Cooper’s We Keep the Dead Close

We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence
Becky Cooper

True crime for fancy folks. An investigation into the murder of a student at Harvard in the 1960s that turns into an investigation into the way power works. The way Harvard, men, and the state all use power against those who would attack it. Very well crafted and written. I flew through it. It’s rare a book is both this readable and thought provoking.


El-Mohtar and Gladstone’s This Is How You Loose the Time War

This Is How You Loose the Time War
Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

A wonderful little book imagining a fight / friendship / love affair (?) between two warriors in a war across time. Written by two top notch SF writers it consists essentially of letters our warriors write to each other across time. The whole thing is just so well done. Places visited are both real (the Mongol horde) and imagine (future possibilities) and across them our warriors begin a relationship where it is never really clear exactly what is happening here. Is this love, or a trap?

Incredibly clever, very well written, this was just a joy.


Ross’s Wagnerism

Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music
Alex Ross

Let’s get something out of the way here first. I do not like Wagner. Even if he wasn’t an anti-Semite (he was, this really isn’t up for debate) his operas would still repulse me – I hate the grandiose and Wagner is nothing if not grandiose. But I’m living proof that you’re don’t have to like Wagner to enjoy Ross’s new book, which is, frankly, extraordinary.  All you have to do is acknowledge Wagner’s important to Western culture and watch Ross draw out his connections to huge swaths of Western art.

It’s a remarkable achievement. Ross seems to have read every novel, looked at every piece or art, seen every movie and play, made in the West from the end of the 19th century up to today. I learned so, so much from this book, about Wagner, about pre-war European anti-Semitism, about turn of the century occultists, and so, so much about art. It’s a stunning achievement and I’m surprised more people aren’t talking about it.

Highly recommended.   

Delillo’s The Silence

The Silence

Don Delillo

In recent years, Delillo has turned to short works focused on small groups of people and I’m hear for it. Yes, I loved Underworld and it’s expanses of time and characters, but books like the Silence, focused on the actions of an intimate group of people showcase Delillo’s gift for sketching compelling (if not always believable) characters filled with nuance and contradiction.

The plot here is simple, but compelling. The power is out, everywhere, and we’re stuck with each other. What happens now? We stare at blank screens, we talk about the things we rarely if ever discuss, we go a little mad. Perhaps not a major Delillo work but remarkably enjoyable all the same.


Weatherford’s Ghengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
Jack Weatherford

Before reading this, I knew nothing, like seriously nothing, about Ghengis Khan and the Mongol empire. I knew stereotypes, about rape and pillage, but that was it. This book was a revelation. A fascinating account of how a small nomadic tribe ended up taking over a large chunk of the world.

This is the story of Ghengis Khan, who rises from humble beginnings to rule a vast empire. He does this through relentless war and destruction of his enemies, but also by allowing those he conquers to go on about their lives, worshipping how they choose, living how they choose, as long as they accept his reign (and tax).

It’s also the story of how future generations both expanded and lost territory through theory leadership successes and victories. (There is the drunk heir who fucks up the western expansion, and the careful distant relative who ends  up taking over much of China.) All in all a fascinating book that walks that pop history line well. I totally enjoyed it.


Carrère’s The Adversary

The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception
Emmanuel Carrère 

An incredible book. The story of a man who lived a lie for years and years until it all came crashing down around him and how reflecting on this life effected the writer. I’d never heard of before this book, but the writer is so eerily clear and self reflective that I’ll track down everything else.

I don’t want to reveal too much here, but seriously this one is a corker.


Morrison’s Beloved

Toni Morrison

I always feel absurd writing these little reviews when what I am reviewing is a work of genius, a masterpiece of literature. Like what do I have to add to the conversation around Beloved? Basically, nothing. I’ll say that it’s massive popularity may lead one to think it’s an easy book. It isn’t. Emotionally, and intellectually, the reader has to work here, but my god is it worth it.

Recommended (duh)

Morrison’s Song of Solomon

Song of Solomon
Toni Morrison

Of the Morrison novels I’ve read (and I have not read them all, yet!) this is my favorite. It is an absolute work of genius, full stop. Stunning from the first page to the last.

I find it hard to explain Morrison’s genius. Yes, she has incomparable technical skill – her sentences are gorgeous. But more than that she sets a mood, by setting a place, by creating a cast of incredible, surreally lifelike characters. Milkman Dead, the character at the center here, is at once chased and seeking, infinitely related and also inscrutable. This depth of understanding and nuance Morrison fits into a book of such modest length is, I really have no other word for this, magic.


King’s Where Do We Go From Here

Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community
Dr. Martin Luther King

Dr. King’s last book and as relevant now as the day he wrote it. It’s easy to forget how radical King was, especially in his final years. Calling not only for Black liberation, but for an end to the Vietnam war, and demanding economic equality. In turning him into a saint, we have left out the parts of him that don’t fit the narrative we want to place on him. We downplay the incredible, almost unimaginable, courage it took to commit to nonviolence when white supremacists are actively trying to kill you. And we forget his demands for truly just society, one far different from the one we have today. Instead we act as if his dream was realized and the work is done.

It is, to state the obvious, not.

There’s a lot going on in this book. King is laying out a broad agenda for social change, but the thing that stuck with me the most in the early section, where he discusses his difference with Kwame Ture (at the time, Stokely Carmichael). King and Ture were on opposite sides of black power. The differences were real, and serious, but in discussing their disagreement King takes the time to honor Ture’s position, explaining how Ture arrived where he did, how much white violence played a part in that journey, and argues against Ture from a place of love. It’s remarkable and so different from much of our modern discourse. I hope we can get back there.


Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat By The Door

The Spook Who Sat By The Door
Sam Greenlee

I think I first heard about The Spook Who Sat By The Door maybe twenty years ago, but this was the year I finally read this incredible book. The storyline is well known to the reader of leftist literature – Dan Freeman, a black man, joins the CIA in order to secretly learn the lessons of counter insurgency so as to build a guerilla army to fight for Black liberation. It’s an incredible, radical book and you can see why it was rejected by mainstream publishers. It is part thriller, part radical political manifesto. The writing is, I think its fair to say, work a day, but who cares.  The plot is propulsive and Freeman is a multileveled, complex “hero”. I can’t think of another work of fiction like it.