Sunday, October 23, 2016

Mullen's Darktown Tells of a Dark Time

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Whenever I'm getting ready to fly I want to make sure that I have a book that will grab me and hold my attention for several hours. Such a novel accompanied me home to Florida from Baltimore last week. "Darktown," by Thomas Mullen was one of the most talked about books at Book Expo in Chicago in May and it lives up to the hype.

Based upon the true story of the first black police force in Atlanta, Georgia, in the late 1940's, this book has been billed as a police procedural but it is much more than that. In fact, the central murder mystery is probably pretty easy for those of us who thrive on thrillers to solve, but it is the historically accurate tale of the eight officers and how they had to operate with both hands tied behind their backs that is at the crux of this novel.

Begun as an experiment and a quid pro quo between black leaders of Atlanta and then mayor William Hartsfield, the first black officers were brought on board amid threats and intimidation from white officers, many of whom were still not- so-covert members of the Klan, and were hell-bent on seeing that these fellow police officers would not be successful, or even live to tell their stories.

Partners Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith patrol the Auburn Avenue neighborhood on foot, black officers are not allowed to drive police cars, where they are distrusted by their own black neighbors as sell-outs. They are only allowed to intercede when the crime is black on black. They do not have jurisdiction to arrest whites, a fact that diminishes respect and authority to the point where they feel emasculated.

When they see a white man, obviously drunk driving in their neighborhood, (he's knocked over a street lamp), they stop him and request license and registration. The man's disdain for the officers is painful even to read. The fact that he has a terrified young black female passenger sporting a bruise on her face, is ominous. Boggs and Smith are required to call in white officers to handle what should obviously be an arrest, but when the most terrifyingly racist officer, Dunlow, arrives on scene, we know that nothing will happen.

A few days later, that same young woman's body shows up, abandoned on a garbage dump, with a bullet hole through her chest, setting in motion an investigation. Hampered by the double standards of the time, a black body is of little interest to the Atlanta police department, and black officers are not allowed to work out of police headquarters with their peers, or even have access to reports, Boggs and Smith pursue leads on the sly putting themselves at even greater risk than usual.

Mullen does an excellent job with characterization, delving into the motivations of officers like Lucius, son of a well-connected local minister, who could have made a safer career choice. He also addresses the nuanced ways in which a new batch of more educated, younger white officers, evidenced by Dunlow's new partner, Rakestraw, abhor the violent, racist, old ways of policing, while being fearful of showing too much solidarity with the black officers.

This is a solid piece of historical fiction tied up with a murder mystery. It is also a terrific work of social commentary that will leave readers wondering just how far our police departments have actually come on that long road to equal justice under the law. 


Friday, October 14, 2016

A Respite from the Darkness with Jenny Colgan

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If you are reading this blog then it's a safe bet that you might resemble Nina Redmond, Jenny Colgan's delightful heroine, who blatantly admits she prefers books to people. Haven't we all felt that way sometimes? Especially lately?

Nina is a librarian whose forte is matching patrons with the perfect book. She loves her work, but as those of us in the business have already learned, the times they are a changin'. In Birmingham, England, funds are dwindling and libraries are forced to reinvent themselves. You know the terms... maker spaces, community centers, digital labs. Books? Well, they no longer fit into the equation.

Staff members are let go but told that they may reapply for their jobs IF they are willing to wear the new hats required of them. Nina tries, but she just can't stop herself from rhapsodizing about books during her interview. Wrong move.

Yes, this novel is a romantic comedy, perhaps a little too heartfelt for some tastes, but every now and then don't we all just need a book that makes us feel that all's right with the world? I know that I do. (Thank you Alexander McCall Smith!) I thoroughly enjoyed watching Nina stretch a bit, move out of her comfort zone, and stand on her own two feet, all the while turning a life-long dream into reality.

"The Bookshop on the Corner," is actually a refurbished van, one that Nina travels all the way to the wilds of Scotland to purchase. We watch as she slowly falls in love with the people and the quiet of the countryside, such a far cry from the chaos of downtown Birmingham. With the aid of her plucky roommate, Nina ships cartons of books by train, managing to fall for one of the conductors in the process, to the Highlands, where she meets a wonderful cast of characters while operating her traveling bookstore.

Colgan has a great sense of humor, offering some laugh-out-loud moments that librarians and booklovers will especially relate to. She'll also make you want to book a trip to Scotland asap, a country she obviously loves and where she apparently makes her own home. If you're looking for a break from the ugly reality of the news of the day, Jenny Colgan should be your go-to woman. Reading her will give a boost to your feel-good pheromones!

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing

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Oh how I wish I had arrived at the National Book Festival in time to hear Yaa Gyasi speak with the audience about the impetus for this absolutely phenomenal debut novel. It's been called, and truly is, breathtaking. I am calling it a modern day "Roots," and I suspect that the incredible story Gyasi shares is as much about her own familial line as Alex Haley's was about his.

Ms. Gyasi was born in Ghana but left for America by the age of three. She says that she had no real feelings toward that country until a visit in 2009 when she was a student at Stanford. She returned and toured the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is one of the settings for her novel. Cape Coast Castle has a long history dating back to the Swedes and then the Danes, but Gyasi begins her novel when the British made it their headquarters for the slave trade in the 1800's.

Two major tribes, the Asante and the Fante, competed to do business with the English, sadly selling their own people into slavery. Thousands of enslaved people were held in the dungeons of the Cape Coast Castle prior to being shipped  through the door of no return to the United States. What readers may not know is that African women were often married to British soldiers in exchange for gold or cloth. They lived in relative luxury on the upper floors of the castle while their fellow tribeswomen were enslaved in the basement.

Gyasi took this fact and built a historically accurate, multi-generational novel around Effia and Esi, half sisters unaware of each other's existence, who find themselves in this very situation. Through an act of trickery, Effia's step-mother arranges a marriage between her Fante daughter and a white castle officer, James Collins. In another bit of treachery, a raid on an Asante village results in Esi being captured and enslaved in the Cape Coast dungeon. Gyasi follows their lives and that of their progeny through two hundred years of deep, abiding love, and horrific, unspeakable loss.

Each emotionally resonant chapter gives voice to a new member of these women's lineage, toggling back and forth between those who remained in Africa and those who moved from plantations in the south, through emancipation, and the great migration to New York and Chicago.

Gyasi illuminates life in Africa for her readers, the tribal culture that honors its elderly yet succumbs to dangerous, hurtful superstitions, the village that cares for each member yet has trouble accepting those with lighter skin. At the same time we see the United States with its shameful history. We watch as a young woman, Marjorie, much like Ms. Gyasi, tries to fathom the difference between being African in this country and being African American.

Nominated by author Ta-Nehisi Coates for the National Book Foundation's Five Under Thirty-five honor, Ms. Gyasi has a bright future ahead of her. I would be shocked if her novel isn't optioned for film, but it's more of her writing I hope to see. "Homegoing" will be a hard act to follow.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Hidden Figures, Out in the Open at Last

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 There's nothing like an absorbing audio book to take the stress out of a long trip, and when it's a fascinating piece of history, deftly written and perfectly narrated, then you know you've hit gold. I can't recommend this book enough.
"Hidden Figures, the American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped America Win the Space Race," by Margot Lee Shetterly, read by Robin Miles, has only been out for two weeks and it's already on everybody's radar. Suddenly a once obscure name, Katherine Goble Johnson, is becoming a household word. And it's about time.
Physicist Katherine Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year at the White House. She was a precocious student, graduating from high school at the age of fourteen and moving right on to the freshman class at West Virginia State. What she went through to get her education though, was a travesty. Back in the '30's, Jim Crow was firmly ensconced in West Virginia. Since the black students weren't allowed to be educated in white schools, her parents had to separate, living 125 miles apart during the week, so that Katherine and her siblings could move beyond the 8th grade.
Katherine was not alone. There was Dorothy Vaughan, Miriam Mann, Christine Darden, Mary Jackson, and a host of other women, juggling marriages and children, who broke both gender and racial barriers. Shetterly masterfully delves into the early lives of each of the main characters, women who, without fanfare, worked with numbers at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, in the 1940's.
 They were called "computers," a disconcertingly neutral title that takes a while to adjust to if you're listening to the book. These women, white and black, were the Rosie the Riveters of the scientific community at NACA, a precursor to what we now call NASA. When first hired they assumed they would only be working until the "boys" came home from the war. How they made themselves indispensable, staying the course through the first manned space flight and the moon landing, is a tale of brilliance and fortitude.
Shetterly must especially be congratulated for writing about the most complex mathematical calculations, whether involved in testing jet engines or plotting the trajectory of a rocket's return to earth, in a way that even the most math-challenged readers will find appealing. And while she doesn't shy away from the incidents of racial prejudice that plagued the "computers," (they handled them with aplomb), she speaks equally to the gender prejudice that women in the sciences had to deal with. In fact, many of the Langley women generously mentored a new generation of female scientists through scouting and sorority work.
In January a film will be released based upon Shetterly's book and I'll admit that I'm looking forward to it with trepidation. "Hidden Figures" is a scholarly, deeply researched, historical record of importance. I watched the trailer for the film and worried that, with Octavia Spencer in the leading role as Dorothy Vaughan, she might play it for laughs rather than for the respectfulness it deserves.
 My advice, read the book first. Then, if the movie doesn't live up to expectations, you can revel in being one of those snobs who opines that "the movie NEVER measures up to the book."

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

James McBride at National Book Festival

I've now seen James McBride three times and I never tire of him. When he's in front of the audience he seems to blossom under the warm vibes he draws from the crowd. I actually had little interest in McBride's latest book, nor in the subject of the book, the transformative singer James Brown. I understood that his music changed the way musicians thought about notes and chords, but I guess I just didn't want to delve into Brown's very messy life.
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McBride may have changed my mind. "Kill 'em and Leave," the author informs us, is not a biography, but rather a journey of discovery. I really appreciated the way McBride made this distinction. He was more interested in the historical times that informed James Brown's life, that made him the man he was. Along the way McBride developed some righteous indignation.
From a family of sharecroppers who were displaced by General Electric and Dupont way back in 1951, Brown rose to the heights of fame and fortune. A fortune, by the way, that he specified in his will was to go to educating poor children in the states of South Carolina and Georgia. Ten years later, not a dime has gone for this worthy enterprise and McBride has nothing but contempt for the lawyers in both states who have milked funds from the estate without settling it as Brown wished it.
McBride's long career as a jazz musician came in handy when he attempted to describe for the audience the way that Brown changed rock and roll forever. Using the mic and the podium to puff and bump out notes with emphasis on various beats, he handily illustrated Brown's rhythmic changes and drew appreciate laughs and nods at the same time.
Not as circumspect as Richard Russo, McBride referred to Brown's life as a "metaphor for how we handle race in America," going on to riff about the current state of politics and the horrible thought of the possibility of a Trump presidency. I'll wager he did NOT alienate half of his audience!
My only regret was that I had to miss Jacqueline Woodson whose presentation overlapped with McBride's. In my defense, when I was speaking with her earlier in the day, she told me not to miss McBride. How generous is that? I went right downstairs to Politics and Prose and bought "Another Brooklyn," and will review it here soon.