Category: Books

by Julian Sancton

grouchyeditor.com Madhouse

 

Madhouse depicts an amazing, grueling adventure of which I had never heard. Why is that? I suspect that, if ever someone decides to make a movie of this harrowing ordeal, only then will it stick to the public imagination.

In short, what happened was this: In 1897, the converted whaler Belgica set sail from Belgium to Antarctica, hoping to conduct scientific research and make history by penetrating deep into the southern continent. Early in 1898, the ship became wedged in pack-ice. There it sat, crew aboard, for nearly a year.

Sancton relies heavily on officer diaries to describe the frigid nightmare that followed, in particular the words of Frederick Cook, the colorful American who served as ship’s doctor, and the strange Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who would later become a world-famous explorer.

 

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by Agatha Christie

 

Darn the luck! I think I might have spoiled the “big twist” in Endless Night for myself by (stupidly) reading an article about the novel in which the writer likened it to one of Agatha Christie’s most famous books, which includes an ingenious surprise that is justly canonized in the annals of detective fiction. “Unreliable narrator,” anyone? Because I read that article before sitting down with Endless Night, I will never know how fooled I might have been by Christie’s clever narration.

And darn your luck. Because you are reading this post, I might have just spoiled the twist for you, as well.

Some of Christie’s best novels have nothing to do with Hercule Poirot, nothing to do with Miss Marple. Like And Then There Were None and Crooked House, Endless Night is a standalone that represents Christie at the top of her game.

(A plot synopsis here? Nah … I’ve already said too much.)

 

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by Jeanine Cummins

 

American Dirt is nothing if not controversial, what with its white, European-American author telling the tale of a middle-class Mexican woman whose life is upended — to put it mildly — and who chooses to make a harrowing journey from Acapulco to Arizona with her eight-year-old son in tow. Illegally.

The book’s critics say Cummins took pains to make the story palatable for American readers, and that her heroine, Lydia, is an unrepresentative, atypical immigrant. The critics might be right. What the hell do I know?

The novel was a bestseller last year. But all hell broke loose upon its publication.

The uproar over Dirt brings to mind James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, which came under fire for being hyped as a memoir when, in fact, it was fiction. Fact-based or fabricated, Frey had written a remarkable book. Pieces was a marketing failure, not a writing failure.

I can only comment on what I read in American Dirt, and as a work of fiction, it’s a superb thriller.

As for the novel’s politics, yes, it is very one-sided, very pro-immigrant and pro-immigration. There is even one none-too-subtle jab at Trump. But immigration is a huge story, with many subplots.

Someone else could write an equally moving, largely anti-immigration story, I’m sure. A story about an illegal immigrant, a career criminal who wreaks havoc on a small American border town, for example.

American Dirt simply isn’t that story.

 

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by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

 

Here’s the thing about current-affairs books — they tend to have a short shelf life. What was eye-opening in 2018 can feel ho-hum today. If you happen to be a news junkie, like me, reading The Coddling of the American Mind in 2021 feels like revisiting old news, even though the book is just a few years old.

And yet that’s a compliment to the authors. So much of what they describe in Coddling — concepts that seemed fresh in 2018 — is now omnipresent on media news outlets. That’s a testament to their powers of persuasion.

What Lukianoff and Haidt describe (in case you haven’t guessed from the title) is the concept of “safetyism” and its harmful effects on society in general, and schools in particular. Safetyism, they claim, is introduced by over-protective parents, continued by college administrators, and then spread throughout the greater society. Hence, the “snowflake.” Hence, social problems galore.

But you probably already knew that. You, like me, should have read this book in 2018.

 

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by Neal Gabler

 

Gabler spent years researching and writing this mammoth biography of the man who, arguably, influenced 20th-century American culture more than anyone else. And Gabler’s painstaking work clearly shows in the finished book. Disney, a notorious workaholic, would possibly approve. I say “possibly” because the man who gave us Mickey Mouse, Snow White, and Disneyland was also a notorious perfectionist.

I have a few of my own nitpicks, along with some praise:

 

Pros:

 

It felt as though two-thirds of the book dealt with two subjects — the creation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the creation of Disneyland. Along with Mickey Mouse, these were Disney’s milestone achievements, so the attention is welcome and warranted.

Gabler’s biography seems fair and balanced. Over the years, Disney has been accused of sanitizing pop culture by removing its edge. He has also been charged with anti-Semitism, racism, and other isms. Gabler addresses those charges, albeit not at great length, and doesn’t shy from depicting Disney warts and all.

 

Cons:

 

I don’t know about you, but what most interests me about Walt Disney is his creative life. Unfortunately, the bulk of Triumph seems more attuned to business majors. There are endless pages about recalcitrant bankers, potential investors, striking employees, and other finance-related matters. You get the sense that Disney was less a creative visionary than a committed capitalist. If so, it was out of necessity rather than desire.

It would have been nice to have more detail about Disney the private man. But really, I got the impression that the man who led “the triumph of the American imagination” was, in day-to-day life, a bit dull. No carousing or womanizing or politics or scandal of any sort. He comes off as someone you’d admire, but probably not care to socialize with.

 

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by Neil Gaiman

 

Fantasy, or “magical realism” when the story is aimed at adults, is not my favorite literary genre. For instance, I was unmoved by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s much-praised, magical-realism-infused One Hundred Years of Solitude. But there are exceptions to my rule.

I find that if I like this kind of stuff, it’s usually because the tale is told from a child’s point of view (or an adult recalling his or her childhood). That’s what I liked about the Harry Potter books, or Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Gaiman’s short novel is a mashup of childhood nostalgia (To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind) and terrors triggered by something out-of-this-world (as in Something Wicked). Ocean’s narrator, now middle-aged, recalls his 7-year-old self encountering a trio of magical female neighbors. The women help him fend off all manner of demons, both fantastic and all-too-real.

Perhaps I’m just an unimaginative, jaded adult, but I enjoyed the book for its circa 1960s nostalgia. Not so much for its magical mumbo jumbo.

 

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by Stuart Turton

 

I can only imagine the time and effort that went into the crafting of this story, in which the hero finds himself charged with solving a murder but with a bizarre handicap: Every time he wakes up, he’s inhabiting a new body, and this new person is also charged with solving and/or preventing death at an old English mansion.

The plot involves too many characters to remember, endless time shifts, and the ever-problematic concept of time travel. Oh, and there is also the body swapping. I get weary just trying to describe it.

I do admire Turton’s self-imposed challenge and his ability, I guess, to successfully weave such an intricate web. But was all that trouble worth it, from a reader’s perspective?

Well, yes and no. Early on, I had to decide whether the book was time-consuming piffle, or if I should just go with the flow. I am predisposed to enjoy murder mysteries, so I chose the latter. There are entertaining, action-packed sequences. But because of that labyrinthine, head-scratching plot, reading the novel was often more chore than fun.

 

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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 American society is a mess. The problem is the English language. Nearly every word we use is subject to interpretation — including 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:  If we take the original documents at face value, our country is, evidently, 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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