• 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.

  • Damascus Station by David McCloskey *** (of 4)

    Soon after the Arab Spring reached Syria, Hafez Assad reacted to public uprisings with vicious government sponsored violence. Protestors were arrested, tortured, and slaughtered with poison gas. It was the beginning of a decade-long civil war whose outcome and direction were at the time wholly unpredictable. The United States still had an embassy in Damascus, and as is true with all embassies, a portion of its employees were spies.

    In this recounting, an American spy is running a Syrian operative inside the Syrian government. First, there is the suspenseful cloak and dagger necessities of ferreting and transferring information from the Syrian Palace to the American embassy to CIA offices in Langley. Next comes the analysis of whether the gleaned information is reliable or an intentional trail of breadcrumbs laid by suspicious Syrian officers. There is an additional problem of Russian spies gathering information leaked by American spies and feeding it on to Damascus. At the level of governments, someone has to make policy based on all the intelligence gathered by humans on the ground and satellites and drones in the air.

    At the human level is the daily grind of validating observations with corroborating evidence all while concurrently being tracked and monitored by opposition spies. One false step and the Syrian government, if they caught you, wouldn’t hesitate to make you disappear forever, but not before removing some of your favorite body parts while you were still breathing. Especially well done is McCloskey’s description of how a dictator ensures allegiance amongst his underlings by playing one off another.

    Spying is a job for patriots, madmen, and madwomen, a couple of whom find one another as soulmates in the midst of Syria’s chaos.

  • The Eagle’s Claw: A Novel of the Battle of Midway by Jeffrey Shaara *** (of 4)

    Ostensibly, the single battle that shaped the outcome of WW II (of which, there are no doubt many such single battles bearing that accolade), is the Battle for Midway Island in the Pacific. In the summer of 1942, America’s Navy was still reeling from its ravaging in its home port of Pearl Harbor. The Japanese Navy ruled the Pacific.

    This fictionalized, but very-well researched, account describes most effectively the strategic plans needed to fight a battle. Generals, and in this case, Admirals, too, must plan to the last spool of barbed wire and final gallon of jet fuel the necessities to carry out an invasion or counterattack. Then they need commanders to follow orders, without wavering, even in the heat of battle. Except they also need commanders smart and brave enough to improvise when the enemy or conditions fail to match plans created in the comfort of an office space.

    The Midway Islands atoll.

    Aside from its airfields and appearance above the surface of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Japan, Midway is not really worth fighting for, but it was here that the Japanese and American fleets and their shipborne aircraft had at it. Weirdly, for all of Shaara’s experience as a writer of war stories, the drama ends mid-book. Nonetheless, his description of the cultural distinctions between Japan and America and bravery and reticence of various fighters, if true, is intriguing.

  • The Secret Life of Groceries by Benjamin Lorr **** (of 4)

    At some level all of us who shop for food know that canned tomatoes don’t really grow in cans and that frozen shrimp don’t really come from the freezer. What Benjamin Lorr does so engrossingly well is write about the people who make the system run. He speaks with Burmese shrimpers enslaved by Thai boatmen — seriously enslaved in every sense of the word. He rides with truckers who move every item we own in our homes — try to think of an item that has not been transported by truck — and discovers an industry where nearly every driver is simultaneously on the verge of incipient bankruptcy and utterly replaceable.

    He meets brokers driven to amass new products (check out the cereal aisle to see what is new this week) and interviews entrepreneurs convinced they have the next best thing since the invention of Sriracha. Lorr explains why Fair Trade, and other certifications, are primarily designed to drive sales (to self-aggrandizing shoppers like me), but might not make much difference to growers or to the planet.

    Floor-workers in supermarkets from WalMart to Whole Foods are all subject to unpredictable hours (so no childcare planning and no second jobs) and held to just under the number of hours needed to receive benefits.

    What every hidden stage of the commodity chain has in common with the next link is the capitalistic insistence upon unlimited abundance at the lowest possible price. It all appears as tens of thousands of distinct products whose glaring availability is only possible if we treat the people who make and deliver them as interchangeable, standardized machine parts.

    No one does it more effectively than Amazon (now owner of Whole Foods). The company places haptic monitors on the bodies of its workers to ensure efficiency of motion and penalize wasted efforts, like a pause to scratch an itch.

  • Looking for the Good War by Elizabeth Samet *** (of 4)

    An onion of a book, not just because it can bring you to tears, but because of its layers. In the outer layer, Samet re-describes World War II. Often referred to as The Good War and its fighters as The Greatest Generation, Samet invites us to take another look. As Studs Terkel pointed out in the 1980s when he interviewed Americans about their experience of the war, and Samet emphasizes, under what circumstances do the words “good” and “war” deserve to appended one to the other. Simply put, war is the projection of unlimited violence, and as we too easily forget, Americans and our soldiers were as vicious as the Axis powers; maybe more so, as we were on the winning side.

    One layer deeper into the onion, Samet delivers a master class in the value of the humanities in reflecting the human experience. She analyzes our perspectives on warmaking and wartime suffering using sources as old as the Iliad and Odyssey and Shakespeare’s plays and then brings it up to date to show us the hidden depravities and despondencies of the Greatest Generation. She reviews scores of films of the 1940s and 1950s to show us despairing veterans, criminals, PTSD, lost youth, and oppressed women and communities of color.

    Her onion reveals how World War II has been recalled rhetorically by every subsequent President as validation for a newfound projection of unspeakable violence and how the Civil War — no American war has been deadlier — as a noble cause in both North and South.

    The onion’s core is its sweetest. Elizabeth Samet is a Professor of Humanities at West Point, teaching America’s future military leaders the true cost of violence. That is a mark of profound hope. If only her classes were required of our political leaders.

  • Razorblade Tears by S.A. Crosby **** (of 4)

    Ike and Buddy Lee couldn’t be more different or more the same. Ike is Black and barely the survivor of deeply embedded southern racism. Buddy Lee, self identifies as a beer-drinking, redneck piece of trailer-trash. Their only sons are married to one another and murdered in cold blood just before the book opens. Now the two ex-cons have to face one another, their long-held homophobia, and a police force unable or indifferent about finding their sons’ killers.

    Ike and Buddy Lee take it upon themselves to search for the unrepentant killers and as we tag along the two old man, tired, but still tough and wily, get to know one another. They also get to know themselves. Violence bubbles up around the pair like a slashed artery but is diluted with insightful compassion for two men coming to terms with their failures as fathers. Together, they prove that you are never too old to try again, to make amends, to apologize to those who have been wronged, and to accede to the power of love. Even as bodies drop like flies caught behind glass, Ike and Buddy Lee discover who killed their sons, but more importantly grasp that judging a human takes more than a glance at skin color, class, sexual orientation, or gender. Goodness, like evil, can be found in surprising places.

  • Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury by Evan Osnos **** (of 4)

    Journalism is a first attempt to record history, and Osnos makes an outstanding first pass over the period in America between September 11, 2001 and January 6, 2021. On the first date, the country was (mostly) united in its horror by an attack by a foreign intruder. Twenty years later and the U.S. is riven. Wisely, Osnos uses only three locations in America to track the transformation: a small, de-industrializing town in West Virginia, the Black south side of Chicago, and Greenwich, CT, the wealthiest community in the country.

    Osnos lays blame for the disintegration of the country on income inequality and the undue influence that super-wealthy and corporations have on the electoral process. In short, the poor have gotten poorer and the rich, richer. In West Virginia, poor, aging white Americans whose jobs in the coal mines have disappeared along with their health benefits have absorbed right wing xenophobia and cast themselves as losers in a race war. Wealthy money managers in Greenwich tolerate Trumpism because their ability to continue to live the life of ease gets only easier. And, they never interact with poor Americans. Similarly, many of the Black residents of Chicago that Osnos speaks with have never been to white Chicago. They have not seen the museums, the zoo, parks or the waterfront. They do not get there as tourists, as members of the electoral process, and definitely not as workers.

    Trump figures prominently in the final years — and it is sadly amazing how much deeply racist and hurtful policies and statements he perpetrated that I had blocked from memory — but Osnos paints Trump as a skillful opportunist in the right place at the right time. In time, historians will have a clearer picture, but Osnos has captured an era with superb readability.

  • The Children of Ash and Elm by Neil Price *** (of 4)

    Truly, everything you might ever want to know about Vikings and how they ruled with terrible violence is scrutinized. Scandinavia, Western Europe, and the British Isles from roughly 700 – 1,000 CE were all under Viking rule. What makes the book so compelling, however, is the degree to which the author explains the tools of modern archaeology. Long gone are simple descriptions of dates, rulers, eras, and material culture. In the olden days of archaeology, the past was filtered through strongly clouded lenses. Thusly, the Vikings have largely been described by Christian missionaries who were at first overwhelmed by pagan invaders and later rationalized their missionary zeal for conversion by re-imagining Viking perceptions of the world. Price puts on a pair of 21st century lenses.

    To take one example, Viking religion and belief in their gods was understood only in relation to Christianity, while Price argues rather effectively that even the concept of religion is a construct of monotheism. Price cross-references material objects found in archaeological digs, nordic sagas which mostly tell us what Vikings wanted to believe and fossilize about themselves, and a handful of written accounts left by traders, mostly Arab and a few Jewish who ventured north. The result is a description of life that does its best to describe Vikings as they saw themselves and to expand our vision of the past to include women, LGBTQIA, slaves, immigrants, emigrants, mealtime, daily work, child rearing, and so forth.

    Most remarkable is the degree to which the combination of story and artifacts make clear the extent to which even in the first millennia the Vikings were integrated into a global economy. There are Vikings and Viking things in Egypt, Iraq, India, and China. Walrus tusks, for example, and Viking swords are found along the Silk Road. Simultaneously, there are Vikings buried in silk.

  • Harlem Shuffle **** (of 4) Colson Whitehead

    It is the early 1960s and Ray Carney sells contemporary furniture from a showroom on 125th Street in Harlem, New York City’s Black enclave. Harlem vibrates with the energy of strivers, both straight and crooked. Men (women are conspicuously second class characters in this book) aim to get ahead anyway they can and Carney has, in addition, to his sale of couches and dinettes, a side hustle of fenced electronics, appliances, and jewels. Carney’s cousin, Freddy, is endowed with more charm than common sense; he routinely draws Carney into a series of crimes that Carney ultimately wishes he had no part of.

    Harlem Shuffle appears to be part compelling crime novel, part family saga, and an exceedingly lively encapsulation of the language and vibe of inner city life in the early 1960s. (Listen to the audiobook, if you have the opportunity.) But most of all, the genius of the book is the feeling of racial imprisonment affected by the invisible urban borders of Harlem. Yes, the boundaries are semi-porous: Carney can ride the subway downtown to move stolen items through white middlemen – also with straight-looking storefronts – but his skin color makes him too conspicuous to linger. White cops own the streets of Manhattan from the Battery to the Bronx and cruise the blocks of Harlem beating, occasionally killing young Black men, and all around ensuring that no matter the aspirations of Harlems’ dreamers, educated or not, their station in life is preordained.

    The setting is 1959-1964. Not nearly enough has changed.

  • I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara *** (of 4)

    One big difference between true crime and mystery novels is that when true crimes are committed, it’s not unusual for the perpetrator to get away. By contrast, in a TV mystery, or a book, the bad guy, by convention, is revealed. Which is why Michelle McNamara essentially joins the “club” of true crime mystery solvers. She has a chance to work on a puzzle whose outcome is so elusive, it might not be solvable; like a super-hard crossword puzzle, only the outcome, if she helps catch a criminal, might really matter.

    McNamara’s focus is one horrific rapist and murderer who through much of the 1970s and 1980s committed dozens of heinous acts. He committed so many it is virtually unimaginable that he could have escaped recognition well into the 2010s despite the dozens of searchers, professional and amateur, combing through thousands of items of evidence. And yet, The Golden State Killer was not.

    What makes “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” so compelling is McNamara’s exquisite attention to detail and writer’s panache for knowing when to use it. She lets us know, for example, the weather on the night of an attack, and the placement of the street lamps and hedgerows, but gives us only enough description for us to know the magnitude of the attack. The violence is inhumane, obsessive on the part of the killer, but not presented gratuitously.

    Complicating the narrative was the untimely death of the author who left behind enough of the manuscript and accompanying articles that ghost writers could ably finish the book. Leaving us to ponder the nature of obsession: in one case a man who preyed on California suburbanites and in the other case, a wife, mother, and author who sat up at night chasing minutiae in hopes of catching him.