Since When: A Memoir in Pieces
By Bill Berkson. (Coffee House Press, 288 pages, $17.95.)
There are more poets in "Since When" than any book you've ever read. Hailing from a time when you couldn't swing a copy of "Leaves of Grass" in Greenwich Village without hitting a master of the quatrain, "Since When" is a pleasingly scattered series of reminisces, interviews, lists and character sketches by Berkson, who hung out in the 1950s, '60s and '70s with scads of poets, artists and other creative types — so many that he can credibly list "that interesting subset of poets who were born in 1934."
Among his poet peers, who included Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka and Frank O'Hara, Bill Berkson is probably the least known and, as dozens of photos attest, most handsome. Berkson died in 2016 without ever seeming to have needed to earn a living and he can be obtuse about his privilege, as when he blithely asserts that none of his crowd became soldiers because they weren't into war. But he has stories about all of the names he drops, ranging from Judy Garland to Larry Rivers (who sketched Berkson) to Leonard Bernstein, and the name-dropping never seems clubby or gross.
Somehow, when Berkson obliquely references, for instance, "the accident that resulted in [O'Hara's] death," with no context whatsoever, he makes us feel like he doesn't need to explain because we're all in this awesome group together, listening to Judy sing at a party, lunching with Allen, bemoaning Frank's car crash or delighting in our fabulous, artistic lives.
Rising Out of Hatred By Eli Saslow. (Doubleday, 304 pages, $26.95.)
Before he was even a teenager, Derek Black was racist royalty. His father, Don Black, founded the internet's largest white nationalist web forum, Stormfront, and Derek's godfather, David Duke, was once grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Eli Saslow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning staff writer for the Washington Post, describes Derek's gradual, and at times painful, journey out of that movement in "Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist."
Expanding on an October 2016 feature on Derek leaving the movement, effectively severing ties with much of his own family in the process, Saslow deftly applies his skill for earning the trust of (and access to) those at the heart of even the most sensitive stories. We read how Derek came "to depersonalize the enemy" when, just before he turned 11, he appeared on "The Jenny Jones Show" with his father.
"His critics were nothing more to him than an anonymous chorus on the other side of a curtain," Saslow said. That changes dramatically when Derek's history is exposed to classmates at the New College of Florida in 2012. While many called for his removal from campus, a diverse group of students welcomed Derek to weekly Shabbat dinners that helped set Derek down a path of radical change. Saslow details how Black reluctantly steps out of the shadows after that transformation, urged on by his supportive and persistent girlfriend, to denounce the movement he once stood to inherit after it embraced the rise of Donald Trump and, later, carried out a deadly 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Va., that shook the nation.
"Everything you advocated for is finally beginning to catch on," Derek's father tells him after he left the movement. As Saslow writes, "it was the one point on which they still agreed."
"Of course," Derek replied. "We're coming up to the critical moment. That's why I'm trying to warn people."