30-SECOND BOOK REVIEWS

Rather than post full-length book reviews, I’ve decided to publish a continuing blog of books as I read them. Click on the book cover to see each book’s Amazon sales page. I read the 

 

Kindle version on the iPad Pro, and buy all books. If you’d like to suggest a book for review, use the “Contact Me” link in the menu above.                        John Pearce

TAILSPIN, by Steven Brill (nonfiction)

Steven Brill launches his monumental work Tailspin with a question that goes to the core of Americans’ self-regard: Is the world’s greatest democracy and economy broken. But the metrics we normally depend on to measure the health of the body politic all seem to point in the wrong direction. Public engagement, satisfaction, confidence, voter turnout and the touchstone of the future, parents’ confidence that their children’s lives will be better than theirs — none of them is on the uptick. What went wrong?

A lot of things, but the one Brill holds most responsible is the broad move of the 1960s and later to consciously widen the base of the American upper class. Not the historic upper class based on inherited money or social rank, but the new upper class based on merit. Even now, when we see the results of our efforts to seek out and educate the smartest of our young citizens, we seldom (until now) hear the downside. The new rich are confident they got that way on their own, and they have very little interest in passing the fruits of their success on to those less fortunate. They have risen to the top and pulled up the ladder.

Brill, who points out willingly that he is one of the beneficiaries of the merit system, spends 400 pages detailing what happened, who did it, and offering his prescriptions for correcting the situation.

This is a must-read book.

BROWN LORD OF THE MOUNTAIN, by Walter Macken (novel)

One of the great duties of literature is to hold a mirror up to change, whether it is change in the characters, change in the land, change in society as it is wrenched out of one epoch into the next. This book does that, and held my interest from the night Donn Donnshleibhe left the mountain, bailing out of his own wedding feast to escape his guiltless but pregnant bride, his domineering and merciless father, and most of all, to escape the Mountain, the village on the West Coast of Ireland where 1939 could just as well have been 1839.

He returned sixteen years later to find nothing changed, except the beautiful teen-aged girl he met weaving daisy chains on the side of the road, and learned in short order that she had the mind of a young child and was the daughter he had never met. He returned to stand briefly at his father’s death bed and to meet the wife he’d abandoned to go off to war, from which he returned with a pocketful of medals and the scars of a machine-gun bullet and a knife on his chest.

Young Donn, now no longer young, found a village of abandoned cottages, which the people he’d known had left for America. Against his will, he took up his father’s mantle as Lord of the Mountain and brought electricity and running water, against the resistance of the old-timers, and dances to entertain and keep the young, against the resistance of the priests.

The story is a complex look at a society hangs together, but just barely, always at the risk of crumbling when the strong central figure faces his own personal tragedy and may not be able to overcome it. Read the book and figure out whether Donn succeeded.

BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (nonfiction)

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been a force in American journalism for almost twenty years, gaining exposure steadily with his articles in well-known journals, but he jumped instantly into the front ranks with his long 2014 cover story in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” From that time on he became more than just another good journalist translating one segment of American to another, but in my view the preeminent interpreter of what it’s like to be black in the country today. That issue has taken on considerably more heft since November 2016.

This book has been on my to-read list for a long time. I put off starting it mainly because epistolary family stories are low on my priorities list, but I finally picked it up a couple of weeks ago and found I couldn’t put it down. It’s a short book, a 155-page letter from an anguished black father to his young son, so I finished it in one night. I missed something importat by waiting so long.

If you are concerned about the direction race relations are taking in the United States, when there are “some very fine people on both sides” — and those on one side are showing the swastika and its predecessor, the Othala Rune, plus many versions of the Stars and Bars — then I suggest you read this book. Wherever you sit on the political spectrum, it will help you understand the unfortunate and continuing fallout of America’s original sin.

CENTENNIAL, by James Michener (novel)

I have been a fan of James Michener for as long as I can remember. He of the long, graceful sentences, the deep and wide historical perspective — and the long, long books, of which Centennial is one, at 1,100 pages. And the Kindle edition I bought last month throws in a preview of Hawaii for good measure. My iPad’s Kindle app estimates the reading time at 14 hours. It didn’t take me that long, but reading Michener, or even re-reading it after a couple of decades, is nobody’s one-day job.

This is a novel, as Michener points out in the author’s note, but it reads like history. But some of it goes back before the days of written records, and much of it presents Michener’s research, which led him to characters like Lame Beaver, the Arapaho warrior he invented to illustrate the state of constant war among the tribes. Winston Churchill’s mother Jennie Jerome makes an appearance, as do Fort Laramie and the South Platte River, both important parts of the development of the western territories.

Centennial is a fictional Colorado town, but it will seem familiar to anyone who grew up in the Western United States at a certain time in the Twentieth Century. Read the book. Enjoy it. And plan on a review soon of Caravans, Michener’s timeless story of timeless Afghanistan, a topic of considerable current interest these days. I thought it was even more interesting than Centennial, but that may be because I knew less about Afghanistan than the development of the American West.

If you’re a fan of Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone novels you’ll have a special interest in reading Berry’s introduction.

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