• Ducks by Kate Beaton *** (of 4)

    Newly graduated from college with artistic talent, a liberal arts degree, and a mountain of college loans, 21-year-old Kate Beaton departs her economically depressed home in the Canadian maritimes in search of work and income to pay down her debts. Like many other Canadians, she emigrates to the land of big salaries, the oil sands of Alberta.

    Ducks is a coming of age story endured by many college graduates who combine wanderlust, a can-do attitude, and the immortality of being young. Not unsurprisingly she faces isolation, loneliness, and the exhaustion of trying to adapt while working as hard as she can in a new land far from home.

    But Kate is also immersed in a sea of roughnecked men in a frozen, dark wasteland bearing little semblance to a balanced society. The level of sexual aggressiveness and mistreatment directed at the few female employees is appallingly high and carefully rendered in cartoon characterizations, generally six panels per page for more than 400 pages. While the book’s title might refer to a band of migratory ducks poisoned in a waste-tailings pond, it probably also refers to the author’s position as a “sitting duck” hunted by predatory miners far from their own families, hope, or the restrictions of normal civilization.

    Separating men from women, implies the author, in mining camps, college dormitories, the army, or by religious restriction is likely to lead to sexual degradation of women, LGBTQ+, and anyone with perceived or conceived weakness.

  • Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar **** (of 4)

    The title says the book is a novel, but the voice is the author’s and the story is about his life. News events, timelines, and characters are real and it is impossible to discern when fact is being replaced by fiction which makes the story only that much more intriguing. Akhtar’s elegies, generally defined as serious poetic odes to the dead are largely long form, stand alone descriptions of his life in America: the American born, Muslim son of Pakistani immigrants.

    His father loves America, his mother not as much. The laments are for the losses of home back in Pakistan as seen through rose colored glasses of hindsight; for the breakdown of a relationship between father and son; a father’s loss of his bearings as a doctor in the United States; a mother’s loss of health offset by his parents pride and befuddlement at a son who succeeds in America as a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright. Akhtar’s plays have won Pulitzers and his ability to write a scene and fill it with authentic dialog feels so realistic it is hard to imagine it was conceived by an author and not simply filmed on the spot.

    Running the full length of the book are the tribulations of being Muslim in a country in the throes of deep anti-Muslim sentiment. Akhtar’s recounting of his experience in Manhattan on 9/11, what he endures upon being pulled over by a state trooper near Wilkes Barre, PA, or how Trump gave voice to anti-Muslim attackers are horrifying.

    His conclusion about America is subtle and surprising. While he makes a decent case that our country was founded by Christians for Christians, he makes a stronger case that our true object of worship is money and that the drive to acquire monetary status at the personal, political, and corporate levels of society are insatiable and insidious.

  • Rogues by Patrick Radden Keefe ** (of 4)

    Keefe is the author of a couple of other books I thought were terrific (Empire of Pain, Say Nothing), but not this one. A staff writer for the New Yorker, Rogues is a collection of his previously published, long form essays bound together. Chapter after chapter we meet bad guys – white-collar crooks, narcos, fraudsters, arms merchants, and so on. Taken alone, each malcontent is pretty interesting, but Keefe starts each story letting you know at the outset what terrible deeds have been perpetrated. That doesn’t leave a lot of mystery while you plow through scores of pages to learn more, and more, about the same detail you were made aware of in the opening paragraphs. By the time you’ve read five or six of these stories, each one of which running out of steam about three-fourths through, you might wonder to yourself how many more bad guys you need to need to meet at one time.

  • 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 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.

  • Intimacies by Katie Kitamura ** (of 4)

    You can probably disregard my unenthusiastic review. Intimacies, after all, was loved by everyone else from the NY Times to the National Book Awards. A nameless narrator leaves New York without much explanation and comes ashore at The Hague, gaining a job as an interpreter at the World Court of Justice. Lonely — even we readers cannot close enough to her to learn her name or much of her background — she falls in like with Adriaan, a charismatic and distant good-looking man, whose wife has abruptly left him. As if dating a married man is not disquieting enough, her best female friend lives in a crime-ridden neighborhood where bad things happen to good people. And to reinforce for readers our inabilities to ever really know someone, the narrator’s day job is to translate in real time the words of genocidal dictators, their prosecutors and defense lawyers, and the crimes against humanity of which the accused is almost certainly guilty.

    The narrator imbues all of her personal interactions with an internal monologue that guesses, second guesses, and triple guesses the motives behind every statement, whether from herself, friend, lover, or criminal. The result is that we poor readers are subjected to an unending ADHD-driven monologue of doubt, worry, and concern that her doubt is not warranted, or maybe it is. But don’t trust me. While NPR’s reviewer generally agreed with me, the big shot critics called this one of the top 10 books of 2021.

  • 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.

  • 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.