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.

 

Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance*****

HillbillyElegyI confess I was miffed when I wasn’t granted a DRC for this title, and after reading a couple of reviews, I decided I could live without it. I began to wonder about my choice when I saw it hover on the best seller lists where it remains as of this writing nearly a year after its publication, But the clincher came when my younger daughter came to me and said that she had read it digitally and believed I would enjoy it. She said it had to do with the culture of mining families, and that the dedication was to the writer’s “Mamaw and Papaw”.

It hit me like a bolt of lightning.

A personal note of explanation: I am a grandmother myself now, and my own Mamaw and Papaw were both dead and gone by the time I learned that this was not a set of names that belonged to my family alone. I was the youngest among my cousins and siblings, and had somehow assumed that these grandparents’ names were the result of something said by one of the older kids when they were small. By the time I came along, they had left the mines of the rural Rust Belt and purchased a small working farm in central California. No one else I knew had grandparents with those names or had heard of them. Later my grandparents, aunt and uncle (who—I am not making this up—were an Aunt Sister and Uncle Brother) would relocate to the mountains of Southern Oregon, to the farthest outreaches, secret places up barely-there dirt roads that would make a survivalist happy. Neither California or Oregon is mentioned at all in Vance’s memoir, and so it makes me wonder just how far this culture has permeated across the USA.

Vance tells us that his memoir is particular to the culture of working class Scots-Irish people, primarily in the Appalachian Mountains. But of course, when one mine closes, miners follow the work, and so the culture has spread quite a long way. He himself didn’t grow up in Appalachia, because his grandparents had made a point of moving away from there when a factory opened in a small Southern Ohio town, and so that was where he spent most of his childhood. But the roots ran deep, and they often returned to the West Virginia area where most of the family remained.

The memoir itself is fascinating. His grandparents were enormously tough and tremendously loving. He recounts one experience in which a drug-addicted visitor appeared to be dying of a PCP overdose in the front room, and Mamaw ordered that the person be dragged to a nearby park, because “I don’t want him to die in my fucking house!”

Another time, the author’s immensely unstable mother had beaten JD, and Mamaw persuaded him to lie to the cops, who could never be a part of any solution to their family. Instead, once in the car, “We drove home in silence after Mamaw explained that if Mom lost her temper again, Mamaw would shoot her in the face.”

I am amazed at the similarities that exist between Vance’s culture and that of my father’s family. Over the years succeeding generations have become more educated and moved, for the most part, out of the tulles and to suburbs and cities. But many of the values and cultural nuances remain. And if this is true for me, a Seattle resident of nearly 30 years, how many others across the nation will recognize it as well? Perhaps this is part of the book’s tremendous success.

In closing I want to give a shout-out to Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon, the city where I grew up. Powell’s has a daily drawing for its reviewers, and each day someone wins a $100 gift certificate. My prize is what made it possible for me to purchase this glorious brand new, hard cover edition.

Highly recommended to those interested in the culture of Scots Irish mining families and their descendants, and to those that love excellent memoirs.

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.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond*****

EvictedI was cruising for something new to read, something that wasn’t yet another mystery or thriller. I ran across this title and requested it from Net Galley, then asked myself what I had been thinking! Who wants to read an entire book about eviction? What a grim prospect. I was even more surprised, then, when I opened it and couldn’t put it down. Desmond approaches his subject in a way that makes it not only readable but compelling. Thanks go to the people at Crown Publishing and Penguin Random House for approving my request for a DRC. This book is available to the public March 1.

Desmond undertook his study as part of his study of sociology while attending the University of Wisconsin, and continued it into his graduate studies at Harvard. The whole book is based on rentals among high-poverty families living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Desmond explains why this location is a good case study as regards the rest of Midwestern urban America.

Most of the text is told as narrative nonfiction, with the author shadowing eight families, some African-American, some Caucasian, through trailer parks and ghetto apartments in Milwaukee. There is a great deal of dialogue, all of which was captured with permission via digital recorder, so the text flows like good fiction. One Black landlord and one Caucasian landlord are also shadowed, and although I came away feeling that both landlords—one of whom, to my horror, was a former fourth grade teacher—were lower than pond scum, Desmond is careful to also demonstrate the ambiguities, the times when one or the other let things slide when an eviction could have been forced; brought over some groceries for a new tenant and did not ask for repayment; gave tenants opportunities to work off back rent to avoid eviction.

At the same time, we see how ultimately, almost all of what appear to be landlords’ small kindnesses are actually adding to their profit margins.

The text is nicely organized. The beginning and ending are expository in style, as a newspaper or magazine article would be, with the statistics that demonstrate how much more of a renter’s income is eaten by housing than was true in previous years; how a bad credit history can lead a low-income family into an apartment that is substandard and costs as much or more than a nice apartment of the same size in a calmer neighborhood that might be rented by someone with a good credit history; and the terrible dance that must be done to keep both heat and rent paid sufficiently to avoid being cut off with winter on the way, or evicted. It also points out that there are people living in low income apartments that should not even be living independently due to mental health issues or extremely low IQ; Desmond recognizes the times—though they are a tiny minority—in which someone takes that welfare check and does something tremendously stupid with it, not using it for housing, utilities, food, or even clothing for the kids.

He clues us in to the fact that while huge numbers of Black men are getting locked up, huge numbers of Black women, particularly mothers, are getting locked out.

Desmond discusses the various ways landlords manage to avoid fixing even the most desperate plumbing and structural issues in rental housing. He discusses the inevitability of eviction for a renter that calls police—or for whom someone else calls police—due to domestic violence. The problem is considered a “nuisance” by the city; three visits by cops in a month mean huge fines for the landlord unless an eviction is ordered, in which case fines are waived.

It’s enough to make you sick.

Particularly appalling is the situation in which Lamar (all names are changed ) is diligently scrambling to paint apartments and clean out a basement to avoid eviction. The man has no legs, but he can’t collection SSI, because theoretically, he could do a desk job. He crawls around on his stumps to paint the areas his elementary-aged neighbor kids have missed, climbs through filth and muck in a half basement, and is cursed at by his landlord, who says he is trying to disrespect her by doing such a terrible job.

He is evicted anyway, and the landlord becomes unavailable to do repairs for other tenants soon, because she and her co-owner spouse are off to Jamaica.

There are some people that would fit so cleanly into Dante’s seventh circle.

It is the individual stories of the eight families, the various fascinating rationalizations of the two terrible landlords, which keep this from simply becoming a dark place the reader would never want to go. Some of the cultural nuances were really interesting to me, and I have lived in some hard neighborhoods back in the day, and taught many high poverty students. I’ve been to some of their homes. Yet Desmond taught me a great deal.

For those interested in America’s housing crisis; for anyone that has ever been evicted; for those interested in sociology and culture, this book is a must-read.

Thirty-Eight Witnesses: the Kitty Genovese Case, by AM Ronsenthal***

38witnessesAM Rosenthal was a journalist, but in the 1960’s he was moved to write this relatively brief book—if fictional it would be considered a novella—about the failure of neighboring New Yorkers to come to the aid of Kitty Genovese, a woman that was murdered in 1964. I received this DRC free of charge from Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media in exchange for an honest review.

The crime, one that occurred before drive-by shootings and mass killings in schools and other public places became an all-too-frequent occurrence in the USA, horrified New York and all that heard about it. The killer attacked 28 year old Kitty Genovese as she returned home from work. She lived in a middle class neighborhood, and when police later investigated, they would learn that 38 witnesses heard her scream for help. Nobody called the police until it was too late to save her. This is especially horrifying given that the killer left her bleeding after stabbing her several times, and she had the time, while he moved the car, to approach an apartment building and make her way inside its doors. But before she was able to go further, her murderer parked the car and returned to finish the job. She screamed a number of times, and one man opened his window and yelled at whoever was down there to leave her alone. Later the coroner would testify that had any of the witnesses phoned the police sooner, Kitty could have been saved. Instead she bled to death.

Largely Ronsenthal uses this opportunity to wax philosophical, both about the callous nature of people in general, and of New Yorkers. One New York newspaper managed to infer that it was her own fault by referring to her as a “barmaid” and mentioning that she was not living with her husband; the takeaway from this appearing to be that had she stayed with the mister and been home raising kids, she would not have been in danger. In this instance I think we can surmise that half a century later, any journalist who got that kind of misogynistic garbage past his editor would have heard from readers.

I found this little nugget hard to review. Part of it was due to a stereotype I wasn’t aware I carried; I assumed this attack was somehow related to the mafia (note the Italian last name). Whoopsie! Yes, I know that not everyone that bears an Italian name has a mobster in the family. So it goes.

But also, it’s an unusual piece of writing in that it isn’t really a memoir, isn’t really philosophy, isn’t really sociology. But the overall thesis appears to be that human beings don’t take good enough care of each other. He also uses the occasion to speak in defense of New York cops, who performed their jobs as well as they could in this circumstance. But what timing, given the behavior of NYPD of late! The piece hasn’t really aged all that well.

The writer speaks of a time in India when he himself failed to help others, a time when he regularly strolled past beggars that were ragged, often badly disabled or diseased, and he didn’t help them. He brought this item back time and again to where it felt a little like breast-beating and gnashing of teeth. I wasn’t interested in providing the author with the catharsis he seemed to be reaching for. For that, get a therapist already!

In all, I think his narrative is probably geared more toward native New Yorkers, and since the event is long gone and doesn’t really have a modern parallel, the niche that may be interested has shrunk to New Yorkers of Social Security age.

The writing was fluent, as one might expect of a seasoned journalist, but its prime period has come and gone. I was happy to read it free, but would not have wished to pay for the privilege.

The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology, by Aldon Morris*****

thescholardeniedMorris considers DuBois the father of American sociology, and Morris is right. This is, of course, not the first time a Black man was robbed of credit for an accomplishment that was instead credited to a Caucasian American. It happens all the time. But until I ran across this scholarly study, I hadn’t thought about DuBois and sociology because I had never studied the latter. As an admirer of DuBois’ historical and political role, I was drawn to this book when I found it on Net Galley. Thank you to that excellent site as well as University of California Press for the DRC, which I was given in exchange for an honest review.
It is available for purchase now.

DuBois was a venerable intellectual, an academic light years ahead of most Americans of any racial or ethnic background. He was the first Black man to graduate from Harvard University, and in addition to his graduate work there, he also studied in Berlin under such luminaries as Max Weber and others. In Europe, he was treated as an equal by those he studied with, and I found myself wondering a trifle sadly—for him, not for us in the USA—why he chose to return here. And the answer is so poignant, so sweetly naïve, that I wanted to sit down and cry when I found it. Because once he had the empirical facts with which to debunk the whole US-Negro-inferiority mis-school of mis-thought, he genuinely believed he would be able to elevate African-Americans to a state of equality in the USA by laying out the facts. The racists that created Jim Crow laws in the south and an unofficial state of cold racism that let Black folk in the Northern states know where they were welcome and where they were not, would surely roll away, he thought, if he could reasonably haul out his charts, his graphs, his statistics, and demonstrate flawlessly, once and for all, that discrimination against Black people was based on incorrect information.

See what I mean? I could just cry for him.

So although DuBois was the first American to go to Europe, study sociology, and return with more and better credentials than any American academic, he could not persuade anyone with authority to bring about change, was not even allowed to present his findings to anybody except Black people in traditional Black colleges, because another school of sociologists, the Chicago school, were busy promoting armchair theories based on little data, or bogus data, all showing that Black people simply were not smart enough to become professionals or take on anything above and beyond manual labor, and of course, he was Black, so he must not be that smart, right?

Pause to allow your primal scream. It’s galling stuff.

Caucasian professors in Chicago had done a bit of reading, and with regard to Black people, decided that their craniums were too small to hold enough brain-iums. And just as there is one reactionary in every crowd that the newspapers will flock to in order to show that there is across-the-board agreement, so did Booker T Washington stand before any crowd that would listen to him (and the white academics just loved him), in order to say that it was the truth, that it was going to be a long time before the Negro was “ready” to do the difficult tasks involving critical thinking that had been so long denied him. Tiny steps; patience; tiny steps. Meanwhile, he extolled his fellow Black Americans to enroll their sons and daughters in programs teaching “industrial education”, so that they would be ready to do manual labor and put food on their families’ tables.

All of the studies that backed this line of thinking were deductive, starting with the answer (inferior beings, manual labor) and then finding the questions to fit that answer. DuBois had done inductive research because he was searching for information rather than looking for a rational-sounding way to keep a group of people entrenched in an economic underclass.

DuBois made the connection between the socialist theory he had studied and the material evidence before him: there were people getting rich off the backs of dark-skinned people, and they had a vested interest in maintaining Black folk as an underclass. Ultimately, he turned to political struggle, and that is how I knew about him, not as a sociologist, but as a Marxist. He also became the father of the interdisciplinary field of African-American studies. He helped found the NAACP.

This scholarly work, like just about anything produced by a university press, is not light reading. Rather, the author presents his thesis and synopsis, and then carefully, brick by brick, starts back at the beginning to build his case. His documentation is flawless, and his sources are diverse and strong. There is some repetition in the text, but that is appropriate in this type of writing. He is not there to entertain the reader, but to provide an authentic piece of research that will stand the test of time, so there is a little bit of a house-that-jack-built quality to the prose.

For serious admirers of DuBois’s work, this will be an excellent addition to your library. For those interested in sociology as a field, this is for you, too. And to those with a literacy level that permits you to access college-level material and who have a strong interest in African-American history and/or civil rights, this is a must-read.

For these readers, I recommend, in addition, The Souls of Black Folk, which I had not regarded as sociology-based material until now, though I have read it twice; and a collection of speeches by DuBois, which I have been intending to review for some time, and which will soon grace this page of my blog.

Morris has done outstanding work, and I like to think that if DuBois were here, he would be proud to see it.

The Hurried Child, by Dr. David Elkind ****

thehurriedchildI’m using today’s book review to revisit a previously published book. I think it’s valuable to both parents and educators. Recently I’ve seen some reality TV competitions in which girls in their middle teens were dressed up to look like they were twenty-five. Sometimes that’s a judgment call, I guess, but this brief but authoritative book reminds us that it’s important to let kids be kids, and that when our girls feel rushed to become women, they may later thank us if we remind them to slow it down a bit.

To put it another way folks, don’t put mascara on your twelve-year-old, and don’t buy it for her, either.

Elkind makes a lot of really strong points here. This book is more geared toward those who are raising children (parent/guardians…so many, many grandparents raising kids these days!) than toward educators, who follow the school or district’s policies regardless, but since teachers often influence the choices made by the children they teach, it’s worth reading whether you have children in your home, your classroom, or both.

The last chapter draws a lot of extremely conservative conclusions with which I would not care to be associated, and this is why the final star is denied. However, in this day and age in which kids in fifth grade come home and announce they have a boyfriend, in which teensy children are packed off to beauty contests carefully coiffed, manicured, and covered in cosmetics, this is a breath of healthy, let’s-get-real common sense.

If you are a parent who is not sure what children should do as they move past early childhood, or if you have questions about adolescents, this is a good read. Sadly, the people who should most read this book probably won’t, and those who are already doing a pretty decent job probably will.

Still, highly recommended.