• 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.

  • Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich *** (of 4)

    Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for her oral histories of Russia and the Soviet Union.  Secondhand Time includes exquisitely curated accounts of members of the Former Soviet Union beginning with old-timers that can still recall Stalin.  She speaks with citizens still longing for the stability Stalin’s rule ensured and intermingles enough survivors of the gulag to make clear that nothing was worth the bloodshed and destruction that accompanied Stalin’s tyranny. She continues with accounts from the post-Stalin era through the Yeltsin restoration of order and Gorbachev’s opening to capitalism.  Her interviewees make abundantly clear that replacing the communist ideal of equality for all with the frenzied shark attacks of capitalism has not been a smooth nor beneficial transition.  The oligarchs have profited beyond anyone’s wildest needs and the needy have been left to struggle to survive.  Young people that have never known anything but capitalism, according to their elders, worship materialism over community and mutual support.  Like many Russian pieces of literature, Secondhand Time is extensive and thorough, almost as if you were in kitchen after kitchen drinking Russian tea and then vodka deep into the night.  The final picture is masterful, with one caveat.  Alexievich never really describes her methods and there is some evidence that she has moved quotations from one speaker to another in different publications suggesting some of her books might be as much fiction as non-fiction.  That changes how you read her, I’m afraid.

  • 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.

  • The Cooking Gene by Michael Twitty ** (of 4)

    It is a great idea for research that is long overdue.  Michael Twitty explores the role of enslaved Africans in shaping American foodways.  Think about it.  Africans captured in Africa and transported for sale to American owners brought with them foods and methods of cooking they knew from home.  In America they were forced to work in the kitchens of slave owners and to keep themselves from starving to death too quickly — fieldwork for Africans was no different in duration or difficulty than it was for horses and mules — they grew small household gardens when they could.  In short, their influence on what we know of today as southern cooking was deep and wide.  Twitty is fascinating just by himself:  black, gay, Jewish, historian, and foodie.  Where the book falters, unfortunately, is the confusing intertwining of food history, Twitty’s autobiography, and his search for his genetic roots.  By themselves, each story is a fine thread.  Together, they are a hopelessly tangled series of knots and broken leads.

  • In the Kingdom of Ice by Hamptom Sides **** (of 4)

    At the end of the nineteenth century, because no one had ever been there, the virtual consensus among geographers was that the North Pole resided in a warm, open sea.  One needed only to sail a ship through the ice surrounding it to reach the open ocean.  In 1879, Captain George DeLong and a crew of 30-plus sailors set off for the North Pole.  At end of the their first year, their ship, having failed to find open water, was instead frozen in place, where they remained out of communication with the rest of the world for three years. Half of their time was in near total darkness and nearly all of their days and nights were below freezing.  Finally, sheets of ice crushed and sank the U.S.S. Jeannette.  The crew walked and sailed for hundreds of days across ice floes and freezing oceans with hopes of reaching the coldest landmass on earth, the north coast of Siberia.  The  test of human physical and psychological endurance is simultaneously contemporary and otherworldly.  The relationship of European and American men to the environment, native people of the Arctic, to women, and stoicism is history not to be overlooked.

  • 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.

  • Nemesis by Lindsay Davis *** (of 4)

    The twentieth book in the series on detective Marcus Didius Falco, this one in Rome and Latium in the year 77 AD.  In this mystery, Marcus, having just inherited an unexpected fortune from his father heads to the pestilential Pontine Marshes to hunt for a missing person and the reason one of his father’s payments was never collected.  The marshes harbor malarial insects and the kind of marsh people, and their rabid dogs, you might expect in the remotest hollers of Kentucky.  The mystery is typical of Davis’ previous Falco books.  The emergence of Falco’s daughter, Flavius Alba, as a burgeoning detective in her own right is downright joyful.  The real pleasure of the book, however, is the degree to which once again Davis brings to life ordinary Romans.  Their family squabbles, frustrations with intransigent authorities and truculent neighbors, and the hassles of finding reliable childcare are concurrently hilarious, modern, and part of ancient Rome.

  • 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.