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.

Dagger John, by John Louhery ***-****

DaggerJohn I received a review copy of this book from Net Galley and Three Hills Publishing, which is affiliated with Cornell University, free of charge. This book is now for sale.

Since retirement, I have often taken my reading outside of my comfort zone, and at times I’ve been rewarded. I took a chance in requesting this biography because I have a peripheral interest in church history, and American history and Irish history are more direct interests. However, in this case there is too much assumed knowledge to be readily accessible to an acolyte of the region. My only trip to New York was a weekend tourist jaunt, and I have never been to the church in question.  However, I am drawn to the resistance he put forth during the “Know Nothing” period of anti-immigrant sentiment, and now is certainly the time to receive such a cautionary tale.

The claim that this man “made” Irish America seems overstated to me.

That’s not to say that it won’t interest you. The documentation is as unimpeachable as one would expect from a highly regarded university, and scholars with a specialized area of interest will likely find this a treasure because it is so specific. A niche audience may rate this title as four stars; I find it too dry a read to imagine five. But it isn’t intended to be a popular read but a scholarly one.

A solid niche read for those with interests that are aligned with the author’s.

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

theblackandtheblue“Even as a federal agent, I have been on surveillance or supporting an operation and have had an officer approach me and say that the neighbors called about a “suspicious” vehicle, which meant it was a black guy driving a car. I’ve been the man in that suspicious vehicle.”

Matthew Horace worked as a cop at the federal, state, and local level for 28 years, and he is plenty sick of the “toxic brotherhood.” The quote above refers to an incident that occurred in Mill Creek, a (very white) suburb outside Seattle, Washington where I live, but it’s not just here; it’s everywhere in the US. Specifically, he tells us about cities where some of the most notorious cop violence has created resistance such as New Orleans, Chicago, Baltimore, and Ferguson.

There are essays provided by police chiefs from some of these places as well as from Kathleen O’Toole, who was chief here in Seattle; O’Toole’s prose reek of electioneering, the sort of style that speaks for itself. Many of these contributors contradict Horace’s own assertion that the problem is endemic, and is absolutely not a case of a few bad apples. More than one of these essays hold the fascination I’d feel if forced to watch a rattlesnake before it strikes; the sanctimony, the grandiose claims of justice supposedly served. The most interesting of them all is from an African-American police chief in Chicago, whose personal stories of her family members having been abused—including her sons—stand diametrically opposed to what she does for a living, and yet she maintains her tightrope walk, determined to make a difference where only the smallest, if any, seems likely.

By now I should have thanked Net Galley and Hachette Books for the review copy, which I received free and early. This excellent book is available to the public Tuesday, August 7, 2018.

There has been a flurry of books published about this subject since it became national news. More than anything, the internet and cellular phones have stripped the gatekeeping capacity of the major news outlets; cops that were able to beat and even kill people and lie about it later are being outed left and right. Even I, who am an old lefty and have never really believed cops were there to protect ordinary people, am shocked by much of what’s been revealed. I wondered, as I began reading, whether Horace could add to what’s already been said and shown. What could he add to the body of information provided by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Angela Davis, and Matt Taibbi? (Many years ago, Norm Stamper, former Seattle police chief, also wrote an expose that included a chapter on why cops beat Black men.)

As it happens, Horace has a lot of information that I hadn’t read, and it isn’t just a matter of fine detail. For example, who knew that in New Orleans, cops were not merely accepting graft, but actively robbing Black-owned businesses, guns drawn, and making off with their cash and other valuables? It’s the sort of thing that lives in your head for a long time after you read it; but then again, it should be.

The sourcing is impeccable.

Those with an interest in Black Lives Matter, in civil rights in general, or with an interest in race issues within the so-called criminal justice system in America should get this book, for full price if necessary, and read it. Read the whole thing. So much of our future depends on how we respond.

A Brotherhood of Spies, by Monte Reel****

BrotherhoodSpies3.5 stars rounded up. Thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review.

The story begins with a US spy plane being shot down over Soviet (Russian) airspace in 1960. This is embarrassing. Eisenhower’s people decide to make something up; after all, nobody survives an airplane crash over dry land. Moreover, the pilot was provided with a cyanide capsule—James Bond style—so even if he survived, he must be dead; likewise, the plane was likely blown to bits, with not much left for the Soviet investigators to learn.

Let’s say it was a weather plane. It wandered off course, and those mean Soviets shot it down.

But oh dear, this is even more embarrassing: the pilot lived, and he didn’t feel like taking the poison pill. Would you?  So the Russians know what he was flying, and they know who he is. They’re telling the world.

Just reading the teaser for this book, I was hooked. But just as a brilliant writer can take dross and make a good tale of it, so can an indifferent one take compelling information and make it into a snooze. For me, this was not an entertaining read. I had agreed to write about it, so I had to read it, and it felt like work.

I want to be fair here: there are people that will read this book and like it. There’s a lot of technical information about the spy plane, and about many other spy planes, some of which were never built. Apart from the truly bizarre one that was supposed to be landed on its belly (no landing gear), or the ridiculous idea of a nuclear powered plane, I found my attention drifting during these descriptions. But I am not interested in aviation, and if you are, you may like this.

The other aspect that causes my attention to wander is the history 101 aspect of it. I’m a retired history teacher. I don’t need an author to walk me through the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Bay of Pigs. However, I note that other reviewers came to this work with no knowledge of either, and they are delighted to be clued in. For newbies, count this as a win.

Finally, I have to credit the source work. Reel didn’t take the easy way out. His end notes are first rate.

For those that are relatively new to this chapter of American history, this may be a compelling read. For those interested in the history of American aviation, it is recommended. For those that are well read in the field, maybe not.

This book is now for sale.

The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee, by John Reeves*****

LostIndictmentRobtELeeI’ve never understood why so many Americans revere the memory of Robert E. Lee, the general that turned Lincoln away at the outbreak of the American Civil War and instead commanded the treasonous Army of Northern Virginia. When I saw this title, I leapt at the chance to read and review it. Thanks go to Net Galley and Rowman and Littlefield Publishers for the DRC. The book will be available to the public June 1, 2018.

Before reading this book I wasn’t even aware that an indictment had ever been issued. This is particularly odd given that a good part of my teaching career involved teaching American history and government. I even wondered, before opening it, whether this indictment would be metaphor; no indeed. Reeves did a lot of digging in order to write this book, and that’s what makes it worth having. His sources are ones that I cannot find myself through a quick Google search or a trip to the library or bookstore. Reeves  uses sources that require traveling hither and yon in order to access special collections that libraries won’t check out to anybody ever, that’s proof that this writer had done the legwork.

Back to the indictment. Following the end of the war and the death of Lincoln, the North—contrary to mythological retellings—clamored for retribution. Let’s all be brothers and have peace? Oh hell no. Who had not lost a brother, a son, a husband to this terrible conflict? And President Andrew Johnson, working hand-in-glove with the passionate abolitionist, Judge Underwood, set out to “make treason odious.” At a bare minimum, Lee, Jefferson Davis, and the members of the Confederate cabinet most closely linked to the war itself needed a day in court. Afterward, they needed to either hang, or rot in prison for a goodly while. So the thinking went.

As usual, the devil was in the details. Why is it so difficult for government to move swiftly? A lot of terrible decisions were made here, the most noteworthy being to try these men in a civilian court rather than in a military tribunal. Too late they realized that Lee must then be tried by a jury of his peers in Virginia. This would have been disastrous, since Lee was regarded by most Caucasian Virginians as a hero, much the way we now look at Lincoln. After all, when the war broke out, most antiwar or antislavery advocates had to move North in fear of their physical safety, and only the diehard Dixie whistlers remained, so a fair and impartial jury in Virginia was a nonstarter. What could possibly be worse than letting Lee off scot-free? What would be worse would be for him to be exonerated.

Added into the stew was a heap of political scandal and the unraveling of Johnson’s presidency, and the tarnishing of Underwood’s reputation, a man controversial from the get-go.  At the end of the day they were too busy salvaging themselves to bring these men to justice.

I find some measure of comfort in the knowledge that Arlington, the huge, fancy estate that had been passed down to Lee’s wife and of which he never stopped bragging, as if property ownership and family history made his family American royalty, was expropriated by the Union, and its extensive grounds became Arlington National Cemetery. After Lee’s death, there was considerable talk among the public suggesting that the widow Lee should get her old house back; however, she overstepped when imperiously telling Congress that she also wanted the remains of all those poor boys dug up and interred some other place. There was almost nothing she could have said or done to lose the sympathy vote more quickly.

This excellent book is highly recommended to those that are interested in the American Civil War and its aftermath.

The Day Fidel Died, by Patrick Symmes*

thedayfidelThose that admire and stand in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution will not find any measure of satisfaction here.  When I read the promotional blurb, I noticed that this account was written by a Rolling Stone Magazine journalist, and that it was written soon after President Obama opened relations between the US and Cuba. I thank Net Galley for permitting me to read a review copy free of charge, but that cannot diminish my disappointment and irritation (thus one star) at the patronizing, reactionary vantage from which Symmes writes.

Has no one noticed that even the United Nations has recognized that Cuba is the only nation in Latin America and the Caribbean to eradicate malnutrition? And has nobody noticed that when Fidel died, the revolution didn’t die with him?

Most nations do not offer visiting heads of state a forum and opportunity to locate and meet with the disgruntled fringe citizens that might be open to overthrowing the government of the host nation. Symmes’ punch line here seemed to be that by Obama cutting his trip short, he was somehow making the Cuban Revolution ‘irrelevant’.

Do the other nations of Latin America and the Caribbean see it thus? Has Africa adopted this stance? I didn’t think so. It is only possible to see the Cuba in that light if one filters world news through the view of international business conglomerates and the U.S. government.  Happily, there are independent thinkers here that can appreciate the contributions made by Cuba in ending hunger and oppression in that country and making medical advances from which the whole world benefits.

This book is a waste of ink, and a waste of space in one’s digital library.

Eloquent Rage, by Brittney Cooper****

EloquentRageCooper has had enough, and who can blame her?

I received my copy of Cooper’s essays free and early, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. Her prose is clear, articulate, and full of fire.

Had I read my post-Trayvon civil rights titles in a different sequence, I might very well have called this a five star collection. However, I read Samantha Irby, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Angela Davis, and Matt Taibbi first, and so the bar was set somewhere in the stratosphere when I opened this galley. I wanted Cooper’s viewpoints to be accompanied by some hard facts, complete with citations. However, for those looking to have their world view clarified and their consciousness raised, Cooper’s collection is recommended.