Broken, by Jenny Lawson****-*****

4.5 stars, rounded up.

Jenny Lawson, AKA The Bloggess, has a new book out, and I do believe it’s my favorite. My thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Lawson bucks a somewhat disquieting trend, and I am so glad. The trend is to make the first three chapters—most likely what sells the book—sterling, and then fill the rest with mediocre, highly missable prose. In contrast, the earliest part of this memoir is good, but it’s not great. She starts slow and then builds toward most of her best material, leaving me smiling as the book concludes.

But let’s go back to the material at the start, which I find to be random in a way that yearns for the hand of a high profile editor. I’m throwing my hands up, wondering just why a professional writer would blather on like this. Can she write a coherent sentence, and then end it when it’s over? Of course, I continued reading and loved the essays in the middle, and as we draw near the end, she refers to the challenges she encounters in writing, citing her inclination to overwrite, and the resultant paragraphs that contain “a run-on sentence that would make an English teacher cut herself,” and I howled, because that’s it, exactly. Almost exactly, I mean; I was moaning, but I hadn’t reached for anything sharp.

What is it about depression and humor, and the connection between them? It’s hard to tease apart all of the components that make Lawson’s writing so compelling; to a certain extent, it’s alchemy of the human spirit, I suppose, combined with skill at self-expression. But there are other components much easier to spot. One is her disarming frankness; for example, she mentions that people, remarking on her twentieth wedding anniversary, ask about her secrets for a long and happy marriage, and she tells us that actually, not all of those years have been happy. There are good periods, and there are bad periods. And then she adds, not entirely jokingly, that part of the reason she is still married is that there are things in her marriage that she doesn’t write about.

But even more compelling is her level of perception, and her ability to understand the subtext of just about everything.

I’ll mention my favorite parts, but I am not giving up any more humorous quotes, because that’s a crappy thing to do to a humor writer. There’s a funny part having to do with shoes, and the kayaking trip from hell, which she dubs “Divorce Creek.” The chapter about Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, which is a serious bit for the purpose of informing us, is interesting and may be of help to a number of readers. (However, the searing honesty about her suicidal impulses might actually be a trigger for a profoundly depressed reader.) And the infuriating experiences she has had dealing with insurance makes me want to throw things, but it is important that she includes them here.

If you’re a fan of The Bloggess’s writing, you have to get this book. If you are new to her work, you can dive into this memoir without reading her previous ones. Highly recommended.

Well-Read Black Girl, by Glory Edim, editor****

Ahem. Yes, I am in fact, over two years late with this review. I can explain.

My dog ate…no, wait. I got a flat tire when…oh. Yeah, that doesn’t work.

So now I have to tell the truth, having failed miserably, as I usually do, at lying. Here it is. About a month after I received the galley to this book, courtesy of Net Galley and Random House, national news and social media went into a virtual frenzy discussing cultural appropriation. And I froze. I started examining everything I did through that lens, and I may have gone overboard. I looked at this galley and I thought, I have no right to review this thing. And when I read the introduction anyway, I feel it even more so. Not written with me in mind, was it? Was this the literary equivalent of reading someone else’s mail? And so I did the easy thing, which was to shove it onto the back burner and read something else. Repeatedly.  

Several months later, it occurred to me that nobody would even have to know if I were to sneak it out of my files and just read the article by Jesmyn Ward, which was actually why I had originally requested it. Ward is on my read-anything list. I read it, and I liked it, and then I shuffled it back into the file. No harm done.

This spring, as the world tentatively emerges, one hopeful toe at a time, from the isolation imposed on all of us by the horrific pandemic, I realize what I should have known all along: that anybody can read anything, and form an opinion about it; and that since I was granted the galley, I actually owe a review. I straightened my spine, dusted myself off, and sat down to read it. There was no blinding light or thunder from the heavens. Nothing smote me. I read it, and I lived to tell the tale.

Most of the authors here are new to me; in addition to Ward, I also know Jacqueline Woodson’s work a bit, mostly from my years teaching language arts, when I used her YA book. Everyone here included in this compendium is a strong writer, and they are largely preaching to the choir, since the audience are also bibliophiles. But the common thread, the point they drive home—and rightly so—is the importance of finding literature about girls that look like themselves. They speak of it as empowerment and validation.

Back in the stone age, when this reviewer was enrolled in a teacher education program, we were likewise taught the importance of inclusive literature. It seemed so obvious to me, this obligation teachers surely have to make sure all of their students are represented in the books their students read, or have read to them. I figured it was a no-brainer. But when I arrived at my first teaching position in elementary school, (heaven help me and those children both,) I was shown the supply closet and there were the classroom book sets. The main characters were Caucasian boys; Caucasian boys and girls; fluffy woodland animals, mostly male; and more Caucasian boys. I sadly examined my battered Visa card and drove to the bookstore to order better books. And I was further amazed to learn, later, that my colleagues, all of whom were Caucasian, believed that the school’s book collection was terrific. Their students loved those books, and that included the children of color that made up approximately half of the population there, they told me.

Sure they did.

The essays in Well-Read Black Girl are a much-needed reminder that racism isn’t always overt; sometimes racism is exclusionary, unintentionally so. And what silences young voices, and what teaches children that books, and life in general, are not about them, worse than discovering that they are not important enough to be included in books?

When I moved to secondary education, where I belonged, I visited the book room there, and I found a set of books about African-American boys, but the message inherent was that they are constantly exposed to drugs and gangs, and it will be hard as heck not to be drawn in. And once again, I scratched my head. These Black kids, most of them were from middle class homes, or loving, well supervised working class homes. Drugs? Not so much. And what did these books teach their Caucasian classmates about Black people? I sighed and got back in the car, already apologizing silently to my Visa once more.

This collection of essays is important, not because of any particular brilliance in composition; they are well written, but not memorable for the writing itself. Instead, they are the key to understanding, from primary sources, why Black girls need books that depict Black girls and women in a positive light.

I’ve assigned four stars to this book for general audiences, but for teachers in training, it is five stars. Every teacher training program should include these essays as required reading. We have to read it until we get it right.

On the Plain of Snakes, by Paul Theroux****-*****

Paul Theroux has been a successful travel writer for a very long time, but he is new to me. Lucky me, I read this free, thanks to Net Galley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It’s for sale now.

The first thing that took my notice was that this is a gutsy writer. Though he’s in his late seventies, he hops in his personal vehicle and motors south to Mexico, and then all over that nation independently, venturing into out-of-the-way spaces, mostly eschewing the usual tourist haunts that draw the spring break crowd from the US and other parts. Over and over again, locals explain to him that this road, or that, or the other is very dangerous right now; sometimes he revises his route; sometimes he takes the route but at a different time; and sometimes he goes anyway, but takes somebody with him. What he doesn’t do is go home early, or store his car somewhere and follow a tour guide around. I stand in awe.

Theroux approaches his journey as a researcher, rather than as a tourist advisor. He interviews countless individuals, even learning a little of one of the indigenous languages—in addition to Spanish– in order to communicate. I gave up trying to trace his route, instead just going with the narrative as it unspools.

I have to tell you, this is a tome. I might never have finished it had I relied exclusively on my review copy. I recognized it would be a hefty commitment to get through all of it, so once again, I turned to Seattle Bibliocommons for the audio version. I found it went much faster once I was able to do something else with my hands as I listened. Joseph Balderrama is a wonderful reader, and I quickly found myself absorbed into the journey, as if I were an unseen passenger.

Theroux takes us through the ordeal at the US/Mexico border, which was a nightmare during the time this was written, during the Trump administration. (If you have a MAGA cap in your closet, you may not enjoy this book.) He listens to Mexican citizens that live near enough to the border that they can actually see it from their homes, or from their workplaces. Some of them have lived in Mexico but worked in Texas for a long time, and the hardship they experience once the rules are changed is dreadful. And the insight I gain from listening to his interviews with people there about immigration to the US is most enlightening.

The most amazing thing to me is the way the cartels and the Mexican police force overlap, and in a number of places are exactly the same people! He describes multiple shakedowns by traffic cops while he is driving. It seems that the state pays its cops next to nothing, and so in order for them to support themselves, (particularly, we assume, those not being paid by cartels also,) they are permitted to stop anyone they believe has some money, and essentially intimidate them into a bribe. But it’s not complete chaos: once a driver has been shaken down, they are entitled to a receipt for the money they have had to forfeit so that another cop up the road cannot do the same thing.

The one tourist area Theroux passes through is Puerto Vallarta, which also happens to be the only place in Mexico that I have visited. About ten years lapsed between my visit—a very pleasant one—and Theroux’s, and I was saddened to learn how unsafe it has become, and how badly the locals, who were mostly middle class when I was there, have it now.

There are a number of fascinating passages, and I learned a lot. One village is awash with what sounds like a new sort of trans woman, (new to an American from Seattle, at least,) and another where the handmade sandals are finished with a jaw dropping method. There’s one very poor village where earthquakes occur so frequently that most of the homes are no longer standing, but many people won’t sleep indoors anyway for fear of being crushed to death. No aid from the Mexican government or any international body has ever reached them. Those people are on their own, and they are suffering.

Perhaps the sweetest parts have to do with the friendships that the writer forms with the people he meets there. I especially enjoyed reading the interviews with his new author and artist friends.

For those like myself that approach this with general interest, I’d call this a four star book. My stamina is greater than most, yet as much as I enjoyed it, it did feel a little bit lengthy. For those with a particular interest in the socioeconomic, cultural, and political realities of Mexico, it’s five stars, hands down.

Recommended to those with an interest in this field.

Race of Aces, by John R. Bruning****

What kind of nerve does it take to go up alone in a fighter plane and duel with an enemy? Race of Aces is an account of the best Allied fighters in the South Pacific during World War II. My thanks go to Net Galley and Hachette Books for the review copy. When I missed the publication date, I obtained a copy of the audio book from Seattle Bibliocommons. This proved to be a very good thing.

John R. Bruning does a fine job introducing each of the best fighters to us, and when he begins with a young man from Portland, Oregon, which is where I grew up, I was instantly engaged. There are five fighters whose stories are told here: Portlander Gerald Johnson, Richard Bong, Tommy McGuire, Neal Kearby, and Charles MacDonald. The framework for the story is a competition for a prize offered by the iconic pilot, Eddie Rickenbacker, who promised a bottle of excellent bourbon to the first pilot to break his record of 26 planes shot down. The men’s heroism—and sometimes recklessness—makes for a compelling narrative for readers of military history.

I begin by listening to the audiobook as I make dinner, following up later each day by going over the digital review copy. However, I soon discover that the detailed descriptions of noteworthy dogfights are impossible to envision unless I do both at the same time. Soon my routine is to listen to the passages in between battles, knowing that whatever I am doing, I’d better drop it and grab my tablet so I can follow along once the pilots take to the air. When I do this, I am rewarded with a clear mental movie of what is unfolding. Some of these fights are breathtaking in their intensity.

A flying ace is someone that shoots down five or more enemy planes. The vast majority of World War II flyers were competent and may at some point have shot down a plane or two, but the aces were few and far between. They were often working with substandard equipment—with the best American machinery reserved for the war in Europe. One noteworthy statistic caught my attention. “Fewer than 5 percent of combat fighter pilots achieved acehood, but they accounted for 47 percent of all the enemy planes knocked out of the sky.”  

Again and again, I read instances in which the Allied fighter pilot plays a game of chicken with his opponent, flying straight at the enemy plane; usually the enemy veers off at the last minute, and once in awhile it’s the Allied fighter. There’s one noteworthy instance when they fly so close that the American pilot’s wing knocks into the Japanese plane; they find a smear of green paint on it after he lands. And so I kept wondering, what if nobody blinks? Of course, my mindset is diametrically opposite that needed for warfare; I think like a teacher. Don’t run with scissors. Slow down. Watch where you’re going, young man. Don’t wave your pencil or you’ll put somebody’s eye out. These guys, on the other hand, were warriors:

“Carl held his course and refused to break first. Blev watched in horror as he flew straight into a Zero, the two planes exploding with all the violence of a 500-mile an hour collision.”

Despite short rations at times, missing mechanical tools and parts of planes, and a number of other challenges, these men crippled the Japanese air corps in this part of the world, and because of this, the five aces were particularly loathed by the Japanese pilots. One of them is shot down toward the end, and although he survives the crash, he is shot repeatedly after he goes down. It’s just as well that he’s dead by the time they get to him:

“After he fell to the jungle floor, the Japanese stripped everything off him, including his boots, watch, clothes, jacket, and dog tags. They left his naked body unburied, sprawled facedown at the base of the tree, his parachute still entangled in its branches like a canopy for his anonymous grave.”

It’s a weird sort of compliment.

The audiobook frees me to check details not provided in the book itself. There is a description of the different aircraft available to the men, and as I listen. I search for images of them and find some diagrams; there are parts of the craft mentioned and I have no idea what they are. Hopefully those that pick up the finished copy may find some photographs or illustrations, but I have none, so I run some searches.

Ultimately, I don’t care at all who wins the bottle of bourbon, and I have trouble remembering who is who, apart from Gerald Johnson. But that doesn’t bother me; I am not in this thing for individual biographies of the pilots, or because of the Rickenbacker contest. I want to know more about the World War II pilots, and the contest between the five men provides an excellent framework for that information.

The audiobook, while useful, does have some small glitches. The narrator should have taken the trouble to find out how to pronounce place names. The story begins in Oregon, and every time the word “Willamette” is used—Willamette Valley, Willamette River, and so on—the mispronunciation sets my teeth on edge. I catch myself snarling at the reader as if he is there in the room with me. His general manner while describing the military aspects of the book, which of course is most of it, has a documentary feel to it, and it works well, but now and then we veer into the private lives of the pilots, and when more sensitivity and nuance are called for, the reader is still using that clipped documentary voice you’d associate with a movie shown in your high school social studies class. Because of these things as well as the complexity of the fight scenes, I recommend the printed version over the audio. However, if you can swing it, the best way of all is to use them both simultaneously.

Nobody can dispute that Bruning knows his material, and copious research was done to produce this book, at least on the American side of it. It is a bit longer than it needs to be, and my own preference would be to edit it down a bit. Also, although the “J” word is only used in quotations, it shouldn’t be used at all. Those that squawk about authenticity should try inserting the “N” word, which was also freely used during this time period, into the quotes, just to test the assertion, and then it’s obvious that of course no reputable author should publish such a thing. Racist terms, no matter how common to the time described, have no place in any reputable history publication, and he should have worked around them.

With these caveats, I recommend this book to those that enjoy military history.

Girlhood, by Masuma Ahuja****

My thanks go to Net Galley and Algonquin for the review copy. This book becomes available to the public tomorrow, February 9, 2021.

From the beginning, it was plain to me that this would not just be another anthology. Every school library has books that include children from many places around the world, but this one is more diverse than most, and it conveys more of the girls’ own words. Included are girls from 31 countries, and most of them are people of color. The United States does not dominate the collection; there are two girls from the U.S. included, but they are not given anchor positions, and neither is from New York or California.

Each entry contains writing done by the girl herself, more extensive than anything else I have seen; I cannot tell whether some of them have been translated, or if all of them wrote in English originally. There are multiple photographs of each girl, her home, and the things that are important to her. Most are students; one is a mother herself. There are a variety of social classes, though none appears to be from a wealthy family. The girls that live at or near what we in the developed world would call the poverty level, do not speak about being poor, but about everyday life. My favorites are the Cambodian, Syrian, and Irish girls, but they’re all interesting. I am pleased to see several Black girls in the mix.

Though the collection is inclusive, none of the girls appears to be, or says she is, disabled in any way. I would like to see at least one such girl. But more concerning to me is that, although twenty percent of girls worldwide is obese, all of these girls in the anthology are either near the ideal weight, or on the thin side. Ahuja does not say how the girls were selected, but I can just about guarantee that the big girls that view this book will not see themselves. I hope future endeavors along these lines will correct this omission. Right now, the message large girls will have is that nobody wants to look at someone like themselves.

Nonetheless, this is one of the best such collections available today. It would be wonderful if there were a way to offer it in different languages and sell it in other countries, too. I recommend this book for middle and high school girls, and in particular to school libraries and humanities teachers.

A Thousand May Fall, by Brian Matthew Jordan**

I had such great hopes for this book. Jordan was a Pulitzer finalist for his work on American Civil War veterans, which I have not read, and this new work focuses on the life of an everyday soldier in the 107th Ohio Volunteer Union Infantry, which includes a large number of immigrant troops. My thanks go to Net Galley and Liveright Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

I love a good history book, but I don’t love this one. For starters, we have no apparent thesis. After reading the first third of the narrative, my largest question was where the author wanted to take this thing. Is he demonstrating that the German immigrants weren’t as worthless in combat as their reputation suggests? If so, maybe we should focus on that, rather than on the 107th. Give me a thesis focusing on German Civil War soldiers, support it, make it interesting, and I’ll be a happy reviewer. Another possibility is to find an ordinary foot soldier with a fair amount of interesting correspondence or other material to hold my attention. I like seeing the rank and file recognized, and there’s such an abundance of documentation available for this conflict that this shouldn’t be a difficult project.

Sadly, this isn’t what I find. We have a linear story here, and that makes sense, but we go through training, through the nightmare of Chancellorsville, and then Gettysburg, and when we reach the end, I still can’t locate much purpose to Jordan’s endeavor. Once in a while a compelling nugget jumps out, such as the training march at the book’s outset, where men are driven forward without water, and in the end two men are dead; the march concludes, several hours later, just a mile from the starting point, and we see that brutal leadership and poor planning left some surviving men disillusioned. But in many places research appears to be thrown in for its own sake, and no matter how you dress it up, what that is, is filler. We see bits of letters sent home saying that war is pretty bad. Another writer says that he experienced a “hard, tedious march.” Actually, that one shows up in multiple forms, several times also. There’s another quote about passing “porches and verandas,” and another about arriving at an attractive location. (“Beauty and tranquility.”) I could go on, but since he’s done enough of that for the two of us, I won’t. All of it is meticulously—feverishly, even—documented, but so much of it is documenting material that shouldn’t be here in the first place that I can’t get too excited. A professor should know that you have to edit out the extraneous junk and tighten your writing.

There are a few bright spots. I didn’t know there were two different kinds of court martial, so I learned one thing here. Jordan seems to point toward the German infantryman being courageous and willing, but crippled by cowardly, incompetent leadership. I wish that he had used this as his central thesis and thrown away the extraneous crud. There would be a point to the book if he did that, and I could write the sort of glowing review that gets me out of bed in the morning.

As it is, I can’t recommend it.

All We Are Saying, by David Sheff*****

This is a digital reprint of the last interview of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, two days before John was murdered on December 8, 1980. David Sheff is a journalist and also a die-hard fan of the Lennon’s. Lucky me, I read it free. Thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. It’s for sale now.

This interview is a treasure trove for anyone interested in John Lennon, Yoko Ono, or the Beatles. 192 pages makes for a short book, but as interviews go, it’s a whopper. Lennon and Ono were about to release an album together, and so when Playboy requested an interview, they consented. The most wonderful thing about it is that because of the format, nearly everything is a direct quotation of either John’s or Yoko’s. Nobody knew during the course of the interview, which took multiple days, that John would be shot to death by a stranger two days later.

It makes for interesting reading. There are passages I love and others that make me see red, but I am not irritated with the author, who’s done a bang-up job, but rather, in places, at things said by his subjects. Most of it is tremendously entertaining. And in some places, it is almost unbearably poignant. At the outset, John makes a comment, almost off the cuff, about how the way to be really famous as an artist is to die in public, which he surely isn’t planning to do. Later, he quotes someone that says it’s better to burn out than to rust, and he says he disagrees, that “It’s better to fade away like an old soldier than to burn out.” And he notes that he has another forty years or so of productivity ahead of him.

Lennon was a happy man when this interview took place. He’d been a “house husband,” staying home and taking care of Sean, their son, although they acknowledge that it’s easier to do that when there’s a nanny available anytime he needs to go out for some reason, and someone else that will clean the house and so forth. Ono, on the other hand, is the one who’s handling their finances, and it’s a princely fortune at that.

And to me, the most interesting aspect of this interview isn’t him, it’s her. I was a child in elementary school when John left his first wife and married Yoko, but I remember the virulent, nasty things that appeared in the media. Those that don’t think any progress has been registered regarding race and gender should look through some archives. And John comments that the press treated their relationship as if he were “some wondrous mystic prince from the rock world dabbling with this strange Oriental woman.”

Ono said, “I handled the business…my own accountant and my own lawyer could not deal with the fact that I was telling them what to do…”

 John continued that there was “…an attitude that this is John’s wife, but surely she can’t really be representing him…they’re all male, you know, just big and fat, vodka lunch, shouting males…Recently she made them about five million dollars and they fought and fought not to let her do it because it was her idea and she’s not a professional. But she did it, and then one of the guys said to her, ‘Well, Lennon does it again.’ But Lennon didn’t have anything to do with it.”

There’s a lot that gets said about the women’s movement and all of it is wonderful. Once in awhile John holds forth about something he knows nothing about (anthropology and the early role of women) and he makes an ass of himself. He may have been more enlightened than most men, but he still hadn’t learned to acknowledge that there were some things he just didn’t know.

There are passages that make me grind my teeth, and all of them have to do with wealth in one way or another. Ono is from a ruling class Japanese banking family, and the airy things she and John say about being rich make me want to hit a wall. People shouldn’t pick on them for being wealthy. And oh my goodness, when Sheff mildly suggests that John and the other former Beatles surrender and do a single reunion concert for charity, his response is horrifying. He points out that the concert for Bangladesh that George Harrison roped them into doing turned out to raise no money at all for the cause because all of it went to red tape and lawsuits; ouch! But the truly obnoxious bit is when he whines about how the world just expects too much of him. He wants to know, “Do we have to divide the fish and the loaves for the multitudes again? Do we have to get crucified again? We are not there to save the fucking world.”

The part that makes me laugh is when Ono describes how The Beatles broke up at about the same time she and John got together: “What happened with John is that I sort of went to bed with this guy that I liked and suddenly the next morning I see these three guys standing there with resentful eyes.”

Those that are curious about Lennon and Ono, or that are interested in rock and roll history, should get this interview and read it. There’s a good deal of discussion about the roots of the music, and about the music he made that the radio never played. There’s a good deal here that I surely never knew. For these readers, I highly recommend this book.

Bright Precious Thing, by Gail Caldwell*****

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

Gail Caldwell was the chief book reviewer for The Boston Globe, and she won the Pulitzer for Criticism. Once I began reading this luminous memoir, I could see that level of quality in her prose. She writes about her childhood in Texas, and about her travels and experiences growing up in the mid-twentieth century. More than anything, this is a feminist memoir, a chance to see how far we have come through a personal lens.

I missed the publication day here, and so I hunted down the audio version to supplement my reading. The author narrates her own work, and so it conveys the feeling that I am sitting by the fire with a dear friend, hearing about the challenges she’s faced as a single woman. Female readers will recognize the sensation: you start talking with a woman that you don’t really know, and before you know it you are talking and listening as if you’ve known one another for ages. That’s the essence of this book. In fact, I listened to it in the evening while preparing dinner, because I knew I’d be left alone during that time, and frankly, I didn’t want anybody to come barreling into the middle of my time with Gail. There’s a sense of intimacy that makes me feel a bit protective when I listen to it. Later, I go over what I’ve read and nod. Yes. Oh, yes, I remember that.

The title works in a number of ways. The darling little neighbor girl that becomes part of the family Gail chooses, bookends the memoir, coming in at the start as a very young person and ending it as an adolescent. But there’s more to it than that; life is a bright precious thing, and though she never says it overtly, I recognize that each woman is a bright precious thing as well.

I am a grandmother myself, but Gail is about the age to be my older sister. Women like Gail gave women like me a guiding light during our coming-of-age years. Our mothers were often resigned to their status as second class citizens, and ready to accept that there were things that women should probably not even try to do, and they couldn’t help transmitting their fears and reticence to us. It is women like Marge Piercy, Gloria Steinem, Wilma Mankiller, and yes, Gail Caldwell that provided us with a beacon, a way forward through the ocean of “no” to the bright shores of “yes,” that gave us courage to be insistent, even when we knew some would label us pushy broads, or worse. We needed role models badly, and they stepped up. They’re still doing it.

The calm, warm tone that came through this audio book, right during the turbulent period after the November election, was an absolute balm.   Sometimes I would be shaken by the things I saw in the national news, and then I would head for my kitchen (perhaps an ironic place to receive a feminist memoir, but it worked for me,) and once I had had my time with Gail, I knew I’d be all right.

Highly recommended to women, and to those that love us.

Black Klansman, by Ron Stallworth****

I was intrigued when I saw this book, and so I checked out the audio version, which the author reads himself, from Seattle Bibliocommons. It is one of a kind.

My first question, upon seeing the premise, is since when the FBI has any interest in busting the Klan or other White Supremacist organizations. Generally they chase activists on the left, and give those on the ultra-right a pat on the head and a cookie. This is addressed in short order, as the author explains it is his own idea. He initiates it when he learns how easy it is to join the Klan, and once he has access, his bosses agree to let him pursue it. And understand this: he is the only Black FBI agent in Colorado, and there is at least a wee bit of pressure on the Feds to increase their diversity just a wee. So for a brief and shining time, Stallworth is permitted to chase this lead.

The way Stallworth is able to join is that his membership interview is a phone call. At this time, there aren’t a lot of Klan members in the Rockies, and they’re spread thin. When the occasion arises for him to show up in person, he sends another agent, then takes over again on phone and through the US mail. (Heaven knows how this would shake out today; this would be difficult on Zoom.)

The memoir is important to write, because just as he is closing in hard on illegal activity that might result in arrests, he is called off by the brass, and he’s ordered to destroy every speck of research and evidence he’s compiled. Without this memoir, nobody would ever know it even happened. What a crock. What a bitter pill. I feel sick for him.

The audio is delivered in a wheezy, laconic narrative that sounds a lot like an old man sitting on his front porch telling the neighbors about his proudest exploits. It works for me.

Highly recommended.

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.