• The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead **** (of 4)

    Before Colson Whitehead ever gets to the story of Cora’s attempted escape from enslavement, he sets the stage in Africa.  Cora’s grandmother and mother are captured beginning a saga of human beings herded, branded, chained, transported, discarded when insufficiently healthy, and sold like so many pieces of meat.  Some are consumed, others are tossed overboard or left to rot.  Whitehead’s descriptions of the relationship between white slave owners and the human beings they own is a delicately painted portrait of white men using all their faculties to subdue the humanity of their black workers with rape, torture, and psychological brutality.  For this portion of the book alone, the real-life portrayal of slavery in the south, The Underground Railroad should be required reading of all Americans.  Whitehead’s description of plantation work for slaves also makes the idea of escape almost logical.  The alternatives are equally daunting: staying on the plantation means ceaseless labor, sexual assaults, tongue extractions for speaking up, castrations for being black and male and therefore a threat to white men’s sense of superiority, and beatings so severe that infections beneath missing skin are inevitable.  Leaving for the underground railroad, in contrast, means fearing owners so desperate to regain their lost property that dogs trained to shred human tissue and professional slave catchers brandishing chains and iron collars will be sent even into free states to recapture lost goods.  Cora’s lifelong sprint for freedom is harrowing, accurate, and the story of an underdog for whom you can’t help but root.  Her plight is also an important reminder that in the age of Charlottesville the legacy of slavery has not yet been overcome.

  • News of the World by Paulette Jiles **** (of 4)

    The year is 1870.  Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, veteran of three wars, now age 72, is more or less handed a ten-year-old girl to return to her German family in south Texas.  The girl was kidnapped by Kiowa Indians at the age of six and has been recaptured by bounty hunters.  Her parents are dead and Captain Kidd is now responsible for returning the girl, who no longer speaks English nor German, to her nearest relatives.  Everything about their adventure as the old man and his young companion ride a horse drawn wagon across unsettled Texas landscapes feels authentic.  Whereas a less skilled novelist might vacillate between plot, character, and showing off research, Paulette Jiles simply puts us in the driver’s seat.  The Texas hills and deserts roll by in perfect clarity.  Storms rage over head, the sun beats down, and sometimes it just drizzles for days.  Strangers — some friendly, a few weird, and a couple who are downright dangerous — ride up alongside and we face them with whatever skills we have at our disposal.  Moreover, the groups who cohabit south Texas are raised beyond typecasting.  Kiowa, Spanish, soldiers, women, homesteaders, and settlers are presented as you might expect real people to be.  They are complicated.  You like some and dislike others.  It is a deeply informative and thoughtful ride.

  • Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance **** (of 4)

    The simple description is on the cover.  J.D. Vance, a self-denominated hillbilly from Kentucky, describes what it took to grow up in a family devoid of education and reliable jobs, hounded by alcoholism and drug addiction, subjected to intransigent poverty, educated in mediocre schools, raised by a seemingly endless array of violent adults, and adjacent to families of nearly identical misery (each in their own way, of course.)  Vance escaped.  He joined the marines, went to college, earned a law degree at Yale, and became an excellent writer, who by the age of 32, could pen a memoir that gives insight into a culture as foreign to educated eastern liberals as any alien culture could be.  Vance has been hailed by conservatives for his bootstrapping success and for his insistence upon calling out hillbilly culture for its own moral failures.  He has been decried by left-wingers for failing to point to structural inequities in American society that make it so difficult for the poverty-stricken, black or white, to break free of their plight.  The reason Vance won me over comes at the end of the book. When he asks himself what policies or programs need to be enacted to overcome the downward spiral of America’s white underclass, he responds with uncertainty.  There is no simple solution, he argues.

  • Dark Money by Jane Mayer *** (of 4)

    Jane Mayer has followed the money trail from a small, quiet group of far right wing billionaires to recipients aligned with their political ambitions.  Led most famously by the libertarian Koch brothers, this cabal has donated hundreds of millions over the last two decades to academics, think tanks, media outlets, and politicians.  Their goal has been eliminating regulations, preserving tax loopholes for the wealthy, gerrymandering political districts to negate votes of liberals, discarding government health and education programs for low-income Americans, and forestalling any action on climate change.  With the exception of Obama’s terms in office, nearly every one of their objectives has been achieved.  The Supreme Court, Congress, Governerships, State Houses, and Presidency are all dominated by the political rightwing.  Because Republicans at every level of government toe the line drawn by the Kochs and similar donors, Mayer suggests that realistically the United States has become an oligarchy ruled by wealthy magnates rather than by democratic process.  While she can be criticized for overlooking similar tactics undertaken by liberals or missed opportunities when the left could have used similar techniques, the overall case stands.  Huge sums of money strategically disbursed by extreme conservatives has radically altered America’s government and its policies.

  • Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard *** (of 4)

    garfieldThe United States was on rocky footing in the immediate decades following the civil war with the North wanting revenge and the south not yet over its stinging defeat.  In the 1880s, James A. Garfield was an archetypal American politician.  He grew up fatherless, impoverished, and in a homemade log cabin on an Ohio farm.  He went to college, was self-effacing, and apparently had no ambition beyond working for justice and the equality of freed black men and women.  His renowned oratorical skills put him in position to make a nominating speech as a young Congressman at a deadlocked Republican presidential convention.  After dozens of inconclusive votes, without ever wanting to run for the office, and against his wishes, Garfield was selected to be the Republican candidate,.  He was elected President without really campaigning, and would likely have been an outstanding leader had he not been shot by a lunatic and left to die because doctors at the end of the nineteenth century did not yet believe in antisepsis and Alexander Graham Bell’s feverish attempts to prepare a device that could locate the bullet lodged in his abdomen did not outrace the infections in Garfield’s body.  Millard’s account is engaging, but in the end Garfield’s run as President was too short to be of real significance.

  • American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin *** (of 4)

    hearst24n-8-webPatty Hearst was the daughter of one of the wealthiest and most influential media men in American history (think Fox News) when she was kidnapped in the early 1970s by a shadowy radical group called the Symbionese Liberation Army.  During her months of captivity, Patty Hearst came to sympathize with her anti-establishment captors, going so far as to rob banks at gunpoint, and firing weapons at innocent bystanders.  Toobin does a reasonable job of setting the context of the period: the Vietnam War was refusing to come to an end, African Americans were raging against oppression, women were recognizing their own restrictions, drug use was up, domestic bombings by radical groups against symbols of government and police brutality were in the thousands, and the country was divided between blue-collar supporters of law and order and youthful proponents of peace and equality.  A lot like today’s red-blue divisions. Toobin’s fundamental question is whether Patty Hearst’s law-breaking escapades were the result of her kidnapping and fear for her life if she did not act in accordance with her kidnappers, or whether, as the historical record indicates, Patty voluntarily switched allegiances, moving from far right to far left, and was responsible for her own actions.  The question of the extent we are responsible for our own behaviors or are swayed by larger societal forces is a great question, but unfortunately, it is buried for most of this book as the moment-by-moment details of the kidnapping ordeal are laid out.

  • Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews *** (of 4)

    palaceoftreasonThe second in the series involving a a love affair that really should never happen between an American CIA spy, Nathanial Nash and the mole he is running inside the KGB, Dominika Egorova.  Egorova has risen high enough inside the Russian spy network she has become a confidante of Putin.  The poor parts of the novel include flat portrayals of Russians — they are all venal, evil, and flatly portrayed destroyers of western values, equal and opposite descriptions of American spies whose patriotism is the only thing that might save the world, and love-making scenes between Nate and Dominika that sound like they were written by a spy who spent 33 years doing analysis for the CIA, which is what Matthews did before becoming a novelist.  All the women in the book have breasts and nipples.  Their love making skills are about as sexy as that last sentence.  But, get over those superficialities, and the spycraft described in this book is so realistic, intriguing, suspenseful and informative you will readily plow up its pages and find yourself waiting impatiently for the next installment.

  • The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan *** (of 4)

    The-Worst-Hard-Time-by-Timothy-Egan1-356x535This recounting of America’s dust bowl is a vivid, filthy painting of an American environmental disaster brought about by greed, hubris, and ignorance.  After demolishing the Comanche and the bison, an American government anxious to “settle” the West gave away its prairie in huge chunks.  Plows sliced prairie grasses from their deep roots creating caskets of bare soil over buried sod.  Homesteader wheat, mining untapped soil nutrients and decomposing grasses, produce unimaginably profitable and prolific yields.  When the Great Depression struck in 1929, jobless masses in East Coast cities could not afford to pay for food and wheat piled up in the Great Plains.  In terrible need of income farmers expanded production, exacerbating the problem.  Then one of the periodic droughts that has always cycled through the Great Plains struck the year following the crash of the stock market and stretched nearly a decade.  Crops died.  Then trees and streams, horses and cattle all withered.  Great roiling winds picked up tons and tons of soil hurling black blizzards of sand and grit across the plains and finally people, their lungs so full of dust they could not draw sufficient oxygen, they, too, started to die and with them the farms and towns of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Kansas that should never have exchanged perennial grasses, bison, antelope, snakes, and hares for wheat, corn, and cotton.  The soil of the Great Plains was eventually tied down by the Soil Conservation Service and new plants grown on water mined from the Ogallala Aquifer, which shortly will run dry.

  • Kosher USA by Roger Horowitz *** (of 4)

    kosherHow does a food receive kosher approval?  For some items, like the prohibition of pork, the Torah is comparatively clear.  But what about a more modern food like Jell-O which contains gelatin, a substance derived from forbidden bones and hides of animals, but has been turned into a chemical that no longer has much, if any, relationship to its origin?  Some rabbis would give Jell-O a kosher stamp.  Now, what if the hide used to make the chemical called gelatin was a pig’s?  Kosher USA if nothing else is provocative and at its best points to centuries of rabbinic debate still alive as food becomes more and more processed.  Horowitz’s academic style and heavy emphasis on the political interplay of corporations and rabbis are sparsely balanced by personal anecdotes, which in many instances, are more captivating than the long passages of textbook-like replays of angry letters between generally conservative rabbis supporting modernization and orthodox rabbis insistent upon glatt kosher laws that adhere to Torah but are indifferent to animal suffering or worker rights.

  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi *** (of 5)

    homegoingGyasi uses her own experience as a Ghanaian American to create an original tale of history.  We are asked to follow the descendants of one family member captured in northern Ghana, sold to the British, imprisoned in the Cape Coast Castle and shipped to the United States as enslaved chattel.  The other continues residence in Ghana under the curse of the ancestors.  While the raw brutality of enslavement is on full display, the remaining lives in Ghana are not to be envied.  Over the centuries, Ghanaians capture neighbors and sell them, they fight off British overlords, barely, and are trapped by superstition and custom.  Alas, Gyasi, a very young writer, has bitten off more than she can regurgitate in such a short novel.  Trying to cover two continents and all the generations encumbered by nearly three centuries means the recounting of too many stories that feel just a bit familiar: an aborted ride on the underground railroad, a slave whose back is scarred beyond recognition by whippings, the Middle Passage is inhumanely sickening.  The stories from Ghana are of course newer for us, but their brevity makes many of them too shallow to appreciate.