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Four Books to Notice
Most books deserve a better chance than they get. Here are a few worth your consideration.
The purpose of this post is to mention four unusual books that could be overlooked, and really shouldn’t be.
I’m biased in favor of books in general. I know that nearly all of them deserve a better chance than they’re likely to get.
Books are hard to do, the good ones anyway. (The motto in our household: The only reason to write a book, is if you feel you can’t not write it.) And there is vanishingly little connection between the effort, imagination, emotional strain, personal sacrifice, collaborative team work, and so on that go into writing a book, and the mark it might ever leave on the world.
John Grisham charmingly told the New York Times in a recent interview that he was aware of his good fortune in having become “review-proof.” “It’s a very good place to be. When you’re review-proof, the critics ignore your work … And it doesn’t matter because you have your audience.”
Only a handful of people can say the same. For most everyone else, writing a book is a roll of the dice, an act of faith. It’s like starting a business, beginning a relationship, launching a campaign, or even that ultimate act of faith, having a child. Attention should be paid.
In the modern distraction-economy, none of us has any idea of what will get even a moment’s attention or draw a first glance, let alone a second. So in the spirit of the familiar “stranded starfish” tale, I believe in mentioning good books whenever I can.
Here are four of them I think deserve notice. As you’ll see, these are all books I have a connection with, mainly by knowing the authors. That makes my enthusiasm all the more heartfelt. As you’ll also see, these four are by men. A slate of forthcoming books will give the next installment a different balance.
Here we go:
1) My Old Home, by Orville Schell (Penguin Random House).
What it is: A Dr. Zhivago-scale epic novel, about life between China and the United States since the 1950s. It encompasses politics, passion, music, language, comedy, tragedy, and more. The subtitle is “A Novel of Exile,” and it is that.
Why it is unusual: The surprise about this book is not simply that it is such an excellent and memorable work of fiction. The surprise is that is a novel at all.
Orville Schell, a long-time close friend, colleague, and mentor for me and my wife, Deb, has made his name with nonfiction books and reportorial articles, mainly about China. Anyone who has “followed China” over the past half-century knows his work.
He was for a decade the dean of the journalism school at U.C. Berkeley. On his watch I had the privilege of working there for a year, in a magazine-writing course I co-taught with Katie Hafner. Recently Orville has directed a program in US-China relations and environmental cooperation, at the Asia Society.
I thought I knew Orville Schell well. But I had no idea that through these decades he had been also working on a sweeping, riveting novel on this scale.
When I first saw a hardbound copy of My Old Home, I thought: “Whoa, this is really long.” But as soon as I started reading, I wanted to continue. By the end I was moved, informed, enriched. I was glad I had taken the many hours to read it, and profoundly grateful that Orville Schell had devoted these many decades to its creation.
Check it out. And check out this great Berkleyside interview with Orville, by Cherilyn Parsons, about the interaction among his journalistic, literary, and academic lives.
Extra notes on My Old Home: A few months ago I mentioned, in an appreciation of my late friend and long-time book editor Dan Frank, that one of the last books he worked on was Orville’s.
Also, I direct you to an Amazon review of My Old Home both for its descriptions—“an extraordinary work, and a haunting one”—and because the review’s author, Eric Redman, is another close friend with a recent achievement similar to Orville Schell’s. For decades, Eric Redman has been known as an energy expert and influential lawyer. But this spring he came out with a remarkable novel of his own. This is Bones of Hilo, an absorbing and evocative crime-literature novel set on the Big Island of Hawaii. I enthusiastically recommend it too.
2) The History of Democracy Has Yet to be Written, by Thomas Geoghegan (Belt Publishing).
What it is: A collection of trenchant, witty, practical, and patriotic essays about this moment in American democracy.
Why it is unusual: Because it is so short, and packs so much into such a tight space.
Tom Geoghegan is also a long-time friend. He’ s had an eminent career as a lawyer in Chicago, mainly in labor-rights cases, and as a writer. He has been a staff or free-lance contributor for most magazines you can think of, and has written a series of influential books, starting with Which Side Are You On? 30 years ago. Another of my favorites is Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?, in 2010, a compare-and-contrast based on what he had learned from a stint in Germany.
When Rahm Emanuel left Congress to serve as Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff a dozen years ago, Tom Geoghegan ran for his seat—and ran hard, but unsuccessfully. The first of the eight essays that make up this book is called “What I Learned Running for Congress.” It turns out that he learned a lot. In the other essays he talks about steps both practical and visionary for making the U.S. government do the work of actual governance again.
Tom Geoghegan’s great gift as a writer is deep erudition worn with an unfailing wry lightness. (My colleague and editor of many decades Cullen Murphy has a similar gift, as readers of his many books, his columns and articles, and previously his Prince Valiant comic strip will know.)
Geoghegan’s essays are as trenchant as anything you will read in political magazines, and more “radical,” in the sense of proposing fundamental change, than nearly any Beltway discourse. They’re also approachable, conversational, self-mocking, funny, and fun. For instance, his proposal on reforming the court system begins with this critique of Supreme Court coverage:
Watching the US Supreme Court as we do is like watching episodes of The Crown, inasmuch as it helps anyone understand the real way the country is governed.
It is a mistake just to focus on the court, or who is on it, just as it is a mistake to think that Washington DC exists only or even mostly within DC.
The real Washington DC is just as much out here, in St. Louis or Phoenix or Miami, where the [other] federal judges sit, as the real Roman Empire was in the provincial cities where its proconsuls were. Except under our form of government, these proconsuls serve for life, and we are not nearly as good as the Antonine Emperors in keeping track of them.
Again, check it out. It will take less than two hours door-to-door; you’ll have a good time; and you’ll be a better citizen and a smarter person.
3) Five Decembers, by James Kestrel (Hard Case Crime).
What it is: A World War II-era crime novel that begins in Hawaii just before Pearl Harbor and then stretches to Hong Kong and Japan through the war years.
Why it is unusual: It’s a recent entry in the exceptional series put out by Hard Case Crime, which I wrote about many years ago in an Atlantic blog. The Hard Case books share a design premise, and a literary conceit.
The design premise is that they’re bringing back the noir/pulp covers and presentation from the heyday of hardboiled fiction in the mid-20th century. I gave many examples in my previous piece, and you can see the Five Decembers cover from this genre below. I possess a surprisingly large share of all the books Hard Case has published, and they are amazing in their sustained artistic vision.
The literary premise is that these are real books. Do we think of Raymond Chandler as just a “genre” writer? Or Patricia Highsmith? Or Walter Mosley? Or Elmore Leonard? Or the crew behind The Wire? To me writers like these are all part of the first-order literary lineup of their eras. And so are many in the Hard Case cast.
Including now, James Kestrel. If you give this book a chance, you will see what I mean. I will leave it at that.
(Money where my mouth is: I’ll figure out some refund offer for people who get 25 pages into this book and say, “Nah, I’m bored…”)
4) The Human Element, by James Balog (Rizzoli).
What it is: A collection of visually arresting, powerful, historical-marker photos of “the Anthropocene” by one of the celebrated naturalists and photographers of our time.
Why it is unusual: Physically the book is large, very heavy, and beautifully produced. It is like a museum exhibition, captured between covers. Since people don’t need printed dictionaries any more, you’d want to put it on a dictionary stand—both so you don’t have to hold it, and so you can carefully leaf through its hundreds of arresting images.
Whether or not you recognize James Balog’s name, you have certainly seen his photos—in the New York Times Magazine, in National Geographic, perhaps in his documentary The Human Element and elsewhere.
He is renowned for photographs of wildlife, and of wildfires, and of the global frontier between the wild and the paved-over. Balog calls this book a “time capsule of the Anthropocene” in part because of his decades-long work in documenting the existence, and disappearance, of glaciers around the world, through his Extreme Ice Survey.
Balog was a naturalist and a writer before he turned to photography, and his essays in The Human Element connect the memorable photos and draw lessons from them.
As you’ll see from the book, I wrote its introduction. In it I expressed my admiration for the combination of artistry and practicality, of the grimly realistic and the idealistically hopeful, that goes into his work. However you can see this photographic record of our time—in this book, in the gallery exhibits that should resume some day, or otherwise—you should make a point of doing so. This is a beautiful, and alarming, and motivating portrait of our era.
We all have only so much attention to give. These are candidates for some of your time and focus.