Book Review: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien


Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Title: The Fellowship of the Ring
Publication Info: George Allen & Unwin, 1954
Summary/Review:

I read this book aloud (along with my wife) to my daughter for the first time.  It’s still a classic, imaginative adventure that I remember.  Although there are some slow and boring parts when reading to a 9-year-old.  You begin to notice how tedious the lists of names and places and the songs and poems are when you’re reading aloud.  Nevertheless, we had a good time reading it and are looking for to the more action-oriented The Two Towers next.

Rating: *****

Book Review: Thrawn: Treason by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Thrawn: Treason
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2019) 
Summary/Review:

In the finale of this trilogy of books, Grand Admiral Thrawn finds himself in the middle of a conflict between Governor Tarkin (of the original Star Wars fame) and Director Orson Krennic (of Rogue One fame).  Even more pressing is an incursion by the war-like Grysks from the Unknown Regions into Imperial territory.

To fight this new threat, Thrawn must work with his own people, the Chiss, with Admiral Ar’alani leading a fleet in an uneasy alliance with Thrawn and the Empire. This book also marks the return of Eli Vanto, who has defected to the Chiss, and it is great to have him back.  Commodore Karyn Faro is established as another great character who becomes a great leader under Thrawn’s tutelage.

It’s interesting that Thrawn is associated with the evil Empire, because he’s an excellent example of leadership in the way he establishes Vanto and Faro as his proteges and then trusts their experience. It’s very different than the rest of the Empire where the “leaders” either step over one another or cower in fear. Brierly Ronan, Krennic’s deputy who is sent along to watch over Thrawn, is a slippery character who is more typical of the Empire we know, although his character also develops in interesting ways.

This book is excellent at building intrigue and gamesmanship.  The only flaw in my mind is that when the story finally builds to a climactic battle, it’s not all that interesting to read about, compared with how exciting it would be depicted in film.  There is more Thrawn to read, as Zahn is now publishing an Ascendancy trilogy about Thrawn’s experiences before he joined the Empire.  And this trilogy of novels I just completed also tie in with the animated series Star Wars: Rebels, so I’m going to have to catch up on that too!

Rating: ****

Book Review: Flights by Olga Tokarczuk


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Poland

Author: Olga Tokarczuk
Title: Flights
Translator: Jennifer Croft
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2018
Summary/Review:

Flights is a collection of 116 vignettes, some of them exceedingly brief, while others are short stories.  They all focus on a theme of travel and are narrated by a nameless woman who practices an old Orthodox Christian belief of constant movement to avoid evil. There’s a lot of variety in the vignettes ranging from contemporary stories to historical fiction.  In addition to the theme of travel, with a focus on travel psychology, there is also a reoccurrence of the theme of anatomy and dissection.  This is a weird and wonderful book, although I did struggle mightily to keep up with the fragmentary narrative.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Thrawn: Alliances
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: New York : Random House Audio, [2018]
Summary/Review:

This second book of the new trilogy, after Star Wars: Thrawn, teams up Grand Admiral Thrawn with Darth Vader. In a parallel narrative, a younger Thrawn still with the Chiss Ascendency meets up with Anakin Skywalker during the Clone Wars. In both stories their mission brings them to the remote planet of Batuu, which just happens to also be the planet used for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney theme parks (if Disney’s going to Star Wars synergy like this, at least they did it very well!).

Thrawn and Vader make an interesting pair because they seem to be the only individuals who can trip one another up. There’s a lot of tension due to their mutual mistrust and competing goals.  While I didn’t think it was a good as the first book as it gets bogged down in plot details, it’s still a compelling novel.  I also felt Eli Vanto’s presence was missing from this book.  Still, I’m looking forward to book 3.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter by Kerri K. Greenidge


Author: Kerri K. Greenidge
Title: Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter
Publication Info: Liveright (2019) 
Summary/Review:

William Monroe Trotter is remembered in Boston in the name of a public elementary school but his life, work, and legacy are otherwise look.  Kerri Greenidge’s biography is a great introduction to the life of the Boston Civil Rights leader and activist who was most active during the 1890s to the 1920s.

Trotter was born into a prosperous family, the son of a decorated Civil War veteran, and held the position of Recorder of Deeds in the Grover Cleveland administration. Trotter grew up in the Hyde Park, then a predominately white suburb of Boston, and studied at Harvard University where he became the first Black man awarded with a Phi Beta Kappa key.  Despite his elite background, Trotter as an activist would stand up for poorer and darker-skinned Blacks who were overlooked by other prominent Black leaders of the time. Much of his career was defined in opposition to Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist strategies and the influence of his Tuskegee Institute.

Trotter’s accomplishments include publishing The Guardian newspaper, which he set up to carry on the legacy of Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, which became one of the most influential Black newspapers in the early 20th century. Working with W.E.B. Dubois and others, Trotter participated in the Niagara Movement which lead to the establishment of the NAACP.  He did not think the NAACP was radical enough, though, and objected to the prominence of white people in the leadership, so instead ended up forming the National Equal Rights League (NERL) in 1908, which failed to gain the support and membership of its rival.

On political issues, Trotter was adamant that Black voters remain independent and not align themselves. In 1912, Woodrow Wilson won the Presidency with the help of Black voters who swung the vote of Massachusetts and other states. After inauguration, Wilson caved to Southern whites and segregated Federal offices.  Trotter lead protests against Wilson and had heated face-to-face meetings with the President which earned him a measure of fame in the Black community. Trotter also lead protests against the racist film The Birth of a Nation in 1915, which while they failed to stop the screenings of the movie, did energize the Boston Black activist community.

Trotter’s latter years saw him fall into a steep personal and financial decline.  Perhaps his fade from prominence contributed to why he was not well known after his death.  But Greenidge argues that Trotter was the link in radical Black activism for liberation between Frederick Douglass and Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.  I’m glad we have this biography to learn about this overlooked Black radical in Boston and American history.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Entrepreneurs : the Boston business community, 1700-1850edited by Conrad Edick Wright and Katheryn P. Viens


Author: Conrad Edick Wright and Katheryn P. Viens, editors
Title: Entrepreneurs : the Boston business community, 1700-1850
Publication Info: Boston : Massachusetts Historical Society : Distributed by Northeastern University Press, 1997
Summary/Review:

This book is a collection of historical essays through the Massachusetts Historical Society about business in Boston in the 18th and 19th centuries.  I read this book with my co-workers as a way of understanding the people who created many of the materials held in our archival repository. The collection is hit or miss with some essays being really insightful and others being really boring.  Topics range from histories of women and Black people in business in Boston to the innovation of marine insurance, partnerships, and trusts in Boston.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Star Wars: Thrawn
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Del Rey Books, 2017
Summary/Review:

Grand Admiral Thrawn, the antagonist introduced into Star Wars literature in the now non-canonical Heir to the Empire, is reintroduced in this Disney canon novel. This story serves as something of an origin story, beginning with Thrawn being found by the Imperial Navy after apparently having been exiled his mysterious species of people, the Chiss Ascendancy.  The novel depicts his rapid rise through the ranks in the years after the end of the Clone Wars. Thrawn is known for his brilliant observational and strategic skills, and throughout the novel the reader gets  to see his internal monologue on how he unravels the words and mannerisms of others.

The novel is also told from the perspective of Eli Vanto, a young cadet from Wild Space who inadvertently becomes Thrawn’s translator and assistant. At first resentful of the interference in his own career path, Vanto grows to respect Thrawn and also rises in the hierarchy of the Imperial Navy.  They have Holmes and Watson kind of relationship.  In a parallel story, Arihnda Pryce rises to become governor of her homeworld Lothal through similar skills of cunning.

This novel is less war story or space opera and more a work of political intrigue.  Zahn does a great job at taking these putative villains – Thrawn, Vanto, and Pryce – and making them captivating and even sympathetic characters.  The audiobook has great production values and Thompson does great voicework, giving Thrawn the reserve of Anthony Hopkins and Vanto a Appalachian accent befitting his background in Wild Space. This is an excellent novel and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz


Author: Tony Hortwitz
Title: Confederates in the Attic
Narrator: Arthur Addison
Publication Info: Newport Beach, CA : Books On Tape, 1999
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Around 20 years ago, I read Confederates in the Attic and Tony Hortwitz immediately became my favorite history/travel writer. I had just moved back to New England after living seven years in Virginia, and I related to the experience of meeting people obsessed with the past of the lost Civil War. I laughed, of course, at the most eccentric characters, such as the woman who created a Cats of the Confederacy chapter or Robert Lee Hodge, the hardcore living history reenactor.  Hodge, pictured on the cover, was the star of the book and so focused on authenticity that he eschewed Civil War battle reenactments for long marches and drilling in period attire.

Reading this book again in 2021, it feels less a reflection on a way of life that was slowly dying, and more of a warning to the future.  Since this book was published the United States has seen an alarming reemergence of the undergirding ideology of the neo-confederate beliefs depicted in this book – white supremacy and Christian nationalism – and not just in the South.  This has manifest itself in:

  • the hyper-militarized response to the September 11th attacks, built on anti-Muslim discrimination, and the immediate questioning of the patriotism of anyone who challenged these notions.
  • the perverse interpretation of the Second Amendment from an insurrectionist perspective that allowed access to firearms for countless mass murderers
  • the increase in mass incarceration of Black and brown people, the militarization of police forces, and the ability of police and vigilantes to murder Black and brown people without consequences
  • the rise of the Tea Party, numerous white supremacist gangs and organizations, and ultimately the Trump administration
  • And, on the day I finished re-reading this book, all of these things coming together as armed insurrectionists of white supremacists and Christian nationalists invading the US Capitol, some bearing the Confederate battle flag.

Tony Horwitz is no longer with us to offer his perspective, but in retrospect, Confederates in the Attic is a chilling account of a menace within our midst.  Horwitz’s great talent was his ability to meet strangers, talk with them, and form a bond, even when he considered their ideologies loathsome. Through his interviews and experiences in this book he offers a keen insight into the popular memory of the Civil War and its aftermath. 

A lot has changed since Horwitz’s journey through the South in the 1990s, and despite my list above, some of it is for the better.  It would’ve been hard to imagine the sculptures of Confederate generals would ultimately be removed from Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia at the time Horwitz wrote about the controversy about adding an Arthur Ashe statue. I was also fascinated that some of the people who he interviewed had more nuanced views on the Civil War than I recalled, some expressing anti-militant feelings. I also appreciate Horwitz debunking Civil War myths, such as the story of Wilmer McLean, who is said to have had the Civil War beginning and ending in house, but his true story is much more nuanced.

Confederates in the Attic remains one of my favorite books of all time and offers a lot of insight into America’s past and present, and possibly our future.

Recommended books:

Rating: *****

Book Review: George Lucas: A Life by Brian Jay Jones


Author: Brian Jay Jones
Title: George Lucas: A Life
Narrator: Jay Snyder
Publication Info: Hachette Audio (2016)
Previously Read by the Same Author: Jim Henson: The Biography 
Summary/Review:

This is a straightforward biography that traces the life of filmmaker George Lucas through his childhood, education, and various creative endeavors.  As a child of a strict father in Modesto, California, Lucas took an interest in old movie serials, comic books, and fast cars. When he went to University of Southern California he chose to study cinematography because he wanted to do something in the arts and it sounded like something his father wouldn’t immediately dismiss. Young Lucas showed a talent for experimental filmmaking, especially editing, that made him stand out in his class.  

After graduation, Lucas befriended other up and coming young directors, such as Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg. Jones does a good job of explicating the creative process Lucas went through in creating his most famous films including THX-1138, American Graffiti, Willow, Red Tails, and of course the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series. There’s also considerable detail on Lucas developing  LucasFilm, Industrial Light and Magic, and The Skywalker Ranch, all enabling the type of creativity and independence he sought out of reach of the Hollywood moguls.

Qualities of Lucas such as perfectionism and weak interpersonal skills are shown to be both his strengths and weaknesses in film making. His workaholic nature proved too much for his troubled first marriage with the skilled film editor Marcia Griffin, but later in life he would have a more successful relationship with business woman Mellody Hobson.

Jones does a good job of getting inside the life and influences of a private and complex person without being gossipy about it. Lucas’ contributions to movies and the world of entertainment are uncontestable, even if people – including his director friends – believe he was capable of much more. Lucas for his part remains confident in his choices and accepts that audiences may not always be pleased with his vision. 

Recommended books:

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

Rating: ***

2020 Year in Review: Favorite Books


Here’s my annual list of my ten favorite books read in the year.  As always, this is merely the best books I read this year for the first time and not necessarily books published in 20202. For previous years see 2019, 2018,  2017,   2016,   2015,   2014,   2013,   2012,   2011,   2010,   2009,   2008,  2007 and 2006. You may also want to check out My Favorite Books of All Time or see Every Book I’ve Ever Read cataloged in Library Thing.

Books published in 2020 are in bold.

Books Read in 2020

The books are rated on a scale from 1 to 5 stars with links to summary reviews. (A) is for audiobook.

Here’s a thumbnail of what the ratings mean:

  • 5 stars – all-time classic (I’m very stingy with these)
  • 4 stars – a particularly interesting, well-written, or important book
  • 3 stars – a good book from start to finish
  • 2 stars – not a good book on the whole but has some good parts
  • 1 star or less – basically a bad book with no redeeming values

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December