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Book Review: Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History

This book review originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on 16 October 2017.

In Unbelievable, Katy Tur had me at her dedication. Rather than “For Mom” or “For Pooky-Bear,” it’s “For the love of God.”

Amen, sister.

In life, timing is everything, for good or ill. (“If I hadn’t decided to turn right at the corner just then, I never would have [met my soulmate] [been hit by that dump truck].”) Tur was a young NBC foreign correspondent living the life in London and spending romantic weekends in Paris, when a quick trip back to the States just happened to coincide with NBC’s decision to put someone on Donald Trump’s improbable (“ridiculous,” “hilarious”) presidential campaign.

Learning she was about to be tapped to follow him full-time, she called a veteran of earlier campaigns for advice. He told her to accept. “If you hate it, at least it will be short.”

Sure, it was funny at the time.

Trump’s bizarre love-hate relationship with Tur reared its head at the first campaign event she covered, just two weeks after his entry into the race. In the rain in a donor’s back yard in Bedford, New Hampshire, she was startled to hear him call her out, mid-speech, with a telling complaint, “I mean, Katy hasn’t even looked up once at me.”

Tur covered Trump longer than any other reporter, despite never having done political reportage before; without wanting to, she became part of the story she was covering. By not backing down in the face of personal attacks from her assigned candidate, or from the resulting death threats from his followers, she earned the respect of her colleagues, her own hashtag (#ImwithTur), and equal footing with her hero, Andrea Mitchell, as one of the indomitable “road warriors” of the campaign.

Plus, unlike most of the seasoned political reporters she found herself among, Tur, living as she was on a steady diet of packed and screaming Trump rallies across the U.S., never discounted the candidate’s chances of winning.

Tur takes an inspired approach to telling a story that we just finished living through — at least from our view in front of the stage. She slingshots back and forth between accounts from the long campaign (“May 23, 2015: 535 Days Until Election Day”) to the minute-by-minute ticking clock of Election Day itself. The stomach-clenching suspense is unexpected.

Along the way, she fills in the backstory of her from-birth training as a newshound and pulls the curtain back on the less-than-glamorous life of a press-corps journalist.

For those who still experience the election of 2016 as a raw, open wound, Tur’s intimate recounting may need to be read through splayed fingers. The rest of us just want video of the drunk Trump press corps’ early-morning election-day plane ride, with CNN’s Jeremy Diamond attempting to sled in the aisle during take-off, and Jim Acosta and Tur taking selfies with a passed-out Mark Halperin.

The author’s storytelling is earthy and accessible, and — as in the chapter, “Pop the Trunk. I’m Going to Run for It,” about dragging a couch-sized suitcase a mile through the snow to LaGuardia to beg her way onto an already-closed flight to Iowa — helps us to laugh through some of the otherwise truly chilling episodes she recounts of Trump’s whipping up his crowds against the “lying, disgusting” media, which often included his pointing out “back there…little Katy.”

In one telling episode, at a rally just days before Christmas in 2015, Tur spends a lovely, impromptu half-hour in the ladies room with a hair dresser and Trump supporter who offers to help her get her hair TV-ready. During the rally, Trump ruminates on the idea that Vladimir Putin kills reporters, and considers whether he might do the same. “I hate them, but I would never kill them.”

As usual, Trump’s press corps is corralled together behind barricades, as Tur observes, “caged in the center of the arena like a modern-day Roman Colosseum.” She notes the poinsettias, the wreaths, the holiday sweaters, “and the crowd is cheering about the idea of killing journalists…[T]o the lady who curled my hair in the bathroom, who is now somewhere in the crowd that is laughing at the idea of Trump killing me: Thanks, my hair looks great.”

Tur proved her mettle during a long and painful campaign, surviving that and much more — not the least of which was Trump’s grabbing her by the shoulders and kissing her, apparently because he liked her relatively softball coverage of him moments before on “Morning Joe.”

Unbelievable.

Book Review: The Ninth Hour

This book review originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on 5 October 2017.

Novelists are often drawn back to the same time and place again and again in their work, to an emotional geography that formed them as people and as writers. For Alice McDermott, that place is among the working-class Catholics of 1950s-era Brooklyn and Long Island. Her work consistently involves the quietest stories focused on lives of little note.

And yet.

In the Catholic canon, the Liturgy of the Hours, such as vespers and lauds, marks the time of day for certain prayers; none, the ninth hour of the day, 3 p.m., is the time for mid-afternoon prayers. It is around that time on a cold and rainy February day that a young man sends his pregnant wife out to do the marketing so that he can close up their tiny apartment, kill the pilot light, and lie down in the bedroom for a permanent nap.

We see the aftermath of the explosion and fire through the eyes of neighborhood nun Sister St. Savior. Despite her desperate need for a toilet after a day spent begging at the Woolworth’s for the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, the nun walks into the house rather than pass by, and immediately takes matters into her capable if arthritic hands.

Thus begins the story of Annie, the new widow, her daughter, Sally (christened St. Savior), the nuns of the convent of the Little Nursing Sisters, and the various characters that inhabit their work-weary neighborhood.

As unassuming a writer as McDermott is, she sometimes surprises readers with her willingness to break rules. In her 1998 National Book Award winner, Charming Billy, she got away with using a first-person narrator for a closely told story, the bulk of which took place before the narrator was even born.

Rebel McDermott is here again, this story narrated by an even more captivating “we,” signifying the children of Sally and her husband, Patrick Tierney, who grew up together. The Tierney children — how many? boys? girls? — tell this story in intimate detail, describing their grandfather’s last solitary moments, Sister St. Savior’s internal considerations of God, and countless other hidden moments. It’s a delicious little twist of narrative expectations that McDermott pulls off effortlessly.

The story unspools gradually, alluding to certain incidents and episodes, returning to them, adding flavor and depth at each pass. Sally and Patrick’s children recount the stories they grew up hearing. That their grandmothers, Annie and Liz, were fast friends from before their parents were born means the stories of the two families bleed into each other to become one.

Many of the stories involve the residents of the convent of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor — primarily Sisters Lucy, Illuminata, and Jeanne — women who understand what needs to be done and simply do it. They are by necessity practical and tough, and have few saintly illusions about life. Their devotion to God is primarily manifest in the unceasing labor they pour into easing the suffering of others.

If Lucy is brusque and unsmiling while Jeanne’s eyes twinkle perpetually on the brink of laughter, both women prove themselves equal to any task, starting with making Annie’s apartment habitable again and finding the money to employ her to help Illuminata with the convent’s mending and washing. They also see things clearly, including the developments between Annie and the convent’s milkman, Mr. Costello.

Sally grows up in the warm embrace of Annie, the various sensibilities of the convent nuns, and the messy, tumultuous household of Liz and Michael Tierney and their six children. Sally and Patrick knew each other from infancy, and in Patrick’s stories they were destined for each other.

One of Patrick’s favorite stories involves Red Whelan, Aunt Rose, and the lasting enmity between his father and grandfather, for whom young Patrick is named. The Tierneys paid Red Whelan to take the elder Patrick’s place in battle during the Civil War.

When Red came back missing an arm, a leg, and an ear, the Tierneys bestowed on him permanent residence in their third-floor bedroom, and their young daughter Rose to be his lifetime caregiver. So much given to ensure the future of a son on whom all hopes rested. As Aunt Rose later said, “Weighed down all his life by the burden of gratitude.”

Hence the bitter and permanent break between father and son when young Michael, carelessly throwing away a generation of advancement that came at such a cost, insisted on marrying a mere immigrant servant girl — Liz.

The final insult, in the end, is that Red survives the old man. “I wonder if it irked my father, to see Red Whelan outlive him,” Michael tells Patrick. “I wonder if he thought, as he lay dying, that perhaps for three hundred dollars more Red Whelan would take his place again.”

As told to the children, the story is an object lesson in being sure the thing you think you want is worth the price you have to pay to get it. It’s the same object lesson that Sally learns when she thinks she wants to become a nun, and yet again when she thinks she wants to spend her mornings with miserable, self-pitying Mrs. Costello.

Sister Jeanne tells the children stories, too, in her old age but still with a twinkle in her eye, discussing with them the ideas of God’s sense of fair play and the joys of Heaven, something she is certain will be denied to her. How sweet, stalwart Jeanne could permanently be out of God’s grace is the central mystery of this story, while the reader’s central question, for her and several other characters, is, “Was it worth the price?”

McDermott, the master of understated storytelling, leaves us to ponder the answer.

A Lesson in Every Object

This column originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on 28 September 2017.

In June 2013, author/philosopher/videogame-designer Ian Bogost and Loyola University New Orleans associate English professor Chris Schaberg introduced a series of books and essays called Object Lessons, described as “a series on the hidden lives of ordinary objects.”

Bogost and Schaberg serve as the series’ editors, while the 2,000-word essays are published in no less a venue than the Atlantic (in their online Technology section), and the 25,000-word books are published by Bloomsbury.

Bogost explained the origin of the idea as having grown out of the concepts he explored in his book Alien Phenomenology; in particular, “a call for more frequent and more sustained attention to specific things.”

As he described it in the announcement of the series, “Each Object Lessons project will start from a specific prompt: an anthropological query, archeological discovery, historical event, literary passage, personal narrative, philosophical speculation, technological innovation, anything really — and from there develop original insights around and novel lessons about the object in question.”

Since then, 31 installments have been published, with at least 15 more in the offing, and the team continues to solicit proposals for additional projects. Besides being beautiful little hand-sized objects themselves, showcasing exceptional writing, the wonder of these books is that they exist at all. A couple guys champion the idea of establishing an open-ended essay project to a pair of big-name publishers, and they say yes! To essays!

The list of existing and forthcoming books is a random walk through a heap of objects, from the large-scale and encompassing (Earth by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Linda T. Elkins-Tanton) to the small and specific (Sock by Kim Adrian); things of which we have too much (Waste by Brian Thill) and too little (Silence by John Biguenet); things whose time has come (Drone by Adam Rothstein; Pixel by Ian Epstein) and gone (Phone Booth by Ariana Kelly; Shopping Mall by Matthew Newton); things that are a phenomenon of modern life (Jet Lag by Christopher J. Lee); and the things modern life is excising (Whale Song by Margret Grebowicz).

I wonder what object lesson lies in realizing that the two most politically charged objects in the series are head coverings: Veil (by Rafia Zakaria) and Hood (by Alison Kinney).

To read a few of these books is to understand generally what you will find in any of them. That’s in no way dismissive. The writing is uniformly excellent, engaging, thought-provoking, and informative. Each one uses its base object as a jumping-off point to range widely through a surprising collection of interrelated topics.

So, if a book called Sock makes you think, “Twenty-five-thousand words on socks? Uh, no,” then you’re unclear on the concept. You’re also missing out on a thoroughly delightful discussion of, among other things:

  • Why humans no longer have fur, but instead have many sweat glands and a layer of fat.
  • Georges Bataille’s essay fragment “The Big Toe,” which posits the subject body part as the true evolutionary launch point for humanity, because its forward orientation enabled bipedalism, which in turn allowed us to develop and exploit the opposable thumb.
  • How tracing the evolution of clothing lice (a.k.a. body lice) as a distinct species from both head lice and pubic lice, allows us to date the emergence of the use of clothing by humans.
  • The many delicate, nuanced adjustments needed throughout the body to keep humans from pitching forward onto our faces with every step.
  • Foot odor, which is not caused by the quarter-million sweat glands in our feet, but rather the poop from the bacteria that flourishes in our laced-up shoes and feasts on dead skin.
  • The distinction between a partialist — one whose sexual obsession is aimed at a part of the body — and a fetishist — one whose obsession is focused on an object — so that it’s no longer considered entirely correct to speak of a “foot fetish.” (Author Adrian addresses many facets of our complicated sexual relationship with feet, though one imagines that Sock serves as the hors d’oeuvre for this subject ahead of Summer Brennan’s forthcoming Object Lesson, High Heel.)

Imagine, then, that the less-prosaic of the Object Lessons are at least as wide-ranging as Sock. For me, it’s illuminating to understand the reason each author chose the subject she or he wrote about. The whimsical Eye Chart arose from author William Germano’s lifelong issues with myopia, while Anna Leahy’s project, Tumor, is informed by her intensely personal experiences of her father’s death from liver cancer and her mother’s from pancreatic cancer.

After digesting several of the OLs, I began to consider what mine should be. It didn’t take long to decide: Paper Route. True, it’s not an object quite like Remote Control (by Caetlin Benson-Allott) or Personal Stereo (by Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow), but I’d argue it’s as much an object as Jet Lag or Traffic (by Paul Josephson).

Like many of the OLs, the launch point here is from my own personal narrative. I’ve had a job since I was 9, and that first one was delivering the now-defunct weekly Montgomery County Journal. Later, I progressed to delivering the now-defunct daily Washington Star.

It was never my idea to get the paper route, and I was not always a willing or gracious participant, but I had to save for college since, in my household, it was a given that 1) we kids were going to college, and 2) we kids needed to find a way to pay for it.

Thus, Paper Route, should it ever exist as an OL, will address certain obvious topics, though I would hope to make it more than just a misty-eyed elegy on the disappearance of both paper and news, or a grumpy lecture on the value of hard work and saving money (and walking barefoot uphill both ways in the snow).

Some of the less-obvious paths I’d like to explore include debt, higher education, the plummeting participation of able-bodied men in the workforce, and the need to recognize licensed trades as being of equivalent value to college degrees in a healthy, functioning economy and society.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Book Review: Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution

This review originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books on 30 August 2017.

For those of us who aren’t evolutionary biologists, it may come as a surprise to learn that there is such a field as experimental evolution. (Is now the time to admit not knowing about evolutionary biologists, either?)

This and other surprises both fascinating and a bit discomfiting await the non-expert reader of Jonathan Losos’ Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of Evolution, a thoroughly accessible analysis of whether evolution is one big crapshoot or rather mundanely predictable. No spoilers here, but the evidence presented on both sides makes for some thought-provoking reading.

Losos made his early bona fides as the Lizard Guy, doing lots of undergraduate, graduate, and later fieldwork with anoles in the Bahamas (he agrees that it’s a tough life but somebody’s got to live it).

He is now a professor of biology and director of the Losos Laboratory at Harvard, and Curator of Herpetology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Being a university professor, he publishes often in scholarly journals, but also writes for a popular audience in places like the New York Times.

The great proponent of evolution as an unpredictable and unrepeatable series of happenstance is Stephen Jay Gould, who posited that you could hit the rewind button on evolution and replay it infinitely and never get the same outcome twice.

This is a concept known as “contingency,” in which any outcome is dependent upon the tiniest factors all lining up in exactly the right sequence. Yet much of the evolutionary record — as well as plenty of extant species, including those anoles — illustrates the concept of convergent evolution, where similar environmental pressures in disparate locales give rise to virtually identical evolutionary adaptations.

(Personally, I am crushed to learn that I missed out on the “Shetland pony-sized” pigmy elephants that apparently evolved independently on islands around the world, “some recent enough to have coexisted with modern humans: Malta, Corsica, St. Paul off the coast of Alaska; Flores, where they lived with Komodo dragons; even the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California.” What?)

On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of once-and-done species that evolved a single time and remain unique, including most of New Zealand’s fauna (where mammals never evolved), a good chunk of Australia’s, and, lest we forget, us.

The Gould Camp would say we’re a one-in-infinity outcome, while others, like Dale Russell, theorize that, even if that asteroid had missed Earth and mammals had never gotten their evolutionary shot, it’s completely plausible that evolution and selection would have favored dinosaurs that were big-brained and bipedal, eventually resulting in — voila! — the dinosauroid.

Evolutionary biologists are probing the “contingency vs. determinism” theories through both lab and field experiments to assess evolution’s general predictability. One of them, Rich Lenski, took Gould’s “replay the tape” challenge literally, establishing a long-term evolutionary experiment (LTEE) with E. coli that started in 1988 and continues today through tens of thousands of generations.

By starting with a single parent strain and growing 12 separate colonies under identical conditions for years, Lenski was seeing whether they all behaved identically. The findings over time from this and other LTEEs offer some surprises but generally show significant predictability.

While many of us tend to think of evolution as an eons-long process, we also intuitively understand that rapid genetic changes give rise to such organisms as antibiotic-resistant bacteria and pesticide-resistant insects.

Fast changes happen in larger creatures, too. Losos introduces us to many examples of field-based experiments in evolution that demonstrate just how quickly natural selection works to change the make-up of a given population.

His long-running work with anoles had already documented examples of consistently convergent evolution in which nearly identical lizards evolved on different islands to fill nearly identical ecological niches.

His later work took that a step farther and put genetically similar anoles on tiny, lizard-free islands to see what would happen. When the populations did not get wiped off the map by hurricanes, they evolved in ways the research team found to be fairly predictable.

In Trinidad, experimental evolution fieldwork with guppies demonstrated how predation pressure affects coloration. Again and again, experiments showed that, under low predation, male guppies quickly became more brightly colored, apparently something that held appeal for female guppies. Under high predation, issues of attractiveness were thrown out the evolutionary window as duller colors helped males to survive long enough to mate. (Better dull but alive than sexy but dead, as evolutionary biologists like to say.)

The speed with which these changes occur — within a few years or even just a few seasons — is pretty stunning, but it’s also a little worrisome how the researchers choose to jigger around with wildlife, introducing species where they weren’t, including adding predators into the mix where they previously hadn’t been.

Losos discusses this somewhat, arguing that the introductions mimic what often happens naturally. Still, it sure feels like we’ve seen this “Man Monkeys with Nature: Bad Outcomes Ensue” movie before.

So why do we care about evolutionary predictability, anyway? As Losos points out in discussing diseases such as cystic fibrosis, any level of predictability is better than none if it gives us hint in advance about how these diseases might shape-shift in the face of drug therapies.

All this goes to presume that a reader is willing to face the concept of evolution in the first place. Losos notes that the National Science Foundation asks evolutionary biologists, when writing up the description of their funded grants for public release, to avoid the “E” word so as not to trigger an ugly backlash.

Indeed, it seems that however it is we humans came about, we still haven’t evolved a consistently open mind or a thicker skin.

Book Review: Get to Know KNOW THE MOTHER

This column originally appeared in Late Last Night Books on 20 July 2017.

Though she loves to read novels, author Desiree Cooper found that her fiction comes from her in a much shorter form. “If there was no such thing as flash fiction, I would have had to invent it,” says the 2016 debut author of the collection of flash fiction entitled Know the Mother. If you’re not terribly familiar with flash fiction, which works to tell an evocative story in a very compressed space, this lovely, haunting collection demonstrates just how effective and affecting this genre can be.

Mother’s stories have a strong common thread of dreams delayed or abandoned — suppressed under the weight of obligation — and of how identity is tied to those dreams. Who are we, really, if we’re never allowed to be who we want to be? Can anyone really know us if our true selves are hidden behind society’s expectations of us or the demands of roles we did not freely choose?

The title story in the collection asks these exact questions, as a daughter mourns the gradual loss of her mother to Alzheimer’s, tenderly caring for her as she watches for any sign of recognition. The daughter senses that her mother, even as she gradually ebbs, enjoys an interior life that her daughter has no share in. “She is leaving me so easily, I wonder if her love ever rose above duty.”

Another story, “Nocturne”, beautifully renders a life through a series of losses, all that point to the loss of a dream: “At age seven, Jeanine lost the family dog. She had been practicing scales on the piano . . . Jeanine was thirteen when she lost the citywide Chopin competition to Grace Lee . . . she couldn’t forgive herself for putting passion ahead of perfection.”

Most of these stories run just a couple pages — and some just a few paragraphs — but Cooper’s ability to evoke entire lives in just a few strokes is magical. Because so much is packed into such compressed space, attempting to describe or illustrate any one of them risks draining them of their wonder. You simply have to read them for yourself.

Cooper writes to the dynamics of race, gender, age, culture, and families, often all at once. She illustrates the universality of experience through situations that are fully recognizable to all of us, such as the jumble of thoughts and emotions that course through a mother who sits and waits through the night for her errant daughter, in “Mourning Chair”. She envisions all the worst possible scenarios: “My daughter is easy to recognize, officer. She’s the one with her heart beating in my pocket.”

And what American of a certain age can’t identify with either the parents or the kids — or both — in “Reporting for Duty, 1959”?: a family trapped together in a hot car on an endless cross-country road trip, the kids restless and bored, tormenting each other, Mom’s increasing threat level incapable of making them behave, until the moment Dad — silent until now, authority held in reserve for the nuclear option — pulls over and stops the car.

In this case, however, the family is African-American, the dad is an Army sergeant in uniform in the south in 1959, moving the family from a base in San Antonio to another in Tampa. The kids are two boys, twelve-year-old Junior and nine-year-old Curtis, and the story is told primarily from their point of view. At one point, Junior watches as his father pumps gas into their car. “All the other dads were sitting in their cars, waiting for the gas-station people to serve them. His was the only dad who knew how to pump the gas himself.” Cooper expertly builds the tension in this story such that I almost felt the need to close my eyes.

There are many other gems in this collection — heartbreaking, elegiac, fraught, nuanced, thought-provoking — and they stay with the reader long after the volume’s covers are closed. One of the wonderful things about flash fiction, of course, is that you can re-read to your heart’s content. You’ll want to do that with Know the Mother, knowing that you’ll notice something new each time.

Book Review: The Shark Club

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 12 July 2017.

Here is a book that commands its readers to sit above the tide line, toes idly excavating sand divots, beneath an umbrella throwing deep shade under a cloudless blue sky. The sun-drenched Florida locale is so strong that if you’re not somewhere comparable, your longing will make it tough to concentrate.

This ultimate beach read is the debut novel of Ann Kidd Taylor, daughter of acclaimed novelist Sue Monk Kidd. The two previously collaborated on a bestselling memoir, Traveling with Pomegranates, in which young Ann ponders her direction in life. Apparently, her direction is to go into the family business.

It’s not a bad choice. The Shark Club is a beach read with a brain, anchored as it is in its first-person narrator, Dr. Maeve Donnelly. Maeve is a marine biologist who specializes in sharks, and who spends as much time as possible pursuing their research the world over. Maeve has loved sharks from the time she was bitten and nearly killed by one — coincidentally, seconds after her first kiss with her first love, Daniel.

Maeve’s backstory is related through a combination of straight-up exposition and occasionally a more nuanced revisiting of crucial episodes. Before the shark incident, at age 6, Maeve and her twin brother, Robin, were suddenly orphaned when their parents’ small plane crashed in the Everglades.

Since then, they have lived with their grandmother Perri in the literary-themed hotel she owns on an island off Florida’s Gulf Coast. Daniel, three years older, befriended them both soon after they arrived. He is a kindred damaged spirit since his father simply up and left one day, abandoning Daniel and his mother.

Taylor has good impulses, but she needs to give this story more room to breathe and let things play out organically. Her tendency to tell rather than show speeds the narrative along but stymies our ability — or desire — to invest in the characters. The formative things that happen to these people feel more like convenient plot points than critical elements that shape who they become.

The most fully realized character here, the one that Taylor gets pitch perfect in three dimensions, is Hazel, Daniel’s 6-year-old daughter — and the overt reason Daniel and Maeve are no longer together. Silly, serious, and completely unselfconscious in that way of young children who haven’t yet been molded into conformity, she is the rare child character for whom the term “precocious” isn’t code for “irritating.” Hazel is a fan of prehistoric sea creatures and carries around a dinosaur messenger bag filled with supplies for whatever adventure she’s currently on.

She and Maeve meet on the beach just as Maeve arrives home again to the Hotel of the Muses for a few months in between a long research stint in Bimini and an upcoming trip to Mozambique to study whale sharks. Just as she was leaving Bimini, Maeve struck up a nascent romance with fellow researcher Nicholas.

It only takes a few minutes for Maeve to realize that she’s talking to Daniel’s daughter, the product of a fling that Daniel had while Maeve was away on her first big research trip — a trip that caused her to postpone their wedding.

After learning of his dalliance and impending fatherhood, she cancels the wedding and never speaks to him again. But here is Hazel, and with her, Daniel, now an acclaimed local chef running the hotel’s restaurant. He’s moved them back in with his own mother now that Hazel’s mother has — honestly? — recently died.

In with all of this, Maeve discovers that someone is running a local shark-finning operation, the horrifying and illegal practice of catching sharks, slicing off their dorsal fins and tails, and throwing them back in the water to die in order to supply the black-market demand for shark-fin soup.

And last, Maeve’s brother, Robin, a charming ne’er-do-well who’s been a failed writer for years, has a book contract. Only Maeve doesn’t clue into why Robin is so gravely insistent that she read the novel he’s written.

Taylor gives her characters significant baggage, but provides only cursory follow-through in illustrating what it means to them. She needs to signal to her readers that at least she understands that Maeve and Daniel (or, for that matter, Maeve and Robin) in their 30s have no greater capacity or willingness to hold an adult conversation than they did seven years earlier, and that perhaps this is one of the common effects of their shared abandonment. It’s only in considering Hazel that they demonstrate real maturity.

Perhaps it’s not fair to demand that level of depth; after all, this is vacation reading, and Taylor absolutely knows how to keep the pages turning. It simply feels that with a little more investment, she could have delivered a whole cast of believable, well-rounded characters to go along with her young star.

 

Book Review: The Weight of Ink

This review originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of the Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society.

In modern-day London, a cache of mid-17th-century papers is found, apparently untouched for three centuries, in a house under renovation. The Hebrew and Portuguese writings bring in Jewish-history expert and ailing academic Helen Watt to assess their provenance. Pressed to assist her is stalled American Ph.D. candidate Aaron Levy. Temperamentally mismatched, they nonetheless begin to uncover the mystery of an anonymous scribe working for a blind rabbi in pre-plague London.

Rachel Kadish offers an impressive achievement here in her latest novel. She ties together complex concepts of metaphysics and theology from the days of philosopher Baruch Spinoza, along with a mid-20th-century love story set in Israel, and a modern-day academic treasure hunt. The book offers a surprisingly taut and gripping storyline for one that spends much of its time in a dark study or a research library.

The true central character here is Ester Velasquez, a brilliant young Jewish woman whose family took refuge in Holland to escape Inquisition-wracked Portugal; she later finds herself in 1650s London serving as secretary to Rabbi HaCoen Mendes. Education for women was considered unseemly, and Ester’s work as a scribe renders her unmarriageable—a state she prefers. Ester’s wide-ranging intellect pushes her to read voraciously and ask questions, in particular about the nature of God, man, and the universe; those questions are extraordinarily dangerous.

Helen knows this is her last opportunity to redeem the choices that she’s made, and she and Aaron work against another academic team and her own worsening illness in a race to find and fit the last pieces of the puzzle in order to understand Ester’s true identity. The Weight of Ink has the brains of a scholar, the drive of a sleuth, and the soul of a lover.

 

Book Review: Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 30 June 2017.

Make no mistake: Ironic title and intentionally supercilious cover photo aside, this book is the opening salvo in Al Franken’s run for the presidency in 2020. At least that’s what any marginally astute reader would take away from this funny, insightful walk through Franken’s life to this point.

On the other hand, perhaps he really means it when he tells People magazine and other media outlets (fake or otherwise) that the answer to such a concept is, emphatically, “no.” Still, there’s that book-jacket bio that reads, in part, “Senator Franken graduated from Harvard College and received his doctorate in right-wing megalomania studies from Trump University.”

That’s practically enough to get him drafted right there.

If Franken’s isn’t one of the first names Democrats have blurted out in considering who can possibly carry the banner forward in these troubled times, perhaps it’s because he’s been keeping his head down and working for the good folks of Minnesota rather than making speeches for the cameras. (Most of his time in the senatorial spotlight so far has been an outcome of his seat on the Judiciary Committee.)

Along the way, he’s racked up an impressive scorecard of legislative wins, or, if not wins, then valiant attempts to hold the Democratic line.

As most people know, Franken came into the American consciousness through 15 years of writing for, and eventually performing on, Saturday Night Live. He reminds us that he was with the show from its debut episode, meaning that he and longtime writing partner Tom Davis are responsible for some of the most iconic moments of comedy that Americans of a certain age still cherish.

Franken and Davis formed their writing partnership while students at a private boys’ prep school near Franken’s home in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. From high school on, virtually every job they held involved writing and performing comedy. Franken met his future wife, Franni, the first week of their freshman year in college, and they’ve been together ever since.

But readers of this book are probably most interested in a pretty basic set of questions: “SNL to the Senate? Really? How does that happen?”

There were many mileposts along that road, but Franken really got his political blood up in 1994, when Newt Gingrich swept in with a brand of take-no-prisoners partisanship that, from Franken’s perspective, led Congress to its current, fully Balkanized state.

(It was Gingrich who insisted Republicans stop bringing their families with them to DC, which is why members now fly in on Monday and out on Thursday. Staying in town and socializing among congressional families used to be how members got to know each other outside of politics and allowed them to form actual friendships. That’s a faint memory now.)

With Gingrich came the rest of the right-wing echo chamber, led by Rush Limbaugh. When Franken’s editor suggested he write a book about politics, the result was Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot: And Other Observations, and its companion, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.

What finally put him on the path to candidacy, though, was the tragic death of his friend Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, and a boast from the Republican who won that seat, Norm Coleman, that he was a “99 percent improvement” over Wellstone.

Franken’s experiences on the campaign trail were brutal and personally painful — there’s nothing quite like having every joke a comedian has ever written be purposely taken out of context by the Republican DeHumorizer™ and used against him — and resulted in a microscopic winning margin of 313 votes (after which he had to survive eight months of recounts and court battles before finally being allowed to take the oath of office).

And while it’s perhaps understandable that Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee leaders Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer weren’t initially thrilled at his candidacy (even asking him to suggest other people to run), it’s bewildering that then-rock-star candidate and later president Barack Obama — who certainly understood how much he needed another Democratic senator and could’ve used his star power to dazzling effect — treated Franken as though he didn’t exist.

After his historically slender and drawn-out victory, Franken then had to prove to his colleagues that he wasn’t just The Funny Guy. For that, he adopted “the Hillary model…Be a workhorse, not a showhorse.”

Now a two-term senator, Franken talks with relative candor about his experiences, though he remains mindful of the decorum demanded by the Senate, to the point of using euphemisms anytime he’d prefer good ol’ Anglo-Saxon vulgarity.

It’s refreshing to hear how he and other senators look for common ground from which to build something like consensus, and just plain interesting to understand how he stays on the polite side of folks like Mitch McConnell.

For Democrats, Franken hits all the high notes: the healthcare fight, campaign finance reform, climate change, education, minority protections, fierce support for the troops and veterans accompanied by a healthy concern over military engagement, the post-November 8th Twilight Zone, even net neutrality.

Plus, this guy is whip smart, does all the homework, and makes it his raison d’etre to skewer ill-prepared, uninformed, or lying witnesses who come before him in committee. Exhibit A: Betsy DeVos.

Among many plum anecdotes, my favorite moment is when Franken suggests to Chuck Grassley that he smile more. If only he’d said it on the floor of the Senate.

But nothing beats the flat-out fun of the Ted Cruz chapter, entitled “Sophistry.” Bully for Franken for making it clear that, however disastrous things may seem right now, Cruz will never be a more acceptable answer.

Franken is at his most affecting when he focuses on stories about the people he knows, cares about, and represents. Certainly, he seems sincere in wanting the best for the people he represents. Come 2020, America, that could be you.

Book Review: G-Man

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 23 June 2017.

Bob Lee Swagger is getting older these days. It’s to be expected, of course, given that we’ve known him now for almost 25 years, ever since meeting him in Point of Impact (possibly better known to folks by its movie title, “Shooter”).

In this 10th in Stephen Hunter’s popular series, Bob is now 71 and taking inventory of the many ways his body is starting to betray him. Puttering around his Idaho homestead, he obviously needs a project. One lands in his lap when he hears about the strongbox that’s been unearthed on his family’s old place back in Arkansas.

The contents obliquely point to Bob’s enigmatic grandfather, Charles, but present a puzzle. In part, the box holds an old-but-mint-condition gun, an uncirculated $1,000 bill, an apparent treasure map, and a badge from the Division of Investigation — the short-lived name for what soon became the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It was only called the Division for a single year, in 1934.

That year was both formative and legendary for the brand-new federal organization. In the teeth of the Depression, notorious bank robbers were using jurisdictional boundaries to evade local law enforcement, which demanded the use of a new federal force charged with the pursuit of these public enemies across all borders, to capture or kill.

A small problem, though: “Our Director…envisioned a scientific national police force, incorruptible, untainted by ego, vanity, and politics. Alas, as we have learned, that also meant untainted by experience, toughness, cunning, and marksmanship. Lawyers make poor gunfighters.”

Enter Sheriff Charles Swagger, steel-willed marksman who has already made his chops in battle during the Great War and by singlehandedly taking out three bad guys in a gunfight earlier in his career. Charles is a no-nonsense man who keeps a low profile, and G-Man inserts him into the ambush that killed Bonnie and Clyde in May 1934.

His desire to stay out of the papers puts Charles on the radar of the Division, which — after a disastrous gun battle with John Dillinger’s gang at Little Bohemia that April — understands it is in desperate need of men who know how to shoot.

Shooting, of course, is what the Swagger men know how to do. Bob grasps this well, though he never knew his grandfather, or even very much about him, since his own beloved father Leon never talked about him.

Bob finds the thought of Charles vaguely frightening; the one thing he does know is that his grandfather ended up a hopeless drunk. But the strongbox is a direct link to the man, and, really, who could resist trying to solve this mystery?

Hunter has some fun with the structure of the story, which follows three primary characters: Bob in the present sleuthing through scant clues to piece together what happened with his grandfather in 1934; Charles as he joins Melvin Purvis and Sam Cowley in the manhunt for Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, and the rest; and Lester Gillis himself — devoted husband and father, and gun-crazy killer, who usually punched or shot anyone who dared to call him Baby Face, a nickname he despised.

Those three characters, along with their author, share an appreciation for well-made firepower, and parts of the book read like a dreamy-eyed love letter to the massive, manly guns of old — a Thompson machine gun with a full drum weighed something like 50 pounds — and readers are treated to an apprenticeship in gun-smithing and craft.

For the Swaggers, they find beauty in the precision engineering and craftsmanship, joy in the working of the instrument. For Les, holding a gun simply brings on a blood fever to use it. He is the most dangerous man among the outlaws.

Bob is a fascinating guy, but his detective work — and his being trailed by two nasty fellows who want what he’s got — can’t compete with our experience of riding shotgun with both the G-Men and the gangsters, which is where the story sizzles.

Our interest in the present is further hindered by the fact that we end up knowing far more than Bob does about what went on with Charles, so we can feel a little smug as we sit back and watch him try to piece it together.

Ultimately, there is something unsatisfying in how Bob finally learns the full story, on top of which we know he doesn’t learn the full story. Bob never gets to know Charles the way that we do — his principles and moral code, the high standards that drove him and the demons that plagued him. Only Charles knew that, and he wasn’t talking.

Perhaps, though, that unfinished business lays the groundwork for the next Bob Lee Swagger story. After all, there’s still plenty of Swagger left.

A Reader’s Reader

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
                                                          —Jorge Luis Borges

The following column originally appeared in Late Last Night Books on 20 May 2017.

Tom Shroder, Jenny Yacovissi, and Michael Dirda at the 2017 Washington Writers Conference.

I had the distinct pleasure recently of being on a panel at the Washington Writers Conference with Tom Shroder—author, ghostwriter, journalist, and long-time editor of the Washington Post Magazine—and Michael Dirda, even longer-time book critic at the Washington Post and elsewhere. We were discussing the fuzzy lines that separate memoir, family history, and fiction.

As part of preparing for the panel, I read two of Michael’s several books: his most recent, Browsings, and his memoir of the first third of his life through college, An Open Book.

One thing that both books drove home for me is what a sweeping diversity of books Dirda reads and loves. You will not find a more erudite critic of the highest of high-brow literature, and yet he is an unapologetic fan of sci-fi, horror, and other sub-genres of pulp fiction. He is a walking object lesson in the value of having wide, all-embracing tastes in reading.

An Open Book ripples out from a central image of toddler Michael crawling into his mother’s lap as she sat on the floor each night to read to him, and expands in concentric circles from home to neighborhood to city and beyond. What I loved most about the memoir was how closely he was able to map favorite, memorable books to when he discovered them, practically year by year, and describe what they meant to him then and now, as though he had just read them. In some cases, he had just read them, because not only is he a prolific reader, he’s a prolific re-reader.

For someone like me, who thinks she reads a lot, attempting to comprehend the breadth of Dirda’s lifetime of reading is humbling. (As I said during our panel session, “I read Michael Dirda when I have delusions of adequacy, and that snaps me right out of it.”) At the end of the book, he includes two lists of the “major” books he’d read by age sixteen and by the end of high school—meaning not including the dime-store stuff—many of which I still have never read.

But reviewing those lists did prompt me to think about the books that forged my love of reading. Those early ones were T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley, A. J. Cronin’s The Keys of the Kingdom, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (and, yes, I fell in love with the wildly politically incorrect Mr. Rochester), Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Jamaica Inn. I loved Greek mythology, and I’m pretty certain that I had read The Illiad and The Odyssey by early high school. Memorizing poetry was a favorite pastime, and I remember reciting Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” for my sixth grade class. (They didn’t appreciate that nearly as much as when I recited the well-known limerick about the pelican, after which the teacher told me to sit down. I said, “But I’m not done,” and she replied, “Oh, yes, you are.”)

Dirda recounts how it bothered his hard-working, mechanically inclined father that his one son was such a bookworm. These days we tend to worry that kids aren’t reading enough, given all the electronic competition and our decreasing attention spans. Yet I just spent all of today at the magnificent Gaithersburg Book Festival, where each year the children’s authors are mobbed. Watching that recurring scene—children clutching books in their arms, dancing a little in line as their excitement threatens to spew like over-carbonated soda—always makes me hopeful that we continue to raise generations of avid readers.

I’m with them. Reading both An Open Book and Browsings made me eager to double-down on my reading intake, though with a full-time job and lots of other commitments, it’s hard to see where it fits in. I know I’ll never catch up to Michael Dirda’s reading accomplishments, but I can certainly give them a run for the money.

A friend of mine once observed of me, sadly, that she worries that I’ll end up as a hermit, shut into my house and surrounded by nothing but books. I’m sure I got a dreamy look about me as I sighed and said, “And that’s how I’ll know I’m in heaven.”

Happy reading!