Crap. Once again I’ve fallen behind on accounting for my books. It’s not like I’ve been blowing through them, either. I’m still on, roughly, book/week pace. But it’s been taking more more like 10-12 days to knock out most of these. The bigger problem is I had four straight books I had on hold at the library come in, so I’ve been trying to bear down and get them all knocked out in my window of opportunity. I managed to get three done, but the fourth I had to return before I could start and it will have to go back on the list.
The Nickel Boys – Colson Whitehead
Whitehead always takes on race in America from an interesting and fresh perspective. In this book he examines how young, black men have always been the targets of an unfair criminal justice system.
The book is centered on Elwood Curtis, a teenager in civil rights-era Florida being raised by his grandmother after his parents disappeared. The only record she allows him to listen to is one of Martin Luther King Jr’s speech, and he listens to it over-and-over, until it becomes a model for his life. He is a good student, kind to others, and doesn’t tolerate those who act out. After a high school teacher presents him with an opportunity to attend a protest in Tallahassee, Elwood joins the civil rights movement. His good grades also earn him a chance to take college courses while still in high school. He must bike or hitch to the college, and one day the ride he accepts turns out to be with a man in a stolen car. When the police pull them over Elwood is charged as an accomplice and, despite his clean record, sent to the Nickel Academy, an infamous home for boys.
Elwood gets sucked into the gut of the criminal justice beast at Nickel. He perseveres despite numerous beatings and other ill treatment until he cracks and attempts an escape.
Parts of the story are told from future Elwood, as he is building a life in New York in the early 1970s, as he presides over a self-made business in the 1980s and 1990s, and later as he confronts his experience at Nickel after an unmarked grave is found on the academy’s former site. Eventually we learn that adult Elwood is not who we thought he was, and reveal of the true fate of that boy is devastating.
Whitehead is such a good writer, and this is another wonderful entry into his already magnificent catalog. He somehow makes a story both terrible and uplifting, and finds hope in moments of tragedy.
Open: Inside the Ropes at Bethpage Black – John Feinstein
Hey, another Feinstein book about golf! This one is set up a little differently. While it focuses on the 2002 US Open at Bethpage Black golf course on Long Island, it is as much about how the Open came to be staged at that public golf course than the tournament itself.1 He traces that journey from some rounds by USGA executives on the course in the early ‘90s, when it was in serious disrepair; through the negotiations to bring the tournament there and how the USGA, the state of New York, NBC, and others worked to make it a reality; detailed accountings of how all the most important people at Bethpage worked over five years to pull the tournament off in the shadow of 9/11; and how the success of the ’02 tournament opened the door for other public courses to host the championship.
My favorite part of the book was when Feinstein was digging into the late 1990s PGA/USGA TV contract negotiations. It was a huge deal when NBC nabbed rights from ABC, and he does a tremendous job going through all the ebbs-and-flows of that process.
Fleishman Is In Trouble – Taffy Brodesser-Akner
This book was a whiplash book: it started taking me hard one way, then suddenly whipped me back the opposite direction.
It begins taking us into the life of Toby Fleishman, a physician in his early 40s in New York who is in the process of getting a divorce and is suddenly having amazing amounts of sex with women he meets online. Even he is stunned at how aggressive these lonely, horny women around Manhattan seem to be. He never had much luck with the ladies, owing largely to his height: on a good day he’s 5’7”. Despite being honest about his stature, Toby is getting L-A-I-D and while he doesn’t understand it, he’s not complaining. The first quarter of the book is hilarious as he attempts to figure out what the hell is going on.
Soon the book shifts, though, as he wakes up one morning to find his two kids in his apartment. They were supposed to be with their mother, a high-profile talent agent, but were dropped off by her silently in the night before she disappears. A teenage daughter with an attitude and a sensitive 10-year-old son are a serious cock block on Toby’s new life. Worse, his wife refuses to answer his calls or messages.
Eventually this gets concerning as her time away stretches into the weeks.
We begin to learn about Toby’s marriage, and how it fell apart slowly over the years as his wife changed after having children. One of the real interesting angles of the book is its narrator: she is Toby’s college friend who lives on Long Island with her family after chucking her journalism career for life as a full-time mom. She clues us into Toby’s hopeless college years, the wonderful early years of his life with his future wife, their relatively normal marriage, and then its utter breakdown as his wife’s career took off.
Ahh, but there’s another twist. After a couple hundred pages of us being offered Toby as the party in the right, his college pal runs into the ex-wife. And she is an absolute mess. Then we get to learn her story, and we see while Toby is not to blame, perhaps neither is the wife. What began as a hilarious sex-romp turns into a devastating accounting of how a woman can crack under the pressure of trying to have it all, and how society often isn’t willing or able to help those women.
Brodesser-Akner pulls a lot of angles into her story. There’s the eternal struggle to balance family and career we all face, the unfair expectations put on both men and women, what happens when one partner isn’t as successful as the other, the way divorce affects children, the pressures to keep up with your social circle, changing sexual norms, and so on. It’s a really good story, and she blends all of this into it nicely.
What stuck with me the most was one character that Toby dates. While they hook up often and Toby shares his current situation rather early on, she holds back, refusing to share much about her past. When she does, we learn that she still lives under the shadow of a brutally cruel and disappointing marriage. Toby urges her to break out from it using their relationship as the starting point, but she refuses for a variety of reasons. She does eventually relent and makes steps to change her life, and in that moment Toby discovers that when she becomes more than a sex object to him, he suddenly isn’t interested. In a book full of difficult moments, this is the one that I keep thinking about.
American Spy – Lauren Wilkinson
Another book that tackles all kinds of big issues like race, gender roles, family, the relationship between world powers and smaller countries, and how personal politics interact with global politics. Oh, and it’s another debut novel that pisses me off because it is so good.
As the title suggests, this is presented as a spy novel. The main character, Marie, is the daughter of a mixed-race native of the Caribbean and a black New York cop. She joins the FBI and is eventually pulled into an assignment for what she believes to be the CIA in the African nation of Burkina Faso in 1987. The story begins with her fighting off an attacker in her home in the early 1990s and then fleeing with her young twin sons to her mother’s home on the island of Martinique.
The rest of the tale is told as a memoir she is writing to her sons to explain their family tree and her life and decisions in case she does not survive to tell them herself. We learn of her mother’s childhood, one in which her light skin allowed her to float between the black and white worlds. We learn of the early years of her parents’ marriage, and Marie’s relationship with her older sister, who died under mysterious circumstances in the 1970s. We follow her as she struggles to carve out a career in the FBI, an organization that in the 1980s that didn’t know what to do with a black woman. And then comes her assignment with the assumed CIA contacts, which sends her to Africa to work with her sister’s former lover in an attempt to undermine Thomas Sankara, the Marxist leader of Burkina Faso. There she learns the truth of who she is working for and how she is a part of a mission that will lead to the man she love’s death.
It is a fascinating story that never fully commits to an angle. It flits from spy novel to family memoir to statement on race and gender to how honest we must be with our children about where they come from and the mistakes we’ve made as parents. Wilkinson manages this balance deftly.
1. There has been another US Open there since, this year’s PGA championship was there, and the 2024 Ryder Cup will be there.