Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Profiles in Ignorance

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2022

By Andy Borowitz

The Short Take:

Borowitz typically writes satire for The New Yorker and does a great job. However, this is not a satire, though he still makes you laugh. This is an in depth look at the growth of real or feigned ignorance in America’s politicians, going back for generations. While Republicans receive the brunt of the criticism, there’s plenty to go around.

Why?

In the not-to-distant past ignorance was usually ridiculed (potatoe, anyone?). But over time that ridicule transformed into acceptance then the nation and the media went even further to the point where ignorance is now celebrated.

While the book includes examples of political–and voter–ignorance throughout American history (such as Andrew Jackson beating the superior John Quincy Adams) its primary focus is on the political scene of the last 60 years. Borowitz makes a point of shining a bright light on the advisors who work to alter their candidates images; sometimes in an attempt to hide ignorance but often packaging and even showcasing it. It’s fascinating how the same actors have played major roles in national politics from the Reagan era to our own. It’s also disheartening to learn how a candidate like Bill Clinton felt he needed to downplay his intellectual status by playing saxophone (poorly) and inviting comparisons to Elvis Presley (upbringing not singing). Why? Because almost every time the Democrats nominated a “learned” man for president they lost (talking about you, Adlai Stevenson).

The whole thing would be terrible depressing if he didn’t wrap up by acknowledging that he–like many of us– has been making ignorant decisions about how to support candidates and has now learned a better, smarter, more effective way.

I will say that the humor I enjoyed so much during the first two thirds of the book was not enough to buoy me up towards the end but I’m glad I took the journey.

Fairy Tale

Friday, October 14th, 2022

By Stephen King

While I admire Stephen King’s prodigious talent and output I’m not always enamored by what I read. But I very much enjoyed his version of a fairy tale, with its hints of The Wizard of Oz and a faithful execution of the “hero’s journey.”

Why?

I actually collect fairy tales (which seldom include fairies, by the way) and have at least four feet of them lined up in my office. This could have led to either love or hate for King’s newest. For me, it was all good. Even though it includes plenty of his signature scenes of horror you’ll also find plenty of magic, from a wise, red, over-sized grasshopper to a literal pot of gold.

In addition, the protagonist–a teenage boy–often notices how certain things remind him of other popular tales of adventure and fantasy. Those mentions sparked happy memories of the new worlds of wonder I discovered in books.

I don’t know if current events have left me largely inured to violence or if the fairy tale setting softened their impact in this novel. There is certainly plenty of death and destruction but it has an otherworldly feel to it, more Middle Earth than Ukraine.

Best of the, the protagonist is a worthy character, conscious of his own sins and shortcomings yet understanding of these flaws in others–to a point, at least.

I’m glad I took a chance and read this book. Stephen King made me happy.

A Little Plot:

Charlie Reade hears cries for help from his irascible neighbor, Howard Bowditch. Charlie’s help saves the man’s life but his elderly dog, Radar, needs looking after until he recovers. Their shared love for this animal leads to bonds that ultimately send Charlie on an adventure to another world.

For more about Stephen King, click here.

Booth

Saturday, September 10th, 2022

By Karen Joy Fowler

The Short Take:

This novel was fantastic. It focuses on the Booth family, which included several well-regarded actors in addition to the assassin John Wilkes Booth. It makes for compelling reading, revealing fascinating family dynamics, loves, jealousies, hopes, successes, scandals, and great losses.

A Little Plot:

Fowler did her research for this historical novel but admits that sometimes the stories that grew up around these family members were hard to separate from the facts. And, of course, she had to fill in the gaps, especially with the family’s oldest daughter, Rosalie, about whom little is known.

The same can’t be said about patriarch Junius Booth, considered by many to be the greatest actor of his time. His eccentricities were legendary, his capriciousness a continuing burden to his wife and their many children. Their lives were complicated but their love for each other was strong.

Beyond that, you can draw direct comparisons to the intense hatred and cultural divisions leading into the Civil War with our current, divided situation. When it comes to political actions and rhetoric Fowler uses only solid facts and actual words. It can be disturbing.

It’s no wonder this book was long-listed for the Booker Award (as of this date). It’s a giant step forward from The Jane Austin Book Club, which felt like formulaic book club material. This one is steeped in passion as it carries the story forward through the eyes of one Booth sibling after another, giving you different perspectives on each family member and their respective roles.

It is a powerhouse.

A Little Plot:

Though Junius Booth makes his living on stages in important American cities, his family lives in a rural setting, where a series of births and deaths reshape relationships within the family and with their farming neighbors. It’s a strange paradox.

For more about Fowler and her books click here.

Memphis

Saturday, August 27th, 2022

By Tara M. Stringfellow

The Short Take:

As a person with life-long ties to Memphis I was excited about this book: an epic tale exploring three generations of Memphis Black women, with all their fears, tragedies, and triumphs. I wanted to celebrate this Memphis author and her work, which had already received a lot of acclaim. I was sadly disappointed.

Why?

To start with, Stringfellow didn’t do her homework. She wrote about throngs of Black people on Beale Street in 1978. I love Beale Street but in the late 70s it was a ghost town. That was about the lowest point in its long history.

Then she described scaling a catfish and the scales catching the lights and colors of the room. Which sounded pretty except for the fact that catfish do not have scales. And the characters keep referring to their poverty yet two of them went to Rhodes College for a nursing degree. Rhodes college is a pricy (and well respected) liberal arts college which should have been their last choice. Memphis is and was a major medical center with numerous more affordable programs. Things like this kept taking me out of the story. Maybe I would have liked it more if I were from Denver.

Beyond that, the constant jumps between major characters and timelines made it hard to relate to any of them. Their stories were highly fractured. In fact the pacing of this novel felt more like a thriller, leaving one character at a cliff-hanger moment to veer off to another time and person then do the same there.

My favorite parts were the descriptions of the home that all three generations of women and their families lived in at various times. Both the exterior and interior descriptions were vivid and lyrical, putting Stringfellow’s poetic side on fine display.

A Little Plot:

The book starts in 1995 with a woman and her two daughters returning to the Memphis home in which she was raised. However, the story will stretch back to the 1920s and on to contemporary times.

The Greeks: A Global History

Saturday, August 13th, 2022

By Roderick Beaton

The Short Take:

This extensive history focused not on ancient or modern day Greece but on the lands where Greek language dominated over four millennia. It was fascinating and highly enlightening. However, be prepared for a lot of geography.

Why?

I must give Beaton credit for scattering a number of very helpful maps throughout the text to help you visualize the changing world of Greek language. I still had a bit of trouble, but then geography is not my strongest suit.

I very much appreciated his beginning with the Minoans and the Mycenaeans and his concise explanation of systems collapse theory. The back story to what we think of when we think of Classical Greek culture was especially worth the read for its thoughtful revelations.

In fact the book was chockfull of solid information, providing a clear picture of the complex, and ever-changing world that shaped Greek language, culture, and influenced the migration movement of Greek-speaking communities.

I also learned that more than one thing I had been taught in school was incorrect. Do I trust this author’s scholarship? Absolutely. This is his 12th book focused on some aspect of Greek culture and he has devoted his life to the subject.

I particularly liked little nuggets like the Greek-speaking people of Byzantium thinking of themselves as Roman; they considered themselves the the successors of the Roman Empire, as opposed to any part of Italy or other western areas. I was also glad to learn more about Greece’s modern history, of which I knew only a smattering and much of that incorrect.

It’s a lot of information to download but well worth the time and effort.

A Little Plot:

If you want to trace Greek language and culture you need to start about 1500 BCE. That’s exactly where Beaton begins.

Hamnet

Tuesday, July 26th, 2022

Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell

By Maggie O’Farrell

The Short Take:

This book is widely acclaimed and the recipient of several awards. And while the writing is lush, with lavish descriptions I kept wanting the author to get on with it. Her fictionalization of the death of Shakespeare’s young son is long on atmosphere but somewhat short of plot.

Why?

The main focus of this book is not the famous playwright (whose name is never mentioned) but his wife, Agnes–as she was named in her father’s will. Independent and willful from birth, her nonconforming behavior distances her from others, except her future husband.

The book follows several story lines, jumping back in forth in time. While I am truly tired of this device it seemed especially bothersome here when one easily knows where the story is headed and what is going to happen.

However who am I to whine where others have praised? and the emotional strengths of this book are remarkable.

A Little Plot:

Agnes is attracted to a man who is attracted to her and anxious to leave the household where she is barely tolerated. However, heartbreak is in her future.

Sea of Tranquility

Tuesday, July 5th, 2022

By Emily St. John Mandel

The Short Take:

Beautifully written book with time travel, mysterious visions, and interesting characters–one of whom seems to be a veiled portrait of the author. It transports you from early 1900s British Columbia, to lunar colonies, to a distant future. And every page is a delight.

Why?

Like Station 11, pandemics figure into this book: the author of a novel focused on a pandemic is on a book tour promoting her book and a new pandemic seems to be threatening Earth. But that is where the similarity ends. Different people through time experience the same “hallucination” of eerie violin music playing in some massive structure. In addition, a stranger shows up in connection with each incident, asking questions.

The experiences of Mandel’s four main characters bring questions about what constitutes reality and how memoire can shape–or mis-shape–the present.

It’s hard to say much about this book without damaging the experience for the reader. The stories in it are so strongly interwoven that to pluck one strand out can unravel the whole.

Just know it is a glorious read.

A Little Plot:

A young English aristocrat who embarrassed his family is banished to Canada in 1912, aimless and without ambition, he crosses the continent to British Columbia where a disturbing experience changes his life. The book then moves forward to present 2020 and a theatrical presentation.

For more about this author and her excellent books, click here.

Once There Were Wolves

Tuesday, June 7th, 2022

By Charlotte McConaghy

The Short Take:

After falling in love with McConaghy’s Migrations I was excited about this new one. Again the writing is lyrical and she delivers another rollercoaster flood of emotions. There is more plot to this outing, which incorporates a murder mystery alongside the protagonist’s efforts to reintroduce wolves where they aren’t wanted.

Why?

I admit there’s a lot of darkness in this book: abuse, mental illness, self-doubt, and that murder. However these elements are balanced by the amazing natural beauty McConaghy describes. The wilds of Scotland are portrayed in loving detail, as are the 14 wolves that the protagonist’s team are reintroducing to the wild.

The people involved are not so lovingly described. But then at a town hall meeting when people protest letting monstrous apex predators loose near their sheep farms she makes it clear she thinks the monsters are in the room, not in the wild.

Her anger, its source, and her journey to reclaim the woman she once was are intertwined with the journey of her wolves, as they begin to form family packs. Or don’t.

It’s interesting that while McConaghy lives in Australia this book takes place mostly in Scotland, which also played a large role in her last book.

A Little Plot:

Inti brings her extremely close yet highly withdrawn twin with her when she comes to Scotland to direct the reintroduction of wolves to a land where they once roamed. She knows the community is against her and fiercely defends what she is doing. She just as fiercely protects her damaged sister. She trusts no one, but it drawn to the local sheriff. And that might be a mistake.

The Kraken Wakes

Sunday, May 15th, 2022

By John Wyndham

The Short Take:

This 1953 sci-fi is terrific and I’m glad Penguin Random House has re-issued it. Earth’s invaders aim for the ocean instead of the land–which makes sense since most of Earth is water. The plot covers about 10 years and incorporates financial, international trade, and political angles. What makes this particularly interesting is that climate change plays a central role in the fate of humanity.

Why?

Wyndham is considered to be one of Great Britain’s best sci-fi writers ( best known for Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos). This is the first one I’ve read but it won’t be the last. He is known for incorporating social commentary in his works, and what applied 70 years ago still applies now.

Published at the height of the Cold War, the reactions of the Soviets at every earthly change sound like a spoof and are highly amusing. Another interesting aspect is how public reaction to possible dangers ebbs and flows. People adjust and move on. One scientist who early on predicts what is happening is widely disparaged–unwisely as it turns out. And everyone has faith in the ultimate success of scientists and engineers, even after multiple failures on their part; that is a refreshing change from modern times.

A Little Plot:

Newlyweds Mike and Phyllis are honeymooning on a cruiser when they see five fuzzy red objects sink beneath the ocean surface. When they return to land–and their jobs as radio reporters–they discover others have seen similar phenomenon, with the red objects always sinking into oceans at their deepest parts. It’s a short term wonder and reason for fear, then people forget about it. Bad idea.

The Last King of America

Monday, March 21st, 2022

By Andrew Roberts

The Short Take:

This detailed biography of King George III is an intense read but largely fascinating, especially reading about America’s War of Independence from the British perspective.

Why?

I’ve read enough USA history to know that our revolution wasn’t about taxation without representation and that it wasn’t even supported by the majority of colonials, but this book was still an eye-opener. With about 80 pages of notes it is also very well researched. Part of the bounty Andrews drew from was the more than 200,000 pages of Hanoverian papers, only 15% of which had been published before. Excerpts from letters to and from the king are liberally used to explain his thoughts on everything from the contentious Stamp Act to opposing better conditions for Catholics in Great Britain.

The portrait that emerges of George III is diametrically opposed to what most Americans–and a lot of Brits–believe. He considered himself a patriot king and respected the British Constitution and Parliament above all else. He was intellectually curious, devoted to his family (though the same could not be said for his heir), and a supporter of the arts and sciences. That’s not to say he was a paragon, but he is a far cry from how Thomas Jefferson painted him in the Declaration of Independence. He fared no better among his various aristocratic Whig biographers, who considered him an impediment to their control on power.

However, it was easy for this American to get bogged down by all the names of George’s supporters and detractors, their various titles, and positions. They were legion. While a few stood out (the two Pitts, Fox, Lord Nelson) many of them are completely unfamiliar unless you are deeply into British politics of that era.

Still, I’m glad I made the effort and read all 679 pages of text. But, whew!

A Little Plot:

George III was a young teen when his beloved father passed away, making him next in line for the English crown, after his grandfather, George II. However, it was the lessons hie father taught him that guided him throughout his life, except when madness descended.

For more about Andrew Roberts, this book, and his other biographies click here.

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