Deborah Mason

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Through a dialogue between an unnamed young gay man and an older, dying man named Juan Gay, National Book Award-winner Blackouts (Macmillan Audio, 7 hours) explores the suppression of queer history. Interspersed throughout the book are poems constructed by blacking out words from pages of Sex Variants: A Study in Homosexual Patterns, an actual book by queer sex researcher Jan Gay. Its production, and the eventual removal of Gay’s name from the book, form the basis for much of the story.

The audio version reinforces the book’s unique structure by featuring different voice actors for the two main characters: Torian Brackett as the young man and Ozzie Rodriguez as Juan Gay. Brackett and Rodriguez are convincing narrators, and the end of their story is particularly moving. Author Justin Torres himself reads the erasure poems in a quiet and almost whispery voice, affectingly reminding the listener of the act of redaction that is at the heart of Blackouts.

Read our starred review of the print edition of Blackouts.

Torian Brackett and Ozzie Rodriguez are moving narrators, while author Justin Torres reads the erasure poems interspersed throughout the book, reminding the listener of the redaction of queer history that is at the heart of Blackouts.
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More than 50 years since the founding of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, it would be reasonable to assume that modern U.S. factories are safe places to work. Surely, workplace-caused mesothelioma, silicosis and cancers are things of the past, suffered only in the bad old days before safety regulations forced employers to take care of their employees’ health. But Jim Morris, veteran journalist and author of The Cancer Factory: Industrial Chemicals, Corporate Deception, and the Hidden Deaths of American Workers, knows better.

Morris focuses on Goodyear’s Niagara Falls plant, which manufactured anti-cracking agents for tires using ortho-toluidine, a powerful carcinogen that’s been known to be linked to bladder cancer since 1895. The Cancer Factory traces how this chemical destroyed the health, happiness and lives of the men who worked with it—and were sometimes even submerged in it—on a daily basis, without any safety equipment or knowledge of the dangers they were facing, even into the 21st century. 

Morris interviewed many families for the book, but none illustrates the matter more clearly than the family of Ray Kline, a Goodyear employee who worked for decades with some of the most carcinogenic chemicals at the plant with no protection. His clothes were drenched with the chemicals, and his wife, Dottie, who laundered them, eventually gave birth to two children with fatal birth defects. Their surviving daughter, Diane, grew up and married Harry Weist, another Goodyear factory worker. Ray and Harry both developed aggressive bladder cancer, enduring years of chemo, surgeries and epic misery.

Morris makes the case that the Goodyear bladder cancer cluster is emblematic of a much larger problem. He argues that corporate greed, broken regulatory agencies and hamstrung unions ensure that exposure to dioxins, asbestos, silica and hundreds of other hazards are not distant memories of our industrial past, but the lived reality of millions of workers today. Heartbreaking and infuriating, Morris’ storytelling jars the reader out of complacency. With luck, The Cancer Factory can also be an instrument for change.

Jim Morris’ urgent, heartbreaking The Cancer Factory traces how a known toxic chemical destroyed the health, happiness and lives of Goodyear factory workers.
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Dr. Deborah Plant is an independent scholar of African American Literature and Africana Studies and a former Africana and English professor at the University of South Florida. She is an expert on the life and works of Zora Neale Hurston and edited Baracoon, Hurston’s posthumously published account of the last survivor of the transatlantic slave trade. She is not, however, a historian.

Yet Plant’s latest book, Of Greed and Glory: In Pursuit of Freedom of All is in large part a work of historical nonfiction. In it, she explores how the wording of the 13th Amendment set the stage for the incarceration of millions of African Americans, who in turn provided unpaid labor that enriched their captors. Intended to prohibit slavery, the 13th Amendment exempts “the duly convicted” from its protections, that is, those who have been convicted of a crime. Plant establishes a direct line from this loophole through the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws to today’s mass incarceration, which disproportionately imprisons Black people. In other words, far from prohibiting slavery, the 13th Amendment enabled it to continue under the color of law.

While Of Greed and Glory is grounded in historical fact, it is not a history. Instead, it is a deeply subjective book, drenched with the sorrow and rage Plant feels about her brother’s unjust lifetime sentence for rape he did not commit. Most historians avoid subjectivity, but here, subjectivity is the point. The inhumanity and degradation resulting from the exploitation of the “duly convicted” clause results in the objectification of wide swaths of the population. By sharing her brother’s experience, Plant asserts that he and others like him have the right to be the autonomous sovereigns of their own lives, and not the anonymous targets of an unjust system.

This is an emotional and passionate book, raw in its grief and anger, but also imbued with hope for redemption. Based on objective historical fact and subjective experience, Of Greed and Glory has the power of a sermon and the urgency of a manifesto.

Deborah G. Plant’s indictment of America’s criminal justice system, Of Greed and Glory, has the power of a sermon and the urgency of a manifesto.
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Ross Gay’s earlier books, The Book of Delights and Inciting Joy, have established him as a writer of highly crafted essayettes on delight—that most elusive but absolutely essential human emotion. The audiobook of The Book of (More) Delights (7 hours) confirms Gay’s ability to discover delight even when it is hidden in sorrow, anger or tedium.

Gay is an award-winning poet, and consequently he understands the power not only of words and imagery, but of punctuation, structure and, especially, sound. His careful reading gives pauses their due, releases the rhythm and rhyme that prose so often hides, and subtly emphasizes descriptions of a beloved nana, flower or friend. There’s nothing pretentious about his reading; instead, it simply brims with the honest pleasure of acknowledging life’s unexpected joys. And nothing is guaranteed to create more delight in a listener’s day than hearing Gay gleefully repeat the words “vehicular vernacular”!

Ross Gay’s reading brims with the honest pleasure of expressing delight at life’s unexpected joys. Nothing is guaranteed to create more delight in a listener’s day than hearing him gleefully repeat the words “vehicular vernacular”!
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The Caretaker (6 hours) is a moving story of love, fidelity and friendship set in the North Carolina mountains during the Korean War. Author Ron Rash draws on Shakespeare: Characters include a philosophical gravedigger, a scheming town leader and his wife, a young man unsure of life’s meaning in the face of death, and, in perhaps the clearest parallel, star-crossed lovers defying their parents. Never heavy-handed, these allusions give the novel a beautiful sense of inevitability without revealing what the ending will be.

Drawing on his Kentucky roots, James Patrick Cronin narrates with an authentic timbre and pace. His low-key performance and sympathetic portrayal of even the most unsympathetic characters allows the listener to hear Rash’s message: Love can both redeem us and cause us to betray those whom we love the most.

James Patrick Cronin’s narration allows the listener to hear author Ron Rash’s message: Love can both redeem us and cause us to betray those whom we love the most.
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On vacation in Rome in her early 20s, Elizabeth Flock was drugged and raped by a tour guide. She couldn’t defend herself during the attack, and she never reported it to the police. Over the years, she often wondered whether she would be better off if she had killed him the following morning. In The Furies: Women, Vengeance, and Justice (Harper, $32, 9780063048805), Flock, now an Emmy-winning journalist who has written for The New Yorker, the New York Times and The Atlantic, examines three women who did what she couldn’t do. It turns out the answer to her question is “maybe, but probably not.”

The figure of the avenging female is powerful and frightening. Flock notes that the Furies of ancient Greek mythology, who tormented Orestes, were hideous and pitiless—the stuff of nightmares. Flock makes a compelling argument that women who stand up for themselves are still seen in this same light. The three “furies” in the book certainly appear powerful and frightening, at least at first glance. The first, Brittany Smith, a young mother from Alabama, was imprisoned for murder after shooting the man who had brutally beaten and raped her. Flock travels to northern India to report on Angoori Dahariya, a Dalit woman who organized thousands of women to use bamboo canes to punish domestic abusers. In Syria, she reports on Cicek Mustafa Zibo, who joined an all-female militia to protect Kurdish women from the ISIS terrorists who were raping, torturing and murdering them.

Flock deeply admires these women for refusing to accept the terms of a society that prefers a dead, submissive woman to a living one who defends herself. But Flock also sees their frailty and their struggles. Brittany had lost custody of her four children due to her addiction to methamphetamines; at the time of her crime, she was off drugs and “confident all that was behind her.” Angoori can judge situations too quickly, sometimes with disastrous results. And Cicek is so traumatized by her physical and psychic war wounds that she becomes increasingly cut off from her family and her humanity. The women are drawn in shades of gray, and that is what makes The Furies so powerful. Brittany, Angoori and Cicek are not mythical figures, but ordinary, flawed humans who fight for their lives, their dignity and justice—despite the cost.

In The Furies, investigative reporter Elizabeth Flock follows three women who struck back at their abusers.
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It is often said that novelists find their best material in their own childhoods. In Chasing Bright Medusas: A Life of Willa Cather, Benjamin Taylor convincingly argues that for Cather, this supposition is the key to fully appreciating her work. 

Taylor, an award-winning memoirist, novelist and biographer, freely admits his great affection and admiration for Cather and her writing. In this relatively short but well-researched biography, he conveys Cather’s complexity, her strengths and her frailties: headstrong and independent, but also easily hurt by a negative review; ruthlessly honest in her writing, but unable (or unwilling) to come to terms with her own sexuality and her love for Isabelle McClung Hamburg; clinging to her values and idealism, but also aware that humans are frail vessels. Many of Cather’s letters have recently come to light, and Taylor uses them sensitively and effectively to tell her story. The letters humanize her, revealing a woman of tremendous genius and touching vulnerability. 

Taylor is at his most convincing when he links Cather’s literary works—from her first articles to her final story—to her life. Very few authors have embedded their past so seamlessly and beautifully into their works as Willa Cather. Taylor draws direct lines between episodes in O Pioneers! and My &Aacutentonia to Cather’s childhood in Red Cloud, Nebraska. But he also shows how even her later, less obviously autobiographical works, such as The Professor’s House and Death Comes for the Archbishop, are imbued with the experiences, observations and values she acquired over her lifetime. Taylor demonstrates that her books and stories are as much the product of the young Willa who moved from Winchester, Virginia, to Red Cloud at age 6 as they are of the 49-year-old novelist at the height of her powers. 

Not only is it a true delight to read these selections of Cather’s beautiful descriptions and wry observations of human nature, but her words seem to have truly inspired Taylor. His interpretations of the interplay of memory and description in Cather’s work are some of the most lyrical and moving passages in this highly polished and heartfelt book. 

Chasing Bright Medusas is an inspired biography of Willa Cather’s life and work that conveys the author’s complexity with affection and admiration.
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Love it or loathe it, Twitter (recently renamed X) has had the greatest impact on mass communication since Gutenberg typeset his first page. Founded in 2006, Twitter has mushroomed into a near-universal platform for the exchange of ideas, memes and information (including mis- and disinformation). But as it grew, so did its dependence on advertising revenue—and major corporations became increasingly reluctant to have their brand seen on a platform that featured racist slurs, conspiracy theories and misogynistic rants. To keep the money stream flowing, Twitter had to rein in its users—to the chagrin of many Twitter users, including co-founder Jack Dorsey.

Enter Elon Musk, the ultimate “break stuff and see what happens” entrepreneur and free speech advocate who bought Twitter in 2022 after the most tumultuous takeover bid ever. And, as Ben Mezrich details in Breaking Twitter: Elon Musk and the Most Controversial Corporate Takeover in History, what happened was chaotic, sometimes exhilarating and frequently heartbreaking.

Mezrich makes clear from the outset that Breaking Twitter is not a history of Musk’s role as owner and CEO. Instead, Mezrich says, it is his fact-based interpretation of those events. He relies on interviews, firsthand sources and countless documents referenced in-text and in endnotes to support his analysis. But, similar to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Breaking Twitter uses a variety of literary narrative techniques such as point-of-view chapters, re-imagined dialogue and composite characters to tell what reads like a modern myth. The result is a highly engaging and convincing portrayal of Musk’s disastrous impact on Twitter—and its impact on him.

In Mezrich’s version of the story, Twitter broke Musk. The book opens with a glittering vision of Twitter in 2020—one that quickly disintegrates into confusion, disarray and dysfunction after its acquisition by Musk. Mezrich sees Musk taking a similar path as he transforms from the rockstar boy genius of Tesla and Space X to the trolling, erratic and capricious dictator of Twitter. Like the original story of Icarus, Breaking Twitter warns that achieving an ambitious goal can result in cosmic punishment.

Breaking Twitter portrays Elon Musk as a modern-day Icarus who has brought confusion, disarray and dysfunction to the social media landscape.
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In Caroline O’Donoghue’s acclaimed novel, The Rachel Incident (9.5 hours), university student Rachel is extremely busy juggling a precarious love pentagon involving her Victorian Literature professor, her gay best friend James, her boss (who happens to be the professor’s wife) and her boyfriend. Naturally, mistakes are made. But despite being very funny, The Rachel Incident is not a farce; it’s a story about forgiveness for the harm done to us and the harm we do to others.

County Cork, Ireland, native Tara Flynn gives a brilliant performance as the older Rachel looking back on her tumultuous early 20s. Her voice is warm and authentic, and she is blessed with terrific comic timing. Best of all, Flynn’s nuanced narration reflects not only Rachel’s raucous sense of humor but also her hard-earned insight and compassion. The result is an audiobook that is as wise as it is hilarious.

Tara Flynn’s nuanced narration and terrific comic timing results in an audiobook that is as wise as it is hilarious.
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You may have learned in high school that the post-Civil War Reconstruction was an inevitable failure. In her latest book, I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction, historian Kidada E. Williams demonstrates that, far from dying a natural death, Reconstruction was destroyed in a not-so-secret war waged against Black citizens.

Williams argues that the end of Reconstruction was the explicit goal of Confederates who refused to accept their military defeat. Abetted by war-weary white Northerners who wanted to put the Civil War behind them, a president who had no interest in securing civil rights for Black people and authorities who didn’t care to enforce the law, armed militias and Klansmen engaged in a concerted battle to destroy Black citizens who voted, ran for office or merely owned and farmed their own land. These white aggressors invaded homes and subjected Black Americans to a host of crimes, from arson and torture to rape and murder. The destruction of property alone amounted to millions of dollars in today’s currency, while the damage to victims, their families and their communities remains incalculable.

Williams, an associate professor of history at Wayne State University, lays out her case with forensic precision. She writes with authority about the political and social circumstances that enabled these attacks, as well as the impact that these acts of terror had on Black people’s health and financial security, for both the injured parties and the generations following them. But her most compelling evidence comes from the victims themselves: witness testimonies from the Congressional hearings on the Ku Klux Klan in 1871 and transcripts of Works Progress Administration interviews with the last survivors of slavery in the 1930s. 

These testimonies make for harrowing reading, but that is no reason not to read them. Previously enslaved people recounted the horrors of these “visits”—the deaths of loved ones, the rapes, the lingering physical and psychic wounds, the loss of hard-earned wealth—with dignity and courage, knowing full well the risks they ran by testifying. Williams honors their suffering by placing them at the center of this important, overdue correction to the historical record.

Kidada E. Williams demonstrates that the progress of the post-Civil War Reconstruction was hampered by a not-so-secret war against Black citizens.
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Everyone should know the story of Ellen and William Craft, the subjects of Ilyon Woo’s Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey From Slavery to Freedom. In 1848, Ellen, a light-skinned Black woman, disguised herself as a wealthy, young white man in a wheelchair. William, her husband, accompanied Ellen as an enslaved man, tending to his “master’s” needs. Together they traveled in disguise from the mansion in Georgia where they were enslaved to freedom in the North. Every step of their journey depended on them keeping their wits about them, especially for Ellen. Ship captains, train conductors and even a friend of her enslaver were fooled by Ellen’s ability to perform a role that transformed her demeanor in every conceivable way—from woman to man, Black to white, slave to master. Their self-emancipation was a triumph of courage, love and intelligence.

Yet the Crafts’ story is more than a romantic adventure, and Woo does an excellent job of providing historical context for the dangers they faced without losing the thread of a terrific story. The Crafts’ lives were not magically transformed merely by crossing the Mason-Dixon Line, Woo explains. The North, while free, was still hostile territory for self-emancipated Black people, with rampant bigotry and racism even among abolitionists. However, the greatest danger to Ellen and William was the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which required everyone to return formerly enslaved people to their enslavers and forced the Crafts into exile in England until after the Civil War.

The real strength of Master Slave Husband Wife comes from Woo’s exploration of how Ellen was perceived and treated after her spectacular escape catapulted her into celebrity. Woo, whose earlier book, The Great Divorce, explored another convention-defying 19th-century woman, makes the excellent point that Ellen’s method of escape was not only brilliant but transgressive, defying conventions of gender and race. Even the fair skin tone that allowed her to pass as white was the product of generations of rape, giving the lie to myths of the “happy slave.” With empathy and admiration, Woo details Ellen’s quiet refusal to conform to the racist, classist and sexist expectations of her enemies, benefactors, supporters and even her husband. Thanks to Woo, Ellen is finally at the center of her own story as someone who heroically challenged America’s myths of equality and freedom.

Ilyon Woo tells the remarkable true story of Ellen and William Craft, who came up with an ingenious and daring plan to emancipate themselves from slavery.
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Dr. Alexa Hagerty, an associate fellow at the University of Cambridge and an anthropologist with a Ph.D. from Stanford, can read bones. In Still Life With Bones: Genocide, Forensics, and What Remains, Hagerty explores the close connection between bones and words. Like words, bones can be articulated (arranged into a coherent form, such as a skeleton) and become articulate (capable of clear expression). Using sight, touch, smell and even sound, Hagerty can interpret the stories that bones conceal. For example, she can tell by touch if a bone’s fracture took place before, during or after its owner’s death. She can piece together the shattered remnants of a little girl’s skull to reveal the bullet hole in the middle of her forehead. She can even determine how a person’s occupation shaped their bones. A dairy worker might have compression fractures in their neck from leaning their face against a cow’s flank. A grooved incisor might once have held a tailor’s pins.

Still Life With Bones is in part a memoir of how Hagerty gained this extraordinary expertise, recounting the physically and emotionally draining work of meticulously searching for bones and identifying the dead and how they died. It sounds bleak, but there is also pleasure in these pages: the camaraderie of co-workers, the friendly competition among fellow students and the joy when a skeleton is reunited with the community who believed they would never see their beloved again. 

However, Still Life With Bones is more than just a memoir. Woven throughout these memories and lyrical reflections on bones, anthropology and storytelling are the actual horrors that some particular bones reveal. Hagerty did her fieldwork in the mass graves of Guatemala and Argentina; her subjects are the victims of genocidal wars committed by dictators against these countries’ citizens. Her colleagues are forensic anthropologists committed to reclaiming the dead and returning them to their grieving families at great personal risk and cost. Every beautifully written page of this extraordinary book affirms the individuality of each victim, and honors the living who serve them and their survivors.

Anthropologist Alexa Hagerty's extraordinary memoir pays tribute to the victims of genocide in South America, whose bones Hagerty returned to their grieving families.
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Anne Lamott’s classic love letter to aspiring writers, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (6.5 hours), was first published in 1995, and anyone who has read it knows how much Lamott loves writing and teaching others how to write. This new audiobook, narrated by the author for the first time, reminds us of just how deeply she admires new writers for having the audacity and desire to write. 

Let’s be clear: Lamott is not a gushy or sentimental reader. She has a dry, ironic delivery that can turn on a dime. She can make us laugh out loud at the many ways writers sabotage themselves and then, without warning, disclose her own struggles with both clarity and humility. She urgently wants her students to write not with the intention of achieving fame or wealth but because storytelling is an essential mark of our humanity, and her passion resonates throughout this inspiring recording.

Anne Lamott knows that storytelling is an essential mark of our humanity, and her urgency and passion resonate throughout this inspiring recording.

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