Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Transcendent Kingdom

Contrasts. I keep thinking about the powerful contrasts that Yaa Gyasi offers in her novel titled, Transcendent Kingdom. Science and religion are contrasted as protagonist Gifty looks to her work as a neuroscientist to answer life’s questions as she also recalls her childhood in the evangelical church. We see the different worlds of Ghana and Alabama. We feel the family pain when shortly after Gifty’s brother, Nana, finds comfort playing high school basketball, he becomes addicted to OxyContin following an injury. There’s contrast between Gifty and her mother, both coping with loss in their own ways. Gyasi’s prose will appeal to those readers who enjoy literary fiction, and her insights into the immigrant experience and into the wide range of human behavior will keep readers like me thinking about life long after we finish reading this finely written novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Transcendent Kingdom from amazon.com.

Un-Trumping America: A Plan to Make America a Democracy Again

Playbook. I listen to the Pod Save America podcast, so I was part of the target audience ready to read co-host Dan Pfeiffer’s playbook for 2020, a book titled, Un-Trumping America: A Plan to Make America a Democracy Again. Trump supporters should read this book to reflect on what to expect from the Democrats. Democrats should take some of the actions that Pfeiffer proposes in this novel. Any reader interested in public policy should listen to some of the bold and aggressive proposals made in this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Un-Trumping America from amazon.com.

I Hold a Wolf by the Ears

Unhinged. I restricted myself to one story per day while I read the collection of eleven short stories by Laura van den Berg titled, I Hold a Wolf by the Ears. I often took a walk after finishing the story of the day, and found myself often agitated, or somewhat unhinged like many of the characters in this collection. Walking off the story cleared my brain. Van den Berg strips away everything from these characters except close examination of their fears. After we see these fears, and feel some part of the pain of suffering, something changes and we observe what’s beautiful and see life transformed. There’s no easy way out of tough stuff for any of us. With van den Berg as a guide, we somehow get through the tough part and come out with strength ready for another day. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase I Hold a Wolf by the Ears from amazon.com.

The Shooting at Château Rock

Russia. Fans of Martin Walker’s Bruno Chief of Police series set in the small French town of St. Denis in the Périgord are those most likely to enjoy reading this year’s novel titled, The Shooting at Château Rock. One minute, Bruno is gathering ingredients for a meal, riding a horse, spending time with friends, and the next he’s caught up in crime involving Russia way above his pay grade. While the plot spends a lot of time with a rock star and a Russian oligarch, the biggest challenge for Bruno in this installment involves mating his dog. I am entertained by every minute I spend reading the novels in this series. Reading is one way to visit the Dordogne while covid-19 travel restrictions are in place. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Shooting at Château Rock from amazon.com.

Notre-Dame: The Soul of France

Context. If France is such a secular country, and few people there attend religious services, why has there been such an outpouring of support to restore the Cathedral of Notre-Dame after the fire in 2019? In her book titled, Notre-Dame: The Soul of France, Agnès Poirier explains all the ways in which Notre-Dame has been the soul of France for eight hundred years. Readers will be gripped by her account of the fire and the actions by many to save as much of the structure and contents as possible. After that opening section, Poirier places the contemporary building in context by framing key events in the history of France relating to the building that is a church and much more. She explores Henry IV’s conversion to Catholicism, how Napoleon crowned himself emperor there while the Pope was present, how Victor Hugo’s writing and its adaptations made the building beloved to many, and how Charles de Gaulle used the building to unite the country after the war, and how his state funeral was held at Notre-Dame. In these episodes and more, Poirier shows how important Notre-Dame has been to the citizens of France. I laughed at one anecdote: in the Revolution mobs did damage to Notre-Dame as a response to the power of the Catholic Church. While much harm was done to the building, the organist played the Marseillaise loudly as a crowd approached. That kept the mob somewhat at bay and saved the structure from even greater pillage. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Notre Dame from amazon.com.

You Talkin' To Me?: The Unruly History of New York English

Linguistics. As a speaker of New York English, Brooklyn 1950s variety, I learned new things about my native tongue after reading E.J. White’s book titled, You Talkin’ To Me?: The Unruly History of New York English. Between the tidbits of delight, there’s a lot of pages to travel that are steeped in linguistics. While I had views about social class differences in language, White helped me understand context for that. Media depictions that have selected from the broad New York patois have spread the language and reinforced certain aspects over others. If you have any interest in language and its spread, you may find this book interesting and informative. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase You Talkin’ To Me from amazon.com.

Men to Avoid in Art and Life

Mansplaining. For those readers whose attention span has been shortened because of anxiety and lifestyle changes as a result of the novel coronavirus, a book to consider is Nicole Tersigni’s Men to Avoid in Art and Life. In fewer than one hundred pages, she pairs artwork with contemporary phrases and will deliver well-needed belly laughs. Many readers will want to share a page or more on Zoom or FaceTime with another reader who will appreciate the subjects, especially the mansplaining. If deadpan wit tickles your funnybone, be sure to read this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Men to Avoid in Art and Life from amazon.com.

Separated: Inside an American Tragedy

Cruelty. Prepare to be outraged and to cry as you read Jacob Soboroff’s book titled, Separated: Inside an American Tragedy. No matter how much you think you know, or how well you have followed the separation of children from their parents on our southern border, there will be aspects of this situation that you’ll learn by reading this book. We can become distracted by so many things, and the story of the day displaces what happened before it. Over the course of the four hundred pages of this book, you will meet the people who suffered cruelty because of this policy, you’ll learn about those who tried to hide what was going on, and the occasional person whose actions made a huge difference. Any reader interested in public policy should consider reading this book. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Separated from amazon.com.

Journey of the Pharaohs

Bloodstone. Protagonist Kurt Austen and friends have returned in a novel titled, Journey of the Pharaohs, the fifteenth installment in the NUMA series by Clive Cussler. Following the formula of the earlier novels, Kurt and team use their skills to great effect in combatting an enemy, this time called the Bloodstone Group. Fans of the series will find the familiar mayhem in the form of fast-paced action around the world. Two backstories, one from Egypt’s distant past, and the other from the 1920s, add to the context for today’s adventure. These books are quick to read and provide reliable entertainment to those who enjoy this genre and formula. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Journey of the Pharaohs from amazon.com.

An Unlikely Journey: Waking Up from My American Dream

Opportunity. There was one individual I really wanted to meet after reading Julian Castro’s memoir titled An Unlikely Journey: his mother. This no-nonsense loving person propelled Julian and his twin, Joaquin, to superior educational opportunities at Stanford and Harvard, and on to roles of service for others at high levels of government. This is a quintessential American story, and also a Latino assimilation story as big as all Texas. Whether you’re politically aligned with Castro’s views or not, reading this memoir will give you renewed hope in how the American dream remains alive. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase An Unlikely Journey from amazon.com.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

All the Devils Are Here

Paris. For the sixteenth installment in Louise Penny’s series featuring Quebec’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, the action moves from Canada to Paris, where Armand and his wife, Raine-Marie, have gone to await the birth of a new grandchild. In the novel titled, All the Devils Are Here, Armand is called on to use all his skills to solve a case with great personal impact. While many readers will miss the familiar setting of Three Pines in this installment, the action is delightfully complex, the twists surprising, and the resolution satisfying. Penny allows parallel development of the relationship between Armand and his son, Daniel; Armand and his godfather; and as always, the relationship between Armand and his son-in-law, Jean-Guy. Fans of this series will love the latest installment, and new readers who enjoy character-driven crime fiction that’s well-written can start here or with any other Gamache novel in this series. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase All the Devils Are Here from amazon.com.

This Little Family

Trauma. Steel yourself from being caught in an undertow as you read Ines Bayard’s debut novel titled, This Little Family. We learn the irreversible action protagonist Marie takes within the first few pages of the novel. The remainder of the novel pulls us into trying to understand Marie’s response to the trauma of rape. As the light goes out of Marie’s life, we find ourselves in the darkness with her as she responds in the ways that make sense to her troubled mind. This finely written novel is difficult to read because of the content. Those readers who persist will find insight into the effects of trauma and the choices that seem inevitable but unnecessary. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase This Little Family from amazon.com.

St. Ivo

Longing. The emotional intensity surrounding the characters in Joanna Hershon’s novel titled, St. Ivo, increases as we understand more about the circumstances of two families. In domestic situations, there’s always more to the story than what can be gleaned from observations and limited contact. The suffering, struggle and loss that Hershon draws readers into are real and intense. Many readers will reflect on how they would respond to the situations facing these characters. Those readers who enjoy fine writing, deep insights into human behavior, and are comfortable with the unresolved reality common to all of us, will find a lot to enjoy by reading this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase St. Ivo from amazon.com.

Black Sun Rising

Blood. In Matthew Carr’s novel titled, Black Sun Rising, protagonist private detective Harry Lawton gets a plum assignment in London to investigate a murder in Barcelona and the circumstances surrounding a mysterious large payment made by the victim shortly before death. Set in 1909, the novel captures all the atmospherics of that time period. Harry uncovers other mysteries in Barcelona involving murders in which the victim’s blood has disappeared. As the case progresses, we feel anxiety with Harry and his epilepsy, and we learn about the scientists who were promoting eugenics at that time. Readers who enjoy complex crime fiction with great plot twists are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Black Sun Rising from amazon.com.

Interior Chinatown

Roles. Charles Yu’s playful, satirical and insightful novel titled, Interior Chinatown, explores many dimensions of the roles we play and those to which we aspire. Sometimes the role we want to play fails to meet our expectations. Other times, we are defined by others because of roles or stereotyping. Protagonist Willie Wu performs the everyman role in this novel, aspiring to be Kung Fu Guy, but usually relegated to Generic Asian Guy. Readers who enjoy creative and imaginative fiction are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Interior Chinatown from amazon.com.

A Saint From Texas


Sisters. In a novel by Edmund White titled, A Saint from Texas, identical twin sisters take different roads away from their East Texas start in life. Their daddy’s land provided an oil fortune to nurture their dreams. Yvonne decides to join Parisian society, while Yvette aligns with the poor in Columbia. White takes us across a half century and treats us to fine writing infused with great wit and joy. There’s Texas-sized exuberance on these pages, and wisdom about the nature of human behavior. White’s characters are finely drawn with all the complexity and foibles of all of us. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Saint from Texas from amazon.com.

Fair Warning

Cyberstalking. Journalist and protagonist Jack McEvoy returns for the third time in Michael Connelly’s novel titled, Fair Warning. A serial killer may be using a form of cyberstalking to select targets with great efficiency. Jack gets on the story because he had a one-night stand with the latest victim. Before long, readers are exposed to the dark web and to a fast-paced plot trying to reveal the identity of the killer. Fans of action thrillers are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Fair Warning from amazon.com.

The Talented Mr. Varg

Choices. The second installment of Alexander McCall Smith’s Detective Varg series is a novel titled, The Talented Mr. Varg. Smith fans will enjoy the author’s dry wit, moderate pacing, and compassion for all characters. Things are never as they appear for the Department of Sensitive Crimes, and Varg chooses to investigate and help in ways that are not often linear. Varg often tends to choose mercy rather than justice. As always with Smith, the way things turn out always seem to be just right. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Talented Mr Varg from amazon.com.

The Boy From the Woods

Secrets. Can you think of a better name for a person who was found in the woods as a child and had no memory of his past than “Wilde?” That’s the name of the protagonist of Harlen Coben’s exciting novel titled, The Boy from the Woods. Three decades after he came out of the woods, another child has gone missing, and now Wilde has been asked by a recurring Coben character, Hester Crimstein, to help find that child. Wilde agrees and finds himself returning to an uncomfortable place and he’s focused on revealing the secrets that have been kept for a long time. The story is engaging, the plot has just the right twists, and the characters are compelling. Fans of Coben and crime fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Boy from the Woods from amazon.com.


Summer. Susan Steinberg’s debut novel titled, Machine, sends readers to the shore in summer to spend time with a group of teenagers. It may take some readers a while to settle into Steinberg’s grammar and language as she structures this novel in creative ways. The sentences shift structure when the mood changes, alerting readers to tension and progress. Some of her meter is poetic and that adds to the pace of reading, accelerating or slowing down in ways that fit the narrative. I enjoyed every semicolon. Beneath the beautiful language, we see a reflection of teenage life in summer: the average locals and the privileged wealthy transients. The culpability of the individual and the community for events and situations alternate in ways that lead a reader to reflect after we’ve finished reading, beyond Steinberg’s pacing to our own. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Machine from amazon.com.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Caste: The Origins of our Discontents

Hierarchy. Sometimes all it takes is a small shift in perspective for the lightbulbs to shine on a complicated subject. In her finely written book titled, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson describes the ways in which the United States has established a hierarchy that explains many of our historic and contemporary divisions and challenges. Having studied global caste systems thoroughly, Wilkerson examines how life in America reflects the eight pillars typical of caste alignments. Under caste, it is necessary to have a bottom rung of society, creating a comparison of superiority and inferiority. The system is meant to maintain status and caste so that those defined as inferior remain on the bottom rung. Her stories are vivid and gripping, and by moving away from the loaded language of racism, she may help many readers alter perspective and think about issues differently and accept responsibility to move society forward.


Rating: Five-star (I love it)

Click here to purchase Caste from amazon.com.






Clever. It’s fun to watch a talented writer take a prominent real person and veer their life path just a bit off the known trajectory. In her novel titled, Rodham, Curtis Sittenfeld imagines what Hillary Rodham’s life would have been like had she not married Bill. I read this during this summer’s unique political conventions, and it provided an entertaining diversion. I especially enjoyed Sittenfeld’s take on how Bill’s life might have played out. Whether you love or hate the real Hillary, it’s very likely that you’ll enjoy the character in Sittenfeld’s novel.


Rating: Five-star (I love it)

Click here to purchase Rodham from amazon.com.




Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man

Deprivation. I finished reading Mary Trump’s book titled, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, with tremendous gratitude that Fred Trump, Sr. was not my father. I almost began to feel a little bit sorry for Donald Trump who has felt deprivation for his entire life, influenced so strongly as it was by his tyrannical father. While the prominent figure to attract readers to this book is Donald, the family story’s central character is Fred, Sr. and this is a sad story indeed. I’m glad I read it, but now I really need to disinfect.


Rating: Four-star (I like it)

Click here to purchase Too Much and Never Enough from amazon.com.




Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey

Pluck. I didn’t expect that I would have the patience to allow much time for a pigeon narrator to keep my attention while reading Kathleen Rooney’s novel titled, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey. Thanks to Rooney’s fine writing, I easily warmed to the voice of a homing pigeon and anticipated the return to that voice after Major Whittlesey provided his point of view as the alternating narrator. The pair were joined together in World War I when the pigeon Cher Ami flew through enemy lines to deliver a message that the major and his battalion were cut off from the rest of the army and were the objects of friendly fire. Rooney took this historical event and brought it to life through imagining those times from two very different perspectives. She explores the wounds to both narrators and the deep cost of war.


Rating: Four-star (I like it)

Click here to purchase Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey from amazon.com.



Nothing Is Wrong and Here Is Why

Poignant. The voice of Alexandra Petri as a political satirist finds that sweet spot for me: crisp, funny and poignant. In her collection of essays titled, Nothing Is Wrong and Here is Why, the range of her skills can be observed in their fullness. Some of the essays are new, and many are adapted from her column in The Washington Post. Whenever something comes out of the White House that can send me into a rage, I know I can count on Petri’s next column to express a reaction far better than my feeble responses. Our finest writers, like Petri, find ways to help thoughtful people make sense out of the garbled nonsense what we often see and hear. This essay collection provides an abundance of that good sense.


Rating: Four-star (I like it)

Click here to purchase Nothing Is Wrong and Here is Why from amazon.com.



Vesper Flights

Outside. I spent a half hour sitting on the screened back porch yesterday morning watching a hummingbird rest at our feeder, sheltered from the rain, and slurping our sugar water. I had just finished reading Helen Macdonald’s essay collection titled, Vesper Flights, so I was primed to observe birds or other aspects of nature and not pay attention to the passing of time. Each of her essays in this collection contains fine writing and close observations about our world and ourselves. As I write this quick review, I’m back on the porch looking up often from the laptop to watch a bird in flight, a squirrel leaping from one branch to another, a Monarch landing on the milkweed and a rabbit scooting to a hiding place under a shrub. Grand!


Rating: Four-star (I like it)

Click here to purchase Vesper Flights from amazon.com.



Squeeze Me

Pythons. Just when I needed a good laugh, I picked up Carl Hiaasen’s comic novel titled, Squeeze Me. Set as always in Florida, this time we get the combination of a great protagonist, Angie Armstrong, and political satire about President Trump, Mar-a-Lago and its wealthy members. When a python does what a big snake is prone to do, Angie is the wildlife expert called in to take care of the problem. A great cast of characters, include the return of Skink, will delight Hiaasen fans. Florida at its oddest comes to life for those readers who aren’t overly sensitive to political satire.


Rating: Four-star (I like it)

Click here to purchase Squeeze Me from amazon.com.


The New One: Painfully True Stories from a Reluctant Dad

Vulnerability. Every expectant parent has been told that having children will change their lives forever. The naïve among us may minimize this fact or warning. My bride still reminds me that over four decades ago when she was pregnant with our firstborn, I assured her that we would still be spontaneous after we become parents. Stop laughing. Comedian Mike Birbiglia will bring some laughter to readers of his book titled, The New One: Painfully True Stories from a Reluctant Dad. Other parents will admire his vulnerability about the darker sides of his experience and feel some relief that their own experience isn’t singular. So often there are expectations of what we “should” feel about our newborn children, and when we may not experience those feelings, we may feel alienated. Birbiglia’s candor and willingness to talk about the dark side may help other parents appreciate that not everyone feels the same things in the same way at the same time.


Rating: Four-star (I like it)

Click here to purchase The New One from amazon.com.




Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything

Lectures. You may have had the same experience I did many years ago: reading Viktor Frankl’s book titled, Man’s Search for Meaning, and feeling optimism that human spirit can overcome the worst circumstances. Thanks to a new book titled, Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything, readers can experience the spirit of the lectures that Frankl delivered in Vienna in 1946, less than a year after he was released from a Nazi concentration camp. Three renamed presentations constitute this small book, and each lecture overflows with insight, intensity and the optimism, packed with the positive spirit that kept Frankl alive and vital.


Rating: Four-star (I like it)

Click here to purchase Yes to Life from amazon.com.




The Lying Life of Adults

Bracelet. Children learn to navigate the world by observing closely the adults in their lives. Giovanna, the protagonist of Elena Ferrante’s novel titled, The Lying Life of Adults, changes over the course of three hundred pages from a child to an adolescent to who she might observe as an adult. Ferrante draws readers into Giovanna’s life through dissection of close family and romantic relationships. We feel the intensity of Giovanna’s struggle to grow into herself. A bracelet worn at different times by multiple characters pulls the narrative together and provides key symbolism relating to the realities and the complications of adult life. Ferrante proves again that all of life can be revealed in a domestic story told well. The full cast of interesting and complex characters, their realistic dialogue and range of behavior kept me captivated from beginning to end. 


Rating: Five-star (I love it)

Click here to purchase The Lying Life of Adults from amazon.com.