The Mars Room ~ by Rachel Kushner

I put off reading this for some reason I don’t know now because I genuinely enjoyed her priors, The Flamethrowers and Telex from Cuba (my reviews on this site). And no surprise, this was also very, very good – I’d either forgot how good Kushner is or I didn’t want to be disappointed in a comparison. I’ll be reading it again for the Booker Group in a few months but I suddenly wanted to read it now. Fwiw, I live about one hunded miles south of Chowchilla and the main prison where this story takes place. It is the only woman’s prison facility in California where the female death row prisoners are held. But it could be about many prisons because there is a kind of universal element to poverty and legal trouble. As it turns out, The Mars Room is probably Kushner’s best book. 🙂

The Mars Room
by Rachel Kushner
2018 / 352 pages
read by Rachel Kushner – 9h 41m
rating – 9 / contemp fiction

The narrative is comprised of the situations of several characters, one 1st- person. They’re mostly prisoners, but there is a teacher who has a major role as well as a few of the prisoners. The characters are mostly almost likable folks who got into trouble, but there are a few who are revolting. Some are fascinated by more famous convicts – Susan Atkins, for instance, who was held there. (Manson’s gang).

The novel takes its title from a strip club in San Francisco where the first-person character, Romy Hall , worked prior to her arrest and many of the back-stories are set there as well.

The stories of the individual characters are the stories of people living in poverty and grit who get caught up in the legal system and land in jails and prisons for various reasons, usually of their own doing, sometimes not so much. Sometimes being out of jail for awhile is just a bit of a vacation. Few of them really had a fair chance at life, especially after contact with the “system.”

But the book is more than just plot – it’s a kind of statement about our socio-economic reality and how the judicial system is impacted and the results of the inequalities are visited on the lowest strata. Thoreau is addressed – along with Ted Kaczynski (the uni-bomber).

Kushner did quite a lot of research for the novel, visiting the prisons and interviewing inmates because this book is about people – poor people. The convicts are not (usually) where they are for light-weight activities and partly as a result there is trouble in the prisons, too.. But the system, rules and guards do their own share of making trouble. Life in prison seems to swing between very difficult and inhumane.

I’m not going to get into the main plot threads because there would unavoidably be spoilers. Let me only say that they are nicely interwoven through the brilliant character sketches and it doesn’t make for a “feel good” tale, but it’s real and avoids “gritty” by focusing on enormous humanity. The threads work together to create a whole world with “real” people, thugs and cons, strippers, addicts, gays and transexuals. – precious few of them are actually innocent of their crimes. But life goes on – it’s a sad book. Still, I know I’ll be rereading this one.

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A Horse Walks Into a Bar ~ by David Grossman x2

I likely would not have read this again had it not been for a reading group. Actually I might not have finished it if it had not been for that reading group – BookerPrize

But second readings (1st review on this site) are often surprising and although the first time round I “got” how much pain is hiding out in the routine of a B-grade club’s stand-up comedian. And I got what a truly great writer Grossman is – there was a dimension I missed – how these relate to the country and people of Israel as a whole.

A Horse Walks Into a Bar 
by David Grossman
2014/ 208 pages
read by Joe Barrett – 5h1m
rating: 9.75 / contemp. fiction

To recap –   One night, Avishai,  an older Israeli Supreme Court judge gets a phone call from a man, Dovaleh,  who says he is an old friend.  the judge has forgotten but it comes back – they’d been very close childhood friends.  Dovaleh is now an aging stand-up comic and wants the judge to come see his show and relate to Dovaleh what he sees.  

The book is Dovaleh’s routine which this night is a replay of much of the comic’s life from childhood to that stage. Interspersed with that story are the judge’s thoughts and memories.   

Dovaleh is dying,  both physically and on stage – he’s not funny.  The routine is kind of sick and hurtful but Dovaleh’s health and life have been in trouble for some time.  

Also in the audience is a small woman, Azulae, who knew him from their shared childhood neighborhood where he walked on his hands. She’s there by accident – but Dovaleh picks on her a bit.    

This book is the story of a trial in which there were many crimes and many victims and many criminals – sometimes all in the same person.

On my second reading I focused more on the development of the inner-story plots and the separation and differences between the judge’s pov and Dovaleh’s.  I did kind of what the author of the Guardian review did – I psychoanalyzed the characters – not the country.    I also really noted how skilled a writer Grossman is to get the insides of a man, a comic like that, a tragi-comedy of a man.  We’re witnessing the death of a standup comic as well as his routine. Through his bad jokes we witness his grief and his soul, I suppose. 

The second time I was really trying to understand where these three characters (Dovaleh, Judge, woman) were coming from personally – not societally at all. (Also to figure out where Grossman’s “peacenik-ism”  fits in – because he is that.) 
Your insights in no way contradicted what I found,  they just totally added to my attempts at understanding this brilliant but not fun novel.  It’s a difficult read in many ways.
I felt like the audience the first time and wanted to leave because those old sad stories get a bit much (like listening to another sad diatribe about Trump – sometimes I get tired of it – no matter how much I agree.) I can see many reasons for leaving.  

But I persevered and was hugely rewarded by the ending which blooms even brighter with my reading of your comments.   Thank you so much for sharing!!!

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Cemetery Road ~ by Greg Isles

Oh my,  I like this book.  Yes,  it’s long, actually, at over 600 pages in other editions, it’s too long.  And yes,  it’s twisty and convoluted involving intertwined sub-plots all the way to China.  Finally yes, what with Scott Brick reading it’s over-dramatic even in the slower parts.   (Scott Brick could make a melodrama out of an old phone book.)  So I can’t think of why I enjoyed it except it was a certainly an escape. Think melodramatic-crime.

Cemetery Road
by Greg Isles
2019 /
read by Scott Brick- 23h 43m
rating- A   / crime-thriller

 If you’re familiar with Greg Isles you know that for the last two decades he has written crime novels set in and around Natchez, Mississippi where he grew up.  I personally have a kind of love/meh relationship with Iles’ books.

And these stories usually deal with old rich families and new crimes (mostly murders, of course) with tangled loves strewn throughout.    With Cemetery Road it’s the fictional town of Bienville, just down river and road from Natchez where the renowned journalist, Marshall McEwan, returns from Washington DC to help his mother with his dying father who is also the owner of the local newspaper.

There is an old power-group of the town’s wealthy who have pretty much run the town for decades, the “Poker Club.” Marshall’s girlfriend, Jet, from junior high days is there, married to Paul Matheson, Marshall’s old best buddy from school and their shared military day’s. Max Matheson is the leader of the Club and Paul’s father.

This is a story of fathers and sons and adultery and many more deadly secrets of money and power and love and so on. Sometimes a life is saved, but other times people die in many different ways. Every thread is tied up in a bloody bow.

The tension builds slowly and expertly to new heights then leveling off for awhile only to build again. The problem with this common practice is that Iles is so slow and methodical with it, layering every possible connection into each twisty build.

There are lots of complaints in various reader reviews about the politics involved in the narrative. Even the mention of Trump is peripheral, maybe a tiny part of the setting, but he’s not ignored. Still, even to me, certainly no fan, the negative commentary is kind of extraneous.

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Darktown ~ by Thomas Mullen

Back in 1948, in post-WWII Jim Crow Atlanta, segregation was the name of the game and it’s a huge theme, and an integral part of the plot to this interesting crime novel in which racial tensions (to say nothing of ugliness) play a big role in the police not only in generally getting and keeping their jobs, but in solving crimes even among “their own people.”

by Thomas Mullen
2016 / 345 pages
read by  Andre Holland 11h 14m
rating:  B+ /  historical fiction

Mullen seems to have the history right and created an interesting fictional story to go with it including believable characters and some skillfully built tension, twists, and action.

Responding to public pressure, the Atlanta police department has hired eight black police officers to work in the high-crime black sections of the city.  One of them, Lucius Boggs, smart and courageous is the son of a local minister.

The main crime Lucius and his partner Tommy Smith want to solve is that of the murder of a young black woman whose body was found in the trash. They had seen the woman earlier in a car driven by a white man – she’d run away when the car stopped. Later, Lucius and Rake, a young idealistic but white recruit, found out she had been murdered and their interest was piqued. They wanted to help, to get involved, to solve that case. Then it gets complicated in more than one way – solving the actual crime is a good twisty tale but the harassment of the new officers matches it.

There were plenty of rules about where they could go, whom they could arrest and so on.  Naturally,  there was quite a lot of opposition in the all-white force but they had a few allies. The opposition was both passive and outright, systemic and personal. That said, there was certainly not complete support from the black community. There was also some bad criminal types on all sides of every line . Leaving the city of Atlanta can be downright dangerous.

I got curious about the history so I had to Google for more background – always fun for me:
In other good news, the narrative is very nicely written with just a bit of subtle humor sprinkled throughout.

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The White Book ~ by Han Kang

At only 160 pages (or 1 hour 15minutes) this is a very brief 1st person narrative of fiction. The Korea based Kang wrote the Man Booker International winner of a few years ago, The Vegetarian. That was a fine, fine book imo although overall reactions were mixed.

In The White Book our first narrator is still grieving the loss of her older sister who had very white skin and who died before the narrator was born. Then the book goes on into many other aspects and examples of white. The book is really a kind of meditation on white – and grieving.

The White Book
by Han Kang
2019 / 160 pages
read by Jennifer Kim 1h 15m
rating: 8.5 / contemporary fiction (South Korea)

In eastern cultures white is the color of mourning. This is a meditation on the color itself and things that are white as well as telling a story of a woman who is the daughter of a woman who lost two prior children.

It’s beautiful.

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Sing Unburied Sing ~ 
by Jesmyn West

I couldn’t help but notice the similarity to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in which a poor white Mississippi family has to transport mom’s dead body quite a distance in order to bury her.  The tale is told by several 1st person narrators, including Mom (Abby) each with his own problems.  Then I checked and the similarity to Sing Unburied Sing has NOT gone unremarked on by the critics and bloggers.  (I appreciate when that happens as I feel vindicated in  some way.)   

Sing Unburied Sing
by Jesmyn West
2017 / 308 pages
read by Kevin Harrison/Chris Chalk and others
rating – 8.5 – contemporary fiction

But that’s certainly not all there is – Sing Unburied Sing has, as the title implies, ghosts hovering over the family.  This is kind of reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.  But still,  although it took me half the book to see it,  there’s still more.   Lincoln in the Bardo by George Sanders comes to  mind 

The setting of the South,  including a very present historical background,  is very similar in the these books but the main family in Sing Unburied Sing is generally younger, black and definitely dealing with  21st century issues.  Drugs and racial tensions are involved in addition to   Some of the characters see ghosts or hear voices.  Mom is dying of cancer,  but it’s two younger women and their children who are traveling to pick up the white father of two of the children as he is released from a 3-year stay in prison.  

The reader has to finish the book to realize what brought all this on, similar to Beloved, but it’s definitely worth it. That’s where it all comes together and where the real action is.

There are some intense scenes like the one with the police officer or the one where Michael brings his family to visit his parents.  These are wonderfully well done – riveting.  The powerful scenes toward the end seemed to be a bit more ambitious than West was quite able to pull off successfully.  

Still,  I think this is one of those books which I would have enjoyed more had I read it. The readers slowed the pace down and they used too much  emotion, too much quiet drama and I don’t think it’s supposed to be a dramatic book. Rather there’s a sense of the melancholy to it which is powerful in itself, but lost in the narration. 


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A Horse Walks Into a Bar ~ by David Grossman

The title of this one is also the cliched opening for a joke, so we expect a funny book? Right. But Grossman is rarely just funny. He’s a Jewish-Israeli author with a good-size following. I’ve only read one of his books prior to this, To the End of the Land, but that was quite a long time ago. I remember it as being pretty good, although I didn’t rave. This book has gotten good reviews and because the Bookgroup List chose it I was game. A Horse Walks Into a Bar is short but it’s not ha-ha funny – it’s actually rather disturbing.

A Horse Walks Into a Bar
by David Grossman
2014/ 208 pages
read by Joe Barrett – 5h1m
rating: 8.5 / contemp. fiction

Dovaleh Greenstein is a stand-up comic putting on his show in a second rate club in the city of Netanya, Israel. A couple days prior to the show Dov calls Avishai Lazar a childhood friend, retired from being a superior court judge, to come and see him, then to tell him later what he sees. The story is told in the 1st person from Lazar’s point of view as a member of the audience.

The audience is made up of military people, some couples and some singles, average people out on the town for fun. Dov’s performance is not fun for most of them. His jokes are mostly old and many are not funny. As he says at one point, He’s “dying” up there. Also in the audience are Lazar and a woman who befriended him many years prior. During his routine Dov insults the audience and himself intermingling a story of how he survived a military stay after boarding school. Lazar follows the story and reveals parts of the it to the audience and reader. The customers are not happy with the show and many of them walk out.

It’s an originally structured book and Grossman is a wonderful writer. This reader was constantly wondering, intrigued, where all this was leading.

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French Exit ~ by Patrick deWitt

I got this one because I enjoyed The Sisters Brothers which I read several years ago. French Exit is definitely different although it’s somewhat wacky and kind of “absurd,” as the New Yorker said. They also said it’s billed as a “tragedy of manners” which I totally see. Making a “French Exit” is like leaving a party without saying goodbye.

French Exit
by Patrick deWitt
2018 / 253 pages
read by Lorna Raver – 6h 53m
rating: 8 / contemp lit

Francis Price is the suddenly destitute 65-year old widowed mother of Malcolm Price, a boarding school drop-out. They take what cash they can get their hands on (a couple hundred thousand dollars) and escape to Europe, followed by their small cat who is apparently the container of Mr Price’s spirit. Much of this is told in backstory bits as the story starts out with Francis and Malcolm preparing to leave the US.

It’s an odd little book, but that’s only fully realized toward the end. I enjoyed it as it’s kind of light and quirky, after all this is the same guy who gave us The Sisters Brothers. It’s very nicely written and well narrated.

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The Border: by Don Winslow

This is the third in the Border Trilogy (or Cartel trilogy) and it’s as excellent as the others which, in total took over 20 years of research and writing . These are big sprawling novels of families and crime over decades along with some current era politics.

In the first book, The Power of the Dog (2005), readers are introduced to Art Keller, a middle aged and divorced DEA Agent who is obsessed by a certain drug lord who goes by the name of Adan Barerra. Barerra was responsible for the brutal killing of another DEA Agent. He’s also and the head of a powerful and violent family-type gang in northern Mexico.

The Border by Don Winslow
2019 / 736 pages 
read by Ray Porter – 29h 8m
rating: A+++ / crime- gang warfare

The Cartel  finds Keller dealing with the younger generation of drug lords as they take over, although Barerra is still in charge, with increased violence and greed. Barerra is presented as being very similar to “El Chapo,” the infamous drug lord of the Sinaloa cartel, who deviously escaped all prisons and is now residing in a US facility. The US response in The Cartel seems to be confused and ineffective as well as corrupt. (These books are probably the most graphically violent and stereotypical of any I’ve ever read, but there is a point.

Before we get far into The Border, we find Keller is now the head of the DEA just before an election (2016). He’s married to the woman he fell in love with in Mexico and works out of Washington DC. The gangs continue their wars and sales because that’s what this is really about; who controls the lucrative drug trade, especially heroin and Fentanyl. The gang families are still very powerful but with different and seemingly more violent leaders, often sons and wives In more than a few ways, this is similar to The Godfather by Mario Puzo from back in the 1960s but if memory serves, The Border is more graphic – more of our own times.

By all reports these books are impeccably researched and I believe it. Gangs like these use violence to show power and induce fear both in their Mexican communities and within competing gangs. In this series there is no one to trust, from the mean streets and junk yards of Guatemala to the exquisitely decorated penthouse suites of Manhattan or to Pennsylvania Ave in Washington DC.

Winslow uses the language of thugs and law enforcement as well as the kids of the streets. It works. He also uses Shakespeare as a literary motif with tragedy written all over it. These are not joyful books in any sense of the term. They’re grim and deliberately so.

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The Devil’s Half Mile ~ by Paddy Hirsch

This is what real historical fiction looks like. It takes place in Manhattan circa 1799, only a few years after the Panic of 1792. There are banking scandals, serious race issues, labor troubles, and plenty of crime and corruption going on.

Justice Flanagan arrives back in the US from a stay in England where he was educated as an attorney. He wants to investigate the very suspicious hanging death of his father which occurred just before he left the US.

The Devil’s Half Mile
by Paddy Hirsch
2018/ 292 pages
Read by Euan Morton – 11h 22m
Rating: A- / historical crime

Justy, as our protagonist is called, gets involved with a variety of people, mostly corrupt, but who can tell, a few of them are pretty obviously above board. One is a very appealing young woman he knew before he left.  Another is a Norwegian sailor he met in passage.

Justy arrives at an interesting time – there are many new immigrants especially from Ireland, there are newly freed slaves, there are shysters and con-men and very few laws The language Hirsch uses is strewn with the slang of the times, but there is a glossary at the back for help in navigating

The book is nicely written and so wonderfully well researched that Wall Street and the environment of the era come alive.

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The Threat ~ By Andrew G. McCabe

Wow! I’m not reading so many “Trump” books these days and I try to be selective about the ones I do read. I don’t want a bunch of sensationalism – I want to learn something in some way –

McCabe was a life-long agent in various capacities and finally acting FBI director from the time James Comey was fired until 364 days later on 1/31/2018, hours before he was set to retire. Although he states he had been a life-long Republican, he did not get on well with Trump.

The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump 
by Andrew McCabe
2019 / 288 pages

read by McCabe – 9h 25m
rating 9 / memoir (?)

The book is NOT about Trump alone – read the subtitle. There is far more material about how the FBI operates, or is supposed to operate, than about Mr Trump’s issues. McCabe provides examples from his career like the Boston Marathon bomber. The narrative leads up to the problems with Trump.

The reader has to understand that it’s probably illegal for McCabe to disclose too much about FBI operations and abilities but the ideas of teamwork and accountability are solid.

Okay, McCabe (and Comey and Clapper) sound a bit like boy scouts in a big bad world but they’re adult scouts and they seem to have some different values. Let me say it this way, they believe in living up to the mottos rather than some of the sordid history of the US.

The book is nicely written and McCabe has a great reading voice.

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Crashed: ~ by Adam Tooze

Let me just start out by saying that this book is superb. I loved it. But I do enjoy an intelligent and well written economic history. And Tooze can read well, too, so the experience of listening and reading was truly delightful – although it got a bit long..

Adam Tooze is a highly regarded British historian and professor of economics at Columbia who has rather liberal views and although he’s fair to all parties, he doesn’t hide his leanings. This suited me just fine.

Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World
by Adam Tooze
2018/ 720 pages
read by Simon Vance – 24h 27m
rating – 9.75 / economic history
(both read and listened)

The book is about the world-wide economic collapse which started in 2007/08 with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and lasted until probably 2015 with a lasting global impact – all the way into the Trump era. I’s been over a decade now so there is enough perspective to look at some causes and effects, major players and complex issues.

Chapters on the US, Western Europe and Russia as well as China make up the bulk of the book but there is also room for Trump era. Tooze takes the reader how it started and what the causes were thought to be at the time as well as why the panic and failures spread so fast and so far. Note – the economic problems were was far worse in most of the rest of the world than what we experienced in the US. This was the Great Recession compared to the Great Depression of the 1930s but it could so easily have been worse. The book is dense with facts and figures involving the international banking schemes where the dollar was king.

I found the European issues a bit difficult going because although I remembered most of it, the problems in Greece, Ireland and Ukraine, I don’t believe I followed the issues of Spain and Portugal as closely at the time. I remember Merkel’s tough stand and her fights with France.

All this background leads up to a far better understanding of the situation Trump has landed himself and us in. This man does NOT know what he is doing and it’s all different now with China as a super-power player – with her own problems.

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