Kevin CanfieldKevin Canfield is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle,Film Comment,Bookforum, and other publications.
Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed AmericaWil Haygood
RaveMinneapolis Star TribuneHaygood is a master of the ticktock narrative. He’s equally adept at contextualizing the 'showdown' that gives his book its title, explaining how some of Marshall’s detractors hoped that resentment linked to recent urban riots would help them derail his nomination.
An Unnecessary WomanRabih Alameddine
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThe 72-year-old narrator of Rabih Alameddine's restlessly intelligent An Unnecessary Woman has the complete works of Nabokov, Rilke, Donne and many others on file in the card catalog that is her mind ...what makes An Unnecessary Woman such a convincing tale is his ability to ground the novel's heroine in a set of real-world concerns and resentments ...Alameddine does his most nuanced writing in sections that chronicle Aaliya's important — and invariably doomed — relationships ... Her most formative bond, however, was with a woman named Hannah ...Alameddine makes clear early on in the novel that the relationship is headed for a painful end, theirs is nonetheless a tender and exquisitely rendered love story ...novel full of elegant, poetic sentences, this might be the most wonderful of the bunch.
The World of TomorrowBrendan Mathews
MixedThe Minneapolis Star TribuneMathews’ characters are likable and clever. His plot, rife with geopolitical intrigue, is nicely calibrated. And he packs his debut with period details that evoke the vibrancy of the Savoy Ballroom and the magnificence of the then-new RCA Building (now known as 30 Rockefeller Plaza). For all its strengths, though, this is a good novel needlessly stretched to 500-plus pages ... Mathews writes extraordinarily well, but he has a habit of interrupting himself with protracted digressions that add many extraneous pages. Even bit players get lengthy back stories. Midway through the book, for instance, we meet a doctor who has a tiny role — but that doesn’t stop Mathews from detailing the physician’s family tree, newspaper-reading habits and digestive frustrations ... This is an expansive theme, and from it, the first-time author has carved a commendable novel, even if it’s not the epic he’d like it to be.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of PilgrimageHaruki Murakami
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune...it is that midway through his latest, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, a man who appears to be a soulless con artist surprises us with a bit of workaday wisdom ... Like its predecessors, Colorless Tsukuru is pleasingly off-kilter and a bit otherworldly, even as it tells a story rooted in the here and now ...there's a hint of the bizarre in this otherwise earthbound tale — notably, an unsettling story-within-a-story about a foretold death ... Off-the-cuff philosophical musings; a brand of foreshadowing that suggests an adult fairy tale; a melancholy fascination with youthful relationships gone wrong; narrative playfulness... isn't the 65-year-old Murakami's most daring work.
Bad News: Last Journalists in a DictatorshipAnjan Sundaram
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle“Bad News is a searing illustration of the dangers associated with newsgathering in an authoritarian state, and a paean to those courageous enough to practice it in such dire circumstances.
A Life in PartsBryan Cranston
PositiveThe Washington PostGenial, occasionally funny and largely devoid of gossip, A Life in Parts is a book about ambition and persistence. Though Cranston tells some interesting stories about his best-known performances his liveliest writing focuses on his days as an 'always hustling' young actor ... [some] anodyne hat-tips can get tedious ... Unlike some of his early, easily summarized roles, A Life in Parts does not lend itself to pithy postcard blurbs. But take Cranston’s book for what it is — the controversy-free reflections of a hard-working and apparently well-grounded actor — and there is plenty to admire.
Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother's QuestBeth Macy
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle...[an] extraordinary book ... at once poignant and rigorous, a compassionate dual biography and a forthright examination of codified racism. Macy is a resourceful reporter and a strong but never showy writer ... The overall effect is extremely powerful. Truevine may focus on events that began a century ago, but its guiding spirit couldn’t be more urgent.
The YidPaul Goldberg
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneReplete with imaginative action sequences, smart-alecky sidekicks and a quixotic conspiracy meant to right many years of wrongs, The Yid is a bracing fictional take on a crucial moment in history.
Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen KanePatrick McGiligan
PositiveSan Francisco ChronicleAs chronicled by McGilligan, a skilled film historian, Welles’ rise is colorful and remarkably industrious, and though this book is on the far side of 800 pages, it never tips over into tedium...the definitive portrait of Welles in his youth.
Only the AnimalsCeridwen Dovey
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneThese stories are alternately funny and distressing, and while she’s aware that this sort of thing has been tried before... Dovey conjures new ways of thinking about species that are subject to humanity’s whims.
Days Without EndSebastian Barry
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune...this is a busy novel: a bloody war saga that also happens to be a tale of forbidden love; a lament for those who perished during the Great Famine, and a paean to the vigor of the natural world ... [Barry] writes with intensity and confidence. No one can outdo Cormac McCarthy when it comes to evoking the feral, punishing nature of frontier life in the 19th century, but at times, Barry comes pretty close ... Days Without End spends much of its time on the Thomas-John relationship. These scenes are moving and tender ... Barry is expecting too much, however, when he asks the reader to accept a jarring plot turn that occurs in the novel’s first half: Thomas and John’s adoption of an Indian child. In an otherwise immaculately structured book, this is an egregious misstep considering the role Thomas and his fellow soldiers play in decimating the Indian population. The tone-deafness of this narrative development reduces the novel’s appeal, but Days Without End is still powerful and unsettling, an important look at one of history’s most regrettable chapters.
4 3 2 1Paul Auster
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune...a bona fide epic that manages to be both accessible and formally daring ... This book contains some of the most perceptive writing of Auster's career. His multipart narrative gives him ample room to explore the vagaries of identity and, as he put it an earlier book, 'the music of chance.' But 4321 can also be frustrating. There are extended set pieces that would've been just as effective at half the length and lots of stream-of-consciousness sentences that, at 200 and 300 words long, will try the patience of even the most assiduous reader. Auster, though, works hard to place his characters within the context of their times, and his efforts are almost always successful.
RaveThe Kansas City StarMoonglow is gorgeously written and shaded with sadness, a story of recklessness, bravery and loss that spans the 20th century ... Harrowing in its depiction of war and deeply attuned to the double-edged legacies bequeathed by our elders, this is often a decidedly mournful book. There are funny moments, but Chabon mostly embraces the grief, plumbing it for answers to long-guarded family mysteries. Moonglow may not be cheery, but it’s often very powerful.
A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My LifeAyelet Waldman
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleShe has a big personality and acknowledges a 'tendency to overshare.' This trait pops up a few times in A Really Good Day ... But if she sometimes reveals more than you need to know, Waldman is reliably thought-provoking. A Really Good Day is informed by her previous career as a federal public defender. She worked on numerous drug cases and became an outspoken critic of harsh narcotics sentencing guidelines. In these pages, she makes a strong argument that taking a microdose of LSD is 'a crime, but it really shouldn’t be.'
Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern WorldSteven Johnson
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleAs his fans will attest, Johnson’s writing derives its appeal from his ability to illuminate complex ideas in unpretentious language ... The qualities that have earned him such success are evident in Wonderland. In his strongest chapters, Johnson connects a spark of inspiration from the Islamic Golden Age to the marvels of modern technology ... Johnson’s prose is nimble, his knowledge impressive. By necessity, he oversimplifies a number of scientific advances, and as he concedes, some of the historical trends he identifies have been discussed in greater detail in other recent books. Mostly, though, Wonderland is original and fun, as well it should be, given the subject.
Anatomy of a SongMarc Myers
PositiveThe Washington PostMyers’s collection of music milestones covers four decades. The most recent song is from 1991. By his reckoning, it’s impossible to say yet which songs from the past 25 years will endure. Fair enough, but there are some oversights. He could’ve stuck with his timeline and still included an original hip-hop track ... Generally, however, Anatomy of a Song, adapted from Myers’s Wall Street Journal column of the same name, is a smart, gracious book. His interviews yield some fascinating details.
Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your LifeYiyun Li
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleYiyun Li’s prose is lean and intense, and her ideas about books and writing are wholly original. Read the essays gathered in Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life and you’ll be left with the sense that they’re the product of a singular mind, one that has no time for cliches or pandering ... there’s a distinctly dark tenor to her work. You might say that this book is haunted, although she probably wouldn’t put it that way ... Li is at her most interesting when discussing her profession and her relationship with English. It has become her 'private language,' one that molds her ideas and compels her to write with uncommon precision ... There are moments when Li strives for profundity and ends up with puzzling results...Li hits the mark more often than not, though, and she finishes strong.
Valley of the GodsAlexandra Wolfe
PanThe San Francisco ChronicleValley of the Gods is couched as a behind-the-curtain look at various tech subcultures, but it’s mainly a collection of worn-out stereotypes and meaningless generalizations ... her knowing depiction of the valley relies on the kind of cliches that have informed dozens of previous books and magazine articles ... Wolfe focuses on Thiel Fellowship recipients, budding entrepreneurs who’ve skipped or postponed college in exchange for grants from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. While this approach provides her with some compelling people to interview, it also places Wolfe in the camp of Thiel fans...Elsewhere in the book, Wolfe isn’t shy about mocking entire professions for their supposed social backwardness, but when it comes to a powerful mogul like Thiel, she equivocates ... With its well-chronicled diversity problems and its enormous self-regard, Silicon Valley is always ripe for a takedown. But in Valley of the Gods, Wolfe does little more than string together a set of geek-centric cliches.
The Gene: An Intimate HistorySiddhartha Mukherjee
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleLike its predecessor [The Emperor of Maladies], this one is both expansive and accessible, a breezily written manual to the potent little 'unit of inheritance' that helps make us who we are ... This is a rich, occasionally whimsical book. Lengthy discussions of Mendel’s findings and Charles Darwin’s explorations are interspersed with playful references to Philip Larkin’s poetry and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The architecture of the double helix is explained in gratifyingly clear language, and groundbreaking initiatives like the Human Genome Project are imbued with fresh details. Pseudo-scientific claims that one racial group is intellectually superior to another are methodically dismantled, and pioneering researchers whose contributions were marginalized — mainly because they were women — finally get their due.
Drinking in AmericaSusan Cheever
PanSan Francisco ChronicleIt is not her best bit of work.... Though she does some solid storytelling, Cheever is often glib, and she can be oddly judgmental. She also has a debatable sense of what merits her attention...
Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet AgeSven Birkets
RaveMinneapolis Star TribuneBirkerts says he's 'not ready to assent' to the total technological takeover of contemporary life, and in Changing the Subject he makes an inspired argument that his is a campaign worth supporting.
This Old Man: All in PiecesRoger Angell
PositiveThe Daily BeastThis Old Man might not fit Angell’s definition of a weighty professional accomplishment, but it’s nonetheless a charming addition to an estimable—and time-tested—career.
Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Rise of the Billionaire Businessmen Behind the Radical RightJane Mayer
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleThough Mayer’s story is broadly familiar, she adds countless new details and important context along the way. And by synthesizing so much in a single volume, she’s written one of the essential books about our political system’s unparalleled capacity for perpetuating income inequality.
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being AloneOlivia Laing
RaveSan Francisco Chronicle'Loneliness,' Laing says, 'is not supposed to induce empathy.' In her case, however, that’s clearly what happened. With The Lonely City, Laing has taken a painful spell in her life and turned it into a book of extraordinary compassion and insight.
Everybody's FoolRichard Russo
PositiveMinneapolis Star TribuneThese scenes are Russo at his best, and they’re what make him of one of our best humorists (his campus farce Straight Man is one of the funniest novels of the ’90s)...This isn’t to suggest that Russo is only out for laughs. There are several harrowing confrontations in these pages, none of which end in predictable fashion, and virtually every character is wounded in one way or another. Everybody’s Fool is a decidedly bittersweet affair, a sequel that proves both entertaining and elegiac.
My Struggle: Book FiveKarl Ove Knausgaard
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle...more than anything else, the latest installment is the one in which Knausgaard wills himself to become a writer. It’s a book that does a remarkably good job of depicting failure, and of capturing the single-mindedness required to make real artistic progress ... Knausgaard has his detractors. They argue, with some merit, that his 'Struggle' is self-indulgent and his prose uneven. But even his fiercest critics might concede that Book Five contains fascinating insights about inspiration and hard work.
Bright, Precious DaysJay McInerney
MixedThe San Francisco ChronicleIt is not a great book, nor, at times, a very likable one. But it does not lack for admirable qualities. A knowing send-up of liberal pieties, it’s also a wistful rumination on the fate of America’s great cities in an era when real estate is the new religion ... The book’s political chatter is platitude-laden, but it serves an important function, enabling McInerney to poke fun at the cosmopolitan liberals who make up his target audience.
The Angel of HistoryRabih Alameddine
MixedThe Minneapolis Star Tribune...[a] smart, impassioned and uneven novel ... Just when you’re expecting sentimentality, Jacob hits you with a bolt of bracing R-rated humor. He’s especially good at dreaming up filthy riffs based on beloved poetry ... But The Angel of History, for all its intelligence and immediacy, can also be frustrating ... At times, Alameddine’s novel reads like a script for a stilted stage play. The good news is that the narrative dead-ends are clearly labeled ('Satan’s Interviews' and 'Jacob’s Stories') and take up no more than a third of the page count. The rest of The Angel of History is Alameddine at his best, or very close to it.
The Prisoner in His PalaceWill Bardenwerper
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneAn Iraq war veteran himself (but not in the Super Twelve), Bardenwerper has written an exceptional debut. Coupled with his knowledge of military rules and customs, his storytelling skills — confident but never showy prose, a terrific sense of pacing — make for an enlightening piece of journalism … Though there are glimpses of Saddam’s soul, this isn’t a book that soft-pedals his horrible misdeeds. Bardenwerper recounts several instances in which Saddam ordered indiscriminate killings ...In the closing pages, Bardenwerper brings his story into the present, giving us a look at the post-Iraq lives of the Super Twelve. It’s here that the book’s primary point — that the consequences of war are ultimately immeasurable — is most effectively made.
Chester B. Himes: A BiographyLawrence P. Jackson
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle...an insightful study of an exceptional storyteller ... In this comprehensive yet nimble book, Jackson gives Himes’ prose the perceptive critical analysis it deserves. But if he’s an unabashed fan of the work, Jackson is also determined to avoid hagiography: When Himes’ behaves horrendously, as he did in some of his romantic relationships, Jackson offers no excuses for his subject’s actions. An English and history professor at Johns Hopkins University, Jackson began researching Himes’ life in 2002. His efforts have yielded an illuminating portrait ... Jackson’s book — big, intelligent and unflinching — is what literary biography looks like when it’s done right.
Far and Away: Reporting from the Brink of ChangeAndrew Solomon
MixedThe Minneapolis Star TribuneOn occasion, Far and Away feels stale and bloated, an overstuffed monument to authorial vanity, built from old magazine articles. But more often, this is an improbably well-timed collection ... Arriving at a moment when the ideological and political gaps between us can seem insurmountable, Solomon’s imperfect yet deeply humane book cuts against the grain, urging readers to exit their comfort zones and engage with new people and unfamiliar points of view ... Content-wise, these pieces don’t always have a lot in common, and individually some aren’t terribly effective ... But there’s a democratic spirit that binds the best of these chapters, and, in the aggregate, Solomon’s reporting from far-flung places is surprisingly powerful.
Voyager: Travel WritingsRussell Banks
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneVoyager takes the reader on a global tour. It includes magnificently written reports from Senegal, Ecuador and Scotland, the Himalayas, the Andes and the Seychelles. It’s a notably personal work, too. The lauded author of more than a dozen novels, Banks has never before published a full-length memoir. This introspective book goes a long way toward plugging that gap. The best of these essays have an elegiac quality ... A nimble, if occasionally tone-deaf blend of autobiography, history and nature writing, 'Voyager' is his most personal essay, as Banks reckons with his choppy romantic past ... But look past his awkward self-justifications and you’ll find that Banks writes with erudition and depth about important subjects ... Though it spans six decades of Banks’ life, Voyager isn’t exactly a full-on memoir. Nonetheless, it’s lively and revealing, a worthy, if minor addition to Banks’ impressive body of work.
The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in PalestineBen Ehrenreich
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleSome will argue that in making this argument, the author reveals he’s not an impartial journalist. Ehrenreich doesn’t dispute this interpretation — he embraces it ... Such boldness is one of the book’s defining traits. Convinced that it’s impossible to discuss the relevant issues without appearing to pick a side, Ehrenreich, a novelist and a National Magazine Award winner, is open about his sympathies ... those willing to listen will find that Ehrenreich’s industrious reporting can help us better understand some of those at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. His scope is narrow and his book has its flaws. But this doesn’t mean that The Way to the Spring is any less distressing or important ... the vast majority of The Way to the Spring is made up of much more solid reporting. Ehrenreich proves to be the kind of tough-minded yet searching writer we need to help us understand this intractable divide, and the people shaped by it.
The Voyeur's MotelGay Talese
PanThe Kansas City StarThough The Voyeur’s Motel is initially gripping, it soon reveals itself for what it is: a one-note portrait of a man with an extremely disturbing hobby ... Foos comes off as single-minded — he appears to have been unaccountably obsessed with his guests’ amorous habits. As a result, the book is correspondingly one-dimensional; chapter after chapter is devoted to Foos’ half-baked theories about human sexuality ... Late in the book, Talese asks Foos how he’d like to be received when his secret goes public. 'I think of myself as a ‘pioneering sex researcher,' he replies. It’s a safe bet that some readers won’t see it that way.
American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty HearstJeffrey Toobin
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleIn American Heiress, Toobin has crafted a book for the expert and the uninitiated alike, a smart page-turner that boasts a cache of never-before-published details ... Throughout, Toobin’s book successfully captures the unrivaled spectacle of the Hearst drama ... The Heiress has an obvious, if unavoidable, shortcoming: Because Hearst declined Toobin’s interview requests, we don’t know what she makes of all this 40 years later. Nonetheless, he conveys a sense of how much of Hearst’s life has changed.
Spiral: Trapped in the Forever WarMark Danner
PositiveThe San Francisco Chronicle...a provocative, and often very effective, book ... That said, it’s somewhat disappointing that Danner’s assessment of the Obama presidency takes up only a little more than half the text. The rest is given over to a rather stale review of Bush’s counterterror efforts...even as Danner presses a compelling case against the 43rd president, there’s a sense that he’s simply rehashing arguments he formulated years ago — preaching to a choir that has long since convicted Bush in the court of public opinion ... [Danner has some] forward-looking ideas, and they’re among the reasons why at its best, Spiral is a timely, valuable book.
Thrill Me: Essays on FictionBenjamin Percy
RaveThe Minneapolis Star Tribune[Percy] demonstrates he’s one of contemporary fiction’s sharper critical minds, an author with a rare talent for explaining his craft. Writers, editors and teachers — they’re among the target audience for Percy’s Thrill Me. But really, this book will appeal to anyone who’s interested in storytelling. And that’s just about all of us.
Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder FilmAlexandra Zapruder
MixedThe San Francisco Chronicle...an unusual, enlightening effort, an intelligent blend of memoir and cultural criticism that breaks fresh ground in the crowded field of JFK assassination studies ... Occasionally defensive when discussing her family’s stewardship of the film, Zapruder’s book is at its most moving when she considers her grandfather’s unintended, often painful status as 'the quintessential eyewitness' of the postwar era ... On a few occasions, it seems as if she intends to use the book as a platform to counter every unsympathetic word that’s ever been published about her family. But when she stops responding to decades-old slights and simply explains the family’s position, it makes a lot of sense.
A Collapse of HorsesBrian Evenson
RaveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneEvenson is a writer with an uncommonly dark vision ... a provocative and thoroughly entertaining collection.
Fantasyland: How America Went HaywireKurt Andersen
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleThough some of his arguments will agitate readers on both sides of the political spectrum, Andersen maintains that in the past 25 years, 'America’s unhinged right became much larger and more influential than its unhinged left' ... This is an entertaining but intellectually restless book, one that moves fast and divines links between dozens of ideological, social and political developments. In a two-page section about the 'national ratification of fantasy' of the ’60s and ’70s, Andersen covers state lotteries, the birth control pill, Portnoy’s Complaint, Cosmopolitan magazine, 'Deep Throat' and 'the slang term stroke book.' It can be hard to keep up.
Mostly, however, Fantasyland is a persuasive work of diagnostic journalism. With this rousing book, Andersen proves to be the kind of clear-eyed critic an anxious country needs in the midst of a national crisis.
Arbitrary Stupid GoalTamara Shopsin
PanThe San Francisco ChronicleThis is a book of fleeting anecdotes told in short paragraphs. Often, Shopsin stops writing halfway down the page. Her approach prevents Shopsin from developing much momentum, a problem that’s accentuated by her narrative detours … Though her writing about Willy is sometimes moving, Shopsin’s appraisal of the neighborhood’s transformation doesn’t go very deep. Meanwhile, it’s hard to understand her decision to include periodic accounts of unremarkable journeys she’s taken in the U.S. and Europe. There are single-sentence paragraphs throughout the book, but in these sections they can be exasperatingly twee … The book’s capriciousness makes a little more sense when, at the very end, Shopsin explains her title.
At the Strangers' GateAdam Gopnik
MixedThe San Francisco ChronicleIn At the Strangers’ Gate, Gopnik — a superb prose stylist who has won three National Magazine Awards — looks back at the 1980s, his first decade in New York City ...has some easily spotted imperfections. Anyone who’s ever read his New Yorker pieces knows that Gopnik is at once extremely skillful and somewhat vain. It’s apparent that he enjoys the sound of his own sentences, and sometimes, he seems more concerned about the handsomeness of his prose than the logic of his arguments ...beautifully written nonsense ... Happily, Gopnik has enough good stories to carry the day. Which brings us back to his chats with Joseph Mitchell.
City of BohaneKevin Barry
RaveThe San Francisco Chronicle...inspired and emotionally rich … Though he spins a great tale, the most important facet of City of Bohane isn't its plot. What really matters, what distinguishes the novel from so many others, is Barry's lively, original and charismatic voice. A native of Limerick, Ireland, who's in his early 40s, Barry has a linguist's ear for colloquialism, an anthropologist's eye for detail and a daffy fantasist's appreciation for tall tales.
The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples TempleJeff Guinn
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleGuinn offers what might be the most complete picture to date of this tragic saga, and of the man who engineered it ... The result is a disturbing portrait of evil — and a compassionate memorial to those taken in by Jones’ malign charisma.
Anything is PossibleElizabeth Strout
RaveThe Kansas City StarElizabeth Strout’s new book grows more impressive with each passing page, as it becomes clear that the Pulitzer Prize-winning author is slowly, subtly building one big story from a bunch of small ones. There are nine chapters in Anything is Possible. Each can be enjoyed as a stand-alone short story. But read them in order, and you’ll see that they fit together like tiles in a mosaic.
The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed RussiaMasha Gessen
RaveThe San Francisco ChronicleThe Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia is a remarkable portrait of an ever-shifting era, as told through the experiences of four people who were born in the waning years of the USSR ...two men and two women at the heart of this rich and deeply reported book are neither famous nor blessed with unique talents. But taken together, their life stories form an extraordinarily detailed picture of the country’s fraught recent past ... Gessen weaves her characters’ stories into a seamless, poignant whole. Her analysis of Putin’s malevolent administration is just as effective ... Her ambition has resulted in a harrowing, compassionate and important book.
Don't Save AnythingJames Salter
MixedThe Minneapolis StarSome of these are delightful, and at its best, this book reminds us that Salter, who died in 2015, was among his generation’s finest literary craftsmen ... Alas, there are several duds. Salter’s take on President Bill Clinton’s second term is superficial and muddled, and though he discusses his favorite Parisian restaurant in two essays, he barely mentions the food. At times, he sounds like an elitist ... There are many reasons to worry about the future of literature, but this isn’t healthy skepticism — it’s snobbery. Salter was a wonderful writer, and his novels still resonate. His nonfiction could be awfully good, too, yet as this collection demonstrates, even he filed a few clunkers.
The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War PlannerDaniel Ellsberg
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleMany years in the making, it’s a book that arrives at an opportune moment … A portion of the information contained in those storm-tossed papers has since been unearthed by journalists and activists. But The Doomsday Machine is nonetheless effective, a book that challenges some big assumptions about America’s weaponry — and questions the shaky intellectual foundation on which the nuclear program rests … In the book’s final pages, Ellsberg makes several admittedly ‘quixotic’ recommendations...Ellsberg isn’t optimistic that these things will happen — but he maintains that they must.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Timothy Leary, Richard Nixon and the Hunt for the Fugitive King of LSDBill Minutaglio and Steve L. Davis
MixedThe San Francisco ChronicleBill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis revisit this wild saga in The Most Dangerous Man in America, a rip-roaring tale of hallucinogenic drugs, revolutionary politics and an intercontinental standoff between a law-and-order president and a louche ex-professor ... Their deep dive into government archives supports a narrative that never lacks for drama ...prose is lean and brisk...in Leary, they’ve found a brilliant, ridiculous main character who was one of the era’s emblematic figures ...an energetic nonfiction narrative, one made up of short chapters and cinematic scenes ... On the whole, though, this is a well-researched and factually sound book ... The Most Dangerous Man in America isn’t what you’d call an important work of history, and it has its imperfections. But it also happens to be awfully entertaining.
DunbarEdward St. Aubyn
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleEdward St. Aubyn’s new novel is a retelling of King Lear, an undertaking that the widely admired British author has approached with plenty of cheek. Dunbar is brisk, biting and, despite the untimely deaths of at least two innocents, easy to like … Though we know what awaits Florence and Henry, St. Aubyn manages to craft an inspired, allusive quasi-thriller … Dunbar works as both a moral tale and a biting satire of the 1 percent, a novel of depth and wit, with just the right amount of irreverence for its august source material.
Life in Code: A Personal History of TechnologyEllen Ullman
PositiveThe San Francisco ChronicleThe essays in Life in Code, Ellen Ullman’s smart, civic-minded new book, were written over a period of almost 25 years. The newest entry, completed a few months ago, is as current as could be ... Not all of these essays are unadulterated gems. Ullman is a longtime San Francisco resident, but her brief piece about the changing complexion of SoMa never quite coheres. Most of the entries, however, are excellent ...her experience informs her clear-eyed assessments of the tech economy, artificial intelligence and the industry’s power dynamics ... This is a measured perspective, and like the rest of Life in Code, it figures to stand up over time.
The Gunning of America: Business and the Making of American Gun CulturePamela Haag
MixedThe San Francisco ChronicleHaag’s book is strongest when it upends the belief that America has had an uninterrupted love affair with guns ... The Gunning of America has its flaws. Haag authors some jarring juxtapositions. Discussing Sarah Winchester’s miscarriages and the company that made her wealthy, she writes, 'These rifles, and designs to follow, would proliferate and carry the Winchester name forward intergenerationally, whereas Sarah’s womb had failed in the task, and would fail again.' This isn’t the only instance of awkwardness. But Haag’s book is generally quite readable.
Letters to His NeighborMarcel Proust, Trans. by Lydia Davis
PositiveThe Minneapolis Star TribuneLetters to His Neighbor is an entertaining collection of notes the author sent to a woman who lived in his building in Paris. Discovered in a French archive in 2013, the letters, from 1908-16, depict a person just begging for a few minutes of peace ... Accompanying essays by Lydia Davis, whose translation preserves Proust’s sparse punctuation, and Jean-Yves Tadie, Proust’s biographer, provide the requisite background ... Proust also wrote vividly about the war, and about his worries for his brother, Dr. Robert Proust ...was never more detailed than when discussing his noise-related concerns.