The aftermath of a school shooting, told from the point of view of a first-grader who hid with his class in a closet while his 10-year-old brother and 18 others were massacred.
“The thing I later remembered the most about the day the gunman came was my teacher Miss Russell’s breath. It was hot and smelled like coffee.…POP POP POP. It sounded a lot like the sounds from the Star Wars game I sometimes play on the Xbox.” Like Emma Donoghue’s Room, Navin’s debut takes the risk of narrating a gruesome modern tragedy in the voice of a very young player. At 6, Zach Taylor comes only slowly to understand what has happened that day at school. He is with his mother at the hospital waiting to see if his brother, Andy, is among the wounded when his father arrives. “Daddy’s face was like a grayish color, and his mouth looked all funny, with his lower lip pulled down so I could see his teeth….First Mommy’s eyes got really big, and then her whole self started shaking and she started acting crazy. She yelled, 'Jim? Oh my God, no no no no no no no no no!'” Because Andy had oppositional defiant disorder and was routinely unkind to him, Zach wonders at first if perhaps his death will be an improvement. During what he perceives as the “party” that goes on at his house after the massacre, he sequesters himself in his brother’s closet and imagines life as an only child. “Like they could both come to my piano recitals and they could both stay for the whole time.” Soon he sees just how wrong he is, as every cherished ritual of his life is pitched overboard, his mother changes into someone he doesn’t know, and he is tormented by nightmares and uncontrollable rages. Since his parents are preoccupied to the point of cruelty and don’t get him professional help, he is on his own in figuring out how to cope. His touching tactics include assigning colors to his feelings and making paintings of them and studying the “secrets of happiness” purveyed in the Magic Treehouse series. Seems like a lot of people, and not just the ones in this novel, need to reread those books.
A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.
Following the last presidential election, Levitsky (Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America, 2003, etc.) and Ziblatt (Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, 2017, etc.), both professors of government at Harvard, wrote an op-ed column titled, “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” The answer here is a resounding yes, though, as in that column, the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. “Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn’t cause it,” they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.” The authors fault the Republican establishment for failing to stand up to Trump, even if that meant electing his opponent, and they seem almost wistfully nostalgic for the days when power brokers in smoke-filled rooms kept candidacies restricted to a club whose members knew how to play by the rules. Those supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders might take as much issue with their prescriptions as Trump followers will. However, the comparisons they draw to how democratic populism paved the way toward tyranny in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere are chilling. Among the warning signs they highlight are the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as well as Trump’s demonization of political opponents, minorities, and the media. As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that “a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits,” though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles.
The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.
A Mexican-American student of international relations becomes a United States Border Patrol agent to learn what he can’t in the classroom.
Cantú is a talented writer who knows where to find great material, even as he risks losing his soul in the process. His Mexican mother had worked as a ranger in West Texas, and he had an affinity for the region that spurred his departure from academic life to learn firsthand about patrolling the border and determining the fates of the Mexicans who dared to cross it. Some were selling drugs, and others just wanted a better life; some had to work with a drug cartel in order to finance their escape. The author was by all accounts a good agent for some five years, upholding the law without brutalizing those he captured for deportation, as some agents did. But he feared what the experience was doing to him. He had trouble sleeping and suffered disturbing dreams, and he felt he was becoming desensitized. His mother warned him, “we learn violence by watching others, by seeing it enshrined in institutions. Then, even without our choosing it, it begins to seem normal to us, it even becomes part of who we are.” Cantú left the field for a desk job and became more reflective and more disturbed; eventually, he returned to scholarship with a research grant. But then a man he knew and liked through a daily coffee shop connection ran afoul of the border authorities after returning to Mexico to visit his dying mother and trying to return to his home and family. His plight and the author’s involvement in it, perhaps an attempt to find personal redemption, puts a human face on the issue and gives it a fresh, urgent perspective. “There are thousands of people just like him, thousands of cases, thousands of families,” writes Cantú, who knows the part he played in keeping out so many in similar situations.
A devastating narrative of the very real human effects of depersonalized policy.
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.
The former vice president turns in an affecting memoir that recounts personal tragedies and political triumphs.
“The bigger the highs, the deeper the troughs.” So writes Biden (Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics, 2007, etc.) who, over a long career in politics, has seen plenty of both. On the positive side, he enumerates with pride and a certain wonkiness, are his achievements in law enforcement reform, health care, and foreign policy—achievements sometimes thwarted by the political opposition. As to the depths of despair, he had to endure the deaths of his first wife and baby daughter in a car accident and, later, that of a survivor of that crash, his son Beau, who died of a lingering, devastating cancer. A letter from Vicki Kennedy, Ted Kennedy’s widow, quoting her father-in-law on the sorrow of losing a child, provides a touch of inspiration in a narrative grown understandably somber; in it, Kennedy Sr. urged that, in time, “because there is a world to be lived in, you find yourself part of it, trying to accomplish something.” The promise Beau extracted before dying speaks to that effort to accomplish—including, in the past, advances in LGBT civil rights and, now, a new attention to corporate responsibility in the face of growing inequality. Putting on his old campaigner’s hat, he recounts a trope from the past that resounds in the present: “a secure and growing middle class is why America has had the most stable political democracy in the world. If we lose that…no amount of money will hold back the anger and the pitchforks.” Biden is discreet in naming names that others might revile, but he offers tantalizing hints that, following a conversation with President Barack Obama—not always an easy man to work with, he allows, but a supremely principled one—about what to do upon leaving office, his plans might just include a return to public life, a duty, he writes, that “makes me nostalgic for the future.”
Could this signal an opening salvo in the 2020 presidential campaign? Many readers will hope so.
The terrible beauty of life along the nation’s lower margins is summoned in this bold, bright, and sharp-eyed road novel.
In present-day Mississippi, citizens of all colors struggle much as their ancestors did against the persistence of poverty, the wages of sin, and the legacy of violence. Thirteen-year-old Jojo is a sensitive African-American boy living with his grandparents and his toddler sister, Kayla, somewhere along the Gulf Coast. Their mother, Leonie, is addicted to drugs and haunted by visions of her late brother, Given, a local football hero shot to death years before by a white youth offended at being bested in some supposedly friendly competition. Somehow, Leonie ends up marrying Michael, the shooter's cousin, who worked as a welder on the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon oil rig. The novel’s main story involves a road trip northward to the Mississippi State Penitentiary, where Michael’s about to be released from prison. Leonie, very much a hot mess, insists on taking both children along to pick up their father even though it’s clear from the start that Jojo—who's more nurturing to his sister than their mother is—in no way wants to make the journey, especially with his grandmother dying from cancer. Along the way, Jojo finds he’s the only one who sees and speaks to another spirit: Richie, an ill-fated friend of his grandfather’s who decades before was imprisoned at a brutal work camp when he was slightly younger than Jojo. Ward, a National Book Award winner for Salvage the Bones, (2011), has intimate knowledge of the Gulf Coast and its cultural complexities and recounts this jolting odyssey through the first-person voices of Jojo, Leonie, and occasionally Richie. They each evoke the swampy contours of the scenery but also the sweat, stickiness, and battered nerves that go along with a road trip. It’s a risky conceit, and Ward has to work to avoid making her narrators sound too much like poets. But any qualms are overpowered by the book’s intensely evocative imagery, musical rhetoric, and bountiful sympathy toward even the most exasperating of its characters. Remorse stalks the grown-ups like a search party, but grace in whatever form seems ready to salve their wounds, even the ones that don’t easily show.
As with the best and most meaningful American fiction these days, old truths are recast here in new realities rife with both peril and promise.
A recent Cambridge University doctorate debuts with a wrenching account of her childhood and youth in a strict Mormon family in a remote region of Idaho.
It’s difficult to imagine a young woman who, in her teens, hadn’t heard of the World Trade Center, the Holocaust, and virtually everything having to do with arts and popular culture. But so it was, as Westover chronicles here in fairly chronological fashion. In some ways, the author’s father was a classic anti-government paranoiac—when Y2K failed to bring the end of the world, as he’d predicted, he was briefly humbled. Her mother, though supportive at times, remained true to her beliefs about the subordinate roles of women. One brother was horrendously abusive to the author and a sister, but the parents didn’t do much about it. Westover didn’t go to public school and never received professional medical care or vaccinations. She worked in a junkyard with her father, whose fortunes rose and fell and rose again when his wife struck it rich selling homeopathic remedies. She remained profoundly ignorant about most things, but she liked to read. A brother went to Brigham Young University, and the author eventually did, too. Then, with the encouragement of professors, she ended up at Cambridge and Harvard, where she excelled—though she includes a stark account of her near breakdown while working on her doctoral dissertation. We learn about a third of the way through the book that she kept journals, but she is a bit vague about a few things. How, for example, did her family pay for the professional medical treatment of severe injuries that several of them experienced? And—with some justification—she is quick to praise herself and to quote the praise of others.
An astonishing account of deprivation, confusion, survival, and success.
From the prolific Bloom, whose novels and short stories have often explored the complexity of sexuality and gender (Lucky Us, 2014, etc.), a bio-fiction about the romance between Eleanor Roosevelt and journalist Lorena Hickok told from Hickok’s perspective.
Lorena’s winning narrative voice is tough, gossipy, and deeply humane. Her storytelling begins and continually circles back to shortly after FDR’s death. On the last weekend in April 1945, a grieving Eleanor has summoned Lorena to her Manhattan apartment years after having sent her away. Now in late middle-age, the two fall into their ingrained routine as lovers—and has anyone written about middle-aged women’s bodies and sexuality with Bloom’s affectionate grace? Lorena’s enduring love for Eleanor does not blind her to the reality of the two women’s differences: “Her propriety, my brass knuckles.” Bloom mostly depicts already familiar details of Eleanor’s history, character, and personality. More riveting are Lorena’s memories of her early life before Eleanor, from a dirt-poor childhood to a brief circus career described in arrestingly colorful detail to work as a journalist forbidden to publish her suspicion that Lindbergh staged a coverup concerning his baby’s kidnapping. Lorena and Eleanor fell in love shortly before FDR won the presidency. Given his own complicated love life, FDR accepted the affair and got Lorena a job with his administration. Lorena, far from saintly, continues to love Eleanor almost despite recognizing that Eleanor cannot help living a “sainted life.” The complexity of their mutual attraction is one of the joys of the book, particularly when Lorena recalls an Eleanor tender and even girlish during a private driving vacation to Maine they took without a Secret Service escort. Having lived as an intimate outsider within the FDR White House, Lorena also offers her admittedly biased take on the confidential crises, tragedies, and peccadilloes of the Roosevelt household.
Bloom elevates this addition to the secret-lives-of-the-Roosevelts genre through elegant prose and by making Lorena Hickok a character engrossing enough to steal center stage from Eleanor Roosevelt.
In the shadow of Charlottesville, a journalistic account of some of the extreme right’s players.
Evil is not entirely banal, but it is entirely commonplace. Aided and abetted by the rise of Donald Trump, the extremist white-nationalist movement has been gaining strength, its numbers swelled by “the marginalized, disaffected, and lost [who] were the radical right’s ideal audience.” What’s in it for them? Writes journalist Tenold, who covered the Anders Breivik case in his native Norway—Breivik, “a man who believed that the white race was at war,” massacred 77 summer campers—the payoff is belonging in a movement where they no longer “feel invisible.” Does that moment ever really come? For the rank and file, perhaps not; one whom the author profiles aspires to nothing more than a double-wide, a wife and kid, and a gun. The leaders, formerly shadowy types now propelled onto the main stage, are cashing in more handily as they harp on the supposed victimization of the white race in the hands of its nonwhite enemies. Some of these leaders are comparatively polished; the star of the show, a supremacist Tenold calls Matthew, thinks himself a scholar and is impatient with unsophisticated Klan and neofascist types whose political commitment extends to shouts of “white power!” Matthew cut his teeth in a pro–Western civilization group at college, fell in with supremacists at—naturally—the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, and moved from pondering the “Jewish question,” which “boils down to whether Jews should be considered white and what their place in (white-led) society should be,” to propagandizing for a nationalist utopia. Thankfully, Tenold avoids the dangers of normalizing monsters even as he admits to liking Matthew’s “upbeat and friendly” manner. In the end, the author wonders whether the extremists are not superfluous given that “white supremacy is doing just fine without the far right.”
For those interested in charting the currents of domestic terrorism, a well-reported if dispiriting chronicle.