Hell of a Book, by Jason Mott*****

It really is.

This book is a standout in more ways than one. First the obvious: look at that cover! Then again, how many novels have a nameless protagonist all the way through the book? Get into it deeper, and the distinctions become more complex. The buzz around it is wholly justified. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Our author is on an odyssey that takes the form of a book tour, and it lands him, in the end, back where he grew up. He doesn’t tour alone; apart from the various organizers he meets in various locations, he is accompanied by a small Black child he refers to as “The Kid.” Alternately, we also see the story of a young Black boy, a very Black boy, nicknamed “Soot,” who grows up in the American South.

As I read, I am always on the back foot, understanding most of what it being said, yet developing questions as I go. Our author says (often) that he has a condition, and that this is probably why he can see The Kid when others cannot. My notes ask whether his condition is dissociative, and is The Kid just part of himself? Or is The Kid Soot? Are Soot and The Kid both part of the author? Every time I come up with a plausible theory, something else happens to undercut it. Yet one other thing becomes clearer all the way through: to be born an African-American boy in the United States is to be perpetually on the back foot; perpetually having to guess how best to proceed; to perpetually guess at one’s welcome or lack of same, at the quality of one’s relationships with Caucasians, to perpetually guard one’s own safety. And to be very Black—“Nigga, I bet when you get out of the car your daddy’s oil light come on”—is to invite not only the suspicion and hostility of Caucasians, but to draw the enmity of lighter Black people, too.

The synopsis of this story that initially drew me billed it as humor, and in places, it is not only funny, but laugh-out-loud funny. But the further we get in, the darker it becomes.

There are a number of sardonic references to the publishing world; editors, agents, and other promoters have told the author that while it’s fine to write about Black characters, He must not write about being Black:

“The last thing people really want to hear about is being Black. Being Black’s a curse—no offense—and nobody wants to feel cursed when they read something they just finished paying $24.95 for…The future of this country is all about patriotic, unity-inducing language. Post-Racial. Trans-Jim Crow. Epi-Traumatic. Alt-Reparational. Omni-Restitutional. Jingoistic Body-Positive. Sociocultural-Transcendental. Indigenous-Ripostic. Treat of Fort Laramie-Perpendicular. Meta-Exculpatory. Pan-Political. Uber-Intermutual. MOK-Adjacent. Demi-Arcadian Bucolic. Write about love. Love and Disney endings…”

Later, an interviewer asks if the past doesn’t still matter, and the author says, “It does. Not just three-fifths of it, but all of it.”

So, my friend, you can see why this book should be called a love story. Race? Oh, no no no. Fear? Injustice? Police brutality? Of course not. After all, this is a hell of a book!

Highly recommended; one of the year’s finest.

I Can’t Breathe, by Matt Taibbi*****

“Try to imagine a world where there isn’t a vast unspoken consensus that black men are inherently scary, and most of these police assaults would play in the media like spontaneous attacks of madness. Instead, they’re sold as battle scenes from an occupation story, where a quick trigger finger while patrolling the planet of a violent alien race is easy to understand.”

I received an advance review copy of I Can’t Breathe: A Killing On Bay Street, courtesy of Random House and Net Galley. I had expected this civil rights title to be a good read but also to be anticlimactic, coming out as it did just after publications by literary lions like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Angela Davis. I am surprised and gratified to see that Taibbi, a journalist for Rolling Stone, holds his own quite capably. The title is for sale, and if you care about justice and an end to cop violence in the US, then you should get it and read it.

Many readers will recognize the title, which constitutes Eric Gardner’s last words and became a rallying cry for protests that spanned the globe. Why would any cop, especially one not acting alone, find it necessary to put an elderly man, a large person but not a violent one, in a choke hold over what was, after all, a misdemeanor at most? Taibbi takes us down the terrible urban rabbit hole, deftly segueing from Garner’s story, the events that led up to his death and the legal and political fight that took place afterward, to the cop killings of others, and the bizarre, farcical prosecution that takes place in the unlikely event that a cop is ever charged with having unlawfully killed another person.

Though my own life is free from this type of harassment and though I benefit from White privilege and have done so since birth, I found it hard to breathe myself as I read Garner’s story, and the behind-the-scenes machinations that result in the maintenance of the status quo. And I trembled, and still do, for the Black men in my family.

I think many people over the age of 40 understand that the attacks we see publicized online, one by one, Black boys and men that have done either nothing wrong or committed a minor offense that most Caucasian people would never be stopped for, have been taking place for a very long time. What we didn’t have was proof; what we didn’t have was the long view that allows us to see into cities, rural areas, and small towns in America such as Ferguson, where Michael Brown was killed. And there’s one other thing: we didn’t have to look at it before if it wasn’t happening in our own community, our own neighborhood. Even those of us with racially mixed families didn’t see the scope of it. Some would prefer not to know.

Here’s Taibbi’s take on how it unspooled:

“The civil rights movement ended in a kind of negotiated compromise. Black Americans were granted legal equality, while white America was allowed to nurture and maintain an illusion of innocence, even as it continued to live in almost complete separation. Black America always saw the continuing schism, but white America has traditionally been free to ignore and be untroubled by it and to believe it had reached the “postracial” stage of its otherwise proud history. That was until cell phones and the internet came along. When the murder of Eric Garner hit the headlines, it at first seemed to lift the veil.”

Taibbi’s smooth narrative and expert pacing doesn’t make this any easy book to read; nothing can. If it’s easy, you’re not paying attention. But if we ignore Eric Gardner, Michael and Trayvon and Freddie and Sandra and all the rest, we are complicit in their deaths. Highly recommended, even at full jacket price.

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.

Darktown, by Thomas Mullen*****

darktown I was originally turned down for a DRC of this novel when I requested it last spring, and I took the unusual step of following up with Atria, more or less begging for it. I’ve been reviewing titles for Net Galley for two years and have received nearly 300 DRCs, so it is a sign of my interest level that I went to this extreme to read this one in advance in exchange for an honest review, and it’s a sign of decency and responsiveness that a representative from Atria Books invited me to review it after all. Although I am grateful , this five star review is not about gratitude, but a measure of the importance I attach to the issues it addresses and the skill with which the story is told.

The story centers on the first African-American cops hired in Atlanta; the year is 1948. This is considered an experiment, and to say the least, it’s awkward. The basic plan is that a small number of Negro—which is the polite term at this time in history—officers will report to a Caucasian supervisor, and they are responsible for patrolling the Black section of Atlanta. There are just eight men in this force.  They have no authority to make an arrest, so if someone has to go to jail, they must call for Caucasian police who are considered real police by higher-ups within the city administration.

To say the very least, it’s hard to take.

Mullen’s protagonists here are African-American officers Boggs and Smith, and the problem arises when they witness a crime, the assault of a woman by a Caucasian man in a car. The woman disappears, and no Caucasian cops are interested in hearing what these officers saw that night. The white cops that come in response to the report of a crime demean the Black officers, calling them “boy” and a variety of other horrible slurs.  As the white cops leave the scene, “Boggs was still standing in the street. If his rage had been a physical thing, it would have split the car in two.”

Eventually one of the white cops, a man named Dunlow, goes too far in the eyes of his rookie partner, Rakestraw, and the latter finds himself in a tenuous, secret alliance with Boggs.

Light banter breaks up tension in places, but no mistake, this is a brutal story. If it wasn’t harsh, it wouldn’t be the truth. This is one of the rare instances when the frequent use of the N word and other racist, vulgar language is actually historically necessary; you’ve been forewarned. Though Darktown is a useful history lesson, its greater value comes from causing readers to think more deeply about the role police play in western society.

A question I found myself considering, and not for the first time, is how much good Black cops can do even today to combat racism and other ugly biases by the department that employs them. Clearly cop violence toward people of color remains ever present.  If this book had been published ten years ago, I would have been concerned that in focusing on past racism, the story might have left us with the impression that racism was a problem only in the past, as if all that mess is over now.

But in 2016, we all know otherwise.

I hope you’ll read this painful but well crafted novel, and reflect some about how the dynamics of power have developed and why. Will a more diverse police presence be the key to equity for those that are so frequently crushed beneath the boot heel of what passes for a justice system in the United States, or is meaningful police reform impossible as long as cops are employed primarily to protect the property of the rich?  Would ordinary people be better off if we can, in the words of the old folk song, “…raze the prisons to the ground”?

This book becomes available to the public September 6, 2016. Highly recommended.

Breaking Rank: A Top Cop’s Expose of the Dark Side of American Policing, by Norm Stamper****

breakingrankDoes this look odd in my otherwise left-leaning collection? It ought to. I make no bones about the fact that I don’t like cops. I have seen it too often: the racism, the preference for protecting property over protecting human flesh and bone, the gratuitous violence. It is appalling.

Here in Seattle, the SPD has gotten so far out of control that the FBI, not exactly heroes or saints themselves, have been called in to reign them in, get the SPD to tone it down, for heaven’s sake. Don’t be so obvious about it. The recent shooting of an unarmed deaf American Indian who was plugged in the back for failing to stop-when-I-say-so, was the final straw where a lot of folks here were concerned. There was no call for anybody to shoot John Woodcarver. He was well known both among the homeless and the working crowd downtown, and one person after another testified that he was harmless. No history of any sort of violent crime; I can’t recall that he even had a record, though I can’t say I looked hard or cared. There’s never a call to shoot an unarmed man, and this was not an exceptional shooting. There’s been way too much. Furthermore, the FBI has grown frustrated with the local law’s intransigence. They mount dashcams; the cops turn them off, or point their cars facing away from the scene of action before they whip out the tasers and guns.

Just over a decade ago, Norm Stamper was the chief of police here. Prior to that, he was a cop in San Diego. During the WTO protests (World Trade Organization) in downtown Seattle, things got badly out of control. During the review that followed, Stamper’s was the head that rolled.

Rather than slink away with his tail between his legs looking for a quiet little hamlet to sheriff, he did the completely unexpected: he turned on his own. He wrote down all the dirty little secrets that he says are endemic not only here, but in pretty much every major metropolitan city in the USA. It’s endemic, he claims, and I believe.

Have you ever wondered why Black people are arrested at such a disproportionate rate? Some liberals may be inclined to write it off as a side affect of poverty and the lack of a solid foundation during childhood. (Michelle Alexander would later publish The New Jim Crow, which has all that data you need to put a stop to that lie.) Stamper says oh hell no. He has a special chapter, and it is for this chapter that the book receives my four of five stars rating, that is about why cops beat Black men. Brace yourself. He gives the code letters or names that are abbreviations for racist epithets you may have believed died in the ’60s. If so, you have led a sheltered life. Stamper proves it.

So if you can stand the heat, check out Stamper’s kitchen. It gives me joy to see one of these people come back to eat their young, and to shine a flashlight into all the dirty corners of urban police life.

A caveat from me, for those who have a beloved relative who’s in the biz: I don’t say every single cop in every city is corrupt, racist, and dirty. I only say there are too few good guys, at least those who stick around once they see what the job is really about, to make a significant difference. So relax about Uncle Tony or Grandpa Bob. If you say he is a gentleman and a hero, I believe you.

The Neon Rain, by James Lee Burke *****

This book is the first in a twenty-book series. Brilliantly written, it introduces the reader to Lieutenant Dave Robicheaux, a complex, flawed, fascinating character. Other reviewers say that what is not said is as important as what is. The deft skill exemplified here is a real pleasure to witness, and I kept disturbing my husband, who reads almost exclusively nonfiction and was reading an IT printout, to tell him things I noticed. I could NOT keep it to myself, I was so impressed. (If you have seen any of my other reviews,you know that this is no small thing.)

The protagonist/narrator frustrates us again and again with his compulsions. We may even say right out loud, “NO! Don’t go into the bar!” but he trots right on in. We want to say, Go get the girlfriend and say you are sorry. But instead, he goes and does something else that will get him into trouble.

I generally have no patience at all for the suspense that is similar to the slasher movies we saw as teens, where you sat on the edge of the theatre seat and cried, “Don’t go in the old, dark house!” and the sweet little couple said, “Oh, maybe we can get out of the rain! Doesn’t look as if anyone has lived here in a long time.” And in they go.

So what makes this so good? Why do I still care about this character, after he screws things up twenty different ways? Why do I even like him?

I think I like the dignity the writer bestows upon his protagonist, and I also like the fact that he is flawed and torn, as real people are. I suspect that the writer either struggles with alcoholic urges himself, or is very, very close to someone else who does. Again, I have read so many novels in which alcoholism is a key plot point that I swore off them, quitting alcohol stories forever, but this writer makes it seem as brand new as every individual person you meet is.

We have to like this protagonist, not for what he thinks, but for what he does. He cannot afford something very important, (trying to avoid a spoiler), but ends up borrowing money from the bank to avoid having someone close to him carry his debt when they voluntarily pony up. There are NO ADVERBS in this book. None are needed. The writer lets us know how things are said and done in more skillful ways.

It is the ways that the protagonist responds to real people, and who he chooses to help, that ultimately make me really, really like him.

I will admit I also appreciate the palpable taste of the setting. I like local authors (USA, Pacific NW) for the familiarity, but I like Burke for the sense of a place I have never been, and may never go. I have always been leery of traveling in the deep south. My family is multi-racial, and even today, I am not sure I could drive comfortably through the backwaters of Louisiana and Mississippi with my African-American son, my Japanese husband, and our biracial daughter. With Burke there, I don’t really need to; I feel as if I am in the Gulf Coast part of Louisiana (and for awhile, Mississippi) as he describes them.

My first taste of this writer’s work came out of sequence, when my daughter came home with a freebie from the shelf at school, a much later book in the series. I was sufficiently impressed to put his first books on my wish list. Now that I have read this remarkable novel, my next task is to go back and get the rest of them, a little at a time.

Edgy, brutal, and painful in places; not for the faint of heart, but unmatchable in quality; a fascinating read.