Thursday, March 26, 2020

Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse

Community. In his book titled, Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, Timothy P. Carney, makes a strong case that discomfort and alienation by some Americans may be less about income equality and more about social isolation. He describes what he found across the United States as he reported on this story: more Americans are or feel alone. The building blocks of community like churches, sports teams and volunteer organizations provide a foundation for a strong and engaged community life. In places without those support networks, individuals feel alienated because they lack the bonds that tie them to others. I write this review on the fourteenth day of sheltering in place to slow the spread of Covid-19. I live in a community where I do not feel isolated. I’m now six feet or more away from neighbors and friends, but I can feel the solidarity of all of us acting for the common good. Reading Carney’s book helped me appreciate what I have in the community where I live, and I now better understand the plight of those who feel no social support from their own communities. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Alienated America from

The Innocents

Isolation. I finished reading Michael Crummey’s novel titled, The Innocents, on the day that the mayor of my town declared a shelter-in-place order to slow the spread of Covid-19. That context is helpful, considering that as a result of reading this novel, I had a positive view of the richness of life that can come even from isolation. In the novel, a brother and sister eke out ways of surviving in coastal Newfoundland where they live in primitive habitation far from other people. From the title, readers can expect that the isolation represents innocence on the part of these characters. I found the story riveting and well-told. Whether you are in isolation or not, you may be gripped by this story and how living for another day is rich in and of itself, whether your supplies are sufficient or running low. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Innocents from

Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving

Eclectic. Personally, I can’t get enough of Mo Rocca’s eclectic and humorous stories. In a collection titled, Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving, he tells readers about the lives of people, some of whom we know well, and others we’re glad to know thanks to his storytelling. This is a fun book to read and is often at its best when you feel the quirky nature of Rocca’s observations and insights. Read one or two of these, and I expect you’ll want to read them all. I was well-entertained. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Mobituaries from

The Ideas That Made America: A Brief History

Survey. In her book titled, The Ideas That Made America: A Brief History, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagan offers a brisk survey of key thinkers and ideas from the Enlightenment to today, and how those ideas have helped shape the United States of America. After I finished reading the book, I was mildly satisfied. I didn’t necessarily learn anything new. I felt I was exposed to one person’s assessment of some influential ideas and placed them in context with evolving life in America and with each other idea. If a reader knows a lot about any of the ideas she surveys in this book, that section may seem too light. I think the purpose of the book was to give an overview, and let readers decide where they would to do more reading. I realized it’s time for me to revisit some of the transcendentalists. Read a sample and decide where your thinking about thinking needs to go next. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Ideas That Made America from

The Mirror and the Light

Finale. Spoiler alert: in the third installment of Hilary Mantel’s novels featuring Thomas Cromwell, he dies. Readers who loved the first two novels may be pleased that it takes almost eight hundred pages to wrap up his story in the finale titled, The Mirror and the Light. Even for those readers who already know the details of the historical period covered, Mantel finds ways to maintain our interest in whether King Henry will die before Cromwell. Mantel also finds ways to help readers understand both the consistency of the main characters and how they change over time. Cromwell’s machinations in service of the king have made him weary. The same ways in which he vanquished adversaries are now used by his enemies to bring Cromwell down. Fans of historical fiction can admire the ways in which Mantel brings the people and time to life as we read all three books. Historians may quibble about her hits and misses, but for readers looking to escape and be entertained, this book will be a pleasure. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Mirror and the Light from

A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith

Companion. I read Timothy Egan’s book titled, A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith, while I was under the Illinois shelter-in-place mandate to slow the spread of Covid-19. The mortality rate for this pandemic disease may lead many to think about the meaning of life and mortality. So, my mind was receptive to joining Egan as he explored matters of faith while he walked a medieval route called the Via Francigena from England to Rome. Egan blends his own discernment process with the history of the places where he and other pilgrims stop along the path. If life is pilgrimage, Egan reminds us through his journey that we can easily lose our way and suffer from blisters or whatever else causes pain. He also reminds us that we can find wonderful things in unexpected places. There are especially poignant scenes as he describes the segments of the journey when in succession he’s joined by his son, his daughter and his wife. Whether you are confined to your home, or able to walk or hike your own pilgrimage paths outdoors, Egan can be a welcome companion with this finely written book. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase A Pilgrimage to Eternity from

The Friend

Terrorism. Readers who enjoy thrillers with interesting and complex characters are those most likely to appreciate the novel titled, The Friend, by Joakim Zander. What would you be willing to do for a friend? How well do you know a friend? Can someone surprise us when they unexpectedly help us out of jam? Zander gives us two plot lines that develop slowly and then merge as tension rises. Jacob Seger is a young Swede who arrives at his country’s embassy in Beirut to start an internship. On his first night in Lebanon, he meets a man named Yassim at a party and falls head over heels in love. Is Yassim the photographer he claims to be or is he a terrorist? Friends Klara and Gabriella notice that they are being watched, and after Gabi is arrested under suspicion of terrorism, Klara enlists George, an acquaintance from her past, to help her clear Gabi’s name. There are Russian spies in the mix, and lots of close calls as the full cast of characters face life or death decisions. I was thoroughly entertained by this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Friend from

All My Goodbyes

Sadness. The protagonist of Mariana Dimópulos’ novel titled, All My Goodbyes, has more than her share of sadness and sorrow. It seems like every time a human connection is made, it’s time for it to be broken. Dimópulos explores in this novel our connections to people and places. There’s a feeling of discomfort for readers as the chronology and location shifts erratically, giving us the same unsettled feeling as the protagonist. Most of us are oriented toward a person or a place, but some people are never so settled. It won’t take long to read this short novel, but it has taken me a long time to become reoriented and to shake off the sadness from these finely written pages. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase All My Goodbyes from

Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc

Verse. Readers looking for a book a bit off the beaten path should consider reading David Elliott’s book titled, Voices: The Final Hours of Joan of Arc. Elliott writes in verse, using a variety of medieval poetic forms. The voices from the title and in these poems include Joan of Arc as well as objects and people in her life. The voice of the fire is especially creepy. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Voices from

How Charts Lie: Getting Smarter about Visual Information

Primer. General readers looking for a primer on how to interpret visual information should consider reading Alberto Cairo’s book titled, How Charts Lie: Getting Smarter about Visual Information. Cairo explains and illustrates a variety of ways in which visual images can distort data to sway those who see the images. Armed with the information from this book, readers can become skilled at spotting distortions as well as using good visuals to convey complex stories effectively and honestly. Since I’ve created and read thousands of charts over decades, I didn’t learn anything new from Cairo. Many readers will have their eyes opened in more ways than one after reading this book. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase How Charts Lie from

Friday, March 13, 2020

American Dirt

Anguish. As I read Jeanine Cummins novel titled, American Dirt, I felt the anguish of the main characters as they fled drug violence in Mexico and joined migrants trying to enter the United States. I concede that legitimate concern has been raised about cultural appropriation in that this was not necessarily Cummins’ story to tell. Nonetheless, Cummins tells a compelling story very well, leading readers to care about these people. This is an individual story that is also universal in a time of anxiety when life can change in an instant. Cummins writes with great skill and I was moved by the story. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase American Dirt from

Hi Five

Multiple. Private Investigator Isaiah Quintabe is back for the fourth installment in the IQ series by Joe Ide, a novel titled, Hi Five. A murder suspect named Christiana challenges IQ to prove her innocence. An obstacle for IQ is that because she has multiple personalities, no one of whom saw everything that happened on the night of the murder. Fans of crime fiction and this series will enjoy the complexity of this novel and the skills of the detective whose life becomes more complicated with every installment. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Hi Five from

Into the Fire

Transition. The fifth thrilling Orphan X novel by Gregg Hurwitz is titled, Into the Fire. This time out, every time Nowhere Man Evan Smoak thinks he gets the job done, he ends up back in the dangerous fray or the place described in the title. Protagonist Smoak continues to develop in complexity as the series progresses, and in this novel, there seems to be a longing in him to make a transition from his current life to something else. We will have to wait for the next installment to find out what happens. In the meantime, thriller fans will enjoy reading this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Into the Fire from

Uncanny Valley

Outsider. Most readers don’t work in Silicon Valley, so for us outsiders, Anna Weiner’s memoir titled, Uncanny Valley, gives us a view into one person’s perspective on what it might be like to work for startups in that place. Weiner entered the Valley as an outsider, moving from New York to San Francisco, and not bringing with her the highly valued tech skills that dominate the region. Instead, she brought smarts, emotional intelligence, and the ability to communicate with customers. Weiner’s writing makes the book engaging and interesting for those readers who want a glimpse inside the culture of Silicon Valley startups. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Uncanny Valley from


Facets. The core of the novel titled, Apeirogon, by Colum McCann, is based on the lives of two real men, Palestinian Bassam Aramin and Israeli Rami Elhanan. Rami’s daughter, Smadar, was killed by suicide bombers, and Bassam’s daughter, Abir, was killed by a rubber bullet. Their shared grief and loss draw them together to become messengers for peace. McCann constructs a multi-faceted structure to pull readers into this story. Chapters rise in number from 1-500, followed by 1001, then descend in number from 500. These pieces and fragments combine into a complete novel that does what all the best novels do: holds up life for us to examine and try to make sense of it all. This is the writer as artist producing what I consider a masterpiece. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Apeirogon from

Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For

Optimistic. Some memoirs come across as inauthentic and lacking candor, especially when struggles are skipped over in favor of successes. In her memoir titled, Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For, Susan Rice comes across as candid and complete: the good, the bad and the ugly are all presented for our consideration. The result is a book that lays out the high expectations she faced as she grew up, family troubles, and a smart and thoughtful career of service to the United States. Her life has been one rooted in optimism, and that spirit remains through the end of this memoir as she shares the lessons of her life with readers. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Tough Love from

Night Boat to Tangier

Criminals. There’s some magic in the recipe Kevin Barry uses to assemble his novel titled, Night Boat to Tangier. We have two complex characters, Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond, lifelong criminals. Barry uses the setting of a waiting room at a ferry terminal to place them in a melancholy mood to reflect on their lives of crime. They are waiting a long time for the arrival of Maurice’s daughter, Dilly, who may be coming or going from the terminal. Barry pulls us from the present to the past as we gradually revise our views of these two thugs. When Barry adds booze, drugs and romance to the recipe, and dialogue that sings, all the pieces blend together. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Night Boat to Tangier from

Trouble Is What I Do

Catfish. The seventh novel in the Leonid McGill series by Walter Mosley is titled, Trouble Is What I Do. After a ninety-two-year old man named Catfish comes to New York from Mississippi with what seems like a simple request, P.I. McGill agrees to help. No good deed goes unpunished. What follows in the story pulls together all the complexity of this complicated protagonist. While packed with lots of action, this short novel seemed to end too quickly. Fans of crime fiction and this series are those readers most likely to enjoy this installment, and with me, look forward to more pages in the next novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Trouble Is What I Do from

The Bear

Harmony. No other people are here. That’s the setting for Andrew Krivak’s finely written novel titled, The Bear. A father grieves the death of his wife and raises his daughter so she will know how to survive after he dies. Most readers will be drawn at once into the lives of these survivors, and thanks to Krivak’s lyrical prose, we will walk with them and hunt and fish and struggle. We will feel the cold and smell the mountain and sea. Survival requires harmony with nature, and the girl achieves her place in this world without other people in a way that she never seems lonely or empty. Fans of literary fiction and those who appreciate well-crafted prose are those most likely to enjoy this outstanding novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Bear from

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

Quality. Many of us spend much of our daily time and mindful attention responding to what others present to us for our attention. In her book titled, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell offers for readers’ consideration a different way of engaging with the world. She proposes resistance to addictive technology and media and engaging with people and places close to us. If your quality of life involves a lot of time with devices, consider ways of breaking your patterns and pay attention to nature instead. I wonder what Odell would think of how I absorbed her book: walking outside and listening to the audiobook. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase How to Do Nothing from

Friday, March 6, 2020

The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up on Free Markets

Concentration. If you think that the United States continues to be an exemplar of a free market economy, you may change your mind after reading Thomas Philippon’s book titled, The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up on Free Markets. Philippon makes the case that American consumers suffer the ill effects of corporate concentration and corporate lobbying that has given large companies pricing power and market dominance. The past three decades have altered the landscape of free markets in dramatic ways. Philippon explains how. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Great Reversal from

The Confession Club

Support. The third novel by Elizabeth Berg set in the town of Mason, Missouri is titled, The Confession Club. Once again, Berg pulls readers into the lives of loveable characters and exposes the richness of friendship, love, and the support of others. Fans of the series will enjoy the return of beloved characters, supplemented by new and fascinating new ones. Berg is one of those authors whose writing leads us to feel good about ourselves and our neighbors, with all our shortcomings and imperfections. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Confession Club from

The Hollows

Integration. Jess Montgomery reprises characters from her debut novel, The Widows, in a new novel titled, The Hollows, also set in the 1920s. The past doesn’t always stay buried in the Appalachian hills of Southeast Ohio, and Sheriff Lily Ross finds herself uncovering disturbing evidence of KKK activity and conflict in the community over integration. Lily’s character continues to develop in this novel, and her choices along with those of her friends provide most of the plot momentum. Fans who love historical fiction with strong female characters are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Hollows from

The Hero

Story. In a rare foray into non-fiction, prolific author Lee Child offers fans a short book titled, The Hero, that summarizes the long history of the story and the hero, in both oral and written traditions. This long essay helps readers think about Child’s recurring protagonist, Jack Reacher, in the context of a very long storytelling tradition. Some of the quirky asides were as fascinating as his core premise. Now that I’ve better versed in the context, I’m ready for the next Reacher installment. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Hero from

A Divided Loyalty

Twists. The twenty-second installment in the Inspector Ian Rutledge mystery series by the writing team named Charles Todd is a novel titled, A Divided Loyalty. Fans of historical crime fiction and this series will love the twists throughout this installment as well as the complexity of the case and the continued development of the complex detective as a troubled and talented person. Despite the willingness of the chief inspector to close a cold case that Rutledge has worked on, the final few details to wrap up lead to a very different outcome. Any worker whose boss never seems to recognize talent and success will find a lot in common with Inspector Rutledge. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Divided Loyalty from

Cari Mora

Miami. I was amused by Thomas Harris’ crime thriller titled, Cari Mora. Set in Miami, the protagonist, Cari Mora, is a housekeeper at a drug kingpin’s house. Stored and booby trapped beneath the house is a stash of gold. A colorful cast of characters wants to heist the gold and Cari Mora. Harris gives us a terrific villain, a strong female protagonist, and keeps momentum by playing the desires of the characters that include greed and avarice. I read this book quickly and became inured to the violence quickly. Fans of crime fiction looking for a quick, amusing, violent book are those most likely to enjoy this one. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Cari Mori from

Naked Came the Florida Man

Rodeo. The twenty-third installment in Tim Dorsey’s Serge Storms series is titled, Naked Came the Florida Man. The title alone should attract new readers, while fans of the series have already consumed this funny novel. Serge and Coleman tool around Florida and we learn about forgotten burial places. There’s football and even a rodeo. The gold coins are a particular attraction, but the real joy comes in the new ways Serge finds to deliver justice. I can’t wait for them to gas up the Plymouth and embark on adventure number twenty-four. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Naked Came the Florida Man from

Little Weirds

Essays. I had the feeling that I entered directly into Jenny Slate’s mind as I read her collection of essays titled after one of them, Little Weirds. As a talented comedian, she made me laugh. As a writer, I admired her phrases and images. As an artist, I appreciated the scope of her vast creativity, and how it plays out in each of these essays. The time I spent inside her mind while reading this novel was quite an adventure and escape. I enjoyed the book while I read it with a clear head, but I have the impression that if one were to read these essays while high, the experience might be enhanced. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Little Weirds from

The Chestnut Man

Creepy. The debut novel by Søren Sveistrup is a creepy thriller titled, The Chestnut Man. The characters are interesting and complex, flawed in all the ways we recognize and appreciate. The crimes are bloody and violent and the criminal meticulous and dogged. The plot moves at a pace that after a while sustains a reader’s elevated heart rate level that jumps when a new twist arrives. Most readers will hug their children a little tighter after reading this book. Fans of crime fiction are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Chestnut Man from

Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss

Observations. I guarantee that after you read Margaret Renkl’s book titled, Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, you will notice more as you meander through the world. If at the least, you look up from a screen and into the great outdoors, you will observe something beautiful. As we read the ways in which she explores her own grief, using finely crafted prose, we can reflect about our own losses with new insight. I may never again consider something in nature common or ordinary. I endeavor to notice more and recognize with clarity my place in the world for however long it lasts. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Lost Migrations from