Maisie Dobbs in Gibraltar on the Periphery of the Spanish Civil War

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs murder mysteries are always interesting and enjoyable.   A Dangerous Place is no exception.  Maisie, a recent widow, is working her way through a period of great personal trauma when she stops in Gibraltar on her way home to England after sojourns in Canada and India.  The setting is the sinister, troubled period of the Spanish Civil War, and Gibralter is right on the brink of it, literally.   There is a lot going on, and perspectives keep changing.   In addition to Winspear’s inspired choice of setting and an unexplained murder, she gives us Maisie Dobbs.  Dobbs is a different kind of detective — thoughtful to the extreme about the crime in question and the people around her.  In this novel, Dobbs is also compelled to give a great deal of thought to her own well being.  She is trying to center herself even as she unravels the murder she has discovered.

I really like this series because of Maisie Dobbs and the way she approaches her cases.  This particular novel is especially good because of the horrific yet fascinating political context presented by the Spanish Civil war and the inexorable  approach of fascism.

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The Devil and Webster — An Unsettling Academic Novel by Jean Hanford Korelitz

Jean Hanff Korelitz has written another deeply unsettling novel about an accomplished middle-aged woman who suddenly confronts unexpected attacks on her sense of well-being.  In her 2014 n0vel You Should Have Known, the therapist heroine is suddenly thrown the ultimate curve when she learns that husband has gone way off the rails.  In Korelitz’s most recent work, The Devil and Webster, Naomi Roth is a single mother and the successful president of an elite university and she is going to confront some big-time challenges.

Korelitz writes in a suspenseful style, so you are fully alerted to the fact that bad things are going to happen.   Naomi presents as a loving mother and successful academic who thinks of herself as a good, responsible person and who is generally regarded as such.  But as events unfold, Naomi learns that she hasn’t thought enough about important things and that ultimately she hasn’t been responsible enough.  

Naomi hasn’t done anything particularly bad, and she isn’t nimble in the face of unexpected adversity.  This presents problems as it turns out that Naomi has taken the wrong things for granted and has missed some important clues.   So when events overtake her and make her the bad guy she doesn’t know how to react.   She is bewildered and furious.  She also feels terrible wronged.

I recommend this book, even though it is unsettling.  There is this sense, which Naomi certainly has, that if you lead a productive honorable life, your efforts are to be rewarded, or at least that you shouldn’t fall victim to vicious attack from people who have absolutely no interest in understanding you or respecting anything you’ve ever done.  There is also the strong tension of waiting for the bad things to happen to someone not equipped to handle them.

Why We Die  —  A Strong British Mystery Featuring a Tough Female Detective and a Very Noir Atmosphere 

Mick Herron’s Why We Die is a strong mystery with quite a lot happening.  It’s a shame Lauren Bacall isn’t around to play the vamp, but Jennifer Lawrence would make a powerful Zoe Bohm, a down on her luck private eye who stumbles into the highly perilous inner workings of a crime family.  Arkle, one of three brothers, is seriously the scariest thug I’ve seen.  Sociopath doesn’t begin to describe him.  The interplay among Arkle and his two seemingly less scary brothers provides unifying substance to the careening violence, where nothing seems to go quite right.   The plot is spectacular, but so too are the characters and their troubles.  It’s a page turner with depth, supported by a grungy Oxford setting.    I highly recommend this book, particularly to people who like female detectives, British mysteries and a lot of noir. 

Small Admissions is a Wise, Funny Novel about a Couple of Serious Topics

I thoroughly enjoyed Amy Poeppel’s first novel Small Admissions.  This is a funny book and not a heavy read, but Poeppel has deft insights about friendship and our assumptions about our friends and relatives.  The characters are appealing and just a little more complicated than they seem.  Even the “bad guys” are kind of charming.  Without giving too much away, Peopppel plops a young woman who is reeling from multiple personal failures into the admissions office of a highly competitive Manhattan private school.  The book is populated with several points of view and highly entertaining emails, all of which combine to keep a brisk, neurotic pace.  Poeppel’s deft treatment of neurotic, competitive parents, coupled with the highly useful question of how much can and should you help flailing friends makes this a thoughtful book, that was also a hoot to read.  Small Admissions would make a great movie!

It Turns out Organization isn’t Necessarily a Dirty Word — Organized Enoough by Amanda Sullivan

Anyone who ever saw all the books in our apartment, not to mention the over-stuffed closets and piles of art supplies,  would howl at the idea of me consulting a book on organizing my stuff.  But Amanda Sullivan’s eminently helpful and encouraging Organized Enough has a pretty blue cover and there was no avoiding it since copies of this book filled an entire window of one of my favorite independent bookstores.  Under those circumstances, I naturally felt I had to buy the book and bring it home. That alone isn’t so shocking, but it was shocking that I actually read the entire book in palatable sessions and liked it.  The book is funny and non-judgmental, and it appeals to the reasonable person I aspire to be.   It has a simple organization and theme that guides an appealing narrative.  Ms. Sullivan is a cheerleader, but she’s not a cheerleader on steroids.

Organized Enough has actually inspired me to take a new approach to confronting clutter.  Although I have no illusions about becoming an organizational goddess.  Fortunately, Amanda Sullivan has shown me that I needn’t have such lofty goals.  Optimistically, I can see where improvements can be made without devoting entire weeks of my life to an overwhelming decluttering project.  For starters, I just need to start to think about why I have all this stuff, and then I need to get proactive about developing  an overall plan for my stuff and letting a lot of it go.  That’s right.  Through Sullivan’s organizing philosophy, not to mention her useful examples, I can see a path to letting go of more stuff and feeling rewarded by the process.  

Sullivan’s humor and lack of judgment are encouraging.   Organized Enough  appeals to my logical self.  Better yet, without sounding sappy or like some domestic maven, I have begun to consider that perhaps I ought to value my home a bit more and find some satisfaction in maintaining it in a slightly less cluttered state.  Plus, there is something to be said for knowing where stuff is, which is a lot easier to do if you have less of it and if it is maintained in some semblance of organization.  Such a result would be plenty good enough for me.

Sullivan is a professional organizer, and she has put what she knows in a very readable and succinct little book.  Her observations about why some of her clients hold on to things they don’t need and how their possessions can be more logically organized are very appealing.  It’s no small things that people allow her into their homes to work her magic.  Except it’s not really magic.  It is a solid skill set, and Sullivan’s reasonably contained enthusiasm for order is persuasive.  She has a clear eye and solid ideas about what works.  She is also human.  I liked her best when she admitted to being a bit neurotic on the subject of order and when she further admitted that she had drastically ratcheted down her expectations when it came to her kids.  In other words, she isn’t perfect, so it is a lot easier to consider what she has to say.  

Organized Enough is a useful, enjoyable and inspiring book for people who either already care a great deal about keeping their homes tidy and organized or who, like me, need a thoughtful, good-humored nudge to get their act together.  

Gweilo – A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood

Martin Booth has written a marvelous memoir about moving to Hong Kong and living there as a young boy in the early 1950’s.  Booth, an important British author, was moved to write Gweilo – A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2004.  The result of this last literary effort is a warm, amazing tale where Booth’s mother proves to be a major heroine and Martin emerges as someone we would all like to know.

In 1952, Booth’s father was posted to Hong Kong as a civilian employee of the British Navy.  As is sometimes sadly the case, Booth Senior’s importance to the Empire was in inverse proportion to his self-importance, and he was content to leave Martin, his only child, in an English boarding school.  Fortunately Booth’s mother was having none of that and insisted on bringing their son with them to Hong Kong.   And so in 1952 Martin Booth left an impoverished England, still struggling with post-war privation, and travelled to Hong Kong where he and his family lived for three years.  Martin and his mother loved exotic Hong Kong for all the reasons his literally gin-swilling father detested it.  Indeed the Booth family can be seen as a microcosm of the struggle between the old guard determination to hang on to the vestiges of the British Empire and the contrasting determination of a new generation eager explore new things and embrace variety and change.  

Martin was clearly his mother’s child, and remained resentful of his father for all sort of reasons.  The unhappiness of his parents’ marriage provides a sad back drop to what is otherwise a thrilling story of what happens when a seven year old boy is given license to explore an exotic city.  Allowing a seven year old child free rein to explore a new city, let along Hong Kong, on his own is unimaginable today, but that is what Martin got to do.  While Martin and his mother certainly did some exploring together, Martin’s independent solo forays provide the most amazing and exciting adventures in the book.  Happily Martin emerged from these adventures unharmed.  He also developed a deep empathy, understanding and love for Hong Kong.  His freedom enabled him to poke around, ask questions and learn to speak some rudimentary Chinese.  Martin encountered horrific poverty and encountered dangerous snakes and some pretty shady people, but he had a blast and learned a lot.  Indeed,  I found Martin’s adventures in the 1950’s to be considerably more thrilling and informative than my own trip to Hong Kong this past August.  Among other things this book shows what Hong Kong has lost, both good and bad.  

Martin’s mother deserves a major shout out.  Her openness and spirit of adventure educated and inspired her son to explore the city and its neighborhoods on his own.  Martin Booth learned a lot from watching his mother.  Observing how she coped with difficulties gave him some useful tools when he met his own difficulties.  Today this remarkable woman would undoubtedly be charged with child neglect, but this was the 1950’s, when many of us recall a lot more childhood freedom to roam and fend for ourselves than his common today.  Still, Martin’s mother comes across as uniquely permissive when it comes to letting her young son explore Hong Kong on his own.

The book ends when the family sails back to England after their three years in Hong Kong, but fortunately Booth got to return to Hong Kong a few years later.  I was so happy he got to return.

I loved this book.  It is a warm remembrance of a few years of childhood in exotic Hong Kong.

A Big, Wonderful Novel — A Little Life

Hanya Yanagihara has written a wonderfully long novel, A Little Life, about the forty year friendship of four men.  Jude,Willem, JB and Malcolm start out as college roommates in New England and end up in New York.  After various struggles, they all achieve significant success in their chosen fields.  More importantly they are all interesting and likable men.  With the exception of JB as an occasional foil, they are fundamentally kind and loyal.  Their careers and their sex lives figure in the story, but they aren’t the main thing.  Their friendship is the heart of the book, even as all four men lead independent lives.  

 Jude commands most of the attention.  Brilliant, kind, fragile and needy, he is a singular character.   I kept wanting to fix his life.  (I would literally wake up in the morning with some notion about how Jude could do something differently, and that isn’t my normal reaction to a book.). The slow unwinding of Jude’s past shapes drives the narrative.  We gradually learn more about Jude than do his friends, who persist in their loyalty to him even when he makes that hard to do.  Similarly, Ms. Yanagihara slowly peals away the past of the other men so that we come to understand them.

This is a long, rich book.  I just had to keep reading.  The deep, evolving friendships and a pervasive acknowledgement of kindness and ethical behavior consistently held my interest.  The very idea of four men remaining friends for such a long period  was intriguing.   

Perhaps because the book was so long, I became very invested in the characters.  I wanted more for them.  Some problems can’t be overcome, but I found myself wishing that a character might be stronger or more resilient.  If only they could have gotten past some obstacle…  

For some reason, I assumed this novel was written by a man, and I only realized that it was written by a woman after I finished it.  (You don’t get dust jackets when you read on Kindle.)  Ms. Yanagihara’s style is clear, and she skillfully tells the story from a number of perspectives and points in time.  I was driven to keep reading because I needed to know more, and it was hard to accept that ultimately the book came to an end.

I highly recommend A Little Life.

I Am Not Your Negro — An Immensely Powerful Film that Everyone Needs to See

Please go see this powerful docoumentary!  I Am Not Your Negro was written by James Baldwin, who died in 1987 at the age of 63, and directed by Raoul Peck with narration by Samuel Jackson.  If you are too young to remember the civil rights movement of the 60’s, you will learn a lot.  Even if you are familiar with the era, the film will teach you new things and remind you that the struggle is far from over.  There is nothing preachy about this film — the passion of the movement and its heroes make the movie fly by.  The film is extremely well done — so well done that I was swept up by the drama of it all and didn’t take note of the undoubtedly brilliant editing.

James Baldwin was inspired to write this film by the 1960’s assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcom X and Martin Luther King.  He knew all three men, all of whom died before the age of 40, and shows them as young men facing unimaginable challenges.  The film shows moving footage of all three, plus film of many other players of the time.  Baldwin’s recounting of Lorraine Hansberry’s meeting with Bobby Kennedy is only one of the remarkable stories in this amazing film, but I was also struck by excerpts from Malcolm X’s speeches, because I was less familiar with them.  We lost so much when we lost these three men.

Baldwin himself appears frequently, and his every appearance drives the film and our understanding of the struggle.  Baldwin’s interviews by Dick Cavett and his speech at Cambridge University’s debate forum are brilliant.  He combines anger, fear and shock with articulate analysis about what is happening and why.  He’s not yelling; he is explaining.  His blunt and bleak assessments are utterly compelling, yet he claims a small measure of hope, for why else would he be doing what he is doing.

Footage of more recent police shootings add urgency and remind us that this struggle is far from over, and that no one with a conscience can claim otherwise.  In these difficult times when so many would erase history, we need to know what happened and why, as well as to better understand the anger and fear our brutal history of prejudice has engendered.

Berlin Diary – The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 – A Terrifying Read for Our Own Era

People really need to read this book!  William L. Shirer, the famous author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich – A History of Nazi Germany, kept a diary while he was stationed in Berlin from 1934 to 1941.  Shirer began as a print journalist but was converted to a radio journalist in Berlin the 1930’s and though 1940.  I recently read his diary from that period, Berlin Diary – The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941.  Shirer’s writing is clear and absorbing. His diary is a primary source, and it makes for harrowing reading.

Shirer was a foreign correspondent for various American outlets when he found himself in Germany in the 1930’s and through the pivotal year 1940.  His own experiences of struggling with censors and putting out his broadcasts in the midst of heavy bombing are justification enough for his book.  His visits to the countries Germany has defeated are fascinating and ominous all at the same time.  Many of his colleagues were kicked out by the Germans.  Shirer tries to stay on the grounds that his witness is important, but he knows the Germans are using him or at least think they are.  It is a fascinating game.  Shirer’s narrative bounces from visits to battlefields, to encounters with Nazi leaders, to every day life in Berlin, to worries about his own safety and self-respect.  He tries to figure out exactly what is happening and get the word out without getting kicked out of Germany.

The transcending importance of this book is that Shirer’s personal experiences occur within the malevolent atmosphere of Nazi Germany and the countries it defeated.  I found it impossible to read about the unrelenting cruelty and domination of the Nazi’s and not think about what is happening in the United States today.  Whereas here we have attempted censorship of the press and ham-handed efforts to exclude reporters, in Nazi Germany this is what actually happened as a matter of course.  Germans had long been denied accurate internal reporting of hardships and loss, so they became inured to it and stopped believing anything they read.  Now we find ourselves in an era of “fake news,” where our leaders feel no compunction to tell the truth or keep their promises.   Bullying has become an accepted political tactic.  Are Americans getting to cynical and complacent to resist?   Similarities with Nazi Germany are growing, and we should fear what might come next in our own country.

Shirer’s diary underscores the point that the truth ceased to matter in Nazi Germany and that the Nazi leaders felt emboldened to create an endless, self-agrandizing narrative to dress up and justify their criminal actions.  So, too, were they emboldened to villify Jews and other handy scapegoats because they felt they could. This is a terrifying blueprint.

Although Shirer’s book feels particularly prescient at this time and he openly states his opinions, he has not written a polemic. This is the diary of someone trying to be a journalist in the midst of Nazi Germany.  Shirer’s own American perspective is very much in place and enhances the value of his diary, which he obviously kept hidden while in Germany.

Lastly I should note that whereas liberals like myself may read this book and draw ominous analogies with current American politics, even if your politics are far to the right of mine, this book has profound historical significance and is an excellent read.  I recommend it.

Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching — A Young Black Man’s Education

Mychal Denzel Smith, a contributing writer for The Nation, among other things, has written an important book.  Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching — A Young Black Man’s Education held my attention and driving home its central point.  We live in a racist society, and no amount of rationalization or picking apart the facts of a particular incident can deny that black people are getting killed by the police at an alarming rate, and that this fact is symptomatic of our racist society.  

Smith was in his late 20’s when he wrote his short, intense book.   He covers a lot of ground, ranging from the central fact of systemic racism to more unusual themes.  He discusses the difficulties black women have endured in a movement that has frequently focused only on the plight and challenges faced by black men.  This is something Smith comes to see, just as he begins to appreciate the plight of gay black people.  Smith is candid about his experience and points to times when he may have rushed to conclusions or when he faltered in his own life.  Smith struggled with depression, and he is candid about his reluctance to seek help and about the value of the help he finally received.  Ultimately, Smith projects a remarkable and well-placed confidence in himself and his options.  

This book is also a remarkable account of an undergraduate education.  Fortunately, his family didn’t give him much choice about attending college.  It was assumed he would go and do well.  Like a lot of teenage boys I know, Smith doesn’t seem to have given a whole lot of thought to where he would go to school, and he wasn’t a driven student, for the most part.  Fortunately, his time at Hampton opened his eyes to a lot of things.  The fact that he wasn’t studying for a particular career gave him freedom and the opportunity to experience a number of things.  He gratefully notes how at least one teacher had an enormous impact on him, and his adventures and misadventures in running the school paper gave him a practical political education.  It is always a good thing to stop and reflect upon the advantages of a liberal arts education and of not having a fixed game plan at an early age.

Nothing undercuts Smith’s anger and bleak assessment of racism.  That is the crucial underpinning of this book.  He doesn’t try to provide a fix.  His willingness to look back and assess himself and others and to adjust his thinking about certain “norms” make this a very illuminating book. Mychal Denzel Smith advances the conversation on race in America.  His own willingness to assess and reassess his own assumptions and positions over time set a fine example for the rest of us.  I am so glad I read this book.  It was often an uncomfortable read, but it kept offering new ways of looking at issues and events.  Throughout there was the constant drum beat that until the police killings of black people stop, we have little hope of moving ahead.  Given that underlying premise, Smith opens a dynamic conversation.