COLSON WHITEHEAD’S, “THE NICKEL BOYS.”


Colson Whitehead’s novel, “The Nickel Boys,” is not the type of book you pick up if you are seriously depressed, or for that matter, in a very happy mood. It is the type of book that like Conrad’s, “Heart of Darkness,” uncovers a horrifying truth that far too many people are unaware of or simply refuse to acknowledge and like Conrad wrote in Lord Jim “It’s extraordinary how we go through life with eyes half shut, with dull ears, with dormant thoughts.” (If it sounds like I am writing a review on Conrad I assure you I am not. Conrad is my favorite author and while mentioning him in relation to Mr. Whitehead’s novel I am giving Mr. Whitehouse the highest praise I could write about a writer).

“The Nickel Boys,” is based loosely on Ben Montgomery’s reporting for the Tampa Bay Times on the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida.

The main character is Elwood Curtis, a young black, talented, educated teenage boy who lives with his grandmother after his mother and father left Tallahassee and Elwood, and moved to California in the 1960’s. His future is bright and he has just been accepted at a highly acclaimed school, but like so many black teenagers he is arrested unfairly and sent to juvenile reformatory called the ‘The Nickel Academy.’

The Academy is the worse nightmare that one could impose on a teenager. The men in charged are racist, mean-spirited, cruel, and in short, run a chamber of horrors. Elwood survives by reciting quotes to himself from Martin Luther King, and reading anything he can get his hands on. He is not the type to cause trouble and he forms a relationship with another boy, Turner, who thinks Elwood is naive and doesn’t see the world for how crooked it really is, yet despite this they do look out for each other and their bond is strong.

Elwood, despite being a quiet and obeying student, is nevertheless tortured by his white superiors in charge and is left with scares on his legs that are grotesque and mind altering.

It is the ramifications from this type of cruelty, that lead Elwood and Turner down a path that is both riveting and terrifying and takes the reader on a journey of discovery … that there are two Americans, especially in the south right up through the 1970’s: one for the privileged whites and one for the lowly blacks and how that discrimination is passed down from one generation to another.

This is a great book, and I want to thank my friend Lorna for recommending the works of Colson Whitehead to me. This is certainly not the last book I will be reading by this author. 

“ELEANOR,” BY DAVID MICHAELIS.

The “Roosevelts” are a political Dynasty the likes that we will probably never see again in American history. From the time President Theodore Roosevelt got into politics in the late 1890’s, to the time of Eleanor Roosevelt’s death in 1962 they were a dominant force whose policies, contributions, and aura were the face of America throughout the world.

Eleanor Roosevelt, who died at seventy-nine, outlived her uncle Teddy, who died at sixty, and her husband FDR, who died at sixty-three. Eleanor was the favorite niece of President Theodore Roosevelt, and if one were to ask who she was most like it was, in my opinion, her uncle Teddy. They possessed limitless amounts of energy, fought tirelessly for progressive causes, and believed that since they were lucky to be born rich they owed their country and the less fortunate much more, and they both left behind a written and oral history of their thoughts and ideas that historians are still and forever finding and reviewing.

David Michaelis biography, “Eleanor,” is a comprehensive history of this extraordinary woman whose childhood was anything but normal. Her mother died when she was five years old and her father Elliot, who she adored, died from alcoholism at age fifty. She lived with different relatives and her grandma on her mother’s side until her late teens. At a very young age, she possessed many of the prejudices of her relatives calling blacks and Jews by repugnant nicknames, but all this would slowly change as she visited the drenches during World War 1 and sat beside wounded soldiers and it would really take off during the husband’s long presidency and never let up. Whereas, her husband lacked empathy, she made up for it in a way that even FDR was hopeless to do anything about it.

She made it known that the internment of Japanese Americans during World War 2 was unconstitutional and Un-American. That the segregated US army represented everything, we as a nation were fighting against in World War 2. She was appalled by the lack of sympathy showed by her husband’s administration and both political parties when it came to the Nazi extermination of the Jews, and our country’s unwillingness to take in what amounted to nearly nothing when we could have taken in millions of Jews who died in concentration camps.

After her husband’s death her crusade for a United Nations that kept countries from going to war was unrelenting if not futile, but that did not stop the Soviet representatives and other countries unfriendly to the US from getting up and applauding this amazing woman’s efforts. She fought tirelessly against segregation and the Jim Crow south, for the rights of women and fair wages, and went after Senator Joe McCarthy and his committee on Un-American activities.

What I have written here is just a small part of this woman’s life that the author Mr. Michaelis’ writes about. He writes about the many intimate relationships her husband had with other women, and in turn, her many intimate relationships while married, and after the passing of FDR. He also writes about the strange relationship between her husband’s mother, Sara, and Eleanor.

It’s as though she lived three lives and I can honestly say she drastically help transform America for the better and she is undeniably one of the most important Americans our country has ever produced.

  Review of Andrés G. López, “Cooperstown Picasso.”

              

Review of Andrés G. López, “Cooperstown Picasso.”

During the 1990’s, it became commonplace for me to travel to New York the second week of October. One reason was simply to visit my family, and the second reason was because it was during the weekend of the second week that my brothers, friends, and I, all originally from the Bronx, would travel to this enchanted little town in Central New York called Cooperstown.

Naturally, Cooperstown to most baseball fans and even non-baseball fans is the home of The Baseball Hall of Fame. Strangely enough, if you didn’t know the Hall of Fame was in this beautiful and magical town you could easily walk by it and not even notice this so-called monument to the greatest baseball players of all time and that is ideally the way it should be, in my opinion.

When you walk through the town, nestled alongside the picturesque Lake Otsego, it is hard not to imagine that once upon a time most of America was similar to this town with quaint restaurants and bars, bookstores, colonial homes, adjacent farms, lake side homes, friendly and courteous citizens, and happy and cheerful children playing baseball while their parents look on. You doubt that any movie studio could re-create the enchantment of such a place, possibly the façade, but never the heart and soul of the people who live here or visit.

“Cooperstown Picasso” captures vividly the ambiance and vitality of this lovely town. Novelist Andrés López takes us behind the façade that we see when we walk the streets of Cooperstown, visit its restaurants and bars, and admire its glorious architecture and pristine natural beauty. It is a gripping, suspenseful, and emotionally rich tale wrought with lies, scandals, marital infidelities, and much, much more. The main character, Dr. Tobias Pi, a divorced literature professor teaching at Pleasant Hills College, is the unsuspecting witness, and eventually a target, of many unseemly activities taking place in Cooperstown.

The novel opens up with Dr. Pi teaching Shakespeare’s sonnet 55, a poem with great relevance to the story because it explores the romantic imagination, outlook, and the basis of genuine inspiration. While marble and golden monuments, the speaker claims, will be destroyed in war and savaged by time, the written poem, the “living record” of love, will live on in the fair memory of the young, preserved eternally by language that is masterfully wrought:

Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme,
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn,
And broils root out the work of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till the Judgement that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.

A powerful theme in the novel is thus that great art is life affirming, enriching, and that it elevates and sustains humanity through its darkest and bleakest times. Like the character Jay Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s tragic novel, Dr. Pi is an optimist who tries to move beyond a debilitating past with courage and conviction because he believes that love can work miracles, fill one with hope, and that the good in people far outweighs their human frailties.

Pi is fifty -one years old and lives in a large, old Victorian home in Pleasant Hills, and once a week he goes up to Cooperstown to teach a writing class to nurse practitioners. The distance from Pleasant Hills to Cooperstown is about an hour, and the hilly terrain, narrow roads, and wintry weather makes for some very exciting action scenes. Mr. López knows this country and terrain very well, and he uses it to perfection, and, in a sense, it symbolically becomes an important character in the story.

Except for Dr. Pi’s visits to Cooperstown, he lives a fairly simple life. He lives alone. His daughter, Constance, has moved to NYC and his son, Christopher, lives in Vermont with his family. Each night before falling asleep he texts each child a “Good-night, Love you, Dad.” His ex-wife whom he still loves lives in San Diego where she takes care of her parents. During the many quiet hours Dr. Pi spends alone he often thinks of his sister Maria, a gifted pianist, who was tragically killed in an accident when she was just sixteen. He used to love hearing her play music, and, as a nine-year-old, would sit next to her and turn the pages of her music book as she practiced. These are haunting memories, along with the loss of his mother, Miriam. Dr. Pi is also a musician and plays the guitar and many of his original compositions to relax. He usually falls asleep watching scientific shows on TV.

Like so many lonely men, Dr. Pi falls into an online relationship with a beautiful and talented young Russian woman, Katerina, who is twenty-four and now lives in Poland. They text and post pictures of themselves on Instagram, and he depends on her texts and pictures to cheer and inspire him. He knows the idea of a fifty-one-year-old man and a twenty-four-year beauty ever having an intimate and loving relationship is insane but that does not stop him from seriously thinking of going to visit her in Poland, or inviting her to his home, all expenses paid.

During his once-a-week trip to Cooperstown to teach the nurse practitioners, he arrives early and sits on a bench close to the water. He is totally alone until out of nowhere an attractive lady, Janet Brayden, sits on the bench beside him. They exchange pleasantries but that’s about all, and after about fifteen minutes she gets up and leaves. Pi doesn’t give it much thought until a few weeks later, while in Cooperstown and eating at a bar and restaurant, she approaches his table and reminds him of the night they were sitting on the bench. He invites her to sit down, and they converse about themselves. She tells him that she’s a painter and invites him to her house to look at and possibly buy some of her art.

It doesn’t take him long to visit Janet. She’s not only an artist but is very pretty and in her mid- forties, much closer in age than Katerina. Janet shows him her studio, and eventually her gallery, which was once a barn, and now is a showcase for her beautiful paintings. Pi buys a few paintings, and after another visit they start sleeping together, and she invites him over to Christmas dinner to meet her gifted son, Phillip, who is a talented pianist and loves playing the music of the masters.

It is during these visits to and from Janet’s house that Pi becomes embroiled in a mystery, and he ponders whether his own life is in peril. The more that Janet’s turbulent past becomes the narrative’s central focus, and the greater the number of her lies that are uncovered, the more and more thrilling and suspenseful this beautifully crafted book becomes. Pi’s mysterious Russian beauty, Katerina, meanwhile, lingers in the background, and keeps a reader guessing, wondering what role she’ll ultimately play in Dr. Pi’s fate.

Mr. López’s novel reads as gracefully and beautifully as seeing Joe DiMaggio playing centerfield in the old Yankee Stadium. The numerous artistic references made throughout the story are as enchanting and spell binding as the uplifting movements of Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

                 

“OCTOBER 1964,” BY DAVID HALBERSTAM

As a child in the mid-sixties and after as a teenager through 1970’s it was baffling to me how one league could dominate another league in the All-Star game. At one point the National league beat the American league like 19 out of 20 games. Statistically, it literally seemed impossible, especially since a pennant winning team who won 100 games, lost 62 games.

Throughout most of the 20th century it was said that baseball was a reflection of the country at the time, and in many ways it was, as were many corporations.

In 1947 the great Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, and the Dodgers went on to sign a number of outstanding black ballplayers and after awhile the rest of the National league caught on and started signing the likes Willie Mays, Hank Arron, Bob Gibson, Lou Block. Wille McCovery, Curt Floyd, and the list goes on and on.

Now, there was no secret how great the potential these ballplayers possessed and the Yankees could have signed Wille Mays but past on him simply because he was black and the Yankee front office was racist, as were most of the many American league teams.

Despite cries from the legendary Babe Ruth and Ted Williams that it was a disgrace that more black ballplayers weren’t in the majors it seemed to fall on deaf ears in the American league front officers.
The Kansas City Monarch’s of the Negro league, at certain times, had so many future major league superstars on their team that they could have easily competed against nearly any team in both the American and National league.

As I learned more and more about baseball, a sport I truly love, I came to realize that it wasn’t such a surprise that the National League won so many All-Star games. They possessed the cream of the crop, the very best in either league, and they were mostly black ballplayers who the American league passed on.

David Halberstam, one of my favorite historians, dissects the aging and ailing Yankee team in 1964 and the great black stars the St. Louis Cardinals had on their team…top among them Hall of Framer Bob Gibson and Lou Block.

But, he goes much further than just that series and gives us a disturbing look at the history of baseball. A history fulled with a profusion of racism, and corrupt ownership that tried to steal any penny they could from the players.

He also gives us a portrait of ballplayers like Bob Gibson, Lou Block, Mickey Mantle, and Whitey Ford that shows their competitiveness, humanity, and a willingness to play severely hurt that would sideline 95 percent of the players of today. Baseball fan or not, I strongly recommend this book.

ALICE HOFFMAN’S, “FAITHFUL”

Ms. Hoffman’s, “Faithful” is not the literary gems that “The Dovekeepers,” and “The World We Knew” I felt were. There is no magic, spells, or unearthly but loving creatures in this book. This is a book about grief, penance, and redemption. It is exactly the lack of magic that makes this book so magical.

Shelby and her closest friend Helene, take out Shelby’s car on a miserable, icy night on Long Island. Shelby does not want to go, but Helene talks her into it. Shelby, who maybe puts on her seatbelt 3 out of 10 times, fastens up this night. Helene, who always puts on her seatbelt, doesn’t as she is too busy talking. They skid off the road and crash. Shelby is pulled from the wreckage with a minor injury, and Helene is left in a comatose state.

The grief that Shelby feels is overwhelming. They were both getting ready to graduate from high school and were getting ready to go off to college. Shelby is put into a psychiatric ward for three months where she is abused and when released spends all her time in the basement of her family’s home, occasionally escaping to buy weed from a boy named Ben.

Ben and Shelby eventually move to Manhattan and share a small apartment. Shelby, at first doesn’t want to communicate with other humans, and so she steals a number of dogs who were being mistreated and who give her great comfort. It is from here that her overwhelming grief starts to lessen just a bit, and we see the slow but painful recovery from the grief and the discovery of a future.

This is a painful, but beautiful story. It is all so very human. It might not be a literary gem, but my God it is a mesmerizing book.

Graeme Ratcliffe’s review of Fields of Grace

Wendy Waters has managed to achieve something not often found in the contemporary novel. Her marvellously entertaining book, Fields of Grace, is at once literary yet as plot-driven as a spy thriller. Some writers are quite utilitarian in their use of language, they write well, often very well, but they render in charcoal. Ms Waters does not. She is Monet with a pen, and though her colours shine, they never detract from the drawing beneath, a well-structured and gripping yarn. Gripping, not only because of the emotional investment we can’t help but make in her lovingly realised characters, but also because of the care she takes with their backstories and their various fascinating, quirky, frequently amusing, sometimes sad and, at one point, truly terrifying journeys. From the opening pages I found myself intrigued by Grace Fielders, a woman with a past as exotic, mysterious and hidden as her old trunk, locked away, unopened for so many years. This trunk serves purposes historical, romantic and magical, a capsule to another time and place, the girl who still dances within the dying flesh of this determined yet gentle, ancient lady. A former actress from mystical, rural Devon, Grace relates to her granddaughter, Sam, the untold, erstwhile secret story of her early life, the world she knew before her life became mundane. We find her in the company of an eclectic group of stoically happy, yet emotionally unfulfilled, denizens of 1930s London, boarding at Wyncote House in Gloucester Mews. It is a cozy, very English place, but Grace will not be there for long. Talented and determined she soon finds herself launched into the dazzling world of the theatre. It is here that we meet the famous personalities. Woven seamlessly into the narrative, they tumble out in affectionate and sometime hilarious detail. We find John Gielgud nibbling on cake crumbs from his plate while he sips his tea and gossips resolutely. We are party to the shenanigans of Peggy Ashcroft, the saltiness of Harry Andrews and so much more, all these characters speaking in a voice ringing with authenticity. This is a world now gone but delicious to encounter, even if we might only take a tiny peek. Ms. Waters evokes, with a keen eye, the hazardous world of the theatre in a way that might find the reader giggling, if not contorted in a belly laugh, especially if the reader has ever dared to tread the boards. However, I have barely scratched the surface; there is so much more to this woman’s life. Suffice to say, from the curtain calls of the West End to the back alleys of Nazi Berlin to enigmatic ‘amberglow’, Fields of Grace is a thought provoking, intriguing, sometimes rollicking, sometimes distressing, world-class yet, still largely, hidden treasure. Take her key and unlock Grace’s hidden dusty trunk; you won’t be disappointed.

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“FREEDOM’S DAUGHTERS,’ BY LYNNE OLSON.

If you knew nothing about the civil rights movement, about the prejudice against black Americans, from the 1830’s (the book starts around the 1830’s, but slavery goes all the way back to 1619) to the 1970’s you might think that many stories in this books were made up by a demonic, unstable, writer but sadly that is not true and the demonic forces, at this very moment in time, seem to be making an astonishing comeback thanks to the Republican Party and men like Trump, and Governor Abbot in Texas.

Lynne Olson, author of “Freedom’s Daughters,” is an amazing historian, a wonderful writer, but what I like most about her is that she brings to the forefront the unsung heroes in her books, whether it be a little known US ambassador to Britain that stressed over and over again to President Roosevelt the need to help Great Britain before we got involved in the War, or the brilliant Polish Pilots who without their help the British would have most likely been conquered by the Nazis.

In “Freedom’s Daughters,” Ms. Olson shines a bright and blinding light on the women of the civil rights movement of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s who by every measure were the back bone behind the movement and whose courage was nothing short of heroic in the the face of lynching, rape, and the bombing of their homes (just to mention a few things). Many were the recruiters who went out and got other blacks involved through out the southern states and Northern Universities, the organizers behind the boycotts, the integration of the schools, the right to vote, fund raising, and who put pressure on Washington D.C. to do something about the ‘rights’ they were guaranteed and were denied by the white supremacist Senators, Governors, mayors, school boards, and police in the southern states. A few of the names of these tenacious leaders are: Diane Nash, Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Eleanor Roosevelt (who did much more than her husband to desegregate the army, the schools, and fighting for equal rights for all men and all women, black, or white) Dorothy Zellner, Donna Richards, Virginia Durr, and Rosa Parks who was famous for not giving up her seat on the bus but who had been active in the civil rights movement ten years previous and many years after.

This is the most important book I have read this year, and what I have written about is a tiny sample of the scope of this book and the civil rights movement, which, in turn, paved the path for the women’s movement, the gay movement, etc.

In closing, I just want to share a story. I cannot count the amount of people who have complained to me about how sick and tired they are of blacks and women in general always complaining, and they always seem to add and, “My God, they’ve already had a black president.”

And my replied is always the same, “Well, they have only been here for 400 years. I wouldn’t consider one in 400 very good odds. Whereas, it only took Catholics, who did not come in great numbers until the late 1890’s, only 70 years to elect a President. And as for women they have been here since Plymouth Rock, and outnumber males and yet not one has become President.”

“Nathalie, Confessions of a Fashion Model.”


What can I say? I picked up this book in the hope of learning something about Fashion models that I did not know. Instead, the first twenty pages and the last thirty pages are like reading a piece written by Marjorie Taylor Greene. I know, that is hard to believe because I’m quite sure Mrs. Greene doesn’t know how to write, or read, or put together a coherent thought.

I did learn a few things about the industry during the middle of the book and I am thankful for that. I just need to do further research to make sure it is true.

“ALL WILL BE REVEALED,” BY OLIVER CASH

Many years ago, I was sitting on a beach blanket on a secluded part of a beach in Malibu, Ca. I would go there about twice a week and marvel at the beauty of the ocean and the sea life, occasionally catching a glance at one of the beautiful young ladies passing by.

I would always bring a book, and a copy of that day’s New York Times. The New York Times has been a stable in my life for over fifty years and despite what many of my conservative friends believe: It is not a liberal rag. Yes, its editorials and opinions might lean toward the left but its reporting of the news, and its reporters are simply the best. At least, in my opinion.

On this particular day, I was reading an in-depth interview with Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia. When asked about ‘reparations’ for the surviving families of former slaves he replied, “My Italian grandparents came to this country at the beginning of the century. They had nothing to do with slavery. Why should I or my children, or the children of other Italians, Irish, or Jewish families have to pay for a crime they had absolutely nothing to do with.”

I was never a very big fan of justice Scalia, especially in his later years, but that quote some forty years later has always remained with me. So, you ask, “what does ‘reparations’ have to do with Mr. Cash’s book. The answer is everything, and nothing at all.

“All Will Be Revealed,” is the third in the series, but it is not necessary to go back and read the previous two to understand the narrative. The author nicely intersperses quotes and references from the main character in the previous books into the current book, so the reader is never left in the dark.

The book opens with Stardom, a half alien and half human, addressing The United Nations, reporters, and people throughout the world. He has travelled the earth since the very beginning of time and is an emissary to God. He reports back to God on the progress of the human race, and just as God is ready to give up on humans, he convinces him to give him one more chance at straightening out humans and the ‘woke’ culture that has infested so much of the world and especially the United States.

Trinity, a young female reporter for a small news outlet, and a ‘woke’ enthusiast is chosen by Stardom for a one-on-one interview. At first, she is shocked to be picked, and then she realizes that this is the opportunity for her to make a name for herself and possibly win a Pulitzer. What she did not realize at the time, was that the interview was going to be unlike any interview she could ever have imagined.

Stardom takes her on a physical journey across time. In a sense, it is like Virgil guiding Dante through the different circles of hell. He takes her back, to the frontier days when men and women worked hard, never asking for handouts, and who in the end became the backbone of what would become a great nation. In contrast, in today’s world you have people living on the streets, not working, and asking for handouts…such as welfare and food stamps.

He takes her back to times of trauma in her childhood and teen years and how she alienated lifelong friends who she tried to convince to join the ‘woke’ culture and disowned them when they didn’t go along with her.

He shows her the concentration camps, in operation this very day, in modern China where the communist are literally killing millions of Uyghur Muslims because of their religious beliefs, and yet the ‘woke’ culture that has taken over in the United States has simply turned a blind eye to it because it is not in their interests. He shows her the twenty thousand illegal aliens crossing the southern border of the United States without being tested for the covid-19 virus or being forced to take the vaccine like millions of Americans, and how critical-race theory is adversely distorting present day America.

Stardom transports Trinity to a place outside of earth’s orbit where the Nemensiums live. Creatures so disgusting that they sit on top of their excrement and urine, while they slouch down large quantities of slop brought to them every three hours by slaves…those humans so depraved by the manufactured pandemic that all they did was look at their cell phones and complain that anything would be better than the lives they were currently living. They had forgotten about God, and his teachings, and now their anything would be better is being slaves to these fetid creatures that live in caves while they look at computer screens and the dastardly happenings on planet earth.

Mr. Cash has softly trodden the line between dogma and fiction, and his use of extraterrestrials (aliens) actually enhances the bold and controversial positions he shines a bright light on. In a sense, he uses them and the presence of a God as witnesses to the destructive nature of liberalism and the ‘woke’ culture. Unless one is willing to listen to opposing views, one can truly never know the truth about one’s positions. Mr. Cash has boldly stated his views, and whereas those positions might not correspond with my positions they have given me an insight and understanding into positions that a large portion of Americans adhere to. I have read all three books in the series, and each one left me pondering questions about the direction of our country and that was what I have loved so much about series, and why I strongly recommend his current book and the two previous in the series.