Thursday, August 26, 2021
Determination. Most readers will cheer the people that Michael Lewis presents in his book titled, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story. Through sheer determination and twisting in and around bureaucracy, we learn about the important part played by different people in mitigating risk during the pandemic. We meet people with expertise and passion for their work, and we learn about the importance of a high school science fair project on public policy recommendations for the United States. Through the fine writing to which fans have become accustomed, Michael Lewis digs into something and finds fascinating people and follows a subject where those people lead him. The result is a book structured around people most readers never heard of, but whose determination and talent saved countless lives during a significant crisis. I’m still cheering them. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Premonition from amazon.com.
Mirror. Readers have the chance to appreciate a previously unpublished novel by the late Richard Wright titled, The Man Who Lived Underground. Written in the 1940s, and rejected for publication, this novel offers a mirror of that time with our own. A Black man has been forced violently to confess to a crime he didn’t commit. He flees from custody into the sewers where he finds and gathers treasures. We feel the confusion of this protagonist and his struggle with life and injustice. Wright draws us into his plight and relates the story with such clarity that our anger builds as the story progresses. Then there’s residual anger about the forces that restricted publication of this novel when it was written. Finally, there are all the feelings about what has and has not changed in the United States from the 1940s to the present. Read this reminder of Wright’s prodigious talent for his own time and ours. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Man Who Lived Underground from amazon.com.
Ranting. I learned some things about the Trump family last year when I read Mary Trump’s book titled, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man. Mary Trump is back with a book titled, The Reckoning: Our Nation's Trauma and Finding a Way to Heal, and I finished reading it and felt I hadn’t really learned anything, and that I spent too long listening to someone’s rant. While she brought an insider’s perspective to the first book, in the current one her voice has as much expertise as one can hear from any stool in the neighborhood bar. She diagnoses the state of America as being in trauma, and that may be true, but I couldn’t see what evidence she provides to support that diagnosis. I think of trauma as an individual thing, not societal, so I was curious to hear what she had to say. I’ve heard. Next. Rating: Two-star (I didn’t like it) Click here to purchase The Reckoning from amazon.com.
Disappearance. The disappearance of 22-year-old protagonist Winnie provides the main structure of Violet Kupersmith’s debut novel titled, Build Your House Around My Body. Winnie left the United States in 2010 to teach English in Vietnam and reconnect with that part of her heritage. Like the snakes that play prominent roles in this novel, Winnie wants to shed her current mixed-ethnic skin and become truly herself. Kupersmith’s prose is finely written and will please those readers who love literary fiction. The supernatural elements of the novel will appeal to those readers who enjoy a certain creepiness and otherworldly components in fiction. The story will likely appeal to any reader who loves folklore and appreciates a well-told tale. I was delighted by the skill with which Kupersmith tied all the pieces together. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Build Your House Around My Body from amazon.com.
Trio. I find that when I reader Michael Pollan’s books, I begin to modify the way I think about some things that he explores. In his book titled, This Is Your Mind on Plants, Pollan offers perspectives on three plants: opium, caffeine and mescaline, and the ways in which those plants interact with human bodies and minds. We learn some history from Pollan, a lot of biology, much about the mind and drug policy. While I confess to have been jacked up as usual on my drug of choice while I read this book sipping tea and coffee, most readers can enjoy it while on none, any, or all the trio of plants explored in the book. I plan to stick with just the caffeine, thanks. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase This Is Your Mind on Plants from amazon.com.
Slapstick. Don’t let summer pass you by without reading a funny book for which you don’t need to engage many parts of your brain. One to consider is Jesse Q. Sutanto’s novel titled, Dial A for Aunties. After protagonist Meddelin Chan gets herself in a pickle, her mother gathers her sisters to get Meddie out of her predicament. The slapstick hijinks that follow provide great humor, and by the time Sutanto turns from comedy to romance, most readers are prepared to smile toward a happy ending for all. I read this novel in one sultry afternoon outdoors, and I felt the heat and humidity drift away as I relaxed with the story. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Dial A for Aunties from amazon.com.
Sources. Washington Post journalists Carol D. Leonnig and Philip Rucker have written a follow up to their book titled, A Very Stable Genius, that recounted the first three years of the Trump Presidency. They deliver their accounting of Trump’s final year in their book titled, I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year. The subtitle summarizes their assessment with a single adjective. The book includes their own reporting from that final year, and with some brief distance from their daily reporting at the time, they place events in more context for this volume and offer a long and readable narrative about that last year. I marveled at the extent of their sources, their clear access to those people who were present for what was done behind closed doors. Unlike for their earlier book, this time President Trump agreed to an interview, and he spent hours with the reporters, which they describe in detail for readers. Readers interested in public affairs are those most likely to enjoy this account of very recent history. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase I Alone Can Fix It from amazon.com.
Patience. Most Americans focus on family and work and assume that our elected officials and business leaders look out for the interests of the whole country in performing their managerial roles. Meanwhile some Americans have played a long game in shifting the playing field in favor of a few over the many. That’s the analysis Kurt Andersen provides in his book titled, Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America. A variety of patient operatives in business, government, law, and academics have nudged changes in public policy in ways that improve outcomes for a few and have placed heavy burdens on middle class workers whose relative incomes have been frozen for a long time. Andersen connects dots from about 1970 to the present to show the gradual transformation of American life by patient oligarchs. Beneficiaries of this shift of wealth away from workers and toward owners may not like the messages in this book, but those readers concerned about the decline of the middle class will come away from this book with an understanding of how this has been accomplished so far and what might be done to turn the situation around. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Evil Geniuses from amazon.com.
Linguistics. All word lovers will enjoy reading about the evolution of profane expression described by linguist John McWhorter in his book titled, Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever. While reading this entertaining and interesting book I fondly remembered listening to the late poet John Ciardi’s reflections on etymology during NPR’s Morning Edition. Using similar expertise and good writing, McWhorter presents readers with an enjoyable book about how language changes over time, and how our choice of the right profanity also changes when we want to make a verbal point. Before releasing your next epithet, be sure to read this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Nine Nasty Words from amazon.com.
Mismanagement. I found myself angry after reading Carol Leonnig’s informative book titled, Zero Fail: The Rise and Fall of the Secret Service. While mistakes in protection often led to improvements in procedure, a toxic culture meant repeated mismanagement by successive leaders. Those trying to harm public figures can fail multiple times, but civil servants in roles of protection must get it right every minute of every day. The record of the United States Secret Service as reported in this book reflects an organization in grievous need of repair. Leonnig chronicles the whole situation with great skill. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Zero Fail from amazon.com.
Thursday, August 19, 2021
Interpreting. Over the course of 240 pages in her novel titled, Intimacies, Katie Kitamura presents an unnamed everywoman as she struggles to interpret meaning for her life while she interprets language in her translating job at The Hague. The need to interpret in both her work life and personal life add to the daily burdens of this fascinating character who also grieves the recent death of her father. We watch as the interpreter narrows her focus and misses much of what is important around her. At the same time, we find that turning away from larger troubles can open a capacity for intimacy. As we read this book, we’re likely to shut out other distractions and feel an intimacy of our own with this finely written novel as we try to figure out what is going on in our world and how we find our place there. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Intimacies from amazon.com.
Tribute. Musician Michelle Zauner’s memoir titled, Crying in H Mart, offers tribute to her late mother as she explores their relationship and relates the journey through her mother’s fatal illness. Readers dealing with grief of any sort will find this book analogous to one’s own story. Readers who have ever been told they are not enough of something will recognize Zauner’s struggle of being perceived as not Korean enough. All readers will find a heartfelt story that speaks to the special relationship between a mother and a daughter. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Crying in H Mart from amazon.com.
Racism. The protagonist of Zakiya Dalila Harris’ debut novel titled, The Other Black Girl, works as an editorial assistant at prestigious publisher Wagner Books. Twenty-six-year-old Nella Rogers feels a heavy burden in the workplace as the sole Black employee and she’s frustrated that there’s little appetite among her bosses and coworkers for eliminating the forms of racism she experiences on the job. Harris disrupts the status quo by adding another young Black woman to the workplace mix. Hazel makes an immediate impact at Wagner, but Nella finds herself torn on whether the situation is better or worse for her own career. The plot is thrilling, and the satire is sharp. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Other Black Girl from amazon.com.
Alienation. The title of Christina McDowell’s debut novel, The Cave Dwellers, refers to a self-described appellation for Washington D.C.’s wealthiest and longest residents. While many others come and go from Washington, especially politicians, the cave dwellers remain as a form of aristocracy holding up the standards of society. McDowell grew up in that environment and suffered a great fall from the lofty place of her childhood. That experience informed her fictional approach to the alienation and changing times being faced by the cave dwellers. She explores class and race, exploitation, and privilege, and gives us a cast of characters, young and old, who are trying to navigate through a changed world. Part satire and part tragedy, McDowell draws attention to what morality means for our time. Much of the narrative is overwrought and characters are sometimes stereotypes, but anyone who has spent time living in DC or observing the upper echelons of the local society will recognize all the types that McDowell presents in this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Cave Dwellers from amazon.com.
Missing. Fans of recurring protagonist Tom Thorne may feel a bit of whiplash as the seventeenth installment by Mark Billingham, a novel titled, Cry Baby, takes us back to 1996. Close readers will see this as a prequel to the debut novel, Sleepyhead. Whether this is the first Tom Thorne novel for you or if you’d read them all, you’ll find in this installment a talented detective in the middle of an interesting case involving a missing young boy. Tension builds after others connected to the boy are killed. Fans of detective fiction will love the dead ends and twists in the story, and by the time you’ve guessed with confidence what happened to the missing boy, you will be well on your way to finishing off an entertaining book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Cry Baby from amazon.com.
Multiverse. I thoroughly enjoyed Max Barry’s exploration of the multiverse in his novel titled, The 22 Murders of Madison May. We follow the same cast of characters in slightly altered universes in which the same dynamics play out multiple times. Readers already know that character Madison May is murdered multiple times. Journalist Felicity Staples becomes caught up in a crime story and then tries to stop the recurring psychopath from killing May. The small details about the alterations that Felicity finds as she enters a different world add to the richness of the story. What could have become repetitive turns out to be richer with each version. Fans of thrillers who can tolerate some science fiction components are those readers most likely to enjoy this entertaining novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The 22 Murders of Madison May from amazon.com.
Eden. In the near future presented in Michael Kaufman’s novel titled, The Last Exit, the superrich have secured their future by taking a longevity drug, while an epidemic of encephalitis hastens premature death for average people. Parents who choose euthanasia before they turn 65 can make their children eligible for the miracle drug to ensure longevity for them. Protagonist Jen Lu works on the elder abuse unit of the D.C. police department, and her investigations lead her toward a secret drug called Eden which seems to be causing premature aging and death. The characters in this novel are well drawn, the plot twists entertaining, and the subject fascinating. Most of all, Jen Lu is a compelling individual who’s likely to appear in future Kaufman novels. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Last Exit from amazon.com.
Homesick. I’m sorry to report that I had consumed the last two fingers of Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve in my only bottle of this prized bourbon weeks before I read Wright Thompson’s book titled, Pappyland: A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon, and the Things That Last. Thompson presents the story of Julian Van Winkle III, the third-generation head of the family’s bourbon business. Like Julian, I found myself homesick for the taste I tried hard to remember of this special drink. What Julian did about it was to try his very best to replicate the taste as he remembered it from the produce distilled during his grandfather’s time. You don’t have to be a bourbon lover to enjoy this book, because thanks to Thompson’s fine writing, the incorporation of himself in the story, and his relationship with Julian, this book speaks to any reader about home and family and that sweet taste that we want to endure. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Pappyland from amazon.com.
Repetition. I was hesitant to read Michael Wolff’s third book about the Trump presidency titled, Landslide: The Final Days of the Trump Presidency. The two earlier books just seemed to dish dirt, and I didn’t want to waste time spent in the muck. In a weak moment, I picked up this third offering, and I’m glad I did. Thanks to his many sources, Wolff helps us understand what happened during the time from the presidential election on November 3, 2020, and the peaceful transition of power on January 20, 2021. Thanks to this book, I finally understood the core of the Trump schtick: repeat something continuously and sooner or later a lot of people will believe that it is true. While there’s still plenty of dirt dishing in this book, there’s also insight into how close we came to a crisis because of the unrelenting repetition of lies and the pressure to do what Trump wanted done. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Landslide from amazon.com.
Syd. Judith O’Reilly takes a trope we think has been exhausted and she finds a new way to engage readers with her thriller novel titled, Curse the Day. A tech genius named Tobias Hawke has made a breakthrough in A.I. with a machine learning device named Syd. If Syd acquires consciousness, what will Syd do, especially to humans? This technothriller pops with action from the first exciting page, and the intensity never breaks. The cast of characters provide great interest to readers and the pace will excite all those who love this genre. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Curse the Day from amazon.com.
Thursday, August 5, 2021
Identity. Forget for a moment that Ben Rhodes worked in the Obama White House, and approach his book titled, After the Fall: Being American in the World We've Made, with an open mind. Rhodes tells compelling stories in this book as he travels across the world. Rhodes writes with great skill as he tells his own story, examines American identity from multiple perspectives, and tells stories about the strengthening of authoritarianism in Russia, Hungary and China. Introspection can lead to insight that can encourage change. Rhodes has no policy proposals in this book or cures for what ails us. He presents a view of American identity and the direction of changes throughout the world and encourages us to find patterns and insight. Change will be up to us, should we find the situation as gloomy as Rhodes see things. Rhodes knows how to turn a phrase and tell a story, so read this account whether you agree with his assessment of world affairs or not. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase After the Fall from amazon.com.
Notebook. Fans of innovative or experimental fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy Brenda Lozano’s novel titled, Loop. Structured as a woman’s diary or notebook, we find the narrator riffing from one thought to another. We learn that her boyfriend has left Mexico for Spain and she feels his absence acutely. We learn that she continues to recover from a serious accident. We search with her for the perfect notebook. We join her in a world of ideas. We pursue curiosities. Mostly, we wait with her for the return of her beloved and share her notes in the meantime. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Loop from amazon.com.
Wedding. The twelfth Bess Crawford mystery by the mother and son writing team called Charles Todd is a novel titled, An Irish Hostage. The First World War has ended, and Bess faces an uncertain future. She has agreed to attend the wedding of fellow nurse Eileen Flynn that’s taking place in the small Irish village where Eileen grew up. There’s peril in Ireland in this time after the Easter Rising in 1916 for the English, and for all who fought with the English in the war. The complex plot and ongoing suspense will delight all fans of this series, as well as any reader who enjoys mystery novels. It’s no spoiler to report that Bess is no closer to making decisions about her future at the end of this novel than she was at the beginning. Will there be big changes for Bess in the next installment? Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase An Irish Hostage from amazon.com.
Poems. I couldn’t recall the last time I read poetry by the prolific author Joyce Carol Oates, so I savored her book titled, American Melancholy, her first poetry collection in a quarter-century. I found myself early in the morning, reading a poem or two once twice silently, and then once aloud to hear the language proclaimed. What readers find in this collection is an eclectic mix of observations and reflections into the essence of a thought or feeling filtered by a very talented artist. I’ve been trying to read more poetry this year, and I found this collection to be a great pleasure. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase American Melancholy from amazon.com.
Virtue. Spend a little time reading retired Admiral William H. McRaven’s book titled, The Hero Code: Lessons Learned from Lives Well Lived, and reflect about it for a long time. Every culture develops distinctive mores, that combination of norms and behaviors that are viewed as acceptable. When mores breakdown communities become divided. McRaven proposes in this book the behaviors practiced by those models of the best behavior in our culture, those who are called heroes. The individual heroes who helped McRaven see these lessons are all ordinary people, just like us, so there’s an inspirational quality to this narrative that encourages us to emulate certain behaviors. Perhaps from his military perspective, the word “code” described these behaviors as he sees them. I consider the behaviors he describes more as virtues, and behaviors to which our better natures should always aspire. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Hero Code from amazon.com.
Healing. All the wounded characters in JoAnne Tompkins debut novel titled, What Comes After, learn that what must come after wounding is healing. Easier said than done when the wounds to parents involved the death of teenage sons. Some turning to life follows the loss of a loved one, so when a young pregnant girl arrives in the lives of the neighbors who both lost their sons, healing and connection begins. As each parent turns inside to confront the loss and to understand with clear eyes the boys who are dead, they are connected to help this pregnant stranger through her struggle. Readers get a glimpse of Quaker spirituality in this novel, and a delightful dog named Rufus who helps with all the healing as every good dog is prone to do. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase What Comes After from amazon.com.
Truth. The eight stories in the collection by John Lanchester titled, Reality and Other Stories, capture the mood of our time when truth and reality can seem flexible. We’re often disconnected from life each day and distracted by the alerts on our devices more than being present in time and place. Lanchester explores the uneasiness we feel as we navigate with our devices and still experience stuff in real life. There’s fun at play in this examination of some dark parts of contemporary life. Most readers will find something to like in each of these stories. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Reality and Other Stories from amazon.com.
Miracle. The latest novel by Ken Bruen featuring protagonist and private eye Jack Taylor is titled, A Galway Epiphany. This time out, Jack leaves his quiet country life for a day in Galway. A truck hits Jack and he spends three weeks in hospital in a coma. When he awakens, he learns that the whole country has heard his story because people believe two children who tended to him just after the accident are saints, and his health is the result of a miracle. Skeptics have asked Jack to find the children so the miracle can either be verified or some other truth can be discovered. What follows is Jack Taylor at his very best, to the delight of fans of this series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Galway Epiphany from amazon.com.
Panama. The twelfth installment in the Clive Cussler franchise featuring detective Isaac Bell is a novel titled, The Saboteurs. Most of the action in the novel takes place at the site where the Panama Canal is under construction in the early part of the 20th century. As usual with this series, the pacing is brisk, the heroes and villains are well matched, and Isaac succeeds in completing his mission against tough odds. Fans of this series are those readers most likely to enjoy this romp in Panama. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Saboteurs from amazon.com.
Wit. Here’s a tip to enjoy reading Elinor Lipman’s witty novel titled, Rachel to the Rescue: put Trump in the background and let protagonist Rachel plow ahead with her own antics. That approach led me to relax and laugh as Rachel works in the White House office of records management taping back together papers that the president had ripped up. I laughed at the consequential reply all e-mail that has happened to many office workers. As Rachel experiences growing up while older adults remain juvenile readers will enjoy the humor of the novel and likely feel affection for Rachel, who is the star of this funny novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Rachel to the Rescue from amazon.com.