As always this list has nothing to do with when these books were written or published. I just happened to read them in 2020, a year when, like most of us, I had plenty of time available to read. Was going to do a top five, but couldn’t decide which to these six to cut. I tried to list them in order, starting with the best, but they are all books that I would highly recommend.
Deacon King Kong, James McBride
A fun and lively read. That may seem like a strange statement considering the book is set in the 1960’s in a housing project in Brooklyn. African-Americans from the south have moved in. The Italian and Irish-Americans who proceeded them onto this surf are shipping out. There’s poverty and racism, housing discrimination, official corruption, mobsters and drugs, lots of them. So why is it fun and lively? Because James McBride has injected all of his characters with an overdose of humanity.
The Deacon part of the title refers to an old drunk named Sportcoat who is a deacon at the small, dilapidated Baptist Church which serves the residents of the housing project where he lives. Sportcoat is described as “a walking genius, a human disaster, a sod, a medical miracle, and the greatest baseball umpire that the Cause Houses had ever seen.” The King Kong part is the rotgut that his best friend Hot Sausage keeps him supplied with. It’s what keeps this old drunk drunk.
The plot revolves around one incident. Sportcoat, carrying some sort of ancient, rusted firearm, moseys on out to the main square and plugs the 19-year old who has been ruthlessly dominating the local drug distribution scene. Several subplots spin off from that. There’s even a couple of unlikely love stories, live the one between the near retired cop and the church matriarch who avoids answering his questions when he comes to investigate the shooting.
This is a unique and original story skillfully told. McBride has concocted a heart-warming tale out of heart-wrenching circumstances.
The City Game: Triumph, Scandal and a Legendary Basketball Team, Mathew Goodman
On the surface this is a piece of New York City college basketball history. It’s 1949. City College of New York (CCNY) is the best basketball team in the city. Madison Square Garden is on 49th Street and 8th Avenue. The NIT is the most important championship tournament. And Marty Glickman is calling the games on the radio.
But it’s a story that goes beyond basketball. It’s an historical portrait of New York City. It’s about immigrants and race, housing segregation and educational opportunity, bookies and gangsters, crooked cops and crooked politicians.
The CCNY basketball team was a fitting representative of its city and its time. The 15-member team included 11 Jews and 4 blacks. They were not pampered prep school prima donnas, they take the subway home after practice to row houses and tenements. Their parents were truck drivers, janitors, house painters and domestics. This at a time when there was still not a single black player in the NBA and when no NCAA championship team had ever included a black player.
My favorite basketball moment in the book is the 1950 NIT quarterfinal game between CCNY and the much more heralded University of Kentucky. Kentucky is a state that at the time still had a law on the books enforcing segregation in education. Adoph Rupp’s team not only didn’t have a black basketball player, the university didn’t have a black student. When they took the court against a CCNY team with three black starters, the Kentucky players refused to shake the hands of the black CCNY players. You know what happened next? The CCNY kids blew the racists off the court and out of the tournament, 89-50. Sixteen years later in the 1966 NCAA championship final Kentucky was still all white and when they faced an unfancied Texas Western team with five black starters, they again came out losers.
For the 1949-50 season, CCNY became the only team to win both the NIT and NCAA championships in the same year. It was an amazing accomplishment that elicited euphoria on campus and in the city. It didn’t last. That’s the other half of this story. One year later, seven CCNY players were arrested for taking money to shave points. That’s the practice whereby a team assures that, even if they win, it will be by less than the point spread, thus making winners of the gamblers who bet on the other team. They were not alone. Players from NYU, LIU and Manhattan were also involved. None would ever really have big-time programs again.
This was a time when college recruiters offered players packages that included weekly spending money. One of the City players had received an offer from the University of Cincinnati that included full scholarships for him and his brother, $50 a month spending money, a rent-free apartment and free use of a car. It was also a time when some of the players, before a big game at Madison Square Garden, would throw their coats on and go out in the street to scalp their two free tickets.
These scandals and others that were to follow resulted in decades of no tolerance by the NCAA for either gambling or for under-the-table payments of any kind, however selectively the rules were enforced. It begs a question which is still an issue for college sports. It is the players that the fans want to see, the players who are ultimately responsible for the enormous amount of money that is produced by big-time college basketball and football. It seems as though everyone gets a piece of that pie, everyone but the players who baked it. While all of the City players who took the bribes later regretted it (some even before they got caught), the pitch the set up men gave them was all about “why shouldn’t you get a piece of the action?”
While I’m an avid sports fan, I don’t often read sports books. Unbridled adulation and manufactured controversy are outside my realm of interest. But every now and then there’s a sports book that transcends the usual sport talk. Hoop Dreams and The Blind Side are two that come to mind. The City Game belongs in the same category. Goodman seems to not only have discovered what all the key players said, but also what they were thinking and how they felt. He can write about basketball with the verve of a play-by-play announcer while also presenting legal issues with the meticulousness of a DA. And put it all in context, the context of New York City at the mid-point of the 20th century. A terrific book.
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
This is a big American history of a novel. Three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family moves through Ellis Island, survives Prohibition, the Depression and war; is touched by the 60’s counter-culture, the Detroit riots, white flight, the Nation of Islam and more war.
It’s also the story of Cal, nee Calliope, Stephanides. Spending the first 14 years of life as a girl, at that age she finds that while her friends have grown breasts and had their first period, she’s growing something akin to male genitalia. And hence the name Middlesex, which also happens to be the name of the home where Calliope grew up in Grosse Pointe, Mich. Cal’s condition, apparently resulting from a mutant gene, relates back to the family history. Grandma and grandpa were brother and sister, mother and father were cousins.
At some point the story stops being about the events that shaped the country and the Stephanides family and becomes the personal story of Calliope/Cal. Given the usual angst of being a teen, and particularly a socially awkward one, it is hard to imagine someone so young also dealing with being of indeterminate gender. Don’t imagine it would be easy for an author to research the sensitivities and emotions of a hermaphrodite, but Eugenides surely seems to have captured them. Not to mention the attendant parental anxiety.
While this book is now closing in on being 20 years old, it remains current in its consideration of questions of gender identity. Ultimately it is a story about humanity. This person with this rare and unusual condition, a monster to some, a freak to others, has the same highs and lows, the same worries and desires as the rest of us. Middlesex is thoughtful, engaging and interesting. Reading it makes you feel rewarded.
California, Edan Lepucki
A story that begins near the end. Earthquakes have destroyed California. Colorado and Utah were consumed by wildfires. Snowstorms took out the Midwest and the East Coast. As one of Lepucki’s characters notes, even IKEA “took their meatballs and headed back to Sweden.” And if climate change hasn’t made things bad enough, income inequality is off the charts. The well off live in isolated and guarded “communities,” enjoying some semblance of their previous lives luxuries. Everyone else is in the woods.
As in almost every other dystopian novel I’ve read, a charismatic leader emerges who turns out to be at best deceptive if not outright evil. That’s not all. There’s a group of bomb making terrorists with big plans and a commune making a go of it in the wild. Pirates make life even riskier.
Having said all that you might be surprised when I say this is a story about marriage. Cal and Frida leave a ruined LA and head into the unknown to build a new life together. This is a couple that loves each other and depends on each other. Yet we learn their secrets, how they misread each other’s intent, their mistrust and their conflicts between spouse and family. It’s a lot tougher than just being home together because of a pandemic, as there seems no end in sight for the maladies afflicting this post-apocalyptic world
This is a great story well told. Full of interesting characters, there seems to be a surprise at every turn, most of which I’ve tried to avoiding mentioning here.
The Yellow House, Sarah M. Broom
Ivory Mae Soule (or Webb or Broom) bought the yellow house before it was yellow. It was in a section of New Orleans that they left off the tourist maps. She paid $3,200 for it in 1961. It was rendered uninhabitable 44 years later by Hurricane Katrina.
In between, Ivory Mae saw her second husband die, as did the first. She raised 12 kids, the twelfth of which was the author Sarah Broom. Sarah has a sister who tried not to make friends because she was afraid they would want to visit the house she was ashamed of. She had a drug-addicted brother who broke into the house and stole everything from his mother’s wedding ring to the microwave. Her older brothers went to a school where the teachers would call students niggers. And two of them were in the backyard grilling while much of the rest of the city was evacuating in the face of the impending storm. Yet it was a home lacking neither love nor warmth.
The Yellow House is Sarah Broom’s personal memoir of her and her family. It’s also a book about New Orleans, about racism and about Hurricane Katrina. Broom’s account of the days and nights of the storm is compelling reading as she describes it through the eyes of each of her family members, some in New Orleans and some outside. For the most part Broom recounts her family history with neither sentiment nor resentment. Rather it is written much like the journalist she was trained as. But that changes in the aftermath of Katrina when her emotions become part of the narrative. She realizes that the house she left when she headed off to college never expecting to turn back would in fact always remain a part of her.
This is one of the most interesting and well-written memoirs I’ve read. It is Broom’s first book and you get the feeling she’s put everything she has into it. Having read it, I was left with the feeling that I know a little more about the world and what matters than I did before.
The Plotters, Un-su Kim
“Ironically, the overthrow of three decades of military dictatorships and a return to democratically elected civilian presidencies, and the brisk advent of democratization led to a major boom in the assassination industry.” And so we have a story about the assassination industry in Korea. Plotters are secretive blokes who get orders from their clients, maybe government or corporations, and put together detailed plans that they micromanage an assassin to execute. Un-su Kim’s story is also populated with targets, self explanatory, and trackers, a kind of private detective supplying the plotters with data.
Is the author suggesting that this is how Korean society works? The orders come from up high to a group of enablers who then set up the folks at the bottom of the pyramid to do the dirty work, assume the risks, take the blame and pay the price.
This is a book of many mysteries. Assassins become targets, as do some plotters. And there’s territorial warfare at the top rungs of the industry. Nary a chapter goes by without raising a new question about who killed who and who’s on whose list.
This is a novel about violence, but the author focuses more on the psychological than the brutal. There’s even one or two empowered women working their way into this field and the suggestion that maybe killers have feelings too. It all makes for a fast-paced, engaging read.