Life of a Klansman, by Edward Ball*

“White supremacy is not a marginal ideology. It is the early build of the country. It is a foundation on which the social edifice rises, bedrock of institutions. White supremacy also lies on the floor of our minds. Whiteness is not a deformation of thought, but a kind of thought itself…

‘The story that follows is not that a writer discovers a shameful family secret and turns to the public to confess it. The story here is that whiteness and its tribal nature are normal, everywhere, and seem as permanent as the sunrise.”

I read this book free and early; thanks go to Net Galley and Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux for the review copy.

Edward Ball writes about his ancestor, Constant Lecorgnes, known fondly within his family as “our Klansman.” The biography is noteworthy in that it is told without apology or moral judgement, as if Ball wants whites to feel okay about the racism, the rape, the exploitation, the murders, the terrorism that membership in the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia, and any and all of the other white supremacist organizations have carried out, and will continue to carry out, in the United States. Relax, he tells us, it’s normal.

Well, let’s back up a moment. The “us” in the narrative is always Caucasians. It apparently hasn’t occurred to him that anybody else might read his book. In some ways, the “us” and the “our” used consistently and liberally throughout this biography are even worse than the explicit horrors detailed within its pages. It’s as if there is a huge, entitled club, and those that don’t belong are not invited to read. Further, it’s as if all white people are of a similar mind and share similar goals.

Not so much.

Ball won the National Book Award some years back for Slaves in the Family, a title currently adorning my shelves downstairs. I have begun it two or three times, but it didn’t hold me long enough for me to see what he does with it. And this book is the same, in that the late Lecorgnes is not particularly compelling as a subject, except within the framework of his terrorism. He was not, Ball tells us, a key player; he was just one more Caucasian foot soldier within the Klan. And so, the reading drones along, and then there are the key pronouns that capture my attention, those that give ownership to his terrible heritage, and a couple of paragraphs of the history of the period, particularly within Southern Louisiana, follow; lather, rinse, repeat.

As I read, I searched for accountability. As it happens, I have one of those relatives too; but my elders, though not beacons within the Civil Rights realm by a long shot, understood that such a membership brings shame upon us, and consequently I was not supposed to know about him at all. I overheard some words intended to be private, uttered quietly during a moment of profound grief following a sudden death. My mother spoke to someone—my father? I can’t recall—but she referred to her father’s horrifying activity, and I was so shocked that I left off lurking and spying, and burst into the room. I believe I was ten years old at the time. I was told that the man—who was never, and never will be referred to in the fond, familiar manner that Ball does—was not entirely right in the head. He truly believed he was helping to protect Southern Caucasian women, but he was wrong. It was awful, and now it’s over; let’s not talk about it anymore. In fact, this topic was so taboo that my own sister didn’t know. She is old now, and was shocked when I mentioned it last spring. She had no idea.

As I developed, I understood, from teachers and friends more enlightened than Mr. Ball, that the best way we can deal with ugly things in our background that we cannot change, is to contribute our own energies in the opposite direction. I’ve lived by it, and so I was waiting for Ball to say something similar, if not in the prologue, then surely somewhere near the end; but he never did. If Ball feels any duty whatsoever to balance the scales of his family’s terrible contribution, he doesn’t offer it up. There’s no call to action, no cry for social justice. Just the message that hey—it’s normal, and it’s fine.

I’m not sure if I want to read his other work anymore; but I know that what I cannot do, and will not do, is recommend this book to you.

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

Dogwinks, by Squire Rushnell**

The old saw about not judging a book by its cover has come home to me in a big way. I was invited to read and review, and although I usually do some homework before accepting or disregarding such offers, I saw the beagle on the cover and leapt on the widget. And somewhere out there, at least one publicist must have my love of said dogs on file, because otherwise it would make absolutely, positively no sense to offer me this book. Dubious thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books; I know you meant well. This book will be available to the public October 20, 2020.

Here’s the thing I didn’t understand when I signed on. This is not merely a book of dog stories, as I had supposed. Apparently, there is a “much-loved” series known as “Godwinks,” and so the title of this one is a play on that name. Since I read no religious material ever, it’s unsurprising that this fact eluded me.

Having foolishly committed myself, I tried to keep an open mind, because in addition to being religious in nature, this is also a collection of dog stories.  I want to be fair, and I hoped I could disregard the preaching and focus on the hounds.  But it’s impossible to enjoy these stories; the writing seems formulaic, the sort of thing you’d read in Reader’s Digest. The figurative language is stale, and the story arc of each is transparently manipulative. Guys, I just can’t.

By wild coincidence, my current reading includes Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and I’m finding it to be better written and infinitely more agreeable than this superstitious bilge.

If you have a MAGA hat in your closet and a firm belief that your prayer group is protecting you from COVID19, then this collection may suit you down to the ground. Otherwise, I’d suggest you steer clear.

Handsome Johnny, by Lee Server**

I was invited to read and review this biography by Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press; it’s the story of Johnny Rosselli, known as “the gentleman gangster.” Sometimes I enjoy a good gangster story; my great-uncle (whom I didn’t really know) was Sherman Billingsley, the thuggish owner of the New York Stork Club, and so when I read about others, it sparks my imagination. Usually.

I didn’t engage with the book’s beginning when I sat down the with digital review copy, and eventually I got bored and set it aside for something more compelling. But often, the galleys that land on the back burner become more interesting once I can get an audio copy. After avoiding this book till publication, I found an audiobook at Seattle Bibliocommons, and I began listening to it in the evenings when I prepared dinner. In this way I found it more interesting. There’s a fair amount of background provided, because the writer (perhaps wisely) doesn’t assume his audience is proficient in American history, Prohibition and so on. I didn’t hear anything I didn’t know already, but it was okay. Gradually it took on the flavor of a documentary, not riveting but not bad. I listened to the first 25% and thought I would probably finish it this way.

Unfortunately, a deal breaker came up somewhere in the next ten percent. Rosselli has gone to Los Angeles because there was no mob out there yet. He figured he’d pioneer vice and leg-breaking on the West Coast. Fine, fine. He meets Al Capone, who is being harassed by cops and told he can’t stay in L.A., and Rosselli does Capone a favor and thereby comes into the Capone orbit. Okay, fine. But then we get into the women.

Now, I understand that mobsters were about as far as anyone can get from feminism, and of course in the 1940s and 50s, there wasn’t any women’s movement to speak of. The problem is that Server doesn’t differentiate Rosselli’s point of view from his own. I get the distinct impression that the two aren’t very different. There’s only one quality worth reporting in women, and that’s their physical appearance. So Rosselli falls for Jean Harlow, who is perfect. Completely perfect. What makes her perfect? Well, she’s got great legs. They are described. Breasts too; we hear about that. And she is a virgin! Every middle-aged mobster loves to get a virgin in the sack, right? At age seventeen she’s barely legal, but nobody worries about that. Oh, and also she’s very, very white. Porcelain skin. Just wonderful.

By the time Server is done explaining all of Harlow’s best qualities, and the misery that that bastard put her through (though he doesn’t describe it this way; in fact, the reader has a kind of bemused smirk to his voice throughout,) and oh how sad about her suicide at age 27, I am seeing red.

 I’m not chopping bell peppers now. I’m standing stock still in my kitchen, glaring at my tablet. Dinner may be a little late.

I try to continue with the book, but I am pissed.  Finally, I decide life is too short. I’ve tried this book twice, but I don’t finish it. In fact, I consider that second star in the rating to be generous.

This book is recommended to misogynistic assholes. Everyone else should give it a miss.

Vicksburg, by Donald L. Miller****

4 stars plus. Donald Miller’s treatment of Vicksburg is one of the best I’ve seen to date; it’s clear, easy to read, well documented, and in parts, vastly entertaining. Thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The siege and battle of Vicksburg was the single most significant event in the American Civil War. When the Union emerged victorious, it seized control of key arteries of commerce, food, and military supplies by capturing access and use of the Mississippi River as well as an important railroad that ran east to west. It liberated vast numbers of slaves, and it dealt a savage blow to the morale of diehard Southerners who believed the city and its fort unassailable. The fall of Vicksburg cut the Confederacy in two, and it made communication between the two halves slow and difficult. It also sealed President Lincoln’s election and provided him with a second term he might otherwise not have gained. I knew all of these things before I began reading Miller’s work, but I found a tremendous number of details I didn’t know about, and more importantly, I gained a much solider sense of context.

Many prominent works on Vicksburg are also Grant biographies, and that usually suits me fine, because Grant is one of my greatest heroes. However, those that read about Vicksburg solely within that framework lose out on the progress made—and sometimes lost again—by the Union Navy and others. Though I had read James McPherson’s work on the Union Navy, there is a lot more detail provided here by Miller. The rivers that surrounded Vicksburg are confusing as heck, and this played a big role in lengthening the fight, but at the same time, it can also confuse readers. It certainly did me. For example, when those traveling on rivers go “above” a certain point, what does that mean? I always assumed it meant north, but sometimes it doesn’t. I had never heard or read the term “Brown water navy,” (or if I did, I had thoroughly forgotten it), and this is a key aspect of the story. For the first time I have a solid grasp of the route used by the Union navy and army.

Readers should know that Miller is fond of including gore. I don’t know whether this is because college students are easily bored, and the consideration of Grant calmly conveying orders while spattered in brain matter is just more attention-getting than the same information without the gore, or whether Miller feels compelled to use these details to drive home the horror that heroes were forced to look beyond in order to be effective, but there it is, and so if you are inclined to take a book with you on your lunch break, you may want a different one then.

One of the aspects I appreciate most is the emphasis Miller places on the role of slaves during this critical time. If the waters were inscrutable, the land was little better in places, with thick, tropical foliage, snakes, leaches and other hazards. Those that lived nearby had an incalculable advantage, but local whites used this knowledge to confuse and obfuscate troops they considered to be enemies. Slaves, on the other hand, understood how important a Union victory would be, and they provided information that would have taken a lot longer to obtain without them. This is material that other writers often mention briefly but treat as a side issue. Miller goes into specifics, gives concrete examples, and shares the respect that Grant gained for his newly emancipated spies, guides, and soldiers.

The chapter titled “The Entering Wedge” is where good prose and information become solid gold. During this section of the book and the chapter after it, I did a lot of rereading for pleasure. There are excellent quotes throughout the book, and the author wisely focuses on those that are little seen in other books, providing a freshness and you-are-there quality at times that I haven’t seen for a long time.

At one point, during a passage discussing the caves that housed soldiers as well as local families affected by shelling, I realized that these must surely be part of the national park dedicated to this event, and I searched the web for images of them; sadly, because of the very soft earth in and around Vicksburg, (most likely the same soft earth that enabled the river to continuously change course,) those caves are all gone, washed away by hard rain. There’s a photo of a modern version based on the information available, but that’s not the same thing. Rats.

I nearly gave this book five stars, but there’s a surprisingly disturbing part toward the end that left me deflated and scratching my head. There are pages and more pages devoted to ugly rumors that seem to begin and end with Cadwallader. Although the author repeatedly reminds us that these statements are “unsubstantiated” and “controversial,” he nevertheless devotes a whole lot of time and space to them, and what’s more they are near the end, where the reader is most likely to recall them. Overall, he seems harder on Grant than most are, but up to this point he was fair, weighing his weaknesses while acknowledging his strengths. Why he would do a hatchet job on this iconic hero in closing is a mystery to me. Then the very end of the book is given to a Confederate.

Nevertheless, this is a strong work for those that know the basics and want the details. I don’t recommend it to those new to the American Civil War; if you are just getting your feet wet, read McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, or explore the excellent historical fiction of Michael and Jeff Shaara, Shelby Foote, and E.L. Doctorow. But for those that are well-versed and in search of new information, I highly recommend this book.

Best Biography of 2019: Madame Fourcade’s Secret War

According to Kate, by Chris Enss***

Kate Elder, better known as Big Nose Kate, was a colorful character in the mercurial Wild West. Together with her paramour—possibly her husband—Doc Holliday, she shot, swindled and burned her way through Kansas, New Mexico, Texas and other parts of the American Southwest. My thanks go to Net Galley and Two Dot Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Enss is a capable writer, and I enjoy seeing women about whom little has been written brought to the foreground. Enss amassed a fair amount of material on her subject, but some of it was contradictory, and the greatest contradictor of all was Kate herself, who decided to tell her own life story when she was too old to recall everything properly. Enss tells the reader in the title and introduction that she is telling Kate’s story from the subject’s point of view, and she adds numerous footnotes explaining  conflicting information throughout the narrative.

I read things I had never known before about this time and place, and general historical knowledge is where Enss shines best. For example, a ‘soiled dove’ was allowed to own real estate, whereas married women of the time were not. There were a number of financial advantages to owning a house of ill repute. Kate grew up in a middle class household and was not without choices, but she didn’t care to be married off in the way her family had proposed. In the end she was both a shrewd businesswoman and an adrenaline junkie, one that made a point of having at least one loaded gun handy when a situation called for it. I enjoyed reading about it.

Unfortunately there is a lot of conflicting information and the gaps in the story are numerous. Anytime I start seeing the words “might,” “must have, “ “likely” and so forth, I pull back from the narrative. I can’t get lost in a story when I have to mentally filter the things that are known to have happened from the things nobody knows for sure.  I think Enss has done as good a job as could be done with the documentation available, but Kate is a hard nut to crack.

What I would love to see is historical fiction written with Kate as the protagonist, viewed through the eyes of a feminist writer such as Enss. With historical fiction one can freely fill in the gaps, provide dialogue, and make notes at the end of the story letting the reader know what she has invented or changed.

Those with a special interest may want to read this biography, but I see it largely as a niche read.

The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela*****

This magnificent collection took 10 years to organize, collecting Madiba’s letters from the many points where they were received, and from the prisons–where many of them were not mailed out, for various technical reasons that were a poor disguise for censorship. The preface suggests that most people will want to flip through it rather than reading it cover-to-cover, but I am a habitual cover-to-cover sort, and so I read the first 50 pages in sequence. And the book’s editor is correct. This is not a cover-to-cover read.

Nevertheless, I am struck immediately by the dignity with which Mandela communicates with his captors. Time and again he writes to them in a courteous, civilized, and highly educated hand about the various ways in which his rights under South African law are being violated and what he is requesting they do to remedy it. He is persistent. He forces them to treat him as a human being. Mandela was an attorney, but he was also possessed of social instincts that nobody can teach anyone. And although I never met him, everything I have read–which is a good deal, where this man is concerned–convinces me that he was also a very nice person.

This is a tome, and it’s a treasure. I am glad I was denied a galley because this is the sort of volume I want as a physical copy. In the end my son purchased it for me for my birthday, and so I thank Benjamin. What a treasure.

If you are looking for just one book about Mandela’s life, read his hefty autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. However, if you are a collector of books about South Africa, or about civil rights in general, or of course, about Nelson Mandela, go out and get this book now.

Conversations with RBG, by Jeffrey Rosen*****

This is the RBG book I’ve been waiting for. My huge thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt Publishers for the review copy. This book will be publicly available November 5, 2019.

Justice Ginsburg wants us to know that the sky is not falling. Though progressive thinkers see great cause for concern, primarily within the executive branch of the federal government, the U.S. Constitution hasn’t changed, and the Supreme Court, she insists, is made up entirely of strong legal minds that revere it. Precedents are still the basis of future rulings; the overturn of precedent is rare and unusual. But for activists—and she loves us—she also points out that public opinion is what alters the course of the law. Congress makes laws based on what their constituency desires. So she isn’t suggesting we put away our pussy hats and our picket signs; she just wants us to know that our advocacy works, and she appreciates everything we do to further women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights.

Twice previously I read other books about RBG; one is a popular biography that I enjoyed, but that didn’t go deeply enough into Ginsburg’s legal ideas, and the second is just dross, minutiae gathered from her high school year book and whatnot. Whereas part of me just wants her to write an autobiography, I have to recognize that she is very elderly, has faced health challenges lately, and to stand a chance of writing any sort of memoir, she’d probably have to resign from the Court. And goodness knows, I want her to stay there, ideally forever. Instead, Rosen’s series of interviews with this feminist icon serves nicely.

Rosen has been friends with Justice Ginsberg for many years; they were drawn together initially through elevator discussions of opera. His chapters are brief but meaty, organized around key rulings and topical interviews. Rosen explains succinctly at the outset how this friendship formed and grew, but he doesn’t get windy or use the opportunity to aggrandize himself. He keeps the focus strictly on his subject. The interviews flow in an agreeable manner that is literate without being verbose or Byzantine.

We live in politically polarized times, and so even when I am reading about a political figure that I admire, I generally expect my blood pressure to rise a little, perhaps in passionate agreement. But if anyone in this nation has the long view of history and the key domestic issues that have unfolded, particularly with regard to the rights of women, it is RBG. And although I am not as senior a citizen as Justice Ginsburg, many of the changes she mentions that have occurred over the decades are ones that I can also attest to, though I hadn’t thought of them in years. For example, when I came of age in the 1970s, it was still not unusual to try to enter a bar or club only to be barred at the doorway because women weren’t allowed inside. (“Gentlemen only, Ma’am. Sorry.”) I had forgotten about these things; as her recollections unspool I see that she is right. Change happens, but lasting change happens slowly. We are getting there, at least with regard to women’s rights and gay rights. Issues of race and class are something else entirely, and she points up specific instances where justice has not progressed and change is imperative. I could say more, but none of it would be as wise or as articulate as when Ginsburg says it. If you’ve read this far in my review, you should go ahead and order this excellent book now. I highly recommend it to all that are interested in social justice, both formal and informal.

Four Hours of Fury, by James M. Fenelon**

I love good military history, and so when I saw this title I requested and received a review copy, thanks to Net Galley and Scribner. It’s for sale now, but I can’t recommend it to you.

One of the first things I do when I read a new author in this genre is to check notes and sources.  A first rate military historian will have multiple sources for each fact cited, and a reasonably good one will have a variety of sources, primary sources being most desirable.

Fenelon doesn’t do this. Much of his information hangs on a single source, and often these are not well integrated. This is the first time I have seen military history published by a major house, that uses Wikipedia as a source. All of the history teachers I know send their students back to do a rewrite if they hinge their citations on Wiki, and if teenagers aren’t allowed to do it, I cannot think why Scribner permitted it.

What drew me to the book is the paratroopers. There seems to be a spate of these coming out right now, and I find it fascinating subject material. There’s also a trend, of which this book is also an example, of embracing the brave German troops against whom American forces fought, and not unnecessarily, either. I could get behind this trend more easily were it more universal, but somehow U.S. historians are quick to recognize the shared humanity of former enemies that are Caucasian, and others, not so much. If I could see one, just ONE WWII history that recounts kind of brave actions on the part of the Japanese during this conflict, I would be a good deal less cranky.

Be that as it may, this book is inadequately researched and inadequately documented. It’s not professionally rendered, so if you want to read it, do so critically and evaluate as you read. Get it free or cheaply; don’t pay full price.