Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading

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.

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.]

Scars of Independence, by Holger Hoock***

ScarsofIndependence I was invited to read and review this title by Net Galley and Crown Publishing. Thanks go to them for the DRC, and my apologies for being late, late, late. The title was published last month and is available now.

The strongest part of Hoock’s history, which seeks to set the record straight on the American Revolutionary War, is his research. He is an historian of some renown, and his entire life has been dedicated to studying and teaching about Britain. His sources are, as one might expect, thorough and impeccable. His thesis is that there was a great deal more violence over the course of this revolution than is commonly remembered, and

“By ‘violence’, I mean the use of physical force with intention to kill, or cause damage or harm to people or property. I also mean psychological violence: the use of threats, bullying tactics, and brutality to instill fear in people and influence their conduct and decisions…”

This is indeed a broad brush. In most courts of law today, a property crime is not considered a crime of violence, nor should it be. Better someone run away with your television set than shoot you, or knock you over the head, or hurt your family. And…bullying? Certainly such behavior gets more attention today, both legally and socially, particularly where young people are concerned; yet we are talking about a revolution here. A revolution! And this is part of what prevents me from engaging fully with the text. In the thick of a battle that will determine the futures of everyone concerned, a war to wrest control of its destiny from the mightiest naval power on Earth, it seems a bit of a stretch to expect that American Patriots and Loyalists would treat one another with perfect courtesy.

This brings me to the other part of this history that makes this reviewer cranky. The teaser suggests that this will be a balanced account, demonstrating that far more violence occurred on both sides than is widely taught in American schools, and it just isn’t so. In point of fact, although both Americans and Brits are discussed and shown to be more violent than most of us know, most of this book is dedicated to discussing the unprincipled, the unkind, the indecent ways British troops and loyal colonists were mishandled by brutal American Patriots. I went through my DRC with a highlighter, and far more space is given to bullying, demeaning, and other anti-British behaviors.

“Less careful individuals risked being investigated if they were overheard criticizing their local committee, if they drank a royal toast or sang “God Save the King” in the wrong company.”

My violin please.

There’s a lot of strong material here, and some of the tales of physical violence are graphic. In fact, the level of gory detail may be the summer reading dream of a nerdy teen with a strong reading level. And there is a lot of information that is new to me. Hoock depicts Lord North and King George III very differently from any other historian I have read; it would be easier for me to believe that Hoock’s viewpoint is the accurate one, had he admitted up front that he was writing from a largely Anglo-centric perspective.

The maps bear mention here. Rather than produce new maps that are legible on a DRC, Hoocks has chosen to use actual maps from the time period. This choice is hard to argue with; they’re primary documents, and although a second map that is more readable might be desired, I can’t argue that these maps should not be used. In fact, it’s interesting to see a map that includes what is now the Eastern USA and Eastern Canada with no line of demarcation, because nobody at the time regarded the US and Canada as separate entities. But I would say that those that want to read this book and that want the maps—which are important—should consider buying this title on paper rather than digitally, unless you intend to read it on large computer monitor.

Although the text isn’t as evenly balanced as the introduction implies, this is still a strong addition to the study of the American Revolution. It’s not an overview of the Revolution and does not pretend to be, so those looking to read just one book on the American Revolution should get something else. But for historians that want to deepen and enrich their understanding of this struggle and that think critically and independently, this book—in paper—is recommended.

Summertime, and the Reading is Easy

On my radar for July and August:

Jane Crow, by Rosalind Rosenberg****

JaneCrowPauli Murray is the person that coined the term “Jane Crow”, and was the first to legally address the twin oppressions of color and gender. I had seen her name mentioned in many places, but this is the first time I’ve read her story. Thank you to Net Galley and Oxford University Press for the opportunity to read it free in exchange for this honest review. This biography is for sale now.

Murray was born in North Carolina and was a labor activist during the turbulent 1930s. She was academically gifted and hardworking, but tormented by the issue of gender. 100 years ago, in the time and place into which fate dropped her, there was no recognition of trans people, and so her sense of herself (the pronoun she used) was that surely there was some unseen physical aspect to her body that must be male. She searched high and low for a surgeon that would perform exploratory surgery to discover whether she had an undescended testicle or some other material explanation to explain why she was convinced that she was actually male. It hurts to think about it. Those born after the early-to-mid-20th century cannot comprehend how the suggestion that gender could be binary was seen, and Murray was a devout Christian as well, and became an ordained Episcopal priest. By the time trans people gained respect from a significant percentage of Americans, Murray was no longer here.

Despite the misery and confusion that was inherent in such a life, Murray was prolific. She was declined a place at the University of North Carolina because of her race, and later denied a place at Harvard Law because of her gender. She graduated at the top of her class at Howard Law, the only woman in her class. Later she would be largely responsible for inclusion of the word “gender” in the title VII in 1964. Those of us that have benefited from that law—and there are a lot of us—tip our hats to her memory in gratitude.

Rosenberg has done a fine job in telling us about Murray. Her documentation is flawless and her narrative clear. At times—particularly in the beginning, before Murray’s career really catches fire—it’s a trifle dry, but I would prefer a clear, scholarly, linear narrative such as this one, over an exciting but sensationalized, less well documented telling any day of the week.

Those interested in the American Civil Rights movement and the history of the women’s rights movement in the USA should get this book and read it. Even if used primarily as a reference tool, it’s an indispensable resource, particularly to those with an interest in legal matters relating to discrimination and equity.

Sub Rosa, by Stewart Alsop and Thomas Braden**

subrosaI was invited to read and review this title by Net Galley and Open Road Media. At first I thought it looked like a real winner, and in many respects it is. For me, one glaring problem made it impossible to finish; more on that in a minute. For those interested in the Resistance during World War II, this may prove a successful read and an interesting one if you can get past the hurdle that stopped me.

And now, the rant: Why is it—I ask for perhaps the tenth time—that publishers that would never, ever dream of letting literature that gratuitously uses the “N” word,  and rightfully so, nevertheless let anti-Asian slurs drift in and out of historical prose as if they are nothing more than period details? Yes, it’s true that in World War II, Japanese were called some ugly things, and inexplicably, so were Chinese, though they were friendly toward the US. And it’s also true that there are Black men in the US military that were referred to by ugly, racist epithets by Caucasians at all levels of command. We don’t reprint the nasty words used with regard to African-American troops, because those words are hurtful, and the use of them is wrong. In fact, it may be considered a hate crime.

So then…why is it any less urgent that anti-Asian insults be expunged from literature?

If I had seen just one or two instances in this work, I would have included a comment to that effect here and move forward with a description of the book itself. And it’s true that there is solid information provided by specialists here, along with meaty anecdotes. It’s not easy to find accessible books that describe the Resistance in a knowledgeable way, and this book does that. In fact, without the vile language incorporated here without recognition or comment on the part of the authors or the publisher, I would probably rate this at five stars. But it’s hard to be certain because when I hit the page where 5 slurs appeared on one page of my Kindle—at about the 40% mark—I gave up.

Yo, Open Road. I love that you folks were among the first to auto-approve me when I was a brand new blogger, and I have been looking for a chance to pay you back with a five star review. And we almost had that here. But you need to do whatever it is that publishers do when they find offensive terms sprinkled throughout the text of an otherwise worthy book for no good reason. If you can’t do that, I can’t praise your historical works.

For Asians—some 6 million in the USA, according to the most recent Census—for those that love Asians and hate racism, this book is not recommended.

The Frozen Hours, by Jeff Shaara****

thefrozenhours“’All right. They’re on our left. They’re on our right. They’re in front of us, they’re behind us. They can’t get away this time’.”

 

Fans of Jeff Shaara’s military historical fiction won’t have to wait much longer; with the ambitious rendering of the Chosin Reservoir battle during the Korean War, he’s taken a great leap forward. I received a DRC from Net Galley and Random House Ballantine in exchange for this honest review. The book will be available to the public tomorrow, May 23, 2017.

Shaara makes military history accessible by breaking it down into small bites, and by choosing a reasonably representative group of historical figures to feature. One thing that has made him controversial, but which I admire and appreciate, is his decision to add at least one completely fictional character to each book in order to have the humble foot soldier, the ordinary joe that never gained fame or glory, represented. If Shaara chose to use the more traditional method, including only those actual servicemen that left a trail of records behind them, he would be telling us about the war solely from the point of view of officers. I am glad he has stuck to his guns—so to speak—because the rank and file make an enormous impact on the outcome of every battle in every war.

Approaching this story, it is key not to skip the preface or the afterword. This reviewer taught American history and government, and yet I learn something new every time I read one of Shaara’s books. One of the things I appreciate most is that it’s reasonably clear what is fact and what is fiction.

The war is basically a struggle over who will rule the Korean peninsula. Over the centuries, Japan, China, and various Western powers have had their eye on it; it is located in a way that gives its would-be colonizer wonderful access to a great many other places. Who wouldn’t want a military base there? And so as we commence, the Chinese, accompanied, at the outset, by the Soviet Union (now Russia), are determined to repel American incursion into the region. Shaara shows Koreans themselves as merely wishing everyone else would just leave, and although others would differ, this point of view serves well enough for the purpose of telling about this battle.

The US military troops here are commanded from afar; General MacArthur provides unreachable deadlines for the capture of hotly contested areas. At the outset of our story, he orders Marines and US Army shipped to North Korea and selects a inland line of march that he tells the press is a “pincer movement” but which in fact leaves vast amounts of unguarded areas between isolated groups of soldiers. They are high in treacherously cold mountains, where many men on both sides of the conflict will freeze to death or lose body parts to frostbite. They are surrounded and forced to fight their way out, then fight again to rescue their comrades.

There are two things I would change here if I could. The first is the maps. I blew them up on my tablet and still wasn’t able to read most of the print. They were better than nothing, but just barely. There isn’t even a compass provided to show where north is located.

The second is actually a pretty sore spot, and that is the constant use of nasty racist terms for every Asian mentioned ever. The Japanese, the Koreans, the Chinese all get called more ugly names than I ever want to see again in my life! I understand that part of his point in doing so is to show how badly the American command underrated Mao’s forces. I also understand that Caucasian US troops did use racist language casually, and that dehumanizing the enemy is one more way to unify one’s own force and go out and kill people.

However, an author gets to choose his points of emphasis. In his many excellent Civil War novels, Shaara goes lightly around the N word, because he understands that it is painful and divisive, and that for many people, it will destroy the joy they might otherwise experience reading his work. It’s a tender place in our national consciousness. Yet the perception doesn’t hold when the people of color are Asian. It’s hard to take. Why add more nastiness than one must? Occasionally there is a lull where Chinese are called Chinese and Koreans are called Koreans, and I sink into the narrative as one does with strong fiction, only to have another epithet tossed in my face like cold water.

Perhaps it is because Asians are quieter, most times, about racism and stereotyping, that writers—Shaara is by no means alone in this, which is why only one star comes off—seem to think nothing of repeatedly slamming these horrifying terms at us again and again from within their pages. The references to the Japanese are obviously only there as—what do I call this, ambience? The Japanese are now allies of the US, but the J word gets sprinkled in anyway, and it’s a rotten thing to do.

There are nearly 7 million Asians of either Japanese, Korean, or Chinese ancestry living in the USA, and I have news: they read. And whereas I am undoubtedly more sensitive than some readers, given that we’re talking about my husband and my youngest child, I am not actually Asian myself. And there were moments here when I really felt that if I hadn’t committed to reading for the purpose of a review, I would prefer to leave the book unfinished, to slide it in the back somewhere and not really look at it anymore.

Shaara is an excellent writer, and his characters are almost tangible at times. With a little more sensitivity toward people of color, his work could be even better. This book is recommended to those that love historical military fiction, with the caveat just mentioned.

The Song and the Silence, by Yvette Johnson*****

TheSongandtheSilenceI was browsing the pages of Net Galley and ran across this gem of a memoir. Often when someone that isn’t famous gets an autobiography published by a major publisher, it’s a hint to the reader that the story will be riveting. Such is the case here; my many thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review. You can order it now’ it comes out Tuesday, May 9.

It probably says a great deal, all by itself, that I had never heard of Booker Wright before this. I have a history degree and chose, at every possible opportunity, to take classes, both undergraduate and graduate level, that examined the Civil Rights Movement, right up until my retirement a few years ago. As a history teacher, I made a point of teaching about it even when it wasn’t part of my assigned curriculum, and I prided myself on reaching beyond what has become the standard list that most school children learned. I looked in nooks and crannies and did my best to pull down myths that cover up the heat and light of that critical time in American history, and I told my students that racism is an ongoing struggle, not something we can tidy away as a fait accompli.

But I had never heard of Booker.

Booker Wright, for those that (also) didn’t know, was the courageous Black Mississippian that stepped forward in 1965 and told his story on camera for documentary makers. He did it knowing that it was dangerous to do so, and knowing that it would probably cost him a very good job he’d had for 25 years. It was shown in a documentary that Johnson discusses, but if you want to see the clip of his remarks, here’s what he said. You may need to see it a couple of times, because he speaks rapidly and with an accent. Here is Booker, beginning with his well-known routine waiting tables at a swank local restaurant, and then saying more:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GM-zG…

So it was Booker and his new-to-me story that made me want to read the DRC. Johnson opens with information from that time, but as she begins sharing her own story, discussing not only Booker but her family’s story and in particular, her own alienation from her mother, who is Booker’s daughter, I waited for the oh-no feeling. Perhaps you’ve felt it too, when reading a biography; it’s the sensation we sometimes feel when it appears that a writer is using a famous subject in order to talk about themselves, instead. I’ve had that feeling several times since I’ve been reading and reviewing, and I have news: it never happened here. Johnson’s own story is an eloquent one, and it makes Booker’s story more relevant today as we see how this violent time and place has bled through to color the lives of its descendants.

The family’s history is one of silences, and each of those estrangements and sometimes even physical disappearance is rooted in America’s racist heritage. Johnson chronicles her own privileged upbringing, the daughter of a professional football player. She went to well-funded schools where she was usually the only African-American student in class. She responded to her mother’s angry mistrust of Caucasians by pretending to herself that race was not even worth noticing.

But as children, she and her sister had played a game in which they were both white girls. They practiced tossing their tresses over their shoulders. Imagine it.

Johnson is a strong writer, and her story is mesmerizing. I had initially expected an academic treatment, something fairly dry, when I saw the title. I chose this to be the book I was going to read at bedtime because it would not excite me, expecting it to be linear and to primarily deal with aspects of the Civil Rights movement and the Jim Crow South that, while terrible, would be things that I had heard many times before. I was soon disabused of this notion. But there came a point when this story was not only moving and fascinating, but also one I didn’t want to put down. I suspect it will do the same for you.

YouTube has a number of clips regarding this topic and the documentary Johnson helped create, but here is an NPR spot on cop violence, and it contains an interview of Johnson herself from when the project was released. It’s about 20 minutes long, and I found it useful once I had read the book; reading it before you do so would likely work just as well:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xxeh…

Johnson tells Booker’s story and her own in a way that looks like effortless synthesis, and the pace never slackens. For anyone with a post-high-school literacy level, an interest in civil rights in the USA, and a beating heart, this is a must-read. Do it.