Two (actually five) excellent books to consider

December 15, 2022 • 12:30 pm

I’m working on a long writing piece, so have had to curtail posts here for a few days. We’ll be back to normal tomorrow.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this book before, but it’s in a tie for second place among all the fiction I’ve read this year. I’ve reviewed the other two books before: All the Light We Cannot See, a 2014 book by Anthony Doerr that’s the best new fiction I’ve read in several years (my review here), and the book that ties with the one below as second-best, Hamnet, a 2020 novel by Maggie O’Farrell(my review here).  Either of those, or Horse, below, will serve you very well. But if you can read only one book, it must be the one by Doerr, which won the fiction Pulitzer Prize in 2020.

Horse, which came out this spring, is a terrific work of the imagination, weaving past and present around a single famous (and real) eighteenth-century racehorse, Lexington,. The theme is anti-black bigotry, which in the “past” section involves Jarret, the enslaved black trainer of the racehorse, and in the “present” section involves a woman zoologist, Jess, and her black boyfriend Theo. Theo finds a discarded painting of the horse in a Washington, D.C. trash heap, figures out who it is, and uses it for his Ph.D. thesis in art history. That’s how he meets Jess, who in fact is the keeper of the horse’s bones at the Smithsonian, but didn’t know that those bones belonged to Lexington.

And so the past interweaves with the present in short, compelling chapters, with nearly all the fictional characters based on real ones. The story is mesmerizing, though it swerves a bit into wokeness and preachiness at the end; and there’s a tragedy that I won’t reveal. The horse, by the way, is an almost humanlike character in the book, since his character is described in great and winsome detail.

You don’t have to be a fan of horses to love this book, and if you want to read more, go to the laudatory review at the Washington Post.  Click on the screenshot below to go to the Amazon site.

Below is the real Lexington—one of the few existing photos. As Wikipedia notes, “Lexington (March 17, 1850 – July 1, 1875) was a United States Thoroughbred race horse who won six of his seven race starts. Perhaps his greatest fame, however, came as the most successful sire of the second half of the nineteenth century; he was the leading sire in North America 16 times, and broodmare sire of many notable racehorses.”

The second book is not in my top three, but is still an excellent read:  Empire of Pain. by Patrick Radde Keefe. This book came out in April of last year, and was, like Horse, recommended to me by my editor at Viking/Penguin, who has impeccable taste in books. It is the story of the Sackler family and the trio of Jewish brothers who founded Purdue Pharma, the company that devised and manufactured OxyContin, a synthetic opioid that, as you may know, got gazillions of Americans addicted to painkillers. Many of them died. The Sacklers, who made billions on this one pill, were also philanthropists who gave millions to museums and universities, always insisting that the family name go on the donated wing or building. They—and especially the eldest brother Arthur—were hard driving and arrogant, but also somewhat polymathic (Arthur, for instance, became an autodidactic expert in Chinese art and built up a huge collection).

The family advertised OxyContin in ways that they knew would get people addicted, and ignored the damage caused by their drug. They were able to fight off lawsuits for years, but finally took a hit (not a big hit given the family’s billions) and declared bankruptcy. But all the Sacklers wound up fine, living it up in mansions around the world. The message: is was no justice.

An immense amount of reportage went into this book. It reminds me a lot of Bad Blood, the fantastic book by reporter John Carreyrou that exposed the duplicity of Elizabeth Holmes and her partner Sunny Balwani, the pair who ran the bogus startup Theranos. (Both will be going to jail for a long time, partly because Carreyrou’s book revealed their perfidy.)  Bad Blood began with Carreyrou’s reporting in the Wall Street Journal, which eventually became a mesmerizing piece of nonfiction (read it!). Empire of Pain started with an article as well: a piece by Keefe in the 2017 New Yorker. It’s extremely well written, and will introduce you to a family of which you haven’t heard, and to the enormous damage caused by their greed.

Click the screenshot to go to the Amazon site.

Now, as General Patton said, “You know what to do.”  Let us know what you’re reading, how you like it, and what books you’d especially recommend.

43 thoughts on “Two (actually five) excellent books to consider

  1. Although I haven’t yet read “Horse,” so far my favorite book by Geraldine Brooks has been “People of the Book,” also historical fiction: the story of an ancient Haggadah (now in Sarajevo, I think) and its possible journey through multiple centuries and lands. It’s one of the few books I’ve read twice and may read again. I’ve started “All the Light we Cannot See,” and “Horse” will be next on the list.

  2. I recently finished an excellent book by Adolph L. Reed Jr., The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives. And I will start with a brief note with how I came to pick it up. Dr. Reed’s name was familiar to me, an emeritus professor of political science at Penn. But I certainly didn’t expect to find a work of his, a Marxist Afro-American scholar, on the shelf of a bookstore in Thomasville, GA. Can’t get much deeper into the South than that. Those who opine that, for people of color, nothing has changed in America might take note. As a young black man, there were many doors in Thomasville he wouldn’t have been permitted to enter.

    A synopsis of the work is best provided by Dr. Reed. Despite the recent fixation on slavery as “the essentially formative black American experience”, he argues that “it is Jim Crow – the regime of codified, rigorously and unambiguously enforced racism and white supremacy – that has had the most immediate consequences for contemporary life and the connections between race and politics.”

    I’ll end with a short tale of coping with one of the many indignities of dwelling in the Jim Crow South. When his family lived in New Orleans there was a coffee shop in the French Quarter with wonderful beignets, no blacks allowed. But he had a grandmother and an aunt who could be “passant blanc”. So, they would be recruited to visit the shop and bring home the goods. Putting one over on whitey, and the pastries tasted more divinely for that, in his memory.

  3. All the Light We Cannot See, a 2014 book by Anthony Doerr that’s the best new fiction I’ve read in several years …

    I read All the Light We Cannot See over the course of a few days while visiting my sister in October. I don’t mind saying that I started bawling when Marie-Laure and Werner finally met and shared a tin of peaches in Saint-Malo, and never really stopped through to the finish, when it skips from the end of The War, first to 1974, then to 2014. The story isn’t particularly tragic, or even sorrowful, but I don’t recall ever reading a novel more poignant.

  4. I’m reading Robert Draper’s Weapons of Mass Delusion, a book much in line with the Bret Stephen’s essay you discussed this morning. Draper describes politicians terrified by their young firebrands, afraid to take a stand lest they themselves are replaced by yet another extremist. And enjoying Richard Osman’s mystery series with its protagonists who live at Coopers Chase, an upscale retirement community. It’s important to read them in order starting The Thursday Murder Club. I so want Helen Mirren to play Elizabeth in the movie.

  5. I have been reading “Gangsters vs Nazis: How Jewish Mobsters Battled Nazis in Wartime America” by Michael Benson. He relates how the mobsters organized attacks to break up Nazi rallies in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, and elsewhere. Interesting insight into both the mob and the Nazi groups in the US in the 1930s and 40s.

  6. I just purchased the latest by Frans de Waal Different: Gender through the eyes of a primatologist and am enjoying it thus far. I’ll definitely check out these other recommendations.

  7. I’m just about the start reading All the Light We Cannot See. Based on your recommendation and the enthusiastic support in comments, it was my suggestion for my book club, which has been running strong since 1986.

  8. I read Hanmet not so long ago and it is indeed fantastic. I am now reading O’Farrel’s latest, The Marriage Portrait, which is also very good. Maybe not as good as Hamnet but still.

    I also want to mention a history book I recently read: The Burgundians, by Bart van Loo. It is about the dukes of Burgundy and how they shaped especially the Netherlands and Belgium (the author is Flemish). And it is absolutely fantastic!!! What a great read. Informative, funny, very detailed. I had a great time reading it.

  9. I’m re-reading Anna Karenina. Tolstoy is famous for the sweeping passages, but I’m reminded of his ability to present intimate, human details that resonate, as in this wonderful description of Levin’s first encounter with his firstborn:

    “Look, now,” said Kitty, turning the baby so that he could see it. The aged-looking little face suddenly puckered up still more and the baby sneezed. Smiling, hardly able to restrain his tears, Levin kissed his wife and went out of the dark room. What he felt towards this little creature was utterly unlike what he had expected. There was nothing cheerful and joyous in the feeling; on the contrary, it was a new torture of apprehension. It was the consciousness of a new sphere of liability to pain. And this sense was so painful at first, the apprehension lest this helpless creature should suffer was so intense, that it prevented him from noticing the strange thrill of senseless joy and even pride that he had felt when the baby sneezed.

    1. Tolstoy? That hack? 🙂

      That seems a deftly done translation, Gary. But then, good translators are all alike; every bad translator is bad in his or her own way.

  10. Birding on Borrowed Time by Phoebe Snetsinger. A must-read for birdwatchers. She didn’t start until she was 34, was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma at 49 and given three months to live, survived that (and reoccurrences) and became the first woman birder to see 5,000 species. She was #1 in the world at 8.398 species when she was killed in a bus accident in Madagascar, at age 68.

    Before that, To See Every Bird in the World by Dan Koeppel, and account of his father’s obsession (his life list was over 7,000) and their relationship to each other.

    Fiction: Just finished reading (out loud, to my wife) all eight volumes of Genevieve Cogman’s The Invisible Library. For those who like this kind of thing, it’s the kind of thing you’ll like.

    1. Phoebe was a legend among the professional bird guides who guided her around the world. A non-birder may imagine that high-level birding is just like regular birding except more expensive. In reality, birding at Phoebe’s level requires an Olympian’s level of concentration, dedication, and effort, along with a level of risk-taking that no non-birder could ever understand. She had some horrific experiences along the way, but the non-fatal ones never stopped her.

      1. Yes, her book makes clear the amount of work she put into learning the birds. As soon as she returned from one trip, she’d prepare for the next, putting months of effort into learning all the birds she might expect to see. Extraordinarily impressive!

  11. The last fairly new book I’ve read is ‘Helgoland’, by Carlo Rovelli, based on Heisenberg’s stay there, which led to his formulation of the matrix solution of quantum mechanics. As with all Rovelli’s books, I would strongly recommend it.

    At the moment, I’m re-reading Robert Macfarlane’s series of books on the natural world and our interactions with it. I’ve just started on ‘The Old Ways’ and it’s even better than I remember it.

    I’m afraid I’ve totally gone off most new fiction these days. To me, too much of it looks like the product of a uni Creative Writing course, plus the results of plodding historical ‘research’. I’m going back to Joyce, Eliot and Zola!

    1. I also avoid modern fiction, unless I have reason to trust the author from previous books. Yes, there is too much MFA/creative writing courses, but a (to me, much) larger problem is the deadly levels of wokeism (wokeitude? woke asshattery?) and virtue signaling therein. For examples, one can pretty much pick up any book at random.

  12. About half-way through Siebert’s The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom, which is excellent. Published in 1898, Siebert was in a position to speak to many participants before they departed the scene. It covers not only the U.G.R.R., but also the situation of fugitive slaves in Canada and the Northern States. I am just starting Whitfield’s Slavery Agitation in Virginia 1829-1832, which covers the debates in the Virginia legislature about slavery following Nat Turner’s Rebellion.

    1. I also recommend it highly. Another new science book that is very good is Marlene Zuk’s book on the evolution of animal behavior, Dancing Cockatoos and The Dead Man Test.

  13. My Swedish friend insisted I read “The Life and Death of Olof Palme”. It’s nonfiction about the Swedish prime minister who was murdered in 1968.
    He certainly had a lot of enemies. Nixon and Kissinger among them. I am reminded of how much time Nixon spent on hating and snubbing Palme. The Nixon tapes have a lot of recordings of Nixon’s hatred for Palme. Palme was a vocal critic of the Vietnam War…and in my view, heroically loud.
    He became a celebrity when he appeared for an interview about socialism in the art film, “I am Curious, Yellow” for those of us the age to remember this film. (He appeared in clothes.)
    Palme increased taxes to very high levels. At one point, Astrid Lindengren, a social Democrat bulked when her taxes went up to 102%! The high taxes did make him many enemies.
    He was a staunch feminist and women started working outside the home. Many great improvements, but he did make many enemies. He came from a very conservative family, but he was very progressive. Although Sweden did well in many ways during his time as prime minister, the book explains the many problems in Sweden with his policies and some of the laws instigated during Palme’s time that if I was a citizen, I would have had a problem with.
    Somebody somewhere had a big problem, as that’s who killed him whoever he or she is.

    1. ’86, not ’68. My father, born in the US but who was 1/2 Swedish (or so he thought, from my DNA analysis it turns out he was 1/4 Swedish and 1/4 Finnish) hated him too, after he did something in solidarity with the North Vietnamese ambassador.

      As I gather from Swedish friends, the assassin is pretty well known and is some freakishly large guy, but it can’t be proved and so he continues to walk free (at least I gathered he was extant last I heard). I gathered that the villain in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy – the one who was genetically unable to feel pain – was modeled after him.

  14. Ideology – A Very Short Introduction
    Michael Freeden
    Oxford University Press
    2003
    133 pages
    Small booklet dimensions

    See the OUP website for more titles in this “VSI” series.

    1. Got a couple of the VSI’s on my list. I think the Matthew who contributes to Jerry’s website has one on hearing? Not read any yet, but looks an excellent series.

      1. IDK but I took a look in the book and found names that have appeared here:

        John Polkinghorne – quantum theory
        A. C. Grayling – Russell (1), Wittgenstein (2)
        Peter Singer – Marx (one) and Hegel (2)

        My personal pick :
        J. Allan Hobson – Dreaming

        1. My wife Lyn got a shout out in Lenny Smith’s VSI Chaos book for “help in distinguishing between what was most interesting to me and what I might make interesting to the reader”. He inscribed her copy, “Thanks for making sure the bunnies made it!”, a reference to an example using Fibonacci and rabbit population growth.

  15. Reading Midnight’s Children. Somewhat slow at first but the pace is picking up.
    With so much talk about sex and gender I’ve been thinking of reading Middlesex again.

    1. I read it this year. Found it a bit of a slog! Very complex writing, but objectively clearly excellent. Sadly put it down as my second worse Booker (only read 11 or so).

  16. About 2/3 through Cormac McCarthy’s latest, “The Passenger”.

    I’m a big fan of his, but have only read No Country, The Road, and Blood Meridian.

    It’s good, but quite disjointed. I think I might have spotted “the twist”. It’s almost like a half dozen short stories so far interspersing a schizophrenic’s psychotic episode. It dips in and out of the the “main story”, as in the one in the blurb.

    I’ve had a few laugh out loud moments (when Western catches up with his hermit-esque mate in the woods) and also a few really chilling. I’m also into physics, amateur-level, and there’s some nice references to Manhattan Project and almost a chapter dedicated to a discussion of quantum physics. I’m using the gluon definition from this book. Not overly profound, but nice and concise.

    I’m hoping he pulls it all together in this and the accompanying Stella Maris.

    Late to it, but not long finished Wolf Hall (just before Mantel died). Phenomenal! My second favourite Booker, after Lincoln in the Bardo.

    Non fiction, and also a recent finish, was Reality+ by David Chalmers. Brilliant. Doesn’t stick to virtual worlds entirely, but discusses many aspects of reality. He’s a philosopher and I think this really is an area that philosophy excels more so than science/physics. I’ve not read a lot of philosophical books, so some of the arguments and explanations here may be old hat to some. Entertaining and well written to me with a few new concepts to think about.

    Finally, best non fiction of the year was Michael Collins’ (of the Armstrong and Aldrin team) autobiography Carrying the Fire. Brilliantly written, entirely by Collins, and describing one of the most fantastic of human endeavours.

  17. I start reading All the light you cannot see, per your recommendation, but I couldn’t finish it. I thought it was depressing and boring. It took pages and pages for something interesting to happen and I really hate and the author chooses to do one character per chapter. The characters didn’t reach my heart on this one.
    I also read Klara and the Sun because you recommended it, I liked this one better but it’s not in my favorites this year. I didn’t read a lot of good fiction this year…
    I really liked the authors from Nigeria like Buchi Emecheta and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Purple Hibiscus is really good, it definitely got me more involved in the story than the other ones.
    For science related books, I liked Daniel Lieberman’s books about the human body and exercise.

    1. All the Light has a scene where a prisoner is beaten – not exactly fun admittedly. But very well written. As I said before, I tend to forget fiction in a way I do not with fact!

  18. I just picked up “Wild New World: The Epic Story of Animals & People in America” by Dan Flores. I listened to him speak about it and read excerpts; it sounds pretty sweeping and ambitious and I’ve been waiting for the time that I can really sink my brain into it. I learned a lot from his other book “Coyote America.”

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