Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson*****

Isabel Wilkerson is the author of the groundbreaking, bestselling Pulitzer winner, The Warmth of Other Suns, and when I read it, I understood that from then forward, I would read anything Wilkerson published. Here it is, and you must read it. You may want to put on a pair of oven mitts when you do, because it is hot enough to scorch your fingertips; Wilkerson doesn’t sugarcoat the truth. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. It’s been perched in the top ten of every bestseller list since its August release, and you don’t want to miss out on it.

Wilkerson’s thesis is that Black people in the U.S. occupy, and have always occupied, the lowest position within our social and economic ranks; social class is changeable, but caste is fixed. She compares their positions to the Dalit, better known as the Untouchables, the lowest rung of the lowest caste in India, and to Jews during the Holocaust. If this seems like overkill to you, get this book and read it carefully. This writer is relentless when she seeks to prove a point. She documents, documents, and documents again. She turns all the stones, and nothing is left.

Her evidence is organized by eight key commonalities, which she refers to as “Pillars” of caste. These are aspects of society that are unchanging and that define the positions of those born into them. (She recognizes that there are other races in the US that suffer, but places Black people at the bottom of the order, and so this is where her focus is.) The more I read, the more convinced I am. This is not metaphor or hyperbole. These are literal truths, and by the time she is done, I am convinced that the US is guiltier than Germany, because Germany turned it around, whereas the US is still in denial.

The Warmth of Other Suns is absorbing and easy to read, its style near to narrative nonfiction. In contrast, Caste is brutally frank. Though Wilkerson salts her narrative with relatively minor personal vignettes, they don’t make it easier to read; if anything, they make it hurt worse. (The airline attendant that does his level best to send her to the back of the plane, even though she has a first class ticket; the plumber that assumes she is hired help rather than the homeowner; the man attending the conference at which she is to speak that asks her to freshen his drink…)

I find this material so painful that I realize I am avoiding my review copy in favor of gentler reads, and then I know I have to step it up. This is too important; there’s been too much rug-sweeping in this nation already, and we won’t change if we don’t recognize the reality in which we live. I resolve to read one chapter a day. One chapter, and then I can move to more congenial literature. By the time I reach the end notes, I feel as if I have witnessed a natural disaster, a typhoon perhaps, or an immense, life-ruining earthquake. I’ve never run from books about race in the United States, but having the truth condensed and presented as it is here has to change the way we think. African-American readers likely won’t be much surprised, and many may feel vindicated in the resentments that have built over the years. But I cannot imagine anyone reading this book and then forgetting what’s in it.

Black lives matter, my friends. They matter just as much as anyone else’s. If you are more concerned about broken windows than about generation after generation of Americans whose potential has been stunted and whose contributions have been minimized, then you need this book. If you know that what’s been happening to men and women of color in the USA is dead wrong but you have difficulty forming cogent arguments when you talk with others, you need this book. If you speak and read English and you have a pulse, you need this book. What more does it take?  Information is the root of social change. Here it is.

Agent Sonya, by Ben Macintyre*****

Ben Macintyre is a badass writer of narrative nonfiction about lesser known historical figures from the World War II era. I read and reviewed his blockbuster, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, which was published in 2014; when I was invited to do the same for Agent Sonya, I didn’t hesitate. My thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. You can buy this book now.

Her real name was Ursula Kuczynski, and she was a German Jew. Hitler came to full power when she was visiting China, and her entire family fled. Born before the Russian Revolution, she lived until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and so her lifespan encompassed the entire duration of the Soviet Union. An unusually intelligent woman, she was drawn to Communism by the horror of Fascism, and by the misery created by disparate wealth that was right in front of her. The Chinese peasantry were so wretchedly poor that she found dead babies in the street; starving mothers sometimes concluded that they might be able to save one child, but they surely couldn’t save more than that, and they were forced to make a tragic choice. This, in spite of the vast and opulent wealth of the most privileged classes; it was obviously wrong, and there appeared to be only one way around it. She signed on to be a spy for Moscow.

Kuczynski’s career in espionage spanned twenty years and took place in myriad locations across Europe and Asia. She briefly harbored doubts about her career at the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but shortly after its creation, Hitler broke it by attacking the USSR, and the matter became moot. Others around her were apprehended and either jailed or executed, but Ursula always got away clean. As she advanced in the Red Army, ultimately receiving the rank of Colonel, she was given increasingly important work, and her ultimate achievement was in recruiting a scientist that was placed at a high level within the Manhattan Project. More than 500 pages of important documents made their way to Moscow, and because of his defection and Ursula’s skill, the USSR soon had the atomic bomb also.

Though Ursula never considered herself a feminist, she never hesitated when commanding men—a thing few women did at this point in history—and she didn’t let the men in her life shove her around. One of my favorite passages is when she is pregnant at an inconvenient time, and her estranged husband and lover put their heads together to decide what should be done. The two of them agree that Ursula needs an abortion, and Ursula tells them she’s decided to have the baby. Mansplainers never stood a chance with Ursula.

There were many instances when motherhood conflicted with her professional duties, and she had to make a lot of hard choices, but being a mother also provided her with an excellent cover. Sexist assumptions on the part of M15, M16, and other spy-catchers were also responsible for part of her success; how could a mother of three children who baked such excellent scones be a foreign agent? Don’t be silly. And consequently, her husband (whichever one) often drew scrutiny, but nobody ever dreamed that Ursula herself was the high level spy they sought.

The one thing I would have liked to see added to this excellent work is a photo of this woman; perhaps it is included in the final publication, but my digital review copy showed none.* I found photos of her online and understood right away why she was so effective. That disarming smile; that engaging face. Who could help loving her? She looks like everyone’s best friend. She appears incapable of duplicity.

Although the biography itself is serious in nature, there are some hilarious passages involving the nanny, and also an imbecilic British agent that couldn’t find his butt with both hands.

Finally, one of the most fortunate aspects of this biography is that although it is absorbing, it isn’t written like a thriller, and so it’s a great book for bedtime. You already know that Ursula isn’t going to be executed, right? Her story is told in linear fashion, so although it’s a literate, intelligently told story, it’s never confusing. With autumn upon us, I cannot think of a more congenial tale to curl up with on a chilly evening.

This book is highly recommended.

*An alert reader tells me that the final version includes photographs of Ursula and all the major players.

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyFRUcCLNns

Best Military History of 2019: Spearhead, by Adam Makos

Honorable mention:

Guest House for Young Widows, by Azadeh Moaveni**

Those of us in the United States don’t have much of a window on the women of ISIS, and I thought this title might help me understand them better. In some ways this proves true, but in the end, I couldn’t finish this book and I can’t recommend it. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for letting me read it free and early.

Here’s a quote that provides a thesis:

Many of these women were trying, in a twisted way, to achieve dignity and freedom through an embrace of a politics that ended up violating both…The political fractures from which [ISIS] arose have not been fixed. History has shown that unless conditions genuinely change, a new insurgency always arises from the ashes of an old one.

Moaveni shares the case studies of individual women that have been drawn to the Islamic State. Although the organization provides its women with a measure of security and protection, promoting higher education—in the service of the organization, of course—and sometimes furnishing jobs, it draws not only women that are desperate for food and shelter, but also women from comfortable middle class backgrounds. Once they are in, they find it difficult to leave. Moaveni demonstrates myriad ways in which women provide essential support for ISIS.

There are three things that I liked about this book. The research is well done; the women discussed here provide the reader with individual stories and therefore humanize them; and she acknowledges the disparity between mainstream Islamic belief and ISIS.

On the other hand, despite disclaimers within the narrative, I was overcome by a crawly sensation when I realized that the author’s overall purpose is to rationalize the choices made by women within Islamic State. She says they are relatable; I am appalled and unpersuaded.

Those that dislike a dictatorial regime should indeed advocate for a better system. How great a risk each person is willing to assume is of course an individual decision. But there is nothing that justifies or mitigates the atrocities visited on innocent people by this dreadful pseudo-religion. 

When push comes to shove, the only real dilemma for me is whether to provide one star or two in review. The second star is reluctantly assigned on the basis of the writer’s solid research; yet the ideas within it are entirely abhorrent.

Never, never, and never.

All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Marque *****

This has been labeled the best anti-war novel ever written. I agree. We see the first world war (“The Big One”) through the eyes of a young German soldier.

Some have held “Johnny Got His Gun” to be the best anti-war novel; I disagree, because that novel holds out no hope. When all is lost at the beginning and never gets better, it fails to draw the reader’s emotion. Marque is singularly skilled at reaching right down into the reader’s chest and wrapping his scholarly fingers right around our heartstrings. (Don’t look for this term in a physiology text.)

AQWF, on the other hand, develops character and setting sufficient to take us there, to nearly climb inside the skin of someone going through the experience.

Is there such a thing as a war worth fighting and dying in? I think so…but very rarely so, and this novel helps us understand the need for restraint and caution.

Note to teachers: though this is outstanding literature and many students enjoy it, it requires a very strong reader in terms of ability and vocabulary.