• The Last Slave Ship by Ben Raines *** (of 4)

    On the face of it, the story of 100 enslaved Africans smuggled into Mobile, Alabama does not feel that significant among the 12.5 million Africans shipped to the New World (10.7 million survived the Middle Passage.) Aside: I am only now figuring out that more than 90% of the people kidnapped, chained below decks, and, if they survived, sold, went into the Caribbean and South America. America’s four million enslaved people were mostly bred (breeding is a term used by slavers) by their owners here.

    The Clotilda was the last ship carrying human cargo to arrive in the United States, running past naval patrol ships into Mobile Bay in 1860. After the south lost the Civil War, many of those transported by the Clotilda settled in Africa Town just outside Mobile. They lived long enough to be interviewed and photographed. They provided firsthand accounts of their lost African families, details of their capture by Dahomian warriors, the life-threatening Middle Passage, and sale to other humans to do animal-like labor. They also recall African customs that persisted inside Africa Town.

    The author, Ben Raines, describes the Clotilda from the days of its inception as a ship bound for Africa in contravention of American law, its scuttling after disgorging its human cargo into the swamps of Alabama, until its rediscovery 2019. The ship’s story brackets the story of its enslaved Africans and their offspring.

    A century of racism haunts Africa Town and its descendents to this day. And yet, The Last Slave Ship grows stronger until its finish, describing a sordid history that somehow still points a way toward recognition and finally, forgiveness.

    Africa Town today. The commerce is gone now, and you see boarded up homes and vacant lots in the neighborhood. Link to NPR story.

  • How the Word is Passed by Clint Smith *** (of 4)

    Clint Smith educates white Americans who likely never learned the true extent and depth of slavery in the foundation and enduring legacy of the country. He does so, however, with poetic passages rather than a two-by-four across the side of your head. He applies the same gentle approach as he makes clear that never in America’s history – today included – has a Black person ever felt complete freedom. Skin color defines every interaction on the street, in a store, at a bank, during an interview, or in front of a jury. Consider for even sixty seconds, the strain that must induce.

    Using the same understated approach, while visiting seven important landmarks in the history of enslavement, Smith establishes that there never was, nor could have been, such a thing as acceptable or benevolent enslavement of other human beings, despite numerous enduring attempts to suggest otherwise. If enslavement as it was practiced in America cannot be justified by any rational or compassionate human, how, asks Smith can any veneration of The Lost Cause, Confederate Soldiers (and their reenactors), so-called defense of state’s rights, or idolization of Confederate leaders be tolerated? Wasn’t every Confederate, in essence, a subversive fighting to overthrow the rule of law. Wasn’t the Civil War fundamentally an armed insurrection in defense of the right to hold other human beings in conditions to which they could be flogged, starved, detached from their families, or worked to death?

    At his best, Smith interviews white tour guides at Monticello (working to teach anti-Racist history) and white Daughters and Sons of the Confederacy and does so without malice or confrontation, an act of noble restraint. He reminds each person he speaks with, however, what it has meant to him to grow up in a country that has never taught him, or itself, about its true history.

  • Thief of Souls by Brian Klingborg *** (of 4)

    It would be a cozy murder mystery from which a lot could be learned about the culture of modern day China, if not for the fact that the female victim was not only sexually assaulted, but also eviscerated and sewn back together. The fact that harvested organs are for sale in China is part of the cultural education of Klingborg’s readers and worth knowing about as are the depths and origins of corruption in Chinese government. Under today’s communist regime, it seems almost anything is tolerated in exchange for so-called stability.

    Inspector Lu Fei stands apart from his peers in wanting to pursue justice and truth over convenience and a successful case file. In between drinks at the local bar in a small (by Chinese standards) backwater city, Lu Fei does what good detectives should do while keeping an open mind and collecting evidence. We observe him rub up against climbers, superior officers, and sycophants who show us rather accurately how Chinese police forces supported by a government sponsored justice system manage crime in China with a heavy hand and only a passing acknowledgement of due process.

    China does not feel like a place where rule of law can be counted upon to spare the falsely accused. Or a Uighur.

  • Rogues by Patrick Radden Keefe ** (of 4)

    Keefe is the author of a couple of other books I thought were terrific (Empire of Pain, Say Nothing), but not this one. A staff writer for the New Yorker, Rogues is a collection of his previously published, long form essays bound together. Chapter after chapter we meet bad guys – white-collar crooks, narcos, fraudsters, arms merchants, and so on. Taken alone, each malcontent is pretty interesting, but Keefe starts each story letting you know at the outset what terrible deeds have been perpetrated. That doesn’t leave a lot of mystery while you plow through scores of pages to learn more, and more, about the same detail you were made aware of in the opening paragraphs. By the time you’ve read five or six of these stories, each one of which running out of steam about three-fourths through, you might wonder to yourself how many more bad guys you need to need to meet at one time.

  • Black Cloud Rising by David Wright Falade *** (of 4)

    As the Civil War dragged on and Union troops made advances across the south, formerly enslaved people fled bondage to take up refuge behind northern armies. Some of the escaped men were organized into fighting regiments: Black soldiers fighting for the Union cause.

    Richard Etheridge, a Sargent in the African Brigade of Colored Troops, is the primary subject of this fictional account of a real-life American hero. The Colored Troops traverse the lowlands of North Carolina dispossessing former plantation owners of their property, burning their homes when necessary, and gathering up enslaved people still being held in bondage. The embedded racism among white officers and southerners of all stripes is laid bare and real as the author, David Wright, incorporates an exceptional amount of homework. All that research, however, makes the book, and its attempt at period vernacular, hard to follow at times. A list of dramatis personae at the beginning of the book would have helped we readers keep all the players straight.

  • River of the Gods by Candace Millard **** (of 4)

    By the 1860s California had absorbed an influx of hundreds of thousands of gold miners, the southern states of the U.S. had seceded, and North America’s native populations were mostly subdued, and yet in those years the only parts of the African continent known to western Europeans was its long perimeter. Ninety percent of Africa’s interior was unreliably mapped by whites. River of the Gods describes British expeditions to locate the source of the Nile River.

    An expedition into Africa’s interior required a combination of hubris, fearlessness, undaunted courage, and an unquestioning belief in racial superiority that is mortifying to behold. Without ever becoming overbearing, Millard’s description of the men, British and African, who risked their lives in search of the Nile’s origins, pits innate curiosity and urge for exploration — who doesn’t want to know the headwaters of the world’s longest river? — against the sheer audacity of believing that exploration can only be achieved by khaki-clad Britishers in charge of scores of largely nameless local guides, porters, and pack animals. Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke hiked for months at a time, enduring, no exaggeration, more than 20 diseases and fevers which left them periodically blind, paralyzed, unable to speak or swallow, and crazed for weeks and months on end. Yet they marched forward, sometimes born on litters, often to the complete detriment of their physical, mental, and social wellbeing.

    Richard Burton (left) and John Speke in an engraving by Emile-Antoine Bayard (1837-1891). Credit.

    River of the Gods is part adventure tale, part biography of key explorers, and a rendering of an age of recognition, that colonialism, though not yet finished, was nearing its climax. Africa’s interior was about to be overrun by European countries whose competition with one another would expand from the purchase of bonded human chattel to the exploitation of timber, minerals, and colonial boundaries. It is a marvelous book that can cover the intricacies of Richard Burton’s courtship with his wife, the swarming insects of Africa’s jungles, and the international race for hegemony.

  • The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke *** (of 4)

    Dave Robicheaux is a Cajun detective, poet, and philosopher with no patience for corruption or injustice. When a young Black woman floats to the surface, face down, of a bayou Robicheaux uses for fishing he reasonably concludes foul play led to her death. Just as quickly the coroner determines she drowned following a drug overdose, suggesting that a young very poor Black woman hooked on drugs and trying to climb in society as a sex worker is not worth additional effort on anyone’s part.

    Robicheaux cannot let it go. While he moves up the food chain of pimps, hustlers, and local dons, he gets wrapped up in what turns out to be an international arms smuggling operation that is much more credible than it sounds summarized here in just a couple of sentences. The book is the first in what would become an exceptionally long writing career for James Lee Burke, dated to the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s. Nevertheless, it is evident from the start why Burke would enjoy such a successful career. Robicheaux’s descriptions of bayous and waterways of southern Louisiana, race and class relations in New Orleans, and doubts and desires of men and women trying their best, all rise from the page in steamy, evocative images that are indelible.

  • Squeeze Me by Carl Hiassen *** (of 4)

    Escapist fiction about an outbreak of Burmese pythons from their confines in the Everglades to the poshest of all Florida communities, Palm Beach. The book opens when the POTUS PUSSIES (matronly donors to an unnamed, but very recently impeached President, nicknamed Mastodon, whose winter White House mansion is nearby), are hosting one of their innumerable garden-party charity balls: Is this week the IBS Foundation?

    Unfortunately, the bejeweled, but not very large President of the POTUSSIES, Kiki Pew Fitzgerald, having imbibed more than a recommended number of cocktails is swallowed by a Burmese Python near the backyard pool. More pythons appear where they shouldn’t, the President blames Kiki’s death on illegal immigrants, tweets inappropriate commentary, his bored wife, code-named Mockingbird, bangs her secret service agent while the President shacks up with a not very talented pole-dancer, and a feisty wildlife wrangler must sort it all out between jobs collecting errant raccoons and overpopulating mice.

  • Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr *** (of 4)

    There are a lot of layers to this book. On the surface is the retelling of a fragment of an ancient Greek story about a simple shepherd who longs to visit a heavenly city in the sky. Doerr interweaves versions of the story as it appears to readers who stumble upon it in Ancient Greece, in Constantinople at the time of its fall into the hands of attacking Saracens, in Iowa during the 80 or so years before today, and on a spaceship that appears to be operated by a stand-in for Google, about 75 years in the future.

    The half dozen or so stories are told in simultaneous, intermingled fragments, a lot like the remnants of the original Cloud Cuckoo Land’s stained and moldering parchments that have survived to present. Thematically, Doerr is laying down a manifesto in defense of an earth imperiled by pollution and a warning to a population too enthralled with technology to slow down enough to appreciate the timeliness of a simple story well told. Interestingly, the protagonists in each era are misfits in some way, on Odysseian journeys of their own. This is a book for a book club as there is that much to discuss. Or it’s possible that Doerr is trying to do a little too much in one book.

  • To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron *** (of 4)

    Mount Kailash in Tibet is a mountain revered and sanctified by Hindus and Muslims. Walking around its base cleanses the soul and brings respect and understanding to our dead ancestors. The mountain is reached from Nepal into Tibet, but is now monitored by China, intent upon Sino-fying the ancient kingdom of Tibet. Colin Thubron is one of Great Britain’s preeminent travel writers, barely a hare’s breadth away from nineteenth century British explorers, bedecked in pith helmets and khaki shorts, who preceded him.

    Thubron, already in his 70s, made his own pilgrimage immediately following the death of his mother, his last remaining relative and does so bathed in introspection. He pays exquisite attention to details noting interesting stones along a path made nearly entirely of stones. He shows us prayer flags worth looking at, discarded flashlights, exhausted acolytes crawling their way toward Nirvana, icy torrents, and armed Chinese soldiers anxiously hunting for protestors. He takes notes by the light of yak-butter lanterns and provides enough religious, spiritual, and political history to inform without overwhelming. He hikes to 18,000 feet in elevation meditating on his mother, who, like him, at the end, was gasping for oxygen, and his long-lost sister buried by an avalanche at the age of 21. Thubron’s adjectives cut like razors to the heart of every description. His account on life, death, and walking should be taken one step at a time, with concentration.