Bookshelf – Generation Loss, Elizabeth Hand (2007)

There’s not much to like about Cass Neary, the New York photographer who anchors this intriguing, uneven, but ultimately entertaining mystery of artistic crime. If she’s awake, she’s lying. When you’re not looking, she’s stealing. Her anger is always on the prowl, seeking any whiff of a slight. She is high much of the time and when she’s not, she’s drunk. “I have,” she says, “as many words for ‘hangover’ as an Inuit has for snow.”

Cass was a star at age 20, famous for photographing the human detritus of the city’s punk era: needles in arms, semi-public sex, and young bodies, dead from ODs on the streets. Three years later, her fame is flamed out. Emotionally cauterized by a rape, doped into stagnation, she can’t make pictures anymore. And when she does try, she is told her images are both passé and overly violent.

“It’s too raw,” a gallery rep says. “It’s too much like being right inside someone’s head.”

“It is inside someone’s head,” Cass answers. “It’s the inside of my head.”

Rejected and angered, Cass retreats. Two decades later she remains sheltered — working in a bookstore stockroom, hiding out from everything but her rage – when an opportunity arrives via an old friend: a magazine assignment to interview and photograph a reclusive photographer, Aphrodite Kamestros, who published two books of dark, haunting images and then disappeared to an island off the coast of Maine. Cass is reluctant, but takes the job because Aphrodite’s work was a guiding spirit of Cass’s own.

From this point on Cass steps through the looking glass into a world where nothing is what, or who, it seems to be. Contrary to the Maine farmer’s oft-quoted quip, “you can’t get there from here,” in Cass’s version of Maine you can definitely get there, but you probably shouldn’t go.

Heavy with colorful dialog, the story sprints through an obstacle course of missing persons, aging hippies, clannish townsfolk, and artists in the clutch of malevolent muses. With a few exceptions, it’s all fun stuff.

“Generation Loss” has pretensions of being more than just a mystery – and it fulfills some of them when it describes the magic of seeing and making photographs (especially with film) – but it works just fine as a somewhat edgy, somewhat quirky whodunit.

Bookshelf – The Gathering, Anne Enright

Some people carry so much drag and ache and dread that they cannot separate the weight from themselves. They are what they suffer.

The fate of these tormented beings, thinks Veronica Hegarty as she laments the death of her brother, Liam, older by only eleven months and drowned by his own hand in the cold of the English Channel, is imprinted in their bones.

“History is biological, that’s what I think,” says Veronica as her family gathers in Dublin for Liam’s wake. “What is written for the future is written in the body, the rest is only spoor.”

What Liam bore, etched into his marrow, was the scar of a terrible incident that befell him when he was nine, a moment witnessed by Veronica. Liam lives with pain, Veronica with shame. “After a lifetime of spreading the hurt around,” she thinks, “(Liam) managed to blame me. And I managed to feel guilty.”

Veronica feels guilt for her escape from the claustrophobic environment of a family of a dozen children, a mother vanishing into herself, and a rough-cut father. She made it to the middle class. Liam, her soulmate, didn’t. He drank and practiced enough general fecklessness to earn labels like gurrier, messer, and thug from even his siblings.

Liam’s death unleashes not only Veronica’s memories of what happened that fateful day in her grandmother’s house, but also brings to the boil long-simmering dissatisfactions with her own “normal” life – materially rich, emotionally impoverished.

“The Gathering” asks some patience of the reader. Veronica, seeking to make sense of her brother’s death, hopscotches through the calendar — her grandmother’s time, her own childhood, the present, when she is 39. Hard things happen, and both their overhang and portent infuse the story with a heaviness, but it is tolerable because nothing occurs in the story that couldn’t occur to anyone at any time in real life. It is the heaviness of being human.

Enright is a masterful writer and a pleasure to read. The narration is almost elegiac, but also precise and not at all wimpy. When, for example, Veronica speaks of her jumbled sex life, Enright endows her with schoolyard language that shocks with directness. In all, “The Gathering” is as complicated and mysterious as life itself, and just as rewarding.

Bookshelf – Amsterdam, Ian McEwan

To adhere to the adage: sometimes bad things happen to good people, and these tragedies we bemoan. But what of those calamities that also happen to fall on bad people, do we exchange our lament for applause?

They had it coming! So cry those who believe revenge is sweet, no matter at what temperature it is served.

I stumbled upon “Amsterdam” during a recent library visit. Its author and its svelte form called from the “recommended” rack. The book was a fortuitous find, a – per the New York Times – “morality fable, disguised as a psychological thriller,” one told with the descriptive, perceptive precision found in McEwan’s novels.

The story is that of two Londoners, a symphony composer, Clive, and a newspaper editor, Vernon, who find themselves outside of a crematorium on chilled winter’s day. Both are ambitious, both stand at the apex of their respective games (a location that hints of future diminishment), and both are former lovers of the deceased, one Molly Lane, a tempestuous woman of fierce carnal appetites whose other paramours included the current Foreign Secretary of Great Britain.

Molly took ill and died rapidly, and her abrupt descent from eros to ashes shakes Clive and Vernon. The composer feels the cold clamp of mortality on his hand as he struggles to complete his greatest symphonic achievement; the journalist feels invisible amid the chaos of daily publishing and the need to swap ethics for more readers. Neither wants to go out as Molly did, under the incarcerating care of another, so they make a euthanasia pact: When one approaches the brink of the abyss, the other will, painlessly, nudge him into it.

Little more can be said about the plot without revelation. But there is deviousness, cowardice, and avarice, and each exacts a price from Clive and Vernon. McEwan guides the story with expert assuredness, and it is a delight to follow him to a clever, satisfying ending that leaves just enough left unsaid to make you wish for a few more pages.

Bookshelf — My Year in Reading, 2023

If you scan the list below, you will see a wide range of fiction (I only read four non-fiction works) that can be more or less divided into three parts – well-known literary-ish novels I’d never read (“The Lying Life of Adults,” “Rabbit, Run,” “The End of the Affair”); newer popular works (“Small Mercies,” “Crook Manifesto”); and audiobooks, which are exclusively crime, and mostly by Michael Connolly (background noise for the gym).
 
As I have since the pandemic (remember that?) when I told myself to take more reading risks, I reveled in the discovery of writers who fall outside my previously narrow comfort zone, among them: Elena Ferrante, (more) Rachel Cusk), Rabih Alameddine (amazing), and Eudora Welty). Their work widened my world view and heartened my belief that in reading we can find the humanity that is too often hidden amid the atrocity and hatred of our times.
 
I only dropped out of two books, of which the biggest disappointment was “Kairos” by Jenny Erpenbeck, which I’d looked forward to because I’d loved her previous work, “Go Went Gone.”
 
People ask about favorites, a list I find hard to delineate because my tastes vary so much. For me, reading is all all-you-can-eat buffet: who’s to say if the mountain of mashed potatoes is better than the thick slabs of sliced roast beef or the gurgling vat of mac and cheese? Still, one must choose, so in lieu of favorites, I offer some of the books that most delighted or surprised me: 

Non-fiction: “On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey” – Paul Theroux, a marvelously descriptive and insightful road trip by a septuagenarian explorer through our complex southern neighbor.
 
Fiction (in no order): “My Monticello” (a magnetic mirror on the world); “The Wrong End of the Telescope” (phenomenal); “Signs Preceding the End of the World” (the bizarre realities of the US-Mexico borderlands); “The Swimmers” (beautiful simplicity); “The Sentence” (I hope to read all of Erdrich); “Small Mercies” (powerful); “The Great Believers” (so real); “Train Dreams” (a tasty morsel); and “Ask the Dust” (more John Fante, please).

Finally, for me audiobooks are mostly filler, but one set of them made me realize I’ve been overlooking one of the world’s most popular authors: The “Mr. Mercedes” series by Stephen King. Good writing, great storytelling. (The trilogy also includes “Finders Keepers” and “End of Watch.”
 
The List, 2023:
 
1.     The Feral Detective – Jonathan Lethem
2.     Hell of a Book – Jason Mott
3.     The Black Echo – Michael Connelly *
4.     Ill Will – Dan Chaon
5.     The Black Ice — Michael Connelly *
6.     When the Killing’s Done – T.C. Boyle
7.     Northern Spy – Flynn Berry
8.     The Concrete Blonde – Michael Connelly *
9.     Nightmare Alley – William Lindsay Gresham
10.  The Last Coyote – Michael Connelly *
11.  The Survivors – Jane Harper
12.  Chances Are … – Richard Russo
13.  Trust the Plan, The Rise of QAnon and the Conspiracy That Unhinged America – Will Sommer
14.  My Monticello – Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
15.  The Searcher – Tana French *
16.  The Talented Mr. Ripley – Patricia Highsmith
17.  Trunk Music – Michael Connelly *
18.  On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey – Paul Theroux
19.  The Poet – Michael Connelly *
20.  The Wrong End of the Telescope – Rabih Alameddine
21.  Signs Preceding the End of the World – Yuri Herrera
22.  To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee *
23.  The Swimmers – Julie Otsuka
24.  Since We Fell – Dennis Lehane
25.  Angels Flight – Michael Connelly *
26.  Telephone – Percival Everett
27.  Ladydi (Spanish) – Jennifer Clement
28.  Dead Lions (Slough House #2) – Mick Herron
29.  A Darkness More than Night – Michael Connelly
30.  Kudos – Rachel Cusk
31.  The Children Act – Ian McEwan
32.  Kindred – Octavia Butler
33.  I Will Find You – Harlan Coben *
34.  The End of the Affair – Graham Greene
35.  City on Fire – Don Winslow *
36.  City of Bones – Michael Connelly *
37.  An Unnecessary Woman – Rabih Alameddine
38.  The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler *
39.  The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
40.  Ask the Dust – John Fante
41.  This Dark Road to Mercy – Wiley Cash
42.  Lost Light – Michael Connelly *
43.  Real Tigers (Slough House #3) – Mick Herron *
44.  The Sentence – Louise Erdrich
45.  Giant – Edna Ferber
46.  Spook Street (Slough House #4) – Mick Herron *
47.  Murder on the Red River – Marcie R. Rendon
48.  The Narrows – Michael Connelly *
49.  Empire of Wild – Cherie Dimaline
50.  The Closers – Michael Connelly *
51.  Small Mercies – Dennis Lehane
52.  Crook Manifesto – Colson Whitehead
53.  London Rules – Mick Herron *
54.  Am I Alone Here – Peter Orner
55.  Kairos – Jenny Erpenbeck **
56.  The Optimist’s Daughter – Eudora Welty
57.  Parrot in the Oven – Victor Martinez
58.  Joe Country – Mick Herron *
59.  Mystic River – Dennis Lehane
60.  The Lost Daughter – Elena Farrante
61.  War Trash – Ha Jin
62.  Echo Park – Michael Connelly *
63.  No One Will See Me Cry – Cristina Rivera-Garza
64.  Train Dreams – Denis Johnson
65.  Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
66.  Mr. Mercedes – Stephen King *
67.  The Lying Life of Adults – Elena Ferrante
68.  Killers of the Flower Moon – David Grann *
69.  The Dog of the South – Charles Portis
70.  If I Survive You – Jonathan Escoffery
71.  All the Sinners Bleed – S.A. Cosby
72.  Finders Keepers – Stephen King *
73.  Old God’s Time – Sebastian Barry
74.  Chain Gang All-Stars — Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
75.  End of Watch – Stephen King *
76.  Bluebird, Bluebird – Attica Locke
77.  Fear is Just a Word – Azam Ahmed **
78.  Among the Bros – Max Marshall
79.  The Lincoln Lawyer – Michael Connelly *
80.  A Line in the Sand – Kevin Power
81.  The Lost Americans – Christopher Bollen
82.  Rabbit, Run – John Updike
83.  Heaven, My Home – Attica Locke
84.  Slough House – Mick Herron *
85.  The Power of the Dog – Don Winslow
 * Audio
** Did not finish

Bookshelf – Rabbit, Run, John Updike

Since I am of an age where secrets have long lost their utility, I am only somewhat abashed to admit that until now I’d not read any of John Updike’s “Rabbit” novels. Blame this oversight on, first, the ignorance sired by youthful arrogance and, then later, a senescent narrowing of perspective.

“Rabbit Run,” the first of the quartet, arrived in 1968 to both coy acclaim and snooty dismissal (a “shabby domestic tragedy” croaked the New York Times, despite being “artful and supple”). At the time I was a truculent teenager awhirl in the rejection of everything conventional, so I knew nothing of Updike and could have cared less about the angst of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. The second novel, “Rabbit Redux,” came out in 1971, still before maturity bloomed in me. And, by the time “Rabbit is Rich” (1981) and “Rabbit at Rest” (1990) appeared, I’d cast Updike onto the dusty reaches of my father’s bookshelf, like Cheever, Roth, and Bellow.

An advantage of advanced maturity (there are not many) is the ability to do an accounting of the errors of the previous decades and, if lucky, rectify them, which I have done in a small way by reading and being amazed by “Rabbit Run.”

The novel ranks high in many academic curricula and is therefore endlessly analyzed, so I have nothing sagacious to add to what is already written about Updike’s commentary on the constrictions of religion, the expectations of male responsibility (leading to the subsequent belittling of female agency), and the mendacious myth of the post-War American Dream. The non-scholastic word that does come to mind, though is: rubbernecking – because following Harry Angstrom as he careens from one emotionally chaotic soap bubble to the next is like seeing a train wreck in slow motion: both fascinating and horrifying.

Rabbit Angstrom is a detestable protagonist, pathetic, whining, exploitive; thoroughly unlikable. The highlight of his short life was being a high-school basketball star in the working-class suburb of a modest American every-town. At 23, married to a woman he thinks is stupid, the father of one child with another on the way, and employed as the salesman of the MagiPeel kitchen gadget, Rabbit’s disenchantment with every aspect of his life causes him to shed his leash and flee in search of …. well … what? Not being a man of more depth than the agility needed to pivot and launch a jump shot, he has no idea what he wants. As he tells a clergyman who tries to lure him back to the flock:

“If you’re telling me I’m not mature, that’s the one thing I don’t cry over since as far as I can make out it’s the same thing as being dead. … but I tell you, I do feel, I guess, that somewhere beyond all this (he gestures around him) there’s something that wants me to find it.”

Domesticated man searching for meaning in life. Enough to launch a thousand books.

Rabbit’s selfish boorishness is tough to take a times – not again! I gasp – but Updike’s wonderful writing more than offsets the unpleasantness of this man/boy-on-the-run. Updike writes with such precision that his words fit like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Unlike so many contemporary novels, which (to me) feel loose and in need of several more drafts, “Rabbit, Run” is tight. No words are out of place, no dialog added for padding. Here is an example:

“His car is waiting for him on Cherry Street in the cool spring noon mysteriously; it is as if a room of a house he owned had been detached and scuttled by this curb and now that the tide of night was out stood up glistening in the sand, slightly tilted but unharmed, ready to sail at the turn of a key.”

Please excuse my longer-than-usual scribbling, but I felt I least owed Updike a few extra words for having ignored him for so long. I am, however, thrilled to discover him. As I soon as I finished “Rabbit, Run,” I ordered the next three.

Bookshelf — The Man Who Saw Everything, Deborah Levy

Despite being, as the title declares, a man of omniscient vision, Saul Adler manages to live his rather truncated and self-consciously disengaged life without every becoming himself.

From the opening of the book, when Saul is struck by a car on London’s Abbey Road and then hours later kicked out of his girlfriend’s bed after he asks her to marry him, he is a man in flight – fleeing from intimacy, seeking what cannot be had, indulging in pleasures that consort with pain.

A professor of history whose field is the communist countries of Eastern Europe, Saul is a cipher, an androgynous wraith of a man berated by his father and bullied by his older brother for being a “Nancy boy” and told by his girlfriend, “You are much prettier than I am.” His beauty attracts men as well as women, but it alone cannot sustain relationships that wither for lack of emotional commitment. His girlfriend, a photographer, tells him, “You were so detached and absent, the only way I could reach you was with my camera.”

The story begins in 1988, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall – a moment critical to the narrative – and leaps to 2016, when another car accident in the same place (the crosswalk immortalized by the Beatles album cover) sends Adler somersaulting through his memories, a jumble of conflated moments lacking a cogent timeline. His life of flight becomes a free fall.

This is a beautiful book, exquisitely written, and loaded with trenchant dialogue, both spoken and heard through Saul’s introspection. The story is intimate, but not idle. There are many surprises, but Levy delivers them slyly. If you read “The Man Who Saw Everything” looking for the blow of a hammer you will miss the sting of Levy’s stiletto.

Finally, about the ending (without giving it away): the last few pages are among the most moving I’ve ever read, forcing a reader to turn toward a mirror and ask: Who am I?

Bookshelf – Among the Bros, Max Marshall

There are few combinations more morally toxic than youth, money and testosterone, especially when inflamed by the debauchery that universities tolerate at fraternities under the guise of tradition.

The behavior of frat house bad boys was once limited to the hijinks of “Animal House,” whose motley miscreants stopped at toga parties, shoplifting, and a Mrs. Robinson moment involving the lascivious wife of Dean Wormer.

These days, in an America plagued by drug abuse (legal and illegal), on campuses defined by economic elitism, and throughout a digitized world where the dark side of humanity lurks only a click away, binge drinking, brutal (sometimes fatal) hazing, and persistent stupefaction are as common among the Greek campus community as coats of arms.

This is the world Max Marshall found in 2016 when he began reporting a story about a “small-time” fraternity drug dealing ring at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. To his surprise, he found a massive interstate web of drug trafficking that involved millions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of pills like Xanax and Oxycodone, bricks of cocaine bought from a Mexican cartel, and a murdered student.

Once, says a writer quoted in the book, a “bro” meant “a self-absorbed young white guy in board shorts and a taste for cheap beer. But it’s become a shorthand for the sort of privileged ignorance that thrives in groups dominated by wealthy, white, straight men.”

The dope-dealing bros of Kappa Alpha dressed in polo shirts and pastel shorts. Imagine Tony Soprano’s crew as Andover grads clad in Ambercrombie. They flouted the law and flaunted their audacity. Children of entitlement, their creed was (to borrow from the New York Times): “We will behave badly, and we will get away with it.”

Marshall graduated from Columbia University in 2016, the same year police arrested the ring. His youth and his background as a fraternity member (Delta Sigma) no doubt helped him gain access to the incarcerated kingpin, Mikey Schmidt, as well as to dozen of former College of Charleston students and frat members who in interviews portrayed the campus as “a country club for rich New Englanders.”

Marshall’s reporting is thorough and detailed. He puts you in the frat house, and what you see ain’t pretty. At times, though, he is too thorough. Some pages seem compiled from what we old-time newsies called a notebook dump. Facts make the story, but more of them doesn’t always make a better story.

Still, Among the Bros held my attention and it might hold yours as well if you’re wondering what the incoming generation is doing with the mess we’re leaving them.

Bookshelf – Old God’s Time, Sebastian Barry

Pro tip: When an epigraph cites the Book of Job, you know there’s suffering ahead.

Tom Kettle is the Job of Dublin. A decorated detective with the Irish national police who arrives at retirement not with the joy of an ex-cop looking forward to unburdened days, but bereft of all that he loved and ladened with sadness. Tom is awash in the wake of tragedy, at times so immersed he cannot distinguish the ache of memory from the pain of reality.

What scant solace Tom manages to find during his retreat to a granny flat in an ancient castle, disappears like sea mist in the night sky when he is drawn back into an old case involving sexual predation and perverted priests. Suddenly, he is deprived of what to him is “the whole point of retirement, of existence – to be stationary, happy and useless.”

But Old God’s Time – the title referring to a period beyond memory – is not a cold-case yarn as such (even if it were, it would be lifted beyond the normal realm of the trope by Barry’s lyrical and poetic writing, occasionally liberated from form, occasionally punctuated with the vocabulary of quotidian brutality). Yes, Old God’s Time, is a mystery, but the unraveling of secrets only serves as the vehicle for Barry’s deeper investigation, that of the enigmatic completeness of love and the bottomless whirlpool of loss.

Within these emotional swirls, where what is true and what is imagined intertwine, Tom struggles to find firm footing. He harbors dark truths, about himself and about his late wife, June, who he loved more than life and who, afflicted by her own haunts, “had survived everything but survival.”

In the end, what saves Tom from the bleak remains of his life is the embrace of a simple fact: of all that he’s done, of all the villains he’s dealt with, of all the erosion of his faith in human nature, he wants only one thing: “to be a believer again, in something.”

And what is that? “His life, his little life?” he thinks. “The fog edged away from the shore of himself, the sea opened like a stage in a theatre, the helpful sun burned in its element, there was a truth told to him, a truth, in his curious age, in his palpable decay, that there at the heart of it, there at the heart of it, forever and always, as June.”

Old God’s Time demands patience. Go too fast and you’ll miss Barry’s lingering eye. But bide your time, wrestle over the meanings of Tom’s untethered drifts, and be rewarded by an ending that accelerates as the cold case melts in a furnace of truth.

Bookshelf – Signs Preceding the End of the World, Yuri Herrera

In the borderlands of the West – America’s south and Mexico’s north – reality is fluid: much is not what it seems, permanence is an illusion, and culture and language are trafficked as commonly as contraband.

The monied North hungers for labor and drugs and flat-screen TVs assembled at sub-minimum wages; the impoverished South, conquered and corrupted, huddled in tribes held together by blood, fear, and power, feeds the northern beast, both willingly and by necessity.

In this thin, magical novel (2009), Yuri Herrera distills the complexities of the American-Mexican symbiosis into the clarity of a single purpose: self-preservation: the North to keep what it has, the South to survive what it doesn’t.

It is a story set against archetypes: the Village, the Little Town, the Big Chilango; gunmen named Thug .45 and Thug .38 for their favored weapons; the “top dogs,” the caciques, Mr. Double-U, Mr. Aitch, Mr. Q, whose favors carry indebtedness. Two-dimensional places and figures, they are stand-ins for the stereotypical American perspective of the lands to its south: dusty, dangerous, and dismal.

Within this anonymity lives sharply defined Makina, a fierce, independent young woman from the Village, a human switchboard who take calls and passes messages, connecting the North and the South. She speaks the local lingo (an indigenous dialect), anglo, and the latin (Spanish), and “knew how to keep quiet in all three.” Makina enforces a set of rules that gain her the trust of all:

“You don’t lift other people’s petticoats.
You don’t stop to wonder about other people’s business.
You don’t decide which messages to deliver and which to not.
You are the door, not the one who walks through it.”

Makina’s mother sends her North to search for her brother, and there, on the far side of the river, she finds herself entangled in the amorphous nature of the region and its people, both white and brown:

“They are homegrown and they are anglo and both things with rapid intensity; with restrained fervor they can be the meekest and at the same time the most querulous of citizens, albeit grumbling under their breath. Their gestures and tastes reveal both ancient memory and the wonderment of new people. And then they speak. They speak in an intermediary tongue that Makina instantly warms to because it’s like her: malleable, erasable, permeable.”

The story is too compact to reveal more, but the depth of Herrera’s perception is unlimited. Signs Preceding the End of the World is a marvelous ode, lyrical at times, hard-edged at others, to the incessant river of language, ideas, and bodies that flow across “la frontera,” impeded by government, exploited by mafia, but as impossible as the tide to stop.

It is one of the most compelling books I’ve read about trans-border culture – and more timely now than when it was written.

  • Note: Herrera’s remarkable use of language reflects the supple nature of border culture. He plays with known words and creates new ones. Language becomes identity. Should you read the book, be sure to read also translator Lisa Dillman’s comments following the narrative.

Bookshelf — Tears We Cannot Stop, Michael Eric Dyson

When Donald Trump got elected president, friends who lived in other countries asked me what happened. How could the United States, they asked, elect such a mendacious, immoral con man to the most powerful democratic office on the planet? I didn’t have an answer.

Over the course of Trump’s four convulsive years, a torturous test of democracy that culminated in the madness of the January 6 riot in Washington, I asked myself the question again and again. There were, and there continue to be, plenty of theories, among them the economic stagnation of the working class; the arrogance of Hillary Clinton; and the generalized cluelessness among upper-crust Americans – the so-called elites – of the political tectonics at work in the nation.

There is one more factor, though, one which I’ve come to believe not only determined the 2016 election but underlies the accelerating rancor in the country, and that is race.

In the wake of the nation’s first black president, a Harvard-educated lawyer with a Harvard-educated wife, white Americans of moderate and lower income and education levels – which, of course, are linked – voted overwhelmingly for Trump, who shamelessly planted the seeds of his candidacy with his dog-whistling insinuations that Barack Obama was not a “real” American – not one of “us.”

Imagine, then, in the midst of a presidency rooted in racism – don’t forget Trump’s opening-day salvo about Mexican rapists – how timorous whites reacted to the sight of tens of thousands of black Americans protesting the police murders of black men and women by chanting “Black Lives Matter.” Gun sales rose nationally to record levels, conservative states made it harder for blacks to vote, and unabashed white supremacists ran for office and won (Marjorie Taylor Greene).

Yes, it is really about race. There are other culprits, of course, chiefly mind-warping religious dogma, but the specter of the United States become blacker, browner, yellower, or any shade other than white-ish frightens the living bejeezus out of many white Americans and drives them to embrace extremist thinking – such a stealing a democratic election.

The blood of racism courses through the veins of America. In Tears We Cannot Stop, Michael Eric Dyson uses the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., to time-stamp its origins.

“Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race,” King said. “Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society.” We are “perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population.”

I came across this book, published in 2017, during my ongoing inquest into what happened to the America I thought I knew but clearly did not. Written as “a sermon to white America,” Dyson, a widely known author and scholar who also is a Baptist minister, says his intent is “healing our nation through honest, often blunt, talk” that “will make you squirm in your seat with discomfort before, hopefully, pointing a way to relief.”

As a preacher, Dyson is both frank and avuncular. Each stinging slap of truth about white racism, whether institutional such as hiring or housing discrimination, or individual such as white retail clerks who ignore black shoppers or white cops who brace black college professors in front of their children for being in the “wrong” neighborhood – comes with the salve of, not compassion, but understanding that centuries of racist messaging causes whites to act as they do. Dyson doesn’t excuse, but he does recognize the involuntary racial reflex, an unconscious response which, he urges, can be overcome with conscious effort.

Planted in the pew, I hung on Dyson’s words when, in the heart of his sermon, he writes about what it’s like to be black in America, even for a man of letters and financial good fortune like himself. He speaks of how he was raised, to defer to whites, to defer to police, to defer to any authority, subservience learned in an unwritten manual of survival in a white world.

The manual “tells you to make sure you lower your eyes, say yes sir, no smart mouthing, no anger, no resentment, just complete total compliance without a whiff of personality or humanity,” says Dyson, who then asks his white readers, “Ever had to endure that humiliation, my friends?”

No, I have not.

Even when, in my younger days, I had a few scrapes with the law and awoke more than once to a barred view, I never felt I shared the same fate as the black boys and men who occupied similar spaces in the same institution. I could not have articulated this then, but I see now how my whiteness elevated me to a rung above them. I was in a cell. They were a cell. But I was white.

A shameful perspective to admit to, but it was true then, just as it is still true now for so many white Americans. Not all. Not me. But many.

Like all good teachers, and preachers, too, I suppose, Dyson focuses me on my ignorance, a condition, I have found, that increases with age despite my best efforts to keep it in check. Near the end of the book, Dyson offers tonics for white Americans who’d like to detoxify themselves. One remedy is education. “You must educate yourselves about black life and culture,” he says. “Racial literacy is as necessary as it is undervalued.”

If such an education interests you, my fellow pale-skinned Americans, and I hope it does, add Tears We Cannot Stop to your syllabus.

“Rage” — Why Woodward on Trump is Worth Reading

Trump has been good for the media, but bad for journalism. The electronic media-sphere reeks of all Trump all the time, from the partisan jousting of the knights of cable, CNN and Fox, to a cornucopia of websites and podcasts leaning left or right, to Trump’s social media lodestone, Twitter.

As always with the interwebs, there is more noise than substance. That is what legacy news organizations like the New York Times and the Washington Post are supposed to provide. And they do. For a hefty meal of hard-core investigative reporting, belly up to the hundreds of column inches filled by the Times just a week ago about Trump’s heretofore hidden tax returns – a high-calorie carbo-load of facts, truths and documents. The challenge for the big-boy newspapers is that Trump doesn’t stand still. He is a Rube Goldberg machine of perpetual news, outrage and scandal. What is Page One today is gone tomorrow (or even this evening). Look how Trump’s current Covid adventure relegated the Times’ blockbuster tax reporting to the morgue.

How then, in this gopher-on-a-wheel news cycle, does a staid, old-school, war-horse of a reporter like Bob Woodward, the inventor of a form of book-length journalism best described as anonymous-sources-meet-my-daily-diary-meet-the-telephone-book-meet-C-SPAN, write a recounting of the Trump presidency that has any currency?

In part, the answer is the short lag time between Woodward’s last conversation with Trump, which was on July 21, the day the manuscript for Rage was due, and date of the book’s publication, which was on September 15, only 59 days.

Much happened in that two-month gap, most importantly another 60,000 Americans died of Covid, so here’s another question that must be asked about Rage: Is the book relevant? Yes, I say, and that makes it worth reading.

First, let’s admit that no one reads a Woodward book – and I’ve read a half-dozen – for the writing. The text accompanying a statin prescription is more compelling. Woodward’s literary style is reminiscent of the joke about the bad restaurant with hefty servings – hey, the food is bad, but there is a lot of it. In Woodward’s defense, at least he keeps his portions small.

What gives Rage value is Woodward’s dedication to persistence (he did 17 lengthy interviews with Trump) and belief in one of journalism’s core practices, a tool often overlooked in these times of tweet reporting – the power of accumulation: adding one fact to the next, following the thread of evidence from interview to interview, and stacking truths next to falsehoods. The result is a powerful condemnation of Trump as president, Trump as a man, and Trump as the enabler of others of his ilk, such as his lamprey-like son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

It is Kushner, somewhat surprisingly because of his just-woken-from-the-tomb appearance, who provides the liveliest quotes in the book. Among them:

  • He borrows from the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland to explain Trump’s behavior: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.”
  • “Controversy elevates message.” Writes Woodward: “This was core understanding of communication strategy in the age of the internet and Trump. A controversy over the economy, Kushner argued – how good it is – only helps Trump because it reminds voters that the economy is good.”
  • Kushner on Trump and the media: “He’s just able to play the media like a fiddle, and the Democrats too. They run like dogs after a fire truck, chasing whatever he throws out there. … It’s like a buffet where they’ll always eat the worst thing you give them.”
  • “What I’ve learned in the world of Trump is news cycles don’t last very long.”

Rage opens with a tour of Trump’s earliest days in the White House, guiding the reader through the unease he created among his senior staff by his ignorance of the world and his unconventional, to say the least, manner of decision-making. The misgivings and the fretting of those like James Mattis, Rex Tillerson and Dan Coats (ex-Secretary of Defense, ex-Secretary of State and ex-Director of National Intelligence) have been well-reported, but even though Woodward is late to the tale he tells their stories in such simple, declarative sentences that what is no longer surprising still has the power to shock.

For me, the final third of the book is more compelling. It focuses on the rise of parallel contemporary traumas – the beginnings of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. and the elevation to the national consciousness of the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the homicide of George Floyd.

Of these two, Trump’s antipathy to wage all-out war against the virus by mandating mask-wearing and other socially beneficial measures is the most reported (especially his early awareness of the danger of the disease and his reluctance to take action for fear of economic ruin). What Woodward adds is perspective on the tension within the White House between the need of the administration to oversee the public health battle and the desire to focus on the upcoming election. Kushner, as kin, holds the upper hand. “The goal” with Trump, Kushner said, “is to get his head from governing to campaigning.

Woodward describes himself as being “incredulous” upon hearing these words: “In the midst of the largest public health crisis in a century, Kushner thought it was time to return to campaigning.”

As craven as Kushner is about the coronavirus, Trump is even more obtuse toward the significance of the police killings of black men and women, and the resulting waves of protests by people of all shades. Woodward asks Trump multiple times in several interviews if he understands the outrage and feels any sense of white privilege, given the circumstances in which he was raised.

“No,” said Trump. “You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you,” he said, his voice mocking and incredulous. “Wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.”

Trump adds, repeating a common assertion of his, “I’ve don’t more for the Black community than any president in history with the possible exception of Lincoln.”

Woodward pursues the question several times, asking Trump if he understands what the protestors want and how he sees his role in responding to their demands, their fear and their pain. Trump answers in talking points and self-serving platitudes. As I said, not a single thing Trump says is surprising, but the cumulative impact of Woodward’s reporting is overwhelming. Normally, we see Trump in short-takes, yelling at reporters in soundbites or blurting out tweets. Rage is a full-length feature and like during the first (and maybe the last) Trump-Biden debate we see a long exposure of all of Trump’s ugliness – his hubris and insensitivity, his inability of see beyond himself, and, most of all, his profound ignorance. 

Many times throughout the book, Trump tells Woodward he hopes the book will be positive, and just as many times says he doubts it will be. “I hope you treat me better than Bush,” he says at one point, “because you made him look like a stupid moron, which he was.”

Trump did not get his wish. Rage is a vivisection, a dismembering of Trump while he still breaths his foul breath on our nation. The book opens with an anecdote, told about the onset of the pandemic, that for the president there could be dynamite behind any door. Anything could explode. As he finishes the book, Woodward writes about Trump:

“I’ve come to the conclusion that the ‘dynamite behind the door’ was in plain sight. It was Trump himself. The oversized personality. The failure to organize. The lack of discipline. The lack of trust in others he had picked, in experts. The undermining or the attempted undermining of so many American institutions. The failure to be a calming, healing voice. The unwillingness to acknowledge error. The failure to do his homework. To extend the olive branch. To listen carefully to others. To craft a plan.”

Woodward, the one-man journalistic judge and jury of American presidents since the days when he and Carl Bernstein drove another petty, criminally-mind man from the Oval Office, interviewed the witnesses, examined the evidence, cross-examined the accused and reached a verdict about Donald J. Trump, the 45th president of our republic: Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty on all counts.