Brown’s The Boys in the Boat


The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Daniel James Brown

Dad literature in extremis. Which usually isn’t something that turns me off, but this time, it was all just a bit too much bootstrapping, a bit too much greatest generation propaganda, a bit too much they beat the nazi’s twice kind of thing.

It isn’t that the lives of these young men, almost uniformly from hardscrabble depression era childhoods aren’t inspiring. They are, but that isn’t enough to make a good book.

Joe Rantz, the central character here had a childhood that’s hard to imagine today in most of America today. Living in work camps, and unheated shacks, he started working at an extremely early age, and was abandoned by his father and step mother when he was still in high school. Even with all that, he managed to attend the University fo Washington, and win a gold medal in Berlin. That’s inspiring. But in the hand of Brown, it all comes off as a little too Horacio Alger. The prose is too purple, and descriptions, too overwrought. When dealing with material as compelling as the lives of these young men, its better to be subtle, reserved, but Brown doesn’t write that way and that’s a pity. There’s great story here, but not a great book.

I’m sure this has been optioned for a movie. I hope whoever directs it does a better job.

Not recommended.

Winslow’s The Force


The Force
Don Winslow

Don Winslow if not the best crime writer alive, definitely top five. His pacing is always full speed ahead, but without sacrificing character develop, or whip smart dialogue. His two books on the rise of Mexican drug cartels, The Power of the Dog and the Cartel are deeply researched and utterly compelling.

Here, he turns his attention to the NYPD and an imaginary unit of super cops that shares a lot of similarities with the notorious Street Crimes Unit. They’re touted around the city as a team of super cops out to get the baddest of the bad guys, but in reality they’re deeply corrupt and their leader is spiraling out of control.

An ode to New York City and a sympathetic portrait of the NYPD, with its blemishes and all, this book is catnip for a New Yorker like me. Dialogue is on point, story moves at a blazing speed, landmarks all check out. If you like crime novels, or New York City novels, or novels with a plot that flies, this is worth the read.

 

Recommended.

Don Winslow

Delany’s Atheist in the Attic


The Atheist in the Attic
Samuel Delany

I am a huge fan of the work of Samuel Delany and I’m convinced that a hundred years from now, he’ll be one of the most studied writers of our time. This is a minor work made of two pieces, a short novella that imagines the conversations between two great rationalists at the dawn of the enlightenment, the polymath scientific genius, Gottfried Leibniz and the excommunicated Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza. The book imagines the conversations that occurred between these two luminaries from very different worlds and is, in the intellectual tradition of some of Delany’s other non-science fiction works.

Its not his best work, perhaps because it seems unpolished, more a thought experiment than a fully formed work, but the for the fan like myself it illuminates an aspect of Delany too often overlooked – the historian of philosophy and western thought.

This little book is rounded out by an interview Delany did about his recent work, including the monumental Through the Valley of the Nest of the Spiders. As always, Delany is a careful, elucidating interview subject and for the fan, this book is worth picking up just for this.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Delany

Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead


Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems
Danez Smith

A slim, early volume by one of my favorite working poets. You can see the visceral power and honesty here, (some of the poems here are repeated in the more comprehensive Don’t Call Us Dead) but perhaps it isn’t as fully developed as I think it is in his later works.

There’s many wonders to poetry, some of which are just opening up to me in middle age, but one is, frankly, the brevity. It allows you to quickly dive deep into a writer, and with someone like Smith, who’s published relatively little, almost immediately read his collected works and see his development as a writer.

I was blown away by “Don’t Call Us Dead” and you can see the roots of that brilliance in Black Movie. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Danez Smith

Hayes’s American Sonnets to My Once and Future Assassins


American Sonnets to My Once and Future Assassins
Terrance Hayes

Another gut punch of a book of poetry by a black man. Viscerally moving sonnets about race, love and America.  Most pointedly what its like to reflect backwards, and think ahead, in Trump’s America.

For many years, I didn’t read much poetry, but lately, I’m drawn to it. There’s only so many tweets you can read, so many Washington tell alls you can consume, before it all feels the same and you need someone brilliant, like Terrance Hayes, to capture the moment in a perfect turn of phrase, the reflect back the world to you in a sonnet that leaves you staring at the page long after you’re done reading.

Perhaps now, more than ever, we need poetry and poets to give voice to what its like to live today.

Essential reading.

Recommended.

Terrence Hayes

Boyarin’s The Jewish Gospels

The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ
Daniel Boyarin

Daniel Boyarin is one the most interesting scholars of rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity working today. He’s also, usually, an incredibly dense and academic writer. I read, and loved, his book Borderlands, but I’m also not sure I understood it.

The Jewish Gospels is Borderlands for normal people. It posits the same hypothesis – that Rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity developed, at least in part, in conversation and competition. When Paul was Saul he was a student of the school of Gamaliel, after all.

The time, and subject, covered here is of deep interest to me, but much of the writing I’ve found (especially that covering the Rabbinic side), often assumes a level of learning I do not have. Very pleased to have found this accessible book to give me a toe hold in this world.

If clear thinking on the early development of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism is of interest to you, I can’t imagine a better place to start.

Recommended.

Daniel Boyrain

Wright and Hope’s Billion Dollar Whale

Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World Tom Wright and Bradley Hope

 

 

Kind of a business tell all book, but in the end more a book about hubris, greed, and insane spending sprees. This is a book about Jho Low, an overweight soft-spoken Malaysian who would, with the help of various Goldman Sachs bankers and shady government officials steal billions of dollars from Malaysia and live a life of excessive spending that was obscene even by the standards of the new rich.

I generally enjoy business tell all books that involve a lot of complicated accounting, insider trading, or calculated business risks, but this one, like Bad Blood is just about fraud and theft. Indeed, what Low did is even more simplistic, really, than what Theranos was trying to pull off as chronicled in Bad Blood.

He very simply stole the money. How he stole it is moderately interesting, but not all that complex. What he did with it was unbelievable. Incredibly lavish parties, casino free for alls, super yachts, fine art, models, and, incredibly, the financing of the Wolf of Wall street.

This is a quick read and entertaining enough if you want a glimpse of how the very very richest live. But all in all a surprising vapid story for such a big heist.

Recommended for the Enthusiast.