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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best History 2018

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Best Nonfiction 2018

 

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

Best Feminist Fiction 2018

ASparkofLightA Spark of Light, by Jodi Picoult*****

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.

A Spark of Light, by Jodi Picoult*****

ASparkofLightIf there is a prize for courageous literature, Picoult deserves to win it. I have grown frustrated over the years as I have watched countless novelists dodge and weave to avoid the mere mention of abortion as a means to deal with an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy, and I wanted to do cartwheels when I read the teaser for this book.  I thank Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy, and the author and publisher for having the integrity to go there. This book is for sale now.

That said, this isn’t a fun read, and it in no way resembles the character based escapist fiction that is the hallmark of many of Picoult’s other novels. This one is about social justice, and fiction is an approachable medium with which to discuss it. Those seeking to avoid tension and who don’t want to think critically should read something else.

The story opens at a women’s clinic in the Deep South, and a shooter has just killed the owner of the clinic and taken others hostage.  Our main characters are the shooter, George Goddard; Hugh McElroy, the hostage negotiator; Wren, Hugh’s daughter, who has come to the clinic without her father’s knowledge to procure contraception; and Louis, the clinic’s doctor. There are a host of second string characters, and they include clinic workers, clinic protesters, patients, and a spy that has wormed her way inside the clinic in search of the damning proof that fetal tissue is being sold illegally.

Because we start with the shooting and then work our way backward in time, with the narrative unspooling the background and viewpoint of each of about a dozen people, the first third of the book is agonizing. I am not usually one to peek at the ending of a novel, but frankly I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t read the fine details until I knew who was going to make it out alive and who wasn’t. I suspect that some of the negative reviews I am seeing are because of this aspect of it. It’s a tribute to how effectively Picoult is able to create tension within a story, but she may have overshot the mark a wee bit.

The first half of the book examines the various reasons why some people are opposed to abortion, and it does it in painstaking detail. I began to feel as if she was doing the work of the Right-to-Lifers for them.  More than anything, though, we see inside the troubled mind of the shooter himself. Goddard may be the best developed of the characters present here (though the story is primarily plot based in any case).

We also see the reasons why women choose to have an abortion, and we see the ambivalence and sometimes the regret of those that do so. In fact, my one real issue with this story is that there isn’t a single woman here that is having the procedure, not because she’s been raped or because she’s impoverished or abused, but because her contraception failed and she doesn’t want to be pregnant. These women exist; I know them. In fact, I have been one of them. Not every woman that seeks to terminate a pregnancy is traumatized, and apart from one character that passes in and out of the plot inside of a brief paragraph, these women are not represented here. But this is a relatively minor concern, and my rating reflects this.

Appropriately enough, the empirical voice of reason belongs to Louie Ward, the doctor.  He’s seen a lot:

“Indeed, when the pro-lifers came to him to terminate a pregnancy and told him that they did not believe in abortion, Louie Ward said only one thing: Scoot down.”   Louie respects the women that come to him, and during the conference the state requires him to have with those that have signed on for the procedure,

 

“He looked into the eyes of each of the women. Warriors, every one of them…They were stronger than any men he’d ever known. For sure, they were stronger than the male politicians who were so terrified of them that they designed laws specifically to keep women down…If he had learned anything during his years as an abortion doctor, it was this:  there was nothing on God’s green earth that would stop a woman who didn’t want to be pregnant.”

 

I like the ending.

Picoult has done her homework here, observing abortions conducted at various stages of pregnancy and interviewing over one hundred women that have done this. Her end notes show the level of research on which this story is based. Few fiction writers go to such lengths, and I doff my metaphorical hat to her.

Highly recommended to feminists everywhere, as well as to the tiny sliver of the population that isn’t firmly planted in one camp or the other where the topic is concerned.

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:

 

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight**-***

frederickdouglassprophetThanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Douglass is a key figure in American history, and Blight has made his career largely through his expertise on Douglass’s life. I expected to be impressed here, and indeed, the endnotes are meticulous and I would be amazed if there was a single error anywhere in this work. But aspects of the biography rub me the wrong way, and ultimately, I realized that the best way around this is to go back and read Douglass’s own autobiographies again.

Whether we read what Douglass tells us, or what Blight (or any credible biographer) has to say, there are two impediments that stop me short, and because I have never been required to start at the beginning and end at the end to complete a scholastic or professional assignment, I tend to read the beginning; recoil; abandon; and then return in an undisciplined, skipping-around manner that is uncharacteristic of my usual methods.

First we have the Christian aspect. Douglass was tremendously devout, and during his time it was much more common to discuss religion publicly and even in daily conversations, sometimes at length. It repels me. So that’s my first problem. It’s not Blight’s problem, but it’s one I have to deal with.

The second problem—again, not Blight’s, and it’s inherent in reading about Douglass—is that slavery was horrible. Douglass actually had a slightly better life than most of his peers, gaining an education and living in the master’s house, but it was nevertheless traumatic. It is unavoidable to see what he endured and not reflect on exactly how hellish life was for the four million that endured life in this dehumanizing, degrading system. After I read a certain amount of it, I feel as if I need to take a long shower to wash away the stain.

As for Blight’s book, there are some good moments here, and I learned some things. Who helped Douglass on his road to freedom? Free Black people did. Who knew that there were vastly more free Black folks in Maryland than there were slaves? The textbooks and other materials used to teach adolescents about slavery and the American Civil War overemphasize, to a degree amounting to deception, the participation of kindly white people, largely Quakers, and provide only a fleeting glimpse of the occasional African-American.

But I find that the eloquent passages that I highlight as I read this are not Blight’s words, but quotations from Douglass himself.

Meanwhile, the obstacles to appreciating this book are consistent and irritating. Blight makes much of inconsistencies in Douglass’s three autobiographies, and when he refers to the differences there is a superior, smirking quality to his prose that doesn’t sit well. I wouldn’t like it coming from any writer, but when the writer is a Caucasian, it adds an extra layer of insult. No matter how long Blight publishes, no matter his standing in the Ivy League, he will never be fit to polish Douglass’s boots. If he once knew it, I suspect he has forgotten it. So that’s a problem, and it’s hard to read around it.

The other issue, a more common one, is the tendency to guess at what is not known. This makes me crazy. The narrative will flow along in a readable, linear fashion, and then I start seeing the speculation, which is barely visible. Might have. Must have. Likely. It makes me want to scream. If you don’t know, Professor Blight, either don’t put it in, or address the unknown in a separate paragraph explicitly addressing the possibilities. Weed out the unimportant guesses and deal with the more critical ones head on. When these inferences are salted randomly into the text, we come away with tangled notions. Apart from the key events in his life, which of the finer details were fact, and which were surmise?

Excuse me. I need to find a nice brick wall so I can slam my forehead against it.

So there it is. For all I know, Blight may gain half a dozen prestigious awards from this work; it wouldn’t be the first time a book I’ve complained about went on to garner fame and glory. But I call them like I see them, and what I see is that it’s a better plan to read what Douglass says about himself, even though Blight appears to consider himself a more reliable resource than his subject.

If you want this thing, you can have it October 2, 2018.