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.

 

Policing the Black Man, Angela Davis, ed.*****

PolicingtheBlackManA hard look at the American penal system–from cops, to court, to prison–is past due, and within this scholarly but crystal-clear series of essays, the broken justice system that still rules unequally over all inside USA borders is viewed under a bright light. Isn’t it about time? Thank you to Doubleday and Net Galley for the DRC. It’s for sale, and anyone with an interest in seeing change should read it. Caucasian readers that still can’t figure out why so many African-Americans are so upset should buy this book at full price, and they should read it twice. If you read this collection and still don’t understand why most Civil Rights advocates are calling out that Black Lives Matter, it likely means you didn’t want to know.  But bring your literacy skills when you come; well documented and flawless in both reason and presentation, it’s not a book that individuals without college-ready reading skills will be able to master.

The most horrifying aspect of American policing and prosecution is the way that Black boys are targeted. Sometimes only 10 or 12 years of age, they find themselves in the crosshairs of suspicion and implicit bias no matter what they do. Of course, the presumption that someone is violent, is dangerous, is guilty is never acceptable, and men and women all over the USA have seen it happen. However, most cultures hold their children dearest, and so what happens when every African-American boy grows up knowing that cops will assume he has done something wrong because he has stopped on the street corner, or not stopped; walked too slowly, or too quickly; looked away, or looked around down; what happens when an entire subset of the US population knows that he was essentially outlawed from the cradle?

Those that care about justice won’t want to read this collection while eating, and you won’t want to read it at bedtime, either. How do you swallow? How do you fall asleep when what you want to do is hit a wall? This reviewer’s own family is racially mixed, and when I consider the easy good humor of the Black men in my family, I wonder how they do it. And yet I know the answer: you can’t be angry seven days a week or your life is already over. They face American racism with fatalistic humor and get on with their lives.

That shouldn’t be necessary.

These essays each zero in one particular area of policing. Implicit bias is addressed, as is the failure of the US government to even admit that a problem exists. The Supreme Court has adopted the ivory-tower position that American justice is colorblind, centuries of evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. There is no database at all regarding the deaths of Black boys and men by cops, and no requirement that anyone keep track. Does it make a difference if the prosecutor is Black? There’s no data. None.

And did you know that 95% of the people charged with a crime plead guilty?  Prosecutors hold so much power that often a completely innocent person can be persuaded not to risk having an extra charge, and extra time, tacked on. Prosecutors get to decide whether a crime should be pursued as a state crime, which has far more lenient implications, or as a felony. Cops are out in the public eye—and thank goodness they are—but prosecutors do things quietly, often behind closed doors.

Davis’s own article alone is worth the purchase price of this collection, but once you have it in your hands, you will want to read the whole thing; and you should. You should do it, and then you should become involved. Protest in the way you are able, but don’t  sit idly by and watch. Protest, because Black Lives Matter, and until this country admits that it has a race problem, how can any of us breathe?

What I’m Reading

I’ve been experimenting with ways to share what is coming up next. Usually I put this on a different page, but then it also tends not to get seen, likely due to the absence of share buttons. Let me know what you think. Is it better to post it separately, or do you like it here?

 

Here are books I’ve finished reading, and as soon as a sane moment presents itself in my uncharacteristically busy domicile, you will see them reviewed here:

 This is what I am reading now; all are good, but some are outstanding. [Imaginary drum roll goes here.]

The Standard Grand, by Jay Baron Nicorvo*****

thestandardgrand“A loaded gun wants to go off.”

Critics have compared Nicorvo’s brilliant debut novel to the work of Heller, and indeed, it seems destined to become the go-to story of those that have served in the unwinnable morass created by the US government against the people of the Middle East: “a drawdown war forever flaring up”. It’s created a tremendous amount of buzz already. I was lucky enough to read it free and in advance for the purpose of a review, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press, but today it’s available to the public. You should buy it and read it, maybe more than once.

The story starts with a list of the characters involved, but the way it’s presented provides a tantalizing taste of the author’s voice. The page heading tells us these are “The Concerns”, and the subheadings divide them into practical categories, such as The Smith Family, the Employees of IRJ, Inc., and The Veterans of The Standard Grande (misspelling is mentioned later in the story). Then we proceed to list The Beasts, and The Dead, and The Rest, and right then I know this is going to be good.

Antebellum Smith is our protagonist, and she’s AWOL, half out of her mind due to PTSD, anxiety, and grief. She’s sleeping in a tree in New York City’s Central Park when Wright finds her there and invites her to join his encampment at The Standard Grand. Here the walking wounded function as best they can in what was once an upscale resort. One of the most immediately noticeable aspects of the story is the way extreme luxury and miserable, wretched poverty slam up against one another. Although the veterans are grateful for The Standard Grand, the fact is that without central heat, with caved in ceilings, rot, and dangerous disrepair, the place resembles a Third World nation much more than it resembles the wealthiest nation on the planet.

On the other hand, it’s also perched, unbeknownst to most of its denizens, on top of a valuable vein of fossil fuel, and the IRJ, Incorporated is sending Evangelina Cavek, their landsman, out in a well-appointed private jet to try to close the deal with Wright. She is ordered off the property, and from there things go straight to hell.

Secondary and side characters are introduced at warp speed, and at first I highlight and number them in my reader, afraid I’ll lose track of who’s who. Although I do refer several times to that wonderful list, which is happily located right at the beginning where there’s no need for a bookmark, I am also amazed at how well each character is made known to me. Nicorvo is talented at rendering characters in tight, snapshot-like sketches that trace for us, with a few phrases and deeds, an immediate picture that is resonant and lasting. Well drawn settings and quirky characters remind me at first of author James Lee Burke; on the other hand, the frequently surreal events, sometimes fall-down-funny, sometimes dark and pulse-pounding, make me think of Michael Chabon and Kurt Vonnegut. But nothing here is derivative. The descriptions of the main setting, The Standard Grand, are meted out with discipline, and it pays off.

As for Smith, she still has nightmares, still wakes up to “the voices of all the boys and girls of the wars—Afghan, Iraqi, American—like a choir lost in a dust storm.”

There’s so much more here, and you’re going to have to go get it for yourself. It’s gritty, profane, and requires a reasonably strong vocabulary level; I’m tempted to say it isn’t for the squeamish, yet I think the squeamish may need it most.

Strongly recommended for those that love excellent fiction.

Something To Be Brave For, by Priscilla Bennett***

Bennett’s provocative new novel tackles domestic abuse. I was invited to read this one free and in advance by a representative from Endeavor Press in exchange for an honest review.

somethingtobebraveforKatie Giraud is the daughter of a successful surgeon. Her father is disappointed when she chooses not to go into medicine, but he is overjoyed when she falls in love with his protégé, Claude Giraud. Claude is the son he never had. Katie is an art lover, and now she can enjoy her passion while being well provided for. Her husband is a handsome, charming Frenchman who woos her with roses and jewelry. It’s like something out of a fairy tale.

The trouble commences when the wedding is done and real life begins. You see, Claude has a wicked temper. He has enormous control issues, and he’s unpredictable. You just don’t know when he’s going to lash out. Next thing she knows, Katie is bleeding and cowering beneath the grand piano. But after daughter Rose is born, things are better, but they’re worse; Katie is more willing to try to escape this abusive relationship because she knows that it traumatizes her little girl to see Claude hurt her, but having a daughter also makes flight more complicated.

It isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Feminists everywhere can rejoice that the problem is so well demonstrated. Even in a home where there is such affluence, leaving isn’t as easy as it sounds. Her husband’s reputation is excellent, and he’s a smooth liar. Her parents love him, and he’s friends with the chief of police. Every effort she makes is thwarted. I appreciate this as I read it, because in cases of domestic abuse, societal conversation tends to question the victim: what is wrong with her, to make her stay in a situation like that? Why not develop a spine, get up, walk out? And yet statistics tell us that a woman is much more likely to be killed by a violent spouse, or former spouse, after she has left him, than to be killed by him while still in the marriage.

Leaving is dangerous.

That said, it seems strange that I never feel bonded to Katie. I know she is an art lover, a battered wife, and a devoted mother, and I know some of her physical attributes, but beyond these things her character remains blurry and underdeveloped. Better character development would move the entire story forward and add greater impact to the overall message.

The ending feels simplistic and somewhat formulaic. But those that care about domestic violence and champion women’s issues may want to read it anyway because it adds to the discussion, one that so often is stifled as its victims remain isolated in the shadows.

This book was published April 3, 2017 and is available for sale now.

Hungry Heart, by Jennifer Weiner*****

hungryheart“I wanted to write novels for the girls like me, the ones who never got to see themselves on TV or in the movies, the ones who learned to flip through the fashion spreads of Elle and Vogue because nothing in those pictures would ever fit, the ones who learned to turn away from mirrors and hurry past their reflections and unfocus their eyes when confronted with their own image. I wanted to say to those girls, I see you. You matter. I wanted to give them stories like life rafts…I wanted to tell them what I wished someone had told me…to hang on, and believe in yourself, and fight for your own happy ending.”

Many thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC, which I received a couple of months after the publication date. Having read this memoir makes me want to read more of this author’s work. It’s for sale now.

The fact that I’ve never read anything by this author makes me something of an outlier in terms of her target audience. I’m also slightly older than she is, not in need of a mentor. But none of that matters, because quality is quality, and feminist messages like this one are always good to read.
Weiner writes with an arresting combination of candor and wit, and she talks about the things we grew up being taught not to mention. Those of us that saw role models like Twiggy—a British model with a nearly anorexic appearance—and Mia Farrow, yet were ourselves unable to shake the persistent amount of what kindly adults called baby fat, never thought to argue that we were as worthwhile as these bony fashion icons. Weiner deals with the topic of body image and media head on. And while she’s there, she talks about facing down anti-Semitism in the classroom, and the dry hiss of another child on the playground suggesting that she has killed Jesus. She talks about also being the chunky, unfashionable member of her kibbutz to Israel in the unforgettable chapter titled “Fat Jennifer in the Promised Land”.

At times I confess I am annoyed by appear to be petit bourgeois concerns. You struggled to choose between Princeton and Smith? Oh you poor dear! But later when I read that she is called in to the administration’s offices and told to get her things and go because her tuition hasn’t been paid, I forgive her immediately.

Weiner takes on questions that many feminist writers pass by. I’ve never seen another writer address the fact that if a woman cannot successfully breast feed her baby or even just doesn’t want to, the child will most likely not starve. This and a host of other seldom spoken issues having to do with combining career and motherhood can help other mothers, whether working or taking time away from the workplace to raise a child, feel less isolated.

Every woman needs a funny female version of Mister Rogers to tell us that we are fine just the way we are. Every mother needs another woman that can tell her—sometimes in hilarious ways—that every rotten thing that ever happens to her child is not her fault.

Highly recommended for women seeking wisdom and snarky kick ass commentary, and to those that love them.

Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty, by Kate Hennessy***

dorothydayDorothy Day is an interesting historical figure, the woman that founded The Catholic Worker, which was initially a combined newspaper, homeless shelter, and soup kitchen. I once subscribed to The Catholic Worker, and since it cost one penny per issue, you couldn’t beat the price. I saw this biography available and snapped it up from Net Galley; thanks go to them and Scribner, who provided me with a DRC in exchange for an honest review. This title was published in late January and is now available for purchase.

I always had a difficult time getting a handle on what The Catholic Worker stood for. The name suggests radicalism, and indeed, Day was red-baited during the McCarthy era. Day was a Catholic convert and a strong believer in sharing everything that she had with those that had nothing. She worked tirelessly and selflessly, and despite often living an impoverished existence somehow made it into her eighties before she died, an iconic crusader who became prominent when almost no women did so independently—though she was no feminist, and believed that wives should submit to husbands. Since her demise, speculation has arisen as to whether she might be canonized.

What was that huge crash? Was it a marble statue being knocked the hell off its pedestal? Hennessy takes on the life and deeds of her famous grandmother with both frankness and affection. In the end, I came away liking Day a good deal less than I had when I knew little about her. Her tireless effort on behalf of the poor included anything and everything her very young daughter had in this world, and at one point she remarked that she felt unable to ask others to embrace a life of poverty if her child wasn’t also a part of that. It was a different time, one with no Children’s Protective Service to come swooping down and note that the child was sleeping in an unheated building in the midst of frigid winter; that there was no running water, since the building was a squat; that the only food that day was a single bowl of thin soup and perhaps a little hard bread donated from the day-old stores of local bakeries; that even small, personal treasures and clothing given the child by other relatives and friends would either be stolen by homeless denizens or even given away by her mother, a woman with the maternal instincts of an alley cat. Day did a lot of good for a lot of people, and no one can say she did it for her own material well being, but she more or less ruined her daughter’s life, and even when grown, Tamar’s painful social anxiety and panic attacks derailed her efforts to build a normal life for herself.

Nevertheless, the immense contribution that Day made at a time when the only homeless shelters were ones with a lot of rules and sometimes religious requirements cannot be overlooked. She is said to have had a commanding presence, endless energy (and the mood swings that accompany such energy in some people), and a mesmerizing speaking voice. Day’s physician also treated the great Cesar Chavez, and reflected that their personalities were a lot alike.

I confess I was frustrated in reading this memoir, because I really just wanted the ideas behind the Catholic Worker laid out for me along with the organizational structure. Was the whole thing just whatever Day said it was at the moment, or was there democratic decision making? I never really found out, although I gained a sense that the chaotic events shown in the memoir reflected an unarticulated organizational chaos as well. This is a thing that sometimes happens with religious organizations; the material underpinnings are tossed up in the air for supernatural intervention, and the next thing they know, there’s an ugly letter from the IRS.

Only about half of this memoir was actually about Day; my sense was that the author did a lot of genealogical research and then decided to publish the result. The first twenty percent of the book is not only about Day’s various romantic entanglements; a significant portion of the text is mini-biographies of those men, and frankly, I wasn’t interested in them. I wanted to know about Day. Later I would be frustrated when long passages would be devoted to other relatives and their lives. Inclusion of daughter Tamar was essential, because Dorothy and Tamar were very close all their lives and shared a lot, and so in some ways to write about one was to tell about the other. But I didn’t need to know about Day’s in-laws, her many and several grandchildren, and so on. I just wanted to cut to the chase, but given the nature of the topic, also didn’t want to read Day’s own writing, which has a religious bias that doesn’t interest me.

Those with a keen interest in Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker may want to read this, because not many books are available that discuss her life and work. On the other hand, I don’t advise paying full cover price. Get it free or at a deep discount, unless you are possessed of insatiable curiosity and deep pockets.

Best of 2016: Nonfiction

I didn’t have to think twice about this one. This category includes any nonfiction published for the first time this year except for biographies and memoirs, which have their own category on this site. If you haven’t read this one, you should. It’s not only important, but oddly fascinating.

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.