I’m a pretty voracious reader. On average, I read over fifty books a year and for a long time now, I’ve been writing reviews of them on this website. I’m often asked “what are you reading?” or “I liked, X, what else should I read?”
Well, I’m creating a newsletter to answer those questions.
Once a month I’ll send out an email with the books I’ve read that month, coupled with very short reviews and the standard note I use for the hundreds of book reviews I’ve done on my website of “Recommended”, “Recommended for the Enthusiast” or “Not Recommended”. I’ll also link to any especially interesting articles I’ve read or written that month. I’ll send the email on the first day of the month from my personal email account and will answer every email I get in response.
The goal is simple. Give you a quick read with some thoughts on books to check out (or avoid) based on my own admittedly idiosyncratic tastes. Hope you’ll join us!
The Red Parts: A Memoir of a Trial
Maggie Nelson wrote a book called Jane: A Murder about the brutal murder of her aunt allegedly by a serial killer who was targeting women in Michigan in the late seventies. As she was finalizing the book, and getting ready to go on a book tour to promote it her family received a call from the police. They had new information on Jane’s murder and they now believed the man long thought to have killed Jane hadn’t and instead another man, who’s DNA had been found on her body, was being arrested.
This is a book about the trail of this new suspect. Its about it means for a family to relive the grief of loss, and what it means to be a writer both documenting, and living through, the murder trial of a loved one.
This being Nelson, its about more than that, too. Its about modern policing, and the use and misuse of DNA evidence. Its about how you move on when someone you love is killed. Its about what it means to go home, or if you even can.
I read Jane: A Murder and The Red Parts back to back in the span of a weekend. If you’ve any interest in strong writing or crime, I suggest you do too.
Jane: A Murder
Maggie Nelson is one of my favorite writers. Her book the Argonauts knocked me on my ass. Its still one of my go-to gift books. I’ve read almost everything she has written and honestly, you can’t go wrong. But if you want to start somewhere really excellent, I suggest the pairing of this book, Jane: A Murder and its pseudo-sequel, The Red Parts.
Nelson’s aunt, Jane, was a free spirit in a conservative town, who went on to college and then law school, only to be brutally murdered while on her way home to visit her family.
Nelson never knew Jane, she was born after Jane’s death, but the life that Jane could have had haunts Nelson’s family. As a means of making sense of it, Nelson goes on a search to understand who Jane was, what her death did to her family, and who killed her.
This book is deeply researched, whip smart, and so compelling I could hardly put it down. It’s the story of a woman who was brutally murdered. Who she was, and what she left behind, but its also a story about sexism and misogyny; ambition and trauma. I was blown away.
A novel about a cult leader, very much like Manson, and a woman, very much like Susan Atkins, who befriend / seduce a very young teenage girl and bring her into the dark side of the post-summer of love hippie land. Our hero, the very young teenage girl (Evie) is lost, and pissed at her single mom. She falls for the free spirited confidence of Suzanne (clearly modeled on Atkins) and is willing to do anything to gain her attention, whether that’s robbing a store, moving to a commune with manipulative drifter con artist leader, Russell, or sleeping with much older men who might be able to help Russell.
At first it appears that Suzanne is going to lead Evie right into murder, but she doesn’t. She saves her. And the why, and what it means to be left behind, to be complicit but not guilty is what Evie struggles with the rest of her life.
This is a gorgeous, haunting novel about love and solidarity between women, and the cruelty too often heaped upon them by manipulative men. I couldn’t put it down. If you love a compelling story, well told and can stomach some violence and many creepy sex scenes, this is an arrestingly good novel. I’ll read whatever Emma Cline writes next.
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.
Stronger Than Iron: Not Finishing Was Not An Option
Wayne Kurtz and Stefan Zetterstrom
There are endurance events, like a marathon, or even a half marathon. And then there are ultra endurance events, like 50 milers and hundred milers, and, I’d argue, ironmans. But then there is shit that is just so crazy that’s its hard to even fathom. These kind of events are often lumped into the category of “multi-day” or extreme ultra endurance. They include things like the 200 mile foot races, double ironmans, and things like what this book is about – a triple DECA ironman. Or three x ten times the distance of a standard ironman.
For those counting at home, that’s 72-miles swimming, 3,360-miles biking, and 786-miles running.
Yeah, a lot more than a half marathon.
This is a self published book about the exploits of the very unique brand of athelete who has the drive, time, and means to engage in this sort of craziness. It focused on a single event that occurred in Italy where a number of the top athletes in this world of ultra endurance ironmans tried to take it to the next level.
I’m not gonna lie, this isn’t very well written, in fact, its pretty bad. But if you need a dose of inspiration to get out the door for a 5k, it can be inspiring to read about these everyday people who do incredible things.
Recommended for the enthusiast.
Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams
Matthew Walker, Phd.
A truly terrifying book about the long term health consequences of cutting your sleep short. Especially if, like me, you’re the parent of young children, who drinks coffee and alcohol.
Its all around a grim scene, increased risk of all cause morbidity, increase likelihood of alzheimer’s, increased likelihood of obesity. There’s basically no good news. While the book covers a lot of ground (why we sleep, why we dream sleep in children and adolescents, etc.) it was the warnings about consuming caffeine and alcohol (short answer – don’t) and the tips for high quality sleep (shut off the damn phone) that really resonated with me.
Time to cut back on the wine and coffee and shut the light off earlier – I want to live for a long time to come.
Recommended for the enthusiast.
Matthew Walker, Author of Why We Sleep