All About Books

September

Fiction:

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

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

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

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

Non-Fiction:

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

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

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

All About Books

August

Fiction:

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

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

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

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

Non-Fiction:

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

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

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

All About Books

July

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

Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

All About Books

June

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


Fiction:

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

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

Non-Fiction:

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

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

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

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

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

 

All About Books

May

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

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

Fiction:

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

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

Non-Fiction: 

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

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

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

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

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

 

All About Books

April

Fiction:

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

Non-Fiction:

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

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

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

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

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

All About Books

 

 

March

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

Fiction: 

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

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

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

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

Non-Fiction:

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

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

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

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

All About Books

February

Fiction:

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

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

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

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

Non-Fiction:

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

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

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

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

Reading is the key that opens doors to many good things in life.  Reading shaped my dreams, and more reading helped me make my dreams come true.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg

All About Books

January 2020

Fiction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Non-Fiction:

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

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

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

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

All About Books

December

Fiction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Non-Fiction:

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

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

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