A lengthy but easily digestible biography of the famed ex-slave, abolitionist, and autobiographer.
In this superbly written book, Civil War and Frederick Douglass (c. 1818-1895) scholar Blight (American History/Yale Univ.; American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era, 2011, etc.), a winner of the Bancroft, Abraham Lincoln, and Anisfield-Wolf prizes, ably captures his complex subject from all angles. While many readers may be familiar with Douglass’ escape from slavery, self-education, and early life (thanks to his autobiographies), most nonscholars are not as well-versed in the details of his later life—e.g., his role in the Civil War, political campaigning, fight for suffrage, complicated family relationships, and more. It’s in these later years that Blight’s work really shines; in fact, Douglass’ early slave life and escape only cover roughly the first 100 pages of the 760-page narrative (followed by 100 pages of notes). From there, Blight makes the case for Douglass as an American prophet in the mold of the Old Testament’s Jeremiah or Isaiah. Though he often scolded and admonished in his speeches and writings, often in King James–style vernacular, he also never gave up hope of a coming time of freedom for his black brethren. Douglass truly was the “prophet of freedom” all the way until his death in 1895, fighting for civil rights until the very end. While some readers may want more coverage of his early life, and perhaps more analysis of what Douglass means today, Blight viscerally captures the vitality, strength, and determination of his subject. For such a renowned figure, who was perhaps the most photographed and recognizable person of the 19th century, there is surprisingly little in the way of modern, full-scale, accessible biographies. Blight delivers what is sure to be considered the standard-bearer for years to come.
A masterful, comprehensive biography, particularly of Douglass’ Civil War, Reconstruction, and Gilded Age years and occupations.
When Rebecca’s boyfriend goes missing, she learns that he may be caught up in the stranger game. So she, too, begins to play. Rule No. 1: Choose random people to follow, and don’t get caught….
Gadol’s (Silver Lake, 2009, etc.) novel explores the inherent loneliness of modern life and suggests that, in our desperate search for meaning and connection, we are willing to do almost anything. When Ezra disappears, Rebecca finds a copy of an article on his desk written by A. Craig (a pseudonym) about how, in his own desire to escape the crushing isolation of his life, he begins to follow total strangers. Eventually this “game” becomes all-consuming. According to the detective to whom Rebecca reports Ezra’s disappearance, more and more people are dropping out to play the game. Even more troubling, there are underground versions of the game in which people break into empty houses or hire “stagers” to create potentially violent confrontations. The police may even be involved, so Rebecca has to be careful whom she trusts—and that includes her new lover, Carey. The irony, of course, is that while the founder of the stranger game claims that following strangers helps him develop empathy, players actually just impose their own assumptions on the narratives they craft to explain the motives of another. In other words, we don’t truly see other people for who they are; instead, we filter what we see through our own experiences, preventing us from learning new perspectives on the world. Perhaps the best we can do, Gadol suggests through Rebecca and Ezra, is “to know one person as completely as possible” and ask, “How could you draw a line connecting you and this one great love? How could you make that line indelible?”
Beautiful, thoughtful meditation on the invisible ties that bind us—even to strangers.
Two seemingly unrelated novellas form one delicately joined whole in this observant debut.
Halliday writes first, in Folly, of Alice, an editor in New York during the second Bush presidency, and her relationship with Ezra, a well-known and much older author. Alice struggles to establish her own identity at a time when Ezra’s health concerns focus his attention on mortality. Through their occupations and their relationship, the lovers examine the nature of story. “Who knows if it’s any good," Ezra says of his manuscript at one point. "It’s a funny business, this. Making things up. Describing things." Alice’s roles as both a literary gatekeeper and a much younger companion are an important, related dichotomy. Art is omnipresent; music and baseball, too, become the rhythm that runs beneath the melody of the couple's interaction. Alice wants to write about herself, but she “doesn’t seem important enough.” The lovers’ age difference adds gravity to their relationship and the stories they each tell. The second part of the book, Madness, initially appears to be wholly unrelated to the first: Amar, an Iraqi-American economist, is detained at Heathrow on his way to visit his brother in Kurdistan in 2008. Halliday hints at her strategy, though: “Death is the dark backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything,” says Amar as he’s detained, quoting Bellow. Amar’s story is darker, filled with grief, and alternates between flashbacks and the present day. Though nothing is obvious about the connection of Amar’s story to Alice’s, the author gently highlights notes from the first story, and the juxtaposition of the two tales is further complicated—and illuminated—by the addition of a third and final section that brings them together.
A singularly conceived graft of one narrative upon another; what grows out of these conjoined stories is a beautiful reflection of life and art.
Affecting portrait of a Chinese dissident who found a home among like-minded democrats in faraway New York.
Journalist Hilgers, who has covered China for the New Yorker and Businessweek, among other publications, met Zhuang Liehong in his home village on the southern coast of China. There, in 2011, as she reported, villagers had rebelled against corrupt officials, who had returned to power with a vengeance, backed by a brutal police force. “A proud former village leader on the ragged outskirts of Guangdong Province’s manufacturing boom,” Zhuang knew he had to get out while he could, and he weighed three plans to escape, including finding a boat to take him to the American territory of Guam. He settled on an expensive solution, signing himself and his wife, Little Yan, up for a tour of the United States that they then overstayed, making their way to Flushing, where, in time, they encountered other dissidents, notably the Tiananmen Square protest leader Tang Yuanjun. Hilgers closely chronicles Zhuang’s travails, among them the struggle to attain legal residency against the backdrop of an immigration regime that worried about offending China and seemed reluctant to house so public a figure, even if his renown had not spread widely in his adopted country. Finally, thanks to the pragmatic Little Yan, he found suitable work—and, thanks to Tang, continued his anti-corruption campaign in New York, protesting at Trump Tower, where an unimpressed Trump supporter yelled at him, “why do we have to pay attention to your problems?” Hilgers answers that question with admirable attention to narrative detail, giving a nuanced portrait of a vibrant working-class immigrant neighborhood comprising a “community of activists” who have lent dissidents like Tang and Zhuang their support.
This excellent book makes a powerful argument for why the U.S. should always remain a place of sanctuary, benefiting immensely from those who arrive from other shores.
In 2014, 35 years after Berlin-based CIA worker Helen Abell went rogue to uncover a high-level agent as a serial rapist, she and her husband are murdered in their farmhouse on Maryland's Eastern Shore—both shot in the face with a hunting rifle.
Initially, it is assumed that the couple's mentally ill 24-year-old son, Willard, committed the crime. But his older sister, Anna, believing him incapable of such an act, hires Henry Mattick, an investigator, to help uncover the truth. She is amazed to discover that her secretive mom was once a spy in Europe and may have been targeted in connection with her activities there. The book continues with alternating sections following Anna in the present and Helen in the past. In Berlin, the innocent but strong-willed Helen, 23, has the job of tending to four safe houses for the Company. During a surreptitious middle-of-the-night visit to one of them, she witnesses a man assaulting a young woman and stops the attack. Warned by her superiors to forget the encounter and stay away from the assailant, an operative code-named Robert, she continues her pursuit on the sly via a network of female colleagues who are well-aware of the man's transgressions. Just as Anna will put her trust in Mattick, who once worked for the Department of Justice in Baltimore, Helen puts her trust—for a time—in her lover, Clark Baucom, a veteran operative with the manner of Robert Mitchum and weariness written into his DNA. Fesperman (The Letter Writer, 2016, etc.) takes a risk in dividing the narratives so cleanly, but the strategy pays off when they converge, one story deepening the meaning and intensity of the other. Unlike some spy novels, this one never bogs down in gamesmanship, spy talk, or cheap reveals. It strives to be truthful.
Prolific spy novelist Fesperman delivers another winner, this one as fiendishly clever as it is richly entertaining.
A look at the personal toll of the criminal justice system from the author of Silver Sparrow (2011) and The Untelling (2005).
Roy has done everything right. Growing up in a working-class family in Louisiana, he took advantage of all the help he could get and earned a scholarship to Morehouse College. By the time he marries Spelman alum Celestial, she’s an up-and-coming artist. After a year of marriage, they’re thinking about buying a bigger house and starting a family. Then, on a visit back home, Roy is arrested for a crime he did not commit. Jones begins with chapters written from the points of view of her main characters. When Roy goes to prison, it becomes a novel in letters. The epistolary style makes perfect sense. Roy is incarcerated in Louisiana, Celestial is in Atlanta, and Jones’ formal choice underscores their separation. Once Roy is released, the narrative resumes a rotating first person, but there’s a new voice, that of Andre, once Celestial’s best friend and now something more. This novel is peopled by vividly realized, individual characters and driven by interpersonal drama, but it is also very much about being black in contemporary America. Roy is arrested, tried, convicted, and imprisoned in Louisiana, the state with the highest per-capita rate of incarceration in the United States, and where the ratio of black to white prisoners is 4 to 1. There’s a heartbreaking scene in which Celestial’s uncle—Roy’s attorney—encourages her to forget everything she knows about presenting herself while she speaks in her husband’s defense. “Now is not the time to be articulate. Now is the time to give it up. No filter, all heart.” After a lifetime of being encouraged to be “well spoken,” Celestial finds that she sounds false trying to speak unguardedly. “As I took my seat…not even the black lady juror would look at me.” This is, at its heart, a love story, but a love story warped by racial injustice. And, in it, Jones suggests that racial injustice haunts the African-American story.
Orange’s debut novel offers a kaleidoscopic look at Native American life in Oakland, California, through the experiences and perspectives of 12 characters.
An aspiring documentary filmmaker, a young man who has taught himself traditional dance by watching YouTube, another lost in the bulk of his enormous body—these are just a few of the point-of-view characters in this astonishingly wide-ranging book, which culminates with an event called the Big Oakland Powwow. Orange, who grew up in the East Bay and is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, knows the territory, but this is no work of social anthropology; rather, it is a deep dive into the fractured diaspora of a community that remains, in many ways, invisible to many outside of it. “We made powwows because we needed a place to be together,” he writes. “Something intertribal, something old, something to make us money, something we could work toward, for our jewelry, our songs, our dances, our drum.” The plot of the book is almost impossible to encapsulate, but that’s part of its power. At the same time, the narrative moves forward with propulsive force. The stakes are high: For Jacquie Red Feather, on her way to meet her three grandsons for the first time, there is nothing as conditional as sobriety: “She was sober again,” Orange tells us, “and ten days is the same as a year when you want to drink all the time.” For Daniel Gonzales, creating plastic guns on a 3-D printer, the only lifeline is his dead brother, Manny, to whom he writes at a ghostly Gmail account. In its portrayal of so-called “Urban Indians,” the novel recalls David Treuer’s The Hiawatha, but the range, the vision, is all its own. What Orange is saying is that, like all people, Native Americans don’t share a single identity; theirs is a multifaceted landscape, made more so by the sins, the weight, of history. That some of these sins belong to the characters alone should go without saying, a point Orange makes explicit in the novel’s stunning, brutal denouement. “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them,” James Baldwin wrote in a line Orange borrows as an epigraph to one of the book’s sections; this is the inescapable fate of every individual here.
In this vivid and moving book, Orange articulates the challenges and complexities not only of Native Americans, but also of America itself.
The celebrated New Yorker writer and Bancroft Prize winner tells the American story.
“A nation born in revolution will forever struggle against chaos,” writes Lepore (History/Harvard Univ.; Joe Gould’s Teeth, 2016, etc.). In this mammoth, wonderfully readable history of the United States from Columbus to Trump, the author relies on primary sources to “let the dead speak for themselves,” creating an enthralling, often dramatic narrative of the American political experiment based on Thomas Jefferson’s “truths” of political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. The author recounts major events—the Revolution, Civil War, world wars, Vietnam, 9/11, and the war on terror—while emphasizing the importance of facts and evidence in the national story, as well as the roles of slavery (“America’s Achilles’ heel”) and women, both absent in the founding documents. Lepore offers crisp, vivid portraits of individuals from Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine to Liberator writer Maria W. Stewart and preacher David Walker to contemporaries like “rascal” Bill Clinton, sporting a “grin like a 1930s comic-strip scamp.” “To study the past is to unlock the prison of the present,” writes the author, noting recurrent debates about guns, abortion, and race. “Slavery wasn’t an aberration in an industrial economy; slavery was its engine,” she reminds. Throughout, Lepore provides sharp observations (“instead of Marx, America had Thoreau”) and exquisite summaries: In World War I, “machines slaughtered the masses. Europe fell to its knees. The United States rose to its feet.” She discusses the “aching want” of the Depression and the “frantic, desperate, and paranoid” politics of today. Always with style and intelligence, Lepore weaves stories of immigrants and minorities, creates moving scenes (Margaret Fuller’s death in a storm off New York City), and describes the importance of photography and printed newspapers in the lives of a divided people now “cast adrift on the ocean of the Internet.”
A splendid rendering—filled with triumph, tragedy, and hope—that will please Lepore’s readers immensely and win her many new ones.
The author of A God in Ruins (2015) and Life After Life (2013) revisits the Second World War.
Juliet Armstrong is 18 years old and all alone in the world when she’s recruited by MI5. Her job is transcribing meetings of British citizens sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Soon, she’s pulled even deeper into the world of espionage, a world she will ultimately discover is hard to escape—even after she leaves the intelligence service to produce radio programs for the BBC. Atkinson is a careful author, and the title she’s chosen for this novel is more than a description of Juliet’s contribution to the war effort. The concept of writing over or across—meanings available from the Latin roots that make up the word “transcribe”—runs through the book. For example, the British Fascists who think they’re passing secrets to the Third Reich are actually giving them to an English spy; their crimes are both deadly serious and parodic. At the BBC, Juliet creates programming about the past for children, versions of history that rely more on nostalgia than fact. She knows she's creating an idea of England, a scrim to hang over bombed-out buildings and dead bodies. Just as Atkinson's Jackson Brodie novels borrow from mystery but exist in a category apart from that genre, her latest is a sort of demystified thriller. There is intrigue. There are surprises. But the unknowns aren’t always what we think they are. The deepest pleasure here, though, is the author’s language. As ever, Atkinson is sharp, precise, and funny. She might be the best Anglophone author working when it comes to adverbs. Consider this exchange: “Trude suddenly declared vehemently, ‘Let’s hope the Germans bomb us the way they bombed Rotterdam.’ ‘Goodness, why?’ Mrs Scaife asked, rather taken aback by the savagery of this outburst. ‘Because then the cowards in government will capitulate and make peace with the Third Reich.’ ‘Do have a scone,’ Mrs Scaife said appeasingly.”
Another beautifully crafted book from an author of great intelligence and empathy.