• 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.

  • 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.

  • Lush Life by Richard Price *** (of 4)

    A nearly 15-year-old period piece that still has legs because the characters are so richly drawn and so authentically New York City. The lower east side of the city is being captured in a snapshot mid-gentrification. The neighborhood still has ghosts of its immigrant Jewish community of the early 20th century: collapsing synagogues, hidden Yiddishisms, and grandchildren returning to the neighborhood as 20-something hipsters calling on local bars deep into the dark hours. But there are also immigrant Chinese in walk-up apartments, Arab marketers, Irish cops, Blacks and LatinX living in project housing, drug dealers who seem to cross all the hidden boundaries, and clueless college students.

    In this case, there’s also a mugging that goes bad when a first-time mugger working as an assistant to a slightly older teen pulls a trigger he probably shouldn’t have. But the crime is secondary to the mish-mash of people that make up a New York City neighborhood in transition. If you have any chance to listen to this book on audio, do so. Bobby Cannavale embodies every accent to perfection.

  • Darktown by Thomas Mullen **** (of 4)

    Following the end of WWII, the Atlanta Police Force reluctantly added eight African American police officers.  Their beats were restricted to Darktown, the part of Atlanta without streetlights, and it almost goes without saying, without white people.  Two recently hired war veterans, Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, stumble across an inebriated white man with a young black woman in his car.  After they see her get punched and then escape from her driver they later find her body buried among trash in a vacant lot.  Superficially, the novel is a 1940s murder mystery in the south, but the real story is the unflinching detail with which we observe Boggs and Smith endure Jim Crow.  They are forbidden from arresting criminals, only white officers can, so they must subdue adversaries, run to a telephone, and call for a squad car whose white officers may or may not arrive.  They may not question, nor even look into the eyes, of white officers, or for that matter, white men.  They may not be seen alone with, nor speak to white women without fear of subsequent lynching.  Boggs and Smith choose to uphold the law where they can while circumventing a white police force that alternately extorts, threatens, shoots, and convicts Atlanta’s blacks and despises its colored comrades.  As with most elements of Jim Crow I don’t know whether I am more offended by the inhumane behavior of America’s white racists or the fact I was never taught anything about Jim Crow at any point in my education.  The heat in this extremely well written mystery is as intense as a breezeless summer day in Atlanta.  The audio version of this book is excellent.

  • 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.

  • A Spy Among Friends *** (of 4) By Ben MacIntyre

    a_spy_among_friendsKim Philby joined the British spy services and the Russian KGB as a young man fresh from university.  The Second World War had not yet begun and Philby was a young leftist at a time when supporting a socialist agenda for the world and opposing Nazism and Fascism by whatever means necessary made sense.  By continuing to spy for the Russians for decades, however, while he climbed ever higher in MI-6, Philby became the highest ranking double agent in the west, responsible for giving away British and American secrets and for disclosing the names of hundreds of British informants and spies that ultimately met their deaths in Stalin’s dungeons.  Several insider’s views of spying are laid bare.  One, British spies of the 1940s through 1960s evidently consumed their body weights in liquor every week.  Two, to be a successful spy requires simultaneous trust of those upon whom you are relying for information and complete suspicion of everyone about you as your opponents are working exceptionally hard to feed you misinformation.  Running an organization of spies, like the CIA, MI-6, or even the KGB, when everyone must be suspected at some level of potentially working for the enemy, has to be nigh on impossible.  The use of Russian and American spies to plant false information or manipulate a foreign public’s perception of its leaders is an ongoing pursuit.  If done successfully, say under current conditions, by hacking into a computer network, it might just sway an election toward a friendly, incoherent, demagogue.

  • 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.

  • The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George **** (of 4)

    parisIt seems to me that even mediocre authors can write tragedies.  As long as a protagonist is reasonably sympathetic and something awful occurs, the reader is left feeling sad.  It is a whole lot harder to write a credible love story and yet Nina George has succeeded in assembling a novel of sublime passion about characters who love one another, lose one another and their internal compasses, and find love and themselves once again.  Jean Perdu, a Parisian bookseller, has a lover that leaves him without explanation, irrevocably breaking his heart.  A new, appropriately aged, attractive, female neighbor moves into an upstairs apartment, weeping copious tears over a recent divorce.  Perdu prescribes books to enhance her crying.  Then he leaves on a journey by boat through France’s canals and through his memories.  France’s landscape and Perdu’s mind shine brightly.  The production of this audio book were excellent, too, bringing the handful of characters in this tight little play lovingly to life.

  • H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald **** (of 4)

    H_is_for_Hawk_cover450Three parallel stories expertly told.  In the first, the author trains a goshawk to fly from her glove to hunt pheasants and rabbits on the British countryside.  In a second, Macdonald recounts the life of T.H. White, author of Arthurian novels, depressed, gay, abused, and also a goshawk trainer.  And, in the third, she writes a memoir of the year that her father died unexpectedly, she acquired a hawk, named it Mabel, trained Mabel, lost her happiness, read everything of T.H. White’s, scrambled in the British woods behind her not always cooperative goshawk, and muddled through.  We learn to see Britain’s hedges and forests through the eyes of an expert hawker and the eyes of a hawk, and Britain’s mid-twentieth century rigidity through the writings of T.H. White.

  • 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.