Mecca, by Susan Straight*****

Susan Straight is a force to be reckoned with. I knew this after I finished reading I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots after it came out in 1992, and after I sought out, bought, and read everything else she’d written that was available. When I discovered that her new novel, Mecca, was available on Net Galley, I leapt on it. My thanks go to Net Galley and to Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Mecca, an ironic title if ever there was one, is a story of race, class, and gender, and the way that they play into the “Justice” system in California. Add a generous seasoning of climate change and its horrific effects in dry, dry Southern California, and a fistful of opioid addiction, and you have a heady mix indeed. But these are all well worn ground at this point, and this book is exceptional, not because it examines complex current events, but because of Straight’s facility in building visceral characters we care about, and launching them into this maelstrom in a way that makes it impossible to forget.

We begin with Johnny Frias, an American citizen of Latino heritage. As a rookie and while off duty, he kills a man that is raping and about to murder a woman named Bunny. He panics and gets rid of the body without reporting what’s happened. Frias is on the highway patrol, and he takes all sorts of racist crap all day every day. But his family relies on him, and when push comes to shove, he loves his home and takes pride in keeping it safe.

Ximena works as a maid at a hotel for women that have had plastic surgery. One day she is cleaning a room and finds a baby! What to do? She can’t call the authorities; she’d be blamed, jailed, deported, or who knows what. She does the best thing she can think of, and of course, there’s blowback anyway.

And when a young Black man, a good student with loads of promise that has never been in any trouble at school, or with the law, is killed because the cops see his phone fall out of the car and decide it’s a gun…?

I find this story interesting from the beginning, but it really kicks into gear in a big way at roughly the forty percent mark. From that point forward, it owns me.

As should be evident from what I’ve said so far, this story is loaded with triggers. You know what you can read, and what you can’t. For those of us that can: Straight’s gift is in her ability to tell these stories naturally, and to develop these characters so completely that they almost feel like family. It is through caring about her characters that we are drawn into the events that take place around them, and the things that happen to them.

This is a complex novel with many moving parts and connections. I read part of this using the audio version, which I checked out from Seattle Bibliocommons. But whereas the narrators do a fine job, I find it easier to keep track of the characters and threads when I can see it in print. If you are someone that can’t understand a story well until you’ve heard it, go for the audio, or best of all, get both.

Highly recommended.

Genghis: Birth of an Empire, by Conn Iggulden*****

Though I usually review books that are either newly published or are about to be, once in awhile I reach back and discuss books that have been around for awhile. This one is excellent, and I consider it unmissable.

This book is phenomenal. How much do any of us know about Genghis Khan?

One thing I learned in discussion with my spouse, who is a Japanese citizen, is that whereas we from Western cultures pronounce the warrior’s name with a hard G, Asians–including the Mongolian culture from which the Khan emerged–pronounce it softly, like a J. I figure Mongols know how the name should be pronounced, so I have begun to pronounce it that way, too.

I wanted to read this series, or at least the first entry, because although I have read at least something about most of the greatest warriors in the world over time, I had read nothing about Genghis. We have a nonfiction tome, but it’s the sort of slog one only undergoes out of desperation, or as assigned coursework.

The first two or three chapters seemed fine, but not great. I wasn’t even sure if I would read the rest of the series. By the halfway point, however, my mind had changed completely! I found myself online doing image searches for the housing, clothing, and other parts of the nomadic life.

I have purchased the next in the series. I rarely buy books for myself, because I have so many already and have such constant access to galleys that it isn’t necessary; yet now and then, there’s a book I’ve gotta have, and that’s how I feel about this series.

Highly recommended for those that are interested in this time and place in history; in Genghis himself; or in military history.

Agent Sniper, by Tim Tate***

I was invited to read and review this book by Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. I accepted because I do love a good spy story, and there aren’t many of them being published at this time. Tim Tate has had a long, illustrious career as a documentary filmmaker and as an author, but is new to me.

So, when I began reading and found my attention wandering, I thought it was a personal problem. Too many distractions. I tried again, and when that didn’t go well, I procured the audio version and listened to it while I prepared dinners during the week. Eventually, I threw in the towel and admitted that this is simply not an engaging book. The topic sounds fascinating, but just as a gifted, dedicated author can spin dull material to gold, so can an indifferent one tell an electrifying spy story in a way that leaves the reader checking the page numbers and the clock—is this thing over yet?

It’s not all bad news: the research here is top drawer. For the researcher, this book has use, although I would caution the uninitiated into reading carefully, because history is always politically charged. Every fact that is included, and every fact that is not; the interpretation; the language used, all give a biased account, even when a researcher and writer is endeavoring to be as balanced as possible. I don’t care for this writer’s interpretation, which makes him sound like a hardened right winger, but I have no doubt that the facts that he uses are accurate ones.

Then we come to the audio, and I must wonder why, if we’re primarily dealing with the CIA and its agents, we have a narrator with a clipped English accent (and a few pronunciations that sounded very odd to me,) telling the story. I found it disorienting, but if this had been a more engaging story, I would have overlooked it.

Ultimately it comes down to wordsmithery, and I didn’t find much of it. Those interested in dabbling in this genre would do better to read Ben McIntyre and Tim Weiner.

This book is for sale now.

Happy Release Day!

I reviewed this outstanding collection earlier, but today it is available to the public. Hill won awards for the first collection, and this is, if anything, even better.

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Invisible Child, by Andrea Elliott*****

I was invited to read and review this book by Random House and Net Galley, and immediately I accepted, because it’s right in my wheelhouse. However, I also understood that it would be a painful read, and I postponed it for months, because 2021 was already a terrible year, and I wasn’t feeling brave. So my apologies for the delay; at the same time, this book is not quite as wrenching as I expected, and the research and writing are stellar. It’s for sale now.

Dasani Coates is the firstborn child of an impoverished, disorganized African-American mother with few marketable skills.  She is named after the premium brand bottled water, because her mom thinks it’s a beautiful name. (Wait till you see what the next baby’s name will be!) They live in Brooklyn, and not long after Dasani is born, she has a sister. And another. And another, and then eventually a brother and a couple of step-siblings. None of them are the result of poor family planning; all are planned and wanted. But at the same time, they have very few resources, and the slender safety net provided by relatives doesn’t last forever; and the city fails to protect its most vulnerable denizens.

As a retired teacher that worked in high poverty schools, I have seen families similar to this one, and the children suffer the most, every stinking time. I’ve also seen children take on the role that Dasani assumes without ever planning to do so, that of the adult in the house (when there is a house,) caring for a large group of tiny people when the actual adult isn’t adulting. If you watch closely enough for long enough, it can eat you alive; as for the far-too-young surrogate parent, I have seen them cope admirably, right up until they become adults themselves, and often, it is then that they fall apart. I don’t know whether that holds true for Dasani, because we don’t see her as an adult, but I can well imagine.

Elliott, a Pulitzer winning journalist from The New York Times, follows this family closely for eight years, sometimes sleeping on the floor of their house or apartment. In her endnotes, she explains her methodology, her relationship to the family during this project, and the parameters determined by the paper, for whom she originally did this research. Dasani was the subject of a front page series on poverty in New York which ran for five days. Elliott’s documentation is impeccable, and she can write like nobody’s business.

Because I am running behind, I check out the audio version of this book from Seattle Bibliocommons, and I want to give a shout out to Adenrele Ojo, the narrator, who is among the very best readers I’ve yet encountered. Though I continue to use my review copy at times, I like Ojo’s interpretation of the voices for each of the large number of characters so well that I find I prefer listening to reading.

As I read, I become so attached to Dasani that I skip to the end—which I almost never do—because if she is going to get dead, I need to brace myself for it. I’ll tell you right now, because for some of you, this might be a deal breaker, and I’d hate for you to miss this important biography: it’s dark, but not that dark.

I don’t find myself feeling nearly as sympathetic toward Dasani’s mother, Chanel, as the author does, but I do think Dasani’s stepfather, who is the only father she knows, gets a bad, bad break. He jumps through every single bureaucratic hoop that is thrown at him in an effort to get some help for the seven children left in his care, and every time, the city turns its back on him, right up until a social worker comes calling, finds that they don’t have the things they need, and takes his children. This made me angrier than anything else, apart from a few boneheaded, destructive things that Chanel does.

For those that care about social justice and Civil Rights issues, this book is a must read. I highly recommend it to you.  

Hell of a Book, by Jason Mott*****

It really is.

This book is a standout in more ways than one. First the obvious: look at that cover! Then again, how many novels have a nameless protagonist all the way through the book? Get into it deeper, and the distinctions become more complex. The buzz around it is wholly justified. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Our author is on an odyssey that takes the form of a book tour, and it lands him, in the end, back where he grew up. He doesn’t tour alone; apart from the various organizers he meets in various locations, he is accompanied by a small Black child he refers to as “The Kid.” Alternately, we also see the story of a young Black boy, a very Black boy, nicknamed “Soot,” who grows up in the American South.

As I read, I am always on the back foot, understanding most of what it being said, yet developing questions as I go. Our author says (often) that he has a condition, and that this is probably why he can see The Kid when others cannot. My notes ask whether his condition is dissociative, and is The Kid just part of himself? Or is The Kid Soot? Are Soot and The Kid both part of the author? Every time I come up with a plausible theory, something else happens to undercut it. Yet one other thing becomes clearer all the way through: to be born an African-American boy in the United States is to be perpetually on the back foot; perpetually having to guess how best to proceed; to perpetually guess at one’s welcome or lack of same, at the quality of one’s relationships with Caucasians, to perpetually guard one’s own safety. And to be very Black—“Nigga, I bet when you get out of the car your daddy’s oil light come on”—is to invite not only the suspicion and hostility of Caucasians, but to draw the enmity of lighter Black people, too.

The synopsis of this story that initially drew me billed it as humor, and in places, it is not only funny, but laugh-out-loud funny. But the further we get in, the darker it becomes.

There are a number of sardonic references to the publishing world; editors, agents, and other promoters have told the author that while it’s fine to write about Black characters, He must not write about being Black:

“The last thing people really want to hear about is being Black. Being Black’s a curse—no offense—and nobody wants to feel cursed when they read something they just finished paying $24.95 for…The future of this country is all about patriotic, unity-inducing language. Post-Racial. Trans-Jim Crow. Epi-Traumatic. Alt-Reparational. Omni-Restitutional. Jingoistic Body-Positive. Sociocultural-Transcendental. Indigenous-Ripostic. Treat of Fort Laramie-Perpendicular. Meta-Exculpatory. Pan-Political. Uber-Intermutual. MOK-Adjacent. Demi-Arcadian Bucolic. Write about love. Love and Disney endings…”

Later, an interviewer asks if the past doesn’t still matter, and the author says, “It does. Not just three-fifths of it, but all of it.”

So, my friend, you can see why this book should be called a love story. Race? Oh, no no no. Fear? Injustice? Police brutality? Of course not. After all, this is a hell of a book!

Highly recommended; one of the year’s finest.

Bird Uncaged, by Marlon Peterson****

I’ve never felt so ambivalent about a Civil Rights memoir. I read this book free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Public Affairs. It’s for sale now.

At the outset, Peterson describes his early years as the son of Trinidadian immigrants living in Brooklyn. His family belongs to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so that is an angle I haven’t encountered before. He describes his brilliance as a student, and the glowing future that has been predicted for him, scholarships, fine schools, and a ticket to the top. It doesn’t happen that way, though. He is involved in a robbery that becomes a homicide, and he wants us to know none of it was his fault.

What?

This is what concerns me throughout most of the book. He describes the limitations on young Black men in America, the limitations of poverty; the racist assumptions; and the “toxic masculinity.” He is sexually assaulted as a youngster, and he considers that an element in his decision-making, the trauma of his past informing the crimes he commits later. He talks about this at length, but I’ll tell you what he doesn’t talk about much. He doesn’t talk much about the near-rape in which his was the pivotal role. He asks a “chick” out, and he and his friends are planning to “run a train” on her. But she is alarmed when she realizes that there are other men in the bedroom where they’re making out, and she gets away fast. He doesn’t recall her name, and he wants us to know he wasn’t that interested in her, anyway. She wasn’t “the pretty one,” she was the friend of the pretty one. And I keep wondering why he includes this if he feels so badly about what he and his homies nearly did to her. He pleads ignorance; he was a virgin. He just wanted to lose his virginity. He had believed she would welcome a roomful of men lining up to use her.

Uh huh.

There are also a good number of solid aspects to this memoir, most of them having to do with the dehumanizing American prison system. There’s not a lot that I haven’t seen before, but obviously, the system hasn’t been significantly altered as a result of the other memoirs that have seen publication, and so there’s a further need for stories like his. He speaks of how, while doing his time, after a visit from his mother, he kisses her on the cheek, and the guards swarm him to check the inside of his mouth before his mama is out the door. I’m guessing that after that farewell, the woman is out the door in a matter of seconds. What would it hurt to hold him there for 30 seconds, let the parent get out of the room, and then check him? It’s little things like this that increase the alienation felt by those that are incarcerated. Other countries don’t do it this way, and you have to wonder why the U.S. has to be so ugly about it. He leads a program and conducts protests while he’s inside, and is successful in making small changes. Other men learn from his work and are improved by it, and that’s something to be proud of.

But back to the robbery. He keeps reminding us that he was only nineteen years old, and I cannot, for the life of me, think why he considers this a mitigating circumstance. Ask a youth psychiatrist or counselor when men are at their most dangerous, and they will tell you that the teenage years are the worst, hands-down, because young men haven’t developed impulse control. And Peterson himself points out, later in the book, that when ex-cons get out of prison after spending a long time inside, they don’t go straight because they’re rehabilitated; they go straight because they’re older, and have outgrown that nonsense. It’s inconsistencies such as this one that weaken the narrative.

Toward the end, he pulls it together and claims responsibility, and he does so eloquently. But it makes me wonder why he didn’t go back and rewrite the earlier passages. Because there are a lot of red flags back there, things that those of us that have worked with at-risk youth know to listen and look for. For example, there are a lot of passive references to his crimes, things that “happened” rather than things that he did, or things that went differently than he expected; there’s an awful lot about his trauma, the environment, and allll the “toxic masculinity,” but thefts, robberies, and the homicide for which he was the lookout man but “didn’t even have a gun,” are given relatively little ink.

I’m carrying on quite a bit about this, but I have seen glowing reviews, and he’s gotten awards for this book, and nobody is talking about the red flags, and so I feel it’s important to mention them. The fact that the book ends with much more accountability is what’s kicked my rating up to four stars.

Read this book, but do it critically. There are lessons here that are intentional, and others that aren’t.

Buses Are a Comin’, by Charles Person and Richard Rooker*****

I’ve read my share of Civil Rights memoirs, and this is one of the best. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Charles Person grew up in an all-Black Atlanta neighborhood in the 1950s and 60s. At the story’s outset, he describes how sleeping arrangements were juggled inside their two-room apartment, with four family members sleeping in the front room, and three, himself among them, back in the kitchen. Since everyone in the neighborhood had roughly the same economic standing, it didn’t occur to Person that his family might be considered poor. He was at the top of his class academically, college-bound. His family were faithful church goers, and his father worked two-plus jobs to provide the bare necessities, but they never went hungry. It was only later, when his neighborhood was featured on a news program addressing “Urban blight,” that he learned that the place he loved and called home was part of a “tenement.” The overall tone of his home life is set at the beginning, when he describes an incident from childhood. He and another child stole peaches off of a neighbor’s tree, and his mother marches them to the door, makes them confess—which meant looking the owner in the eye and using the word “stole,” rather than a softer euphemism—and pay for the fruit they ate. Thus we know there’s a definite moral compass here.

It isn’t until he’s grown that Person learns about racism. He gets his first job at a bowling alley, and he learns what parts of that place and the surrounding businesses he is allowed to access, and which are for whites only. Later, he insists on sending his test scores and application to a Georgia university, knowing his marks are excellent, but is notified by mail that the school will not admit Negro (the accepted term at the time) students. As the lunch counter sit-ins in North Carolina draw headlines, Person becomes part of a local student effort to end segregation at the lunch counters in their area. Person is thrown in jail, and when he is released a short time later, he is experienced, primed, and ready for more.

The story of Person’s life, and of the Freedom Rides, which make up most of the memoir, is riveting. It’s told in first person, in a you-are-there kind of narrative that drew me in. I listened to part of this story using the audio book that I borrowed from Seattle Bibliocommons, but although the reader generally does a serviceable job with the text, I recommend the print version. I winced when the reader mispronounced “mimeograph”; there are no mimes in there, honey. But mostly, there are a lot of freedom songs interspersing the story, as the riders sing in jail, sing in the bus, sing, sing, and sing some more, and I don’t know about you, but it sets my teeth on edge when in the audio version the lyrics are simply read, with or without rhythm. Many of these are well-known songs, and if I see the words on the page, I will hear the music in my head. Listening to someone recite the words in a bloodless, wooden recitation is just sad.

For anyone that misses the connection, Person draws the connection between the Freedom Rides and the struggle of the present:

“It is sixty years later, and politicians do the same today when the devalue and disrespect important African-American societal concerns by turning Black Lives Matter into All Lives Matter. Of course, all lives matter. No one argues against that, but changing the issue from “Black” to “All” steals the legitimacy of a vital concern that needs political attention and a political solution. The intentional and insidious shifting on an issue through language is a calculated move. It was by [Georgia Governor] Vandiver in 1960, and it is today. It avoids and insults at the same time.”

There is no better time to learn the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-1900s, and apply them to the struggle against racist cop brutality in the present. If this subject makes you sit up a little straighter, you need this book. Of course, it’s also great reading for anyone that likes a good memoir, but even so, read it actively. There’s so much more work to be done.

Black Buck, by Mateo Askaripour****

Darren leads a moderately successful life, in charge of a local Starbucks, and happy at home with his longtime girlfriend and his mama. But all of them know that he can do more with his talents, and so when a recruiter from Sumwun comes for Darren, it seems like the opportunity of a lifetime. But you know what they say; be careful what you wish for.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

When Darren changes jobs, he moves out of his familiar surroundings, comfortably populated with people of color, many of whom he has known all his life, to a corporation where he is the only Black man. He is demeaned and subjected to almost every possible stereotype and racist trope, but he perseveres, because this is a sales job, and the timid and weak stand no chance at all. He knows that the longer he stays there, the stronger he’ll get, and as far as that goes, it’s true. When a disaster befalls the company, it’s Darren that pulls it out of the water. And then again. And again. And yet, the crap thrown by others keeps hitting him.

The magic of good satire is the recognition it draws, the moans and the nods and the headshakes. The author tells us in his introduction that the book is written for Black people, and it doesn’t take long to see why Caucasian people may not relate as well. Even those of us living in mixed families can only glimpse the edges of what Black people put up with; even so, I do find myself groaning and chuckling as the story progresses.

This is a strong work of fiction and an impressive debut, and I recommend it to everyone that knows that Black Lives Matter, and especially to those that only suspect it’s true. I look forward to seeing what  Askaripour writes next.

The Soul of a Woman, by Isabel Allende*****

Isabel Allende has long been a guiding light for women, immigrants, and social justice activists. She is an old woman now, and her wisdom and word smithery have only grown deeper and wider. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

There are four sections to this compact memoir, and overall, it is a memoir of Allende’s feminist philosophy and experiences. She also describes the trajectory of the feminist movement and the gains that have been made.  One of Allende’s most agreeable attributes is her candor, and she discusses her relationships with the men she has married with disarming frankness and humor. Her voice is like nobody else’s.

Generally speaking, I find it annoying when an author uses space in the book they’ve sold us to advertise a product or beg for funds, nonprofit or not; however, this time I wanted to stand up and cheer! Allende’s foundation exists to support women’s reproductive choices, and that includes abortion. Out of all the years I’ve blogged, over one thousand reviews I’ve scribed, and I have never seen abortion rights advocated so forcefully. I bow in admiration.

If I could have something more from this iconic writer, it would be an overall autobiography. She has written numerous memoirs, but all of them focus fairly narrowly on one particular aspect or time period. I would love to have her whole story in her own words.

Highly recommended.