When I found myself agreeing with President Trump that the media were making too much of his super-cautious walking down a ramp at West Point, I knew I needed a break from media coverage. Yes, he might well have been wearing shoes with smooth leather soles that didn’t grip the slope the way rubber soles do. And yes, he wasn’t necessarily revealing a neuro-muscular disorder when he supported his water glass from the bottom. Given his vanity, he may well have worried that a highly visible water stain on his expensive silk tie would be more embarrassing than his two-handed sippy cup maneuver. But the little boy who cries wolf gets cut no slack when he has lied so often. I’m still more interested in the details of his sudden trip to Walter Reed Hospital last November, which has never been explained. There’s enough real news to focus on without getting sucked down rabbit holes! So here are some alternatives to our cable news obsessions, and, as always, I’d welcome your book suggestions as well.
Between the World and Me was written in 2015 by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Reading – or rereading it – couldn’t be timelier. It is an open letter to his 15-year-old son on what it means to grow up as an African-American male in this country. It is a poignant exploration of how racial definitions and biases define life’s experiences for blacks, immediately spelling peril in urban streets and explicit hostility in the more affluent suburbs. Race also defines whites, who, from their childhoods, are positioned to assume the entitlements of dominance without having to think about it. These are the people whom Coates calls “Dreamers,” not the dreamers who are undocumented immigrants brought here as innocent children. For Coates, “Dreamers” are white people whose automatic privilege enables them to live the American Dream, which eludes a majority of blacks, even those who have the trappings of the American dream but whose souls are haunted by decades of injustice and racism.
Coates sometimes seems to ignore the progress that has been made, and his widespread damnation can be very unsettling. But he is a beautiful writer. The book is a raw and impassioned look at the black experience. At this time in our nation’s history, it should be must reading for those of us who think we understand the depths of the nation’s racial division but who have never walked in the shoes of those who have borne the brunt of it.
Life Is So Good and you’ll feel good after reading this memoir of George Dawson, as told to Richard Glaubman. Dawson was a black man born in Marshall, Texas in 1898, to a farm family so poor he could not go to school. Grandson of a slave, he started to work at the age of eight on his father’s farm, and didn’t stop until he was 90 years old. He worked at a saw mill, a dairy and, after he retired, as a gardener and handyman. In his 20’s he rode the rails, traveling to see the United States, Canada and Mexico, where he was astonished to learn that whites and people of color could go to the same restaurants and drink from the same fountains. He did not start learning to read until he was 98 years old and heard about an adult education course within walking distance of his home. His 101st birthday was his happiest because it was the first time he could read birthday cards sent to him. Glaubman read about Dawson’s accomplishments and took a leave from his teaching job, traveling to Texas to interview this remarkable man. Through multiple visits, Glaubman witnessed a century of our history through Dawson’s eyes, discovering his real-life wisdom, his God-fearing philosophy, his patience and respect for his fellow human beings. Dawson had kept his head down, endured what to most of us would be dramatic privations, stuck to his principles, and grew to became an example of dignity and integrity. When he died, at the ago of 103, he had become the poster boy for literacy. A middle school in Texas is named after him. The book is told mostly in his voice, but included bits of conversations he had with Glaubman during the writer’s many visits to Dawson’s modest home.
Ron Chernow’s Hamilton is a huge book in many ways, a mammoth tome, the product of enormous amounts of research, prodigious writing skills, a riveting narrative, and a sweeping embrace of issues facing the Founding Fathers that still challenge us today. The book is informed by Hamilton’s voluminous writings as aide-de-camp to George Washington in the Revolutionary War. He was the major writer of the Federalist Papers, Washington’s first Treasury Secretary, a prolific pamphleteer, and deep thinker about what the country should be and the kind of Constitution upon which our national values and aspirations should rest. Hamilton was a complicated character, the illegitimate son of a woman in the West Indies who died leaving him an orphan. His intellect, incisive and persuasive writing skills and mercantile interests helped to propel him to positions of increasing responsibility. He was a devoted public servant who accrued great power. Often maligned as a closet monarchist, he was a believer in a strong central government, leader of what would become the Federalist Party, creator of the federal banking system, and proponent of manufacturing as an economic driver. Despite the stature his hard work brought to him, his libido overwhelmed his common sense and an adulterous relationship made him vulnerable to blackmail. His piercing essays and news columns intensified clashes with his political opponents, especially Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, and the drama, at the end, led to his untimely demise. This is an amazing book, often hard to put down.
Eden Mine by S. M. Hulse is a riveting story set in Montana, land of mines, ragged mountains, gun advocates, neo-Nazis and anti-government haters. The reader is grabbed by the very first line: “My brother’s bomb explodes at 10:16 on a late April Sunday morning.” Twenty-something Jo comes to grips with the idea that her older brother, Samuel, is the terrorist. Their father had died in a coal mine collapse; their mother had been shot and killed by a drunken former boyfriend. In the incident, Jo, at ten years old, was paralyzed from the waist down while hiding in a closet from the abusive boyfriend. Samuel had beaten the perpetrator to death with a baseball bat. But Samuel, approaching 18 years, determined that he would raise his sister. But now, the government, to build a highway, is seizing the 40-acre farm belonging in their family for generations. Brother Samuel, who had a neo-Nazi tattoo on his arm and a swastika hanging over his bed, who raged against the government and the Jews, cared lovingly for Jo and found ways to sustain her life in a wheelchair. The bomb he set off in a rage ended up injuring several people, eventually costing the life of the ten-year-old child of a local pastor. Jo is a talented amateur artist who explores her own complicated emotions through the landscapes she paints. Through the month-long search for Samuel to bring him to justice are woven the themes of violence, poverty, faith, loss and forgiveness.
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is a story that has played out in the headlines for years, the desperate lives of those in Mexico and Central America who risk everything to enter the United States in hopes of a better life for themselves and their families. Lydia Perez owns a small bookshop in Acapulco, Mexico. Her husband, Sebastian, is a journalist covering the drug trade. Central to the story is his exposé of Javier Crespo Fuentes, a drug lord who cultivates a personal relationship with Lydia in her bookstore, presenting as handsome, polished, cultured and well read. He even writes poetry. Because of Sebastian’s work, Javier has the entire family (16 people) slaughtered at a birthday party for Lydia’s niece. Lydia and her eight-year-old son, Luca, are the sole survivors. They flee the ghastly murder scene and join others trying to escape the danger and brutality endemic to Mexico (or Guatemala or Honduras). The reader experiences visceral terror at the risks of riding atop cargo trains (El Bestia), the gut-wrenching fear that Javier’s cartel members will recognize and betray Lydia and Luca, guaranteeing them a sure death, the threat of thieves who steal their worldly possessions, the sexual predators, the Border Patrol and often- corrupt local police, and the perilous terrain they must cross under cover of darkness or scorching desert sun. While some critics and readers liken this book to Grapes of Wrath, others decry it as exploiting immigrants and relying on stereotypes. Others complain that Cummins got it wrong because she is white (her grandmother is Puerto Rican), as if you have to be someone or have experienced something yourself to write about it. If neither Lydia (as a middle class migrant) nor Javier (as a cultured goon) is typical, and even if the writing is not the quality of John Steinbeck’s, American Dirt is still a tense and compelling narrative about maternal love and the struggle to survive.