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.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, by David W. Blight**-***

frederickdouglassprophetThanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

Douglass is a key figure in American history, and Blight has made his career largely through his expertise on Douglass’s life. I expected to be impressed here, and indeed, the endnotes are meticulous and I would be amazed if there was a single error anywhere in this work. But aspects of the biography rub me the wrong way, and ultimately, I realized that the best way around this is to go back and read Douglass’s own autobiographies again.

Whether we read what Douglass tells us, or what Blight (or any credible biographer) has to say, there are two impediments that stop me short, and because I have never been required to start at the beginning and end at the end to complete a scholastic or professional assignment, I tend to read the beginning; recoil; abandon; and then return in an undisciplined, skipping-around manner that is uncharacteristic of my usual methods.

First we have the Christian aspect. Douglass was tremendously devout, and during his time it was much more common to discuss religion publicly and even in daily conversations, sometimes at length. It repels me. So that’s my first problem. It’s not Blight’s problem, but it’s one I have to deal with.

The second problem—again, not Blight’s, and it’s inherent in reading about Douglass—is that slavery was horrible. Douglass actually had a slightly better life than most of his peers, gaining an education and living in the master’s house, but it was nevertheless traumatic. It is unavoidable to see what he endured and not reflect on exactly how hellish life was for the four million that endured life in this dehumanizing, degrading system. After I read a certain amount of it, I feel as if I need to take a long shower to wash away the stain.

As for Blight’s book, there are some good moments here, and I learned some things. Who helped Douglass on his road to freedom? Free Black people did. Who knew that there were vastly more free Black folks in Maryland than there were slaves? The textbooks and other materials used to teach adolescents about slavery and the American Civil War overemphasize, to a degree amounting to deception, the participation of kindly white people, largely Quakers, and provide only a fleeting glimpse of the occasional African-American.

But I find that the eloquent passages that I highlight as I read this are not Blight’s words, but quotations from Douglass himself.

Meanwhile, the obstacles to appreciating this book are consistent and irritating. Blight makes much of inconsistencies in Douglass’s three autobiographies, and when he refers to the differences there is a superior, smirking quality to his prose that doesn’t sit well. I wouldn’t like it coming from any writer, but when the writer is a Caucasian, it adds an extra layer of insult. No matter how long Blight publishes, no matter his standing in the Ivy League, he will never be fit to polish Douglass’s boots. If he once knew it, I suspect he has forgotten it. So that’s a problem, and it’s hard to read around it.

The other issue, a more common one, is the tendency to guess at what is not known. This makes me crazy. The narrative will flow along in a readable, linear fashion, and then I start seeing the speculation, which is barely visible. Might have. Must have. Likely. It makes me want to scream. If you don’t know, Professor Blight, either don’t put it in, or address the unknown in a separate paragraph explicitly addressing the possibilities. Weed out the unimportant guesses and deal with the more critical ones head on. When these inferences are salted randomly into the text, we come away with tangled notions. Apart from the key events in his life, which of the finer details were fact, and which were surmise?

Excuse me. I need to find a nice brick wall so I can slam my forehead against it.

So there it is. For all I know, Blight may gain half a dozen prestigious awards from this work; it wouldn’t be the first time a book I’ve complained about went on to garner fame and glory. But I call them like I see them, and what I see is that it’s a better plan to read what Douglass says about himself, even though Blight appears to consider himself a more reliable resource than his subject.

If you want this thing, you can have it October 2, 2018.

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

theblackandtheblue“Even as a federal agent, I have been on surveillance or supporting an operation and have had an officer approach me and say that the neighbors called about a “suspicious” vehicle, which meant it was a black guy driving a car. I’ve been the man in that suspicious vehicle.”

Matthew Horace worked as a cop at the federal, state, and local level for 28 years, and he is plenty sick of the “toxic brotherhood.” The quote above refers to an incident that occurred in Mill Creek, a (very white) suburb outside Seattle, Washington where I live, but it’s not just here; it’s everywhere in the US. Specifically, he tells us about cities where some of the most notorious cop violence has created resistance such as New Orleans, Chicago, Baltimore, and Ferguson.

There are essays provided by police chiefs from some of these places as well as from Kathleen O’Toole, who was chief here in Seattle; O’Toole’s prose reek of electioneering, the sort of style that speaks for itself. Many of these contributors contradict Horace’s own assertion that the problem is endemic, and is absolutely not a case of a few bad apples. More than one of these essays hold the fascination I’d feel if forced to watch a rattlesnake before it strikes; the sanctimony, the grandiose claims of justice supposedly served. The most interesting of them all is from an African-American police chief in Chicago, whose personal stories of her family members having been abused—including her sons—stand diametrically opposed to what she does for a living, and yet she maintains her tightrope walk, determined to make a difference where only the smallest, if any, seems likely.

By now I should have thanked Net Galley and Hachette Books for the review copy, which I received free and early. This excellent book is available to the public Tuesday, August 7, 2018.

There has been a flurry of books published about this subject since it became national news. More than anything, the internet and cellular phones have stripped the gatekeeping capacity of the major news outlets; cops that were able to beat and even kill people and lie about it later are being outed left and right. Even I, who am an old lefty and have never really believed cops were there to protect ordinary people, am shocked by much of what’s been revealed. I wondered, as I began reading, whether Horace could add to what’s already been said and shown. What could he add to the body of information provided by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Angela Davis, and Matt Taibbi? (Many years ago, Norm Stamper, former Seattle police chief, also wrote an expose that included a chapter on why cops beat Black men.)

As it happens, Horace has a lot of information that I hadn’t read, and it isn’t just a matter of fine detail. For example, who knew that in New Orleans, cops were not merely accepting graft, but actively robbing Black-owned businesses, guns drawn, and making off with their cash and other valuables? It’s the sort of thing that lives in your head for a long time after you read it; but then again, it should be.

The sourcing is impeccable.

Those with an interest in Black Lives Matter, in civil rights in general, or with an interest in race issues within the so-called criminal justice system in America should get this book, for full price if necessary, and read it. Read the whole thing. So much of our future depends on how we respond.

Catfish Dream, by Julian Rankin****

CatfishDreamEd Scott Junior was one of the first Black catfish growers in the USA, a “Delta titan,” and he was the very first to own a catfish processing plant.  My thanks go to Net Galley and the University of Georgia Press for the review copy. It’s inspirational, well written, and well sourced. The book will be available to the public tomorrow, July 10, 2018.

To say that this story is out of my usual wheelhouse is an understatement. I’m a city woman, Caucasian, living in the Pacific Northwest. The two slender ties that drew me to this biography are my interest in civil rights, and my love of a good plate of catfish; yet I enjoyed it a lot, and I think you will too.

Scott was the son of a successful Black farmer, a former sharecropper that bought land incrementally until he owned hundreds of acres in the Mississippi Delta. The first third of the book explains how he did that, and the experiences that Scott Senior and Junior had with the Civil Rights Movement and the local power elite. It’s a little slow at the outset, but the narrative wakes up in a big way around the 35% mark.

As Scott’s farm grows, he encounters one obstacle after another, and the racism is naked and blatant. Local white agribusiness runs him out of the rice growing business—and he has the nerve to drive a better truck than some of the white farmers in the area, which is an affront they can’t let pass. Left with hundreds of acres and no seeds to plant, Scott decides to dig ponds. Rankin is clear: by ponds, he means bodies of water the size of 15 football fields. Big damn ponds.

Caucasian farmers are able to get subsidies and FMHA bank loans, but Scott is declined, not on the basis of his credit score, but because he is African-American. Bank officers and local government officials are so certain of their positions of power that they put their refusals on the basis of race in writing, and up the road, that is what Scott will use to bring them down.

Prior to the 1980s, catfish was not sold in supermarkets. It was considered a lowly bottom-dwelling fish by many, and so its consumption was limited to the families of sport fishermen and poor Southerners . When it made its debut and was purchased by “Midwestern homemakers”, this reviewer was among them, puttering in the back of a Kroger in Toledo, Ohio. “Huh,” I said, “Catfish. Now we’ve never tried that.”  I missed the cheap, readily available salmon I’d grown up with in the Pacific Northwest, and was jonesing hard for fish. I had no clue that an immense power struggle lay behind the little foam tray of fish in my shopping cart, but once I’d dipped it in a cornmeal mixture and fried it up, there was no turning back. Yummers.

I read multiple books at a time now that I’m retired, and some of the thrillers I favor make poor companions at bedtime.  This biography was perfect then. It’s linear for the most part, focused, and although I was angered by the way Scott was treated, I could tell he was going to emerge victorious, so it didn’t keep me awake after the light was out.

Rankin wants to be clear that there’s a whole lot that needs to change before we will be able to say that every race is treated equally in the Delta, or elsewhere the US. One might hope this would be obvious. But everyone needs to read victory stories to boost their morale and remind them of what is possible. If you need a story where the good guys win, then you should get this book and read it.

Eloquent Rage, by Brittney Cooper****

EloquentRageCooper has had enough, and who can blame her?

I received my copy of Cooper’s essays free and early, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. Her prose is clear, articulate, and full of fire.

Had I read my post-Trayvon civil rights titles in a different sequence, I might very well have called this a five star collection. However, I read Samantha Irby, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Angela Davis, and Matt Taibbi first, and so the bar was set somewhere in the stratosphere when I opened this galley. I wanted Cooper’s viewpoints to be accompanied by some hard facts, complete with citations. However, for those looking to have their world view clarified and their consciousness raised, Cooper’s collection is recommended.

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.”

ICantBreathe
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.

The Quantum Spy, by David Ignatius*****

“America is a country where race matters. The more people say they are, what, color-blind, the more it is a lie.”

thequantumspyDavid Ignatius writes gripping spy fiction, and this is his best work.  The basis of this one is the longstanding intelligence war between the CIA and its Chinese counterpart; the story is fictional, but his careful research ensures that this could have happened.  Lucky me, I read it free thanks to Edelweiss and W.W. Norton and Company Publishers. This book will be available to the public tomorrow, November 7, 2017.

Harris Chang is Chinese-American, raised to respect the red, white and blue.  He works for the CIA, and has been sent to investigate a leak in a quantum research lab. As the USA and China struggle to achieve technological dominance, tensions rise. Chang wonders if he has been chosen to investigate based on his ethnicity, since he knows very little about China or even his own family tree; why yes he has. The Chinese expect to be able to turn him because of it, and over the course of time, his bosses begin to suspect that it’s happened.  Harris is loyal, and he chafes at the unfairness of his treatment, but is determined to succeed. After all, what could prove his loyalty more clearly than to perform above the standard to which most of the Agency’s employees are held?

The setting changes constantly as spies chase other spies all over the world, but the story takes place primarily in Arlington, Virginia and in Singapore. There are also some especially tense, intriguing scenes set in Mexico, and I love the side details about Trotsky’s house, which is now a museum.

Ignatius dumbs down nothing for anyone, and so the reader should have literacy skills that are sharp and ready. Don’t read this one after you take your sleeping pill. Trust me.

The story can be read—and mostly will be, I think—as an enjoyable bit of escapism. With current events so intense, we all need some of that, and it’s what I expected when I requested the DRC. But I find it much more rewarding because of the racial subtext. It’s an area that’s important to me, and at first my back was up when I saw hints of it without knowing what the writer’s intentions were. So many are astonishingly clueless, or worse, when it comes to this aspect of fiction. But as I saw where he was taking it, I had to completely reevaluate my opinion. I would love to be surprised in exactly this way more frequently.

The ending made me want to stand up and cheer.

Highly recommended to those that love strong thrillers, and even more so for those that also cherish civil rights in the USA.

 

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.