Friday, November 9, 2018


Evocative and very well written, this novel was years in the development and writing, and it is ambitious. It holds in lovely tension the two narratives of epic world events (from Japan's invasion in 1910 through the AIDS crisis in the 1980s) and of the delicate turns of individual lives for members of a Korean family living in Japan. I was stunned by the racism; it's overt and institutionalized and pervasive. I was also compelled by her introduction to the 10th anniversary edition of her previous book, FREE FOOD FOR MILLIONAIRES; in it, she traces her many fumbles and challenges as a writer. I'm a new fan; I'm going to go hunt down FREE FOOD now.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Shannon Baker, BITTER RAIN

I'm a sucker for a sturdy, no-nonsense, deeply ethical woman P.I. figure. This one is a sheriff, with a fair amount of emotional baggage and some sketchy men for colleagues. Set on the border of Nebraska/South Dakota, adjacent to a Lakota "rez," this book tackles some of the problems faced by young Native Americans trying to figure out their place in the world. Fans of Sue Grafton's series will find Kate Fox a likable protagonist.


This is one of the more unusual, original books I've read this year: darkly comic and satiric about the fashion industry. I might not have picked it up, except that the author is one on a panel with me next week; but I'm glad I did. Quite naturally the novel draws comparisons to The Devil Wears Prada ... but it lacks the easy division between evil boss/ambitious but abused and highly likable underling. Instead we have a young woman protagonist who is desperate and driven to murder by the fashion industry and the insanely #selfie world she lives in. The novel is clever, and twisted, and yet despite the number of characters whose vocabulary is mostly "OMG" and meme-y phrases (or because of them), it shines a sharp light on the kind of ruthlessness and the alienation of language from meaning and authenticity that the social media culture endorses and creates.

Sunday, October 28, 2018


Enjoyed this delicate, assured debut novel about a Japanese man, terribly injured by the bomb dropped over Nagasaki, who seeks his grandmother in the US after decades of separation. At the heart of the book is a man who left me cold with his selfishness, and a woman who grasped the opportunities for enacting her revenge. Some beautifully wrought prose, and the central trope of the "dictionary" in which Japanese words are defined in English, illuminating certain aspects of both cultures, worked for me. Would definitely read another by this author.

Thursday, October 25, 2018


I enjoyed Quinn's previous novel, THE ALICE NETWORK, so I was prepared to like this one as well! It didn't disappoint; indeed, it feels more ambitious in scope and has the same level of historical detail, similarly well-developed characters, and also an awareness of the mythic structures common among different cultures, which I enjoyed. I had no idea the Soviets put their women pilots on the front lines; and the grueling schedule of bombing runs (run like NASCAR laps) that these Night Witches followed made me cringe inwardly.  The book's structure is a bit unusual because with multiple narrators, we readers often understand things before the characters do: we know who the villain (the huntress) is very early on. but watching to see *how* she's uncovered ... well, I was race-reading those last hundred pages! I was given an advanced copy; this book will be available on February 26, 2019.


GENTLEMAN truly is one of my favorites (as in it makes my list of the top 20 books I've ever read). The premise is unusual ... a man sentenced to a life of house arrest in a hotel in Moscow. But it is what he makes of his life that is so marvelous. It feels like an old-fashioned novel in a way: immensely readable, with clever little bits dropped in for humor amidst the chaos and trouble, wonderful characters, and a deeply satisfying ending.

Taking things out of context never puts them in their best light—but there are so many passages I underlined in this book that I want to share one. Emile is the temperamental gourmet chef who is famous for driving inept underlings out of the kitchen at the point of a knife. He and the Count (protagonist) and another friend have just been threatened with being turned over to the State by an obnoxious, rigid bureaucrat, whom they all hate. He has just left the kitchen, hurriedly.

“Andrey and the count turned their gaze from the door to Emile. Then in wide-eyed amazement, Andrey pointed a delicate finger at Emile’s raised hand. For in the heat of outrage, the chef had grabbed not his chopper but a celery stalk, whose little green fronds now trembled in the air. And to a man, the Triumvirate burst into laughter.”

I'd say, Don't miss this gem.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Marjorie Herrera Lewis, WHEN THE MEN WERE GONE

This debut is an enjoyable, quick read that recalls many of the Texas football movies and books you've seen--with the authentic passion for the game and the (mostly) feel-good ending. This one, based upon a true story, takes place in the 1940s, when the men--including the football coach for the high school Brownwood Lions--have left for war. An assistant principal, Mrs. Tylene Wilson, who learned the game of football at her father's knee, tries to find a man to coach the team, but no one will take it on. In the end, she does it herself--and only gets flak for it. It's almost painful--and (I'll own it) infuriating--to read about how her best friends shun her and her husband; how the newspapers mock her; how the football players and coaches from other team threaten not to play against Brownwood because she's coaching ... all because she wants to give these senior boys a chance to play the game, and to keep them from enlisting prematurely. The nerve of her.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Nathan Hill, THE NIX

In the end, I liked this novel very much. But for the first two hundred pages or so, I felt like I was reading something between a satire and a realist novel; the characters--particularly the gamer who is overweight and divorced and lives on espresso and frozen burritos, and the entitled college student who plagiarizes her essay but then blames the professor and trumps up charges of feeling "unsafe" in his class to avoid responsibility--these feel so overblown that they verge on caricatures. But somewhere around the middle of the book, the tone changes a bit, and as some backstories emerge, other more rounded characters take over. This is one of those big-hearted, wide-ranging books, both in terms of time and place; and I would certainly try another by Hill.


I found this a valuable book that provides a vocabulary for talking about different models of reciprocity: takers, givers, matchers; it also provides a model that is reassuring in that it suggests that we as individuals can create a ripple effect. (I also appreciate all the studies he cites because I'm a research geek.) We used this as the starting point for a parenting roundtable at my son's school, and it led to a productive discussion about the ways we can create a "giver" environment. I do agree with some other reviews that his examples are largely drawn from the world white men's privilege, and he doesn't reflect upon this; but I liked the idea of the five-minute favor and the giving ring.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018


I think this is an important book, although people who are determined to find it a self-serving justification will find it so. Well ... it *is* partly an explanation by Comey of why he did what he did and when with respect to both the Hillary email case and the Trump/Russian case. But it also asks bigger questions about public discourse and policy, provides larger legal and personal contexts, and reflects upon Comey's own doubts and possible missteps. So I think it's better than just a justification. I'd say it is also a reflection upon what it means to investigate a "state of mind," to situate a current case with respect to previous ones, and to sustain separation among the divisions of government. 

It's easy to follow his dates and his logic, and frankly, while I went in to the book a bit skeptical, I was gratified to find an account that had both balance and a clear timeline. He doesn't worship either Obama or the Clintons, and in fact points out their missteps and shortcomings and errors in judgment. I was also gratified to have background on Comey himself, before he became FBI director. We don't even get to the Hillary email issue until chapter 10. Until then, he writes about his childhood, owns up to some of his moments of fear and shirking, describes the pain of losing a child when that loss could have been prevented, and explores the challenge of helping to take down the Mafia. I found some of the latter a bit heavy-handed--it felt fairly obvious to me that it was a set-up so that later he could later compare some of Trump's demands for unquestioning loyalty (as opposed to honesty) to that of the Mafia bosses. I also had to smile at his discussion of his wife's admonition: "It's not about you, dear." He spends a few paragraphs talking about why that is such a hard lesson for people, especially those in leadership; I sort of felt like this is something that shouldn't have to be explained, but perhaps it does. He also has some interesting things to say about listening, and how in Washington "listening" is often merely keeping quiet until it's your turn to talk. 

Overall, this feels like a thoughtful and detailed account of the troubling growth of tribalism in America as well as one man's attempt to hold his ground and stay ethical. His most difficult problem toward the end seems to be having to convince Trump that the FBI and CIA MUST be kept separate from the President--that it is an ethical imperative to keep an arm's length. Trump keeps inviting Comey to private dinners and private meetings and you can feel Comey's discomfort and his eyes begging someone else to stay in the room. I do have to say that I felt infuriated by his examples of Trump's petty nastiness. 

Still in a fury at McCabe, Trump then asked him, "Your wife lost her election in Virginia, didn't she?"
"Yes, she did," Andy replied.
The president ... then said to the acting director of the FBI, "Ask her how it feels to be a loser" and hung up the phone.


Wednesday, August 1, 2018

William Kent Kreuger, ORDINARY GRACE

I think this is one of my favorites for the year. It won the Edgar Award, but as with so many of the best mysteries, it transcends the straight mystery genre. Like Tom Franklin's *Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter* or some of Tana French's best (*Faithful Place* comes to mind) this book explores the long psychological shadow cast by a past event. In this case, it's WWII, and we see the fallout during one summer in Minnesota. The narrator is a 13-year-old boy named Frank; he has a brother named Jake who is both younger and more perceptive than Frank is. Their father was going to be a lawyer, but after the war he became a Methodist preacher, to the chagrin of their mother. His father's friend Gus is a bit of a lost soul; Officer Doyle seems to have returned from the war perfectly fine but exhibits a level of sadism that is frightening. To some extent, these three drive the narrative forward, but Frank does his part; we at once root for him and wince. I enjoyed this book very much, found the writing precise and nuanced. Will look for Krueger's others.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Tracy Kidder, A Truck Full of Money

Kidder always chooses interesting, even eccentric characters to cover. Paul English, entrepreneur, programmer, person with bipolar, is another one. I did find him intriguing and dynamic. But I think I was expecting more of a story arc for English. I know that when writing biography, one doesn't want to fit life to a pre-set arc. But I lost some interest about halfway through, when the storyline and timeline started getting fuzzy.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018


Reading some of the reviews afterwards, I found myself surprised. Boring? Conventional? Crap? Hm. ... Several readers suggest that this book suffers by comparison with Egan's Pulitzer-Prize-winning A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD, which was admittedly an extraordinary, inventive, ambitious post-mod novel. But as Elphaba sings--"I'm not that girl." This book isn't that kind of book and doesn't attempt to be (to me, it hearkens back to The Keep rather than Goon); and judged on its own merits, as an historical noir-ish novel, it has much to recommend it, including original characters and details that to me felt organic, germane, and presented with Egan's usual skill. I read this book in two days; and if at times I felt psychological motivation was a bit thin (just why does Anna want to become a diver? why is she attracted to Dexter Styles? why exactly does Eddie seem so emotionally detached from his family?) I was willing to forgive it because I felt transported to the time and place--and because in noir-ish books, characters tend to be somewhat inscrutable. To me, that's part of the general darkness. Maybe I'm just a sucker for any kind of historical novel (particularly with a bit of mystery), but there were passages that gave me the satisfying feeling of Egan having gotten it just right, needlepoint as opposed to the nautical knots Anna undoes. For example--and it doesn't really work to take sentences out of context--in describing Merchant Marine men: "No one talked more than men on ships, but the point of the stories they told was to hide the ones they could never divulge to anyone." "Mackey gave him a strained, haunted glance--the look of a man whose desperation had trumped his ability to play along."

Thursday, March 22, 2018


Wildly imaginative and unusual. It took me a while to gather what was happening--it's a conversation among the ghosts in a graveyard where little Willie Lincoln has been interred in 1862, one year into the Civil War. But the ghost characters range from slaves to a reverend to a man whose every other word is the f-bomb. Lincoln himself appears; and the graveyard keeper. All the personal accounts are interspersed with quotes from historical texts and figures, most of which contradict each other and made me smile. The themes are poignant and rich and ambitious, and there's not a sentimental or cliche'd sentence in the book. The deepest concern in this book seemed to be empathy--with the governing metaphor for it the way that ghosts are able to slip inside Lincoln to convey the truth of their experience. (I found myself thinking of that old Robert Downey Jr. movie, "Heart and Souls.") Liked it very much.

Saturday, March 17, 2018


Very well written story about a Chinese immigrant woman and her son, making their way in NYC, only to be torn apart; through a series of leavings and many years, they reinvent themselves and find a way to be mother and son. One of my favorite passages is about the boy, Daniel (born Deming), who is a musician: "For so long, he had thought that music was the one thing he could believe in: harmony and angular submelody and rolling drums, a world neither present nor past, a space inhabited by the length of a song. For a song had a heart of its own, a song could jumpstart or provide solace; only music could numb him more thoroughly than weed or alcohol" (p. 258).


An interesting read from the perspective of the Chief Usher of the White House from Eleanor Roosevelt through the beginning of Pat Nixon's tenure. It's an alternate history, in that the focus is on the first ladies, not the presidents. For example, the shooting of JFK is given one line; in any other history, it would be Jacqueline Kennedy's story that took a back seat. Here, she's front seat. It also reveals the quirks of the presidents and the immense expenses they ran up--for example, Johnson's obsession with his shower, which West compares to a Rube Goldberg contraption and which cost thousands to install and was subsequently ripped out by Nixon. That said, West tends to sugar-coat things a bit, and the ladies are not always represented as having inconsistent characters; but it's still an engaging read without being a "tell-all."


Completely loved this memoir/essay about a young woman who was an avid reader and geek from early on, keeping a Book of Books (BOB), a list of every book she ever read. I have done that on-and-off my whole life, and many of the books (and movies) that she mentioned were ones I loved. Here is the sentence that I starred, halfway through; she is writing about Spalding Gray: "I didn't share Gray's struggling with drinking or his depression or the legacy of a suicidal mother. But I'd never, in reading a personal narrative felt such a close affinity with a writer; it was as if we viewed the world through a shared lens." It's like an infinite mirror ... because that was precisely how I feel about Pamela Paul and this book. (I may just have to stalk her.)


This deeply felt book takes place in the Pleasantville-ish town of Shaker Heights, Ohio (where Ng spent part of her childhood). It begins with the peripatetic artist Mia and her daughter Pearl arriving at the town and disrupting the natural order some; their lives become intertwined with the large Richardson family. But then Mia, in her role as housekeeper, hears Mrs. Richardson talking about a baby girl who was left at a fire station and whom her friend Linda adopted; Mia, in her role as worker at a Chinese restaurant, knows that Bebe, another worker, left the baby there in despair but has been searching for her daughter ever since. The controversy over who has the right to the child tears the town and the Richardson family apart. To say more would just be spoiling. I liked this book better than Ng's first. A fave line: "She had never seen an adult cry like that, with such an animal sound. Recklessly. As if there were nothing more to be lost."

Thursday, March 15, 2018

William Golding, LORD OF THE FLIES

Oh my. I'd forgotten how dark this was. I reread this because my son was reading it for English (8th grade), and I felt like I understood what it was like to be alive in 1954, with 15 years of war (the brutality of WWII and the Cold of the 1950s) as the only world one knew. There was nowhere outside of a place like the island, where the plane left an indelible "scar" as it landed; and physical prowess was the only thing that mattered. Piggy's smarts, Simon's thoughtfulness, and the littleuns' weakness have no place, and so they all die. Even Ralph, the first chief, nearly dies because he is more interested in getting rescued than staying on the island and preserving his site of power. And we can have no faith in the adult at the end who rescues, with the "crown, an anchor, gold foliage," his symbols of military and governmental and economic domination, worn on his "huge peaked cap." He is hardly a rescuer, given that he wholly misreads the scene in front of him. The whole book made me uneasy (in a good way, I know). But I was glad to put it down.


Enjoyed this historical novel that shifts between WWI and WWII. The WWI plotline is, as other readers note, the more compelling, with a woman spy in fear for her life, whereas the WWII heroine Charlie doesn't face the same sort of threat; but I felt the two-voice structure worked for me ... although I felt it was a bit curious that Charlie was done in first-person and Eve in third. But overall, this was a very readable page turner with lots of good historical detail worked in, and without info-dumps. I know that's hard to do! Would recommend for historical fiction lovers, especially those who liked CODE NAME VERITY and THE FORTUNATE ONES.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018


A memoir that reads like a thriller; I think this is an important book for anyone trying to make sense of the cycles of violence and hatred in the world (particularly in the Middle East/Europe/the US). The author, born and raised in Germany, and a free-lance reporter for Der Spiegel, the Washington Post, and the NY Times, is a Muslim, with one parent Shia and one Sunni, and she speaks four languages. Partly because of this both/and background, she is able to build rapport with people from many cultures and backgrounds--including those Muslims who have been radicalized. She speaks her own truth--she's the daughter of a Turk and a Moroccan, both of whom went to Germany to work at menial jobs; she acknowledges her own frustration and hurt and anger at the prejudices she faced there, as well as explaining how the models her parents provided enabled her to transcend them. But she also gives a voice to many people who are still angry and hurting. At age 25, in the wake of 9/11, she started going in to war zones to find the answer to a question someone asked her: "Why do they hate us so much?" The answer, which she spins out in a series of well-written and suspenseful chapters, is complex and nuanced, but seems often to have to do with people feeling like they don't belong--in their families, in their communities, in their chosen countries. Brene Brown's most recent book is about how powerful our need is to feel we belong, and this book reads like a companion piece--and a warning about what happens when people are made to feel like outcasts and "other." My favorite line: "The world is not facing a clash of civilizations or cultures, but a clash between those who want to build bridges and those who would rather see the world in polarities, who are working hard to spread hatred and divide us."