2014 Reading: Understudies by Ravi Mangla

understudiesUnderstudies by Ravi Mangla

This short novel is a very quick read (or listen, as I did with the audio version). The (unlikable) narrator is a high school teacher whose live-in girlfriend, Missy, reveals pretty early in the book that she’s pregnant. The narrator isn’t thrilled, and he’s unsure what to do about his relationship with her. Among other things, a famous actress has moved into the neighborhood, a fact also noted by the narrator’s odd friend Chudley. Then there’s Palover, another teacher at the school, and a couple of kids he joins in a band.

One thing that makes the story interesting is that it is broken up into 140 or so very small pieces, some that don’t even seem particularly relevant to the plot. They are snapshots–scenes in the movie that is the narrator’s strange life.

It’s an enjoyable, fast read.

2014 Reading: The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore

wesmooreThe Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

I rarely finish a book in a single day, but I did that with this one. It’s a compelling narrative about two men named Wes Moore. They’re from similar backgrounds in Baltimore, but a combination of choices and circumstances took them in different directions. The author, Wes Moore, a Rhodes Scholar and White House Fellow was headed down the wrong path when his mother took drastic action. He then read a book by Colin Powell that showed him that stories can change peoples lives–and Powell’s story changed his. The other Wes Moore, though, didn’t change, and the author has the opportunity to interview him in prison, where he is serving a life sentence.

There is a lot to absorb here about poverty, education, drugs, and opportunity in America. This book, like Powell’s, is potentially going to change lives.

2014 Reading: Haints by Clint McCown

haintsHaints by Clint McCown

This book is a fine example of the novel in stories or story cycle that more resembles Winesburg, Ohio (the granddaddy of the genre) than most. The narrative, told through the eyes of several residents of the fictional town of Lincoln, TN, relates the aftermath of a violent tornado in the 1950s. Lincoln resembles Winesburg in many respects, but the events in this town are even more dramatic.

The book truly is a cycle–it begins with a prologue and ends with an epilogue, and the first and last chapters are about Herb Gatlin, a one-legged man with ties to most of the other characters. Herb, the book’s central figure, rescues Mary Jean McKinney during the tornado, risking his own life in the process. In the storm’s aftermath, an unidentified naked dead man is found in the town square, impaled on Herb’s wooden leg, creating a dual mystery. Who is the dead man? And what happened to Herb?

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable, incredible book, with some laugh-out-loud moments. (Some of the characters, such as Reverend Tyree and his wife, are over the top, intentionally so.) But it also handles some serious themes of memory and loss, forgiveness and revenge.

I’d been meaning to read this book for some time, but was finally prompted to do so because I’m moderating a panel at the Virginia Festival of the Book this year that features McCown. I recommend the book.

2014 Reading: The Benghazi Hoax by David Brock, Ari Rabin-Havt, Media Matters

benghaziThe Benghazi Hoax

I highly recommend this book about the Benghazi attacks, especially if you are someone who has given the slightest credence to the right-wing claims of some sort of Obama/Clinton cover-up. (And right now it is FREE on Kindle–click on the link above.) The book demonstrates clearly that the Benghazi “scandal” is a hoax perpetrated by the GOP–first to damage Obama in the run up to the 2012 election and then to damage Hillary Clinton, perceived by them (rightly so) to be the biggest obstacle to their reclaiming the White House in 2016.

Benghazi was a tragedy. It wasn’t a cover-up. It wasn’t a scandal. It was manufactured by feckless idealogues out to “get” President Obama. The whole story is right here.

2014 Reading: The Biology of Luck by Jacob Appel

biologyofluckThe Biology of Luck by Jacob Appel

I enjoyed this New York City-based re-imagining of the Odyssey (or Joyce’s Ulysses). I published a review of the book in Prime Number Magazine.

2014 Reading: Zealot by Reza Aslan

zealotZealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

I found this to be a fascinating book and, because I didn’t have a religious upbringing, I learned a great deal about who all the players were, what happened when, and who was related to whom. (Until now, most of my knowledge of Jesus came from Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar–still love both of those shows.)

But the thrust of the book, or at least my takeaway, is that much of the New Testament is fiction. Not only was the story of Jesus invented so that it meshed with prophecy, but Paul–perhaps a false apostle–took the fledgling Jesus movement into a direction that the early Church leaders–Peter and James and others–resisted. But for Paul, the movement might have remained closely aligned with Judaism. There’s much more to the book, and a lot of history to absorb.

Aslan has been criticized by many, of course, because his book really threatens the underpinnings of Christianity (to put it mildly). Given my atheism, though, I found it convincing. Read it for yourself.

2014 Reading: Transatlantic by Colum McCann

transatlanticTransAtlantic: A Novel by Colum McCann

As with McCann’s previous novel, the masterful Let the Great World Spin, this novel is told in strands that seem quite separate at first but eventually come together. First we see two pilots making a transatlantic flight in 1919, from Newfoundland to Ireland. Then we step back to 1845 and Frederick Douglass’s visit to Ireland to promote his book and to raise funds for the abolitionist cause. Then we jump ahead to 1998 and George Mitchell’s negotiation of the Irish peace settlement. That’s the first section of the novel and then we begin to see how these different stories relate to each other.

There are some broad themes here, one of which is the demoralizing effect of poverty. Douglass–still technically a slave and so with his own troubles–is deeply moved by the poverty he observes in Ireland. By the end of the book, set in 2011, that poverty has come full circle. McCann is also drawing a connection between the Irish “Troubles” and the American Civil War. Not an equivalence, exactly, but both tragic wars fought for reasons that are sometimes hard to fathom.

Terrific book. Not as terrific as Let the Great World Spin, which caused me to stop writing for a time, but a very enjoyable read.