It’s back-to-school time and Latitude is hitting the books. In response to her popular presentation on “Must-Read Books for Lawyers” that Latitude hosted in May 2019, Keltie Peay is now a featured guest columnist for Latitude’s blog where she will be recommending new books that she believes merit a place on your shelf and in your busy schedule. Keltie is a top graduate from the University of Virginia School of Law (Class of 1998) and Harvard College (Class of 1995). Following law school graduation, she clerked with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia and the following year, with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Prior to devoting her professional life to the dissemination of big – and small – ideas through books (both as an independent copy editor and bookseller with Parnassus Books), Keltie practiced white-collar criminal defense and complex civil litigation with the Nashville law firm of Neal & Harwell and the national firm Redgrave LLP.
Welcome to the Reader’s Docket! In this column, I will feature books that I think merit a place on your shelf and in your busy schedule—stories that deserve to be heard and shared. Whether fiction or nonfiction, contemporary or classic, serious or escapist, beautifully poetic or laugh-out-out hilarious—add You to your to-do list and make an appointment with a good read.
It’s no secret around the shop that I love memoirs. One of my favorite sub-genres of memoir (warning: I have more categories of book genres and sub-genres than Monica had for towels on Friends is this: books that tell a deeply personal story served atop a big piece of American-history pie. Think Katharine Graham’s Personal History, Michelle Obama’s Becoming, Barbara Walters’s Audition, and Julia Childs’s My Life in France. Here are two new favorites:
The Yellow House: A Memoir by Sarah M. Broom (Grove Press, August 2019)
The Yellow House saw 12 children raised before “The Water” came. Sarah was one of those children. And The Water is Hurricane Katrina. The house is a shotgun-style structure on Wilson Street in New Orleans East. It is now gone—demolished, not by the flood, but by the City, notice of its destruction delivered only to the mailbox that still stood in the front of the uninhabitable home where no one lived, just months after the devastation. It was bought by Sarah’s mother, improbably, when she was a nineteen-year old widow with three children. Sarah’s father, Ivory Mae’s second husband, a maintenance worker at nearby NASA, died when Sarah was only six-months old. Ivory Mae persevered to keep both her family and the crumbling house together in the ensuing decades, going to night school and earning nursing credentials to pay the ever-mounting bills. The house itself is the hub of the story. “The Yellow House was witness to our lives,” Sarah writes. And the City of New Orleans—in all its mythos and tragedy is the wheel.
This hard-driving, yet splendidly affectionate, memoir has everything: the complexities of a sprawling, loving family (now scattered by The Water to the corners of America), an epic natural disaster, important questions of social justice and environmental racism, a grand matriarch and a prodigal daughter, and a celebrated city, full of dark secrets. It calls us to ask: What is Home? A memory? A family? An address on Wilson Avenue? Can it be lost? Or found?
A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father by David Maraniss (Simon & Schuster, May 2019)
An errant S gave it away. In 2015, deep in the bowels of the National Archives in Washington DC, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss opened boxes to examine the files relating to his father Elliott’s appearance in 1952 before the House Un-American Activities Committee. His father was arbitrarily denied the right to speak at those hearings, but was allowed to submit a written statement which was summarily buried in the vault of history. When David came across the “Statement of Elliott Maraniss,” he knew it was his father’s own, because the type reflected the imperfect S that his father’s well-worn typewriter reliably produced.
This is the story of the deep and long-reaching effects that the McCarthy hearings had on those called to testify. Elliott and his family lost everything the American dream had given them. Yet it is also the story of how his father, a World War II veteran, after losing his job as a newspaperman and being blacklisted, retained an unfailing optimism and a profound love for all that America should represent, and how he imparted that idealism to his children. This is an intimate story—the kind that can only be created by a journalist investigating that which is closest to him. It will reel you in. You can feel the atmosphere in the hearing room of the Detroit Federal Building where Elliot appeared under FBI subpoena. You can feel the simple pleasures of David’s boyhood in Detroit, seeing the cars roll off the line in the magical Motor City and listening to Shake, Rattle and Roll on a diner jukebox, even while living in seriously reduced circumstances after the central event. A real story, well-told.
Just-for-Fun Memoir Bonus Read: Actress Mary-Louise Parker writes Dear Mr. You (Scribner, June 2016) as a collection of letters to the men she has encountered in her life: some central figures, some merely transient, from great loves to great disappointments, a random cabdriver to a worthy mentor. It’s juicy, it’s poetic, it’s funny. A little jewel of a book. Best advice? Put it next your bed and read one letter every night.
Until next time, happy reading!
All of Keltie’s recommendations, including the “Must-Read Books for Lawyers” that she discussed during our May 2019 CLE, are listed here and available for purchase online through Parnassus Books.