Review: “My Age of Anxiety” by Scott Stossel

My review ran in The Seattle Times Jan. 17, 2014:

 

Scott Stossel’s new book on his lifelong struggle with severe anxiety is outstanding in the fullest sense of that word. “My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind” (Knopf, 400 pp., $27.95) is both conspicuous and superior within its genre. Stossel, who also wrote a fine biography of Sargent Shriver, brings his dogged fact-digging skills to this work, which is peppered with humor and humility, remarkably balanced — and generous to the point of philanthropy with his deeply personal, hard-won knowledge.

Plus, the man is a lovely writer.

If I sound surprised, I am. So many mainstream books on mental health insist on leading the reader into one revival meeting or another — where Big Pharma is a pill-pushing Satan or the best lifeguard on the beach; where the ubiquitous reference guide, “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM-5 came out in 2013), is a helpful tool or an insidious guide that unnecessarily labels thousands more people as mentally ill.

Stossel, in contrast, answers questions about the fitness of various diagnostics and treatments with the only truth: It depends.

 

See the rest of the review on the Seattle Times Books page.

Review: David Laskin: The Family, Three Journeys into the Heart of the 20th Century”

Seattle writer David Laskin wrote a strong book, using his search for knowledge of his own family to paint vivid history of Jews across the world. My review ran in The Seattle Times on Dec. 12, 2013:

“The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the 20th Century” by David Laskin (Viking, 400 pp)

Somewhere in the hallways of David Laskin’s publisher, there must be a sturdy soul whose editorial judgment helped ensure that this talented writer could tell his family’s story in plenteous detail. Many publishers would be more likely to winnow the manuscript, ending up with a shorter book that fit more neatly on one side or the other of the history/memoir divide.

Fortunately for us, that did not happen here. Laskin has a broad canvas on which to depict the interwoven stories of a far-flung Jewish family in Eastern Europe, Israel and the United States, from the turn of the 20th century forward. It takes some pages to get acclimated to the many players in this drama (a family tree and wonderful photos help), but once readers are fully grounded, they can happily disappear into the book.

See the rest of review on the Seattle Times Books page online.

 

 

Review: “Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin” by Jill Lepore

“Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin” by Jill Lepore (Knopf, 464 pp)

My review ran on the Books page of the Seattle Times on October 5, 2013:

Historian Jill Lepore is a professional genre buster. Or, at least a genre blur-er. She’s a very popular Harvard professor who started her career in those ivy-covered towers as a temp secretary. She’s written several respected books that take on conventional interpretations of war, language and American history — apparently without alienating those peers who cling to the dusty path. She’s an essayist for The New Yorker; a critic, creator and challenger.

Now in “Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin,” she brings her various skills and quirks together to tell the story of Benjamin Franklin’s younger sister, and in so doing depicts the famous brother and their times in fresh, sharp colors. This book is a … well, what? A picaresque biography? A dual-ficto-bio? We may need to employ a new term here.

See the rest of review on the Seattle Times website.

 

Review: “Zealot” by Reza Aslan

Author Reza Aslan has been getting a lot of press, largely because of a Fox News “interview” displaying one of those moronic performances for which the network is known. (I won’t link to it. Google if you feel the need.)

I reviewed his new book for The Seattle Times:

A scholar who sets out to put the record straight on Jesus is an anomalous creature, eager (perhaps even driven) to share diligent research and original conclusions with the very people most likely to be rattled by his findings.

“Zealot” by Reza Aslan is a fascinating book, and no doubt will be chosen by many a well-meaning and hurried gift-giver who imagines a devout Christian recipient will be delighted. Be advised, dear reader, Sunday school this isn’t. Yet Aslan may come as close as one can to respecting those who revere Jesus as the peace-loving, turn-the-other-cheek, true son of God depicted in modern Christianity, even as he knocks down that image.

For the whole review, click here.

 

 

Review: Ellis and his “Revolutionary Summer”

I was able to review this book for The Seattle Times. If you know someone who is wild about early American history, jot down this title for use during frantic holiday shopping.

Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence by Joseph J. Ellis

The best thing about Joseph Ellis’ vast writings on Early America is his ability to construct unvarnished and original accounts, clear away myth and yet leave the reader with a sense of the color, irony, humor and — dare I say it? — the great good luck present throughout our country’s history.

More than once I’ve had the thought that his award-winning books should be issued to every family with fiercely opposed politics and loyalties, with instructions to read one or more of them immediately prior to Thanksgiving dinner. Just imagine it: intelligent arguments about the character of our nation.

His latest, “Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence,” is not the fully transporting sort of book, as was his “American Sphinx” on Thomas Jefferson. And it won’t inspire people to become public servants or professors, as I believe his works on John Adams et. al. can actually do.

Yet it is an absorbing read and is aptly named, for it takes a fresh view — as his subtitle puts it — of the birth of American independence.

It requires a kind of donnish confidence to focus on the buildup to a great change, and the University of Massachusetts professor shoves off with a characteristically good one-liner at the start: “By the spring of 1776, British and American troops had been killing each other at a robust rate for a full year.”

 

Read the rest of the review in The Seattle Times by clicking here.

 

 

Review: “Counter Clockwise” by Lauren Kessler

My review of this book ran in The Seattle Times:

“Counter Clockwise: My Year of Hypnosis, Hormones, Dark Chocolate, and Other Adventures in the World of Anti-Aging”

by Lauren Kessler

Rodale, 223 pp., $24.99

I have a rotten gene pool — the family tree is a bonsai. Whatever my predecessors lacked in health, they made up for in drama: fatal tumbles down stairs or whacks on the head during polo matches, all before cancer, diabetes or dementia could claim them.

With my genetic loading, I am absurdly pleased each time I renew my magazine subscriptions. Hence, I am not too worried about aging.

So I turned with some curiosity to Lauren Kessler’s new book, “Counter Clockwise,” in which she plumbs the depths of her own valiant battle to hold back the forces of time. What, I wondered, could she add to our society’s endless discussion of age-retardant strategies? Quite a bit, as it turns out.

For the rest of the review, click here.

Review: “The Boy Who Shot the Sheriff” by Bartley

I reviewed this for The Seattle Times. Bartley’s book has been nominated for both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award.

“The Boy Who Shot the Sheriff: The Redemption of Herbert Nicolls, Jr.” by Nancy Bartley (Univ of WA Press)

It’s the stuff of movies: An abused, ragged 12-year-old boy shoots and kills a sheriff in a small, poor Depression-era town in southeastern Washington state. He is sent to prison for life. Advocates work tirelessly to free him, jailers endeavor to protect him, and he grows to intelligent manhood behind bars.

In the hands of Nancy Bartley, a staff writer for The Seattle Times, the story of Herbert Niccolls, Jr. is told with perspicacious detail borne of careful research.

It’s a safe wager that every daily newspaper reporter comes across a story that cries out to be turned into a book. For the few who actually do so, many pitfalls lurk. The reporting often goes on for years, making the author reluctant to part with a single hard-won fact. The writing itself can suffer from the narrative albatross of attribution — that lifetime habit of inserting “police said” after each and every fact.

For the rest of the review, click here.

 

Review of Richard Russo’s “Elsewhere.”

Longtime readers of Russo’s fiction will recognize the woman at the center of this memoir. His mother, Jean Russo, and his childhood with her have fueled most of his novels.

My review in The Seattle Times begins this way:

Richard Russo has mined his childhood with enormous energy, humor and craftsmanship. He’s populated most of his stories and novels (one, “Empire Falls,” a Pulitzer Prize winner) with wonderfully believable characters found in fading mill towns nestled in upper New York State.

These towns, once vibrant, clattering, stinking centers where animal hides were turned into famously excellent gloves and other leather goods, were dying by the 1950s when Russo was growing up just north of the Adirondacks foothills. His hometown was Gloversville, in what was later labeled the Central Leatherstocking District — two names so simultaneously sad and absurd that Russo might have made them up . (A place proudly named after an extinct industry not once, but twice, is the sort of stuff Russo appreciates.)

 

Read the rest here.

All the News That Fits. In this blog, anyway.

The Sunday New York Times today (June 10, 2012) has some rich rewards within its pages.

A very well-written feature on a group of elderly women in a public-housing apartment building in New York City. They’ve become friends, rallying around one who lost her daughter to a stabbing attack. What could have been a brief or shallow look at a bunch of old gals who bring each other coffee is instead a thoughtful and evocative essay on late-in-life friendship. Reporter John Leland should be proud…as should the headline writer who came up with “The Neighbors Who Don’t Knock.”

–The kindness in that piece may be counteracted by the one headlined “Forced to Early Social Security, Unemployed Pay a Steep Price.” I’m saving that one to read later. No need to ruin the mood immediately. (Plus, I know several people who are taking their Social Security early, so I can predict some of the findings.)

The centerpiece on A-1, “Risky Rise of the Good Grade Pill,” about kids snorting their way to longer attention spans is a major (pardon the pun) downer. The problem is enormous. Adderall, Ritalin and other drugs  prescribed to treat ADHD and other conditions are swallowed or crushed and snorted by students from all walks of life to allow for high energy and “tunnel” concentration that is perfect for taking college boards and other tests. With abuse, the resulting damage to health (of both body and mind) is invariably serious. Most sobering is the observation that many kids taking the drugs are unaware that the pills are amphetamines, and that sharing them with others can be the same as selling them, which is a felony. The story is well reported and well written. Reporter Alan Schwartz did a ton of legwork for this one. Among the take-aways for me: (1) There is no mystery as to why so few sources would let their names be used, but watch as Big Pharma manufacturers use the lack of conventional attribution as they refute the size of the problem. (2) I would have been popping these things with both hands if they’d been available when I was in high school.

–The impressive Sunday magazine cover story by Amos Kamil on abuse in the prestigious Horace Mann School in New York is also very well done. But, for God’s sake — I’m beginning to wonder how any kids manage to escape such predators.  I was raised to keep a weather eye out for dangerous guys (they were always “guys”) presumably prison escapees who waited in the bushes on the route home from school. What do you tell a kid now? Watch our for priests, teachers, coaches, babysitters, doctors, Scout leaders and camp counselors? No wonder so many kids are snorting their ‘scripts. You need energy and powerful focus to dodge all these dirtbags.

Finally, there’s the Q&A with author John Irving in the Book Review. When asked which famous author he’d like to meet, he replies that he prefers reading writers to meeting them. Excellent answer.

 

 

 

Review: “In The Kingdom of Men” by Kim Barnes

This is a very good novel just out by Kim Barnes. The top of my review in The Seattle Times:

In the 1960s, the Arabian American Oil Company, the big boy in the international oil business, created gated compounds for its American workers in Saudi Arabia, or more accurately, for the workers’ wives and families whose husbands went off to work on oil rigs.

A portrait of life inside the gates in 1967, drawn with skill and filled with evocative period detail by novelist Kim Barnes, depicts a sort of Saudi Barbie Dream House. The narrator is young bride Virginia “Gin” McPhee, a transplanted Okie and heroine in the enticing tradition of plucky outsiders who find themselves in a new society with complex social rules and secrets.

For the rest, click here.

Good books: A black widow, a Dodge City doc and deadly games.

My escapist reading for the past couple of weeks covered a lot of ground–the old West, the new Midwest, the future North America and modern-day Manhattan. I grabbed two at the library based on my scientific method of good cover, good summary, an author not known to me, and enough pages to keep the entertainment coming for several days. The third is a mega-hit young adult book I could not resist any longer.

“Criminal Seduction” by Darian North (Dutton, 1993; Signet 1994) is a juicy thriller built around a murder case, complete with a mysterious widow charged with killing her husband, a well-known and troubled artist. The narrator is Owen Byrne, a Kansas cowboy-turned-author who is writing his first true-crime book about the case. I’m a sucker for a good story about a struggling writer. This one has enough plot twists and turns to keep even jaded mystery/thriller readers hooked. It’s not easy to segue from courtroom narrative to sex scenes, but North manages quite nicely.

 

“Doc” (Random House, 2011) was a surprise.  Author Mary Doria Russell manages to mix the myth and generous servings of true history about Dodge City in the 1870s together to make the legendary Doc Holliday come to life. Her humor is dry and clever — if you loved the irreverent HBO series Deadwood, this book is for you. Russell is a talented writer across genres, with a gift for focusing on unlikely friendships and love affairs as a means of understanding her characters. Doc’s liaison with a whore who converses with him in Latin is most memorable.

Other books by North and Russell are on my to-get list now. Is there anything better than discovering an enjoyable author with other books to her/his credit?

The third book is The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, a fantasy set in the future, a genre I used to rate right below appliance manuals. Author Kevin Brockmeier (“The Illumination”) helped me realize the idiocy of this bias, so I finally picked up “The Hunger Games.” The book is inspired by Greek myth, reality TV and bleak war news, according to interviews with Collins, a former TV writer. The story is told from the point of view of Katness Everdeen, a tough teenage girl who is the hunter-gatherer for her fatherless family, and who must go off to fight to the death in the televised Hunger Games. Collins manages to indict today’s political and corporate villains without preaching, and throws in enough suspense and survival-by-wits to keep the reader riveted. Small wonder that two more books and a motion picture have popped up.

Buy all at Powell’s — best bookstore in America.

–Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett

Carole King weaves yet another Tapestry.

I was fortunate to be able to review Carole King’s new autobio for The Seattle Times:

 

The title of Carole King’s autobiography is a good fit for the humble, glamour-free portrait she paints of her seven decades. It’s also a stroke of marketing genius.

“(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman” was the megahit King and her first husband and longtime collaborator Gerry Goffin wrote for Aretha Franklin in 1967 that’s been sung by countless rockers, rappers, divas and secret shower-

soloists. It is also likely the best-known track on King’s 1971 smash album “Tapestry,” which has sold upward of 25 million copies. Now those of us who wore out our record players listening to it are a publisher’s dream demographic: young enough to still have rock ‘n’ roll in our heads, old enough to pay full price for a hardcover book without feeling ripped off.

 

For the rest of the review, click here.

 

Tiny Book Reviews: Women at war and the men who loved them.

It’s been months since I blanketed readers with lists of obscure and bestselling books of interest.

Consider these for a start:

The best novel set in the civil rights era that I have read (and I’ve read as many as I can get my hands on) is Magic Time by Doug Marlette (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006). I was crushed to discover that the author has since passed away. Marlette wrote a historically accurate novel with nearly perfect pitch. Protagonist Carter Ransom, a newspaper columnist back home in the deep South after years away, is as wounded and honorable as the homeland he revisits.

Burial for a King : Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral and the week that transformed Atlanta and rocked the nation, by Rebecca Burns (Scribner, 2011) is a surprise: Fresh reporting and perspective on a tragedy that is one of the most written-about events in American history. By focusing tightly on the week of King’s funeral, and capturing moments of the extraordinary strength of Coretta Scott King, Burns adds a valuable work to the canon.

With a selfish, spirited heroine of the Scarlett O’Hara variety, The Linen Queen, by Patricia Falvey (Center Street, 2011) is set in a Northern Ireland village during World War II.  There’s a love triangle at the center of this good novel, but the small domestic details of the life of a small-village millworker is the best stuff.

Reading Away,  by Amy Bloom (Random House, 2007) made me realize how many more picaresque novels are about men versus women. And what a shame that is. Bloom is a fabulous writer and her heroine, Lillian Leyb, is brave, foolish and memorable as she arrives in America in 1924. When Lillian learns the infant daughter she left for dead after a pogrom is alive, she vows to return to Russia and find the child.  The characters who help and hinder her are brilliantly drawn. Bloom employs a very finely wrought back-and-forth-in-time style that every fiction writer should study.

The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee (Riverhead Books, 2010) has a Sophie’s Choice quality–a painful war story with a fierce female survivor at its center; unfolding events from which we cannot avert our eyes, and which stay lodged in the brain for weeks. Set first in the Korean War era, it seems especially poignant to read of such spoils of war today, with US military involvement on more than one front. Chang-rae Lee is already established as a powerhouse and this book keeps that reputation intact.

If you, like me, missed the coda to Armisted Maupin’s wonderful Tales of the City characters, don’t wait any longer. Go get Michael Tolliver Lives, (HarperCollins, 2007) and remember what it was that made the Maupin novels so engrossing the first time around. Almost 20 years after Maupin brought gay, lesbian and transgender characters to the mainstream, he revisits the veterans of those distant days. This isn’t just a book for nostalgic old farts; if  the whole series is new to you, start at the beginning with Tales of the City.

(Note: The links to these books are from Powell’s, Portland’s famous independent bookstore, arguably the best in the country. Sometimes a link disappears when the particular copy I’ve bookmarked is a used one that has been sold. If you get a “not found” message, simply search for the title again on the Powell’s home page. They never run out of books.)

 

 

 

“Cry to Heaven” by Anne Rice

“Cry to Heaven” (Knopf) came out in 1982 and it is the first Anne Rice work I’ve read. It’s rich and brilliant, the story of 17th century castrati, castrated males with unearthly, beautiful voices. These revered artists were courted by the Vatican and high society, but were also outcasts: eunuchs who existed in an excruciating gender limbo surrounded by complicated societal mores and attitudes. The boys who were sold by parents, then “cut,” did not all become stars. The ones who lost their voices or never developed the talent needed for the stage are among history’s most tragic figures. The story tells of Tonio Treschi, a Venetian nobleman kidnapped and castrated, who rises through the ranks of this odd society. His teachers, lovers, audiences and family are all swept up by his unearthly gift, for which everyone pays a price. Read this and prepare to dream about the story at night. Rice is a clever literary witch.

“Scottsboro” by Ellen Feldman

“Scottsboro: A Novel” by Ellen Feldman (Norton, 2008) -

The case of the “Scottsboro Boys” in 1931 proves that real-life stories, are in fact, stranger, meaner, more shocking and riveting than the made-up stuff can ever be.

The Alabama case of nine African American teenagers charged with the rape of two white women stretched on for years, a spectacle still unrivaled. The Jim Crow racism that allowed the trumped-up charges to stand is well known, but Ellen Feldman’s excellent novel tells of the other forces at work.

The International Labor Defense (legal arm of the Communist Party), the NAACP, various writers, and other defenders of the Scottsboro nine kept them alive, each questioning the motives–even the true goals–of the other. As one character remarked in accusing another defender: Some activists knew that nine martyrs were more politically useful than nine free men, and so actually hoped for their convictions.

Some of the novel’s characters have rich real-life histories, such as Sam Leibowitz, the tireless defense attorney–also known as a CommieNewYorkJew, who was a hero, an opportunist, and a figure who provoked both pride and fear in other American Jews. (The Scottsboro case explains much about new waves of anti-Semitism during the years that followed.) The two women, cast as victims by Southern white-supremacist myth, emerge as a pair of the most sympathetic liars in modern history.

A fine book, well grounded in history and crafted with skill.

Deep end of the gene pool.

Often when I read some fascinating piece in The New York Times about mental health, addiction or behavior…I look up and see reporter Benedict Carey’s byline on it. The piece headlined “Genes as Mirrors of Life Experiences” in the online edition is the latest one to catch my eye.

The piece is about “epigenetics” — the study of how our life experiences and surroundings affect gene function. This is all new to me — and mind-boggling stuff. I long ago came to understand how my paternal forebears’ addictions took up residence in my genes’ neighborhood, but this? Whoa.

Carey writes:

“In studies of rats, researchers have shown that affectionate mothering alters the expression of genes, allowing them to dampen their physiological response to stress. These biological buffers are then passed on to the next generation: rodents and nonhuman primates biologically primed to handle stress tend to be more nurturing to their own offspring, and the system is thought to work similarly in humans.

Epigenetic markers may likewise hinder normal development: the offspring of parents who experience famine are at heightened risk for developing schizophrenia, some research suggests — perhaps because of the chemical signatures on the genes that parents pass on….”

The children of Holocaust survivors, offspring of veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, descendants of successful, happy folks…all those genes carry their own back story, it seems.

Read the whole story here.

“Among Thieves” by David Hosp steals the show.

If you saw the movie “The Town” about underworld life in Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood, you know this Irish-thug genre. It draws on the local “family business” of crime, in which fathers pass on armed-robbery skills and turf to sons, continuing a particularly violent history in the narrow streets of a tough neighborhood.

The story of the film is good, but “Among Thieves” by David Hosp (Grand Central Publishing, 2010) is much better. It has killers with and without wits; a big, smart ex-cop; a small, smart gal cop; a criminal-lawyer-with-a-heart; a tough teenager and a shockingly bold museum robbery.

(The robbery at the eclectic and wonderful Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum really happened in 1990, and remains unsolved.)

The author is a lawyer in real life, with a big fancy Boston firm. Of course he makes Finn, his lawyer-hero, a hardscrabble case who eschews the trappings of a successful career. But is still the smartest guy in the game. A forgivable conceit. Finn won’t rest until he serves his client, a fuck-up of a crook just trying to provide for his newly discovered daughter. That puts Finn back in the museum case 20 years after the fact, racing against the bad guys and assorted cops all running down the same trail.

It’s hard to put down, and the mystery remains a mystery until close to the end. Don’t pick it up if you have work to do or a place to be.

(More Tiny Book Reviews, here.)

“Blind Man’s Alley” is good, semi-trashy read.

You wouldn’t think a thriller about a New York City developer and the lawyers who represent him would be a page turner, but Justin Peacock’s novel, “Blind Man’s Alley” is, in fact, just that.

His characters’ dialogue rings true; the lawyers, real estate robber barons, and the journalists are well cast; New York City is as much of a player in the plot as any human. There’s even some biracial angst and the realistic amount of sex possible for a lawyer who works 80 hours a week. It won’t be long before this one is a movie, I’ll wager.

(If you order the book through the Powell’s link below, I get a small kickback. I don’t get any info about you or your purchase.)

Buy these books.

“Edgar Sawtelle” by David Wroblewski - This gratifyingly fat volume is what you always hope to find when you buy a new, writerly, recommended-by-bookstore-staff, nouvelle-cuisine kind of book. Only this one isn’t contrived or over-written and it’s about a boy and dogs without turning into Old Yeller 2.0.

“Up from Orchard Street” by Eleanor Widmer – This is the first novel written in 100 or so years about Jews on the Lower East Side that has an original story line. It’s historically accurate and the characters are much more interesting than anyone you’re going to meet this week, so read it instead of perusing Match.com or going to Happy Hour.

Bookish. (updated) (updated again)

Some of the books from this summer and fall that I can recommend…or not:

“Blind Man’s Alley” by Justin Peacock - You wouldn’t think a thriller about a New York City developer and the lawyers who represent him would be a page turner, but “Blind Man’s Alley” is, in fact, just that. The characters’ dialogue rings true; the lawyers, real estate robber barons, and the journalists are well cast; New York City is as much of a player in the plot as any human. There’s even some biracial angst and the realistic amount of sex possible for a lawyer who works 80 hours a week. It won’t be long before this one is a movie, I’ll wager.

“Edgar Sawtelle” by David Wroblewski - This gratifyingly fat volume is what you always hope to find when you buy a new, writerly, recommended-by-bookstore-staff, nouvelle-cuisine kind of book. Only this one isn’t contrived or over-written and it’s about a boy and dogs without turning into Old Yeller 2.0.

“Up from Orchard Street” by Eleanor Widmer – This is the first novel written in 100 or so years about Jews on the Lower East Side that has an original story line. It’s historically accurate and the characters are much more interesting than anyone you’re going to meet this week, so read it instead of perusing Match.com or going to Happy Hour.

“The King’s Favorite,” by Susan Holloway Scott and “The Other Queen” by Philippa Gregory – I got my annual Royal fix with these two novels. Gregory is the better-known author, and she carries on her strong research and convincing narrative style of 16th-century English intrigue here. Its rotating first-person accounts by Mary, Queen of Scots; the Earl of Shrewsbury (George Talbot) and his wife, Bess of Hardwick, are good stuff, although Bloody Mary’s egotistical rants get tiresome. (Think how poor Bess felt…she had to host the annoying Mary for more than two years while the reigning Queen Elizabeth I tried to figure out what to do with her plotting cousin.) Scott’s novel is just as well researched, and ultimately a more enjoyable tale with its lone narrator, the bawdy Nell Gwyn. This illiterate, street-smart actress and mistress of King Charles II started out as a tavern wench in the 1660s and never lost sight of those humble beginnings. By all accounts she was an honest, uncomplicated friend to Charles, a rarity in court life. (Then and now, probably.)

The 37th Hour” by Jodi Compton – After I read “Hailey’s War,” I hunted up this novel by the same author. Also very good. Compton has a gift for strong, flawed, believable, contemporary female characters. This one stars a police detective with a gift for finding missing people. She’s put to the test when her husband, also a cop, disappears. It’s a thriller on the surface and underneath…a meditation on the many ways people get lost. Sometimes without going anywhere at all.

“Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right,” by Benjamin Balint – I bought this planning to get a sense of period details relevant to 1940s-50′s Jewish intelligentsia, and ended up reading it with care. This is a sleeper; well researched, well written. It’s a close look behind the scenes at a magazine that brought America good stuff by Roth, Malamud, Singer, Arendt, Mailer, and the staff’s gradual move to the Right. This arc of change is a fascinating process and (former Seattleite) Balint does a masterful job explaining how it went down. The cast of characters is worthy of a novel or two. Balint’s four-year stint as an editor at Commentary came in handy.

“Hailey’s War” by Jodi Compton - Very good novel that is much smarter, less predictable, fresher than whatever thriller you last read. Hailey has much of the panache of the blockbuster heroine Lisbeth Salander who will apparently be on the bestseller list for years. She’s a West Point washout, bike messenger and wow, she can kick some butt and think meaningful thoughts at the same time. Loved it.

“Wherever You Go” by Joan Leegant - New novel about three people pursuing their vision of Judaism and Israel today. I disagree with the NYT review on this one. I found the characters and their struggles to be realistic and the push-pull of life as a Jew today to be captured with clarity and feeling. Buy it.

“South of Broad” by Pat Conroy - Someone has hijacked this formerly wonderful writer. A whacked plot and a hero I wanted to slap. Reread any of his other books instead.

In My Father’s House” by Lynn Harris (of blessed memory) — Slightly convincing gay soft porn and a lot of fashion detail exhibited by characters of color. Flaccid plot. You decide.

“Poor Little Bitch Girl” by Jackie Collins - Yes, I am ashamed. But I got it at the library. I did not spend money on it. You probably wouldn’t buy it anyway, right? Don’t.

“Born on a Blue Day: Inside the extraordinary mind of an autistic savant” by Daniel Tammet - Wonderful, fascinating, occasionally gently funny first-person account. It is impossible to look at other marching-to-different-drummer type humans quite the same way after reading this one. It helps that he’s a Brit on top of it all.

“Marriage and Other Acts of Charity” by Kate Braestrup – Not as good as her previous book, but continues the appealing story of the widowed chaplain who ministers to law enforcement and civilians in the Maine woods. If all clergy were this practical and funny, the world would be a better place.

“The Devlin Diary”  by Christi Phillips – Story moves between Oxford of today and 17th century England. An escapist novel with very good historical grounding and a female protagonist with brains and bravery. The duties and drawbacks of a female doctor in the royal court are considerably more interesting than those of the contemporary scholar of history at stuffy Oxford.

“Dragons” by Michael Connelly – The Detective Harry Bosch series is now DOA. Or should be. This one reads like a movie treatment.

“Split Image: A Jesse Stone Novel” by Robert B. Parker – Trademark terse sentences. Snappy one-liners. Alcoholism. Washed-up cop. Hot private detective. If this mystery book was food, it would be those little oyster crackers that float. Only unsalted. And past their expiration date.

“The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story if America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson.  See my review for Seattle Times, here.

I’ll spare you the list of books related to lynching and racism that are part of my ongoing writing project. At least for now. Except to say that Professor Paula J. Giddings created a suitable monument for the heroic Ida B. Wells with “Ida: A Sword Among Lions.” Until this book, Wells did not get the credit she deserved for helping to end widespread lynching in the American South.