When you’re done reading James H. Barron’s new sweeping biography and political thriller, “The Greek Connection,” (shameless plug!) here are some other non-fiction possibilities for the last weeks of summer. Not everything has to be about Donald Trump!
The Yellow House by Sarah Broom is a memoir of a New Orleans writer, the youngest of 12 children in a family living in New Orleans East during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The book is about race, family loyalty, poverty, sense of place, self-identity and bureaucratic indifference to humanity. The yellow house, the family home, is several miles away from the French Quarter, the charming, colorful, lively area of New Orleans that tourists see. The dilapidated house sits near a highway in what is now an industrialized and crime-ridden neighborhood, dotted with junkyards and trailer parks. The children were sent off to school, well raised, but inside the house was a shambles. One of the 12 children was into drugs and crime to support his habit. The area was neglected even before Hurricane Katrina hit. The Water, as locals refer to the disaster, scattered the family across the country, never to be reunited.
Author Broom, whose father died when she was an infant, went to college, got a master’s in journalism at UC Berkeley, and a writing job at O Magazine. Former UN Ambassador Samantha Power encouraged her to spend a year in Burundi. She does that, taking writing jobs in various locations, eventually drawn back to New Orleans. Armed with new understanding of global truths about refugee populations, she returned home to live and work. By then, the yellow house was a vacant lot, her family scattered. Broom dives deeply into New Orleans’ bureaucratic inefficiency and indifference and returns to researching and recording her family’s history. And that is the message of the book. The romanticized version of tourist New Orleans exists on the backs of those whom the city fails to serve. People who are data points in studies of urban decay or refugees from wars or droughts are real people with homes that are central to their identities even after they are displaced. The book is a heavy trip, and Antoine’s, Galatoire’s and Brennan’s restaurants are not on the menu.
The Equivalents by Maggie Doherty tells the story of a group of bright and creative women in the first class of Fellows at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College, founded by Radcliffe President Mary Bunting. The program sought highly educated women, optimally with PhD’s, who had shown promise in their respective fields but were held back by societal constraints and family obligations typical of the 1950’s and 1960’s and were blocked from realizing their creative potential. The Institute would consider women without PhD’s if they had equivalent levels of accomplishment. Doherty focuses on five of those less-credentialed women who received fellowships–poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, portraitist Barbara Swan, sculptor Mariana Pinneda, and political writer Tillie Olsen—who called themselves “the Equivalents” They became friends, supported each other in their artistic and literary endeavors, and occasionally were competitors. The book speaks directly to anyone who, prior to the full thrust of the Women’s Movement, struggled to establish and nurture her unique capabilities against the backdrop of diaper changes, carpooling, obligatory dinner parties and mostly un-woke husbands. Through scores of interviews and reviews of unpublished papers and diaries, Doherty captures the essence and promise of the supportive community that enabled these women to learn and grow and accomplish much in artistic and literary spheres.
Stamped In 2016, Ibram Kendi, a leading scholar of race and discriminatory policy, won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for Stamped from the Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. This year, Jason Reynolds, a much-honored and prolific writer of books for young adults, collaborated with Kendi on what is being called a “remix” of that book, entitled Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You. The new book tracks the pervasive toxin of racial bias throughout our history, a venom able to poison every aspect of black lives. In contrast to Kendi’s other academic treatises, this book appeals to a younger cohort with computer-age attention spans. It is clearly written and can be a roadmap to many uncomfortable narratives about our country, including things we should have been taught but were not. Also portrayed are key individuals fighting racism and the highs and lows of movements to end discrimination in our laws and culture. Of particular interest are reminders of how words and symbols have been manipulated to signal black inferiority, the marginalization of black women, tensions between African-American assimilationists and anti-racists, and the media’s role in perpetuating mythology.
The Splendid and the Vile A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz shows why author Erik Larson (In the Garden of Beasts, Devil in the White City) is one of the most compelling non-fiction writers of our time. Going beyond the usual archival material, Larson uses a wealth of personal diaries and recently declassified intelligence reports to reveal how Winston Churchill consolidated power, oversaw World War II in a most granular way, and inspired the Brits to believe in themselves and withstand Hitler’s relentless bombing, night after night, for nine months. Woven into the political maneuvering and strategic planning are deep dives into Churchill’s humanity, his anxieties and foibles, his personal relationships with family, friends, advisors and colleagues.
Reprehensibly, Donald Trump has tried to compare his “leadership” in COVID-19 to Winston Churchill’s during the blitz. Spare us all!
Churchill’s dogged determination and eloquence transcend his eccentricities and, notwithstanding the post-war defeat of his Conservative Party, are repaid with the adoration of the Brits. They endured nights in air raid shelters, blackouts and bombings, the destruction of two million homes, leveling of industries, decimation of revered historical sites, gnawing hunger. A staggering 32,000 civilian deaths and 87,000 shattering injuries. Along with these “vile” events, Larson reflects on the “splendid,” the clear starry nights where moonlight illuminated German bombing targets, the beauties of the countryside when spring returned, the teas and trysts as humanity pushed forward. The Splendid and the Vile is a tribute to the British people, to its prime minister and to Erik Larson’s brilliance as a voice of history.
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