Review: March: Book Two

March: Book Two, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2015.

Summary: The second part of this graphic non-fiction narrative of the Civil Rights movement from the experiences of further sit-ins and marches to the Freedom Rides, the children’s marches, and the March on Washington.

At the beginning of Book Two of March, John Lewis and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) are seeking to extend the gains they made in desegregating downtown Nashville lunch counters. They go to other restaurants and movie theaters, being met again and again with refusals, violence, and prison.

Then the first Freedom Rides of 1961 were organized. The Supreme Court had overturned segregation on buses and bus facilities. But the question was whether southern authorities would uphold or resist the decision. The Council on Racial Equality (CORE) invited John to join the efforts to test this decision. Groups of riders leave on buses from Washington, DC to Louisiana. March graphically chronicles the violence and harassment they faced, including the bus John would have been on were it not for a call back to Philadelphia. He had planned to rejoin the bus. He never got a chance. It was firebombed. Later, he is sent to Parchman farm, a former plantation and subjected to all its indignities. During one of the attacks, government agent John Siegenthaler is badly hurt when he tries to intervene.

The account then turns to the confrontation between Birmingham’s children and Bull Connor’s dogs and fire hoses. One senses in the drawings the horror and the terror of the children who face this onslaught, displayed on televisions across the country. This led to a breakthrough with the city taking steps to desegregate. But victories are punctuated with tragic setbacks like the murder of Medgar Evers.

At his time, John was called to an emergency meeting of SNCC in Atlanta, elected as its chairman, and representative among national civil rights (the Big Six) leaders in the March on Washington. The final part of the book narrates the controversy over Lewis’s hard-hitting speech draft, the discussions and edits to tone him down and his unwillingness to compromise. Finally he accedes to Philip Randolph but still gives the hardest hitting speech of the day, overshadowed by King’s “I have a dream.” The book depicts the reception afterwards at the White House and the cool response Lewis received from Kennedy: “I heard your speech.”

As in Book One, the narrative is interleaved with the inauguration ceremonies for Barack Obama including the embrace of the two and the juxtaposition of two moments at opposite ends of the Washington Mall. These inspiring moments are in turn juxtaposed with the terrible violence and hatred Lewis and so many faced.

The strength of this graphic non-fiction is that it captures both the glimpses of the dream and the awful realities of racial hatred. The drawings bring out both the noble and the ignoble. At the same time, the rendering of persons is rough, often only vaguely recognizable as the person being rendered. Nevertheless, the power of graphic portrayals is akin to the original images displayed on our televisions. The violence is set amid the noble aspirations of young marchers, some still children. The moral claim of the marchers stands in stark contrast to the brutal actions of whites who can only resort to force and distortion of the law to resist what is just. This is an effective way to teach this history!

Review: McGowan’s Call

McGowan’s Call, Rob Smith. Huron, OH: Drinian Press, 2007.

Summary: A collection of short stories and a novella tracing the ministry of a pastor from a small Ohio river town to a suburb of Dayton.

The life of a minister is probably one of the least understood of any occupation, or, in the language of this book, a call. The author was a minister for thirty-one years in the southern Ohio settings of this book. One has a sense of an inside glimpse into the life of a minister–sought in spiritual crises, often triangulated in church governance fights, always struggling with the congruence between the face he must present in public and his private life.

The book consists of several short stories set in an early ministerial assignment in Hatteras, a small industrial town on the Ohio River. The novella at the center of the book and concluding stories are set in a Dayton suburb and a much larger church–a typical career arc of an effective pastor.

The book opens with Davis McGowan’s arrival in Hatteras, and encounters with a homeless man in “a game of mutual respect between a local and an import.” Another story describes the loss of daughter who looked much like his own daughter in a tornado, and the small comfort he could offer with his presence and prayers. That weekend he goes to find his own solace on his boat.

The guy at the bait shop seemed truly disgusted that I would come to play on my boat when lives had been lost. I couldn’t argue. It was on my mind, too.

Rob Smith, p. 24

This tension between public and private, who McGowan is and who he is expected to be runs through these stories.

“False Witness” is the novella at the center of this book. It centers around the death of Angie Fornesby, wife of Barker Fornesby, a rising executive. She was undergoing cancer treatments, promising at least a number of years where she would enjoy a quality of life. It was a bit tricky because she was also diabetic. In fact, that is what killed her, an overdose of insulin. Since both Barker and son Matt were trained and skilled in administering doses, this ruled out an accident. Barker’s not exactly forthcoming. He doesn’t readily produce an insulin log. An alert prosecutor also has picked up on a number of interactions between Barker and a hospital nurse. Davis had given an initial statement to investigators right after Angie’s death. Slater, the prosecutor, thinks he has enough to take a murder case to the grand jury. They subpoena McGowan, asking about his interactions with Angie. Not sure of what really happened but seeing where this was going, and the impact it could have on Matt, he gives false testimony that gets Barker Fornesby off. He discovers in the concluding story that he has made a lasting enemy in Slater.

In the same concluding story is one of the most finely written passages in the book, a description of a pastor living the call. McGowan has been called to be with a couple whose unborn child has died in utero. After a stillbirth is induced, McGowan holds the dead child, named Joshua, and speaks of how much his parents would have loved him. Then he goes to them.

“I held Joshua and called him by name,” he said.

Becky looked to Chad and then back to McGowan. “Was it awful.”

“He was beautiful,” said Davis.

“Am I silly, Dr. McGowan, to want to see him?” Davis glanced at Chad.

. . .

“You felt Joshua inside, and that little kick made you both think about the future in another way. Now that he’s gone, none of that will happen in quite the same way. You’ve lost a lot.”

Rob Smith, pp. 161-162.

This is the noble, heart-wrenching work pastors around the world pursue daily, unappreciated until one is on the receiving end of that care. Much of it is unseen by most congregants, who are critical of sermon styles and have unreal expectations of the spirituality of these very human people, while also expecting them to fix the toilets in the building.

McGowan is neither unworldly saint nor worldly hypocrite. He loves to sail, loves his wife, and pursues his call with integrity while struggling with the tensions between public expectations and his sense of self. He is one who’d rather dress up in old jeans and hang around with the youth group than hob-nob with socialites. He wrestles with the ambiguities of doing what is right and merciful when it isn’t strictly the letter of the law. He incurs enmity when he does so.

Rob Smith has truly created an interesting character in a profession we often discount. He no doubt draws upon his own experiences to explore what it looks like to care faithfully for a group to which one is called, the beauty and the pain that goes along with this. There is an understated beauty in this writing that doesn’t overwhelm with spiritual profundity but draws one through the unpretentious decency of McGowan. And if you haven’t gotten enough of McGowan in this volume, there are three more: McGowan’s Retreat, McGowan’s Return, and McGowan’s Pass.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Spiritual Practices of Jesus

Spiritual Practices of Jesus, Catherine J. Wright. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A study of three spiritual practices of Jesus found in Luke’s gospel considering them in the first century context of his readers and the writings of the earliest fathers of the church.

Catherine J. Wright does several things in this book I have not seen before. First, she focuses attention on what the scriptures, and specifically Luke’s gospel have to say about the spiritual practices of Jesus. She does so systematically, looking at all the passages around a particular practice.

Second, she asks the question of how Luke’s earliest readers in the first century would have thought about the particular practice in question. In particular, she keeps in mind the intention of first century biographies not only to inform but also transform the readers. Consideration is given to the regard given the practice in the wider culture and how this might shape their reception of Luke’s account.

Finally, Wright looks at the earliest church fathers and their interpretations and responses to Luke’s gospel. This offers tangible evidence of how the church understood and received these accounts in their setting.

Wright focuses on three practices, each which recur in numerous passages in Luke: simplicity, humility, and prayer. For each, she offers commentary on the text, then discussion of the practice in first century culture, and thirdly, she goes back to the specific texts from the first overview and discusses what the early church fathers had to say about the text. Through all this, she both summarizes the practice of Jesus and draws compelling contemporary applications for the church.

For example, she considers the parable of the rich man and Lazarus and the rich man who approaches Jesus., noting the lack of generosity with both, the unwillingness to be dispossessed of wealth for the care of others, and in the latter’s case, to pursue the kingdom. Wright notes the expectations in both Jewish and Greek literature for the rich to be benefactors. In learning from the fathers, we learn that Chrysostom considered the failure to give alms to the poor to be theft. Basil of Caesarea teaches that “the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in poverty.” Wright then concludes with this trenchant application in her summary:

Perhaps one reason for the emphasis on radical almsgiving is the lens through which early Christians look at wealth. In their opinion, we don’t really own our wealth. It is placed in our care by God so that we may bestow it to those who have less than we do. Therefore, when we spend our wealth on ourselves alone, we are essentially stealing from the poor (and thereby from God). The reverse is also true. When we give to the poor, we show ourselves to be good stewards of the resources God has trusted us with, and we are, in essence, giving to God. This attitude could not be further from the attitude that many Christians in America have today.

Catherine J. Wright, p. 63.

She offers challenges around humility as the mark of the early Christian but forgotten in the contemporary church’s quest for power and influence. She notes the practice of continual, fervent prayer by both Jesus and his early followers and the superficial practices that characterize most of our Western churches.

As we hear of the practices of simplicity, humility, and prayer in connection with our Lord, we say, “but of course.” What Wright’s close reading of Luke’s gospel, and consideration of Luke’s earliest readers does, is challenge us to see what this meant for those who called, and call themselves disciples. As Wright traces this out, it becomes apparent that many of us have not looked very closely at Luke’s narrative, not the Lord of whom it is written, if measured by the lack of correspondence between our lives and His. Wright does not bludgeon us with this truth but beckons us to join Luke’s early readers in the embrace of these practices out of love for the one who called us and models and teaches them for us to live into.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Six Months in 1945

Six Months in 1945: From World War to Cold War, Michael Dobbs. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

Summary: An account of the six months from Yalta to Hiroshima and how the decisions and events of those months shaped the post-war world.

Michael Dobbs contends that the six months from February to August of 1945 profoundly shaped the post-war world dashing the hopes for world peace, replacing it with a “cold” war between the two major superpowers to emerge from the world. How did Allies against Germany become adversaries?

The account begins with the conference at Yalta in the Crimea. Planned to accommodate Stalin, it represented an arduous journey via ship, air, rail, and auto for a dying president and a recently ill prime minister. Neither Roosevelt nor Churchill arrived at the top of their game. What they found at the conference was a Stalin who was. Given that his country had borne the brunt of the war against Germany (and the casualties), he came with terms on which he would not yield about the borders and government of Poland and his influence in Eastern Europe. Dobbs shows how Roosevelt and Churchill, sometimes with vagueness of wording, tried to reach agreements about the shape of the post-war world that preserved self-autonomy for these countries and preservation of the unity of Germany. Roosevelt described their efforts as “the best I could do.” For Churchill, the handwriting was on the wall for his influence and the British empire. He recognized that he now was junior to the two great powers.

The second part traces the conclusion of the war, the race for Berlin, the death of Roosevelt, the linkup and the zones of occupation. The new president, Harry Truman almost immediately had to stand up to Molotov on the matter of Poland and honoring the agreements of Yalta. But as the old saying goes, possession is nine-tenths of the law, and the Russians were in possession of most of what they wanted. Amid all this, Dobbs captures the momentary joy of the meet-up of forces.

Part Three covers the conference in Potsdam, the tenuous balance of standing up to Stalin as an “iron curtain” descends on Eastern Europe and Poland’s government is dominated by pro-Communist leaders., even while Stalin’s help is still sought to deal with Japan. During the conference, Churchill learns that the elections he called turned him out of office. And Truman learned that the test of atomic weapons was devastatingly successful. Japan would be warned, resist, be bombed twice, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and capitulate, even as Russia was turning back forces in Manchuria but was still short of all the prizes sought in the East.

A foreign service officer from the U.S. in Russia sent his famous “long telegram” with his analysis of Russian intent and recommendation of an American policy of containment, which became our foreign policy until 1989 (and may be once more). Reading this made me wonder if the combination of weariness and perhaps naivete of Roosevelt, and the divorce of military strategy and geopolitical assessment led to this outcome. Churchill saw this coming. But he was also the one so cautious about a cross-channel invasion. Great Britain and America’s late engagement, after the Russians’ years of fighting and dying and turning back the German threat left them in a place where all they could do was say “pretty please” to a country who held most of the cards.

For those whose knowledge of this history is a few vaguely remembered paragraphs in a history book, this is a detailed plunge into these six defining months exploring the personalities, the changing power dynamics, the events and the geopolitics that shaped the post-war world. The account balances depth and pace in a way that always fascinates and never plods. It demonstrates that nothing may be so dangerous as a charming vision of world peace between ideological and geopolitical adversaries. Yalta was the wake-up call, and Potsdam the effort to contain the damages. But the amity of a wartime alliance would be no more.

Review: Companions in the Darkness

Companions in the Darkness, Diana Gruver (Foreword by Chuck DeGroat). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: Biographies of seven Christians in history who experienced depression and the hope we can embrace from how they lived through their struggle.

Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, David Brainerd, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr. What these and two others in this book have in common is their struggles with depression. Diana Gruver, who has also experienced depression, has studied the lives of seven saints for what may be learned from their experience of depression. She writes:

Their stories bring me comfort, reassuring me that I am not alone. They remind me that I am not the only one to walk this road, that this experience is not an alien one. The lie that “surely no one else has felt this” is cut down by the truth that others, in fact, have, and their presence makes me feel less isolated. These fellow travelers are my companions in the darkness of night.

Diana Gruver, p. 13.

Gruver gracefully narrates the stories of these saints, weaving in insights from her own struggles with depression. One of the striking things I noticed was the differences in these stories and that depression had many faces. Some seemed to have family proclivities toward depression, others like Charles Spurgeon first encountered depression more or less out of the blue, resulting from a tragic event. Some like David Brainerd struggled with concurrent health issues while others faced pressures from tremendously challenging events.

One of the most interesting stories will probably be an unknown to most of us, Hannah Allen. Having struggled with depression during her husband’s absences at sea, she sinks into a deeper depression when he dies at sea. At one point she secrets herself under the floorboards where she is staying, determined to starve herself to death. With the help of relatives, she eventually agreed to medical treatment, improving to the point where she re-married. Gruver discusses how prayer and reasoning from scripture were not enough:

The cure for Hannah Allen wasn’t to drag her to church. It wasn’t to convince her to pray more. It wasn’t to quote Scripture at her until it removed her despair. Her caretakers sought for her the best medical care of the day. They changed her surroundings. They put her on what we would now call suicide watch. They kept showing up with compassion. They attended to her soul, yes, but they also attended to her body.

Diane Gruver, p. 47.

Hannah left a spiritual memoir of her life, which is the primary way we know of her struggle. She represents the many “ordinary Christians” who anonymously struggle, and the hope there is for them.

Gruver not only candidly describes the struggles of each figure she profiles, she shows the efforts employed by each, all but Martin Luther King, Jr., before modern medical treatments. King had been recommended for psychiatric treatment for depression by a doctor but refused because of the efforts to discredit him and the stigma mental illness incurred in his time. Luther fled solitude, married, and enjoyed drink and laughter at the table. William Cowper, who gave us great hymns and struggled through his life with depression, found respite in art and friendship. Mother Teresa, who once experienced a clear call of God lived in spiritual darkness where God was utterly absent and chose continued obedience to Jesus despite her feelings. King drew on reservoirs of humor, song, and prayer, the spirituality of the Black church, to lead resiliently under a continuous cloud of threats on his life, and during the desertion of friends when he stood against the Vietnam War.

Gruver includes an appendix with practical guidelines for helping a friend through depression. She sums up the message of this book, drawn from Pilgrim’s Progress as Christian and Hopeful cross the River of Death, as “the water is deep, but the bottom is good.” Depression is hard but God has not abandoned us, even if it feels that way.

We’re in especially dark times. One public health study reports that the incidence of symptoms associated with depression have more than tripled during the COVID pandemic. It’s likely that we, personally, or someone we care for, are one of these. Reading the stories of these “companions,” while not a substitute for professional care, may offer insight and hope to make it to the other side of these dark months. This book is a gift for our times as well as a glimpse of a side of people we thought we knew, enhancing our understanding of the quality of their faithfulness to God.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Biblical Theology According to the Apostles

Biblical Theology According to the Apostles (New Studies in Biblical Theology), Chris Bruno, Jared Compton, Kevin McFadden. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A study of the summaries of Israel’s story in the New Testament and their culmination in the person of Christ.

The co-authors of this work call attention to a form of material not often paid heed to in the New Testament: the summaries of Israel’s story (SIS for short). They focus on seven SIS in the New Testament, and for each consider its context, content, and contribution to biblical theology. The seven are, with brief summaries of their contribution to biblical theology”

Matthew 1:1-17. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. The build-up from Matthew to David, then the interruption of Israel’s hope in the exile, brought full circle with the birth of Jesus.

Matthew 21:33-46. The parable of the unfaithful tenants. The story of judgment upon Israel for failing to fulfill its covenant obligations and the culmination of the covenant in the rejected stone who becomes the holy mountain.

Acts 7. Stephens speech. Traces God’s vindication of his rejected servants climaxing in Christ whom the religious leaders had rejected.

Acts 13:16-41. Paul’s sermon in Pisidian Antioch. Traces the unfolding covenant from Abraham to Moses focusing on David and Christ, David’s greater son.

Galatians 3-4. Paul’s three versions of Abraham’s (and Israel’s) story in relation to the law and his offspring, Christ, and those who by faith are also his offspring, heirs by faith and promise, not law.

Romans 9-11. Israel’s identity. Israel by descent and by faith and the salvation of all Israel, on which the authors do not agree as to interpretation.

Hebrews 11. Israel’s heroes of faith. The authors observe the twin themes of social alienation and death and their heavenly hope fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus.

The authors note a number of threads running through these stories, most notably how they climax in Christ who resolves the tension of the seemingly failed land promises and exile. They highlight Abraham and David, who prefigure Christ, and Moses, more complex both as a figure of faith and the bringer of the Law. All told, the authors show how these summaries of Israel’s story contribute to the larger compositions in which they are embedded, focusing on Christ as covenant fulfillment and the example of persisting faith as an encouragement to an often-suffering church.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: March, Book One

March: Book One, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin (co-author), Nate Powell (artist). Marietta, GA: Top Shelf Productions, 2013.

Summary: A graphic non-fiction biography of John Lewis. Book One focuses on his youth, the contact with Martin Luther King, Jr. that changed the course of his life, and his early efforts in the desegregation of lunch counters in Nashville.

We lost one of the last great civil rights leaders of the 1950’s and 1960’s with the death of Congressman John Lewis this past July. Jon Meacham recently published His Truth is Marching On on the life of John Lewis (review). In this graphic non-fiction set of three books, we hear from John Lewis himself.

Book One begins, after the scene of the confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the brutal beating of Lewis, on January 20, 2009, the morning of the inauguration of Barack Obama. Lewis makes his way to his congressional office, preparing for his procession and seating to witness the swearing in of the first Black president. A family from Atlanta stops into his office to see the office of this famous civil rights pioneer. They receive far more, as they meet John Lewis, who narrates the course of his life.

He begins with life on his parent’s farm in Pike County Alabama, his early religious awakening and his “ministry” with his chickens. He describes the trip north with his Uncle Otis, and his discovery that racial segregation wasn’t the same in the north. He describes his passion for education, first encounters with the preaching of Martin Luther King, Jr on the radio, his opportunity to go to seminary, and discovery of the social gospel. This led to his decision to transfer to Troy State and his first meeting with Dr. King.

The next stage in his development was his training with James Lawson in the practice of non-violent resistance. He describes the workshops and the verbal and physical assaults to see if any would break under the stress. The graphic depiction of this training, and the supplement practice of that discipline helps one grasp in a new way the costliness and courage of the non-violent way. Be sure to read the instructions given every volunteer on page 97.

The beginning of their activism was to press for the desegregation of Nashville’s lunch counters. The refusals, the abuse, the beatings, and the refusal of the police to intervene are all shown. Then the arrests are followed by jail, court hearings, refusals to pay fine, and more jail. The book ends with the confrontation at city hall and the mayor’s agreement to allow the lunch counters to integrate.

Lewis represented the daring edge of the civil rights movement, refusing to heed older leading lights like Thurgood Marshall, being willing to risk life and limb to continue to non-violently protest segregation. This leads to formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC or “Snick”) with Lewis in leadership.

One comes away from reading this appreciating the deep spirituality, discipline, resolve and courage of Lewis and so many of those who marched, sat at counters, and shared beatings and jail cells with him. One also grasps the power of their courage and nonviolent resistance to unmask the dehumanizing character of racism-a story Lewis wants to pass to the next generation listening in his office.

Review: A Commentary on James

A Commentary on James, Aida Besancon Spencer. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2020.

Summary: A scholarly and accessible exegetical commentary on the Epistle of James.

The Epistle of James has often been the object of at least discussion, if not controversy. Despite attribution to the brother of the Lord, it’s place in the canon faced questions, even from Luther who considered it a “right strawy epistle.” Then, those who have preached this epistle have struggled to find how it coheres.

Aida Besancon Spencer addresses all these questions and more in this new exegetical commentary in the Kregel Exegetical Library series. She addresses the standard introductory matters of authorship, date, and occasion, summarizing differing views. She proposes that James 1:21 is a thesis verse for the full book: “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you” (NIV). She contends that there are three specific ways we turn from evil and accept the implanted word: through responding in godly ways to trials, by embracing God-given wisdom that shapes our speech, and by right attitudes toward wealth that cares for and uplifts the poor.

The commentary then follows the five chapters of James beginning with a translation and phrase by phrase grammatical analysis, noting the relationship of each phrase to surrounding phrases. Then an outline and literary structure is offered followed by careful exegesis. The chapter concludes with theological and homiletic topics, offering suggestions for those preaching or teaching these passages.

The exegesis is broken up by tables showing either internal structures or comparing/contrasting passages in James with other biblical texts. For example how James and Paul interact with Genesis 15:6, or the OT and NT quotations in James or parallels in questions and answers with Malachi 1. These “echoes” are important to understanding meaning and are woven throughout.

There are a number of excurses on specific passages in which the author offers contemporary applications–something one often does not find in an academic commentary, but which reflects her wide experience in urban work. Among these are “Who Are the Poor Today?” and how “Employers Still Withhold Wages from Workers.” Some of the latter include using bankruptcy laws to avoid paying workers, complaining of substandard work from contractors with otherwise excellent reputations, not passing along tips, withholding overtime wages, insisting on “off the clock” hours, or other off-hour work without pay.

I’m glad to add this commentary to my shelves. It is scholarly, thorough, accessible and embodies the author’s thesis verse for James, showing a humble acceptance of the word planted in us. We’re challenged in how we confront suffering, embrace wisdom, and deal with wealth. Aida Besancon Spencer models exegetical rigor and pastoral integrity.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: All I Did Was Shoot My Man

All I Did Was Shoot My Man (A Leonid McGill Mystery #4), Walter Mosley. New York, Riverhead Press, 2012.

Summary: The release from prison of a woman framed in an insurance heist sets loose a string of murders, including an attempt on McGill’s life, even while he tries to find out who is behind the heist and the murders.

Eight years ago Leonid McGill was hired as a fixer to plant evidence in the storage locker of a woman, Zella Grisham, already arrested for wounding her boyfriend, who she caught with another woman. The evidence connected her with a heist of $58 million involving an insurance company. Now working as a New York private investigator, he works to get her released early and started in a new life. She doesn’t know he set her up.

Then people connected with the heist start getting murdered. He hides Zella away with a friend who owes him. Two foreign hired guns break in on McGill and his wife while he is sleeping. Impressively, the foreign guns end up dead. All this fuels McGill’s passion, or desire to atone for his wrong. Zella deserves better. Despite a warning from a detective in the NYPD, he pursues the case to find out who is masterminding the killings, and perhaps the heist.

McGill’s efforts to atone are not limited to his cases. His wife struggles with depression and drinking. Toward the end of the novel, his absentee, Marxist-revolutionary father gets in touch (there is significance to the name Leonid). His blood son’s lover is an ex-hooker from Belarus. He is trying to save his Katrina’s son Twill from pursuing a life of crime by training him as an investigator. Turns out he is good. Sent to investigate a rich family’s wayward son, he discovers there is far more to it than a case of falling in with the wrong people.

Walter Mosley is considered the dean of Black crime fiction writers. This might be described as New York noir, by turns gritty and sophisticated, moving from the streets to high powered corporate offices. There is quite a bit going on in this book, and a twisty primary plot. I’ve seen criticism of the one-dimensional female figures, and apart from troubled Katrina, this seems true–the men, even the bit players seem more interesting. For me, the most interesting part is McGill’s misdeeds (and current appetites), his sense of the wrongs he’s done, what can’t be undone and what he must try to do, if he can live long to do it.

This is my first Mosley read. Some like his Easy Rawlins stories better. With my limited exposure, I have to say interesting, but not at the top of my list of crime fiction writers, but the jury is not in.

Review: You Can Keep That to Yourself

You Can Keep That To Yourself, Adam Smyer. New York: Akashic Books, 2020

Summary: A humorous and pointed list of “things not to say” to Black friends or colleagues.

“HELLO, WELL-INTENTIONED PERSON OF PALLOR!

“It’s Daquan–the black coworker you are referring to when you claim to have black friends.

“You are reading this book because you want to know what not to say. They get mad at you when you say the wrong thing. But no one will tell you, up front, what not to say. Well, I will tell you. Because I am your friend. Your real black friend.” (p. 7)

Adam “Daquan” Smyer more than delivers on that promise in a book that made me alternately laugh and cringe (“I’ve said that–ouch!”). The book is literally a list of things not to say to Black people, organized alphabetically. Here is the first:

Ally

Well-intentioned people of pallor went seamlessly from not seeing color to being allies. Being part of the problem was never considered. And, really, “ally” was fine for a while. It was aspirational. But now “I’m an ally” is the “Don’t hurt me” of our time. Don’t nobody want you, Karen. You can keep that to yourself.

Smyer, p. 10-11

Smyer can be blunt and use vulgarities. But that has become commonplace both in publications and public discussions. Think for example of the reference of one president to “sh*thole countries.” I’ve heard most of what Smyer says even in informal Christian circles. I’m not keen on this trend but I wouldn’t let the language distract from the message of the book, which it actually underscores, of the simmering frustration engendered by the repeated insensitivities of “people of pallor” And if you think this is just being “over-sensitive,” that’s in the list as well:

Over-sensitive

Y’all snap after you have been unpopular for two weeks. I’ve been black my whole life. In America. And I’m at least functional. I’m oversensitive? The record reflects otherwise.

Smyer, p. 67.

As for one of my cringes?

Yowza!

It’s weird–one minute we are having a normal conversation, and the next you are blurting out a minstrel show catchphrase. Verbal blackface.

So inappropriate! But mostly just weird. A thought: you could not.

Smyer, p. 111.

I did not know that. Now I do. I will not.

So much comes down to being considerate–to trying to imagine being in another’s place. When it comes to being Black, I cannot. But I can listen to how I am being heard by a Black person. That’s what Smyer does for us here. He says what is often only thought when we say what we people of pallor should keep to ourselves.

So what do we talk about?

There is so much that you can say. If we are at work, you can talk about work. (It really would be great if you could only talk to us about work, but we understand that you don’t know where you are.) You can talk about weather and/or sports. You can talk about your favorite shows. You can even talk about current events if your family raised you properly.

Smyer, 121.

This is a quick read that might be worth a periodic review. Old habits die hard. And it is probably worthwhile learning that we don’t have to say all we think or want to say. The truth is, black people have been doing that for a long time.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advance review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.