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January Book Reviews: 11 Titles to Spike Your Interest

By Ann Boland January 15, 2024 Hobbies

As I write this blog, snow is whirling around my high-rise – our first real storm of the season. Our high temperature by Saturday will be zero. What a fun time to settle in your comfortable chair with an enjoyable read. There are some worthy new releases here and dips into the backlist that rewarded me with excellence.

Father and Son, a Memoir by Jonathan Raban (Knopf 2023)

A beautiful book – a tribute to Raban’s father and mother as they exist through WWII, and a chronicle of Raban’s stroke and rehabilitation as he was drafting this book. Spoiler alert: Raban died right as Knopf published the book last year. His parents were prolific letter writers and most letters remained as source material for the 1940s.

Raban’s father, Peter, was an RA officer at the front (Italy, Africa, Palestine) and could write little about his situation for security reasons. But his letters provide love and support for his wife, Monica, left in Norfolk with his newly born son and his mother-in-law. Raban fills in the gaps with authentic memoirs of other British officers and soldiers written after the war.

The class separations in the British military are eye-opening, as is the general acceptance of anti-Semitism. As readers, we share the intimate but separated family life of the WWII Rabans and the humorous, frustrating, and inspiring story of Jonathan’s stroke. I could not put it down.

Feared by Lisa Scottoline (St. Martin’s Press, 2018)

This is a legal mystery – a cozy mystery. Three female partners and several associates, one of whom is a handsome man. Chaos ensues when a job applicant sues the firm for reverse discrimination involving actions by their one male associate.

Scottoline’s writing is competent and breezy – the book zips by. But I did not care for the main characters, all of whom were a bit overdrawn. My next Scottoline book is a stand-alone mystery. Feared is the beginning of a series, but I will not be reading more.

Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire (Free Press, 2003)

A beautiful, sad memoir of childhood age 7–11 in pre-Castro Cuba – paradise lost. In the preamble, Erie says, “This is not a work of fiction. But I would like it to be.” The chapters are not consecutive, but they build on one another as you become familiar with Carlos’s world.

He does not apologize for his family’s affluence – they are not as wealthy as many in Havana. But they live in a bubble crushed by the Castro Revolution. Erie has a sarcastic sense of humor developed as an immigrant to the U.S. This book won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2003. I have ordered the sequel, Learning to Die in Miami. Recommended.

American Dirt by Jeannine Cummins (Flatiron Books 2019)

My friend Lynn suggested this as a good, quick read. I recognized American Dirt as the 2019 novel that caused an embarrassing furor in the publishing world. The U.S. was in the depths of the cultural appropriation miasma.

Non-literary critics were quick to condemn Cummins for writing a book about Mexicans when she is not Mexican. They condemned Flatiron for publishing such and book, and for paying Cummins an unheard of $1 million advance. Apparently, Flatiron liked the book and saw nothing inappropriate about the author’s background. Until they were gob smacked by the culture police and then fell to bended knee begging forgiveness. Cummins even apologized.

American Dirt is not a brilliant book. It’s not worth $1 million advance. It is not cultural appropriation. Those who have experience on the U.S. – Mexico border know the book speaks the truth about the violence of the cartels. Killing 16 people at once at a party is not an unlikely story. And, folks, it is a novel, not non-fiction. Here is what I found inappropriate:

  • Migrants ride on top of the freight train for hours on end with no mention of how they manage calls of nature. Authors do not explain this in most “thriller” books and movies.
  • That sweat soaks their clothes. In the desert, you sweat, and it quickly evaporates.
  • The gangsters molested and released the beautiful sisters. Sorry, sicarios (cartel killers) kidnap and kill women. There is no moral compass in the cartels.
  • That an eight-year-old boy behaves so beautifully.

Enjoy American Dirt for what it is: a good, quick read.

Keep Quiet by Lisa Scottoline (St. Martin’s Press, 2014)

The second Scottoline book arrived quickly from the library. On a day when I was feeling puny, I pulled it out and read it in the day. Keep Quiet reveals the undoing of a family following a tragic accident. I swear she writes the entire book and then goes back and breaks the narrative into chapters because the story continues from the period at the end of one chapter right into the first sentence of the next. It is a good story, a bit too neatly tied together at the end. If you want a fast read to take your mind away from reality, pick this one.

The Professor’s House by Willa Cather (Vintage Classics, 1990 – originally published in 1935)

If you want a book to savor, where you reread sentences because the wordplay is so captivating, slip into The Professor’s House. This is Cather at her best. No rollicking plot, no in-your-face characters. The Professor’s House takes us inside a post-WWI midwestern family. There is the professor who teaches at the local university and wrote an award winning eight-volume history of the Spanish in the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries.

His two lovely daughters are well married, and his wife loves him, but will become more entwined in her future as a grandmother. The plot reveals the professor’s growing need for time on his own, in his own house. Here, with his family in Europe for the summer, he recalls the story of his former student and friend. A rewarding read for a frigid day.

History’s Angel by Anjum Hasan (Bloomsbury 2023)

This was a tough read, but worthwhile in several aspects. First, we do not see too many books about contemporary, middle-class life of Muslims in New Delhi. The wife is a striver – working, studying, saving to move to a larger flat. The husband is a dreamer – an academic teaching middle-school history, trying to tie contemporary situations to the Mugul Empire.

There are wonderful character studies of the old people, yearning for the way of life before the separation of India and Pakistan. Are they better or worse off being the minority in India? If you enjoy contemporary Indian novels, read this; otherwise skip it.

First to the Front: The Untold Story of Dickey Chapelle, Trailblazing Female War Correspondent by Lorissa Rinehart, St. Martin’s Press, 2023

Reading the introduction, I did not get caught up in the story of Dickey, but by the end of the first 50 pages, I could not put it down. What a woman! Rinehart does a masterful job of combining the extensive writings by Chapelle, including her autobiography, with creative non-fiction touches that only enhance the narrative.

Since national magazines widely published her war coverage, and there are archives of her unpublished work, there seems an opportunity for a book of her personal writing. Who knew Readers’ Digest was a large supporter of original content creation? This is an excellent book about a war chronicler from WWII through the end of the Viet Nam era.

The Pole by J.M. Coetzee (Liveright Publishing Co. 2023)

I read this one in an afternoon. The Pole is as tight and terse as you’d expect from Coetzee. The story is hard and dry, yet it is a love story about a Barcelonian middle-aged woman, Beatriz, and a Polish musician, Wittold, known as an interpreter of Chopin. The musician is in his early 70s.

They communicate in English, a third language. The conversation is simple, so they do not make mistakes. Told from the point of view of Beatriz, I wondered about female approbation, as Coetzee develops her so stoically, so coldly. There is no intimacy, joy, or animation in her, as there is in Wittold. He is a horny old man who obsesses as Dante did over his Beatrice. I enjoyed this book by a great writer. Think about languages and communication as you read it.

Fierce Ambition: The Life and Legend of War Correspondent Maggie Higgins by Jennet Conant (W.W. Norton, 2023)

Another biography of a “first woman on the front lines” reporter from WWII through most of Viet Nam. This book is chock full of ambition, sex, bravado, sex, egoism, jealously, and more sex. What a woman! Higgins was a reporter. Dickey Chapelle was a photo-journalist. The difference between the stories is that Dickey stands back from the action to frame the picture. Maggie had no restrictions and barges onto the front lines, whether she is welcome or not.

Most of the soldiers love her. The brass is embarrassed by their lack of control over her. Of course, she charms the highest generals and admirals. I am glad that I read both books, though Fierce Ambition is a better read. What I would like to see now is their writing. Neither book includes lengthy quotes. Time for a deep Google dive.

The Crime of Father Amaro: Scenes from the Religious Life by Eca de Queiros (first published in Portugal in 1878, this translation published by New Directions in 2003)

Recommended by my friend Paul, an iconoclast who loves poking fun at religious life. To fully enjoy this satire, you need to have the experience of a religious education that has produced skepticism, not sainthood. Eca de Querios makes it clear in the first chapters that Father Amaro (the Portuguese word means bitter) became a priest by the design of his benefactors, not because he felt a calling.

So, you could forgive him for falling from grace and dragging down others with him. But not many of the priests in late 19th century Portugal live by the letter of the canon. And the Catholics whom they minister are either hysterical relic lovers or content to keep their eyes down and perform only the Church’s minimal expectations.

Then there are the liberals, influenced by the Third Republic in France, who defy the government, the church, and the clergy. It makes for good soup – a 19th century soap opera. Enjoyable if you like Trollope or Dickens, with a heavy dose of religious cynicism.  

Let’s Have a Conversation:

Have you started any new books this January? What title(s) are on your 2024 read list? Please share below and let’s exchange favorites!

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H A

The Covenant of Water by Dr Abraham Varghese … more than a little partial towards him owing to my own indian heritage , though i am now settled in Australia
Thank you for all these lovely recommendations and summaries !! I love your website !!

Last edited 1 month ago by H A
Jan

thanks for the recommendations!

Lin

Thanks for the recommendations. I will go to Libby and look for both books about the war correspondents.
Like you, I am just not crazy about the writing of Lisa Scottoline, although she is a native of my city, Philadelphia. She always had a cute column in our newspaper so I picked up a couple of her books but they never clicked with me. Frankly, I just never thought they were well written, and as you observed, her characters are overdrawn.

Linda

I recently saw Killers of the Flower Moon and was so engrossed and horrified by the story I decided to get the non fiction book it is based on. I have read the first 2 chapters and it is very interesting.

The book I gave up on recently was Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. I am a big fan of the film adaptation, but I found I couldn’t really get into the novel Perhaps I’ll return to it at some point.

20 years ago I gave up at page 120 of George Elliott’s Middlemarch as I found it so dry. The bookmark is still in there!

Cindy G

I just finished “The Frozen River” by Ariel Lawhon and loved the book from beginning to end. It’s historical fiction inspired by real-life midwife/healer, Martha Balllard.

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The Author

Ann Boland is committed to Chicago theater, opera, and arts. Involved as a theatre-goer since the early 80s, she’s witnessed firsthand the rise of Chicago's theater scene, its exceptional local talent, and the vigor of each new generation. To support her good and bad habits, Ann handles public relations for authors and the arts.

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