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The Round-Up

These are some of the best books I read this year: I worked hard to winnow the list down to seven fiction and seven nonfiction titles. Not all were published in 2020. If I wrote a post about a book, I’ve provided the link.  They’re just in order by title.


The AbstainerThe Abstainer by Ian McGuire
A very literate historical thriller about an Irish policeman in Manchester, England in 1867. See my post here.


American Dirt

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
An immersive, frightening, and all-too-realistic story about a mother and son on the run from a Mexican drug lord. Will they reach the U.S. border before the cartel’s henchman catch them?


Gone So LongGone So Long by Andre Dubus III
An ex-con father wants to see his estranged daughter in this haunting tale. See my post here.


Homeland ElegiesHomeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar
This is auto-fiction with a raw, hungry immediacy. Akhtar’s linked stories about life in the U.S. as a Muslim, the son of immigrant parents, are unforgettable, often shocking. He writes about the bigotry he experiences as a Muslim, the narrowmindedness in his own community, and and the way those things affect his feelings about living in the U.S. It’s the right book for this time.

Bring up the BodiesThe Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
The third and final volume in Mantel’s brilliant fictional life of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from the son of a blacksmith to Henry VIII’s confidant and enforcer. See my post here.


Pull of the Stars

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
Eerily prescient, Donoghue’s latest claustrophobic novel is set in a hospital during the influenza pandemic of 191x and follows a nurse who cares for pregnant women who have the flu. I found this riveting for its carefully drawn characters and emotional content.

Topeka SchoolThe Topeka School by Ben Lerner
A coming of age novel, a trenchant commentary on the lives we live today, full of brilliant set pieces, Lerner’s novel delves into many aspects of our cultural dysfunction. See my post here.



Anthony Powell Dancing

Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time by Hilary Spurling
Powell is often called the English Proust; I read his magnum opus, the 12 volumes of A Dance to the Music of Time years ago and loved it. A trenchant picture of English society in the first half of the twentieth century. See my short post here.

CasteCaste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson
Wilkerson makes the case that caste not racism accounts for the way Blacks have been treated in our society. India and Nazi Germany provide other examples of caste-based systems to make the argument clear. An important book to read now.

Chasing ChopinChasing Chopin: A Musical Journey Across Three Centuries, Four Countries, and a Half-Dozen Revolutions
by Annik LaFarge
A short but pithy life of Chopin and his music. See my post here.


Eat the Buddha

Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town by Barbara Demick
Demick follows the life of citizens in a small town in Tibet before and after the Chinese takeover. See my post here.


Georgia O'keeffe

Georgia O’Keefe: A Life by Roxana Robinson
I am sure this is the best biography about O’Keefe and a model of biographical writing. I love Robinson’s fiction, too: Cost and Sparta are among my favorites.


gods-shadow-1God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World by Alan Mikhail
Mikhail explores the fraught relationship between the Ottoman Turks and Europe in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. See my post here.

An OdysseyAn Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn
Mendelsohn, a classics scholar writes about the Odyssey and his father, joining their stories together in remarkable ways. Read my post here.




The Cold Millions by Jess Walter

cold-millions-1I enjoyed Walter’s last book–Beautiful Ruins–so much, that I was eager to read The Cold Millions and have the same experience all over again. Well, it doesn’t happen like that. A good writer changes it up. Like Beautiful Ruins, there is a mix of historical and fictional characters in this new novel but it’s very different. I wasn’t disappointed.

The Cold Millions is set in Spokane, Washington in 1909 when the IWW, the workers’ union often known as the Wobblies, tried to hold a series of free speech rallies. Two brothers, Gig and Rye, have been drifting around Montana and Washington after the deaths of their parents and sister. They pick up jobs when they can and ride the rails to places where there might be work. Gig takes easily to this vagabond life, but Rye, only 17 years old, is not so sure this is the life for him. Gig worries that he can’t take care of Rye properly.

The brothers are drawn into the Wobblies’ world, caught up in the fervor for workers’ rights. Workers are the “cold millions” of the title, compared to the rich mining barons who run the town and live in warmth and luxury on the South Side. Enter Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the historical rabble rousing young woman whose fiery speeches, determination, and charisma keep the Spokane workers riled up.

The rich industrialists won’t give in to the workers’ demands and they have the means to pay off the Spokane police and hire thugs. How Gig and Rye are tested in their loyalties forms the core of the story. Walters portrays Spokane as a wild and woolly town and the dialogue is rich in colorful slang and equally colorful secondary characters. It’s easy to picture the setting: rainy, muddy, and cold, and filled with cheap hotels, tawdry saloons, and prostitutes. As the story develops, the reader becomes attached to Gig and Rye, especially Rye, who is so young and vulnerable. What will happen to the brothers in this soup of labor violence? The historical characters drive the plot but the brothers are the real beating heart of the story.

God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World


It’s often entertaining and enlightening to read about history from a new vantage point. We didn’t learn everything in our high school and college history courses, and, of course, we know the curriculum had a certain Eurocentric point of view. Alan Mikhail’s book God’s Shadow is a terrific repositioning of our view of European and Middle Eastern history in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Shifting political fortunes made it a volatile–and violent–time and Mikhail has some interesting things to say, especially about the geopolitical considerations that sent Columbus across the Atlantic Ocean. It’s different from what we learned in high school.

The history that Mikhail tells so well focuses on the Sultan Selim, who ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1512 to 1520. His father, the Sultan Bayezit, had several sons by several concubines. In the royal court, once a concubine had given birth to a son, her obligation to the sultan was done. She was then expected to teach her son all he needed to know in case he became the next ruler. A strong bond between mothers and sons meant that many of these women, who often started life as slaves, became powerful members of the court, even sometimes the power behind the throne. There’s a great story in how Selim–the third in line for the throne–and his mother finessed their situation to his advantage. Family loyalty was not encouraged.

As sultan, Selim oversaw a great expansion of the Ottoman Empire; from Egypt in the West to Iran and Azerbaijan in the East. In his eight years as sultan, he spent most of his time leading his armies in these conquests, which paved the way for the much more peaceful era of his son, Suleyman the Magnificent. According to Mikhail, the growing power of the Ottoman Empire under Selim threatened the western European countries like Spain, France, Italy, and Portugal, which were barely nation states compared to the huge and well-organized Ottoman Empire. In Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella had just finished an exhausting–and violent–Reconquista, expelling Muslims (and Jews) and subjecting those that remained to the tortures of the Inquisition.

Selim controlled the best trade routes to the East, threatening access to lucrative trade with India and points farther east. In Mikhail’s explanation, Columbus’ voyage across the Atlantic was to make contact with a Great Khan in China who was rumored to be a convert to Nestorian Christianity. The plan was to make common cause with this ruler and, in a pincer movement, destroy the Ottoman Empire. Mikhail’s evidence for this theory is both fascinating and very compelling.

I enjoyed this book for so many reasons. The story is absorbing and the writing is perfectly matched–graceful, straightforward and clear. I was looking forward to learning more about this period but didn’t expect such a page turner. God’s Shadow clarified and expanded my understanding of a pivotal period of history. If you have any interest in how religion and geopolitics around the Mediterranean in this era shaped our world, this is a great read.

Note: If you enter the search string “that changed the world” in your library’s catalog, you’ll find lots of results. I’m thinking of books like Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World; Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, also other books like Guns, Germs, and Steel whose authors claim that their point of view and subject matter will give you a different understanding of world history. I enjoy those books and so does my book club.

Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town by Barbara Demick

Eat the BuddhaWhen I was growing up, I thought there was no place more distant and forbidding than Tibet. Why would anyone want to live in such a fierce, frozen place? It seemed so strange to a child in an urban apartment with central heating. And the Tibetans didn’t want visitors! Then, in the early 1990s I read Henrich Harrer’s memoir Seven Years in Tibet and I was hooked on finding more about the history and culture. The more I read, the more Tibet began to feel like a special corner of the world to me, a place of ancient, mystical traditions that had survived because the Tibetans held fast to those traditions. In San Francisco I saw Tibetan monks patiently dripping colored sand to create an exquisite mandala. That patience that was a world away from the daily life I saw around me. The enormous Potala Palace, hovering over Lhasa, fascinated me as much as the Parthenon. (More about that another time.) The Chinese takeover of the country with the subsequent trashing of Tibetan culture felt like a terrible affront and it was made all the more disturbing by the exile of the Dalai Lama, whose compassion, resilience and moral strength have been so exemplary. Eat the Buddha satisfied my curiosity about what’s been happening to the Tibetans who remained. 

I had read Demick’s previous book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, a wonderful eye-opener that is exactly as described by the subtitle. She’s a terrific journalist who knows how to balance the general and the personal. I also felt that I needed to catch up on what was happening in Tibet. I was too focused on the Dalai Lama’s attempts to keep the flame of Tibetan life and Buddhism alive. It was time to read about what was happening to the Tibetans left behind.

Demick follows the lives of several Tibetans from the district of Ngaba, site of the former Mei kingdom, from the last Mei princess, to monks, nuns, teachers, and ordinary people trying to live their lives in a bewildering maze of Chinese hostility and ineptitude. She fills in the history we’ve missed, from the impact of Mao’s Long March to the flight of the Dalai Lama in 1959, to the way Tibetans live now, under the long arm of Chinese surveillance and centralized control. After so many years of Chinese indoctrination, many Tibetans have given up their own culture and acquiesced to the Communist worldview. It makes their lives easier but it also makes them exiles in their own land. Some continue to resist in any way they can. Others have managed to escape to India to join the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. It’s a harsh story but Demick tells it well. I highly recommend it.

Chasing Chopin by Annik LaFarge

Chasing ChopinAt the moment I’m listening to Chopin’s Etude Op. 25 No. 10, called “The Winter Wind” for the way it evokes the howling wind of a winter storm.  I’ve listened to Chopin for many hours in the past three days, since I finished reading Chasing Chopin: A Musical Journey Across Three Centuries, Four Countries, and a Half-Dozen Revolutions by Annik LaFarge.

This wonderful short book is a love letter to Chopin. It’s not a biography, although you will learn about the composer’s life and relationship with his longtime lover, the novelist George Sand, nom de plume of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin. It’s also not a book of musical criticism, nor is it a treatise about the difficulties of playing Chopin’s music. LaFarge starts by recounting a visit to a friend who was dying. The next piece of music she heard, at a jazz club, quoted Chopin’s “Funeral March” and she was jolted by the coincidence. The “Funeral March” becomes the thread that ties the various parts of the story together. (Although a number of Chopin’s pieces have programmatic names, Chopin himself hated this practice; all the names were supplied by others.)

LaFarge visits all the places where Chopin lived to recapture the atmosphere and history he might have experienced. One of the most moving sections of the book is set on Majorca, where Sand and Chopin lived for a while in 1838-9. Chopin was in Paris, very ill, coughing up blood and Sand wanted to find a place of warmth and light where he could regain his strength. The trip was not altogether a success: the weather in Majorca was cold and rainy and it took almost six months for Chopin’s piano to arrive. He had ordered a Pleyel pianino to be shipped to Majorca and it was held up by bad weather and extortionate customs fees. Chopin, Sand, and Sand’s two children ended up living in Valldemossa, in the hills northwest of Palma in a abandoned medieval monastery. The locals didn’t welcome this unusual couple–one with tuberculosis, the other a strange genre-bending woman. The sun and warmth they initially encountered quickly turned to cold and rain. It was not the most salubrious place for Chopin, but he wrote some of his most beautiful pieces there.

LaFarge visited the monastery, now a Chopin museum, which contains the Pleyel pianino and some of Chopin’s handwritten manuscripts. Many other music lovers and pianists have made the trek but maybe none so devoted as Nobuyuki Tsujii, a brilliant blind pianist, who stayed overnight on a cot in the room next to Chopin’s studio. LaFarge has a companion website, keyed to the book’s chapters, where you can listen to recordings of all the pieces she mentions, many of them on period instruments like Chopin’s Pleyel. I especially recommend listening to Nobu (as he’s known to his fans) and Tomasz Ritter, both Chopin competition winners.

Pleyel’s pianos were the intermediate instruments between the harpsichord and our modern piano. The harpsichord plucks the strings, somewhat like a guitar, thus the pressure on the keys doesn’t translate to how loudly or softly the instrument will play. Pleyel and a few other piano makers in the early 1800s tried other methods of striking the strings and were able to bring more resonance and color to the instrument’s tone. These were the first steps towards our modern piano action. The new pianos must have felt miraculous to a composer like Chopin, whose compositions are so flowing and dynamically varied.

LaFarge visited Paris, of course, and also Nohant, where Sand had an estate. Ever mindful of the need for silence and space for Chopin to compose, Sand built a beautiful soundproofed room for Chopin in Nohant. She took good care of him until she didn’t; not too long before his death she left him and although her daughter was at his deathbed, Sand was not. Ah, the vicissitudes of love! Of course, the “Funeral March” was played at his funeral.

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

Topeka SchoolI’ve been attending Book Expo at the Javits Center for years and may have mentioned in the past that I pick up far too many advance copies of books. I lug them home where I realize I’ll never read them all. I do hold on to most of them and read some, usually several years after their publication date. The latest one I read is The Topeka School by Ben Lerner, which came out in 2019. I’ve tried to read Lerner’s novels before, without much success. Now, since I enjoyed The Topeka School, I’ll have to go back and try them again. He’s a seriously good writer.

The novel is set in, of course, Topeka, Kansas and the “school” of the title refers to The Foundation, a well-respected psychiatric clinic. Adam Gordon, a high school senior, and his parents Jane and Jonathan, who both work at the clinic are the central focus. One other character, Darren Eberheart, a mentally disabled boy, haunts the plot and provides the climax.

The Topeka School is not plot-heavy nor is it told in a linear fashion. Instead, there are brilliant set pieces told from the point of view of each character, some in first person. In the opening chapter, Adam, a crack debater on his high school team attends a state championship event.  Lerner gives a visceral sense of what those events are like, down to the anxiety of the participants, their characteristic pencil-twirling tics, and the speed-talking obfuscation technique known as “the spread.”

The novel is set in the late 1990s, and through the lives of the Gordons Lerner takes on issues of authenticity, toxic masculinity, and psychoanalysis that are prescient to say the least. “The spread” becomes a metaphor–and predictor–for the sometimes meaningless, sometimes toxic chatter that has taken over our lives since the Clinton era. Jane Gordon, Adam’s mother, author of a best-selling feminist book, is harassed by “The Men,” as she calls them, who spew hatred at her by phone and in person. Adam and his friends tolerate the mentally disabled Darren, but there’s an undercurrent of nastiness in the way they treat him. Darren may be slow, but he’s not slow enough to misunderstand.

Garth Risk Hallberg, who reviewed the book for the New York Times, uses the term “analytic overdrive” to refer to the way that the characters examine every minute of their lives. Their lives have a feeling of feverish intensity like the debates that Adam attends. It’s a heady story: funny, tragic, and fierce.

The Abstainer by Ian McGuire

The AbstainerI’m always looking for absorbing thrillers, well-written and with something to say about the human condition.  I just finished a good one: The Abstainer by Ian McGuire, a thriller set mainly in Manchester, England in 1867. It’s a dark story, filled with the pain of the long war between the Irish and the British. Themes of loss, regret, and betrayal, combined with beautiful writing kept me turning pages. I read it in two sittings.

James O’Connor, a policeman from Dublin, is sent to Manchester to help uncover the plans of the violent Fenian Brotherhood.  Personally, it’s his last chance to redeem himself from the alcoholism that wrecked his Dublin career. The British have just hanged three Fenians; they know there will be reprisals. At the same time, the Irish-American Stephen Doyle arrives in Manchester to plan the Fenian Brotherhood’s act of revenge. Doyle served on the Union side in the American Civil War and is well acquainted with death; he’s a cold-hearted, arrogant loner. His first task is to ferret out the informers in the group, then he’ll take revenge for the hangings.

It’s a classic face-off between two driven, intensely motivated men. McGuire takes the reader deep inside O’Connell’s head. All his colleagues know about his ignominious reassignment from Dublin. What they aren’t aware of is that he’s still grieving for his dead wife and son. Doyle, the Irishman bent on retribution, is also struggling with demons; it’s his anger that makes him so dangerous. The story is like a chess game: there are moves and countermoves; some are successful, some are thwarted. O’Connor recruits his nephew to infiltrate the Fenians and then spends sleepless nights worrying about his safety.

The absorbing aspect of the novel is O’Connell’s desperate interior life, which is matched by the dismal Manchester weather, with sky “the color of wet mortar.” I was stopped many times by O’Connell’s trenchant ruminations. Here, he’s worried about the safety of his nephew:

“It occurs to him…that if his son, David, who had died, had lived instead, this is what fatherhood might have felt like: this constant irritating fear, this sense that a vital part of your life is being lived elsewhere, in secret, by someone you may love but can’t possible trust.”

It’s writing like this that kept me reading despite the brutal story. The murderous hatred between the Irish and the British was no fiction; in the next century it would only get worse.

Clive James: Poetry and Unreliable Memoirs

Unreliable memoirsOn Sunday mornings, my Israeli friend Pnina emails me the “Bookmarks” newsletter from the Guardian. It’s a lively roundup of new books and literary essays. Sometimes I just need to skim it and sometimes I find real treasure.

The treasure I found on Sunday was a piece by Clive James, who died in 2019. James was a well-loved (Australian-born) British literary and cultural critic. I discovered him for myself about fifteen years ago when I was putting together my book on memoirs. I found his first memoir, called Unreliable Memoirs and I loved it from the first page. Here’s what I wrote about it:

James pens a hilarious account of growing up in Sydney, Australia, in the 1940s and 1950s, son of a widowed mother who despaired of ever seeing her son make something of himself. His childhood was filled with mischief and over-the-top exploits at school and in the neighborhood, all of which hid his frantic adolescent need for acceptance and sexual conquest. A laugh out loud coming-of-age story with a strong sense of place and time.

 James went on to disprove his mother’s bleak view of his future by becoming a prolific author of literary criticism, poetry, memoir, and novels. He was a popular TV reviewer on the BBC, where his deadpan humor endeared him to listeners. It’s still in print to purchase but maybe your library has a copy of Unreliable Memoirs tucked away on a dusty autobiography shelf or you can find a secondhand copy; I highly recommend it. 

The Guardian article is an excerpt from James’s last book, Fire of Joy, about his lifelong love of poetry, which began with compulsory memorization of poems in elementary school. James didn’t find it difficult or unpleasant to memorize poems; he comments that “it was a fantastic combination of Parnassus and a maximum-security prison.” He goes on to write about the nature of poetry’s appeal and includes some of his favorite poems. His frank opinions, leavened with humor, make the excerpt a joy to read.

About poetry he writes, “With a poem the most important thing is the way it sounds when you say it. At that rate even the most elementary nursery rhyme has it all over the kind of overstuffed epic that needs 10 pages of notes for every page of text, and reduces all who read it to paralysed slumber–or even worse, to a bogus admiration.” (Is that why I’m such a fan of the “Jabberwocky?”) 

There are links at the bottom of the Guardian article to other articles about James, all of which sound wonderful. 

As best I can tell, Fire of Joy has not yet been published in the U.S., so the excerpt in the Guardian will have to suffice for now. I’ll keep an eye out for publication here. 


Some books I’ve read lately but haven’t posted about

Anthony Powell Dancing

I don’t post about every book I read. I don’t like to blog about books that I don’t like all that much since I don’t want to waste your time. (I know, we all have different tastes.) Sometimes I read a book because I’m following a particular interest of mine and I don’t expect others to have the same enthusiasm. Right now I’m reading a biography in that category: Anthony Powell: Dancing to the Music of Time by Hilary Spurling. Powell is one of my favorite British novelists; he’s often called the British Proust. He wrote a 12-volume work called A Dance to the Music of Time that I read years ago and loved. It’s very much a roman à clef so I’m enjoying reading about Powell’s friends and family members who served as models. For me, reading this biography is like eating a very rich dessert. Not only is Powell’s life fascinating but Spurling’s writing is wonderful.

Since I don’t expect lots of other people to share this enthusiasm, I thought I would briefly list some of the books I’ve enjoyed recently that are of more general interest.


Actress by Anne Enright. This novel, about the relationship between a young girl and her famous actress mother, circles around and back through their lives. It requires–and rewards–your attention for it’s understanding of the blessings and curses of fame. Some of the chapters are remarkable set pieces and there is some great material about writing at the end. Enright is a tough, unsentimental author who gets right to the heart of emotions.

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Monogamy by Sue Miller. It’s been a while since Miller had a new book out. She’s an excellent writer of domestic fiction, quiet novels that surprise the reader with insight. This one’s about a woman married to a charismatic bookseller. He dies suddenly and she has to cope with sadness and secrets.

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Spying on the South: Travels with Frederick Law Olmsted in a Fractured Land by Tony Horwitz. Olmsted, the great parks designer, spent time in the South before the Civil War to learn more about slavery and Southern culture. Horwitz travels in Olmsted’s footsteps; his story is s doozy, full of wit and surprises. If you haven’t encountered Horwitz before, this is travel writing at its best.

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The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. Winner of the National Book Award, this lovely novel traces the relationship between a young Indian woman, orphaned and living with her cantankerous grandfather, and her tutor, a young man caught up in the political turmoil of the Nepalese independence movement. (There’s much more going on here than that simple statement.)

The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey

Livesey’s latest novel, just published, opens when three teenage siblings–Matthew, Zoe, and Duncan Lang–see an injured boy in a field and call for help. A simple beginning. But for these three close-knit teens, who have lived a relatively uneventful suburban life, the event is a marker that rocks their sense of right and wrong and sends them off in different directions.

When the police are unable to find the man who beat Karel and left him in the field, Matthew Lang, the eldest, searches for the culprit on his own; he needs the certainty of answers. He allies himself with Karel’s older brother, Tomas, a dodgy character. For Zoe, the middle sibling, 16 years old, the incident is a turning point. It brings her into contact with inexplicable evil, the world expands and deepens, and she makes some sexual choices, for better or for worse.

It’s different for Duncan, the youngest, at 14. Duncan is adopted–his mother was a young Turkish woman–and Duncan looks different from the rest of the family. There’s no doubt that he’s well-loved, but he’s an outsider. It’s not just his looks, but his talent as an artist and an empath that sets him apart from everyone else. Duncan is preternaturally sensitive; his heightened awareness of color and form extends to emotions. He’s often able to read situations that escape the others. In the aftermath of the incident, he begins to dream of his biological mother, his “first mother.” He adopts a dog, Lily, who senses moods and emanates answers to unspoken questions.

Each of the children makes contact with Karel; they have unanswered questions that they hope the enigmatic boy in the field can answer. Karel becomes a touchstone for their changing feelings but he can’t give them any help.

I hope I haven’t given away too much. There’s not much more plot; it’s a coming of age story for the three Lang siblings so it’s all about character. The novel reminded me of Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and Penelope Lively’s How it All Began, both books that cast a spell over the reader. They’re all hard to forget.