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I worked with many publicity professionals during my time at Gibson’s and then writing a book review column. A couple still stay in touch and occasionally send a book and one of those people is Scott Manning. When he tells me a book is worth reading it invariably is, and recently he sent me Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. I read it this week for one of the “Reader’s Choice” squares on my book bingo card.

To say this book is eye-opening isn’t really accurate — Dunbar tells readers what they could see pretty easily, if they paid any attention to American history. The south had slaves, lots of them, and the first President was a southerner. Mount Vernon was a plantation that depended on slave labor, one of a network of such farms belonging to the Washingtons and to Martha’s Custis relatives. And while some history books like to point out that George Washington had mixed feelings about slavery, he also signed the Fugitive Slave Act, in part because many Northern states were already beginning to move towards abolition and Southerners were afraid that runaway slaves would be beyond their grasp unless the federal government made it illegal to help them. And the Fugitive Slave Act did that, as Dunbar explains, “To be clear, those who purposely interfered with the recapturing of a slave, or who offered aid or assistance to a fugitive, could be fined an exorbitant amount — $500 — imprisoned, and be sued by the slaveholder in question.”

I will add, some details about the extent of the Washingtons’ efforts to keep people enslaved, to punish slaves who seemed in their views not to work hard enough or to have bad attitudes, and to flout Pennsylvania’s laws (they rotated slaves back to Mount Vernon in order that they not stay more than 6 months in Philadelphia, because they would have then been free), were new to me. Based on my very informal poll, which consisted of telling everyone around me about what I was reading and gauging their reactions,  these facts are not well known.

Dunbar’s writing about Washington is interesting but what makes her book stand out is the story of Ona Judge, a young woman born into slavery at Mount Vernon who as a teenager became Martha Washington’s personal attendant. Studies have shown that telling an individual’s story, for example in order to solicit funds for a massive humanitarian crisis, is highly effective, and Never Caught is a fine example of that psychological impact at work.

In telling Judge’s story Dunbar masterfully places the focus not on harsh treatment or back-breaking labor — Judge’s work was constant but not physically harmful, and she was not beaten or raped as far as the record shows — but on the undeniable, inhumane, supreme injustice of a person being owned by another person. Judge had no say in the matters of her life which free people take for granted. Even once she was “free” and even after the Washingtons both died, Judge was technically a fugitive, owned by the Custis family, and her children were technically born slaves, even though she raised them in relative freedom. At any time, someone could capture her and her family and take them back to Virginia and that would have been legal.

But fortunately, Judge ended up in New Hampshire, and apparantly people in my adopted state had the beginnings of a “live free or die” attitude and even the prominent and the powerful in New Hampshire were not always willing to tow the line politically. Washington did in fact track Judge down and tried to call in favors to get her back, but New Hampshire’s independent thinkers, and Judge’s own very strong desire to remain free, protected her. Yet she did not have a happily ever after life, and Dunbar spares no details in pointing out the suffering that Judge and her family experienced. Again, you may have learned about slavery in school, but did you ever think of how soul-permeating  the impact of being owned really was? Some free blacks prospered but Dunbar makes clear that for many others being an escapee was a life sentence of poverty, ill health, and struggle.

Dunbar’s book is full of details of post-Revolutionary America, and observations about the people who were already working to end slavery. It’s a painful read when considered in light of the continuing racial injustices in America, and it’s hard not to wonder if the founders had abolished slavery in the Constitution, how different things might have turned out. One tiny quibble I have, and this is likely an issue of my own taste — is that Dunbar sometimes speculates about the emotions of her subjects. For example, in writing about Judge’s son, Dunbar states, “His mother’s depression must have been suffocating.” Or “To Judge, Whipple seemed like a nice enough man; that is, he hadn’t yet called for the constable to have her arrested.” I think telling readers that Judge’s lot in life was pretty miserable by the time her 16 year old son decided to become a sailor is enough — readers can conclude that he probably didn’t want to be around her misery. Similarly, the exchange between Whipple (a man who realized who Judge was as she was applying for work) and Judge makes clear that she was able to continue the conversation, which is enough evidence that she didn’t feel he was a threat; we don’t need to be told Judge thought he was nice, which ventures into speculation.

To be clear, maybe somewhere in Dunbar’s research she came across something that said Judge thought Whipple was nice, I don’t know. I just don’t like the speculative style of nonfiction fiction writing that seems to be popular right now, and I blame it on the overly dramatic “historical re-creation” television programs that are ubiquitous. But this happens only rarely in Never Caught, which is otherwise an interesting and horrifying account of the beginnings of the split in our early union and the deplorable toll slavery took on people. And the well told story of a woman I’d guess most Americans have never heard of.

As for my other Reader’s Choice? Something completely different. I had a crummy week last week so I lost myself in a light read, Sophie Kinsella’s The Undomestic Goddess. It’s everything an escapist read should be: funny, smart, and romantic. Plus, there are mouth watering descriptions of cooking, lovely descriptions of the Cotswolds, and sly jabs at high powered law firms and the newly rich. When Kinsella’s heroine, Sam, finds she has made a 50 million pound error on the very day she is supposed to hear whether she made partner at the most successful and prestigious firm in London, she freaks out and gets on a train. When she gets out she has a terrible headache, so knocks on a door to see if she can figure out where she is and ask for a glass of water. The person who answers the door thinks Sam is a housekeeping applicant. She gets the job she didn’t apply for and has no idea how to do — she isn’t even sure how the washing machine works or how to turn on the oven. Who helps her? A handsome and sensitive gardener and his kind mother. Romantic comedy that is screen-worthy. I’d go see it.

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Even though I stopped writing my review column for The New Hampshire Sunday News, I still hear from publishers, publicists, and authors. Often a book from Bauhan Publishing will appear in my mailbox — regular readers of this blog know they are one of my favorite small presses, and they are right here in New Hampshire. I can’t get to every book I’m sent, but recently I opened a package containing a copy of Finding Phil: Lost in War and Silence and it looked intriguing. Then I flipped the book over and realized that the author, Paul Levy, lives in my small city, and that his wife is a retired librarian. Bookconscious regulars know I’m a librarian, too. So for no more scientific reasons than those, I decided to read this biography/memoir. Plus, I had a great uncle who served in WWII, who was Jewish and the child of Russian immigrants, like the subject of this book.

Finding Phil is the story of Phil Levy, a young American army officer, fresh out of college, newlywed, and full of a sincere desire to rescue France and defeat Nazi Germany. And it’s the story of his nephew Paul Levy, who describes his uncle’s journey but also his own, as he uncovered the story of a man his parents and other relatives almost never mentioned.

Phil died in France in the Vosges Mountains in January 1945, after being among the first American troops to cross into Germany. Growing up, Paul Levy knew about his uncle but never heard stories about him. When Phil’s widow Barbara died in 1987, her sister sent Paul his uncle’s journal, and that inspired him to learn more. As he did research into his uncle’s childhood, young adulthood, and military service, Paul reflected on not only his family and the silence surrounding his uncle, but also on larger themes of heroism, silence, and belief. He writes about all of that as well as what makes men go off to war and the different ways that shapes them, in Finding Phil.

Along the way he muses on the legacy of social justice and service to others that runs through the Levy family, on what his uncle might have worked for had he come home, and on how subsequent generations might process the atrocities of battle, civilian suffering, and genocide that are WWII’s legacy. Levy writes beautifully, and he clearly thought very deeply about his subject. In one passage, in a chapter describing what he learned about some members of the German unit and even the particular man who killed his uncle, Levy writes:

“Through it [the story of one of these men] I could begin to imagine more nuanced human beings beneath my simple stereotype. Some people might worry that such stories give escape routes to those who want to deny responsibility and that they encourage efforts at revisionist history . . . in which nations, cultures, and peoples try to distance themselves from their histories of deep antisemitism and downplay their complicity in the Holocaust. . . . I believe it is vital to insist on full responsibility for the atrocities of the Holocaust and to come to grips with the profound reality of engrained antisemitism. It is equally vital to see nuanced human faces beneath our stereotypes lest we fail to recognize how susceptible we all are to cultural demons and dynamics like those that fomented the Holocaust . . . .”

Read that passage again, and think about stereotypes for a second. Paul Levy is talking about considering a German man as a whole person in the context of his life, not just his time as a Waffen SS soldier, but it’s pretty easy to substitute other “cultural demons and dynamics” and think about today’s world. About the prejudices, perhaps subtle or even unconscious, each of us may hold when thinking about people who are part of a different religion, class, culture, or ideology than we are, or whose skin is different than ours. Presuppositions abound in contemporary society about people who live in certain places or do certain jobs. It’s different than antisemitism and Nazism, but our culture is still riddled with the kinds of demons that can incite people to hate or act violently towards each other. Or fall prey to fear mongering and hateful rhetoric and respond by allowing laws or regulations that call attention to difference and deny universal human rights. levy provides much to think about, which I really admire.

One of the other things I really enjoyed about this book was that Levy did not try to artificially build and release tension in his narrative — he lets the natural ups and downs of the story carry readers along. I’ve noticed a tendency in some memoirs to jerk readers’ emotions around, and I think that’s a sign of over-writing or over-manipulating a narrative. Levy instead provides space for readers to process what they are reading. I also learned some things about the war and about people who are preserving the memories of that time, and I love a book that teaches me things.

Finding Phil is a good read whether you are interested in history, war, families, or the mysteries of long-ago memories. Reading about how Levy pieced fragments together into a story made me think again of my great uncle and what I could possibly learn about his war experience (he was stateside, because he was a chemist, but that’s about all I know). Maybe I will attempt to put my own family’s fragments together.

 

 

 

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Paul Hertneky lives in author-rich New Hampshire (in fact he’s going to be reading & speaking at the Hancock Library on June 9 at 7pm, and Rust Belt Boy is published by one of my favorite small presses, also in New Hampshire, Bauhan Publishing) but he grew up in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. Ambridge was steel country, and the rise and fall of the American steel industry helped define the town. In his memoir Rust Belt Boy, Hertneky writes about what his hometown and his large immigrant family imprinted on his psyche, and also about what it was like to grow up there.

This book is full of vividly rendered scenes — Hertneky as a boy buying Friday pirohi (“The first bite made me close my eyes”) and asking his grandmother about communism (“my curiosity felt like a constantly full bladder”). His father making puppets out of the rabbits he’d just skinned: “Like the priests during Mass, Milt transformed death into life . . . .” Hertneky in the library which “made me feel whole” lost in the books that helped him dream of other places and other lives. The adult Hertneky at seminal moments, at the steel plant where his co-worker was nearly killed, and as he made a fervent declaration of love only to find it wasn’t reciprocal.

This is a book about one rust belt town where one boy grew up, which is fascinating, especially when I read about the Harmonists, who made Ambridge prosper before heavy industry and who I’d never heard of even though I grew up in Pennsylvania. But it’s also a universal coming of age tale reflecting on the fifties, sixties and seventies in America. Given how different Ambridge and places like it are today, Hertneky has gifted readers with the memory of a time and place that is mostly gone. Rust Belt Boy is a lovely read, interesting as a cultural and geographical story, as a memoir, and as a history of the aspirations of immigrants who made postwar prosperity their American dream.

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At a holiday party, one of our guests asked people to name their 6 favorite books ever, and my eighteen year old included I’m a Stranger Here Myself. So as you begin to read this please know I am predisposed to think highly of Bill Bryson and whatever he writes, even though I tried hard when I was events coordinator at Gibson’s Bookstore to book him for an author event and couldn’t get an answer, let alone a booking.

I was actually a little afraid to pick up his newest book, which revisits some of the sites Bryson wrote about in Notes From a Small Island. That’s another favorite around our house, and sequels, which The Road to Dribbling sort of is, rarely hold up in my experience to the original. But this book is classic Bryson — that perfect mixture of laser-like cultural critique laced with laugh-out-loud wit, gentle self-deprecating humor, slightly squirm-inducing naughtiness (suggesting young litterers should be killed, for example), and an autodidact’s erudite appreciation for wherever he’s visiting, clearly explained so the reader is infected with Bryson’s own curiosity and admiration. Plus, he is openly admiring of so much.

I’ve heard people grumble that Bryson just gripes a lot (or bitches, as he’d call it) and profits off the unfortunate fools he lampoons in his writing. But I’ve always felt Bryson is generously affectionate where its due. Being unfailingly willing to call bullshit when he sees it, and to expose assholes or idiots, is a longstanding literary tradition, and more recently, keeps millions of people in America actively engaged with current events via programs like The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight. Without this potent mix of fearless, intelligent commentary and sometimes inappropriate but always spirit-lifting humor, surely we’d all have lost our minds by now.

So if you like books that make you snort with laughter into your pillow as you vainly attempt not to awaken your spouse,* this book is for you. If you like books that will teach you something you had no idea you were missing (I’d never heard of Oliver Heaviside, or Motopia, or the species Homo Antecessor, or a good many other things), this book is for you. If you like books that fill you with a sense of warm recognition of our common humanity, our common intolerance for officially sanctioned idiocy, and our common appreciation for kind-heartedness and generosity of spirit, this book is for you. And for the record, I no longer book events at Gibson’s so I am not just sucking up. But Mr. Bryson, if you read this, the events coordinator who succeeded me is named Elisabeth, the store owner is Michael, and they’d be delighted to have you.

*I met Bill Bryson at a book signing in Seattle in 1999 or 2000, when he was touring for In A Sunburned Country. When he signed my copy of I’m a Stranger Here Myself, I told him I’d brought my whole family to the reading because the children wanted to see this man who caused their mother to laugh so much that she shook their father awake when she read at night. My son was about 8 at the time and was supremely impressed that Bryson read a passage of his book which included the word “fuck.” He thought Bryson was brilliant then, and he still does.

 

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Books & Brew is one of my favorite things. It’s our library’s low pressure book club; we meet once a month at True Brew Barista and talk about whatever we’re reading. On Wednesday, a guy in a shirt with some kind of red, white & blue logo came over with some postcards. I admit I ignored him a little — this is New Hampshire, and we’re up to ears in political canvassing. I was concerned that he was going to pitch something or someone to the group.

Turns out he was. When there was a break in the conversation, he jumped in and explained. He was Bob Makela of Bobtimystic Books, a small press in Brooklyn. He had an author with him, Craig Tomashoff, a box full of books, and no one had shown up for their event. I immediately felt for them. He told us about Tomashoff’s book, The Can’t-idates: Running for President When Nobody Knows Your Name.

It’s about fifteen of the more than 1400 “ordinary citizens” running for president. When Makela pitched it, I immediately asked one question that for me, would reveal how well researched this book was: “Is Vermin Supreme one of them?” Makela didn’t hesitate, “He’s chapter eleven.” Sold.

For you poor folks in the rest of the country where Vermin Supreme doesn’t campaign, get yourselves a copy of The Can’t-idates because it’s worth it for his chapter alone. Mr. Supreme has been running for president since 1992, and it’s not primary season in New Hampshire without him. My son and his friend actually got to meet him during the 2012 campaign at a Barack Obama event. He often attends other candidates’ events and talks to the crowds lined up to go in.

Anyway, I had high hopes there were other “protest” candidates out there bringing Vermin Supreme’s potent mix of satire and seriousness (this year he’s challenging people to give a kidney to those who need one) to weary voters everywhere. But as I began to read The Can’t-idates I was a little worried — the first guy Tomashoff meets thinks his whole hometown are government agents meant to keep him safe.

To his credit, Tomashoff recognizes his own “Oh God, this guy is crazy” feeling and feels badly about it — he wants to be respectful and kind to all the people he meets, and I admire that. He’s honest and he also looks for the good in these people. They may have failed the bar, or lost a business, or have a rap sheet, or be semi-illiterate, or have nearly insurmountable problems, but he sees and writes about what makes each of them admirable as well.

And that works, because Tomashoff is thoughtful, and a good writer. The book is as much a road trip memoir (he drove over 10,000 miles!) as it is a book about fringe presidential candidates. Tomashoff writes candidly about his own life experiences and his inspiration for the trip — he wanted “To show my son (and anyone else who’d pay attention) that you should listen to your own life.” His son was about to graduate from high school and Tomashoff hoped this project would help him learn about trying something other people thought was crazy, and finding happiness anyway.

He also notes things about America in 2016 that the mainstream media doesn’t or can’t confront so plainly and honestly. The ubiquity of racism, yes, even in you and me, in everyone. The fact that so many people all over our country don’t have safe, comfortable, or stable lives, and if you are a minority you’re even more likely not to. The fact that people who don’t learn like other people frequently end up just not learning at all.

And most of all that we are going along with electoral politics the way some of us follow our GPS even when it is leading us astray. Tomashoff writes about Waze not making clear that he’d be taking a ferry across Lake Champlain to get to Burlington. “The mainstream Republican and Democratic contenders are like Waze. We don’t really know how they operate. They’re forever telling us what to do, where to go and the easiest path to get there. And we are the ones who give them that authority, which we blindly follow without question because . . . well . . . it’s just easier that way.”

In his introduction, Tomashoff also points out that the media is partially responsible for low voter turnout. “There’s some irony here: the media spends hours shaming candidates for their personal and professional failures, and then shames voters for not showing up at the polls. If you tell us these people suck, you can’t be surprised that we don’t want to cast our votes for any of them.”

I submit to you, as does Tomashoff, that you have options. My take? If you truly feel no candidate represents your views or understands your life, consider voting for Vermin Supreme. He gave a kidney to his mother, and takes care of her. That’s probably a better indicator of someone’s fitness for office than a lot of the stuff we mindlessly accept from other candidates.

 

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Full disclosure — I know Brady Carlson and his family, he thanks me and a colleague in charge of interlibrary loans and the rest of the library staff in his acknowledgements, and his publicist sent me a copy of Dead Presidents: An American Adventure Into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation’s Leaders. Regardless of these facts, I feel I can fairly review the book, because as a reviewer and a librarian, I’m patently opposed to people reading bad books.

And this is not one of those. Brady is a kick ass writer, which you can see for yourself by checking out his pieces on NHPR, a few of which have made the national NPR broadcast lately. Or by reading Dead Presidents, which I highly recommend. His tone reminds me a little bit of A.J. Jacobs — informative and funny, but in a very humane rather than biting or snarky way.

The thing I love most about Dead Presidents is how much Brady is into his subject. I knew this — for awhile several years ago we attended a meet-up of local media makers, and even when this project was in its formative stage, I had a sense that he was going to create something cool, because he has been interested in the presidents since childhood. In fact, in his introduction he notes that a book — Mr. President by George Sullivan — and a teacher who allowed him to conduct an “impromptu lesson” on presidential trivia in fifth grade were keys to his lifelong interest. I am a big fan of people pursuing what they love, and as a fellow member of the book tribe, I love this origin story.

(Aside: this is why cookie cutter curriculums are inferior. Imagine if Brady’s teacher was hamstrung teaching to the test or to “core competencies,” and couldn’t accommodate his budding interest?)

That genuine enthusiasm makes a topic that let’s face it, most of us probably don’t think sounds super exciting — dead presidents — come, dare I say it, alive. I couldn’t resist. Seriously though, the stories of places famous (like Grant’s tomb) and obscure (Grant’s cottage, where the former president finished his well known memoirs) are equally fascinating in Brady’s book. Did you know, for instance, that Grant was nearly moved from New York to Illinois, because the tomb site in Manhattan was so poorly cared for? Or for that matter, that several presidents’ remains have in fact been moved, sometimes a good distance?

Two of my favorite stories: in Plymouth, Vermont, you can see — and sample — one of the oldest cheesemaking operations in the U.S., where artisanal cheese is made just as it was when Calvin Coolidge’s father co-founded the place in the 1890’s. President Coolidge is buried nearby, in “the hilltop cemetery where his family had been buried for four generations.”

And there is a gathering of presidential descendants: “the Marshfield, Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival and Presidential Family Reunion and Missouri Walk of Fame Celebration.” One of the people Brady meets there is George Cleveland, a grandson of Grover Cleveland who lives only about an hour from here. In his travels, Brady had seen photos of George in various other sites related to presidential history, like on the wall of the Founding Fathers Pub in Buffalo, where the proprietor was unable to stump Brady on presidential trivia (he didn’t know Brady taught his fifth grade class this stuff, after all).

The thread that ties all of the stories together is Brady’s admiration for the presidents — even those who didn’t do such a great job in office — and his illuminating, thoughtful insights into their work habits, interests, values, and post-presidential pursuits, as well as their deaths, burials, and legacies. I especially loved the way he debunked the popular opinion of Taft as “the Fat President” and his commentary on how our culture’s views of obesity influenced public opinion of Taft unfairly. It’s the way Brady combines the weird and the wonderful that makes Dead Presidents both entertaining and truly interesting.

 

 

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Two weeks and no posts about pleasure reading? See my previous entry on not finishing books . . .  maybe I’ll write soon about applying the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (sort of) to my cookbook collection.

In this week’s Mindful Reader column I review two books: a beautiful photography collection by Becky Field about New Hampshire’s newest Americans, particularly our refugee neighbors, and Stephen P. Kiernan’s latest novel, The Hummingbird.

Here’s a bit about each; read the entire column here.

Vermont author Stephen P. Kiernan’s new novel, The Hummingbird, is about Deborah, a hospice nurse whose husband, Michael, has severe post-traumatic stress disorder after three deployments to Iraq. Their marriage is suffering and she not sure what to do. Her latest patient is Barclay Reed, a grouchy former history professor whose career ended over accusations of academic dishonesty.

and

“I love the American people because they respect all people and give them their rights without exception.” That’s a quote from Nakaa Nassir, an Iraqi woman in Manchester, which appears in photographer Becky Field’s new book, Different Roots, Common Dreams.

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