Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Fire and Fury, by Michael Wolff

As with the last book that I reviewed, this book has been written about a lot, so I'm not going to go into too much detail. I will just say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading about White House activities from this "fly on the wall" reporter. It's unbelievable that he was given so much access; it's clear that no one in the White House has any idea how to run an office. The few people who do have a clue are completely ignored (and mostly gone already). It's a fast and fascinating read.

I will say that it appears to have been rushed to press without sufficient editing; I assume future editions will correct the many typos. The writing itself is not the best; there are many sentences that simply don't read well. Mr. Wolff has a habit of using M dashes so profusely that it obstructs the clarity of the sentences; I found myself re-reading many of these sentences over and over. But don't let that hold you back! This is definitely worth reading, if for no other reason than to understand how totally wacky Trump and all of his minions are.

Michael Wolff. Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2018. 321 pages. ISBN 9781250158062.

What Happened, by Hillary Rodham Clinton

A lot has been written about this book since it was published last year. Having been an ardent Hillary supporter, I was curious about her take on the 2016 election and eager to read this. The first thing that struck me was that the book sounded just like her. I know she probably had a good editor, but the writing itself was just what I expected: intelligent, earnest, compassionate, and oftentimes funny. What I didn't expect was how devastating the first few chapters were, as Hillary describes what it was like for her on November 8 and 9. I'm glad I was alone while I read these chapters; they evoked the same crushing shock and depression that I felt on those days, but it was worse because I was feeling her pain and shock as well. Hillary writes about how she navigated the 2016 election campaign, the folks she worked with, and the issues that she cares about. While I'm interested in the issues, the best parts of the book for me were the personal stories. It's clear that she cares deeply about her friends, colleagues, and supporters. She saves her deeper criticism for Trump (no surprise) and others, such as Congressman Ryan Zinke, who had referred to Hillary in 2014 as the "Antichrist." This is an excellent memoir that I would recommend to anyone who follows politics. Now I can't wait to read Barack and Michelle's memoirs!

Hillary Rodham Clinton. What Happened. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017. 492 pages. ISBN 9781501175565.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson

I loved this story about a young man who experiences a lifetime of pain in one summer a few years after the second world war in Norway. Trond is spending the summer with his father in rural Norway near the Swedish border. He's made friends with Jon, a boy near his age, and they have adventures in the woods and mountains nearby. The story is told by an older Trond who has returned to the area to retire after his wife dies.

Jon and Trond's fathers feel some macho competitiveness between them. Trond's father was part of the Norwegian resistance along with Jon's mother. Jon's father refused to participate, and his petty resentment against his wife's resistance activities led to her exposure and flight along with Trond's father to Sweden for the remaining months of the war. Years later, their competitive streak leads to an accident which causes Jon's father to break his leg and eventually leave his marriage. Trond's father never returns home to his family, leaving Trond broken and always yearning for the father who abandoned him. Years later, Trond returns to rural Norway and seredipitously reconnects with Jon's younger brother. Both older men are pained by their past experiences, but retain their compassion for others. As the story unfolds, the reader learns of all the actions of the past, both during and after the war that affect them still. This is extremely well-written and translated.

Per Petterson. Out Stealing Horses. Saint Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 2003. 258 pages. ISBN 9781555974701.

Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd, by Nick Mason

Pink Floyd is my all-time favorite band, and I really enjoyed this inside account of the band's history by the only member to have been part of the band during its entire existence. Nick Mason's writing style is charming and funny; he takes a dry and witty approach to telling their story. I often found myself laughing as he clearly pokes fun at himself and others.

Inside Out opens with a description of how Nick met Roger Waters at the Regent Street Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster) where both were studying architecture. After they became friends, they formed a series of bands with a number of their friends and schoolmates, eventually settling on the name Pink Floyd and with the lineup of Syd Barrett, Roger Waters, Rick Wright, and the author. They became known as a psychedelic rock band, based on their practice of using lights, video, and sound effects to enhance their shows. Mason describes the circumstances that led the band to replace Syd with David Gilmour. Ostensibly hired as a second guitarist because Syd was becoming increasingly unreliable in the live shows, David effectively took over Syd's part in the band when they decided one day not to pick Syd up for a show, although they did eventually have to make it official. Roger Waters took over as the lead songwriter.

Subsequent chapters lead the reader through the development of each new album, including two collaborations with Barbet Schroeder, two of whose films they provided soundtracks for, More and La Vallee. I remember going to see More as a sophomore at Penn State. Back then (1982-83) student groups raised money by showing movies all over campus, and students had a dozen or more choices every weekend. My interest in seeing More was primarily because of the Pink Floyd soundtrack, and I remember the movie being incredibly depressing (it's about a German student who meets a girl on vacation; she introduces him to heroin, and it ends tragically). But the soundtrack is good. I listened to it while reading this book and was impressed all over again. I recommend The Nile Song.

The author doesn't shy away from describing the personality conflicts that arose throughout the 1970s and which culminated with the release of The Final Cut. I was impressed with his ability to tell the story without recrimination, but that's perhaps easier after decades have passed. Inside Out was originally published in 2004, but it's been updated to bring the story up to 2017. I could tell from the first page that I was going to like this book, and not just because I'm a fan; it's extremely well-written, with a lot of humor and compassion. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who's a Pink Floyd fan.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Year-End Roundup, 2017

This post includes the books that I read in December, plus a few that I forgot to write about from earlier this fall. I just realized that the four non-fiction books that I read in December were all humorous. This is how I'm avoiding all the year-end news wrap-ups!

I really enjoyed this memoir by David Litt, one of President Obama's speechwriters. Litt writes about how he got involved in the Obama campaign and administration; I particularly enjoyed how he contributed to some of the funnier moments, such as  White House Correspondent's dinner jokes. For a fun perspective and insights on what it was like working in the Obama administration, I recommend this book.

This is a funny but incredibly raunchy memoir by Amy Schumer, comedian and actor (in Trainwreck and Snatched). I'd never watched any of her shows or other performances, so her comedy was unfamiliar to me. Entertaining and sometimes a little sad, raunchy and fairly gross at times. Definitely not for everyone!

Waiting for my flight from Pittsburgh to Albany earlier this month, I purchased this book (and the next) to read in the airport and on the short flight to Albany. Very funny!

As a follow-up to the previous book, this one also includes many gems by the author's father. These are both short (under 200 pages) and a great way to pass a few hours in the airport.

And now the fiction. The first three were our most recent book club picks:

I really liked this novel about a group of family and friends set in North Carolina. Ava's marriage is falling apart, and she's mourning the child that she can't seem to conceive. Ava's mother Sylvia is mourning the absence of her son, and has befriended a man in prison who dialed her phone number randomly just to talk to someone. JJ, a local boy who left the town and became a successful businessman, has returned home to see if he can rekindle his long-ago romance with Ava. This is an excellent first novel that I found completely engrossing.

I loved this novel set in in a remote village in Wales during WWII. Told from multiple characters' viewpoints, it's the story of a German prisoner, Karsten, placed in a POW camp in Wales. Esther is a local girl who befriends Karsten when he escapes temporarily from the camp. Jim is an evacuee who's housed on Esther's father's sheep farm. Rotheram is a German exile who's working with British intelligence. He interviews Rudolph Hess to determine whether he's fit for trial, and is sent to interview the POWs as well. This book is very well-written and tells a fascinating story about an aspect of WWII that is perhaps less well-known.

This is a mystery written by a local author (from Glens Falls, NY). Author Kate White worked in magazine publishing for years (including serving as editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan) before she turned to writing mysteries. This book is completely implausible, but fun.

It's been years since I've read a Sara Paretsky V.I. Warshawski mystery. I liked this more than I expected. In her earlier books I found V.I. so caustic that she was a little off-putting as a character. In this book she was much less obnoxious, but still assertive and persistent. I enjoyed the story and characters, and found the writing very good; it's a real page-turner.

It's pretty rare that I take a real dislike to a book, but here are two that I really didn't like:

This is a historical novel about a woman in Tennessee who took it upon herself to re-bury more than a thousand confederate soldiers after a neighbor decided to plow them under so that he could plant crops on the field where they were originally buried. It's told from multiple viewpoints, but it just dragged on and I had to literally force myself to finish it. I'm glad that I learned about the Battle of Franklin and this episode of the Civil War, but this is a rare case of historical fiction being less interesting or entertaining than reading the history itself.

I thought I'd like this book, an Oprah pick and one set in rural Pennsylvania by a local Pennsylvania author. But I just hated it. I forced myself to finish thinking it might have some redeeming qualities, but it just rubbed me the wrong way. I didn't like the characters and I didn't like the plot. I have a hard time understanding why it would have been an Oprah pick.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Latest books, December 3, 2017

 This is a fascinating look at the history of humans, from our origins in the distant past to today. Author Yuval Noah Harari, a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, discusses what he describes as the cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, the unification of humankind, and the scientific revolution. Well-written and impossible to put down.

Rising sea levels are just one side effect of global warming. This book explores how the rising sea levels will affect all of the coastal communities around the world. Author Jeff Goodell is a writer for Rolling Stone magazine who has written about global change before. He shares his extensive research and reporting in this book. This is a compelling read and presents a convincing argument to move inland!

W. Kamau Bell was the closing speaker at a recent ALA conference. I only caught part of his presentation, but found him funny, thoughtful, and authentic. A comedian who also has a CNN series, United Shades of America, he shares many of his experiences with readers in this thought-provoking and heartfelt book. I really enjoyed this book and am looking for more to come from Mr. Bell.

I've been a big fan of Al Franken since I read his book Lies, and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. I saw Mr. Franken on a stage with Bill O'Reilly at the 2003 BookExpoAmerica conference in Los Angeles, a panel that was moderated by Molly Ivins. I enjoyed reading about how he made the decision to run for the Senate, his experiences campaigning, and his perspectives on recent political events. I was dismayed when I heard about the groping allegations, which became public on the same day that I was reading about how much he enjoyed going on the USO tours. Regardless of the outcome of the senate ethics inquiry, this is an interesting and well-written memoir.

I loved this novel about ancient Rome and Cicero's rise from Senator to Consul. Robert Harris' writing is very good; it's a real page turner. He brings history to life in a way that no history book can.

This is the first in a series of fantasy novels that follow the story of Merry Gentry, a member of the faerie royal family in the U.S., and also a detective. This is very fun, fast-moving, escapist fiction; just what's needed right now!

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Good Daughter, by Karin Slaughter

The main character of this psychological thriller is a defense lawyer who takes on the case of a young girl who has committed a school shooting. It brings back long-ago memories of when she herself was the victim of a violent crime. At the same time she's trying to make amends with her estranged husband, an assistant district attorney. It's fast-paced, with well-developed characters.

Karin Slaughter. The Good Daughter. New York: William Morrow, 2017. 503 pages. ISBN 9780062430243.