Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category


When is a book more than a book? For one, when it has the power to go directly to your emotions; two, when it touches your sense of who you are as an American; three, when it is an act of patriotism to open and study the content; and four, when you want to immediately share your experience with friends and family. Such is The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln, published 2015 by the Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation and Steidl Publishers. Two hundred seventy-one plates of Lincoln in chronological order make this book something you have never experienced before.

Buy it for yourself. Buy it for your family. Buy it for your public library. Buy it for your alma mater. Buy it for your dearest friend. You will, for ever after, know you did a wonderful act in sharing The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln.

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It will soon be time to officially celebrate Independent Bookstore Day on May 2nd. So I am telling bookstore owners how to extend the holiday for the entire month of May. Yes, this is akin to my telling a chef how to follow a Betty Crocker recipe; but here goes.

Put up a display of books about bookstores and booksellers, any number of titles may be included. My easy list is
Paul Auster, The Brooklyn Follies
Colin Bateman, Mystery Man
Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop
Jeri Halston, Ice Man Cometh
Deborah Meyler, The Bookstore
Jean-Pierre Ohl, Mr Dick or the Tenth Book
Ronald Rice, editor, My Bookstore
Robin Sloan, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
Ali Smith, The Whole Story and Other Stories
Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind
Gabrielle Zevin, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

People shopping in a bookstore are not there just for one book; they are there because they love the look, the feel, the smell, the memories, and time spent on a pleasurable activity. Help them celebrate their good fortune to have a bookstore available. For those of us without one we will have to celebrate our own way using you know who. I have read Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop in a three novel cover; and I have my eye on another in the list. Charles Marlin

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Book lists, particularly those at the end of a year, always catch my attention. I usually read through and pick one or two titles to hand on to for future purchase; but I rarely keep the list as I have no mountain climbing ambition. This year I did something different; I copied out four lists before deciding four were more than enough.

They are “Jonathan Yardley’s favorite books,” and “The ten best books of 2014,” from The Washington Post. From The New York Times, they are “100 Notable Books of 2014,” and “Human Costs of the Forever Wars, Enough to Fill a Bookshelf,” the last list by Michiko Kakutani.

I know the article by Kakutani does not need my promotion; however, I want to comment on it anyway. It is a thoughtful look at how we are recording for our understanding and memory the wars of our own making in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those wars need our attention and wise response as much as does the battered environment; and we seem to be as lost in one confrontation as in the other.

I was surprised to find I have read only two titles Kakutani writes about: Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, and Brian Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country; both of which are sure to bring your emotions to the surface. These two books should be in every public library in America; and I am confident they are not the only books in his list that should be tagged as such.

I do not doubt there are other books fully deserving of being listed in the article. Our country should act this coming year to completely choke off the bloody creation of new authors. There are already too many at work and in the development stage. Enough is enough.

As I write this the day before my local Christmas Bird Count, I must mention the only birding book from the Forever Wars, Jonathan Trouern-Trend’s Birding Babylon: A Soldier’s Journal from Iraq. Just now I looked up from my desk to see outside a Pileated Woodpecker tearing a hole in a hemlock looking for a mid-afternoon meal. If we don’t kill or maim life, it seems to work well. Charles Marlin

Image by Zoriah Miller at zoriah.com

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Put them on your wish list, assign them as gifts and buy early so you can read them before you have to give them up, I suggest you keep them for your self. They are among the best of the year.

My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir by Brian Turner is the perfect gift for readers interested in how men think and feel in war and stress by an author who is a protein poet and who served two tours in Iraq. Because he is a poet, what he writes is not confined to only his experience; it is universal. Men, whatever you think of them, are well served in this book.

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, A Biography by John Lahr is the best biography of a writer I have read; and I have read a hell of a lot of biographies. The man, his family, his neuroses, his early struggles as a writer, his successes and collaboration with Elia Kazan, his failures, and cannibalization of himself are all woven together as one great American narrative of one of our greatest playwrights. To enjoy to the fullest any of his plays, you need to first read this book. Before you put the book down, you will be eating fruit cake, drinking martinis, and swiming through the massive genius of Thomas Lanier Williams III we know as Tennessee Williams.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson again brings us full frontal with the enormity of what we think of as the small lives of unimportant people; but the author does it with a tenderness that is never false, and is always empathetic. She is the author Home and Gilead; and she has again returned to the bare town of Gilead, Iowa. She makes you wish you knew the townspeople; and of course your wish confirms you already know them. She demonstrates how imperfect, people deal with unanswerable questions; they live with them by getting up and attending to the duties of the day.

Undeniably we live in a time of great writing. The riches seem to overwhelm us; still, it is a happy gluttony. Charles Marlin

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Untitled-1 copy

The Bigot: Why Prejudice Persists by Stephen Eric Bronner is a big little book, meaning a lot of valuable insight, historical context, and useful distinctions for a murky subject. It will help clarify thoughts; but it does not offer a solution, unless self-education and self-awareness is as close to one an individual is ever likely to get. If the reader has the habit of underlining important passages and adding marginalia, give it up because there will be no white space left on any page.

A sense of the scope of the book can be taken from the Appendix: Beginnings, that lists books and films for further study, organized by topics: Modernity, Anti-Semitism, Sexism, Racism, Gay Life, The True Believer, The Elitist, The Chauvinist, Islamopholia, Fanaticism, and Intolerance. His definitions distinguish between bigot, chauvinist, elitist, and racist, whether dressed in outdated attire or the latest political cover. He does not spare names. Charles Marlin

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It’s wacky. It’s eccentric. It’s funny. It’s touching. It’s informative. It’s the fifteen year romance of Mumble Tawny and the English author Martin Windrow as told by him two decades later in The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar: Living with a Tawny Owl. Reflecting on my lifetime of reading I wish I had kept as a library collection all the bird books I have read because it would be a delight to find space among them for this one.

The English are, well they are what they are, so it was comfortable to fall into his telling of their life together, he and Mumble; and to accept the proposition that a successful author and editor would cheerfully clean up bird poop for so long in order to have an alert, expectant, dependent, independent, expressive, and often inscrutable companion to come home to every evening without fail. Not all lovers are so rewarding, and loyal in a caged sort of way.

Whether you are into birds, lovers, or perhaps both, you will find this book is far more enjoyable than reading about the royals, who seem to be feathers in search of a bird. Charles Marlin

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Well researched pop psychology books are a delight to read. They don’t require an understanding of research design, statistics, or comparison studies. They don’t require a reader to become a zealot advocate of any part or the whole. They are always about something that touches most everyone, presented in a breezy style. They bring fresh news of what is happening in university and medical research. They almost always confirm some personal experiences for the reader; and they are great bedtime reading because they can be read in short bits.

Here is a doozy of a pop written by two authors who are products of their own theory on how to raise successful children, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld. Even when I tell the three components I have not spoiled the book for the reader because the authors deal with the flip side of each component as well as the rewards and underside of their theory of group and familial superiority. Quoting from the dust cover, “A superiority complex, insecurity, impulse control: these are the elements of the Triple Package, the rare and potent cultural constellation that drives disproportionate group success.”

If you are trying to cross over the parental mountain pass to bring your children to the land of success and prosperity, you may wish to change some of your behavior after reading the book. You will certainly spend some time thinking about your parenting skills and their grownup consequences. Happy reading. Charles Marlin

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Please if you are a creationist, do not read any further. In no way do I want to encourage you to read The Accidental Species Misunderstandings Of Human Evolution by Henry Gee. If you found some measure of truth in the book it would alter your identity, and your relationships with fellow dimwits. Now for those who think of evolution as science you may find you are guilty of gaping holes in your understanding of the subject.

This is a high protein energy drink so I will not try to cover in three paragraphs what Gee covered in 203 pages, counting notes and index. Darwin never wrote of a tree of evolution. This commonplace metaphor continues because it is easy to use and old habits are hard to break. Gee quotes Darwin, “It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”

Darwin did not use the term evolution to describe what he saw and understood. Gee writes, “Darwin had a term for this process to which evolution was a mere analogy: he called it ‘descent with modification,’ a much less loaded term than ‘evolution.'”

Neither Darwin’s Origin of Species, nor Gee’s little field guide will ever be popular in Texas and those other Southern states where they believe in teaching ignorance early and often; however, a reader still struggling to put it all together will find Gee a good book to have. Charles Marlin

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purple pumps
To the loyal followers of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series, the latest addition, The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, will be cause for concern. Most all of us were looking forward to Grace Makutsi’ pregnancy as her swansong at the detective agency. With Grace at home nursing young Itumelang Clovis Radiphuti, Precious Ramotswe would be free to pursue solving cases without having to constantly work around the obstreperous Grace; but no, what happened instead is that Precious felt lonely and sought out Grace at home. It would have been better if she had hired the often maligned Violet Sephotho as her temporary secretary, or if she had inquired of the Botswana Secretarial College for a less difficult, recent graduate, regardless of their score.

What do we have now? For starters, we have Grace and baby Clovis in the office. We have milktoast Phuti Radiphuti coming in for minor praise. We have Precious acknowledging the existence of Grace’s many talking shoes.

The final blow comes on the closing page of the book; but I am too alarmed to report it. Mark my prediction, there will be rough days ahead for the detective agency. Charles Marlin

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Doris Kearns Goodwin has written a little book, well as little as the subject will allow, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, And The Golden Age Of Journalism. Most readers will find about what they expected of Theodore Roosevelt, and probably much more than they expected of William Howard Taft. Without the mercurial magazine publisher, S. S. McClure, neither of the presidents would have made it to the White House, so this is rather like a three-volume set bound in one book cover. We all know she is good at this history stuff, so enough said of lady Goodwin.

Jump in time, but not in issues, location, or culprits, to the contemporary political smack down by Mark Leibovich, This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral–Plus Plenty of Valet Parking!–in America’s Gilded Capital. Corporate American continues to defecate on the American public, at the same time they corrupt the track and stable employees, dope their own horses, and bet wildly on races they know are fixed. Where is this? Why, I write of Washington Downs, the center of the District of Columbia, or as Leibovich tells us, the insiders call “This Town.”

Goodwin moves faster when she is on Roosevelt and McClure, and much slower on Taft. No one can blame her for that. Leibovich has no slow pacers in his book. If his subjects don’t keep up their frantic pace, they are dead, or might as well be dead, because it is snap, snap, snap from prologue to page 371.

In the middle of reading these two books, I received a nice mailing from Public Citizen outlining their fear for America resulting from the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, which almost any university freshman can tell you was a dunderheaded ruling. Public Citizen wants an amendment to the Constitution they have named Democracy Is For People Amendment. I know they mean well; but that name alone should give a citizen reason to pause.

They claim their amendment would outlaw corporate spending on elections, overturn the Supreme Court ruling “money is speech,” and require PACs be composed of individuals. It is their Carry Nation solution to establishing a democracy of equality, justice, and public service, where so many others have failed. If you read one or both books, you will not sign their petition. If you have respect for history, you will not sign their petition.

Is there no hope? Yes, I think there is hope for incremental progress. I continue to read to prepare myself to recognize those increments when they occur. If I had no hope, I would stop reading, and watch Fox News.

Yes, I have mixed metaphors, first a race track and then a rat infested town, but Washington is flexible and can fit most derogatory comparisons. We are blessed. Charles Marlin

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