Review: Knecht’s Who Is Vera Kelly

Who Is Vera Kelly
Rosalie Knecht

A clever spy novel that doubles as a coming out story, while also being an disection of gender and sexuality in 1950-60s American and is an subtle exposition of the catastrophic effects of U.S. involvement in Latin America. Many spy novelists are ostensibly liberals (LeCarre, Steinhauer come to mind) who use the genre to critique the lies and machinations of Western intelligence agencies. But few, if any spy novels address gender and sexuality, and none that I am aware have used the way the deceptions forced on some by the closets of 1950s America could turn into the skills to be a spy for the CIA.
If you’re a fan of the genre, (and I certainly am) its refreshing to see that you can keep the double crosses and international intrigue, while pushing thing in a new direction staring complex queer and female protagonists.
Recommended for the enthusiast.

Rosalie Knecht

Rosalie Knecht

Review: Holiday’s The Obstacle Is the Way

The Obstacle if the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph

Ryan Holiday

When I first heard of Ryan Holiday, and his mini-stoicism inspired empire, I figured he was probably an asshole. It was all a bit too Silicon Valley bro-y for me (and I’m someone with a deep interest in stoicism and ancient though in general). But then I heard some interview with him, and was struck by his thoughtfulness and poise, and I began to change my mind. He has something to say.

This book is, at heart, a self-help book. But you know what else is a self-help book? Aurelius’s meditations. This isn’t as poetic as the Mediations, or as brilliant, but it’s still a thoughtful short read on the benefits of viewing the world through the lens of stoic philosophy. Meaning, through a lens, not of avoiding pain, or of silencing our emotions, but of valuing perseverance, and of focusing on that which we can control.

I don’t know that I learned much that was new from this book, but I did appreciate the reminder, and take inspiration from Holidays clear examples and advice on how to live a life of perseverance and reflection.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

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Ryan Holiday

Review: Mackintosh’s I Let You Go

I Let You Go

Clare Mackintosh

A thriller about a dead child and a battered woman that has a plot twist that’s almost too clever. The writing is excellent, and the pacing in the first two third of the book feels like a perfect mix of long periods of dread and sorrow punctuated by short bits of joy or violence. This isn’t a perfect book, the bad guy, when he arrives is almost too bad, and while the first plot twist is genuinely surprising and well done, future plots twists feel a bit more forced.

Still, if you can handle some of the rougher stuff here (domestic abuse, dead kid) then this is a real top notch thriller. I finished it in a day.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Clare Mackintosh

Clare Mackintosh

Review: Ehrman’s Triumph of Christianity

The Triumph of Christianity: How A Forbidden Religion Swept the World

Bart D. Ehrman

Ehrman is among the world’s leading authorities on Early Christianity, and without a doubt, the most popular, serious, author on the topic. If Early Christian history and theology has a rock star, its Ehrman.  The dude has written over thirty books, many of the them bestsellers, but this is the first by him I’ve read.

It’s well worth the price of admission.

In clear, accessible, language Ehrman answers the question of why (and how) did a religion based on the teachings of a Jew from the middle of nowhere come to dominate the Roman empire in the span of a few hundred years. The answer is both simple and endlessly complicated.

First is the nature of monotheism itself, and the numbers associated with it. Ehrman lays this out clearly in the book, but put simply, if you convert one person away from polytheism to monotheism, and they convert two, who then convert four, you quickly start gaining very large numbers.

Second is who was converted – Christianity at least in its early days, was willing to take in, and give positions of power, to Jews, women, and the working class, all people excluded from positions of power in the standard Roman mystery cults and religious societies.

Third was the simple, relatable, narrative of the Gospels themselves. Much of the Jewish world was waiting for a messiah, for sure, but much of the rest of the western world was also hungry for a more relatable god like figure, one not born in Olympus, and one who’s religious message resonated with their everyday lives.

There’s more, of course, (we’re talking about one of the largest most important revolutions in history after all) but this is the basics. I’m sure experts will quibble with this book. Frankly someday I hope to know enough to quibble myself. But for someone like me, dipping my toes into this world, or even for the interested lay person, this is a great introduction to one of the most important events in western society.

Recommended.

Bart Ehrman

Bart Ehrman

Review: Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird


Bluebird, Bluebird
Attica Locke

A good crime novel is often as much about place as it is about characters and plot. Raymond Chandler is telling us not just about some caper gone wrong, he’s telling us about Los Angeles. Same with Richard Stark and New York City and, in the present case, Attica Locke and East Texas.

Clearly, Locke knows this area well. The story of a two murders, likely racially motivated, in a small town, and the investigation that follows feels deeply rooted in the details of food, music, and geography that give this book its weight. The black Texas ranger, the black small business owner, the white landowner and cops live in a real place, even if the town in this book is actually fictional.

In the hands of a lesser talent this book could have been clichéd or doctrinaire, but Locke is a smart, nuanced, writer (incredibly, this is her first novel) and she tells this story of racism, violence, and betrayal incredibly well. It’s a cliché, but I couldn’t put it down.

Recommended.

Attica Locke

Attica Locke

Review: Hutchinson’s Endure


Endure: Mind, Body and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance

Alex Hutchinson

Anyone who has followed this site for any length of time knows I’m obsessed with human endurance. Why (and how) do we push through pain, how do we keep getting faster? Why are some people so much better at this, and how did they get that way? How much is genes, how much is training and how much is will?

If you care about these questions, and I certainly do, then this book is a must read. Hutchinson writes probably the most scientifically based journalism in Runners World and Outside magazine and here he takes that experience, and PhD in physics smarts and melds it with years of personal running experience and real journalistic chops. He meets with some of the best runners and scientists in the world and does as good a job as anyone has in explaining the science and psychology behind remarkable endurance performances, such as Nike’s attempt at a sub-2 hour marathon.

If you have any interest in the science of endurance sports, you’ve probably already this gem, if not, you should. Even if endurance sports aren’t your thing, there’s lot to learn here from Hutchinson’s clear writing on the possibility of human performance.

Recommended for the Enthusiast

Alex Hutchinson

Alex Hutchinson

Book Review: Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power


We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy
Ta-Nehisi Coates

A collection of Coates journalistic pieces and other writings, most of which first appeared in the Atlantic, and many of which I’d read before. The pieces are organized chronologically, and importantly, tied to each year of the Obama presidency. Coates writes a thoughtful introduction to each piece which serves as a reflective (sometimes self critical) look back at who he was as a writer, and who we were as a country, at the time of the writing of the piece.

 

Coates is a gifted writer and one of the most important intellectuals in modern America. I read everything he writes, and was happy to re-read many of these pieces. But at the center of this book is one of his articles “The Case for Reparations” that I think may be one of the most important pieces published anywhere in the last decade. It cogently and carefully makes the case for reparations to the African American community in America and it lays out its case with a combination of narrative brilliance and airtight logic that is hard to ignore.

 

If you pick up this book and just read the Case for Reparations, it will be well worth the price of admission, but there’s so much more in here to remember and reflect on. As I often say, well worth the time.

 

Recommended.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates