Tag: Nonfiction

Review: The Secret Token by Andrew Lawler

Review: The Secret Token by Andrew Lawler

I received a digital ARC of this book from Doubleday on NetGalley. I’m grateful to Doubleday for their generosity and am happy to post this honest review. All opinions are my own.

To die is tragic, but to go missing is to become a legend…

In 1587, 115 British citizens come to colonize America disappeared from Roanoke Island, leaving behind almost no traces, except for the word “Croatoan” carved into a tree. In the four hundred-plus years since, little has been discovered to explain where these men, women, and children went. To date it remains one of history’s great, unsolved mysteries. In The Secret Token, Lawler sets out the history of the colony, the search for answers, and the meaning these answers would have on the racial and cultural identity of those who trace their ancestry to the island.

Lawler structures his book in three parts that read, in many respects, like vastly different mini-books. The first section is almost purely historical narrative setting up how the colony came to be, who the major players were on the relevant voyages, the historical struggle between Spain and Britain for (essentially) world domination, and how it came to pass that the colony was lost. This section reads like a straightforward narrative history that, to be honest, almost lost me. There’s only so much history of dead white men (plus Elizabeth) that I care to read. Though, I’m pretty sure Sir Walter Raleigh’s playboy ways were left out of the history books my public schools used. (And, in Lawler’s defense, he makes this section about as interesting as it can be, given the available historical record).

If this doesn’t sound interesting to you, take heart–the next two sections have an entirely different tone and slightly fewer white men. The second section focuses entirely on the search for the colony—beginning almost immediately after their disappearance and continuing to the presently obsessed archaeologists still sifting through the North Carolina marsh silt on their weekends. The first chapters in this section on the immediate search provided the bridge that segued into the (in my opinion) more interesting searches of the modern era. While some of this remains in a narrative historical style, Lawler begins to include himself in the story. He describes interactions with historians who not only provide Lawler the relevant history but express their frustrations and theories. This section also includes some of the more eccentric characters who are still out there searching. Their inclusion shows the hold the mystery of the colony still has on people, making the book feel relevant and a little bit tantalizingly voyeuristic. As Lawler is sucked deeper into the subject matter of his own book, his writing takes on hints of the obsession that infects many of those he’s interviewing and invites the reader along for this ride. In this vein, Lawler leaves no stone unturned—evaluating each archaeological and cartographic find, including the controversial (and possibly faked) Dare Stone.

The last section, and the reason this book earned my 3 ¾ stars, looks at the myth through the lens of race. One of the reasons this myth still holds such sway is that what ultimately happened to the Colony and to baby Virginia Dare—the first white child born in America—has lasting implications to both those who cling to white supremacy and those who claim first nation heritage in this part of the country. Within this section, Lawler also discusses how the area came to be home to many African slaves and their descendants, making this area of mixing bowl of races. When the government sought to maintain white supremacy, the Native American descendants were successfully pitted against their African neighbors in a bid to create a racial hierarchy that preserved white supremacy.

Race and Identity
My grandmother was born in North Carolina, one of twelve children and the eldest girl. Her name was Virginia Dare Moore. When I learned in elementary school that the first child born in the colonies was named Virginia Dare, I thought this was the coolest. Until very recently, when I thought about possible kid names (not pregnant, not trying), I thought about naming a girl after my beloved Nana. My dad had mentioned in passing on an occasion that my grandmother always hated her name and I never knew why. After reading this book, I suspect I know.

Beginning in the 1800s and particularly at the turn of the 20th Century, Virginia Dare was adopted as a white supremacist icon. One of the most likely possibilities of what happened to the colony is that it was absorbed into the local native population—there are no remains that suggest they died on the island (by natural or other means) and they did leave behind the word Croatoan (the name of a local tribe/area) carved in a tree. The problem with this answer to the Roanoke mystery if you’re a racist white woman who wants the vote but wants to maintain the white status quo, is that it necessarily means that white women mixed with native men (and vice versa) and had mixed race children. Enter virginal Virginia Dare who lived with the natives because she had no other choice to survive but stayed apart, a shining, white example completely without historical basis in fact.

On the other side, the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina is, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, the possible ancestors of the tribes who once lived on and around Roanoke Island. If the colonizers mixed with any tribe, their descendants may be members of the Lumbee Tribe. This tribe, while recognized by the state, is not formally recognized by the federal government, which means they are denied many of the benefits afforded to officially “recognized” Native American tribes. One possible method to solve the mystery would be to trace lineages of the White family in Britain (Virginia Dare’s grandfather) and compare the genes of those identified descendants to those in the Lumbee tribe. Many members of the Lumbee (and many Native Americans period), however, have resisted this suggestion. For some, there is the real fear that the information gathered would be misused (a belief well-supported by how our government has historically treated first nation peoples as well as the story of Henrietta Lacks). For others, there is a question of what it would reveal. A handful of Lumbee who have agreed to participate have discovered that their genetic markers indicate they are majority white and have significant African-American ancestry as well. For those in the community whose identity is defined by being Lumbee, by having native ancestors, these tests have the ability to call everything they know about themselves into question.

The myth of the Lost Colony of Roanoke is not then, just a straight-forward question of what happened to 115 people in 1587. Rather, the myth extends to the convenient and often false narratives we still tell ourselves about who is “pure,” who belongs, and who we are.

As a Virginian with North Carolinian roots, I grew up hearing about the Lost Colony of Roanoke and thought it was fascinating. I was never told and never realized the significance the still mystery has to people today or the racial underpinnings of the theories. The Secret Token is a book that will stick with me for a while—much like A More Beautiful and Terrible History, it calls into question the history I learned as a child and the motives of the creators of our national history and myths.

Published: June 5, 2018 by Doubleday (@doubledaybooks)
Author: Andrew Lawler
Date read: May 30, 2018
Rating: 3 ¾ stars

Review: A More Beautiful and Terrible History by Jeanne Theoharis

Review: A More Beautiful and Terrible History by Jeanne Theoharis

I received a free copy of this book from Beacon Press via LibraryThing. I’m grateful to Beacon Press for their generosity and, because I was fascinated by this book, was happy to post this honest review. All opinions are my own.

The recounting of national histories is never separate from present-day politics. What of the past is remembered, celebrated, and mourned is at the core of national identity—and the process of what is told and not told is often a function of power…Racial injustice is America’s original sin and deepest silence. The ways the country came to honor the civil rights movement were not simply about paying tribute to these courageous acts and individuals in the past but also about sanctioning what will—and will not be—faced about the nation’s history and presence….While these tributes honored the movement, they simultaneously depoliticized the scope of the struggle, distorted the work of the activists honored, demonized Black anger, and obscured ongoing calls for racial justice through a celebration of a nearly postracial, self-correcting America.

In A More Beautiful and Terrible History, Professor Jeanne Theoharis examines the myths of the Civil Rights Movement and contrasts these

myths with the real history, the forgotten youths and women and the ignored cities in the North and West that featured prominently in the actual movement. While I was not terribly surprised by what Theoharis presented as the unvarnished history of the Civil Rights Movement (of course women were involved. of course segregation was occurring in the North), the history presented in this book is a sharp contrast to what I learned every February (and only in February) from grade school through high school. While memory fades over time and its been over twenty years since elementary and middle school, I will go so far as to say I think I learned more from this book than I ever learned in my history classes growing up.

In many ways, A More Beautiful and Terrible History reminded me of Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen. Theoharis goes one step further than Loewen (or than I remember Loewen going) and explains why these myths are so useful to those interested in maintaining the status quo. She demonstrates how these myths are weaponized against the current movement to delegitimize Black Lives Matter, #NoDAPL, and others.   These connections were the icing on the cake for me in this book—it is not enough to acknowledge that we have made history convenient in our retelling but to see why these myths were created, how they were useful then, and how they are being used now made Theoharis’s work an urgent, timely read.

I will admit that one of the first things I did upon receiving this book was flip to the author’s picture. I was surprised to see that Theoharis is white. Her author’s note reveals that Theoharis’s family escaped the Armenian genocide that the United States still refuses to acknowledge. As she notes, “[g]rowing up Greek-Armenian in my politically active family made the importance of the histories we tell and those we deny potent and visceral.” With this foundation, Theoharis has published or co-published numerous works on African-American history, including an NAACP award-winning biography on Rosa Parks. (Unfortunately for me, this means that Rosa Parks isn’t addressed as deeply in A More Beautiful and Terrible History as I would have liked because Theoharis didn’t want to repeat herself.   The only logical result of this is that The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks was added to my TBR.)

A Readable Academic Work
A More Beautiful and Terrible History is a bit more of an academic book than I typically pick up for a non-fiction read. I tend to stick to more narrative non-fiction—having been a history major in college, I’d prefer my history now come in story form, please and thank you. And yet, when LibraryThing posted this book as a giveaway, I found myself drawn to it. Theoharis’s work is an academic work that I can see a professor assigning in American history or historiography classes. Her work is thoroughly researched and her sources are well-cited (the last thirty-plus pages are notes). The writing, while clear and concise, is not a narrative. And yet, with the minor caveat that it dragged a bit in the middle (as noted below), I found A More Beautiful and Terrible History to be surprisingly readable for a popular audience.

The depth of her writing made me take this book one chapter at a time—I only picked it up when I had the attention span to really dig into a chapter and sit with what she was saying. If I was tired or limited for time, I picked up something else. I recommend this as the way to read A More Beautiful and Terrible History. This isn’t a narrative to fly through, nor is it a book that deserves to be skimmed.

The book is organized thematically, with chapters examining the forgotten Jim Crow North, the long struggle that preceded the successes (i.e., the Montgomery Bus Boycott didn’t happen in a vacuum, nor was Rosa Parks an accidental activist), the racism of the “White Moderate,” the media’s bias against the movement, the placement of the Civil Rights Movement within the larger global anti-poverty and anti-war movements, the young people who pushed the movement forward, the women who led, and the active demonization of the movement by the government. Overall I liked this organization—I highlighted my copy on almost every page and this thematic structure will make it easier to find things later or revisit specific chapters. The only downside to this meant that certain examples were used repeatedly and, at times, started to feel repetitive. The fight to desegregate schools in New York, for example, appeared in chapters on the Jim Crow north, the long struggle, the media bias, and the importance of students to the movement. While a different point was made each time this example was raised, it did start to make the book drag a bit. I’m not sure there is a solution to this since a purely chronological presentation would have been difficult to follow and these large-scale but forgotten events were the perfect examples for the points Theoharis was making. If you decide to pick this one up and similarly feel the book dragging a bit, know that after chapter six (young people), these examples are replaced by new ones and the last third of the book picks back up.

Exceptionalism & Austin, Texas
As an Austinite, it is easy to believe we live in an exceptional city—we are the blue dot in the red sea. If we are exceptional then, the things that apply to everywhere else—racism, sexism, and homophobia—do not happen here. We are enlightened. We are different. We keep Austin weird.

And yet, several months ago, when there was a bomber leaving packages around the city, the first bomb barely made the news. The second bomb didn’t make national news until there was a third. The first bomb killed an African American man. The second an African-American teenager—a teenager whose talent and exceptionalism is highlighted every time he is mentioned. It is a grave loss to our community and to music that Draylen’s life was cut short. But this would be true even if Draylen had not been a rare talent at the bass but simply a C student who loved to play pick-up basketball. The city wasn’t really brought to its knees in fear until a bomb went off in an affluent, mostly white neighborhood. Austin’s greatest sin is that it believes it is exceptional while being just as racist as much of the rest of the country.

I have a friend who moved from Austin several years ago because, among other reasons, it just became too hard to be black here. To have her child be the only black child in his class. To be attacked in the carpool line by a angry Lululemon-wearing mom because her talk at Blogher about America not being here for people of color went viral. To know that if she called the police from that carpool line, it was likely Lulu-Mom who was going to be believed.

In many ways, Austin is a microcosm of what Theoharis presents in A More Beautiful and Terrible History. We have, as Austinites and as Americans, bought into the lie of our exceptionalism. We believe that this history was inevitable because America will always do what is right. We are self-correcting and needed only the nonviolent encouragement of Martin Luther King Jr. to correct what was an exclusively Southern problem.

As members of BlackLivesMatter and others calling for racial justice as demonized daily in the news, it is more vital than ever that we read works like this to see where we came from, what really happened, and the ways those in power and in the media use the lie of our exceptionalism to maintain a white status quo.

Published: January 30, 2018 by Beacon Press (@beaconpress)
Author: Jeanne Theoharis
Date read: May 26, 2018
Rating: 4 ½ stars

Review: The Line Becomes A River by Francisco Cantu

Review: The Line Becomes A River by Francisco Cantu

The Line Becomes A River is a memoir of Francisco Cantu’s short time with the border patrol, both as a boots-on-the-ground agent and as an intelligence officer. In the years after he left, Cantu befriended an undocumented man and his family—the last third of the book is the story of his interactions with them and the immigration system. Peppered throughout the memoir are policy and historical vignettes about the border.

I am having a hard time deciding how I feel about The Line Becomes a River. Before I read it, I knew that activists had disrupted his planned appearance at BookPeople in Austin, protesting his making money off of his experience in the Border Patrol tearing families apart. The impression I had from the article was that at least some of these people hadn’t read the book and were protesting the fact that he had participated in the Border Patrol at all, destroying families and being complicit in the system that has caused thousands of deaths of individuals trying to cross in the deserts at the hands of unscrupulous coyotes. I get this criticism but if individuals who participated in the Border Patrol are not allowed to tell their stories (which would seem to be the logical end of this argument), then we never hear from an entire side of people about what’s going on in on the ground in one of the most contentious, debated places in this country. Having read The Line Becomes a River and listened to how Cantu was unable to continue his work, how he was not able to keep participating in this system, I am less concerned with protesting this aspect of the book.

My biggest concern with this book—and the one that makes me say this is either a four-star read or a one-star read—is that the entire last third of the book tells the story of Cantu’s friend Jose—but I have no idea whether Cantu had permission to tell this story. After leaving the Border Patrol, Cantu works at a coffee shop while studying for his maters degree and befriends a man named Jose Martinez. Jose is undocumented, though he has been in the country long enough to benefit from deferred action against him if he doesn’t leave…except his mother living in Mexico is dying so he does what any family man would do and he leaves. His is apprehended on his way back and Cantu throws himself into trying to help Jose with an immigration claim, including long trips to take Jose’s sons to see him in detention. During this section, Cantu reads from letters submitted by Jose’s friends and family as part of his immigration claim. It was at this point that serious questions arose for me as to whether Cantu had permission to tell this story. While it would be an invasion of Jose’s privacy to tell some of this story before this point, Cantu was speaking of his own experience, of things within his own knowledge. When he begins to read the letters, the only way Cantu could do this is if he copied them, intending them for this kind of use since the letters intended recipient was the immigration judge and its not clear Cantu had permission to read them, much less copy and reproduce them in a book he will benefit monetarily from. I have searched and cannot find the answer, though the fact that Cantu is silent in his thanks and afterward about Jose makes me worry he did not have permission. If anyone can find this answer, I’d love to be able to settle on how I feel about this book.

But Four Stars?
From a purely literary standpoint, the book is marvelously done. I listened to the audio, read by the author. While I can’t recommend him for a second career as an audiobook performer, he did well with his book—lending weight where he wanted it, though the reading was a bit more halting than polished at points. He intersperses his narrative with facts and vignettes from social science studies, providing historical and policy frames of reference for his personal experience. He is a masterful writer of his own experience—his writing is simultaneously beautiful and haunting in places while also being relatable, even for someone who has no personal experience of any kind with the border. It is like nothing else I have ever read and it feels like a necessary read for a layperson trying to understand the border debates.

Morality and Solutions
At its heart, The Line Becomes a River is a memoir—Cantu doesn’t claim to be making wide-reaching arguments about the Border Patrol or immigration policy and enforcement except to be saying that the system doesn’t work—an argument that anyone can agree with (albeit for different reasons) regardless of your place on the political spectrum. As with any police force, the Border Patrol pulls people who want to be kind and fair (Cantu paints himself this way) as well as the bad apples who lean toward the sadistic, and the full-range of the spectrum in between. Indeed, embedded within Cantu’s narrative here are confessions of cruelties that even he commits—destroying caches of migrants’ water and food so that when they return for their water in the blistering, deathly desert, they will find none and be motivated to turn themselves in. Glossed over here is the equally likely choice they will make to press on—desperate people do desperate things and no one crosses the border in a desert without desperation driving them.

As someone who lives in Texas, the border debates feel literally close to home. Living in Austin (the blueberry in the tomato soup, if you’re inclined to gross culinary metaphors), the political bent I’m exposed to tends towards the more liberal. I have clients who will be impacted by the loss of DACA and know people who were at one time illegally in this country. There is a fierce debate raging over the treatment of a detainee who has been sexually assaulted at a detention center approximately thirty minutes from here. In this sense, my only frustration is that Cantu doesn’t go farther in his book and suggest a solution. This is laudable on the one hand, since The Line Becomes a River doesn’t become Hillbilly Elegy with its gross over-allegories. On the other hand, the I want a solution. I don’t know that I want an up-close version of both sides of the debate with no idea how to solve it.

Because it is not clear whether he had permission, it is hard for me not to feel like this book is, as the protestors at BookPeople alleged, exploitative. While I am not pro-Border Patrol in its current form, I think there is value in Cantu’s story of his experiences—how else do we learn what is really going on there if not from someone who was on the inside—especially someone who is able to see that what he did was not ethical. But here is the line for me—it is one thing for Cantu to be complicit in the system and write to expose that system. It is another to befriend a specific person and then exploit him to the extent Cantu does in the last third of his book if he did not have permission to tell this story. Where the macro exploitation seems excusable for the larger good of exposing this story, the micro hits too close to home for me to make excuses for Cantu as a writer. This ultimately isn’t a book I can recommend in good conscience without knowing the answer to whether Jose granted Cantu permission to share this intimate portrait of his life.

Published: February 6, 2018 by Riverhead Books (@riverheadbooks)
Author: Francisco Cantu
Date read: March 27, 2018
Rating:1 or 4 stars

MMD January: Deep Work & Daily Rituals

MMD January: Deep Work & Daily Rituals

For January, Anne Bogel chose Deep Work for the main pick with Daily Rituals for the flight pick. I have to admit—I DNF’d Daily Rituals, though I got more out of Deep Work than I originally expected.

Deep Work
I have a bit of a bias against self-help books or books that even seem like they might be in a category at the bookstore next to self-help books. There’s not a particularly good reason for this aversion and it’s probably got roots in my aversion of books one can find on the shelves at Lifeway but it is what it is. But gosh darn it, I pay a (well-earned, well-deserved) fee for this Book Club so I’m going to read the dang book. And I’m glad I did—I’ve implemented several of the suggestions in Deep Work to start off the year feeling more productive and less stressed at work.

First, Newport defines “Deep Work” as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” Shallow Work is, essentially, everything else—it is the easily replicable things that suck time not brainpower but do not contribute significantly to the furtherance of any goals. What follows after this set up is a series of rules/proposals/examples that show why arranging your time and focus to provide solid blocks of time for Deep Work is vital to maximizing your working potential.

As an attorney and supervisor of advocates at a non-profit, much of what I do doesn’t fall neatly into the Deep Work-Shallow Work dichotomy Newport sets up—I wouldn’t call editing complaints and appeals by advocates to regulatory agencies “shallow work”—It’s a skill that took years to hone and develop to know the laws and rules, the players, the right tone, the arguments to make, even how to edit in a way that leaves the original writer’s voice and in a way they learn to adopt the changes I’m making into their future drafts to be better writers. It’s a skill I’m constantly improving at myself. It is Deep Work at the time its being done but it is rarely, if ever, Deep Work that requires me to think deeply more than 45 minutes before the entire appeal/project is done, so thinking about it later or when idle isn’t really an issue. Moreover, the suggestion seems to be that Shallow Work is a necessary evil that should be minimized. I would say, however, that one of the areas I’ve had to grow in most as a manager are the soft skills—for example, being supportive and interested in my supervisees’ lives so that they feel valued. I do value the people I work with and so need to make sure I’m taking the time to communicate this—all of this time, however, would be something Newport calls Shallow Work. (Though even he uses being a better mentor and supervisor as an example of a goal. I do not think then, that Newport would suggest that we all be automatons. I think this is another example where something perhaps doesn’t fit neatly into one of the two boxes.)

Even though I don’t think the dichotomy proves a perfect fit for my work, there are strategies that Newport suggested that have made the beginning of my work year more productive and less stressful. First, I’ve changed how I used my time. I moved my regularly scheduled check-ins where I review cases and new records with my supervisees to be at the beginning of the morning or afternoon, leaving larger chunks of time available for me to get into a project. This way I’m not working on something for an hour, interrupted for an hour, and then trying to get back in where I left off. I also got an hour-by-hour planner so I can log ahead of time how I want to use my day, though I use pencil so that I can adjust based on my actual use of time (since someone’s always having an emergency that needs to become my emergency). Planning how to use my time to complete various projects has made deadlines feel less stressful so that I feel I can leave work at work, while charting how I’m actually using my time has made me better aware of where I was wasting time (so I stop—no one really wants to write “Fifteen minute Instagram break” on their planner).

Newport also emphasizes taking time to figure out what your goals are—what really matters to you both professionally and personally—and fitting your time and your use of technology (Facebook is, as expected, pretty maligned) around activities that help you maximize your goals in a way that preserves idle time. Indeed, one of Newport’s main arguments it that idle time is necessary to allow the brain to rest, reset, and thus have the capacity to do tomorrow’s Deep Work. I found this section valuable and do want to take more time to really sit with the suggestions and questions he sets out here.

My only complaint is that Deep Work has a pretty serious gender bias in the quotes, examples, and studies cited. Women were given as examples or sources of material fifteen times to men’s one hundred examples. We could certainly parse this out further—men have published more studies than women have so there were more source materials for him to cite for men. Which is, of course, indicative of a larger problem within academia of not-supporting, not-publishing women. Even as this improves, women still have a hell of a way to go before the rates are the same. So perhaps—perhaps—it is unreasonable to suggest that the rate could have been fifty-fifty. But certainly Newport could have done a better job finding studies and examples such that I wasn’t left with an overwhelming sense  that I was reading a book about men by a man. Something more than thirteen percent representation cannot have been that hard to achieve.

Daily Rituals

The flight pick was, in essence, examples of how various artists and thinkers organized their days to accomplish their Deep Work. I can see why Daily Rituals was a successful and entertaining blog concept—the descriptions of how various thinkers and artists spent their time is fascinating in the micro but gets repetitive in the macro. If I were to get one summary once a day (or even only a few times a week), I’d probably read them. But to try to get through 234 in the time I had the library book meant reading ten or more a day. The stories blended and I realized I was reading without any real comprehension or appreciation. I made it through 124 out of 234 before I called it quits and the only thing I can tell you is that Patricia Highsmith apparently smuggled in snails by hiding them under her breasts, six at a time, as she was crossing through customs when she moved to France. Also, I thought I wanted to read Look Homeward Angel, but now I’m not sure I can since I know way more than I ever wanted to know about Thomas Wolfe’s masturbation habits. (Which is to say, knowing any specifics at all is more than I want to know about anyone’s habits in that department. Knock yourself out but don’t tell me about it, please.)

Another issue I had with this read that contributed to the running-together-problem was that there was almost no context given for who the person was that was being described. Sure, some (like Freud or Benjamin Franklin) didn’t need an introduction, but the guy who I think I figured out was a Russian choreographer definitely did. Even if I’d heard a name before, I couldn’t tell you why I knew them or what their body of work was. Not recognizing the subject of the essay contributed to the disconnect and kept me in skim-only mode.

Finally, as with Deep Work, the subjects were overwhelmingly male and white and included Woody Allen. Going by my own quick count, there were 25 women to 135 men, meaning only 15.5% of the subjects were female. And while I didn’t count (since there were not pictures and I’d have had to google 234 people to confirm), I feel pretty solid in my assessment that the percentage of subjects of color is even less.

I did see how Daily Rituals connected to Deep Work and I could see how, in many ways, the assertions Newport makes in Deep Work played out—most artists/thinkers were only able to work for periods up to three hours before needing a break. Some managed to be creative or prolific in their fields without having the kind of schedule Newport suggests, though I could see how it was certainly more difficult for them to do so.

Overall, I see why the book was picked for the flight, but don’t feel bad about abandoning it. When I look back at my notes, the themes I was picking up seemed to be—“You get to sleep more than I do” or “Wow you do a lot of drugs.” Make of that what you will.



Review: American Fire by Monica Hesse


When this string of fires began, they defendants were in love. By the time they finished, they weren’t.

In 2012 and 2013, a quiet, rural county on the Eastern Shore of Virginia suddenly found itself ablaze, with seventy-plus fires lit over an approximately ten month period. American Fire is the story of those tasked with putting out the fires, those who finally found the culprits, and those whose love drove them to terrorize their neighbors with a literal, extended trial by fire.

Narrative nonfiction done well
I first noticed American Fire when it was a Book of the Month pick a few months ago. It wasn’t one that I wanted to choose that month since I like to spend money on books I know will be good and narrative nonfiction can be hit or miss for me. I knew, however, this was one I’d follow up and get from the library.

I was not disappointed in my choice to pick this one up and, having read it, would consider it worthy of a BOTM credit. Hesse writes for The Washington Post and her journalism background clearly informed her research and writing. She was meticulous in her notes and I appreciated her acknowledgements for the members of Accomack County for their help at the end of the book. She portrays Accomack honestly but never strays into “hokey,” which would have been easy to do.

Hesse highlights the “human interest” in the book well—she features many of the firefighters and law enforcement tasked with finding the arsonists—you could almost see many of them tired, covered in soot, but still out there every night. Despite the fact that at least 75% of the characters in the book are male—a function of the gender makeup of the average fire and police stations—I was able to keep the characters straight. (I say this without irony—when all the characters are white males, there is at least a 90% chance I can’t follow the book and wind up putting it down. See e.g., Wolf Hall.) I care about these (mostly) men and women. She also humanizes the male defendant, Charlie. To the extent one can sympathetically depict an arsonist, Hesse has done this well. Her portrayal of the female half of the duo, Tonya, is a bit more clinical, though this almost certainly comes from Tonya’s refusal to be interviewed by Hesse. Hesse acknowledges that this makes sense—Tonya is still appealing her cases and so it wasn’t in her interest to be interviewed. You get the sense, however, that Tonya was the driving force in the fires, despite her protestations in her appeals.

Though she was somewhat limited by Tonya’s reticence to talk to her, because Charlie did cooperate with being interviewed—both with formal law enforcement interviews and with Hesse—American Fire is juicy in a way that you usually don’t get with a narrative nonfiction like this. Charlie and Tonya were a real couple, with real struggles, who chose to relieve tension in their relationship by starting fires several times a week. It’s the plot of an episode of Jerry Springer or Maury, and yet Hesse never gets tabloidish—American Fire is juicy enough to be scandalous and interesting yet still straightforward and literary in tone and style. It was an interesting balance and Hesse mostly struck it well.

Accomack County and Hillbilly Elegy
Interestingly, the book reminded me of Hillbilly Elegy in some ways. American Fire was in no way a political screed, nor did Hesse stray into politics even indirectly. The commonalities instead came from the people—like many of the people Vance discusses, the people of Accomack County are almost entirely blue-collar, many living paycheck-to-paycheck. It’s a quiet place, but (having been nearby) a beautiful one, with deep roots for those who stay—though that number is dwindling. Indeed, the slow flight from the county is what made it so prime for the crime of arson—as Hesse notes, abandoned or empty buildings outnumbered actual people. Once the pattern was (quickly) discovered, the sheer number of empty buildings made it nearly impossible to stake out the likely targets since the targets so greatly outnumbered law enforcement, even with reinforcements called in.

It’s not a perfect comparison—Accomack County went 55% to Trump and 43% to Clinton while many of the counties and areas featured in Vance’s screed went more solidly for Trump. Yet, you get the sense that these are many of the people Vance wrote about. The people Hesse interviewed were largely proud of being from Accomack County—with the “Born Heres” distinguished from the “Come Heres.” The fire department is run by volunteers, but it never lacked for staff during the fires—Accomack County will care for its own.

Also by Monica Hesse….
It was not until literally the last page that I realized Hesse wrote another book I’d read and enjoyed last year—The Girl in the Blue Coat. In my defense, The Girl in the Blue Coat is a YA mystery set in Holland during the Nazi occupation, so the tone and audience were so wildly different that I wasn’t clued into the common author. I don’t know that I’d say if you enjoyed American Fire that you should read The Girl in the Blue Coat since their very different genres won’t automatically appeal to the same audience; however, if you enjoy YA and/or WWII Fiction, I do think The Girl in the Blue Coat is also worth your time.

Published July 11, 2017 by Liveright (@liverightpublishing)
Author: Monica Hesse
Date read: October 17, 2017
Rating: 4 stars

Review: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie


 The thing is, I don’t believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is an extended elegy for Lillian Alexie, mother of Sherman Alexie, award-winning Spokane-Coeur d’Alene-American author and filmmaker. Simultaneously cruel and kind, truth-teller and liar, selfish and selfless, Lillian Alexie helped form the man her son came to be, both by nurturing him and by driving him into the world away from her.

You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is a book I would recommend particularly in audiobook. Earlier this year I listened to Alexie’s frequently-banned and National Book Award-winning book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and loved the cadence his speech gave the book. Here too, Alexie’s cadence and rhythm, particularly when reading his poems interspersed throughout the book, add a layer not found in the written text. There are a few moments when he literally sings sections that include chants.

He’s also not a perfectly polished audiobook reader—there are times he is literally fighting back tears and others when he is chuckling—like when he talks about the cousin who was honor-bound to come pull his car out of a ditch but still angry with him so he didn’t say a word the entire time he was pulling the car out of the ditch. Because these are Alexie’s stories, the emotion adds poignancy to the book. When Alexie talks about his scars, these are his scars. I’m sure the book alone is lovely but the audiobook is masterful and shouldn’t be missed.

Because I listen to audiobooks while driving and doing chores around the house, it took me a little longer to notice than I might have if I were reading, but You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is repetitive, like stanzas in a poem, even within the sections that are prose. In any other book, this would scream of the need for a better editor. In Alexie’s hands, because he is a poet, the loops of thought drive home the points Alexie is making.

The section where this became the most obvious to me (and initially made me check to see if the Overdrive app had accidentally backed up a section) is where he talks about his mother’s and grandmother’s sexual assaults. He cycles back, analyzing what happened, what these events meant to him, meant to his mother, meant for his family, mean for the larger context of the history of rape on a reservation. He repeats refrains while drawing different conclusions each time, such that his work is almost a mind map, returning to the central theme and following a new branch with each section.

Collective Memory and Rape on the Rez
Because of how common it is on the reservation as well as within Alexie’s own family, he spends a fair amount of time talking about rape—how it impacted him, his family, and the larger social context of rape on a reservation including its use as a means to destroy and subjugate and how victims sometimes become the perpetrators. The moment that hit home the most about the use of rape against First Nations came when Alexie read:

If some evil scientist had wanted to create a place where rape would become a primary element of a culture, then he would have built something very much like an Indian reservation. That scientist would have put sociopathic and capitalistic politicians, priests, and soldiers in absolute control of a dispossessed people. Of a people stripped of their language, art, religion, history, land, and economy. And then, after decades of horrific physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual torture, that scientist would have removed those torturing politicians, priests, and soldiers and watched as an epically wounded people tried to rebuild their dignity. And finally that scientist would have taken notes as some of those wounded people turned their rage on other wounded people. My family did not escape that mad scientist’s experiment. In my most blasphemous moments, I think of that evil scientist as God.

While nothing is graphically described, this book is not recommended if sexual assault is a trigger.

In discussing larger issues than just his individual memories of his mother, Alexie’s book is remarkably timely, with chapters addressed to his life as a minority in the Trump era. Admittedly, I was surprised to hear these chapters as it was my impression that books take longer than seven months to write-polish-publish, even if these chapters were a late addition. I am glad they made it in, as the book is better for them—we need to listen to more minority voices telling us what life is like now. What it means that in 2017 White Supremacists are emboldened to throw off their bedsheets and appear in public unmasked. What it means for them to feel safer in society than people of color.

Because the reservation schools were/are so dismal, Alexie chose to leave the reservation to obtain an education and opportunities he wouldn’t have had otherwise. This meant he was essentially the only First Nation person in the sea of whiteness at the Reardan High School. Alexie was apparently quite popular—elected class president, star of the basketball team, and academically excellent. His experience in the early 80s was of being accepted there.

Yet, Lincoln County, the home of the town of Reardan, went 72% for Trump in the 2016 election. What does it say about the people Alexie grew up amongst—that they seemed to love him as a teenager, even with all of his liberalness and brownness—while they voted so solidly against his interests now? For those who would say that a vote for Trump wasn’t a vote for racism, Alexie writes:

Dear Reardan, I am afraid of you. Does that make you sad, or angry at me?

Dear Reardan, dear old friends, dear old lovers, do you realize that when you voted for Trump, you voted against me? Against the memory of the person I used to be in your lives? I was the indigenous immigrant. The first generation of my family to fully commit himself to world outside of the reservation. I was the eccentric brown boy. I was the indigenous leftist. And, for five years in the 1980s, I was a transformative figure. I made that little white town into a slightly more diverse and inclusive and accepting place. Or maybe I didn’t do any of that. Maybe I was just a cultural anomaly.

This is the message the election of Trump sent to the marginalized—whether this was the message you meant to transmit or not, this was the message. This is what it feels like for one man to not be safely in the majority. To realize he is less safe this evening than he thought he was when he woke up that morning.

Within the overall narrative, Alexie briefly mentions a few times his own sexual assault as a child as well as his diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I love him for acknowledging these things have happened to him, are happening to him. That you can be a successful novelist/poet/filmmaker, win awards, and be someone who is a survivor. Someone who has a mental illness. That these things do not make you unworthy, unlovable, or incapable of success. That these things are not things to be ashamed of or to hide.

Also read….
Both in the poetic prose and in theme, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me reminded me of When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams. Both take the event of their mother’s death and use it to look both back at life with them and forward at life without them, drawing parallels and connections—for Williams to migratory patterns of birds and for Alexie to the larger socio-political history of the treatment of First Nation peoples—that wouldn’t be immediately apparent to others looking at the singular event of one woman’s death. If you enjoyed one, I believe you’d enjoy the other.

While I focused on the serious themes, because those are largely what I took notes on as impactful to me, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is equal parts humorous and serious. There are numerous points at which Alexie is chuckling, as is the reader. His life and, as he comes to see, his mother’s life had moments of beauty and comedy. She was many things to many people and, indeed, many things to the son who mourns her. So long as a reader is not triggered by discussions of sexual assault, this is a book with wide range and wide appeal and one I recommend whole-heartedly.

Published June 13, 2017 by Little, Brown and Company (@littlebrown)
Author: Sherman Alexie
Date read: September 12, 2017
Rating: 5 Stars

Review: Reading People by Anne Bogel


Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you to Baker Books, Anne Bogel, and Netgalley for sending me an advance reader copy of this book.  All opinions are my own.

Truly knowing yourself is one of the hardest things you can do, but it’s also one of the most valuable. The sooner you begin, the sooner you’ll begin to see the payoff.

Reading People: How Seeing the World Through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything grew out of Anne’s love for personality frameworks. Reading People is a primer for several of the more common personality frameworks with easy to understand applications and examples for how to recognize the personalities in yourself and others.

The personality frameworks explored by Anne are
• Introversion / Extroversion
• High Sensitivity
• Chapman’s Five Love Languages
• Keirsey’s Temperaments
• Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)
• MBTI Cognitive Functions
• Clifton StrengthsFinder
• Enneagram

Personality Minefield
Personality is always a bit of a tricky subject for me. I’ve jokingly said that in personality quizzes, I always get the “worst” personality. Case in point: in the “Which Harry Potter Character Shares Your Myers-Briggs” quizzes, I’m invariably either Draco Malfoy or Voldemort. That kind of assessment doesn’t exactly make the heart sing or swell with pride at being an INTJ.

Even outside of Myers-Briggs, I’ve never had the personality that drew people to me. I have been called every variation of cold, unwelcoming, and intimidating (ironic given my five-foot-nothing stature). There’s obviously some gender bias here, since many of the things that make up my personality are sometimes viewed as problematic specifically because I am a woman who comes across as “cold” as opposed to a man who comes across as “analytical.” While I can’t find exact statistics, a quick search indicates that the INTJ is accepted as the least-common personality in women, with the associated personality traits direct opposites of the traits stereotypically seen as “feminine.” People who know me don’t describe me this way (…I don’t think) but this is apparently the first impression I give off, particularly in a public/crowded setting.

Over the years, I’ve come to terms with the benefits of my personality but it’s never been something I loved. This baggage and background is the minefield into which I waded with Reading People in hand.

What Reading People Is and Is Not
Reading People takes seven of the more popular/widely known personality frameworks, gives a basic overview of each, provides enough information to give you an idea of where you fall within that personality spectrum, and then provides resources to read more. The book is not an exhaustive resource on the major personality frameworks nor does it try to be.

Because of this structure, I can see the book have two main uses—the first is to give enough of an overview of each framework to make the reader pause during times of conflict and stress to consider whether the issue isn’t a misunderstanding based on personality. The book gives enough of a very quick overview of each different personality within each spectrum to give the reader a sense of the ways that each personality is different, with an emphasis that different doesn’t mean bad.

The other way this book can come in handy is to give enough of a taste of a particular personality framework to make you want to know more. This is particularly useful since several of the indicators do cost money to take “official tests”—like Enneagram, StrengthsFinder, and (to an extent) the Myers-Briggs (MBTI). If one particular framework resonates, you know it’s worth spending money to find more. Anne is also pretty meticulous about citing her sources and providing a Recommended Resources section for books to read on each type, providing an excellent starting point for further reading on particular frameworks.

If you take nothing else from Reading People, Anne is going to make darn sure that you know your personality is not a bad thing or a liability. It is perhaps the grand, overarching theme that each personality has strengths they bring to the table and that workplaces and societies don’t function without each type.

Ironically, what convinced me that Anne believed this the most was not her clear, concise writing or her insistence that this was the case, but the example Anne gave early on in when she discusses the pitfalls of having your personality defined by your aspirations rather than your reality. In particular, Anne pegged herself incorrectly for any years as an INTJ because this is what she aspired to be. Well if that doesn’t just flip the typical view of my Voldemort-personality on its head, I’m not sure what does.

Anne’s emphasis throughout the book is recognizing that personality is not a “grade”—there are not personalities that are better or worse than others, though certain personalities may find they are better suited to certain tasks than others. Moreover, personality is not the be-all-end-all. Personality doesn’t dictate character or your destiny—as people we are still in control and ultimately responsible for our kindness, how we treat people, and the choices we make in life. Personality is the “lens” of the camera but isn’t the camera or even the picture that results.

Christian Triggers
I am not in a place where I have any interest in reading “Christian books” right now. This presented a bit of a conundrum for me since I am a big fan of Anne’s blog and podcast and wanted an opportunity to see an ARC of Reading People. Anne doesn’t hide her own faith, though she also doesn’t mention it terribly often in these media. She’s highly recommended books like This Is How It Always Is about a family with a transgender child—books that would generally not fit the stereotypical mold of someone whose book is published by Baker Books, a division of the Baker Publishing Group that seeks to “publish high-quality writings that represent historic Christianity and serve the diverse interests and concerns of evangelical readers.”

Reading People manages to avoid most of the things that made me trepidatious about this book. If you are a person of (Christian) faith, the book has parts that will resonate with you, as Anne applies some of the frameworks to her prayer and faith life. There are several Bible verses quoted, along with quotes from C.S. Lewis (though most of those are not explicitly Christian)—these are easy to skip over and keep going. If you’re looking to avoid these references, there are never more than a sentence or two to skip before you can get back into the body of the book, without having missed anything. Reading People still stands entirely on its own. There is nothing that the reader misses by skipping these.

That said, if you’re in a place where you have no interest in even seeing references to Christian faith, this isn’t the book for you. Two of the personality frameworks—the Five Love Languages and the Enneagram—are explicitly rooted in the Christian faith. While they have applications outside faith and don’t require any particular faith to use or apply them, there is no getting around these roots. Several of Anne’s examples for how she learned to recognize different personalities and apply the lessons of the book also come from church examples because that’s where she was spending her time at the time she had some these personality insights.

From my interactions with Anne in Book Club as well as the launch group for this book, I feel pretty confident in asserting that Anne’s goal was to make this book welcoming for all readers, even those who don’t identify as Christian. Ultimately, I think so long as you are not in a place where Christian references are highly-triggering, this is a well-written, highly-readable book that is a great introduction to personality frameworks that will still resonate with most readers interested in the topic.

Anne’s writing style is clear and straightforward and the book is well-organized. As an introduction to personality frameworks, Reading People is a good introductory book that gives you enough of a taste to let you know where you might want to find more. Some sections are easier to read than others, though that tends to be a function of the test—the Five Love Languages are conceptually simpler than something like the MBTI Cognitive Types or the Enneagram.

Because of the way the book is structured, this book is better read in pieces—one or two chapters at a time, rather than a book you speed through. If you’re looking for an in-depth discussion of the personality frameworks or your particular personality, Reading People is going to be too shallow a dive. You would be better suited to consulting Anne’s Recommended Resources to find books with more depth into a particular framework.

Overall, I recommend Reading People for those generally interested in learning more about what makes themselves and others tick or looking for a place to start in getting to know themselves better. Reading People is a safe place to start, even for us Voldemort-types.

Pre-order Bonuses
Because this book isn’t out quite yet, there are still some fun pre-order bonuses available for the next two weeks.  If you pre-order the book in any form and provide proof of the pre-order, you’ll receive a free audiobook download of the book as well as access to a fun free class Anne did on reading personalities.  Proof of purchase can be submitted at ReadingPeopleBook.com.

Other Reviews of Note
Several other readers also got copies of Reading People to review in advance of the publication date.  Here are other reviews that might pique your interest:
Glistering: B’s Blog – includes a giveaway of a copy of the book along with ideas of how to implement/use the frameworks for writers, parents, teachers, and employers.
Marisa Mohi – with a focus on how to use personality frameworks to create consistent characters in fiction
Louden Clear in Education – applying the frameworks to life as a teacher
TBR, etc, – another reviewer looking at Anne’s Christian background and how it informed reading the book (so you don’t have to take my word for it).

Published: September 19, 2017 by Baker Books Preorder available on Amazon
Author: Anne Bogel (“Modern Mrs. Darcy“) (@annebogel)
Date read: August 4, 2017
Rating: 3 3/4 Stars

Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance


Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is a recent memoir from J.D. Vance, a man who grew up in Jackson, Kentucky and then Middletown, Ohio. He escaped these towns where manufacturing was declining, schools were failing, and families were falling apart—first as a Marine, then as a summa cum laude graduate of The Ohio State University, before landing at Yale Law School. Hillbilly Elegy paints itself as Vance’s look back at how the Rust Belt and Appalachia got to where they are now, as told through his personal life examples. What is not quite so clear up front is that Hillbilly Elegy is also, at least partly, a political screed.

In hindsight, Hillbilly Elegy is one of those books I probably should have abandoned early on, as not for me.

Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
While I don’t have enough of a catalog on here yet for this to be clear, memoir is one of my favorite genres. I love a well-done memoir that introduces me to a world completely outside of my own so I approached Hillbilly Elegy with anticipation. I had heard Hillbilly Elegy touted on NPR in an interview with Vance shortly after the shock of Tuesday, November 8, 2016, and seen it in a variety of magazines as a book to read to explain how such a large group of people can have seemingly voted against their interests (#healthcare). I had read The Glass Castle several years ago and was expecting something at least somewhat similar but on a larger scale than a single family. This is not what I got.

My biggest problem with Hillbilly Elegy is that I have never, to my best recollection, read a memoir so politically biased. This is not to say that it is directly political—I have read memoirs of politicians. Rather, from the selection of stories to the conclusions Vance then draws from them, I had the distinct impression through many of the chapters that I was, quite literally, listening to Repubican propaganda rather than a memoir. Two of the starkest examples for me were Vance’s attempts to convince his reader of the evils of public benefits, like food stamps, and that much of Appalachia’s rejection of President Obama has nothing to do with race.

Don’t Look Behind the Curtain
Ironically, in his structure of these arguments, Vance falls victim to his own logical fallacies. He argues that it is short-sighted and too simple to say that the rejection of Obama can be boiled down to race while simultaneously telling his reader two stories about food stamps—that he saw people at the grocery store he worked in as a teenager selling them to buy some beer and that his drug-addicted, unemployed neighbor used them to buy steaks—to convince us that public benefits like food stamps are a problem and should be done away with. We should not draw wholesale conclusions about all of Appalachia when a handful of people are calling the President the N-word but we should conclude the welfare state with its “Welfare Queens” (a phrase used earnestly by Vance when discussing a woman who “shockingly” had all her children by the same man) should be done away with based on two recollections of a teenage grocery bagger.

I found myself gobsmacked listening to his description of Obama as having, essentially, moved past any hardship in his life.

Many of my new friends blame racism for this perception of the president [Obama]. But the president feels like an alien to many [people in the town he grew up in] for reasons that have nothing to do with skin color. Recall that not a single one of my high school classmates attended an Ivy League school. Barack Obama attended two of them and excelled at both. He is brilliant, wealthy, and speaks like a constitutional law professor, which of course he is. Nothing about him bears any resemblance to the people I admired growing up. His accent—clean, perfect, neutral—is foreign. His credentials are so impressive that they are frightening.   He made his life in Chicago, a dense metropolis, and he conducts himself with a confidence that comes from knowing that the modern American meritocracy was built for him. Of course, Obama overcame adversity in his own right—adversity familiar to many of us—but that was long before any of us knew him.

Interestingly, George W. Bush meets most of these descriptors, yet was not rejected by Appalachia by any stretch.* Our 43rd president attended Yale for undergraduate and Harvard business school. He is also rich, having had family money and worked in the Texas oil industry—he was once co-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. While Bush’s early years were spent in Midland (I’ve been there—NOT a large town)—he then attended private school in Houston for two years before attending boarding school in Amherst, Massachusetts for high school.   The only significant difference in the description Vance paints of Obama and the reality of W. is how they speak.

My point in this is not that Appalachia is a bed of racists (though, certainly, there are some there as there are anywhere—it’s naïve to suggest race had nothing to do with the perceptions of Obama). Rather, Vance is the master of selection—picking and choosing facts that fit his narrative and constructing fairly convincing arguments to match his points based on the selective narrative he provided as the set-up. Vance is so earnest, so seemingly trustworthy, it’s easy to see why this book is being considered authoritative.

The tone in several places is also concerning. In telling stories about someone who was perceived to be homosexual, Vance described the person was a “pervert.” The context is Vance quoting another person but the word is said repeatedly and with such vehemence in the audiobook, it left me fairly convinced that, despite hiding behind another person’s alleged quote, this may be spot-on for how Vance feels. If he doesn’t, he should perhaps re-word that section in future editions.

Defining the Elite
He talks about “they” and “them” when he refers to people that his hometown would consider “elites” though the book conveniently leaves out that, after graduating from Yale, Vance went to work for Sidley Austin LLP and now works for a venture capital and private equity firm in San Francisco associated with Peter Thiel (founder of a small company called PayPal). As an attorney, I can assert with confidence that he was making six figures at Sidley Austin and is certainly not making less working for Mithril Capital Management LLC now. For all of his “them”-ing, Vance looks a lot like the thems now.

It’s Not ALL Bad
The book is not entirely without redeeming points. The only parts I would ever listen to again were close together in Chapters 13 and 14. In Chapter 13 he makes several points about social capital—how doors are already opened to some, cracked for others, and almost altogether locked for a third group, unless someone like a mentor or caring professor will open the door for you.   Similarly Chapter 14’s discussion of trauma in kids is worth reading, particularly in light of the abuse Vance survived. Neither of these sections is perfect and there are certainly better sources for the material; however, it felt unfair to rip the book so harshly without at least acknowledging that a few points here and there landed. I’m sure many of the points he makes about the loss of manufacturing jobs and the opiod crisis are also also accurate; I was just having a hard time not getting distracted by all the bias to appreciate them.

In Sum
Vance’s life is his life—I have no reason to doubt that the stories in Hillbilly Elegy happened to him in the way he said. And this book almost certainly reflects the way a lot of people in Appalachia and the Rust Belt feel about the economy and the government that has seemingly (and in many cases, actually) abandoned them. My problem is the agenda. If Vance wants to write a book of political essays, he should. If he wants to write a memoir, he should. Blending these genres in Hillbilly Elegy in such a way that it felt like he was directly trying to hide his agenda ultimately felt so dishonest that I would never recommend this book to anyone.

*In both the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, George W. Bush took Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia, in addition to the rest of the states typically considered to be the South.

Published: June 28, 2016 by HarperCollins (@harpercollinsus)
Author: J.D. Vance (Twitter: @JDVance1)
Date Read: July 18, 2017
Rating: 1 star

Excellent sources of more nuanced and educated criticism than mine can be found here:

Hillbilly Ethnography by John Thomason
J.D. Vance, The False Prophet of Blue America by Sarah Jones
For the Good of the Poor and Common People: What Hillbilly Elegy Gets Wrong About Appalachia and the Working Class by Elizabeth Catte

Review: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann


“I did not prove who killed my grandmother…My failure was not just because of me, though. It was because they ripped out too many pages of our history…There were just too many lies, too many documents destroyed, too little done at the time to document how my grandmother died…A murdered Indian’s survivors don’t have the right to the satisfaction of justice for past crimes, or even of knowing who killed their children, their mothers or fathers, brothers or sisters, their grandparents. They can only guess—like I was forced to.”
— Dennis McAuliffe, Jr from Bloodland: A Family Story of Oil, Greed, and Murder on the Osage Reservation quoted in Killers of the Flower Moon

In the 1800s, the United States government intentionally and systematically attempted to decimate First Nations. Members of First Nation tribes were rounded up, forced off their ancestral homelands, and (what was left of them after plague and wars) forced onto reservations on undesirable and often barren lands. The Osage were driven from their original homeland and crowded into a small part of an Oklahoma wasteland that no one would be interested in…until oil was discovered underneath of it. As a result of their retaining their mineral rights, the Osage suddenly became millionaires. Because Osage “headrights” to the minerals couldn’t be sold but only inherited, the nation was plunged into a Reign of Terror as white settlers plotted and assassinated large numbers of Osage to inherit their wealth. The fledgling FBI was sent to investigate and was able to convict a major conspirator and mastermind behind several of the killings; however, as Grann shows, the killings solved by the FBI were only the tip of the iceberg. Most killings were never recognized as killings or investigated, leaving lasting impact on the remaining members of the Osage Nation today.

Expectations and Reality

I dove straight into Killers of the Flower Moon after finishing Dreamland Burning. Will’s mother in Dreamland is an Osage and Latham mentions a few times the need for her to have a white guardian to manage the money she made from oil wealth. I already had Flower Moon on my bookshelf, so I took that as the nudge to dive into this one next. A coworker who talks books with me had recently recommended Lost City of Z, another of Grann’s books, so I came into this one excited for a compelling nonfiction narrative.

Unfortunately, Flower Moon fell a tad flat. I’m not sure the fault is Grann’s— it probably is much harder to write a compelling legal drama with approximately fifty different white male villains and make it as interesting as a trek in the Amazon. Before I go further, I do want to say I think this book is still a “should-read,” despite my lackluster initial reaction.  (As an interesting aside, in the MMD book club interview with Jennifer Latham, she tried to pitch a YA book about these events but was turned down.  Attention Little Brown publishers: I would read this.  Please rethink this decision.)

What Worked and What Didn’t

Grann structures Flower Moon into three parts. The first tells the story of Mollie Burkhart (“The Marked Woman”), the assassination of her family members, and her initially futile attempts to determine who was killing her family. The second follows the still brand-new FBI as agents in the Oklahoma office (“The Evidence Man”) attempted to secure a conviction of the mastermind behind the Burkhart murders. The third is told from Grann’s perspective (“The Reporter”) as he traveled to Oklahoma, met with remaining Osage, and attempted to research the extent of the Reign of Terror against the Osage. The first part of the book successfully grabs the reader’s attention. The tension and terror are palpable as Mollie Burkhart seems to watch those around her—two sisters, mother, brother-in-law—drop like flies as she herself starts to feel sicker and weaker, not knowing if she is actually sick or being poisoned by someone close to her. This part of the book moves at a fair pace and the characters are relatively easy to keep distinguished from each other.  Having specific Osage to care about also brought the Reign of Terror down from the large-scale and theoretical and worked to pull the reader into the larger conspiracies.

The second part of the book is where Grann lost me a bit. The action revolves around Tom White, an exemplary agent and former Texas Ranger who was put in charge of the Oklahoma field office and the Osage investigation. This section desperately needed a character key. Without going back and counting, there had to be at least fifty white men with white men sounding names (Tom, Buck, Bill, Will, Vaughn, Joe, Morrison, etc.) who were almost all villains and involved in overlapping conspiracies. Some of these villains were married or related to Osage, making these villains even more insidious; however, since I had trouble keeping all the bad white men straight, I probably didn’t appreciate the full extent of some of this evil. I couldn’t remember if this bad guy was just bad because he wanted money or bad because he wanted money so badly he played the long game and tricked and married an Osage woman. Not being able to easily flip to a character cheat sheet meant I eventually gave up flipping (there’s also no index) to keep all the white men with their white men names straight. The action here also drags somewhat—it takes quite a few words to clearly explain who was involved in each plot and the details in each plot. Turns out the minute details of murder can become kind of tedious.

There are, however, major points made in this section worth gleaning from the minutiae of murder. Among them is just how racist most Americans were at this point in history that they were unwilling to convict or impose maximum punishment on a white man for the killing of an Osage, even when guilt was proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The depths of corruption in the state courts were astounding as were the lengths the villains would go—essentially, anyone could be bought and if you can’t be bought you can be killed and replaced with someone who can be bought. These are certainly not the details that made it into my high school history curriculum or even my American history curriculum in college.

The third and final section picks up the pace and is much easier to read. I flew through the final section in about an hour of reading. Grann puts himself into the story, explaining briefly how he came to hear about the Osage and his research. His conclusions are heartbreaking—while J. Edgar Hoover and the newspapers made much of the success of the FBI cases in the 1920s, their convictions were the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds more Osage were likely killed in ways that looked like accidents (poisoning by tainted homemade alcohol, lost while traveling) or simply disappeared in areas where the white law enforcement was either involved/paid off or simply didn’t care enough about Osage lives to look closer. Because history at that time (and largely still) was written by white men, there were little to no documents created about these deaths so even with more attention now, it is next to impossible to determine just how many Osage were murdered and by whom.

White Savior Problems

The major downfall of this book and my hesitation in recommending it is that, in many ways, there are two levels of the White Savior here. The first is with Agent Tom White—the narrative is clear that but for the white men in the FBI, the Osage would have no justice at all. In some ways, this White Savior narrative bothers me less. While I’m sure the contributions of the Osage are not explored as fully as they could have been (if this information and these documents even still exist), the backdrop of anti-First Nation racism and the details of the Osage’s unsuccessful attempts to solve the murders themselves makes it clear that only a white man was going to solve the Burkhart murders. The system was designed and the deck stacked such that only a white man was going to be able to navigate the white system here.

Grann as the White Savior bothers me more, though he too is the product of a system stacked to be navigated by white men. Grann meticulously documents his sources, including several books written by the Osage themselves. A reader could read these books and get the Osage story of what happened; however, these books haven’t received the attention or acclaim that Grann has. Flower Moon is more accessible than the books written by the Osage and so the system continues—white storytellers tell the stories of people with color—white people learn about these horrific events—but the white man again gets the credit for the story of the people of color. To me, the lesser of two evils here seems to be that at least this story will reach a wider audience, though this of course does nothing to change the system or otherwise ensure the voices of people of color will ever be heard telling these stories themselves. I concede, of course, that this is a much larger problem than this brief summary can do justice and that many may feel differently—that rather than letting white men like Grann tell these stories at all, the system of publishing should be changed such that minority voices are honored and provided resources and space to tell their stories—after all, they are theirs.


Much like Part III and the debate about who gets to tell what stories, the book ends with no real resolution. While this would normally drive me a little crazy (I don’t need a happy ending but I need an ending), this choice fits the story here. What resolution can the reader have when the Osage have none?


Published April 18, 2017 by Doubleday (Instagram @doubledaybooks)
Author: David Grann (Twitter @davidgrann)
Date read: June 21, 2017
Rating: 3  1/2 Stars