• 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.

  • The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw *** (of 4)

    A series of loosely connected short stories about the inner thoughts and external actions of younger Black women whose wants and desires are not so chaste and confined as their gray-haired elders whose lives it seems have always been defined by an all-purpose white Jesus of their community church. Younger Black women have sexual desires, sometimes for men and sometimes for women. They have insecurities and therapists. Their relationships with mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and aunties, are simultaneously fraught with jangling rage, but also the bedrock upon which they stand and have stood generation after generation. Black Women’s Lives Matter, only prayer to Jesus is no longer sufficient as these women fight their way forward.

  • Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan *** (of 4)

    As the 19th century was drawing to a close, the photographer Edward Curtis took it upon himself to photo-document and record ethnographic information on every Indian tribe left in America. Pause for a minute and consider the audacity of the undertaking. At a time when the majority of white Americans still considered that only dead Indians were worth celebrating, Curtis not only took up a morally opposing perspective, but was determined to meet and speak with any indigenous tribe with enough function left to be whole and visitable.

    In what would ultimately amount to a 20-year project to produce the 20 volumes of The American Indian, Curtis took 40,000 images of more than 80 tribes.

    Photographs made during the early days of photography, while staged, remain some of the most iconic and artistic of any people in any era.

    His subjects transmit history, pathos, despair, and pride directly into the camera.

    Writing a book about the visual arts is no small feat and yet, Egan, a multiple-award winning author, succeeds in telling the life story of Curtis, the obsessed photographer, and the nadir of Indian life in America. Curtis was so obsessed with the need to document The American Indian he forfeited his marriage, his home, and his income. America, however, and its Indians owe debts of gratitude to Curtis for his fortitude and to Egan for so elegantly drawing him to our attention.

  • State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny *** (of 4)

    As the book opens a new President of the United States has just taken office, displacing a hulking, bombastic, ignorant, self-aggrandizing, bloviating, possibly crooked predecessor, now living in a tasteless mansion in Florida. The new President appoints a late middle-aged, female, opponent in the run up to the election as his Secretary of State. He wants her to fail and he wants to keep her close in his administration to prevent her from doing additional damage. A normal day in politics.

    What isn’t normal is that soon after assuming their offices a series of bus bombings in Europe succeed in killing scores of civilians. The Secretary of State and her staff must act quickly to calm fears of European allies (still reeling from former President Eric Dunn’s snubbings and ineptitude) and to figure out if another attack could land on U.S. soil. As the threat to Americans grows in likelihood and magnitude, Secretary Ellen Adams hustles around the world engaging in politics and diplomacy with world leaders in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Europe.

    While external actors have clearly targeted the United States, the wrinkle appears to be that so-called American Patriots, right-wingers intent on restoring what they perceive as the good old days of white, male, gun-carrying, sovereignty may well be in league sworn enemies of America: Russians, Al Qaeda, ISIS and so forth.

    The descriptions of political brinksmanship feel insanely accurate — Thank you, Hillary — and Louise Penny has written a page-turner: a surprisingly strong team. Periodically, I wondered if the text was taking too many liberties in imagining an insider plot to overthrow America’s legally elected government. Then I listened to the House Committee hearing on the January 6 uprising and looked at the flags flying defiantly all across my local landscape: Fuck Biden; Gun Owners for Trump; I’ll Help You Pack (as in pack up so you can leave the country, there’s an American flag above the offer); Marxist Lives Don’t Matter; Trump 2024 – I’ll Be Back!

    Maybe State of Terror doesn’t go far enough. At least all of the female characters in State of Terror are reliable, if understated, heroines.

  • The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles **** (of 4)

    Steinbeckian in scope and style, The Lincoln Highway is equal parts coming-of-age story, travelogue, American history, rumination on the inalienable properties of heroism, and inevitable flaws hidden behind the armor of heroic characters.

    The book opens as Emmett is released from a 1950s work-farm that doubles as juvenile detention center for wayward teens. At eighteen years old he heads home because his father has just died and his 8-year-old brother, Billie, is in need of a caretaker. Billie insists they take the Lincoln Highway from the middle of the U.S. to San Francisco to find their mother who left without explanation many years earlier.

    Just before heading west in Emmett’s light-blue Studebaker, two of Emmett’s roommates from the work farm appear outside his father’s foreclosed house, having taken the liberty of stowing away in the warden’s trunk on his delivery run with Emmett. Duchess, Woolie, Emmett and Billie (map of America carefully laid across Billie’s lap) head for The Lincoln Highway whereupon misadventure followed by heroic escapes send the foursome step by step eastward toward Times Square in New York City, the highway’s point of origin, rather than it’s terminus.

    Duchess, Woolie, Emmett, and Billie are as true-to-life, and as likable, as any characters confined to a page can be, and long after the book has ended, readers will be pondering right and wrong, maturity and immaturity, accident and intention, good and evil, heroism and hubris.

  • The Queen by Josh Levin ** (of 4)

    In principle, the story of Linda Taylor, the woman stuck with the appellation of America’s Welfare Queen, upon whom so much political scorn has been laid is worthy of a solid retelling. She is reviled by all working class taxpayers for her rampant and rambunctious fleecing of America’s welfare systems. Ronald Reagan made her infamous as he campaigned for President, mentioning the Welfare Queen as representative of all that was wrong with government in America. Linda Taylor had amassed scores of aliases, ID cards, addresses, social security numbers, and heartbreaking sob stories in pursuit of tens of thousands of dollars and Reagan repeated that description every chance he got.

    Buried beneath Reagan’s rhetoric, but not very deeply, was the implication that People of Color were primarily, and as a group, collectively, foregoing work in favor of taking free money supplied by lower-class, hard-working, white Americans. Reagan relied upon racism in place of either research or data. It worked then and continues to work now.

    Complicating the story still further was Linda Taylor’s background story as the child of mixed-race parentage in the South where miscegenation was illegal and the product of such a relationship was to be shunned at all costs. The Supreme Court did not strike down laws forbidding Blacks and Whites to marry until 1967 and many southern states sill support the rights of businesses and churches to deny services to mixed-race couples. In some ways, becoming a con-woman was a smart business move on Taylor’s part and she succeeded to such a degree that she seems to have lost all touch with reality or the truth, shifting stories about who she was or what she was up to on the turn of a dime. As a world-class con-artist without regard for veracity she reminds me of a very recent president.

    The Queen is meticulously researched. Every crime on Taylor’s long list is evaluated in full detail and therein lies the downfall of the book. It is gruelingly detailed.