Michael On Everything

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Books Read (And Not Read)

April 2024

Every year I challenge myself to read all of the titles on the New York Times’s annual “100 Most Notable Books List,” and every year I fail to clear thirty or forty. I always get sidetracked with other books that have been languishing on my shelf, or I lose precious time getting stuck on one I’m too stubborn to put down, or I’m lured from my sacred mission by the siren song of crappy TV. A few of these columns socked away for the future, I can confidently report I’ve crossed ten items off that list, in part because I promised myself to put down titles I can tell I'll struggle finishing. I’ll account for those in a section below called “And Not Read,” without providing much exegesis beyond how many pages I read before I gave up, no matter how tempted I might be to otherwise to shoot my mouth off. Obviously, I have strong opinions. I’ll make sure I can justify them as much as possible.

I debated whether or not to sequence these reviews alphabetically, either by title or author, but I settled on the unconventional approach of arranging them in the order in which they were read, as occasionally one book led me to another (see what I mean by getting sidtracked?). The letter grades indicate my level of enthusiasm, but really, all four of the main selections are worth your time. More or less. This month, anyway.

book cover, Anansi's Gold, by Yepoka Yeebo

Anansi’s Gold: The Man Who Looted the West, Outfoxed Washington, and Swindled the World

Yepoka Yeebo (Bloomsbury, 2023, 400 pages)

Pretty pointless denying confidence artists fascinate me — in the last decade I've fallen for Amy Reading’s The Mark Inside, two different books on Vermeer forger Hans van Meergeren, and particuarly Fawn Brodie’s masterful, nuanced Joseph Smith bio No Man Knows My History, despite its flaws one of the finest nonfiction works of the twentieth century. Certainly, any writer drawn to duplicity and hucksterism shares that fascination, one would hope from an ethical position of clear−eyed distance.
Perhaps it’s her book’s subtitle, but I can’t help thinking Yeebo, a seasoned journalist and no fool, harbors a bemused admiration for John Ackah Blay−Miezah, the brazen sociopath who spent years drumming up investors for a non−existent “trust fund” supposedly skimmed and socked away by the well−meaning but inefficient Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first post−colonial leader, a reserve so inexhaustible it could enrich his impoverished countrymen and foreign investors…if only J.A. B−M could ease up the bureaucracy of those gosh darn Swiss banks.
Yes, I agree — when considered from our privileged vantage point, hilarious. But while hornswoggling Nixon stooge John Mitchell is one thing (i.e, I approve), Dr. Blay−Miezah didn't just “loot the west” as many would define it — his long−suffering dupes included not only earnest Black businessmen longing to support the mother country, but easy pickings of the blameless, naive sort who might have fallen for the Nigerian prince scam at the dawn of the internet (and no, J.A. B−M wasn't a doctor, either).
Even worse, Our Man In Accra, in the manner of all flimflam men, thrived by emotionally manipulating his fellow Ghanians, burned from decades of British exploitation and the opportunistic parade of homegrown grifters and strongmen who proliferated after the pillagers left to count their spoils. I wish Yeebo had more deeply explored this, a mirror of Trump playing on the despair of alienated working class white Americans decades later — emotional blind spots go far in explaining how someone with even a superficial knowledge of the swift efficiency of modern digital banking, or who understands the requisite logistics of transporting a “billion dollar” cache of gold bricks, could be seduced by an oily cigar chomper with numerous prison spells on his résumé into falling for a Ponzi scheme only slightly more sophisticated than three−card monte.
Still, Yeebo knows a compelling story when she sees one, and I’m sure sorting fact from bullshit from her rogues’ gallery of unreliable sources proved no easy task. So, I guess, consider me…invested?A–
Grade: A–
book cover, You Have to Die Before You Can Begin to Live, by Paul Kix

You Have to Die Before You Can Begin to Live: Ten Weeks in Birmingham That Changed America

Paul Kix (Celadon Books, 2023, 400 pages)

Isolating theatrical flourishes in “dramatic” monostichs as if scoring them to the Law and Order synth stings, Kix is not my idea of a scintillating prose stylist. He likens a community’s conversion to solidarity and civil disobedience to a “metastasis” (i.e., like spreading cancer) and in a passage on after−school programs designed to enlighten young black schoolkids about racism, blunders into using the words “groom” and “children” in the same sentence.
For the most part however, the innately compelling subject matter overwhelms Kix’s occasional verbal clumsiness — the story of Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference confronting Sheriff Bull Connor and the city of Birmingham in the spring of 1963, arguably the watershed moment of the civil rights movement, would be difficult for even the most pedestrian of writers to screw up.
Most of us read King’s masterful “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in high school, but not everyone knows the specific circumstances that culminated in his decision to walk “alone” (alongside SCLC stalwarts Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth) rather than lead a potentially disastrous march, nor of Harry Belafonte’s tireless fundraising acumen, nor of King’s ability to compose a landmark of twentieth−century rhetoric in solitary confinement, without the benefit of Wikipedia or MS Word (modern writers — we’re such wimps).
Also insightful is observing the evolution of King’s emergent leadership, accomplished in part by his impressive ability to juggle opposing factions in his orbit — some more conservative, some more radical — in a manner not dissimilar to Lincoln canvassing his perennially−squabbling presidential cabinet.
Inspirational men deserve a more inspirational chronicler, but even when pitched at the level of a workaday TV movie, these events can't be retold enough.
B+Grade: B+
book cover, Wifedom, by Anna Funder

Wifedom: Mrs. Orwell’s Invisible Life

Anna Funder (Alfred A. Knopf, 2023, 464 pages)

Before I launch into this review proper, I should admit a few cranky prejudices. First, George Orwell is one of the most overrated writers of the twentieth−century — that conservatives have misinterpreted his witless allegories for their own doltish ends proves his fatuousness (if you crave fabulistic fare, try Italo Calvino — he has a better sense of humor).
Second, unveiling the particulars of a woman’s life obscured by her more famous spouse (or for that matter, re−hashing a novel by shifting its point of view to its central female character — anyone remember Lo’s Diary?), no matter how “just” an endeavor, at this date borders on cliché. Orwell may bore me, but then again, Eileen O’Shaughnessy never penned any novels, mediocre or otherwise, currently included in junior high school curricula.
Yet beginning with pointing out in her subtitle that the average book buyer wouldn’t recognize Eileen as anyone other than “Mrs. Orwell,” Anna Funder proves not only that her subject led a life that deserves to be heralded — her unsung wartime heroism, suspiciously unacknowledged in her husband’s contemporaneous memoir, really is extraordinary — but that George’s previous biographers did a sloppy job connecting various dots (misogyny, intimations of repressed homosexuality, Eileen’s editorial hand) that would be pretty obvious to savvy modern readers.
Did they miss these clues because they were men? Men of their time? Stuffy academics? Some combination of the three? Hard to say, because Funder is pretty upfront — admirably so, actually — in admitting her interpretation of the historical record is potentially flawed, not only because Orwell did a damn good job clouding his biographical details, but because her preconceptions may color her conclusions.
But by entertaining the uncomfortable notion that her literary hero was a monumental prick yet still capable of helming “great art” — maybe even because of it — she enters realms of psychological complexity unknown to those content simply to reject artists who fail their personal political correctness smell test. In her “spare time,” Funder is a human rights lawyer. I bet she rarely loses a case.
AGrade: A
book cover, Battle of Ink and Ice, by Darrell Hartman

Battle of Ink and Ice: A Sensational Story of News Barons, North Pole Explorers, and the Making of Modern Media

Darrell Hartman (Viking, 2023, 400 pages)

That title suggests a sweeping George R.R. Martin epic, no? Don’t let the train of sled dogs on the cover get your hopes up, though — despite the suave jacket photo of author Hartman (who passingly resembles shameless Indiana Jones wannabe Don Wildman, host of my Travel Channel guilty pleasure Mysteries at the Museum), the draw here isn’t “adventure” per se.
In fact, Hartman treats the turn−of−the−century race between joyless blowhard⁄public relations nightmare Wiliam Peary and charming fraudster⁄future FDR pardonee Frederic Cook to “discover” the geographic North Pole, which would be the main course in any other book, as a mere side dish. In an unforgettable scene that would have provided a more conventional yarn its climax, Peary’s traveling companion Matthew Henson unwittingly pulls off his hapless boss’s frostbitten toes along with his sock — unforgettable not only for Peary’s blasé reaction, but also in the way Hartman, in kind, recounts it so offhandedly (to hilarious effect, I have to say).
Hartman is far more fascinated with intrigue — not only between Peary and Cook, but between competing newspaper owners at the dawn of modern media, who generate even juicier displays of backstabbing, bad behavior, and cynical one–upsmanship. With the New York Herald’s James Bennett representing the yellow journalism of the future Fox News and the New York Times’ Adolph Ochs the more measured approach of, er, the future New York Times, a theoretically apolitical endeavor of science and exploration in fact divides the public on party lines: grumpy New Englander Peary with the Roosevelt Republicans, the charismatic Cook with the Jennings Bryan populist Democrats.
Given that neither man actually reached the pole, it’s one more reminder that for many people, emotionally based arguments, things they “feel in their gut,” trump scientific evidence, recalling The Panic Virus, Seth Mnookin's superb 2011 account of the so−called “vaccine wars,” which observes some invest less credibility in a nerdily off−putting scientist spouting jargon than a photogenic celebrity espousing quackery.
Perhaps because of that, I think Hartman might have crafted a more compelling book by sidelining the Arctic pioneers and focused instead on early warring media scions learning how to manipulate their reading public for power and profit. Still, I admit laughing out loud at his best line, which comes at the pivotal moment when various fed−up parties demand the Arctic rivals supply their (apparently falsfied and⁄or non−existent) navigational data and Peary and Cook instead sling ad hominem mudpies at each other: “The fur gloves were off now.” Macho!
B+Grade: B+

...and not read:

After Sappho: A Novel

Selby Wynn Schwartz (Liverlight, 2023, 272 pages)

Put down after fifty pages.

The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground From Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar

Franz Nicolay (New Press, 2016, 384 pages)

Put down after two hundred pages.

Up Home: One Girl’s Journey

Ruth J. Simmons (Random House, 2023, 224 pages)

Put down after twenty pages.