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. 

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 Memoirs 2018

To choose one of these over the other would be unfair. I was tempted to go with the Mandela book because everyone has heard of Westover, but again…fairness. So here. You should read them both, period.

 

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.

The Tango War, by Mary Jo McConahay****

TheTangoWarI read my copy free and early, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. This book is for sale now.

This meaty little nugget is one of a kind. I had sworn off World War II, both fictional and historical, because so much information gets repeated; you can only read so much about the most visceral parts of this conflict before your worldview darkens. I am out of the classroom and had promised myself a chance to stop and smell the roses in my retirement years. But then there’s this.

Firstly, there’s nothing about the Holocaust to speak of here. That was a draw card, because I am done with that most searing of horrors for awhile. Instead, she writes about Latin America during the war—and I knew nothing, nothing, nothing about any of this. I was aware that there were some nations down there that are reputed to have flirted with the fascists, and even then, I wasn’t sure it that was the truth or a myth.

The book is broken down, not by relevant Latin American countries, but by subtopics, and this is both more analytical and more interesting than if she’d done it the obvious way. Who knew that there was a model city established inside of the Amazon in an effort to rope more employees—well, slaves—into harvesting rubber for the war? Who knew that vast amounts of South American petroleum ran the trucks and tanks that rolled over Europe? Perhaps most appallingly—who knew that Japanese expatriates and their families, born and raised in Peru and other locations in Latin America,  were kidnapped in a down-low deal between the US and the governments of the affected nations so that the US could intern them, then use them for prisoner swaps?

There are enough weird-but-true facts here to cross your eyes, and the author has her documentation at the ready.  A fifth star is denied because of what isn’t here; why portray United Fruit as upstanding patriots? Many of us know this corporation was a sinister entity with its roots tangled deeply in the CIA. Lots of Guatemalans have plenty to say about United Fruit.  More directly related here is the brief, friendly reference to Disney as a WWII patriot, and yet many of us know how warmly Uncle Walt regarded Hitler: the catch-phrase “Mauschwitz” says it all.  Partial truths make me wonder what else I am missing as I read this.

With that one caveat, this book is recommended to you. The citations are thorough and the text is written free of technical terms that might hamper a wide readership.  Read it critically, but do read it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The King and the Catholics, by Antonia Fraser****

TheKingandtheCI was rooting around on Net Galley looking for some good nonfiction when I ran across this title. Many thanks to Net Galley and Doubleday for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review. This book is now available to the public.

Fraser examines the fight for Catholic Emancipation in Britain, from the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of the late 1700s until roughly fifty years later. It is appalling that so much time, effort and money was needed for so small a thing as religious freedom, but there it is.

My own interest is more in the direction of Catholic history, with Irish history as a major part of that, and so portions of this well written, painstakingly researched and documented tome drew me more than others. I don’t care a whit what the king or any other members of the royal family say, want, or do, so for those with a closer interest than mine, this might well be a five star read. Parts of it are a trifle dry, but then Fraser livens it up with brief, lively sketches of the historical figures involved.

A major player in the struggle was the Liberator, Daniel O’Connell, and I read all of the passages in which this eloquent barrister is featured with tremendous interest. I also enjoyed seeing ways in which events in the larger world influenced events in the UK, from the French Revolution to the Boer Wars in South Africa.

An excellent addition to the library of any that are interested in the topic.

The Fighters, by C.J. Chivers*****

TheFightersChivers is a senior editor at The New York Times, and has won the Pulitzer for journalism. This meaty but readable book is the culmination of his years covering the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not the creation of a man parked in a library behind his laptop; he has personally gone to Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, and Libya, and has either accompanied the people he writes about or retraced their footsteps. He covers the lives of six servicemen in the lower and middle ranks of the armed forces, and so he primarily uses eye witness reporting and interviews, in addition to American military data. I read it free courtesy of Net Galley and Simon and Schuster in exchange for my honest review. The Fighters will most likely be regarded in future years as the go-to book for those that want to know more about this war and the people whose lives were changed by it—including many of those whose homeland is or has been part of the war zone.

Chivers sees a tremendous amount of waste and foolhardy disregard for human lives on the part of the Pentagon, and he makes an undeniable case for it. After reading it I came away convinced that he did not begin his project with an axe to grind and seek out the particular facts that would support the reality he wanted to present, but rather that over the many years since the towers fell in 2001, the things that he has seen and heard all point remorselessly toward the same conclusion. In point of fact, there are two places in my reading notes where I marked, without hyperbole, the similarity between the true information provided here and what I might expect to read in The Onion.

Take, for example, the Afghan allies that are integrated into U.S. forces. The U.S. provides them with guns, but as far as anyone can see, it is strictly for the purpose of the Pentagon’s public relations campaign. Afghan soldiers in U.S. units don’t fire those guns. They hold them. They don’t aim; they don’t look at whoever is giving instructions nor at the translator. (They sure as fuck don’t salute.) In a protracted firefight, an American will eventually run out of ammunition and trade their empty weapon for one of those they hold, if the Afghan has not disappeared and taken the gun with him. And at night, the night watch exists in large part to ensure that if the Afghan soldiers choose to make themselves scarce overnight, they won’t take a bunch of munitions and hand them off to the Taliban.

But since the American public is increasingly impatient with the duration and loss incurred by this war, those guys have to be kept around like untrustworthy mascots in order to maintain the illusion that Afghan forces will be taking the place of U.S. troops soon. Timelines get pushed back, but nothing significantly changes. The drums beat on.

Thoughtless and ham-handed decisions by the top brass increase the resentment of civilians that live near the bases, people living in miserable poverty in sometimes directly across the street, with expensive machinery and plenitude of supplies the locals will probably never have. Meanwhile, troops are sent into circumstances that are bound to be fatal and also fail in their military objectives.

It makes you want to sit down and cry.

However, most of the narrative is not carnage and defeat. Who would read it if it were? Chivers instead does a fine job of painting the individual lives of the Americans he follows, and so most of the story reads almost like good fiction, and rather than being swathed in constant despair or endless statistics, I was instead deeply absorbed. Who knew it would be so interesting?

Those that are curious about the war in the Middle East, the first U.S. war in generations to see reporters banned from providing live footage or photographing flag-covered caskets sent home, could hardly find better material to read. This is on-the-ground coverage at its finest. If you want to read just one book about the U.S. conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, this should be it.

PBS published an interview with Chivers, and you can see some of the people whose experiences form the narrative, too: