We Were Eight Years in Power, by Ta-Nehisi Coates*****

WeWereEightYears Ta-Nehisi Coates is pissed. He has a thing or two to say about the historical continuity of racism in the USA, and in this series of eight outstanding essays, he says it well. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House, and I apologize for reviewing it so late; the length wasn’t a problem, but the heat was hard to take. That said, this is the best nonfiction civil rights book I have seen published in at least 20 years.

Coates started his writing career as a journalist, and became the civil rights columnist for The Atlantic. For those Caucasians that advise Black folk to just get over this nation’s ugly history because slavery has been gone for 150 years, he has a response. Pull up your socks and be ready. To Bill Cosby and Patrick Moynihan and anybody else that wants to blame the high poverty level on the demise of the Black family, look out. And for anyone that seriously believes that the election of Barack Obama to the presidency is proof that America’s institutional racism is dead and gone, step back a minute.

When Coates sets out to make a point, he comes armed for conflict. Not only is he searing eloquent, his research is hard to dispute. Regarding white folk that hold themselves blameless for what their ancestors have done, he wonders why we feel so free to claim our veterans every May and November and yet pretend that our white bedsheeted predecessors have nothing to do with us.

He has a point.

For those of us that are persuaded that the election of Donald Trump to the White House is more about economics and the unemployment of poor white people or the abrasive nature of Ms. Clinton than about white supremacy, Coates has some cogent arguments that run in the other direction. It’s enough to make you stop and think, and that’s why I am tardy with my review. I read in small bites, and then I had to reconsider some of my own conclusions. And although it stings, great writing does this. If we are paying attention, we have to realign some of our own thinking in order to meet the reality this book presents.

Coates is bemused by Caucasian readers that love his work. I understand his bewilderment; nobody likes to hear bad news about the characters of their ancestors, let alone about themselves. But if a thing needs doing, it needs to be done right, and in that respect, Coates is undeniable.

Highly recommended to everyone genuinely interested in civil rights in the USA.

Fifty Years of 60 Minutes, by Jeff Fager*****

“‘Wille Nelson?’ Mike said in disgust. ‘Willie Nelson? I said Winnie and Nelson–as in Mandela!’ And then with real attitude he snapped, ‘Heard of them?’ He ended with a classic Mike Wallace line: ‘Excuse me, I didn’t realize I had wandered into the toy department.’ Mike then left the office and, walking down the hall, shouted back to Josh, ‘Good luck with your next career move!'”

FiftyYearsof6060 Minutes first aired in 1968, a year for news if ever there was one. It was brilliantly conceived as a television news magazine, covering multiple unrelated news stories in a single broadcast. Executive producer Jeff Fager offers the reader an insider’s peek; lucky me, I read it early and free thanks to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley. It’s for sale today.

60 Minutes did the stories nobody else was doing, and its correspondents were geniuses at persuading their subjects to open up and tell the world what it wanted to know. From President-elect Richard Nixon, who promised to ‘restore respect to the presidency’, to the torture of prisoners at Abu-Ghraib, 60 Minutes has been there and spoken to those that have done these things or borne witness to them.  I’ll bet I am not the only viewer that remembers the interview with the bitter, dying tobacco executive with throat cancer, rasping out what he knows on television. From Miss Piggy to the Ayatollah Khomeini, from Lance Armstrong to Khadafi, everyone has 15 minutes of fame…did they interview Andy Warhol? I’ll bet they did.

Just as on the show, the book touches briefly but meaningfully on each subject, complete with lovely color photographs, both formal and candid, and then moves on before one can become bored. The careers of the professionals that worked on the show, behind the scenes and on it, are also described. Perhaps the most poignant anecdote is when ancient Andy Rooney, past 90, developing Alzheimer’s, but still in the saddle, keeps forgetting that he is supposed to give a farewell address. He keeps returning long after he was going to get gone, and finally his son has to write cue cards for him to read on the air. Rooney seems vaguely puzzled when he discovers he has retired.

The whole thing is organized in congenial sections, decade by decade, but it’s the sort of book you can leave on your coffee table for guests to flip through.  If they are adults, I can almost guarantee they’ll say, “Oh hey. I remember this!” What a wonderful ice breaker.

Highly recommended; buy it in the hardcover format.

Troublemaker, by Leah Remini and Rebecca Paley****

TroublemakerActor Leah Remini was a child when her mother discovered Scientology; the church was in many ways her parent. When she rebelled against it, she was smart and very public, and she spells the entire thing out for us right here.

Scientology is a cult that relies heavily, as cults do, on secrecy and peer pressure. Children are seen as adults in children’s bodies; they have more agency than kids in normal families do, but they also have absolutely no support system. This is a thing that the states should have been all over a long time ago, but money talks, and the church cultivates relationships with people in key places. No wonder they didn’t want Remini—or anybody else—to talk about it. In turns her memoir is incisive, shocking, and sometimes very funny. Remini discovered that the emperor isn’t wearing a stitch when she challenged the double standard the church uses with regard to big names, in particular Tom Cruise. Her candor and wit make the story shine.

Should you buy this book? I did, thanks to a gift certificate from Powell’s City of Books. Had I known that there was an entire television series, in documentary format, I might have decided to buy something else, but it’s a well-written memoir, albeit with the assistance of someone else.  It flows well with never a slow point, and there are a lot of interesting pictures.

An interesting memoir, and a fast read.

Lola’s House, by M. Evelina Galang***-****

LolasHouseDuring World War II, the Japanese Imperial Army forced over 400,000 women into sexual slavery; though the Korean comfort women have been recognized for a long time, the survivors in the Philippines lived with the trauma and appalling social stigmatization for decades, unheard. Recently 173 of them, now very elderly, filed suit against the Japanese government. This collection includes interviews with 16 Filipina women whose lives were ruined by this atrocity. Thanks go to Net Galley and Northwestern University Press for the DRC, which I received early and free in exchange for this honest review. The collection is for sale now.

This is a rough read, hard to push through for the very thing that makes it valuable: it tells the women’s experiences in their own words. And they want to be heard. For decades, nobody, including their own families, has been willing to listen to them. After experiencing cruel, sadistic torture, they were greeted, upon the army’s departure, as social pariahs. Their countrymen let them know that nobody wants anything to do with a woman that’s been touched, penetrated, harmed in many unspeakable ways by the Japanese. They were called “Japanese leftovers.” Thus, their nightmare at the hands of the enemy was worsened by a subsequent nightmare at the hands of those they thought would console them.

And so as you can imagine, it’s not an enjoyable book. It isn’t intended to be.

Galang is also Filipina, and she weaves her own story in with that of her subjects. I would have preferred that she restrict herself to the topic; whereas including her own memoir may be cathartic, it also slows the pace. There are also snippets of untranslated Tagalog, and although this may resonate for those that are bilingual, context didn’t make the passages clear much of the time, and so I was left with the choice to either run to my desktop, type in the passages, translate them and return to the text, or just skip them and read on. It didn’t take me long to decide on the latter.

So as a general read for the lover of history, I can’t recommend this book, but for the researcher, it’s a gold mine. There is information here that you won’t find anywhere else. There are primary documents end to end here. I can imagine any number of thesis topics for which this work would be pivotal.

For the researcher, this is a four star read.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward*****

SingUnburiedI had never read Ward’s work before, and now that I have I will follow her anywhere. Sing Unburied, Sing is a literary masterpiece, and one that fits the time in which we live. It opens up all sorts of thorny questions for examination, but like most thorns, it stings. I received my copy free and early courtesy of Scribner and Net Galley. This title is available to the public now.

Jojo and Kayla have been raised by their grandparents in rural Mississippi; Mam and Pop are their source of love and stability. Leonie, the mother they call by her first name as if she were a sister, drifts in and out, using copious amounts of meth and other drugs. Michael, the children’s Caucasian father, is being released from Parchman, the notorious prison where he has been sent after having killed Leonie’s brother, Given. Given comes to her when she’s high. She doesn’t know it, but Jojo and Kayla can see him, too.

The contours of this story have to look familiar to a lot of people, and we are faced with unanswerable questions. Is it better, for example, for children to be raised by grandparents, though they are infirm and exhausted and have earned some time to themselves in peace and without dependents, or is it better for their parent or parents to take them, although they have no money, job, or parenting skills?

Whether it’s the right thing to do or not—and I’ll tell you right now that for Jojo and Kayla, it isn’t—Leonie swoops in and after overcoming her mother’s resistance, takes the children and heads for Parchman to pick up her man. There is no plan at all in place for once he’s been retrieved. Leonie is not the swiftest deer in the forest, and then of course she’s high a lot of the time, and seems to have been solipsistic from the get-go; at one point in the story Mam tells Jojo that his mama just doesn’t have the mothering instinct.

It’s the understatement of the century.

On their odyssey they encounter racist cops, a Caucasian drug-dealing attorney, and a host of other beings, living and not. The narrative is told in the first person by Leonie and Jojo alternately, with a voice from Pop’s past peeking in once the adventure is underway. Although the characters are traveling physically through most of the story, it’s not about setting; it’s about character. We learn these characters so intimately that it’s almost as if we ride beneath their skins, and we also learn Pop’s terrible secret.

None of this description can convey Ward’s alchemy, her capacity to take the language and shape it into something much more than its parts, nor does it adequately relay her skill, authority, and overwhelming power. Ward is a lion.

That said, if you need a feel-good novel, this book is not for you. It’s a dark, tragic, terrible story, and the characters are largely unlovable ones, but none of this should keep you from it. This novel will be talked about for a long, long time.

Highly recommended to those that love excellent fiction.

If the Creek Don’t Rise, by Leah Weiss*****

IftheCreekDon'tRiseLeah Weiss hits the literary scene with electrifying Southern fiction August 22, 2017. If the Creek Don’t Rise is a story told with tremendous heart, and it’s one you won’t want to miss.  Weiss writes with swagger and grace, and her prose crackles with conviction. Thanks go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Our tale unfolds in the hills and hollers of Appalachian North Carolina in the mid-twentieth century. Moonshine stills are as jealously guarded as ever, but now a person can get killed over a Ginseng patch as well.  Formal education isn’t valued by everyone, and it’s hard to come by.  Baines Creek is home to only one educated man, and that’s the minister, Eli Perkins, whose haunting early memories include the exorcism of Pharrell Moody; imagine a phalanx of grim, weapon-bearing deacons converging on a dark woods.

But now, Eli looks forward to having an educated person to talk to. The new teacher, Kate Shaw is a great big woman, middle-aged. She wears trousers “like a man”, and gossip is thick in the air before she’s even met the community. She tells everyone that she was fired from her last job, a smart move since it takes some of the wind out of the venomous rumor mill that greets her.

But Eli is smitten.

Another person that likes Kate immediately is Sadie Blue. Sadie is seventeen and newly married; the nuptials were a combination wager and shotgun affair. Now she’s isolated, lonely, and illiterate, but in Kate, a kindly soul that listens to her without judging, Sadie sees hope. Eli asks what Sadie thinks of the new teacher, and she says, “Got her a globe that spins…Gonna teach me to read.”

Sadie’s mother left her when she was tiny, and so Gladys has raised her. Gladys is Sadie’s grandmother, and she raised her alone after the death of her husband. She doesn’t want Sadie to marry Roy, but she also knows she can’t raise Sadie’s baby herself.  Now Sadie is part wife, part captive, in the home of Roy Tupkin, a rattlesnake-mean abuser. Gladys isn’t the only one that doesn’t like Roy.  Marris, who is close to Gladys, observes that “Roy needs killing”, and the sentiment is shared by Kate, who tells the reader that she would like to dismember him limb from limb. “I’d use a rusty saw.”

To be sure, it’s a violent tale full of hardscrabble characters living in horrifying rural poverty. Running water? Maybe, but probably not. Food stamps? Don’t even think it. Worthwhile job skills in Baines Creek involve knowing how to drive in the pitch dark around narrow mountain switchbacks without falling off, and knowing how to package a body for burial when no coffin is ready to hand. There’s a hint of Deliverance here, along with a voice that bears a similarity at times to that of Sharyn McCrumb as well as Fannie Flagg, winking in and out in places, yet it is never derivative. The grimness is broken up with stark, surprising humor that dodges out from behind a tree and catches us unaware.

I highlighted multiple brilliant character sketches, but I can’t quote all of them here;  Birdie, Jerome Biddle, Marris, and Tattler Swann are all unforgettable.  I would want to see this movie if I were assured no one would change any part of Weiss’s narrative.

This story has created a great deal of buzz, and rightly so. Don’t let yourself be left out. This story is recommended to all that love great fiction and that have a strong literacy level.

What I’m Reading

I’ve been experimenting with ways to share what is coming up next. Usually I put this on a different page, but then it also tends not to get seen, likely due to the absence of share buttons. Let me know what you think. Is it better to post it separately, or do you like it here?

 

Here are books I’ve finished reading, and as soon as a sane moment presents itself in my uncharacteristically busy domicile, you will see them reviewed here:

 This is what I am reading now; all are good, but some are outstanding. [Imaginary drum roll goes here.]

The Lauras, by Sara Taylor*****

TheLauras“It doesn’t do any good to just run away from something, you’ve got to be running to something.”

 

Alex’s mom has been hit one time too many by Alex’s dad, and she wakes Alex up and says to get a few things together and get in the car. They’re out of there. The rest of the story is an odyssey, both externally and internally, and within it, Alex comes of age. The story is beautifully crafted with gritty, nearly-tangible settings; however, it is the meticulous, absolutely believable characters that makes this story sing. It is the first outstanding work of fiction I’ve seen that features a transgender teen, and like so much great fiction, it provides an education to those of us that haven’t known anyone that claims this identity. In fact, this book may become the Rubyfruit Jungle for trans people and those that care about them. I read this novel free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Crown Publishing; it’s available to the public August 1, 2017.

Feminists have to cheer for Alex’s mother, who Alex calls “Ma”. Ma has a car, she has maps, she has some food, and she has Alex. When a state trooper pulls her over because both she and her car have been reported missing by Alex’s father, Ma tells him point blank that the car is in her name, and that Alex is hers, not theirs. No, she doesn’t need to come with him. No, she doesn’t have to make a phone call. It wouldn’t always play out this way for everyone, of course, but just seeing it work once, right here, is satisfying and it’s credible. In fact, there’s never a hole in the plausibility of this story, even though the events that unfold here are far from ordinary.

This trip, one that initially has a destination but turns into a wandering trek all across North America, gives Alex the first real taste of learning who Ma is. Any parent that has raised a teenager and has had a car understands the value of car talk. Both driver and passenger look straight ahead, and then sometimes things just naturally fall out of their mouths that otherwise would remain unsaid. Not having the money to keep a smart phone alive facilitates this even more; when there’s nothing else to look at, the choices are talk; silence; and sleep.

And so Alex learns that Ma was raised largely in foster care, and the road trip provides a chance to trace back the string, to see the places life bounced her in and out of through adult eyes. Essentially, they are homeless much of the time, sleeping in the car, in the occasional down-at-the-heels motel, and every now and then alighting long enough to procure an apartment, though never the sort you’d want unless you were desperate. Sometimes she works; sometimes they steal; sometimes they are given a handout; still, they survive, and the trek goes on. And we see the disastrous failure of the public school system to accommodate a kid like Alex, who is expected to check either the male box on the enrollment form, or the female box, and whose refusal to do so is treated as a behavioral issue.

There are times in my notes when I find myself referring to Alex as “she”, and it shows how ingrained our social system is, particularly for those of us that are older and have to work harder to think flexibly. At times I feel the same urge as those obnoxious school children Alex encounters in the story that want to know exactly what reproductive organ is inside Alex’s pants, because when I was growing up, that was how we identified gender. But as I watched Alex’s character take form within Taylor’s deep, intimate prose, I found that knowing Alex as Alex was enough. We never learn what’s between Alex’s legs, and by the end of the book, it no longer matters. That’s an accomplishment in and of itself.

As for Alex’s future, it’s a conundrum. What Alex wants most is for Ma to point the car toward home, toward Dad. Oh, please please please. It’s the refrain of children the world over whose parents have split, children clinging to the illusion that if they are all reunited, everything will be fine. Oh, of course it will! And we know early in the story that this will never happen, and we don’t want Ma to go back there. But Alex wants Ma, and Alex wants Dad. And this is a quandary that many readers will recognize as their own childhood longing.

One last word here is directed at teachers and parents. The literacy level here will be accessible to high school age students; however, there are sexual situations—as well as a sexual assault—and a lot of very profane language. If you wonder whether you want to put it on your shelf at school or home, get a copy and read it yourself first. I would have chosen to offer it to my own children when they were teens—they are grown now—but every family is different, and schools also have such a wide range of standards that you’re better off using your own judgment.

That said, this pivotal novel is highly recommended.

Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance*****

HillbillyElegyI confess I was miffed when I wasn’t granted a DRC for this title, and after reading a couple of reviews, I decided I could live without it. I began to wonder about my choice when I saw it hover on the best seller lists where it remains as of this writing nearly a year after its publication, But the clincher came when my younger daughter came to me and said that she had read it digitally and believed I would enjoy it. She said it had to do with the culture of mining families, and that the dedication was to the writer’s “Mamaw and Papaw”.

It hit me like a bolt of lightning.

A personal note of explanation: I am a grandmother myself now, and my own Mamaw and Papaw were both dead and gone by the time I learned that this was not a set of names that belonged to my family alone. I was the youngest among my cousins and siblings, and had somehow assumed that these grandparents’ names were the result of something said by one of the older kids when they were small. By the time I came along, they had left the mines of the rural Rust Belt and purchased a small working farm in central California. No one else I knew had grandparents with those names or had heard of them. Later my grandparents, aunt and uncle (who—I am not making this up—were an Aunt Sister and Uncle Brother) would relocate to the mountains of Southern Oregon, to the farthest outreaches, secret places up barely-there dirt roads that would make a survivalist happy. Neither California or Oregon is mentioned at all in Vance’s memoir, and so it makes me wonder just how far this culture has permeated across the USA.

Vance tells us that his memoir is particular to the culture of working class Scots-Irish people, primarily in the Appalachian Mountains. But of course, when one mine closes, miners follow the work, and so the culture has spread quite a long way. He himself didn’t grow up in Appalachia, because his grandparents had made a point of moving away from there when a factory opened in a small Southern Ohio town, and so that was where he spent most of his childhood. But the roots ran deep, and they often returned to the West Virginia area where most of the family remained.

The memoir itself is fascinating. His grandparents were enormously tough and tremendously loving. He recounts one experience in which a drug-addicted visitor appeared to be dying of a PCP overdose in the front room, and Mamaw ordered that the person be dragged to a nearby park, because “I don’t want him to die in my fucking house!”

Another time, the author’s immensely unstable mother had beaten JD, and Mamaw persuaded him to lie to the cops, who could never be a part of any solution to their family. Instead, once in the car, “We drove home in silence after Mamaw explained that if Mom lost her temper again, Mamaw would shoot her in the face.”

I am amazed at the similarities that exist between Vance’s culture and that of my father’s family. Over the years succeeding generations have become more educated and moved, for the most part, out of the tulles and to suburbs and cities. But many of the values and cultural nuances remain. And if this is true for me, a Seattle resident of nearly 30 years, how many others across the nation will recognize it as well? Perhaps this is part of the book’s tremendous success.

In closing I want to give a shout-out to Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon, the city where I grew up. Powell’s has a daily drawing for its reviewers, and each day someone wins a $100 gift certificate. My prize is what made it possible for me to purchase this glorious brand new, hard cover edition.

Highly recommended to those interested in the culture of Scots Irish mining families and their descendants, and to those that love excellent memoirs.

Beartown, by Fredrik Backman****

beartown“You can fuck any girl you like here tonight; they’re all hockey-whores when we win.”

Fredrik Backman is a sly writer, and he has a way of spiraling around his central point so that readers are mighty close by the time they recognize where they are. He writes with philosophical grace tinged with wit, and his novels are popular because of it. And so it cheers me to see him examine what might happen to a small depressed town whose hopes are all hinged on youth sports. Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the DRC, which I read free of charge in exchange for this honest review. Beartown is available to the public today.

In Beartown, everyone dreams of hockey, and those that don’t are stuck on the outside looking in. A man’s glory days are done before he’s 40; a woman has no glory days at all, since women cannot play on the men’s team and there is no women’s team. Everything comes second to hockey: education, social skills, and even the law are bent, sometimes to the breaking point, in order to accommodate star athletes. Hockey is the town’s only remaining business, and it seems to provide the only possible hope for young men that have grown up in the forest and don’t want to leave it to seek work.

Backman has a genius for drawing the reader in. Some of the scenes in this story actually make me laugh out loud. His respect for women is a breath of fresh air as well. In literary terms, though, the greatest success of this piece is the way a large number of characters are developed so that readers genuinely feel that we know not just a protagonist, but a whole town. We know who is related, what private baggage exists between individuals and families, which marriage is happy and which is not, and it’s delivered to us in a way that never feels gossipy or prurient. Rather, Backman makes us feel as if we are part of the town, and so everything is important to us as well.

Fans of Backman’s will be pleased once again here. My sole quibble is that I see a character at the end behave in a way that is so inconsistent with what we know of him so far that I can hear the violins play. It’s heartwarming, but if the same thing had been achieved more subtly, it would be credible as well.

Nevertheless, you won’t want to miss this book. Regardless of the ugly things that are said and done at various points, the author comes back, as he always has before, to the innate goodness of the human spirit, and it’s messages like this one that we need so badly today. Recommended to those that enjoy good fiction.