My daughter Cynthia Besteman gave us the excellent “The Cold Millions,” by Jess Walter, which just won the Washington State Book Award for Fiction. Set primarily in early twentieth-century Spokane, it tells of the orphaned Dolan brothers who live by their wits, jumping freight trains and lining up for day work at crooked job agencies. While 16-year-old Rye yearns for a steady job and a home, his older brother, Gig, dreams of a better world, fighting alongside the other union men for fair pay and decent treatment. Enter Ursula the Great, a vaudeville singer who performs with a live cougar and introduces the brothers to a far more dangerous creature: a mining magnate named Lem Brand who is determined to keep his wealth and his hold on Ursula. Dubious of Gig’s idealism, Rye finds himself drawn to a fearless nineteen-year-old activist and feminist named Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (a real person who played a leading role in the Industrial Workers of the World – the IWW, also known as the Wobblies – and was a founding member of the ACLU). But a storm is coming, threatening to overwhelm them all, and Rye will be forced to decide where he stands. Is it enough to win the occasional battle, even if you cannot win the war? The story eerily echoes our own time in its portrait of a nation grappling with the chasm between rich and poor, between harsh realities and simple dreams, with a colorfully drawn cast of cops and tramps, suffragists and socialists, madams and murderers. I learned that the IWW had started in Chicago in 1905 and landed hard in Spokane, where seven freight and passenger lines converged in the busiest terminal west of Chicago, a kind of Tramp Central Station. When Rye encounters the wealthy Brand in his palatial mansion “he knew, and he would know the next time he was curled up in a cold boxcar, that men lived like this, that there was such a difference between Lem Brand and him that Brand should live here and Rye nowhere.” He thought about “all people, except this rich cream, living and scraping and fighting and dying, and for what, nothing, the cold millions with not a chance in this world.” Some things do not change, even a century later.
At first I couldn’t remember what had drawn me to “Missionaries,” by Phil Klay, a National Book Award-winning author and Iraq War veteran, but once I began reading I was quickly swept up in the power of Klay’s examination of the globalization of violence through the interlocking stories of four characters and the conflicts that define their lives. We are with a group of Colombian soldiers as they prepare to raid a drug lord’s safe house on the Venezuelan border, watching him with an American-made drone, about to strike using military tactics taught to them by U.S. soldiers who honed their skills to lethal perfection in Iraq. For a man named Mason, a U.S. Army special Forces medic, and Lisette, a foreign correspondent, America’s long post-9/11 wars in the Middle East have exerted a terrible hold that neither is able to shake. Where can such a person go next? All roads lead to Colombia, where the United States has partnered with the local government to keep predatory narco gangs at bay. Mason, now a liaison to the Colombian military, is ready for a “good” war, and Lisette is more than ready to cover it. Juan Pablo, a Colombian officer, must juggle managing the Americans’ presence and navigating a viper’s nest of factions bidding for power. Meanwhile, Abel, a lieutenant in a local militia, has lost almost everything in the seemingly endless carnage of his home province, where the lines between drug cartels, militias, and the state are semi-permeable. Klay has written a novel of geopolitical suspense that is a window into not only modern war but also the individual lives that go on long after the drones have left the skies. He is a terrific storyteller, and I went from not sure I was interested in reading more about wars to not being able to put the book down. Here’s Lisette on reporting from Colombia: “All the reported facts in the world shrivel up and die in the presence of universal indifference. People don’t even read about Afghanistan, where they are least sort of know there’s a war going on, and you think doing spade work in Colombia is going to make a difference to anyone? Excuse me for not wanting to shovel words into a hole until I die.” This is a war novel unlike any others I’ve read, one that is vividly filled with the impact of organized and persistent violence on individual lives. Most of us are far removed from the wars in which our country plays a major part, but Klay sets us down right in the middle of them.
“Metropolitan Stories,” a fanciful love letter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Christine Coulson, who worked there for more than 25 years, takes us behind the scenes to show us the Met the public doesn’t see. Hidden behind the Picassos and the Vermeers, the Temple of Dendur and the American wing, exists another world: the hallways and offices, conservation studios, storerooms, and cafeteria that are home to the museum’s devoted and peculiar staff of 2200 people – along with a few ghosts. The book unfolds in a series of amusing and poignant vignettes in which we discover larger-than-life characters, the downside of survival, and the powerful voices of the art itself. The novel is filled with irreverent humor, magic and detail, but it is also a beautiful story of introspection, an ode to lives lived for art, ultimately building a collage of human experience and the world of the imagination. Here’s an exchange between Radish, a security guard, and his girlfriend, Maira, alsoa guard, when Radish asks, “Have you ever felt like the objects are kind of, well, reaching out to you? Like when you look at something in the museum, you feel something, well, beyond what you would normally know?” Maira, skeptically, “For example?” “Well, do you ever get cold near the Washington Crossing the Delaware paining? Or feel a breeze near that 18th century Indian watercolor of the huge bat in the Islamic Galleries, like it’s flapping its wings?” “No, Henry, I don’t,” she smirked, “And you sound like a fucking lunatic.” He didn’t mention he could also hear the complaints of the boys in Washington’s boat as they crossed the Delaware: “This was a crap idea,” the soldiers grumbled as Radish shivered. In the wake of Maira’s bite, he knew his insecurity could be recalibrated with Bronzino’s 16th century “Portrait of a Young Man.” Its direct stare and mild condescension filled Radish with renewed swagger, like a houseplant freshly watered. One character thinks of the Medieval Hall as “a cool cave at the building’s center, like the lungs of a giant whale. The arches that punctuated its sides seemed to form a ribcage stretched wide to contain some ancient breath it had pulled in long ago and held steadily.” He thought about the museum inhaling so much of the world – “all that history, all that spiritual juice, all the passions and laments of each visitor – without really exhaling. He regarded the stone-clad walls as somehow porous, allowing the particles of time to soak needily into their surfaces.” If you treasure the Met – or, actually, any fine art museum – you’ll appreciate this original gem of a novel.
If you love words and quirky but charming stories, “The Liar’s Dictionary,” by Eley Williams, is the book for you. It is 1899, and Peter Winceworth is toiling away at the letter “S” for Swansby’s multivolume Encyclopaedic Dictionary. Increasingly uneasy that his colleagues are attempting to corral language and regiment facts, Winceworth feels compelled to assert some sense of individual purpose and artistic freedom, and begins inserting unauthorized, fictitious entries into the dictionary. (Mountweazel (n.), the phenomenon of false entries within dictionaries and works of reference. Often used as a safeguard against copyright infringement.) In the present day, Mallory, a young intern employed by the publisher, must uncover these mountweazels before the work is digitized for modern readers. “Think of it this way, David Stansby said: If you were compiling a dictionary, it would be very easy to purloin another person’s work and pass it off as your own since words are words are words, etc, etc. But if they made up a word and put it in their text and then saw that it had bobbed up in your pages, they’d know you copied their stuff.” Through the fake words and their definitions, she begins to sense their creator’s motivations, hopes, and desires. More pressingly, she also has to contend with threatening phone calls from an anonymous caller. Is the change in the definition of marriage (n.) really that controversial? And does the caller truly intend for the Swansby’s staff to “burn in hell”? As these two narratives combine, Winceworth and Mallory, separated by 100 years, must discover how to negotiate the complexities of the often untrustworthy, hoax-strewn, and undefinable path called life. It took me a while to figure all this out, but the humor and playfulness and originality – and of course the clever wordplay – made the effort well worth it.
Rohinton Mistry is the author of one of my all-time favorite books, “A Fine Balance,” so I was happy to come across “Such a Long Journey,” published in 1991, a wonderfully evocative story about a family man in 1971 India who experiences a political scandal firsthand. Set during the Indira Gandhi years, at the time of India’s war with Pakistan over Bangladesh, it convincingly dramatizes how an honest but naïve man can be compromised by events he doesn’t understand. Gustad Noble is a bank clerk faced with an assortment of family problems – an inexplicable low-grade illness of his daughter Roshan; a son, Sohrab, who wins a college scholarship but refuses to accept it; and a nostalgic dream for a mythical golden age. Having been to India, I found Mistry’s descriptions spot on – like this one about the main intersection of Flora Fountain, where the great traffic circle radiated five roads like giant pulsating tentacles. “Intrepid handcarts, fueled by muscle and bone, completed temerariously against the best that steel, petrol and vulcanized rubber threw in their paths. With the dead fountain at its still centre, the traffic circle lay like a great motionless wheel, while around it whirled the business of the city on its buzzing, humming, honking, complaining, screeching, ratting, banging, screaming, throbbing, rumbling, grumbling sighing, never-ending journey through the metropolis.” Instances of domestic humor and travail give way to undercover intrigue when Major Bilimoria, an old friend who works for Gandhi’s secret police, recruits Noble to receive mysterious parcels and deposit sums of money (under a false name) in the bank where he works. Scandal erupts, throwing Noble’s world into disarray and revealing gross governmental corruption. With the war to “liberate” Bangladesh in the background, this is an engrossing look at India in a time of upheaval. I loved the writing and was totally caught up in the story.
Betty Colwell sang the praises of “Shoe Dog,” the memoir by Nike co-founder Phil Knight, and she was so right! Fresh out of business school, Knight borrowed fifty dollars from his father and launched a company with one simple mission: import high-quality, low-cost running shoes from Japan. Selling the shoes from the trunk of his Plymouth Valiant, Knight grossed eight thousand dollars that first year, 1964. Today, Nike’s annual sales top $30 billion. In this age of start-ups, Knight’s Nike is the gold standard, and its swoosh is more than a logo – it’s one of the few icons instantly recognized in every corner of the world. Knight himself, however, has always been a mystery – until now, in this thoroughly entertaining, funny, unfiltered, and beautifully told story. It begins with a classic crossroads moment. Twenty-four years old, backpacking through Asia and Europe and Africa, wrestling with life’s Great Questions, Knight decides the unconventional path is the only one for him. Rather than work for a big corporation, he will create something all his own, something new, dynamic, different. He candidly details the terrifying risks he encountered along the way, the crushing setbacks, the ruthless competitors, the countless doubters and haters and hostile bankers – as well as his many thrilling triumphs and narrow escapes. Above all, he recounts the foundational relationships that formed the heart and soul of Nike, with his former track coach, the irascible and charismatic Bill Bowerman, and with his first employees, a ragtag group of misfits and savants who quickly became a band of swoosh-crossed brothers. Believing in the redemptive, transforming power of sports, they created a brand and a culture that changed everything. One of the things I found most impressive about this book as I was swept up in the story is that even though we readers know perfectly well that Knight’s enterprise would ultimately be fabulously successful, he is able to make us feel the suspense of the many setbacks he encountered along the way as he begged and borrowed from reluctant banks and constantly feared his business could fail. This is a terrific memoir.
My daughter Catherine Besteman, Professor of Anthropology at Colby College, is the coordinator for Freedom & Captivity, a state-wide public humanities initiative in Maine this fall to bring critical perspectives from the humanities to the interrogation of incarceration. She suggested I read “Until We Reckon: Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair,” by Danielle Sered, and it is an eye-opener. Sered envisioned, launched, and directs Brooklyn-based Common Justice, one of the few organizations offering alternatives to incarceration for people who commit serious violent crime, which has produced immensely promising results. Although over half the people incarcerated in America today have committed violent offenses, the focus of reform has been almost entirely on nonviolent and drug offenses. This book offers approaches that will help end mass incarceration and increase safety. Sared asks us to reconsider the purposes of incarceration and argues that the needs of survivors of violent crime and their communities are better met by asking people who commit violence to take responsibility for their actions and make amends in ways that are meaningful to those who have been hurt – none of which happens in the context of a criminal trial or a prison sentence. She states that one thing is certain about the problem of violence: we will never solve it through incarceration, in part because incarceration is an inadequate and often counterproductive tool to transform those who have committed violence or protect those who have been harmed, a message being sounded not only by justice reformers, but by crime survivors as well. As she says, “If incarceration worked to secure safety, we would be the safest nation in all of human history,” because in all the world and all recorded time, no country has locked up their own people at the rate we do. The United States has nearly 5 percent of the world’s population and nearly 25 percent of its incarcerated people. More than 2.3 million people are behind bars on any given day – and the number of black people incarcerated or under correctional control exceeds the total number of adults enslaved nationwide in 1861. This review would go on forever if I included all the information and observations I made notes about, but suffice it to say that all of this comes at great cost. In addition to the deprivation of their freedom, people who are incarcerated are likely to endure violence, mental distress, trauma, even suicide. When they return home from prison, they face enormous barriers to securing safe housing, obtaining and retaining employment that pays a living wage, accessing medical care, voting and serving on juries, obtaining an education, reconnecting with their families, and meeting their basic needs. Each of these barriers makes a person more likely to commit and to experience harm. Their families also pay a price, both while they are incarcerated and when they come home. There’s also the financial cost – incarceration is extraordinarily expensive. Over the past three decades, state and local government expenditures on jails and prisons have increased roughly three times as fast as spending on elementary and secondary education. One of the only things we spend more on than prisons is war. Here is Seder: “It is worthwhile to revisit the four-part test that any approach to violence should pass: it should be survivor-centered, accountability-based, safety-driven, and racially equitable. People who are hurt deserve a process that will help them heal. All of us deserve responses to crime that make us safer. Those responses must be equitably available. The promise of restorative justice can be understood through each of these four principles.” The criminal justice system white people built has four main functions: control (in the form of policing); punishment (in forms ranging from fines to imprisonment); exile (in the form of incarceration); and extermination (in the form of executions). This way of being is a recipe for mass incarceration, and also a recipe for violence, as it assumes that behavior is shaped by power and control rather than connection and responsibility. It certainly does not meet Seder’s four-part test. I think anyone who reads about this revolutionary, sensible, and more humane approach to incarceration that diverts violent criminals from the prison system while at the same time helping victims to heal will understand its potential to keep us all safer.
“Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir,” by Natasha Trethewey, a former US Poet Laureate, is the moving, deeply personal memoir of a daughter reckoning with the brutal murder of her mother. At age nineteen, Trethewey had her world turned upside down when her former stepfather shot and killed her mother. Grieving and still new to adulthood, she confronted her life in the aftermath of unimaginable trauma, and now investigates the way this experience lastingly shaped the artist she became in a brief novel that reads like a detective story. Moving through her mother’s history in the deeply segregated South through her own girlhood as a “child of miscegenation” in Mississippi, Trethewey plumbs her sense of dislocation and displacement in the lead-up to the harrowing crime that took place on Memorial Drive in Atlanta in 1985. The writing by this Pulitzer Prize-winning poet is both sorrowful and powerful, and her heartbreaking story is one that will stay with you.
As someone who has actually always enjoyed exercising, I was eager to read “Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding,” by Daniel E. Lieberman. If it’s so healthy and good for us, why do many people dislike or avoid it, he asks, and if we are born to walk and run, why do most of us take it easy whenever possible? In this myth-busting book, Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard and a pioneering researcher on the evolution of human physical activity, tells the story of how we evolved to walk, run, dig, and do other necessary and rewarding physical activities while avoiding needless exertion rather than to do voluntary physical activity for the sake of health. His engaging stories and explanations change the way we think about exercising – not to mention sitting, sleeping, sprinting, weightlifting, playing, fighting, walking, jogging, and even dancing. As our increasingly sedentary lifestyles have contributed to skyrocketing rates of obesity and diseases such as diabetes, Lieberman argues that to become more active we need to do more than medicalize and commodify exercise. He suggests how we can make exercise more enjoyable, rather than shaming and blaming people for avoiding it. After an introductory chapter, the book has four parts. Part 1 begins with physical inactivity – what are our bodies doing when we take it easy, including when we sit and sleep? Part 2 explores physical activities that require speed, strength, and power, while Part 3 surveys physical activities that involve endurance, as well as their effect on aging. Part 4 considers how anthropological and evolutionary approaches can help us exercise better in the modern world. Remember Jack LaLanne (who lived to 96)? He liked to say, “People don’t die of old age, they die of inactivity.” This book affirms exactly that. Lieberman also points out that regular physical activity has multiple therapeutic effects we may not have thought of – it alters brain chemistry, enhances electrical activity, and improves brain structure, as well as lowering overall reactivity to stressful situations, improving sleep and getting people outside and in social groups. Here’s how he sums it all up – “Make exercise necessary and fun. Do mostly cardio, but also some weights. Some is better than none. Keep it up as you age.” When you finish this book, you’ll want to immediately go on a walk or head to the gym – and you’ll feel great about it!
Mysteries: I have enjoyed the atmospheric mysteries by Jane Harper set in the Australian outback. In “The Surivivors” we move to a small town in Tasmania, where Kieran Elliott’s life changed forever on the day a reckless mistake led to devastating consequences. When a body is discovered on the beach, long-held secrets threaten to emerge and upend everyone’s perceptions of that long-ago tragedy. My brother Bob Pike likes Deon Meyer’s mysteries set in Cape Town, and now that I’ve read “Icarus” I agree. A photographer discovers a plastic-wrapped corpse amidst the sand dunes north of Cape Town, which turns out to be that of Ernst Richter, the tech whiz founder of Alibi, an Internet service that provides unfaithful partners with sophisticated cover stories to hide their affairs. Assigned to the case is Captain Benny Griessel, experienced and savvy but struggling to retain his sobriety. Filled with rich characters – including both the detectives and the suspects, who have multiple motives for murder – and involving us in South Africa’s famed vineyards, this contemporary police procedural is a treat. When trauma enters your household, there’s nothing like a gripping thriller to take your mind off things, and that’s what “Island of Thieves,” by Glen Erik Hamilton, set mainly in Seattle and the San Juan Islands, did for me. When his new security gig turns into a setup, expert thief Van Shaw finds himself the prey in a cross-country pursuit. If you like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, you’ll also become a fan of the indomitable and complex Shaw, an ex-Army Ranger with a dark streak.
Abibliophobia -the fear of running out of books to read.