Black Bottom Saints

September 15th, 2020

By Alice Randall

The Short Take:

This is one of the best books I have read in years. Fact and fiction combine to tell the stories of 52 “saints” associated with Detroit’s famed Black Bottom neighborhood, a wellspring for talent and creativity from the 1920s through the 1940s. The writing is brilliant and I learned so much–not just about these 52 individuals–but about being Black in America

Why?

The book is patterned after Catholic books of the saints, with the story of a different saint presented for 52 weeks. The narrator is Ziggy Johnson, who is writing the book from his deathbed. Ziggy Johnson is a genuine historic person who founded a school of theater and dance that not only nurtured talent but taught young Black girls to go out in the world and achieve. Other saints include such famous people as Joe Louis and Dinah Washington but you’ll also find a raft of people you’ve never heard of or barely recall. I finally quit looking up his saints right away and made a list–all that googling took me out of the reading moment.

I learned about Tanya Blanding, a four-year-old cowering under her table during the Detroit riots who was fatally shot by a National Guardsman. I learned about the drag balls of Alfred Finnie, the sculptures of Artis Lane, and the achievements of Bayard Rustin who played key roles in the Civil Rights movement but was sidelined because he was gay.

But the most important thing I learned was how Black entertainers, athletes, and others turned “trauma into transcendence,” overcoming the pain of slavery and Jim Crow to bring their beauty and magic to the world.

Alongside the stories of Ziggy’s saints is the story of Colored Girl, who is clearly a stand-in for author Alice Randall with only some details changed. Her complicated relationship with her mother, who stole her away from an adored father and Ziggy’s godfathering, is her trauma to transcend.

Through her creation of this book she brings the power and perseverance of Black lives to the forefront. Some told her others would steal what she possessed. She replied, “Black girl magic can’t stolen but can be given.”

Alice Randall has gifted the world with a sublime volume of exceptional inspiration and understanding. It is as close as you can get to divine.

A Little Plot:

There really isn’t a plot, though CG’s story is fairly linear and the stories of the saints have their connections, as you would expect in a tight neighborhood like Black Bottom. Each saint’s story also comes with a cocktail recipe that evokes that individuals unique spirit. And, no, I did not try them all.

For more about Alice Randall and her books click here. BTW her website is more interesting than those of most writers.

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Make Russia Great Again

September 1st, 2020

By Christopher Buckley

The Short Take:

When it comes to political satire, Buckley is one of the best. However, it’s hard to laugh at a book that is so close to our messed up reality. It’s almost depressing.

Why:

This is from the author’s notes: Any person finding any resemblance between themselves and person depicted herein should probably be ashamed. True enough. Buckley’s fictional Trump is so well portrayed you hear the real man’s voice while reading. He has also captured his imaginary administration’s revolving door as well as the sycophant senators and other “courtiers.”

But is it funny? The writing is as witty and caustic as ever (I’ve read many of his books) however the subject matter hits too close to what we’re living through. Actually, it’s a lot saner since it only focuses on Trump and Putin’s relationship and the reasons behind it and ignores the many sideshows and even main events (that virus is mentioned in passing once early on and feels like a last minute addition).

An autonomous computer that rigs elections, a Russian oligarch willing to blackmail to get his frozen assets back, sleazy events at a Miss Universe pageant, and other inventions all work hard to prop up the humor. But ultimately it is the fictional Trump that stops everything in its tracks. There’s simply no humor to be found there.

And the ending is almost believable, which is exceptionally depressing.

A Little Plot:

Long time Trump employee Herbert Nutterman is asked by his former boss to come to the White House as his Chief of Staff, even though the man has no government or political experience. But Nutterman is loyal, and that’s what matters. So loyal we learn on page one he is in jail and the book he’s writing describes how he wound up there.

For more about Buckley and his books click here. By the way, my personal favorites are Little Green Men and Thank You for Smoking.

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The Guest List

August 16th, 2020

By Lucy Foley

The Short Take:

Foley took a clever approach to an Agatha Christie type murder, told from five points of view. The identify of both the victim and the murderer remained uncertain until close to the end. That was different.

Why?

I get cranky about books that jump around in time and Foley did exactly that. But it worked for her narrative. Her book started with what might be a murder at a wedding and then jumped back to early the day before. It kept up that back-and-forth, ever so slowly progressing to the discovery of a corpse while also advancing through the previous 30 or so hours.

Foley did this to keep the identity of the victim secret for as long as possible, while offering readers possible motivations from her five narrators: the bride, the plus one, the wedding planner, the bridesmaid, and the best man. This added a certain element of fun, as well as tension, to her story.

It’s not the best mystery ever but it was a nice diversion. However you had to overlooks some flaws. I was totally distracted by torches that turned into flashlights and then became torches again (not confusing word choices as the torches flickered/blew out, but not the flashlights). Also the island setting featured sudden cliffs, a rip tide, and quicksand-like bogs. Yet the wedding planner–repeatedly described as professional–had done nothing to keep drunk wedding guests from wandering into these death traps.

The characters weren’t very likable, but since one of them would be murdered and another one would do the killing, that makes sense. It was a fun read that kept me turning pages but not something I would return to.

A Little Plot:

Rich and beautiful Jules is set to marry a handsome TV star on a remote Irish island. All guests will be brought over by boat, with the wedding party coming a day early and staying overnight in a beautifully restored Folly that resembles a small castle. Storms aplenty brew–both between the the guests and in the weather.

Lucy Foley doesn’t appear to have a website but she does have a Facebook page if you care to check it out.

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Crooked Hallelujah

August 6th, 2020

By Kelli Jo Ford

The Short Take:

Ford’s highly readable book explores the relationships of four generations of Cherokee and mixed race women. Their lives are not shaped by their heritage but by struggles with poverty, unfortunate choices in men, and the demands of a suppressive “Holy Roller” religion.

Why?

The complex relationships between mothers and daughter provide ample fodder for novels. What sets this book apart is the fierce love that exists, though that love is not always expressed in loving ways.

The book feels more like a series of short stories, with its multiple points of view and occasional overlapping narratives. However, it presents a cohesive story of women who can’t afford to make bad choices yet do so anyway. The main two characters are in constant motion between Oklahoma’s Cherokee Nation and northern Texas yet they can’t seem to break out of the exhausting cycle of their lives. Or fully abandon that conservative faith.

By and large the men are missing, useless, or domineering. The dominance emanates from the pastor of a highly conservative church that sees everything except prayer as a doorway to sin and hell. The community of that church stands united against everyday matters such as revealing legs to play basketball or wanting to visit Six Flags.

The main characters each have the strength to resist what others want of them but that strength repeatedly pulls them apart then slams them together.

It’s written simply yet with rich details, and without judgement on the part of the author. You find your own way into the heart and soul of these women, particularly Justine and her daughter Reney. Ford gives you a lot to think about but never preaches or pushes you in any direction. That’s something to appreciate.

For more about the author click here.

A Little Plot:

Teenage Justine is frustrated with the many restrictions placed on her by the faith of her mother and grandmother. She has small rebellions, like hiding a Rolling Stone magazine under her mattress. Then she sneaks out one night to see a boy.

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The City We Became

July 25th, 2020

By N. K. Jemisin

The Short Take:

After reading Jemisin’s “The Broken Earth” science fiction trilogy (all Hugo Award winners) I could not resist starting her new one. This time the action takes place in New York City and the heroes are people of color (mainly women) who rise up to protect the city–and their respective boroughs– from destruction by another universe.

Why?

First of all–no worries–the story in this volume has a satisfactory conclusion followed by a simple set up for the premise of the second book. You don’t have to commit to all three books to enjoy this one fully. And it is enjoyable.

You can read the whole book as a metaphor for our times, or at least a wishful metaphor. People who don’t have natural trust in each other come together to fight a greater evil–a power that is trying to destroy their city. There’s a human avatar each for money-conscious, savvy Manhattan, gentrified Brooklyn, working-to-succeed Queens, and hard-nosed Bronx. There’s also a frightened avatar for Staten Island–a borough overlooked with unfortunate consequences.

The respective boroughs each provide strength and power to their chosen avatars, though the avatars have to figure this out for themselves. There is also an avatar for all of New York City but no one knows who or where. The enemy is just as anxious to find and kill this one as the others are to save and support.

Jemisin celebrates New York in all its diversity, creativity, and history. Her characters treasure that which provides character and color to their communities. It’s no accident that Starbucks “belongs” to the soulless enemy. Authenticity is key to a city’s soul, and chain operations offer none of that.

It’s a rich and rewarding book. One of my short reviews here doesn’t do it justice.

A Little Plot:

A attractive man of ambiguous ethnicity gets off the train in New York City to start a new life. However, he has visions of another city layered upon the one he is walking through. Then he realizes he has forgotten his name, his family. He is becoming something new, but does not know what, why, or how.

Soon he’ll meet another who can offer him some guidance, but not before he faces the enemy alone.

For more about Jemisin and her work, click here.

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Death in Her Hands

July 17th, 2020

By Ottessa Moshfech

The Short Take:

The words I saw associate with this book were mystery, suspense, horror. The author has many awards to her credit. What I read was the unraveling of an elderly woman who had a tortured life and is wrapped in loneliness. Oh joy.

Why?

Obviously this book was not my cup of tea but it was certainly interesting. Vesta Gul finds a note in the woods: “Her name was Magda. No one will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” But there is no body.

Living in a remote cabin with only her dog, Vesta has no personal relationships of any kind. Her imagination is unoccupied (she often refers to the state of her mindspace) so she fills it with her invented story about this Magda: her family situation, her friends, her possible murderer, everything. Vesta eventually determines to learn more facts about Magda, but a minor search effort on the library’s internet provides no information, only additional inspiration for her fantasies.

To call Vesta an unreliable narrator is a vast understatement. Over the course of the book you learn her marriage is not as she–at first–presents it. Eventually you begin to doubt things she experiences in the real world. Are they real? They certainly don’t make sense.

Maybe I would have liked this book a bit more if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic, where everyone is suffering from increased loneliness. The writing is solid and it certainly gave me plenty to think about, but they are not thoughts I wanted to have.

A Little Plot:

I’ve pretty much done this above. So go back and read it again if you wish.

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The Prince, The Showgirl and Me

July 8th, 2020

By Colin Clark

The Short Take:

Clark’s observations of his experiences on the set of the movie starring Lawrence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe are fascinating as well as bitingly funny. His diary entries cover six months in 1956 but he didn’t publish the work until 1996. It might be old but it still delights.

Why?

It’s always interesting to read unvarnished opinions about real events. What makes Clark’s diary particularly interesting is his ability to look at people and their behavior from different perspectives. His viewpoints are fluid, adapting to new information.

His eagerness to please, high ambition, and youth shape the content. However, it is his bright, gossipy writing style that makes this book so much fun to read. Clark knew how to dish, but not in a nasty way. His empathy is on clear display. He even writes at the end about where they all (the Brits) went wrong.

Of course, there’s a lot of information about the process of making a movie. While the technology has evolved dramatically that process is still largely the same. The behind-the-scenes look this diary provides will make you appreciate how hard an actor’s job is.

A Little Plot:

Olivier and Monroe are set to film The Prince and the Showgirl. Right before production begins she marries Arthur Miller, who comes along. She also brings a clingy drama coach and a reputation for being very difficult. Then she proceeds to live up to it.

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The Splendid and the Vile

June 24th, 2020

By Erik Larson

The Short Take:

Larson penned a fascinating portrait of the first year Winston Churchill served as Prime Minister. It focused on him, his family, the people he worked with, and the true grit Great Britain showed when they stood alone against Germany.

Why?

I do not care for military histories but greatly admire the accessible non-fiction works of Larson, which focus on people instead of battles. At first I thought it was strange to include only a single year, but the events that both opened and closed the period from May 10, 1040 to May 10, 1941, made that choice a wise one.

I learned so much I knew nothing about, such as Mass Observation, a project where regular people recorded their emotional reactions to breaking events along with how others felt. I had never heard of Hess’s strange flight, or Churchill’s odd sartorial choices like silk robes or a light blue onesie.

Of course, Churchill was known for his oratory, but it was thrilling to read his words in context; to understand how he had the ability to present people with terrible news yet still leave them hopeful and even encouraged. He was a champion who could not envision defeat (and also could not accept that the USA wouldn’t help).

I also greatly enjoyed the inclusion of entries from the diaries of Goring and Goebbels. Their flat out disbelief that Winston’s government would not cave to them like every other country they had invaded was almost amusing now that we are so many decades removed.

Most important, Larson’s writing was so approachable it almost read like a novel. This might be why he stated upfront that every word in quotes was actually said or written. This is a history. And it is fierce, frustrating, and alive.

A Little Plot:

On the day Germany overthrows the governments of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, British PM Neville Chamberlain recommends to the king that Churchill be named his replacement. King George had his doubts but did as asked. That was the beginning of Great Britain’s darkest year, when over 45,000 died at home. Churchill was the man who kept hope alive.

For more about Larson and his work click here.

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The Talented Mr. Ripley

June 16th, 2020

By Patricia Highsmith

The Short Take:

Over half a century old, this psychological thriller is unlike any other. Set largely in sun-drenched, languid Italy the frantic workings of Tom Ripley’s mind bring strife and death where least expected.

Why?

The plot of this book is very noir, however its setting, humor, and characters are anything but. Tom Ripley comes to Italy on a mission but soon his motivations change. A true sociopath, he carefully watches others, looking for any sign they might turn against him so he can act first.

He’s a young man in the company of two other young people: Marge, an aspiring poet, and the would-be artist Dickie, the object of Tom’s mission. Their days are awash in sun, martinis, boating trips, and pleasure. But Tom wants more — more of Dickie’s attention, more of Dickie’s lifestyle. So he begins to reinvent himself.

Highsmith keeps you on Tom’s side even as your horror at his actions grow. He’s a new kind of American dreamer–amoral, smart, ruthless. I could not imagine how this book would end. And the ending really surprised me. I’ll be reading more Highsmith in the future.

A Little Plot:

Tom is contacted by Dickie’s father, who is will to pay for Tom to go to Italy to convince his son to return to America. Tom readily agrees, but when he find his mission will not succeed, his plans change.

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The Mirror and the Light

May 21st, 2020

By Hilary Mantel

The Short Take: I loved Mantel’s first two historical fiction books about Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) but had a much harder time enjoying this one.

Why?

As usual, Mantel’s prose impressed, her portrayal of Tudor England made it come alive (I particularly liked the meal descriptions), and Thomas Cromwell continued to be a complex, fascinating character. However, I knew what lay in store for Henry VIII’s most valued councilor and that knowledge had me pushing this book aside.

The lowly born Cromwell was hated by the English nobility. His king, who he served loyally, was capricious and often in pain due to a wounded let that wouldn’t heal. Surrounded by enemies, both domestic and abroad, he worked tirelessly for his country yet was often suspected of collusion with other realms. To counter this he maintained a wide network of spies and was careful with every word and move.

Mantel’s Cromwell seemed to anticipate his end, even as he rose in power and position. He often reflected on his youth and wondered what kind of man he was–like his father or more just.

He cared deeply about the religious reformations that then swept through Europe. Often accused of being a Lutheran, he indeed had secret sympathies in the direction. That commitment to his faith lay behind much of his activities.

There’s a lot to this man, but this volume felt overly long. The “action” seemed in the background while Cromwell’s reflections took center stage. Don’t get me wrong–I enjoyed the book (except the inevitable end), but it could have been a tighter read.

A Little Plot:

With Anne Boleyn newly executed, Thomas Cromwell feared Henry VIII would do the same to his daughter, Mary, who might be involved in plots against him. Cromwell’s protection of the girl alarmed some, irritated others, and put him in danger. But he persisted.

For more about Hilary Mantel and her books, click here.

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