• Intimacies by Katie Kitamura ** (of 4)

    You can probably disregard my unenthusiastic review. Intimacies, after all, was loved by everyone else from the NY Times to the National Book Awards. A nameless narrator leaves New York without much explanation and comes ashore at The Hague, gaining a job as an interpreter at the World Court of Justice. Lonely — even we readers cannot close enough to her to learn her name or much of her background — she falls in like with Adriaan, a charismatic and distant good-looking man, whose wife has abruptly left him. As if dating a married man is not disquieting enough, her best female friend lives in a crime-ridden neighborhood where bad things happen to good people. And to reinforce for readers our inabilities to ever really know someone, the narrator’s day job is to translate in real time the words of genocidal dictators, their prosecutors and defense lawyers, and the crimes against humanity of which the accused is almost certainly guilty.

    The narrator imbues all of her personal interactions with an internal monologue that guesses, second guesses, and triple guesses the motives behind every statement, whether from herself, friend, lover, or criminal. The result is that we poor readers are subjected to an unending ADHD-driven monologue of doubt, worry, and concern that her doubt is not warranted, or maybe it is. But don’t trust me. While NPR’s reviewer generally agreed with me, the big shot critics called this one of the top 10 books of 2021.

  • Razorblade Tears by S.A. Crosby **** (of 4)

    Ike and Buddy Lee couldn’t be more different or more the same. Ike is Black and barely the survivor of deeply embedded southern racism. Buddy Lee, self identifies as a beer-drinking, redneck piece of trailer-trash. Their only sons are married to one another and murdered in cold blood just before the book opens. Now the two ex-cons have to face one another, their long-held homophobia, and a police force unable or indifferent about finding their sons’ killers.

    Ike and Buddy Lee take it upon themselves to search for the unrepentant killers and as we tag along the two old man, tired, but still tough and wily, get to know one another. They also get to know themselves. Violence bubbles up around the pair like a slashed artery but is diluted with insightful compassion for two men coming to terms with their failures as fathers. Together, they prove that you are never too old to try again, to make amends, to apologize to those who have been wronged, and to accede to the power of love. Even as bodies drop like flies caught behind glass, Ike and Buddy Lee discover who killed their sons, but more importantly grasp that judging a human takes more than a glance at skin color, class, sexual orientation, or gender. Goodness, like evil, can be found in surprising places.

  • I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara *** (of 4)

    One big difference between true crime and mystery novels is that when true crimes are committed, it’s not unusual for the perpetrator to get away. By contrast, in a TV mystery, or a book, the bad guy, by convention, is revealed. Which is why Michelle McNamara essentially joins the “club” of true crime mystery solvers. She has a chance to work on a puzzle whose outcome is so elusive, it might not be solvable; like a super-hard crossword puzzle, only the outcome, if she helps catch a criminal, might really matter.

    McNamara’s focus is one horrific rapist and murderer who through much of the 1970s and 1980s committed dozens of heinous acts. He committed so many it is virtually unimaginable that he could have escaped recognition well into the 2010s despite the dozens of searchers, professional and amateur, combing through thousands of items of evidence. And yet, The Golden State Killer was not.

    What makes “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” so compelling is McNamara’s exquisite attention to detail and writer’s panache for knowing when to use it. She lets us know, for example, the weather on the night of an attack, and the placement of the street lamps and hedgerows, but gives us only enough description for us to know the magnitude of the attack. The violence is inhumane, obsessive on the part of the killer, but not presented gratuitously.

    Complicating the narrative was the untimely death of the author who left behind enough of the manuscript and accompanying articles that ghost writers could ably finish the book. Leaving us to ponder the nature of obsession: in one case a man who preyed on California suburbanites and in the other case, a wife, mother, and author who sat up at night chasing minutiae in hopes of catching him.

  • Talking to Strangers *** (of 4) by Malcolm Gladwell

    Vintage Gladwell as he describes a seemingly ordinary encounter or observation from which any reasonable person would draw an obvious conclusion and then takes a deep dive into social psychology to demonstrate how wrong we (all) are. Talking to Strangers opens with the recorded encounter in rural Texas between a white state trooper and a young Black woman, Sandra Bland, is pulled over for failing to signal when changing lanes. Failing to signal, that is, after a state trooper has turned on his flashing lights behind her insisting she pull over. Not surprisingly, the encounter degenerates, the cop loses his cool, Bland is handcuffed, and after three days in jail (for failing to signal a lane change?) commits suicide.

    The obvious conclusion is systemic racism and patent stereotyping by the trooper. In fact, we even think we know Sandra Bland. Now comes all the back story, carefully unpackaged to describe what happens when two people who don’t know one another meet. All people carry preconceived perceptions including what Gladwell describes as something called, “default to truth.” We believe what people tell us. There are evolutionary advantages to trust, even when we are being lied to and have been told we are being lied to. (Explanations for how and why Trumpians believed and still believe are unmissable.) There are additional lessons about how policing came to rely on a system of pull-over-and-suspect. And why access to instruments of suicide increase rates of suicide, though, quite surprisingly, Gladwell says nothing about Bland’s previous suicide attempts. This despite devoting chapters to predictors of suicide rates.

    The conclusion Gladwell draws is that when two people meet who don’t know one another well (and sometimes even when they do) they draw assumptions which can lead to terrible outcomes. Not only isn’t that a terribly new idea, but Gladwell offers almost nothing by way of a solution.

  • The Golem and the Jinni *** (of 4) by Helene Wecker

    In the year 1899, in New York City, a golem and a jinni chance upon one another.  A golem is a a mythical Jewish monster made of clay; a jin is a magical desert genie with fantastic powers.  In this account, both golem and jin are bound to masters, only Chava, the golem, is female, inquisitive, thoughtful, helpful (to a fault), cautious, and actually quite lovable in spite of her terrific strength.  Ahmed, the Jin is handsome, spontaneous, creative, chivalric, and impetuous.  So, rather than being mythical and distant, in many ways, Ahmed and Chava, are too human.  They struggle to understand the limits of free will while the constrained by friends, family, and magic potions.  They chafe at being immigrants in a new city.  They are conflicted by their responsibility to others when they also need to take care of themselves.  The book is slowly paced, but Wecker’s characters and themes are provocative.

  • Regeneration by Pat Barker **** (of 4)

    Most of the action takes place away from the European trenches of World War I.  Instead, Dr. Rivers uses the new field of psychoanalysis to repair the shredded psyches of young British soldiers damaged by their experience.  Soldiers in his psychiatric hospital have spent months standing in freezing water, watched their friends disemboweled by exploding shells, inhaled mustard gas, and charged across barbed wire at night in hopes of knifing another young man. Many have simply stopped functioning.  They stare, stammer, rock, dream while awake, and scream through the night.  Dr. Rivers compassionately encourages his charges to speak of their horrors and slowly nurses them back toward health.  The catch being that when he succeeds the soldiers are returned to the front and we are left to ask whether the continuation of the war is sufficiently justified that young men should be reused like cleaned-off bullets.  In the case of WW I, we know a soldier’s life expectancy on the front is on average only a few weeks and that young German soldiers are suffering the same traumas, but we also know that acquiescence to German aggression has consequences.

  • Without You There Is No Us by Suki Kim **** (of 4)

    sukiSuki Kim spent six months teaching English to the sons of elite North Koreans enrolled at Pyongyang University for Science and Technology (PUST), an evangelical college in the world’s most secretive nation.  Kim is neither a teacher nor a practicing Christian and yet maintained her cover despite being entrapped on the campus — there is no free travel in North Korea — and watched round the clock by North Korean minders.  What strikes Kim as most frightening is the total dependence of North Koreans on their Dear Leader who provides for jobs, food, beliefs about their past, their relations to others, and their future.  Free will has been utterly squashed.  Until she attends a Sunday morning prayer session with the Christians who run PUST and recognizes that entreaties of administrators and missionaries are virtually the same as what is broadcast on North Korean television.  She needs only to exchange the names of Kim Jong Il and Jesus.  She laments the inability of her college students to access the Internet, convinced that if only they could understand how much knowledge there is in the world each one of them would be free.  She wrote the book just two years before American Evangelicals, Fake News and post-truth politics cherry-picked from the Internet by his supporters led to the election of Donald Trump.

  • American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin *** (of 4)

    hearst24n-8-webPatty Hearst was the daughter of one of the wealthiest and most influential media men in American history (think Fox News) when she was kidnapped in the early 1970s by a shadowy radical group called the Symbionese Liberation Army.  During her months of captivity, Patty Hearst came to sympathize with her anti-establishment captors, going so far as to rob banks at gunpoint, and firing weapons at innocent bystanders.  Toobin does a reasonable job of setting the context of the period: the Vietnam War was refusing to come to an end, African Americans were raging against oppression, women were recognizing their own restrictions, drug use was up, domestic bombings by radical groups against symbols of government and police brutality were in the thousands, and the country was divided between blue-collar supporters of law and order and youthful proponents of peace and equality.  A lot like today’s red-blue divisions. Toobin’s fundamental question is whether Patty Hearst’s law-breaking escapades were the result of her kidnapping and fear for her life if she did not act in accordance with her kidnappers, or whether, as the historical record indicates, Patty voluntarily switched allegiances, moving from far right to far left, and was responsible for her own actions.  The question of the extent we are responsible for our own behaviors or are swayed by larger societal forces is a great question, but unfortunately, it is buried for most of this book as the moment-by-moment details of the kidnapping ordeal are laid out.

  • One of Us by Asne Seierstad **** (of 4)

    one_of_us_0Even if you do not recall the Oslo terrorist attack in 2011, the opening pages of this book make certain there is no surprise.  Anders Breivik, a native of Norway exploded a homemade bomb in front of the Prime Minister’s residence and then drove a van to Utoya Island to murder socialist youth.  He killed seventy-seven people, most of them children, nearly all with gunshots to the back of the head.  Only a few pages after it opens, the story returns to the beginning of Anders Breivik’s life to uncover in page-turning detail his development as a right-wing terrorist bent upon preserving Norway’s ethnic purity from creeping left-wing government policy.  Breivik emerges as a psychotic, deranged killer.  Except his continued lucidity and consistent logic of self-defined clarity of purpose make him indistinguishable from any member of ISIS, the Taliban, fanatical Israeli settlers and their Hamas counterparts, the routine gun-wielding mass shooters that too routinely make our headlines, more than a few affiliate of the NRA, and several of my neighbors in northwest Pennsylvania.  One of us.  This book explains what runs through their minds and then asks us to define the border between idealistic soldier of freedom and the psychologically impaired.

  • The Alienist by Caleb Carr ** (of 4)

    alienist__140527182303In the 1890s, Theodore Roosevelt did not yet have presidential ambitions.  As a young man he was trying to sweep corruption from the halls of New York City’s police department.  To sidestep detectives he doesn’t trust, Roosevelt turns to a reporter from the New York Times, Moore, and a psychoanalyst called Kreizler to solve a series of gruesome murders of young male prostitutes.  The descriptions of turn of the century New York are colorful, informative, and a loud reminder of the breadth of inequality suffered by immigrants living in hovels on the lower east side.  The only problem is that after 200 pages the first clues are only beginning to be assembled.  After 400 pages the killer has been identified and yet there are still a hundred pages to go.  It’s not a good sign for what is supposed to be a suspense-filled mystery when the reader is keeping such careful track of the page numbers.