Book Reviews


Note: Because reading is so subjective, and because every writer (with a few exceptions, of course) pours her or his heart through the keyboard,  I feel no author (again with a few exceptions, of course) deserves a bad review. Therefore I only post Flash Reviews here on books I enjoyed and recommend.


SWEET THURSDAY, by John Steinbeck (288 pages). FLASH REVIEW: How in the world did this novel, that was almost titled “The Bear Flag,” escape my reading eyes until now? My past loss is my current gain for while Steinbeck has written numerous novels that are more acclaimed, and rightly so, I dare say this could be the Master Storyteller’s most “enjoyable” piece. The wordsmith-ing is, of course, as close to perfect as possible; the characters ring true, the dialogue is spot on; and the plot is woven together elegantly. In a word, this love story is indeed “sweet” (yet gritty, too) and I can see why many consider this their favorite Steinbeck work. Something else struck me: though originally published nearly 60 years ago, some of Steinbeck’s insights on humanity and political thoughts expressed in the pages seem prescient, as powerfully appropriate today as when written. Rating: 4.5 STARS out of 5.

THE ART OF FIELDING: A Novel, by Chad Harbach (544 pages). FLASH REVIEW:  This is not a baseball novel or a sports novel, it is simply a terrific novel with a backdrop that just happens to be a baseball diamond. Imagine Rocky Balboa as a scrawny shortstop at a tiny college suddenly destined for greatness in the Big Leagues — although underdog Henry Skrimshander’s gift could be music or painting or any other passion. Add in handful of other characters the reader comes to care about; love and death and second chances and friendships; and a series of roller-coaster story lines perfectly woven, plus beautiful writing and phrase-making, and you have a 1-hit shutout that keeps you on the edge of your seat until the final out . . . or throwing error. RATING: 4.5 STARS out of 5.

THE GHOST RUNNER: The Tragedy of the Man They Couldn’t Stop, by Bill Jones (352 paperback.) FLASH REVIEW:think non-runners will appreciate the tragic life story of John Tarrant, who had a boardinghouse childhood more grim than Dickens would dream up and made all the worse in his teens by the death of his mother shortly after WWII. I KNOW that runners, especially marathoners, will have a hard time putting this book down (though reading while simultaneously shaking one’s head in sympathetic anger can be a challenge). This is the journey of a steel-legged and iron-willed English runner sentenced to fight amateur athletic brass for decades. As a result he must illegally race in the shadows without a bib number all because he earned a few pounds in his hardscrabble youth as a boxer and thus was deemed a “professional” in running. Denied any chance at his Olympic dreams, The Ghost Runner, as he becomes famously known in the newspapers and sporting world, wears disguises before jumping into marathons and 24-hour ultras at the last second last at the starting lines. In the process he becomes an inspiring legend through victory and heartbreaking defeat, the latter often due to his stubbornness and refusal to pace himself rather than always bolting to the lead from the start. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the entire tale is that it has taken so long to be told. RATING: 4 Stars out of 5 for marathoners; 3 Stars for non-runners.

TOGETHER WE JUMP, A Novel by Ken McAlpine (361 pages). FLASH REVIEW: This is a beautiful quilt – a love story, in fact several; a coming of age story of two brothers; and a coming into acceptance of old-age story; a story prominently featuring a Mustang, an alligator and heroic turtles; of life and death, of real war and inner wars; a story with the poetry of Frost and Auden gracefully weaved into the prose of McAlpine: “The pain we suffer is not in things beyond us. The pain is in realizing, too late, that these things were not beyond us” and “Life is a tug of war between how we would like things to be and how they are. War is the same, magnified horribly.” And how can you not love a protagonist named Pogue? RATING, in honor of Roger Ebert: Two Thumbs Up!

TEAM OF RIVALS: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin (944 pages). FLASH REVIEW: I have read more than a dozen books about Lincoln and the Civil War, visited Gettysburg twice, and hence put off reading “Team of Rivals” because I figured it couldn’t possibly offer much more or live up to its billing. I stand corrected. To my mind, “ToR” is the definitive book on Lincoln. When I got to the final page of this thick tome I was disappointed only in one way — that it was ONLY 944 pages long! I wanted more! RATING: 5 STARS out of 5.

THE LONGEST RACE: A Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Cause for Human Endurance by Ed Ayres (241 pages). FLASH REVIEW: Unique from other “running” books, Ayres focuses more on anthropology, ecology and science than on his own exploits — in this case, the JFK 50 Mile Race featured as the other cornerstone of this tale. The results is a highly interesting, enlightening and inspiring look at running and mankind thanks to the author’s deftness in intertwining these two facets. RATING: 3.75 STARS out of 5.

THE SNOW GOOSE, by Paul Gallico (60 pages). FLASH REVIEW: I don’t know why I waited so long to read it nor remember who gave me this little book, written in 1941, a few years ago but I can now see why: it is in one word “Beautiful!” A strange word, perhaps, considering World War I is the backdrop and the lead character is a lonely, withdrawn, humpback artist with a deformed hand, but suffice to say he is also admirable and heroic. Add in a timid young girl who grows into a strong young woman over the 60 mesmerizing pages, an elegant snow goose, and a gifted wordsmith to tell it all, and you have an emotional winner of a tale. You may also want to add in a box of tissues. RATING: 4.5 STARS out of 5.

THE OTHER WES MOORE: One Name, Two Fates, by Wes Moore (251 Pages). FLASH REVIEW: I don’t always feel this way, but this offering is a New York Times bestseller for good reason. Indeed, this is an important book that should be required reading for all politicians, policy-makers, teachers, students, and citizens of all socio-economic worlds though specifically those blessed by birth with parents, relatives, positive role models and others who care about them and, vitally, put high expectations on them while in turn doing everything within their power to help the child achieve them. Moore, who, with help and guidance and some tough love, rose from the hard-and-dangerous roads of the inner-city to become a Rhodes Scholar, is a brilliant storyteller — yet arguably the best and most-powerful line in the book that sums up its lessons and theme comes from Professor Cornell West: “Our roots help to determine our routes.” One Wes Moore had roots trying to grow on cracked pavement and fed by drugs and negative role models and his route led to life in prison; Wes Moore the author, meanwhile, had a network of strong nurturing roots reaching deep into hearty soil, albeit inner-city soil, that refused to let the gale winds he encountered topple him over and has taken him on a route to educate, lead, inspire and live a life of purpose. RATING: 5 STARS out of 5.

OPEN HEART, by Elie Wiesel (79 pages). FLASH REVIEW: Anything written by the deeply gifted, and deeply insightful, author of “Night” and who, for good reason, has won the Nobel Peace Prize is hard to pass up. And indeed, Wiesel’s experience with emergency open-heart surgery at age 82, and facing his own mortality (once more), was enlightening and worthwhile. BUT … “Open Heart” really should be a magazine essay not a hardcover book sporting a hefty $20 price tag. For this reason alone, even with my Barnes & Noble discount ($16), I can only give it a RATING of 3 STARS (out of 5). However, if you can borrow a copy, it becomes 4 STARS.

CLOSER TO THE GROUND, by Dylan Tomine (230 pages). FLASH REVIEW: Tomine, a former fly fishing guide who surely could not have been half-as-talented with a rod as with a pen (or keyboard), could well have titled this book “Closer To Nature.” From fishing for salmon, to catching crab, to hunting for mushrooms, to the near-science of finding, cutting, stacking, drying and burning firewood, the reader cannot help but feel inspired to get more in touch with nature and its four seasons. However, the real heart of this book are the life-lessons and simple pleasures Tomine shares and enjoys with his young daughter and son (and also wife). Indeed, “Closer To Family” perhaps best describes this offering from Patagonia Books publishing. RATING: 4 STARS out of 5.

FOG, by Ken McAlpine (240 pages). FLASH REVIEW: I first became acquainted with author Ken McAlpine through his wonderful magazine articles for Sports Illustrated and Outdoors, and nonfiction personal narrative books “Island Apart” and “Off-Season”, the latter which brings to mind “Travels With Charlie” had Steinbeck traveled alone in a kayak up the eastern seaboard in the late fall. Well, in his debut novel “Fog”, McAlpine proves he is an equally gifted fiction writer — although to be honest, his knowledge and research makes “Fog” read like historical nonfiction. The end result is a thrilling page-turner that should be turned into a blockbuster movie. RATING: 5 STARS.

WILD: FROM LOST TO FOUND, by Cheryl Strayed (336 pages) FLASH REVIEW: Strayed’s account of hiking the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail is as enjoyable a read (albeit much less humorous — although to be fair there are some hilarious moments) as Bill Bryson’s wonderful “A Walk in the Woods” about his hike of the Appalachian Trail. Much more than a “travel” piece, Strayed has authored a story about her rocky life’s journey: the death of her mother, collapse of her marriage, drug use and sexcapades, and emotional collapse. Strayed undertakes her PCT trek solo but does a magnificent job of bringing the reader along to make it a shared road trip. Despite a number of poor decision on the trail (and in life), Strayed’s story will surely inspire you. My one complaint is her writing is too often needlessly melodramatic. RATING: 4 STARS out of 5.

MY FATHER’S TEARS (and other stories), by John Updike. (293 pages) FLASH REVIEW: If you enjoy Updike, this is a must-read. Most of the offerings read like nonfiction with the title essay, in my view, being the cream of the crop. However, my favorite line comes from the story titled Blue Light: ” ‘Next time,’ Fleisher promised. But life runs out of next times, at least for non-Hindus.”  RATING: 4 STARS out of 5.

A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT, by Norman Maclean. FLASH REVIEW: “At a certain perspective what we leave behind is often wonderland, always different from what it was and generally more beautiful,” Maclean writes, and surly such is the case here with his terrific short story/novel that is an example of storytelling that is about as good as it gets. Maclean uses the English language as deftly and magically as the character Paul does a fly rod; his sentences flowing as elegantly as a beautiful trout stream. He also writes, “… because it is not fly fishing if you are not looking for answers to questions.” And it is not writing/reading if you are not looking for answers to questions. RATING: 4.5 STARS.

THE END OF YOUR LIFE BOOK CLUB, by Will Schwalbe (352 pages) FLASH REVIEW: Authors sometimes rail that “those who can, write; those who can’t, become editors” but Will Schwalbe is a former book editor who is also truly gifted writer and storyteller. Despite the reader knowing the book’s outcome, that Will’s mother Mary Ann will succumb to pancreatic cancer, he has written a heartwarming and in many ways uplifting book. Through their “book club” mother and son are able to discuss deeper topics than they could have without their shared love for literature, and the underpinnings of the books they discuss, and the author shares with us many life lessons from his amazing and inspiring world humanitarian mom. In short, The End of Your Life Book Club  is a mother-son version of Tuesdays With Morrie. RATING: 4 STARS OUT OF 5

THE TIME KEEPER, by Mitch Albom (224 pages). FLASH REVIEW: On the plus side it’s a real page-turner, despite being too predictable and in my view not as good as the similarly themed short story “The Golden Thread” from The Book of Virtues. Also on the downside it seems to be written at about the fifth-grade reading level. The bolded sentences that serve as mini-headlines throughout the book, often two or three on one page, are somewhat of annoying. While I am a huge fan of Albom, in my mind his fiction writing once again just is not up to his talent as a journalist and certainly not up to “Tuesday With Morrie” standard. RATING: 3.5 STARS.

FIRST WE READ, THEN WE WRITE: Emerson on the Creative Process, by Robert Richardson. FLASH REVIEW: I “read” this as an audible book and that was the problem — it is simply to dense to listen to rather than be able to reread sentences and underline passages. With that said, it was still time well spent and sent me on-line reading more Emerson, such as his essay “The American Scholar.” RATING: 3 STARS as an audible book but surely 4 STARS in paper or e-book format.

LEWIS & CLARK: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, by Ken Burns (and historian Dayton Duncan). FLASH REVIEW: Terrific storytelling about an exploration by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark into the unknown that in 1804-1806 is truly as remarkable as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s journey of Apollo 11 to the moon. If you enjoy history, and particularly American history, you will love this masterful book. 4.5 STARS OUT OF 5.

EAST OF EDEN, by John Steinbeck (601 pages). FLASH REVIEW: How in the world did it take me so long to read this classic? I listened to it on audiblebooks last month and loved it so much I promptly “reread” it in book form to savor and underline the master’s fantastic style and phrasing. I always figured this novel had to be overrated, but the opposite is true. 5 STARS OUT OF 5: Actually, it honestly merits 6 Stars!

SHOWDOWN AT SHEPHERD’S BUSH: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze, by David Davis (261 pages). FLASH REVIEW: Interesting, informative, inspiring. Even if you are not a runner, I recommend it; if you are a runner, it’s a must-read! 4.5 OUT OF 5 STARS (for runners) 3.5 STARS (for non-runners).

MOONWALKING WITH EINSTEIN: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by Joshua Foer (274 pages). FLASH REVIEW: Far more than a self-help memory book, this offers excellent storytelling and a great story to tell. Indeed, it reads as if it were written by Malcolm Gladwell, which is of course a high compliment. You will walk away from this read a bit wiser. 4.5 STARS OUT OF 5

LETTERS FROM ALASKA, by John Muir (Edited by Robert Engberg) (110 pages). FLASH REVIEW: Muir writes as beautifully about southwest Alaska as he ever did about the Yosemite Valley. If you are going to visit Alaska, perhaps on a cruise as I did, this is a great read beforehand. If not, it’s still a good read. 3.5 STARS

PADDLING NORTH, by Audrey Sutherland (163 pages). FLASH REVIEW: Sutherland’s 850-mile solo kayaking trip in Alaska, and her elegant chronicling of it as well as her views on living your life today rather than putting things off until years down the road, will inspire you towards whatever goals you are pursuing. Outdoors people will love it, but so will people stuck behind a desk. 3.5 STARS

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