First Quarter 2020!

My Top Book Picks / 5 Stars!

1. Just Mercy, by Byran Stephenson (NF)

2. Shanghai Free Taxi, by Frank Langfitt (NF)

3. Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis

4. Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” by Zola Neale Hurston (NF)

5. The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd

6. Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, by Malcolm Gladwell (NF)

13. The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles

18. In the Company of Joyful Women, by Alexander McCall Smith

21. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Honorable Mention / 4 Stars

7. Here I Am, by Jonathan Safran Foer

9. Purple Hibiscus, by Chimamanga Abichie

12. Falling Angels, by Tracy Chevalier

16. The Lady and the Unicorn, by Tracey Chevalier

19. A Clergyman’s Daughter, by George Orwell

20. Nectar in a Sieve, by Kamala Markandaya

My Notes on Some of These Books

1. Just Mercy, by Byran Stephenson (NF). Thoroughly enjoyed Just Mercy. It tells the story of Walter Mc-Williams, a black man from Monroeville, Alabama (ironically, of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird fame), wrongfully (and willfully and intentionally) accused of the murder of a white girl. The prosecutorial misconduct, and that the conduct of Sherriff Tate is incomprehensible and inexcusable. And Tate was reelected to office seven times! And he could not be prosecuted for his misconduct! He was shielded. This is a crime. There are no words for prosecutors and law enforcement officials who conspire to imprison the wrong person. They should be tried, and imprisoned — throw away the key. With harsh sentences, perhaps prosecutors will think carefully about concealing or misusing evidence. It is absolutely a scandal. Stephenson told other stories as well. Alabama definitely has racial issues on a level unknown in other states. I don’t know why the radial left in our country has not started a campaign to boycott the entire state—no concerts, no conferences, no weekend trips, no business, until they clean up their act. The book is a very good read, and while Stevenson is against capital punishment, I was not moved to join him by taking that position. But I do think that CP must be reserved for only the most serious cases with mountains of evidence including DNA, physical evidence. A guilty verdict based solely or primarily on eyewitness testimony should not send the felon to death row. If I had the power, I would call a halt to executions in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, until I was satisfied that those on death row had not been placed there improperly. In McWilliams case, Sherriff Tate put him on death row BEFORE the trial began!!! No presumption of innocence here! The book has been made into a movie starring Jamie Foxx.

2. Shanghai Free Taxi: Journeys with the Hustlers and Rebels of the New China, by Frank Langfitt (NF). This is a super fun read, and not just because I know Frank and his family, or because I lived in Shanghai for 13 year, but because if offers a unique glimpse into the Chinese culture, providing fascinating stories along the way. It is a fast read, the prose is spare and well-crafted. Frank was China bureau shift for NPR before moving to his present position in London. The emerged from a social experiment Frank took. He bought a car, and then periodically would slap signs on the side saying FREE TAXI and give people free rides and while doing so, engage them in conversation. Obviously, Frank’s Mandarin is excellent. Good stuff.

3. Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis. This is the book that Lewis felt was deserving of the Pulitzer Prize. He won the prize for his next book, Arrowsmith (which I also read), but he rightly believed that Main Street was better and that the prize for Arrowsmith was a consolation prize to acknowledge the screw up with Main Street. I think he was right. Lewis refused to accept the PP for Arrowsmith.

4. Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” by Zola Neale Hurston (NF). Zola Neale Hurston, a friend of Langston Hughes (a favorite of mine) provides a very interesting story of Cudjo Lewis, the last of the slaves that were brought from Africa from the last slave ship in 1859. He was interviewed by Hurston in 1927. She never found a publisher for the book during her lifetime and it has only now been published.

5. The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd . Although it is a novel, The Invention of Wings, is a fictionalized story of the Grimké sisters, Sarah and her younger sister Angelina. They were both born in the south of plantation owners and slaveholders. Kidd alternates the perspective from Sarah and the black girl who was “given” to her upon her 12th birthday: Hettie, also known as Handful. Sarah even then did not want a human being to be given to her. She had been traumatized at the age of four when she saw a house slave being savagely flayed with a whip. It produced a stammer which never entirely left her. The book is in seven parts and moves from 1805 to roughly 1835, and chronicles the sister’s emergence in the north, but indeed the entire country as among the early abolitionists and champions also of women’s rights. They were influenced by and friends with the greatest abolitionist of them all, William Lloyd Garrison. Excellent read, and Kidd’s notes at the end are worth reading as well. Must read if you are particularly interested in the history of feminism or women’s emancipation in the U.S.

6. Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, by Malcolm Gladwell (NF). Fascinating book in which Gladwell discusses why it is so difficult to read and understand the words or testimony of strangers, that is, people we don’t know. We are notoriously terrible at detecting liars — even law enforcement has a poor record at spotting liars. And our inability to communicate honestly with strangers has dire consequences —noting, for example the interaction on college campuses between males and females, or between cops and people of color on the streets, and so on. He identifies two of the problems as “a default to truth,” (that is, if we’re not sure, we default to the conclusion that the person is telling the truth, and this will be our position until there’s a trigger that now makes it impossible to believe that the person is telling the truth — as for example a wife who believes her husband’s assertion he is not having an affair, and continues to believe this until the phone records, or a love note, or a hotel bill is discovered and it is no longer possible to believe). The second issue is our belief in transparency, that is, a belief in our ability to read people, and a belief that there is such a thing as transparency. There isn’t. He also discusses the notion of coupling, that is that behaviors, crimes, suicides are often coupled with something else, often places or objects. Suicides in England in the 40-60s were linked to town gas and gas ovens. Take that away, as happened in the 70s, and suicides plummeted. Move prostitutes away from their three blocks turf, and they do not simply move somewhere else. Suicides and the connection to the Golden Gate Bridge. He offers other examples, and makes the case that since handguns are the weapon of choice for a high percentage of suicides, removing handguns would likely save 10,000 lives a year. Totally agree.

13. The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles. Had never read the book, and only read it because I happened to find a copy while unpacking and desperate for a book. But it was excellent. The movie version, its Oscar nomination for Best Picture notwithstanding, was awful. And I am a huge fan of Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. I had not seen the movie, and did so only after reading then book. In this case, the book — truly — is better than the movie.

18. In the Company of Joyful Women, by Alexander McCall Smith. Not his best of the Ladies’ Detective Agency books, but a good read. Smith always delivers.

21. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I began on March 16, thinking I would finish by mid-August if I read about 5 pages a day. But it was more interesting that I thought it would be and I finished on April 2—the last of the 21 books read in the first quarter 2020. It was longer than necessary — “The Grand Inquisitor” chapters and the biography of Father Zossima could be omitted without harming the storyline. Still, both of those sections are full of interesting, provocative and entertaining ideas “ethical debates of God, free will, and morality. It is a spiritual, theological drama of moral struggles concerning faith, doubt, judgment, and reason, set against a modernizing Russia, with a plot which revolves around the subject of patricide.” This book should sit on the preachers’ bookshelf right next to Barth, Bultmann, et al., indeed — should be given pride of place. 729 pages.