Tuesday, July 20, 2021

High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out - Amanda Ripley --------------------- 4 Stars

One can argue there are no books more relevant in the past couple of years than Amanda Ripley's High Conflict. Released a few months ago, the intent of this book is to have the reader better understand why people get into  massive arguments and disagreements with people and the ways to avoid or remedy these situations. While I really enjoyed the book, it was not because of the reasons I had expected.

I have written here before how much I have liked books by Malcolm Gladwell and those similar. These are the non-fiction books that have a few ideas to get across and the author does so by offering fascinating anecdotes to make their points through varied stories. In the best books, I feel like the salient viewpoint the author is expressing is about 25% of what's offered, while 75% are the relatable stories. And, if done well, both leave an indelible mark. 

This book tried to follow a similar formula. It was clear the author had some very specific explanations of why and how we get into a high conflict and a number of suggestions about ways to remove ourselves. Interestingly, I didn't actually find those items captivating. In fact, if you want to jump to the CliffsNotes version of her findings, there is a nice 2-3 pager at the end summarizing what she's learned and suggests.

But, skipping to the end would be a large mistake. You would miss the real reason to read this book -- the fascinating stories she offers to illuminate her points. Like Gladwell, and others before her, she works to have about 75% of her book offering stories to better illustrate her points. And, while I think she only did a marginal job using these stories to support her arguments, the stories themselves are excellent. She chooses fewer rather more; she ensures the characters are interesting; she gives you depth about their background and details about the conflicts that were created and how they moved past them (never cleanly).

As a whole, it's quite a worthwhile book. Perhaps you get more out of it from the self-help side than I did. While there are a number of suggestions and ideas for people/society, most boil down to communication. Really, just engage in conversations with people, listen better, be more open with your viewpoints and have some empathy. The anecdote for so many of our societies problems is empathy (easier said than done, right?), But, while you are searching for those answers, make sure you enjoy the personalized stories she shares; they are excellent!

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

American Dirt - Jeannie Cummins ------------------ 4.25 Stars

American Dirt
 is only a year old but I had MANY people suggest I read this book as they thought I might enjoy; they were right - it was a good read. And, in a first, I went to the hundreth spot for the decimal ranking. I was torn between a 4 and a 4.5. So many books I've read earned a 4, and I felt this book was significantly better than those. However, 4.5 is a score that signifies a book I truly couldn't put down and that wasn't quite true in this case. Hence, it's a 4.25.

So, I knew a little about this book before beginning. I knew it was about immigrants from Mexico coming to the United States. Prior to starting, I thought the title referred to how they were treated once in America (like dirt!). I was wrong; the title is literal. The book follows a mother and her son (and some secondary characters) about their adventures to reach America.

The book is excellent though it's a tough read. Not a difficult read because of challenging language or unknown vocabulary, but rather for the intimate and dark picture that the author paints from page 1 of the novel onwards. After an incredibly violent start to the book, the pace of the novel slows down but not the gruesomeness or hellish environment mother/son have to go through to arrive in American. Lack of money, more violence, sexual assaults, these are just some of the challenges many have to overcome during the arduous journey from Mexico to America. 

Partly because of all these challenges necessary for characters' to overcome, this book was an engaging and interesting read. While I wanted much more background about the mother's relationship with the "bad guy", I did find it easy to root for the characters. In fact, there were almost too real - I struggled to stop thinking about this book once I put it down. The plight and awful circumstances necessary for them to overcome just to get to a place I take for granted each day, left its mark on me. Interestingly, this is what kept this book from earning a higher rating. While I was entertained and interested in reading, I had to put it down from time to time and take a break. Most of the books I consume don't have such a large amount of painful storytelling as this book did. 

As a whole, American Dirt is a really great book. The story is fantastic, characters real, action consistent, and it educated me more fully about the dangerous and painful fight many immigrants face to enter America. If you go in understanding it can be a dark and emotional read, most likely you'll come out the other side happy you took on this excellent novel!

Thursday, June 10, 2021

The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession - Susan Orlean ----------------------- 4 Stars

I recently read and reviewed The Library Book  by Susan Orlean and really enjoyed it. Her writing style is informal and fun and her non-fiction pieces really are engaging. So, I was excited when I realized that one of her earlier books was well regarded, The Orchid Thief. Like The Library Book, The Orchid Thief was a fun read too, and I'm happy to have picked it up.

If not familiar, this book started as a New Yorker essay about a person in Florida who was charged with stealing rare orchids from a state protected swamp. The article was well regarded so the author decided to write a fuller book about his story along with many related and interesting people and side stories that relate to the orchid stealing.

Like The Library Book, Orlean followed a similar format (well, really, she followed a similar format for The Library Book since that came later, but I read them in reverse order). This included a quick synopsis of what occurred right in the beginning, then a slow retelling of how we got to this spot while taking a bunch of interesting and fun detours along the way, while you get introduced to LaRoche - main protagonist - early in the book. She slowly veers away from home as she shares about her musings about Florida, the fauna/flora of the area, the Seminole tribe, the incredible history and variety of orchid plants, and much more. And this is truly the strength of the book - her diverging from the original action to share all these other thing she learned. Oddly but also interestingly, she often inserts herself into the narrative. How she is feeling, what she is thinking, etc.; which feels odd in a non-fiction book but is often entertaining and welcome.

As it comes to the end, she does bring it back around to where the book started and, by now, explained what happened and theorizes about why the original crime actually occurred. Of course, by the end, you really don't care so much about some of the things you did at the start as her navigating and sharing of so many other related and interconnected pieces actually seem more interesting.

Of course, like any book, there are some slow parts; some diversions that go on too long; occasionally, I just didn't have as much interest in a specific subject as she did. In general, you have to like her style to enjoy these types of books. If you do, this is one is another treat, and I'd be surprised if you don't come away with a greater interest and desire to learn more or go see some orchids - I know I certainly did!

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit - Parker Palmer ----------------- 3 Stars

I've had Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, on my "to read" list for about 5 years. For some reason, I felt like now was the time to take it on; honestly, I regret it a bit but will try to keep that faith.

A bit of background, Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach , is one of my favorite books about teaching and education. In it, Palmer makes such a strong argument about the importance to teaching from a place of passion and understanding yourself fully before you enter the classroom. Knowing this book would be similar, with an expressed purpose to focus on politics, I thought I might enjoy. Also importantly, this book was written in 2014, pre-Trump (I'll come back to this later).

What I had forgotten about Parker Palmer is just how passionate and motivational his writing is. Unfortunately, what I also forgot about is how naive it sometimes comes across. This book, even more so than his past. While I love the arguments and suggestions he espouses throughout his writing, after spending the last four years with Trump, they seem more unrealistic than ever. While I do recommend people read this book (because. honestly, if the whole world followed what he suggests, the world would be a much better place), it's important to realize just how unlikely people will follow him. Much of it is based on being more open to listening to others, rejoining community and religious gatherings, and putting more emphasis on democracy in our individual lives.

Like many of Palmer's writings, it can be slow to read at times and repetitive. While I absolutely LOVE what he shares and wish everyone would read this book, I do admit that's it hard to stay engaged throughout the whole book and, as I mentioned above, hard to take some of his thoughts seriously. Sadly, that's the current state of democracy in our country. We can only hope that we are able to heal the heart of our democracy and country, and reading this book is a great way to start!

Thursday, April 29, 2021

The English Teacher: A Novel -- Yiftach Reicher Atir ----------------------- 2.5 Stars

I was not familiar with The English Teacher when I picked it up from my sister's bookshelf. That's because it was written as an Israeli spy thriller and never really made it big here in America. With an interesting premise and cool cover art, I thought I'd give it a try. 

Well, it really didn't live up to my expectations (granted, they shouldn't have been high from simply reading the back cover and front picture). I think the biggest reason I didn't enjoy had to do with how the novel was structured. It reminded me of a basketball team that comes out to a blazing start. The book was like 9 for 11 from the field with a bunch of 3s. Truly, the first 50 pages were awesome. It had a real cool way about introducing the characters and created a lot of intrigue about who they were and their motivations. As I went on, I became excited about what might come of these characters as the novel continued.

Unfortunately, the pace didn't continue through the remainder of the book. Normally, books increase the action as the story continues and the author leads the characters into more conflict. While that did happen here, I never felt the pace picked up. Rather, the book always maintained the cool, slow style from the beginning of the novel. Again, while that style was great as the story began, I was hoping the author would hit another gear, you know, when the main characters were doing super cool spy stuff, but did not. 

I then held out hope that this book would be like many others: cool start, slow middle, and exciting ending. Sadly, that didn't happen either. While the ending wasn't bad, it certainly wasn't super surprising and was a pretty quick end (again, the uber-slow lead up kind of held it back).

For all it's faults, the book is strong in many areas. Clearly the author was working to create fully round characters and it was no doubt their motivations and goals. Relatedly, because it was focused on spies, the author would often confuse the reader about whether the motivations offered were really or simply set ups. The book was also told in an interesting way - one of the main characters was revealing much of what happened in the past via conversation. But, since it was third person, the author would often describe the person's feelings during past events and also how he feels now (decades later).

Overall, the book is not a terrible read and certainly comes out of the gate strongly. I was just hoping the rest of the book could have kept pace. 

Friday, April 16, 2021

Cherry - Nico Walker ------------------ 3.5 Stars

The only reason I came across this book is because of a commercial about the upcoming release of a movie based on the story. Then, I quickly researched what it was about and the synopsis was about an army medic that came back from the Middle East, got PTSD and addicted to opioids (Oxy then heroin). he then had to start robbing banks to get money to support his addiction. The book, while fiction, is based on the author's life and struggled to get published as the author was in jail for a while. So, yeah, Cherry had quite a backstory for me prior to picking it up. Interestingly, it's also the debut novel by the author and has earned some rave reviews, though I am not sure they are full warranted.

The book is a tough read in many ways - gritty, sexual, explicit about drug use, violent, and includes more than an average amount of curse words. What's hard is that the book rarely gives the reader a break. While the book starts with a bit more about the "good ol days" of the narrator, once he gets into the Army a quarter of the way, the book doesn't slow down until you are finished. Many of his stories are not pleasant. Detailing the specifics of a person dying from an IED, to the stories about his poor choices when high on heroin, ensure you are prepared for the graphic nature of the story.

While the book is interesting and his stories fascinating, it reads like an author writing his first book. It would be hard to read it and think he was a well trained student of writing. The sentences are often short, simple, and occasionally scattered. Often, I was not sure his writing had logic. While not quite stream of consciousness, many paragraphs and chapters feel like they were thrown together as someone was doing their best to remember whatever details might have come to them while in an traumatic situation (the war) or under the influence of drugs. It probably reads that way as that was likely what was happening while he was writing the book!

But, the book is still a really great read. Again, it's gritty and not nearly as polished as much of the other literature that is out there, but the point of view style, coupled with the detailed and graphic realism of his story, make it an enjoyable read. Again, going in be prepared that it may offend you or that it might rattle you. He does a great job putting you right in the room with him, whether he's shooting up, or helping an amputee. Overall, its probably worth giving this book a try - or - check out the movie (on Apple TV) and see if the book is worth reading!

Sunday, April 4, 2021

The Library Book - Susan Orlean -------------------- 4 Stars

I really enjoyed The Library Book (non-fiction) by Susan Orlean. Published a few years ago, it was a pleasure to read as it covered a variety of loosely connected stories and items related to libraries.

The premise of this book is the author's quest to learn more about a massive fire that destroyed Los Angeles' largest library in April 1986. If, like me, you were unaware of this event, you are not alone. It occurred one day after the Chernobyl disaster and received little media coverage. To make even more interesting, it's highly likely the fire was an arson and there is a mystery about the suspected arsonist.

As the book begins telling the background about this story and the devastation of the fire, it then moves into a variety of vignettes all related to libraries. The author then weaves in her investigation about the fire and arson while sprinkling in side stories about librarians (local and famous (if there is such a thing)), types of libraries (old and new), and other interesting connections to libraries.

As I mentioned to start, this was an enjoyable read. To begin with, the retelling of the fire and mystery about how it occurred is quite interesting. Orlean goes into some real depth about how fires work and why libraries are particularly good sources for fires to burn (hint - it's filled with books). I learned more than I ever thought I could. From there, her biography about the accused arsonist is also intriguing.  

Perhaps why the book is so engaging is the author's strong and fun writing style. Combining a mix of adroit word usage with a flair for understanding the humor and realism of her subjects, I rarely was bored. No matter what she might be covering, perhaps a story about a 19th century librarian who walked the West, she tells the story in a way that makes it impossible to not want to continue reading.

While on the surface, this book might appear boring - how interesting can a book about libraries be? It's actual quite the opposite. From the beginning mystery about about the LA library fire, to the many side stories about library history, I am confident if you give this book a chance, you'll enjoy this book too.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Is This Anything? - Jerry Seinfeld -------------------- 3 Stars

Like many people, I'm a huge fan of Jerry Seinfeld. His show is the greatest sitcom ever made (in my humble opinion), and I've always enjoyed his stand-up routines. Is This Anything is a retrospective of, I believe, every joke he has written starting with his rise to fame in the 1970s and moving to the modern day (it includes a few bits about COVID). While the book was good, it feel a little flat.

While the book also included a few pages about that status of his life prior to presenting jokes from each decade, 95% of the book was simply the telling of every routine, joke, bit, etc. he has ever thought of. The book reminded me from an important part of Adam Grant's Originals (review here) - basically, creative people produce a lot of stuff that's not useful. One of the most interesting findings Grant has about really successful inventors and people is just how much is not used. Well, this book is a testament to that theory! 

And that's really a big part of the comedians process - produce as many jokes as possible, do some stand up and try them out night after night (tweaking language along the way), and then narrow down, based on audience reaction, what's the best stuff.  So, when you see any comedian, like Seinfeld, do a 45 minute stand up routine, that's pruned down from hours worth of material. Well, this book is decades worth of material that never "made it". And, as you might guess, a lot of it is not good. I mean, it's not bad; I smirked on occasion, but often, it was just not funny to me.

The other BIG problem with the book is just that; it's a book. Obviously, comedy is done best when you hear the comedian present it and see the facial expression, body movements, and hear the roar of the laughing crowd. I realized after about 10 pages of this book, I would need to at least get the audiobook. If this is not great material, it would at least help to have it delivered by someone other than my own voice! So, I did make the wise move to the audiobook, which is read by Seinfeld himself; this made a huge difference!

I'm not sure if I can truly recommend this book to all readers. I think if you're an uber fan of Seinfeld and his stuff, you will enjoy this book. Otherwise, it really is a long book to get through with some material that's not so great. Though, it will give you a great sense of how he thinks and what it takes to put together a great standup routine or sitcom. Again if you do pick it up, I strongly recommend the audiobook. My guess is Seinfeld delivers a joke better than you do!

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City - Jonathan Mahler ------------------- 4 Stars

As the real title is too long, I'll just reference this book as The Bronx is Burning. You may also be aware of it because ESPN did an 8 part miniseries with the same name in 2007. I did watch the miniseries as I was finishing the book and it was fun to have some visuals to compare to the story (the miniseries is odd but also kind of cool as they have decent actors playing the major stars in the book while including real video footage from the 1977 to make it more realistic).

If you are not familiar with the book or miniseries, both take on the crazy year of 1977 in New York City. While the miniseries is nearly all focused on the Yankees story line of Reggie Jackson feuding with manger Billy Martin, the book covers far more areas of interest. While the baseball story line still dominates the book, there are also fascinating stories about the mayoral election which included 4 fascinating candidates, the Son of Sam killer who had been terrorizing the city for more than a year, and some other interesting storylines (disco dying and punk music coming, a momentous blackout which led to massive looting, and newspapers changing to tabloids).

In general, the book is engaging and the writing is crisp and interesting. As someone not alive nor informed about many of these events, the stories presented are notably diverse but fascinating. Most interesting are the personalities involved. All intelligent in their own way, how they move forward to meet their goals, and how that often conflicted with other's goals, makes a great story.

As my father would say about a book of this type, it's a real "slice of life" (which, after Googling, I realize my dad did not invent, but took from the observation of literature/theater - but still a great term, nonetheless). With a decent length and many memorable details, this book really puts you in NYC during the crazy year of 1977. I love books/movies/TV of this type - ones that take a real deep dive into something so the reader/viewer can see the nuance in a deeper way. If you like the same, do take a look at this book!

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln - Doris Kearns Goodwin ------------------- 3.5 Stars

Luckily for me and any possible readers, there is no correlation between the length of my blog and the total pages of the book being reviewed. This is especially good news in the case of my review for Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. While an entertaining and enlightening book about the life of Abraham Lincoln and critical members of his Cabinet, this book did check in at nearly 1,000 pages! (On a positive, the last 200 was nearly all footnotes and resources).

I vacillated immensely as I was reading this book about how much I enjoyed it. There were parts that I loved and slowly read to savor the prose, while there were other parts that I worked hard to not skip multiple paragraphs. I guess there were parts that were 5 star worthy and others that barely earned 1 star; hence, the 3.5 star rating. 

As noted, the book is quite long and comprehensive. While it serves as both a biography of Lincoln, sharing about his early life and transition to the White House, it also gives similar biographies about the main competitors to his first presidential run and eventual Cabinet members. Such fascinating people included William Seward, Salmon Chase, Edwin Bates, and others. The genius of Lincoln was in how he treated others, especially those that he disagreed with or competed with him. The fact that he wanted the three biggest competitors (some from different political parties!) to serve in his Cabinet as his most trusted advisors, tells you much about him. 

Ultimately, the best parts of the book were about the genius of Lincoln. This included his personality, his strong sense of fairness and empathy, and his excellent political understanding of people's motivations. It's hard to finish the book and not believe he was the greatest president in America's history. Besides keeping the Nation together during the most challenging period in our history, the reader leaves with a strong feeling that Lincoln is also among the greatest human beings in our history as well. 

Unfortunately, I had hoped that more of the book would focus on Lincoln's intelligence and determination and less on the retelling of much of the battles of the Civil War or specific and detailed historical aspects. Honestly, the book could have gone for a good editor as there are multiple parts that were unrelated to Lincoln and only made minimal sense in the scope of the novel.

As a whole, it's a strong book if you have the time and interest. It's impossible not to walk away enamored with Lincoln and the tremendous efforts he put forth to keep the country together. While his life was cut short early, he did more in his 56 years than most men could do in a thousand life times and Team of Rivals does an excellent job explaining his greatness.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Artemis - Andy Weir ----------------- 3 Stars

You probably are more familiar with Andy Weir's more famous book (and movie) - The Martian.  Here is my review of it. Artemis was his follow-up release, and while it was not as entertaining as his first book, it's still a decent read, especially if you like science fiction.

This book was not what I expected. While I thought it would be similar to the Martian and mostly be a novel about a person overcoming the challenges of space, this was really a crime/mystery novel that HAPPENED to take place in space (I'm a poet and I know it!). Really, the first 1/4 to 1/3 of the novel was spent introducing the narrator/main character and explaining how Artemis (the first colony of the moon, taking place circa 2080) works. This is pretty much what I thought the entire book would be about; which was fine with me. The author does a good a job as possible to explain how things work on the moon and the science behind while most things are designed. 

Then, unexpectedly, the novel swerves into a crime novel that leaves the reader not sure people's motivations and where the story might go. This is both where the book became good and became more confusing (at least to me). The crime story is pretty fascinating and you can't help but love the main character. Weir also has a fun way of telling stories (sardonic and playful) that you may remember from The Martian.  My problem, is that while I enjoyed the mystery and crime story (typical, small group of people have to save the world!), the science got more and more confusing as the action became more and more complicated. While the author did as good a job as possible to explain with great detail each scene and action, it was very challenging for me to picture something I had never seen before! Usually, the reader can picture whatever the author describes, but it was problematic for me to imagine a person welding in a space suit on the surface of the moon while in a special facility.

Overall, it's not a bad novel; just not what I expected. Again, it's definitely entertaining and a quick, enjoyable read, but it helps to go in knowing it's pretty similar to many of the mysteries I've read before - it's just happening on the moon!

Monday, December 28, 2020

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland - Patrick Radden Keefe ----------------------- 4.5 Stars

Say Nothing
reads like a piece of fiction - it's made up of unreal characters and a story that is too good to be true - but, every single part of Say Nothing is from the real history detailing the many years of fighting in Northern Ireland. The Troubles as they were known, lasted from around 1968 to the late 90's (though some might argue it's still going in some ways), though it was a fairly unknown situation to me. 

As you could probably gather from the rating, I really enjoyed this book! As alluded to briefly above, I really was not aware of much of the history and fighting between England and the IRA (republicans) seeking independence for Northern Ireland. Of course, I was aware there was bombings and violence but really knew nothing else. While this book is not a comprehensive story of the fighting during these 30 years, the reader certainly finishes the book feeling much more knowledgeable of the challenges that led to the conflict, why the fighting occurred, and why there is animosity still today. 

While this book is not a comprehensive history of The Troubles, it is an engaging and interesting story about a missing mother with 10 kids and the main actors for the IRA side. And, like any good story, there are a few main characters who the author describes in such detail, you can't help but feel engaged and interested in their stories. These characters and the incredible lives they led/lead began many years ago when they were mere teenagers. Like many who fought the English during this time period violence was an every day part of their lives, and between their young age and daring activities, it's impossible not to be captivated by their individual stories. 

This book is fascinating not only because of the individuals taking part of the micro-level, but also for how fluidly the author transitions to considering the macro aspects of the story. While much of the novel details bombings, gun fights, and prison, you never forget the bigger purpose of the book - to understand why so many Catholics sought independence from the British in Northern Ireland. In fact, as the novel continues and the reader begins to have a broader view of the issue, the author does an adroit job of pivoting much of the text to these philosophical and moral issues. As the IRA moves from a terrorist organization to a more legit political organization, the book does a phenomenal job detailing the divide that begins to split many of the original members (really the last third of the book). At the heart of this divide is about the expectations of what the struggle was about - full independence, a compromised version of peace, etc. Seeing these freedom fighters age into their 40s and 50s and become both wistful and angry about the past is one of the most interesting parts of the book.

Overall, this is one of the most engaging non-fiction reads I've encountered in a long time. As I noted at the start, the book reads like a piece of fiction, with great characters, a wonderful plot, and engaging story. I highly recommend this book!

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Evening and the Morning - Ken Follett ---------------- 4 Stars

 The Evening and the Morning
is Ken Follett's newest book that is vaguely set up as a prequel to the amazing Pillars of the Earth (one of the few books to ever receive a 5 star rating). While there was really NO connection to Pillars or those characters, the book did include many of Follett's best storytelling skills and was an enjoyable read.

Set at the end of the Dark Ages and beginning of Middle, circa 1000, this book tells the story about three characters in England (same places as Pillars, so I guess there is that connection). A young french noblewoman coming to England for marriage, a poor but intelligent builder finding his way through a lost love, and an ambitious and caring young monk working to improve the religious focus of peoples. Though less the main focus, the book is littered with evil men (a few brothers) who these three characters fight literally and figuratively throughout the novel.

Checking in at over 900 pages, this is not a short book (and I read the old fashioned hard back - good workout!). However, the book reads quite easily and I finished it quickly. First, it is an engaging novel; one I struggled to put down on many occasions. Bridging as Follett does on being a soap opera, the novel has many highs and lows for the characters and lots of rising and falling action. Like most of his books, he does an incredible job introducing characters and making it clear their motivations. While those motivations are often quite limited and not very complex (i.e. this person is "bad" and just wants power while this person is "good" as they just want to find true love), they still are engaging and it's quite clear who to root for and against. 

Perhaps my favorite aspect of Follett's books is his narration of character thinking and plotting. As I mentioned, most of his stories are about conflicts between "good" and "bad" people, and he has it play out like a chess match between the two adversaries, seeing who can make the smartest move to get what they want and watching the fireworks along the way. 

The only reason this book does not earn 4.5 or 5 stars like the other books Follett has written I've reviewed, is that it lacks the depth those novels included. Again, the story is super engaging and it's a really fun read but, as a reader, I was left with wanting to know more about the motivations of the characters. It's almost been dumbed down for the reader so it's still a great read but doesn't include the complexity and varied viewpoints that elevated his previous novels. Nonetheless, I highly recommend as a read!

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

An American Marriage - Tayari Jones --------------------------- 4 Stars

As I was reading An American Marriage, I realized it was like an inverted bell curve of entertainment (basically, a U shape). It started out very exciting and interesting, moved into a very slow middle section, and rallied again in the last few chapters. But, as that middle part didn't last too long, and did move the story along, I found this book quite enjoyable.

An American Marriage is a recently released book that became MUCH more popular after Oprah named it to her book club list; and for good reason, it's a well written and told story. Based on the author hearing a couple discuss whether the man in a relationship would have waited for the female if she had gone to prison (while he did not answer, he did say that scenario was not likely), the book is about a man going to prison right as his marriage was beginning for a crime he didn't commit. The third main character, is the childhood best friend of the female lead. Told in alternating chapters from the voice of one of these three characters, the author would slowly move the plot forward while getting the perspective of each of the characters in a chapter.

The book shined in many notable ways. First, it's an engaging story with an interesting premise (described above). Other than the middle quarter/third when the action really slowed down, the book grabs you immediately and delivers through the end. Which is another thing - great ending. As happens too often, authors struggle to pull everything together and leave the reader unsatisfied. Not here, I finished the book and felt it was a nearly perfect ending that fulfilled all the needs of the characters. Third, the characters are well rounded and easy to engage with. As the author switches perspectives often, it's effortless to fully connect with each character's motivations. Finally, the story takes on the subject of race directly and fairly. All of the characters deal with the aftermath of the injustice of the criminal system on Black individuals.

I have few gripes, with the biggest being the large section in the middle of the book when the story comes to a nearly grinding halt. The pace was moving so smoothly and then it got bogged down during the years when one of the characters was in jail. Perhaps purposeful in allowing the reader to better understand the parallel affect his incarceration had on the characters - there lives slowed too - it didn't do much for me as the reader.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. It's of decent length, is well written, has a fascinating plot and great starting and ending. The copy I read also had some interesting discussion questions after the book ended which I enjoyed engaging with to help think more deeply about themes in the story. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators - Ron Farrow --------------- 3 Stars

 Catch and Kill is not the type of book that you look forward to reading. It's about awful human beings, most notably, Harvey Weinstein, and those that know and have hid, and continue to hide awful things. While the book was often not enjoyable to read about, it was quite interesting and I greatly appreciated Farrow's courage to put to print the many findings he learned in his research.

As most people know, Harvey Weinstein is now in jail for sexually harassing, assaulting and raping many women of his long career in the movie industry. Thanks, in large part to this book, those allegations and eventual convictions came to the public light. What was not so clear is the amount of people and organizations working diligently to ensure these wrongs never became public. It is truly astonishing to see the level of cover-up that occurred and the number of high power and profile people who came to Weinstein's defense.

While the book is revelatory, many of those findings are incredibly hard to read. Both from the level of specificity of his crimes and also the harrowing aftermath that negatively affected so many people's lives. The book adds some lightheartedness as Farrow talks about his own personal challenges in doing the research for this book. He also has a good sense of humor which he includes which allows an occasional break from the quite serious subject matter.

The biggest weakness of the book is the length and final fifth/quarter of book. Farrow basically finishes telling his findings about Weinstein about three-quarters of the way in. He then weaves through less related stories that are marginally connected to the focus of the majority book. For example, he talks about the accusations about Matt Laurer - who is also a pretty awful dude - but the depth was lacking compared to the Weinstein material. I wondered why the book didn't just conclude after he finished the items related to Weinstein.

Overall, the book is highly recommended for the importance of subject matter. While not the most entertaining book (frankly, I wanted to put it down often), hearing these stories and knowing the importance of supporting ways to stop sexual harassment, assault, etc. and the cultures that allow reprehensible behavior is vitally important.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Night Film - Marisha Patel ------------------- 4 Stars

While not a book I had ever heard of till someone gave to me, Night Film was an awesome read and quite different than many other books I've read recently. Besides being a well written, page turning thriller, it was also one of the most creative books I've read.

Short synopsis - the book is about an investigative reporter, and two unexpected accomplices, who research a family whose father is famous for making thrilling and harrowing movies. The daughter of this director dies suddenly and many are left unsure what happened to her. Like any great mystery, the author does a phenomenal job of slowly pacing the book and providing small clues along the way to keep the reader interested and invested in the next page but never giving you enough to figure things out. 

There were a couple of things about the book that made it so entertaining. First, the characters and mystery set forth in the plot or intriguing. Besides being a mystery novel in the classic sense, this book also included many uncertainties and confusions about this family. So many rumors and theories are discussed and alluded to but rarely is anything ever substantiated. From page 1, I was totally in on wanting to learn more about the life of the Cordova family and their crazy past.

Second, unlike most other paperback novels, this book had other elements included to add more intrigue and interest. Within the first few pages, pictures from fake magazine articles and websites were included and often in the book, a visual of something stated in the text was included. Unlike a picture book, the reader was treated to cool websites and visuals that made it feel more like I was investigating these items myself. Some of my favorite parts of the novel were when the text stopped and the author included one of these "artifacts" that I could sift through myself.

My only critique of the book, like many thrillers, is the ending. Though, in many ways, there was no way it was going to live up to my expectations. After being so enamored with the storytelling and characters leading up to the ending, I had a sense the ending would not impress like so much of the rest of the novel. While the ending wrapped things up nicely, I did still feel let down.

While I do recommend this book, it's important people realize it's dark. Some of the themes can be scary and morbid. However, if you can get past these (it is just a fictional book!), I believe the reader will be highly entertained!

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America - Richard Rothstein --------------------- 4 Stars

 The Color of Law was recently recommended to me as a great book to better understand the current challenges created by systematic racism in this country. While an intense novel, that surprised me on numerous occasions, it often was a painful read.

The main premise of this book is the current situation that African Americans are struggling with did not happen by happenstance and a few private citizens who were racist individuals. Rather, the United States government, at federal, state, and local levels, created inherently and systematically racist and unjust laws, policies and rules to ensure African Americans were penalized because of their skin color. Distinguishing these as being de jure segregation, which includes government policies as the cause, rather than just de facto, which occurred through private parties, is his main theory. 

His arguments are strong and I found all the research and data he presented, overwhelming. To be clear, I don't mean overwhelming in the sense that I cannot understand his arguments. Rather, I found it overwhelming how much I was unaware of the consistent and notable racist practices that were put in to law throughout our country's history. Here is a summary of the areas he covers that are FULL of policies and rules that are discriminatory: housing, zoning, mortgage and lending, white flight, tax code, local housing ordinances, state sanctioned violence, etc.

Reading this book reminded me of the first time I read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States (if you have not read, a must read!). Like that book, I feel almost foolish with how many important items in America's history were hidden from me over the past 30 years. As a political science major, I read many books about history and government policies, and very little in this book was covered. 

It's depressing and shocking to know that so many Americans are unaware of the troubling history in our country. This is especially concerning because it helps explain so much about the inequities in our country. It's not just luck certain people are not as wealthy, have as much property, have the chance to go to college, etc. It's also not just because of a few racist individuals in the past. Rather, America has a history of overtly racist rules, laws, policies, and discriminatory practices that ensured African Americans would not be able to advance like other races. While there are many things that have changed, much, much more needs to be done to right these wrongs. And, without understanding and knowing this history, it's harder to do so. 

I strongly recommend this book to all readers.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead ------------------ 4 Stars

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, The Underground Railroad has been on my "to read" list for a while. Happy I could finally get to it in the past couple of weeks as I really enjoyed the story.

Written as historical fiction, this book does an excellent job depicting the terrors of slavery and the yearning to escape. It also includes the heartless slave catchers who go across the country working to return escaped slaves to their owners. The twist in this book is that the underground railroad is an actual railroad that is kept up by slaves and allies of working to support their freedom. While this difference one could assume would be a major plot point, it isn't. It's mentioned matter of factly and not dwelled upon.

The heart of the book is really about one character and her life as a slave and efforts to escape and go North. I really enjoyed her story and how the author brings to together storylines of people related to her. Using a popular trick, the author does jump around a few times to add a greater back story about characters. Not always in a sequential timeline, it was enjoyable to get a bit of history on some of the character that were less rounded out. 

At the heart of the books is an adventure story about a strong willed slave who is seeking a new life. The books is well written but her story of perseverance and work ethic is supreme. The author also provides an accurate and detailed account of the horrors of slavery. This includes specifics about the slave trade, the back breaking labor required of each slave, and the constant mistreatment from the slave master.

Overall, this is a really strong book (and well deserving of its awards). The pace is natural and progressive and the characters are fascinating. It's truly a well told story that keeps the reader engaged at all points, clearly rooting for the hope and life of the main character. I highly recommend!


Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Emperor of Ocean Park - Stephen Carter -------------------- 4 Stars

Well, after really struggling through my last book, The Name of the Rose (which earned a wretched review), I was so pleased to read The Emperor of Ocean Park. Not a book I was aware of, it was a nice surprise to read this enthralling legal thriller. 

Written about 20 years ago, it reminded me of a smarter version of some of the classic Grisham novels (the old ones!). It was just as much of a page turner as the classic legal thrillers I mentioned above and the author did a great job of always putting a bit of a teaser at the end of each chapter. I loved the arc of the novel and the subject mater focus. In this case, the death of powerful judge weighs heavily on the remaining members of the family. Most poignantly, the narrator, who the novel focuses on as he works to determine what exactly led to his father's death and the mysteries of his life.

The book felt "smarter" than a Grisham based on many of the higher level references, including many characters who are law professors. There is also many references to chess; including numerous plot connections. In fact, the solving of one of the book's many mysteries goes back to a fairly unknown chess challenge. The writing also comes off as a bit more intelligent with some of the language he uses and content that is focused upon.

Overall, it's a very engaging read. Checking in at over 600 pages, it is a long read but after the book gets going and you get what the focus is about, it picks up quickly. The story has great characters and the mystery really gets in full swing by about half way through. I really enjoyed how quickly the plot moved though it did get slow in some parts. Really, the book stands out what the plot is moving forward and the action was the centerpiece. The biggest negative were the many self-indulgent parts of the narrator. Most chapters include small, or larger parts, of him sharing his thoughts of musings about a situation. Normally, this would be great but often they really did not come off as interesting of insightful. In some ways, they just take away from the book.

As a whole, however, I strongly suggest this book. It's an interesting and exciting read.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco -------------- 1.5 Stars

The Name of the Rose was a huge hit when it was released in the 1980s. I recently came across it as it many said it was a great book and very engaging. Well, something went wrong because it was one of my last favorite books in the past few years.

As I am not sure how many of you are familiar with this book, as it was written a generation ago, quick synopsis - set in the Middle Ages (early 14th century), it tells the story of a monk and his assistant who go to a monastery to investigate a death. Once there, further deaths take place and a quasi-murder mystery takes place.

I include "quasi" above because about 5% of the novel is a murder mystery. Those parts are actually pretty engaging and would have made a good book. Unfortunately, the other 95% was about religion, and Jesus, and mostly a whole bunch of stuff from 700 years ago that was super archaic and incredibly confusing. There was multiple sentences, paragraphs, and pages where I was truly lost and, while I understood the words being used (except maybe Dominicans and Fraticelli), the words together made very little sense. The book was so in depth and nuanced in its focus on Catholicism that it really was not enjoyable.

Then, after reading 495 pages of this drivel, I decided to read the last 30 pages after the book ended. In this edition, the author offers answers to many questions that he apparently received over the years. I thought maybe I'd learn more about things I missed. No chance - instead I got even more maddening confusion and more answers that made no sense.

Overall, the book was a really challenge for me. Perhaps I just needed to pay more attention or have more prior knowledge about the Middle Ages and Christianity. Or, perhaps, this book is just not an engaging read for me as a modern, discerning reader. Either way, you have been warned should you decide to take it on.