Violeta, by Isabel Allende*****

Violeta is an epic tale that spans, along with its protagonist, a century-long period that begins during the Spanish Flu and ends with our modern day pandemic. Technically, then, it is part of the growing body of pandemic literature, but as is always true for Allende’s novels, it is so much more.

I received a review copy, courtesy of Net Galley and Random House Ballantine, but had I not, I’d have found a way to read this glorious story anyway. It’s available to the public now.

Violeta is born to wealth and privilege, the only daughter in a large family. Schooled at home by a nanny, sequestered in a mansion with servants to do her bidding, she is unaware that her luxurious standard of living comes at a tremendous cost to others. Then the market drops, and her father, who has overextended himself with unwise investments, is ruined. Most of her brothers are already grown and gone, but one brother, Jose Antonio, had remained at home, groomed by their father to take over the business one day. “He was the model son, and he was sick of it.” After their father’s abrupt departure, Jose Antonio finds himself responsible for the family; with the local populace in a state of near insurrection, the only thing left to do is to take his family—including Violeta—and leave town. They remove themselves to a distant farm owned by poor but generous friends, and they learn to make do as they’ve never done before.

We follow Violeta through her early marriage to a German immigrant who was “so bland and boring that he inspired instant trust,” and then through a long, tempestuous relationship with a handsome thug named Julian, who makes his fortune in dark, horrible ways involving illegal substances, the CIA, and the Mafia. And here, Allende’s startling sense of humor is in full brilliant flower, as she describes his retrieval of ill gotten funds from the septic tank of their Florida home:

He pulled a filthy bag from the hole, dragged it to the kitchen and poured the contents out on the floor; rolls of wet bills covered in poop. Gagging, I saw that Julian planned to clean the money in our washing machine. “No! Don’t even think about it!” I shouted hysterically. He must’ve understood that I was willing to draw blood to stop him, because I’d instinctively grabbed the largest knife in the kitchen. “Okay, Violeta, calm down,” he begged, frightened for the first time in his life. He made a call, and a short while later we had two mafia goons at our disposal. We went to a laundromat and the gangsters paid everyone to leave. Then the men stood guard as Julian washed the poop-covered bills. After that he had to dry them and pack them in a bag. He brought me along because he had no idea how to operate the machines. “Now I understand what money laundering is…”

As with all or most of Allende’s protagonists, Violeta becomes a strong woman that can stand on her own, and who picks and chooses the men she wants to be with. She is beautiful, intelligent, and ends up with piles of her own money that she has earned in an ethical manner. And here is my one, very small issue with this book; just once I would like to see an Allende main character that doesn’t get rich, but is fine anyway.

I am late in reviewing this book, but it’s important not to try to rush through a story such as this one, because the literary alchemy Allende creates is the sort that must be appreciated at one’s leisure. Her novels are not page turners; they don’t try to be. Instead, Violeta is the sort of book you take with you on a spa date, or to your very own bathtub with bubbles, candles, and your favorite beverage.

Highly recommended to feminist readers that enjoy top quality literary fiction.

All In, by Billie Jean King*************

There are books, and then there’s this: the autobiography of an icon that will be read for generations. I passed—perhaps foolishly—on a review copy, because I was afraid there would be large passages of minutiae about tennis, which doesn’t interest me. I was mistaken in my concern, but it worked out well, because I borrowed an audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the author reads her own book. She is an old woman now, and hearing her detail her own remarkable life is a matchless experience. It’s hard to imagine there will be a more important, or more enjoyable book published in the coming year.

Billie Jean Moffitt King is born in 1943 and grows up in Southern California in a conservative working class family; her dad is a firefighter, and her mother stays home, as most mothers did back then. There is Billie, and there is her brother, and the family are devoted Methodists. Who is to know that both children will be famous one day? Brother Randy becomes a professional baseball player, and Billie Jean becomes a record-breaking tennis star and a passionate social justice activist. If you, reader, are younger than sixty, you probably don’t even know how much you owe Billie Jean.

Growing up, King enjoys all sorts of sports, but when she is introduced to tennis, a light comes on. The problem is, tennis is a sport for the elite, even more so back then than now. To find a tennis court, you needed to either have a private court built on your palatial estate, or belong to a country club, and of course, to do that, you also have to be Caucasian. Billie Jean’s family is nowhere near affluent enough to belong. And so, early on, her passion and her obvious talent draw support from people with enough pull, or enough money, to give her access. She takes the time to thank them, but doesn’t let this bog the story down.

Over and over, however, she is shut out on account of her gender. Prize money typically pays enough to help an athlete pay their own travel expenses and buy equipment, but when women are allowed to compete in competitions prestigious enough to offer prize money, it’s only for the men. Women are expected to be grateful that they are included at all. And as King gets better at her sport and her confidence grows, she begins to push back. Nobody wants to watch women play tennis? Since when? And since when should people of color be shut out?

Although she doesn’t say so, it becomes obvious to me that in addition to athletic talent, confidence, intelligence, and almost endless energy, King has one more talent, one that isn’t recognized as such in the mid-twentieth century: she has amazing people skills. Over and over, she is able to reach compromises, make deals, and shorten the gap between conservative perceptions of women athletes, and what all athletes deserve. She discusses the various battles (though she doesn’t use this word) and how they are resolved, and I am amazed at the grace and dignity she demonstrates. Perhaps the most telling moment is when she befriends Bobby Riggs, the obnoxious bastard that she has defeated in front of the world, and later, when he is on his deathbed, takes a call from his wife. Riggs is asking for her, and he doesn’t have much time left. She is too far away to get to him in time, but she tells him on the phone that she loves him. Wow.

If you are or were a girl that participated in high school sports, or if you or your loved ones have benefited from Title IX, thank Billie Jean, who testified before Congress. She also started the first professional tennis circuit for women.

Over the years, King wins 39 Wimbledon Grand Slam titles and a host of others as well. I am a child when she plays Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes,” and she beats him squarely. What I don’t know (and would still not have known if I’d been paying attention,) is that she does her very best not to play this tournament. Riggs is much older than she, and he hounds her—in fact, today his behavior would violate anti-stalking laws. But she calmly tells him, over and over, that she isn’t interested, and then she ignores his calls and turns away from his in-person visits. But when a fellow women’s tennis champion plays him and loses, Billie turns to her husband and manager, Larry King, and with a sigh, says, “Okay. You’d better set it up.”

At this point, I turn away from the audio book and head to YouTube to watch The Battle of the Sexes. This trip back to the society in which I grew up is hair-raising. The ways that men talk about women, in public forums! The remarks by Howard Cosell, who was the most liberal of sportscasters, about her physical appearance, and the patronizing remarks of others are appalling. I wouldn’t go back for anything in this world! But when she is asked antagonizing questions, Billie Jean comments, briefly, calmly, and without showing even the slightest offence. Her coolness on the court is mirrored in her cool public appearances. It’s remarkable.

When Gloria Steinem starts Ms. Magazine, King supports her, but she is always either asleep or busy, so husband Larry handles the mail. When he sees the request to add her name to a list of famous women that support a woman’s right to choose, as the controversy over Roe v. Wade heats up, he signs for her and then forgets to mention it to her; had he read more carefully, he would have noted the line, “I had an abortion!” King doesn’t know it’s about to be public knowledge, and her parents didn’t know she’d terminated a pregnancy. It’s not a good moment.

Later, when her feelings for other women grow stronger, she and Larry separate, but not completely. For years, she stays with him when they both show up in town at the same time, and they continue a romantic relationship, though infrequently. It is when she grows close to South African tennis player Ilana, and Ilana makes her choose, that she divorces Larry; again, they remain friends.

I could carry on all day about this woman, a champion on the court and off, but if you are interested enough to read this entire review, then you’re interested enough to get this book. I’m sure the print version is lovely, but the audio book—which sounds like a garrulous old lady telling her story, like Forrest Gump, but authentic and more accomplished—and hearing her voice wobble when she speaks of her most moving experiences, is simply unmissable.

Go get it.

Invisible Child, by Andrea Elliott*****

I was invited to read and review this book by Random House and Net Galley, and immediately I accepted, because it’s right in my wheelhouse. However, I also understood that it would be a painful read, and I postponed it for months, because 2021 was already a terrible year, and I wasn’t feeling brave. So my apologies for the delay; at the same time, this book is not quite as wrenching as I expected, and the research and writing are stellar. It’s for sale now.

Dasani Coates is the firstborn child of an impoverished, disorganized African-American mother with few marketable skills.  She is named after the premium brand bottled water, because her mom thinks it’s a beautiful name. (Wait till you see what the next baby’s name will be!) They live in Brooklyn, and not long after Dasani is born, she has a sister. And another. And another, and then eventually a brother and a couple of step-siblings. None of them are the result of poor family planning; all are planned and wanted. But at the same time, they have very few resources, and the slender safety net provided by relatives doesn’t last forever; and the city fails to protect its most vulnerable denizens.

As a retired teacher that worked in high poverty schools, I have seen families similar to this one, and the children suffer the most, every stinking time. I’ve also seen children take on the role that Dasani assumes without ever planning to do so, that of the adult in the house (when there is a house,) caring for a large group of tiny people when the actual adult isn’t adulting. If you watch closely enough for long enough, it can eat you alive; as for the far-too-young surrogate parent, I have seen them cope admirably, right up until they become adults themselves, and often, it is then that they fall apart. I don’t know whether that holds true for Dasani, because we don’t see her as an adult, but I can well imagine.

Elliott, a Pulitzer winning journalist from The New York Times, follows this family closely for eight years, sometimes sleeping on the floor of their house or apartment. In her endnotes, she explains her methodology, her relationship to the family during this project, and the parameters determined by the paper, for whom she originally did this research. Dasani was the subject of a front page series on poverty in New York which ran for five days. Elliott’s documentation is impeccable, and she can write like nobody’s business.

Because I am running behind, I check out the audio version of this book from Seattle Bibliocommons, and I want to give a shout out to Adenrele Ojo, the narrator, who is among the very best readers I’ve yet encountered. Though I continue to use my review copy at times, I like Ojo’s interpretation of the voices for each of the large number of characters so well that I find I prefer listening to reading.

As I read, I become so attached to Dasani that I skip to the end—which I almost never do—because if she is going to get dead, I need to brace myself for it. I’ll tell you right now, because for some of you, this might be a deal breaker, and I’d hate for you to miss this important biography: it’s dark, but not that dark.

I don’t find myself feeling nearly as sympathetic toward Dasani’s mother, Chanel, as the author does, but I do think Dasani’s stepfather, who is the only father she knows, gets a bad, bad break. He jumps through every single bureaucratic hoop that is thrown at him in an effort to get some help for the seven children left in his care, and every time, the city turns its back on him, right up until a social worker comes calling, finds that they don’t have the things they need, and takes his children. This made me angrier than anything else, apart from a few boneheaded, destructive things that Chanel does.

For those that care about social justice and Civil Rights issues, this book is a must read. I highly recommend it to you.  

At the Edge of the Haight, by Katherine Seligman****

At the Edge of the Haight tells the story of a homeless youth, Maddy Donaldo, who lives with her dog, Root, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. But one day she runs across a young man lying dead, and the man that is almost certainly his killer locks eyes with her. He tells her, “Keep a handle on the fucking dog…I know where to find your ass.”

I was invited to read and review this award-winning novel by Algonquin Books. My thanks go to them and Net Galley for the review copies. It’s for sale now.

At first, I am not sure I’ll like this book. It seems a bit self-conscious, a bit like a public service announcement or an infomercial. I wonder what I have gotten myself into. But about a quarter of the way in, it wakes up and begins to flow. It becomes my dedicated bathroom book, since I’ve been given a physical review copy, and I find myself brightening when I enter the loo. There are any number of places when the author has the opportunity to use an obvious plot device, but she chooses something better. By the end of the story I believe Maddy as a character, and I appreciate the way it ends.

My home town, Seattle, has an enormous problem with homelessness, estimated in the tens of thousands, and most of them are native Seattle-ites that have been priced out of the housing market. I know one of the people out there; others have squatted in my yard until my dog made them feel unwelcome. Not one part of this city is entirely free of tents, cardboard shacks, and other makeshift shelters. So this subject is never far from my thoughts.

The fact is that there aren’t nearly enough shelter beds, whether in open rooms with mats on the floor, hotels with doors that close and provide privacy, or other options, but in reading this book, it is also clear that there are times when it’s better to walk away from free shelter. Take our friend Maddy. The shelter she sometimes frequents is one where the probable killer has seen her. She can’t go there safely. There are shelters where she can’t take her dog. There are others that sound pretty good, but a night filled with the screams of a neighbor experiencing a mental health crisis make the private niche way deep in the park more appealing. The cops range from businesslike 3 AM bush beaters (“You can’t camp here!”) to the overtly cruel, and most of the homeless know better than to try to confide in them. And so it goes.

The main part of this story involves a couple—Dave and Marva—that are the parents of Shane, the murder victim. They live on the other side of the country, and they never understood why Shane wouldn’t come home. No one besides Maddy recalls having seen Shane, and so although she has only seen him once—dead—they latch onto her, vowing to help her since they couldn’t help him. Between their grief and ignorance, however, they bumble around and breach boundaries in ways that are outrageously presumptuous, and when they drag her to their home for Thanksgiving, they introduce her as someone that “knew Shane,” which of course she didn’t. Maddy feels bad for these folks, but she doesn’t want to be their project. It’s a bizarre situation for her to be in.

Though it is marketed as commercial fiction, I think a lot of teens would embrace this story. I suggest that Language Arts teachers in middle and high schools add it to their shelves, as should librarians. The vocabulary is accessible, and despite the quote I lead with, there’s very little profanity.

Recommended especially for teenage readers.

Unfinished Business, by J.A. Jance*****

Judith Jance has done it again. Unfinished Business is the sixteenth in the Ali Reynolds series; not only does she weave a compelling, tightly plotted tale, but she may have broken new ground with the role technology plays in solving crimes within the storyline. Add a sprinkling of social justice issues, and what emerges is an unmissable novel. My thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Ali is a former journalist, but now she and her husband, B. Simpson, own and run a cyber security firm called High Noon. B. is a nice enough fellow, but we see very little of him. Most of the time he is away on business, leaving Ali to flex her badass crime solving muscles, and providing her with a healthy chunk of disposable income that makes it easier. Other continuing characters are Cammie and Stuart; Frigg, the AI entity operating out of High Noon; and Bob and Edie Larson, Ali’s parents. Our two new characters are Harvey “Broomy” McCluskey, who is a serial murderer, and Mateo Vega, a second-chancer newly out of prison and in High Noon’s employ.

The best long-running mystery series are ones that go deep into the character of the chief protagonist and sometimes others, as well. When you think about it, there are only so many interesting crimes; only so many credible motives; and only so many believable plots an author can spin that involve only the mystery at hand. What makes the most successful ones stand out is the investment the reader has in the character and her life. Jance works her characters like a champ. Within this one, we have multiple interesting side threads. Ali’s parents are aging, and although she is more than willing to support them and advocate for them, they don’t tell her everything. They are independent and intelligent. They treasure their dignity, and their privacy. Sometimes this combination spells trouble, and so it is here. We see Ali trying to juggle the ever-changing aspects of the business while B is out of town, along with health issues facing her father, who won’t talk about them; one of her children gives birth; and then there are issues with her employees.

Point of view shifts between chapters, and so we first meet Harvey, who is a resentful, entitled jerk who has murdered his mother and gotten away with it. Unfortunately, Harvey is also a tenant of High Noon’s, and he’s in arrears on his office rent. No one at High Noon knows that he is dangerous; they figure he’s a deadbeat, and he has to go. Ohhh, honey, look out!

We also meet Mateo. Mateo has spent 16 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. His public defender told him the plea deal was the safe bet, and so he took it. He could have been released early if he’d expressed remorse, but nobody and nothing could make him say he did it when he didn’t, so he rotted there for his entire youth. But while inside, he continued to study technology, and earned an online degree. Now he’s released, comes out with skills, and is hired by High Noon.

I love the way Jance uses all of these characters, and the thread involving Cami is particularly interesting.

I read and reviewed most of the recent books in this series, and in number 13, I called this author out for making all of the bad guys in the story Latina or Latino, and all the good guys Caucasian, except for Cami, who is Asian. It’s great to see how she’s turned it around. The social messages here—the broken prison system; issues with keeping the aged safe; the difficulty former prisoners face in starting a new life; and of course, violence against women—are all progressive ones, and none of them hijacks the plot or slows it in any way. In fact, this novel is among Jance’s best, and that’s a high bar to meet.

Highly recommended.

Bird Uncaged, by Marlon Peterson****

I’ve never felt so ambivalent about a Civil Rights memoir. I read this book free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Public Affairs. It’s for sale now.

At the outset, Peterson describes his early years as the son of Trinidadian immigrants living in Brooklyn. His family belongs to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so that is an angle I haven’t encountered before. He describes his brilliance as a student, and the glowing future that has been predicted for him, scholarships, fine schools, and a ticket to the top. It doesn’t happen that way, though. He is involved in a robbery that becomes a homicide, and he wants us to know none of it was his fault.

What?

This is what concerns me throughout most of the book. He describes the limitations on young Black men in America, the limitations of poverty; the racist assumptions; and the “toxic masculinity.” He is sexually assaulted as a youngster, and he considers that an element in his decision-making, the trauma of his past informing the crimes he commits later. He talks about this at length, but I’ll tell you what he doesn’t talk about much. He doesn’t talk much about the near-rape in which his was the pivotal role. He asks a “chick” out, and he and his friends are planning to “run a train” on her. But she is alarmed when she realizes that there are other men in the bedroom where they’re making out, and she gets away fast. He doesn’t recall her name, and he wants us to know he wasn’t that interested in her, anyway. She wasn’t “the pretty one,” she was the friend of the pretty one. And I keep wondering why he includes this if he feels so badly about what he and his homies nearly did to her. He pleads ignorance; he was a virgin. He just wanted to lose his virginity. He had believed she would welcome a roomful of men lining up to use her.

Uh huh.

There are also a good number of solid aspects to this memoir, most of them having to do with the dehumanizing American prison system. There’s not a lot that I haven’t seen before, but obviously, the system hasn’t been significantly altered as a result of the other memoirs that have seen publication, and so there’s a further need for stories like his. He speaks of how, while doing his time, after a visit from his mother, he kisses her on the cheek, and the guards swarm him to check the inside of his mouth before his mama is out the door. I’m guessing that after that farewell, the woman is out the door in a matter of seconds. What would it hurt to hold him there for 30 seconds, let the parent get out of the room, and then check him? It’s little things like this that increase the alienation felt by those that are incarcerated. Other countries don’t do it this way, and you have to wonder why the U.S. has to be so ugly about it. He leads a program and conducts protests while he’s inside, and is successful in making small changes. Other men learn from his work and are improved by it, and that’s something to be proud of.

But back to the robbery. He keeps reminding us that he was only nineteen years old, and I cannot, for the life of me, think why he considers this a mitigating circumstance. Ask a youth psychiatrist or counselor when men are at their most dangerous, and they will tell you that the teenage years are the worst, hands-down, because young men haven’t developed impulse control. And Peterson himself points out, later in the book, that when ex-cons get out of prison after spending a long time inside, they don’t go straight because they’re rehabilitated; they go straight because they’re older, and have outgrown that nonsense. It’s inconsistencies such as this one that weaken the narrative.

Toward the end, he pulls it together and claims responsibility, and he does so eloquently. But it makes me wonder why he didn’t go back and rewrite the earlier passages. Because there are a lot of red flags back there, things that those of us that have worked with at-risk youth know to listen and look for. For example, there are a lot of passive references to his crimes, things that “happened” rather than things that he did, or things that went differently than he expected; there’s an awful lot about his trauma, the environment, and allll the “toxic masculinity,” but thefts, robberies, and the homicide for which he was the lookout man but “didn’t even have a gun,” are given relatively little ink.

I’m carrying on quite a bit about this, but I have seen glowing reviews, and he’s gotten awards for this book, and nobody is talking about the red flags, and so I feel it’s important to mention them. The fact that the book ends with much more accountability is what’s kicked my rating up to four stars.

Read this book, but do it critically. There are lessons here that are intentional, and others that aren’t.

The Soul of a Woman, by Isabel Allende*****

Isabel Allende has long been a guiding light for women, immigrants, and social justice activists. She is an old woman now, and her wisdom and word smithery have only grown deeper and wider. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

There are four sections to this compact memoir, and overall, it is a memoir of Allende’s feminist philosophy and experiences. She also describes the trajectory of the feminist movement and the gains that have been made.  One of Allende’s most agreeable attributes is her candor, and she discusses her relationships with the men she has married with disarming frankness and humor. Her voice is like nobody else’s.

Generally speaking, I find it annoying when an author uses space in the book they’ve sold us to advertise a product or beg for funds, nonprofit or not; however, this time I wanted to stand up and cheer! Allende’s foundation exists to support women’s reproductive choices, and that includes abortion. Out of all the years I’ve blogged, over one thousand reviews I’ve scribed, and I have never seen abortion rights advocated so forcefully. I bow in admiration.

If I could have something more from this iconic writer, it would be an overall autobiography. She has written numerous memoirs, but all of them focus fairly narrowly on one particular aspect or time period. I would love to have her whole story in her own words.

Highly recommended.

On the Plain of Snakes, by Paul Theroux****-*****

Paul Theroux has been a successful travel writer for a very long time, but he is new to me. Lucky me, I read this free, thanks to Net Galley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It’s for sale now.

The first thing that took my notice was that this is a gutsy writer. Though he’s in his late seventies, he hops in his personal vehicle and motors south to Mexico, and then all over that nation independently, venturing into out-of-the-way spaces, mostly eschewing the usual tourist haunts that draw the spring break crowd from the US and other parts. Over and over again, locals explain to him that this road, or that, or the other is very dangerous right now; sometimes he revises his route; sometimes he takes the route but at a different time; and sometimes he goes anyway, but takes somebody with him. What he doesn’t do is go home early, or store his car somewhere and follow a tour guide around. I stand in awe.

Theroux approaches his journey as a researcher, rather than as a tourist advisor. He interviews countless individuals, even learning a little of one of the indigenous languages—in addition to Spanish– in order to communicate. I gave up trying to trace his route, instead just going with the narrative as it unspools.

I have to tell you, this is a tome. I might never have finished it had I relied exclusively on my review copy. I recognized it would be a hefty commitment to get through all of it, so once again, I turned to Seattle Bibliocommons for the audio version. I found it went much faster once I was able to do something else with my hands as I listened. Joseph Balderrama is a wonderful reader, and I quickly found myself absorbed into the journey, as if I were an unseen passenger.

Theroux takes us through the ordeal at the US/Mexico border, which was a nightmare during the time this was written, during the Trump administration. (If you have a MAGA cap in your closet, you may not enjoy this book.) He listens to Mexican citizens that live near enough to the border that they can actually see it from their homes, or from their workplaces. Some of them have lived in Mexico but worked in Texas for a long time, and the hardship they experience once the rules are changed is dreadful. And the insight I gain from listening to his interviews with people there about immigration to the US is most enlightening.

The most amazing thing to me is the way the cartels and the Mexican police force overlap, and in a number of places are exactly the same people! He describes multiple shakedowns by traffic cops while he is driving. It seems that the state pays its cops next to nothing, and so in order for them to support themselves, (particularly, we assume, those not being paid by cartels also,) they are permitted to stop anyone they believe has some money, and essentially intimidate them into a bribe. But it’s not complete chaos: once a driver has been shaken down, they are entitled to a receipt for the money they have had to forfeit so that another cop up the road cannot do the same thing.

The one tourist area Theroux passes through is Puerto Vallarta, which also happens to be the only place in Mexico that I have visited. About ten years lapsed between my visit—a very pleasant one—and Theroux’s, and I was saddened to learn how unsafe it has become, and how badly the locals, who were mostly middle class when I was there, have it now.

There are a number of fascinating passages, and I learned a lot. One village is awash with what sounds like a new sort of trans woman, (new to an American from Seattle, at least,) and another where the handmade sandals are finished with a jaw dropping method. There’s one very poor village where earthquakes occur so frequently that most of the homes are no longer standing, but many people won’t sleep indoors anyway for fear of being crushed to death. No aid from the Mexican government or any international body has ever reached them. Those people are on their own, and they are suffering.

Perhaps the sweetest parts have to do with the friendships that the writer forms with the people he meets there. I especially enjoyed reading the interviews with his new author and artist friends.

For those like myself that approach this with general interest, I’d call this a four star book. My stamina is greater than most, yet as much as I enjoyed it, it did feel a little bit lengthy. For those with a particular interest in the socioeconomic, cultural, and political realities of Mexico, it’s five stars, hands down.

Recommended to those with an interest in this field.

The Autobiography of Mother Jones, by Mary Harris Jones*****

Note: I wrote this review before I began this blog, and I was shocked when I found I had somehow not included it here. There’s no disclosure regarding a review copy, because I didn’t get one. I bought this book and paid full cover price, and I will keep it until it is pried from my cold, dead hands.

Mother Jones has been called “the most dangerous woman in America”. Some refer to her as an anarchist, but in her autobiography, she denounces anarchism, though allows that these folks have their hearts in the right place. She has been called a syndicalist (which is probably closer to the truth), but the fact is that she was motivated by what she saw right there on the ground in front of her. When the Russian Revolution unfolded, she was by her own account past 90, and by the account of another biographer, in her mid-80’s, so either way, she was very, very elderly, yet she championed its achievement at the Pan-American labor conference held in Mexico:

“…a new day, a day when workers of the world would know no other boundaries than those between the exploiter and the exploited. Soviet Russia, I said, had dared to challenge the old order, had handed the earth over to those who toiled upon it, and the capitalists were quaking in their scab-made shoes.”

Jones’ career as a political organizer began shortly after she turned 30. She was a married woman, her husband an iron worker, and she stayed home with their four small children. “Yellow fever” (which I think is malaria) came and killed her whole family, and then as if that wasn’t enough, the great Chicago fire swept away her home and all her possessions.

Some would have turned to suicide. Some would have gone looking for an elderly widower to marry. Some would have gone off to find distant relatives and live with them as little more than domestic servants.

Jones reinvented herself and gave the next fifty-plus years of her life to making the world a better place.

Still clad in a widow’s black garments, she put her hair up in a chaste bun and left Mary Harris Jones behind. From this time forward, she would be “Mother Jones”. Think of it! The cinders from the American Civil War were barely cold, and women had no position in American political life, including the labor unions. Yet by becoming a mother to workers everywhere, including the women and small children laboring in mines and textile mills, she became a force to be reckoned with. It was a brilliant piece of theater, entirely sincere in its intention and in many cases successful. She was one of the most ardent champions of the 8 hour day:

“The person who believed in an eight-hour working day was an enemy of his country,a traitor, an anarchist…Feeling was bitter. The city [Chicago] was divided into two angry camps. The working people on one side–hungry, cold, jobless, fighting gunmen and policemen with their bare hands. On the other side the employers, knowing neither hunger or cold, supported by the newspapers, by the police, by all the power of the great state itself.”

When Mother speaks, people feel they should listen, and if she speaks in their better interests, they listen harder. And in the early days, at least, the boss’s goons and the local law thought twice about putting a hand on Mother. It wasn’t nice!

Later, as her impact on their wallets hardened their resolve, they would deal with her less gently. She didn’t care. She spent nights in jail when she could have left town instead. Sometimes she traveled into a coal mining enclave where every bit of property besides the public roads was owned by the mine owners. Even homes that had been rented to miners were closed to her, as was made clear enough to break almost anyone’s heart. She describes a mining family that held a union meeting at which she was present in the coal fields of Arnot, Pennsylvania. The following day the company fires and evicts the family, and “they gathered up all their earthly belongings, which weren’t much…and the sight of that wagon with the holy pictures and the sticks of furniture and the children” made the local miners so angry that they decided to strike and refuse to go back to work till their union was recognized.

The quote most well known that shows up on tee shirts, posters, and coffee mugs among the liberal and radical milieu today is knocked clean out of context, in my view. “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living” was delivered in order to get working men out of the local church, where the priest was trying to cool down the heat and persuade the coal miners to wait for a reward in heaven. “Your organization is not a praying institution,” she reminded them, “It’s a fighting institution!” She tells them to leave the church and meet in the local school, which their own tax dollars had bought. And she later tells other miners that striking is done to provide “a little bit of heaven before you die.”

From Chicago to the coal fields of West Virginia, from New Mexico to Pennsylvania, she was found among railroad men and their families, machinists, textile workers, and above all, miners. She had no use at all for union officialdom, and though she occasionally praised a senator or governor who saw the light of day and called off the hounds of vengeance so that unions could be organized and the workers represented, more often than not she saw them as perfidious and untrustworthy.

When Eugene Debs became a candidate for U.S. president, she embraced his campaign, though she stayed among the workers, which I think was the correct thing to do. But when Debs comes to speak to coal miners and the union officialdom wants to meet his train quietly with a few representatives, Jones proposes all the union members go to greet him. They stampede down to the train, leap over the railings, and lift Debs onto their shoulders, she says, shouting, “Debs is here! Debs is here!”

I could have been finished with this slender volume quite quickly if I hadn’t been making notes (most of which, as usual, I cannot fit into my review, but then I should leave you some choice tidbits to find for yourself, and there are still many of them!) The chapters are brief, and so the book can be read just a few minutes at a time. And the introduction is written by one no less auspicious than Clarence Darrow himself.

You may look at the price and wonder whether you should pay that price for this slender little volume. The answer is, oh hell yes. Please remember that the words of the woman herself are worth twice as many from some armchair hack who wants to pick it apart and wonder whether she was really 83 or 85 at such-and-such moment? Spare yourself the blather and go straight to the primary source. It’s worth double the cover price!

The Four Winds, by Kristin Hannah****-*****

“‘My grandfather was a Texas Ranger. He used to tell me that courage was a lie. It was just fear that you ignored.’ She looked at him. ‘Well, I’m scared.’

‘We’re all scared,’ he said.”

Kristin Hannah’s electrifying new novel, The Four Winds, is set during the Great Depression in the American Dust Bowl and California. It’s a story about courage, and about the ways that love can transform us. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the invitation to review. It’s for sale now.

Elsa is born into a wealthy family, but this doesn’t do her much good. She is tall, ungainly, and considered homely by her parents, a contrast to her two younger, more adorable sisters. She was very ill when younger, and the family liked having her tucked away in her room so much that they would like her to remain there. When company comes over, it is suggested that she go “rest.” Affection and kindness are denied her entirely.

One day, in a fit of unheard-of rebellion, she buys herself a silk dress and sneaks out to a speakeasy. There she meets Rafe, and before long she is rolling in the hay. When the morning sickness comes upon her, her furious father drives her to the Martinelli farm, (“Italians, no less!”) and she is unceremoniously dumped there. The baby is a Martinelli, he tells them, and it—and its mother—are your problem now.

Rose and Tony Martinelli are not affluent like Elsa’s parents; she learns to haul water and do farm chores, and she learns how to make delicious, cheap food the Italian way. But her father’s abandonment is a blessing in disguise, because the Martinellis are good people. She is happy there with them. She marries Rafe, and she bears two children. But the land has been over-farmed, and soon the dust storms come and destroy nearly everything they have built:

Past the outhouse, a murky, urine-yellow haze burnished the sky. Wind picked up, barreled across the farm from the south. A board flew off the chicken coop and cracked into the side of the house. Rafe and Tony came running out of the barn. The cows mooed angrily and pushed into each other, pointing their bony butts into the dust storm.

The door opened. Rose yanked her to her feet, pulled her into the rattling, howling house.

Elsa and Rose ran from window to window, securing the newspaper and rag coverings over the glass and sills. Dust rained down from the ceilings, wafted from infinitesimal cracks in the window frames and walls. The candles on the makeshift altar blew out. Centipedes crawled out from the walls, hundreds of them, slithered across the floor, looking for somewhere to hide.

A blast of wind hit the house, so hard it seemed the roof would be torn off. And the noise. It was like a locomotive bearing down on them, engines grinding. The house shuddered as if breathing too hard; a banshee wind howled, mad as hell.

Friends, this isn’t even the climax. This is sixteen percent of the way into the story. And misery and tribulation continue to rain down on this poor little family and thousands more like them. The crops die, and the livestock that doesn’t starve is killed by breathing dust. Children, including Elsa’s little boy, fall ill with dust pneumonia; no matter how hard they try to prevent it, so much dust is in the atmosphere that it makes its way into the lungs, and so the youngest and oldest are soon in trouble.

The first half of this novel is a rough read. There’s sorrow, and suffering, and loss, and grief, and I find myself eyeing the page numbers and thinking to myself that if this were written by anybody else, and if I didn’t owe a review, I probably wouldn’t finish it, because who wants an entire story of this? But at about the halfway mark, things begin to change.

By now, Rafe has hit the bricks. Never a man of character or great resolve, he sneaks off into the night, leaving the three remaining adults to care for the children and the farm. And it is now that change takes place. Without Rafe to anchor the family as is traditional during this period, Elsa is left to make the decisions about her children’s futures, and in doing so, she changes.

Hannah portrays the Depression era American West vividly and accurately, and this is when the story grows legs. The plight of agricultural workers is likewise dealt with in clear, immediate detail. My one quibble, and it is the source of the missing half star in my rating, is her inexpert portrayal of Communism, which plays more than a passing role in the last thirty percent of the story. The first time I saw farmworkers’ struggles as “shutting down the means of production,” I cleared my throat, but I told myself it was possibly a typo that might be edited out in the finished version. The next two times I saw it, I started making notes. This is not a technical error; this is a dumb-butt error (trying to elude the censors here) that should have been caught on the first pass, and because it appears when the climax ramps up, it is a distraction that interferes with the flow of the narrative.

Nevertheless, this is a well-written novel, set during an interesting time period. Particularly arresting is the development of the relationship between Elsa and her adolescent daughter, Lareda, whose point of view is shared alternately with Elsa’s.  Setting, character, and plot work together seamlessly to enforce one another and move the story forward, yet if I had to hang my hat on one laudable aspect of this book, it would be character development.

I strongly recommend this novel to you.