Book Reviews

Goodreads reviews of books I’ve read, from most recent to oldest... most in Audible format. By way of explanation, I've also written this foreword.


The Reluctant FundamentalistThe Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A work acquaintance recommended this book, and I’m glad he did. I was surprisingly touched by this coming-of-age story (Changez’ changes), and drawn into its drama and unsettled (and unsettling) ending. With its Eastern roots, the tale reminded me of Queen Scheherazade, telling a story with an inconclusive ending so the king will let her live another night. The writing here is a bit idiosyncratic – a sustained monologue with an eerie undercurrent. It’s thought-provoking, not literary.

Two things of subsequent interest to me: First was the courage of the recommendation, since the pivotal moment in the book is not politically correct – that is, the narrator’s unexpected smile when viewing the news of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Second was the movie version, which I later watched, marveling at its makeover for the American box office. The female lead was Kate Hudson… un-ironically.


No Country for Old MenNo Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With the movie (which I've seen, oh, about a dozen times) making the rounds on cable, I thought, "What about the book?" It doesn't disappoint. McCarthy's book adds context that's merely hinted at in some of the dialog in the movie version. But it's not critical context -- and I'm more impressed than ever by Joel and Ethan Coen's adapted screenplay. Which probably means more to them than the Oscar they received in 2008, I'm sure. There's absolute genius in both what they included and in what they left out. That said, and I know this is an unfair statement since it's a different medium, in a different time, by a different genius... both book and movie merely hint at the evocative power of Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium." THAT is no country for old men.


Not My Father's SonNot My Father's Son by Alan Cumming
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I started this one some time ago... then put it down. Midway through the first "then" chapter, I was pining for the lightheartedness of "Angela's Ashes." Still, I'm glad I recently picked it back up. Chapters ping-pong between "then" and "now" (in 2010) -- and, once you settle into this rhythm, it's easy to relate to someone telling an important story about his own life. Really, what's there to "review"? After all, it's not fiction.

On another level, it's hard to relate to this narrative of child abuse. At least, for me, there IS an element of fiction here. I have so many questions: how does the mother look the other way, for example, or how does the psychotic father blithely have a multitude of affairs? (I mean, aren't there two sides to every affair? So who ARE these women?) Suspending this disbelief, I trusted Alan Cumming and accepted his story. Which is, I suppose, the very nature of a talented actor's true talent.


Astrophysics for People in a HurryAstrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book made me feel so insignificant -- even more so because I can't write a review that better expresses my feelings than what Jessica Rodrigues has already written. The perspective that science provides on life, religion -- and, ultimately, my own limitations -- is pretty daunting. As Jessica so eloquently stated, "I wanted to love this book. I want you to love this book. Alas, I just felt overwhelmed."


The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Get the Special Edition sold at Audible. Why? 1. The roots of the original book are in audio (Offred’s story was recorded, not written). 2. Claire Danes does a masterful reading job -- clarifying some of the idiosyncrasies of Atwood's writing style. 3. There's a new afterword by Atwood herself.

In it, she describes the work of any diarist as an act of hope. You never know if anyone will ever read any of it... you just hope someday someone will care, and it will make a difference. I feel like that describes my life in posting anything at all, including these book reviews, on social media.

As for the story itself, it raised many thought-provoking social issues... but, I have to admit, I was bored by most of it. I blame myself (once again, see my "Hillbilly Elegy" review, three books below). This type of fiction is not what I generally enjoy. Thank you, Claire, for making it bearable. Still, I know, this is a modern-day MUST READ. So if, like me, you must read it, grab THIS EDITION.

You've been forewarned. Are there any questions?


Born a Crime: Stories From a South African ChildhoodBorn a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Trevor Noah had me when he said, “You can be pro-cop AND pro-black” on “The Daily Show” last summer. Still, I knew nothing of his background, and when I saw all the great reviews for this book, I had to read it.

Half-way through, I was disappointed:
• frustrated by disjointed anecdotes that jumped between different periods of his young life,
• intrigued by the descriptions of poverty and racist culture related growing up in South Africa,
• but ultimately put off by stories of his adolescent love life (that cad! he never had an actual conversation with his prom date) and teen life of petty crime (that scamp! he set a house on fire, let a friend take a shoplifiting rap alone, and pirated music and fenced stolen property for spending money).

Here’s some advice, though. Stick around until the last chapter about his mother and how she miraculously survived his murderous stepdad. This chapter, made all the more relatable by all the background in the previous chapters about his mother and stepdad, was chilling in a way that no fictional account can match.

Five stars for the chapter about Trevor’s mother. She is amazing. Her story may change your life. Three stars for the rest of the book.


Nevertheless: A MemoirNevertheless: A Memoir by Alec Baldwin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Never think this is all you are, or all you'll ever be." This advice Alec Baldwin received early in his career is, for me, a highlight of this book -- a love story about the acting profession and fatherhood, with some observations about tabloid journalism and politics on the side. The Audible version also features the author's great narration. And yet I see many one-star reviews of this book just for the politics. So, just for hoots and playing the role of Karma tonight, I'll give this quick read five stars. And I'll always remember that advice.


Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a book about 5-star people (the author and his grandmother), written by a 4-star writer, that's ultimately a 3-star book. I blame its marketing. Described as "part memoir, part historical and social analysis," the analytic parts are infuriatingly brief and shallow. I blame myself too. I was hoping the book would provide some magical insight on poverty and politics and current culture... but that probably doesn't exist.


The One-in-a-Million BoyThe One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A pleasant tale, and the Audible edition was expertly read (5 stars to Chris Ciulla!)... It's similar to, but didn't resonate as much with me as, "A Man Called Ove." I've read that the author struggled several years to write this book, and sometimes it shows. It seemed as if I were halfway through, as if stuck in the mud, for several days. But, in the end... as is usually the case, the struggle was more than worth the effort: a thoughtful, life-affirming story with broad context.


The Princess DiaristThe Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading other things by Carrie Fisher, a clever writer, I was thinking, "this is more of the same..." and sometimes even "this is less of the same..." as I listened to this Audible version. Then, about midway through, her daughter began reading excerpts from the diary her mother kept as a 19-year-old. It was chilling and evocative, and it made listening to the whole book worth it, twice over.


A Man Called OveA Man Called Bob Ove
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In my last Goodreads review (see below), I ranted like a grumpy old man about the value of "storytelling." So how unexpectedly great it has been to listen to a story (Audible version) about a literal grumpy old man and re-remember the lesson that a great story can change your perspective in life-affirming ways.

Yes, the grumpy-old-man-masking-a-heart-of-gold-and-an-intriguing-backstory has been done before. But this tale is unsentimental and rings true. Fredrik Backman, you had me at the first haunted words Ove addressed to his wife.

Not only is this pure storytelling at a high level, but this particular version of the story has been translated from Swedish to English. How hard is it to capture the rhythm of literature and not sound a flat note in another language? I used to have a Latin teacher, a mild-mannered Roman Catholic priest -- and every year he watched young scholars struggle with translating Catullus. It was an incredible experience for him, especially considering the source material. One thing he said he learned was captured in an Old World, no longer-politically-correct maxim: "Translations are like women; the more beautiful they are, the less true."

So I give this book an extra star because of its talented translator -- Henning Koch -- who seems to have produced an English version of this book that's both beautiful and true.

I'm also resisting an urge to that star away, since Ove's beloved "Saab" may someday re-appear as a brand and this book would then fall into the hands of that most reviled of all storytellers, the content strategist. But until that day comes, I stand by this review.

A Head Full of GhostsIs Storytelling Overrated?
A review (of sorts) of:
A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In August 2015, Stephen King -- yes, THE Stephen King (if we are to trust Twitter's blue checkmark) -- tweeted: "A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS, by Paul Tremblay: Scared the living hell out of me, and I'm pretty hard to scare."

So, who am I to argue the King? And yet... I found most of this story, save for some cleverly written blog entries by the main character, to be excruciating rather than scary. Perhaps because I raised two daughters in real life, and the plot here centers around two young sisters.

I also started to think about my grandmother as I slogged through this tale. She died years ago, but this book made me recall how she used to wonder why anyone read would fiction. "It's just silly stories," she'd say.

Now, admittedly, she was a Bible reader, so she did take some stories as a matter of faith (which this book dutifully ridicules). But, setting that debate aside, her main point was: "Why waste your time?"

Of course, here in 2017, storytelling is supposed to be the answer to everything... love, happiness, marketing, effective communication... you name it.

The Twitter background of my boss (who is real, despite not having a blue checkmark), even features this quote from Plato: "Those who tell stories rule the world."

As I listened to the Audible version of this book, though -- realizing it was a masterful writing job, and I'm sure the movie will be successful and that the author will be, if not already, rich -- I kept wondering, "Why am I wasting my time? Haven't I seen, read or heard all this before?"

In fairness, I picked up this book to be scared -- and, on one level, I think I am. But not because of all the predictable gore and manipulated shocks in this story.

I'm scared because I think my sainted grandmother might have been on to something, after all. Sometimes a story is just a cigar and a cigar is just a story. If the words aren't Great Gatsby transcendent, if the ideas they express aren't New Testament challenging or enriching, then what the hell am I doing here in 2017?

Am I simply spending my time begging to be frightened, or entertained?

"Tell me a story" may indeed be a building block of love (intimacy), happiness (connection), marketing (persuasion) and effective communication (acceptance).

It just doesn't get us any closer to greater meaning or insight or -- as I think of my grandmother -- redemption.


When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second consecutive book I've read that defies being "reviewed" (Harry Potter's tale, see below, being the other). "When Breath Becomes Air" is a testament and accounting of a man's life -- and death. Period. I would note, in review of Abraham Verghese's introduction, that Paul's friend promises transcendent writing and insight. Honestly, I found neither... despite that fact that Paul, in his own words, was truly heroic and inspiring. Besides, I don't think the author would have wanted us to look to him for transcendence -- or easy answers.


Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harry Potter, #1)Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book will be 20 years old this year, and there's nothing to "review" here. It's proven to be a fairy tale for our times, with an inspiring backstory about the author... and a catalyst for a generation of new readers. Magical things, all. Still, reading this for the first time in 2017 (or "listening to it," since it was only recently made available on Audible), it simply reminders me how quickly two decades can pass. I can't otherwise relate. The magic in my life is that I can close my eyes and vividly see my family years ago at the dinner table. We're laughing. It's a lively conversation. I've just asked my young daughters what they thought of the book. You can only imagine what Maddy had to say.


A Monster CallsA Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Just terrific... in both the modern and archaic meaning of that word. How is it that young adult fiction today is more nuanced than adult fiction (I'm giving you side eye again, "The Girl on the Train")? The characters here don't react in stock ways; the story isn't predictable. The end, so sadly, is... not in the literary sense, just in real life.


View all my reviews Scrappy Little NobodyScrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My life -- and probably yours too -- has almost zero intersection with Anna Kendrick's life. So it's pretty amazing that this scrappy little book is full of stories that are not only funny, but also relateable. God knows how. My only criticism: If only she would stop telling us how un-cool she is. I mean, I think I have that same goofy photo of me as a teenage nominee trying to blend with the crowd at Sundance. But Mom must have misplaced it.


Born to RunBorn to Run by Bruce Springsteen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Springsteen’s story is full of bombast, just like all his best songs. He isn’t Shakespeare, and he doesn’t try to be. His performance here is unnervingly honest and more than occasionally poetic. Struggling young musician, ego-centric band leader, loving father and friend, sympathetic wrestler of demons of hereditary depression… he describes what it’s like to rehearse “Tumbling Dice” with the Rolling Stones in close quarters, or perform for hundreds of millions of people at the Super Bowl, or struggle to find solace and meaning in his turbulent relationship with his dad.

He also describes the late-in-life phenomenon of spontaneously bursting into tears at odd moments.

I know what that’s like. It happened to me once while commuting home on Route 287 when the radio unexpectedly started to play a song that reminded me, full-throttle, to show a little faith… there’s magic in the night.


Hamlet, Prince of DenmarkHamlet, Prince of Denmark by A.J. Hartley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To Read or Not to Read?

In this book, a Shakespeare scholar (Hartley) and former journalist (Hewson) have novelized the story of Hamlet for modern audiences. 'Tis is a noble effort, I suppose… reminding me of an iPad app for cats, with lots of sudden, random movement.

Before the play-within-a-play begins, in the space of seconds, Hamlet punches a stone wall then sings and dances maniacally. Seemingly, the young prince is always moving forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling towards freedom. (Apologies to the Kang character in “The Simpsons”). The action is so compressed here that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive from half the known world away to appear in the king’s court within hours of being summoned. This takes two months in the actual play.

The avuncular Polonius becomes a scheming political operative. Think Kevin Spacey in “House of Cards.” In this book, Ophelia carries Hamlet’s love child and is subsequently murdered by the traditionally minor character Voltimand, upon whom the authors have bestowed Sicilian mob ties. Hamlet – think Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips” -- battles menacing pirates. And then there’s the plot twist of “A Beautiful Mind,” where a main character Russell Crowe thought existed in real life turns out to be only the figment of Hamlet’s imagination.

The famous soliloquies are only hinted at here. So, in the end, it’s easy to smugly dismiss this as “Shakespeare without the poetry”… a tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But it has enough elements of Entertainment Weekly magazine in the plot to ensure the failure of any student using this text as a replacement for actually reading or seeing “Hamlet.”

So I give it three stars for that.


The Highwayman (Walt Longmire, #11.5)The Highwayman by Craig Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's a story about the supernatural. No, there's a rational explanation for everything. But wait, something else happened that can't be explained. No, there's a big reveal explaining everything at the end of the story. But wait, that wasn't the real ending... there's something else that can't be explained.



Stuff I've Been Feeling LatelyStuff I've Been Feeling Lately by Alicia Cook
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Just on general principle, I think every collection of poems deserves five stars. And this one is more clever than most, with proceeds for a good cause.





We're All DamagedWe're All Damaged by Matthew Norman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How much did I enjoy this? As soon as I finished, I bought Matthew Norman's only other and previous book, "Domestic Violets." Perhaps I'm just a sucker for the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl. The one here is from Kansas City, living in Omaha... and, given the title of the book, she's existentially flawed. But this is a quick, enjoyable read. It includes humorous dialog and observations, and (still scarred from "The Girl on the Train") I'm happy to report that not all the characters are cringe-worthy. This book has also introduced me to Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." So, thank you, Mr. Norman... and please write another.


She Made Me Laugh: My Friend Nora EphronShe Made Me Laugh: My Friend Nora Ephron by Richard Cohen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sleepless in New Milford, NJ

In “She Made Me Laugh,” we learn that writer/director Nora Ephron is someone who would lead friends on a tour of Italy’s great restaurants, arrive late at one, and then stand and make an insulting gesture to the entire wait staff because they weren’t attentive enough.

This is what passes for loveable to Ephron’s friend, Richard Cohen, the Washington Post columnist and author of her bio.

Well, maybe not “loveable.” Even Cohen seemed to have mixed feelings about this anecdote. Perhaps (permitting me to put words in the head of a much-more-accomplished writer) he thought, “Nora has spunk!” -- in reference to a scene from the old Mary Tyler Moore Show in the type of 1970’s newsroom that Cohen and Ephron both obviously adored.

But, like Lou Grant, I hate spunk. So while Ephron may have made Cohen laugh, the sensibility on display in this book often made me cringe.

Cohen lovingly depicts an era when media and literary gatekeepers hobnobbed aboard David Geffen’s yacht or at a Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn dinner party. Once, after being slighted this crowd, Cohen proclaims, “That summer, the Hamptons did without me.”

I’m glad that world doesn’t exist anymore. These summers, the Hamptons are doing without all the best journalists and artists and writers. They live, create and “summer” in all corners of the world, enabled and connected by technology. There are no boundaries or gatekeepers. Everyone can be critic, or a star.

These days, the only sure way to tell a decent person from an asshole is if he or she is kind to the wait staff.

Two good things came out of reading this book, however.

First, I am now much more aware of Ephron’s entire career, and I eagerly look forward to reading more of her writing. Before now, I had thought of her as the writer/director of “Sleepless in Seattle” and thought she had written the famous scene in “When Harry Met Sally,” which, it turns out, was improvised by Meg Ryan, Billy Crystal, and Rob and Estelle Reiner.

Second, I can now channel my inner Nick Carraway, since there are several remarkable anecdotes in this book involving the actor Tom Hanks.

So now, as the sun sets on this review, I see a vision of Hanks from across an imaginary lawn. “They’re a rotten crowd,” I shout to him, thinking of all his rich friends summering in the Hamptons. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”


Different SeasonsDifferent Seasons by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I REALLY enjoyed "The Shawshank Redemption," despite having seen the excellent movie adaptation. I haven't seen "Stand By Me" or "Apt Pupil," the other two movies spawned by three of the four stories here -- but there's probably no need to now. In the afterword, King writes that these stories were packaged together because they were un-sellable as separate novellas. And yet, I seem to prefer his novellas and short stories. They give King enough room to breathe without turning each story into a reading marathon. Just a few hours well spent.


Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea HotelTrying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel by Nicolaia Rips
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another attempt to read about someone else's life NOT like my own. And, indeed, this young woman is likely the anti-Bob. Good for her. I wasn't as drawn into her stories as I had hoped (not being a middle-school-aged girl in Manhattan), but, spoiler alert, when I read to the very end about how this book came to be... I knew it deserved an extra star just for that. That is, for her dad.


The Girl with the Lower Back TattooThe Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Successful comedians are fascinating -- hard-working, intelligent, thick-skinned and introverts at heart. Great story-tellers too. So what's not to like? Amy's humor isn't for everyone, but what a sad world it would be if people weren't pushing boundaries and everyone's taste was the same. Reading this prompted me to enjoy some of her videos, and it also fortified me against some hate-filled commentary I received after posting something on my blog, Lost in New Jersey, about hate speech posing as humor. It was just a small taste of the criticism Amy must face all the time. Bless her.

I'm Just a PersonI'm Just a Person by Tig Notaro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just wow. And here's a great review by Jessica that I agree with and would be hard-pressed to add to.





View all my reviews The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and PakistanThe Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Kim Barker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm in awe of journalists like Kim Barker, and this is a particularly insightful, historical and, yes, entertaining read. There's no trace of pretentiousness here, and the author isn't afraid to turn a critical eye on herself, often exhibiting a global one-percenter's peculiar brand of boorishness and narcissism. The Tina Fey movie doesn't do this book justice, and it shows how shallow popular, formulaic storytelling can be. You can't make this stuff up, and there's no conveniently packaged Margot Robbie foil to add box-office appeal.


When the Yankees Were on the Fritz: Revisiting the Horace Clarke Years.When the Yankees Were on the Fritz: Revisiting the Horace Clarke Years. by Fritz Peterson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is one of the oddest books I've ever read, so I give it an extra star for quirkiness.

Odd editing... riddled with typos, exclamation points, poor grammar, bad exposition (mentioning something as if it had already been explained, then explaining it later), and repeated phrases, anecdotes and even whole sections.

Odd theology... the moral I gleaned is that you can apparently be as big a jerk as you want in life because God forgives everything.

Odd racist overtones... considering that the three teammates called out for lack of hustle were the three black position players during most of Peterson's time with the Yankees; at the same time, almost all the white players are uniformly described as "good guys" with "great wives."

Odd life advice... don't buy life insurance or root for the Mets, but be sure invest in real estate (unless it falls into the hands of your first wife during the divorce settlement, then you can obsess about real estate values for 40 years).

Oh, parenthetically, about that divorce: Odd that this book glossed over the one thing Peterson is most known for... that he swapped wives and children and family dogs with a teammate in 1973. Oh, but that will be the subject of another book, it's explained.

Mr. Peterson, you were a splendid pitcher for the Yankees many years ago. I rooted for you as a boy. Thank you for bringing back those memories. I admire your professional career and if you ever do draft another book, please contact me before self-publishing again.

Odd, but I think I may be able to help you. I'd edit it for free.


End of Watch (Bill Hodges Trilogy, #3)End of Watch by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Here we are now, entertain us..."

The completion of this trilogy has cemented my admiration for Stephen King as a storyteller. That's a truly wonderful thing -- so, thank you, Mr. King for the many hours of entertainment. My only hesitation in reviewing all this is about what it all means. The story here, for example, exploits paranormally assisted teen suicide as the vehicle for yet another story about yet another serial killer. In lesser hands, this might be a bad episode of "Criminal Minds." But, in greater hands -- like Stephen King's -- well, let me put it this way: I once read him describe writing as "magic" and say its purpose was to enrich the lives of readers. As good as it is to be entertained, I wonder if it's not too much to expect greater things from those who have the ability to create great magic.

Being ThereBeing There by Jerzy KosiƄski
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The movie's better than the book, which hasn't aged well since I read it in college. The advances in technology and information access since then have made the story's premise, which many believe to have been plagiarized, even less believable. Still, there's a kernel of truth at the story's center that's timeless, thought-provoking and important... especially in this election year.


The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I value your time too much to write a review that mirrors other criticisms of this plot-twist-driven book filled with unsympathetic characters. Let's just say I felt worse about life after listening to this. One silver lining: I can now empathize with my sainted grandmother, who once told me she never read fiction because she considered it useless.


BettyvilleBettyville by George Hodgman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Last week I was struck, in a negative way, by a piece of advice to writers that I stumbled upon on Twitter: "Storytelling trumps beautiful writing, every time" (Lisa Cron). I thought of a book like "Lolita," which is genuine art with a pretty cheesy and inauthentic "story." Even the great "Great Gatsby" has a pretty slim plot. So I totally rejected that advice... and then I read this memoir.

It's beautifully written. Still, you could start reading any random page and pick up right where you left off... no matter where you left off. Maybe my brain has been programmed to reject memoirs by all the other writers who are following Ms. Cron's advice... but I would have appreciated more structure here, unless the structure here is meant to mimic Betty's addled mind -- in which case, this is genius.


Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up BubbleDisrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Beacon of Hope for Lesser People

Looking for a scary read this Memorial Day weekend? Try “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble” by Dan Lyons.

His memoir is far scarier than anything I’ve read recently by Stephen King – and it’s also funnier (thinking back to the author’s description of how a newsroom might react to Molly the teddy bear) than most anything I’ve read or seen recently, except for HBO’s “Silicon Valley.”

Wait. Lyons is a writer for “Silicon Valley,” and he was also one of my cultural folk heroes from the mid-1990s when he blogged as Fake Steve Jobs. So the “funny” part is understandable.

But why is this book scary?

Because good satire is always scary – and this is a tale of ageism, greed, abuse of power and double-talk. Because it raises important questions, yet again, about the stability and underpinnings of U.S. financial markets. And, finally, because there’s a scene with the author’s young son that chillingly portrays the impact of job loss on family life.

But what of all those young HubSpot workers – the real people (innocent bystanders?) seemingly caught in the middle of this tale?

I feel for them all. And I’m scared for them too.

In the end, Lyons is a solitary figure, fighting against time and seemingly always misunderstood. He winds up paranoid for his family’s safety and worried about his children’s future.

But the very fact that he’s fighting his battles with wit and insight gives me hope.

To steal a favorite closing line from “Mistress America,” a recent Greta Gerwig/Noah Baumbach movie: “Being a beacon of hope for lesser people is a lonely business.”

Namaste.


The Last Mile (Amos Decker, #2)The Last Mile by David Baldacci
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

No detail is too small for Amos Decker, and small things lead to improbably large and complex connections in this entertaining tale. Everything's all about the plot in this mass-market action thriller. It's worth the time spent reading or listening to -- and I should probably add a star since the book also takes on the important issue of capital punishment. But I think I'll save that star for my next read of a Sherlock Holmes tale, where no detail is too small, larger issues are explored, and where the characters, the writing and the settings are more evocative.


Never A Good Time: A MemoirNever A Good Time: A Memoir by Jack Hoey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Do yourself a favor. Buy this book and read it before Mother's Day. When you get to the line in Chapter 14 that begins, "I thought about you every day of my life..." well...

My heart skipped a beat. And, full disclosure, I also enjoyed reading this short book because it was written by a former colleague who's an excellent writer. These stories are real, and it doesn't get any better than this, Jack.


The Turn of the ScrewThe Turn of the Screw by Henry James
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

There appears to me, moreover, as I look back, no more telling aspect of this book review more extraordinary than the mere fact that, in spite of my tension and increasing anger at Henry James’ writing style, I literally saw it through to its damnable conclusion. Adorable as was the sound of Emma Thompson’s voice in truth, I now reflect, that I had, in a seemingly imperceptible manner, even grown to hate her too!

Would exasperation, however, if relief had longer been postponed, finally have betrayed me? It little matters, for relief arrived. I call it relief, though it was only the relief that a snap brings to a strain or the burst of a thunderstorm to a day of suffocation. It was at least change, and it came with a rush – a plain-spoken man’s disembodied voice that broke forth with the salutation, “Audible hopes you have enjoyed this program!” When, in fact, I had not.


Boys in the Trees: A MemoirBoys in the Trees: A Memoir by Carly Simon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Half-Life of Carly Simon

This is an enjoyable listen – and I do mean listen, since the audio version of this autobiography is read by the author and includes a musical score woven throughout – about the first half of Carly Simon’s life.

The narrative basically ends in 1984, when Carly (as I’ll take the liberty of calling her) visits the obnoxious CEO of the publishing company that bears her father’s name. Suffice it to say, I’m very glad that this book has been published by Macmillan.

Still, it’s an enchanting read – in the same way her 1988 song “Let the River Run” (too current to be mentioned in this book) can enchant you with lyrics that, while poetic and evocative, don’t necessarily make sense if you think too much about them.

That’s exactly what happens with the writing here too. It so often, and sometimes infuriatingly, lapses into semi-poetry. But Carly uses just enough significant detail about the often-shocking incidents of her life that you feel compelled to keep reading (or listening).

Charmed or bewitched, I stayed for the whole show… a “final” chapter, an epilog, then two more “chapters” (a song and a legal disclaimer). Her stories took me back to high school and the anthems of my first girlfriend -- from first kiss (“Anticipation”) through breakup (“That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be”). I never knew that Carly passed right underneath my first apartment in New York one night on her way to confront James Taylor’s lover. I recalled, years ago, first hearing her cover of Cat Stevens’ “Into White,” and thinking, “Wow, that’s random.” After listening to this book, I learned it wasn’t random at all.

So, for a few hours, I got to hang out with the cool kids, and realize that, hey, they’re just people too. In fact, even though Carly still loves him, good ole’ JT is a bit of a self-centered jerk, isn’t he? But then, the same might be said of me – and I’ll really have to hustle to contribute even a sliver of as much beauty to the world.

I’m awestruck by anyone who can look back on life without having to say, “I wish I had done that.” I appreciate, and admire, that Carly’s half-life makes for a pretty full, and memorable, book.

It will certainly be in my head the next time I visit Martha’s Vineyard. I’ll wander hand-in-hand with my wife on some street Carly might happen to be… and she won’t even know that we passed right by her.


Dark PlacesDark Places by Gillian Flynn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I started this book three times, and gave up three times, because I couldn't get past the dark opening chapter. Finally, I made my way through and found that this was another good read by Gillian Flynn. Not as good as "Gone Girl," but better than the earnest movie adaption of this same book, which I later watched on Amazon Prime. If you like this author's other stuff, you won't be disappointed.


The Andromeda StrainThe Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I expected much better from Michael Crichton. (I read "Jurassic Park" earlier this year and was delighted by it.) Very dated. Well, of course, the tech aspect is, but did it really need to include long narrative passages about computer printouts? I remember this book, and the movie, from when I was younger. This hasn't aged well, though. Might have given this 3 stars, but according to Goodreads' scale, 2 stars means, "It was OK." Which about perfectly sums up my feelings here.


StonerStoner by John Williams
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this book; I really did. Everyone else gives it great reviews. So it must be me. But -- OMG -- this book, to me, was a several hours' long definition of the word "dour." Save yourself some time. Look up the word "dour" in the dictionary for yourself. Or bleak. Or uninspiring.




Straight to Hell: True Tales of Deviance, Debauchery, and Billion-Dollar DealsStraight to Hell: True Tales of Deviance, Debauchery, and Billion-Dollar Deals by John LeFevre
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The @GSElevator tweets are entertaining, just like John LeFevre's short articles. But you can appreciate those bite-sized posts in the context of real life... ironic, sad, insightful, pathetic. Here, there is no context. It's ALL supposed to BE real life -- and it's unrelentingly repellent. Life is too short to read this.


The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just excellent. Lots of science, but held my attention throughout... like the best science teacher you ever had in high school. The larger story... about all the time, money, effort to save one life... would make for an interesting read from a great philosophy teacher!




Go Set a WatchmanGo Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of my all-time favorite writers, Harper Lee, originally submitted this novel for publication in 1957. Her editor, Tay Hohoff, was enamored by the childhood flashbacks in the novel, and she recognized Ms. Lee’s obvious talent. But Ms. Hohoff also recognized a weak plot, and she encouraged the extensive re-write that eventually became "To Kill a Mockingbird." The two novels offer the same voice, many of the same characters and the same writing style (take that, Truman Capote), but they are vastly different in their appeal and impact. Proving, I suppose, that every writer needs an editor. Still, it's Harper Freaking Lee, and even this smaller version of Atticus Finch deserves 4 stars... mostly because I can't give his "To Kill a Mockingbird" version 6 stars.

PS - We can’t help but remember our heroes the way we knew them first. This 2016 British poll suggests that either nobody read "Go Set a Watchmen," or readers rejected it as bogus.


LolitaLolita by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was half the age of Nabokov’s protagonist when I first read “Lolita” – and it enthralled me. As of my last reading, just a few weeks ago, I’m about the age of Nabokov himself when he wrote his love letter to the English language. And it repelled me. (You can always count on a Goodreads review for a fancy prose style.)

I guess I’m a grownup now. I’ve helped raise two daughters in the meantime. And, over time, I’ve come to understand that no one is as smart as they think they are. Even the genius Vladimir.

“Genius” is a word that appears many times in this book, by the way – the author seems quite enamored with it. Odd that there are very few words relating to the impact of the nearly world-immolating warfare that had recently ended. Or, say, any description of how Humbert and Lolita might have managed to spend Christmas Eve together.

That would be too real and too prosaic. And this, this book, is a work of Art. All the real-life horror in “Lolita” is masked by language -- the demeaning and beating of women, deaths by childbirth and cancer, Humbert’s monumental callousness and narcissism, poor Charlotte… As for Humbert’s great poetic love, it’s really nothing more than pedophilia played out in prostitution, threats and manipulation, as Lolita cried herself to sleep every night.

There’s nothing wrong with artifice and pretty words. Every Memorial Day weekend, I find myself re-reading “The Great Gatsby,” and it never ceases to enchant me. It’s become a favorite of my daughter’s too.

I actually enjoy life as a sentimental wretch. It’s just that I now realize that Humbert Humbert isn’t a kindred spirit. Instead, Humbert is really just Vladimir’s comical Gaston Godin character with a better haircut.

And, about that haircut, Vladimir. I mean, about that barber in Kasbeam who cut Humbert’s hair while telling stories of his long-dead son as if he were still alive…

I wonder if perhaps his story would have been the more poetic one to tell.


Another Little Piece of My Heart: My Life of Rock and Revolution in the '60sAnother Little Piece of My Heart: My Life of Rock and Revolution in the '60s by Richard Goldstein
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a marvelous memoir, and I'm split between rating it 3 or 4 stars. Personally, I'd give it 4 -- but only because what I liked best about the book was that the writer's career path and point of view on many topics are seemingly the exact opposite of my own. I don't know whether that POV would translate well to anyone reading this review, however. And, I think, after all, this view of the '60s is probably a little more self-centered than truly insightful. Yet I was thrilled to see the legendary Clay Felker make a cameo here (and, of course, Janis Joplin too!)-- and I do admit to being jealous of the anti-me author. Through the magic of the Internet, I even sent Richard a note about the book. He politely replied, and the universe didn’t implode.


The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in PoliticsThe Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics by Barton Swaim
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Oh, my, but Barton Swaim seems to have had the worst. boss. ever. OK, well maybe not the absolute worst... but this is pretty entertaining stuff if you have a PR job. Or even if you're simply an aficionado of the Orwellian doublespeak of politics. I think this book would appeal most to an acquired taste. My taste, yes; but perhaps not yours.


Jurassic ParkJurassic Park by Michael Crichton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After recent disappointing forays into books I had remembered fondly (Inferno, The Invisible Man, Breakfast at Tiffany's), I noticed that audible.com had recently released the unabridged version of this 1990 book in time for the new 2015 movie and figured, what the heck, maybe the fourth time's the charm. I was right. What a fun listen. Great imagination, intelligent insights, even touch-screen computers making an appearance years ahead of their time. I would have given this guilty pleasure 5 stars, but my interest flagged after the midway point, with one chase scene after another while a little girl whined in the background. That said, if scaled against Pride and Prejudice, this deserves 12 stars. The lesson here for me: maybe I should take things a little less seriously... and sometimes just enjoy the ride.

PS- Having just re-watched the movie, I also appreciate that the script was an outstanding adaptation. Now, if only Michael Crichton, David Koepp and Steven Spielberg would take a crack at "The Great Gatsby"...


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1)The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is my guilty pleasure. I don't like books that have been translated from another language. I don't like long books. I don't like books about serial killers. And then I started to listen to this on audible.com during my commutes this spring, and I found it perfectly entertaining. Perhaps my next read/listen should be a self-help book on re-evaluating who I think I am and what I think I like.


Seasons in Hell: With Billy Martin, Whitey Herzog and "The Worst Baseball Team in History" - The 1973-1975 Texas Rangers by Mike Shropshire
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Snark without heart... Mike Shropshire's writing is unrelentingly "clever" and a bit of an acquired taste. I didn't acquire it. I was expecting "Ball Four" but got "Hit by a Pitch" instead. If you like to listen to people brag about their drinking exploits or enjoy jokes about alcoholism, this is the book for you. If you like baseball, the one save here is the author's portrayal of Whitey Herzog.


The Maltese FalconThe Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

tl;dr - I confess. I can't finish this. I'm having flashbacks to "The Invisible Man" -- a book I fondly remembered from many years ago that, sadly, hasn't aged very well. I know, I know, maybe I'm the one not aging well. Still, I'm tired of reading books filled with unsympathetic characters. Also, Dashiell doesn't help out a bit. There's nothing significant or spell-binding about detail simply piled upon detail or repetitive descriptions. Life is just too short for this. On the bright side, thank Humphrey Bogart, there's still the superb movie version. Although I'm now afraid to try to watch it again.

The Invisible ManThe Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

What better way to survive another day of bitter cold and snow in New Jersey than to cozy up with a book I fondly remembered from my distant past? Besides, now I could appreciate the deeper meaning about what it means to be an invisible member of society, right? Wrong, and doubly wrong. The plot here is very slight, much of the writing reads like an accumulation of stage directions, and I found no deeper meaning. The only archetype I could equate pompous Griffin to in modern society would be the self-centered jerk driving a Lexus behind tinted windshields while doing 80 on the New Jersey Turnpike (and probably texting). I'll rate this 2 stars: one, because it was mercifully short and two, because maybe the weather has just made me cranky.

Flash Boys: A Wall Street RevoltFlash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Following are six book reviews in one... Here's the thing: I've recently neglected Goodreads, and I haven't posted any reviews here since my mild diatribe about Graham Nash's autobiography, Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life. Oh, I still stand by what I wrote, but it now seems shrouded in a distant past.

Fresher in mind are the books I've enjoyed over the past three months (and a big plug here for www.audible.com, which makes my traffic-filled commutes and gym Stairmaster sessions tolerable). There are six in all, starting with "Flash Boys," which I enjoyed greatly and would heartily recommend. Michael Lewis is a wonderful writer, and every other book here gets 4 stars just by association with him.

How to dispatch the rest? Well, I've picked the titles at random, in pairs beginning with "Flash Boys," to post three short observations about each set and point out a common denominator. It's my new parlor trick… fractured book reviews:

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt / Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back

Both these books are about time. One is measured in microseconds; the other in eternity. Reading “Heaven Is for Real” was an easy sprint… and the movie adaptation happened to be playing on cable at the same time. So I listened to the book one day and watched the movie the next. The movie is much better; it's not great, but it could have been a disaster, and it made me cut the book some slack… given the childish/childlike descriptions of Heaven. “Flash Boys,” on the other hand, was a delight to savor. The moral of both? Salvation, in this world, is unobtainable in any form. And everything, ultimately, is just a matter of faith.

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride / Yes Please

These two books remind me how hard people work to get to the top of their professions. “The Princess Bride” is one of my favorite movies, but I had no idea how much care, time, effort, planning and talent went into its making until reading this tribute by actor Cary Elwes. Meanwhile, Amy Poehler, it seems, didn't spring up fully formed on “Saturday Night Live.” She spent thousands of hours perfecting improv and comedy -- the way Steve Martin in “Born Standing Up” described playing thousands of club dates before he became an “overnight success.” Or the way the Beatles played hour after hour on stage for years to develop their distinctive sound. Both books also benefit from the audio format, since both include entertaining cameos from guest voices. My kids may well someday read versions of these books featuring holograms.

The Girl on the Train / The Bell Jar

Both, it turns out, are first-time novels. “The Girl on the Train” has become a respectable current commercial success, and “The Bell Jar” is a well-respected literary success from 50 years ago. Both (despite the new technology evident in “Train”) have a timeless quality too – a mark of their two talented writers. Both books, however, are filled with what I found to be not very likeable characters… main and otherwise… so it was hard for me to care much about them all in the end. It's true, Sylvia, and there's nothing you can do. I couldn't relate to you. Yes, even you.


Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll LifeWild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life by Graham Nash
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well, my life certainly hasn't been as interesting as Mr. Nash's... and I bet yours hasn't been either -- especially if, like the poor wretches he writes about in his home town ("Cold Rain"), you go to work every day, pay your taxes and don't do drugs.

In the incestuous other-world of classic rock, you can hate guns but then tell loving stories about your best friend shooting people. You can live on mini-compounds of homes on dozens of acres of land, and be a voice for conservation. You and your mates can ravage your voices and squander a good bit of career productivity on drugs and possessions (with women seemingly placed in that category until you reach middle age), and yet profess that music is always first and foremost. But then you can also helicopter in to benefit concerts and raise money for good causes too -- so what do I know?

I read this book because I enjoyed the early CSNY ("Our House" was a staple on my high school's jukebox for years after the song came out), and Graham Nash's public persona seems refreshingly likeable. And, very likely, he's a great guy in real life. Here, though... well, I wanted to give this book only 2 stars. I found it more preachy than descriptive or insightful, and it made me feel... well, small.

However, I listened to the audio version, which is read by the author, and every once in a while Graham Nash breaks into song. So I gave it an extra star.


What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical QuestionsWhat If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Can’t lie, I’m a little disappointed in this book.... likely because I listened to the audio version. "Fun science” doesn’t translate into a compelling narrative when read aloud. One absurd chapter seems like the next, forming a deadening plasma (a common word in the book) over my consciousness, rather than a few hoped-for moments of apricity (favorite word in the book). SPOILER ALERT: Many of the chapters conclude with the end of the world.


The PostmortalThe Postmortal by Drew Magary
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is imaginative and thought-provoking. Sometimes I got the feeling that the author was just winging it - but I consider that evidence of natural talent. The plot did veer off in odd directions toward the end... and some scenes make "The Grapes of Wrath" seem like a musical comedy... but I like that fact that I couldn't anticipate where this was headed. I should probably give this 4 stars instead of 3, but the author is a notorious hater of my alma mater (in fact, that's why I chose to read this book), so I'm going to be a bit arbitrary about this. Just like the way SEC officials are in calling offensive pass interference.


Breakfast at Tiffany'sBreakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A raining morning read. Most reviewers describe this story as grittier than the movie. Indeed, Holly is unlikeable on the printed page... and racist to boot. Audrey Hepburn makes the Holly here unrecognizable (although racism in the movie was not exorcised either, Mickey Rooney). After reading this and recently re-reading "In Cold Blood" and "To Kill a Mockingbird," I suspect Harper Lee had much more influence on "In Cold Blood" than is generally recognized.

LandlineLandline by Rainbow Rowell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An unexpected pleasure. The setup was sweet ("what if you could talk to a loved one when they were still in the past... and they thought they were talking to you in the present?") and the dialog, like the main character, was very clever. My interest flagged a bit toward the end, with even the author in the main character's voice joking about Capra-esque endings. But how could I resist anything using metaphors of landline phones and unchargable cells? If there was a sequel and it followed the pace of technology, the follow-up story would be about a conversation with a loved one in the future.

In Real Life: Love, Lies & Identity in the Digital AgeIn Real Life: Love, Lies & Identity in the Digital Age by Nev Schulman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Life is that happens when you’re busy not looking down at your smartphone.” That’s a quote @NevSchulman comes very close to using in channeling John Lennon in “In Real Life: Love, Lies & Identity in the Digital Age.” And – despite the fact that I work for Verizon and have both respect and wonder for the power of mobile technology – I believe this comes very close to the core of many of today’s relationship problems.

So I was fascinated with the first half of this new book and the profound insights the author gained from his “Catfish” documentary and MTV show.

The collaborative narrative woven by Nev Schulman and Angela Wesselman rivals anything I’ve read about the fictional Glass family. I wonder, are the stories of today’s online relationships this generation’s version of J.D. Salinger?

The book's second half devolves into relationship and life advice, primarily for younger unmarrieds – all good stuff, but not as compelling to me as the poignant catfishing stories.


The Good GirlThe Good Girl by Mary Kubica
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Good Girl" equals "good read," does not equal "Gone Girl."

Since I had read reviews about a "surprise ending," it wasn't much of a surprise by the time I got there.




To Kill a MockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh, my... THIS is a great book. It had me at "Macomb was a tired old town..."




My Salinger YearMy Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Oddly, “My Salinger Year” had very little to do with JD Salinger. It was a fine coming-of-age story set in mid-90s New York City. I could hardly wait until the narrator figured out how loathsome her live-in boyfriend was. She finally did, and she finally read “The Catcher in the Rye” too. Oh, and she met “Jerry” Salinger when he came into the office once. If you want to read about his heart-rending fan mail, the author wrote about that in Salon a few years ago. So you can just read the highlights there, if you want to skip the details about a tiny slice of Brooklyn and life at a quaint literary agency. Which does indeed have its own charm.


Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible VoyageEndurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Outstanding piece of old-school journalism. Outstanding story. What a great read! You can argue it’s a five-star book, and you could probably convince me. Why, then, my missing star? There’s no attempt to ascribe meaning to any of this grand tale. Flippantly, I thought of referring to this as “the Book of Job… on ice,” but the Book of Job has philosophical and moral context. What drove these men? It couldn’t have been just the instinct to survive. Furthermore, the writing is so matter-of-fact that I have come to dread the word “furthermore.” Typically (yet another drinking game?), the author would describe a litany of woe that you’d think would be unendurable – and then follow it up with a sentence that begins, “Furthermore…”

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper LeeThe Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let Us Now Praise Harper Lee

After reading “The Mockingbird Next Door,” I admire Harper Lee even more -- and I didn’t think that was possible.

I can’t fathom why the celebrated author, now 88, says she never authorized the book. There’s too much detail here to disavow (the whole scene of watching “Capote” in her living room, for example). These details describe a smart, witty, engaging, opinionated and proudly unconventional woman who was born and raised at the right time, in the right place, and who had just the right artistic temperament, to produce what might be America’s greatest novel.

I love the Harper Lee portrayed in this book... the aging, lively and complex author who never wrote a second novel. And what difference does that make? If the Devil himself offered 10 million writers the chance to tell only one story of the caliber of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” he’d be able to purchase 10 million souls in a heartbeat.

I feel, in fact, embarrassed that Lee had to put up with the rest of us clowns in this new millennium. I cringed reading Marja Mills' description of watching the 2004 Super Bowl with the Lee sisters. Were those really erectile dysfunction commercials? Did they really just see Janet Jackson’s breast? There are the many cups of coffee Mills shared with Lee at McDonald’s, watching her neatly fold and refold spent packets of Splenda... going to senior exercise classes in Monroeville... waiting with Lee for a table at Bonefish Grill while surrounded by oblivious business-suited young professionals on cell phones.

Why did we drag down such a transcendent talent in her later years by surrounding her with such petty ordinariness?

I also read with interest about how much time Lee anonymously spent in New York, taking public transit and rooting for the New York Mets. I think now of all the times I may have passed her on the streets or ignored her on the 7 train when I worked in New York in the early 2000s. With respect to E.B. White, this gift of privacy bestowed for many years on Harper Lee is exemplary of New York City's true magic.

My quibble with this respectfully written book is that the author injects too much of herself in the telling. For all the time Mills reminds us what great storytellers Lee and her sister Alice were, we don’t actually get to read all those stories.

Apparently, many stories were kept off the record on purpose -- and, to me, this lends credence to the belief that Lee cooperated with its publication.

No matter. When it comes to Harper Lee and in spite of how much I enjoyed this book, I’m OK with keeping her life surrounded in a little mystery. I think we all owe her at least that much.


Everything's Eventual: 14 Dark TalesEverything's Eventual: 14 Dark Tales by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another 3-star rating... for the third Stephen King book I've read/listened to in recent months. I'll probably read others too, because they're unique and entertaining. I just keep hoping for better.

Here's the rub: Several of the stories here (I'm looking at you, "Riding the Bullet" and "Lucky Quarter" -- but you're also the only two that come immediately to mind) seem to go on and on without ending. You think the story has ended, but it keeps going.

It doesn't end. The plot is played out, and then it continues. I don't know why this keeps on happening, but it does. It's very annoying. I mean, you're thinking, "OK, fade to black." But the story just keeps going. And then it loses some of its impact because it's no longer scary. You're just wondering, "Where's he going with this?"

Why won't it just end? Please, Mr. King, just end the story. Think of your readers.

Or, maybe... maybe this book is just an insidious curse. Anyone who reads it won't be able to stop writing their review. It will just go on and on. Pointless. I mean, you think the review is over, but there you go. You can't stop typing.

Oh God, please God, make it stop! Now. Make it stop!!! I'm begging you. I can see myself... clearly... beating a dead horse. Holding its severed heart in my hands. And, yet... It. Just. Won't. End.

Even now, I can't seem to wash my hands completely clean. Not ever. It never ends.


Mr. Mercedes (Bill Hodges Trilogy, #1)Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a very entertaining read, but lacking any extra touches that might suggest it was written by Stephen King. It could have been Dean Koontz; it could have been any one of a handful of fine story-tellers. There's certainly a value to that but, in the age of "Gone Girl," this ride was a little too predictable.



Where'd You Go, BernadetteWhere'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Don't take this book too seriously. I did at first, then let go... and came to appreciate its finer points. It's not satire, but broad comedy. Clever, inventive, engaging, and even lyrical in parts. A disarming surprise.




The Lotus EatersThe Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I drifted through long sections of this book in the kind of haze that the author's own words seem to engender. And then there'd be some scene or thought or passage that would be just so beautiful or heart-breaking, it would cut through everything else... so I'd drift onward. I really didn't even like the main characters (I'm especially looking at you, cliched hard-bitten war photographer who's cheating on his wife), but in the end I liked this book more than I was lulled by this book.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of NazarethZealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For a book about someone who changed history, this was a remarkably dry read. It certainly calls into question many things that Catholics have been taught to believe, including what the author would argue is the early church's faulty foundation. While seeking to prove or disprove many minor points (was Jesus really a carpenter, did he have brothers, etc.), the author draws the line at the resurrection -- which, he concludes, is a matter of faith. So reading this book is a bit like spending several hours with an enlightened man on his deathbed, whose last words are, "And the meaning of life is..."

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a well-written book by an obviously talented writer. Amazing for a first novel. But I should have been forewarned by the Boston Globe's review that "Adelle Waldman just may be this generation's Jane Austen." I hate Jane Austen. All the talk; all the analysis... and, when it came down to it, I didn't much like or care about Nate. Not a good thing for a book that -- though insightful -- is essentially plotless. But there will be other books by this author, I am sure... and I look forward to when she has a better story to tell.

The Sun Also RisesThe Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bored by Papa? Listening to this book (wonderfully read by William Hurt), I went through a mid-life crisis. I had always been taught that this was a great book. I remember reading it years ago and thinking so too... But these days I find the characters miserable and their sophisticated lives quite provincial. The world has changed so much, and this first novel is just not as substantial or insightful as it once might have appeared. It reminds me of a child's drawing on display in a museum, with passersby dutifully admiring it because it must be art. Or, and this is the frightening part, maybe my reaction says more about how much I've changed.

Divergent (Divergent, #1)Divergent by Veronica Roth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In this world, teens have remarkably high tolerance for pain and deal with graphic violence, gore, torture, mind-control, advanced technology, death and revolution with preternatural insight, intelligence and heroism. Yet they don't seem to comprehend first love and are remarkably coy about sex. So perhaps this is a parable about the power of true love. If so, I prefer "The Princess Bride." The drinking game associated with this novel: every time the odd reference to "nail bed" is mentioned regarding the lead female character, or "tendon" is mentioned regarding the lead male.

Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass IncidentDead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The author approaches this mystery as if Sherlock Holmes, which is a good thing -- and he draws a compelling answer to this decades-old mystery. I listened to the audible.com version, and the author's reading style was flat. It's a good book, and perhaps the print version deserves 4 stars. The author also confronts many language barriers that cloud his research. Yet he dedicated years of his life to this research. Two words of advice: Rosetta Stone.


ColumbineColumbine by Dave Cullen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Great journalistic effort; disturbing story. I've heard this described as the new "In Cold Blood." Not quite... but it buries some myths and provides important perspective to a sad chapter in American history.




The GodfatherThe Godfather by Mario Puzo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Leave the book, take another look at the movie. Watching a Godfather marathon on TV last night, I thought of having recently read the book -- which I give 3 stars for the entertainment value of a good story. But now, re-watching the movie, I would give the screenplay 6 stars. This may be history's most well-deserved Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. The movie is still fresh and vibrant, but the book seems sadly dated, including some frightening depictions of women. One redeeming quality of the book is a drinking game I created... every time the phrase "mustache Pete" is mentioned.


The Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I couldn't finish it. I wanted to, but I couldn't. For me, it was the nightmare of "Pride and Prejudice" all over again. I didn't care for the this-is-serious-literature writing style; I couldn't relate to pretentious Death As A Narrator.




Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'll admit it. I'm a happily married man, in love with Mindy Kaling. Or at least with her writing. She's smart, funny and -- and this is what hit home for me as the imperfect father of two great daughters -- she doesn't have an unkind word about her parents. I usually complain these days about books being too long. This one was too short.


Sycamore Row (Jake Brigance, #2)Sycamore Row by John Grisham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found this very entertaining and, of course, well-written... and, like seemingly all novels these days, too long. But it's story-telling, not literature, right? And good story-telling at that.




Doctor SleepDoctor Sleep by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another looong book. I listened to the audible.com version, which was divided into 3 chunks of 7 hours. I had gotten through about 1/2 the first part, then accidentally picked up the story 1/2 way through the second part -- and I was able to follow the story just fine. Certainly, this is entertaining in the way that Stephen King is entertaining. But maybe, just maybe, he needs an editor.


Still Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My KeysStill Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys by Billy Crystal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you have a chance, get the audible.com edition of this book, because some of it is performed in front of an audience... and you get to enjoy his delivery, timing and impressions in an engaging way. I found portions of this book -- focused on death and aging and, yes, even the meaning of life -- to be sweet and profound. I'm getting jealous reading auto-biographies by performers such as Billy Crystal, Steve Martin and, yes, even Rob Lowe... who are all better writers than me, too. So just read (or listen) and enjoy... unless you idolize Joe DiMaggio, that is.

Me Before You (Me Before You, #1)Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I listened to the audible.com version of this book, and found it very enjoyable. The production was first-rate, and it was a great way to while away some commuting time. This is not a work of literature, and often the plot lines and characters reminded me of those in an old daytime TV drama. The great ethical question raised here was as black-and-white as can be, given the particular situation described and the seemingly vast resources of the impossibly drawn "Will" and his family.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, #1)Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I hated "Pride and Prejudice" but this book made me re-evaluate the original and appreciate it more. And still, I liked this book MUCH better. The cleverness of the vampire and horror references complements the cleverness of the original passages. The female characters (Elizabeth Bennet as Beatrix Kiddo) are stronger, smarter and much more relatable to a modern reader. The added language is often whimsical, always entertaining -- and, I think, the vampires here provide a more concrete way of viewing the decay that perhaps, were I an English major, I might argue Jane Austen saw intruding on the edges of Georgian society.

Pride and PrejudicePride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I seem to lack the "Pride and Prejudice" gene. I know this book is much beloved. Anna Quindlen -- whose opinion on anything I just agree with BECAUSE she's Anna Quindlen -- has proclaimed it a great novel. But now, I have to disagree with her. I just don't get it. This book makes "Gone Girl" read like "Ulysses." P&P is silly and trite; its characters are not sympathetic; the writing is stilted.. Ok, ok... just let me end this review right now before someone gets hurt. My next read: "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies."


Left NeglectedLeft Neglected by Lisa Genova
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I didn't like this as much as I thought I would... having read and enjoyed "Saving Alice" some time ago, and hearing this book so glowingly recommended by trusted friends. It's probably just me, though. The book is written in the first person, and I took an almost immediate dislike to the self-important main character. I was put off by her ridiculously blind drive to compete and "succeed," and her First World problems were so infuriating and selfish (OMG, my nanny wants to go away to school... why is she trying to ruin my life?). By the end, she has a new perspective (surprise) on life and family. In fairness, the book is well-written, describes an exceedingly interesting medical condition and includes vignettes that I found extremely moving. Especially on this theme: "If you ask me, normal is overrated." PS- Related drinking game: reach for a shot glass every time the main character mentions her Harvard education.

Give Me Everything You Have: On Being StalkedGive Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked by James Lasdun
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to the audio version of this - and it was compelling and sad and frightening. Quite a few reviews seem to be critical of the author's off-narrative ramblings, but I thought it illustrated just how unsettling the situation became... and it seemed to me to be true and intimate. Likewise, I've seen criticisms about a lack of a satisfying ending to this book -- but I found the ending, with the stalker's own words echoing in that particular setting, to be chilling.

Heaven And Hell: My Life In The Eagles (1974 2001)Heaven And Hell: My Life In The Eagles by Don Felder
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well, this was really a fun read, and a nice accompaniment to the Eagles documentary currently making the rounds on cable. I wouldn’t even consider myself an Eagles fan, but I love to read stories about interesting, accomplished lives… and, let’s face it, “Hotel California” IS the American “Stairway to Heaven.” I will say this though… while Mr. Felder is an earnest narrator – and a first-rate and seemingly hard-working guitarist – he does seem to have quite a few First World problems. He effusively states how lucky he was to be a rock and roll god, and then complains about… well, just about everything. I like him as a narrator, and I enjoyed his story – but, you know, I have a funny feeling I wouldn’t want to be in a band with him. Even less so with Glenn Frey. As if.

In Cold BloodIn Cold Blood by Truman Capote
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I re-read this after seeing recent news stories questioning some of the facts in the book -- and also because a trusted friend here gave this book such a low rating. On re-reading, I'm just as impressed as ever with this masterpiece. The primary "fact" in question was a minor point, mildly fictionalized, likely for the sake of storyflow... and this book is still just as chilling as ever. Capote was a marvelous writer, and re-reading this has inspired me to re-read Harper Lee's own classic. So, excuse me, I'm off to vist Maycomb in the summer heat, where "ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum."

The Screwtape LettersThe Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to the audio version read by John Cleese, beginning on Ash Wednesday... and proving to me, once again, how much time has changed my perspective on things. First off, I give this 4 stars because John Cleese could read the phone book, and I would find it hilarious. But had I to actually read this book again, my recurring thoughts would be: "Hey, this is just like the lite version of Dante's Inferno" or "Gee, C.S., it must be nice to have everything so neatly figured out. I do forgive your tortured logic, though." And then, just as I am about dismiss the whole book as nostalgic or, worse, childish -- I come across passages like this:

"The gods are strange to mortal eyes, and yet they are not strange. He had no faintest conception till that very hour of how they would look, and even doubted their existence. But when he saw them he knew that he had always known them and realised what part each one of them had played at many an hour in his life when he had supposed himself alone, so that now he could say to them, one by one, not 'Who are you?' but 'So it was you all the time'."

Makes me stop and think. Maybe I'm not so smart myself.


ArcadiaArcadia by Lauren Groff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book generally interested me because it included so much detail about a childhood and life so unlike my own... and I'd be reading along, enjoying it mildly... when the story would shift and pick up years later. It reminded me of the "7 Up" movie series. In the last part of the book, which I thought was particularly clever, it shifted into the future. So I'm rating it an extra star just for that... and also because there was an observation buried in one chapter that resonated with me: “How disappointing, when people succumb to what is expected of them.”


Odd Interlude: A Special Odd Thomas AdventureOdd Interlude: A Special Odd Thomas Adventure by Dean Koontz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Quick read. Great, if you are in the mood for an Odd Thomas story. It's everything you'd expect, but nothing more. Personally, I like Oddy as an escape. Not the unrelenting dark side of Dean Koontz... some whimsy and charm serves to humanize even the supernatural.




MortalityMortality by Christopher Hitchens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this immediately after reading "God Is Not Great," and indeed one seems to follow from the other, as the author faces death with the same humor, intelligence and humanity as he questioned and rejected religion. I don't agree with many things I've read by this author, but I the love the challenge of his ideas and the way he expresses them. I was hoping, perhaps, for some more-inspiring insights from this great mind as he contemplated his own death... but instead found the same practicality that characterized his first book. No deathbed conversions here, which still leaves me wondering about -- and hungry for -- the very thing that inspires men to build cathedrals.

Down RiverDown River by John Hart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Earnest effort that sometimes devolves into purple prose... "the sun was dying in the sky, and I wondered what it would take with it" et al. The story keeps moving along, so I enjoyed it -- but I think I would have liked the written version better than this audio version. The audio version includes an interview with the author, where the interviewer keeps praising his ear for dialog. Yet, in listening to the story instead of reading it, I found the dialog frustrating. In the book, no one ever answers a direct question directly -- or characters often say things that are deliberately cryptic at first. I often found myself in my car shouting at the narrator, "Just answer the question!"

The RacketeerThe Racketeer by John Grisham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There were few surprises for me in this book -- but it delivered what I expected... solid entertainment. A good story, with a main character I rooted for, and excellent narration by J.D. Jackson. As a work of fiction, or literature, I suppose it rightly should be given three stars. There's nothing exceptional here. But as a guilty pleasure, I'd give it five stars... so my final rating splits the difference.

Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America ForeverKilling Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever by Bill O'Reilly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a very entertaining and informative read. I knocked off a star here because I am rating the audio version of the book, which features Bill O'Reilly as the narrator. He has a very jarring narration style -- as if he were TV pundit! -- but, for me, this took away from the listening experience. "Why is Bill O'Reilly yelling at me?" I kept asking myself. But it certainly made me want to read more about the Civil War and American history.

No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin LadenNo Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden by Mark Owen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An interesting read that, rightfully so, honors those who serve our country. The story rings true to me.





Hidden (Bone Secrets, #1)Hidden by Kendra Elliot
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

OK, if the mood is right... I suppose. But it was kind of like an extended episode of the TV show "Criminal Minds," including one-dimensional male characters and relationships based on studies in anthropology rather than real life. Not my best reading choice lately.



American Gods (American Gods, #1)American Gods by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Since all my previous reviews are 4 stars or more, I thought I'd just comment on a recent read that didn't enthrall me. I'm sorry, I just don't get this one. I know a lot of people love this book (and I can understand that feeling, since this is a noble effort), but I found it rambling in a bad way.



The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Green is an astounding writer, associated with "YA" (young adult) readers. Ha. I wish teenagers were this articulate, profound, poetic and wise. I'd give this book 5 stars if I could only suspend disbelief long enough for that extra star. The audible.com version of this book is especially well-read.


A Painted HouseA Painted House by John Grisham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a pleasant surprise. Recommended by my friend Mark Marchand, this book reminded me of "The Glass Castle" -- but that's always been one of my favorites too. Filled with baseball references, a good deal of violence and likable, even admirable, characters. I, in turn, recommend it to you.



Gone GirlGone Girl by Gillian Flynn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Loved the first 2/3rds of the book, but then it started to fall flat for me. Still a great all-around read. Makes "The War of the Roses" seem very tame.





The Age of MiraclesThe Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well-written, including some extraordinarily lyrical and poetic passages.






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