Tag Archives: book review

Historical Novels Review Spring 2017 Issue

The following reviews originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of the Historical Novels Review, published by the Historical Novel Society.

LILLI DE JONG, Janet Benton, Doubleday/Nan A. Talese

In her debut novel, Janet Benton believably imagines the speed with which a young woman’s life can change from safe, happy, and privileged to miserable and outcast. The titular character, Lilli de Jong, lives with her Quaker parents and younger brother in late 19th-century Philadelphia. But then her mother dies, a relative sweeps in to usurp her mother’s place beside her weak-willed father, and a young man staying with the family seduces Lilli before leaving to seek his fortune in Pittsburgh, taking Lilli’s brother with him. When Lilli’s black-hearted stepmother discovers her burgeoning pregnancy, Lilli finds herself homeless.

Benton has Lilli relate her story by writing in a series of notebooks, a technique that allows the main character to reflect on ideas and events in ways that would have been difficult in a straight narrative. On the other hand, as Lilli’s circumstances become increasingly fraught, it’s hard to imagine her having the time or inclination to scribble out pages and pages of observations and events—with dialogue—as she attempts to find food, fend off villains, and care for her infant daughter.

To Benton’s credit, she doesn’t render caricatures of either good or evil. The headmistress of the Haven for Women and Infants is severe and exacting, but she is also dedicated to giving the young women in her charge the second chance that society is unwilling to grant. Lilli’s aloof employer, Clementina, is a talented musician who has been forced by convention into matrimony and motherhood; her disappointment makes her bitter and even cruel, but not inhuman. The same cannot be said for the rigid culture that dismisses the human dignity of those at its fringes.

MISS TREADWAY AND THE FIELD OF STARS, Miranda Emmerson, Harper/4th Estate

In 1965 London, successful American actress Iolanthe (Lanny) Green walks out of the theatre where she had been starring and disappears. Lanny’s dresser, Anna Treadway—unemployed when the starless show shuts down—feels compelled to search for the woman she soon realizes she doesn’t know very well.

Anna ignores repeated warnings to stay out of the investigation by the detective assigned to the case, Barnaby Hayes, a tightly disciplined Irishman whose real name is Brennan. She finds a lead through Aloysius, a Jamaican accountant, who joins Anna in the pursuit.

Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars is a consideration of identity: of the intentional and unintentional reinvention of identity, of the identity we project out to the world compared to the one we live with inside ourselves, and of how the world perceives us compared to how we imagine we’re perceived. This point is underlined when Aloysius suffers a beating by police and is coldly leveraged into becoming an informant, despite having committed no crime. “He realized now that the man he had become inside his head was far whiter and more handsome than the outer Aloysius… would never have been beaten… would never have had the experience of handcuffs.”

It also explores how often we disappoint ourselves and those around us for not being who we—or they—thought we were or ought to be. The most poignant example is Brennan’s relationship with his wife Orla, which is so filled with mutual disappointment they are incapable of speaking to each other.

In some ways, Lanny is too unevenly drawn to be entirely believable, and Anna’s past remains unsatisfyingly oblique, but Emmerson’s debut is a touching, thought-provoking read.

THE CUTTHROAT: AN ISSAC BELL ADVENTURE, Clive Cussler and Justin Scott, Putnam

Pity poor Justin Scott, who’s listed as the co-author of nine of the ten books in Clive Cussler’s Isaac Bell Adventures series. One imagines Clive checking in every so often from his beach chair in St. Tropez to see how Justin is getting along with the latest installment. On the other hand, not everyone gets to be the marquee name.

However the work was portioned out, The Cutthroat represents a rollicking if scarcely believable turn-of-the-20th-century whodunit—or, more precisely, “who keeps doing it?” When the object of his missing person search turns up dead, Isaac Bell—principal investigator at the Van Dorn Detective Agency—promises the wealthy, distraught father that he will find the killer. Since the agency has offices nationwide as well as internationally, and is far better resourced than the police, Bell’s team is able to pursue an emerging pattern of grisly murders across time and geography that point inexorably back to—wait for it—Jack the Ripper. Bell focuses in on a set of suspects in a touring company of the play “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” giving us ample opportunity to ponder the good-versus-evil struggle inside all of us.

The story steams across the county and over the ocean, and squeezes the most out of every bit of technology available to the modern age of 1911. For those of us not familiar with Books 1-9, there’s a handy “Who’s Who” at the front that dispenses with backstory. Though it strains credulity that the perpetrator—given his “day job”—could have pulled off 20-plus years of carnage, it’s a fun, page-turning romp.

Book Review: Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama

This column originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 9 May 2017.

On March 28, 1980, Wisconsin Steel of South Chicago, with zero prior notice, sent its workforce home and locked its gates. In many cases, the people who had labored at the mill their entire working lives — having built a comfortable middle-class life without benefit of a college or even high school degree — never found another job.

Recounting this economic catastrophe is the gripping first chapter in Rising Star, David J. Garrow’s practically day-by-day accounting of the pre-presidential life of Barack Obama.

That opening sets the stage to explain how the Columbia University graduate ended up in Chicago as a community organizer. Before we get there, though, Garrow pulls back into the fascinating pre-history of Obama’s parentage, and then moves forward through his upbringing, education, and gradual migration into politics.

Perhaps there is little here that is entirely new or revelatory; after all, there truly are no skeletons in the Obama closet. Certainly, the voting public heard and read endless reporting on Obama’s background and life story — some of which was even true — during his candidacy and two terms as president, but Garrow goes much deeper, provides far more detail, and connects all the disparate pieces in the detailed step-by-step of what went into, as his subtitle says, The Making of Barack Obama.

At 1,076 pages of narrative and 270 more of notes, this firehose of primary research will be foundational to future Obama biographers, but it is hardly the book for casual readers. Like many painstakingly thorough biographers, Garrow appears to have included any fact he uncovered, however tangential it might be. Nonetheless, it is a surprisingly compelling read and should appeal to political junkies and insiders.

Oddly, though, after the meticulous detail that carries the reader through a thousand-plus pages to the moment that Obama announces his candidacy for president, the next nine years are summarily dispatched with in just under 50 pages of an epilogue. The contrast in tone, pacing, and detail is jarring, and the book would have ended more coherently had the author, editor, or publisher decided to lop off the rushed afterthought.

Garrow, after spending nearly a decade on this effort, cannot be accused of harboring undue affection for his subject. The author telegraphs his disdain in ways both large and small, and nowhere more so than in that breakneck epilogue, which offers not only a scathing survey of Obama’s failings in office, but also an assessment of “the tragedy of Barack Obama.”

There is much to parse through, but it does sometimes seem that Garrow’s analysis strains in a molehill-to-mountain attempt to illustrate what he sees as Obama’s central lack of character or moral compass.

And yet: Here is a dark-skinned man who was essentially abandoned by his white mother to be raised by his white grandparents in thoroughly multicultural Hawaii, who, as a 10-year-old, met his African father exactly once, and who did not have a single adult black role model, but who entered adulthood in the mainland U.S., where skin color is white society’s sole arbiter of cultural identity.

Given that, how surprising can it be that Obama needed to forge his own identify and essentially will himself into being? Or that, once on a political path, he would carefully curate the image he wished to project and select the pieces of himself to share or to conceal?

More particularly, Obama’s political career was established and honed in what is certainly in the top handful of notoriously corrupt political systems in the U.S., and still he came out on the other side pretty clean.

To be sure, the portrait that emerges of Obama may be disappointing for his staunch supporters, if only in that it shows that he is not a paragon — though it’s hard to imagine what adult could withstand this level of scrutiny and remain admirable. Obama demonstrates himself to be thin-skinned and prickly, distant and aloof, superior and dismissive. He showed a disheartening penchant for leaving behind without a backward glance people who often worked harder than he did to get himself elected to statewide and national office.

The primary issue, though, seems to be his inability to keep to the right side of the point at which political pragmatism shifts from being a refreshingly balanced, bipartisan give-and-take to becoming a spineless or expedient sacrifice of principles.

There are many examples showing Obama’s willingness to thoroughly explore and listen to all sides of any issue, and to cogently argue positions that he was personally against. When the Democrats finally won the Illinois congressional majority while Obama was a state senator, and while he was preparing for his U.S. Senate run, he worked closely with Illinois law enforcement to address their concerns over his bill to videotape all police interrogations in possible capital cases. He didn’t need to, but doing so won the bill universal and enthusiastic support from all its constituencies, and burnished his reputation as a uniting figure.

As he moved up in political visibility, though, he became far more concerned about optics. Again during his run for U.S. Senate, he voted “present” (basically a “no” vote) on a bill he had co-sponsored, because he was attempting to garner an endorsement from the labor union on the losing end of that bill. Both winning and losing unions were furious at him — though eventually he got both endorsements.

More problematically, in that same timeframe, he let go of one of his longtime loyal staffers because she was a headscarf-wearing member of the Nation of Islam and he felt he couldn’t afford that association — and this was long before the Obama-as-Muslim firestorm.

The “tragedy” of Obama, if there is one, perhaps lies in his premature rise to national celebrity when he could have benefited from a longer period of political seasoning. From his days as a community organizer and with each race he ran, Obama said that he was searching for the spot from which he could truly make good, lasting things happen for regular folks.

And now here he is: a young, charismatic former president who never needs to run for office again. Perhaps with that freedom and national platform, he can prove his sincerity by returning to his roots as a community organizer and rallying a newly energized national community to make good, lasting things happen.

Book Review: At the Edge of the World: The Heroic Century of the French Foreign Legion

This column originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 4 April 2017.

It’s an enduring if hoary image: With a steely eyed, thousand-yard stare, a man stands alone at the edge of a vast desert, rifle in hand, sun-bleached kepi hat casting a shadow across his rough-hewn visage. Perhaps he is replaying for himself the missteps in life that brought him here, for he is society’s outcast, a man without a country: He is a soldier of the French Foreign Legion.

If this were a scene in any of the dozens of cinematic treatments of the legion, at this point the camera might pan wide (as the music swells) so the audience sees the battalion of brave legionnaires arrayed behind our lone antihero, as a line of Arabian horsemen crests the sand dune and charges.

Author Jean-Vincent Blanchard dissects the facts and fiction behind the legendary outfit in this wide-ranging, heavily researched discussion of the history, culture, defining characteristics, and raison d’être of the French Foreign Legion.

In many ways, this is a biography of one of the primary sculptors of the legion’s character, General Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey, who spent much of his army career in command of legion forces and was a principal architect of its longstanding presence — first in Vietnam and later in Morocco — in support of French colonial expansion.

The legion was born in 1831 when France found itself with a surfeit of unemployed immigrants and a nascent colonial enterprise in Algeria. Forming army regiments out of idle foreigners solved two problems: It gave those people jobs to keep them out of trouble, and it allowed France to avoid the political fallout of sending its citizens overseas to fight and die.

After Napoleon III’s disastrous war with Prussia in 1870, a sharp division solidified between the legion, as France’s force for colonization, and the homeland army, whose French citizenry stayed put to protect the borders from further German incursion.

In Algeria in 1841, Governor-General Robert Bugeaud gave the legion its first dose of true military discipline and leadership, as well as its first decisive victories over an entrenched foe, the Emir Abdelkader. At the same time, though, he introduced them to brutal, scorched-earth warfare. It was here that the strong bonds of legion tradition first took hold. Men likened joining the legion to joining a monastery, with less religion and more blood.

Enter Lyautey. A true believer in the value of French colonialism, he wanted to conquer by demonstrating the benefits of French civilization, to encourage Francophilia through a method dubbed tache d’huile, “oil slick”: a persistent, pervasive spreading of France’s culture in all the places it touched. The men of the legion included engineers, craftsmen, and artisans who could be put to use in infrastructure improvement and building projects in between pitched battles.

For a man of his time, Lyautey could be considered enlightened, since he had honest respect for Arab and Islamic traditions, and his protection of those traditions won him a measure of favor with Moroccans.

He was equally popular with the legionnaires he commanded, since he also treated them with an evenhandedness and respect that was otherwise often in short supply. He shared with them their tendency toward periods of dark brooding called le cafard — the cockroach — that burrowed into a legionnaire’s brain during long, lonely nights in the jungle or desert. In sympathy, he forgave them their hard drinking and carousing, knowing that a cry, anywhere, of “la legion!” would summon every legionnaire within hearing distance, no questions asked.

Still, for all the bonds of loyalty and brotherhood that made this a fighting force to be reckoned with, it is hard to square the activities of the legion with anything that can remotely be termed “heroic.”

Perhaps Lyautey viewed other cultures with some measure of respect, but he certainly led his share of slaughter at the pointy end of colonization. And despite the theory of a civilizing oil slick, the indigenous populations were never given to share in the riches of the folks who crashed in, guns blazing, to set up shop and milk the surrounding lands for the greater glory of France.

As Camille Pelletan noted in 1885, “We are told that we have this imperious need, as men of a superior race, to go about civilizing the barbarians of the world with cannonballs. If we asked those barbarians, I think they’d be just fine being left alone.”

In response to a comment that “superior races have a right with regard to inferior races,” Georges Clemenceau pointed out that the Germans resorted to much the same argument, since they believed the French were inferior to Germans.

(Ironically, Germans had long been favored recruits for the legion, even after the ugly 1870 war. Many of the best troops were thought to be from Alsace-Lorraine because they had French affiliation but were of Germanic build.)

It’s not as though the French were in any way unique among European and New World powers in their quest for colonial expansion, but it’s always interesting to pull the thread of historical cause and eventual effect. For example, the legion left its Algerian headquarters of Sidi Bel Abbès in 1962 after losing the fierce battle against Algeria’s independence.

Blanchard notes that “one of the most ardent fighters against the Algerians was a former legionnaire named Jean-Marie Le Pen.” He, of course, is the father of ardent French nationalist and current presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. Perhaps she can find some Algerians or Moroccans to commiserate with her over her abiding sense that her homeland is being overrun by uninvited newcomers.

Book Review: Dark at the Crossing

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on March 6, 2017

Author Elliot Ackerman is uniquely qualified to write about his chosen subjects, the ongoing and apparently unending conflicts in the Middle East in which the U.S. is embroiled and often foments. A scholar-soldier, Ackerman was a White House fellow as well as a Marine who served five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has covered the Syrian war from Istanbul since 2013. He has intimate, firsthand knowledge of the human suffering these conflicts cause, and his writing humanizes all participants.

While his acclaimed first novel, Green on Blue, focused on Afghanistan, Dark at the Crossing moves into Syria by way of Iraq. But it moves at first at a leisurely pace, as set in the opening paragraph: “The morning he went off to his second war, Haris Abadi spent twenty minutes in the sauna of the Tuğcan Hotel…Downstairs for a late breakfast, he ate three buttered croissants with jam.” It’s obvious that Haris, an Iraqi, is not a regular soldier reporting for duty; he’s on no one’s clock.

Haris is a naturalized American who earned his citizenship and a Michigan home for himself and his sister when he served as a translator to U.S. troops in Iraq. With his sister getting married and moving to the UAE, Haris — steeped in quiet guilt over his role in the war — searches for a meaningful cause. He is recruited online by shadowy Saladin1984 to join the Syrian Free Army and fight for the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime.

Thus, when we first encounter him, Haris is making his way to the Turkish border to cross into Syria and meet up with his contact, who has suddenly gone silent. At the closed border, he’s immediately rebuffed. From there on, Crossing simply follows Haris in his dogged attempts to get into Syria. His determination holds in the face of repeated reminders that the Free Army is almost defeated, though not by Assad.

For his American readers who tend to think in the stark terms of good guys and bad guys, Ackerman makes clear the tangled, shifting lines in the war. The Free Army’s popular revolution seeks to overthrow the Assad regime and establish a free and democratic Syria. Another group, the Daesh (the pronunciation of the Arabic acronym), is also attempting to overthrow Assad, but for a different purpose: to establish the Islamic State in Syria. The Daesh spends as much time fighting the Free Army as it does the regime, and its tactics are brutal and unforgiving.

One of the first Syrians Haris meets is Saied, who bears a fresh scar down the length of his torso, but also old wounds: He’s missing the tips of his index fingers. “The Daesh did this…To pray, they believe one needs fingers to point toward Mecca. If you don’t believe, you are lost to them. They will disfigure your body in the same way they think your soul is already disfigured.”

With Saied is Athid, slightly older and treated with deference by the Syrians around them. (“Among religious men, he is known for his piety,” Saied observes cryptically.) Athid offers to help Haris sneak across the border. When that attempt ends in betrayal, Haris is temporarily stymied, but then meets Amir and his wife, Daphne, who is even more determined than Haris to cross into Syria, from which she and her husband have only recently come.

The guilt that Haris, Amir, and Daphne each carry for good intentions with bad outcomes suffuses the story, keeping them isolated from each other and locked in a silent wrestling match with their own demons. Haris and Daphne’s single-minded pursuit of a futile objective makes them seem almost lacking in free will, as though they are forced by fate onto this path; at the same time, their determination makes Amir — whose refusal to participate should paint him as the sane one — seem cowardly.

The Americans in this story aren’t evil, but still leave destruction in their wake. When Amir says that Marty, a clueless American dilettante who runs a research firm holding fat U.S. government contracts, is a good guy, Daphne snaps, “Do good guys make money on bad wars?”

Jim, the battle-hardened professional warrior with whom Haris worked as an interpreter in Iraq, is incapable of compassion for the people whose country he and his fellow soldiers are ravaging. After smashing into a house and nearly breaking the arm of a young man in order to get his grandmother to admit where her husband is, Jim turns to Haris. “‘Tell them they’re free to go’…This is their house, thought Haris. Free to go where?”

This is a tightly packed, nuanced narrative in which virtually every character introduced plays a pivotal role. The story is told with economy and a sense of urgency even when the characters seem to be stuck in a holding pattern. That waiting ratchets up the tension, and it’s hard to see how this can end well.

Of course, that is the larger question that Ackerman is exploring here: What might constitute “success” under these circumstances? The real-life civilians of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria haven’t seen anything yet that looks much like success in these ongoing conflicts. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as though the author will be running low on source material anytime soon.

Toward Compassion

This posting originally appeared in the blog Late Last Night Books on January 20, 2017.

Words matter. It would be surprising if I as a writer didn’t believe that, since words are my entire stock in trade. Words have meaning. A shared understanding of the meaning of words is what allows us to communicate and function as a society. Words have shades of meaning, too—nuance—and understanding that nuance allows us all to send and receive exactly the message that’s intended.

There are roughly 130,000 words in the English language. It’s said that Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of 54,000 words, which was not out of the ordinary for an educated man of his time. In comparison, modern Americans have a working vocabulary of about 3,000 words. As we continue to pare back our words, nuance is lost. Shades of meaning are jettisoned, the subtle distinctions sacrificed, pounded out into the blunt instrument of whatever fits into 140 characters.

Words affect us. We may teach our children, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” as a lesson in resilience and the mature ability to walk away and elect not to engage, but we also know the power of words to hurt, as well as to heal. Certainly, we expect the leaders of our country, our shared community, to understand that fundamental truth and act accordingly.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit in the last year, and wildly more so since early November. Because I knew that I would be posting this essay today, I selected a few books to read that seemed to cut to the heart of the things that keep me awake at night.

It’s rare for a scholarly book of non-fiction to generate so much attention, but Paul Bloom hit a nerve with his 2016 book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. I know I did a double-take when I saw a quick synopsis of the book, which is basically that having empathy doesn’t make you a better person. Since I’m one of those people who believes that a lack of empathy leads us to parochial and isolationist views of the world, an us-against-them mentality that rarely leads to positive outcomes, I was intrigued to read his argument.

Bloom takes pains to clearly define what he means by empathy, because, in fact, words matter. Definitions matter. To make his argument effectively, he needs his readers to share the understanding of the word as he is using it. Here, the empathy that Bloom argues against is “the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does.”

He argues that for people who truly want to work toward a better world for all—and he’s a big proponent of that—relying on empathy is a bad plan. He also argues against the concept that empathy is an inherently moral attribute. Among its other poor qualities, empathy leads to tunnel vision and poor decision-making, and, frankly, it’s too exhausting to be sustainable.

He does make a strong case for “rational compassion” as the better guide for long-term investment in the world and people around us. (And it turns out that I’m more of a “cognitive empathy” person anyway, and Bloom isn’t against that kind of empathy.) The point is to engage with your world in a thoughtful, informed way that allows you to sustain that engagement over the long haul.

Next on my reading list was a completely serendipitous find, one that served as a companion piece to Bloom’s. Each Christmas, a friend of mine gives me a random book chosen because of its snarky or cynical title, knowing that it will speak to me. This year, he gave me a book the title of which is unprintable, but which neatly rhymes with glassbowls, so that’s how we’ll refer to it here.

Author Aaron James is a philosopher with a PhD from Harvard and some pretty serious publications to his credit. Despite its edgy title and the fact that James was inspired to write this 2012 book based on his experiences in international surfing, Glassbowls is even more scholarly than Bloom’s book. The two authors quote many of the same people, such as cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker, and reference the same research.

As with Bloom, James spends time defining his chosen term. There are specific nuances in definition that separate his subject from any run-of-the-mill jerk or douchebag: “he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.”

In short, the glassbowl feels a moral justification for behaving as he does, so it’s easy for him to dismiss any bellyaching from the rabble. He’s the guy for whom the rules do not apply. Those rules are for the rest of us. The reason he makes the rest of us so angry is his staunch refusal on a moral level to recognize us as his equal.

Because these guys constantly break accepted guidelines of cooperative social conduct, James explores what happens when we have an excess of glassbowls, all going around breaking the shared social contract and refusing to cooperate. It’s not good.

Last is a book that has been on my To Be Read stack for close to two years. Quoted repeatedly in Bloom’s book, The Empathy Exams is Leslie Jamison’s 2014 collection of essays, and, like Against Empathy, was another unlikely bestseller. Jamison is well worth reading any time, but for me, I most appreciated the balance she brought as something of a counterpoint to Bloom.

Jamison acknowledges that she isn’t always looking for empathy in her doctors; she needs a calm, reassuring practitioner when she is riddled with anxiety, and a focused trauma surgeon who can stop the bleeding without attempting to feel what she is feeling. But many of her wide-ranging topics—such as serving as the support person for a runner in an ultra extreme race that few complete, visiting an acquaintance in prison, and participating in the annual conference of a support group for an ailment the medical community doesn’t recognize—illustrate the value of pushing outside the bounds of our natural impulse toward self-absorption.

Yes, words matter, but in this case—whether we call it empathy or rational compassion or simply a desire not to be a glassbowl—what matters is grasping in a substantive way that our experience of the world is not everyone else’s experience, and it’s worth our efforts to try to get a sense of, to comprehend, those other experiences. It expands our limited horizons, and strengthens what sometimes feels like a fragile social contract.

Words do matter, though, and when they are used like weapons to demonize and diminish, to draw lines between us and them, we all lose something. Our social fabric unravels just that much more.

I mentioned that Steven Pinker was quoted in two of these three books. Pinker is a words guy. He wrote The Language Instinct, Words and Rules, and The Stuff of Thought. His 2014 book is something of a “Strunk and White” for the 21st century, called The Sense of Style. When he signed a copy for me, I told him I was surprised he agreed that eager and anxious have become acceptably synonymous, since it’s impossible to separate anxious from its root in anxiety.

From my perspective, that’s not just nuance, that’s a basic difference in definition. Today offers a perfect example. Today, 20 January 2017, many people are eager, and many other people are anxious. Today, no one could confuse the two.

Jenny’s Year in Reading, 2016

I know lots of readers make this a habit, and Goodreads actively encourages it, but this is the first time I’ve ever attempted to capture every book I’ve read during the year. And, sure, it would have been significantly easier if I’d simply noted each one as I read it, but scrambling to reconstitute the list on the last day of the year is so much more fun. Plus, I’m always amazed at the publications that put out their “Best of” lists way back in November or early December. What? I only just finished reading The Nix this morning!

Did I discover anything this year? I continue to be amazed at how many debut novelists show up as fully formed authors in thorough command of their voice. On the other hand, multi-published authors seem to suffer from an unwillingness by someone in authority to edit them. Also, I seem to read lots of relatively obscure books.

I’ve linked to any reviews I’ve written of the books listed, and I only noted the year if it came out before 2016.

My favorite book that should have gotten far more attention: They Were Like Family to Me by Helen Maryles Shankman (Scribner, 285 pp.) was originally titled In the Land of Armadillos. Changing the title could not have helped with marketing (though I guess my copy is now a collector’s item) but, under any name, it’s a set of beautifully interconnected short stories that left me a little shell-shocked and tingly, but in an entirely good way.

Other Stand-out Favorites:


Debut Novels:

  • Amour Provence, Constance Leisure, Simon & Schuster, 257 pp.
  • The Girls, Emma Cline, Random House, 355 pp.
  • Grief is The Thing with Feathers, Max Porter, Graywolf Press, 114 pp.
  • The Guineveres, Sarah Domet, Flatiron Books, 352 pp.
  • Here Comes the Sun, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Liveright, 345 pp.
  • Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi, Knopf, 305 pp.
  • Hystopia, David Means, FSG, 320 pp.
  • The Mothers, Brit Bennett, Riverhead Books, 275 pp.
  • The Nix, Nathan Hill, Knopf, 620 pp.
  • Surface and Shadow, Sally Whitney, Pen-L Publishing, 303 pp.
  • The Translation of Love, Lynne Kutsukake, Scribner, 336 pp.

Short Story Collections:



Books from previous years that I finally read:

  • Andersonville, MacKinlay Kantor, The World Publishing Company, 1955, 767 pp.
  • The Color of Water, James McBride, Riverhead Books, 2006, 295 pp.
  • Crabtown, USA, Rafael Alvarez, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, 2015, 441 pp.
  • From Watergate to Hugo Chavez: An Ex-Diplomat’s Memoirs, Gonzalo T. Palacios, AuthorHouse, 2009, 132 pp.
  • The Good Lord Bird, James McBride, Riverhead Books, 2014, 480 pp.
  • The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver, Harper Perennial, 2010, 507 pp.
  • Old Souls, Tom Shroder, Simon & Schuster, 1999, 253 pp
  • A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler, Knopf, 2015, 358 pp.
  • The Tide King, Jen Michalski, Black Lawrence Press, 2013, 361 pp.

Audiobook (+ print):

The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, Adam Tooze, Viking, 2014, 644 pp. The sweeping breadth and fully coherent depth of this book is staggering, and I found listening to the audiobook invaluable to my overall retention and comprehension of the material that Professor Tooze weaves together seamlessly. At the same time, I loved having the hardcover, which I used to re-read passages and chapters I had heard on DVD.

Hands-down biggest disappointment:

Barkskins, Annie Proulx, Scribner, 736 pp. In addition to my review of this book, I wrote a blog entry about it called “When Your Favorite Author Breaks Your Heart”.

Wishing everyone a safe, happy, and reading-filled 2017!

Book Review: The Bowl with Gold Seams

This review originally appeared in Late Last Night Books on 20 November 2016.

I’ve written frequently about my admiration for small-press publishing, folks who are driven more by their love of the written word than by any expectation of making a commercial killing. It’s that willingness to simply go with what they love that leads many small presses to build impressive catalogs of work by authors of remarkable talent. This month I’m highlighting another example of this marriage of small press to big talent.

I originally heard about Ellen Prentiss Campbell from several sources almost simultaneously, one of which was our shared publisher. As small presses go, publishers don’t come much smaller than Apprentice House Press, run out of Loyola University. Of unique note, though, Apprentice House is both non-profit and student-run. Students learn by doing; authors get unparalleled input into the creative process behind bringing a traditionally published work into print. What is perhaps most remarkable is that the students work as a team to choose the projects for which they’d like to offer a contract. Kudos for their selection of Ellen’s novel.

THE BOWL WITH GOLD SEAMS, Ellen Prentiss Campbell, Apprentice House, 2015, 221 pp.

“What is broken is also beautiful.” This is the lesson taught by kintsugi, a Japanese ceramic art form in which objects are purposely broken and then mended with golden joinery, thereby making them even more beautiful and more valuable.

In Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s gorgeous, quietly nuanced debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, it is time and experience that combine to mend that which has been broken in the main characters.

The novel’s basis is a brief footnote in World War II history. When they rolled into Berlin, the Americans captured Japan’s ambassador to Germany and his retinue as they attempted to flee. Close advisor to Hitler, Hiroshi Oshima was considered valuable bargaining collateral in negotiating for release of American POWs as the war in the Pacific dragged on. The entire captured embassy staff and their families were taken to the U.S. and interred at the already-historic Bedford Springs Hotel in tiny Bedford, Pennsylvania.

Campbell’s approach to relating this story is intriguing, with a long prologue and epilogue in the story’s present day that bookend the main story of young Hazel Miller, raised as a Quaker by her father in Bedford between the wars. He runs the town’s jail according to Quaker principles, instilling in Hazel the concept that “people can do bad things without being bad people.”

She and Neal Shaw find each other on the first day of school; after graduation, they marry just before he ships out for the Pacific. Almost immediately, he is listed as missing in action. When it’s announced that the ambassador and staff will be held at the hotel, Hazel decides to take a job there. She finds herself intrigued by the Harada family: Japanese Takeo, reserved, severe, and as beautiful as a marble sculpture; his statuesque, high-strung, and musically talented British wife Gwendolyn, and their lonely thirteen-year-old daughter Charlotte who is trapped between two worlds.

With spare language and a clear-eyed approach to exploring difficult themes, Bowl packs an emotional punch. Characters are flawed and human, and the author avoids caricatures of virtue or villainy. The anger and suspicion of the locals at having the Japanese among them is palpable, and understandable given the still-active fighting and recent horrors of Bataan. Hazel starts out wondering how she will be able to tell these exotic-looking foreigners apart, but quickly learns to see and treat them as individuals.

In particular, she takes Charlotte under her wing, despite Takeo’s initial disapproval. He’s concerned that his daughter’s mixed heritage makes her stand out too much already, and wants to protect her from being “the nail that sticks out” and therefore “gets pounded back in.” But Hazel is drawn to Charlotte, the product of two warring parents who belong to two warring countries. Hazel comes to grasp the natural affinity between the Quaker and Asian philosophies of finding beauty in simplicity, and in using stillness and shared silence as a tool for divining a path forward.

In the prologue, Hazel and Charlotte are brought together again through Hazel’s position as the head of a Quaker school, just as the school is hit with a crisis that places Hazel at odds with the school’s board in discerning the best path for all concerned. She and Charlotte decide to visit Bedford Springs together and face their shared past, even as Hazel understands that she’ll need to confront the outcome of choices she has made.

The Bowl with Gold Seams is a reminder that first recognizing and then choosing the right path is a life-long effort that takes courage and a willingness to learn from earlier failures, to work actively to heal what is broken. The seams may show, but there is beauty in that, too.

Book Review: The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 9 November 2016.


The title of this book could have been The Most Famous Writer You’ve Never Heard Of, but irony is probably the more effective strategy. Like me, there will be others who will pick it up thinking, “Okay, I’ll bite. Who is the most famous writer who ever lived?” followed immediately by, “Who [the heck] is MacKinlay Kantor?”

Herman Wouk, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner: these are the Pulitzer Prize-winning authors immediately preceding Kantor’s award in 1956 for his seminal Civil War novel, Andersonville, about the notorious Confederate prisoner-of-war camp.

Here was a writer with a 30+ year career, more than 40 books, and innumerable stories to his credit; a Medal of Freedom recipient who, as a war correspondent, documented the liberation of Buchenwald; and the toast of the literary world for years. What caused Kantor to fall so completely off the literary map?

His grandson Tom Shroder sets out to answer that question in this new biography/memoir. Shroder is best known to Washingtonians as the longtime editor of the Washington Post Magazine, where his behind-the-scenes stewardship left an indelible mark. (As one example, he encouraged the late, great Richard Thompson to create a comic strip; the result was the sublime “Cul de Sac.”)

The author of several nonfiction books and editor of many others, Shroder has been a writer his entire career. Yet his own grandfather’s writing career was of no particular interest to him until he started this book project. By his own admission, Shroder had previously read none of the Kantor oeuvre — despite owning signed first editions — and paid scant attention to his own family history until many of its original witnesses had died.

“If only I could ask my mother,” he notes wistfully more than once, and kicks himself over his tardy interest.

Thus, despite having spent significant time with his grandfather, Shroder needed to answer the question, “Who was MacKinlay Kantor?” as much for himself as for us. The book is something of a detective story, with the author sleuthing out the details of his once-famous relative’s public and private life, in many cases drawing parallels to his own.

Benjamin McKinlay Kantor was born in Webster City, Iowa, in 1904. That first name never stuck, and he later changed the spelling of his middle name to make it seem more Scottish. He was known to all as Mack.

His mother, a strong, intelligent woman named Effie McKinlay Kantor, was unaccountably drawn once and forever to a charming, handsome, self-absorbed con artist, John Kantor, who bilked many people out of their life savings, forced Effie’s father to cover his early bad debts, and apparently enjoyed toying with his children’s emotions.

Amazingly, it was Kantor who divorced Effie, leaving her as a single mother to Mack and his older sister, Virginia. The three lived through many painfully lean years. Mack got his start as a writer when Effie was offered a job as editor of the Webster City Daily News, and she brought her 17-year-old son on board with her. Together, they wrote the entire paper every day.

As a young married man, Mack suffered more years of grinding poverty along with his wife, Irene Layne, and their kids, Layne (Shroder’s mother) and Tim, even after Mack became a published novelist.

His first big-ticket novel was the Civil War story Long Remember, and it finally pulled the family out of the poorhouse. In addition to his biggest artistic and commercial success, Andersonville, which came when he was 50, his novel Glory for Me — improbably written in blank verse — was the basis for the movie “The Best Years of Our Lives,” considered one of the finest films ever made.

It’s hard to point to where Kantor began his slide into becoming a bombastic, overbearing alcoholic who spent money like it was water. Shroder describes his own early fascination with the limos and fawning waiters that surrounded any New York outing with Mack, but which were leavened by the embarrassment of the loud, ugly public scenes that inevitably resulted after his grandfather consumed too many cocktails.

Shroder weaves together a fascinating portrait through the use of family lore, boots-on-the-ground investigative journalism, dusty research, and a solid dose of flesh-and-blood familial feeling for his subject and those closest to him.

Some of what he found would have been available to any biographer who had undertaken the effort — most notably, 158 boxes of artifacts in the Library of Congress, which Kantor had painstakingly annotated as part of donating them, at the library’s request. Other details, like so many families’ historical records, had been stored for years in various basements, unexplored and always one move or sewer backup away from the dumpster.

After years of being somewhat dismissive of his grandfather, Shroder was genuinely surprised to grasp just how famous Mack really was. Yes, he truly was buddies with Ernest Hemingway. He held the interest of the cultured and successful writer Peggy Pulitzer — nee Margaret Leech, author of Reveille in Washington — with whom he conducted a long-running affair. He was a bona-fide celebrity.

Sadly, MacKinlay Kantor outlived his success. His writing, always a bit ornate and old-fashioned, fell out of favor, and the paychecks stopped rolling in. He became a walking object lesson in how ephemeral and poisonous fame can be, and in the dangers of believing one’s own press.

It’s still unclear, though, why he seems to have been so thoroughly forgotten. If part of Shroder’s aim in writing this memoir is to resurrect his grandfather’s literary legacy, I’ll gladly report that it worked for me. I’ve now read Andersonville, and plan to go back for more. Thanks to Tom Shroder for re-introducing the world to MacKinlay Kantor.

Book Review: Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 3 November 2016.


Edward Sorel fell in love with Mary Astor while peeling up linoleum in his New York City apartment. The year was 1965, and under the layers he found a trove of newspapers from 1936. He never does say how the new kitchen turned out, but once he started reading those screaming headlines — ASTOR DIARY “ECSTASY,” ASTOR’S BABY TO BE JUDGE — he was hooked on the starlet.

It took the much-lauded cartoonist/caricaturist/illustrator another 50 years to get around to capturing that story in words and his inimitable illustrations. When he finally did, the project expanded beyond the diary scandal to become a more complete biography, Mary Astor’s Purple Diary. (Sorel notes that, oddly, for a pretty big star of Hollywood’s Golden Age, one had not been written on Astor before.) What’s even better is that he peppers Astor’s story with snippets from his own life, which gives the book its relatable center and the reader a two-for-one memoir.

Sorel leads us on a rollicking tour through scads of cads and scandal in Old Hollywood, of which Mary Astor was a packaged, commoditized product. Beginning her career in the silent movies of the 1920s, she had the face of an angel, the diction of a queen, and, apparently, the language of a longshoreman. Born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke in Illinois to a rapacious set of parents who used her as a meal ticket, she got her first movie contract and her new name when she was 14.

By 17, still very much under her parents’ thumb, Mary nonetheless was able to undertake an affair with dashing alcoholic superstar John Barrymore. According to her autobiography, My Story, he was the great love of her life, but her unwillingness to cut ties with her tyrannical parents led him to find a replacement. His memorable break-up line to her: “Dear Goopher, I’m just a son of a bitch.”

Generally, the rest of her men, especially husbands, were no better to her or for her, and often seemed chosen at random. Her lifelong habit of keeping a diary got her into trouble with her second husband, Franklyn Thorpe, a black-hearted gynecologist who thoroughly enjoyed the lifestyle that Mary’s salary purchased, but who treated her with contempt.

When, after their divorce, Mary tried to change the custody terms for their daughter, Marylyn, Thorpe made good on his pre-divorce threat to use her explicit diary as proof she was an unfit mother.

Thus, what should have been a quiet custody hearing turned into a protracted, salacious, media-frenzy of a trial that took place in the evenings to allow Mary to continue to work on the film “Dodsworth.” Thorpe kept leaking purported sections of the diary to the press, many of them fabricated, to feed the frenzy.

Stakes were high for Mary, since Samuel Goldwyn could easily fire her on a morals clause and kill her career. Stakes were equally high for those discussed in the “purple” diary, most notably playwright George S. Kaufman, whose sexual prowess and stamina gave her much to write about. But because of a faulty chain of custody and clear evidence that it had been tampered with, not to mention overwhelming pressure on the judge to bury it, the diary was rendered inadmissible.

The details of the behind-the-scenes machinations of studio bosses and other power-wielding folks like morals boss William Hays are fascinating, while Mary’s continual poor choices in men and career are both maddening and saddening.

But the reason to read this book — in hardcopy form, please — is to enjoy what may be 87-year-old Sorel’s last collection of original artwork. The two-page reclining nude of Mary that graces the book’s end-paper, surrounded as she is by the defining elements of her celebrity, is by itself worth the purchase price.

Book Review: Commonwealth

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 22 September 2016.

COMMONWEALTH: A Novel, Ann Patchett, Harper, 336 pp.

In her fiction, Ann Patchett’s typical launch point is to take an odd collection of people, throw them together in unfamiliar territory, and see what happens. Readers of her autobiographical essays may understand the origin of that impulse given the circumstances of her early years, when she found herself thrown into just such a situation with the unexpected arrival of four stepsiblings, a step-parent, and a new home on the other side of the country.

On diving into Patchett’s latest novel, Commonwealth, readers familiar with her backstory may feel a frisson of having been let in on a secret: This book is grounded in autobiography. Not knowing that will in no way diminish its joys, but understanding the parallels to Patchett’s own story lends an additional dimension, a layering of real and imagined that adds weight and depth to an already strong and lovely story.

The book starts with a significant understatement: “The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.” Bert Cousins of the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office crashes the party that cop Fix Keating and his beautiful wife, Beverly, are throwing to celebrate the baptism of their younger daughter, Franny. Bert, who uses the party to escape a house containing his wife, Teresa, and their 3.5 children, decides in the moment he sees her that Beverly will be his. A kiss given and returned in the midst of the celebration changes all parties’ lives irrevocably.

(As an aside, the first chapter of Commonwealth should be required reading for writers who want to understand how to set up an entire novel in just a few pages.)

Franny, though not a writer, is Patchett’s alter ego: second daughter to a cop and his beautiful wife, dutiful Catholic schoolgirl, and daddy’s girl, who one day finds herself swept across the country with her sister, mother, and new stepfather, and possessed of a troop of stepsiblings who move in for three months every summer.

The experience is painful and bewildering for all the children. They are left to their own devices to wrestle through a situation thrust upon them by self-absorbed adults who are wholly unequal to dealing with the chaos they’ve created. We’ve already observed Bert’s avoidance-based approach to fatherhood. Beverly’s combined unwillingness and inability to rise to the occasion is a disappointment to everyone. The wronged parties left back in L.A., Teresa and Fix, are rendered impotent by distance and their own bewilderment.

Cal, Holly, Jeanette, Albie. Caroline, Franny. Kids wise enough not to hate each other, but still kids — which means partially socialized, lacking impulse control, and fuzzy on concepts of cause and effect — they are in no way ready to look out for their own or each other’s preservation. When tragedy finally strikes, what’s most amazing is that it doesn’t happen sooner.

Years on, a twentysomething Franny, whose future has been mapped out by everyone except her, meets Leo Posen, a washed-up alcoholic author whose transcendent works of fiction are behind him. Because he listens to her — truly listens in a way that no one else ever has — Franny tells him the full story of her family. After changing a few minor details, Posen appropriates it as his own and sells it as fiction, a novel called Commonwealth, which reanimates his mordant career.

Franny understands how she’s betrayed her siblings. “[S]he knew exactly what it was she’d done, how serious and wrong it was to have given away what didn’t belong to her.” Here’s where that meta-level kicks in: Knowing some of Patchett’s own history makes a reader realize that there’s another dimension to consider.

If the question is, “How far from truth must a writer go to get to fiction?” or “Whose story is it to tell?” one can only presume that the author has gotten family dispensation, or perhaps forgiveness, for writing Commonwealth.

Patchett takes an oblique approach to telling the story, starting from the almost-beginning and moving immediately to the almost-ending, and then circling in tighter, drawing ever closer to its heart. Her sharply observed narrative makes the novel laugh-out-loud funny at the same time that it is heartbreaking, maddening, and irresistible.

There is a decidedly different tone and feel to this novel compared to her earlier ones. Patchett is typically pretty tough on her characters; she does not coddle them, much like a grammar-school nun who won’t put up with nonsense and doesn’t want to hear a lot of whining. Here, Patchett is much more tender, as one might expect under the circumstances. These are, after all — after everything — people she loves dearly, and she has shown us why.