• Mercury Pictures Presents *** (of 4) by Anthony Marra

    Anthony Marra starts off well enough. His lead characters Art Feldman, a 1940s B-lot movie producer and his plucky assistant, an Italian immigrant named Maria Lagana, together make crummy movies on a tight budget. The movies are worth paying attention to because Art and Maria both have relatives trapped by Nazis and Fascists in Europe so they see it as their duty to call truth to power. They battle wartime censorship and American fascists (America First members) looking to shut down a Jewish filmmaker by making schlocky films about the hypocrisy of American propaganda.

    At its strongest, Marra captures the patois of an indomitable, snarky Jewish director with six toupees, each toupee bearing its own name, and the Italian banter of Maria’s three aunts who communicate only in insults. Listening to the dialogue is as joyful as watching an old black and white movie.

    Then Marra introduces Art Feldman’s twin brother, Maria’s father entrapped in Italy, the village of San Lorenzo in Italy and all its villagers, a Chinese American actor, German refugees seeking work in the film industry, an Italian policeman and his ambitious sidekick, a Senatorial hearing on acceptable film making, a German American architect working as a miniaturist in a film studio who is later called up by the U.S. Army to build a painstakingly accurate, life size depiction of Berlin in the middle of the Utah desert to be used as target practice, and rebuilt each time it is burned, a Black prisoner wrongfully convicted and sentenced to fifty years in jail, an on again, off again relationship between Maria and her mother, an archaeological dig, and rapacious stockholders anxious to promote profit over art upon Hollywood.

    Mercury Pictures Presents is one of those books reviewers refer to as a sprawling novel, and most reviewers loved Mercury Pictures Presents. Alas, sprawl overtakes Anthony Marra as he tries too hard to cover too much. His story of a B-level movie studio comes off as a B-level book.

  • Ultra by Rachel Maddow **** (of 4)

    Not a book or, at least, not yet a book, but a podcast.

    The genius of the production is that it is ostensibly a recounting of the hidden history of American duplicity and sedition during WW II, during which members of Congress in collusion with right-wing nationalists tried to abrogate American democracy, overthrow the Constitution, and install a fascist President.

    Armed insurrectionists, whipped up by pro-Nazi, virulently anti-Semitic, extremely popular media hucksters attacked Congress, American industries, and Jews.

    An American munitions plant blown up by Americans who supported the Nazis in WW II.

    Congressmen used their political privilege to distribute Nazi propaganda (while being paid by the Nazis to do so) to tens of thousands of their constituents.

    Do those look like ordinary Congressional waves to the crowd to you?

    Every episode of this podcast is a masterpiece of storytelling and revelation of a chapter in America’s past most of us were unaware of. The value of the U.S. Justice Department’s ability to withstand overwhelming political pressure becomes paramount (powerful Senators forced the Justice Department to end its investigations of the events outlined in Ultra). The actions of journalists and ordinary citizens committed to protecting democracy cannot be overstated.

    The consequences of right-wing politicians willing to condone insurrectionists, remain silent, or lie following acts of violence against Jews, Blacks, and law enforcement officials instigated by their rhetoric is horrifying. The direct line from what was then called America First to today’s MAGA is self-evident.

    I challenge you to listen to the first episode, and resist listening to the next one.

  • The Girls in the Stilt House by Kelly Mustian *** (of 4)

    A somewhat predictable, but well-told story about a motherless, white daughter with an abusive father living in a 1920s Mississippi swamp. Once Dad disappears from the picture she is joined by an also motherless Black girl with a history she does not want to reveal. The two teenagers take on the swamp, their neighbors, a newborn, and deadly Jim Crow racism. They find their footing and gain their independence, or, at least the white girl does. To be Black and live in the south under Jim Crow apartheid laws is a balancing act between hopelessness and subversive defiance.

  • The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich **** (of 4)

    A fictionalized account of Louise Erdrich’s grandfather, who worked as a night watchman in a factory on the Chippewa nation in North Dakota. He battled the U.S. Senate as the American government made one more effort to remove Indians from their native lands: In the 1950s, a Mormon senator, with considerable support from his colleagues, decided it was time to “emancipate” America’s Indians. In practice, emancipation meant absolving the U.S. government of support for any Indian activities – like healthcare, housing assistance, food security. Equally valuable to the U.S. government and its supporters, emancipation included tossing “independent” Indians from their reservations. Imagine the land rush afforded non-Indians if Indians were no longer recognized, but “emancipated.”

    Erdrich’s fictionalized Indian characters are full of life, defiant in the face of daily trauma and mean-spirited hardships. What makes The Night Watchman such a fine read is that the Chippewa, in addition to having devilishly great senses of humor, tangle with love, jealousy, envy, icky-bosses, shifting friendships, relatives gone off the rails, and making dinner. In short, The Night Watchman makes us recognize the fundamental humanity of Native Americans and all people whose cultures are different from our own. Erdrich deals truth to power calling out elected officials bent on setting up walls, real and invisibly enforced by laws and economic restrictions around people whose history has been torturous, and whose difference can be distinguished by their skin color.

  • Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar **** (of 4)

    The title says the book is a novel, but the voice is the author’s and the story is about his life. News events, timelines, and characters are real and it is impossible to discern when fact is being replaced by fiction which makes the story only that much more intriguing. Akhtar’s elegies, generally defined as serious poetic odes to the dead are largely long form, stand alone descriptions of his life in America: the American born, Muslim son of Pakistani immigrants.

    His father loves America, his mother not as much. The laments are for the losses of home back in Pakistan as seen through rose colored glasses of hindsight; for the breakdown of a relationship between father and son; a father’s loss of his bearings as a doctor in the United States; a mother’s loss of health offset by his parents pride and befuddlement at a son who succeeds in America as a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright. Akhtar’s plays have won Pulitzers and his ability to write a scene and fill it with authentic dialog feels so realistic it is hard to imagine it was conceived by an author and not simply filmed on the spot.

    Running the full length of the book are the tribulations of being Muslim in a country in the throes of deep anti-Muslim sentiment. Akhtar’s recounting of his experience in Manhattan on 9/11, what he endures upon being pulled over by a state trooper near Wilkes Barre, PA, or how Trump gave voice to anti-Muslim attackers are horrifying.

    His conclusion about America is subtle and surprising. While he makes a decent case that our country was founded by Christians for Christians, he makes a stronger case that our true object of worship is money and that the drive to acquire monetary status at the personal, political, and corporate levels of society are insatiable and insidious.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.