• Birnham Wood by Eleanor Catton *** (of 4)

    The premise is simple enough. A guerilla environmental group in New Zealand, calling itself Birnham Wood, illegally plants gardens on vacant properties. As you would expect, the group is anti-Capitalist, barely operating on a shoestring budget, shares its produce with low income families, and is mostly run by women: visionary, competent, egalitarian, and occasionally, passively catty. Their ethics are challenged when an American billionaire looking to construct a doomsday bunker for himself in New Zealand offers to bankroll Birnham Wood on property he has just purchased on the edge of a National Park.

    Should Birnham Wood take the money and after four years of insolvency finally enjoy stability and national recognition for their good efforts? Are they just being used as a publicity screen for a screwball capitalist bully? Are the billionaire’s intentions reliable or is greenwashing the sale of New Zealand real estate to foreigners a fair tradeoff? Can a non-profit with no hierarchical structure and some strong personalities hold itself together?

    It’s a little weird that the author tells us many things that characters are thinking that they do not even know about themselves, but page after page, intentions, whether overt or handed to us by the writer turn darker and what begins as enviros versus the rich spins into something much deeper.

  • Goodbye, Eastern Europe *** (of 4)

    It is an enormous undertaking to try and explain the people, cultures, and kaleidoscopic national identities of a region as large as Eastern Europe. Jacob Mikanowski does as good a job as one person can do in a single volume. Beginning in prehistory, Mikanowski really settles in with the establishments of the overlapping and interdigitated religions of the region: pagans, Christians, Muslims, and Jews. For centuries communities and traditions have often lived alongside one another united by common languages while empires have redefined their borders.

    The Austro-Hungarians, the Hapsburgs, the Soviets, Poles, Yugoslavians, and Prussians in various iterations and sizes have laid claim to Roma settlements, shtetls, Byzantine churchyards, and people who might speak Ukrainian, a dialect of Hungarian, Yiddish, or who think of themselves as Albanian Muslims, Montenegrans, Latvians, Croats, or Romanians, but in any given century find themselves living in a country not the same as the one their parents or grandparents knew.

    In most parts of Eastern Europe, regions and cultures have not undergone the historical nation-making impositions claimed by Western Europe that made countries like Germany, France, and Spain what they are. (That being said, tribal fractionation is still alive and divisive in Great Britain, Belgium, Catalonia, Basque country, and so on.) This history of an enormous region is at once comprehensive and necessarily superficial, focusing on geopolitical machinations and the lives of men. Women and the daily lives of peasants are largely absent, because to include them would be another book, another volume. Still, having a spotlight swept around Eastern Europe is exceptionally informative.

  • The Pigeon Tunnel by John LeCarre *** (of 4)

    Nearing the end of a long and terrifically prodigious career as a writer, Le Carre assembled here the true events that undergird his novels. He revels in his encounters with world leaders and events of the 20th century. He meets Yasser Arafat amidst heavily armed bodyguards, dines with Soviet exile Andrei Sakharov, skis with the actor Alec Guinness, takes a field trip to meet African warlords, hob knobs with KGB intelligence officials, tours the killing fields of Cambodia, interviews jailed terrorists, kvetches at length about his low-life father, and generally downplays his early days as a spy for British intelligence as being insignificant.

    Every one of his stories is compelling, and quite often humorous, for their air of authenticity and authority. Each vignette is assembled with the care and precision of a master novelist. Yet, because Le Carre has passed his entire life as a fabulist — first as a spy and then as a novelist — lingering above each tale is a question of whether every event is reconstructed with full honesty. Near the end of the book, Le Carre hints that he is not a totally trustworthy storyteller, and a posthumously published biography claims that Le Carre used his skills as a liar and deceiver to philander with multiple mistresses. But, you know what? It doesn’t matter: The Pigeon Tunnel is a great read. The audiobook is read by the author, who is a master of impersonations, bringing his counterparts to life as he meets them one by one.

  • Homegrown by Jeffrey Toobin ** (of 4)

    Toobin can be a captivating writer; he is one of the greats at uncovering the backstories of a variety of criminals and noteworthy trials: OJ Simpson, Patty Hearst, Donald Trump, the Gore vs. Bush election, Bill Clinton, and the make-up of the Supreme Court.

    Which is why it is surprising that he missed the mark with this book. No question that Timothy McVeigh was one of America’s most successful and by Toobin’s accounting, one of its first domestic terrorists. On April 19, 1995 he drove a truck bomb to the front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and blew it up, killing 168 people including 19 children in the building’s daycare facility.

    He was motivated by rightwing radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and the conspiracy theories that circulated amongst politicians. Shock jocks and their supporters pedaled lies about government overreach and suggested in rather stark terms that only patriots and other defenders of the second amendment could save the nation. Toobin draws a direct and clear line from McVeigh to the treasonous revolutionaries that stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Men and women who attacked the Capitol were also spurred forward by a new generation of right-wing conspiracists and a new generation of communication, social media, but recycled the same dogmas that led to McVeigh.

    It is an important arrow pointing at how dangerously thin the line is between election deniers, second amendment fanatics, Newtown skeptics (Alex Jones acolytes) and their proclivity toward violence.

    But Toobin makes two mistakes. The first is subtle. He implies that McVeigh was the first right-winger of his ilk, overlooking McCarthyism, Silver Shirts, American Nazis, the KKK, and White Supremacists some of whom have been around since colonists considered Native Americans subhumans. The line leading to January 6 is twisty, but continuous, and a lot longer than Toobin is willing to admit. In a single toss away line he points to the Tulsa Race massacre of 1921 as having killed as many as died in Oklahoma.

    The first half of the book is a thorough biography of Timothy McVeigh from birth to bombing with thorough detailing of the years, months, days, and minutes leading up to the bombing. Then, because he cannot resist describing courtroom proceedings, Toobin repeats everything we have already learned as it was presented by prosecuting and defending attorneys. One recounting, or half the book, would have been enough.

  • All the Sinners Bleed *** (of 4)

    Nobody captures underlying racial tension in the contemporary south, wrapped in a crime thriller, as well as S.A. Cosby. His leads–this is Cosby’s fourth in a series of unconnected novels taking place in rural Virginia–are invariably upstanding Black men facing entrenched, and typically barely concealed, white hostility.

    Titus Crown is the first Black sheriff in a coastal Virginia community. His predecessor was a Black-beating, omnipotent, Old School sheriff who barely lost to Titus in the last election. Crown faces underlying bigotry from the town’s whites and progressive Blacks see Crown as having sold out to an untrustworthy police force. In the opening pages an active shooter is in the local high school. There is, in subsequent scenes, a march by Confederate sympathizers to the statue in the middle of town commemorating rebel war heroes, an outspoken pastor of a local Black Church planning a countermarch, a serial killer, and a child porn ring. Titus Crown’s allegiances to family, community, law, and justice are yanking him in impossible contortions.

    All the Sinners Bleed is a page turner, but also tries to incorporate too many current events in one book. Cosby holds it together, but fewer yanks on a single sheriff in such a short period would have still gotten the point across and felt closer to reality.

  • The Last Devil to Die by Richard Osman *** (of 4)

    In this fourth installation of the Thursday Murder Club, Richard Osman’s four 80-year-old residents (plus or minus, but who can keep track at that age when there new aches to fend off and fresh gossip to keep abreast of) of Cooper’s Chase senior living center find themselves engaged in a drug smuggling scheme.

    As the book opens, another senior citizen, still working as the proprietor of a nearby antiques shop, is murdered. And also a newcomer to Cooper’s Chase has succumbed to on-line romance fraud. In the first case it becomes quickly apparent that the murder is instigated by a drug deal gone wrong and in the second it is going to take some persuasion to convince Mervin that continuing to send money to Tatiana in Moldova is not likely to bring the author of carefully crafted love letters, and accompanying generic Internet photos, to England anytime soon.

    True to the best of crime fiction, Osman’s mysteries are compelling, but the real joy is what is learned in the surrounding milieu. In this case, it is Richard Osman’s kind and poignant descriptions of the four octogenarian friends that remind us that entrance to a senior living center is not a death sentence. On the contrary we are given ample opportunity to observe lives well lived even as the participants know their remaining days are limited. Maybe their lives are so rich precisely because they know. A lesson for all of us.

  • Gettysburg: The Last Invasion by Allen Guelzo *** (of 4)

    Tens of thousands of books have been written about the Civil War, and thousands have covered one of the most significant battles of the conflict: the invasion of Gettysburg by General Lee and his confederate rebels and its defense by the Army of the Potomac. I read this book in preparation for an insider’s tour of the battlefield I was given by Dr. Carol Reardon.

    Guelzo’s take is to zoom in on the experience of less well-known officers beneath the famous Generals Lee and Meade and then to zoom in further to the experience of individual soldiers.

    General Lee’s objective was to invade the north and by so doing create enough carnage and dissent among anti-war Northeners that he could draw them to the negotiating table. Lee’s counterpart, General McClellan of the Army of the Potomac, was widely popular among soldiers and politicians, but on a field of battle so cautious that he avoided every opportunity to fight. Just three days before the face-to-face meeting at a crossroads in Pennsylvania, following McClellan’s dismissal, George Meade was appointed General of the American army.

    The three days of battle in the heat of July turned on a hundred small calculations, luck, ineptitude, and fortunate timing. The outcome was so closely contested that a single successful artillery barrage or an attack begun five minutes earlier or later could have altered the outcome.

    On the battlefield, Guelzo makes us feel the challenge of moving roughly a hundred thousand men on each side across scores of miles of countryside to take up position. Then he explains what a soldier had to endure, marching day and night without rest, proper nutrition, or kit before being dumped directly into battle. Guelzo also explains that guns were far from accurate and that compensation for an inability to aim accurately or see an enemy through a dense fog of gunsmoke was to fire a hailstorm of bullets. Trees were stripped of leaves and branches. Artillery blasted away. Men were torn to shreds in an age before the discovery of germs or antiseptics; horses were broken and discarded like so many tanks.

    Reading between the lines, the political adeptness of Lincoln is exceptional in holding together his coalition. The primary goal of the northern states was to preserve the union, not necessarily abolish slavery. Furthermore, many Americans in the north objected far more to Lincoln’s policies of warfare, were opposed to the Emancipation Proclamation, and were more interested in continuing their economic partnerships with southern producers (read slave owners) than in paying taxes to fund a war.

    Unfortunately, Guelzo clearly does not like General Meade and fails to give him credit for expertly deploying his forces to fend off General Lee’s attack.

    Above, the field across which Pickett led the famous last charge of the rebellious south at Gettysburg.

  • How to Make a Slave by Jerald Walker **** (of 4)

    Jerald Walker is a Black professor at a prestigious Boston college. He lives in an overwhelmingly upscale Boston-adjacent community, and on the surface would appear to have put considerable distance between his childhood days in the ghettos of Chicago and the present day. Yet, as he chronicles his daily experience as the one person who can be identified from a distance as “other” in an otherwise liberal setting, not all is well.

    Walker’s essays are short, often funny, and almost always leave you with an underlying feeling of anxiety. When Walker’s child is accused of being “stinky” in elementary school, Walker wonders if the accusation borne of home-taught racism, and does he already need to explain to his son what he is about to experience, or just a schoolyard taunt? When Walker shops at his neighborhood Whole Foods, white women instinctively seal up their purses, pull them from their shopping carts, and draw them close to their bodies. When his child suffers a seizure, and then another, and he sits in a panic in the ER for an eternity, while others appear to be treated with greater speed, is it because his is the only Black family waiting, because by rules of triage, there really isn’t much to worry about?

    This book was nominated for the National Book Award for good reason. The author makes us tighten up our shoulders with every page and we have to recognize that the fear he has engendered in us, accompanies him all the time.

  • Draft No. 4 by John McPhee *** (of 4)

    McPhee is one of the preeminent nonfiction craftsmen of the last half century. As a staff writer for The New Yorker his longform essays have culminated in 31 books, four Pulitzer nominations, and a Pulitzer Prize. He has summarized his decades of experience as writer, and writing instructor at Princeton, in Draft No. 4, a book that is richer than chocolate mousse: every word is at once carefully calculated and placed with seeming effortlessness so that it is best digested in small servings.

    McPhee shares universal truths such as the observation that all writers are either insecure about their writing or, falling into a second category, find that having other people read their work makes them feel insecure. You are not a writer, says McPhee, unless you experience bloc and that bloc is best overcome by typing at the top of the page, “Dear Mom, here is what I am working on now…” Assembling a first draft is painful, but second and third drafts are easier. Fourth drafts are a necessity at a bare minimum.

    It is hard to say if non-writers will get as much from this book as those who have agonized over putting together a compelling essay. For readers, rather than writers, I recommend any of his 30 other books.

  • The Ink Black Heart by Robert Galbraith

    On the plus side there are very few writers who can match JK Rowling’s (writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith) ability to capture personality, dialogue, and character. In this, the sixth in the series of crime novels involving private detectives Robin Ellicott and Cormoran Strike, Rowling takes on the viciousness, malignancy, and unbridled misogyny of internet communities that spiral downward into the Dark Web.

    What begins as a quirky YouTube cartoon grows in popularity among an on-line fandom. Only the fandom becomes so opinionated about the direction, and Directors, that the power of the fans overtakes the show itself. The anonymity of the internet allows people to form relationships they might not in real life, but it also permits abusers to mislead, harass, intimidate, and threaten. All of that secrecy and privacy makes for a compelling mystery when one of the directors is murdered. In a cemetery!

    On the downside, as happened in the Harry Potter series, Rowling’s editors were unable to push back. The number of potential suspects is so large that it is likely the only way to keep them all straight is to be staring at Rowling’s diagrams pasted across her walls. Likewise, the number of pages has grown to an overwhelming 1,462. The book should have been tighter.