Archive for the ‘Older Worthy Reads’ Category

Things Fall Apart

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018

By Chinua Achebe

The Short Take:

Now 60 years old, this book has lost none of its exceptional power. It’s the first in Achebe’s African Trilogy, and I will be reading the other two. The two interrelated stories of this novel center on Okonkwo, an Ibo leader who values strength above all else. No wonder this book is often a required read for school kids. However, I wonder if they have the life experience to fully understand what they are reading.


At barely 200 pages (in trade paper), this novel is a quick read but it is stuffed with important world themes: the relationship (or lack there of) between fathers and sons, the role of women in society, the rise and fall of power, the community versus the individual.

Of course the biggest theme of all is the impact of European colonialism on countries like Nigeria and how that destroyed native cultures. While most missionaries were well intentioned, the chaos they created has repercussions that are still felt more than a century later.

However, it’s the story, the characters, and the cultural details in Things Fall Apart that keep you turning the pages in eager anticipation (or dread). My bookclub doesn’t know it yet, but I’m picking this one when it’s my turn again.

A Little Plot:

Ibo is determined not to be like his lazy, ineffective father. He achieves the success he craves, but at a cost.

The second half of the book deals with the impact Christian missionaries have on Ibo, his family, and his community.

The late Chinua Achebe has no website but there is plenty of information about him and his work online.




American Gods

Tuesday, August 28th, 2018

By Neil Gaiman

The Short Take:

Almost 20 years ago Gaiman wrote this fascinating novel that is part American travelogue, part mythology mash up, part a commentary on modern life. It’s every bit as relevant today and every bit as fun to read.


To call Gaiman’s books fantasies is to sell them short. To say they are dark ignores the sly humor. To say they are exceptional reads is accurate to a fault — exceptional in every sense of the word.

The American gods of the title encompass both the old ones, brought to this country by various immigrant groups, from First Peoples onward, to the new gods: technology, media, cars, etc. (humanized, of course). There’s animosity between the two sides and caught in the middle is the ex-convict, Shadow. Shadow himself seems almost godlike. He fancies coin tricks and continually stumbles onto the right action to take or thing to say. However, why he’s involved is a mystery to himself and the reader.

It’s a suspenseful read, alternately thoughtful, humorous, and horrifying. What I particularly enjoyed was trying to guess who the various gods were as they appeared throughout the book. Many were totally unknown to me, which sent me to Google quite a bit. If you want a short-cut to that information, simply consult Wikipedia.

A Little Plot:

Shadow is abruptly released from prison when his wife dies. Headed home, he can’t shake a Mr. Wednesday who insists on employing him. It takes him awhile but Shadow realizes this man is a reduced version of Odin, the chief god of Norse mythology. He accepts employment only to be warned rough times are coming. And they do.

For more about Neil Gaiman and his books, click here.

The Killer Inside Me

Sunday, July 15th, 2018

By Jim Thompson

The Short Take:

This classic noir is brutal, complex, and eminently readable. Written in the 1950s, its psychopathic main character is just as chilling — and tragic — today.


Author Jim Thompson is  more acclaimed now than in his lifetime. His numerous paperback crime paperbacks were largely ignored — but not this one. And for good reason. The writing is taut and smart. It’s so smart you need to read between the lines to determine exactly what happened in the past that continues to fracture the life of the main character, Deputy Sheriff Lou Ford.

On the surface Ford is the nicest guy in his small, 1952 town, though not the brightest. But he knows better, and you’ll know better from the very first pages. Written in first person (a noir trope), the revealed insights you gain are chilling. He is a true psychopath — a self-aware, highly intelligent psychopath with a terrible past and haunting secrets.

That all makes for a rather gruesome present, but his actions are presented in a style that is neither lurid nor nauseating — simply straightforward. So don’t be put off — this is too good to pass up. It’s a fascinating picture of the trap of living in a small town, with small people, and everyone it everyone else’s business. There’s a lot going on here.

A Little Plot:

Ford is deputy sheriff of the small town where he was born. He lives in the house he inherited from his doctor father. His brother, who went to prison for a crime he did not commit, died in an “accident” after he was released. Ford would like to see that death avenged.

But first there’s a prostitute that needs to be encouraged to move on. However, that’s not what Ford has in mind.

The House of the Spirits

Wednesday, August 9th, 2017

Unknown-1By Isabel Allende

The Short Take:

Magical realism meets with political oppression in this over 30-year-old novel — Allende’s first. I’ve long been a fan of hers, and this epic story following three generations of exceptional women — and one very powerful man — did not disappoint.


I did not know Allende was the niece of the Chilean Marxist President Salvador Allende and that the political side of this novel was solidly founded on historical fact. Blame my scant knowledge of South American events for that, which researching for this review helped to remedy in some small fashion.

These political underpinnings start well in the novel’s background but eventually move to center stage as the book progresses. Above and beyond that, one amazing woman after another shapes and reshapes the lives of those around them, through powers both domestic and supernatural. It’s their stories that keep you engaged and keep you reading.

While most of the book is written in third person, the violent man who impacts all their lives, Esteban Trueba, speaks to you directly, though his actions sometimes give the lie to his words.

A hound as big as a horse, levitation, fantastical creche figures, fortune telling, and other peculiarities stride alongside growing political turmoil as the downtrodden begin to insist on their rights. Somehow Allende makes that combination seem realistic — it’s all fantastic.

A Little Plot:

Esteban labors at his a gold mine, desperate to earn the money to marry his adored Rosa. Her accidental death drives him to bury his sorrows with work on the decayed family farm. It also drives Rosa’s younger sister, Clara, to refuse to speak for nine years. Yet the future of these two will entwine.

For more about Allende, click here.

War and Peace

Monday, June 27th, 2016

Unknown-1By Leo Tolstoy (translated by Richard Pevear and Alissa Volokhonsky)

The Short Take:

Don’t be afraid of this classic read — it’s easy to follow and exceptionally interesting. While Tolstoy does spend a lot of time philosophizing, his musings are still relevant more than 150 years later. The biggest problem with this novel: its massive weight. This is one time an e-reader could really save your wrists.


First of all, be sure you select this particular translation to read. It was highly praised when it came out in 2007, as being the first to capture the richness of Tolstoy’s prose. Side-by-side excerpt samples proved what the critics said — don’t settle for less.

Second, don’t be put off by Tolstoy’s tendency to set the action aside for many pages to ruminate on such topics as war, history, the nature of power, and other subjects. They are both fascinating and insightful.

Finally, even though there is a large cast of characters, they are so clearly delineated it is no problem to keep everyone straight in your head. I read this book over seven months, reading 26 other books in that time, and had no problem remembering either the plot lines or the characters. Not only that, I know this is one book that will stay with me. That’s powerful writing. That’s Tolstoy.

A Little Plot:

The Russians join the Austrians to fight Napoleon until a peace treaty is concluded. Later Napoleon invades Russia anyway. Meanwhile, a bastard son becomes a rich Count, hearts are won and broken, people die —  it has all the drama of an exceptionally rich epic historical fiction. But, in Tolstoy’s hands it is so much more.

City of God

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

51kPMILGhiL._SL75_By E. L. Doctorow

The Short Take:

This book was engrossing, thoughtful, challenging, brilliant!  It really made you think about religion, faith, science, film, philosophy, music, and more. It’s some 15 years old — written as a millennium opus — but is just as relevant today.


The above should be enough. Plus, it’s all wrapped around the story of an Episcopal priest who is trying to shore up his wavering faith, a pair of Jewish rabbis endeavoring to determine what is essential in their own religion, and a bronze cross mysteriously stolen from the former only to wind up with the latter.

Then there’s the interspersed story of a child growing up during the Holocaust (father of one of the rabbis). Not to mention sections supposedly narrated by Albert Einstein and others. Even the title is intriguing — the same as St. Augustine’s religious/philosophical classic.

It’s a feast for the mind. So glad I finally read it.

A Little Plot:

See above. That about covers it.


Saturday, May 16th, 2015

51yXIymgmwL._SL75_By James Joyce

The Short Take:

This was the second book of my 2015 self-challenge. I was feeling fairly smug after my Moby Dick experience. Well, James Joyce knocked me down several pegs. I was thrilled to actually follow what was going on — which wasn’t all the time. The only reason I finished was shear bull-headedness.


Everyone said Moby Dick was so hard. Well, I not only got through it, I liked it. So I approached this one with my confidence high. Ha ha ha!

There were many times when I thought the language was beautiful — if only I had some idea what Joyce was expressing. The stream-of-consciouness bits were the easiest to follow. It was the conversations that threw me for a loop: snippets of talk and action from more than one location were sometimes intermixed with no way to tell who was where and saying what. And, the long hallucinatory sequence in the brothel? Imagine reading a hundred pages written like The Beatles “I Am the Walrus,” only there’s no music. Just words. Ugh.

To see if I was “getting it” at all, I read notes on the various sections after completing them. I was often on the right track, but there were  occasions when my reaction was, “Really?! How did someone figure that out?”

I had read that Joyce claimed this book would have literary types guessing for years, and I can see where you could seriously study this book. Not me, however, I’m just glad its over.

A Little Plot:

It’s a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, which supposedly reflects the story of the hero Ulysses, who goes about doing and thinking one thing and another in Dublin.

PS. The final book in my challenge is Tolstoy’s War and Peace. However, Russian writers just don’t feel like summer fare, so I’m waiting till September to tackle that one. Until then, it’s back to usual.

P.D. James: Mistress of Mystery

Thursday, June 12th, 2014

Of course she has been inducted into the International Crime Writing Hall of Fame! Baroness Phyllis Dorothy James has 20 books to her credit (including one science fiction outing and an autobiography). Beyond that, she writes some of the most intelligent mysteries around.

The poet-policemen, Adam Dalgliesh, who solves most of her mysteries, is unlike any other fictional crime hero. Instead of quirky behavior he brings intense focus to the crimes he solves, acting with British reserve. In addition, her books are beautifully researched — often drawing on her first-hand knowledge of  the police and criminal law from years of working in the British Home Office.

As she entered her 90s, James retired her Dalgliesh series, stating it would be unfair to leave an incomplete manuscript. Instead, she ventured where most would fear to tread: bringing murder and mayhem into the world created by Jane Austen. Death Comes to Pemberly is  joy for both Austen lovers and mystery fans, set six years after the marriage of Mr  Darcy and Miss Elizabeth Bennet.

I’ve only read a dozen of James’ books so far but will absolutely read the rest. Will Pemberly be her last? I hate to think so, though her website has no hints about future books. James has always been about quality of writing over quantity of output. Her last book shows that when it comes to quality, she still stands head and shoulders above most others. Is she does publish again, I expect nothing but the best. Because that’s what a Hall of Famer delivers.


Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

By Kurt Vonnegut

The Short Take:

Vonnegut’s most celebrated novel is an amazing amalgamation of personal experience, history, anti-war sentiment, and either mental instability or science fiction — or maybe some of both. It’s a brilliant read and as timely now as when it came out in 1969.


Because this is one of the most important novels of the 20th century, that’s “why” for starters. Beyond that, this novel is amazingly intricate, cramming an exceptional amount of fascinating story-telling into a mere 275 pages (trade paperback).

Intriguing characters are regularly introduced; from our anti-hero, Billy Pilgrim, to the writer of terrible sci-fi, Kilgore Trout, to the alien Tralfamadorians, who live in four dimensions. Even the “bit players” add significantly to the story.

The book jumps around in time (and space, maybe), but still manages to tell a linear story. Vonnegut is a masterful writer and he’s at the top of his game in this one — maybe because this novel is so deeply personal for him. Vonnegut experienced the Dresden bombing first-hand.

A Little Plot:

That’s easier said than done. Billy Pilgrim became unstuck in time when he was a kid fighting in WWII. Well, not exactly fighting. He’s lost, captured, and winds up a POW in Dresden during the horrific Allied bombing of that city.

For the rest of his life, he never knows when or where he’ll be at any time (maybe), plus he is abducted by aliens (maybe) the evening after his daughters wedding. The alien’s way of seeing the universe gives him a message of hope he decides to share with all.

But that’s just a very little bit of plot.

If you want to visit the official Kurt Vonnegut site, click here.

American Pastoral

Monday, February 4th, 2013

By Philip Roth

The Short Take:

What an all-around fantastic book! The writing is amazingly good. The story is heart-breaking. I tend to like a lot of books (which is why I call myself a book lover rather than critic). However, this book outclasses almost everything I’ve read. It came out some 15 years ago but age hasn’t lessened its impact.


As the winner of a Pulitzer Prize and widely considered to be Roth’s masterpiece, that should be enough “why” for anyone. This book is simply brilliant. The story moves between the post WWII years, the radical 60s, and the turn of the century (close to when it was published). It illustrates how little we know of people and how what we assume can be miles from the truth. Even golden heroes are not what they seem, nor are their lives as fortunate as we think.

While the characters and the way they are revealed are reasons enough to read this book, the writing is exceptionally wonderful. You find yourself re-reading simple lines of description because they are so fresh yet so revealing.

It’s a delight, and it is deeply meaningful. American Pastoral explores feelings about America as a magical land of opportunity and an exploiter of the world. It shows that even a lifetime of doing the right thing can lead to disaster. It reveals how hard it is to ever determine the truth about anyone or anything.

It is one fantastic read. Since there is finally supposed to be a movie in the works, this might be the perfect time to read it. Again.

A Little Plot.

Nathan Zuckerman attends his high school reunion where he learns the high school athletic star and war hero, Swede Levov, has died. Reminiscing about his few encounters with Swede and what he learns from other sources, Zuckerman attempts to create a more realistic picture of the life everyone assumed was so blessed.

Swede seemed to flow through life with ease. However, nothing could have been further form the truth. In fact, the reality was literally explosive.

Philip Roth has recently declared his retirement. Thank goodness he has enriched American literature with so many special books like American Pastoral. Look for him on PBS’ American Masters in a rare interview on March 29.


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