All About Books

December

Fiction:

“Interior Chinatown,” by Charles Yu, winner of the 2020 National Book Award for fiction, is a send-up of Asian stereotypes and of Hollywood that stunned me by its brilliance.  The book posits that we are reading a teleplay about Chinatown, specifically the Golden Palace restaurant, which is the setting for a cop show in perpetual production called “Black and White.”  Willis Wu, who has a small part in the show, doesn’t perceive himself as a protagonist even in his own life:  he’s merely Generic Asian Man.  Sometimes he gets to be Background Oriental Man Making a Weird Face or even Disgraced Son, but he is always relegated to a prop.  Yet every day he leaves his tiny room in a Chinatown SRO (single room occupancy) and enters the restaurant, where he dreams of being Kung Fu Guy – the most respected role that anyone who looks like him can attain.  At least that’s what he has been told, time and time again – except by one person, his mother, who says to him:  Be more.  Cleverly written like a teleplay, the book is both darkly hilarious and devastating in its treatment of Hollywood’s penchant for promoting cliches about Asians and Asian-Americans, and you will find yourself laughing and grimacing at the same time.  Wu is a remarkable writer.

“A Burning,” by Megha Majumdar, is a gripping debut novel about the ripple effects of our choices and how we are interconnected with what can sometimes be devastating consequences.  Its characters seek to rise – to middle class, to political power, to fame in the movies – and find their lives entangled in the wake of a catastrophe in contemporary India.  The premise is horrifyingly plausible in a country where lynchings are on the rise and a new citizenship law enshrines discrimination against Muslims.  Jivan is a Muslim girl from the slums, determined to move up in life, who is accused of executing a terrorist attack on a train because of a careless comment she posted on Facebook after witnessing a group of men torch a stalled train, killing almost 100 people, while the police looked on. “If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?” P T Sir is an opportunistic gym teacher who hitches his aspirations to a right-wing political party and finds that his own ascent depends on Jivan’s fall.  Lovely – an irresistible hijra (a third gender recognized in India) outcast whose exuberant voice and dreams of Bollywood glory fill the novel with warmth and hope and humor – has the alibi that can set Jivan free, but it will cost her everything she holds dear.  The novel moves from the perspective of one character to the next, each of whom knows something the others cannot, with the components of a thriller; class, fate, corruption, justice, and what it feels like to face profound obstacles and yet nurture aspirations in a country spinning toward extremism.  Majumdar is a powerful writer who vividly evokes the lives of these characters and the injustices they suffer – misogyny, police brutality, the lack of access to clean water, the enforced poverty of the hijra community – bringing us to an ending that is both horrific and seemingly inevitable.

Simone Weil said “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him, ‘What are you going through?’”  That is the title of Sigrid Nunez’s latest book about the meaning of life and death, and the value of companionship.  A woman describes a series of encounters she has with various people in the ordinary course of her life.  Some are people she knows well; others are total strangers.  In each of them, she finds a common need: the urge to talk about themselves and to have an audience to their experiences – “Be kind, because everyone you meet is going through a struggle.”  The narrator, an unmarried, unnamed, childless writer, then agrees to a difficult and startling request from an old but not particularly close writer friend who is dying of cancer:  To help her die.  Specifically, to go away with her and stay until she is ready to take the euthanasia pills that will end her life.  “I will not go out in mortifying anguish,” the friend insists, adding, “Cancer can’t get me if I get it first.”   This is a book that makes you pause and think, about yourself and those you care about and the meaning of your life.  Of your life.  

Non-Fiction:

Chuck Sitkin highly recommended “Homo Deus:  A Brief History of Tomorrow,” by Yuval Noah Harari, and Jack and I both thought it was provocative, compelling, and actually alarming, a terrific read.  Harai’s vision of tomorrow maintains that humanity will lose not only its dominance, but its very meaning.  Over the past century humankind has managed to do the impossible:  turn the uncontrollable forces of nature – famine, plague, and war – into manageable challenges.  We are the only species in history that has single-handedly changed the entire planet.  Homo Deus explores the projects, dreams, and nightmares that will shape the twenty-first century, from overcoming death to creating artificial life, goals that may ultimately render most human beings superfluous.  So, now what?  We cannot stop the march of history, but we can influence its direction.  We typically assume that tomorrow will look much like today, with amazing new technologies but with old humanist values like liberty and equality to guide us.  Homo Deus opens our eyes to a vast range of alternative possibilities for the next century, such as:  the main products will not be textiles, vehicles, and weapons, but bodies, brains, and minds; the next big industrial revolution will create not the working class but the useless class, the way we have treated animals is an indicator for how upgraded humans will treat us; democracy and the free market will both collapse and authority will shift from individual humans to networked algorithms; and humans won’t fight machines, they will merge with them.  The gap between those who get on board and those left behind will be larger than the gap between industrial empires and agrarian tribes, even larger than that between Sapiens and Neanderthals.  Thus, homo deus, “god man,” a potential next stage in human evolution.  Alarmed yet?  Let me share some quotes that have stayed with me.  “If our ancestors knew what tools and resources stand ready at our command, they would have surmised that we must be enjoying celestial tranquility, free of all cares and worries.  The truth is very different.  Despite all our achievements, we feel a constant pressure to do and produce even more.”  “The new projects of the twenty-first century – gaining immortality, bliss, divinity – also hope to serve the whole of humankind.  However, because these projects aim at surpassing rather than safeguarding the norm, they may well result in the creation of a new superhuman caste that will abandon its liberal roots and treat normal humans no better than nineteenth-century Europeans treated Africans.” “Humanism holds that experiences occur inside us, and that we ought to find within ourselves the meaning of all that happens, thereby infusing the universe with meaning.  Dataists believe that experiences are valueless if they are not shared, and that we need not – indeed cannot- find meaning within ourselves.  We need only connect our experiences to the great data flow, and the algorithms will discover their meaning and tell us what to do.”  Harari closes by saying that all the scenarios in this book should be understood as possibilities rather than prophecies, and that if we don’t like them we are welcome to think and behave in new ways that will prevent these particular possibilities from materializing.  That’s not easy, because our thoughts and actions are usually constrained by present-day ideologies and social systems.  He ends by listing three interlinked processes, which raise three key questions he wants to stick in our minds.  I know after reading all this, you’ll desperately want to know what they are.  Page 402.

In 2001, when 63-year-old Madeline Albright concluded her service as America’s first female secretary of state, she didn’t slow down.  This “turbocharged” woman launched a new career as an author, professor, businesswoman, speaker, and activist in support of democratic institutions and values – hard to believe she’s only a year and a half younger than I am!  In her latest book (her seventh), “Hell and Other Destinations,” she recounts how she has clashed with presidents and prime ministers, warned against the potential revival of Fascism, championed the cause of women everywhere, and labored relentlessly on behalf of people who lack the power to be heard.  A mother of three, she was 39 when she landed her first professional job.  “I had a late start,” she says, “but once I found my voice, I was determined not to shut up.  Every stage of my life should be more exciting than the last.”   In reading her book I became fascinated by the wit, zest for life, wisdom, and relevance of this blunt woman who describes herself as “an optimist who worries a lot.”  She seemsto have been everywhere, done everything, and met everyone, saying, “my remedy to the passage of time is to proceed ardently and headlong with what I care about.”  For example, the month she turned 80 she taught her course at Georgetown, chaired business meetings, testified before a U.S. Senate committee, participated in the search for a new CEO of the Aspen Institute, worked on her latest book, delivered the commencement address to her grandson’s high school class, hosted a dinner of foreign policy experts, presented an award bearing her name to a group of women activists from the Central African Republic, made a speech on diplomacy and faith, lobbied members of Congress to support the National Democratic Institute’s budget, and spoke at a conference convened in Dallas by the George W. Bush Presidential Library and another in Lisbon by the government of Portugal.  Each activity involves using her voice for a cause in which she believes.  “Until I am carried out, I will carry on.”  I hated to part from this witty and stimulating – if exhausting! – woman.

When I picked up my holds from the library, I thought “The Choice: Embrace the Possible,” a memoir by Dr. Edith Eva Eger, was a mistake, as it looked like a self-help book, something I generally avoid.  I was so wrong!  Once I started reading it, I was hooked to the end.  Internationally acclaimed Dr. Eger – one of the few remaining Holocaust survivors – tells her unforgettable story in a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of choice in our lives.  At sixteen, Eger, a trained ballet dancer and gymnast, was sent to Auschwitz.  Hours after her parents were killed, the “Angel of Death,” Dr. Josef Mengele, forced her to dance for his amusement – and her survival.  He rewarded her with a loaf of bread that she shared with her fellow prisoners, an act of generosity that would later save her life.  Edie and her sister survived multiple death camps and the Death March.  When American troops liberated the camps in 1945 they found Edie barely alive in a pile of corpses.  But what a life she lived after recovering!  While struggling with flashbacks and survivor’s guilt, determined to hide from the past, Edie married, raised a family, and studied and practiced psychology, always refusing to speak about her experiences during the war.  Thirty-five years after the war ended she returned to Auschwitz, where she was finally able to heal and forgive the one person she’d been unable to forgive for years – herself, for a reason we finally learn.   Now 93, Dr. Eger maintains a clinical practice in La Jolla, holds a faculty appointment at U.C. San Diego, and serves as a consultant for the US. Army and Navy in resilience training and the treatment of PTSD.  She is still dancing – and still ends her talks with a ballet high kick!  I know we’d all love to meet her.

Mysteries:  An unsolved murder case with an unidentified victim and a cold trail with few clues faces Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge in “A Divided Loyalty,” by Charles Todd.  A woman has been murdered at the foot of a megalith shaped like a great shrouded figure in Avebury, a village set inside a prehistoric stone circle not far from Stonehenge, and Rutledge is asked to take a second look after even Chief Inspector Brian Leslie, one of the yard’s best men, could make no progress.  Rutledge finally discovers an unexplained clue that seems to point toward an impossible solution – or does it?  It feels nostalgic to be back in post WWI days when finding a telephone somewhere in the village is a challenge.  Scott Turow’s legal thrillers are always a stimulating read.  In “The Last Trial,” Alejandro “Sandy” Stern, a brilliant defense lawyer in failing health at age 85 but intact in spirit, postpones his retirement to defend his old friend Dr. Kiril Pafko, a Nobel Prize winner in Medicine, when Pafko is charged with insider trading fraud and murder.  Stern probes beneath the surface of Pafko’s dazzling veneer as a distinguished cancer researcher and finds himself questioning everything he thought he knew about his friend.  In the courtroom, Stern’s duty to his client and his belief in the power of the judicial system both face a final terrible test.  It was fun to revisit Lord Peter Wimsey, English aristocrat and amateur sleuth featured in mysteries set in the 1920s by English crime writer and poet, Dorothy L Sayers.  Written in 1923, “Whose Body?” begins with a corpse in the bathtub, wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez spectacles.  Urged to investigate by his mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, Lord Peter quickly ascertains that the sudden disappearance of a well-known financier is in some way connected to the body in the bathroom – but in exactly which way is the question. Reading a cozy English murder mystery is always a pleasure.

My problem with reading books is that I get distracted… by other books.

All About Books

November

Fiction:

You are a failed novelist about to turn fifty when you receive a wedding invitation in the mail – your boyfriend of the past nine years is engaged to someone else.  It would be too awkward to say yes, and saying no would look like defeat.  On your desk are a series of invitations to half-baked literary events around the world.  Can you run away from your problems?  Of course you can – so in this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Less,” by Andrew Sean Greer, Arthur Less accepts them all.  What could possibly go wrong?  Less almost falls in love in Paris, almost falls to his death in Berlin, barely escapes a sandstorm in a Moroccan ski chalet, accidentally books himself as the (only) writer in residence of a Christian retreat center in southern India (“Less is technically Christian.  There is really no other word for someone who celebrates Christmas and Easter, even if only as craft projects.”), and on a desert island in the Arabian Sea encounters the last person he wants to face.  Somewhere in there he turns fifty, and through it all, there is his first love – and his last.  Critics have called this satire “brilliantly funny” and “hilarious,” but I thought of it more as an engaging romantic comedy with a poignant love story, an ingenious plot, and a deep understanding of the human heart.  

Deepa Anappara grew up in southern India, where her reporting on the impact of poverty and religious violence on the education of children earned her many awards.  Her debut novel, “Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line,” is told through the eyes of nine-year-old Jai, who lives with his family in a basti (sprawling slum) at the end of the Purple metro line in one of a jumble of tin-roofed homes beneath a smoggy sky that doesn’t let through a single ray of sunlight.   From Jai’s doorway, the glittering lights of the city’s fancy high-rises seem a thousand miles away, even though his mother works as a maid in one.  Anappara plunges us deep into this neighborhood to trace the unfolding of a tragedy as Jai has his first collision with an unjust and complicated wider world.  When a classmate goes missing, Jai decides to use the crime-solving skills he has picked up from TV to  find him, and enlists his friends Pari and Faiz to be his assistants in drawing up lists of people to interview and places to visit.  But what begins as a game turns sinister as other children start disappearing from their neighborhood, and the young detectives have to confront terrified parents, an indifferent police force, and rumors of soul-snatching djinns.  Drawing on real incidents and a spate of disappearances in metropolitan India, this book is suspenseful, moving, and heartbreaking, even as the reader is charmed by the innocence and spirit of experiencing this vividly described community  through the eyes of a child.   I really, really wanted things to turn out well.

You know I love novels that transport me to a new time and place, and “The Mercies,” by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, certainly did that.  It is set in 1617 in Finnmark, Norway, on the tiny Arctic island of Vardo, where 24-year-old Maren Magnusdatter stands  on the craggy coast as the sea breaks into a sudden crashing storm, leaving forty fishermen, including Maren’s brother and father, drowned and broken on the rocks below.  With their menfolk wiped out, the surviving women must fend for themselves in their isolated village.  Three years later, Commissioner Absalom Cornet arrives from Scotland with his young Norwegian wife, Ursa, who both admires his authority and fears it.  In Vardo, and in Maren, Ursa for the first time witnesses independent women, whereas what Absalom sees is a place untouched by God and flooded with a mighty evil.  He is there to root out the magic he is certain caused the storm and continues to corrupt the women of Vardo, work he has done before – finding and burning witches.  As Maren and Ursa are drawn to each other in ways that surprise them both, Absalom’s rule threatens Vardo’s very existence.  This story is inspired by the real events of the Vardo storm and the 1621 witch trials, but “The Mercies” isn’t really about witchcraft as much as about finding comfort  in pre-Christian religious traditions and in the sin of women acting like men – wearing trousers, fishing, surviving without them.  Hargrave is a beautiful writer, and this disturbing story stays with the reader on so many levels.

As I write this, I am looking forward to a King County Library System Zoom meeting tomorrow with Kiley Reid, the author of  the wry and unsparing “Such a Fun Age,” which  details the lives of two women as they try to figure out how to lead their lives while dealing with issues of race, class, ambition, sex  – and each other.  Alix Chamberlain is a woman who gets what she wants and has made a living, with her confidence-driven brand, showing other women how to do the same.  She is shocked when her babysitter, Emira Tucker, is confronted by a supermarket security guard late one night when he sees a young black woman with a white toddler and accuses Emira of kidnapping two-year-old Briar.  A small crowd gathers, a bystander films everything, and Emira is furious and humiliated.  Although aimless and broke, Emira is wary of Alix’s desire to help, and when the video goes public and unearths someone from Alix’s past, the two women find themselves on a collision course that will upend everything they think they know about themselves, and each other.  The writing is spot-on – “Alix often felt that Emira saw her as a textbook rich white person, much in the same way that Alix saw many of the annoying Upper East Side moms that she and her girlfriends had always tried to avoid.  But if Emira would only take a deeper look, if she gave Alix a chance, Alex knew that she would begin to think otherwise.  Alix fantasized about Emira discovering things about her that shaped what Alix saw as the truest version of herself.  Lake the fact that one of Alix’s closest friends was black.  That Alix’s new and favorite shoes were from Payless, and only cost eighteen dollars.  That Alix had read everything that Toni Morrison had ever written.  ….  Alix often and unsuccessfully tried to drop these bits of information.”  This is a terrific debut novel that poses complex questions about racial relationships for which the reader has no easy answers.

Non-Fiction:

I’ll let the book jacket tell you about my daughter Catherine Besteman’s newest book, “Militarized Global Apartheid.”  Catherine is a Professor of Anthropology at Colby College whose work has been supported by grants from, among others, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  In this book, she ”offers a sweeping theorization of the ways in which countries from the global north are reproducing South Africa’s apartheid system on a worldwide scale to control the mobility and labor of people from the global south.  Exploring the different manifestations of global apartheid, Besteman traces how militarization and securitization reconfigure older forms of white supremacy and deploy them in new contexts to maintain this racialized global order.  Whether using the language of security, military intervention, surveillance technologies, or detention centers and other forms of incarceration, these projects reinforce and consolidate the global north’s political and economic interests at the expense of the poor, migrants, refugees, Indigenous populations, and people of color.  By drawing out how this new form of apartheid functions and pointing to areas of resistance, Besteman opens up new space to theorize potential sources of liberatory politics.”  We all read and hear about refugees and migrants in the media but for the most part do not understand the bigger picture about the global forces that cause so many people to leave their homes in desperate need of finding a safe place for them to survive and create stable lives for themselves and their families.  After reading this book, we do.  Catherine charts the processes through which the global north (by which she means the U.S., Canada, Europe, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and East Asia) has racialized the world; contributed to dispossession in the global south through plunder and military incursions; created mechanisms to contain the dispossessed, displaced, and undesirable mobile such as refugee camps, offshore holding facilities, detention centers, and prisons; criminalized mobility unauthorized by state permitting regimes; developed programs and policies to manage the controlled mobility of people for the purpose of exploiting their labor; and built a militarized security apparatus to maintain racialized hierarchies of labor and mobility.  Catherine closes by offering some examples of movements spreading across the global north in solidarity with migrants that, through collaborative political projects built by the mobile together with those who support them, contain visions of possible alternative futures.  She concludes, “My goal in this book has been to make visible the global system of militarized apartheid that has spread misery and carcerality (the physical confinement of bodies in a jail or prison) for some in the name of comfort and prosperity for others.  This short concluding chapter offers only a glimpse of the possibilities promoted by those who are actively urging apartheid’s beneficiaries to begin walking away.  Let’s start walking.”

Please remind me if you were the one who recommended “Ninth Street Women:  Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art,” by Mary Gabriel, because I could not have been more enthralled as I became immersed in the lives of Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler.  “Set among the most turbulent social and political period of modern times, this book is the impassioned, wild, sometimes tragic, always exhilarating chronicle of five women who dared to enter the male-dominated world of twentieth-century abstract painting – not as muses, but as artists” – (a quote from the book’s cover, with which I completely agree). From their cold-water lofts, where they worked, drank – and drank, bedded, fought, and loved, these pioneers changed the world of art both for themselves and for countless others to come.  Lee Krasner raised hell among artists long before she married Jackson Pollock.  Elaine de Kooning built a bridge between the avant-garde and a public that scorned abstract arts as a hoax (hard to remember that now).  Grace Hartigan abandoned life as a New Jersey housewife and mother to become one of the boldest painters of her generation.  Joan Mitchell escaped a privileged but emotionally damaging Chicago childhood to translate her fierce vision into magnificent canvases.  And Helen Frankenthaler at twenty-three created a work so original it launched a new school of painting.  This epic is long, but you will relish every page as you keep company with the incredible supporting cast that surrounded these brilliant and talented women.  I especially appreciated that through their biographies, Gabriel came to write the story of a cultural revolution that occurred between the years 1929 and 1959 as it arose out of the Depression and the Second World War, developed amid the Cold War and McCarthyism, and declined during the early boom years of America’s consumer culture when the “latest” was inevitably the “best.”  At the same time, the world of women was ever-changing.  In 1928 Virginia Woolf offered her fellow writers and painters a formula for survival that would allow them to create, if not with acceptance, then at least unimpeded.  A woman artist, she said, needed but two possessions: “money, and a room of her own.”  When they began to paint, these five women had neither, and yet (thanks, Mitch McConnell), they persisted.  The excellent photographs of the artists and their works are a bonus.

“How to Be an Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi, upended and reoriented my thoughts about racism, and I suspect it will do the same for you.  Kendi takes us through a widening circle of antiracist ideas – from the most basic concepts to visionary possibilities – to help us see all forms of racism clearly, understand their consequences, and work to oppose them in our systems and ourselves.  He weaves his own personal awakening to antiracism with a combination of ethics, history, law, and science in a work that is essential for anyone who wants to go beyond the awareness of racism to the next step: contributing to the formation of a just and equitable society.  I made so many notes as I read I might as well have copied the whole book, so will try to be judicious in sharing the many observations I found compelling in the hope that more will read this revelatory work.   To begin with, Kendi addresses the problem with being “not racist,” a claim that signifies neutrality, stating that the opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist” – it is “antiracist.”  “One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an antiracist.  One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist.”   “Racist” is not a pejorative, it is descriptive, and the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it – and then dismantle it.  To turn this word into an almost unusable slur is designed to do the opposite: to freeze us into inaction. What is a racist idea?  “A racist idea is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.  An antiracist idea is any idea that suggests the racial groups are equals in all their apparent differences – that there is nothing right or wrong with any racial group.  Antiracist ideas argue that racist policies are the cause of racial inequities.”  Antiracists ideas are based in the truth that racial groups are equals in all the ways they are different, assimilationist ideas are rooted in the notion that certain racial groups are culturally or behaviorally inferior (typically positioning White people as the superior standard), and segregationist ideas spring from a belief in genetic racial distinction and fixed hierarchy.  “Making individuals responsible for the perceived behavior of racial groups and making whole racial groups responsible for the behavior of individuals are the two ways that behavioral racism infects our perception of the world.”   Going forward, when I hear the term “institutional racism,” I will think instead of Kendi’s more concrete term – “institutionally racist policies.”  Policymakers and policies make societies and institutions, not the other way around.  Please read this book – it changed my thinking, and I think it will yours. 

Mysteries: : “Long Bright River,” by Liz Moore, is both a satisfying crime novel and a thoughtful emotionally suspenseful family drama.  In a Philadelphia neighborhood rocked by the opioid crisis, two once-inseparable sisters no longer speak.  Kacey lives on the streets in the vise of addiction:  Mickey walks those same blocks on her police beat.  Then Kacey suddenly disappears, at the same time that a mysterious string of murders begins in Mickey’s district.  Mickey becomes obsessed with finding the culprit – and her sister – before it’s too late. 

“Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.” – Jean Rhys

All About Books

October

Fiction:

The Night Tiger,” by Yangsze Choo, transports us to colonial Malaya (now Malaysia) in the 1930s, where quick-witted Ji Lin is stuck as an apprentice dressmaker moonlighting as a dance-hall girl to help pay off her mother’s mahjong debts.  But when one of her dance partners accidentally leaves behind a gruesome souvenir, Ji Lin is plunged into a world of secrets and superstitions.  Ren, an 11-year-old houseboy, also has a secret, a promise he must fulfill to his dead master – he has 49 days to find the master’s severed finger and bury it with his body or his master’s soul will wander the earth forever.  As the days go by, a series of unexplained deaths racks the district, along with whispers about men who turn into tigers.  Ji Lin’s and Ren’s increasingly dangerous paths crisscross through lush plantations, hospital storage rooms, and ghostly dreamscapes as the missing finger passes among them.  I don’t usually seek out supernatural fiction, but there’s just enough in this book to immerse us in the mysterious tropical atmosphere of a certain time and place while keeping us primarily in the real world.  (Just so you know, in Malaysia a “weretiger” is a beast who wears the skin of a human and comes out of the jungle to knock on your door and eat you in your home.)  Ji Lin feels the two worlds run concurrently – you have the world of the dead, and the world of the living. This is a thoughtful and thoroughly engaging read.  (It’s a good time to mention one of my all-time favorite novels, “The Gift of Rain,” by Tan Twan Eng, also set in Malaya in the 30s but with a completely different plot.)

“The King at the Edge of the World,” by Arthur Phillips, is a spy thriller, but not like any I’ve read before.  It is 1601, and a childless Queen Elizabeth I is dying, leaving her nervous kingdom without an heir.  It’s a capital crime even to think that Elizabeth will ever die, so potential successors secretly maneuver to be in position when the inevitable occurs.  The leading candidate is King James VI of Scotland, but there’s a problem – the queen’s spymasters fear that even though James claims to be a protestant, if he secretly shares his family Catholicism forty years of religious war will have been for nothing and a bloodbath will ensue.  It falls to Geoffrey Belloc, a secret warrior from the hottest days of England’s religious battles, to devise a test to discover the true nature of James’ soul.  He enlists Mahmoud Ezzedine, a kind and caring Muslim physician left behind by the last diplomatic visit from the Ottoman Empire, as his undercover agent.  The perfect man for the job, Ezzedine is the ultimate outsider who will do almost anything to leave the cold, wet, and primitive island on which he has been stranded to return home to his wife and son in Turkey.   This is a slyly humorous and  entertaining novel, perfect for a time when we endlessly discuss the true nature of the ones who want to lead us.

Non-Fiction:

Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager’s new book, “The Writer’s Library:  The Authors You Love on the Books That Changed Their Lives,” is a joy to read, and your mind will spin as you try to decide which of the multitude of marvelous books mentioned you will curl up with first.   The timing is perfect, as we will need lots of good company while we continue to cocoon during our upcoming winter months.  Nancy, America’s favorite librarian, and Jeff, a noted playwright, interviewed a diverse range of writers about the books that shaped them and inspired them to leave their own literary mark.  We sit in on chats with writers like Luis Alberto Urrea, Jennifer Egan, Louise Erdrich, T.C. Boyle, Donna Tartt, Dave Eggers, and Viet Thanh Nguyen and many other favorite authors to explore the studies, libraries, bookstores, and childhood books that engaged and influenced them and inspired them to love reading as well as to become writers themselves.  There is a common thread in the books many of them enjoyed as children that I know many of us did as well (my most vivid memory is my set of My Book House books, a collection of literature for children published between 1920 and 1971, which range in color from green to blue as they become more advanced).  There are some wonderful quotes I will remember, as Russell Banks’ “I don’t read to escape.  I read to enter.”  And these from Siri Hustvedt – “Reading fiction can move us into new places and provide new perspectives on the world.  It can create an expansion of consciousness and serve as an intimate form of knowledge.” Plus, “Reading means being inhabited by the voice of another person that originates outside you, a form of possession, which is not purely passive.  As you read, you generate images; your whole body participates even though you aren’t moving.” She also quotes Mickey Spillane – “Nobody reads a book to get to the middle.”  I get my books from the King County Library, as I have no more room on my bookshelves, but this one is a treasure I need to own.

“Horizon,” by Barry Lopez, is an epic that takes us from pole to pole as we travel with him from Western Oregon to the High Arctic, from the Galapagos to the Kenyan desert, from Botany Bay to Australia, and finally, to the ice shelves of Antarctica.  It is a book to be read at leisure, section by section, as Lopez probes the long history of humanity’s quests and explorations, including the Paleoeskimos who trekked across northern Canada, the colonialists who plundered central Africa, an Enlightenment-era  Englishman who sailed the Pacific, a Native American emissary who found his way into Japan during the time of the shoguns, and today’s ecotourists in the tropics.  Throughout his journeys to some of the hottest, coldest, and most desolate places on earth Lopez forges friendships with scientists, archaeologists, artists, and local residents, seeking deeper meaning and purpose in what he sees as a “broken” world.  The beauty of this magnificent and mesmerizing book is that we are transported along with him to landscapes few of us will be able to experience, certainly not at the breadth and depth Lopez does.   I found so many lines I wanted to quote, beginning with, “By putting economic growth on an equal footing with the preservation of human health, by promoting a need to possess and to consume that borders on the pathological, and by permitting industries to run roughshod over landscapes in order to create financial profit, the governments of industrialized nations have supported the changes that are primarily responsible for the befouled and poisonous environment that in many places has become our heritage.”  And, “When a boundary in the known world becomes instead a beckoning horizon, the leading edge of a farther destination, then a world one has never known becomes an integral part of one’s new universe.”  I could go on, but will resist the temptation and will close with Lopez’s quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery in “Southern Mail,” “To travel, above all, is to change one’s skin.”  This book will take time, but you will not forget your travels with Barry Lopez.

Mysteries:  Here’s a page turner – “Mr. Nobody,” by Catherine Steadman. Interest is sparked immediately when a man is found on a British beach, drifting in and out of consciousness, with no ID and unable to speak.  The hospital staff is drawn to hm, international medical experts are baffled by him, the national press calls him Mr. Nobody – and everyone wants answers.  Neuropsychiatrist Dr. Emma Lewis is asked to assess his condition in the small English town where he is hospitalized, which happens to be the town Lewis fled fourteen years ago before covering all traces of her past.  The more time she spends with her patient, the more alarmed she becomes that he knows the one thing about her no one is supposed to know.  It’s an ingenious thriller.   I’ve become a real fan of Joe Ide’s mysteries featuring private eye Isaiah Quintabe (known as IQ).  The biggest arms dealer on the West Coast, Angus Byrne, is the bad – really bad – guy in “Hi Five.”  His daughter Christiana is the sole witness and number one suspect in the murder of her boyfriend, found dead inside her Newport Beach boutique, and Angus thinks IQ is just the man to save her.  Among IQ’s multiple challenges is the fact that Christiana has five radically different multiple personalities, no single one of which witnessed the entire incident.  To find out what really happened, IQ has to piece together clues from each of her identities before the cops catch up.  This is an innovative plot from a sharp, lively writer.  It isn’t the most gripping mystery I’ve ever read, but the plot of Charles Finch’s “The Last Passenger,” set in London in 1855, has an interesting and timely twist.  The body of a young gentleman is found slumped in a third-class car at Paddington Station.  He has no luggage, empty pockets, and no sign of identification – even the labels have been cut from his clothes.  A young and eager private detective, Charles Lenox, faces his toughest case yet – a murder with not a single clue.  The mystery deepens when Lenox discovers the victim is American and the crime has a significant connection to pre-Civil War America and the slave trade.    “The Sentence is Death,” by Anthony Horowitz, is cleverly inventive.  Successful celebrity-divorce lawyer Richard Pryor is found bludgeoned to death by a bottle of very expensive wine in his London bachelor pad.  Odd, because he didn’t drink, why did the killer paint a three-digit number on the wall, and, most important, which of the man’s many enemies did the deed?  Baffled, the police are forced to bring in Private Investigator Daniel Hawthorne and his sidekick, a fictional Anthony Horowitz, who’s getting good at this murder investigation business.  It turns out that everyone has secrets which have to be exposed, even at the risk of death.

A room without books is like a body without a soul.  Cicero

All About Books

September

Fiction:

Isabel Allende’sA Long Petal of the Sea” is a gorgeous novel that transports us all to another time and place, seamlessly marrying the fictional and the historical.   In the late 1930s, civil war gripped Spain before General Franco and his Fascists succeeded in overthrowing the government.  Hundreds of thousands were forced to flee over the mountains to the French border, among them Roser, a pregnant widow, and Victor Dalmau, an army doctor and the brother of her deceased love.  In order to survive, the two must enter into a marriage neither of them desires.  Together with 2000 other refugees, they embark on the SS Winnipeg, a ship chartered by the poet Pablo Neruda, to Chile: “the long petal of sea and wine and snow.”  (This event is true.)  Although they are unlikely partners, they embrace their exile as the rest of Europe erupts in world war, finding joy even as they face trial after trial.  Their hope of returning to Spain keeps them going as they witness the battle between freedom and repression play out across the world.  Ultimately, however, they discover their true home was always closer than they thought.  This is an epic story of love, war, family, violence and loss, and the search for home, and I loved it.

Who knew our own charming Port Townsend was once a hotbed of opium smuggling activity?  It’s all there in Katrina Carrasco’s delightful historical crime novel, “The Best Bad Things.”  It is 1887, and the fiery Alma Rosales – detective, smuggler, spy – is on the hunt for stolen opium.  Trained in espionage by Pinkerton’s detective agency, but dismissed for bad behavior and a penchant for going undercover as a man, Alma now works for Delphine Beaumond, the seductive mastermind of a West Coast smuggling ring.  When product goes missing at their Washington Territory outpost, Alma is tasked with tracking the thief and recovering the drugs.  In disguise as the scrappy dockworker Jack Camp, she muscles her way into the local organization, wins the trust of the magnetic local boss and his boys, discovers the turncoat, and keeps them all from uncovering her secrets.  All this while sending coded dispatches to the circling Pinkerton’s agents to keep them from closing in.  As she gets in deeper, It gets harder and harder for Alma to keep her stories straight and to know whom to trust – one wrong move and she could be unmasked as a woman, as a traitor, or as a spy.  As Carrasco writes in her Author’s Note, her major characters are fictional, but Port Townsend’s history as a smuggling hot spot is fact.  In the 1880s, it was a powerhouse in sea trade, vying with San Francisco as the busiest American seaport on the West Coast.  The Port Townsend customhouse was famed for corruption, and with help from the customs officials, smugglers were making fortunes by dodging the import tax on opium, which could be as high as six dollars per pound.  Per the San Francisco Chronicle in 1893, “The opium ring of the Northwest is a fearful, shadowy, impalpable something: shadowy in form, but most substantial in fact.”  I thoroughly enjoyed this gritty, colorful, and surprisingly sexy story.

I am always delighted to have a new book by Anne Tyler in hand, and relished the pathos and gentle  humor of “Redhead by the Side of the Road.”  Micah Mortimer, superintendent of his Baltimore apartment building and self-employed tech expert (his card reads Tech Hermit, an apt description), is a creature of habit, cautious to a fault behind the wheel and seemingly content to lead a steady, circumscribed life.  But one day his woman friend, Cass,  (he refuses to call anyone in her late thirties “girlfriend”) tells him she’s facing eviction, and then a teenager shows up at his door claiming to be his son.  These surprises, which throw Micah’s meticulously organized life off-kilter, risk changing him forever.  I relished so many of Tyler’s descriptions of her characters and their relationships, such as  “He and Cass had been together for three years or so, and they had reached the stage where things had more or less solidified:  compromises arrived at, incompatibilities adjusted to, minor quirks overlooked.”   Gatherings with his boisterous family are a kick – “Like most families, the Mortimers believed that their family was more fascinating than anybody else’s.  In a way, even Micah believed it, although he pretended not to.”  You come to feel an intimate understanding of the heart and mind of a man who finds those around him just beyond reach, and are saddened when he and Cass part  – “Sometimes when he was dealing with people, he felt like he was operating one of those claw machines on a boardwalk, those shovel things where you tried to scoop up a prize but the controls were too unwieldy and you worked at too great a  remove.”   When he finally tells Cass,”I’m a roomful of broken hearts,” you want to hug him, and hope she will, too.  Anne Tyler knows us.

Novuyo Rosa Tshuma sets her stunning debut novel, “House of Stone,” in the period of Zimbabwe’s emergence from devastating colonialism to the wars of independence to the euphoria of self-rule and the disillusionment of the present.  In the chronic turmoil of modern Zimbabwe, Abednego and Agnes Mlambo’s teenage son, Bukhosi, has gone missing, and they fear the worst.  Their enigmatic lodger, Zamani, seems to be their last, best hope for finding him.  Since Bukhosi’s disappearance, Zamani has been incredibly helpful:  hanging missing posters, handing out fliers, joining in family prayer vigils – almost as if he were part of the family.  But almost is not enough for Zamani.  He ingratiates himself with Agnes and feeds alcoholic Abednego’s addiction, desperate to extract their life stories and steep himself in borrowed family history, lacking his own – he yearns for “a father, my father, my mother, to be somebody’s son.  Strong family roots in which to build my legacy.”  This story is a sweeping epic that tells a personal story against the background of the fall of Rhodesia and the turbulent beginnings of Zimbabwe.  “The state of things in our country, especially after 2000, when our government started controlling every facet of our lives, including what part of our history to remember and what part to forget, is proof that that it’s not what’s true that matters, but what you can make true.”  Zamani is a conniving and manipulative narrator, and the end of his story is a knockout.  ”House of Stone” is a breathtaking accomplishment for this young writer.  

Non-Fiction:

I’m sorry I can’t remember who  recommended I read “Dopesick:  Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America,” by Beth Macy, because it is a heartbreaking and deeply disturbing eye-opener for us all, whether or not we are personally affected by the opioid crisis (and most of us are, in one way or another).  This is said to be the only book to fully chart the opioid crisis in America, taking us into the epicenter of our twenty-plus-year struggle with opioid addiction from distressed small communities in central Appalachia to wealthy suburbs, from disparate cities to once-idyllic farm towns.   Beginning with a single dealer in a small Virginia town who turns high school football stars into heroin overdose statistics, Macy tries to answer a grieving mother’s question – why did her only son die?  The answer is a harrowing story of greed and need.  From the introduction of OxyContin in 1996, America embraced a medical culture where overtreatment with painkillers became the norm.  The unemployed use painkillers both to numb the pain of joblessness and to pay their bills, while privileged teens trade pills in cul-de-sacs, and even high school standouts fall prey to prostitution, jail, and death.  Families and first responders struggle to deal with this crisis, as, ironically, in a time of political fragmentation opioid drug abuse is the only thing that unites us across geographic and class lines.  The folly of the decades-long War on Drugs, in which drug users were arrested four times more often than those who sell the drugs, has led police chiefs and sheriffs across the nation to lament, ”We can’t arrest ourselves out of this epidemic.”  Rehab, relapse, and jail – that’s the way addiction works.  As to rehab, Macy writes that fewer than one-quarter of heroin addicts who receive abstinence-only counseling and support remain clean two or more years.  The recovery rate is roughly 40-60 percent higher among those who get counseling, support group, and medication-assisted treatment (MAT) such as methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone – although many rehabs remain staunchly anti-MAT.  Only one in ten addicted Americans gets any treatment at all – which is why there’s such a push for outpatient medication-assisted treatment, and, increasingly, programs that divert the addicted from jail to treatment.   I was struck by the realization  that before we can begin to grasp the scope and depth of opioid addiction, we need to more fully understand rather than judge those get who get caught up in such a self-destructive life cycle.  This book can be a meaningful first step.

Mysteries:  We have a daughter who lives in the charming, artsy mountain town of Idyllwild CA, so it was fun in “Lost Looks,” by Howard Michael Gould, to meet quirky former LAPD detective Charlie Waldo, now living off the grid in solitude deep in the woods nearby.  Waldo is pathologically committed to owning no more than one hundred possessions.  (Is a pair of socks one thing, or two?  It matters.)  He has left behind his superstar career and his girlfriend, Lorena, to pay self-imposed penance for an awful misstep on a pivotal murder case.  Now Lorena draws him into the case of Alastair Pinch, an absurdly rich, belligerent, and typically drunk onetime Royal Shakespeare Company thespian who currently slums it on a tacky network show.  Pinch is about to be arrested for murdering his wife, and his greedy network convinces a reluctant Waldo to take the case on.  The story is a fun ride of humor and suspense.

Reading is the key that opens doors to many good things in life. Reading shaped my dreams, and more reading helped me make my dreams come true. Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Thanks to Catherine Gilmore for posting this quote on her blog, The Gilmore Guide to Books.

All About Books

August

Fiction:

“Celestial Bodies,” by Jokha Alharthi, is the first novel originally written in Arabic to ever win the Man Booker International Prize and the first book by a female Omani author to be translated into English.  It traces an Omani family over three generations, shaped by the rapid social changes and consequent shifts in outlook that Oman’s populace experienced across the twentieth century, and in particular since Oman’s emergence as an oil-rich nation in the 1960s.  It’s a country I know little about, so I particularly appreciated the historical canvas against which the story was set as the country’s complete world of social relations and practices was collapsing.  In the fictional village of al-Awafi, we encounter three sisters:  Mayya, who marries after a heartbreak;  Asma, who aspires to a different kind of life and marriage;  and Khawla, who chooses to refuse all offers and await a reunion with the man she loves, who has emigrated to Canada.  We stay with these women and their families as Oman evolves from a traditional, slave-owning society into its complex present with the advent of new wealth.  The characters we meet include slave owners and the captive women who raise their children, kleptomaniacs and gossips, assured Bedouin businesswomen, violent poets, arms dealers, and superstitious mothers and aunts who are so tall they’re “like a skeletal minaret.” The scope of this story, with its various extended families, is broad, so I appreciated the family tree at the beginning which allowed me to keep track of the richly drawn multigenerational relationships.  One of the great benefits of reading a book like this is that we gain a broader and richer understanding of the world we share.

Meeting Evil,” by Thomas Berger, is sort of a mystery, but I’m putting it here because it is actually more of a drama “whose focus is the banality of evil and the precariousness of reality, identity, and truth” (according to the book jacket).  I agree – the events seem to sneak up on you as they do to John Felton, husband, father of two, and real estate salesman who is interrupted while eating breakfast by a disturbing stranger who asks for his help with a stalled car.  John grudgingly but politely agrees, which quickly leads him into a string of disastrous events, including a crime spree in which he is an unwitting accomplice to robbery, kidnapping, arson, and murder.  Most unnerving is  the stranger’s near-convincing contention that each crime is an act of kindness and protectiveness.  This darkness played against the background of a normally monotonous American life is eerie and increasingly suspenseful, funny but actually deeply disturbing, especially in the light of what’s happening in this country.  I can’t stop thinking about it.   

“The Volunteer,” by Salvatore Scibona, is the complex saga of a restless young man who is captured during the Vietnam War and pressed into service for a clandestine branch of the United States government.  The story begins when a small boy speaking an unknown language is abandoned by his father at an international airport.  In order to understand this indefensible decision, we have to go back decades to when a young man named Vollie Frade, an unwanted son born to aging cattle ranchers in rural Iowa, enlists in the U. S. Marine Corps to fight in Vietnam.   His mother’s reaction? “I’m surprised they just let a person take himself away like that.”  That action put in motion an unimaginable chain of events, taking Vollie from the Cambodian jungle (”where he kept on unaccountably not getting killed”) to a flophouse in Queens to a commune in New Mexico, tracing a secret history of life on the margins of America and culminating with an inevitable reckoning.  Because the plot is dense, moving back and forth in time, you have to pay attention, but Scibona’s masterful writing makes the effort well worth it.  It’s a novel about war, but also about two lost souls who stumble through life, a journey of loss and salvation ranging across four generations of fathers and sons who face betrayal and abandonment.  This is a remarkable book by a remarkable writer whose first novel was a finalist for the National Book Award. “The End” is now on my list.  

Set against the Platte River’s massive spring migrations – one of the greatest spectacles in nature –  “The Echo Maker,” by Richard Powers, is much more than a gripping mystery as it explores the human self and our even more precarious brain.  On a winter night on a remote Nebraska road, 27-year-old Mark Schluter flips his truck in a near-fatal accident.  His older sister, Karen, his only near kin, returns reluctantly to nurse him back from a traumatic head injury, but when he emerges from a coma Mark believes that this woman – who looks, acts, and sounds just like his sister – is really an impostor.   I knew what the diagnosis would be, because the wife of a longtime friend suffered from the same thing along with her dementia  – Capgras syndrome, the delusion that people in one’s life are doubles or impostors.  She knew who he was, but believed he was a friend rather than her husband.  Karen is shattered by her brother’s refusal to recognize her, and contacts the cognitive neurologist Gerald Weber, famous for his case histories describing the infinitely bizarre world of brain disorders.  Weber eagerly comes to Nebraska to investigate, and what he discovers in Mark slowly undermines even his own sense of being.  Meanwhile, Mark, armed only with a note left by an anonymous witness, attempts to learn what really happened the night of his inexplicable accident.  It turns out the truth changes the lives of all three.  This is a dense book, filled with information about our brains that sneaks into the more than we wanted to know category and yet remains fascinating as we work thorough it.  A bonus is Powers’ description of the convergence at winter’s end of half a million cranes, the oldest flying things on earth, carpeting the wetlands on the Platte River as they have for eons – not integral to the plot, but a vibrant backdrop to the story.  Powers is a masterful writer.

Non-Fiction:

A long time ago I would run for exercise – not well, and not far – but after reading “Born to Run:  A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen,” by Christopher McDougall, I just know I could have flown like the wind if only I had started early and had the right training.   McDougall’s epic adventure began when he went in search of an answer to a simple question:  Why does my foot hurt?  He set off to find a tribe of the world’s greatest distance runners and learn their secrets, and in the process shows us that everything we thought we knew about running is wrong.  Isolated by the most savage terrain in North America, the reclusive Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s deadly Copper Canyon have for centuries practiced techniques that allow them to run hundreds of miles through mountains and deserts without rest.  Their superhuman talent is matched by uncanny health and serenity, leaving them immune to the diseases and strife that plague modern existence.  With the help of Caballo Blanco, a mysterious loner who lives among the tribe, McDougall was able not only to uncover the secrets of the Tarahumara but also to find his own inner ultra-athlete, as he trained for the challenge of a lifetime:  a fifty-mile race through the heart of Tarahumara country pitting the tribe against an odd band of Americans, including a star ultramarathoner, a beautiful young surfer, and a barefoot loner.   We are taken from the high-tech science labs at Harvard to the sun-baked valleys and freezing peaks across North America and finally to the climactic race in the Copper Canyons.  I was caught up every step of the way in this entertaining, informative, compelling, and suspenseful story as the tension kept building, and I couldn’t put it down until I found out who won and how it ends.  Readers will come away from this book convinced that, essentially, we were all born to run.

Mysteries:  You won’t thank me for recommending “The Chestnut Man,” by Soren Sveistrup, because once you start you’re hooked to the end.  A psychopath is terrorizing Copenhagen, his calling card a “chestnut man” – a handmade doll made of matchsticks and two chestnuts left at each bloody crime scene.  Examining the dolls, forensics makes a shocking discovery – each has a fingerprint belonging to a young girl, a government minister’s daughter who had been kidnapped and murdered a year ago.  A tragic coincidence, or something more?  I relished the plot twists, the red herrings, and the distinctive characters. With 33 novels, John Grisham is certainly a master of legal fiction, and I found The Guardians both uplifting and satisfying.  In a small Florida town, Quincy Miller, a young black man, was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a lawyer named Keith Russo.  Twenty-two years later, desperate, he writes a letter proclaiming his innocence to Guardian Ministries, a small non-profit run by Cullen Post, a lawyer who is also an Episcopal minister.  By taking on Miller’s case, Post gets more than he’s bargained for – powerful, ruthless people murdered Keith Russo, and they do not want Quincy Miller exonerated.  To prevent that, they’ll kill another lawyer without a second thought.  It’s always a pleasure to see the bad guys get taken down, especially when it means an innocent man goes free.  Rennie Airth is a fine writer, and I really liked “The Decent Inn of Death,” another of his cleverly plotted mysteries featuring English sleuth John MaddenWhen visiting friends near Winchester, former Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair learns that beloved church organist Greta Hartmann has slipped and fallen to her death in a shallow stream.  Her friend and housemate, Vera, is not convinced that it was an accident.  Agreeing to stay and dig a little deeper, Sinclair ends up staying at a friend’s stately manor when they are cut off from the outside world by a snowstorm, only to be confronted with another murder for which everyone on the estate is a suspect.  Shades of Agatha Christie, who first introduced me to the pleasure of mysteries.  Michael Connelly is another crime fiction writer whose mysteries never disappoint.  In The Night Fire, after the funeral for Harry Bosch’s mentor, John Jack Thompson, Thompson’s widow gives Bosch a murder book that Thompson took with him when he left the LAPD twenty years before – the unsolved killing of a troubled young man.  Bosch asks Detective Renee Ballard to help him discover what about this crime motivated Thompson to want Bosch to become involved after all these years.  Did Thompson steal the murder book to work the case in retirement – or to make sure it never got solved?  We are right with them as this fierce investigative team seeks the answer.   When I picked up “Newcomer,” by Keigo Higashino, I realized I had read it before, but because it was such a delight and also because I couldn’t remember who the murderer was, I enjoyed it all over again.  A recently divorced woman is found murdered in her new apartment in the Nihonbashi area of Tokyo, and because she lived a quiet life with no known enemies her murder is both baffling and unlikely.  Enter Detective Kyochiro Kaga of the Tokyo Police Department, also a newcomer to the area, who begins to interview the various local people somehow connected to the victim, and we marvel at how cleverly and with such perception he unravels the secrets surrounding the denizens of this traditional shopping district.

I’m not addicted to reading!  I can quit as soon as I finish one more chapter.

All About Books

July

When the heat of summer finally arrived, concurrent with the reopening (for returns and curbside pickup) of the fabulous King County Library System, I retreated many afternoons to the shade of the umbrella on the deck with iced tea and a delicious array of mysteries in hand.  Since we can’t travel for real, we can at least vicariously “enjoy” crimes that take us to London, Italy, Norway, and even Hvar Town in Croatia.  Thus, the number of mysteries in this month’s reviews.

Fiction

An NPR reviewer of J. L. Carr’s “A Month in the Country” said “This miniature masterpiece is quietly transcendent,” a perfect descriptionIt is 1920, and Tom Birkin, a veteran of the Great War and a broken marriage, arrives in the remote Yorkshire village of Oxgodby to restore a recently discovered medieval mural in the local church.   Living in the bell tower, surrounded by the resplendent countryside of high summer, and laboring each day to uncover an anonymous painter’s extraordinary depiction of the apocalypse, Birkin finds that he himself has been restored to a new, and hopeful, attachment to life.  But summer ends, and with the work done, Birkin must leave.  Now, long after, as he reflects on the passage of time, an unrequited love, and the power of art, he finds his memories are some consolation for all that he has lost.  “If I’d stayed there, would I always have been happy?” he asks.  “No, I suppose not.  People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvelous thing around each corner fades.  It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.”  A lovely, haunting story.
Non-Fiction:

Since Jack went to Stanford and we have spent so much time on that campus for events and reunions, we were delighted when Edie Lackland (also an alum) gave us “American Disruptor:  The Scandalous Life of Leland Stanford,” by Roland De Wolk.  This is the untold story of a complex, darkly contradictory man from his birth in a backwoods bar through Gold Rush days to completion of the first transcontinental railroad to the founding of a world-class university that remains the nucleus of Silicon Valley.  The life of this robber baron, politician, and historic influencer is a tale of how one supremely ambitious man became this country’s original “disruptor” – reshaping industry and engineering one of the greatest raids on the public treasury for America’s transcontinental railroad. It also is a tale of how Stanford, once a serial failure, overcame all obstacles to become one of America’s wealthiest and most powerful men, using his high elective office to enrich himself before losing the one thing that mattered most to him, his son and only child.  Scandal and intrigue followed him through his life and even after his death, when his widow was murdered in a Honolulu hotel, a crime quickly covered up by the almost stillborn university she had saved.  According to De Wolk, “Fundamentally, it can be said that Leland Stanford was, in the end, an ordinary man who found himself in extraordinary circumstances.  . . . He was certainly guilty of many shabby performances, but given the stage he found himself on, unprepared by upbringing, temperament, and history itself, what else can be fairly expected of a man? . . . That he as a young man could not possibly have been admitted as a student to the university he created toward the end of his life signifies his ultimate success rather than his penultimate failures.”  As to his wife, “Mrs. Stanford (Jane, called Jennie) remains a particularly enigmatic personality,” writer and former Stanford University archivist Roxanne Nilan concluded.  “In part, it is because both Leland and Jane Stanford are veiled in the fables of the founding and difficult early years of Stanford University.  They are integral to a carefully monitored public image of an institution that personified itself in such terms as “pioneering,” “innovative” and “progressive.”  I found this fully researched and well-written book fascinating, filled with information as well as insight.

When I reviewed “Our Man,” by George Packer, Nancy Pearl suggested another Packer book, “Blood of the Liberals,” written in 2000, in which the author with compassion and occasionally painful honesty explores his heritage as the inheritor of two sometimes conflicting strains of the American liberal tradition.  His maternal grandfather was a populist congressman from Alabama in the early part of the 20th century, an agrarian liberal in the Jeffersonian mold who began his career fighting the forces of wealth and ended it opposing the New Deal.  Packer’s Jewish father was a Kennedy-era liberal, a law professor and administrator at Stanford whose convictions were fatally tested in the campus upheavals of the 1960s.  Packer traces the intersection between public issues and private troubles, large historical currents, and the frailties of individual character as he recalls the lives of the father he barely knew and the grandfather he never met.  ‘In general,” he writes, “the men in my family have been defeated and the women have endured.”  He closes with, “Without a vehicle for reform and a belief to sustain it, the trends overwhelm anyone’s individual effort, like the flow of winds or tides, and we seem able to imagine no alternative to the world as it is.  And yet, with our endless talent for experiment and hope alongside our vast material comfort, we will have a more just society as soon as we want one.”   Twenty years later, do we want one?

Mysteries:  “The Bishop’s Bedroom,” by Piero Chiara, is a sultry, stylish psychological thriller set in northern Italy’s lake region, where two men with a shared taste for idling and erotic adventure compete for female affections as part of their bid to evade the emotional aftermath of World War 2.  The cover is captivating.   In “The Man Who Came Uptown,” by George Pelecanos, Michael Hudson spends the long days in prison devouring books given to him by the prison’s librarian, a young woman named Anna who develops a soft spot for her best client.  (How can avid readers resist a plot that begins like that?)  Anna keeps passing Michael books until one day he disappears, suddenly released after a private detective manipulated a witness from Michael’s trial.  Trying to balance his new job, his love of reading, and the debt he owes to the man who got him released, Michael struggles to figure out his place in this new world before he loses control.  Anne Holt is Norway’s bestselling female crime writer, for good reason, as she knows psychology as well as police work, and creates intriguing plots with nuanced characters and unexpected twists.  In “In Dust and Ashes,” a mistake he made years ago has rankled Police Investigator Kjell Bonsak, when Jonas Abrahamsen,a man he knew he was innocent, was convicted of his ex-wife’s murder and sentenced to twelve years in prison.  An uncomfortable encounter with the man two weeks before his retirement prompts Bonsak to dig out the old case files and engage Detective Henrik Holme, the resident cold case prodigy, and Holme’s beloved mentor, Hanne Wilhelmsen, to prove that Abrahamsen was wrongly convicted.  A very satisfying plot.   I’m always happy to be back in Victorian London, even when it’s as cold, damp, and foggy as in Dark Tide Rising, an Anne Perry mystery featuring William Monk, commander of the Thames River Police.   The story opens with a kidnapping that leads to a savage murder on Jacob’s Island, where rotting houses are slowly sinking into a “thick viscous mud that sucked anything of weight into itself, like quicksand.”   The clever plot raises issue of trust and loyalty while driving home a grim message about the vulnerability of women who entrust their fortunes to unscrupulous men.  As usual with Monk mysteries, the river and its power dominate the book.    “A Double Life,” by Flynn Berry, is a gripping psychological thriller that you really hope will end the way you want.  Claire is a hardworking doctor leading a quiet life in London – and also the daughter of the most notorious murder suspect in the country, though no one knows it.  After a brutal crime in her family’s townhouse thirty years ago, her father’s car was found abandoned near the English Channel, and he has been missing ever since.  When the police tell Claire they may have found him, she starts to infiltrate his inner circle, not knowing if the secrets she uncovers will exonerate her father or confirm his guilt  – or how far she’ll go to finally find the truth.

Never underestimate the power of a girl with a book.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg  (Thanks, Marie!)

All About Books

June

I was delighted to learn from Sharyn Skeeter, my fellow ACT Theatre board member, that her novel “Dancing with Langston,” which I reviewed in December, was the gold award winner in the 2019 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards in Multicultural Adult Fiction.  Congratulations to her!


Fiction:

As someone who was given a mug that says “I am silently correcting your grammar” – not entirely in jest – I knew I would love “The Grammarians,” by Cathleen Schine.  The grammarians are Laurel and Daphne Wolfe, identical, inseparable redheaded twins who share an obsession with words.  They speak a secret “twin” tongue of their own as toddlers; as adults making their way in 1980s Manhattan, they continue their verbal infatuation – until this love begins to push them apart.  Daphne, copy editor and grammar columnist, devotes herself to preserving the dignity and elegance of Standard English, while Laurel, who gives up teaching to write poetry, is drawn instead to the chameleon nature of the written and spoken word, claiming that “What people call ‘standard’ English is really just the dialect of the elite.”  Ultimately, they actually go to war over custody of their family’s most prized heirloom:  Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language.  Even if you are not excited by the prospect of reading about dueling grammarians (I feel heads nodding), Schine’s playful writing in this charming comedy will quickly reel you in.  “Words and students, Laurel thought – they could be recalcitrant, out of order, trying to slip by without being noticed.  But once you got them working together, unobtrusive and efficient, it was beautiful.”  And, “If you think of all those words just staggering around, grammar is their social order, their government.”  As a reader, how can you resist?

In “Cavedweller,” by Dorothy Allison, when Delia Byrd packs up her old Datsun and her daughter Cissy and gets on the Santa Monica Freeway heading south and east, she is leaving everything she has known for ten years:  the glitter of the rock ‘n’ roll world; her dreams of singing and songwriting; and a life lived on credit cards and whiskey with a man who made promises he couldn’t keep. Delia Byrd is going back to Cayro, Georgia, to reclaim her life – and the two daughters she left behind.  This  is a sweeping novel of the lives of four women, set in the gritty place Delia comes from, filled with sadness and regret as well as love, hope, forgiveness and reconciliation.  You come to know these stubbornly determined characters well and to understand their fragilities as well as their strengths, set against the rhythms of a small Southern town.  A big part of Cissy’s adjustment to being dragged across the country (her view of the trip) is discovering the joy she finds in exploring the nearby caves.  “Buddhists strove for nirvana.  Christians aimed for heaven. But girl who believed in nothing, who just loved the dark, where did she go?”  Caves are where she belongs – “I guess I’m just a cave dweller,” she tells her friend.    Allison is a wonderful storyteller, and I loved this book, especially because I found the resolution of the lives of these complex characters so satisfying.

Non-Fiction:

Over decades, Ryszard Kapuscinski filed dispatches from the Indian subcontinent, Asia, Latin America, and, most often, Africa, initially in the service of a Polish youth journal as its first and only foreign correspondent and later for the Polish Press Agency.  When he was just out of university in 1955 Poland, Kapuscinski told his editor that he’d like to go abroad, thinking maybe Czechoslovakia, but found himself in India, where he discovered his life’s work – understanding and describing the remotest parts of the world, from sunrise at Persepolis to Louis Armstrong performing in Khartoum.   Kapuscinski’s final book, “Travels With Herodotus,” is about his travels with a volume of Herodotus, the “father of history,” as his companion, a man so bound by his fifth-century B.C. experience that he had never heard of China or Japan, didn’t know about Australia or Oceania, knew nothing about the existence of the Americas, and actually knew little about western and northern Europe.  Kapuscinski took the book with him everywhere, moving seamlessly in his writing from observations of his own contemporary travel to Herodotus’ accounts of ancient battles led by fearless leaders who ultimately helped to shape our world.    Here is Kapuscincki on the construction of the Great Wall of China, built over thousands of years with “dedication and devotion,” and “exemplary discipline” – “This is how the world’s energy is wasted.”  We are reminded when reading about the ancient world – limited in size as it was – that complex leaders, fierce battles, and territorial disputes have always been with us.

As a former journalism major and editor, I thoroughly enjoyed “The Hard Way:  The Odyssey of a Weekly Newspaper Editor,” by Alexander B. Brook, which The Washington Post called “Easily one of the best books ever written about journalism.”  Sandy Brook, a Yale graduate and wartime Navy fighter pilot who worked as a fisherman, ranch hand, reporter and lumberjack before becoming a Wall Street executive, decided in 1958 to leave the urban business life and buy the rundown weekly Star in Kennebunk, Maine. Over the next 20 years he built it into a prize-winning crusader for open government and environmental responsibility, doing so in the face of significant political and commercial pressure.  Brook tells his story with lively dialogue and colorful – often combative – detail, in a book which is a behind-the-scenes look at how the press operates and how newspapers can influence our society and democracy at the local level.  He fought one battle after another for the causes he believed in as he continued to buy up other local newspapers in Southern Maine and eventually renamed the paper The York County Coast Star – all the while barely keeping himself financially solvent.  Of his country newspaper career, he said, “I used the paper to expose corruption, hypocrisy, privilege unfairly used, and authority unwisely squandered.”   Brook had a simple formula:  just tell the truth, and that is what he does in this engaging memoir with passion and humor.  You find yourself rooting for him every step of the way, so are happy to learn that in 2000 the New England Press Association elected Brook to its Hall of Fame.

What a delight it was to come across “The Secret World of Slugs and Snails: Life in the Very Slow Lane,” by Seattle author David George Gordon, just when I was desperate to read a “real book” rather than my Kindle, as I eagerly await the reopening of the King County Library!  Not my cup of tea, you say?  You have no idea how fascinating their lives can be.  This is a playful and thoughtful book about everything from snail sex to the manufacture of synthetic slug slime (see – I knew you’d be enticed).   Gordon a naturalist by education and training, introduces us to how these creatures surf on slime, breathe, hitchhike to new places, and even think.  They have ingenious ways to defend themselves when under attack, including jettisoning their tails, jumping, and giving off a garlic odor that is effective at repelling hedgehogs and other predators.  An authority on West Coast land slugs and snails, Barry Roth, tells the story of a coworker who decided to abandon his religious study to become a student of malacology – the branch of biology that includes slugs and snails.  “But why?” his parents asked. His reply – “Slugs and snails are living reminders that not everyone gets to be an eagle.” In “Gardening for Independence,” Barbara and Mort Mather write, “There was a time when we thought we had a slug problem, they annoyed us so.  However, we brought the problem under control more by changing our attitude than by controlling the slugs.”  The illustrations by Karen Luke Fildes, Gordon’s wife, are totally charming, not a word normally associated with slugs.

Mysteries:  Because his books are older, thus immediately available for download, as well as really good, I have stayed with Lawrence Block for a while (thanks, brother Bob!).  In “When the Sacred Ginmill Closes,” ex-policeman Matthew Scudder is still solving crimes as an unlicensed private detective in New York.  He becomes involved in three separate intertwined mysteries involving multiple dead bodies, stolen money and other complications, but the real story is Matt’s drinking and how it affects his work.  Per the title, “And so we’ve had another night of poetry and poses, and each man knows he’ll be alone when the sacred ginmill closes.” (Song by Dave Van Ronk)  I know nothing about video games, so particularly enjoyed that they were a major part of “reward seeker” Colter Shaw’s latest attempt to help police solve crimes and private citizens locate missing persons in Jeffrey Deaver’s “The Never Man.”  A young woman has gone missing in Silicon Valley, and in searching for her Shaw finds himself thrust into the heart of America’s tech hub and the cutthroat billion-dollar videogaming industry, as he fears a madman has brought to life a deadly game.  Lots of suspense and a cool hero.

A book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside of us.  Franz Kafka, novelist (1883-1924)

 

All About Books

May

Such a weird month for reading, along with everything else.  Once I read through my final stack of library books (which I can’t return until the library reopens), I turned to a backup pile of books I own or have been given, and discovered some gems.  Then I moved on to my Kindle, and I have to admit that while I would prefer to have a physical book in my hands I am grateful that I can at least download e-books from the library.  (One of my worst nightmares, I have come to realize, would be to be quarantined in an inside cabin on a giant cruise ship for weeks, with nothing to read!)  I notice that all the books I originally paused for staggered periods of time at the library are now paused until Jan. 01, 2049.  News flash – I won’t be around to pick them up!

In light of what is happening right now, you might want to refer back to my February write-up of “White Fragility:  Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” by Robin Diangelo, and “So You Want to Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluoyou.  They couldn’t be more timely.

Fiction:

At the KCLS Gala last year, I bought Washington author Karl Marlantes’ book, “Deep River,” but because it’s so long and books with due dates kept showing up from my library hold list, I just never got to it.  But guess what – with my beloved library closed, suddenly it was the only book left on my usually crowded bedside table, and I want to tell you its length was a bonus, as I became so engaged with a world I knew little about I was sorry when it ended.  Based on Marlantes’ family history, “Deep River” is a rich saga about Finnish immigrants who settled in Washington during the first labor movements, World War I, and the upheaval of early 20th-century America.  In the early 1900s, as Russia’s imperial rule took its toll on Finland, the three Koski siblings – Ilmari, Matti, and the politicized young Aino – are forced to flee to the U.S., settling among other Finns in a logging community not far from the Columbia River in southwest Washington State, where the first harvesting of the colossal old-growth forests spawned rapid development and radical labor movements began to catch fire.  The brothers pioneer this frontier wilderness, while Aino – foremost of the book’s strong, independent women – devotes herself to organizing the industry’s first unions.  Struggling to reconcile her political beliefs with her latent desire to build a family – complicated by trauma from her past – Aino finds herself pulled between two very different suitors, both of whom struggle with their own painful secrets.  Marlantes is terrific at bringing the tough and dangerous world these people lived in to life.  “Logging is less about cutting down trees than about moving them.  Ideal logs are four to eight feet in diameter and up to forty feet long.  These logs weigh over twenty tons.  The bigger logs, if left at forty feet, would weigh more than fifty tons, requiring that they be cut to thirty- two-foot or even sixteen-foot lengths.  To move a log from where the tree was felled to water deep enough to float it requires bravery, brute strength, and endurance.  More importantly, it requires extremely creative engineering.”  Aino herself faces danger in recruiting for the International Workers of the World (known as the Wobblies), which opposed the American Federation of Labor’s acceptance of capitalism and its refusal to include unskilled workers in craft unions.  Both the story and the time period are fascinating and unforgettable.

I have begun to read Anita Brookner’s fine novels (such as Hotel du Lac, which won the 1986 Booker Prize), and just enjoyed “Look At Me,” written in 1983.   Frances Hinton works in the reference library of a London medical research institute that investigates human behavior.  She also aspires to being a novelist, and has achieved some small successes.  “Writing is my way of piping up.  Of reminding people that I am here.”  Her parents are dead and she lives alone, except for an elderly maid, in a large furnished flat. Her parents never changed anything, and neither has she, as she is as incapable of impressing her personality on a room as she is at turning into the life of the party.  Still, she would love to be the latter – “Look at me, look at me” is her continual, silent plea.  Frances is young and “quite pleasant-looking” (her description), and one day catches the eye of the beautiful and irrepressible Alix Forbes, who has stopped by the library to pick up her handsome and charismatic husband Nick, one of the two young doctors whose research the institute is funding.  Alix is bored, so invites Frances for dinner, then throws her together with the other grantee, James Anstey, believing they might prove to be amusing.  The two are well suited for each other, happily poised between love and like.  Not good enough for Alix, who relishes action and drama.  Frances, private and silent, is unequipped to participate in such passions, but she can at least write about them.  As she says, “It was then that I saw the business of writing for what it truly was and is to me.  It is your penance for not being lucky.  It is an attempt to reach others and to make them love you.”  What I especially like about Brookner’s writing is that she so effectively immerses us into her main characters’ thoughts and feelings that we fully understand why they do what they do.

Non-Fiction: 

I have to start by saying that “The New Arab Wars,” by Marc Lynch, a professor of political science at George Washington University, is probably more than we want to know, even as he helps us to understand the ever widening wars that began in 2003 with American tanks heading north toward Baghdad and culminated with the disaster that is Syria.  Local wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen became proxies for larger conflicts:  Saudi Arabia vs. Iran (with Qatar and Turkey thrown in, and Israel still eyeing Iran).  Shia fought Sunni.  Britain, France, and a reluctant America fired shots in Libya.  Egypt’s revolution gave way to a military coup.  Russia shored up the president of a Syria torn apart.  Lynch says President Obama, to whom he was an advisor, did not see the Middle East in America’s existential interest, while Obama’s critics felt that if he had pursued an earlier, more muscular policy, he would have both lessened suffering and checked the further rise of terror.  Given subsequent events, it’s impossible to know which approach could possibly have made a difference.  Lynch sees Libya as a decisive turning point in the transformation of the Arab uprisings from domestic peaceful uprisings into a regional proxy war.  Its subsequent collapse into civil war then became an object lesson in the dangers of intervention and state failure, and in many ways set the stage for Syria’s descent into catastrophic civil war, leading to what he says is now an entire regional order in freefall.  Instead of democratization, we have an increase in regional interventionism, proxy war, and resurgent repression.  Optimists about the Arab uprisings failed to appreciate just how far the region’s autocrats would go to prevent positive change, and that, with few exceptions, they would do virtually anything to hold on to power.  Writing in 2016, Lynch was not an optimist, seeing no end to the fundamental struggles by Arabs over their future.  What should America do?  His answer – “Stay out.”   The details of this book can be skimmed periodically, but by the time you finish reading about the Middle East as a region where local forces dominate, interbreed, and fester, you can’t help but appreciate the wisdom of that conclusion.

Because Jack is an avid milk drinker, I gave him the book “Milk,” by Mark Kurlansky, whose previous books “Cod” and “Salt” we found so entertaining and informative.  According to the Greek creation myth, we are basically spilt milk:  a splatter of the goddess Hera’s beast milk became our galaxy, the Milky Way.  But it is actually the milk of other mammals that humans have cultivated ever since the domestication of animals more than 10,000 years ago, originally as a source of cheese, yogurt, kefir, and all manner of edible innovations that rendered lactose digestible, and then, when genetic mutation made some of us lactose-tolerant, milk itself.  It was once common for families to keep dairy cows and produce their own milk, but when mass production and urbanization made it readily available, the health controversies that had always surrounded milk grew in number and severity.  Milk became the first food to be tested in laboratories, and is now the world’s most regulated food.  It is at the center of food politics, raising questions about everything from industrial farming and animal rights to GMOs, the locavore movement, and advocates for raw milk, who controversially reject pasteurization.  Kurlansky traces milk’s provocative history from antiquity to the present, detailing its crucial role in cultural evolution, religion, nutrition, politics, and economics, and includes historical images and authentic recipes throughout.  If you find yourself stimulated by reading something that keeps you saying, “I didn’t know that!” this is the book for you.  You’ll never again take that carton in your refrigerator for granted.

When Naomi Minegishi invited us to an event at the University of Washington Press, we were given a copy of “Too High and Too Steep:  Reshaping Seattle’s Topography,” by David B. Williams, who introduces current residents and visitors in today’s Seattle to the landscape that its founding settlers first encountered, one we would barely recognize.  As the city grew, its leaders and inhabitants dramatically altered its topography to accommodate their changing visions.  Williams uses his deep knowledge of Seattle, scientific background, and extensive research and interviews to illuminate the physical challenges and sometimes startling hubris of these large-scale transformations, from the filling in of the Duwamish tideflats to the massive regrading project that pared down Denny Hill.  He also helps us find visible traces of the city’s former landscape and better understand that Seattle is a place that has been radically reshaped.  The book’s illustrations, maps, and historic photos bring home that this was a strange place to build a city, and show us how – and why – the founders coped with its difficult topography, one that had been influenced by glaciers, faults, and tides.  This is a lively journey from native middens to the creation and then modern dismantling of the viaduct and what will become a total transformation of our magnificent waterfront.  James Moore, the son of a wealthy builder and shipowner in Nova Scotia, arrived in Seattle around 1886 and quickly became a leading developer.  In his papers found at his death was a quote on urban planning by architect Daniel Burnham:  “Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood . . . Make big plans, aim high and hope and work.”   That is exactly what Seattle’s forefathers did, and we are the beneficiaries.

Mysteries:  My brother, Bob Pike, suggested I check out Lawrence Block, who has written more than fifty books and numerous short stories and won multiple awards and literary prizes.  I have now happily read two of the books from his Matthew Scudder series, and intend to work my way through many more, as Block is a fine storyteller with a good ear for dialogue.  Scudder, a deeply flawed and deeply moral ex-policeman, recovering alcoholic, and unlicensed private investigator, has walked New York’s streets for almost thirty years, during which a lot of change has come both to him and to his city.  In “Eight Million Ways to Die,” he is supposed to protect a young prostitute named Kim, who wants out of the life, but someone slashes her to death on a waterfront pier.  Now Scudder’s penance is to find her killer, but there are secrets in her past that are dirtier than her trade.  Her pimp actually seems admirable.  “In the Midst of Death,” bad cop Jerry Broadfield didn’t make any friends when he volunteered to squeal to an ambitious D.A. about police corruption.  Now he’s accused of murdering a call girl, and Scudder sets out to prove he didn’t do it – with no help from the cops.

We lose ourselves in books;  we find ourselves there, too.

 

All About Books

April

Fiction:

“Dearly Beloved,” by Cara Wall, begins in 1963, when Charles and Lily, James and Nan meet in Greenwich Village after Charles and James are jointly hired to steward the historic Third Presbyterian Church through unsettling times.  Charles was destined to succeed his father as an esteemed professor of history at Harvard when hearing an unorthodox lecture about faith leads him to the ministry.  How could he then fall in love with the fiercely intellectual Lily, after she tells him she will never believe in God?  James, the youngest son in a hardscrabble family, spent much of his youth angry at his alcoholic father while avoiding his anxious mother.  Nan grew up in Mississippi, the beloved daughter of a minister and a debutante.  James’ escape from his desperate circumstances leads him to Nan and, despite his skepticism, her constant and gentle devotion to God changes the course of his life.  We follow these two couples through decades of love and friendship, jealousy and understanding, against the backdrop of turbulent changes facing the city and the church’s congregation.  The first third of the novel recounts the back story of these four people, so we know them well when they come together. The second section takes us through their first few years as joint ministers when James wants to preach social justice, Charles writes sermons to help people think clearly, Nan takes to life as a preacher’s wife, and Lily moves further away into her own life of academia and activism.  By the third section we feel we understand  these couples and the issues underlying their marriages, and while there is much discussion of their different  approaches to trying to do good while battling their own demons,  it is their personal relationships and struggles that resonate most.  You do not have to be religious to appreciate this provocative and very thoughtful story.

Non-Fiction:

When the fearless war correspondent Marie Colvin was killed in an artillery attack in Homs, Syria, in 2012, she had, in her fifty-six years, covered the most significant global calamities of her lifetime.  “In Extremis,” by Lindsey Hilsum, is an engrossing investigation into Colvin’s epic life and tragic death based on exclusive access to her intimate diaries from age thirteen to her death, interviews with people from every corner of her life, and exhaustive research.  Colvin grew up on Long Island, studied at Yale, and eventually started working for The Sunday Times of London, where she gained a reputation for bravery and compassion as she told the stories of victims of the major conflicts of our time.  She lost sight in one eye while covering the Sri Lanka civil war (the book’s cover features her arresting photo with a black eye patch and wry smile), interviewed Gaddafi and Arafat many times, and risked her life covering conflicts in Chechnya, East Timor, Kosovo, and the Middle East.  Her personal life was also lived in extremis – bold, driven, and complex, she married twice, had many lovers, drank and smoked, and rejected society’s expectations for women.  Despite having PTSD, she was committed to bearing witness to the horrifying truths of war and refused to give up reporting.  This is the riveting story of a woman who “rushed toward the eye of the storm,” in the apt words of one reviewer, one it’s unsettling to be reading in the comfort of one’s home about a woman who regularly left that comfort to face danger and discomfort when she felt she could shine a light on the profound suffering of ordinary people caught in the midst of conflict.  I couldn’t do it, but am so very grateful that she did.

Sarah Broom’sThe Yellow House,” set in a neglected New Orleans neighborhood, is a vivid and moving memoir of family, friends, love and survival.  It also takes us so personally through Hurricane Katrina we feel as if we are experiencing it ourselves.  In 1961, Broom’s mother, Ivory Mae, a fiercely determined and recently widowed nineteen-year-old, invested her life savings in a shotgun house in the then-promising neighborhood of New Orleans East, home to a major NASA plant at the height of the space race.  With her second husband, Simon Broom, who would be Broom’s father, Ivory Mae oversaw one wobbly renovation at a time, keeping the house perpetually under construction.  The family would eventually number twelve children.  When Simon died, six months after Sarah’s birth, the Yellow House became Ivory Mae’s thirteenth and most unruly child.  This book is the story of a mother’s struggle against the gradual decline and disorder of her house (which outsiders, even close friends, weren’t allowed in to witness), and of a daughter who left home only to be pulled back over and over, even after the house was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.  As readers, we are pulled by “The Yellow House” into the gap between the “Big Easy” of tourist guides and the New Orleans in which Broom was raised.  “Much of what is great and praised about the city,” she writes, “comes at the expense of its native black people, who are, more often than not, underemployed, underpaid, sometimes suffocated by the mythology that hides the city’s dysfunction and hopelessness.”   This is a brilliant and touching multi-generational memoir, a love letter from the baby of the family to her complex and all-too-human siblings as well as to the city that shaped her.

Having grown up Ojibwe on a reservation in Minnesota, trained as an anthropologist, and researched Native life for his writing, David Treuer melds history with reportage and memoir in “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee.”   The narrative of Native American history has been that it essentially ended with the 1890 massacre by the U. S. Cavalry of more than 150 Sioux at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota, and that Native civilization did as well.   But Treuer has uncovered a different narrative to explore how the depredations of each era spawned new modes of survival in American Indians’ intense struggles to preserve their tribes, their cultures, and their very existence.  The devastating seizures of land gave rise to increasingly sophisticated legal and political maneuvering.  The forced assimilation of children at government-run boarding schools incubated a unifying Native identity.  Conscription in the military and the pull of urban life brought Indians into the mainstream and at the same time steered the emerging shape of self-rule and inspired a new generation of resistance.  To tell this story, Treuer embarked on three journeys: he traveled back into prehistory, up through the early days of colonial enterprise in North America and beyond; he visited Indian homelands across the country, listening to Indian people telling him what they and their people had experienced and what their lives meant to them; and he looked back and inward at his own life.  With some frustration, a friend asked Treuer, “Where is our Martin Luther King?”  Here is his response.  “Maybe we don’t have one because we both don’t need and can’t have a King.  We Indians are a plurality.  We have always been a plurality.  There are more than five hundred different tribes in the United State, and we all have different cultures, histories, landscapes, and ways of organizing politically.  And we are not only ‘still here’ – we are here and are working to undo the violence of the ages.  We are united by the legacy (and current practices) of colonialism to be sure.  But we are and have always been more than what the government has done to us or tried to do to us and failed:  mainstream us.”  You might think, as I originally did, that this fascinating broad sweep of Native American history is more than you want to know, when actually it turns out to be exactly what we all need to know.

Mysteries:  I became a fan of Attica Locke when reading “Bluebird, Bluebird,” and was equally taken with “Heaven, My Home.”   Texas Ranger Darren Mathews heads to a small lakeside town to investigate a boy’s disappearance, a case which has links to Darren’s last case and to a wealthy businesswoman – the boy’s grandmother.  He also has to deal with his mother, who’s never had his best interests at heart, and his complex marriage, plus battle the centuries-old suspicions and prejudices of the missing boy’s family of white supremacists.  This is a timely and engaging tale of both racism and love.

“It’s not that I don’t like people. It’s just that when I’m in the company of others – even my nearest and dearest – there always comes a moment when I’d rather be reading a book.” – Maureen Corrigan

All About Books

 

 

March

Marie Olmstead commented I would probably be writing up 30 books this month, given the circumstances, but, oddly enough, I find my days to be full with staying in touch with friends and family, figuring out how to order stuff, gardening, going for walks, cooking, and finding books that would keep me more engaged than watching CNN.  How I miss my Bellevue library – and how I hope all King County readers will donate to the KCLS Foundation to help it make up the 30% of its budget that was lost when the  March 7 Gala had to be cancelled. These are difficult days, but I know we will emerge from them better for having seen and experienced so many acts of kindness, and that we will again share our most  important family and social relationships from closer than six feet.

Fiction: 

I can’t remember how I heard about “The Space Between Us,” by Thrity Umrigar, and didn’t know until I started reading it what it was about, but, oh my, how I loved it!   Set in modern-day India, it is the story of two compelling women:  Sera Dubash, an upper-middle-class Parsi housewife whose opulent surroundings hide the shame and disappointment of her abusive marriage, and Bhima, a stoic illiterate hardened by a life of despair and loss, who has worked in the Dubash household for more than twenty years.  We quickly come to understand how the lives of the rich and poor are intrinsically connected yet vastly removed from each other, and how the strong bonds of womanhood are eternally opposed by the divisions of class and culture as well as the structure of a complex patriarchal society.  Umrigar vividly describes the sensuous background of everyday life in Bombay, the writing is brilliant, and the characters are memorable.  By the time Sera and Bhima are each forced to make a separate choice, I felt I was truly sharing their pain, and I found the ending stunning.

You know I like books that transport me to other times and places, so I happily found myself on the Kamchatka Peninsula, at the northeastern edge of Russia, in “The Disappearing Earth,” by Julia Phillips.  One August afternoon two sisters, eight and eleven, go missing, and the police investigation during the ensuing weeks turns up nothing.  Over the subsequent year in Kamchatka we meet a cast of richly drawn characters, all connected by the crime:  a witness, a neighbor, a detective, a mother.  We get to know the peninsula, with its rugged beauty and glassy seas, as well as the social and ethnic tensions that have long simmered and the fact that outsiders are often the first to be accused.  Suspense carefully builds in this vivid and brilliantly written story, and I couldn’t begin to imagine how it would end.  The map of the peninsula was a bonus.  Don’t miss this one.

Edna O’Brien is a fine writer, and “Girl” is her devastating portrayal of a young woman in Nigeria abducted by Boko Haram.  She is captured and married against her will, suffering the atrocities of a community of young men governed by a brutal code of violence.  Barely more than a girl herself, she must soon learn how to survive on her own as a woman with a child.  She succeeds in escaping, only to enter another world where her traumas are met with the judgment of a society in denial.  This thoughtful story is both violent and tender, challenging us to comprehend the barbarism of our enemies and trying to find forgiveness for atrocities committed in the name of ideology.  I know it’s not a comforting read during these difficult times, but it happened, and we mustn’t look away.  O’Brien has created a beautiful, compassionate story of human redemption, and you will not regret reading it.

When I met the impressive Dr. Charles (Chuck) Johnson, English Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington, at an ACT Theatre event, and learned he had received NEA and Guggenheim fellowships as well as a MacArthur “genius” grant, I knew I wanted to read his “Middle Passage,” which won the 1990 National Book Award for Fiction.  It begins in 1830 in New Orleans, when Rutherford Calhoun, a newly freed slave and irrepressible rogue, is desperate to escape unscrupulous bill collectors and an impending marriage to a priggish schoolteacher.  He jumps aboard the first boat leaving New Orleans, a slave ship en route to collect members of a legendary African tribe, the Allmuseri.  Thus begins a daring voyage of horror and self-discovery, a vivid combination of historical romance, sea yarn, slave narrative, and philosophical novel.  When the ship reaches the coastal trading post, the dwarf Captain Falcon takes aboard not only a cargo of tribesmen, considered premium-grade slaves, but also their god, packaged in a crate and kept in the darkest recesses of the hold.  Calhoun’s former master has given him a humanist education, and his narration of this extraordinary voyage is gripping, especially since he is torn between loyalty to his white American fellow crewmates and his empathy for the slaves in the hold.   You will find yourself engrossed in this short book, fully immersed in a world far removed from our own.

Non-Fiction:

 I will read anything Gail Collins writes, from her books to her insightful and delicious New York Times columns.  “No Stopping Us Now:  The Adventures of Older Women in American History” celebrates the achievements of heroines from Martha Washington to Sojourner Truth to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, demonstrating the ways in which age is an arbitrary concept that has changed over the centuries.  In Plymouth Colony, women were considered marriageable if “Civil, and under 50 Years of Age.”  The story of the colonial era is frequently about widows, as nearly every woman married sooner or later.  “An old maid is one of the most cranky, ill-natured, maggoty, peevish, conceited, disagreeable, hypocritical, fretful, noisy, giving, canting, censorious, out-of-the-way, never-to-be-pleased, good for nothing creatures,”  hyperventilated a North Carolina paper.  Collins’ book takes us from there through the decades, noting the changing roles of  women as they aged and society’s attitudes toward them.  I loved the 1930s recap of Blondie Boopadoop, the party-loving cutie whose long-running fling with Dagwood, a dim-witted billionaire’s son, in the popular comic strip “Blondie” suddenly seemed wrong for the hard economic times.  Her creator quickly married the pair off, disinherited Dagwood, and turned his heroine into a sensible, rather harried housewife whose husband was a low-watt office worker providing comic relief. No way did I know that backstory! During WWII women were wanted everywhere, but its end brought changes for almost everyone.  Women were living longer, and the Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit research, issued a warning in 1955 that “the country could be taken over by elderly women since their numbers were increasing so much faster than those of men.”  By the 1960s, “people in their 80s who made the news were usually treated as either miraculous exceptions or adorable, albeit, wrinkled, babies.”  (I loved that line.)  Collins continues through the dramatic decades for women which have brought us into the 21st century, noting how we have benefited from medical advancements and highlighting the achievements of women of all ages in all areas of society – including Hillary Clinton, a woman in her late sixties, our first female nominee for president. This book is a gold mine.

I am reeling from all the information about the workings of my body I learned from Bill Bryson’s “The Body, A Guide for Occupants.” It is an amazing overview of the human body – how it functions, its remarkable ability to heal itself, and (unfortunately) the ways it can fail.  Full of extraordinary facts (your body made a million red blood cells since you started reading this) and irresistible anecdotes told with Bryson’s usual wry and delightful humor, “The Body” helps us understand what miracles we are!  As he says, “We pass our existence within this wobble of flesh and yet take it almost entirely for granted.”  I guarantee you’ll never take your brain for granted after learning that just sitting quietly, doing nothing at all, your brain churns through more information in thirty seconds than the HubbleSpace Telescope has processed in thirty years.  “Your brain is you.  Everything else is just plumbing and scaffolding.”  Our bodies are awesome, but Bryson is careful to note we do not always appreciate or care for them as we should.  “In the United States, we are left in the bizarre and paradoxical situation that we are essentially the world’s most overfed nation but also one of its most nutritionally deficient ones.”  This book may be dense, but it is also eminently readable and rich with things we need to know about ourselves to appreciate how truly wondrous we are.

Mysteries:  The twisty and ingenious “Th1rt3en,” by Steve Cavanagh, will keep you glued to its pages.  It’s the trial of the century:  a famous movie star is accused of murdering his wife in their Manhattan home.  Defense lawyer Eddie Flynn believes his client is innocent and the real killer is still out there – and he’s right.  The serial killer isn’t on trial, he’s on the jury!  Such a clever legal thriller.  I was completely caught up in the challenge criminal mastermind Riley Wolfe set for himself in “Just Watch Me,” by Jeff Lindsay.  Wolfe aims for an extraordinary target:  the Crown Jewels of Iran, worth billions, which are on tour in America, guarded by space-age electronics and two teams of heavily armed mercenaries. He is also being pursued by a brilliant and relentless cop who has been closing in and is now barely a step behind him.  Will Wolfe confirm his legend – or die?  You can’t wait to find out.

Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book.” – Jane Smiley   Stay safe, stay healthy, feel better.