Book Review: So Many Ways to Lose by Devin Gordon


Author: Devin Gordon
Title: So Many Ways to Lose
Publication Info: New York City : Harper, 2021.
Summary/Review:

So Many Ways to Lose is a history of the New York Mets by a long-time fan and writer who happens to live near me in Massachusetts. Gordon’s thesis is that the Mets are a team that is known for their futility and for losing in creative ways, and yet that has only made their moments of greatness all the more endearing.

Since I’ve read a lot about the Mets (and of course, spent most of my life watching the team), I was familiar with many of these stories.  But I was impressed with the angles Gordon took on telling the stories. I particularly liked:

  • connecting Cleon Jones story to the history of Africatown in Alabama which was founded by people brought from Africa on the last known slave ship the Clotilda
  • How Mackey Sasser got the yips and had trouble returning the ball to the pitcher
  • While Bobby Bonilla Day has become a day to mock the Mets, Gordon explains that it was a good deal with positive outcomes for the Mets
  • the greatness of the Endy Chavez catch
  • How Bernie Madoff bamboozled the Wilpons, owners of the Mets, but nonetheless a somewhat sympathetic portrait of the Wilpons

The parts on the Mets success in 2006 (and subsequent flops in 2007-2008) and 2015 feel rushed.  But then again I’ve read about those accomplishments in other books.  This is an enjoyable sports book and a requirement for every Mets’ fan’s library.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Highly Irregular by Arika Okrent


Author: Arika Okrent
Title: Highly Irregular: Why Tough, Through, and Dough Don’t Rhyme―And Other Oddities of the English Language
Publication Info: Oxford University Press (2021)

Summary/Review: I always love a good book about why English seems to make no sense.  Okrent breaks down English’s oddities into conflicts of words usage changing among the different languages of various invaders of Britain, the biggest being the Norman invasion which lead to centuries of the elite speaking French while the commoners spoke English.  The introduction of the printing press lead to attempts of standardization for words that previously had no standard spelling, but localized so that they didn’t always end up logically applied.  Then in the 19th century, classically trained scholars tried to apply the standards of Greek and Latin to the unruly English language, causing more problems in the long run.  Event today English is evolving and changing in weird ways while still oddly being a successful means of communication among people who use the language.  The book is broken up into short chapters so it can be read all at once or broken up to be read at one’s leisure.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert


Author: City of Girls
Title: Elizabeth Gilbert
Publication Info: New York : Riverhead Books, 2019.
Summary/Review:

This novel is narrated by Vivian Morris, the black sheep of a wealthy New York State family who flops at Vassar College in 1940.  Her parents ship her off to New York City to live with her eccentric Aunt Peg, who operates a low-rent theater. Vivian offers he skills as a seamstress to costume design and gets sucked into the glamorous life of the New York theater world. Along the way she befriends a showgirl Celia, becomes enchanted with the refugee English actor Edna, and falls in love/lust with the lead actor.  After a few poor choices she finds herself embroiled in a scandal.

The latter parts of the novel explore Vivian’s life during World War II and in the decades beyond.  Vivian matures and takes on more responsibility and eventually starts her own business, finding the right balance for a countercultural life as an independent woman in the years before women’s liberation.  She also forms a relationship with a WWII veteran suffering  PTSD, Frank.  This latter part of the novel is interesting but it feels more like a long epilogue to Vivian’s life in the pre-WWII theater world.

City of Girls is an enjoyable historical novel and I definitely found it to be a page turner.  True to its title, almost all the significant characters are female with men playing supporting parts which is a good change from the typical novel.  It’s a long book and yet packing several decades of Vivian’s life into maybe the last third of the book still feels rushed, but that’s its only really flaw.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune


Author: TJ Klune
Title: The House in the Cerulean Sea
Narrator: Daniel Henning
Publication Info: New York : Tor, 2020.
Summary/Review:

Linus Baker is an effective but unambitious caseworker in a large bureaucratic organization called the Department in Charge of Magical Youth.  Unexpectedly, he is singled out by Extremely Upper Management for a longer assignment to an orphanage on the remote Marsyas Island.  The home only has six magical children under the care of the eccentric Arthur Parnassus, but one of them is Lucifer (a.k.a. “Lucy”), the son of the Devil. (Yes, two of the main characters are named Linus and Lucy and thus prompt a Vince Guaraldi earworm). Other children at the orphanage include wyvern, a gnome, a forest sprite, a shapeshifter, and a gelatinous, tentacled child named Chauncey.

The story is fairly predictable.  Linus’ experience with the children and Arthur leads him to break out of his shell and become more of an advocate for magical children against widespread discrimination.  The children, in turn, learn to accept themselves and begin to form relationships with the nonmagical humans on the mainland.  What makes the book work though is just the wonderful characterization.  The children are so very childlike while also being fantastic and strange. It also has a same sex romance plot and the story can be read as an allegory for the treatment of LGBTQ people cis/het society.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson


Author: Bill Bryson
Title: A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
Narrator: Rob McQuay
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 1997
Summary/Review:

My fondness for Bill Bryson’s travel writing was shaken by revisiting The Lost Continent and discovering that it wasn’t anywhere as good as I recalled. So I’m happy to say that my favorite Bryson book, A Walk in the Woods, is still very, very good.  Granted Bryson’s misanthropic crankiness is still off-putting and there’s way too many fat jokes.  But Bryson’s memoir of hiking the Appalachian Trail is enriched by his research into the trail’s history, nature, and various anecdotes of hikers’ experiences.  His narrative is also improved by Bryson sharing the experience with his old friend Stephen Katz, who is endearing as much as he is the total opposite of the type of person you’d expect to hike the AT.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: The China Mirage by James Bradley


Author: James Bradley
Title: The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia
Publication Info: New York, NY : Little, Brown, 2015
Summary/Review:

This is a book I read with my colleagues at work, as the early parts of the book relate to some of the collections in our archival depository.  Bradley’s work is a sweeping account of the flawed policy of American government toward China from the mid-19th century until the rise of Mao Zedong to power in the 1940s.  The early part of the book focuses on the American merchant class who set up trading posts that the were deliberately isolated from the ordinary Chinese people by the Chinese government.  The American merchants all made wealth in the opium trade creating an opiate crisis in China (It made me realize that the Sackler family were not the first Americans to get people hooked on opiates while also acquiring Asian art).

Among these merchants were Warren Delano, the maternal grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  The foreign policy of both Theodore Roosevelt and FDR are key parts of this book as they operated on false assumptions of China as a place where the Chinese peasants were eager to be Americanized and convert to Christianity.  This view was promulgated by what Bradley calls the China Lobby, lead by influential and wealthy businessmen like the publisher Henry Luce.  Key figures in the China Lobby were the Soong Family, Charlie Soong and his daughters Soong Ai-ling, Soong Ching-ling, and Soong Mei-ling who were American educated and Christian converts. Soong Mei-ling married Chiang Kai-shek and together and gained power by deluding the China Lobby and American government for financial support while in fact creating a cruel but ineffectual dictatorship over China.

I found this book very illuminating about the history of China and Chinese-American international relations.  Bradley also has a lot of suppositions about how a more realistic approach to China by the US government could’ve prevented the severity of the Pacific theater of World War II as well as the wars in Korea and Vietnam.  He certainly makes a good point that the US could’ve responded positively to calls for alliance from Mao, a more effective fighter against Japan than Chiang, and someone who was no less a communist or tyrant than America’s World War II ally Josef Stalin.  On the other hand I am very turned off by Bradley’s snarky tune and frequent use of jokey nicknames for the figures in this book. For all I know,The China Mirage may be 100% factual, but Bradley’s writing style makes me doubt it.

Favorite Passages:

“On the American side, generations of missionary dreams about New China created an assumption in the United States about a reality that never existed in Asia. The China mirage took hold in the nineteenth century, affected U.S. foreign policy and domestic politics in the twentieth century, and continues to misguide America. Perhaps the cautionary tale revealed in this book will motivate people in both countries to strengthen that bridge across the Pacific before it’s too late. Again.”

 

“…a procession of American sea merchants made their fortunes smuggling opium. They were aware of its poisonous effects on the Chinese people, but few of them ever mentioned the drug in the thousands of pages of letters and documents they sent back to America. Robert Bennet Forbes—a Russell and Company contemporary of Delano’s—defended his involvement with opium by noting that some of America’s best families were involved, ‘those to whom I have always been accustomed to look up as exponents of all that was honorable in trade—the Perkins, the Peabodys, the Russells and the Lows.'”

 

Certainly some missionaries knew that Chiang was a one-party despot with legions of Blue Shirt thugs terrorizing the populace. They also knew that Chiang’s government was still a weak collection of warlord states held together by Ailing and Chiang through financial payoffs. But for reasons of either blind faith or strategic amorality, these men of God overlooked Chiang’s shortcomings. The Missionary Review of the World wrote, ‘China has now the most enlightened, patriotic and able rulers in her history.’”

 

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: This is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel


Author: Laurie Frankel
Title: This is How It Always Is
Publication Info: New York : Flatiron Books, [2017] 
Summary/Review:

Rosie (a doctor) and Penn (a novelist) are a loving couple who have five children, all boys.  At the age of 5, their youngest child Claude expresses a preference for wearing dresses and eventually takes the name Poppy.  The narrative explores how even parents with the best intentions struggle with raising a transgender child.  The central conflict is whether Poppy’s transgender identity should be publicly known or kept secret. The family tries both with some bad outcomes to either approach and ultimately no “right way” is found.  The book can be overly didactic at times, but I did enjoy a lot of Frankel’s writing flourishes

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson


Author: Kevin Wilson
Title: Nothing to See Here
Narrator: Marin Ireland
Publication Info: HarperAudio, 2019
Summary/Review:

Lillian, the narrator and protagonist of this novel, is a working class woman in Tennessee trying to make ends meet when she receives an invitation to a job from her old friend Madison.  As a teenager, Lillian excellend at academics and earned a scholarship to an elite private school for girls.  Madison was her prosperous and seemingly perfect roommate, and they maintained their uneven friendship for years after Lillian was expelled, for reasons I won’t divulge here.

Now, Madison is married to a US Senator and living on a sumptuous estate.  She invites Lillian to be a “governess” for the Senator’s twin 10-year-old children from a previous marriage, Bessie and Roland Roberts, after the death of their mother.  The problem that Madison needs Lillian to keep under wraps is that the children literally burst into flames when they’re upset. The fire doesn’t consume the children but can cause considerable property damage.

Over the novel, Lillian forms a bond with the children, deals with the machinations of the elite, and begins to realize what she wants from her life. This novel is equally parts silly, charming, and satirical and made for an enjoyable read.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Prisnms by Garth St. Omer


Around the World for a Good Book selection for St. Lucia

Author: Garth St. Omer
Title: Prisnms
Publication Info: Leeds, England : Peepal Tree Press, 2015.
Summary/Review:

Prisnms is a rather unpleasant little book narrated by Eugene Coard, a man who grew up in St. Lucia an emigrates to the United States to study psychiatry.  He is a deeply unpleasant man who is selfish and seemingly indifferent to the negative effect he has on other people especially the women he dates and marries.  Most of the book is his memories where he relates his low regard for just about everyone in his life.  Parts of the book are also psychotic dreamscapes that literally end with Eugene stating that he just woke up.  Honestly, as the book went on I had less and less idea of what was actually going on.

I kind of feel bad to have this book represent St. Lucia for my Around the World for a Good Book project and will need to seek out a more engaging work somewhere down the line.

Rating: **

Book Review: Major Labels by Kelefa Sanneh


Author: Kelefa Sanneh
Title: Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres
Narrator: Kelefa Sanneh
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group
Summary/Review:

Kelefa Sanneh, a former music critic for the New York Times, and writer for the New Yorker, revisists the history of popular music from the 1970s to today in a series of essays focusing on genres.  These genres include the venerable traditions of Rock, R&B, and Country as well as the upstarts Punk, Hip-Hop, and Dance.  The final essay focuses on the amorphous genre of Pop.

Sanneh is a fan of all these types of music so he brings in his personal experience when discussing them.  I find that appropriate since music is such a personal thing.  Sanneh does a great job at summarizing the history and the struggles of artists within these genres to remain true to their style.  He also notes that over the past 50 years that each of these genres is converging to create a new “pop” music even at a time when streaming music platforms should allow greater splits.

This was a fun an informative book for a music fan.

Recommended books

Rating: ****