Reading books year-round is life-enhancing, but reading in summertime seems especially to be savored. Here are some non-fiction selections.
The First Kennedys: The Humble Roots of an American Dynasty by Neal Thompson will fascinate anyone intrigued by the immigrant experience, Irish roots, old-time urban ward bosses and Boston politics in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. I was particularly drawn to this thoroughly researched and well-told narrative about the area of Boston in which my own immigrant grandfather started his furniture business in 1888. The book starts with the potato famines in Ireland and the courage of the people who left for America, where, if they survived what was then a month-long voyage, they faced grinding poverty, disease, long hours of day labor (if they could find jobs), and life-threatening tenement housing. Bridget Murphy and Patrick Kennedy struggled to survive, raise a family, work under bone-crushing pressures and create a foundation for following generations of Kennedys.
When Patrick died in 1858, leaving Bridget with four children, she rose from maid to shop owner to real estate investor. The author is their grandson. Through Kennedy, the other grandfather John “Honey” Fitzgerald (Mayor of Boston), ward boss Martin Lomasney, and others, we meet the towering political powers at the beginning of Irish ascendancy through the Democratic Party. This book is a wonderful read.
Daughters of Yalta by Catherine Grace Katz offers a different prism through which to understand the 1945 Yalta Conference at which Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Church and Josef Stalin set the terms for the end of World War II and laid the groundwork for a postwar world. That conference is widely viewed as the pivotal negotiation between east and west in which an ailing Roosevelt effectively let Stalin do as he wished regarding Poland and ultimately the rest of eastern Europe. We peer at events through the eyes of FDR daughter Anna Roosevelt, P.M. daughter Sarah Churchill, and Kathy Harriman, daughter of Averill Harriman, U.S. Ambassador to the U.K. and the Soviet Union. The three women accompanied their fathers, advanced (in current political terms) the arrangements for meals, lodging and entertainment. Every decision was politically fraught. (Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, was not at Yalta.)
Each enjoyed a special relationship with her father, as companion, advisor and emotional home base. These looks through the keyhole are reminders that history is shaped by accomplished but flawed human beings. Katz has elaborately woven the personal stories of key players with the impactful historical narrative, though her writing style isn’t always polished and her transitions can be awkward. Given her research and rich materials, however, it’s still an interesting read.
The Rope – a True Story of Murder, Heroism and the Dawn of the NAACP by Alex Tresniowski is a real- life thriller that expands from the 1910 murder and sexual assault, that of 10-year-old white schoolgirl Marie Smith in Asbury Park, New Jersey to a history of lynching, the evolution of investigatory procedures, and the impact of freed slave and civil rights advocate Ida B. Wells, whose life work became the foundation of the NAACP. How Tresniowski weaves these disparate threads together while unravelling the mystery of one terrifying whodunit is a noteworthy act of literary jiujitsu. The narrative moves to the quick arrest and detainment of a black man, the looming threat of mob law, the persistence of a white private detective whose strategy was to “rope” in another suspect eventually to make a confession.
The reader is ever mindful that the rope was also a tool of the vigilante lynch mobs in the early part of the 20th century, a way, Ida B. Wells reminds us, for whites to subjugate blacks. At the time of the murder in question, Wells was the most prominent Black woman in America. (The National Conference of Editorial Writers, of which I was a board member, gave an annual award in her name for exceptional service in hiring and training minorities.) An intriguing read.
Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey is a memoir of her mother Gwen’s life and death at the hands of Natasha’s stepfather. Natasha was 19 at the time and had been aware for years of the physical and mental abuse her stepfather, Joel, a Vietnam vet, had inflicted on Gwen. The memoir starts with the special relationship Natasha had with her biological father, a professor and scholar, and white. Natasha’s exploration of what it means to be a biracial child, dwelling in two worlds, in neither of which she is entirely comfortable, is soon overtaken by her account of the dissolution of her mother’s second marriage, to Joel Grimmette.
Early on, Natasha had to face discrimination as the child of interracial marriage, still illegal in the sixties and seventies. The tension shifts and grows when her social worker mother, Gwen, remarries obsessed and abusive Joel, who repeatedly beats the mother and taunts Natasha when Gwen is at work. Natasha’s survival is based on her ability to write, recording all in a diary. The memoir drives toward the seemingly inevitable operatic outcome, documented by taped phone calls between the fearful mother and fearsome stepfather. At the end, the reader is depleted. The writing is polished and, as in any good memoir, the narrative is all-encompassing and told seamlessly.