Hey, What Did You Read This Weekend?

On Friday, I finished Nigel Warburton’s book A Little History of Philosophy, with each of the 40 chapters covering a philosopher, their major ideas, and how they fit into philosophy’s long history starting with Socrates and Plato. I found my way to this book through a somewhat wandering path that included stops at cognitive behavior therapy, Pompeii, travel, present-day Rome, Marcus Aurelius and Ancient Rome. This book was a great introduction to a wide range of philosophers and did a good job explaining – or trying to – their beliefs. Some of these people’s ideas were very abstract. Sadly, it did not include Parmenides’ doctrine that motion is simply an illusion, the only lesson I remember from a required college philosophy course.

Still on an ancient Rome kick, I then picked up A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome. If I drew a Venn diagram of of my favorite type of book, the overlap would be history/murder/humor. Author Emma Southon ticks all these boxes, writing about Roman crime and punishment with a slightly snarky wit. It’s early days, but I’m enjoying it very much so far.

I wanted to read more fiction and more diverse authors in 2021. I took inspiration from this New York Times article about 2021 books in translations and pre-ordered a bunch of them for my Kindle. I’m halfway through one of those books now, the incredibly rich, witty and dark The Slaughterman’s Daughter: A Novel by Yaniv Iczkovits. This is one of those novels that immediately envelopes you in another time and place, one that’s filled with vivid details and mesmerizing characters in unimaginable, yet fully believable, situations. I’m reading this one very slowly in the hopes that it never ends.

I’d love to know what you’ve been reading this weekend – share in the comments, friends!

Where to Look for a Book

It’s been a while. Again. Let’s call this most recent break a “hiatus.” That sounds much more professional, and much less dramatic, than calling it what it really was – a struggle to survive 2020.

It’s not that I didn’t read much last year. I read more in 2020 than in recent years. Not just because I suddenly found myself with a lot more free time, but also because reading has always been a means of escape for me – from boredom, depression, anxiety, grief. All of which suddenly took on extraordinary proportions.

(I even read a couple of books about pandemics. Lawrence Wright’s The End Of October sent me into an extended anxiety spiral. The Plague, by Albert Camus, brought some comfort.)

When sharing lockdown coping strategies over the last 12 months, I was asked a few times where I find the books I read. Temporarily without the pleasure of being able to leisurely browse a bookstore or library, are there places online that offer a similar wealth of titles to explore? Why yes. Yes there are.

My two favorite sites to find more books to add to the looming to-be-read tower are Literary Hub and Five Books. Both are very different sites, but both offer an almost limitless amount of book-browsing pleasure.

It would be easier to tell you what Literary Hub doesn’t cover. Author interviews, news, thought pieces, podcasts, giveaways and everything else under a literate sun lives there for seemingly every genre. My own favorite sections include Book Marks – where reviews for new releases are collected and summarized – and CrimeReads that focuses on books about … wait for it … crime, both true and fictional.

If you find yourself wanting to read about a specific subject, head straight to Five Books. Experts are asked to list the five best books about their specialty subject and then made to show their work in an interview on what makes each list worthy. I’ve used it to find books about the former Soviet Union countries, Stoic philosophy, Victorian fiction, and recommendations for the best kids books to give my 8-year-old nephew.

You can search via the vast menu of topics covered or by expert. Oscar-winning documentary maker Errol Morris lists his picks for the best books on photography and reality. Historian Peter Ackroyd details his favorite books about London. See what best selling author Louise Bagshawe thinks are the five best books about people on the run and which books on the Trojan War Stephen Fry says are worth a read. The offerings are endless and fascinating, and new interviews are added every week.

And hopefully, you’ve already discovered that your local library is a wealth of resources, not only in the ‘before times’ but especially over the last 12 months. My library’s website offers not just e-books and safe ways to reserve and pick up ‘real’ books, but also access to movies, digital versions of magazines and newspaper, genealogical databases, and other free resources that will help you pass the time and learn new things. Libraries, for many communities, have been the unsung heroes of the pandemic.

I’d love to hear where you go for reading inspiration, the role your library has played in getting through 2020, and whether reading helped buoy you through these hard times, or went by the wayside as you focused on new priorities and demands on your time. Please let me know in the comments below!

Black Lives Matter – 100 Years of Lynchings

The coronavirus pandemic seems to have made reading more popular than ever; the murder of George Floyd has made it more important. There are so many exceptional books that document Black lives and the history of America’s unrelenting subjugation of people of color. I’ll be highlighting here the ones that have been particularly helpful to me in understanding the hundreds of years that have led to this moment, and how white people can be better allies from this point onward.

For my first post here in a looooong time, I really want to recommend this book, 100 Years of Lynchings by Ralph Ginzburg, which I read a few years ago and have never forgotten.

It was originally published in 1962 and it simply, but powerfully, consists of reprints from American newspapers from 1880 to 1961 of articles – many just a paragraph – detailing the lynching of Black Americans by white Americans.There is no commentary, no additional details added, and no editing of the language used (except for clarity). The reports are taken from newspapers across the country, conservative and liberal, southern and northern, some published by Black people and white abolitionists, and many others unabashedly racist.

The first article in the book is from the April 17, 1880 edition of the New York Truth Seeker and reads:


WEST POINT, N.Y., Apr. 15 – James Webster Smith, the first colored cadet in the history of West Point, was recently taken from his bed, gagged, bound, and severely beaten, and then his ears were slit. He says that he cannot identify his assailants. The other cadets claim that he did it himself.”

It is striking, in even the briefest of articles like the above, how many feelings, reactions, truths and lies are contained within.

The book ends by driving home the magnitude of the violence with page after page of names and ages of Black lynching victims – 5,000 in total and still only a partial representation of all the nation’s victims of lynching.

It’s a tough read and demands an intelligent and analytical reader who will take the time to determine the source, consider what the truth of the article is likely to be, and read between the lines for what may have been left out. But it is such a clear narrative of our country’s relentless violence against Black people and society’s responses and how it continues to this day, just in different forms.

Meh vs. Yeah!

I’ve had my nose buried in two somewhat gruesome books recently. The first, Murder Aboard: the Herbert Fuller Tragedy and the Ordeal of Thomas Bram by C. Michael Hiam, tells the story of a lumber ship due to sail from Boston to Argentina that ends up in Nova Scotia after multiple passengers are murdered, including its captain. It takes the reader through the subsequent trial of first mate Thomas Bram, a high-profile murder case at the time, but little-known now.

It sounded like a great yarn and I was hoping for a gripping, meaty tale full of characters in the vein of something Erik Larson would write. In the end, it felt like a story Larson would have considered and then abandoned for lack of material. Hiam gets the majority of his details from the dry court testimony, which he admits fairly far into the book, is incomplete. As a result, the people involved aren’t fully fleshed-out human beings that the reader feels they know, never mind empathize with. I never got enough of a feel for any of the ship’s crew to care about who did it or who may have been falsely accused. In a much shorter version, it might have been an interesting addition to some sort of murder-at-sea anthology. But at 240 pages it wasn’t much more enlightening than flipping through the court testimony yourself.

The other book, however, The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth by Thomas Morris, is an absolute hoot. Morris has combed through old medical journals from around the world and highlighted the most amusingly horrifying medical conditions imaginable (or unimaginable, more accurately). The exploding teeth are the least remarkable of the stories and if you have a fascinated delight for learning about the weird shit that people will put in their bodies, this will become your personal bible. I’m still only halfway through, but have already spent most of my time reading it laughing, while also groaning in disgust.

The Cost of Living – Deborah Levy

It’s been a minute!

I have come out of hibernation to talk about The Cost of Living, by Deborah Levy (as you may have gathered by the post’s title – it’s late and I couldn’t think of anything pithy). I don’t remember how I learned about this book – I think it was in one of those “best books of the summer lists” and whoever it was that had chosen it raved about Levy’s work so much that I got this and three more of her books.

In The Cost of Living, Levy reflects on the end of her marriage and her attempt to create a new life and normalcy for her and her daughters. Her account is woven through with simple, yet meaningful, stories of encounters with strangers and friends that prompt introspection and foster empathy for and understanding of both herself and others.

The complete disassembling and rebuilding of one’s life seems ripe for drama and garment-rending. But Levy avoids guttural howls of pain, telling her story not from its turbulent center, but at a safe distance. It is gentle and quiet, as told by a person who knows she has not only survived this, but created a comfortable – and comforting – way to live anew. It feels like a peaceful oasis of calm in the current climate of vapid reality show screeching and a president of the United States that lacks both dignity and an indoor voice.

Levy rarely focuses on the details of the marriage itself and if you’re looking for a play-by-play account of a relationship falling apart, you should pick another book. But if what you need this summer is to know that women are strong and resilient, able to walk away from the remains of familiarity and security to find freedom and happiness, to gather around them other strong women and good friends, to process pain and find joy in small things, and to come out the other side a wiser, more fulfilled person, then this book won’t disappoint.

Denis Lehane has no More F**ks to Give About You, Reader.

I am going to put exactly the same amount of effort into this post about Denis Lehane’s  latest novel as he appears to have put into writing it. Ready?

I haven’t read a Lehane novel in a long time, but judging by the trite, lazy mess that is Since We Fell, it seems he at some point gave up trying to put together anything of substance or originality. It’s like a bad first draft.

Actually, I lied. I put more effort into writing this than Lehane.

The 2016 Roundup

Another year, another failed Goodreads challenge. It’s become an annual tradition, but hopefully I’ll creep closer to succeeding in 2017, now that I’m not juggling a full-time job with part-time schooling. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves so early in the year.

I still managed to finish 25 books in 2016 (not counting textbooks) – below, are some of the highlights.

I often see articles with people talking about the books that “changed my life.” Up until 2016, I’ve never been able to name my own world-rocking book. There have been books that have changed my way of thinking, ignited my curiosity, taught me empathy for others, but life changing? Not quite.

But this summer I read Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson, the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, AL. And when I was done, I felt like Oprah when she found out she could eat bread every day on Weight Watchers. And if that’s not a life-changing feeling, I don’t know what is.

Stevenson’s stories of defending people of color wrongly condemned to death row in the South are compelling. The book is moving, infuriating, full of feelings of both hope and helplessness and a frighteningly sharp illustration of the systemic racism and corruption within the nation’s so-called justice system. I can’t recommend it enough.

(Here’s a great interview with Bryan Stevenson, about the need for America to confront – and openly discuss – its racist history.)

Also an excellent read, but one of a much different type, was The Bowery Boys: Adventures in Old New York: An Unconventional Exploration of Manhattan’s Historic Neighborhoods, Secret Spots and Colorful Characters.The hosts of the excellent Bowery Boys podcast, Greg Young and Tom Meyers, take their readers through the history of New York City and it’s citizens via the architecture of the Big Apple’s streets. They also take great care to emphasize the integral contribution of immigrants that made the city what it is today.

Kate Summerscale’s The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer tells the story of Robert Coombes who, in 1895, was convicted for the murder of his mother at the age of 13 and sent to Broadmoor, the Victorian lunatic asylum. The story of Robert, the murder, and his trial, is fascinating, but the second half of the book tells a story that is even more amazing.

Finally, 100 Years of Lynchings by Ralph Ginzburg is a simple book that packs a complex punch to the gut. Comprised only of newspaper articles published between the 1880s and 1960s covering lynchings in the United States, its power is in both the appalling details the articles provide and in the collection as a whole. It’s also interesting to see how newspapers in different parts of the U.S. reported on such savage crimes.

From the Back of the Shelf: Three Sisters in Black

Sometimes you stumble upon an old, unknown book through circumstances totally unrelated to its subject. I discovered Three Sisters in Black, by Norman Zierold, while perusing missing persons cases (Zierold having written a book about the 1874 disappearance of little Charley Ross, the victim of the first kidnap-for-ransom in America). Subtitled “The Bizarre True Case of ‘The Bathtub Tragedy'” there was no way I could pass it up. A week later, my copy arrived in the form of a long-retired library book, crinkly plastic cover still intact.

Published in 1968, the book tells the story of the three Wardlaw sisters – spinster Virginia, meek Mary Snead and the domineering oldest, Caroline Martin – their strange existence and the suspicious death in 1909 of Martin’s daughter Ocey.

There’s no shortage of insanity in either the Wardlaw family or this story. The sisters were born into a well-to-do Southern family in the mid-1800s, and spent much of their adult lives operating private schools for the children of their society peers. But by the time of Ocey Snead’s murder (she was married to her first cousin, Mary Snead’s son Fletcher) they had been living in various hotels, boarding houses and apartments in New York City and New Jersey, coming and going only late at night and wearing black dresses and veils, as if  in permanent mourning.

Ocey’s death occurred in a house practically bare of furniture in East Orange, New Jersey. The sisters were adamant her death was a suicide, but police were suspicious and eventually arrested all three for her murder.

Eventually a muddy backstory emerges involving the sisters’ financial troubles, numerous insurance policies on Ocey and a volume of suicide notes that may or may not have been written by her. The possible mistreatment of other family members by the sisters also emerges and it quickly becomes clear that these aren’t the kind of relatives you’d ask to look after your cat while you were on vacation.

The sheer oddity of the sisters, the tragedy of the woman’s death possibly at the hands of her own mother, and the way the police put together the pieces of this bizarre puzzle can’t help but make for a good story. But there is a major frustration.

Zierold never quite gets behind the sisters’ heavy black veils to find out what made Mrs. Martin – who emerges as the clear leader of the three – so mentally unbalanced and so successful in compelling her two younger sisters to go along with her murderous plot. The book is drawn from court records and newspapers accounts, none of which provide Zierold with any real first-person accounts of the sisters and their journey from Southern money to Northern murder. The lack of this type of primary source leaves the story’s participants feeling one dimensional and impossible to understand. At the time the book was published, it’s possible there were still relatives alive that had known the sisters, or at least heard the family stories about them, and I wish Zierold had sought them out.

That said, I wouldn’t pass this book up for that reason. It’s still a story unlike any I’ve read and the sisters – with their mysterious secrets and late night wanderings, draped in black – lend it a Gothic eeriness that quickly draws a reader in, even if it leaves her wanting more at the end.

Best Books of 2015 (or “my annual blog post”)

I fell short of many goals in 2015: I’m not thinner, fitter, a markedly better person, or a millionaire. I didn’t read the 50 books I’d promised Goodreads and I haven’t blogged more – on this site or any of my other neglected little web portals.

But it’s 2016 now, and there’s no point starting a new year by dwelling on old year failures, particularly when I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to accomplish any of them anyway.

I did manage 29 books, some of them for school, but most for pleasure. While I didn’t make my Goodreads quantity goal, had they had a quality goal, I’m confident I would have exceeded it.  So, in a tribute to good taste over free time, here are some highlights.

It was a year of new releases by several of my favorite authors. Erik Larson, Matthew Pearl, Sarah Vowell and Jon Ronson all put out new books. While Dead Wake, The Last Bookaneer, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (respectively) were all solid books, none was its author’s best work.

Larson’s Dead Wake illustrated the final days and destruction of the Lusitania in great detail, but suffered from the lack of a central character to support the historical narrative and give the reader someone relate-able. Pearl’s novel was a solid yarn about an attempt to steal the final work of Robert Louis Stevenson. Vowell’s history of Lafayette’s (and France’s) role in helping the United States escape the rule of Great Britain had less of her usual humor, but was enlightening to those of us who didn’t pay attention in history class that week.  Ronson’s was the best of the four, profiling people who gain notoriety through the moral outrage and shaming of the world’s self-righteous internet community. It was a funny and fascinating look at how we’re all one stupid comment away from losing our job and becoming a late night show punchline. I only wish he’d delved deeper into the fact that the women in his book seemed to have suffered worse, longer-term consequences than the men, even though their misjudgements weren’t any more egregious.

In addition to these old favorites, some new (to me) authors made my reading list. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz was a funny, yet respectful, look at the people of the South who are still smarting from (and fighting, in different ways) the “War of Northern Aggression.” It’s a thoughtful profile of a part of the South that a Northern like me finds hard to understand.

Australian author Helen Garner was a thrill to discover. I read two of her non-fiction books, Joe Cinque’s Consolation and This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial. The former tells the story of the murder of Joe Cinque and the subsequent trial of the woman suspected of the crime.  This House of Grief is about the murder trial of Robert Farquharson, who drove his car into a reservoir resulting in the death of his three young sons. Both were high-profile cases in Australia apparently, but I’d had no knowledge of either before I read the books. Garner’s writing is so engaging, that the reader easily relates to her. Rather than writing as a journalist with a deep knowledge of law and criminal trials, she writes like the average person, asking the questions and making the observations we’d all have.  Her gentle humanity shines through in both books.

Very different, but just as gripping, was another book in the true crime genre, Asne Seierstad’s One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway. This is the opposite of Garner’s books, written very much in the voice of an unbiased journalist. But still, Seierstad’s narrative of Breivik’s murder of 77 people, 69 of whom were attending a youth summer camp on the island of Utoya, is heartbreaking as the reader first gets to know some of the victims, before following Breivik as he dispassionately slaughters them. The story itself is so wrenching, that it doesn’t need any additional emotional context from Seierstad.

Finally, two of my favorite books this year dealt with civil rights. Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle is about author Kristen Green’s return to her hometown in Prince Edward Country, Virginia. There Green, a white woman, learns how 1,700 black children in the county were robbed of their education in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, and her family’s role in the tragedy. It’s an embarrassing, shameful piece of American history that should be more widely known, particularly when putting current race relations into context.

Goodreads tells me that, of all the books on my 2015 list, The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited the Civil War, was the least read by others on the site (only 51 others had the pleasure of this book). Author Dick Lehr tells the story of black newspaper editor William Monroe Trotter’s fight against filmmaker D. W. Griffith and the City of Boston to show Griffith’s wildly racist and inaccurate film, The Birth of a Nation, in the city’s cinemas. It’s an unforgettable story of civil rights versus freedom of speech, which goes far beyond Boston, resonating across the country. I’m both a Bostonian and a silent film fan, but had never heard the story of this remarkable battle. I hope more people read this book and acquaint themselves with the remarkable Monroe Trotter and his crusade.


Bunch O’Links

As the ‘best of 2014’ lists fade away, the ‘upcoming for 2015’ lists descend upon us. Here are a select few:

  • BuzzFeed. I do not understand the BuzzFeed website. It is so many things, yet so hard to define. Do I go there for serious investigative news? Cute photos of cats? Quizzes to find out whether I’m a Lenny or a Squiggy? And now it’s giving me reading recommendations.
  • Huffington Post “can’t wait” to read these books.
  • Barnes & Noble is equally impatient about their list.
  • The Millions is so beside itself with anticipation that their list numbers 91 (!) books and only covers the year through September.
  • Thanks to Flavorwire for catering to those of us who get more excited about a big, thick, juicy slab of non-fiction. (They also give us a list of novels here.)
  • Even New Scientist gets into the game with their list of 2015’s science-y books to look forward to. 

What’s on your must-read list for 2015?