I Can’t Breathe by Matt Taibbi

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I love Matt Taibbi, so I admit to a preconceived bias toward this book. I went in wanting it to be good. And I thought I was familiar with the sad story of Freddie Gray, the African-American man shot as he was selling “loosies” (single cigarettes) in New York. But I realize I knew SO LITTLE of the real story. For starters, Freddie was not a large, shambling doofus as he was often portrayed. He was incredibly intelligent, and a hard worker. And the actual killing was way more complicated than I had previously thought.

I’m not completely ignorant of the realities of big-city crime: I have read some books about the serious issues in law enforcement in the U.S., particularly as pertains to African-Amercians. But I had not read ANYTHING that was so accessible – so well written in terms that are easily understandable. It’s just a huge accomplishment the way Mr Taibbi has told Freddie’s story along with informing the reader about the realities of the justice system — which, for too many Americans, particularly those of color, is better referred to as the “justice” system. Shocking, sad, needs to be widely read. Five gigantic stars.

The Stolen Marriage by Diane Chamberlain

I started a neighborhood book club a little over two years ago, not sure it would work out. The first book we read was Diane Chamberlain’s Necessary Lies, and it was a great choice: it was set in a small Southern town fifty or so years ago, it included social issues (mental illness, forced sterilizations, the “appropriate” role of women in marriage) and it was filled with characters who stayed with the reader long after the last page was read. It also had the added EEEK! factor that occurs when you find out a novel is based on reality: in this case, forced sterilizations and racism. It made for some good discussions! So, with all that, I was happy to receive a copy of Ms. Chamberlain’s new book  The Stolen Marriage, from St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

This new book is also set primarily in a small town in the South, 50+ years ago. The protagonist, Tess DeMello, ends her engagement to a man she loves dearly, quickly marries a stranger, and moves to Hickory, North Carolina. Hickory is a small town struggling with racial tension and the hardships imposed by World War II. Tess finds out her new husband, an extremely successful furniture manufacturer, is quite mysterious: he often stays out all night, hides money, and is totally uninterested in any physical contact with his new wife. Although her new husband tries to give her everything she might want, Tess feels trapped and desperately wants out of the unhappy situation: “I hadn’t been happy in so long, I doubted a new house was going to fix what was wrong with me.”

The people of Hickory love and respect her husband, and see her as an outsider. When Tess is blamed for the death of a prominent citizen in an accident, she is treated with scorn and derision. She begins to feel like she is being followed, and becomes more and more unhappy. The town is a classic racist town, and even the “nice people” have stereotypical views of the times, reflected in Tess’s feeling that “…it was crazy that any state in the country allowed colored and white to get married in the first place. It only created problems for everyone.”

When a sudden polio epidemic strikes the town, the townspeople band together and build a polio hospital in just a few days (!). Tess begins to work at the hospital, finding a rewarding sense of identity in caring for the young victims. But the whole mess with her husband and his horrific mother and sister continues to make her life as a married woman completely NOT what she had dreamed of. It has suspense, drama, and a surprise ending that I loved.

This will be a good choice for book clubs, with the issues of women’s rights and roles in their marriages, interracial marriage, medical ethics (as an epidemic breaks out among people of all races and religions), honesty and trust. It is an easy read, but has a lot of depth. I read it a week ago, and keep thinking about the town, the people, the situation…so it’s an easy five stars for me…and a good future choice for our book club, still going strong.

BTW, the true story of a town that built a hospital from the ground up in just a few days in order to deal with the polio epidemic is awesome!

 

 

 

The Quantum Spy by David Ignatius

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I remember a year or so ago when Justin Trudeau was asked a snarky question about quantum computing, and proceeded to explain it in language we could understand…and the whole concept of things being two things at once kind of blew my mind. “Things can be in two places at once. The coin is both heads and tails. The cat is alive and dead. A bit is zero and one. It’s only the act of observing these phenomena that collapses their ambiguous state. ” In The Quantum Spy, the race is on between the U.S. and China to build the first quantum computer.

It’s a great setup for David Ignatius of the Washington Post to entertain us with a 21st century spy thriller…and, thanks to W.W. Norton and NetGalley, I received a copy in exchange for this honest review.

Early on, we meet John Vandel, long-time CIA operative, who is wise to what it takes to survive in the Agency: “He wrote an eyes-only memo later that morning for the national security adviser to cover himself. The rest, he didn’t want to know. The Director was a former member of Congress. Letting the staff do the dirty work was a way of life.”

Some years ago, an Army Ranger named Harris Chang saved Vandel’s life in Iraq. When Vandel thanked him, Chang said “You would have done it for me,” to which Vandel replied “No fucking way.” This tells us quite a bit about both men, and as the story alternates locations including China, Singapore, Washington, D.C., Iraq and Seattle, we follow their efforts to beat China in the race for quantum computing superiority.

Chang goes to a quantum research lab that has been compromised by a suspected Chinese informant. There is a hunt for the mole who may have penetrated the highest levels of the Agency, and things hop around, with a bit of uncertainty that parallels the quantum state: there are leaks, but do the leaks expose real secrets, or are they false trails meant to deceive the Chinese? Chang finds that there is a thin line between loyalty and betrayal, as he follows the path of the investigation wherever it leads.

Sometimes techno-thrillers can be daunting, with details that are beyond the casual reader of spy novels. In this one, Ignatius has done a great job of combining a twisting plot with self-revelation that parallels the paradox of quantum computing. Chang is the model of a conflicted spy who has dealt with racism and bigotry his entire life, and who faces his own duality as he works to solve the puzzle surrounding the mole.

Spy novel fans, computer buffs, mystery lovers, and anyone who likes a plot with lots of twists and well-developed characters will love this one. Five stars.

A Colony in A Nation by Chris Hayes

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Having both watched him for a few years on MSNBC and having read his work in The Nation, I love Chris Hayes, His earlier book Twilight of the Elites (called “a stunning polemic by Ta-Nehisi Coates), emphasized how out of touch America’s political leaders were with those they were elected to govern (and this was in 2012!). In his new book, he takes the experiences he has had reporting from places like Ferguson and West Baltimore and combines it with his outstanding knowledge of U.S. history and concludes that our country has broken into two distinct factions: the Colony and the Nation.

As he examines the issues and events in Ferguson, West Baltimore and other places where racially-motivated crime and violence have been in the news in recent years, he contends that the conditions in these cities and towns mirror those that sparked the American Revolution. Along the way, he examines the political, economic and social conditions in both eras.

He explains that despite our wish to live in a “post-racial” world, the situation that exists in “the Colony” looks very much like a police state, where aggressive policing makes the police look like an occupying force and fear is paramount.

He points out that our country imprisons a higher percentage of its citizens than any other county, except the archipelago of Seychelles, with “nearly one out of four prisoners in the world …an American,” although we have only 5% of the world’s population. And “American criminal justice isn’t one system with massive racial disparities but two distinct regimes. One (the Nation) is the kind of policing regime you expect in a democracy; the other (the Colony) is the kind you expect in an occupied land.” Ouch!!

He examines the end of Jim Crow and the change that happened in the 1960s is a time when some believe “it was reconceived and reborn through mass incarcerations” – for me, this was unsettling to read. In Ferguson, Hayes believes “…the police had taken on the role of enforcing an unannounced but very real form of segregation in the St. Louis suburb.” Further, he says our “post-civil-rights social order …gave up on desegregation as a guiding mission and accepted a country of de facto segregation between “nice neighborhoods” and “rough neighborhoods,” “good schools” and “bad schools,” “inner cities” and “bedroom communities.””

To his credit, he in unflinching as he presents his self-analysis of his own privilege as he lives the “the Nation,” and explains “None of this came about by accident. It was the result of accumulation of policy, from federal housing guidelines and realtor practices to the decisions of tens of thousands of school boards and town councils and homeowners’ associations essential drawing boundaries: the Nation on one side, the Colony on the other,” And, as in the case of Sandra Bland, “In the Colony, violence looms, and failure to comply can be fatal.” And he points out that this is not so in The Nation.

Many of us are currently pondering how the hell our country got to the point where it is today. This book doesn’t have all the answers, but it is eye-opening, well researched, easy to read and comprehend, and reveals Hayes’s intelligence as well as his compassion and desire for change. It comes at a good time for anyone wanting to have some awareness of how we got to where we are, and I highly recommend it. Five stars.

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Cover Picoult Small Great Things

When I told a friend and former library co-worker that I liked Jodi Picoult’s books, she basically sniffed her disapproval – and our friendship was changed forever. I worked for several years  in public libraries and tried not to be judgmental of people’s reading preferences, or to let the fact that someone thought Danielle Steel wrote great literature to negatively impact my opinion of them. But really, I don’t get it. I know JP is writing for a mass market – and sometimes her resolutions might be just a bit too neat for snooty readers. But I’ll admit right up front, I am a sucker for a well-plotted story that makes me think about a social issue or two along the way.

Having said that, you might guess (correctly) that I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to read an advance copy of JP’s latest work Small Great Things in exchange for my honest review (thanks, NetGalley and Ballantine!). I deliberately didn’t read anything about it before diving in, and it’s hard to describe the impact this had on me. I really want to review it, but don’t want to spoil the story…and it is a GRIPPING story, for sure. What I really should do is just say “TRUST ME! YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK!!” but that’s not exactly how this works, so I will provide a synopsis that won’t spoil anything, then remind you again YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK.

The protagonist of this, and the individual around whom the story swirls is Ruth Jefferson, an experienced (20+ years) labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital. The story is told from multiple perspectives, and when it begins, Ruth is just beginning a routine checkup on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she’s been reassigned to another patient. The baby’s parents, who acted a bit squirmy when Ruth came on shift and relieved another nurse, are white supremacists and make it clear they refuse to allow Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, and (you can kind of see that something is coming) the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Here is the dilemma: does she assist the baby, going against her supervisor’s direct orders, following her instinctual desire (and training)?

Ruth ends up being charged with a crime, and is represented by a public defender, Kennedy McQuarrie, who insists that even mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. The story is incredibly timely, with the increasingly ugly rhetoric inspired by events and politicians in 2016, and Jodi Picoult uses her storytelling skills to make the reader consider issues surrounding race, prejudice, privilege and justice.

Trust me, YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK. You will thank me!  It may be unsettling, but you will enjoy the story, and it will make you think (always a good thing!) Five stars.