I wish I could write up a better reveiw for this one. I basically loved it but due to some personal issues wasn’t able to give it the attention it deserved because my mind kept wandering and it ended up taking me 4 days to finish a spy thriller
STATE OF TERROR By Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny 2021 / (511 pages) Read by Joan Allen 15h 41m Rating A+ / espionage-thriller
Remember The President is Missing, the book Bill Clinton wrote with James Patterson? That was pretty good, or rather I should say “I enjoyed it” because I do know the difference. I gave it an A-.
Hillary, not to be outdone (or maybe they both personally enjoy popular crime novels), teamed up with the highly popular Louise Penny to write State of Terror.
In The President is Missing it feels like Bill Clinton provided the info on presidential security while the very popular Patterson was on board for the actual writing. And maybe they collaborated on the plot.
With State of Terror Hillary shows her stuff about spies, defense, terror, and the workings of the State Department. Louise Penny is a top-notch writer of traditional mystery novels.
Mostly State of Terror is a thriller/spy novel with political aspects – some quite strong toward the end. It starts out as a thinly veiled poke at the “stable genius” who is now a prior. I didn’t really catch the political tones for the first third or so, but it’s there – lightly but pointedly. After the 1/2-way pont it gets more and more real.
But this is a book which might be better in print format than audio. There are a lot of scene and chapter breaks for which there no pause or notice in the narration. When you realize the action has gone from Germany to the White House it feels like there should be asterisks or something – and there are little lines in the print versions. That said the narration is excellent.
The twice-widowed Ellen Adams, a highly-rated journalist, has been named by the two-month old administration as Secretary of State. She’s already had problems with North Korea and Pakistan is a serious hot-spot where scientists are expanding the nuclear programs. Suddenly bombs go off on crowded buses in European cities and it’s suspected that this terrorist activity will repeat very soon in US cities.There are spies and counter spies and diplomacy and secrets along with a few shoot-up. But the bomb scare is always underneath. So it gets tense and then it gets bloody. It’s impossible to read this book without “seeing” Hillary Clinton as the Secretary of State. I don’t remember if that was as described or not.
The book is quite long and needs the reader’s attention. I started out terrific and then got lost and then bored but after that the tale got riveting I burned the midnight oil. Bottom line, this is a very good and enjoyable novel and I recommend it unless you’re allergic to hearing the rhetoric of divisive politics these days – but that’s really only at the end.
Oh my. Recommended by a friend and it’s hard when you don’t much care for something a friend recommended. That said, I have a strong feeling the book might be 100% better in print format because it felt to me like it was the narrator who affected me so adversely. There were parts which really were quite funny and I did keep going in spite of the narrator.
Parrot Talk by David B. Seaburn 2020 Read by Sean Lenhart 8h 3m Rating: 7 (narration – 3) / gen fic
Like a prologue but Chapter 1, Milly is an older woman who dies alone in Pittsburgh. She has left behind a few friends, a few possessions and an African grey parrot named Paul. One of her most special possessions was a picture of two boys.
So in Chapter 2, Lukie and Grinder are middle-aged brothers who live a road-trip away. Luke is married but Grinder is alone. They haven’t heard from their mother in over 30 years. Milly abandoned them and their drunken, abusive father about 30+ years ago and they really know nothing about her.
But they are contacted about her death by Jackie, one of Millie’s friends, and asked to come fetch “Paul.” What they don’t know is that Paul is a valuable talking, grey African parrot. With some time for a bit of road-trip adventure as well as reader background, the pair gets to Pittsburgh where the actual story continues.
There is a definite heart-warming aspect to the tale but for me, the narration almost ruined the whole thing.
I first actually viewed Fiona Hill when she testified at Trump’s first impeachment hearing and I was just so impressed. Then I realized I’d already read a book by her – Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin was published in 2020 and I read it then as I was fascinated by Putin.
There Is Nothing For You Here: FindingOpportunity in the Twenty-First Century By Fiona Hill Oct 2021 / (432 pages) Read by Fiona Hill Rating: 7.5 / memoir – economics
I first actually saw Fiona Hill when she testified at Trump’s first impeachment hearing and I was just so impressed. That book is also read by Hill and yes, her accent was challenging until I got used to it. Then I realized I’d already read a book by her – Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin was published in 2020 and I read it then because I was fascinated by Putin.
Hill grew up in the mainly coal town of Bishop Auckland in the 1970s. Those were the Thatcher years and Hill was a poor girl in a hard-pressed post-industrial part of England. Her father told her to get out of there if she wanted opportunity. She followed his advice – hence the title.
Her family is presented as being rather typical of the times and place. And typical also of parts of the US for the last couple decades where jobs have disappeared and there’s not much “opportunity” to be had. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Tara Westover’s Educated are memoirs with this theme – coming up out of working class areas where the work part has disappeared.
Hill’s focus is the economics of the area and her own family and that works into advice to others as well as the health and education necessary to make use of any possible opportunity to be found. Her mother worked in health care, her father in various fields so Hill aimed toward gaining an education where, in the 1970s, changes were occurring in both the US and UK enabling the poor to gain access to the middle class.
One thing which was different about Hill’s situation is that her parents scrimped and were lucky enough to be able to purchase and keep a home. She won a scholarship to a local high school, but didn’t have the money for the uniforms. “Even when opportunity presented itself it took resources to seize it.” Instead she went to the local public school where weren’t enough text books to go around and other difficulties.
She then made use of all opportunities as they come along with some room for choosing and a lot of room for luck. She sought out small grants and scholarships at the library and through volunteering and tips from others including her local political representatives, churches and unions – almost anywhere. She ended up getting a PhD, moving to the US and getting a job at the US State Department. This has to be persistent and personally driven – there was no one program for opportunity and success.
One problem Hill faced at almost all levels of advancement was her accent which spoke of her northeast working class background. It became a stigma whenever she met British people who knew immediately where she was from and she never “fixed” her accent.
Trump is discussed as being particularly bad about prejudice and stereotyping women and experts. Hill faced it all. And she wrote a book about how to find opportunity when it seems entirely stacked against you.
And she has a multitude of suggestions for how individuals, communities and countries can do this. The book is mostly about the sub-title: “Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century.”
It’s a pretty good book but I got bored when the talk turned too much to specific opportunities other than hers. The last third seems to drag on and on. I most enjoyed the memoir and the parts about life in the US with Trump.
This is a wonderful book if you read it for the history, but I had problems with the political and social commentary – the author’s assumptions, if you will.
The Viking Heart: How Scandinavia Conquered the World By Arthur Herman 2021 / 512 pages Read by Kiff VandenHeuvel 18h 50m Rating: 9.5 / history (Both read and listened)
Herman is careful to steer away from any actual “racial” slant, but some ethnic thing is certainly there because “Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland seem to have discovered some secret about how to live and thrive together that has eluded most of the modern world.” And this is apparent in “the Nordic countries today – where the direct descendants of the Vikings still live…” (Conclusion).
Viking Voyages – great map!
Not to say he ignores Quisling because he doesn’t, but I think Herman might have cherry-picked much of his evidence. He included the Finns for their fierce fighting, but then he excluded Knut Hamsun for embracing the Germans. And that’s a shame because the Finns really are different and wonderful in their own right, while Hamsun wrote directly about the solid good people of Norway prior to WWI. Rolvaag is only mentioned as the author of a novel referred to in a source note – Rolvaag’s book did not glorify Norwegians! Neither of Hamsun nor Rolvaag were impressed with America, though. He works with Lindberg’s politics (and Ihave no issue with that.) Herman is a true USA patriot in the red sense of the term.
From the Wall Street Journal: “An absorbing and humane account . . . Mr. Herman is at pains to remind us that the Viking world was never just a stage for mayhem. It was, he says, ‘about daring to reach for more than the universe had gifted you, no matter the odds and the obstacles.’ In short: We might all take our own life’s cue from the Viking heart.”—The Wall Street Journal
If you like what I like, don’t bother with this one. I’m not sure why I thought it looked good enough to check out. I’m not big on books about libraries because they seem too specifically targeted at one audience – the women who identified with Jo March in Little Women and with Nancy Drew in those books. And when you throw in historical fiction and a bit too much romance, it gets soppy.
The Lions of 5th Avenue by Fiona Davis 2020 / (363 pages) Read by Ellen Bennett, Lisa Flanigan 10h 37m Rating: 7.5 / historical mystery
In 1913 Laura Lions is a married mother of three and wants something more in her life. She and her family live in an apartment inside the New York City Public Library where her husband Jack is employed as Superintendent while writing a novel. They don’t have much money. Books from the library go missing. Laura wants to try a career in journalism and goes back to school at Columbia University. There is a lot of talk about freedom and women’s rights. Laura feels trapped.
In 1993 Sadie, age 23 or so, is the granddaughter of Laura Lions and struggles with having achieved the freedom sought by her mother’s mother, but still wanting to be married with children. Sadie works at the library where there have been a series of thefts of old books, some quite valuable. So Sadie investigates and meets Nick Adriano, from a private security firm.
The chapters alternate between the time frames as the two plot threads catch up with each other and find a satisfactory conclusion. There isn’t much interplay between the stories but they do mirror each other in several ways and that’s quite interesting. A healthy suspension of disbelief was necessary for me, but the story was apparently compelling enough that I managed. And Davis gets an A for tension building, especially in the last 15% (?) which is page-turning.
But the story line is predictable (for me) and holds to today’s standards (not those of 1914) so female readers will be comfortable. There’s even a typhoid vaccine being pushed in the 1914 story.
There are lots of ideas and themes to explore but they boil down to women’s choices and duties – motherhood, responsibility, careers, ambitions and husbands.
If this book had been much longer I wouldn’t have bothered to finish. As it is I was glad it came from the library. The writing is about a 7th grade level (if that) with content at about 11th grade. I suppose it would make a nice young adult book (ages 15-22). If there were a high school women’s studies class someplace …
This is a really good book but it gets complicated even in the structure and organization in part because much of it works together.
Forgetting: The Benefits of Not Remembering By Scott Small 2021 / 211 pages (print) Read by Timothy Pabon 5h 49m Rating: 9 / nonfiction – psychology
1. To Remember, To Forget: The general benefits of forgetting: “Funes” by Jorge Luis Borges
2. Quiet Minds: Is autism – the need for sameness – parts or pieces more important than the whole (Arcimbaldo paintings) jigsaw puzzles with the box or not? Deficits in pattern – processing social stimuli – same as processing facial features – Autism results in not remembering the pieces to put them together? It’s all new every time? We forget in order to cognitively generalize. (Pg 43)
“Both artificial and natural intelligence depend on forgetting to generalize and reconstruct the whole from the parts in order to categorize and label even when they vary subtly infinite ways.” (Pg 61)
3. Liberated Minds: PTSD – remove power of memory – Israeli conflicts – final category of PTSD is relevant to forgetting and is called “extinction” (ability to forget the trauma). But how to avoid PTSD as the author and buddies did? Also the mechanics and the whole important idea of forgiving.
4. Fearless Minds: Two personalities – cousins. B is bonobo and C is a chimpanzee – together they are Pan genus. But should Homo sapiens be there too? DNA lead to a new taxonomy but the old is not irrelevant. Humans seem to have some of each, B & C. Then there’s fight, flight or fright.
5. Lightening Minds: Dementia and Creativity (de Koonig and Jasper Johns) – when does dementia begin? What is Alzheimer’s and how different? Does this forgetting affect creativity? https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/1997/dekooning/Johns recommended sleeping and Francis Crick (Nobel DNA) did studies on consciousness and sleep.
“We dream in order to forget.” To clean the spines which collect new memories. No wonder babies sleep so much – there is so much that is new to them.
6. Humble Minds: Personal biases – same ideas as “Noise” by Kahneman Doctor friend feels he has a poorer memory than other doctors. Maybe true – his own dad was like that. But why very high intelligence if poor memory? Less hippocampal functions were higher. Short term memory – pre-frontal cortex is large. Pieces which act collectively. Working memory for manipulation and decisions comes later so children have trouble controlling their impulses.
Metamemory – how well do we assess our own memory. Alzheimer’s patients sometimes know they are losing their memory but some don’t understand they are losing it. Sometimes we are wrong and need to be able to admit it and change our minds – intellectual humility. His Dr X sounds like a generally humble guy. Kahneman and Tversky – Cognitively lazy heuristics humans don’t think through the bat and ball question. Much here is repetitive of Noise and Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow. Memory priming – implicit and explicit memories. Internal indicators in some very mathematical minds – superior pre-frontal cortex will override fast-thinking.
7: Communal Minds: Dementia – Joan and her daughter. forgetting names and how that feels to the person to be named, the loved one. Caring depends on memory. Letting go means forgetting – the brain’s emotional forgetting. Forgiving a nation – Jews. Civil War and canceling and so on. “Returning home” homesickness, extreme nostalgia and a “brain on fire” with too many memories. The doctor Jonathan Hofer understood in 1688. PTSD is toxic emotional memory “hypermnesia” – nationalism. Forgetting – memories overwhelm ethical IQ. In US it’s 9/11.
8. Epilogue: Pathological Forgetting – the cause is defective proteins. It took a long time to acknowledge Alzheimer’s as a disease of dementia/senility and a very wide-spread one. It’s the tail end of the aging process although there is a rare early-onset form. People want to know how to fix it. But then everyone was scared they had it. Small tried to locate earliest stages. Technology had to catch up and show photos of hippocampi. The medical and pharmaceutical industries continue to research protein pathologies.
Death Without Company by Craig Johnson 2007 (271 pages) Read by George Guidall 9h 48m Rating: B / western crime (Longmire series #2)
Johnson’s Longmire series and the character are quite popular with some reading group friends so I’ve tried, but I think this is just not my cuppa. It also used to be a very popular TV series but that was cancelled due to demographics (an “old people” show). Out of 17 books I’ve read 3 and just not been able to really get into them. Dry Bones was tolerable, but Cold Dish (#1 in the series) and now Death Without Company (#2) were just flat to me.
Craig Johnson’s books are very similar to those of CJ Box’s Joe Pickett series but for some reason I enjoy the Pickett books a whole lot more.
The series takes place in north central Wyoming where Sheriff Walt Longmire drives his pick-up truck around the fictional Absaroka County to enforce the law. This is located in the very real Absaroka mountains where the local population includes the Absaroka tribe of Native Americans. And Longmire has a whole retinue of friends and assistants including Victoria Moretti, Lucian Connally, and Santiago Saizarbitori helping him out.
In this book he’s not young and has had some experience in the world. His wife is deceased, though, and he still likes women – to look at. It comes to Longmire’s attention that an old woman was murdered at the care home where she lives. She was poisoned. She is a part of the Basque community and then the relationships get more complicated.
Oh what a marvelous book! As I started it I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to get into it or not, but before long I was hooked. Thomas Mann can write the reader into a cozy corner of family and ideas and decadence of the 19th and 20th century Europe. Colm Toibin doesn’t quite get to literary level of Mann, but he definitely knows how it works, like how to do right by ink and paper.
The Magician By Colm Toibin 2021 / Read by Gunnar Cauthery 16h 37m Rating: 9.5 / biographical novel
I think it would be a good idea for readers of The Magician to be familiar with the works of Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks, Death in Venice, The Magic Mountain, at least before reading the Toibin book. And being more familiar with his biography than I was would be helpful. (I had barely a glossing – if that.) Mann wrote those novels (and much more) in the order above, so quite a lot of his life goes along with the novels chronologically. The book is actually called a “biographical novel” for a reason.
Toibin had an excellent resource in Mann’s diaries which were published a few years ago and there have been proper biographies, too. But Toibin brings his own sensitivities which work to bring a collection of facts to life. (Oh how cliched of me).
The book is written somewhat like Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family (1901). It’s a family saga in which grain, banking and the industrial revolution give the family its start. but the children and grandchildren have their own lives to live. This goes further in years than Buddenbrooks because Mann lived through WWII and well into the Cold War.
In The Magician, Mann marries Katia Pringsheim who was from a large and wealthy Jewish family. Thomas and Katia had six children and the family was very close. Mann won the Nobel Prize for literature relatively early in his career. They moved to Davos in Switzerland for medical treatment of TB but didn’t return to Munich because of the Nazi regime. Instead the Manns managed to move to the US. There he was active in opposing the Nazis while each of his children did their own thing in the world.
I suppose, and like Buddenbrooks, the 1st generation of Manns did wonderfully well and the second generation (Thomas and his siblings) did well enough to keep things afloat with Thomas “making” the family name, but the third generation fell apart. That may be the work of a broad brush, so don’t scrutinize too carefully. (However, if Mann did model Buddenbrooks after his own family and the Buddenbrooks Effect in business is developed from that well … I think it’s important to note.) https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2011/oct/01/great-dynasties-buddenbrooks-effect-ian-sansom
Toibin is no Thomas Mann, but he’s quite a good novelist for quite a long time and having been awarded numerous prizes. He did the same kind of thing biographical novel with the life of Henry James in The Master (2004).
I shouldn’t have even bothered to put this up here. I don’t usually finish books as stupid as this one and I can’t say as I actually read the whole thing. The reason is that I slept through close to half of it and when I woke up decided to listen to the ending because I was curious. That doesn’t count as really reading a book but I did read the first 3 hours and the last hour or so – that’s about half of it.
The Wives by Tarryn Fisher 2019 / Read by Lauren Fortgang 9h Rating D and might even be DNF – ??
***Massive Spoiler Alert ***
The basics are that the 1st person protagonist has an affair with a married man and gets pregnant. The wife, who is unable to have kids, finds out. The wife leaves him and our protagonist person loses her baby and is then unable to have children. So the man, who has his own set of lies marries someone else but he can’t quite get rid of the mistress. There’s a lot of lying and story-telling – mostly by the protagonist to herself and on top of that she’s paranoid. Finally, at the end, there’s a shooting (no one dies), a trial and a mental hospital.
The narrator is totally unreliable and takes denial to a whole new level. When her troubles mount she creates an alternative reality going so far as creating or destroying physical evidence to prove it. At the end she’s still not well and creates more damage. Okay fine. Don’t bother.
Miles Cookson is an unmarried tech billionaire who, at age 40-something, finds out he has Huntington’s disease, an incurable, genetic abnormality of the brain. He likes to drive fast cars and work.
Find You First By Linwood Barclay 2021 / Read by GeorgeNewburn 11h 8m Rating: B+ / crime
Then, quite suddenly, Miles remembers that he donated sperm to a sperm bank maybe 20 years prior. Those children are grown now and they’re his children. His next project is to find them so he can let them know about the Huntington’s and to probably disperse his wealth. But someone is getting to the kids first – they’re dying before Miles can get to them.
The chapters alternate between various characters including Miles, his brother and sister-in-law, several of Miles’ kids and a few bad guys.
It’s a pretty good novel, complex and twisty but light almost to the point of humorous. The narrator, George Newburn, does a very good job. I think I’m going to have to read more of Barclay’s crime novels.
I’ve followed Richard Powers for decades and my opinion that The Goldbug Variations (1991) is his best stands. Now we have Bewilderment which has made the prize/award lists, but that’s happened before – he’s collected a LOT of awards starting in 1985.
Bewilderment by Richard Powers 2021 / (288 pages) Read by Edoardo Ballerini 7h 51m Rating: 7.5 – B / contemp SF
The story is about Theo Byrne who, after his wife is killed in an auto accident, is left to raise their volatile nine-year-old son Robin. Robin has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, obsessive–compulsive disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He’s a brilliant and hyper-sensitive handful.
The story is told in the 1st person of Theo as he tries to help his son grow up. Theo is an astro-biologist who works as part of a group seeking life in the universe. Even after several years, he and Robin still grieve the death of Theo’s wife and Robin’s mom.
The setting is a few years in the future and the end of life on earth is becoming apparent. Theo and Robin are more acutely aware of this than most. His mother had tried to warn people.
The book starts out very nicely but when it got weird I got confused and mentally turned off. Imo, Powers has mixed astronomy with the occult. I’m not big on occult. He tries to make it science but … well, not for me.
Even after being angry at Byrne for putting the child in the public school system I continued to try to like the book, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. I was lost for most of it – I caught the gist most of the time (I think). I might reread it in January when it comes up for discussion in a reading group.
Powers isn’t noted for the quality of his writing so much as the originality of his thinking. But in this book the foreshadowing is terrific – “That may have been a mistake” leads one forward to the question why. “What’s going to happen because of this?”
And I’m going to have to at least try to reread this book for the poetry of the language. I did catch glimpses of that.
I’ve read a number of books by Erik Larson and mostly quite enjoyed them. However, imo, some are definitely better than others. The ones where there is a murder thrown into what is basically a moderately interesting history are not so good. That said, Larson’s skills are bountiful and he can make you keep reading even if it feels like blather.
Thunderstruck By Erik Larson 2006 / Read by Bob Balaban 11h 56m Rating: B+/ nonfiction history crime
A bit of a warning – there might be spoilers below because in nonfiction spoilers don’t often count (for me anyway). A reader might very well know how a certain criminal gets caught and convicted well before he reads the true crime novel about it; she might know the points of the Treaty of Versailles before reading Paris, 1919; he might know why Marconi won the Nobel Prize.
On the other hand, there are less notable events in history – the 1893 Chicago Exposition’s serial killer for instance (The Devil in the White City by Larson, 2003) where spoilers might be an issue, depending on how the author structures and writes the book.
I’ve read these books by Larson and given them ratings:
9.5 • Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History. 9 • In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. 8.5 • The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. 8 • Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. 7.5 • Thunderstruck. 7 • The Splendid and the Vile.
Thunderstruck felt slow to me. Most of the book seemed to be about Guglielmo Marconi and the difficulties he had getting his long distance radio really going, while the other part was about Hawley Crippen and how, why he murdered his wife which mostly felt like the boring story of an adulterer/killer.
Most of Marconi’s part in the whole story takes place years earlier when he was doing his inventing which got him rich and famous. His first transatlantic wireless radio message was sent and received in December of 1902. Crippen’s problems started piling up in about 1908 or ’09. That’s the same year Marconi won the Nobel prize which is interesting, I suppose. Their paths never personally crossed but in 1910 their lives kind of touched.
I think I’d probably “categorize” this as being something between History and True Crime the difference being that genre True Crime focuses a bit more on the gory details of the crime itself and its resolution via arrest and trial or death or something. History is more general about the era and biographies of the important people in the story; History is something you study in school. True Crime is a special kind of “history” focusing on an actual crime or crimes and the actions of the people involved.
As I said, it’s slow to start. The first 3/4 of the book sets up what we know is going to happen in the last 1/4 and by the time I got to the detectives digging up what might have been the remains of a body I’d already almost put the book down a dozen times. But after that first body gets found then the pages fly by and I was quite satisfied.