I don’t know who said it, but it seems so, right? Not weatherwise, for South Texas, plenty more summer weather. Still, wrapping up one season and getting down to the business of another. In that spirit, I thought I’d report on what I was into this past month:
“Judge Me Not” by John MacDonald (1951) He wrote every kind of book, from sci-fi to the Travis McGee P.I. series, but this early novel is what I think he did best: introduce a flawed and reluctant hero into a cesspool of corruption, make you think he can’t possible get out, much less prevail, and then beat you to death with the brutality of detail and details of brutality for about 150 pages. Who could ever stop at just one John MacDonald novel? Not me.
“The Sport of Kings” by C.E. Morgan (2017) Highly reviewed and multiple award-winning, this novel takes on the world of horse racing while also telling a tale of family and race. For me, it didn’t work, and I’m highly interested in those topics.
“The Gulag Archipelago” by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1973) I read this first as a teenager (it was one of my dad’s favorite books), but I am sure I did not (and could not, honestly) appreciate it. Like a lot of great Russian literature, it’s a slog, but the denseness of detail yields so much great insight on the human condition. On one level (its intended one), it’s about life in the Soviet system of camps and prisons for enemies of the state. On another level, it’s a cautionary tale about what happens when petty scolds attain power. Which makes it a good read (or re-read) right now.
“The Lincoln Myth” by Steve Berry (2014) Berry’s Cotton Malone protagonist is a favorite of mine—how could I not love a special op who retires to run a bookstore? And this author specializes in the history-infused plot, similar to Brad Meltzer. So, I recommend all the Malone books, but this one with the caveat that it bogs down in way too much detail about the Mormon church, and the premise is Berry’s flimsiest to date. Read ’em all, on the whole they’re a lot of fun.
“Walkin’ The Dog” by Walter Mosley (1999) If Walter Mosley had only given us any one of his serial characters (Easy Rawlins, Fearless Jones, Leonid McGill or, here, Socrates Fortlow), it would be enough to say he’s one of America’s greatest living novelists. Suffice to say, in this, the second installment of the Socrates series, you get more heart and plot than you expect. I think of these books as “mysteries” but they are American literature—they tell a slice of life. Fortlow is a man who paid his debt to society in prison, and now pays it forward in the lives of people he meets in the parts of L.A. no one else writes about.
“The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit and an Epic Quest to Arm An America At War” by A.J. Baime (2014) A truly excellent and quick-reading account of how Ford went from building cars Americans loved to building B-24 bombers America needed at the outbreak of WW2. Striving for a seemingly impossible goal of one of these four-engined behemoths rolling out per hour, it almost didn’t happen at all. We tend to think that the history-changing industrial output of America during the war was a foregone conclusion. Far from it, and some of the heroes (and villains) aren’t who you would think.
“The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria” by Laura Joh Rowland (2002) One of the mystery world’s most unusual and addictive series is this one about Sano Ichiro, detective-in-chief to the 17th century shogun of Japan. A “pillow book” is a courtesan’s diary, and finding it may solve a murder, locate a missing young woman, unravel the royal chain of succession, and possibly save both Sano’s marriage and career. These novels are not only entertaining from a plot standpoint, but the history they cover is intriguing too.
‘Never Go Back” by Lee Child (2013) Jack Reacher is back at his old command, the 110th Special MP, but it’s hard to tell if they want him back or want him out of the way. As usual, he’s helping people, risking his life, wanting nothing but to get through it and do the right thing. There IS a wrinkle here for Jack: he may about to learn something about himself that could change everything. The Reacher character reminds me a lot of Ross MacDonald’s P.I., Lew Archer (read on).
“The Barbarous Coast” by Ross MacDonald (1956) The iconic Lew Archer character is pulled into the sordid private lives of people at an exclusive southern California club. As always, there’s a dose of Hollywood corruption, unsolved murder, young lives gone astray, and the quest for answers neither we nor Archer may want, but must have. I like to imagine Archer meeting Jack Reacher (they would drink coffee)—these two reluctantly-chivalrous characters are like brothers from different mothers and eras.
“Code Warriors: NSA Code Breakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union” by Stephen Budiansky (2016) I admire this author, and his knowledge and qualifications to tell this story are peerless. The National Security Agency (NSA) is probably the least-known of our many intel outfits. Problem here is that the author tries to educate the reader on cryptanalysis and coding, which is very hard to read, and detracts from the history itself. Either skim, or skip, this one.