• River of the Gods by Candace Millard **** (of 4)

    By the 1860s California had absorbed an influx of hundreds of thousands of gold miners, the southern states of the U.S. had seceded, and North America’s native populations were mostly subdued, and yet in those years the only parts of the African continent known to western Europeans was its long perimeter. Ninety percent of Africa’s interior was unreliably mapped by whites. River of the Gods describes British expeditions to locate the source of the Nile River.

    An expedition into Africa’s interior required a combination of hubris, fearlessness, undaunted courage, and an unquestioning belief in racial superiority that is mortifying to behold. Without ever becoming overbearing, Millard’s description of the men, British and African, who risked their lives in search of the Nile’s origins, pits innate curiosity and urge for exploration — who doesn’t want to know the headwaters of the world’s longest river? — against the sheer audacity of believing that exploration can only be achieved by khaki-clad Britishers in charge of scores of largely nameless local guides, porters, and pack animals. Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke hiked for months at a time, enduring, no exaggeration, more than 20 diseases and fevers which left them periodically blind, paralyzed, unable to speak or swallow, and crazed for weeks and months on end. Yet they marched forward, sometimes born on litters, often to the complete detriment of their physical, mental, and social wellbeing.

    Richard Burton (left) and John Speke in an engraving by Emile-Antoine Bayard (1837-1891). Credit.

    River of the Gods is part adventure tale, part biography of key explorers, and a rendering of an age of recognition, that colonialism, though not yet finished, was nearing its climax. Africa’s interior was about to be overrun by European countries whose competition with one another would expand from the purchase of bonded human chattel to the exploitation of timber, minerals, and colonial boundaries. It is a marvelous book that can cover the intricacies of Richard Burton’s courtship with his wife, the swarming insects of Africa’s jungles, and the international race for hegemony.

  • 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.

  • 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 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles **** (of 4)

    A yarn as wide as the Texas landscape. It is 1864 and Simon the Fiddler makes a living the best he can by playing jigs, reels, waltzes and hornpipes. It’s not quite as disreputable a profession as being an actor, but a lot of venues include the kinds of saloons and dance halls that the upper classes tend not to frequent. Until the Union Army conscripts him, that is, and he has to play fiddle and soldier for a year. At the war’s so-called conclusion – it doesn’t so much end as degenerate into a kind of barely controlled chaos as Union forces occupy the state of Texas and barely maintain order – Simon teams up with three additional veterans and together they escape their army duties to play music, barely make ends meet, and have adventures along the Gulf Coast and the Mexican border.

    Paulette Jiles evokes of the landscape and era of post Civil War Texas with such acuity you can hear individual birds sing, grasshoppers hum, and feel the heat of an unrelenting sun. The landlords, deadbeats, wild Texans, privileged Union officers, and one very comely nanny fresh from Ireland whose bright eyes and thick hair capture Simon’s attention are as highly credible as the rest of the liberated countryside.

  • 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.

  • March: Book Three by Andrew Aydin, John Lewis, and John Noel Claude Lewis **** (of 4)

    This is the final installment of the biography of Congressman John Lewis’s youthful campaign for civil rights for America’s black population.  Books One and Two cover the fight for desegregation in the later 1950s and early 1960s.  Book Three details what it took to force President Johnson to introduce legislation allowing the federal government of the United States to override southern states that forbid blacks from voting.  For years John Lewis led the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee through peaceful demonstrations to enable Americans with dark skin to register to vote like other Americans.  Repeatedly, men and women approaching courthouses hoping to register were met with police beatings, enabled posses of armed white men, obstinate white judges, and murderous Klansmen.  The story is a bloody one and sprinkled throughout are references to an event that was unimaginable in 1964:  John Lewis, the Congressman, attending the inauguration of Barack Obama.  And yet, today, gerrymandering of voting districts mean that Republicans (with negligible support or accountability to black voters) control the Presidency (who did not win the popular vote), both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, and a majority of governorships and statehouses.  Everyone should read this book.  And consider kneeling during the National Anthem.