Here’s A Threefer.


I finished these three recently. They are all good in their own way, especially The Grapes of Wrath, which I’ve avoided for 50 years. I’m glad I did because if I’d been forced to read it in high school I probably would have hated it.  With maturity comes wisdom or patience or who the fuck knows. At any rate it’s a great book. Zeitoun will scare the shit out of you if you’re one of those people who still believes “it can’t happen in America”.  Hint: It can. Omnivore”s Dilemma is brimming with interesting information but it’s also a tough slog. It took a while to plow through that one. I’m getting kind of bored with writing these posts. This may be the last one. I can’t see the point of it anymore.

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63F4C349-3FE1-44C8-BE98-95F4AB6AE143Harry Truman knew when he agreed to be Franklin Roosevelt’s vice-president during his third term there was a 99% chance he would become president before it ended because of FDR’s poor health. As it turned out he got the opportunity just a few months after the election. During the next 7.5 years he presided over some of the most important events in the history of the world. Using the atomic bomb. The end of World War Two. The beginning of the Cold War. The Marshall Plan. China going Communist. Involvement in the Korean War. Firing General MacArthur. McCarthyism. The beginning of the Civil Rights movement.

With the benefit of hindsight most educated people who have an opinion on the subject seem to agree Truman got it right more often than not. Mr. McCullough certainly does, as he treats our 33rd president with near reverence in his excellent book. It’s long on pages but not once did it threaten to become boring. There are a number of historical tangents that are interesting and kept by the author to just the right length. I especially enjoyed the brief history of the Pendergast years in Kansas City, which is a subject I would like to know more about.

David McCullough has become one of my favorite historical writers and I am looking forward to reading more of his work. The story of the Brooklyn Bridge is next on my list.

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The Human Stain

stainColeman Silk is a professor at a small New England college who quits his job in disgust after getting caught up in a firestorm set off by a rhetorical question he asked in a classroom concerning two students who were registered for the course but never attended. “What are they, spooks?” he remarked one day after taking roll. What he didn’t know, having never seen the students in question, is that they were both black, and of course they are grievously offended when word of the supposed slur reaches them. The irony is that, unbeknownst to everyone but himself, Coleman Silk is also a black man who just happens to have very light skin. It is a secret he deliberately kept from everyone, including his wife and children, since joining the Navy as a white man 50 years ago. The novel tells the story of the final two years of Coleman Silk’s life, and they are odd but interesting years.

The Human Stain is a beautifully written book and the story is interesting enough, but the author does have a tendency to digress onto some windy tangents. If I had a complaint, and I don’t, that would probably be it.

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Red Sparrow

imageMy wife’s friend Jacky recommended Red Sparrow (now a major motion picture) and I promised her I would give it a try so I did, even though spy stories are not normally my thing. The story is not too complicated, which was good because convoluted plots are my biggest complaint about espionage novels. And despite what the title may suggest, there is not a great deal of sex in the book. “Sparrows”, for the uninitiated, are young Russian women and men who are sent to a special school to learn how to seduce targeted people and convert them into spies for Mother Russia. “Whore School” is how the graduates refer to it. But through the course of the book not much “sparrowing” goes on except for a couple of times between Dominika, our incredibly gorgeous (what else) Russian heroine, and Nate, the incredibly gorgeous (what else) American CIA agent she is supposed to recruit, and vice versa. Given that they had already fallen for each other romantically by the time they became intimate it wasn’t especially sexy. I won’t try to explain the story because I can’t do it justice and also I’m lazy. My overall impression of the book is that it’s well paced and worth the time. If you are into the genre I recommend it. The author is an ex-CIA operative himself and much was made on the book jacket of the insider knowledge he brings to his stories. He seems especially skilled in describing in detail the art of “going black”, which means successfully eluding surveillance. My wife’s friend said it was the first book in a trilogy, and I’m pretty sure I’ll give book #2 a try in the near future.

Addendum: About two weeks after I finished the book I watched the movie. It’s terrible and the worst thing about it was it managed to do something I never thought possible. It made Jennifer Lawrence seem boring. Not cool.



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Going After Cacciato

59953d6565004100325b7d91A well-written but strange novel about a platoon of American soldiers who pursue a deserter comrade from the war in Vietnam all the way to Paris. Or do they? The story switches back and forth between reality and what I finally figured out was a fantasy in the imagination of Spec. Four Paul Berlin, a friend and platoon mate of the deserter Cacciato.  The book is very readable if you can get past the need to suspend disbelief and just go with it, which I was eventually successful in doing. The author’s writing style gets compared to Hemingway by some who have reviewed the book. This usually means “sparse prose”, which is an admirable thing to fans of the great Papa H. I’m no Hemingway expert but I think I saw what they meant in some of the dialog, which is so fractured and repetitive in places it becomes annoying. Much like Hemingway.

Anyway, in the end I enjoyed the journey, both real and imagined, despite a few minor complaints.

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Rabbit Redux

imageAfter reading Rabbit Run I was not sure I would bother with any of the other books in this Updike series. It was a well written book but I did not care for the main character, one Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom. I saw him as a lazy, selfish, worthless excuse for a human being. Who wants to read about a loser like that? Well, as it turns out, I do. Because in Rabbit Redux, Rabbit has matured. He has a steady job, he cares deeply about his son and he tried to make things work with his wife Janice, who has numerous issues of her own. But Rabbit being Rabbit, he still makes really bad decisions. Two of the worst were allowing Jill, an 18 year old socialite turned prostitute and Skeeter, an angry Vietnam veteran, to move into his house after Janice moved out to live with another man. Much weirdness ensues. Rabbit’s biggest problem is he doesn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. He just wants everyone to get along. He is the Rodney King of his era.

One of the blurbs on the back cover promises that reading this book will change my life. I have yet to see any evidence of that, but it’s only been a couple of days since I finished it. Maybe it takes time. I can say that the reading experience was terrific. Mr. Updike is a truly gifted writer, possibly one of the best of the past half century. It was an absolute pleasure to be carried along by his words. I would give my left (insert body part of choice) to be able to write like that. I am very much looking forward to what happens next in Rabbit Is Rich. If it’s only half as good as this one it’s still going to be great.

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The Civil War – A Narrative: Red River to Appomattox.

7931689A-A56B-4CD1-A573-D495D75293F0It took me four years to finish this book. Not because it’s not good. It is. In fact this book and its two predecessors have become the standard by which all other Civil War writing is judged. I had read the first two volumes in a reasonable amount of time. I don’t know what happened with this one. I don’t have an excuse. The important thing is I have done it, and it feels like I have accomplished something. Twenty-eight hundred forty seven pages of something, to be precise. If I have a complaint it’s that sometimes there seemed to be too much detail. This is particularly true in some of the battle descriptions, which to me were often confusing, especially if it was a fight I was not already familiar with. But I’m sure many other readers were more than happy with the minutiae, and I gladly yield to them.

Shelby Foote accomplished an amazing thing with his narrative. It took him 22 years to write it. I can’t imagine how he willed himself to stick with it for all that time, but Civil War buffs everywhere are the beneficiaries of his dedication.



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