Tag Archives: nonfiction

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein

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The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein

Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.

****

I was probably over 40 years old when I heard a passing reference at a Library conference to red-lining, and that American GIs of color were prohibited from access perks of the GI bill. The focus of The Color of Law is how local, state and federal regulations kept Black populations in a slavery state and maintained neighborhood school segregation even after the end of the Civil War and passing of constitutional amendments. Community planning, passing of the Fair Housing Act, and the civil rights movement has done little to alleviate the situation and Rothstein’s argument is that amends are way overdue.

The audio, narrated by the Adam Grupper, moves at a good pace and is a gripping account. Rothstein’s book is clear, packed with examples, and might make for dense reading for some. Hint: read the introductory and concluding paragraphs of each chapter for the overview.

Fly Girl by Ann Hood

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Fly Girl by Ann Hood

Hood, Ann. Fly Girl. W.W. Norton & Company, 2022. 288 pp. ISBN 978-1324006237 $26.95
***

You’ll never forget your first (flight). It was 1986. My dad and brother got to come all the way to gate to see us off, and my mom and I flew to Ohio from Boston’s Logan International Airport over April vacation when I was in sixth grade (I missed a Girl Scout field trip to Martha’s Vineyard to go). I had a bag of second-hand books to read, we were seating the smoking section to accomodate my mother’s vice, and I got to peek in the cockpit before getting pinned with a pair of gold plastic wings. I immediately wanted to be a stewardess when I grew up. Since then, I’ve flown countless times in the contintental US and Canada, on standby for free courtesy of a friend who worked for Delta and always make a point to park and go when I’m picking someone up. Post 9/11, you can’t go all the way to the gate anymore without special permission, but I think it’s nice to see a friendly face waiting as close to the arrivals gate as allowed.

I’ve been a fan of Hood since I heard her keynote at a MA Library Association conference luncheon, which lead me to her book Comfort (about the loss of her five-year-old daughter quite unexpectedly to a virulent case of strep), and then on to read two of her historical novels, The Italian Wife and The Obituary Writer. In her new memoir Fly Girl, she details her coming of age as a young flight attendant for TWA in the golden age of aviation from the glamour: exotic destinations! handsome strangers! the chateaubriand and made to order sundaes in first class! brushes with celebrity! to the gritty: the sexism! the strikes! the passenger who OD’d in the restroom! the men who one after another followed a “colleague” into a restroom for their turn to join the mile-high club.

Eye-opening for present day travelers, Hood recalls the grueling job application process (more like a casting call), the weigh-ins, and the write-up for not wearing lipstick; the expectation that the average stewardess would find a husband in less than a year and a half;

More compelling is the grave reminder that flight attendees are highly trained to act in an emergency, highly skilled at negotiating tense situations, and there to serve as first responders, FIRST–and THEN as the people who kindly bring a beverage or airsick bag.

Buckle your seatbelts: while this tell-all tastefully refrains from mentioning specific names or flights, it is a bumpy ride through a few short years. The air travel becomes fodder for not only her writing (drafts were penned from a jumpseat on flights) but her knitting (which other novels center around), and art imitates life as a character in the Obituary Writer was a flight attendant for a short time before meeting her husband. This is a compelling story but could have used with slightly stronger editing. Told mostly chronologically, I would have loved even more detail about places, people and food; some details are redundant. Still, this is a strong addition to library collections; recommend alongside popular pilot podcasts (my favorite is 74 Gear) and flight attendant podcasts (my favorite is Fly With Stella).

I checked Fly Girl out of my local library.

Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness by Kristen Radtke

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Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness by Kristen Radtke

Radtke, Kristen. Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness. Pantheon, 2021. ISBN 978-1524748067 352 pp. $30

*****

Seek You is a masterful narrative of a lifetime of loneliness that is compared to a kind of condition that goes in and out of remission, and it’s a wonderful metaphor.

Part memoir, part history, Radtke examines loneliness through biology, sociology, psychology, art and pop culture, citing a number of studies, articles and books that document and examine our longing to connect, and why it’s so difficult. The prose is poetic if detached as she details hideous science experiments, gun violence, chat room lechers, depression, and abuse.

About a third of the way through, Radkte likens loneliness to being underwater: the weight of a sinking body, the inability to move with ease, the muted sounds… and the series of drawings that follow are poetic in their composition and pacing, culminating in a wave that washes everything away for the next chapter. It’s quite brilliant and arresting.

Fitting the theme of the book, the palate is predominantly blacks and blues, grey, purple and lavender that even on white backgrounds and with pops of mustard and salmon, feels murky and dark. The colors match the somber tone and steady march of the text.

The book is meticulously documented with a list of citations at the end.

The Emergency: A Year of Healing and Heartbreak In a Chicago ER by Thomas Fisher

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The Emergency: A Year of Healing and Heartbreak In a Chicago ER by Thomas Fisher

Fisher, Thomas. The Emergency: A Year of Healing and Heartbreak In a Chicago ER. One World, 2022. ISBN 978059323067 pp. $27

****

ER doc Tom Fisher intersperses his dispatches from a South Side Chicago ER during the pandemic with letters to patients, colleagues and family regarding issues around healthcare in America. A Black doctor who grew up in the community he serves, he uncovers many injustices in the system from inequitable treatment of VIP and uninsured patients to systemic racism to failure of treatment of medical issues that develop into untreated chronic then terminal illnesses.

The narrative is short, engaging and fast-paced with most unfamiliar medical terminology explained in context. The epistolary sections are long, dense, well-cited essays, connected to a real person (or composites) from the previous chapter’s shift narrative.

Dr. Fisher operates from a unique perspective, well-versed in not only medical practice, but also policy. The entire book represents a bleak outlook when his own mother can’t get fast-tracked and is one of the many Black patients sent home undiagnosed and in pain; hopefully, this will have some impact with owners, insurers, investors and other key stakeholders to make real, much-needed change.

I received an advance reader’s review copy of #TheEmergency via #NetGalley.

The French Laundry Per Se by Thomas Keller

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The French Laundry Per Se by Thomas Keller

Keller, Thomas. The French Laundry Per Se. Artisan, 2020. ISBN 978-1579658496 400 pp. $75.00

****

Award winning Chef Thomas Keller’s latest book is part history, part philosophy, and over 100 recipes from the French Laundry (historically one of the best restaurants in America, with it’s whimsical, refined, carefully crafted modern cuisine) and Per Se (it’s sister restaurant in NYC, is no less exacting).

The dishes in this lavishly illustrated coffee-table sized cookbook are intended for recreation by home chefs–or at least, home chefs who are fine dining devotees, have watched Food Network for ten+ years, own a sieve, and have the time, budget and equipment to devote to multistep recipes. The volume does recognize not everyone cooks en sous vide at home or owns a $400 hot/cold blender, and offers substitutions, alternatives, and scheduling help.

Each dish is a work of art, and the food photography is gorgeous. I doubt I will attempt to make a single thing, but I loving reading the thoughtful essays, reading through the recipes, and eating with my eyes.

The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History by Jason Vuic

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The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History by Jason Vuic

Vuic, Jason. The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History. Hill and Wang, 2010. ISBN 978-0809098910 272 pp. $

***

What’s the difference between a Yugo and a golf ball?

You can drive a golf ball more than 200 yards.

In addition to being a biography of the little car that couldn’t, The Yugo is also a book in how not to run a business, and a buyer beware message for consumers. The excellent introduction hooks the reader in by talking about ways the Yugo is an icon for it’s badness, and comparing it to several other “worst” cars. I didn’t feel the other chapters I read had the same sensational storytelling – maybe there were too many names, facts and figures?

I struggled, three times to get to the 50 page mark, and I’m not sure what the block for me is. It got rave reviews on Amazon and high praise on the back cover blurbs. I love nonfiction. I hate to think I’m not a car girl – I’m married to a mechanic and car parts store manager who can tell make and model by a glimpse of the headlights on almost any vehicle.

Maybe then, it’s the business elements, or the historical elements. Vuic profiles several people responsible for getting the Yugo to American soil, beginning with immigrant Miroslav Kefurt in 1984, at the end of the cold War era. The narrative has a lot of background to put the Yugo and Kefurt’s business decision into context, including world history, world politics, the Olympics, import regulations, car production in Japan, and other “cheap” car successes and failures. ALL of that is crammed into chapter one.

Next, we are introduced to investor/entrepeneur Malcolm Bricklin, and his string of business ventures. Two and a half chapters later, he’s wined and dined Kefurt, buying the California distribution rights for Yugo for $50,000.

That’s as far as I can get. This title is boring me to tears! I appreciate Vuic’s research. The notes are impressive, he interviewed primary sources and got great quotes, and the index is excellent. He’s a decent writer and uses journalistic techniques to bring a human interest tone to the narrative, and fleshes out these businessmen who made terrible decisions. The cover is clever, and the format, with each chapter headed by a new joke about the Yugo, makes it fun. That said, the content, in spite of several attempts, isn’t engaging me or holding my attention.

The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To by D.C. Pierson 

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The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To by D.C. Pierson 

Pierson, D.C. The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To. Vintage, 2010. ISBN 978-0307474612 pp. $

****

“Authentic” is an excellent word for this coming of age story. I read to page 100 and was struck by a realization that I didn’t know the main character’s name until that point, and went back to the beginning before proceeding. I’m not sure if I missed it, but it added something to the story, that it hooked me in with the voice so well. It takes the invisibility to another plane.

The novel follows the high school experience of Darren, who wants to be an illustrator, and his friendship with fellow outsider Eric that leads to ultimately to betrayal. Eric claims to never sleep (experiments to prove this ensue). I particularly liked the one scene (don’t want to give away any spoilers) that showed another dimension of Darren’s crazed costumed ninja-y big brother (WOW was he a fun supporting character!).

I really enjoyed the details of Darren and Eric’s friendship, and here again was a place were a lot rang true, like Darren’s disbelief-to-acceptance cycle of the “sleepless” notion. Darren’s home life, mixing with the drama club kids, and Darren’s first relationship were also wonderfully rendered and portrayed.I liked that chapters were prefaced with a drawing from Darren’s notebooks, and I thought about how each one related to the forthcoming chapter.

I do feel like the pacing was a little uneven–there seemed to be a slow build to the plot elements for me, like going up a rollercoaster hill, and then things steamrolled – and then they came around a curve and took a left turn into a more surreal place. I’m not sure I loved the ending, but the conclusion sent me back to the beginning again, and I think the author did a brilliant job at building this illusion of where Darren is (literally and figuratively) at the beginning, and then has a nifty reveal at the end.

I’m wondering if the bits that were slow for me (the endless details of the comic book/movie franchise Darren and Eric are planning were a bit of a snooze) are for others. I will say that it was neat foreshadowing of the other ways that hapless Eric usurps Darren’s stuff.

If I was going to recommend The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To to a teen, I’d sell it as a Ned Vizzini read-a-like.

The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea by Philip Hoare

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The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea by Philip Hoare

Hoare, Philip. The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea. Ecco, 2010. ISBN 978-0061976216 464 pp. $

The Whale is a biography of the range of leviathans lived under our seas, engagingly and thoroughly written by whale enthusiast Hoare. In the Dickensian tradition, it begins with his boyhood fear of water and fascination with creatures of the deep that extends into adulthood and carries him through his first whale watch and beyond. In the first 50 pages alone, Hoare covers a whirlwind of history and biology, interspersed with literary allusions to Moby Dick, a source of inspiration. Hoare sets off to visit the places from Melville’s novel, and traces the natural and cultural history of the whale along the way.

The well written, award-winning narration is very long in tooth. While I enjoy the richness of the book, Hoare is a little redundant, and some readers will be quickly frustrated with the flowery tone and exaltations of this wondrous mammal (Hoare confesses to running out of adjectives). This is a solid choice for a graduation gift for your favorite aspiring marine biologist.

Clara’s War by Clara Kramer

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Clara’s War by Clara Kramer

Kramer, Clara. Clara’s War.

****

When the SS invaded on July 5, 1941 the Jews in Zolkiew felt lucky they has some wealth, an oil press business, and could ransom a bit for their lives, but still sensed the days were numbered. Clara Schwarz and her immediate family, along with two other families, escaped the ghetto and lived in an underground bunker over the Beck family’s home, hiding from the SS for nearly two years. Ordered by her mother to keep a written record, her diary, detailing day to life of a Jewish family in Poland during WWII is now on display at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. The book’s endpapers are decorated with an image of the blue penciled diary.

Clara’s story, as told to Stephen Gantz, is chronologically arranged, with each chapter prefaced by an excerpt from her diary, written between ages 15-17. The writing at the beginning of the story contains some nice turns of phrase (“his father … was on his heels, but only managed to catch his shadow” and “… I could make out the silhouettes of Zolkiew’s baroque church spires with their pregnant onion tops and golden domes…” ), but as the tale of love, loss and horror wears on, the writing becomes less distinguished. Many Yiddish words aren’t defined in context, the pacing is slow, and the introduction of the entire (large!) family at once over a few pages is a lot to keep track of; keeping characters straight is in part aided by a family tree. A map of the cramped living quarters is also included.

Certainly, the Holocaust was a terrible tragedy, and only by sharing these stories can we ensure history doesn’t repeat itself. Although the story is unique to the family, it’s not a unique concept for a book, and it pales in comparison to Anne Frank’s classic Diary of a Young Girl, and doesn’t compare in voice, language, or style. Purchase for larger collections.

Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen by Joe Drape

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Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen by Joe Drape

Joe Drape. Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen. Times, 2009. ISBN 978-0805088908 288 pp. $25

***

Reporter Joe Draper counts himself a Midwesterner even though he hasn’t lived there in 30 years. He returns from New York to his Kansas roots with his wife and 2 year son to chronicle the 2008 season of a highly acclaimed high school football team, with promised “complete access” from 31 year veteran coach, Roger Barta. The narrative dips into the geography, economy, and history of the team and Smith County with plenty of local color, and details training camp, student struggles to lead, and the challenges of this particularly slacker class of seniors who will be this season’s first stringers.

Gameday play-by-play is vivid and made exciting even to non-football fans, but it takes a long time to get to this action. I’m disappointed, because I think the story could have been told in a much more effective way (like reporter Dave Cullen’s Columbine maybe, where action and character building and research purposefully open each chapter and drive the chronological narrative of what happened on a specific date…).

Several players are highlighted, including team captains and other leaders, but even larger than life personalities are strangely flat, and don’t encourage empathy or connection. While I admire the ethics of team-building being more important than winning, this chronicle is probably a great book to offer to parents or educators because of its themes of growing upstanding citizens,