Category: Books

by Robert B. Parker


When you think about it, celebrated gun-for-hire Spenser isn’t all that great at his job. In A Savage Place, Spenser flies out to Hollywood to function as bodyguard-helper to a TV reporter investigating mob ties to the movie industry.

In the end, things don’t work out so well for the reporter. Nor do they for Spenser.

But that’s not what Parker’s Spenser books are about. They are about the Boston tough guy’s self-deprecating wisecracks, and about his wry observations of people and places. What, for example, does a hardened egg like Spenser think about the “beautiful people” of 1980s L.A.? Will he charm his way into the sexy reporter’s bed? Does a bear shit in Beverly Hills?

I don’t think this is one of the better books in the Spenser series. The “white knight does his part to serve feminism” theme feels a bit forced. Also, the damsel in distress isn’t particularly likeable.

But the wisecracks are on cue, and so are the action scenes.


© 2010-2024 (text only)


by C.S. Lewis


Wikipedia describes British intellectual Lewis as a “Christian apologist.” Really? Maybe I’m misinterpreting the term, but it doesn’t seem to me that Lewis’s writings do much “apologizing” for Christianity.

But I digress. In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis plays devil’s advocate — literally — through “Screwtape,” a high-ranking demon and advisor to his nephew “Wormwood,” a novice demon attempting to corrupt a young Englishman. In a series of letters to the nephew, Screwtape details the tricks of their trade: how to plant ungodly thoughts in an individual’s head, and then how to encourage those thoughts to flourish.

This is accomplished chiefly by appealing to the Englishman’s vanities, fears, etc., and then finding ways to justify his delusions. The great Enemy to Screwtape (and Wormwood) is, of course, Christianity.

Lewis said that he found the writing of Screwtape Letters to be “easy,” but also unpleasant. It’s not hard to see why. Like a film actor who enjoys playing villains on screen, it was probably fun to play-act Satan’s assistant. And yet, there are so many depressing aspects to human nature — so many pitfalls to being a good person — that you might not want to dwell in that role for very long.


 © 2010-2024 (text only)


by Ayn Rand


If I read this Ayn Rand novella just 10 years ago, my reaction to it might have gone something like this: “Interesting. Far-fetched, but interesting.”

The dystopian world Rand creates in her story depicts a society in which totalitarian collectivism rules. The protagonist is a confused soul living in a city where nothing is done — or even thought — by “I” or “me.” To do that is a crime. The only acceptable pronoun is “we.” People don’t have names; they are assigned numbers. Everyone follows, like docile sheep, the dictates of the “Council.”

Interesting, I would have thought in 2014. But people are not docile sheep, I would have thought, 10 years ago.

Flash forward to 2024, in which “he” and “she” are routinely replaced by “they,” and in which violating groupthink can cost you your livelihood. Individualism is dangerous because it threatens the well-being of the group, we are told.

I suspect the reason Anthem is not routinely cited with Brave New World and 1984 as warnings about the perils of — insert your “ism” here — is because Rand planned it in 1937 as a magazine article. It’s a very short novel. It doesn’t have the meat of 1984 or Brave New World. But it effectively conveys the same message.


 © 2010-2024 (text only)


by James Herriot


I was seeking relief from the anxiety, tumult, and horror that is politics in 2024. So, when I read the adjectives “warm” and “joyful” in the blurbs for All Creatures Great and Small, I was hoping they weren’t some book publicist’s hyperbole.

Happily, they are not.

Creatures is a series of 67 short stories depicting the life of a young veterinarian in rural Yorkshire, England, in the late 1930s. Real-life vet James Herriot slightly embellishes his encounters with denizens of the countryside in stories that are sometimes sad, often hilarious, but always entertaining. If that sounds a bit sappy, rest assured it is not.

The vignettes are richly varied. In one, Herriot meets a rich man whose wife and daughters hold contempt for him; on the same day, he visits a dirt-poor farmer whose young daughter venerates her father. Which of the two men has a better life?

In another tale, an elderly widower loses his best and only friend: an old dog that Herriot cannot save.

But the majority of the stories are funny. Herriot’s life with his boss and a co-worker — two eccentric, bickering brothers — is a treasure trove of humorous episodes. And then there are the farmers: variously obstinate, inarticulate, hostile, friendly, or admirable.

I highly recommend this book. I would call it “warm” and “joyful.”



 © 2010-2024 (text only)


by Louise Penny


The Plot: 

Someone using a bow and arrow kills a beloved old lady in the woods. Was it an accident, or is someone in an arts-loving Canadian village responsible?


What I Liked:

Clues to the killer — and other village secrets — are hidden in a unique setting: the victim’s living-room walls. The walls are adorned with a giant mural depicting the residents of tiny Three Pines. Did the dead woman leave a clue to the identity of her eventual killer in her mural?

That’s a fun idea that I haven’t really seen done before. The detectives, the villagers, and readers alike are invited to ponder this maze-like puzzle.


What I Didn’t Care For:

The main characters are a collection of middle-class liberals who believe that, deep down, they are undiscovered great artists. They seem oblivious to the fact that history’s great artists were not often middle-class liberals.

Penny wants us to view lead detective Armand Gamache as an enigmatic, wise man of few words. I saw him as bland and forgettable. (Gamache is much like another low-key detective who leaves me cold, P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh.)

I prefer my protagonists to have a bit more color, a la Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes.


© 2010-2024 (text only)


by J.B. Priestley


In 1932, legendary Hollywood director James Whale gave us The Old Dark House, a real gem of a movie. Whale infused his film with his trademark wit, humor, and camp. Oh, and yes — at least by 1932 standards, it was quite scary.

Whale was also remarkably faithful to the plot of his movie’s source material, J.B. Priestley’s 1927 novel, Benighted.

The plot of both book and film: A group of five young travelers take refuge from a raging storm in an isolated mansion inhabited by members of the Femm family, a collection of oddballs ranging from the eccentric to the sociopathic.

Is Benighted as good as Whale’s movie? I’d say yes and no.

Priestley’s novel is more introspective, getting inside its characters’ heads and finding there: despair, disillusionment — but also glimmers of hope — in the mindsets of young people struggling with the aftermath of The Great War.

Priestley’s focus is on psychology. Whale dispenses with all the navel-gazing and instead highlights the Femms, whose members resemble a 1920s version of the clan of lunatics in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

I prefer Whale’s funhouse interpretation. But I also recommend the book.


© 2010-2024 (text only)


by Emily Guendelsberger


Guendelsberger follows in the footsteps of journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, who 22 years ago went undercover to document low-wage jobs for her book Nickel and Dimed. In 2019’s On the Clock, Guendelsberger becomes a (temporary) worker bee in an Amazon warehouse, at a call center, and in a San Francisco McDonald’s.

Most of her book depicts the misery and humiliation endured by people working such jobs — but then, we already knew about that (or should know about that).

The question is, why don’t corporations and governments do something to alleviate the pain of folks who can’t afford health insurance, can’t afford to move, and find themselves at the mercy of algorithms, invasive monitoring, and decision-makers so far removed from life at the bottom that, even if they wanted to improve conditions, might not know how?

If nothing else, those of us fortunate enough to be on the other side of the cash register (or the phone line), might think twice before blowing up at the human being stuck trying to help us.


© 2010-2024 (text only)


by Agatha Christie


A 1931 “standalone” Christie novel (no Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple) in which a séance at a mansion in Dartmoor reveals to the participants the murder of a prominent villager.

The story is notable not just for the missing Poirot and Marple, but also because it is a bit of an homage to Sherlock Holmes, in particular The Hound of the Baskervilles. The setting, plot elements, and at least two characters are clear references to Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous novel.

Did I figure out whodunit? No, Agatha fooled me again. And yet the resolution of the mystery, although surprising, was not as ingenious nor as satisfying as in Christie’s best novels.


© 2010-2024 (text only)


by Leo Tolstoy


Prior to reading this novella, I’d read just two books by the great Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s gargantuan War and Peace was, in my humble opinion, much more entertaining in its “peace” parts than in its “war” parts. I remember thinking Anna Karenina was very, very good … but I recall absolutely nothing about the story. (In my defense, it has been many years since I read these books.)

I suspect that The Death of Ivan Ilyich, weighing in at less than 80 pages, will stick with me much longer than will the two Tolstoy magnum opuses.

The story is simple, yet concentrated and vivid. In it, a Russian judge develops an incurable illness and then slowly and oh-so painfully, expires. That’s it. Yet Tolstoy successfully puts the reader in bed with poor Ivan and forces us to endure all his pains, physical and psychological.

The big question that Tolstoy asks us to ponder is whether there is truth in Socrates’s dictum, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”


© 2010-2024 (text only)


by Bel Kaufman


It isn’t often that I actively look forward to returning to a book I’m reading. Don’t get me wrong; I love books, but these days there are so many options competing for my leisure-time attention. Options like Netflix, music, regular TV, the Internet ….

But I went out of my way to read Up the Down Staircase, which, nearly 60 years after its publication, is still a joy.

Kaufman’s 1964 novel, chronicling four months of a rookie teacher’s life at a New York City high school, introduced a groundbreaking format. It’s largely a collection of fictional inter-office memos, student homework assignments, personal letters, and items from the class “suggestion box.” This collage of written memorabilia — loaded with rib-tickling malaprops from both kids and adults — paints an indelible picture of English teacher Sylvia Barrett’s introduction to Calvin Coolidge High School.

But the story is in no way all fun and games. Kaufman deftly juxtaposes humor with all the heartbreak and frustrations faced by idealistic teachers and underprivileged kids at the school.

A confession: Staircase is a font of deep nostalgia for Yours Truly. Back in the day, I was cast as one of Sylvia’s students in our high school’s stage production of the book.

I played, naturally, class comedian “Lou Martin.”

Ha ha!


© 2010-2024 (text only)