Best Nonfiction 2018

 

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

Best Feminist Fiction 2018

ASparkofLightA Spark of Light, by Jodi Picoult*****

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.

A Spark of Light, by Jodi Picoult*****

ASparkofLightIf there is a prize for courageous literature, Picoult deserves to win it. I have grown frustrated over the years as I have watched countless novelists dodge and weave to avoid the mere mention of abortion as a means to deal with an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy, and I wanted to do cartwheels when I read the teaser for this book.  I thank Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy, and the author and publisher for having the integrity to go there. This book is for sale now.

That said, this isn’t a fun read, and it in no way resembles the character based escapist fiction that is the hallmark of many of Picoult’s other novels. This one is about social justice, and fiction is an approachable medium with which to discuss it. Those seeking to avoid tension and who don’t want to think critically should read something else.

The story opens at a women’s clinic in the Deep South, and a shooter has just killed the owner of the clinic and taken others hostage.  Our main characters are the shooter, George Goddard; Hugh McElroy, the hostage negotiator; Wren, Hugh’s daughter, who has come to the clinic without her father’s knowledge to procure contraception; and Louis, the clinic’s doctor. There are a host of second string characters, and they include clinic workers, clinic protesters, patients, and a spy that has wormed her way inside the clinic in search of the damning proof that fetal tissue is being sold illegally.

Because we start with the shooting and then work our way backward in time, with the narrative unspooling the background and viewpoint of each of about a dozen people, the first third of the book is agonizing. I am not usually one to peek at the ending of a novel, but frankly I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t read the fine details until I knew who was going to make it out alive and who wasn’t. I suspect that some of the negative reviews I am seeing are because of this aspect of it. It’s a tribute to how effectively Picoult is able to create tension within a story, but she may have overshot the mark a wee bit.

The first half of the book examines the various reasons why some people are opposed to abortion, and it does it in painstaking detail. I began to feel as if she was doing the work of the Right-to-Lifers for them.  More than anything, though, we see inside the troubled mind of the shooter himself. Goddard may be the best developed of the characters present here (though the story is primarily plot based in any case).

We also see the reasons why women choose to have an abortion, and we see the ambivalence and sometimes the regret of those that do so. In fact, my one real issue with this story is that there isn’t a single woman here that is having the procedure, not because she’s been raped or because she’s impoverished or abused, but because her contraception failed and she doesn’t want to be pregnant. These women exist; I know them. In fact, I have been one of them. Not every woman that seeks to terminate a pregnancy is traumatized, and apart from one character that passes in and out of the plot inside of a brief paragraph, these women are not represented here. But this is a relatively minor concern, and my rating reflects this.

Appropriately enough, the empirical voice of reason belongs to Louie Ward, the doctor.  He’s seen a lot:

“Indeed, when the pro-lifers came to him to terminate a pregnancy and told him that they did not believe in abortion, Louie Ward said only one thing: Scoot down.”   Louie respects the women that come to him, and during the conference the state requires him to have with those that have signed on for the procedure,

 

“He looked into the eyes of each of the women. Warriors, every one of them…They were stronger than any men he’d ever known. For sure, they were stronger than the male politicians who were so terrified of them that they designed laws specifically to keep women down…If he had learned anything during his years as an abortion doctor, it was this:  there was nothing on God’s green earth that would stop a woman who didn’t want to be pregnant.”

 

I like the ending.

Picoult has done her homework here, observing abortions conducted at various stages of pregnancy and interviewing over one hundred women that have done this. Her end notes show the level of research on which this story is based. Few fiction writers go to such lengths, and I doff my metaphorical hat to her.

Highly recommended to feminists everywhere, as well as to the tiny sliver of the population that isn’t firmly planted in one camp or the other where the topic is concerned.

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.

My Own Words, by Ruth Bader Ginsburg****

MyOwnWordsThis one is a crushing disappointment. I seldom buy books anymore, but I was so pumped about this collection that I went all out and got a hard copy, expecting to love it enough to keep it in my home library forever. Sadly, this isn’t what I expected.

Obviously, no U.S. Supreme Court justice is going to have enough time to sit down and write his or her memoirs, let alone an octogenarian justice, but I had hoped to find a collection of her meaty and sometimes even audacious opinions, particularly her dissents. Instead, this slender volume is packed with filler. There are two co-authors whose names are written on the cover in miniscule print, and it is they that write sometimes windy introductions to just about everything;  to make matters worse, they don’t tell us anything you cannot find in other biographies written about this feminist luminary.

And what of Ginsburg’s writing? I didn’t buy the book to see the precocious things she wrote as a child, as an adolescent, or in college. I just want to read her court opinions. That’s it. And that’s not what I got.

I can’t give anything that bears Ginsburg’s name a rating below four stars, but seriously, if your discretionary income forces you to buy books strategically, either skip this one or get it used. Surely at some point something more scholarly will be released, and then I’ll wish I still had the dollars that I spent here.

Us Against You, by Fredrik Backman****

“The first time Peter realized that the tiny person was sleeping soundly in his arms. What are we prepared to do for our children at that moment? What aren’t we prepared to do?”

UsAgainstYouUs Against You is the second in book in the Beartown trilogy. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the invitation to read and review. This book will be available to the public tomorrow.

Beartown is in crisis. The hockey team has been undone by the arrest of their star player for rape, and Maya, his victim, has been harassed endlessly as if she were the perpetrator. Resentments simmer. There are anonymous callers. A new coach is hired, not only a woman—but a lesbian. Chins wag. New owners roll into town, friendly and treacherous, generous and oily. Violence hums beneath the surface as the town polarizes between the hometown hockey team and that in the neighboring town, to which some Beartown citizens have decamped.

Fredrik Backman, who is possibly the finest male feminist novelist in the world, is on a roll here. It’s interesting to note that although the hockey players in this story are men and boys, the best developed, most complex characters are the women. I like reading about Peter, Leo, Amat, Benji, and Teemu, but the characters that keep me coming back are Kira and Maya, Ana and Ramona. More than anything I want Kira to pack her bags and seize the opportunities presented to her, with or without Peter. Just go, woman, go. But it’s always easy to suggest that someone else should leave a troubled marriage behind, and the way that she deals with this problem—and the role that her daughter plays in the decision—is thought-provoking.

Meanwhile there are about a dozen other small threads here, and again, Backman is among the best writers when it comes to developing a large cast of town members without dropping anyone’s story or letting the pace flag. His use of repetition as figurative language is brilliant, and he is unquestionably the king of the literary head fake. If I taught creative writing to adults, I would assign my students to read his work.

I have some relatively minor quibbles here, although I know so little of Swedish culture that they may or may not be valid within that framework. I would dial the sentimentality and drama down twenty to twenty-five percent; clearly most readers love this aspect of these novels, but I would argue for a smidge more subtlety. There are occasional exaggerations that remind me that the characters are fictional. When the entire town is economically depressed, and yet everyone shows support for something by showing up in matching jackets, and when a preposterous amount of spare change goes begging in the kitty at the local bar, I wince. But then I am quickly drawn back in by the complex, compelling characterizations.

If you’re a fan of Backman’s, you won’t be disappointed. If you have never read his work before, don’t start here. Read one of his excellent stand-alone novels, or begin with Beartown, the first in this series. Recommended to those that love fiction that features excellent, complex characters, particularly female characters.

The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee, by John Reeves*****

LostIndictmentRobtELeeI’ve never understood why so many Americans revere the memory of Robert E. Lee, the general that turned Lincoln away at the outbreak of the American Civil War and instead commanded the treasonous Army of Northern Virginia. When I saw this title, I leapt at the chance to read and review it. Thanks go to Net Galley and Rowman and Littlefield Publishers for the DRC. The book will be available to the public June 1, 2018.

Before reading this book I wasn’t even aware that an indictment had ever been issued. This is particularly odd given that a good part of my teaching career involved teaching American history and government. I even wondered, before opening it, whether this indictment would be metaphor; no indeed. Reeves did a lot of digging in order to write this book, and that’s what makes it worth having. His sources are ones that I cannot find myself through a quick Google search or a trip to the library or bookstore. Reeves  uses sources that require traveling hither and yon in order to access special collections that libraries won’t check out to anybody ever, that’s proof that this writer had done the legwork.

Back to the indictment. Following the end of the war and the death of Lincoln, the North—contrary to mythological retellings—clamored for retribution. Let’s all be brothers and have peace? Oh hell no. Who had not lost a brother, a son, a husband to this terrible conflict? And President Andrew Johnson, working hand-in-glove with the passionate abolitionist, Judge Underwood, set out to “make treason odious.” At a bare minimum, Lee, Jefferson Davis, and the members of the Confederate cabinet most closely linked to the war itself needed a day in court. Afterward, they needed to either hang, or rot in prison for a goodly while. So the thinking went.

As usual, the devil was in the details. Why is it so difficult for government to move swiftly? A lot of terrible decisions were made here, the most noteworthy being to try these men in a civilian court rather than in a military tribunal. Too late they realized that Lee must then be tried by a jury of his peers in Virginia. This would have been disastrous, since Lee was regarded by most Caucasian Virginians as a hero, much the way we now look at Lincoln. After all, when the war broke out, most antiwar or antislavery advocates had to move North in fear of their physical safety, and only the diehard Dixie whistlers remained, so a fair and impartial jury in Virginia was a nonstarter. What could possibly be worse than letting Lee off scot-free? What would be worse would be for him to be exonerated.

Added into the stew was a heap of political scandal and the unraveling of Johnson’s presidency, and the tarnishing of Underwood’s reputation, a man controversial from the get-go.  At the end of the day they were too busy salvaging themselves to bring these men to justice.

I find some measure of comfort in the knowledge that Arlington, the huge, fancy estate that had been passed down to Lee’s wife and of which he never stopped bragging, as if property ownership and family history made his family American royalty, was expropriated by the Union, and its extensive grounds became Arlington National Cemetery. After Lee’s death, there was considerable talk among the public suggesting that the widow Lee should get her old house back; however, she overstepped when imperiously telling Congress that she also wanted the remains of all those poor boys dug up and interred some other place. There was almost nothing she could have said or done to lose the sympathy vote more quickly.

This excellent book is highly recommended to those that are interested in the American Civil War and its aftermath.

Mr. Flood’s Last Resort, by Jess Kidd*****

MrFloodsLastWho do I enjoy reading more than Jess Kidd? Nobody.

Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. The book, which was also published in UK as The Hoarder, is available today in the US.  And I have to tell you also that although her work is billed as similar to Fredrik Backman, I find it to be better—and that’s saying a good deal.

Maud Drennan is a caregiver, which in the USA would translate as a combination social worker and home health provider. She’s been sent to the large, rambling home of Cathal Flood, a tall, fierce old man who has driven his previous caregiver to a nervous breakdown. Speculation abounds: is he an innocuous old fellow in need of some organization, treatment, and TLC, or is he dangerous—perhaps a murderer, even? What about the missing girl that was last seen at this address?  It’s enough to make even Maud’s staunch heart tremble:

“In the musty depths of Cathal’s lair, one eye flicks open. Noise has pulled on the strings of his web, setting his long limbs twitching. He’ll be slinking out of his trapdoor and threading through the rubbish. Crawling up the staircase with a knife clampled between his dentures and a lasso of fuse wire in his hand, ready to garrot me and hack me to pieces.”

The suspense builds as Kidd moves our point of view from Maud’s by day, to her frightening, confused dreams at night, to those of the missing and the dead. Because Maud is gifted in her ability to see those that have gone before, particularly saints, she receives their cautions and advice in ways that are often truly hilarious. The result is a story so enjoyable that it became the dessert book that I held out to myself as a reward for having finished less enjoyable galleys. Had I no other obligations, I would have gobbled this deliciously dark tale up in a weekend.

As it is, I found myself going back and rereading passages twice, partly for fun and partly to try to pick apart what makes this writing so effective. But although I can point to several components—brilliant development of Maud, Cathal, and friend Renata; some of the finest figurative language in contemporary fiction; a hugely original voice and concept; a soaring climax in which the weight of Western society’s failure to care adequately for its elders comes crashing down before us—ultimately the book is much more than the sum of its parts, an alchemy that is spun magic with a few naughty bits of raunchy humor sprinkled in, and a social justice issue nailed to the wall where we cannot help seeing it.

Should you purchase this title for your magnificent, outrageous mother on her special day, for which there are just 12 remaining days to shop? Should you order a copy for your own fabulous, fierce father, whose day is about a month later? Well of course you can, and you should, assuming you aren’t going to try to force them into a home. But it isn’t nice to break the binding open, and so they’ll be able to tell if you have fudged a free read before gifting it. Better to get a copy for yourself as well, fair and square. You’ll want to read it more than once anyway.

Warm and clever, Mr. Flood’s Last Resort is the most entertaining novel of 2018 to date, hands down.

Not That I Could Tell, by Jessica Strawser****

NotThatIOne year ago today, I reviewed Strawser’s debut novel, Almost Missed You. When I received an invitation to read and review this, her second novel of suspense, I privately wondered whether she had written the same story all over again: missing spouse, missing kids, and is it foul play or a voluntary departure? But although there are many common elements, possibly what will become a signature aspect of her work, I can promise you that this is a very different story. Thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for letting me read it free and early. This book is for sale now.

Our setting is Yellow Springs, Ohio, and our protagonists are the women of the neighborhood, primarily Izzy, who comes in search of a fresh start after her sister marries the man she had her heart set on, and Clara, a stay-home mom that also recovering from a traumatic past event that is alluded to frequently but whose particulars are withheld till near the story’s climax. And we have Kristen, college administrator and estranged wife of Doctor Paul. All are close neighbors, and these women–along with other women in the neighborhood–form a tight bond.

At the outset I feel as if I’m the wrong reader for this story. It’s all so light and fluffy; I don’t need to know the name of every child in the neighborhood, nor what everyone is wearing. But I also remember that I felt that way at the start of Strawser’s last novel, and I didn’t feel at all that way further into the book, and so I keep reading. Sure enough, the adverbs drop, the wardrobes and cute kiddies fade into the background, and the tone darkens nicely (said the evil book blogger with a sinister smile).

After a lovely fall evening spent bonding with friends around a backyard bonfire, Kristen and the twins have disappeared. The police take a hard look at Paul, who is seeking half of the hefty sum in Kristen’s savings account in the divorce proceedings, but nobody can prove anything. There are no bodies; she may have taken the kiddies and left. Some things are missing that make us think she’s taken off voluntarily, and yet other aspects of her absence send up flags.

Paul, for instance, is a smooth operator, but he isn’t a nice guy.

Strawser weaves a complex, credible plot with a strong feminist subtext, one that tells us there needs to be greater support for victims of domestic violence, and also that for some of us, happy endings are possible without romantic relationships. In addition, it is heartening to see a strong work of fiction that mostly features women characters.

I recommend this novel to women and those that love them, and I look forward to seeing more of Strawser’s feminist fiction in the future.