When I Was White, by Sarah Valentine****

Sarah Valentine was raised to believe that she was white, and that her dark complexion was the product of her Greek ancestors. But whereas she does have Greek ancestry in her DNA, Sarah is also of African descent. This strange but compelling, searingly honest memoir came to me courtesy of Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press; it will be available to the public tomorrow, August 6, 2019.

Valentine is an excellent writer, and she spins us back in time to her childhood, spent in a private school, a Catholic upper middle class family, celebrating European cultural events. She is the only African-American or mixed race student at her school, and every now and then, someone there will make a remark that infers she is Black. This puzzles her. Her own mother makes remarks bordering on White Supremacy, assumptions about the habits and character of Black people; of course, none of this should apply to Sarah, in her view, because she insists that Sarah is Greek and Irish, and Irish, and Irish.

Reading of her experiences, I am initially surprised that such culturally clueless, entirely white parents would be permitted to adopt a Black child; but here’s the thing. She isn’t adopted. She is her mother’s biological child, and to talk about who her biological father is, is to recognize that her mother was not always faithful to her father. It’s a keg of dynamite, one that her parents carefully navigate around. Not only have they not spoken about this to Sarah; they have not spoken about it to each other. It is a fiction that holds their marriage together; toss a tablecloth over that keg of TNT there and for goodness sake, don’t bump it.

I came away feeling sorry for her father.

There’s a lot more going on between Sarah and her parents, particularly her mother, a talented but not entirely stable parent who assigns impossible standards to her daughter. Meanwhile, as Sarah grows up and leaves for college, the fiction of her heritage is uncovered, first as a mere suspicion, then later as fact.

This isn’t an easy read or a fun one. It can’t be. Sarah’s pain bleeds through the pages as we see the toxic ingredients and outcomes in her story; her mother’s mental health and her own, as well as eating disorders and the implosion of her parents’ marriage. The particulars of her lifelong struggle make it impossible to draw a larger lesson in terms of civil rights issues; there are some salient points that will speak to women that grew up in the mid-20th century as Sarah’s mother did, and as I did. And here we find one small spark of optimism, the fact that when women are raped, whether at college or elsewhere, we stand a greater chance of being believed than we did in the past. Still, it’s a grim tale overall, and I don’t think there’s any other way Sarah could honestly have told it.

Four Hours of Fury, by James M. Fenelon**

I love good military history, and so when I saw this title I requested and received a review copy, thanks to Net Galley and Scribner. It’s for sale now, but I can’t recommend it to you.

One of the first things I do when I read a new author in this genre is to check notes and sources.  A first rate military historian will have multiple sources for each fact cited, and a reasonably good one will have a variety of sources, primary sources being most desirable.

Fenelon doesn’t do this. Much of his information hangs on a single source, and often these are not well integrated. This is the first time I have seen military history published by a major house, that uses Wikipedia as a source. All of the history teachers I know send their students back to do a rewrite if they hinge their citations on Wiki, and if teenagers aren’t allowed to do it, I cannot think why Scribner permitted it.

What drew me to the book is the paratroopers. There seems to be a spate of these coming out right now, and I find it fascinating subject material. There’s also a trend, of which this book is also an example, of embracing the brave German troops against whom American forces fought, and not unnecessarily, either. I could get behind this trend more easily were it more universal, but somehow U.S. historians are quick to recognize the shared humanity of former enemies that are Caucasian, and others, not so much. If I could see one, just ONE WWII history that recounts kind of brave actions on the part of the Japanese during this conflict, I would be a good deal less cranky.

Be that as it may, this book is inadequately researched and inadequately documented. It’s not professionally rendered, so if you want to read it, do so critically and evaluate as you read. Get it free or cheaply; don’t pay full price.

The Crowded Hour, by Clay Risen*****

The Spanish-American War sparked the earliest fire of U.S. imperialism, and the eccentric rich man that pushed it forward, Theodore Roosevelt, was at its center. Risen provides a contemporary view of this badly managed chapter in American history, dispelling longstanding myths and examining the long term effect of the conflict on the U.S. military. My thanks go to Net Galley and Scribner for the review copy, which I read free in exchange for this honest review. This book is for sale now.

Roosevelt was challenged with a number of health problems as a youngster, but instead of embracing his sedentary, privileged existence, he embarked on a series of physically demanding adventures in order to strengthen his constitution and affirm his masculinity.

When Cuban nationalists sought independence from Spain, Teddy began campaigning for American intervention. Men of his generation was had not known the destruction of lives and property that touched every part of this nation during the American Civil War, and like most young people, they were unwilling to listen to their elders. Roosevelt believed that war was a splendid thing, and that in facing death, men were elevated to a higher level. He joined his voice to those in the press advocating military aid to Cuba, and after tapping every powerful connection his wealthy family could access, he was successful.

 His own unit—all volunteers—were dubbed the “Rough Riders.” Most had no military training of any kind; the mighty Union Army had been all but disbanded once the nation was reunited. Though they were promoted as cowboys, the rugged individuals of the Wild West, a goodly number hailed from Wall Street and Harvard. In addition to being able to fund their own wartime excursion, they were noteworthy in their riding capability.

There was no San Juan Hill. There was a series of them.

The American invasion of Cuba cast a spotlight on its unpreparedness. Transporting troops, beasts and equipment across the Atlantic was a debacle of the worst order. There weren’t even close to enough seaworthy vessels, and because of this, most of the so-called cowboys fought on foot the entire time; horses and mules were stuck back in Tampa waiting to sail. There wasn’t enough food, potable water, or appropriate clothing for most of the men; the wealthiest among them fared best, but there were many occasions when there wasn’t any food to be bought at any price. There had been no reconnaissance and so they went in blind; the heat and disease killed more Americans than the Spaniards did. Vultures and immense land crabs that measured 2 feet across and traveled by the thousands made short work of the dead when not buried immediately. American losses were nearly triple those of the Spanish, and when the war ended there were no hospitals or sanitation ready to receive the legions of sick and wounded when they returned from the Caribbean.  

Roosevelt used the occasion to point to the need for a standing army and U.S. readiness, and ultimately this was his one useful contribution. In other regards, the man was an ass hat. His bald-faced racism, though not unusual at the time, went over badly with the Cuban freedom fighters that were supposed to benefit from their presence. He crowed to his friends about how much he enjoyed shooting an enemy soldier from just a few feet away “like a jackrabbit,” and called his 45 days of combat the ultimate hunting trip. Mark Twain hated the guy, and it’s not hard to see why.

Risen has an engaging writing style, and he uses lots of well-chosen quotations. His research is excellent as are his sources. I would have liked to see more of a breakdown along the lines of social class and other demographics, but this war did not yield a rich archival treasury like the one that came from the Civil War, so this may not be possible.

All told, this history is a find. Right now it seems that every second historian on the planet is writing about World War II, whereas this cringeworthy but significant chapter of American history has been largely left by the wayside.  I highly recommend this book.

Queen Meryl, by Erin Carlson**

I read this biography free and early thanks to Net Galley and Hachette Books.

I have enjoyed Streep’s movies and her feminist moxie since the first time I saw her, and so I figured this would be a good fit for me. Sadly, there’s nothing new here at all. There’s no depth of analysis, no stories of inner struggle or insight into her development. The overall tone is uniformly adulatory, which is fine as far as it goes; I don’t enjoy seeing a journalist do a hatchet job on a performer, so if she has to lean in one direction or another, I’m glad it’s on the positive side. But once again—I have seen every single thing in this book somewhere else already. I knew about the friction between Streep and Dustin Hoffman (who is also a great favorite of mine,) and I knew she takes roles that show strong women. I knew she wanted to sing, and she did it in Mama Mia. Readers that have followed this actor’s career over the decades with a magazine article here and there can’t expect to cover new ground. It’s shallow and superficial for the most part, and for me, the only good thing is that I didn’t pay for this book.

Streep’s fans that haven’t followed her career in the press may find more joy than I do here; nevertheless, my advice is to read it free or cheap if you decide you want it. It will be available to the public September 24, 2019.

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?

Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault, by Cathy Guisewite****

Guisewite began publishing the comic strip “Cathy” in 1976, the year that I graduated high school. It was a time of high expectations for women, and the unrealistic suggestion that we would be able to “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re a man,” as Madison Avenue decreed, was daunting.  Through her sharply perceptive humor, Guisewite let her peers know that it wasn’t just us; we were judging ourselves with an unfair yardstick. She kept it real, and in doing so, kept us sane.

My thanks go to Net Galley and G.P. Putnam for the review copy.

So how does cartooning translate to prose?  Whereas the cute, punchy single-page entries and single sentence proclamations—and the lists—are her most familiar territory, my favorite parts of this memoir are the least cartoonish ones. Yes, I love the way she takes down the women’s fashion industry and the unhealthy way it affects our body images.  She was good at it forty years ago, and she’s good at it now. But the passages that drew me in and let me get lost in her story are the more vulnerable, deeply perceptive parts of the narrative, her fears for her aging parents; the struggle and triumph of raising a daughter, one with special needs, alone; and the failure of her marriage. I am in awe of the fact that she and her ex made each other laugh until the tears came as they planned their divorce. Who does that? And of course, she made me laugh too.

Guisewite stays inside her usual parameters, never veering outside of the middle class Caucasian realm with which she has experience. Younger women won’t get much joy out of this memoir; women that came of age between 1965 and 1985 are right in her sweet spot, and it is to them that I recommend this book. It’s available now.

Things My Son Needs to Know About the World, by Fredrik Backman***

Purely by serendipity, Backman’s collection of essays came out in the US as my own son is initiated into fatherhood. My thanks go to Atria Books for the review copy; it’s for sale today.

Backman is known to me as a fiction writer, and I have read most of his novels, which are beloved worldwide. Here he delivers nonfiction with the same gently philosophical voice.  Despite the title, the essays are written for adults; this is not a children’s book.

Backman waxes eloquent on diverse topics, and it sounds sweetest—as always—when he focuses on what real men do. For example, all his life, he says he has been told to stand up like a man, but he wants his son to know that a real man should also know how to “stay seated, shut up and listen.”  Women the world over, myself among them, cheer this, and in saying it Backman helps make the world a better place. Other parts are funny as heck, as when he describes trying to change a diaper on an airplane.

The book’s only weakness is the overuse of the words “stuff” and “crap,” throughout the text, and knowing the author’s signature style, I suspect that this began as deliberate repetition for emphasis and as a form of figurative language that somehow didn’t translate effectively.

That said, it’s a sweet little book and a good read, and its timing begs for it to be a reverse-Father’s Day gift in the US, from fathers –or better still, grandfathers—to sons.

Nanaville, by Anna Quindlen*****

Author Anna Quindlen is queen of all things warm and wise, and so it’s not surprising that her ode to grandmothering  hits just the right note.  I was lucky and read it free and early, thanks to Random House and Net Galley, but it would have been worth the purchase price had it come down to it. This friendly little book is available to the public now.

Quindlen’s memoir can double as a primer for her peers that are new grandparents also, but that’s not where its greatest strength is found. The most resonant aspect is that common chord, the eloquence with which she gives voice to our common experience. It makes me feel as if she and I are sitting together with our baby pictures—the grandbabies and our children that created them—and as she speaks, I am saying, “I know, right?” I chuckle as she recounts trends in the advice given by experts to new parents:  when our first babies were born, we were told to put them to bed on their stomachs so they wouldn’t spit up and choke to death on it; then later children slept on their sides, which seems like a safe bet either way, but babies don’t stay on their sides very long; and now babies are supposed to be safer on their backs. And she voices so well the pride we feel when an adult that we have parented turns into a wonderful parent in his own right. And I nod in agreement as she says of her toddler grandson, “No one else has sounded that happy to see me in many, many years.”

Quindlen speaks well to the ambivalent moments as well, to the need to hold our tongues when we want to offer advice that hasn’t been requested; at the same time, there’s the relief that comes of not being in charge of all the big decisions.  And I echo the outrage that she feels when some ignorant asshole suggests that our biracial grandchild is not part of our blood and bones. (A jerk in Baby Gap wants to know where she got him; she replies that she found him at Whole Foods.)

Unequivocally joyful is the legacy grandchildren present. “I am building a memory out of spare parts…someday that memory will be all that’s left of me.”

And then, there are the books:

“’In the great green room…’

“’Mouse,’ Arthur says.

“’There is a mouse,’ I say…falling down the well of memory as I speak, other children, other chairs.”

Go ahead. Read it with dry eyes. I dare you.

Quindlen is writing for her peers. If you aren’t a grandparent and don’t expect to become one anytime soon (or perhaps at all,) then this memoir will probably not be a magical experience for you. But the title and book jacket make it clear exactly where she is going, and I am delighted to go with her.

Highly recommended to grandparents, and to those on the cusp.

Southern Lady Code, by Helen Ellis****

Helen Ellis makes me laugh out loud. If you can use some of that, you may want to read this book. Thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the review copy.

Southern Lady Code is a title that carries a code of its own.  Some people use the word “lady” to describe European royalty; some to describe a courteous woman, which is what I anticipated here; and some use it to describe a well-mannered woman with a very comfortable income, which appears to be the author’s operating definition. In terms of the “code,” I thought I’d be reading straight satire, but discovered that she has provided a combination of self-help tips and searing, sometimes raucous humor. It works surprisingly well.

I have never made a cheese log before or wanted one, but Ellis’s recipe sounds so persuasively delicious that I may try it. That said, my favorite essays were short on advice and long on humor. I nearly hurt myself laughing over the construction man she found masturbating in her bedroom—did I mention that she gets a little edgy here?  And “The Ghost Experience” is massively entertaining.  There’s a lot of good material here.  Though at times her outlook is a little more conservative than my own, I like the things she says in support of gay and trans friends.

Ultimately, I suspect that I am not the target audience for Ellis, who in her middle-aged years is dispensing life skills wrapped in bountiful amounts of humorous anecdotes. She is writing to her peers and to those women younger than herself.  I am ten or twenty years older than this woman, but I still came away impressed. So, ladies and women, if you can look past the assumption of a greater-than-average income, you’ll have a good time here, and if you can’t, try to get this collection at the library and read selectively, because more of these essays will resonate than not, for all of us.

I rate this book four giggles, and it will be available to the public tomorrow, April 16, 2019.

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, by T. Kira Madden***-****

3.5 rounded up. I received this book free and early thanks to Net Galley and Bloomsbury in exchange for this honest review, and I am sorry to be late providing it. The truth is, I couldn’t decide what to do with it. There was a tremendous amount of buzz in advance, and indeed, Madden is a talented word smith. This is also one of the strangest books I have ever read.

In a series of essays, Madden discusses her childhood and adolescence, growing up as an heir to the Madden shoe empire, provided with every material advantage, but also strangely unwelcome in her own home. It’s the ultimate story of alienation, one in which her father’s primary goal as a parent seems to be to pretend she isn’t there—until he goes to jail, anyway. 

Kids that are ignored by their parents act out to get their attention. This is true across all social classes, though the form of the acting out varies. Kira isn’t invited to accompany her father anywhere, and he doesn’t talk to her when he’s home. He and her mother have frightening drug and alcohol addictions that increase the lack of contact and the dearth of affection their daughter receives. She can’t make friends and bring them home. So here’s this rich girl with money, unlimited time to burn, a house full of drugs and booze, internet access, and a head full of resentment. What could possibly go wrong? 

In many ways, Kira’s writing breaks up stereotypes right and left, and her prose is crystalline and heartbreakingly, brutally frank. There’s so much that is good here. At the same time, I have to say that being neglected while rich is nowhere near as bad as being neglected while poor. It sounds cold, but there it is. 

T. Kira Madden has lit up the literary world with her debut, and it will be interesting to see what comes next.