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.

All About Books

February

Fiction:

How I do love growing older with the blunt and irascible Olive Kitteridge, and I hope Elizabeth Strout never lets her die!  In “Olive, Again,” Olive is navigating her next decade and the changes – sometimes welcome, sometimes not – in her own life.  She is confident in her second marriage, is in an evolving relationship with her son and his family, and as always crosses paths with a cast of memorable characters in the seaside town of Crosby, Maine.  It is amazing to me how thoroughly Strout is able to help us identify both with Olive and with her other complicated characters, even when they do not act admirably. We understand them, and at the same time learn more about ourselves.  As in lines like this – “And it came to him then that it should never be taken lightly, the essential loneliness of people, that the choices they made to keep themselves from that gaping darkness were choices that required respect.”  And this – “When you get old, you become invisible.  It’s just the truth.  And yet it’s freeing in a way.”   Olive Kitteridge is a woman we will never forget .

“Nothing to See Here,” by Kevin Wilson, is a delight.  Lillian and Madison were unlikely roommates and yet inseparable friends at their boarding school.  But then Lillian left the school unexpectedly in the wake of a scandal and they’ve barely spoken since – until now, more than 10 years later, when Lillian gets a letter from Madison, now married to a wealthy man, pleading for her help.  Madison’s twin stepkids are moving in with her family and she wants Lillian to leave her dead-end job to be their caretaker.  However, there’s a catch:  the twins spontaneously combust when they get agitated, flames igniting from their skin in a startling but beautiful way (it’s amazing how quickly we adjust to this strange truth).  Lillian figures she has nothing to lose, and over the course of one demanding summer, Lillian and the twins learn to trust one another while staying out of the way of their father, Madison’s politician husband. Lillian is a kick – a fierce, no-nonsense person who knows nothing about kids – and I loved the way she and the twins warmed (no pun intended) to each other.  This book is tender, fun, and witty, and keeps you wanting to know what’s going to happen next.  I look forward to reading more of Wilson’s work.

If you want to get to the heart of questions roiling contemporary France, do read “Older Brother,” by Mahir Guven, born in 1986 in Nantes, the stateless child of refugees, his mother from Turkey and his Kurdish father from Iraq.  It is the poignant story of a Franco-Syrian family whose father and two sons work to integrate themselves into a society that would rather ignore them. The father, an atheist communist from Syria, has worked for a decade driving a taxi to support his family.  The eldest son is a driver for an app-based car service (which threatens his father’s livelihood), and the shy and serious younger brother works as a nurse in a French hospital, but, jaded by the regular rejections from French society, decides to join a Muslim humanitarian organization to help wounded civilians in the war in Syria. He stops sending news home, then suddenly returns, completely changed.  As his older brother desperately tries to understand why, we join them on a dangerous path.  This story is told in the distinct voices of the two brothers, whom, we come to realize, are not quite French but not quite Syrian; not immigrants, but not exactly natives.  “Aliens without knowing why.”  Here’s a quote that resonated with me, “All I know is that us guys from the projects, we do what everyone in society does; we reproduce our parents’ lives.  Here, aside from a few rappers and athletes, which are a hedge, a smoke screen hiding a forest of robots, nobody’s life has turned out the way they wanted it to.  Just like our parents, my bro.”  A rich and compelling story like this, which takes us into the lives faced by so many refugees in the world, reinforces our awareness that there are no simple answers.

I was in thrall during the last few chapters of  “The Doll Factory,” by Elizabeth Macneal, desperate to know how things were going to be resolved, even though I had originally read only a bit and then set the book aside as perhaps too lightweight to be interesting.  Wrong!  In Victorian London, amidst its splendor and squalor, a dollmaker named Iris dreams of becoming a painter.  Silas, a curiosity collector enchanted by all things strange and beautiful, is searching for the perfect showpiece for his singular – and weird – collection.  A toothless urchin is privy to the ambitions of both, and one afternoon, heading for the construction site of the Crystal Palace, the greatest museum London has ever seen, he introduces Silas to Iris for the first time – a meeting that changes everything for all of them.  This is a powerfully written novel, a love story with a real historical background (the Pre-Raphaelite painters), an engrossing plot, and fascinating characters – a true literary thriller.  So happy I didn’t give up on it.

Non-Fiction:

Nancy Pearl recommended “Our Man:  Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century,” by George Packer, and I thought it was terrific. Richard Holbrooke, who was brilliant and wholly self-absorbed, possessed almost inhuman energy and appetites.  Admired and detested, he was the force behind the Dayton Accords that ended the Balkan wars, America’s greatest diplomatic achievement in the post-Cold War era.  From his days as a young advisor in Vietnam to his last efforts to end the war in Afghanistan, Holbrooke embodied the postwar American impulse to take the lead on the global stage, but his sharp elbows and tireless self-promotion ensured that he never rose to the highest levels in government that he so desperately coveted.  Drawn from Holbrooke’s diaries and papers, “Our Man” pulls us intimately into his private and public lives, providing an amazingly revelatory portrait of both the man and the elite spheres of society he inhabited.  Snippets of the book kept coming back to me – like the Peanuts strip that circulated among Holbrooke and his friends in Vietnam.  Charlie Brown’s baseball team had just gotten slaughtered, 184-0, and Charlie says, “How can we lose when we’re so sincere?”  We like our wars quick and decisive, and we keep fighting this kind of war because the power of our belief in ourselves.  “If we are good – and are we not good?  – then we won’t need to force other people to do what we want.  … They will want for themselves what we want for them.”  Compelling writing.  And during the eighties – “Reagan found the perfect formula for Republican supremacy:  wave the flag and ask nothing of the American people.”  (I’m resisting quoting the entire marvelous paragraph – you’ll appreciate it when you get there.)  Lines like “Holbrooke could never laugh at himself because he didn’t know himself,” and Holbrooke’s observation about Bill Clinton, “He’s surrounded by teenagers and children who are not worthy of his own abilities.  His strengths got him to the White House, his weaknesses are hobbling him.”  Packer’s description of the Rubik’s cube of our complex relationships with Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Taliban, India, China and the Saudis and theirs with each other is masterful.  I can’t imagine who wouldn’t lap this book up.

Jack’s Rotary had a group discussion about “White Fragility:  Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism,” by Robin Diangelo, a white Seattle sociologist and diversity trainer who has a PhD in multicultural education, and I would suggest it’s a thoughtful and timely read for any of us.  She explores how white fragility (referring to the defensive moves that white people make when challenged racially) develops and protects racial inequality, how racism as a practice is not restricted to “bad people,” and what we can do to engage more constructively. Diangelo admits she is generalizing – breaking the cherished ideology of individualism in our culture – but says we cannot understand modern forms of racism if we cannot or will not explore patterns of group behavior and their effects on individuals.  The racial status quo is comfortable for white people, and we will not move forward in race relations if we remain comfortable.  The key is what we do with our discomfort.  We are taken back to the fact that freedom and equality  – regardless of religion or class status – were radical new ideas when the United States was formed, while at the same time the US economy was based on the abduction and enslavement of African people, the displacement and genocide of Indigenous people, and the annexation of Mexican lands.  Further, the colonizers who came were not free of their own deeply internalized patterns of domination and submission.  The idea of racial inferiority was created to justify unequal treatment:  belief in racial inferiority is not what triggered unequal treatment.  Race is an evolving social idea that was created to legitimize racial inequality and protect white advantage.  Diangelo says we need to understand that racism is prejudice plus power (a system rather than just a slur), follows racism through history, enumerates racial triggers for white people, and closes with Where Do We Go From Here?   She also explains why she won’t give liberals an easy ride – and don’t get her started on the concept of “reverse racism.”  Such a provocative and valuable read!

An excellent companion to “White Fragility” is the very readable “So You Want to Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo, an African-American writer and speaker who was named one of the most influential people in Seattle by Seattle magazine.   Oluo says her race has been one of the most defining forces in her life.  She offers a clarifying discussion of the racial landscape in America, addressing head-on the issues that divide us.  Attempting to bridge the gap between people of color and white Americans struggling with race complexities, Oluo explains the concepts that continue to elude everyday Americans, and answers the questions many of us don’t dare ask.  She states that race is a social construct, created not only to justify a racially exploitative economic system but invented to lock people of color into the bottom of it.  This promise – you will get more because they exist to get less – is woven throughout our entire society, our politics, our education system, our infrastructure, anywhere there is a finite amount of power, influence, visibility, wealth, or opportunity. She recognizes that people of color are not the only people who have gotten less – it is about class and gender and sexuality and ability – but it’s also, almost always, about race.  This is a bold book, asking and then responding to questions we have all wondered about, like “Is police brutality really about race?” “What if I talk about race wrong?” “If I don’t support affirmative action, does that make me a racist?” “Why can’t I touch your hair?” “I just got called racist, what do I do now?”  Oluo defines racism as a prejudice against someone based on race, when those prejudices are reinforced by systems of power.  She says that if we are looking for a simple way to determine if something is about race, there are three basic rules:  it is about race if a person of color thinks it is about race; it is about race if it disproportionately or differently affects people of color; and it is about race if it fits into a broader pattern of events that disproportionately or differently affect people of color.  And if you think that is far too broad, and that almost anything can fall under these categories, it’s true – because race impacts almost every aspect of our lives.  I am so tempted to write more and more to encourage you to read this direct and brutally honest book, but just know that it addresses issues that affect us all with clarity, insight and humor.  Think of it as essential reading.

Mysteries:  Oh, what fun it was to read “What Rose Forgot,” by Nevada Barr. Rose Dennis, a woman in her sixties, wakes up in a hospital gown, with a foggy brain, only to discover she has been committed to an Alzheimer’s unit in a nursing home with no memory of how she ended up in this position.  She’s just sure something is very wrong, and is convinced that if she’s to survive, she has to get out of there.  She devises a plan of escape, and any lingering doubt that she’s in real danger is erased when a would-be killer shows up in the middle of the night.  I loved the plot and the characters and the snappy dialog – and especially Rose and her precocious teenage granddaughter. (Jack is currently reading it and keeps saying, “This is so clever!”)   “The Long Call,” by Ann Cleeves, builds a suspenseful plot, with all sorts of potentially guilty characters.  A body turns up on a beach in North Devon, near where Detective Matthew Venn grew up. When he left the strict evangelical community he grew up in, he also lost his family, but this case draws him back to the people and places of his past and the deadly secrets he eventually uncovers.  Intriguing setting, plot, and characters. It’s fun to be transported to a totally different time and place, and “The Glass Woman,” by Caroline Lea, set in Iceland in the 1600s, certainly does that!  When her father dies unexpectedly and her mamma falls ill, young Rosa’s future is apparently secured by her marriage to Jon Eiriksson, a visiting trader, despite the dark rumors surrounding his first wife’s mysterious death. After a perilous journey across the stark Nordic countryside to Jon’s secluded simple croft, she struggles to adapt to her new housewife role and is startled by the fierce loneliness she faces, both when Jon is at home and when he is on the road.  And what’s up with the strange noises coming from the locked attic? Ultimately Rosa has to choose between obedience and defiance for her own survival.  I’ve always enjoyed John Le Carre’s books, but just couldn’t get into “Agent Running in the Field.”  Nat, a 47-year-old veteran of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, is a passionate badminton player.  His regular Monday evening opponent is half his age:  the introspective and solitary Ed, who hates Brexit, hates Trump, and hates his job at some soulless media agency.  The plot eventually hinges on Ed, but I never found him interesting enough to care about.

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

All About Books

January 2020

Fiction:

I found “A Ladder to the Sky,” by John Boyne, to be a delicious satirical psychological thriller. Maurice Swift is handsome, charming, and hungry for fame.  The one thing he lacks is talent – but he won’t let that stand in his way.  A would-be writer can find stories anywhere, even if they aren’t his own.  Working as a waiter in a West Berlin hotel in 1988, Maurice engineers the perfect opportunity:  a chance encounter with celebrated novelist Erich Ackermann.  He quickly ingratiates himself with the powerful but desperately lonely older man, teasing out of him a terrible, long-held secret about his activities during the war.  Perfect material for Maurice’s first novel!  Once he tastes literary fame, Maurice knows he can stop at nothing to further his career, ignoring the old proverb about ambition:  “It’s like setting a ladder to the sky.  A pointless waste of energy.”  As he moves from matching wits with Gore Vidal on the Amalfi Coast to Manhattan and London, Maurice hones his talent for deceit and manipulation, preying on the talented and vulnerable in his cold-blooded climb to the top.  The chapters rotate through different perspectives, and the one by his wife will take your breath away.  This is a remarkably ingenious plot, intriguing from beginning to end.  You’ll despise Maurice, but love his story.

When I mentioned “The Kelloggs” to Nancy Pearl, as she is from Michigan, she recommended  “The Road to Wellville,” by T. C. Boyle, also set in Battle Creek and featuring Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s infamous spa.  I thought that might be more than I wanted to know about the Kelloggs, but I was so wrong – Boyle is a dazzling storyteller, and I loved this book from beginning to end!  Will Lightbody is a man with a stomach ailment whose only sin is loving his wife, Eleanor, too much.  Eleanor is a health nut of the first stripe, and when in 1907 she journeys to Dr. Kellogg’s spa to live out the vegetarian ethos, poor Will goes, too.  This is a wickedly clever look at turn-of-the-century fanatics in search of the magic pill to prolong their lives – or the profit to be had from manufacturing it.  You will learn about the evils of dyspepsia, the horrors of autointoxication, the nightmares of neuralgia, and the tribulations of the alimentary canal, as well as being introduced to a cast of fascinating Dickensian tragicomic characters caught up in dramatic plot twists.  I am now eager to read other stories by this erudite and slyly humorous writer.

I liked Richard Russo’s early books, then was not so fond of several that followed, but did enjoy his latest, “Chances Are.”  On a September weekend, three 60-year-old men convene on Martha’s Vineyard, still the closest of friends since they originally bonded at a Connecticut college in the sixties and despite living a considerable distance apart.  Although very different, they have in common not only their school days but a mystery involving a young woman they all loved that none of them has ever stopped puzzling over since a Memorial Day weekend on the Vineyard in 1971. Russo writes masterfully and with sly humor about small communities and academia and people with a shared history, but also brings to this Vietnam-era story tension and suspense that kept me fully engaged.

I have long been drawn to books set in Afghanistan, and although “A Door in the Earth,” by Amy Waldman, is not the best one I’ve read, I did appreciate how well she creates the social world of an Afghan mountain village. Parveen Shams, a college senior in search of a calling, feels pulled between her charismatic anthropology professor and the comfortable but predictable Afghan-American community in her Northern Californian hometown.  When she discovers a bestselling book called “Mother Afghanistan,” a memoir by humanitarian Gideon Crane that has become a bible for American engagement in the country, she is inspired to travel to a remote village in the land where she was born to join the work of his charitable foundation.  When she arrives, however, she finds Crane’s maternity clinic grandly equipped but mostly unstaffed, and the villagers not particularly grateful for her presence. Crane’s memoir appears to have many mistakes and even outright lies. (Are you thinking “Three Cups of Tea?”)  Then the U.S. military, also drawn by Crane’s book, shows up to pave the sole road to the village (as in “winning hearts and minds,”), bringing the war in its wake.  After a fatal ambush, Parveen struggles with where her loyalties lie, and how to deal with uncomfortable truths.  Waldman, who reported for the New York Times after 9/11, is very effective in bringing to her readers a vivid on-the-ground understanding of how complex the situation in Afghanistan really is.

Khaled Khalifa’sDeath is Hard Work” is the nightmarish story of three ordinary people caught up in Syria’s catastrophic civil war as they try to fulfill the final request of a dying man.  Abdel Latif, an old man from the Aleppo region, dies peacefully in a hospital bed in Damascus after conveying to his youngest son, Bolbol, that he wishes to be buried in the family plot in their ancestral village of Anabiya.  Although Abdel wasn’t a great father and Bolbol is currently estranged from his two siblings, he does persuade his older brother, Hussein, and sister, Fatima, to help him drive the body to Anabiya, ordinarily only a few hours’ drive from Damascus.  But now their country is a war zone, and the decision the three have made to set aside their differences and honor their father’s request becomes a daring odyssey, as they and Abdel Latif’s rapidly deteriorating corpse are repeatedly captured and recaptured, sidetracked, attacked, and insulted. “In this war-torn country, there were mass graves everywhere filled with casualties who’d never even been identified.  Death wasn’t even a source of distress anymore:  it had become an escape much envied by the living.”  But this was a different story – this body would be big trouble, as Bolbol had promised to bury his father in the same grave as Bolbol’s aunt and he is determined to do so.  As they drive through the countryside, with both sides in the war burning the country and applauding the slaughter, Bolbol muses in silence and wonders what could be achieved by either side through a victory oozing with blood.  Khalifa is Syria’s best-known storyteller, and this novel, filled with black humor, puts us in the middle of a world where “everyone is thinking up ways of surviving, with never a moment free from considering the question of how to keep clinging on to life.” It’s a reality check about a world far removed from our own.

“Cherokee America,” a multi-layered frontier epic of historical fiction by Margaret Verble, takes us into a corner of the Cherokee Nation where a baby, a black hired hand, a bay horse, and a neighbor have all gone missing.  As a wealthy farmer, the mother of five boys, and the matriarch of her family, Cherokee America Singer, known as Check, is used to wielding authority, and she’s determined to find out what’s going on.  In the aftermath of the Civil War, complex alliances and simmering race and culture clashes unite and divide the people living on Cherokee lands.  Tensions mount and violence escalates, and the long arm of white law encroaches further into Indian Territory.  Determined to survive and thrive on their own terms after decades of betrayal and hardship, Check’s family, friends, and neighbors have to come together to avenge a crime, outwit federal authorities, and protect their sovereignty.  This story, inspired by Verble’s family, gives us a different kind of Western, one told from the Native American point of view, with a mixed-race woman at the center.  I knew little about Native American life at this time in history, and was deeply impressed by this complex story of a people’s struggle to maintain their culture.

Non-Fiction:

“Travel Light, Move Fast,” by Alexandra Fuller (“Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight”), is the story of Tim Fuller, Alexandra’s father, a self-exiled black sheep who left his “sad, cold, lonely British childhood” behind when he moved to Africa to fight in the Rhodesian Bush War before settling as a banana farmer in Zambia.  He was a man who preferred chaos to predictability, more afraid of becoming bored than of getting lost (or, as he would say, “temporarily surprised by our destination”). After he died while he and his wife were on a trip to Budapest, Fuller and her mother returned to their farm with his ashes, having to contend with his overwhelming absence.  She writes with irreverence and great affection about her childhood spent running after him in southern and central Africa and of the rollicking grand adventures she and her sister shared with their mother and father.  Her mother, Nicola, a glamorous, indomitable woman I would love to have met, was the perfect foil for her colorful father, and in another of her “Awful Books,” as her mother called them, Fuller beautifully transports us to the time and place where her family lived lives filled with joy and tragedy and complex relationships.

I read that Melinda Gates recommended “The Wet Engine,” in which the late Oregon writer Brian Doyle weaves together the inspiring and deeply personal story of his infant son Liam’s heart surgery and the brilliant young doctor who saved his life with an examination of the heart both as a physical organ and as a metaphor:  the seat of the soul, the powerhouse of the body, the essence of spirituality.  Doyle considers the scientific, emotional, literary, philosophical, and spiritual understandings of the heart, which is the first organ to form, beginning smaller than a comma and ending up bigger than a fist.  The pulse begins when a baby is about twenty days old, then continues, on average, for about two billion pulses, with no one knowing why that many.  Or that few.  He quotes the American poet Mary Oliver, who asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  The heart may be merely a muscle, “subject to entropy and failure, malfunction and malaise, storm and shatter,” but this thoughtful book will convince you it is truly a miraculous one.

Mysteries:   In Lee Child’s latest, “Blue Moon,” Jack Reacher steps off a Greyhound bus to help an old man who is obviously a victim waiting to happen.  One brazen move leads to another, and suddenly Reacher finds himself a wanted man in the middle of a brutal turf war between rival Ukrainian and Albanian gangs.  I liked this one better than the last, but felt the plot was a little loose and the violence excessive.  C. J. Box writes compelling mysteries.  In “Three Weeks to Say Goodbye,” Jack and Melissa McGuane spent years trying to have a baby, and finally were able to adopt their daughter, Angelina.  But nine months after bringing her home, they learn the birth father, an irresponsible rich teenager who never signed away his parental rights, wants her back.  You will agonize with them every suspenseful step of the way as the McGuanes try to figure out why.

What an astonishing thing a book is.  It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles.  But one glance at it you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe someone dead for thousands of years.  Across the millennia, an author is clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you.  Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens on distant epochs.  Books break the shackles of time.  A book is proof that humans are capable of working Magic.  Carl Sagan  (Thanks to Marie Olmstead for this.)

All About Books

December

Fiction:

Based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for 111 years and warped the lives of thousands of children, “The Nickel Boys,” by Colson Whitehead (who won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for “The Underground Railroad”), is a story both gripping and devastating. In segregated Tallahassee in the early 60s, Elwood Curtis, abandoned by his parents but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, is a high school senior about to start classes at a local college. Then he makes one innocent mistake, and in the Jim Crow South that is enough to destroy a black boy’s future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides “physical, intellectual, and moral training” so that the delinquent boys in their charge can become “honorable and honest men.” In reality, it is a grotesque chamber of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students and any boy who resists is likely to disappear “out back.” Elwood tries to hold on to Martin Luther King’s assertion, “Throw us in jail and we’ll still love you,” but his friend Turner thinks that the world is crooked and that Elwood is worse than naïve.   Ultimately the two make a decision whose repercussions determine their fates. This is a short book, but the impact it has on the reader is both deep and long.

(Note: Colson Whitehead will be the keynote speaker for the KCLS Foundation Gala on March 7, 2020, at the Bellevue Hyatt Regency. He will be introduced by Melinda Gates. At this always fabulous event, you’ll be able to meet and buy autographed books from a distinguished group of Northwest authors including Shauna James Ahern, Jassixa Bagley, John Becker & Megan Scott, Claudia Castro-Luna, Christine Day, Tim Egan, Clyde Ford, Nicola Griffith, David Guterson, Charles Johnson, Kelly Jones, Eric Liu, Karl Marlantes, Ciscoe Morris, Michelle Ruiz Keil, Susanna Ryan and Larry Stone. Let me know if you’d like to join my table!)

Ann Patchett’s books are a joy to read, and “The Dutch House” is no exception. At the end of the Second World War, Cyril Conroy’s enormous wealth allows him to buy the Dutch House, a lavish estate in the suburbs of Philadelphia, as a surprise for his wife. Unfortunately, the house becomes the undoing of everything he loves. Set over the course of five decades, the saga of The Dutch House is told by Cyril’s indulged son, Danny, as he and his ever-protective older sister, Maeve, are ultimately exiled by their stepmother from the house where they grew up. Both are thrown into poverty, and find that all they can count on is each other and their unshakeable bond. I was immediately drawn into the story – that’s what Patchett is able to do to the reader so beautifully – and caught up in the lives of the characters and the suspense of what would happen next. Isn’t that a definition of a terrific read?

OK – you have to read “My Sister, the Serial Killer,” by Oyinkan Braithwaite, a Nigerian writer, even if, like me, you don’t find the title appealing. Reviews hailing it as “brutally hilarious,” “taut and darkly funny,” “the wittiest and most fun murder party you’ve ever been to,” finally sucked me in, and I read right straight through it, as I was captivated. Korede is bitter – why wouldn’t she be? Her sister, Ayoola, is many things – the favorite sister, the beautiful one, possibly sociopathic. And now Ayoola’s third boyfriend in a row is dead. (“Femi makes three, you know. Three and they label you a serial killer.”) Korede’s practicality is the sisters’ saving grace, as she knows the best solutions for cleaning blood, the trunk of her car is big enough for a body, and she keeps Ayoola from posting pictures of her dinner to Instagram when she should be mourning her “missing” boyfriend. Not that she gets any credit. I don’t want to relay any more of the riveting plot, but I have to say there’s way more to this story than the killings and the subtle humor, making the reader think about family, and love, and loyalty. Enjoy.

My granddaughter Gabriela gave me the “A Philosophy of Ruin,” an intelligent and impressive debut novel written by her friend from Amherst College, Nicholas Mancusi. Oscar Boatwright, a disenchanted assistant philosophy professor, learns that his mother has died on a flight home from Hawaii, forcing his father to complete the flight sitting next to her body. Deeply grieving, he feels his life slipping out of his control.   “Not only was she gone, but her impression of him, that she had carried with her and refined since their first sublimely traumatic moment of his birth, was gone as well.” A seemingly innocuous one-night stand with a woman named Dawn becomes volatile when, on the first day of classes, he realizes she is his student, and later learns that she is a fledgling campus drug lord. To make matters worse, his family is in debt, having lost their modest savings to a self-help guru who had indoctrinated Oscar’s mother by preying on her depression. Desperate to help his family, Oscar agrees to help Dawn with a drug run. You know this is not going to end well! Oscar embarks on a journey that is both funny and terrifying. At one point, he says, “All disasters are inevitable. Now or later, what’s the difference?” I wondered how this novel would end – and then it did, and I am still pondering his fate.

My daughter Catherine’s friend Andrew Altschul sent me an advance copy of his latest book, “The Gringa,” loosely based on the events surrounding the American activist Lori Berenson, who served a 20-year prison sentence for collaboration with a terrorist organization in Peru in 1996. In the book it is 1998, and Leonora Gelb, a passionate and idealistic Stanford grad, is determined to make a difference. While working in the slums of Lima, Peru, she falls into the orbit of a Marxist revolutionary group; when they are eventually captured, Gelb is sentenced to life in a Peruvian prison. Ten years later, Andres – an aimless American expat novelist – is asked to write a journalistic profile of “La Leo.” He struggles to understand her and her motivation, and to chronicle Peru’s violent history. Is she an activist or a terrorist, conspirator or naïve puppet? I still haven’t decided. This is a fascinating journey into a mind and a country’s history I suspect are unfamiliar to most of us, but so relevant in our attempts to understand the rebellions we see happening in countries around the world. As I read this book I found myself both impatient with Leo and sympathetic to her attempts to right the wrongs she perceived. Can one person actually make a difference in combating the world’s injustice? This is a provocative and challenging story, one in which the reader becomes deeply immersed.

Ocean Vuong, a young Vietnamese-American writer is a poet, and his writing in “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is beautifully poetic. This book takes the form of a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read.   Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began in Vietnam before he was born and spans to Hartford, Connecticut, where the author was raised. Little Dog’s abusive father is absent; his mother, who has little English, works at a nail salon and has PTSD from the war. His elderly grandmother, Lan, who also lives in Hartford, has schizophrenia and is dying of cancer. There are times when Vuong’s prose becomes showy, but Little Dog’s narration of his brief love affair with Trevor, a slightly older boy he meets while both work in the tobacco fields, could not feel more honest. This semi-autobiographical book takes us into Vuong’s challenging experience of being part of a troubled family, of surviving a war, of being an immigrant and a gay man. He has become a fine writer.

My fellow ACT Theatre board member, Sharyn Skeeter, has written a charming and moving novel inspired by her grandmother’s Langston family and their oral history of Langston Hughes, the American writer who was an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance and who made the African-American experience the subject of his writings, which ranged from poetry and plays to novels and newspaper columns. In “Dancing with Langston,” Carrie, a business manager who always wanted to be a dancer, has two commitments today. She made a promise to her late father to move Cousin Ella, a former Paris café dancer, from her condemned Harlem apartment to a safe place. She has also committed to catching a flight to Seattle with her husband for his new job. But Cousin Ella resists leaving the apartment where she’s had salons with Langston Hughes. She also has a mysterious gift that she wants Carrie to earn. If she does, a revelation about Carrie’s father and his cousin Langston Hughes will change her life. While being drawn into the lives of Ella and her compatriots we feel the both the warmth and conflict of family bonds, the vibrancy of black culture and history, and the emotional weight of a dream deferred, while becoming deeply fond of these colorful characters.

Non-Fiction:

I wish “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right,” by Jane Mayer, could have been shorter, because I found it increasingly depressing to absorb the wealth of information Mayer was able to come up with in this meticulously reported history about how a network of exceedingly wealthy people with extreme libertarian views bankrolled a systematic, step-by-step plan to fundamentally alter the American political system. The core beliefs of this network – that taxes are a form of tyranny, that government oversight of business is an assault on freedom – are sincerely held, but they also advance their personal and corporate interests, and many of their companies have run afoul of federal pollution, worker safety, securities, and tax laws. The chief figures in the network will be familiar to you – Charles and David Koch, whose father made his fortune in part by building oil refineries in Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany and later was a founding member of the John Birch Society. The brothers were schooled to believe the only role of government is to provide security and to enforce property rights, period. When their ideas proved unpopular with voters, the Kochs and their allies chose to pool their vast resources to fund an interlocking array of organizations that work in tandem to influence and ultimately control academic institutions, think tanks, the courts, statehouses, Congress, and, they hoped, the presidency. They had the brilliant insight that most of their political activities – given innocuous names like “Americans for Prosperity,” with their funding sources hidden – could be written off as tax-deductible “philanthropy.” Ultimately this process led to the founding of the allegedly populist Tea Party movement, abetted by the Citizens United decision, a case conceived of by the legal advocates the network funded. Libertarian views on taxes and regulation, once far outside the mainstream, are ascendant in the majority of state governments, the Supreme Court, and Congress, while meaningful environmental, labor, finance, and tax reforms have been stymied. Mayer has done a masterful job of compiling input from five years of conducting interviews and scouring public records, private papers, and court proceedings to shed light on the often ruthless operatives the network employs, who so far have been remarkably successful in creating a new American oligarchy. One former Koch executive used a quotation from Salvador Dali on his personal blog that could have served as the enterprise’s motto: “The secret of my influence is that is has always remained secret.” We have to hope that, thanks to Jane Mayer, that won’t continue to be the case.

Mysteries:   You can count on Laura Lippman to write mysteries that are also good stories. In “Lady in the Lake,” it is 1966 in Baltimore, and Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz has left her marriage of almost 20 years, determined to lead a passionate, meaningful life. She helps the police find a murdered girl, which leads to a job at the city’s afternoon newspaper, where she finds the opportunity to make her name in the story of a missing black woman whose body is discovered in the fountain of a city park lake. Seeking the truth about the woman’s life and death leads Maddie into events she could never have anticipated in her previous life as a pampered housewife. I love to settle in with Scandinavian noir crime fiction, and “Knife,” by Jo Nesbo, is one of the absolute best. Harry Hole, the brilliant rogue Oslo police officer, is in a very bad place. Rakel – the only woman he has ever loved – has kicked him out, he’s drinking again, and he’s stuck in the dreaded cold case office at work. What he really wants to investigate are new cases he suspects have ties to Svein Finne, the serial murderer and rapist Harry put behind bars a decade ago, who is now free. Then things get even worse – and you set aside everything else because the story has totally hooked you. “The Body in Question,” by Jill Ciment, takes place at a sensational murder trial in central Florida, where a teenage girl – a twin – is on trial for murdering her toddler brother. Two of the jurors fall into a furtive affair, further complicating their views of the case. A quick read, this story is thoroughly engaging even as it addresses life-changing personal and moral consequences. I always enjoy the Joe Pike/Elvis Cole mysteries by Robert Crais. In “Dangerous Man,” after leaving his bank Joe Pike finds himself unexpectedly chasing down two men who had just abducted the young teller who had waited on him. They are arrested, but that is only the beginning of trouble for them both.   After posting bail, the abductors are murdered and the teller disappears. When Pike calls on Cole to help, they uncover a twisted family story that will keep you engaged to the end. I am always delighted with Colin Cotterill’s charming mysteries featuring Dr. Siri, the 76-year-old former national coroner of Laos. In “The Second Biggest Nothing,” it’s 1980 in Vientiane, and Dr. Siri finds a mysterious note tied to his dog’s tail which turns out to be a death threat addressed not only to him, but to everyone he holds dear, to be carried out in two weeks. As he tries to figure out who from his past wants him dead and why, we learn more about the beauty and sadness of this damaged country, told, as always, with humor and wisdom. When I read “Holy Ghost,” by John Sandford, I was again reminded of how much I enjoy investigating a murder with Virgil Flowers, an agent with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and those around him. The mayor of sorts of tiny Wheatfield (campaign slogan:   “I’ll Do What I Can”) and his precocious teenage buddy have come up with a scheme to put Wheatfield on the map – which works, until the shootings begin and Virgil has to be called in. The plot is unpredictable and the dialog clever. So satisfying.

“Think before you speak. Read before you think.” Fran Lebowitz

All About Books

 

November

Fiction:

*I’m a big fan of Kate Atkinson, and absolutely loved her latest, “Big Sky,” whose sly humor kept me laughing out loud. Detective Jackson Brodie has relocated to a quiet English seaside village in the occasional company of his recalcitrant teenage son and an aging Labrador, both at the discretion of his ex-partner Julia. His current job, gathering proof of an unfaithful husband, is fairly standard, but then a chance encounter with a desperate man on a crumbling cliff leads him into a sinister network in a plot filled with past secrets and new lies. Everything about this book delighted me – I loved the characters (even the bad guys, though definitely not what they did), the twists and turns in this complex, somewhat messy plot, and always – always – the marvelous sharp and perceptive writing. I hated to have it end.

*I try not to use words like riveting, page-turning, etc., lightly, but – they apply here, and you will have a hard time putting down “The Perfect Wife,” by JP Delaney. When Abbie awakens in a daze, she has no memory of who she is or how she landed in her unsettling condition. The man by her side, who claims to be her husband, is a titan of the tech world and founder of a Silicon Valley innovative start-up. He explains that Abbie is a gifted artist, an avid surfer, a loving mother to their young son, and the perfect wife who suffered a terrible accident five years ago.   Through a huge technological breakthrough, she has been brought back – a miracle of science. But as she pieces together memories of her marriage, Abbie begins questioning her husband’s motives, and his version of events.   Can she trust him when he says he wants them to be together forever? And what really happened to her five years ago? I hate to tell you more, because this disturbing psychological thriller will keep you on the edge of your seat as you marvel at each new revelation in this twisty plot and speculate on what, exactly, makes us human.

*“American Spy,” by Lauren Wilkinson, is an engrossing spy thriller that also deals with issues of race and gender in America. It’s 1986, the heart of the Cold War, and Marie Mitchell is a brilliant young black woman working as an intelligence officer in the old boys’ club of the FBI. She’s overlooked for every high-profile squad and her days are filled with monotonous paperwork, so when she’s given the opportunity to join a shadowy task force aimed at undermining Thomas Sankara, the charismatic revolutionary president of Burkina Faso whose Communist ideology has made him a target for American intervention, she says yes – even though she secretly admires the work Sankara is doing for his country. And even though she suspects she’s being offered the job because of her appearance and not her talent. Inspired by true events – Thomas Sankara is known as “Africa’s Che Guevara” – this story is a combination of spy thriller, family drama, and passionate romance, and reveals a small part of the Cold War with which I suspect most of us are unfamiliar.   This is Wilkinson’s first novel, and I found her writing honest and perceptive as well as suspenseful.

Ian McEwan’s “Machines Like Me” is a haunting tour-de-force about a 1980s London love triangle that includes Charlie Friend, a floundering Brit drifting through life and dodging full-time employment, and the woman he pines for, Miranda, a bright but secretive doctoral student who lives one floor up.   When Charlie comes into money, he buys “Adam,” one of the first synthetic humans to hit the market (the “Eves” were already sold out) and – with Miranda’s help – designs Adam’s personality. The near-perfect human that emerges is beautiful, strong, and clever – and also attracted to Miranda. Charlie is a lifelong robot obsessive and Adam can learn, as well as breathe and make moral judgments. He can also have sex, if that’s what one wants. Charlie is intrigued by Adam, but also clearly threatened by him, and it was fascinating to me how quickly I accepted Adam as an emotional being who comes to insist on a higher ethical standard than his human hosts can deal with. When a lonely little boy named Mark becomes an integral part of the plot, and the secret in Miranda’s past is revealed, we move on from the sci-fi aspect to personal life issues. Since McEwan sets the story in the Thatcher era, we also have political commentary along with the re-creation as a minor character and conscience of the digital age the great mathematician and WWII code-breaker Alan Turing, who had committed suicide in 1954 after being prosecuted by the government for being gay. There’s so much going on, and yet, as always, McEwan pulls it together, taking the reader on a journey that is both thoughtful and so very stimulating.

Non-Fiction:

I had many reactions to “Maid:   Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive,” by Stephanie Land – admiration, frustration, sadness, and occasional irritation. At 28, Land’s plans of breaking free from the roots of her hometown in the Pacific Northwest to chase her dreams of attending a university and becoming a writer were cut short when a summer fling turned into an unplanned pregnancy. Having decided to keep the baby, she turned to housekeeping to pay the bills and give her daughter the best life she could. She worked days and took classes online to earn a college degree and began to write relentlessly, telling the stories of overworked and underpaid Americans who lived on food stamps and government programs that provided housing which often doubled as halfway houses. Government employees called her lucky for receiving assistance, but she didn’t feel lucky – she felt exhausted, frustrated, beaten down, and broken-hearted that she couldn’t provide more stability for her daughter Mia.   Land vividly illuminates the struggles of a single mother trying to survive on $9 an hour while becoming a “nameless ghost” to her clients, many of whom did not know her from any other housekeeper, although in cleaning their homes she learns plenty about them.   I was stunned by her descriptions of many of the homes, and struggled to understand why homeowners who cared enough to hire someone would choose to live in what sounded like total squalor.   Land’s support system included her baby’s father, who had custodial time with Mia, her subsequent boyfriend, her parents and her grandparents, but none of them could, or would, provide financial assistance. This book brings us into her life of struggle in a way that’s hard to forget, and I am happy Land found a way to use her abilities and work ethic to finally become a successful writer. The occasional irritation I felt was from her relentless criticism of a system that isn’t great but did help her survive even as she resented the hoops it put her through, and I wish she had included some constructive suggestions for its improvement. But as a vehicle for opening our eyes to the daily world of the working poor, this book does the job.

Nicole Chung’s memoir, “All You Can Ever Know,” which made numerous Best Book of the Year” lists in 2018, opens our eyes to the complexities of cross-cultural adoption. From childhood, Chung heard the story of her adoption as a comforting, prepackaged myth, believing that her Korean immigrant parents had made the ultimate sacrifice in the hope of giving her a better life, that forever feeling slightly out of place was her fate as a transracial adoptee in a small Oregon town where no one looked like her. But as she grew older – facing prejudice her white family couldn’t see, finding her identity as an Asian-American and as a writer, and eventually becoming pregnant with her first child – she wondered if the story she’d been told was the whole truth. This is a profoundly honest and empathetic story of surprising connections, the search for lost roots, and the repercussions of unearthing painful family secrets. It is both Chung’s personal story and a compassionate look at adoption, race in America, and families in general, and I would think would be of great value to those contemplating adopting or already raising a child of a different race.   We met Chung at a small gathering sponsored by the King County Library System, and found her to be bright, articulate, and openly direct about the emotional impact of her personal journey upon her and those close to her, exactly as she comes across in her book.

Carol Madigan loaned me “The Tattooist of Auschwitz,” by Heather Morris, which is based on the true story of Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who in April 1942 was forcibly transported to the concentration camps in Auschwitz-Birkenau. When his captors discovered that he spoke several languages, he was put to work as a Tatowierer (the German word for tattooist) tasked with permanently marking his fellow prisoners. Imprisoned for more than two and a half years, Lale witnessed horrific atrocities but also incredible acts of bravery and compassion, and managed to use his privileged position to exchange jewels and money from murdered Jews for food to keep his fellow prisoners alive. Then one day in 1942 Lale met a young woman prisoner named Gita, and immediately vowed to somehow survive the camp and marry her. Thankfully, the emotional impact we feel from reading about Lale’s devastating experiences is eased by knowing from photos at the back of the book that because of his determination he and his Gita were eventually reunited, something that seems unbelievable in that chaotic postwar world.   As difficult as it is to read, this book is incredibly touching. Sometimes, love does actually conquer all.

Mysteries: In “Only to Sleep,” Lawrence Osborne resurrects the iconic Philip Marlowe in his contribution to the Raymond Chandler canon. It is 1988 in Baja, California, and Philip Marlowe, now 72, is sipping margaritas in a terrace bar when two men dressed like undertakers saunter in with a case that has his name written all over it. His mission is to investigate the death of Donald Zinn, who drowned in a Mexican swimming accident, leaving behind a much younger and now very rich wife. Or did he?   So great to have Marlowe brought back to life. It’s lovely to be back in Three Pines in “A Better Man,” Louise Penny’s latest.   It’s Gamache’s first day back as head of the homicide department in the Surete du Quebec, and crisis piles upon crisis. While floodwaters are rising dangerously across the province, a father approaches Gamache pleading for help in finding his daughter and the social media onslaught against Gamache becomes crueler. OK, sometimes Penny’s style of short, short sentences and paragraphs and deep dives into the inner workings of the major characters can cloy, but, hey, it’s Three Pines, and I still want to live there and take my meals at the bistro, with acerbic poet Ruth and Rosa, her foul-mouthed duck, nearby for a reality check. I have become a real fan of Joe Ide’s mysteries (“IQ”).   In “Wrecked,” Isiah Quintabe – IQ for short – has never been more successful, after a series of high-profile wins in his hometown of East Long Beach, or felt more alone. When a young painter approaches him for help in tracking down her missing mother, he values the human connection – until he finds himself battling threats from a dangerous paramilitary operation. Ide’s writing is sharp and very funny.

“Parents should leave books lying around marked ‘forbidden’ if they want their children to read.” – Doris Lessing

All About Books

October

Fiction:

*“The Hazards of Good Breeding,” by Jessica Shattuck (“The Women in the Castle”) tells the story from five perspectives of a WASPy, old-Boston family coming face to face with an America much larger than the one it was born into. Caroline Dunlap has written off the insular world of the Boston social life she grew up with, but when she reluctantly returns home after her college graduation, she finds that not everything is quite as predictable as she had imagined. Her father, the eccentric, puritanical Jack Dunlap, is carrying on stoically after the breakup of his marriage, but he can’t stop thinking about Rosita, the family housekeeper he fired almost six months ago. Faith, Jack’s wife, who left him two years ago and has since had a nervous breakdown, now rarely sees her children. Then there’s Caroline’s little brother, the withdrawn and secretive Eliot, who is working on a giant papier-mache diorama of their town – or is he? Caroline’s naivete makes her the pawn of Stephan, a handsome documentary filmmaker at work on a film entitled “The Last WASPS – From Puritans to Preppies,” who is clearly milking her for her connections as well as scheming to cash in on rumors of a Dunlap family crisis. By the time these disparate plotlines ultimately converge, we have shared and relished the inner lives of these characters, so effectively portrayed, and the ending is a knockout.

I really enjoyed “Beantown,” by Fredrik Backman, and hoped I would feel the same about its sequel, “Us Against You.”   Actually, I did like the story line, and was pleased to revisit Beantown’s interesting and varied characters, but felt the book should have been half its length. Beantown is a small community tucked deep in the forest, home to tough, hardworking people who don’t expect life to be easy or fair – but no matter how difficult times get, they’ve always taken pride in their local hockey team. It’s a blow when they learn that ice hockey might soon be disbanded, and, even worse, how satisfying that is to the former Beartown players who now play for their arch rival team in the nearby town of Hed. As tension mounts, a newcomer arrives, and Beartown hockey gets a surprising new coach and a chance at a comeback. There are many twists and turns in this story, which has so many characters with multiple quirks and motivations it’s hard to keep track of a cohesive plot line, and there’s waaay too much philosophizing. I kept thinking, let’s just get back to hockey and get on with it! Okay, I admit that I did get misty a couple of times when reading about a few very moving interactions between some of the most appealing characters, but in general this book left me wanting to put my red editing pencil to work, because the underlying story had great charm.

Non-Fiction:

*When I finished “American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment,” by Shane Bauer, I said “Wow,” and not in a good way. In 2009 Bauer was one of the three American hikers in Iraqi Kurdistan who unknowingly neared the Iranian border and were arrested and taken to Iran’s infamous Evin prison, where he spent 26 months. Once home, struggling to overcome PTSD, he began to study and visit US prisons and eventually to correspond with some of the men in solitary.  The abyss these prisoners lived in helped him to put his own struggle in perspective, and he was never able to turn away from the American prison system. The U.S. imprisons a higher portion of its population than any country in the world – we account for 5% of the world’s population but nearly 25% of the world’s prison population. Our system isn’t just inequitable, it is also heinously expensive – 40 states annually spend more on inmates than they do on students in Pre-K through 12th grade. One key issue is private for-profit prisons that operate with little oversight, mandate prisoner quotas, and make millions. In 2014 Bauer was hired for $9 an hour to work as an entry-level prison guard at a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. He used his real name; there was no meaningful background check. Four months later his employment came to an abrupt end, but he had seen enough, and soon wrote about his experiences in an award-winning article that became the most-read feature in the history of the magazine Mother Jones. Because he still had more to say, and to help us understand the cruelty of our current system, he wrote this book to weave his own experiences more deeply with a history of for-profit prisons in America from their origins before the Civil War. They became entrenched in the South as part of a systemic effort to keep the African-American labor force in place in the aftermath of slavery, and the echoes of these origins are with us still. In 1890, Alabama Inspector of Convicts W. D. Lee told the annual congress of the National Prison Association, “While slavery is degrading, the Negro in slavery has reached a higher state of civilization than he ever reached anywhere else. What would become of him away from the white man, I do not know.” Today, immigrant detention is the frontier of private prison growth – during the last decade, the portion of immigrant detention beds contracted out to private prison companies has gone up from 25% to 65%, and nine of the ten largest immigrant detention centers are now privately operated. Private prisons are not incentivized to tend to the health of their inmates, or to feed them well, or to attract and retain a highly trained prison staff. The need to make a profit rules. A disturbing sidelight is how Bauer, to his horror, found himself becoming crueler and more aggressive the longer he worked in the prison. We may not want to know or acknowledge the tough information that is in this gripping story, but we need to.

*On the final day of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin: “Well, doctor, what have we got – a republic or a monarchy?” He replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”   In “If We Can Keep It,” Michael Tomasky asks, “Why has American politics fallen into such a state of horrible dysfunction? Can it ever be fixed?”   He ranges across centuries and disciplines to show how America’s system of representative government was conjured into being, why it is so peculiar compared to political systems around the world, and why it has only rarely worked the way its creators intended. Tomasky says this book could have appeared just as it now stands no matter who became president, because polarization isn’t a merely a political problem – it’s also social, and cultural, and economic . The problems he describes long predate the current situation, but having Trump in the White House makes these questions and the search for answers to them far more urgent. He wants to play a role in correcting two misconceptions: 1) that an earlier, more civil time, was “normal,” when actually what’s normal, if you take a longer look at history, is polarization; and 2) that we are divided because of some lack of will or maturity on the part of politicians, when in fact it has to do with historical and social and institutional forces that push on these people rather than will. According to Tomasky, the two parties are totally different creatures – the Republican Party is a movement party, rather than an amalgam of interests; the Democratic Party is a patchwork of the various interest groups that have come into being over the last forty or fifty years, all liberal to one degree or another but too disparate to add up to a movement. I made so many notes I could go on and on, but suffice it to say this is a fascinating book, which concludes with the author’s Reform Agenda to Reduce Polarization. He admits it’s not especially realistic, but we have a dire situation, so isn’t it time to think outside the box?

“Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen,” by Mary Norris, may not be of interest to everyone, but if you’re into grammar, languages, and – especially – Greek language, culture, and mythology, you will find this book charming. In “Between You and Me,” Norris wrote about her time in The New Yorker’s celebrated copy department; here she shares her greatest passion – all things Greek.   She explains how the alphabet originated in Greece, makes the case for Athena as a feminist icon, searches for the gabled Baths of Aphrodite, and reveals the surprising ways Greek helped form English. With her we encounter Greek words, Greek gods, Greek wine, and more than a few Greek men. The result is a book that is both educational and great fun, a fine combination.

Mysteries: Chris Pavone’s thrillers are fast-paced and suspenseful, always an engrossing read. In “The Paris Diversion,” while American expat Kate Moore drops her kids at the international school in Paris, across the Seine tech CEO Hunter Forsyth wonders why his police escort has left and his cell service has cut out and on the nearby rue de Rivoli Mahmoud Khalid carries his metal briefcase into the crowded courtyard of the world’s largest museum. Each has big plans for the day, but the ingenious plot twists in this story of international intrigue ensure that none of them will turn out as they – or we – expect. “The Unquiet Heart,” a sequel to Kaite Welsh’s “Wages of Sin,” returns us to 1893 Edinburgh, where Sarah Gilchrist has no intention of marrying her dull fiancé Miles, the man her family hopes will put an end to her “unladylike” dream of becoming a doctor.   When he is accused of murder, she finds herself his reluctant ally. To further complicate matters, is she more than the protégé of her mercurial professor, Gregory Merchiston? In “Who Slays the Wicked,” by C. S. Harris, it is London, 1814, and sadistic young Lord Ashworth is found brutally murdered in his silk-hung, blood-soaked bed. Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, is called in to help catch the killer – and to keep his troubled and headstrong young niece, Stephanie, who had entered into a disastrous marriage with the dangerous nobleman, from being convicted of the murder.   Welcome to the dark underside of Regency London. 

When I think of all the books still left for me to read, I am certain of further happiness.” – Jules Renard

All About Books

September

Non-Fiction:

*Sandra Perkins extolled the virtues of “Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life,” by Eric Klinenberg, and she was so right. We are living in a time of deep divisions in our country – racial, cultural, and religious – that have led us to a level of polarization we haven’t seen since the Civil War, and we need a way to come together and find a common purpose. Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at New York University, believes that the future of democratic societies rests not simply on shared values but on shared spaces: the libraries, childcare centers, bookstores, churches, synagogues, and parks in which crucial connections are formed. These are places where we gather and linger, making friends across group lines and strengthening the entire community – what he calls the “social infrastructure” (of which he says the library is among the most critical forms). His book takes us around the globe, from Bangladesh to Chicago, Switzerland to Singapore, to show how social infrastructure is helping solve some of our most pressing challenges: isolation, crime, education, addiction, political polarization, and even climate change. We come away convinced that good design and the support of a wide variety of public spaces can produce a sense of community , of belonging, in a world that is moving too fast and leading us to fear and avoid strangers. Klinenberg’s argument is that building new social infrastructure is just as urgent as repairing our levees, airports, and bridges, and that often, as he demonstrates, we can strengthen both simultaneously, building lifeline systems that are also, to borrow Andrew Carnegie’s description of the 2800 or so grand libraries that he built across the world, “palaces for the people.” His vision could be considered idealistic, but actually we come away from this compelling book wanting to be part of an inclusive conversation in our communities about the kinds of infrastructure – physical as well as social – that would best serve, sustain, and protect us.

*Because for many years we owned a vacation home on the Olympic Peninsula, I couldn’t resist “The Last Wilderness: A History of the Olympic Peninsula,” a 2019 edition of a classic by Murray Morgan originally written in 1955. Here’s how he begins: “ ‘God made the universe,’ the saying went,’ and when He finished He dumped everything left over onto the Olympic Peninsula.’ ” This fist of land, thrust north between Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean, is a wilderness area of 6000 square miles, as large as Massachusetts, more rugged than the Rockies, its lowlands blanketed by a jungle of fir and pine and cedar, its icy peaks giving rise to swift rivers alive with giant salmon, the first land in the Pacific Northwest to be reported by explorers and the last to be mapped.   Morgan’s history tells the story of pioneers – farmers and loggers, fishermen and businessmen – who tackled the rugged country and made their livings on it. He also introduces us to hunters, prospectors, homesteaders, murderers, profit-seekers, conservationists, Wobblies, bureaucrats, and utopianists (I was fascinated to learn about the town of Home, “a backwoods Greenwich Village, where, intellectually at least, everything went – referred to by some as a ‘festering next of poisonous anarchists.’ Who knew?) alongside stories of coastal first people and striking descriptions of the peninsula’s wildlife and land. This book is an irresistible and heartwarming love story, truly a treasure.

In October we are traveling with friends in a small ship from Malta around the boot and up the eastern coast of Italy to Venice, so “Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World,” by Roger Crowley, was an excellent recommendation by Betty Colwell. In 1521, Suleiman the Magnificent, Muslim ruler of the Ottoman Empire at the height of its power, dispatched an invasion fleet to the Christian island of Rhodes, which would prove to be the opening shot in an epic struggle between rival empires and faiths for control of the Mediterranean and the center of the world. This book is a mesmerizing account of the brutal decades-long battle between Christendom and Islam for the soul of Europe that ranged from Istanbul to the Gates of Gibraltar and came to a climax between 1565 and 1571 with the epic siege of Malta, the savage battle for Cyprus, and the last-ditch defense of southern Europe at Lepanto in the Gulf of Corinth. We meet a wild cast of pirates, crusaders, and religious warriors who are both desperately brave and totally brutal in a world of slavery and galley warfare. At the close of the Lepanto battle carnage was so great that the victors could barely sail away “because of the countless corpses floating in the sea.” The events of 1565-1571 fixed the frontiers of the modern Mediterranean world, after which Island and Christendom disengaged in the Mediterranean, one gradually to introvert, the other to explore. I was enthralled by this beautifully written story, whose excellent maps helped bring these dramatic, apocalyptic battles even more to life.

Mysteries: If you feel like setting aside your to-dos and letting the day go by while you read a gripping story, “The Perfect Child,” by Lucinda Berry, is the book for you. Christopher and Hannah are a happily married surgeon and nurse whose picture-perfect life is only missing a child. When an abandoned 6-year-old turns up at their hospital, Christopher forms an instant connection with her, and convinces Hannah they should take her home as their own. But Janie is no ordinary child, and as the couple’s lives fall apart the truth behind Janie’s past stuns them – and us. In“Scrublands,” byChris Hammer, the isolated drought-stricken Australian town of Riversend is devastated when its charismatic young priest commits an unthinkable act. Journalist Martin Scarsden arrives a year later to see how the victims are coping, only to discover the full story is darker and more complex than anyone had realized. Hammer’s fine writing vividly describes both the characters and the suffocating heat of the barren landscape. 

(The following was sent to me by Chuck Sitkin – I suspect it confirms something we already knew!)

Simple Activity Can Add 2 Years to Your Life (It’s Not Exercise). It’s easy, relaxing, and extraordinarily powerful. By Melanie Curtin – writer, activist@melaniebcurtin

I’ve read some truly excellent books lately. The kind where you grow attached to the characters, miss them when they’re gone. The kind where the haunting, lilting quality of the prose lifts you up, makes you think, expands your consciousness, has you emit little gasps of astonishment. The kind you remember. I am a voracious reader. I go through probably two to three books a week. Reading is my escape, my haven, my inspiration, my fascination. So you can imagine how thrilled I was to come across research from the Yale School of Public Health demonstrating that reading books likely extends your lifespan by two years or more. (“Great!” I thought, “I’ll have two more years to read.”)

The Yale researchers were reviewing 12 years of data from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study (HRS). The HRS is a longitudinal panel study that administers surveys to around 20,000 Americans over the age of 50 every two years. It is supported by the National Institute on Aging and the Social Security Administration, and is one of the largest longitudinal studies of its kind. What the Yale researchers discovered was that in analyzing the health statuses and reading habits of over 3,600 men and women over the age of 50 in the HRS, a distinct pattern came to light.It turned out that people who read books for at least 30 minutes a day were living, on average, two years longer than those who didn’t read anything. Plus (and this part is important), the book readers were 23 percent less likely to die than people who were only reading newspapers or magazines. In other words, if you want to live longer and have a more resilient brain, read books. Not just newspapers, magazines, tweets, Facebook updates, Instagram posts, or online articles. It doesn’t matter whether the books are fiction or nonfiction; it just matters that they’re books.

The Yale team had the same question you’re probably asking right now: What is it about reading books specifically that boosts brain power and overall health, when things like newspapers and magazines don’t? The researchers had a few theories. First, books encourage what they deemed “deep reading.” Rather than just skimming over a headline and the bite-sized information in an article or social-media post, reading a book forces you to make connections between chapters–and to the outside world. When you make those connections, you forge new neural pathways between regions in both hemispheres of your brain, as well as in all four lobes. (It has been repeatedly demonstrated that establishing new neural networks is one of the best ways to stave off dementia and other cognitive decay.)

This concept was backed up by research out of Stanford that looked at the fMRI images of study participants tasked with reading a novel by Jane Austen. The researchers had participants first leisurely skim a passage (like you might do when deciding whether to purchase it at a bookstore), and then perform what they called “close reading”–reading as if you were studying it for an exam. According to Natalie Phillips, the literary scholar leading the project, brain scans showed significant increases in blood flow during close reading. This, she suggests, shows that “paying attention to literary texts requires the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions.” 

This makes sense to me on an intuitive as well as intellectual level. Because I feel different after reading disparate Instagram posts versus spending 30+ minutes reading a book. It’s much like the difference between eating junk food and having a real meal; the shorter posts are fun and pleasurable to read, but I feel empty after scrolling. When I read my book, on the other hand, I feel filled up. Nourished.

If you’re like most people, you want to live a long, healthy, and meaningful life. You want to contribute to the world. You want to be a leader. But if you’re constantly running around, scrolling through feeds, and never actually sitting down to relax and focus on something like reading a book for half an hour–half an hour!–you’re doing your body and brain a disservice.  Taking care of yourself means more than just making sure you don’t have three venti coffees in one day. Build your brain. Read a book.