All About Books

June

Fiction:

Local author Jonathan Evison’s novels are among my favorites – they are creative, widely varied in subject matter, and always interesting.  “Small World is set against such iconic backdrops as the California gold rush, the development of the transcontinental railroad, and a speeding train of modern-day strangers forced together by fate.  The characters connect in small but meaningful ways   In exploring the passengers’ lives and those of their ancestors more than a century before, “Small World” chronicles 170 years of American nation-building from numerous points of view across place and time.  The result is a fascinating historical saga with a Dickensian feel.  As the book’s characters evolve through generations we grow increasingly more invested in their lives and can feel the sense of looming disaster Evison skillfully creates as the train hurtles north towards Seattle.  “Small World” is a thoroughly rewarding and entertaining read.

Books by Louise Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, are rich and powerful, with luminous stories about her indigenous culture.  Her latest, “The Sentence,” creates a wickedly funny ghost story:  a tale of passion, of a complex marriage, and of a woman’s relentless errors.  It asks what we owe to the living, to the dead, and to the book.  A small independent bookstore in Minneapolis is haunted from November 2019 to November 2020 by the store’s most annoying customer.  Flora dies on All Souls’ Day, but she simply won’t leave the store.  Tookie, who has landed a job selling books after years of incarceration that she survived by reading “with murderous attention,” must solve the mystery of this haunting while at the same time trying to understand all that occurs in Minneapolis during a year of grief, astonishment, isolation, and furious reckoning.  “The Sentence” begins on All Souls’ Day 2019 and ends on All Souls’s Day 2020.  Its mystery and proliferating ghost stories during this one year propel a narrative both emotional and profound.  I grew deeply fond of Tookie, oddball that she is, and her unique and colorful family.

Non-Fiction:

I have always felt that Angela Merkel was a remarkable woman, and “The Chancellor,” by Kati Marton,the definitive account of the extraordinary rise and political brilliance of the most powerful – and elusive – woman in the world,” confirms it.  Merkel has always been an outsider.  A pastor’s daughter raised in Soviet-controlled East Germany, she spent her twenties working as a research chemist, entering politics only after the fall of the Berlin wall.  And yet, within fifteen years she had become chancellor of Germany and, before long, the unofficial leader of the west.  Marton sets out to pierce the mystery of Merkel’s unlikely ascent.  With access to the chancellor’s inner circle and a trove of records that have only recently come to light, she reveals the unique political genius that is the secret to Merkel’s success.  No other modern leader has so able confronted authoritarian aggression, enacted daring social policies, and calmly unified an entire continent in an era when countries are becoming more divided.  Again and again, she has cleverly outmaneuvered strongmen like Putin and Trump, and weathered surprisingly complicated relationships with allies like Obama and Macron.  Famously private, she is revealed in these pages as a role model for anyone interested in gaining and keeping power while staying true to one’s moral convictions.  More than a riveting biography and intimate human portrait, this book is a revelatory look at successful leadership in action.  After growing up under Walter Ulbricht’s hardline Stalinism, Merkel escaped at Leipzig University into the safer province of science.  “I chose physics because I wanted to understand Einstein’s theory of relativity and because even East Germany wasn’t capable of suspending basic arithmetic and the rules of nature,” she said later.  This book explains how an unassuming but brilliant science PhD emerged to save the Western Alliance.  Marton is not blind to Merkel’s missteps – for example, she notes that for too long Merkel seemed oblivious to the sense of grievance East Germans felt after unification, ill-prepared by Communism to flourish in the West’s highly competitive environment.  She is an activist and an optimist with tremendous self-confidence – qualities that have powered her rise but sometimes blinded her to the needs of those less well equipped to cope in a harsh new environment.  Overall, however, is becomes apparent in this book how this extraordinarily private leader, in her quiet and determined way, made Germany the economic and moral leader of Europe.  Both Jack and I thought it was terrific.

If you think of the fifties as an era that was not particularly significant or progressive, as I did, you will be surprised and impressed by “The Fifties: An Underground History,” by historian James R. Gaines, a book described on the overleaf as “A bold and original argument that upends the myth of the Fifties as a decade of strict conformity to celebrate a few of the stubborn, lonely individuals who inspired the major social movements of our own time. 
“The Fifties”
invokes the accidental radicals – people motivated not by politics but by their own most intimate conflicts – who sparked movements for change in their time and our own.  They include the legal pathfinder Pauli Murray, who was tortured by both her mixed-race heritage and her “in between” sexuality, whose years of hard work and self-examination turned her demons into historic victories, including the argument that made sex discrimination illegal.  And Harry Hay, who dreamed of a national gay rights movement as early as the 1940s, a time when the U.S., the Soviet Union, and Nazi Germany viewed gay people as subversives and mentally ill.  Rachel Carson, in the living world, and Norbert Wiener, in the theoretical one, converged on the then-heretical idea that our presumed mastery of nature was an existential threat to all living things, including humanity itself.  The horror of World War II inspired a social, cultural, and political uprising that grew steadily stronger between 1946 and 1963, a period that came to be known as the “long Fifties,” which brought film’s New Wave, the theater of the absurd, novelists who championed disruptive heroes, and rebellions in all the arts.  That impulse for spontaneity was not joined by a drive for social and political change, however.  Those who espoused it in a time infamous for rewarding conformity and suppressing dissent paid a high price, but even so there were some who could not or would not tolerate the injustices imposed on themselves and their fellow citizens.  Gaines writes, “There is a theory that change happens not by winning hearts and minds but by changing the law, after which hearts and minds will follow.  Among the “isolated people” of the 1950s, however, there is evidence of an earlier stage in the process of change;  the moment when a singular woman or man sets out to confront rather than evade some intimately personal conflict, which inspires them and others to change the hearts and minds of those who make the laws.” Of the people who defied the most powerful forces and conventions of their time just to be the people they were, in the country it had always promised to be, they lit a path for the rest of us to a somewhat less imperfect union.  That is about the best thing any citizen can do.    

Mysteries:Survivor’s Guilt,” by Robyn Gigi, is particularly creative and timely.  At first, the death of millionaire businessman Charles Parsons seems like a straightforward suicide – no sign of forced entry or struggle in his New Jersey mansion, just a single gunshot wound from his own weapon – until days later, when computer techs pick up a voice recording that incriminates Parsons’ adoptive daughter, Ann, who duly confesses and pleads guilty.  But is she?  Her lawyers, Erin McCabe and Duane Swisher, can’t ignore the pieces that don’t fit.  With Erin and Ann transgender, as is the book’s author, and Parsons revealed as a sexual predator, this story feels drawn right from the headlines.  In “All Her Little Secrets,” by Wanda M. Morris, Ellice Littlejohn seems to have it all:  an Ivy League degree, a well-paying job as a corporate attorney in Atlanta, great friends, and a “for fun” relationship with a rich, charming executive who just happens to be her white boss. But everything changes one morning when Ellice arrives in the executive suite and finds him dead with a gunshot to his head.  Her past and present lives collide as she finds herself trying to stop a sinister conspiracy in this compelling thriller.

Show me a family of readers, and I will show you the people who move the world.”  Napoléon Bonaparte

All About Books

May

We are moving Tuesday to Pacific Regent retirement community in downtown Bellevue, and what a relief it will be to be able to sit down to read once again without knowing that instead I should be going through yet another closet, drawer, cupboard, file, etc., etc.!  And yet, I think my breaks for reading are the biggest help in getting through this.   Thank you, beloved books!

Fiction:

I just finished “West With Giraffes,” by Lynda Rutledge, and my eyes are filled with tears – not just because I felt sad, but because the story is so deeply moving and richly inspiring. How amazing someone can write like this!  Thanks to my brother Bob for recommending it.  Woodrow Wilson Nickel, age 105, feels his life ebbing away, but when he hears giraffes are going extinct, he finds himself recalling the unforgettable experience he cannot take to his grave.  It’s 1938.  The Great Depression lingers.  Hitler is threatening Europe, and world-weary Americans long for wonder.  They find it in two giraffes who miraculously survive a hurricane while crossing the Atlantic.  What follows is a twelve-day road trip in a custom truck to deliver southern California’s first giraffes to the San Diego Zoo.  Inspired by true events, the tale weaves real-life figures with fictional ones, including the world’s first female zoo director, a crusty old man with a past, a young female photographer with a secret, and assorted reprobates as spotty as the giraffes.  It’s part adventure, part historical saga, and part coming-of-age love story – and is also about the grace of animals, the kindness of strangers, the passing of time, and a story told before it’s too late.  It is totally engaging and wonderfully charming and you will not want to put it down.  Here’s part of a Walt Whitman poem to ponder when you’re finished.  “I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d/ I stand and look at them long and long./They do not sweat and whine about their condition,/They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,/They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,/ Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,/ Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,/Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.” 

I can see why “The Maid,” by Nita Prose, has a lengthy hold list – it is a captivating page turner.  There’s a mystery, but the story reads like a novel, and I gobbled it up.  Molly Gray is not like everyone else.  She struggles with social skills and misreads the intentions of others.  Her gran used to interpret the world for her, codifying it into simple rules that Molly could live by, but since Gran died a few months ago, quirky yet lovable twenty-five-year-old Molly has been navigating life’s complexities by herself.  No matter – she throws herself with gusto into her work as a hotel maid.  Her unique character, along with her obsessive love of cleaning and proper etiquette, makes her ideal for the job.  But Molly’s orderly life is upended the day she enters the suite of the infamous and wealthy Charles Black, only to find it in a state of disarray and him dead in his bed.  Molly’s unusual demeanor quickly has the police targeting her as their lead suspect.  You and I – and friends Molly never knew she had – know she didn’t do it, but what a treat it is to join them all in their attempt to find the real killer before it’s too late.  Just like Molly’s true friends, we are charmed by and feel protective of her, and I, for one, found myself desperately hoping she would find the life she deserved.  Great plot twist at the end!   

“Beheld,” by TaraShea Nesbit, is set in the fledgling colony of Plymouth, Massachusetts, ten years after the Mayflower pilgrims arrived on rocky, unfamiliar soil, not the land its residents had imagined.  Seemingly established on a dream of religious freedom, in reality the town is led by fervent puritans who prohibit the residents from living, trading, and worshipping as they choose.  By the time an unfamiliar ship, bearing new colonists, appears on the horizon one summer morning, Anglican outsiders have had enough.  Nesbit reframes the story of the pilgrims in the views of two women of very different voices and means.  She evokes a vivid, ominous Plymouth, populated by famous and unknown characters alike, each with conflicting desires and questionable behavior.  “Beheld” is about a murder and a trial, and the motivations – personal and political – that cause people to act in unsavory ways.  It is also an intimate portrait of love, motherhood, and friendship that asks whose stories get told over time, who gets believed, and, subsequently, who gets punished.  We all have our ideas of what the Mayflower colonists and their first settlement were like, but this book complicates that picture in a way I found both fascinating and thought-provoking.  Nesbit’s comments at the end are intriguing – she wanted to “challenge certain myths, such as the belief that all the Mayflower passengers were seeking freedom to practice their religion.  The separatists living in Holland were already able to practice their religion.  What else motivated them?”  By incorporating people real and imagined, as well as the stories of the Indigenous people of the Wampanoag Nation, she brings the complex community of Patuxet, the place later named Plymouth, brilliantly to life.

I was fascinated by “Matrix,” by Lauren Groff, set in 1158, a brilliant, defiant and timely exploration of the raw power of female creativity in a corrupted world.  It begins, “She rides out of the forest alone.  Seventeen years old, in the cold March drizzle, Marie who comes from France.”  Marie de France was the 12th century poet about whom little is known, thus freeing Groff from historical accuracy.  Marie is umarriageable, deemed too ugly (“three heads too tall, with a giant bony body,”) for any man to want.  However, since Marie is an educated young woman who from the age of twelve ran an estate after her mother died, Eleanor of Aquitane saw fit to cast her out of the royal court and send her to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey, its nuns on the brink of starvation and beset by disease.  At first taken aback by the severity of her new life, Marie finds focus and love in collective life with her singular and mercurial sisters. In this crucible, she supplants her desire for family, for her homeland, for the passions of her youth with something new to her: devotion to her sisters, and a conviction in her own divine visions. Born the last in a long line of women warriors and crusaders, Marie is determined to chart a bold new course for the women she now leads and protects. But in a world that is shifting and corroding in frightening ways, one that can never reconcile itself with her existence, will the sheer force of her vision be enough?  Equally alive to the sacred and the profane, “Matrix” gathers currents of violence, sensuality, and religious ecstasy to create a portrait of passion, aberrant faith, and a woman that history moves both through and around. Groff’s latest novel, her first since Fates and Furies, is an exploration of the power of female creativity, intelligence, and determination. It is a sheer delight to be taken back to the 12th century in the company of this constantly underestimated yet ultimately remarkable woman. 

I have enjoyed Thirty Umrigar’s novels about India (especially “The Space Between Us”), and continued to do so with “Honor.”  Smita is an Indian American journalist who has returned to India to follow the agonizing case of Meena, a Hindu woman attacked by members of her own village and her own family for marrying a Muslim man.  Smita encounters a society where tradition carries more weight than love, and a story that threatens to unearth the painful secrets of her own past.  While Meena’s fate hangs in the balance, Smita tries in every way she can to right the scales.  She also finds herself increasingly drawn to Mohan, an Indian man she meets while on assignment.  The dual love stories in this novel are as different as the cultures of Meena and Smita themselves.  Smita and her family left India long ago with no intention of ever coming back, but now when she responds to an ailing journalist friend’s request to cover Meena’s trial in her stead and learns more about an unspeakable act of violence she finds herself having to face conflicted feelings about her life and a homeland awash with contradictions.

Non-Fiction:

I’ve never read anything by Ann Patchett I didn’t thoroughly enjoy, especially after I discovered “Bel Canto,” and that includes “These Precious Days: Essays.”  She reflects on home, family, friendships, and writing in her deeply personal way.  The title essay is a moving meditation on an unexpected friendship with Tom Hanks’ brilliant assistant, Sooki, that explores what it means “to find someone who could see us as our best and most complete selves.”  From the enchantments of Kate DiCamillo’s children’s books to youthful memories of Paris; from the cherished life gifts given by her three fathers to the unexpected influence of Charles Schulz’s Snoopy; from the expansive vision of Eudora Welty to the importance of knitting, Patchett connects life and art as she illuminates what matters most with grace, wit, and warmth.  Pondering on whether earning her MFA was required for her to write a novel or open her bookstore, she writes that it was not – but “My MFA showed me the importance of community.  Even the introverted readers, the silent writers, want a place where they feel welcomed and understood.  I had wanted that once, and now I can give it to others.  That’s how I’ve wound up putting my degree to work.  That’s how I discovered that my truest destiny was a thing I never saw coming.”

Mysteries:  I’m not sure if I have read any other Peter Ash mysteries by Nick Petrie, but I enjoyed “The Runaway” so much I will look for more.  War veteran Peter Ash is driving through northern Nebraska when he encounters a young pregnant woman alone on a gravel road, her car dead.  Peter offers her a lift, but what begins as an act of kindness soon turns into a deadly cat-and-mouse chase across the lonely highways with the woman’s vicious ex-cop husband hot on their trail.  Peter has to use everything he learned during his time as a Marine to escape a ruthless killer whose instincts and skills rival – and maybe exceed – his own.  Jack Reacher comes to mind.  In The Darkest Evening,” Ann Cleeves continues her engaging mysteries featuring Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope.  On a snowy winter night, Vera misses a turn while driving home and sees that ahead of her a car has skidded off the narrow road, its door open, a toddler strapped in the back seat with no driver in sight.  Taking the child and driving on, Vera arrives a place she knows well, Brockburn, a large, grand house in the wild northern English countryside where her father, the black sheep of the Stanhope family, grew up.  Outside, unnoticed by the festive Christmas partygoers inside, a woman lies dead in the snow. As she digs deeper into her investigation, Vera begins to uncover both Brockburn’s secrets and her own family’s complicated past.

A broth can have too many cooks/ A home can’t have too many books.

All About Books

April

Fiction:

Colson Whitehead’s books, including “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys,” have won almost every award you can think of, so I welcomed his vibrant “Harlem Shuffle,” set in Harlem in the 1960s.   To his customers and neighbors on 125th Street, Ray Carney (“only slightly bent when it came to being crooked”) is an upstanding salesman of reasonably priced furniture, making a decent life for himself and his family.  He and his wife, Elizabeth, are expecting their second child, and if her parents on Striver’s Row don’t approve of him or their cramped apartment across from the subway tracks, it’s still home.  Few people know that he descends from a line of uptown hoods and crooks, and his façade of normalcy has more than a few cracks in it, ones that are getting bigger all the time.  Cash is tight, especially with all those installment-plan sofas, so if his cousin Freddie occasionally drops off the odd ring or necklace, Ray doesn’t ask where it comes from, nor does his discreet jeweler downtown.  Then Freddie falls in with a crew who plan to rob the Hotel Theresa – the “Waldorf of Harlem” – and volunteers Ray’s service as the fence.  The heist doesn’t go as planned (they rarely do) and now Ray has a new clientele, one made up of shady cops, vicious local gangsters, two-bit pornographers, and other assorted Harlem lowlifes.  Thus begins the internal tussle between Ray the striver and Ray the crook.  As he navigates this double life, he – and we – begin to see who actually pulls the strings in Harlem.  Ray has to avoid getting killed, save his cousin, and grab his share of the big score, all while maintaining his reputation as the go-to source for all your quality home furniture needs.  There are three sections to this novel, set in 1959, 1961, and 1964, and while the middle one felt a little long to me, in all of them Whitehead brings Harlem and its issues of race, class, and commercial culture to vivid life.  When Carney rides along with the cop, Munson, to pick up Munson’s payoff envelopes, “the tour takes him to places he saw every day, establishments on his doorstep, places he’d walked by ever since he was a kid, and exposed them as fronts.  The doorways were entrances into different cities – no, different entrances into one vast, secret city.  Ever close, adjacent to all you know, just underneath.  If you know where to look.”  Thanks to Whitehead, we learn where to look, and how to see.

I thought the 2021 Booker Prize winner, “The Promise:  A Novel,” by Damon Galgut, was terrific. Haunted by an unmet promise, the Swart family gradually comes apart after the death of their matriarch.  Adrift, the lives of the three siblings move separately through the uncharted waters of a changing South Africa.  Anton, the golden boy who bitterly resents his life’s unfulfilled promises; Astrid, whose beauty is her power; and the youngest, Amor, whose life is shaped by a nebulous feeling of guilt.  Reunited by three funerals over three decades, the dwindling family reflects the atmosphere of its country – an atmosphere of resentment, renewal, and possibility.  They’re all getting used to the world after apartheid, as Anton learns when he visits his dying father in the hospital and sees a black man in the next bed, bandaged up like a mummy.  “Apartheid has fallen, see, we die right next to each other now, in intimate proximity.  It’s just the living part we still have to work out.”  There is satire, and humor, and delightful writing – at a later funeral Anton ”spends a little time talking to Tannie Marina (his aunt), or the stumpy remains of her, half melted and overflowing her wheelchair, like an old candle in a saucer.”  After another funeral, Amor meets with a lawyer who has amplified over the years, in harmony with her burgeoning practice.  “Consumed two husbands along the way and still lazily digesting them, like a python in hibernation.”   From the Swarts’ complacency emerges one thread of redemption, tied to a long-deferred promise — that the family’s servant, Salome, might inherit the modest house on the property that she lives in. In this brilliant novel, Galgut deploys the unkept vow as a stand-in for white South Africa’s moral bankruptcy.

“All This Could be Yours,” by Jami Attenberg, is a pitch-perfect powerful novel about family secrets, set against the heat of one unforgettable New Orleans summer.  Now that her father, Victor, is on his deathbed, Alex Tuchman – a strong-headed lawyer, devoted mother, and loving sister – feels she can finally unearth the secrets of who Victor is and what he did over the course of his life and career.  (A power-hungry real estate developer, he is, by all accounts, a bad man.)  She travels to New Orleans to be with her family, but mostly to interrogate her tight-lipped mother, Barbra.  As Barbra fends off Alex’s unrelenting questions, she reflects on her tumultuous life with Victor.  Meanwhile Gary, Alex’s brother, is incommunicado, trying to get his movie career off the ground in Los Angeles.  And Gary’s wife, Twyla, is having a nervous breakdown, buying up all the lipstick in drugstores around New Orleans and bursting into crying fits.  As each family member grapples with Victor’s history, they must figure out a way to move forward – with one another, for themselves, and for the sake of their children.  These people are all caught in the web of a toxic man who abused his power – and this emotionally spot-on novel shows how those webs can tangle a family for generations.  As we learn more deeply about the secrets in this fractured family we become hopeful that some of those abused emotionally and psychologically by Victor can finally break free.  I found this family saga engrossing and was impressed by Attenberg’s keen sense of what keeps people connected.

Non-Fiction:

Iceland was one of our favorite trips – easy to get to and around in, with stunning scenery and a charming and walkable capital city, Reykjavik – so I relished “How Iceland Changed the World:  The Big History of a Small Island,” by Egill Bjarnason.  The history of Iceland began 1,200 years ago, when a frustrated Viking captain and his useless navigator ran aground in the middle of the North Atlantic.  Suddenly the island was no longer just a layover for the Arctic tern. Instead, it became a nation whose diplomats and musicians, sailors and soldiers, volcanoes and flowers quietly altered the globe forever.  But those who visit Iceland are often unaware of its outsize importance, so journalist, historian, and native Icelander Bjarnason has set out to reveal the untold sagas of Iceland’s pivotal role in events as monumental and far-flung as the French Revolution, the moon landing, and the foundation of Israel.  Again and again, one humble nation of fishermen has found itself at the helm of historic events, shaping the world as we know it.   Icelanders in the Viking age had discovered Greenland in the search for more land and had turned its stock of walrus and narwhals into a global enterprise.  Hungry for wood and wheat, the Icelandic Greenlanders had then launched even farther west, and thereby discovered sailing routes from Europe to North America five hundred years before Columbus (who knew?).  Despite what we’ve heard about the legacies of Erik the Red and Leif Eriksson, the true explorer here is the neglected heroine Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir, who left behind a comfortable life and bonded with the natives in North America while the men tossed rocks at one another.  Bjarnason introduces us to Bishop Gissur Isleifsson, who in 1096 introduced the wealth tax, by noting that he knew how to read and write, “in a country where most men could not even pee their names in the snow.”  If you enjoy the travel writing of Bill Bryson, you’ll also appreciate Bjarnason, whose book is lively, fascinating, informative, and often very funny.

In “All That She Carried:  The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake,” renowned historian Tiya Miles traces the life of a single object handed down through three generations of Black women to craft an extraordinary testament to people who are left out of the archives.  In 1850s South Carolina, an enslaved woman named Rose faced a crisis, the imminent sale of her daughter Ashley.  Thinking quickly, she packed a cotton bag with a few precious items as a token of love and to try to ensure Ashley’s survival.  Decades later, Ashley’s granddaughter Ruth embroidered this family history on the bag in spare yet haunting language – “My great grandmother Rose mother of Ashley gave her this sack when she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina.  It held a tattered dress, 3 handfulls of pecans, a braid of Rose’s hair.  Told her It be filled with my Love always.  She never saw her again.  Ashley is my grandmother.  Ruth Middleton 1921.” Rose’s sewn words, the reason we remember Ashley’s sack today, evoke a sweeping family story of loss and of love passed down through generations.  Inspired by Rose’s gift to Ashley, Miles unearths these women’s faint presence in archival records to follow the paths of their lives – and the lives of so many women like them – to write a singular and revelatory history of the experience of slavery, and the uncertain freedom afterward, in the United States.  She metaphorically unpacks the bag, deepening its emotional resonance and exploring the meanings and significance of everything it contained.  According to the author, “Perhaps we can agree that this sack marks a spot in our national story where great wrongs were committed, deep sufferings were felt, love was sustained against all odds, and a vision of survival for future generations persisted.”  This old cloth sack now hangs in the basement gallery at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in a hallway of the unfathomable:  scenes and sounds of human sales on American streets.  The fabric unfurls in a weighty cascade encased in a chest-high, vertical box beside a boulder once used as an auction block, a video rendition of the poem “The Slave Mother,” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and words stenciled onto the wall listing the monetary value of individuals long dead, a portal of horrors almost too much for the modern-day viewer to bear.  Miles has created a  deeply moving testament to collective Black love and loss.

Mysteries: I found State of Terror,” by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny, totally engaging. After a tumultuous period in American politics, a new administration has just been sworn in, and to everyone’s surprise, the President of the United States chooses a political enemy, Ellen Adams, for the vital position of Secretary of State, which means he now has control of one of his harshest critics.  (See where this is going?)  Within weeks, terrorists strike a series of horrific blows, and the new Secretary must scramble to figure out what has happened and what will happen next, particularly since the previous administration left the country without many friends.  Adams assembles an inspired team of allies, and we are immersed in intriguing geopolitics and cunning twist plot twists as we jet around the globe to save the day. It’s all a bit much but deliciously entertaining. You’ll recognize Penny’s emotive writing style, and of course be happy to touch base in Three Pines.  Dan Fesperman knows his espionage. In his “The Cover Wife,” CIA agent Claire Saylor is a maverick who’s always in trouble with her superiors, so when she’s told to go undercover in Hamburg to pose as the wife of an academic who has published a controversial interpretation of the Quran’s promise to martyrs, she assumes the job is a punishment for per past unorthodox behavior.  Across town in Hamburg, Mahmoud, a recent Moroccan émigré, begins to fall under the sway of a group of radicals at his local mosque.  As Clare learns the truth about her mission, and Mahmoud grows close to the radicals, their paths are on a collision course that could have disastrous repercussions far beyond the CIA.  Chilling, and so timely.  In “The Shadows of Men,” by Abir Mukherjee, one of my favorite crime writers, it’s 1923 in Calcutta and a Hindu theologian is found murdered in his home, which puts the city on the brink of all-out religious war.  Can the officers of the Imperial Police Force – Captain Sam Wyndham and Sergeant “Surrender Not” Banerjee – track down those responsible in time to stop a bloodbath?   We get crime and sympathetic characters set in a time of political and social turmoil (“when an Indian overcharges an Englishman, it is termed fraud, but when an Englishman overcharges an Indian, it’s called capitalism”) by a superior historical mystery writer.  How have I never read the delightful mysteries of Caroline B. Cooney, who doesn’t look old enough in her photo to write with such compassion and subtle wit about life in a retirement community or being in memory care?  In ”Before She Was Helen,” when septuagenarian Clemmie goes next door to check on her difficult and unlikable Sun City, South Carolina, neighbor, Dom, he isn’t there – but something else is, something stunning, beautiful, and inexplicable.  She photographs the wondrous object on her cell phone and makes the irrevocable error of forwarding it.  When it goes viral, she becomes desperate – can fifty years of carefully hiding under names not her own be ruined by this one careless picture, especially when what the police find is not the work of art but a body?  Then there’s “The Grandmother Plot,” with Freddy living a life of little responsibility.  His mother is dead, his sisters far-flung, and his beloved grandmother, now deep in dementia, in a nursing home, which means he is in the unfamiliar position of actually being accountable to someone.  He visits often, cherishing the time he spends with her, even though she is now a ghost of her former self.  “Middletown Memory Care was a lockup because a large fraction of its residents spent all day trying to leave.  The deep anxiety that ruled so many dementia patients meant they wanted only one thing: out.   They didn’t know much, but they always knew this wasn’t the life they used to lead.”  When a fragile old woman already close to death is murdered in that nursing home, Freddy panics – his sources of income are sketchy, as are his friends, and he has to keep his grandmother safe, keep himself anonymous, and keep the police out of his life, or the complications could become deadly.  Freddy may be an unreliable pot smoker, but his instincts are to do good, and I ended up charmed by him and both these books. 

I love books. I adore everything about them. I love the feel of the pages on my fingertips. They are light enough to carry, yet so heavy with worlds and ideas. I love the sound of the pages flicking against my fingers. Print against fingerprints. Books make people quiet, yet they are so loud.    Nnedi Okorafor

All About Books

March

Fiction:

When you read a novel by Elizabeth Strout you feel as if she is sitting beside you and you are having an intimate chat.  In “Oh, William,” she begins with, ”I would like to say a few things about my first husband, William,” and then she does.  Lucy Barton is a writer, but her ex-husband, William, she confesses, “has always been a mystery to me.”  Another mystery is why the two have remained connected after all these years.  They just are.  So Lucy is surprised and not surprised when William asks her to join him on a trip to investigate a recently uncovered family secret – one of those secrets that rearrange everything we think we know about the people closest to us.  Then what happens is another example of what Hilary Mantel has called Elizabeth Strout’s “perfect attunement to the human condition.”  There are fears and insecurities, simple joys and acts of tenderness, and revelations about affairs and other spouses, parents and their children.  On every page we learn more about the quiet forces that hold us together – even after we’ve grown apart.  Here’s Lucy‘s reflection on the very nature of existence, “This is the way of life,” she says, “the many things we do not know until it is too late.”  The specific plot of “Oh, William” is less important than the feeling of intimacy Strout creates with both her readers and her characters, and our sense of loss when we have to leave her company.

Rabih Alameddine’s novel about an Arab-American transgender woman’s personal journey among Syrian refugees on a Greek island, “The Wrong End of the Telescope,” seems particularly timely as Ukrainians now join the millions who have been displaced throughout the world.  Mina Simpson, a Lebanese doctor, arrives at the infamous Moria refugee camp on Lesbos after being urgently summoned for help by her friend who runs an NGO.  Alienated from her family except for her beloved brother, Mina has avoided being so close to her homeland for decades.  But with a week off work and apart from her wife of thirty years, Mina hopes to accomplish something meaningful with her return.  When a boat finally crosses, she meets Sumaiya, a fiercely resolute Syrian matriarch with terminal liver cancer.  As Mina prepares a course of treatment with the limited resources on hand, she confronts the circumstances of the migrants’ displacement, as well as her own constraints in helping them.  Alameddine draws us into a traumatic world far from our own, one we are fortunate enough to experience only through the news, and painfully personalizes the refugees and the lives they have had to give up.  The fact that Mina is trans created the painful break with her family, but otherwise that issue is understated and not significant in an environment filled with love and loss and heartbreaking resilience.

If Liane Moriarty is as clever and witty in person as she is in her novels, I would never want to leave her company.  The dilemma facing the four grown Delaney siblings in “Apples Never Fall” is that their mother is missing – should they tell the police?  Even if the most logical suspect is their father?  The Delaneys are fixtures in their community.  The parents, Stan and Joy, are the envy of all their friends.  They’re killers on the tennis court, and off it their chemistry is palpable.  But after fifty years of marriage, they’ve finally sold their famed tennis academy and are ready to start what should be their golden years.  So why are they so miserable?  The four Delaney children – Amy, Logan, Troy, and Brooke – were tennis stars in their own right, yet as their father will tell you, none of them had what it took to go all the way.  But that’s okay, now that they’re all successful grownups with the wonderful possibility of grandchildren on the horizon.  One night a stranger named Savannah knocks on Stan and Joy’s door, bleeding after a fight with her boyfriend.  The Delaneys are more than happy to give her the kindness she needs – if only that were all she wanted.  Later, when Joy goes missing, and Savannah is nowhere to be found, the police question the one person who remains:  Stan, who seems to have a lot to hide.  Two of the Delaney children think he’s innocent; the other two are not so sure.  Nor are we.  It’s all entertaining and fun to read, with some provocative observations about families and relationships that will resonate with many.  It’s a mystery that reads like a novel.

I guess immigrants are heavily on my mind, as I find myself increasingly gravitating toward books that reveal more to us about their personal experiences.  In “Infinite Country,” by Patricia Engel, Talia is being held at a correctional facility for adolescent girls in the forested mountains of Colombia after committing an impulsive act of violence that may or may not have been warranted.  She urgently needs to get out and get back home to Bogota, where her father and a plane ticket to the United States are waiting for her.  If she misses her flight, she might also miss her chance to finally be reunited with her family in the north.  We learn how her parents, Mauro and Elena, fall in love in a market stall as teenagers against a backdrop of civil war and social unrest.  We see them leave Bogota with their first born, Karina, in pursuit of safety and opportunity in the U.S. on a temporary visa, and we see the births of two more children, Nando and Talia, on North American soil.  Then come the decisions and indecisions that lead to Mauro’s deportation and the family’s splintering, the costs of which they’ve been living with ever since.  Patricia Engel herself is a dual citizen and the daughter of Colombian immigrants, which makes this engaging story especially poignant.  Here’s Mauro, on what Talia doesn’t know – “after the enchantment of life in a new country dwindles, a particular pain awaits.  Emigration was a peeling away of the skin.  An undoing.  You wake each morning and forget where you are, who you are, and when the world outside shows you your reflection, it’s ugly and distorted; you’ve become a scorned, unwanted creature.”  Later, after the family is reunited, Karina wonders about “the matrix of separation and dislocation, our years bound to the phantom pain of a lost homeland, because now that we are together again that particular hurt and sensation that something is missing has faded.  And maybe there is no nation or citizenry; they’re just territories mapped in place of family, in place of love, the infinite country.” Engel skillfully brings to life Mauro and Elena and their family so we see them as individuals, rather than “hordes” at the border, and she touches our hearts.

Non-Fiction:

Here’s how the cover of “Think Again:  The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know,” by Adam Grant, describes what’s inside – Grant “examines the critical art of rethinking:  learning to question your opinions and open other people’s minds, which can position you for excellence at work and wisdom in life.”  Who wouldn’t want to dive into that?  Intelligence is usually seen as the ability to think and learn, but in a rapidly changing world the ability to rethink and relearn might matter more.  Too many of us favor the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt, listening to opinions that make us feel good instead of ideas that make us  think hard.  Disagreement can be a threat to our egos rather then an opportunity to learn, and we surround ourselves with people who agree with our conclusions instead of those who challenge our thought process.  We think too much like preachers defending our beliefs, prosecutors proving the other side wrong, and politicians campaigning for approval, and too little like scientists searching for truth.  Intelligence is no cure – being good at thinking can make us worse at rethinking and blinder to our own limitations.  One of Grant’s guiding principles to argue like he’s right but listen like he’s wrong.  He investigates how we can embrace the joy of being wrong and bring nuance to charged conversations. We learn how an international debate champion wins arguments, a Black musician persuaded white supremacists to abandon hate, and Grant coaxed Yankees fans to root for the Red Sox.  If knowledge is power, knowing what we don’t know is wisdom.  According to Grant, “This book is an invitation to let go of knowledge and opinions that are not longer serving you well and to anchor your sense of self in flexibility rather than consistency.  If you can matter the art of rethinking, I believe you’ll be better positioned for success at work and happiness in life.  Thinking again can help you generate new solutions to old problems and revisit old solutions to new problems.  It’s a path to learning more from the people around you and living with fewer regrets.”  Thanks, brother Bob, for recommending Grant’s book and his compelling case for questioning old assumptions and embracing new ideas.

I don’t read many graphic novels, but I thought “The Best We Could Do,” an illustrated memoir by Thi Bui, was terrific. It’s an intimate look at one family’s journey from their war-torn home in Vietnam to their new lives in America.  Exploring the anguish of immigration and the lasting effects that displacement has on a child and her family, Bui documents the story of her family’s daring escape after the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s and the difficulties they faced building new lives for themselves. While adjusting to life as a first-time mother, she ultimately discovers what it means to be a parent – the endless sacrifices, the unnoticed gestures, the depths of unspoken love – and examines the strength of family, the importance of identity, and the meaning of home.  The illustrations are simple but revelatory and totally charming.  In the overleaf, Bui says, “Being my father’s child, I, too, was a product of war . . . And being my mother’s child, I could never measure up to her.  But maybe being their child simply means that I will always feel the weight of their past.”

Mysteries:  In “These Women,” Ivy Pochoda takes us on a deep dive into the world of women on the margins, in the shadows, ones whose lives in a rapidly changing part of South L.A. are steeped in danger and anguish.  She features five very different women whose lives are connected by one man and his deadly obsession, though not all of them know that yet.  The careful existence they have built for themselves starts to crumble when two murders rock their neighborhood.   I marveled at the power of Pochoda’s writing, and how vividly she takes us into a world we know little about.  Inspired by a true crime, ”What’s Left of Me Is Yours,” by Stephanie Scott, is set in Japan, where a covert industry has grown up around the “wakaresaseya” (literally breaker-upper), a person hired by one spouse to seduce the other in order to gain the advantage in divorce proceedings.  When Sato hires Kaitaro, a wakaresaseya agent, to have an affair with his wife, Rina, he assumes it will be an easy case – until Kaitaro does his job too well.  This gripping story has a haunting quality that stays with you.  We get to spend time with the engaging if cantankerous Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond in “The Finisher,” by Peter Lovesey, set in the charming city of Bath in England.  Through a series of events, couch potato Maeve Kelly, an elementary school teacher, has been forced to sign up for the Other Half, Bath’s springtime half marathon, mainly to prove to her mother that exercise is not a waste of her time.  Peter Diamond is tasked with crowd control on the raucous day of the race – and catches sight of a violent criminal he put away a decade ago, who very much seems to be back to his old ways now that he is paroled.  Then he learns that one of the runners never crossed the finish line and disappeared without a trace.  It’s an ingenious plot that keeps you guessing right to the end.

“Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” — President Harry Truman

All About Books

February

Fiction:

 “Damnation Spring,” by Ash Davidson, is a stunning novel set in the redwood forest along Northern California’s rugged coast.  For generations, Rich Gundersen’s family has chopped a livelihood out of the forest.  Now he and his wife Colleen are raising their young son near Damnation Grove, a swath of ancient redwoods on which Rich’s employer, Sanderson Timber Co., plans to make a killing.  In 1977, with most of the forest cleared or protected, a grove like Damnation – and beyond it 24-7 ridge (named after the monster redwood that had grown even bigger now than the twenty-four feet, seven inches that originally earned her the name) – is a logger’s dream.  Wanting his son to have a less dangerous occupation than his, Rich seizes the opportunity to buy 24-7 ridge, costing them all the savings they’ve squirreled away for their growing family, not telling Colleen, believing the payoff will be worth it.  But the reality is their family isn’t growing, as Colleen has lost several pregnancies.  And she’s not alone – as a midwife, she has seen with her own eyes multiple miscarriages and babies born with birth defects.  For decades, the herbicides the logging company uses were considered harmless – but what if they weren’t?  As mudslides take out clear-cut hillsides and salmon vanish from creeks, Colleen’s search for answers threatens to unravel not only Rich’s plans for the 24-7, but their marriage, too, dividing a town that lives and dies on timber along the way.  This family saga is obviously thoroughly researched and beautifully written, with characters we come to care deeply about as well as those we are frustrated by.  Davidson engages us in issues we know are crucial for our environment even as she helps us understand the economic hardships faced by those affected.  I found this novel masterful in pulling us into the Gundersen family’s world and helping us to feel its natural beauty, even as we understand their fellow loggers’ desperate  need to survive. 

“How to Find Your Way in the Dark,” by Derek B. Miller, is both a mystery and a novel, funny and dark, and a compulsive read.  Twelve-year-old Sheldon Horowitz is recovering from the tragic loss of his mother when a suspicious traffic accident takes the life of his father.  It is 1938, and Sheldon, who was a passenger as their truck was run off an isolated road in rural Massachusetts, emerges from the crash an orphan hell-bent on revenge.  He takes that fire with him as he moves to Hartford, where he embarks on a new life under the roof of his buttoned-up Uncle Nate.  Over the years, Sheldon, his teen-age cousins Abe and Mirabelle, and his best friend, Lenny, contend with tradition and orthodoxy, appeasement and patriotism, mafia men and angry accordion players, all while World War II and the horror of the Holocaust take center stage alongside a hurricane in New England and Borscht Belt comedians in the Catskills.  With his eye always on vengeance for his father’s murder, Sheldon has to find a place for himself in a world he now understands is comprised largely of crimes, big and small. You come away from this story both entertained and with a deeper understanding of that very difficult period of time in our history.  I now look forward to Miller’s award-winning first novel, “Norwegian by Night,” which features Sheldon as an elderly man reflecting on his life.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia, one of the “Literary Lions” who was at the hybrid King County Library System Gala in Bellevue on March 5 (which is always a fabulous event!), takes us into the gritty noir underworld of Mexico in the 1970s in “Velvet Was the Night.”  Maite is a daydreaming secretary who lives for one thing:  the latest issue of Secret Romance.  While student protests and political unrest consume the city, she escapes into stories of passion and danger.  Her next-door neighbor, Leonora, a beautiful art student, seems to live a life of intrigue and romance that Maite envies.  When Leonara disappears under suspicious circumstances, Maite finds herself searching for the missing woman – and journeying deeper into Leonora’s secret life of student radicals and dissidents.  Meanwhile, someone else is also looking for Leonora at the behest of his boss, a showy figure who commands goon squads dedicated to squashing political activists.  Elvis is an eccentric criminal who longs to escape his own life:  he loathes violence and loves old movies and rock ‘n’ roll.  But as Elvis searches for the missing woman, he watches Maite from a distance – and regards her as a kindred spirit who shares his loneliness.  As the two come closer to discovering the truth behind Leonora’s disappearance, they can no longer escape the danger that threatens to consume both their lives.  Moreno-Garcia is a fine writer who creates interesting characters you care about and puts them into a dark period of Mexican history with a fast-paced and suspenseful plot.  Oddly enough, given the plot, this clever story was great fun to read.

Another writer referred to the short stories of Deesha Philyaw as “contemporary folktales – stories of southern customs and mores and of voices over the back fence” – and I would agree.  “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” explores the places where Black women and girls dare to follow their desires and pursue a momentary reprieve from being good.  The nine characters in this collection feature four generations of characters grappling with who they want to be in the world, caught as they are between the church’s double standards and their own needs and passions.  Fourteen-year-old Jael has a crush on the preacher’s wife.  At forty-two, Lyra realizes her discomfort with her own body stands between her and a new love.  As Y2K looms, Caroletta’s “same time next year” arrangement with her childhood best friend is tenuous.  A serial mistress lays down the ground rules for her married lovers.  In the dark shadows of a hospice parking lot, grieving strangers find comfort in each other.  These nine stories are short but deeply moving, dealing with the beauty and burden of Black life within oppressive social systems and in particular the relationships between mothers and daughters and how the  characters struggle with gender and sexuality norms prescribed by the Black church.   The specific issues Philyaw addresses are new to me but so enlightening to read about.

Non-Fiction:

On the back of “The Premonition:  A Pandemic Story,” by Michael Lewis, a New York Times reviewer says,I would read an 800-page history of the stapler if he wrote it.”  Amen to that!  I have savored all of Lewis’ books, and this is no exception, even though I thought I had read and heard all I wanted to about the pandemic.  Lewis pits a band of medical visionaries against the wall of ignorance that was the official response of the Trump administration.  The characters are both fascinating and unexpected a 13-year-old girl’s science project on transmission of an airborne pathogen develops into a very grown-up model of disease control, a local public health officer uses her worm’s eye view to see what the CDC misses, a secret team of dissenting doctors has everything necessary to fight the pandemic (brilliant backgrounds, world-class labs, prior experience with the pandemic scares of bird flu and swine flu) everything, that is, except official permission to implement their work.  It was fascinating to get to know those Lewis calls heroes for their refusal to follow directives that they knew to be based on misinformation and bad science.  This book is well worth a read on so many levels, especially because Lewis is such an engaging writer.  Here he is on the fact that few people, in practice, didn’t even really know what a public-health officer is supposed to do, that a public-health officer had somehow become a recessive character, “expected to lie low, like a carrot in a school play, until called upon, usually to make some brief ceremonial appearance.”  In this book, Dr. Charity Dean, the deputy health officer in the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, emerges as a star, doing stuff no other health officers had done – spending huge amounts of time with the public-health nurses, treating them as teachers rather than subordinates, and insisting on seeing patients directly rather than spending her days writing memos or in meetings.  You find yourself fascinated by getting to know her and cheering her on.  Another hero is Carter Melcher, a doctor from the Veterans Administration in Atlanta, who sensed from the moment he first walked into an ICU it was where he was meant to be.  The involvement of these two in helping to manage the pandemic is critical.  In groping for the right analogy, Carter said that “managing a pandemic was like driving a weird car that only accelerated, or braked, fifteen seconds after you hit the pedal.”  Or like looking at a star, where the light you see is from years ago. “When you are looking at a disease, the disease you are seeing is from last week.”  As for the CDC, Carter said it had lots of great people, but it was at heart a massive university, “a peacetime institution in a wartime environment.”  You can tell I’m a big fan of Michael Lewis and his always revelatory books.

“Lady Bird Johnson:  Hiding in Plain Sight, by Julia Sweig, is a reevaluation of the profound yet underappreciated impact Lady Bird’s presence and political instincts had on Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.  When in 1964 Johnson had to decide whether to run to win the presidency in his own right, he turned to his most reliable, trusted political strategist, his wife.  The strategy memo she produced urging him to run was emblematic of her own often overlooked power and political acumen.  Sweig’s book reveals how indispensable the First Lady was in what she called “our” presidency.   Managing the White House in years of national upheaval, through the civil rights movement and the escalation of the Vietnam War, Lady Bird projected a sense of calm and, following the glamorous and modern Jackie Kennedy, an old-fashioned image of a more passive First Lady.  In truth, she was anything but.  As the first First Lady to run the East Wing like a professional office, she took on her own policy initiatives, including the most ambitious national environmental effort since Theodore Roosevelt and a virtually unknown initiative to desegregate access to public recreation and national parks in D.C.  Occupying the White House at the beginning of the women’s liberation movement, she hosted professional women from all walks of life, encouraging women everywhere to pursue their own careers, even if her own style of leadership, indeed her official role, was to lead by supporting others.  Sweig is the first presidential biographer to draw substantially on Lady Bird’s White House diaries and to place Claudia Alta Johnson center stage, allowing us to know her as an accomplished politician in her own right

Mysteries:  The original and intriguing plot of “56 Days,” by Catherine Ryan Howard, kept me guessing until the very end.  Ciara and Oliver meet in a supermarket queue in Dublin and start dating the same week COVID reaches Ireland, so to keep from being apart they decide to move in together.  It’s an opportunity for Ciara to keep the relationship from family and friends, and Oliver to hide who – and what – he really is.  I would be hard pressed to come up with a more delightful mystery than “The Man Who Died Twice,” by Richard Osman. (I loved his first book, “The Thursday Murder Club,” as well.)  After their recent real-life murder case, Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron, and Ibrahim – the Thursday Murder Club – are looking forward to a bit of peace and quiet at Coopers Chase, their posh retirement village, but an old pal (or more than that?) of Elizabeth’s arrives, desperate for her help.   He has been accused of stealing diamonds worth millions from the wrong men, and he’s seriously on the lam.  After a body is discovered, the foursome finds themselves up against a ruthless murderer who wouldn’t bat an eyelid at knocking off four septuagenarians.  From Joyce’s diary late one evening – “On BBC2 they are showing normal programs from the day, but with someone doing sign language in the corner.  Isn’t that clever?  I was just thinking it was unfair to make deaf people stay up so late, but then realized they could tape them.”  And, “People don’t buy that Elizabeth is a harmless old woman for very long.  With me it lasts much longer, but Elizabeth doesn’t have that gift.”  I’m already eager for the next one and wish I could hang out with Joyce.  I continue to enjoy Stephen Mack Jones’ thrillers set in Detroit’s Mexicantown, which ex-cop and Mexicantown native August Snow is working to revitalize.  In “Dead of Winter,” Snow has been invited for a business meeting at Authentico Foods, whose dying owner, Ronaldo Ochoa, is being blackmailed into selling the company to an anonymous entity.  Snow has no interest in running a tortilla empire, but he does want to know who’s threatening his neighborhood, and the raucous and endearing bunch of characters he hangs with provide muscle and tactics along with sharp wit to go after a dangerous net of billionaire developers.   Michael Connelly is always good for a satisfying legal thriller, as in his latest, ”The Law of Innocence.” On the night he celebrates a big win, defense attorney Mickey Haller is pulled over by police, who find the body of a former client in the trunk of his Lincoln.  You know and I know he didn’t do it. but he is immediately charged with murder and can’t post the exorbitant $5 million bail slapped on him by a vindictive judge. Off he goes to the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown LA, from where he is forced to mount his defense and find out who has framed him and why.  It’s a page turner.

You may have tangible wealth untold. Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold. Richer than I you can never be — I had a mother who read to me. – Strickland Gillilan

All About Books

January Happy 2022!

Fiction:

I found “A Children’s Bible,” by Lydia Millet, to be weird but fascinating and thoroughly entertaining, in large part because the writing is so sharp.  A group of twelve eerily mature children are on a forced vacation with their families at a sprawling lakeside mansion.  Contemptuous of their parents, who pass their days in a stupor of liquor, drugs, and sex, the children feel neglected and suffocated at the same time.  When a destructive storm descends on the summer estate, the group’s ringleaders – including Eve, who narrates the story – decide to run away, leading the younger ones on a dangerous foray into the apocalyptic chaos outside.  As the scenes of devastation begin to mimic events in the dog-eared picture Bible carried around by her beloved little brother, Eve devotes herself to keeping him safe from harm.   This story is clever, witty, definitely disturbing, and impactful, adding up to a provocative read. 

“The Pull of the Stars,” by Emma Donoghue (who also wrote “Room”) takes us to a maternity ward in Dublin in 1916, in an Ireland doubly plagued by war and the great flu. Nurse Julia Power works at an understaffed hospital in the city center, where expectant mothers who have come down with the terrible new flu are quarantined together.  Into Julia’s regimented world step two outsiders – Dr. Kathleen Lynn, a rumored Rebel on the run from police, and a young volunteer helper named Bridgie Sweeney.  In the darkness and intensity of this tiny ward, over three days, these women change one another’s lives in unexpected ways.  They lose patients to this baffling pandemic, but they also shepherd new life into a fearful world with tireless tenderness and humanity.  It’s a detailed look at childbirth in an earlier era, but while medical knowledge and procedures are dramatically different today, we know all too well that the dedication of those in the medical profession has not changed.  This book is a memorable and highly original piece of life-and-death historical fiction.

I think anyone who has spent time in Hawai’i would find “Sharks in the Time of Saviors,” by Kawai Strong Washburn, thoughtful and fascinating.  In 1995, off the coast of Kailua-Kona, seven-year-old Nainoa Flores falls overboard into the Pacific Ocean.  When a shiver of sharks appears in the water, everyone fears the worst.  But Noa is gingerly delivered to his mother in the jaws of a shark, making his story the stuff of legend.  We follow Noa’s family as they struggle amid the collapsing sugarcane industry.  They hail his rescue as a sign of the favor of ancient Hawaiian gods, a belief reinforced by Noa’s puzzling new abilities. But as time passes, this supposed divine favor drives the family apart:  Noa, now working as a paramedic in gritty Oregon neighborhoods, attempts to fathom his expanding abilities; farther north, in Washington, his older brother, Dean, hurtles into the world of elite college athletics, becoming obsessed with wealth and fame; and in California, his risk-addicted younger sister, Kaui, navigates unforgiving academic and wilderness landscapes to forge her independence form the family’s legacy.  When supernatural events revisit the Flores household in Hawai’I – this time with tragic consequences – everyone must reckon with the bonds of family, the meaning of heritage, and the cost of survival.  This is a lush and ferocious debut novel, filled with pain and passion and magic.  Washburn is a transcendent writer.

Ever since I read “Last Orders” I have looked forward to new novels by Graham Swift.  They are short and thoughtful as well as deceptively rich and intimate.  In “There we Are,” it is 1959 in Brighton, England, and the theater at the end of the famous pier is having its best summer session in years.  Ronnie, a brilliant young magician, and Evie, his dazzling assistant, are top of the bill, drawing full houses every night.  And Jack is everyone’s favorite master of ceremonies, holding the whole show together.  But as the summer progresses, the offstage drama among the three begins to overshadow their success onstage and events unfold that will have lasting consequences.  This simple story has a lovely haunting quality.  

Mysteries:  It was fun to re-read the first published novel by the most widely published author of all time and in any language, outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare – “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” by Agatha Christie.  Who poisoned the wealthy Emily Inglethorp and how did the murderer penetrate and escape from her locked bedroom?  Suspects abound in the quaint village of Styles St. Mary, but fortunately the brilliant Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, in his unforgettable debut, is on the case.   “The Decagon House Murders,” by Yukito Ayatsuji (The Japanese Cult Classic Mystery), was Ayatsuji’s debut and is considered a landmark crime novel in Japan, where it revived the traditional puzzle mystery format and inspired a new generation of writers.  In this fiendishly clever story, the lonely, rockbound island of Tsunojima is notorious as the site of a series of bloody unsolved murders, and therefore the perfect destination for the K- University Mystery’s Club trip.  But when the first club member turns up dead, the remaining amateur sleuths realize they will need all their murder-mystery expertise to get off the island alive.  It is a classic of misdirection, reminiscent of Christie’s style.  Local author Robert Dugoni, recipient of multiple awards, has another winner in “In Her Tracks.”  Returning from an extended leave, Detective Tracy Crosswhite finds herself reassigned to the Seattle PD’s Cold Case Unit in her hometown and is drawn to her first file, the abduction of a five-year-old girl whose parents were once prime suspects.  She is also brought into an active investigation of a young woman who vanished on an isolated jogging trail in North Seattle. Treacherous deceptions and long-hidden secrets eventually lead us to satisfying and cleverly surprising resolutions.  

“Take a good book to bed with you—books do not snore.” – Thea Dorn

All About Books

December 

Fiction:

If the words “shimmering,” “luminous,” “gorgeous,” and “exhilarating” that are used to describe Julia Alvarez’s books speak to you, then you’ll want to read “Afterlife,” her first adult novel in almost fifteen years.  Antonia Vega, the immigrant writer from the Dominican Republic at the center of the story, has had the rug pulled out from under her.  She has just retired from the Vermont college where she taught English when her beloved husband, Sam, dies.  And then more jolts:  her bighearted but unstable sister disappears, requiring her and her other two sisters to step in, even though they’ve not wanted to be their sister’s keeper.  (“Living your own life is a full-time job.”)  Then Antonia returns home one evening to find a pregnant, undocumented teenager on her doorstep, and the question arises:  What do we owe those in crisis in our families, including – maybe especially – members of our human family?  Antonia has always sought direction in the literature she loves – her favorite authors’ lines play in her head like a soundtrack – but now she finds that the world demands more of her than words.  I was entranced by this thoughtful and timely story, a Time magazine must-read book of 2020.

My daughter Catherine told me about her friend Susan Conley’s novel “Landslide,” which I found a remarkably insightful story of a marriage, parenthood, and the impact of being part of a dying industry.  After a fishing accident leaves her husband hospitalized across the border in Canada, Jill is left to look after her teenage boys – “the wolves” – alone.  Nothing comes easy in their remote corner of Maine:  money is tight; her son Sam is getting into more trouble by the day; her eldest, Charlie, is preoccupied with a new girlfriend; and Jill begins to suspect her marriage isn’t as stable as she once believed.  As one disaster gives way to the next, she begins to think that it’s not enough to be a caring wife and mother anymore – not enough to show up when needed, to nudge her boys in the right direction, to believe everything will be okay.  But how to protect this life she loves, this household, this family?  “Landslide” is a moving and compelling story of the complexities of marriage and family life, beautifully written, with fully drawn characters – the teenaged boys are spot on and a Maine fishing village is brought vividly to life.  I loved it. 

Another novel I greatly enjoyed is “Unsettled Ground,” by Claire Fuller.  At fifty-one years old, twins Jeanie and Julius still live with their mother, Dot, in rural isolation in the English countryside.  The cottage they have shared their entire lives is their only protection against the modernizing world around them.  Inside its walls, they make music, and in its garden they grow everything they need to survive.  To an outsider it looks like poverty; to them, it is home.  But when Dot dies unexpectedly, the world they’ve so carefully created begins to fall apart.  The cottage they love, and the security it offered, is taken back by their landlord, exposing the twins to harsh truths and even harsher realities.  Seeing a new future, Julius becomes torn between the loyalty he feels towards his sister and his desire for independence, while Jeanie struggles to find work and a home for them both.  And just when it seems there might be a way forward, a series of startling secrets from their mother’s past come to the surface, forcing the twins to question who they are and everything they know of their family’s history. This was a page-turner for me, not in the thriller sense but because of the ever-evolving story and Fuller’s ability to put us into the heads of these marginalized characters as they struggle to survive, manage to recover, and in their own way begin again.

It’s nice this time of year to read a story that gives you the comforting feeling when things go wrong for the characters you’ve come to care about that all will be well.  That’s how I felt about “The Music of Bees,” Eileen Garvin, recommended by my brother Bob Pike.  Forty-four-year-old Alice Holtzman is stuck in a dead-end job, bereft of family, and now reeling from the unexpected death of her husband.  She has begun having panic attacks whenever she thinks about how her life hasn’t turned out the way she dreamed.  Even the beloved honeybees she raises in her spare time aren’t helping her feel better these days.  In the grip of a panic attack, she nearly collides with Jake – a troubled paraplegic teenager with the tallest mohawk in Hood River County – while carrying 120,000 honeybees in the back of her pickup truck.  Charmed by Jake’s sincere interest in her bees and seeking to rescue him from his toxic home life, Alice surprises herself by inviting Jake to her farm.  And then there’s Harry, a twenty-four-year-old with debilitating social anxiety who is desperate for work.  When he answers Alice’s ad for part-time farm help, he’s shocked to find himself hired.  As an unexpected friendship blossoms among Alice, Jake, and Harry, a nefarious pesticide company moves to town, threatening the local honeybee population and illuminating deep-seated corruption in the community.  The unlikely trio must unite for the sake of the bees, and in the process, they might just forge a new future for themselves.  As readers, we want to cheer for the good guys and boo the bad guys, all the while learning about the fascinating lives of bees and how to care for them.  This delightful story is filled with warmth and hope and, of course, the amazing honeybees.

Non-Fiction:

My brother Hal Pike highly recommended “Preventable:  The Inside Story of How Leadership Failures, Politics, and Selfishness Doomed the U.S. Coronavirus Response,” by Andy Slavitt.  Slavitt,most recentlythe senior advisor for the COVID-19 response in the Biden White House, ran the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under President Obama from 2015 to 2017 and is the founder of United States of Care, a national health policy organization.  I thought that after almost two years I had read enough about COVID, but actually this book was fascinating.  When the virus arrived in America it quickly became clear that both the government and the American people were massively unprepared.  Slavitt provides an authoritative account of the United States’ failed response, drawing on his access to the key decision makers.  He chronicles what he saw and what could have been prevented.  He brings us into the room as fateful decisions are made, then shifts to their effects on the people whose lives have been forever altered by the pandemic – patients, care providers, and everyday heroes.  It becomes apparent that in our country – despite the heroics of many – bad leadership, political and cultural fractures, and an unwillingness to sustain sacrifice lit a fuse that has proven difficult to extinguish.  Slavitt is of the opinion that historians will view America’s response to COVID-19 as one of the great disasters of our time.  He wants us to learn the lessons of this pandemic so we can apply them to the next one with an eye on “saving the next life.”  People living in countries that provide universal health coverage find it difficult to understand a fact we have to face – our system requires that people earn their care, either through their jobs, their income, or their age.  Even then, our system has financial gaps (high deductibles, high co-payments, claim denials, unaffordable premiums), many Americans still lack insurance, and most others still worry that is someone in their family gets really sick they may not be able to afford to care for them.  During COVID-19, these disparities dramatically affected who lived and who died.  Because the people who were required to work and interact with the public were the same people who lacked access to affordable medical care, the U.S. was set up for negative health care outcomes that would disproportionately hit communities that historically have been left behind.   Slavitt’s conversations with members of the Trump administration shed interesting light on what was causing Donald Trump not to act in the face of an obvious crisis.  No one believed he caused the virus, but he chose to mislead the country, to pretend that there was no crisis.  Why?  Slavitt proposes a simple answer.  We also learn more about the pharma financial machine, the medical financial machine, and the insurance financial machine in a pandemic economy. Going forward, Slavitt outlines specific recommendations that will require a level of level of compassion and empathy that has been declining across our increasingly large, diverse, and fractured nation – one which already tolerates plenty of preventable deaths.  As we face the increasing threat of Omicron, his suggestion that we heed what Edgar Allen Poe wrote in “The Masque of the Red Death” is even more critical – we are never completely safe or separate from the dangers our neighbors face.

Mysteries:  I am so happy to have discovered James Kestrel,as I found his “Five Decembers” to be enthralling, gripping, haunting, all those satisfying things you look for in a mystery.   It’s December, 1941, and in Honolulu police detective Joe McGrady is assigned to investigate a homicide.  The trail of murder he uncovers will lead him across the Pacific, far from home and the woman he loves.  Although the U.S. doesn’t know it yet, a Japanese fleet is already steaming toward Pearl Harbor, with consequences for McGrady that will change his life forever.  C.J. Box’s stories give us interesting characters, suspenseful plots, and atmospheric western settings, all of which add up to terrific stories.  In “Dark Sky,” when the governor of Wyoming gives game warden Joe Pickett the thankless task of taking a tech baron on an elk hunting trip, Joe reluctantly treks into the wilderness with his high-profile charge. But soon Joe learns that he himself may be the hunted, requiring him to rely on his wits and knowledge of the outdoors to protect himself and hi

s companion.  It is unlikely I will ever go elk hunting, but after reading this book I know a lot more about how to do it.  (Loved the quote in the front – “Technology . . . the art of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.”  Max Frisch.)  Another riveting story by C. J. Box is “Long Range,” which begins when Joe Pickett is asked to join the rescue efforts for the victim of a startling grizzly attack and reluctantly leaves his district behind.  He’s brought home by an emergency on his own turf – someone has targeted a prominent local judge, shooting at him from a seemingly impossible distance but missing him and severely wounding his wife.  It’s up to Joe to find answers – and the shooter.  lt’s a mystery, a thriller, and a fine read.  It’s always comforting to return to the snowy Quebec village of Three Pines with Louise Penny, even though murders regularly intrude on its residents’ lives.  In “The Madness of Crowds,” Chief Inspector Armand Gamache finds his holiday interrupted by a request to provide security when a visiting professor of statistics gives a lecture at the nearby university.  Then he learns that Professor Abigail Robinson has an agenda so repulsive that he begs the university to cancel, but they refuse, citing academic freedom.  I felt this one was longer than it needed to be, with too many possible suspects, but was happy to keep hanging out in the village’s cozy bistro. 

“… a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.”  George R.R. Martin

All About Books

NOVEMBER

Fiction:

The Plot,” by Jean Hanff Korelitz, is a terrific novel about writers and writing that kept me turning pages right up to its stunning conclusion.  Jacob Finch Bonner was once a promising young novelist with a respectably published first book.  Today, he’s teaching in a third-rate MFA program and struggling to maintain what’s left of his self-respect:  he hasn’t written – let alone published – anything decent in years.  When Evan Parker, his most arrogant student, announces he doesn’t need Jake’s help because the plot of his book in progress is a sure thing, Jake is prepared to dismiss the boast as typical amateur narcissism.  But then . . . he hears the plot.  Jake returns to the downward trajectory of his own career and braces himself for the supernova publication of Parker’s first novel – which never comes.  When he discovers that his former student has died, presumably without ever completing his book, Jake does what any self-respecting writer would do with a story like that – a story that absolutely needs to be told.  In a few short years, all of Parker’s predictions have come true, but Jake is the author enjoying the ride.  He is wealthy, famous, praised, and read all over the world, until at the height of his glorious new life, an email arrives.  You are a thief.  As Jake struggles to understand his antagonist and hide the truth from his readers and his publishers, he begins to learn more about his late student, and what he discovers both amazes and terrifies him.  What is the real story behind the plot, and who stole it from whom?   This novel has everything you want in a compelling read – character development, suspense, an intriguing plot, and, best of all, an astonishing finale.

Diane Lind told me about the compassionate and witty, “The Sweet Taste of Muscadines,” by Pamela Terry.  Lila Bruce Breedlove never quite felt at home in Wesleyan, Georgia, especially after her father’s untimely death when she was a child.  Lila and her brother, Henry, fled north after high school, establishing fulfilling lives of their own, while their younger sister, Abigail, opted to remain behind to dote on their domineering, larger-than-life mother, Geneva.  Yet despite their independence, Lila and Henry know deep down they’ve never reckoned with their upbringing.  When their elderly mother dies suddenly and suspiciously in the muscadine arbor (I looked it up – it’s a grapevine species native to the southeastern or south central U.S.) behind the family house, Lila and Henry return to the town that essentially raised them.  As they uncover the facts about Geneva’s death, shocking truths are revealed that overturn the family’s history as they know it, sending the pair on an extraordinary journey to chase a truth that will dramatically alter their lives.  It’s a beautifully written story that draws us deeply into this dysfunctional family’s life, taking us from Maine to the southern U.S. to the stunningly beautiful Outer Hebrides Islands of Scotland, and reminding us of the value of family connections and the power of forgiveness.    

In a book of historical fiction, Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray have given us “The Personal Librarian,” the remarkable story of J. P. Morgan’s personal librarian, Belle da Costa Greene, the Black American woman who was forced to hide her true identity and pass as white to leave a lasting legacy that enriched our nation. In her twenties, Belle was hired by Morgan to curate a collection of rare manuscripts, books, and artwork for his newly built Pierpont Morgan Library.  Belle becomes a fixture in New York City society and one of the most powerful people in the art and book world, known for her impeccable taste and shrewd negotiating for critical works as she helps create a world class collection.  The secret she must protect at all costs is that she was actually born Belle Marion Greener, the daughter of Richard Greener, the first Black graduate of Harvard and a well-known advocate for equality.  Belle’s complexion isn’t dark because of her alleged Portuguese heritage that lets her and her family pass as white – it’s because she is African-American.  This is an extraordinary trip back to the early 1900s and the lush world of art and literature and immense wealth in NYC at the time, and I loved that the authors were able to make us feel that Belle is our close friend as we root for her in both professional and intensely personal situations (the authors say they used a blend of research, personal experience, fiction, and logical extrapolation to reach Belle’s inner self). This timely story is a gem.

Non-Fiction:

I had no idea how entertaining and informative “The Address Book:  What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power,” by Dierdre Mask, would turn out to be!  It is an insightful work of popular history on how streets got their names, houses their numbers, and the surprising histories and meanings that lie behind the seemingly mundane way we name our streets and assign numbers to our houses and buildings.  When most people think about street addresses, if they think of them at all, it in their capacity to ensure that the postman can deliver mail or a traveler won’t get lost.  But street addresses were not created to help you find your way; they were created to find you.  The modern project to name and number our streets arose out of a revolution in how we live – a revolution that now means your addresses can often reveal your race or class.  We learn things like that in some years more than 40 percent of all local laws passed by the New York city council have been street name changes.  And that Addressing the Unaddressed, an NGO whose sole mission is to give street addresses to every slum in India, started in Kolkata, where slum residents seemed to have more serious needs than addresses – sanitation, sources of clean water, healthcare, even roofs – but where the lack of addresses was depriving them of a chance to get out of the slums.  If you want to have a bank account, save or borrow money, or receive a state pension, you need an address, which is also essential for your identity card.  In British India, the Brits could find each other but did not care who – or where – their Indian subjects were.  (I would note that Mask expresses concern that the NGO was assigning a new kind of address, reserved for the slums alone, rather than incorporating the slums into the rest of the city, which she thinks preferable, but for now the government seems unwilling or unable to include them.)  Mask points out other benefits of having addresses, such as being able to record vital statistics that show how and where people die to reveal patterns that might improve public health.  When Doctors Without Borders went to Haiti in 2010 to help stop the spread of cholera in poor neighborhoods, they called on Google to send volunteers to do on-the-ground mapping, which allowed physicians to input patient data by neighborhood to see where the spreading was occurring and ultimately find the source.  In 1770, when Maria Theresa, empress of the Habsburg empire, needed more soldiers and had no real way of counting people in the warrens of the villages, she struck on an answer:  house numbers!  By numbering each house and listing its occupants, the military could strip away the house’s anonymity and discover the men of fighting age inside.  We also read about the fate of streets named after Martin Luther King Jr., the wayfinding means of ancient Romans, how Nazis haunt the streets of modern Germany, and how before the Civil War southerners feared that city directories were all part of a “Northern enterprise.”  It’s interesting to realize that numbering is essentially dehumanizing, so that in the early days of house numbering, many felt their new house numbers denied them an essential dignity.  I love knowing that the house number near my front door has its own fascinating history.

The Ministry for the Future,” by Kim Stanley Robinson, is a tough one to review, as it’s a sweeping vision of the impact of climate change over the coming decades. Its setting isn’t a desolate, postapocalyptic world, but a future that is almost upon us – and in which we might just overcome the extraordinary challenges we face.  It’s referred to as “science fiction,” and Robinson “generally acknowledged as one of the greatest living science fiction writers” by the New Yorker, but as someone who usually avoids that genre I have to say to me it reads more like a realistic ecological and political novel, a compelling vision of what might lie ahead if humanity can cooperate in the face of disaster.  It begins with an announcement stating:  “ Be it resolved that s Subsidiary Body authorized by this twenty-ninth Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the parties to the Paris Climate Agreement is hereby established, to work with the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, and all the agencies of the United Nations, and all the governments signatory to the Paris Agreement, to advocate for the world’s future generations of citizens, whose rights, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are as valid as our own.  This new Subsidiary body is furthermore charged with defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves, by promoting their legal standing and physical protection.”  Someone in the press named this new agency “the Ministry for the Future,” and the name stuck and spread.  It was established in Zurich, Switzerland, in January of 2025.  Not long after that, the big heat wave struck India – and we’re off.  When Badim, the ministry’s chief of staff, tells Mary Murphy, ex-minister of foreign affairs in the government of the Irish Republic and now head of the ministry, that what they’re doing isn’t enough, Mary replies, “Maybe you’re right.  Maybe there’s no such thing as justice, in the sense of some kind of real reparation of a wrong.  Especially historical justice, or climate justice.  But over long haul, that’s what we have to try for.  Some long-term ledger of more good than bad.”  This novel is rich with things to think about  – “To be clear, there is enough for all.  So there should be no more people living in poverty.  And there should be no more billionaires.  Enough should be a human right, a floor below which no one can fall:  also a ceiling above which no one can rise.  Enough is as good as a feast – or better.”   Arranging this situation is left as an exercise for the reader.  I think we would all benefit from reading this stunning novel.

I have been interested in Saudi Arabia since we traveled there several years ago and became even more so when King Salman ascended to the throne in 2015 and his son, Mohammed bin Salman, began to leverage his influence to restructure the kingdom’s economy, loosen its strict Islamic social codes, and confront its enemies around the region, especially Iran.  “MBS,” by Ben Hubbard, is the untold story of how this mysterious young prince emerged from Saudi Arabia’s sprawling royal family to overhaul the economy and society of the richest country in the Middle East with a vision that won him fans at home and on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley, in Hollywood, and at the White House, where President Trump embraced the prince as a key player in his own vision for the Middle East.  But over time, the sheen of the visionary young reformer has become tarnished, leaving many struggling to determine whether MBS is in fact a rising dictator whose inexperience and rash decisions are destabilizing the world’s most volatile region.   Based on years of reporting and hundreds of interviews, “MBS” reveals the machinations behind the kingdom’s catastrophic military intervention in Yemen, the bizarre detention of princes and businessmen in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, and the shifting Saudi relationships with Israel and the United States.  Finally, it sheds new light on the greatest scandal of the young autocrat’s rise:  the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul, a crime that shook Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Washington and left the world wondering whether MBS could get away with murder.  In response, “There was little the royal family could do, because the royal family no lunger functioned as it once had. Gone were the days when seniority reigned, elder princes divided the portfolios among themselves, and made decisions through consensus.  MBS has destroyed that system, extending his control over the military, the oil industry, the intelligence services, the police and the National Guard, replacing senior princes with younger ones who answered to him.”  By the time he reached his 34th birthday, Mohammed bin Salman had done it:  after emerging from the shadows only a few years before, he had eliminated his rivals, extended his control over the essential organs of the Saudi state, and solidified his position as the kingdom’s undisputed center of power.   I was completely absorbed in this authoritative and eminently readable, if often chilling, book, filled with penetrating insights about a culture that can seem opaque to us and devastating information about a guy we need to better understand.  Hubbard is a fine writer.

Mysteries:  It’s a delight to return to the adventures of the Kopp sisters in Amy Stewart’sMiss Kopp Investigates” (the Kopps were real people who formed a detective agency after WWI).  Norma is summoned home from France, Constance is called back from Washington, and Fleurette puts her own plans on hold as the sisters rally round their recently widowed sister-in-law and her children.  How are they going to support themselves?  Never fear – they are a resourceful bunch of heroines, and their crime-solving exploits are charmingly recreated by Stewart. Nancy Pearl referred to “Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead” by Sara Gran, as “one of the very best mysteries I’ve ever read,” so or course I had to check it out.   Claire DeWitt believes she is the world’s greatest PI, even if few agree with her.  She is a follower of the esoteric French detective Jacques Silette, whose mysterious handbook Detection inspired Claire’s unusual practices.  She has deep roots in New Orleans, and when a respected DA goes missing, she returns to the hurricane-ravaged city to find out why.  I loved Gran’s quirky, witty and totally original writing.  Brian Selfon who lives in Seattle, gives us an off-beat way to look at family in his gritty and sometimes heartbreaking “The Nightworkers.”  Shecky Keenan lives in Brooklyn with his niece, Kerasha, and nephew, Henry, and while his deepest desire is to keep his little makeshift family safe, that doesn’t stop him from using their talents to help him move money for an array of unsavory clients.  Henry is the bagman, and the quick mind and quicker fingers of Kerasha, the famed former child thief of Bushwick, are already being put to use.  There’s money missing, and someone will be coming for it.  What can the future hold for this family when crime is what keeps them together? I always look forward to returning to Venice and spending time – and enjoying delicious meals – with Commissario Guido Brunetti, but I was disappointed with Donna Leon’s latest mystery, “Transient Desires.” There was a lot of extraneous material, while the actual plot involving sex trafficking felt like a minor part of the story.  And then I was startled by the sudden ending, which had me flipping pages to see if my copy was missing some of them (as did several commenters online). So weird.

Posted by Nancy Pearl on Facebook:  “At one magical instant in your early childhood, the page of a book – that string of confused, alien ciphers – shivered into meaning.  Words spoke to you, gave up their secrets; at that moment, whole universes opened.  You became, irrevocably, a reader.“  Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading

All About Books

October

House full of family this month, so less time to read.  Not complaining – we loved it!

Fiction:

I was delighted when I started reading “The Red House,” by Andrea Lee, to find myself in Madagascar, a new setting for me!  When Shay, a Black American professor who’s always had an adventurous streak, marries Senna, an Italian businessman, she doesn’t imagine that her life’s greatest adventure will carry her far beyond their home in Milan to an idyllic stretch of beach in Madagascar, where Senna builds a flamboyant vacation villa.  Before she knows it, Shay has become the somewhat reluctant mistress of a sprawling household, caught between her privileged American upbringing and her connection to the continent of her ancestors.  At first she’s content to be an observer of the passionate affairs and fierce rivalries around her, but over twenty tumultuous years of marriage, as she and Senna raise children and establish their own rituals at the house, Shay finds herself drawn ever deeper into a place where a blend of magic, sexual intrigue, and transgression forms a modern-day parable of colonial conquest.  Soon the collision of cultures comes right to Shay’s door, forcing her to make a life-altering decision that will change their forever.  In addition to this intriguing story, I savored the enchanting descriptions of this exotic island – “Outsiders always want something from Madagascar.  The emotion is always the same, whatever the thing desired:  whether it is to establish the country as a locus for fabulous legends of gigantic birds and man-eating trees; or as a source for gemstones, rare butterflies, rosewood, spices, slaves; or as fertile ground to produce sugar, vanilla, raffia, cocoa; as a foothold for ascendancy in the Indian Ocean; or even – as Hitler once planned – as a convenient penal colony for the exiled Jews of Europe.”  I agree with the reviewer who said this seductive novel is as lush, dense, and vivid as the Madagascar it describes.

Non-Fiction:

So much had been written about the Sackler family and their connection to the opioid crisis that I was originally reluctant to read “Empire of Pain:  The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty,” by Patrick Radden Keefe, but it turned out to be a fascinating and compelling chronicle of what that family’s greed and indifference cost so many who were in most cases just trying to find relief for chronic pain.  It is a devastating portrait of three generations of the Sackler family, famed for their philanthropy, whose fortune was built by Valium and whose reputation was destroyed by OxyContin.  The Sackler name adorns the walls of many storied institutions – among them Harvard, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oxford, and the Louvre.  They are one of the richest families in the world, known for their lavish donations to the arts and the sciences.  The source of the family fortune was vague, however, until it emerged that the Sacklers were responsible for making and marketing a blockbuster painkiller that was the catalyst for the opioid crisis.  The story begins with three Sackler doctor brothers, Raymond, Mortimer, and the incalculably energetic Arthur, who weathered the poverty of the great Depression and appalling anti-Semitism.  Working at a barbaric mental institution, Arthur saw a better way and conducted groundbreaking research into drug treatments.  He also had a genius for marketing, especially for pharmaceuticals, and bought a small ad firm.  He is the one who devised the marketing for Valium, and built the first great Sackler fortune.  He purchased a drug manufacturer, Purdue Frederick, which would be run by Raymond and Mortimer. The brothers began collecting art, and wives, and grand residences in exotic locales, and their children and grandchildren grew up in luxury.  Forty years later, when Raymond’s son Richard ran the family-owned Purdue, the template Arthur Sackler created to sell Valium – co-opting doctors, influencing the FDA, downplaying the drug’s addictiveness – was employed to launch a far more potent product, OxyContin, which went on to generate some thirty-five billion dollars in revenue. It also launched a public health crisis in which hundreds of thousands would die, and to which the Sacklers seemed oblivious, feeling that the family had nothing to apologize for and no amends to make.   When OxyContin began to generate some negative press, Richard was able to sustain an impressive degree of emotional and cognitive detachment from reality, proclaiming, “Addicts want to be addicted.  They get themselves addicted over and over again.”  In 2002, an anesthesiologist friend informed him that at his daughter’s tony private school, OxyContin was now considered “a designer drug, sort of like heroin,” adding, “I hate to say this, but you could become the Pablo Escobar of the new millennium.”  We learn about the multiple investigations of the Sacklers and their company, and the scorched-earth legal tactics that the family had used to evade accountability – until they were finally brought to justice despite a notable absence of whistleblowers, possibly due to the fact that when people did attempt to blow the whistle, Purdue did its best to crush them.  Keefe wonders if it was just too demoralizing for the Sackler family to take a sober measure of their own complicity, if it was simply too much for the human conscience to bear, and if ultimately they resorted to wrapping themselves in a fog of collective denial. 

Having listened to NPR for years, I was delighted to come across “Susan, Linda, Nina & Cokie:  The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR,” by Lisa Napoli.   In the years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, women in the workplace still found themselves relegated to secretarial positions or locked out of jobs entirely.  This was especially true in the news business, a backwater of male chauvinism where job applicants were told that newsrooms “already had a woman,” were hired as researchers, or, if they were lucky, might get a foothold on the “women’s pages.”  But when National Public Radio came along in the 1970s, and the door to serious journalism opened a crack, four remarkable women came along and blew it off the hinges.  This book is a captivating account of these four women, their deep and enduring friendships, and the trails they blazed while become icons.  Susan Stamberg, the first woman to anchor a nightly news program, pressed for accommodations to balance work and parenting.  Linda Wertheimer, the daughter of shopkeepers in New Mexico, fought her way to a scholarship and a spot on the air.  Nina Totenberg, the network’s legal affairs correspondent, invented a new way to cover the Supreme Court.  And Cokie Roberts, born into a political dynasty, roamed the halls of Congress as a child and later helped explain Washington to millions.  This book was published on the fiftieth anniversary of the launch of NPR, and it’s important to acknowledge that the number of newswomen we hear on the radio and see on TV and whose work we read in newspapers and books today has come in large part as a result of these four extraordinary women paving the way with voices that defined NPR.  They are in my head even now, and if you are a fan of NPR I suspect they are also in yours.    

Mysteries:  Sue Trieb and my brother Bob Pike both recommended “The Holdout,” a page-turning legal thriller by Graham Moore, and there went a day!  A jury on a murder trial is deadlocked when a young woman named Maya manages to turn the tide to acquit Bobby Nock, a teacher and the prime suspect when the heiress to a fortune vanishes on her way home from high school.  A decade later, Maya must face the consequences when a fellow juror is killed and she is the prime suspect.  You’ll be stunned by the fiendishly clever plot twists.

You know you’ve read a good book when you turn the last page and feel a little as if you have lost a friend. Paul Sweeney

All About Books

September

Fiction:

My daughter Cynthia Besteman gave us the excellent “The Cold Millions,” by Jess Walter, which just won the Washington State Book Award for Fiction.  Set primarily in early twentieth-century Spokane, it tells of the orphaned Dolan brothers who live by their wits, jumping freight trains and lining up for day work at crooked job agencies.  While 16-year-old Rye yearns for a steady job and a home, his older brother, Gig, dreams of a better world, fighting alongside the other union men for fair pay and decent treatment.  Enter Ursula the Great, a vaudeville singer who performs with a live cougar and introduces the brothers to a far more dangerous creature:  a mining magnate named Lem Brand who is determined to keep his wealth and his hold on Ursula.  Dubious of Gig’s idealism, Rye finds himself drawn to a fearless nineteen-year-old activist and feminist named Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (a real person who played a leading role in the Industrial Workers of the World – the IWW, also known as the Wobblies – and was a founding member of the ACLU).  But a storm is coming, threatening to overwhelm them all, and Rye will be forced to decide where he stands.  Is it enough to win the occasional battle, even if you cannot win the war?  The story eerily echoes our own time in its portrait of a nation grappling with the chasm between rich and poor, between harsh realities and simple dreams, with a colorfully drawn cast of cops and tramps, suffragists and socialists, madams and murderers.  I learned that the IWW had started in Chicago in 1905 and landed hard in Spokane, where seven freight and passenger lines converged in the busiest terminal west of Chicago, a kind of Tramp Central Station.  When Rye encounters the wealthy Brand in his palatial mansion “he knew, and he would know the next time he was curled up in a cold boxcar, that men lived like this, that there was such a difference between Lem Brand and him that Brand should live here and Rye nowhere.”  He thought about “all people, except this rich cream, living and scraping and fighting and dying, and for what, nothing, the cold millions with not a chance in this world.”   Some things do not change, even a century later.

At first I couldn’t remember what had drawn me to “Missionaries,” by Phil Klay, a National Book Award-winning author and Iraq War veteran, but once I began reading I was quickly swept up in the power of Klay’s examination of the globalization of violence through the interlocking stories of four characters and the conflicts that define their lives.  We are with a group of Colombian soldiers as they prepare to raid a drug lord’s safe house on the Venezuelan border, watching him with an American-made drone, about to strike using military tactics taught to them by U.S. soldiers who honed their skills to lethal perfection in Iraq.  For a man named Mason, a U.S. Army special Forces medic, and Lisette, a foreign correspondent, America’s long post-9/11 wars in the Middle East have exerted a terrible hold that neither is able to shake.  Where can such a person go next?  All roads lead to Colombia, where the United States has partnered with the local government to keep predatory narco gangs at bay.  Mason, now a liaison to the Colombian military, is ready for a “good” war, and Lisette is more than ready to cover it.  Juan Pablo, a Colombian officer, must juggle managing the Americans’ presence and navigating a viper’s nest of factions bidding for power.  Meanwhile, Abel, a lieutenant in a local militia, has lost almost everything in the seemingly endless carnage of his home province, where the lines between drug cartels, militias, and the state are semi-permeable.  Klay has written a novel of geopolitical suspense that is a window into not only modern war but also the individual lives that go on long after the drones have left the skies.  He is a terrific storyteller, and I went from not sure I was interested in reading more about wars to not being able to put the book down.  Here’s Lisette on reporting from Colombia: “All the reported facts in the world shrivel up and die in the presence of universal indifference.  People don’t even read about Afghanistan, where they are least sort of know there’s a war going on, and you think doing spade work in Colombia is going to make a difference to anyone?  Excuse me for not wanting to shovel words into a hole until I die.”   This is a war novel unlike any others I’ve read, one that is vividly filled with the impact of organized and persistent violence on individual lives.  Most of us are far removed from the wars in which our country plays a major part, but Klay sets us down right in the middle of them.

“Metropolitan Stories,” a fanciful love letter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Christine Coulson, who worked there for more than 25 years, takes us behind the scenes to show us the Met the public doesn’t see.  Hidden behind the Picassos and the Vermeers, the Temple of Dendur and the American wing, exists another world: the hallways and offices, conservation studios, storerooms, and cafeteria that are home to the museum’s devoted and peculiar staff of 2200 people – along with a few ghosts.  The book unfolds in a series of amusing and poignant vignettes in which we discover larger-than-life characters, the downside of survival, and the powerful voices of the art itself.  The novel is filled with irreverent humor, magic and detail, but it is also a beautiful story of introspection, an ode to lives lived for art, ultimately building a collage of human experience and the world of the imagination.  Here’s an exchange between Radish, a security guard, and his girlfriend, Maira, alsoa guard, when Radish asks, “Have you ever felt like the objects are kind of, well, reaching out to you?  Like when you look at something in the museum, you feel something, well, beyond what you would normally know?”  Maira, skeptically, “For example?”  “Well, do you ever get cold near the Washington Crossing the Delaware paining?  Or feel a breeze near that 18th century Indian watercolor of the huge bat in the Islamic Galleries, like it’s flapping its wings?” “No, Henry, I don’t,” she smirked, “And you sound like a fucking lunatic.”   He didn’t mention he could also hear the complaints of the boys in Washington’s boat as they crossed the Delaware: “This was a crap idea,” the soldiers grumbled as Radish shivered.  In the wake of Maira’s bite, he knew his insecurity could be recalibrated with Bronzino’s 16th century “Portrait of a Young Man.”  Its direct stare and mild condescension filled Radish with renewed swagger, like a houseplant freshly watered.  One character thinks of the Medieval Hall as “a cool cave at the building’s center, like the lungs of a giant whale.  The arches that punctuated its sides seemed to form a ribcage stretched wide to contain some ancient breath it had pulled in long ago and held steadily.”  He thought about the museum inhaling so much of the world – “all that history, all that spiritual juice, all the passions and laments of each visitor – without really exhaling.  He regarded the stone-clad walls as somehow porous, allowing the particles of time to soak needily into their surfaces.”  If you treasure the Met – or, actually, any fine art museum – you’ll appreciate this original gem of a novel.

If you love words and quirky but charming stories, “The Liar’s Dictionary,” by Eley Williams, is the book for you.  It is 1899, and Peter Winceworth is toiling away at the letter “S” for Swansby’s multivolume Encyclopaedic Dictionary.  Increasingly uneasy that his colleagues are attempting to corral language and regiment facts, Winceworth feels compelled to assert some sense of individual purpose and artistic freedom, and begins inserting unauthorized, fictitious entries into the dictionary.  (Mountweazel (n.), the phenomenon of false entries within dictionaries and works of reference.  Often used as a safeguard against copyright infringement.)    In the present day, Mallory, a young intern employed by the publisher, must uncover these mountweazels before the work is digitized for modern readers.  “Think of it this way, David Stansby said:  If you were compiling a dictionary, it would be very easy to purloin another person’s work and pass it off as your own since words are words are words, etc, etc.  But if they made up a word and put it in their text and then saw that it had bobbed up in your pages, they’d know you copied their stuff.”  Through the fake words and their definitions, she begins to sense their creator’s motivations, hopes, and desires.  More pressingly, she also has to contend with threatening phone calls from an anonymous caller.  Is the change in the definition of marriage (n.) really that controversial?  And does the caller truly intend for the Swansby’s staff to “burn in hell”?  As these two narratives combine, Winceworth and Mallory, separated by 100 years, must discover how to negotiate the complexities of the often untrustworthy, hoax-strewn, and undefinable path called life.  It took me a while to figure all this out, but the humor and playfulness and originality – and of course the clever wordplay – made the effort  well worth it.

 Rohinton Mistry is the author of one of my all-time favorite books, “A Fine Balance,” so I was happy to come across “Such a Long Journey,” published in 1991, a wonderfully evocative story about a family man in 1971 India who experiences a political scandal firsthand.  Set during the Indira Gandhi years, at the time of India’s war with Pakistan over Bangladesh, it convincingly dramatizes how an honest but naïve man can be compromised by events he doesn’t understand.  Gustad Noble is a bank clerk faced with an assortment of family problems – an inexplicable low-grade illness of his daughter Roshan; a son, Sohrab, who wins a college scholarship but refuses to accept it; and a nostalgic dream for a mythical golden age.  Having been to India, I found Mistry’s descriptions spot on – like this one about the main intersection of Flora Fountain, where the great traffic circle radiated five roads like giant pulsating tentacles.  “Intrepid handcarts, fueled by muscle and bone, completed temerariously against the best that steel, petrol and vulcanized rubber threw in their paths.  With the dead fountain at its still centre, the traffic circle lay like a great motionless wheel, while around it whirled the business of the city on its buzzing, humming, honking, complaining, screeching, ratting, banging, screaming, throbbing, rumbling, grumbling sighing, never-ending journey through the metropolis.”   Instances of domestic humor and travail give way to undercover intrigue when Major Bilimoria, an old friend who works for Gandhi’s secret police, recruits Noble to receive mysterious parcels and deposit sums of money (under a false name) in the bank where he works.  Scandal erupts, throwing Noble’s world into disarray and revealing gross governmental corruption.  With the war to “liberate” Bangladesh in the background, this is an engrossing look at India in a time of upheaval.   I loved the writing and was totally caught up in the story.

Non-Fiction:

Betty Colwell sang the praises of “Shoe Dog,” the memoir by Nike co-founder Phil Knight, and she was so right!  Fresh out of business school, Knight borrowed fifty dollars from his father and launched a company with one simple mission:  import high-quality, low-cost running shoes from Japan.  Selling the shoes from the trunk of his Plymouth Valiant, Knight grossed eight thousand dollars that first year, 1964.  Today, Nike’s annual sales top $30 billion.  In this age of start-ups, Knight’s Nike is the gold standard, and its swoosh is more than a logo – it’s one of the few icons instantly recognized in every corner of the world.  Knight himself, however, has always been a mystery – until now, in this thoroughly entertaining, funny, unfiltered, and beautifully told story.  It begins with a classic crossroads moment.  Twenty-four years old, backpacking through Asia and Europe and Africa, wrestling with life’s Great Questions, Knight decides the unconventional path is the only one for him.  Rather than work for a big corporation, he will create something all his own, something new, dynamic, different.  He candidly details the terrifying risks he encountered along the way, the crushing setbacks, the ruthless competitors, the countless doubters and haters and hostile bankers – as well as his many thrilling triumphs and narrow escapes.  Above all, he recounts the foundational relationships that formed the heart and soul of Nike, with his former track coach, the irascible and charismatic Bill Bowerman, and with his first employees, a ragtag group of misfits and savants who quickly became a band of swoosh-crossed brothers.  Believing in the redemptive, transforming power of sports, they created a brand and a culture that changed everything.   One of the things I found most impressive about this book as I was swept up in the story is that even though we readers know perfectly well that Knight’s enterprise would ultimately be fabulously successful, he is able to make us feel the suspense of the many setbacks he encountered along the way as he begged and borrowed from reluctant banks and constantly feared his business could fail.  This is a terrific memoir.

My daughter Catherine Besteman, Professor of Anthropology at Colby College, is the coordinator for Freedom & Captivity, a state-wide public humanities initiative in Maine this fall to bring critical perspectives from the humanities to the interrogation of incarceration.  She suggested I read “Until We Reckon:  Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair,” by Danielle Sered, and it is an eye-opener.  Sered envisioned, launched, and directs Brooklyn-based Common Justice, one of the few organizations offering alternatives to incarceration for people who commit serious violent crime, which has produced immensely promising results. Although over half the people incarcerated in America today have committed violent offenses, the focus of reform has been almost entirely on nonviolent and drug offenses.  This book offers approaches that will help end mass incarceration and increase safety.  Sared asks us to reconsider the purposes of incarceration and argues that the needs of survivors of violent crime and their communities are better met by asking people who commit violence to take responsibility for their actions and make amends in ways that are meaningful to those who have been hurt – none of which happens in the context of a criminal trial or a prison sentence.   She states that one thing is certain about the problem of violence:  we will never solve it through incarceration, in part because incarceration is an inadequate and often counterproductive tool to transform those who have committed violence or protect those who have been harmed, a message being sounded not only by justice reformers, but by crime survivors as well.  As she says, “If incarceration worked to secure safety, we would be the safest nation in all of human history,”  because in all the world and all recorded time, no country has locked up their own people at the rate we do.  The United States has nearly 5 percent of the world’s population and nearly 25 percent of its incarcerated people.  More than 2.3 million people are behind bars on any given day – and the number of black people incarcerated or under correctional control exceeds the total number of adults enslaved nationwide in 1861.  This review would go on forever if I included all the information and observations I made notes about, but suffice it to say that all of this comes at great cost.  In addition to the deprivation of their freedom, people who are incarcerated are likely to endure violence, mental distress, trauma, even suicide.  When they return home from prison, they face enormous barriers to securing safe housing, obtaining and retaining employment that pays a living wage, accessing medical care, voting and serving on juries, obtaining an education, reconnecting with their families, and meeting their basic needs.  Each of these barriers makes a person more likely to commit and to experience harm.  Their families also pay a price, both while they are incarcerated and when they come home.   There’s also the financial cost – incarceration is extraordinarily expensive.   Over the past three decades, state and local government expenditures on jails and prisons have increased roughly three times as fast as spending on elementary and secondary education.  One of the only things we spend more on than prisons is war.   Here is Seder:  “It is worthwhile to revisit the four-part test that any approach to violence should pass:  it should be survivor-centered, accountability-based, safety-driven, and racially equitable.  People who are hurt deserve a process that will help them heal.  All of us deserve responses to crime that make us safer. Those responses must be equitably available.  The promise of restorative justice can be understood through each of these four principles.”    The criminal justice system white people built has four main functions:  control (in the form of policing); punishment (in forms ranging from fines to imprisonment); exile (in the form of incarceration); and extermination (in the form of executions).  This way of being is a recipe for mass incarceration, and also a recipe for violence, as it assumes that behavior is shaped by power and control rather than connection and responsibility.  It certainly does not meet Seder’s four-part test.  I think anyone who reads about this revolutionary, sensible, and more humane approach to incarceration that diverts violent criminals from the prison system while at the same time helping victims to heal will understand its potential to keep us all safer.

“Memorial Drive:  A Daughter’s Memoir,” by Natasha Trethewey, a former US Poet Laureate, is the moving, deeply personal memoir of a daughter reckoning with the brutal murder of her mother.  At age nineteen, Trethewey had her world turned upside down when her former stepfather shot and killed her mother.  Grieving and still new to adulthood, she confronted her life in the aftermath of unimaginable trauma, and now investigates the way this experience lastingly shaped the artist she became in a brief novel that reads like a detective story.  Moving through her mother’s history in the deeply segregated South through her own girlhood as a “child of miscegenation” in Mississippi, Trethewey plumbs her sense of dislocation and displacement in the lead-up to the harrowing crime that took place on Memorial Drive in Atlanta in 1985.  The writing by this Pulitzer Prize-winning poet is both sorrowful and powerful, and her heartbreaking story is one that will stay with you.

As someone who has actually always enjoyed exercising, I was eager to read “Exercised:  Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding,” by Daniel E. Lieberman.  If it’s so healthy and good for us, why do many people dislike or avoid it, he asks, and if we are born to walk and run, why do most of us take it easy whenever possible?  In this myth-busting book, Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard and a pioneering researcher on the evolution of human physical activity, tells the story of how we evolved to walk, run, dig, and do other necessary and rewarding physical activities while avoiding needless exertion rather than to do voluntary physical activity for the sake of health.  His engaging stories and explanations change the way we think about exercising – not to mention sitting, sleeping, sprinting, weightlifting, playing, fighting, walking, jogging, and even dancing.  As our increasingly sedentary lifestyles have contributed to skyrocketing rates of obesity and diseases such as diabetes, Lieberman argues that to become more active we need to do more than medicalize and commodify exercise.  He suggests how we can make exercise more enjoyable, rather than shaming and blaming people for avoiding it.  After an introductory chapter, the book has four parts.   Part 1 begins with physical inactivity – what are our bodies doing when we take it easy, including when we sit and sleep?  Part 2 explores physical activities that require speed, strength, and power, while Part 3 surveys physical activities that involve endurance, as well as their effect on aging.   Part 4 considers how anthropological and evolutionary approaches can help us exercise better in the modern world.  Remember Jack LaLanne (who lived to 96)?  He liked to say, “People don’t die of old age, they die of inactivity.”   This book affirms exactly that.  Lieberman also points out that regular physical activity has multiple therapeutic effects we may not have thought of – it alters brain chemistry, enhances electrical activity, and improves brain structure, as well as lowering overall reactivity to stressful situations, improving sleep and getting people outside and in social groups.  Here’s how he sums it all up – “Make exercise necessary and fun.  Do mostly cardio, but also some weights.  Some is better than none.  Keep it up as you age.”  When you finish this book, you’ll want to immediately go on a walk or head to the gym – and you’ll feel great about it!

Mysteries:  I have enjoyed the atmospheric mysteries by Jane Harper set in the Australian outback.  In “The Surivivors” we move to a small town in Tasmania, where Kieran Elliott’s life changed forever on the day a reckless mistake led to devastating consequences.  When a body is discovered on the beach, long-held secrets threaten to emerge and upend everyone’s perceptions of that long-ago tragedy.   My brother Bob Pike likes Deon Meyer’s mysteries set in Cape Town, and now that I’ve read “Icarus” I agree.   A photographer discovers a plastic-wrapped corpse amidst the sand dunes north of Cape Town, which turns out to be that of Ernst Richter, the tech whiz founder of Alibi, an Internet service that provides unfaithful partners with sophisticated cover stories to hide their affairs. Assigned to the case is Captain Benny Griessel, experienced and savvy but struggling to retain his sobriety.  Filled with rich characters – including both the detectives and the suspects, who have multiple motives for murder – and involving us in South Africa’s famed vineyards, this contemporary police procedural is a treat.  When trauma enters your household, there’s nothing like a gripping thriller to take your mind off things, and that’s what “Island of Thieves,” by Glen Erik Hamilton, set mainly in Seattle and the San Juan Islands, did for me.  When his new security gig turns into a setup, expert thief Van Shaw finds himself the prey in a cross-country pursuit.  If you like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, you’ll also become a fan of the indomitable and complex Shaw, an ex-Army Ranger with a dark streak.

Abibliophobia -the fear of running out of books to read.