When I Was White, by Sarah Valentine****

Sarah Valentine was raised to believe that she was white, and that her dark complexion was the product of her Greek ancestors. But whereas she does have Greek ancestry in her DNA, Sarah is also of African descent. This strange but compelling, searingly honest memoir came to me courtesy of Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press; it will be available to the public tomorrow, August 6, 2019.

Valentine is an excellent writer, and she spins us back in time to her childhood, spent in a private school, a Catholic upper middle class family, celebrating European cultural events. She is the only African-American or mixed race student at her school, and every now and then, someone there will make a remark that infers she is Black. This puzzles her. Her own mother makes remarks bordering on White Supremacy, assumptions about the habits and character of Black people; of course, none of this should apply to Sarah, in her view, because she insists that Sarah is Greek and Irish, and Irish, and Irish.

Reading of her experiences, I am initially surprised that such culturally clueless, entirely white parents would be permitted to adopt a Black child; but here’s the thing. She isn’t adopted. She is her mother’s biological child, and to talk about who her biological father is, is to recognize that her mother was not always faithful to her father. It’s a keg of dynamite, one that her parents carefully navigate around. Not only have they not spoken about this to Sarah; they have not spoken about it to each other. It is a fiction that holds their marriage together; toss a tablecloth over that keg of TNT there and for goodness sake, don’t bump it.

I came away feeling sorry for her father.

There’s a lot more going on between Sarah and her parents, particularly her mother, a talented but not entirely stable parent who assigns impossible standards to her daughter. Meanwhile, as Sarah grows up and leaves for college, the fiction of her heritage is uncovered, first as a mere suspicion, then later as fact.

This isn’t an easy read or a fun one. It can’t be. Sarah’s pain bleeds through the pages as we see the toxic ingredients and outcomes in her story; her mother’s mental health and her own, as well as eating disorders and the implosion of her parents’ marriage. The particulars of her lifelong struggle make it impossible to draw a larger lesson in terms of civil rights issues; there are some salient points that will speak to women that grew up in the mid-20th century as Sarah’s mother did, and as I did. And here we find one small spark of optimism, the fact that when women are raped, whether at college or elsewhere, we stand a greater chance of being believed than we did in the past. Still, it’s a grim tale overall, and I don’t think there’s any other way Sarah could honestly have told it.

Bluebird, Bluebird, by Attica Locke*****

Attica Locke’s mysteries are consistently excellent, so when I found a review copy for this first entry in her Highway 59 series, I felt as if I had struck gold. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Mulholland books. This book is for sale now.

Darren Matthews is a Black Texas Ranger, and he’s in big trouble. He’s suspended from the force, and his wife Lisa has thrown him out of the house until he cleans up his act. She doesn’t want to be married to a man that is so careless of his own health and safety; if he takes a desk job and quits drinking, he can come home to his family. But right now he’s on his own, and right now he’s still drinking, and it is in the process of moving from one drink to another that he meets Randie, the recent widow of Michael Wright. The official story the local sheriff tells is that Michael killed Missy Dale, a Caucasian woman whose body was dragged from the swamp behind Geneva’s bar, and then himself. The only problem with that theory, Darren discovers, is that Michael died before Missy. Darren thinks they were both murdered.

As Darren goes deeper into the case, after receiving short-term, conditional support from his boss, he finds more elements that suggest a murder and subsequent cover-up. He’s closer to the truth; the sheriff and another local big-shot are closer to apoplexy; and he’s less likely to go home to Lisa.

Attica Locke is one of a handful of consistency brilliant mystery writers in the US. Her capacity to carry me to the murky rural South and create taut suspension that makes me lean forward physically as I follow the story is matchless. I’ve read more than a hundred other books between her earlier work and this one, yet I still remember the characters, the setting, and above all, that brooding, simmering dark highway. This is what sets her apart from other authors in an otherwise crowded field.

I also like the way she addresses racism, and here Darren investigates the role of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas; I ache as I read of the continuous injustice that Darren, Michael, and so many others face both within this story and in real life. And I want to cheer when Darren says that he will never leave, because the ABT and other White Supremacy groups don’t get to decide what Texas is. It is as much his story as it is theirs, and he will fight for it.

“Darren had always wanted to believe that theirs was the last generation to have to live that way, that change might trickle down from the White House. When, in fact, the opposite had proven true. In the wake of Obama, America had told on itself.”

Darren risks his life once again in his determination to dig up the rotten hidden truth and lay it out in the sun where everyone can see it. The ruling scions of Lark are equally determined to prevent him from doing it. The intensity of this thing is off the charts, but fortunately I know this author’s work well enough not to start reading it close to bedtime, because once I am into the book’s second half, I will have to finish it before I can do anything else, including sleep.

The good news for me and for other Locke fans is that this is the beginning of a series. I received this galley after publication, and now the second of the Highway 59 series, Heaven, My Home, is slated for release in September. (Watch this blog!)

Highly recommended.

The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt, by Andrea Bobotis*****

“We will choose what we take with us.”

This thunderous debut by Andrea Bobotis bears a small resemblance to the work of Elizabeth Strout and the late Harper Lee. Issues of race and menacing family secrets simmer beneath the surface of this narrative like some otherworldly being biding its time in the swamp, till at last it rises and we must look at it.

As the story commences, Judith, who is quite elderly, is ready to take inventory. Her family home, all six thousand square feet of it, is jammed full of heirlooms, and each is fraught with history. The year is 1989, but as Judith examines one heirloom and then another, she takes us back to the period just before the stock market crashes, back when she was young and her parents and brother were still alive.

I have to confess that the first time I picked up this story—free to me, thanks to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark—I thought, Huh. A boring old lady and her stuff. Pub date’s a ways off, so let’s put this one on the bottom of the pile. Of course, I picked it up again later. I read a bit farther this time and found I was acutely uncomfortable; I told myself I had to read it because I had requested the galley, but then I didn’t for awhile.

But like Judith, I pride myself on being reliable, so toward the end of June I squared my shoulders and opened the book. An hour later my jaw was on the floor and my husband was avoiding me, because he knew if he got too close I would start reading out loud. If you were to show up right now I’d do the same to you. I genuinely believe this novel and the characters and social issues they’re steeped in is one for our time.

Judith is the eldest of the Kratt children; her companion, Olva, lives with her, but her status is undetermined and remains that way far into the book. Part of the time she appears to be a live-in servant, hopping up whenever Judith wants a cup of tea or a blanket; at other times the two of them sit on the porch together and watch the world go by as if they were sisters or good friends. We know that they grew up together and share a history as well as the trauma of growing up with the vicious, unpredictable Daddy Kratt, the wealthiest man in Bound at the time.

As layer after layer is peeled back, using the household treasures that are inventoried as a framework of sorts, we see the gratuitous cruelty that was part of both women’s daily existence as children. Kratt can be generous at times, and yet at others—with increasing frequency—he is vicious and sadistic. We see the responses his unpredictable fury brings out of Judith as a child, her younger brother Quincy, who’s a chip off the old block, and their younger sister, Rosemarie. Kratt can ruin someone’s entire life purely on whim and never feel the slightest regret. He likes to watch. The entire town fears him.

Now he’s gone, and here we are. Judith acknowledges that her social skills are stunted, and she never knows what to say or do to smooth a difficult situation. She was never a pretty girl, and she has never married.  We can also see that she is solipsistic, insensitive to the feelings of others, and at times just straight-up mean, but she doesn’t see herself that way, because she measures herself against her late parents.  Judith is nowhere near as nasty as her daddy was; she has never permitted herself to be broken by him, as her mother was.  So Judith tends to let herself off the hook lightly. As she remembers back over the years the cataclysmic events that have taken place around her—or in some cases, because of her—her overall tone is self-congratulatory.

But her little sister, who is also an old lady now, returns to the family manse, and that overturns the apple cart in a big way.  How dare Rosemarie run out and leave Judith to contend with that awful man but now come back to claim her birthright?  Isn’t that right, Olva?

Olva just smiles.

In fact, this story is every bit as much about Olva as it is about Judith. . Every single one of these women is sitting on secrets; every one of them has a different story to tell. Every new revelation brings additional questions to mind, so that although this is not a mystery or a thriller, I cannot stand to put it down. I generally like to flop on my bed at night and read before I go to sleep, but I can’t do that with this book. I’d climb under the covers; open the book; read a little ways and then sit bolt upright. Eventually I realized that this cannot be the bedtime story. (It occurs to me just now that retelling one or another portion of this story in the voice of one of the characters not heard from would make a great creative writing assignment related to point of view.)

What Bobotis has done here is masterful. She begins with an old, wealthy white woman and yet develops her, and I cannot think of even a dozen books where that has been accomplished in a believable way in literature; once we get old, that’s pretty much who we are going to be. But the elderly Judith at the story’s end is a better person than the elderly Judith at the outset. And as if that weren’t enough, she also develops Olva, the dark-skinned elderly companion that seems to us, at the beginning, to be a live-in servant or nurse of some sort. But however circumspect Olva has been—a prerequisite for an African-American that wants to stay alive in the American South in the past and at times, maybe the present—Olva does in fact have some things to say. It is Rosemarie’s return that makes this possible.

This isn’t necessarily a fun novel to read, and yet the skill with which it is rendered is a beautiful thing in and of itself. I believed every one of these characters, those within this pathologically corrupt family and those around it. I suspect that the formidably talented Bobotis could pluck any one of these characters and create a sequel just as remarkable. This writer is going to be around for a long, long time, and as for me? I’m ready to read whatever she comes up with next.

Highly recommended.

Make Me a City, by Jonathan Carr***

I am always on the lookout for something different, and so I leapt at the chance to read this publication free and early. Thanks go to Net Galley and Henry Holt. It’s for sale now.

The story is set in and around Chicago, back when the city was first born. It tells a tale of shifting alliances and double crosses; yet in other ways it is an old story, one in which a Caucasian interloper cannot bear to see a Black man rise to a position of wealth and influence. It’s not an easy read.

Conceptually the story is strong, but the author tries to do too much at once. Shifting points of view; development of disparate characters; and an old time dialect that is challenging all by itself serve to render the story muddy and confusing. Too much is lost, and at the halfway point, I gave it up and commenced skimming.

Despite this, I believe Carr is a talented writer and I like his ideas. I would read his work again.

The Crowded Hour, by Clay Risen*****

The Spanish-American War sparked the earliest fire of U.S. imperialism, and the eccentric rich man that pushed it forward, Theodore Roosevelt, was at its center. Risen provides a contemporary view of this badly managed chapter in American history, dispelling longstanding myths and examining the long term effect of the conflict on the U.S. military. My thanks go to Net Galley and Scribner for the review copy, which I read free in exchange for this honest review. This book is for sale now.

Roosevelt was challenged with a number of health problems as a youngster, but instead of embracing his sedentary, privileged existence, he embarked on a series of physically demanding adventures in order to strengthen his constitution and affirm his masculinity.

When Cuban nationalists sought independence from Spain, Teddy began campaigning for American intervention. Men of his generation was had not known the destruction of lives and property that touched every part of this nation during the American Civil War, and like most young people, they were unwilling to listen to their elders. Roosevelt believed that war was a splendid thing, and that in facing death, men were elevated to a higher level. He joined his voice to those in the press advocating military aid to Cuba, and after tapping every powerful connection his wealthy family could access, he was successful.

 His own unit—all volunteers—were dubbed the “Rough Riders.” Most had no military training of any kind; the mighty Union Army had been all but disbanded once the nation was reunited. Though they were promoted as cowboys, the rugged individuals of the Wild West, a goodly number hailed from Wall Street and Harvard. In addition to being able to fund their own wartime excursion, they were noteworthy in their riding capability.

There was no San Juan Hill. There was a series of them.

The American invasion of Cuba cast a spotlight on its unpreparedness. Transporting troops, beasts and equipment across the Atlantic was a debacle of the worst order. There weren’t even close to enough seaworthy vessels, and because of this, most of the so-called cowboys fought on foot the entire time; horses and mules were stuck back in Tampa waiting to sail. There wasn’t enough food, potable water, or appropriate clothing for most of the men; the wealthiest among them fared best, but there were many occasions when there wasn’t any food to be bought at any price. There had been no reconnaissance and so they went in blind; the heat and disease killed more Americans than the Spaniards did. Vultures and immense land crabs that measured 2 feet across and traveled by the thousands made short work of the dead when not buried immediately. American losses were nearly triple those of the Spanish, and when the war ended there were no hospitals or sanitation ready to receive the legions of sick and wounded when they returned from the Caribbean.  

Roosevelt used the occasion to point to the need for a standing army and U.S. readiness, and ultimately this was his one useful contribution. In other regards, the man was an ass hat. His bald-faced racism, though not unusual at the time, went over badly with the Cuban freedom fighters that were supposed to benefit from their presence. He crowed to his friends about how much he enjoyed shooting an enemy soldier from just a few feet away “like a jackrabbit,” and called his 45 days of combat the ultimate hunting trip. Mark Twain hated the guy, and it’s not hard to see why.

Risen has an engaging writing style, and he uses lots of well-chosen quotations. His research is excellent as are his sources. I would have liked to see more of a breakdown along the lines of social class and other demographics, but this war did not yield a rich archival treasury like the one that came from the Civil War, so this may not be possible.

All told, this history is a find. Right now it seems that every second historian on the planet is writing about World War II, whereas this cringeworthy but significant chapter of American history has been largely left by the wayside.  I highly recommend this book.

Such Good Work, by Johannes Lichtman****

I was invited to read this debut novel by Net Galley and Simon and Schuster, but when I first saw it in my inbox, I recoiled. Another addiction memoir! Another chance to live through someone else’s excruciating nightmare! But then I read a few early reviews—they didn’t bear the numbed courtesy of an obligatory write-up.  And then my own sense of courtesy tipped me over the edge. I was, after all, invited. Did I not want to be invited anymore? Of course I should read it.

The story is Lichtman’s own written as autofiction, and his unusual writing style drew me in. I was surprised to see how quickly I went through it. At the outset, he is teaching creative writing and is crestfallen to find that a student he has championed has plagiarized her work for him, and not only is his anecdote written with great humor, it is immediately familiar to me, and most likely will be to all English teachers.  We want to believe; we want to be supportive. And once in awhile, someone younger than ourselves comes along and manipulates the hell out of us. It is a humbling experience.

Jonas is half American, half Swede, and he finds that to get off of opiates and opiods, he needs to be in Sweden, where street drugs are much harder to procure.  He is enrolled in a graduate program in Malmo, but finds his time is primarily consumed by the refugee crisis as he volunteers to teach in a language school. Young men from the Middle East come by the thousands, and he is proud that Sweden doesn’t close its border, doesn’t set a cap to the number of immigrants it will welcome. At the same time, the Swedish government has some double standards where race is concerned; the Roma people that set up an encampment are quickly swept away. Then the nightclub bombing in Paris provides officials with an excuse to shut it all down; it’s a tremendous blow to the refugees and to those that want to help them.

At times I fear for this writer, because he seems to have no filters with which to protect his own heart as he hurls himself into his volunteer work; he wants to make a difference so desperately.  Many years ago I saw a short film that showed a Bambi-like deer grazing in a forest, and then the massive foot of Godzilla smashes it like a bug, and in his ragged, hungry quest for social justice, the author reminds me of that deer. Social justice work requires sacrifice to be sure, but a little care toward one’s own mental health is also essential. Lichtman’s master’s thesis focuses on a Swedish writer that ultimately succumbs to despair, turning on the car and closing the garage door, and I found myself urging this author to have a care, lest the same happen to him, a danger he refers to himself in the narrative. (From the acknowledgements at the end, I see that he appears to have emerged in one piece, at least so far.)

The stories of the refugee boys are searing ones. A young man told of walking through Iran, followed by Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Denmark on his way to Sweden. The whole journey was done on foot. So many families were dead that the boys’ tutors learned it was sometimes better not to inquire too deeply about those left behind. At one point, Jonas decides to become a mentor to one person, but things go amiss and he ruefully recalls his own role as that of “clumsy Samaritan.”

Lichtman’s prose is gently philosophical in a style that is slightly reminiscent of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, though in no way derivative. His perceptive commentary regarding the events that unfold around him, along with the lessons he learns about himself, is witty and absorbing. Along the way I picked up a little knowledge about Swedish culture and society that I didn’t have before.

The title has sharp edges.

Recommended to those interested in Swedish culture, the refugee crisis, and addiction issues, as well as to anyone that just enjoys a good memoir.

A Bound Woman Is A Dangerous Thing, by DaMaris B. Hill*****

This compact but potent collection of poetry is so good that it hurts. DeMaris B. Hill spills America’s historical shame across the printed page with the articulate rage and power of the generations she writes about. My thanks go to Bloomsbury and Net Galley for the review copy. This collection becomes available to the public January 15. 2019. 

The keys to reading Hill’s poetry are in the introduction, and in additional brief introductions at the beginning of each poem. These are broken down into five sections that depict the different ways in which women of color have been bound over the centuries, and Hill points out that Black resistance didn’t start with Black Lives Matter, and it didn’t start with Dr. King and Rosa Parks either. American Black folk have been fighting for their rights for centuries, but some periods have been better publicized and more widely recognized than others. 

The introduction is not long by most standards, but I found myself impatient to read poetry, so halfway through it I skipped to the poetry; read the collection; and then I went back to reread the introduction from the beginning. After that I went back over the poems a second time, lingering over my favorites. The review copy was a rough one, and it’s hard to read poetry if the spacing is whack. Your copy is almost guaranteed to be cleaner, but you may choose to read these more than once anyway. Strong poetry will do that to you. 

Each poem is devoted to an African-American woman that has fought in one way or another, and the conclusion is written for Hill’s son. The book is billed as a collection that takes us from Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland, which it does, and both of these poems are resonant and in the case of Bland, achingly sorrowful. My own favorites were those written about Eartha Kitt, who was familiar to me, and Ruby McCollum, who wasn’t. The poem about Alice Clifton made me wish I could unread it, because it is harsh and horrible, but in case it wasn’t clear from the get go: Hill isn’t writing to spare our tender feelings. She’s pissed, and she’s right to be. 

These poems contain some of the finest figurative language I have read anywhere.

Highly recommended for those that seek social justice and that love excellent poetry. 

Best Nonfiction 2018

 

theblackandtheblueThe Black and the Blue, by Matthew Horace*****

The Water Diviner and Other Stories, byRuvanee Pietersz Vilhauer****

ALT.FINAL_The WaterI read this book free and early thanks to Net Galley and University of Iowa Press. This distinctive collection is for sale now.

All told there are fifteen stories, all of them featuring Sinhalese Sri Lankans, most of them expatriates that have moved to the United States.  Before commencing I knew very little about the culture of this small island country, apart from its having been colonized by Britain earlier in its history. I still know very little, but this collection is an approachable way to introduce oneself, in addition to being well crafted fiction.

Several of the stories are dark, dealing with the racism and ignorance with which immigrants are often greeted. The angriest of the stories is “A Burglary On Quarry,” in which a student is accused of burglary by her well-to-do, bigoted landlord who doesn’t want to face the obvious perpetrator: her own son.  It reads like a manifesto, and it makes me want to pump my fist and yell, “Tell it!”

This, however, is something none of the characters in these stories would do, apart from the privileged Caucasian American in “Accident.”  David nearly comes to great harm while visiting his new wife’s homeland, largely due to his own obliviousness; it hasn’t occurred to him that he himself might be deemed unacceptable for his race and nation of origin, having lived all of his life as an affluent member of the dominant culture. He is from Texas, and he’s drunk, and he doesn’t even try to understand discretion or subtext. As his wife’s neighbors ogle him suspiciously and the police consider that he may have caused an auto accident for which he is not responsible, he continues to assure his wife—in English—that everything is just fine. He says nothing quietly, ever, and it takes a political connection on the part of his wife’s relatives to extricate him from the hard place he doesn’t know he’s in.

Other entries are also bittersweet, and “Sonny’s Last Game” stands out as one of these. However, “Leisure” literally made me laugh out loud. Well, guffaw, actually: “Cutex! Who does she think she is!”

The last entry, “Hello My Dear”, is both funny and bittersweet, as Prema is faced with the question of whether an email from a stranger is a scam or the real deal.

I enjoyed this collection tremendously and would read Vilhauer again in a heartbeat.

Rising Out of Hatred, by Eli Saslow****

RisingOutOfHatredDerek Black was the heir apparent to the White Supremacist throne, godson of David Duke, and the son of the founder of the largest hate site in the U.S. This gripping biography tells the story of his transformation, from racist wunderkind to social justice proponent. Thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

As a young person bent on following his family’s toxic legacy, Black felt that part of the secret to gaining support was in softening the language that went with it. Rather than spewing angry racist jargon around, he argued, Caucasians should instead point to their own pride in ancestry. Everybody gets to be proud of who they are and where they came from, right? So his people just happened to be proud of being from Northern Europe. And then it follows that of course they would prefer to be surrounded by others like themselves. Thus, the call for a Euro-American homeland was, he argued, a reasonable demand.

Later he would hear some of his own catch-phrases used by members of the Trump cabinet.

Derek had never known anyone that wasn’t white; his parents had seen to that. When he went to the New College of Florida, he escaped the terrarium in which he’d been home-schooled, and he came to know a more diverse set of people. This story tells us not only of his own inner struggle and evolution, but also of the painstaking manner in which his new friends cultivated him and became an undeniable part of his life. They invited him to Shabbat meals regularly, gradually breaking down his resistance. In time he came to see the contradictions between the ideology in which he had been raised, and the reality of the real human beings that were now part of his life.

I am amazed at the patience and perseverance of the young people that changed his thinking. I myself would have beat feet far away from a character like this guy, particularly given the enormous stake he had in remaining exactly who he’d been raised to be. Befriend this person? Why would anyone? But they did it, and they met with success.

Black was inclined to withdraw from public life, to fade into the general population as quickly as possible, but his girlfriend persuaded him that since he had made a difference in the wrong way, he owed it to the world to counter that with a more public repudiation.

Saslow is a Pulitzer winner, and his writing is tight and urgent. I didn’t put this story down often once I had begun it. At the same time, Black’s story is told so intimately that it feels a little strange to suddenly realize that Saslow is in it, and we don’t get much information as to how he got there. I would have liked to see a more natural segue from his development, to his conversations with his biographer. It felt a bit abrupt to me.

This, however, is a small concern. The book is fascinating, and you should get it and read it.