Books for Juneteenth on Juneteenth

If I was a competent book blogger or reviewer I would have put together some intelligent thematic thought for today’s holiday.  Heck, I have the day off so not having the time isn’t an excuse.

Instead I really struggle composing reviews for books that are complex and multifaceted; or ones I don’t have a simple reaction too or whose point I can articulate quickly.

On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed, for example.

Weaving together American history, dramatic family chronicle, and searing episodes of memoir, Annette Gordon-Reed’s On Juneteenth provides a historian’s view of the country’s long road to Juneteenth, recounting both its origins in Texas and the enormous hardships that African-Americans have endured in the century since, from Reconstruction through Jim Crow and beyond. All too aware of the stories of cowboys, ranchers, and oilmen that have long dominated the lore of the Lone Star State, Gordon-Reed―herself a Texas native and the descendant of enslaved people brought to Texas as early as the 1820s―forges a new and profoundly truthful narrative of her home state, with implications for us all.

Combining personal anecdotes with poignant facts gleaned from the annals of American history, Gordon-Reed shows how, from the earliest presence of Black people in Texas to the day in Galveston on June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger announced the end of legalized slavery in the state, African-Americans played an integral role in the Texas story.

Reworking the traditional “Alamo” framework, she powerfully demonstrates, among other things, that the slave- and race-based economy not only defined the fractious era of Texas independence but precipitated the Mexican-American War and, indeed, the Civil War itself.

Despite reading it twice, and underlining passages throughout, I just could not pull together a coherent review in any serious way. To be fair, I don’t have the knowledge or history chops to review the argument about Texas.  But instead of a more serious review, I offer my quick take from Goodreads.

A mix of personal and historical reflections centered on Juneteenth, this was an interesting read. As someone with a background in history, I appreciated her perspective and enjoyed the way she attempted to flush out her own feelings and approach to history and the complex and difficult issue of race and slavery in America.

At times it felt too thin, like it could have dug a little deeper into the history. The arguments, such as they are, come tangentially and through a mix of history and family stories. When I first saw it in the bookstore I was hoping for a short history of the event and subsequent holiday but enjoyed this book anyways. A quick and thought provoking read that brings a personal element to this day and its context.

In 2021 I also read Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison:

From the author of bestselling Invisible Man— the classic novel of African-American experience—this long-awaited second novel tells an evocative tale of a prodigal of the twentieth century. Brilliantly crafted, moving, and wise, Juneteenth is the work of an American master.

“Tell me what happened while there’s still time,” demands the dying Senator Adam Sunraider to the itinerate preacher whom he calls Daddy Hickman. As a young man, Sunraider was Bliss, an orphan taken in by Hickman and raised to be a preacher like himself. Bliss’s history encompasses the joys of young southern boyhood; bucolic days as a filmmaker, lovemaking in a field in the Oklahoma sun. And behind it all lies a how did this chosen child become the man who would deny everything to achieve his goals?

Here is the master of American vernacular at the height of his powers, evoking the rhythms of jazz and gospel and ordinary speech.

Again, from Goodreads:

I really struggled with this book. Started it on Kindle but finished it on audiobook. The production was quite good but the stream of consciousness nature of the book made it really hard to follow. I think this is a book that you would be better off reading after you have read more Ellison and/or this era and genre. Of course, it was an unfinished novel that was published posthumously so perhaps the jigsaw nature of the prose and/or story is not just me. I enjoyed it as an experience, as part of expanding my knowledge but not necessarily as a novel.

Apologies for not engaging with these books in the way they deserved but I thought it was worth posting to note the holiday and my having wrestled with some of its history and literature.

Quick Take: Jesus Wars by Philip Jenkins

Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 years by Philip Jenkins is not an easy book.

In this fascinating account of the surprisingly violent fifth-century church, Philip Jenkins describes how political maneuvers by a handful of powerful characters shaped Christian doctrine. Were it not for these battles, today’s church could be teaching something very different about the nature of Jesus, and the papacy as we know it would never have come into existence. Jesus Wars reveals the profound implications of what amounts to an accident of history: that one faction of Roman emperors and militia-wielding bishops defeated another.

Despite Jenkins talents as a writer, is is a complex and difficult story to follow in many ways.

If you are unfamiliar with theology, early church history, and history in general I can imagine it would be intimidating. I have a MA in history and have read a lot of theology and it was tricky for me at times to follow.

In the end it is the story of how the church fought a bloody war over Christology, split apart, and settled on the so-called orthodox or Chalcedonian view only because the East broke off and died eventually (sort of).

For me, it was depressing. It is interesting to think about this side of the ancient church and how historical events played a role in what we came to think of as a basic tenet of Christian faith. But if you don’t have a deep interest in the topic, I am not sure I can recommend it.

FWIW, the fact that I am neither an non-believer nor someone with orthodox theology per se may play a role in my reaction to the book and its history.  Some with a commitment to traditional orthodoxy, and evangelical for example, may take offense at the idea that history and politics shaped the faith rather than God and capital T truth.

Book Review: The Endless Vessel by Charles Soule

I read The Endless Vessel by Charles Soule back in April thanks to NetGalley and marked it as four stars on Goodreads. It seemed like the kind of fiction that I find fascinating. A creative hook and imaginative story line that wrestles with ideas:

A few years from now, in a world similar to ours, there exists a sort of “depression plague” that people refer to simply as “The Grey.” No one can predict whom it will afflict, or how, but once infected, there’s no coming back.

A young Hong Kong based scientist, Lily Barnes, is trying to maintain her inner light in an increasingly dark world. The human race is dwindling, and people fighting to push forward are increasingly rare. One day, Lily comes across something that seems to be addressing her directly, calling to her, asking her to follow a path to whatever lies at its end. Is this the Endless Vessel to happiness? She leaves her life behind and sets out through time and space to find out.

From its opening heart-stopping scene in the present day at the Louvre in Paris, through the earthly meetings between Lily and her loved ones past and present, to a shocking and satisfying conclusion in a truly enchanted forest, Charles Soule has channeled history, science and drama to create a story for the ages—a story of hope and love and possibility.

But when on pub day I thought about writing a review I realized I didn’t have a clear idea in my mind what to say. So I decided to re-read so things were fresh in my mind.

Despite knowing the ending, I really enjoyed reading it again. It is a great summer read. With elements of science fiction, history, family dynamics, psychology, sociology, and more. It has thought provoking ideas about culture and society, technology development and the future but also suspense, action and strong characters. All these threads are woven into a compelling story.

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Friends, enemies, and our redemptive instinct

Perhaps at the moment of murdering Goliath, David fathomed the extent of his desire, had understood the true scale of his own passion, and that something about this had unsettled him. Perhaps the moment he ended his opponent’s life, David was overcome by the temptation, now forever thwarted, to try to see things through Goliath’s eyes. Perhaps at that moment David understood the fault: that, because of the adamance of our beliefs and pas-sions, each one of us must live restricted by his or her own perspective. And that this has something to do with re-demption, that our redemptive instinct is found in our unequivocal sympathy for our enemy, and that to be a man is to live in the constant unresolvable tension of these two poles.

Away from the extremes of enemies, a similar desire exists between friends and lovers, perhaps more intensely between old friends and old lovers. Maybe my desire to see the green beside the Sant’Andrea al Quirinale or Loren-zetti’s fresco or Caravaggio’s painting or life itself through Diana’s eyes is the expression of my hunger to achieve, in the words of my Tripoli friend, “complete conquest” over her and to resolve, once and for all, the mystery of her consciousness; but perhaps it is not that at all, but rather the expression of my redemptive instinct, my unequivocal sympathy for her, my desire to be inked by her and therefore momentarily escape the confines of my own exis-tence. Only love and art can do this: only inside a book or in front of a painting can one truly be let into another’s perspective. It has always struck me as a paradox how in the solitary arts there is something intimately communal. And it suddenly became doubtful to me as we lay in Rome, as indeed it was now standing in the Sala dei Nove in Siena, whether I would have written anything or could ever write anything if I had never loved. Implicit in the act of creation is praise, of discovering and naming the world, of acknowledging it, of saying it exists. The French artist Henri Cartier-Bresson had once described taking a photograph as saying “yes,” not the “yes” of approval but that of acknowledgment. In the end, as it is in the beginning, love and art are an expression of faith. How else to function with the limited knowledge we have? Asked if he was a pessimist, the English playwright Edward Bond replied: “Why am I talking to you if it is not a gesture of hope.” Lorenzetti’s Allegory, Caravaggio’s David and indeed the entire history of art can be read as that: a gesture of hope and also of desire, a playing out of the human spirit’s secret ambition to connect with the beloved, to see the world through her eyes, to traverse that tragic private distance between intention and utterance, so that, finally, we might be truly comprehended, and to do this not in order to advocate a position but rather to be truly seen, to be recog-nized, not to be mistaken for someone else, to go on changing while remaining identifiable by those who know us best.

A Month in Siena, Hisham Matar

Going Zero by Anthony McCarten

Hello dear readers. Let’s pretend I gave up blogging for lent… More on that later, but for now a review of a just released book…

Going Zero starts with a great hook: could you go off grid for 30 days to win $3 million dollars. But with a catch: what if the most sophisticated technology company in the world joined forces with the US government to find you?

This is right in the middle of our cultural moment. Dreams of going off grid, winning millions of dollars and sticking it to the big tech companies we both love and hate.

I was able to get an advance copy via NetGalley and when I dipped in to see what it was like ended up finishing it in a couple of nights. It turned out to be highly entertaining and fast paced. Great reading for Spring Break or reading around the pool during the fast approaching summer (heck, it will be nearly 80 degrees today in Ohio).

The technology involved is futuristic but all too believable. There are enough plot twists to keep the suspense up and the chapters are short enough that it is a quick read. I wasn’t thrilled with the ending but it made sense within the context and personalities of the story.

I could certainly see this being made into a movie or TV series. It has the feel of a well written screenplay flushed out into a novel. A tight, suspenseful, fast paced thriller with a dark undertone hinting at our potential dystopian future.





Ten Americans have been carefully selected to Beta test a ground-breaking piece of spyware. FUSION can track anyone on earth. But does it work?

For one contestant, an unassuming Boston librarian named Kaitlyn Day, the stakes are far higher than money, and her reasons for entering the test more personal than anyone imagines. When the timer hits zero, there will only be one winner…


This is a curious type of thriller, with sparse violence and no outright villains. The excitement is in the chase, which builds steadily. Is Zero 10 going to screw up their proof-of-concept software? The complications build, and the reader had better pay attention. Eventually, the government is looking for Kaitlyn’s friend Samantha Crewe instead, and both women have an emotional attachment to the missing Warren, who is Samantha’s husband. Meanwhile, is there a real cyberattack to deal with, perhaps the biggest data breach in history? The find-anyone-anywhere premise of the story will become increasingly relevant as the 21st century progresses. Good luck to American society.

This well-written yarn proves that you don’t have to have a blood bath to have an engaging thriller.

Publishers Weekly

McCarten taps into the current fascination—and revulsion—with modern advances in facial recognition, AI, and location data, though chase story fans may like more chase and less techno navel-gazing. This is an edgy, compulsively readable thriller.


The novel is arresting, thought-provoking and eerily visionary given a spate of recent news items reporting on sophisticated tracking systems as well as domestic spying on citizenry. Suddenly the imaginary world of science fiction or James Bond styled gadgetry has become a horrifying reality.


A wise, bighearted, and hilarious look at one teenager’s life? Or a pretentious, self-conscious coming of age story?

Well, I have accomplished one thing in 2023. I finished a book I had previously marked as Never Finished. I picked up Grab On to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way by Bryan Charles because 1) I was trying to read something outside my normal style or approach 2) it was connected to Kalamazoo, Michigan, and as a born and raised Michigander I guess I hoped that would connect with me.

As publishers are wont to do, the blurb made big promises:

A wise, bighearted, and hilarious look at one teenager’s life by a remarkable new voice in contemporary fiction


Generous in spirit and laugh-out-loud funny, here is a novel that introduces a tremendous new talent and deftly captures the alternately amusing and harrowing process of holding on until you find your way.

That is what I was hoping for, but nope.  It was vulgar and full of angst.  I get that is what it means to be a teenager, but at my age I guess I just have a low threshold for these things. So when the digital book was due and people were waiting for the book I gave up.

But in an interesting twist, writing the post about books I didn’t finish motivated me to take another crack at it.  And one night when I couldn’t sleep I was able to read large chunks and find a rhythm so to speak.

I still didn’t love it, but I was able to finish it and appreciate aspects of it.

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