Fight of the Century, by Michael Chabon et al*****

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the American Civil Liberties Union, a large cross section of the finest writers alive have written essays, each about one landmark case. Chabon and his co-editor, Ayelet Waldman, contributed their advance to the organization, and all of the contributing authors did so free of charge. As for this reviewer, I’d have been interested in an ACLU publication, even if I hadn’t heard of the writers involved; and I’d have been interested in anything written by Chabon, even if the story or topic wasn’t in my lane. As it is, I count myself beyond lucky to have scored a review copy courtesy of Net Galley and Simon and Schuster. It’s for sale now.

This is the sort of book that invites skipping around, either according to subject, or according to the authors you love best. Because of this, I recommend buying it in paper rather than digitally, because flipping around out of order in digital format is a pain in the butt. Also, this is the sort of classical reference material that you’d want on your shelf. In fact, I want a physical copy for myself.

I haven’t read all of the entries, but I’ve read enough of them to recommend it to you. The cases discussed are meaty and interesting, and they aren’t the standard fodder that shows up in every undergraduate course on Constitutional law. Each entry is succinct, and the writers refrain from self-promotion. The entries I appreciate most so far are by Jesmyn Ward, who discusses the use of anti-loitering laws to transform free Black boys and men into slave laborers; Timothy Egan, who details a 1962 decision regarding the right to receive Communist literature in the U.S. mail; and Louse Erdrich, who discusses digital snooping and surveillance used against the Dakota Pipeline protesters in 2016. I know there are many more I want to read, but I am posting this now so that you can get a copy while it’s in the stores.

Here’s your chance. You can get an outstanding addition to your home library while contributing to a worthwhile organization whose work is more crucial now than ever. Highly recommended.

Hill Women, by Cassie Chambers*****

Cassie Chambers was born and raised in Owsley County, Kentucky, the poorest county in the United States. With the determination handed down to her by her mother and grandmother, she attended Ivy League schools and became a practicing attorney. This memoir is her story as well as a defense of the women from her homeland, a manifesto opposing stereotypes and misconceptions. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine. It will be available to the public January 7, 2020.

Eastern Kentucky is in the heart of Appalachian Mountains, and its residents are stereotypically called hillbillies by outsiders. As a scholar whose childhood was rooted there, Chambers is in a unique position to share the culture’s nuances and strengths. She was raised by parents that had to save up to buy her a set of Old Maid cards from Walmart; going out to dinner, which happened Sundays, meant a single Happy Meal at McDonald’s shared three ways. But her mother’s determination to graduate college drove home the value of an education, and when Cassie had the opportunity to spend the last two years of high school at a boarding school for high achieving students, she leapt and her family supported her.

Chambers’ narrative is intimate and deeply absorbing. She weaves her own story into the larger story of Appalachian women: their culture, their history, their strengths and the challenges they face. She discusses the difficulty of receiving public services in an area that is spread out among hills and hollers, devoid of transit and low on personal transportation, and that has no government buildings to speak of; she also describes the pride that sometimes prevents its residents from accepting help for which they are qualified. She has a bottomless well of riveting anecdotes that illustrate the sense of community and willingness to lend assistance to neighbors in need even when those offering help have nothing extra to give; the Justice system often fails those that need protection from domestic abuse, as well as those addicted to drugs and alcohol. And she discusses remedies, including Jeanette’s Law, which reverses Kentucky’s absurd legal requirement that victims of domestic abuse must provide the spouses that they are divorcing with an attorney at their own expense. This was one of Chambers’ most important projects. Another is having expungement fees waived for low income residents, an especially urgent matter since in Kentucky, felons aren’t allowed to vote. Democracy is sidelined when class and race become obstacles to participation in civic life.

But the most memorable tidbits are the more personal stories, for example that of her Aunt Ruth, who married late in life. Before they were wed, Aunt Ruth had a conversation with Sonny, her husband-to-be, in which she explained to him carefully that if he ever hit her, she would be forced to kill him, in his sleep if necessary, using a large claw hammer, and so if this was likely to be a problem then the wedding should be canceled. (It wasn’t.)

The best memoirs combine a social issue or political problem with a personal story told by a top-drawer storyteller, and Hill Women succeeds richly in both regards. I recommend this book to women everywhere, and to those that love them.

The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela*****

This magnificent collection took 10 years to organize, collecting Madiba’s letters from the many points where they were received, and from the prisons–where many of them were not mailed out, for various technical reasons that were a poor disguise for censorship. The preface suggests that most people will want to flip through it rather than reading it cover-to-cover, but I am a habitual cover-to-cover sort, and so I read the first 50 pages in sequence. And the book’s editor is correct. This is not a cover-to-cover read.

Nevertheless, I am struck immediately by the dignity with which Mandela communicates with his captors. Time and again he writes to them in a courteous, civilized, and highly educated hand about the various ways in which his rights under South African law are being violated and what he is requesting they do to remedy it. He is persistent. He forces them to treat him as a human being. Mandela was an attorney, but he was also possessed of social instincts that nobody can teach anyone. And although I never met him, everything I have read–which is a good deal, where this man is concerned–convinces me that he was also a very nice person.

This is a tome, and it’s a treasure. I am glad I was denied a galley because this is the sort of volume I want as a physical copy. In the end my son purchased it for me for my birthday, and so I thank Benjamin. What a treasure.

If you are looking for just one book about Mandela’s life, read his hefty autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. However, if you are a collector of books about South Africa, or about civil rights in general, or of course, about Nelson Mandela, go out and get this book now.

Conversations with RBG, by Jeffrey Rosen*****

This is the RBG book I’ve been waiting for. My huge thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt Publishers for the review copy. This book will be publicly available November 5, 2019.

Justice Ginsburg wants us to know that the sky is not falling. Though progressive thinkers see great cause for concern, primarily within the executive branch of the federal government, the U.S. Constitution hasn’t changed, and the Supreme Court, she insists, is made up entirely of strong legal minds that revere it. Precedents are still the basis of future rulings; the overturn of precedent is rare and unusual. But for activists—and she loves us—she also points out that public opinion is what alters the course of the law. Congress makes laws based on what their constituency desires. So she isn’t suggesting we put away our pussy hats and our picket signs; she just wants us to know that our advocacy works, and she appreciates everything we do to further women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights.

Twice previously I read other books about RBG; one is a popular biography that I enjoyed, but that didn’t go deeply enough into Ginsburg’s legal ideas, and the second is just dross, minutiae gathered from her high school year book and whatnot. Whereas part of me just wants her to write an autobiography, I have to recognize that she is very elderly, has faced health challenges lately, and to stand a chance of writing any sort of memoir, she’d probably have to resign from the Court. And goodness knows, I want her to stay there, ideally forever. Instead, Rosen’s series of interviews with this feminist icon serves nicely.

Rosen has been friends with Justice Ginsberg for many years; they were drawn together initially through elevator discussions of opera. His chapters are brief but meaty, organized around key rulings and topical interviews. Rosen explains succinctly at the outset how this friendship formed and grew, but he doesn’t get windy or use the opportunity to aggrandize himself. He keeps the focus strictly on his subject. The interviews flow in an agreeable manner that is literate without being verbose or Byzantine.

We live in politically polarized times, and so even when I am reading about a political figure that I admire, I generally expect my blood pressure to rise a little, perhaps in passionate agreement. But if anyone in this nation has the long view of history and the key domestic issues that have unfolded, particularly with regard to the rights of women, it is RBG. And although I am not as senior a citizen as Justice Ginsburg, many of the changes she mentions that have occurred over the decades are ones that I can also attest to, though I hadn’t thought of them in years. For example, when I came of age in the 1970s, it was still not unusual to try to enter a bar or club only to be barred at the doorway because women weren’t allowed inside. (“Gentlemen only, Ma’am. Sorry.”) I had forgotten about these things; as her recollections unspool I see that she is right. Change happens, but lasting change happens slowly. We are getting there, at least with regard to women’s rights and gay rights. Issues of race and class are something else entirely, and she points up specific instances where justice has not progressed and change is imperative. I could say more, but none of it would be as wise or as articulate as when Ginsburg says it. If you’ve read this far in my review, you should go ahead and order this excellent book now. I highly recommend it to all that are interested in social justice, both formal and informal.

The Lazarus Files, by Matthew McGough*

It’s almost as if two crimes are committed inside these pages: the first is the premeditated murder of Sherri Rasmussen, and the second is this atrocious book.  How many writers can take a compelling story—that of a cop killing her romantic rival, and her arrest and conviction—and make it this dull? So I still thank Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copy, but nothing and nobody can make me read anything written by this author again. It appears that very few reviewers even forced themselves to finish it; those of us that soldiered on till the end either deserve commendations for our determination, or a mental health referral for not cutting our losses.

The book’s beginning comes the closest to competent writing as any part of this thing. We get background information about Sherri and John’s courtship and marriage, as well as John’s relationship with the murdering woman he scorned, Stephanie Lazarus. Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying this part is well written. Even here, there are serious issues with organization and focus, yet I continue, believing that when we get to the meat of the story where the truth is revealed and the killer arrested, tried and convicted, it will be worth the wait. In that, I am mistaken.

The author wanders anywhere and everywhere, apparently unwilling or unable to exclude one single fact about anyone, even those tangentially involved. Why do we need pages and more pages devoted to the life and times of people the victim barely knew? To add insult to injury, many of the facts he’s uncovered are inserted into multiple places in the narrative in a way that emphasis doesn’t justify.  It appears as if he is attempting to reveal a cop cover-up, but his inner attorney forces him to equivocate, hinting throughout without ever reaching the punchline. He infers that maybe Sherri’s husband John knows more than he’s saying, but again we see innuendo everywhere without an accusation being made outright. The writing is riddled with clichés. In many places he tells us how one character or another feels, or what they are thinking, and yet there are no citations anywhere for anything; this is a cardinal sin in writing nonfiction. I go to check the notes at the end of the book and there are none. The copious gushing over Sherri’s excellent character and intelligence, while it sounds warranted, is salted so liberally over 597 interminable pages makes me wonder if there is a connection between the author and the victim’s family, but again, if it’s true, he doesn’t say so. All told, it’s a very unprofessional piece of…writing.

By the time I consider abandoning this thing, I have put in the time required to read over a hundred pages, and so I see it through. I skip the section about the murder of someone else; had it shown up before I was completely disgusted, I’d read it in case it provides strong evidence to back up what the author is inferring but not saying, but as it is, I just want to get to the meat of the matter and be done with this thing.

Imagine my surprise when the Rasmussen murder case is not reopened, and Lazarus is not investigated, arrested, tried and convicted until…the epilogue.

There is not one redeeming feature of this book. It’s a train wreck from the start to the blessed ending. If I feel this way after reading it free, how might you feel if you paid money for it?

The Trial of Lizzie Borden, by Cara Robertson****

“Oh, Mrs. Churchill, do come over. Someone has killed Father.”

Lizzie Borden is the subject of one of America’s most enduring legends, and Robertson is a towering legal scholar, educated at Harvard and Oxford, and then at Stanford Law. She’s participated in an international tribunal dealing with war crimes, and has been researching the Borden case for twenty years. Here she lays it out for us, separating fact from innuendo, and known from unknown. My thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The Borden family lived in the heart of Fall River, and it consisted of Andrew, father of two grown but unmarried daughters Emma and Lizzie, still in residence, and his second wife, Abby. Their mother had died when Lizzie was tiny; Andrew had remarried a woman named Abby, whom Emma never accepted as a parent, but whom Lizzie called her mother until a short time before her grizzly death. Until this time the Borden household was well respected; Andrew was possibly the wealthiest individual in this Massachusetts town, but he was a tightfisted old scoundrel, and his refusal to relocate the family to the fashionable neighborhood on the hill where well-to-do citizens lived made his daughters bitter, as appropriate suitors would not call on them in their current home.  Both had passed the age when respectable young women were expected to have married; they held that their father’s greed had ruined their chance at marriage and families of their own.  Things had come to a head when Borden was persuaded to purchase the home in which Abby’s sister lived in order to prevent her from being cast out on the street. Emma and Lizzie were angry enough that they wouldn’t go downstairs when the parents were there, and poor Bridget, the servant, had to serve dinner twice to accommodate them. Everyone locked their bedroom doors against the others. Andrew had belatedly tried to smooth his stormy home life by purchasing a comparable house for each of his daughters, but the damage was done.

The story of Lizzie Borden is not a new one, but what sets Robertson’s telling apart from the rest—apart from the meticulous research and clarity of sourcing—is her explanation of how the cultural assumptions and expectations of 1893 New England differed from ours today, and how these nuances affected the trial. They lived in a time and place in which it was assumed that women were ruled far more by their hormones and ovulation than by intellect and reason. In fact:

“Experts like the influential Austrian criminal psychologist Hans Gross contended that menstruation lowered women’s resistance to forbidden impulses, opening the floodgates to a range of criminal behaviors…Menstruation may bring women to the most terrible crimes.”

Had Lizzie confessed to the killings, she might very well have been judged not guilty; her monthly cycle would have been said to have made her violent and there was nothing to be done about it, rather like a moose when rutting.

Criminal behavior was believed to be inherent in some people and not in others, and this counted in Lizzie’s favor. The Bordens were seen as a good family, and a girl from a good family doesn’t plot brutal murders. It isn’t in her. This sort of thing, experts said, was more likely to be done by a transient or a member of the working class. The women of Fall River were polarized around this case, and though women from comfortable homes were all certain that poor Lizzie was being railroaded, working class women weren’t as charitable in their assessments.

There was a ton of evidence against her, most of it circumstantial; the most damning aspects of the case against her were ruled inadmissible, and the jury never got to hear them.

Robertson is a fine storyteller, and her narrative lays it out for us so clearly. There is occasional gallows humor, as well as amusing bits of setting not seen in cities of any size today, such as the neighborhood cow that mooed near the courtroom window at inauspicious moments while testimony was being given. However, the first half of the book is more compelling than the second half, because prosecutors and attorneys must repeat things, sometimes many times and in many ways, in order to convince judges and juries, and since this book is about the trial, Robertson must do the same. Still it is fascinating to see how the whole trial shook out.

Those interested in the Borden case, or in true crime stories in general, should read this book. It’s the clearest, most complete recounting and analysis available to the public today, written by a legal scholar that has done the work and cut no corners. `

Small Animals, by Kim Brooks***

SmallanimalsBrooks is a journalist and also a parent; she is nearly sent to prison for having permitted her son to remain in the car watching a video while she bopped in to a big box store to purchase headphones. The experience provided a catalyst for discussions and research she has done on structured parenting practices versus a looser model, for which she advocates. The resulting book is a plea for greater flexibility and more options for parents that either question the wisdom of tight societal controls on parenting, or that cannot find or afford the childcare that their children are legally required to have when the parent or parents must go to work.

I read this intense manifesto free of charge in exchange for this honest review. Big thanks go to Flatiron Books and Net Galley for the review copy.

Brooks has an engaging writing style, and at the outset of the book I was with her entirely. I wouldn’t leave my child in the car as she did, but the legal fallout sure seems like overkill. Whatever happened to a warning first? But later in the text I find some outrageous logical fallacies and suppositions that she uses to bolster her argument in favor of free range parenting. I quickly moved from being supportive, to questioning, to feelings of hot indignation, and several times I felt it best to set the book aside while my temper cooled.

I suspect I have a lot of company out there. I’m a grandmother now; my children are raised, and though I love my grandsons, I am also happy not to be the one that is raising them. So I have the benefit of a bit of space and distance when I look at this controversy. Fresher are my feelings as a teacher, because there are plenty of hot buttons here that connect with educators, and I haven’t been retired from the classroom for long. More on those hot buttons in a minute.

My favorite part of this book is the research behind and inside of it, and she includes some material that is new to me. For example, I wasn’t aware that nearly three-quarters of Americans in their twenties are childless, or that childcare is so hard to find at any price that more mothers—including low income women—are stay-home mothers. There are a lot of great quotes. However, the conclusion Brooks draws from that research leaves me scratching my head.

The head-scratching as well as the hot buttons all have to do with the suggestion that children, including those in early elementary school, be permitted to roam by themselves to whatever family-oriented public locations their busy parents approve of. An example is the public playground. She reasons that if a mom that works fast food for a few hours after school lets out says her kid is allowed to leave school and go to the park, then the kid should be able to go to the park; likewise, if a writer such as herself wants some alone time, she should be able to drop her kid at the park and go home to her keyboard.

This assertion is bolstered by an assertion that very few children are harmed by strangers, and she proves this thoroughly for those that didn’t already know. In addition, she points out that there are already a lot of parents and other adults at the park.

This is the point at which my jaw drops open and I start closing doors and drawers a little extra hard just thinking about what she’s said. Brooks blithely overlooks the common ways that children at the playground get hurt. Let me count the ways: kids run in front of moving swings. Kids climb the slide someone else is sliding down and maybe both kids are injured. Kids chase a ball into moving traffic. Kids have an allergic reaction when previously nobody knew they were allergic to a single thing. Sometimes kids quarrel with other kids, and whereas many parents deal with this appropriately, there are inappropriate parents out there. If your child upsets Poopsie and Poopsie’s mama decides to unload on your kid, who’s going to step in? If an older child invites yours to play doctor in the bushes and wants to show your child something he’s seen mom and her boyfriend doing, who is going to stop them? Never mind the dangerously strange adults; most of us know there are few of them. But what about everyone else, and what about the accidents that a kid can have anywhere, and for which quick action can make a big difference?

Now let’s look at it from another angle. Which stay-home mom at the park wants to be responsible for your child? What if the park is emptying out and she wants to take her children and go get dinner started, but there’s this one solitary, anxious child that will be left behind? What can she do if one of the above-mentioned accidents befalls your child and he or she is unconscious? She calls an ambulance, and then what? Without parental approval, medics cannot even treat your child. An epipen? An IV line? A trip to the hospital? Some states and municipalities may allow a professional to start treatment, but even if they can, most hospitals won’t admit a kid whose insurance details are not known. And then of course there’s liability. If that parent—the one doing his or her job—gives your child a band-aid or a cookie and it turns out to be the wrong thing, what then? No good deed goes unpunished. And right about now, every reader that has ever worked in a public school is vigorously nodding their head.

Then too, many stay-home parents have made a choice to live on less money in order to create a better life for their family. The closest distance between two points is the stay-home mother and whoever has no childcare and wonders if she could take care of their kid because (fill in the blank.)

Usually a book such as this one will make a strong case for more federally funded childcare, and if that was Brooks’ s main focus, I would be posting a review of this book to every possible outlet in an effort to create a more vocal bandwagon. But instead Brooks really just seems to want other people to watch her kid free, and leave her occasional bad choices unmentioned. (She suggests that the person that called the cops when she left her kid in the car should have spoken to her in person; can you even imagine the hell that might befall anyone that openly questions a total stranger’s parenting practices?)

So if you are looking for a conversation starter for your book group, this might be a good choice, because it is loaded with controversial ideas. If you want to see where those kids come from—the ones that wander in unsupervised and seem more needy than the kids that have a relative, day care supervisor, or nanny in attendance—here is your epiphany. But if you are a prospective parent looking for advice, I suggest you run in the other direction. Run fast.

Best History 2018

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Best Nonfiction 2018

 

theblackandtheblueThe Black and the Blue, by Matthew Horace*****

Invisible, by Stephen L. Carter****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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