• 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Medicus by Ruth Downie *** (of 4)

    Gaius Petreius Ruso is a Roman physician working for Rome’s army in a remote outpost of the empire: dreary, rainy, savage countryside north of London (Londonium). Soldiers arrive in his clinic after fistfights with barmaids, staggering hangovers, heart attacks, food poisoning, being kicked by horses, and cataracts. His roommate, another doctor, is a slob, and mostly interested in self-promotion. The hours are long and the food is, well, British, not Roman. No olives, no lemons, nothing worth salivating over.

    Across the street from the Roman fort is a brothel (legal in the Roman empire) with enslaved prostitutes (also legal.) One of the prostitutes, actually, maybe two, have disappeared without explanation, and in a fit of blinded humanity Ruso purchases a young, attractive female slave in the street. Then, as if dealing the mystery of missing people, one of whom has washed up in the local river and was brought in for examination, Ruso finds himself with a rather independent slave, a busy waiting room, and a long wait until payday. Then the fort’s chief administrator arrives on site and presents himself as a bureaucrat of such maddening preciseness that a modern day IRS employee would look like Mother Teresa in comparison. Ruso has a lot to sort out.

  • Dark Towers by David Enrich *** (of 4)

    In a marvelous job of explaining obscure ways of making money, David Enrich details how Deutsche Bank grew from a sleepy, domestic, German lender into the largest bank of the world. The secret mix was greed, testosterone, and a willingness to ignore irrational risks. Banks make money in one of two basic ways. They either lend you money and ask you to pay it back with interest. Or they sell you a financial product – say, a collection of mortgages or loans they’ve made to other people, asking you to share in their profits when their lend-ees repay their debts. The back and forth between customers and vendors is no different then avocados hawked in a Honduran farmer’s market or cars on a lot. The difference comes in the magnitude of the transactions. Hundreds of millions of dollars can move on each interaction (hence, the thrill enjoyed by caffeinated, macho young men) and therein lies the fundamental conundrum of loans.

    If you owe the bank $1000 that you don’t really have, the bank owns you (or at least all of your salable possessions.) But if you owe the bank $100 million that you don’t really have, and the bank in its haste to score your business (and finance your new hotel) wasn’t wise enough to tabulate whether your possessions are worth that much, in essence, you own the bank. No one played that system of promoting a deal better than Donald Trump. He borrowed, and defaulted, on hundreds of millions of dollars, going bankrupt numerous times. Nevertheless, Deutsche Bank in its headlong rush to make money grew so quickly and adored profit to such a sickening degree that it had branches of its bank overlook issues of collateral or the law.

    There is no finer example of the problem of profit over people than the saga of Deutsche Bank. No one played the game of profit over people more effectively than Donal Trump who used Deutsche Bank as a hapless piggy bank on his way to securing the highest CEO job in the world.

  • 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.

  • 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.