As I developed, I understood, from teachers and friends more enlightened than Mr. Ball, that the best way we can deal with ugly things in our background that we cannot change, is to contribute our own energies in the opposite direction. I’ve lived by it, and so I was waiting for Ball to say something similar, if not in the prologue, then surely somewhere near the end; but he never did. If Ball feels any duty whatsoever to balance the scales of his family’s terrible contribution, he doesn’t offer it up. There’s no call to action, no cry for social justice. Just the message that hey—it’s normal, and it’s fine.

I’m not sure if I want to read his other work anymore; but I know that what I cannot do, and will not do, is recommend this book to you.

Agent Sonya, by Ben Macintyre*****

Ben Macintyre is a badass writer of narrative nonfiction about lesser known historical figures from the World War II era. I read and reviewed his blockbuster, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, which was published in 2014; when I was invited to do the same for Agent Sonya, I didn’t hesitate. My thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. You can buy this book now.

Her real name was Ursula Kuczynski, and she was a German Jew. Hitler came to full power when she was visiting China, and her entire family fled. Born before the Russian Revolution, she lived until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and so her lifespan encompassed the entire duration of the Soviet Union. An unusually intelligent woman, she was drawn to Communism by the horror of Fascism, and by the misery created by disparate wealth that was right in front of her. The Chinese peasantry were so wretchedly poor that she found dead babies in the street; starving mothers sometimes concluded that they might be able to save one child, but they surely couldn’t save more than that, and they were forced to make a tragic choice. This, in spite of the vast and opulent wealth of the most privileged classes; it was obviously wrong, and there appeared to be only one way around it. She signed on to be a spy for Moscow.

Kuczynski’s career in espionage spanned twenty years and took place in myriad locations across Europe and Asia. She briefly harbored doubts about her career at the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but shortly after its creation, Hitler broke it by attacking the USSR, and the matter became moot. Others around her were apprehended and either jailed or executed, but Ursula always got away clean. As she advanced in the Red Army, ultimately receiving the rank of Colonel, she was given increasingly important work, and her ultimate achievement was in recruiting a scientist that was placed at a high level within the Manhattan Project. More than 500 pages of important documents made their way to Moscow, and because of his defection and Ursula’s skill, the USSR soon had the atomic bomb also.

Though Ursula never considered herself a feminist, she never hesitated when commanding men—a thing few women did at this point in history—and she didn’t let the men in her life shove her around. One of my favorite passages is when she is pregnant at an inconvenient time, and her estranged husband and lover put their heads together to decide what should be done. The two of them agree that Ursula needs an abortion, and Ursula tells them she’s decided to have the baby. Mansplainers never stood a chance with Ursula.

There were many instances when motherhood conflicted with her professional duties, and she had to make a lot of hard choices, but being a mother also provided her with an excellent cover. Sexist assumptions on the part of M15, M16, and other spy-catchers were also responsible for part of her success; how could a mother of three children who baked such excellent scones be a foreign agent? Don’t be silly. And consequently, her husband (whichever one) often drew scrutiny, but nobody ever dreamed that Ursula herself was the high level spy they sought.

The one thing I would have liked to see added to this excellent work is a photo of this woman; perhaps it is included in the final publication, but my digital review copy showed none.* I found photos of her online and understood right away why she was so effective. That disarming smile; that engaging face. Who could help loving her? She looks like everyone’s best friend. She appears incapable of duplicity.

Although the biography itself is serious in nature, there are some hilarious passages involving the nanny, and also an imbecilic British agent that couldn’t find his butt with both hands.

Finally, one of the most fortunate aspects of this biography is that although it is absorbing, it isn’t written like a thriller, and so it’s a great book for bedtime. You already know that Ursula isn’t going to be executed, right? Her story is told in linear fashion, so although it’s a literate, intelligently told story, it’s never confusing. With autumn upon us, I cannot think of a more congenial tale to curl up with on a chilly evening.

This book is highly recommended.

*An alert reader tells me that the final version includes photographs of Ursula and all the major players.

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyFRUcCLNns