Category: Books

 

I wouldn’t presume to call this a “review” of the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution, any more than I would attempt to “review” the King James Bible. But since I finally got around to reading these historic documents (the book includes the Bill of Rights), let me make a few humble observations:

 

1:  No wonder society is a mess. The problem is the English language. Nearly every word we use is subject to interpretation — especially the words penned by the Founding Fathers. If we could all agree on the meanings of “just,” or “benefit,” or “inalienable rights,” wouldn’t life be peachy keen? Alas, we are an argumentative bunch. 

2:  Assuming you take the original documents at face value, then our country is saturated with constitutional violations. They say history is written by the winners; constitutional law is all too often defined by those in power. Our judicial system, charged with deciphering the Constitution, is just as susceptible to prejudice as the rest of us.

3:  Those old boys in the 18th Century did their best with what they had. So far as I can tell, no other country has done better.

 

 

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by Anand Giridharadas

 

I wanted to know more about the economic and political forces that drove us to this tumultuous moment in time. But I didn’t want to read more Trump, Trump, Trump. And so I chose Giridharadas’s book, published in 2018, about 1 Percenters and aspiring 1 Percenters and their role in creating our current mess.

I like Giridharadas’s approach to income inequality and what it’s led to: rising populism and social turmoil. Rather than interview politicians and the losers of this economic war — as so many journalists do — Giridharadas grills the “winners” and lets their own words condemn them. Each of them claims a desire to do public good, but nearly all of them find reasons to justify the big-picture status quo, which just happens to let them continue to do well.

Ultimately, the book is about rationalization. It details the decades-long shift of big business from community partners to enthusiastic globalists. It explains how throwing crumbs to the hometown public through so-called public initiatives allows the elites to sleep at night. The author’s interview with wealthy heir/philanthropist Laurie Tisch is telling:

Tisch:  “The people who get to take advantage of the system, why would they really want to change it? They’ll maybe give more money away, but they don’t want to radically change it.”

Giridharadas:  Was there anything she could imagine that would convince them otherwise?

Tisch:  “Revolution, maybe.”

 

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by Tana French

 

What to say about the ambiguous ending when it pops up in books and movies? Some people like it, others are outraged. I happen to think that when it works, it can be brilliant. Case in point:  1974’s Black Christmas, in which the audience never finds out who the killer is. Hey, isn’t that what sometimes happens in real life? But when the ambiguous ending does not work, well … heavy sigh.

French’s debut novel gives us not one but two mysteries, one about a cold case involving some missing children, the second about a recently murdered girl. If you expect that by the end of the book you will have satisfying answers to both mysteries, well, French does provide one resolution.

Another issue:  The author’s decision to go with first-person narration by one of the protagonists, a male cop, doesn’t always pan out. It occasionally comes off like a female writer’s idea of how the straight man’s thought processes work. For example:  Reflecting on a recent romantic conquest, our man doesn’t think of the actual act; he ponders his lover’s hair, or some such thing. Nice try, but no cigar.

For the most part In the Woods is a compelling read. French is a talented writer whose prose I enjoyed, and I was never bored. Yet that ending simply feels like a cop-out.

 

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Edited by Sun Yung Shin

 

I’m not going to pretend that I have any special knowledge about how to improve race relations in this country. But I do think a good place to start is by reading books like this, in which an old white boy like myself (born and raised in Minnesota) hears the stories of people of color who also live here. Editor Shin compiled 16 essays written by Asian Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans who are either lifelong Minnesotans or transplants to the state, all of them hoping to break through the stereotype of “Minnesota Nice” to take a deeper, often troubling, look at what makes this region tick.

As you might expect from any compilation of essays, some of the stories are more resonant than others. One essay, “Disparate Impacts,” left me thinking, “This isn’t particularly good. The author isn’t very skilled or talented, and she is blaming systemic racism for her own personal failings.” Another essay, “People Like Us,” had me thinking, “This guy really nails it. ‘Minnesota Nice’ is a misnomer; it’s actually ‘Minnesota Polite’ laced with passive-aggressiveness.”

But most of the stories left this impression: “Wow. I had no idea.”

 

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by Sidney Lumet

 

We often hear movie directors described as artists (the good ones) or box-office kings (all too often, the bad ones). But I think that the best of them might better be described as superb “craftsmen.” They don’t just mold the story and the actors; they are on top of every technical detail. Think of Alfred Hitchcock — or Sidney Lumet.

Making Movies is a great book for film students and film nuts (people like me). It is not for you if you are seeking juicy gossip about celebrities. You’ll also be disappointed if you are interested in biographical information about Lumet. Other than a few brief mentions of his wife, there is next to no personal data.

But Lumet, who died in 2011, directed some of my all-time favorite films, including Fail Safe, The Verdict, Dog Day Afternoon and Running on Empty. Behind-the-scenes details about any of those gems are catnip to me. This book is loaded with them.

Some of Lumet’s observations about the trials and tribulations of making films are dated, because this was published in 1996, long before digital movies and streaming services like Netflix became commonplace. But what hasn’t changed is the passion and devotion to a single goal common to most great movies — and great moviemakers. For that sort of thing, this is a book for you.

 

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by Julie Schumacher

 

Don’t be misled, as I was, by the blurbs describing Schumacher’s book as a “biting satire” about university politics. The stakes in Shakespeare are too slight (or are treated that way). There isn’t a serious page to be found. It’s more Three Stooges than Catch-22: “verbal slapstick,” I’d call it – but I mean that as a compliment.

I haven’t been this pleasantly surprised by a comic novel since I discovered Janet Evanovich’s One for the Money 15 years ago. Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels and their assortment of New Jersey oddballs are somewhat less-sophisticated cousins to Schumacher’s collection of scholars at “Payne University.”

In most novels with a large ensemble of characters, I inwardly groan whenever the action shifts to some of them. There are always at least a few people who bore or irritate me, and I grow impatient to get back to the characters I really care about. Not so with Shakespeare. Every teacher, student, or staff member Schumacher introduces is a comic delight. 

 

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by Soji Shimada

 

I guess you could call Shimada Japan’s answer to Agatha Christie, but I wouldn’t put him in Dame Agatha’s league. Crooked House is a locked-room murder mystery with all of the usual ingredients: an isolated group of suspects, most of whom have something to hide, but not necessarily murder; an eccentric detective to amaze everyone with his astounding deductions; and a convoluted, somewhat clever plot.

I say “somewhat” clever because I didn’t buy the resolution to the story, which is more “howdunit” than whodunit. I suppose that, theoretically, it’s possible that the crimes could be committed per Shimada’s plot. But man … it takes a great deal of goodwill on the readers’ part to buy into it.

 

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by Tucker Carlson

 

There’s a good reason that the left keeps targeting Fox News’s Tucker Carlson with advertiser boycotts. Unlike the Fox anchors who follow his nightly show, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, Carlson is neither a lightweight Trump sycophant (Hannity), nor a smug, intellectually lazy yuck (Ingraham). Carlson is sharp, witty – and often right. In short, to the left he’s a formidable threat.

If you watch Carlson’s show (raising my hand), most of what he covers in 2019’s Ship of Fools is old news. His targets are familiar: Obama, environmentalists, illegal immigration, open borders, and … well, most issues that progressives hold near and dear.  But unlike so many of the talking heads out there, Carlson is passionate and persuasive.

 

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by Steve Almond

 

I suspect that Almond is mostly preaching to the choir with his book about the evils of American football. If you’re already down on football, you’ll cheer him on. If you’re a fan, you’ll view him as a spoilsport.

Either way, it’s difficult to argue with many of his points. Football does cause brain damage; NFL owners do extort taxpayer money for new stadiums; college student-athletes are anything but; etcetera, etcetera.

Some of Almond’s assertions are questionable. On the “homophobia” alleged to be rampant in the NFL, he drags out the stereotype about how players who dislike locker-room showers with gay teammates are actually afraid of their own sexuality. Does that mean that women who prefer not to shower with males are, in fact, afraid of their own sexuality? Is that a flawed comparison?

But football does present a dilemma. Physical aggression is ancient and part of our DNA. I’m not sure what you do about that other than channel it somehow – like through watching football. My take: It’s best to stop supporting high school and college football. As for the pros, they are handsomely paid and they now know what they are getting into.

Watching football is like watching porn: not good for you but still a component of a free society.

 

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by William Kent Krueger

 

There is a dead judge and a missing boy in the northern Minnesota wilderness, and it’s up to our hero, a small-town, mild-mannered ex-sheriff, to save the day.

Iron Lake is an OK thriller, but it’s oh-so-familiar. If you read enough of these crime novels (I’m guilty), many of the protagonists – Jack Reacher, Harry Bosch, or in this case, Cork O’Connor – begin to morph into the same character. The hero will be a hard-headed, middle-aged man, often a cop or ex-cop, who drinks and smokes and broods over a lost love. And then there is a call to action, often involving a family member or that lost love, and our hero proves his mettle against all odds. Only the settings change in many of these books.

Iron Lake was of interest to me because this time the locale was not L.A. nor New York, but rather rural Minnesota, where I grew up. The story was fine; the characters were fine; but mostly this was nothing new.

 

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