Book Reviews

Following are thoughts about my most-recently read books, in reverse chronological order. In addition, here are links to: all my Goodreads reviews and more books reviewed before 2019.

Baggage: Tales from a Fully Packed LifeBaggage: Tales from a Fully Packed Life by Alan Cumming
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read "Not My Father's Son" about 5 years ago, and this is a simple read compared to that. This one isn't as challenging. It's like a night out with an old friend who tells fantastic stories -- "fantastic" in the more literal sense of strained credulity.

I really can't relate to the author's colorful life, but I ultimately enjoy his stories. No plot, but there's a moral:

"Yeah, that's my friend Alan. Sure, he can be self-indulgent, but he's earned the right. Besides, he encourages me... challenges me, in fact... to say 'yes' and be open to new experiences. I think that's a worthy lesson."

Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul SimonMiracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was so beautiful to listen to.

So what?

Gladwell has written before about economist David Galenson's studies of creativity as we age, and much of that same territory is explored in these interviews.

I'll say this, though: The topic fascinates me, and it has helped me better appreciate and admire the artist Paul Cezanne.

The past week I've spent with this audiobook has entertained me. It's filled with stories, song snippets, full musical performances, and other voices besides the interviewers and Simon. It informed me, surprised me and, more than that, it has ignited a new resolve as I get older to find ways to evolve creative pursuits.

And now, I appreciate and admire Simon's genius all the more.

The book ends with Simon -- in wavering, simultaneously world-weary and accepting voice -- singing "American Tune." It's my favorite song of his, and the first I tried to learn on guitar when I was young. Whenever I played it, Mom would say, "Bobby, why do you always sing such sad songs?" I tried to explain that it wasn't a sad song, but I never had the depth-of-experience in my voice to convey that.

Listen to the way Paul Simon sings "American Tune" in the early 2020s. It isn't sad. It's nuanced, and ever-changing, and truly beautiful. To me, it's inspiring.

Titanic: The Story About The Unsinkable ShipTitanic: The Story About The Unsinkable Ship by Henry Freeman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A quick read about a subject that has always interested me. Straight-forward and factual. One bonus: the book reminded me of the treasure trove of Fr. Francis Browne's photos, which sent me down an interesting and educational rabbit hole. Thank you, Henry Freeman!

Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American DynastyVanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty by Anderson Cooper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The very rich are different from you and me, and the stories they leave behind are often difficult to understand. Sometimes, mind-numbingly so.

For the first half of this book (save for the sad prologue of Gladys getting kicked out of The Breakers), I was... sadly, mind-numbingly... bored.

This was unexpected. I'm a fan of both Anderson Cooper and New York City. I appreciate that the Vanderbilt family had built one of my world's favorite places, Grand Central Terminal. So I started this book with high hopes.

Then I gave up on it and put it aside.

And then I read other reviews that referenced later chapters, and I picked it up again at Chapter 10, and the story of Gloria Vanderbilt. Things picked up for me from there, past Truman Capote, and until the very end, when the authors recall Vanderbilt ghosts and the places they haunt in Manhattan.

I'll give this book 4 stars because it's a worthy effort, and I learned something about myself along the way: I have no empathy for the very rich, and I can lead a full life without ever setting foot in The Breakers.

Sad Sacked: A MemoirSad Sacked: A Memoir by Liz Alterman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cleverly, expertly, written. This is the first book I've read in a few months, so I give the author credit for engaging me through some pretty rough subject matter: being unemployed (not by choice) and middle-aged, living in New Jersey. Raising a family is tough enough, and there's a moral issue (not explored here) about the willfulness of some employers. Also middle-aged and living in New Jersey, I've been lucky in my own career, but this book brought to mind the harsh realities that so many friends have faced, especially journalists.

Still, this is ultimately a life-affirming memoir, and the author is seemingly effortless at weaving in humor. I say seemingly, because anything this well-written is surely not effortless.

I can't give it 5 stars though. This is a memoir, after all, and some things written about the husband made me cringe. Maybe one night in Jersey her easily-identified husband and I will run into each other, underneath that one stranded star. I'd like to buy him a beer.

Interior ChinatownInterior Chinatown by Charles Yu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Listening to the Audible version, it found it a little disconcerting to follow the narrative at first. It’s innovative, not complicated, but still I’d recommend reading the printed version... especially because there were several poetic phrasings here I wanted to save/savor. The author is a wonderful writer, and my wife (who knows me better than anyone) predicted I would love this book. As it turns out, I didn’t “love”/love it as much as Nancy thought I would. Which was also disconcerting.

Making Conversation: Seven Essential Elements of Meaningful CommunicationMaking Conversation: Seven Essential Elements of Meaningful Communication by Fred Dust
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A little long for the content presented... which probably has more to do with my own diminishing ability to focus (and which is one reason I wanted to read this book in the first place!) Anyway, lots of good stuff here: more about designing/planning important conversations than about engaging in conversation itself.

I now know it's ok (and helpful) to doodle while listening to a conversation. And I am inspired by this quote from the author: "The very act of creation is a courageous, generous, and optimistic act."

The Way I Heard ItThe Way I Heard It by Mike Rowe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Highly enjoyable. More of a compendium of podcast episodes than a book. But what's a "book" these days? All I know is, Mike Rowe's storytelling format is engaging, and I kept imagining my grandfather was listening with me. This would have been right up his alley.

I know "right up his alley" isn't great writing... but that's just the point. You don't open or listen to this book for literature. You come here to be entertained, and maybe a bit more informed. And then you remember a loved one, like Nonno, who you know would enjoy this too.

Post Corona: From Crisis to OpportunityPost Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity by Scott Galloway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you receive Prof. Galloway's emails or follow him on social media, this will be recent familiar material -- but it's EXCELLENT material nonetheless. Galloway is, perhaps, an acquired taste. If this book were a drinking game and the trigger word was "gangster" as an adjective, you couldn't get past the first two-thirds before passing out.

Still, you'd be entertained along the way by clever quotes ("LinkedIn is the social network we'd always hoped Twitter and Facebook would become") and insights (most university education in 2020 was nothing more than a $50,000 a year streaming subscription service).

Stick around the last part of the book. The word "gangster" disappears, and Galloway has thoughtful observations about income inequality and patriotism, and challenging ideas for positive change in the post-2020 world.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (Hercule Poirot, #1)The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Breezy read, no surprises. Like comfort food.

I found I couldn't stomach the narrator's character, Arthur Hastings, though. I know we're supposed to how enjoy how clueless he is, so we mortal readers don't have to feel so dumb as we try to keep up with the plot twists... but I found him infuriating, save for his soft spot for red-haired women.

108 Stitches: Loose Threads, Ripping Yarns, and the Darndest Characters from My Time in the Game108 Stitches: Loose Threads, Ripping Yarns, and the Darndest Characters from My Time in the Game by Ron Darling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It was an unexpected pleasure to listen to Ron Darling’s commentary during the TBS broadcast of the Yankees game last night. Ron is usually part of the three-person Mets’ broadcasting team. They are the best in baseball, or sports in general, these days.

Coincidentally, I also happened to finish listening to the Audible version of Ron’s latest book (now more than a year old) early this morning. It’s voiced by the same professional reader who read a recent Audible version of E.B. White’s “Here Is New York” – which was fitting, because “Manhattan” is a recurring theme in this collection of Ron’s baseball stories. (This reader also delivers a few reverse-Yogisms as he smoothly, unknowingly butchers Jim Bouton’s last name and Asdrubal Cabrera’s first name.)

Ron’s book baffles me a bit. I enjoyed it as much as a Mets broadcast, but it left me with an uneasy feeling (also, much like the Mets). I found Ron’s narrative here and writing style – which I see criticized in other reviews – actually not as “lazy” as the author accuses himself of being. In fact, it’s rather erudite.

I also found most of the stories entertaining, but wondered at what cost. One central story about Lenny Dykstra (the source of a libel suit Darling eventually won because the judge ruled that, given his already tarnished reputation, Dykstra couldn’t be defamed) doesn’t seem to be corroborated by anyone else who was there. And there’s an unfortunate anecdote here involving someone with prostate cancer.

Ron names names over a long career, and some recollections have a snitchy quality that I can’t imagine would play well among his former teammates. But what do I know? I was never a good athlete. I was never a cool kid, like Ron, when he ate dinner at Elaine’s.

Because of my Dad (who was a good athlete), I do enjoy watching baseball. I thank Ron, Keith and Gary for all the joy they’ve provided as my wife and I have listened to them broadcast Mets games in recent years.

In the same way, I enjoyed this book. The thing is, I like Ron Darling a bit less now.

I don’t think he cares.

Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American DemocracyGhosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy by Margaret Sullivan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading this is particularly poignant in the days following Pete Hamill's death and the shuttering of the Daily News' New York City newsroom. A long intro lays out an ambitious premise for what is ultimately a short book. Perhaps there's simply not that much more to say.

I admire Margaret Sullivan very much, and there's good reason to give this read 5 stars -- and, yet, for all the fawning admiration of the talent of trained journalists and the god-like qualities ascribed to Washington Post editor Marty Baron, there's still a germ of a doubt in my mind about how we got to this place and how we can recover.

For one thing, I believe smart people will adapt to the changes caused by technology that led to many self-inflicted problems in the business of journalism.

For another thing, a recent story in the Post (precipitated by an email to Ms. Sullivan, or so I have read) devoted a good deal of the paper's resources to investigating a DC-area Halloween party several years ago where a private citizen wore an ill-considered costume (for which she expressed regret) and was shamed and fired from her job as a result of the Post's coverage.

If what remains of hallowed journalism is so precious, it should not have been squandered like that... by people who should have known better.

Blood: A MemoirBlood: A Memoir by Allison Moorer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an outstanding book by a talented writer.

Even better: Listen to the Audible version of this book.

"Blood" is a memoir centered on the murder/suicide of the author's parents outside her bedroom window when she was just 14 years old.

In less-capable and thoughtful hands, such a shocking story might be impossible to tell.

Instead, I found the Audible version -- read by the author in a plaintive voice -- both touching and intimate. It inspired me.

On one level, it's inspiring to experience the act of being told a story. It harkens back to Homer and Shakespeare, to the days my parents read stories to me, and to memories of reading stories to my daughters.

On another level, I was inspired by "Blood"'s theme of acceptance, forgiveness and love.

If you want to learn more about Moorer's book, Google and watch her extraordinary interview with "CBS This Morning" last October.

If you want to know more about her music, watch the YouTube clip of Moorer and her sister, Shelby Lynne, performing "Maybe Tomorrow" as part of an Everly Brothers tribute at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. (Shelby's the one sticking the gum she'd been chewing on top of Albert Lee's amp.)

This book is simply stunning: Moorer's voice... her haunting and lyrical words... her still-undying love for her parents.

Mariette in EcstasyMariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm so angry at this novel. It reminds me how my senses have become so numb lately. Blame the pandemic.

I started and stopped, started and stopped reading this book so many times over the past two months. I even read many thoughtful reviews, which encouraged me to read on, because Ron Hansen's work is so highly regarded.

Rightfully so, I imagine. The writing here is impressive. But all the pretty words and imagery, the author's impressionistic style and slow pacing, all the petty characters (save Mariette)... ultimately left me flat and cold and, much worse, uninterested. Was it the storytelling? Or simply me?

I've read or seen reviews that this book's ambiguous ending is very profound and holds many secrets. This is a reflection of me today: I am not able to discern a single one.

Rejoice and Be Glad 2020: Daily Reflections for Easter to PentecostRejoice and Be Glad 2020: Daily Reflections for Easter to Pentecost by Mary DeTurris Poust
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book very much; the personal stories from the author made the daily reflections entertaining and relatable. (Full disclosure: Mary DeTurris Poust is a former colleague, and a good friend.)

SPOILER ALERT: The main character disappears into thin air in the middle of the story... or does he? 🙂

Casino Royale (James Bond, #1)Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Escapism in the Age of COVID-19

"Billions" used to be one of my favorite shows. But last night's premiere of Season 5 (today is 5/4/20) left me with a hollow, "so what?" feeling.

The Showtime series is a soap opera about rich people, and the outstanding production and writing quality hasn't changed since Season 4.

The world has changed. I've changed.

So too with Bond. I couldn't concentrate on the psychological/religious novel I had chosen to read a few weeks ago, so I picked up Ian Fleming's novel instead, hoping that the escapism would comfort me.

I was wrong.

This is the original, best Bond. It lacks the Bond Villain Stupidity of some of the lesser movies based on subsequent installments. (My wife could always tell when I'd watch one of these because, like Dr. Evil's son, I'd be shouting, "Just shoot him! Just shoot him!" from the living room).

This is the Bond-in-Writing that attracted my Dad as a fan. Dad was an intelligence officer in the Navy. So, high praise.

This book -- like "Billions" -- is a still Worthy Effort. It's just not resonating with me these days.

Curiously, both the Bobby Axelrod character in last night's "Billions" episode and the James Bond here wonder if there's something more to life than what they've devoted their efforts to. Then both are betrayed, and both revert to their broad, impossible, more-appealing-to-a-commercial-audience selves.

I was willing to suspend belief for Bond's view of women the way I suspended belief during all the plot twists in "Billions" -- but I can't suspend the haunting feeling, in the age of COVID-19, that there's something more to life than reading or watching all this.

The world has changed. I've changed.

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and CommunicatingIf I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating by Alan Alda
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Chalk this up to displacement in the age of COVID-19. I've read a little of this book every night these past three weeks... in order to put myself to sleep. I found this book incredibly boring, like slogging through ankle-deep mud. Uphill.

I've had similar reading meltdowns: witness the great "Pride and Prejudice" debacle of 2013.

As much as I want to give this less than 3 stars, I can't: Alan Alda is a favorite actor, and seems like a perfectly wonderful person in what I can glean is his real life. I wish him all the best. I really do.

I even promise to read any sequel titled "My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating... and Zombies."

What the Dog Saw and Other AdventuresWhat the Dog Saw and Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I recently enjoyed – and recommend highly – Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, “Talking to Strangers.” When I subsequently realized I had purchased “What the Dog Saw” as an audiobook years ago without listening to it then, I dove into this one too… and was not disappointed.

I can’t quite give it 5 stars because I wasn’t as interested in all the topics covered here as Malcolm (I now feel we’re on a first-name basis) was. This is an eclectic compilation of past New Yorker articles, so stories also date back years earlier than the book’s 2009 publication.

And yet, Malcolm’s depth of reporting, writing style and analysis are consistently thought-provoking. He challenges all assumptions. He analytically and anecdotally shows that life is complicated and messy, and truth is elusive.

The moral: We aren’t as in control of things as we like to think we are.

This especially hit home for me this morning (March 11, 2020). I finished the book on an almost-empty bus during my commute to New York City. Walking to work, I noticed that the midtown streets weren’t very crowded.

This book offers life lessons in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is wonderfully provocative -- entertaining, insightful, sometimes infuriating.

I say "infuriating" because it's hard to know what the truth really is in all the stories told here, as convincing as Malcolm Gladwell sounds. So I approach expressing any view of this book, ultimately, the way he advises we approach our interactions with strangers: with caution and humility.

The only thing I'm sure of is this: It's well worth the time to discover this book for yourself.

If you can, give the Audible version a try. It's extremely well-done, adding another dimension to the stories and making it a 5-star experience. Highly recommended.

Year of the MonkeyYear of the Monkey by Patti Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a bit different than "Just Kids," which I enjoyed more than this. As if that matters. This is more abstract, like a dream sequence in a movie.

Still, listen to the Audible version, because it's Patti Smith reading -- and Patti Smith reading anything is very special.

Near the end of the book, she says this. Which is everything:

“This is what I know - Sam is dead. My brother is dead. My mother is dead. My father is dead. My husband is dead. My cat is dead. My dog, who was dead in 1957, is still dead. Yet still I keep thinking that something wonderful is about to happen. Maybe tomorrow.”

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On ItNever Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It by Chris Voss
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To use a question the author would ask: How am I supposed to review this book?

On the surface, this book delivers — as advertised — helpful life advice... being empathetic to others, asking open-ended questions, separating the issue from the person... There’s some really good stuff here.

If I’m ever in a hostage situation, Chris Voss would be the first person I’d call.

Then again, this is one of the most depressing things I’ve read in some time. The central concept is that “everything in life is a negotiation” (and, yes, the author does indeed mean EVERYTHING).

What kind of life is that?

Throw in the author’s cringe-worthy ego and, frankly, I’m just emotionally drained at this point.

If I’m ever feeling suicidal, Chris Voss would be the last person I’d call.

Vacillating here between 5 stars and 0 stars, I’ll split the difference.

The Algebra of Happiness: Finding the Equation for a Life Well LivedThe Algebra of Happiness: Finding the Equation for a Life Well Lived by Scott Galloway
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oddly, this avowed atheist’s perspective on life is the most spiritual book I’ve read in quite some time.

Here’s an argument — couched in “Dad advice” on everything, including managing your money — for doing good in the world, simply for the sake of doing good.

The basis of Scott Galloway’s belief system? Nurturing close relationships, especially with family... hard work... sacrifice for others... and, above all, unconditional love.

I agree that this is the best way to live; although, like Scott, I often don’t live up to these standards in real life. So it’s helpful to read a reasoned argument for why I should try to be better.

Regarding spirituality, let me give a gratuitous plug for “The Two Popes,” the film released late last year, directed by Fernando Meirelles and written by Anthony McCarten. It too is thoughtful and entertaining.

All things considered, I don’t think Scott’s short book (which, spoiler alert, contains no algebra) would make quite as good a movie.

CalypsoCalypso by David Sedaris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I should love this book... and yet.

I admire the author's style, which, at its best, reminds me of the wonderful James Thurber (and, at its worst, Andy Rooney)... and yet.

I seem to share the author's sense of humor, and find his outlook on life agreeable... and yet.

Mostly, I found myself mildly entertained by this book, and -- too often -- bored.

My disappointment is in the author's self-absorption. I found no depth of meaning here.

Perhaps, if our sensibilities are indeed so much alike, I am giving this collection of odd and often trite stories a mediocre review because, ultimately, this isn't a book.

I'm afraid it's really a mirror.

Super Pumped: The Battle for UberSuper Pumped: The Battle for Uber by Mike Isaac
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Posting this (with a sigh) on the next-to-last-day of 2019:

This is a really good book... although not quite as good, even if in the same vein (excuse the expression), as last year’s “Bad Blood.”

The journalism here is terrific, just like “Bad Blood” and “Catch and Kill.” The problem — and why I kept putting this aside before finishing it — is that there’s no one to root for here.

Not only that, but all the bad guys — and, yes, they are all guys — wind up insanely rich in the end.

It was painful to read about all the excess, all the wasted wealth, all the casual crimes (the incident of a female Uber employee’s head being forcibly shoved into a pile of cocaine is simply noted in passing).

There’s no moral to this story, and so much damage done in the wake of Uber’s success.

It’s page 364 of 365, and I’m ready to close the book on the “Super Pumped” decade, when technology combined with greed to widen the gap between rich and poor.

I have to believe that in the 2020s, Mike Isaac will have better stories to tell.

Death in VeniceDeath in Venice by Thomas Mann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having fond memories of this novella from my school years at Notre Dame, I started reading the Kindle version... and found myself stalling, putting the book aside, then dreading to reattempt to follow the stilted language of the opening pages. This was the “Dover Thrift Edition,” translated by Stanley Appelbaum. (In his prodigious and accomplished career, he had translated Ovid’s “Art of Love,” another book I fondly recalled from school.)

But I guess I’m not in Indiana any more. Having lived in New Jersey for so long, I can now officially confirm I have no patience.

I eventually tried the Audible version of a newer, award-winning translation (by Michael Henry Heim) read by Simon Callow. Somehow, listening to a sophisticated English accent made the passing words and story tolerable. But disappointing still.

I wasn’t moved by the book. The main character is simply creepy. The decay of the setting isn’t as profound as I once thought. The Venice of Gustav von Aschenbach is Disneyland compared to the portents in the real world today, Venice included.

College Me would have chalked up my disappointment to the translation. I’ve always been wary of literary works that are not in their native language. But as Michael Cunningham notes in his very wise introduction: “All novels are translations, even in their original languages... None of us reads precisely the same book, even if the words are identical.”

The thing is, I can’t tolerate leaden genius any more.

On this, perhaps Aschenbach and I would agree: Let me be awed and thunderstruck by all the simple beauty in the world, even as our world begins to fall apart.

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After reading this book, I can’t even…

I can’t even believe the breadth and depth of Harvey Weinstein’s behavior – or his enablers.

I can’t even believe that NBC News refuses to conduct an independent investigation of how it botched the handling of this story.

I can’t even express how much I admire the tenacity and talent of Ronan Farrow.

Like “Bad Blood,” “Catch and Kill” is another great work of investigative journalism. It is an outstanding read, chronicling the abuse of power.

This isn't a book about Me Too; it's a book about All of Us. Read it. You won't believe for yourself.

The Front RunnerThe Front Runner by Matt Bai
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book – originally titled “All the Truth Is Out” — is an earnest recounting of Gary Hart’s place in history.

I read it after watching a recent earnest movie adaptation. It was OK. To be honest, I didn’t enjoy the book any better than I enjoyed movie.

Earnest is not my cup of tea. I prefer Ernest, as in Hemingway. I’m not a big fan of politicians.
Still, I am a big fan of journalists, and it’s hard not to be impressed by author Matt Bai, who, until recently, wrote political columns for Yahoo News.

Until recently, I was a media relations director for Yahoo’s corporate parent, Verizon.

Matt’s world and mine never collided. Even though we both received paychecks from the same company, the world of the writers and editors who worked on Yahoo, TechCrunch, Engadget, HuffPo and other Verizon-owned media properties were never, as far as I could ever tell, interfered with by their corporate parent. In this way, Verizon was more supportive of journalists than, say, NBC News was of Ronan Farrow.

On both sides (corporate and publishing), we ensured objectivity and professionalism. Every time TechCrunch mentioned Verizon in a post it added an editor’s note describing the company as the site’s “corporate overlord.”

This was as it should be. At one point, we in Verizon’s communications department even sought to purchase “Corporate Overlord” t-shirts as a team-builder, but some PR issue or another diverted our attention.

All of which is to say that I do not pretend I can research, write and provide context as well as Bai and his colleagues.

I’m just a lowly reader, but this book didn’t engage or excite me.

That is, except for two redeeming scenes: the recounting of two of the author’s interactions with Gary Hart that gave me goosebumps.

One scene involves Hart’s plaintive self-evaluation, years after his PR debacle. He cites a well-known New Testament parable and almost breaks down in tears.

The second scene occurs in Bai’s evocative final pages.

There’s a question left hanging as the book ends, delicately suspended in mid-air, described with extraordinary perspective and heartache.

Bravo, says the former corporate overlord. Bravo, I say again, for what it’s worth.

The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the WorldThe Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World by Sarah Weinman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is about the kidnapping of Sally Horner… and, as the subtitle breathlessly intones, “the novel that scandalized the world.”

This is basically a solid true crime story about a heartbreaking tale of the 1948 abduction of an 11-year-old girl from Camden, NJ.

I’m glad that Weinman told this tale with such empathy and thoroughness. Where the book loses me is that, throughout, Weinman is shocked… SHOCKED… that Vladimir Nabokov might have had some knowledge of this crime when writing “Lolita.”

Nabokov makes one parenthetical reference to Horner in “Lolita,” and a thorough vetting of his estate yielded one reference to her among the thousands of legendary index cards he used for notetaking and organization. This should hardly be surprising. It’s the 1950s version of finding a questionable link in someone’s comprehensive browsing history.

Weinman uses this slim reed to indict, and even mock (see Vladimir chasing butterflies in his funny clothes; see his beleaguered wife Vera try to protect his image like a corporate PR director) the author for crass exploitation of a sex crime.

I don’t know how much Nabokov knew about Sally Horner and, frankly, I don’t care.

My post:
"Re-reading 'Lolita' in Middle Age"
I also don’t need Weinman to tell me that “Lolita” is exploitative at its core.

It’s because I’ve grown up. I now regard all of Nabokov’s pretty words as nothing more than pedophilia played out in prostitution, threats and manipulation, as Lolita cried herself to sleep every night.

In another book — Matt Bai’s “The Front Runner” — the author is conversing with Gary Hart many years after his PR debacle.

Hart is reexamining his life and quoting from, of all things, the New Testament.

He can’t quite shake the implications of Jesus’ parable of the talents. Hart wonders aloud to a journalist if perhaps he hadn’t put to best use all his God-given abilities and blessings. Then he almost begins to cry.

I feel that way about myself most days. I feel that way about Nabokov too.

What if Nabokov had written a bold and insightful story about someone like Hart — or the homeless woman I just passed on the street? What great work of art could Nabokov have produced on the theme of the manipulation of power among adults, perhaps in terms of a character like Harvey Weinstein?

What if he had simply written about the intersection of life and baseball?

Speaking of which...

Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?: The Improbable Saga of the New York Mets' First YearCan't Anybody Here Play This Game?: The Improbable Saga of the New York Mets' First Year by Jimmy Breslin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I recently discovered, a non-stop plane ride from New York to the heart of middle America is the exact amount of time it takes someone like me to read this short book by Jimmy Breslin, whose writing is an acquired taste.

In 1963, only five years after the American publication of “Lolita,” Breslin wrote about the intersection of life and baseball.

He wrote about the 1962 New York Mets. My sin, my soul.

Let’s-go-Mets: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of only one step to end, at three, by howling at the moon. Let’s. Go. Mets.

The Mets, in the immortal words of Breslin, are losers – just like nearly everybody else in life. This book is about the most poetic season of the most poetic team in the most poetic of sports. It’s recommended reading, full of life’s wisdom.

These days, I enjoyed it more than “Lolita,” although not as much as I enjoyed and appreciated Ronan Farrow’s book about Harvey Weinstein. I don’t know what that says about my life. I must be a loser too.

Look at this tangle of thorns.

On the BeachOn the Beach by Nevil Shute
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m someone who, years ago, spent time on his honeymoon cruise reading “The Fate of the Earth” by Jonathan Schell, about the consequences of nuclear war.

I also very much enjoyed Stanley Kramer’s now-hard-to-find adaption of “On the Beach,” the one starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Anthony Perkins in black and white.

That movie was oddly sparse and bloodless, but I thought it was better than this book... which is even quieter and more restrained. The 1959 movie infused some tangible humanity that was missing from the writing.

Perhaps it’s the simple difference between reading about a ghost, and actually seeing one.

Don’t get me wrong: the writing here is good — and I do recommend this book. It seemed quaint, but in a good way.

I liked this book better than, say, the 2000 made-for-television film starring Armand Assante, Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown in color. Ghosts are more evocative in theory, or in black and white.

So, was the book better than the movie?

Yes and no.

Self-Discipline: Develop Good Habits. Achieve Your Goals.Self-Discipline: Develop Good Habits. Achieve Your Goals. by Jennifer Alison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an Audible self-help book. It has received decent reviews from many, but I found it simplistic and repetitive. Still, it offers sound advice — so much so that it inspired me to stick with the book until the finish.

Eternal LifeEternal Life by Dara Horn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an interesting book, with an interesting premise that explores how the eventual end of everything may seem like a curse, but can also be viewed as a great mercy. There’s some really good writing here, but this is another case where all the craft and intelligence of the author didn’t make for a compelling story. I listened to this book, and I don’t regret that I did... but, honestly, it was sometimes a chore. The ending made no sense to me, given what happened in the next-to-last chapter. There was, in fact, no ending — which is rather existential, given the subject.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz (The Tattooist of Auschwitz, #1)The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh my, this is a good story and worthy read. But, in places, something about it doesn’t ring true. There are too many situations where the main character just happens to be there, like Zelig. And, as it turns out after researching articles about this book, there are of course some parts of the story that are fictionalized for storytelling purposes. So approach this book as you do Wikipedia: 95% of it is true; you just don’t know which 5% isn’t. That said: this is highly recommended reading.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State KillerI'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a well-written and well-researched version of an unfinished book. For perspective... and closure, I recommend listening to two Audible selections: Billy Jensen’s “Chase Darkness With Me” and Paul Holes’ podcast-style “Evil Has a Name.”

Having read/listened to all this, I am overwhelmed by the utter senselessness of the crimes. While Michelle McNamara devoted her life to the earnest pursuit of justice and her reporting is often haunting, in the end I’m left hollow: no wiser about any of this, despite all the perspective.

There ThereThere There by Tommy Orange
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book ticks all boxes for something special: earnest, talented writer (check); focus on “storytelling” (check); awards galore (check). Politically correct to boot.

But, to me, the dozen interwoven stories fell flat. Even the operatic ending felt gratuitous, without evoking any emotional impact on my part. I was just left wondering at the senselessness of it all.

This is another one of those books that I think I should like. Until I read it. Still, I can see it becoming a new staple for high school literature classes.

The Gospel According to LukeThe Gospel According to Luke by Steve Lukather
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What does this book have in common with the real Gospel According to Luke?

That Luke is the patron saint of writers, and on a blank page a talented writer can do anything. Consider this Luke the patron saint of working musicians. With hard work and dedication musicians can do anything too, including meeting and performing with three Beatles, unintentionally antagonizing Eric Clapton, and making countless thousands of people happy.

I admire the work it takes to become a musician at Steve Lukather’s level. I give him 5 stars for that. I give his book 4 stars because he isn’t quite as accomplished a written-word story-teller, with his tales often devolving into a list of names and “love you, brother” callouts.

Ultimately, this is a story about the redemptive power of music. That may not be a religion, but it’s something I truly believe in too.

Rogue Island (Liam Mulligan, #1)Rogue Island by Bruce DeSilva
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let me, in the words of the main character, fire up a Cuban and tell you what I really think about this book: I was more frustrated than Juan Soto swinging at that nasty Jacob deGrom changeup on Opening Day 2019.

It’s probably a matter of taste, but the author’s writing style got in the way of my enjoyment of this story. Evidently, though, this is a worthy effort for the genre; it even won an Edgar Award. Is there not a Damon Runyon Award?

Perhaps there is, and perhaps Mr. DeSilva has won one of those too. I can’t give this any less than 4 stars simply on the basis of taste. There’s a lot to like here: the plot, what I imagine the soundtrack would be if this were made into a movie, the random appearances of Mr. Potato Head, and... charmingly... a cleverly inserted shout-out to the author’s real-life spouse and her poetry.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book surprised me. It’s infuriating. There are long sections where I was so done with it — and yet, it got under my skin. It darts back and forth between places so familiar to me (Paterson, Rutgers) and one so foreign (Dominican Republic). It’s a long journey, like “The Heart of Darkness,” with a much different ending.

Stay HungryStay Hungry by Sebastian Maniscalco
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Standup comedy is ridiculously hard to do well, so I’ve been inspired — and certainly amused — by past books I’ve read by Steve Martin, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Billy Crystal and Mindy Kaling. I admire the work ethic of successful comedians, and their story-telling is uniformly great.

This book started out as one of the most down-to-earth and inspirational, but I started to lose interest the more I read. When I got to the descriptions of Sebastian’s lavish First World wedding and an extravagantly expensive dinner at a pretentious restaurant (followed by his tips on tipping), I thought, “Well, good for him.” But I was done.

5 stars for the first half of the book; 3 stars for the second.

The President Is MissingThe President Is Missing by Bill Clinton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is harmlessly cartoonish — somehow reminding me of the classic Phil-Hartman-era SNL skit, where President Reagan is bumbling and clueless in public, but in private he’s a tough-talking mastermind who knows about and controls everything happening in the world.

No one, in real life, is as smart, principled and effective as the president in this novel: a good-looking war hero and former athlete who literally saves the world on a Saturday. I can’t find any of the real President Clinton in this pre-packaged, if well-crafted, tale... unless I were a psychiatrist. Because this president is a widower — and at one point he even kicks the Russian ambassador out of the Oval Office with a warning to stay out of the U.S. electoral process.

The only thing the president doesn’t do in this book is drive his own car in a chase scene. However, if he did, I’m sure it would have been a very, very large car.

Small FrySmall Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I feel I am not worthy to review this book. It dissects every relationship from many angles… and, in the end, there are so many perspectives from the author about her birth father, birth mother and step mother that it’s all a blur.

In fact, no one is spared this fate: when neighbors generously pay for the author’s Harvard tuition when her father would not, they are characterized in the end (in someone else’s words, of course) as trying to “buy a daughter.”

No one survives this memoir unscathed, including the author and the reader… who evidently Steve Jobs would call a bozo and Laurene Powell Jobs would call a loser.

Perhaps, in the end, that’s the moral of this story: We’re all bozos here, and no one survives this life unscathed. So maybe we should simply default to showing each other a little more... I’ll dare say it... kindness.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley StartupBad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Unlike a good journalist writing a good lede, I don’t even know where to begin to summarize the reasons this is the last, best and most important book I read in 2018.

So let me count three ways:

1. This is an epic drama, with life-saving consequences. It’s the compelling, readable story of journalists, editors and their sources who sought the truth. In doing so, they put an end to business practices that had a sociopathic disregard for the general public. While John Carreyrou plays a pivotal role in investigating and reporting this story, it’s inspiring to read about so many people who risked their reputations, careers and personal and family relationships to protect the public good.

2. This is why journalism matters. One could argue that the media created the Theranos dragon it eventually slayed. Enamored (like so many rich, old, white men) by Elizabeth Holmes and the myth she created, the media was just another cheerleader for too long a time. But, in the end, only a free press was strong enough to bring the complicated truth to light. For all the ranting about #FakeNews (created, some would argue, by Rupert Murdoch), it is heartening to read about improbable heroes (like Rupert Murdoch, who resisted pleas to spike the Wall Street Journal’s initial investigative story) who do the right things for the right reasons.

3. This is a cautionary tale for our times. It cautions us to be more skeptical of the “fake it until you make it” culture, about accepting things too readily at face value, and about the dangers of the cult of celebrity. And about greed.
In the end, Theranos put the health and well-being of thousands of ordinary people at risk – doing the exact opposite of what it started out to do Theranos didn’t save lives, and it didn’t do anything extraordinary. A good, ordinary journalist did.


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