Category: Books

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.”


© 2010-2020 (text only)


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.


© 2010-2020 (text only)


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. 


© 2010-2020 (text only)


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.


© 2010-2020 (text only)


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.


© 2010-2020 (text only)


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.


© 2010-2020 (text only)


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.


© 2010-2020 (text only)


by Michael Booth


As I type on this keyboard, we’re in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and so any book depicting the culture and lifestyle of a particular region probably needs a caveat: Was it written post-plague or pre-plague?

In The Almost Nearly Perfect People, British expat Michael Booth chronicles Scandinavia — but the Scandinavia of 10 years ago, which might be very different from the Nordic region post-plague.

At any rate, I’m of Nordic heritage (mostly Norwegian; some Swedish), so Booth’s travelogue-analysis was of special interest to me. Booth has been compared to Bill Bryson, but his book is less interested in Bryson-like humorous anecdotes and more about compare-and-contrast: How does Scandinavia stack up in relation to the rest of the world? What makes it unique?

Yesterday, I watched a news report about the one Western country that seems to be going against the grain in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. That would be Sweden, which will not surprise anyone who reads this book. According to the news story, the Swedes are apparently shrugging their collective shoulders about the virus while everyone else is taking drastic measures.

Are the Swedes showing the rest of us how to deal with a pandemic, just as they aspire to lead the way on gender equality and immigration? Or are they a nation of oblivious fools?  

The Swede in me would like to believe the former; the Norwegian in me fears the latter.


© 2010-2020 (text only)


Since we are “self isolating,” we thought this would be a good time to post something fun. So here are thumbnails of the covers of books that Grouch has read over the past 25 years. Where possible, the covers shown are the actual covers when the books were purchased, whether in 1995, 2005, or yesterday — probably about 95 percent of the titles. The list is alphabetical. 

Click on any image for a view of the full cover. perfect people 












Whew … that’s a lot of scrolling. If you’d like to read short reviews of about one-third of the above books, click here for an index with links.


© 2010-2020 (text only)


by Mary Stewart


Why, you might reasonably ask, would I read a 58-year-old book by romance novelist Mary Stewart? OK, let me try to explain.

I was motivated by a mixture of:  a) nostalgia, b) a hankering to read what they call a “cozy” mystery and, last but not least, c) fond memories of … Hayley Mills. She starred in Disney’s film version of the book.

So sue me. Go ahead, sue me.  Moon-Spinners fulfilled my wish list.

By today’s standards, the story is certainly “cozy.” There is no sex; just romance. There is violence, but nothing graphic. There is no swearing. On the whole, it’s very tame stuff, which I suppose is good or bad, depending on your taste.

The plot concerns a young English girl living in Greece who, while on holiday at a small fishing village, stumbles on a gang of thieves, a murder, and a kidnapping. Throughout all of this drama, my mental image of the heroine was Hayley Mills. I enjoyed that, because Mills was my childhood crush.

So sue me.


Footnote:  As for the actual title of this book – to hyphenate or not to hyphenate – I give up. Take a look at this:



© 2010-2020 (text only)