Saturday, January 16, 2021

One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger

Provocative. Go big or go home. In his book titled, One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger, Matthew Yglesias offers a provocative proposal. He believes the best future for the United States will be to increase our population to a billion people. If you think we’re “full” now, Yglesias has other ideas for you to consider. He tackles a variety of objections and provides an array of policy proposals that would lead to a thriving society in which a billion Americans would live. Whether you’re skeptical or curious, I recommend giving his ideas some thought. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase One Billion Americans from amazon.com.

Tokyo Ueno Station

Unreachable. I wouldn’t have noticed Yu Miri’s novel titled, Tokyo Ueno Station, had it not won a National Book Award. Protagonist Kazu has led a sad and unlucky life, much of connected to Tokyo’s Ueno Station. At so many times during his life, better times were so close, just outside his reach. Instead, he faced loss, grief, homelessness and scraping along on the margins of the busy city life around him. The descriptive language soars with beauty on these pages and builds melancholy in a reader with each passing page. Readers who enjoy finely written literary fiction are those most likely to enjoy this haunting character and his story through life and after death. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Tokyo Ueno Station from amazon.com.

Bag Man: The Wild Crimes, Audacious Cover-up, and Spectacular Downfall of a Brazen Crook in the White House

Prosecutors. If what you remember most about the Nixon administration is Watergate, may I mention the name of the Vice President of most of those years to jog your memory? Spiro Agnew was a larger-than-life character, relatively unknown outside the State of Maryland when Nixon chose him for Vice President to shore up support from conservative Republicans (who weren’t the only variety in the 1960s and 1970s). In a book titled, Bag Man: The Wild Crimes, Audacious Cover-up, and Spectacular Downfall of a Brazen Crook in the White House, Rachel Maddow and Michael Yarvitz lay out Agnew’s crimes and what led to his resignation from office in 1973. The heroes in this story are the young prosecutors in this story who built a solid case that had nothing to do with Watergate. Attorney Elliot Richardson listened to the prosecutors, gave them room to operate and ended up negotiating terms of resignation for Agnew that put the interests of the United States first. Fans of recent history and public affairs are those most likely to enjoy this account of crime in high places. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Bag Man from amazon.com.

Troubled Blood

Bloat. It can feel perfect to settle into a thousand-page novel knowing that the story to follow is likely to be interesting and engaging. I anticipated that feeling as I opened the fifth installment of the Cormoran Strike series that J.K. Rowling writes as Robert Galbraith, a novel titled, Troubled Blood. For a while it was satisfying to be back with Strike and Robin Ellacott as the detective partners took on a cold case. The middle five hundred or so pages of this novel felt like bloat to me as the exposition became a tad tedious and the various plot lines, investigations, and personal relationships moved at a glacial pace. Instead of setting the book aside, I slogged on to the end, and enjoyed the resolution of the main case. Readers who enjoy mysteries and this series are those most likely to enjoy this novel, especially if one can remain patient for just under a thousand pages. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Troubled Blood from amazon.com.

Processed Cheese

Excess. Stephen Wright excoriates the self-absorbed vulgarity of modern life in his satiric novel titled, Processed Cheese. An odd and narcissistic cast of characters with zany names looks for satisfaction in consumerism, violence, sex and an excess of personal degradations. Parody and satire can be entertaining or overbearing, and readers can find both in this novel. The pace of the plot can be exhausting, especially following the rapid opening sequence that sets up the premise of the novel: when a bag of money falls out of the sky when what you need is cash, what would you do? The excesses of this novel tired me out, but I appreciated how perfectly Wright captures our cultural obsessions. These characters do not provide the models for human behavior, but they are exactly who we are more often that we would care to admit. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Processed Cheese from amazon.com.

The Silence

Bearings. What happens when we lose our bearings? In his short novel titled, The Silence, Don DeLillo presents another take on the dread of contemporary life and the immediacy of our mortality. Because of his finely written prose, we feel the struggle of the characters like us in this novel who struggle to find language and engage in conversation after technology has suddenly shut down. Following such a shock, how do we know where we are, where we are going, and what the hell is going on? Welcome to our world as presented by a talented writer who finds a way to condense so much into this short book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Silence from amazon.com.

Leave the World Behind

Safety. One of the reminders we all received as we opened the gift of the pandemic is that life can change in an instant. Rumaan Alam offers readers a finely written novel titled, Leave the World Behind, that places characters into a setting of uncertainty in which they face a world that has changed. A couple and their two children rented a rural house for a week’s vacation away from New York City. The owners show up at the house late at night and ask if they can stay there because something caused a massive blackout in the city. Alam explores the ways in which we respond to shock and change, and what creates a sense of safety or threat for us. Readers find themselves in the middle of issues of race, class, privilege and ambiguity. Perhaps all we desire is to survive whatever comes at us so we can live for another day. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Leave the World Behind from amazon.com.

Cardiff, By the Sea

Disturbing. There are haunting settings and chilling stories in the four novellas by Joyce Carol Oates collected in a book titled, Cardiff, By the Sea. The threats to the fully formed characters in these novellas are usually chilling, and Oates’ insight into psychological states allows readers to experience goosebumps of our own as we read the expertly crafted prose. I found myself embraced by a sensation of dread as I turned these pages. If that’s how you’d like to be entertained, consider reading this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Cardiff by the Sea from amazon.com.

The Midnight Library

Turns. In Matt Haig’s imaginative novel titled, The Midnight Library, protagonist Nora Seed gets multiple chances to lead a fulfilled life. She visits a magical library that contains an infinite number of volumes about a possible life she could live if she just made one tweak at some turning point in her past. What would any of us do differently if we could? How would the stories of our lives play out had we done one thing versus something else? What are we looking for out of life, and where do we find satisfaction and fulfillment? Haig writes with delicacy and whimsy, leaving most readers uplifted about life after reading this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Midnight Library from amazon.com.

A Promised Land

Descriptive. The first volume of Barack Obama’s presential memoir is titled, A Promised Land. Using a conversational writing style that flows easily, Obama describes the job of president with clarity, giving readers a feel for the role as a job. The text is thoughtful and introspective, and he presents his recollections in ways that allow readers to feel like close observers of what happened during his presidential terms of office. He offers more personal information that I expected, and a vulnerability that came across as refreshing and candid. Readers interested in hearing the former president’s thoughts are those most likely to enjoy this finely written memoir. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase A Promised Land from amazon.com.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

The Dearly Beloved

Quartet. The debut novel by Cara Wall titled, The Dearly Beloved, sings in celebration of friendship, marriage, faith and understanding. Four finely drawn complementary characters unite at a Presbyterian Church in New York City where Charles and James have been selected to serve in a joint ministry to heal the community following a poor choice in appointing the previous pastor. Faith led Charles to reject a privileged academic future at Harvard, and love led him to marry Lily, an atheist and free spirit. James grew up poor in Chicago, promotes church activism, and married Nan, the daughter of a southern minister. The harmony of this quartet in New York City amid setbacks and challenges and downright pain and suffering rings true for any reader who has lived. These are great and memorable characters and the novel’s prose will fall easily on the ears of all readers, but especially fans of finely written literary fiction. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Dearly Beloved from amazon.com.

A Time for Mercy

Defense. The third novel by John Grisham featuring Clanton, Mississippi lawyer Jake Brigance is titled, A Time for Mercy. The local judge has appointed Jake to defend a teenage boy who shot and killed a popular police officer. Jake doesn’t want to take the case, and this temporary appointment becomes permanent after no one else will defend the young man. The small town expects swift justice and a death penalty sentence, and Jake’s popularity and business activity declines after he takes on the case. Before long, Jake sees the case from another perspective, and he ends up risking his financial security during his defense. Fans of Grisham are those readers most likely to enjoy this legal thriller, full of heart about characters who pop out on the page to settle into our own hearts as we care deeply about what happens to them. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Time for Mercy from amazon.com.

Catherine House

Intensity. Within the first few pages of Elisabeth Thomas’ debut novel titled, Catherine House, many readers will become uneasy. With every turned page, that feeling remains and its intensity increases. The setting is the closed campus of an elite but secretive university at which the students are confined to the grounds and expected to adhere to all the strict rules for three years of hard work after which they can move on to a prominent place in society. As we learn more about the admissions process, the students and teachers and the research underway, the creepiness of the place sets in and even the activities of regular campus life take on sinister undertones. Readers open to new authors and to an intense plot are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Catherine House from amazon.com.

Afterland

Escape. Are you ready for a different pandemic? If so, consider reading Lauren Beukes’ exciting novel titled, Afterland, about the journey of a twelve-year-old boy, Miles, and his mother, Cole, who cross the United States from Seattle to Miami to escape a fate for Miles that Cole finds untenable. Cole is fierce in her efforts to protect Miles, and the plot momentum delivers intensity and thrilling action. Readers who love a great story with interesting characters and thrilling action are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Afterland from amazon.com.

Piranesi

Labyrinth. For an imaginative escape from your own reality, consider reading Susanna Clarke’s novel titled, Piranesi. Most of the novel is set in an alternative world, a labyrinth with what seems like unending rooms full of beauty where tidewater ebbs and flows. Protagonist Piranesi explores this world and learns the rhythms of life. For a while Piranesi seems to be alone, but after the “Other” appears, things get even more interesting. It will take a while for many readers to become acclimated to Clarke’s prose, but patience pays off for those who enjoy a complicated structure and lots of levels of meaning. There’s no time like the present for exploring a new world. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Piranesi from amazon.com.

Where Law Ends: Inside the Mueller Investigation

Choices. The world is unlikely to see an inside story from Bob Mueller about his time served as special counsel of the investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election in the United States so to find out more about this subject we have to look to someone else. Prosecutor Andrew Weissmann performed a key role in that investigation, and has written a detailed book titled, Where Law Ends: Inside the Mueller Investigation, about his perspective on what happened. Weissmann describes the choices and decisions made by Mueller and others throughout the investigation and the consequences of those choices. He also proposes ways to reform the approach used for future special investigations by amending the current process to ensure greater independence and transparency. Readers interested in public policy are those most likely to enjoy this informative book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Where Law Ends from amazon.com.

The Killings at Kingfisher Hill

Puzzle. The fourth installment of the new Hercule Poirot mystery series by Sophie Hannah is a novel titled, The Killings at Kingfisher Hill. The familiar and beloved detective performs exactly as expected within a twisting plot that will satisfy most mystery fans. I found a few of the supporting characters to be interesting and complex, while most provided a bit of backdrop, but little depth. What most of us mystery readers want is a good puzzle, and I found this one satisfying. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Killings at Kingfisher Hill from amazon.com.

Compromised: Counterintelligence and the Threat of Donald J. Trump

Perspective. After reading Peter Strzok’s book titled, Compromised: Counterintelligence and the Threat of Donald J. Trump, I’m confident that he wishes that his FBI work had been completed professionally without his ever becoming known by the general public. In this book he tells his side of a story that played out in recent years based on the investigation of Russian meddling into the 2016 election and any complicity by the Trump campaign in that foreign interference. Depending on your political affiliation and the news outlets you follow, chances are you already know about Peter Strzok and have reached a conclusion about him and his work while at the FBI. I encourage you to give him a hearing by reading his version of what he did and be open to amending your perspective. I found his description of his role at the FBI to be informative, and the ways he described the nature of counterintelligence work were of great interest. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Compromised from amazon.com.

Perestroika in Paris

Fun. Step aside, Emily in Paris, there’s a new woman in town. For a fun reading adventure set in Paris, consider reading Jane Smiley’s warm-hearted and entertaining novel titled, Perestroika in Paris. The protagonist is a thoroughbred horse named Perestroika, Paras for short, who wanders away after winning a race and settles into a months-long adventure in the heart of Paris. All the animal and human characters in this novel will make most readers smile, from the dog, Frida, to a young boy named Etienne, who cares for his nonagenarian great-grandmother, who is blind and deaf. This novel positively reeks with kindness, and I can think of no better way to be entertained during these interesting times. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Perestroika in Paris from amazon.com.

The Archer


Guidance. Philosophers tackle tough questions about the meaning of life. Gurus of every type offer guidance on “how to” almost everything. In his novel titled, The Archer, Paulo Coelho tells a story about how to live a meaningful and integrated life. While brief with words, this novel overflows with wisdom and guidance for every reader’s thoughtful reflection. For readers who are spiritual but not religious, this book can provide a launchpad for thinking about one’s life. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Archer from amazon.com.