The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles – Book

From a Google Image Search – CBS News

In Amor Towles book, The Lincoln Highway, Billy Watson, young brother of main character Emmett, has been staying with a neighbor, Sally. His brother was serving a sentence at a juvenile work farm, his father recently died, and Billy is living out of his backpack which he keeps very close. In the backpack, along with his collection of silver dollars, is his treasured edition of Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and other Intrepid Travelers. These heroes whether mythical or real are beginning a new journey to complete a task or find something that is lost or to take care of a responsibility that has been entrusted to them. In other words, they are on a quest.

As the brothers are going through their father’s things they discover postcards from their mother, who left them on a memorable Fourth of July. The postcards, addressed to the boys show the stops their mom made on her trip west and the postcards stop at San Francisco, suggesting that that is where she may have settled to begin her new life. The thing they know for sure about her is that she loved fireworks and never missed an Independence Day display. Billy also knew from his mom’s postcard that there was such a spectacle every Fourth in San Francisco. Emmett loves his brother and he wants to please him but he wants to go to Texas. He was an apprentice to a local builder and now he wants to buy and restore houses, but he needs a city that is growing. After some research in the library (it’s the fifties, no internet, no cell phones) he discovers that San Francisco is growing even faster than Texas. The brothers agree to go to San Francisco on the Lincoln Highway, a real American highway that runs from coast to coast. 

Every good quest meets with obstacles and this quest is no exception. Two of Emmett’s incarcerated friends show up at the repossessed farm as the brothers prepare to leave. They have not been legally released from their sentences. Duchess and Woolly are two very different individuals. Woolly may have a slight mental disability, but he was born into a wealthy family. His father died and he is set to inherit a fairly large sum of money. Duchess is an opportunist. He never had a stable place to rest his head; his father was an itinerant actor who was often drunk. Duchess has a certain charisma though, and he has a ton of nerve. He doesn’t want to go to San Francisco. He wants to go to New York City to collect Woolly’s fortune. So he and a reluctant Woolly steal the car that Emmett paid for with his own apprentice pay and he leaves Emmett and Billy to find their own way to San Francisco. If a quest must have obstacles this twist is the first in a long line of them. It forces Emmett and Billy to follow Duchess and Woolly to New York City, not only to recover the car but to retrieve the envelop containing the $3,000 their father left for them in the well with the spare tire. 

Take the Lincoln Highway on this wild quest and you will meet more heroes and villains than you have in many a day. And you will discover that ordinary people often contain the stuff of heroes, and villains. Amor Towles writes about the quirks of human nature in ways that allow us to focus on what is best about us and what is worst about us. It’s a long journey but it goes quickly and yet the heroes pace is slowed by many astonishing events.

Silverview by John Le Carré  – Book

From a Google Image Search – Time Magazine

In an ‘afterword’ to the book Silverview, Le Carré’s youngest son, Nick Cornwell, tells us that the manuscript for this book was one his father worked on and set aside. He never seemed completely satisfied with it, but it was essentially finished. This was not one of those posthumous agreements allowing a new person to complete an unfinished manuscript. A bit of simple editing was all that was required. Silverview by John Le Carré offers fans a temporary reprieve from the finality of a beloved author’s passing. 

Julian Lawndsley has grown a conscience and left his successful career in the stock market to move to a small town by the sea. He opens a bookstore. He is not a reader and knows next to nothing about books, but he has a bank roll, and he has style. Julian is just considering leaving his new life behind to go back to what he knows because business is slow and boring. Then Edward Avon wanders in. Here is a man who is alive and exciting, even if slightly dodgy, and he knows books. He is also a mystery, quite inscrutable. Little does Julian know that he is being used by a spy gone rogue, a man married to a spy who is dying.

This is new territory for Le Carré, with new characters and new locations – no George Smiley, no Russia. Edward had been active in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia where ethnic cleansing can sicken even the most intrepid spirit. Edward cannot stay objective, and he questions whether an agency that requires its employees to stay objective should even exist. We view events through Julian’s eyes, the view of a mystified bookseller who is currently, in his new life, a fish out of water. The point of view allows Le Carré to fill the reader in little by little, creating that fog of intelligence work so familiar throughout his oeuvre. 

Silverview is the house of spies where Edward’s wife lives while she is dying. The fog of secrecy emanates from Silverview. The fog is part of the appeal. It confuses our reader’s view of Edward’s secret lapse from the rules of intelligence. However, his misadventures are not as secret from his handlers as he thinks. Edward and his wife Debbie have a daughter. Lily, who has a two-year-old son, Sam, and no husband. Julian may end up losing his partnership with Edward, but he may have found a new reason to stay in this village by the sea. Edward is up to something but my lips are sealed.

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead – Book

From a Google Image Search – Time Magazine

In the first chapter of his book Harlem Shuffle, Colson Whitehead sucked me right into his world. It was serendipity. His main character, Ray Carney, was driving in his truck to see Aronowitz, an old man who was a wizard at fixing up TVs and radios. Aronowitz had a shop full of tubes, TV tubes, radio tubes. It’s 1959, that’s what was inside radios and TVs in those days. I felt at home because my father’s basement workshop was full of those same tubes and the neighbors’ TVs and radios that needed repairs.’

Ray Carney is the owner of a furniture store at a good spot on 125 th street. He precariously straddles a life as a proud small businessman and a fence for stolen goods, because he can’t seem to leave behind his crooked cousin Freddie, his almost brother since early childhood. As Freddie’s life deteriorates, Carney’s life improves, but it is a life and death struggle. Between characters like Miami Joe, Chink Montague, and Pepper who keep pulling him into illegal schemes and the beat cop, Detective Munson, making him pay protection, getting ahead was like maneuvering through a minefield. It did help that criminals switched girlfriends a lot and bought a new dinette set for each lady friend.

There is a heist that Carney is roped into by Freddie and there is the rumor of an extremely valuable necklace. How far will Carney go to protect his dream and his ‘new apartment fund’, his wife Elizabeth and his little son and daughter? How far will he have to go? When Carney is moved to take revenge against Wilfred Dukes for one betrayal too many, Carney shows his focus and effectiveness, which suggest that he would have made a better crook than most of the crooks around him. Then Harlem erupts in violence when a young black man is killed by a policeman without any justification. Carney hunkers down in his store with his Heywood-Wakefield furniture lines and his Argent recliners and stays there day and night until the riots end and his store is safe, because the riots did not come to his little corner of the world

Most of us, if we are trying to get ahead in business do not have to face the challenges that Ray Carney had to face. There is a good argument in this story for taking Carney’s businessman route as opposed to the chaos of pursuing illegal means to get rich. Some people who break laws and learn to be tough, who will kill at the slightest provocation may manage to find their way into a legal and better life, but the odds are not great. Once Freddie meets Linus, a rich and interesting guy and an addict, Freddie’s fate is sealed, and Carney ends up in possession of that necklace full of emeralds which he has no idea how to rid himself of. This is a story of Harlem, but it could just as easily take place in any modern city. Colson Whitehead once again shows his chops as a writer.

Intimacies by Katie Kitamura – Book

From a Google Image Search – The New York Times

What an interesting novel – Intimacies by Katie Kitamura – an unexplored corner of the globe, a life previously uncontemplated. There is something new under the sun. Once again, we are presented with a first-person novel where the main character remains unnamed, perhaps because she represents a new reality. She is a child of our global world, Serbian mother, Ethiopian father. She lives in NYC while offering care to her father during a long illness. He mother has gone back to Singapore where the family used to live. After her father dies NYC holds too many sad memories. Because she knows several languages well enough to speak as a native speaker and others to at least understand, she applies for and is given a one-year contract for a job at the International Court of Justice at the Hague in the Netherlands.

After six months she has learned a bit of Dutch and has acquired a boyfriend, Adriaan. The intimacies a reader might expect to find in a book with this title are not what we find. There are no sex scenes. This author is exploring the intimacies of people bumping up against each other in ways that are not at all intimate and yet learning intimate things about virtual strangers. 

She is isolated from the city she lives in. She has made a few friends and there are the people she works with but they are separated by the nature of the work. She has no truly intimate connections. Her job as an interpreter at the court has her confined to a glass box, wearing headphones, translating from one language to another almost without listening to content, because she must switch languages quickly in her mind and remember the text of a witness or lawyer word for word.  

She has a boyfriend, and he invites her to live with him, but then he leaves to pursue his wife and children in Portugal. He tells her to stay until he returns, but then he stops communicating. Eventually she moves back to her own nondescript apartment. She admires the way her friend Jana has personalized her new home, she longs for the permanence of a place to settle, but she stays adrift. She arrives late for a dinner with Adriaan and Jana, and feels that some intimacy has taken place in her absence that is not shared with her. She makes another friend who turns out to support the unethical behavior of a brother.

What happens while she is in that glass box is intimate in an entirely different way. One of the trials involves a terrorist who has done unspeakable things but has a charming demeanor at odds with his horrendous acts. Another involves a deposed president of a nation in turmoil who bears no guilt for acts of genocide, torture and execution. But he doesn’t present as a monster. He presents as a victim of people who are crueler and more power-hungry than he is. “Although she knew there was nothing the man could do to her, she could not deny that she was afraid, he was a man who inspired fear, even while sitting immobile he radiated power.”

This is a look at intimacies that do nothing to expel loneliness. Our lady says, “increasingly I’d begun to think the docile surface of the city concealed a more complex and contradictory nature.” The book is layered and has captured the nature of the city and the Court, and indeed, modern life. There might be a veneer of civility, but beneath it the Hague was as complex as any city. Encountering evil in a place that takes great care to present a calm face is unsettling even though the one observing the evil is at a safe remove. In the end she says she felt, “not primarily fear, she felt guilt. I will watch out for books by Katie Kitamura. 

The Reading List by Sara Nishe Adams – Book

From a Google Image Search – goodreads.com

In Sara Nishe Adams’ book The Reading List, one of the main characters, Aleisha, has a summer job at the Harrow Road Library, a small neighborhood library in danger of closing. The library has been forgotten by residents in the bustle of daily life. Aleisha is at the checkout desk and is not in a good mood when an old man, Mukesh, cannot even open the door to the library. She is short with him, and he leaves upset. Aleisha’s boss takes her to task about her behavior. She is the librarian he tells her. She needs to take her responsibilities seriously. Aleisha is young. She doesn’t like being scolded, but she got this job because her brother, Aidan loved this library and he had also worked there one summer. She decided she would behave for her brother’s sake. When Mukesh forces himself to return to the library Aleisha is a different person. She has found a list in the library, left on a table. It’s a reading list. The first book on the list is To Kill a Mockingbird, although the first book mentioned in a chapter title is The Time Traveler’s Wife

Mukesh lost his wife to cancer. She was a voracious reader. Mukesh was not. His wife also read books with her granddaughter Priya, and Priya became a book lover like Naina. Mukesh was not making much headway with Priya. She would find a chair at his house and read and ignore her grandfather. When Aleisha recommended that Mukesh read To Kill a Mockingbird, the book interrupted his grief and gave him a way to stay close to his wife even after death. This also gave him a way to be more pleasing in the eyes of his granddaughter, Priya.

In fact, everyone who found that reading list, including Leonora, Chris, Indira, Izzy, Joseph, Gigi, Aleisha, Mukesh found their lives changed by the characters and themes in those books and by sharing their thoughts about the books with others. Eventually, it seems, the repercussions from this ‘reading list’ may even end up saving the Harrow Road Library.

This is a simple tale that ends up having more depth than you would think. The problems these characters are dealing with in their personal lives are rather serious ones that could derail a life, and in real life such traumas do psychological damage that loneliness exacerbates. Some of these characters have lost loved ones, some are troubled by social difficulties, one character is dealing with such hopelessness that he cannot cope with it. Not everyone is saved. But a community of fictional characters, relevant plots, and a cause offers a reset to more than one of the characters in The Reading List, who are intended to represent real people. 

Who made the copies of this book list and distributed them? Will we find out? What nationalities are these people who all live in London now? Do people from Kenya eat Indian food? What is the religion of many of the characters? Does it matter if we know the answers to any of these questions when the same solution seemed to work to pull almost everyone out of their personal preoccupations and isolation. It’s a sweet book. I know we are not supposed to use the word ‘sweet’ when describing literature. There is bitterness in this story also. But it is an uplifting story overall and it would not hurt anyone to read the books on that reading list. In fact, I might read some of them again.  

The Guide by Peter Heller – Book

From a Google Image Search – The Independent

The Guide by Peter Heller also features Jack from Heller’s book The River. In The River Jack loses his best friend, Wynn. Wynn was the poet of the pair, so we lose some of the cadence of the story of the canoe trip to Hudson Bay. Jack has been back at home helping his father on their ranch and things are caught up leaving Jack some time to take a guide job and earn some money. Not only was Jack practically born on a horse, but he is an excellent fisherman, kayaker, and canoeist. A lodge serving very wealthy clients has lost a guide mid-season so Jack takes the position. He regrets his decision almost as soon as he meets the man who runs the operation, Kurt Jensen, and learns all the strange rules about what he is and is not allowed to do. Jack feels that something about the place just doesn’t feel right. He immediately goes off fishing to learn the streams and because he feels better when he is smelling pine and tying flies and drifting his line into a spot full of the kinds of bugs fish loved to eat. 

He is assigned to be fishing guide and teacher for Alison K., who he intuits is someone famous. He doesn’t recognize her, but as they spend the days on the stream, he recognizes that she is a famous singer from the snatches of song she sings to herself as she fishes. The odd part of this place is all the prohibitions. You could not go past the bridge across the stream because the old man on the property next door would shoot you. There were cameras mounted in places where no cameras should be needed. Jack could not keep his guns with him, or his truck. You needed a passcode to go anywhere. Kurt seemed upset when Alison and Jack went into town for dinner one night. The people seemed odd also. They had bandages on their hands and circles under their eyes one day and the next they were perky and well. Fortunately, Jack finds an ally in Alison. They fish and snoop together.

This book is driven by plot much more than The River which was driven also by the style of the prose. The topic of The Guide is shocking and one that has not often come up in other books I have read. As a mystery, this story works very well. It also has an element of social commentary to give it heft. And our heroes come close to dying. Except for the lack of romance, which is sort of refreshing, it’s all very satisfying. And my mind foresees the possibility of future romance. I know, I am such a girl. Just ignore it if it offends.

The River by Peter Heller – Book

From a Google Image Search – Criminal Element

The River by Peter Heller took me back to my teen years when my brother and his best friend, if they had more money, could have easily been Jack and Wynn, the young men in this story. This is a tale that runs by as fast as a river current. Jack and Wynn love nothing better than being outdoors, adventuring in a canoe, fishing and hunting and smoking their pipes on a riverbank in front of a fire. They are both very experienced. Jack grew up on a ranch and lived on horseback from a very young age. He learned to accept both hardships and pleasures as normal occurrences. His judgment did not get clouded by adrenaline. Wynn grew up in the more tamed nature of New England in a loving family. He knew how to stay safe when away from civilization, but he did not have to develop the toughness that Jack’s life required.

These two friends, brought together by their interests, have planned to go on a canoe trip up to Hudson Bay. They have carefully collected their supplies and figured out how to stow them in the canoe to keep their craft balanced and to keep their supplies dry. But there are forces afoot on the river that leads to Hudson Bay over which they have no control. There are two other parties on the river. That should not have been a problem, but people are unpredictable, even adventurers do not all have trustworthy characters. Nature becomes a potent adversary in this river equation as these folks all try to outrun a forest fire to make it to Hudson Bay to get a plane out. The one thing Jack and Wynn decided not to bring with them, a sat phone, would have been the most essential tool to have on this expedition. What ensues is one nail-biting situation after another. You may be able to trust your boon companion, but you cannot trust other people and you cannot predict what nature will throw at you. (And, perhaps, you don’t want to be a woman on the river.)

The voice of the narrator, with its Hemingwayesque short ‘illegal’ sentences suits the backwoods adventure and these young men who approach life, if not grammar, with planning and almost reverence for form and well-practiced routines. Frequent literary references show that these boys are more than just hicks. This is a voice I have heard before, but my brain won’t remind me of exactly what author it resembles, perhaps Mark Twain. Poetic descriptions are drawn without effort, never overdone. 

“The canoe moved this morning as if greased. North again toward the top of the lake where it became a true river. They let their eyes rove the shore looking for the colors of a tent or tents, the shape of a boat on a beach, but saw only more patches of yellow in the trees and a swath of orange black-eyed Susans on the shore. They watched a skein of geese fly over that end of the lake, just one side of the V, an uneven phalanx that curved and straightened as they flew in constant correction. The distant barks drifted down.” (Pg. 36)

“They got hot. They paddled hard. Almost thirty miles on a flat-water current was a long way even for them. Because the river slowed and expended itself in unexpected wide coves. From which loons called as they passed—the rising wail that cracked the afternoon with irrepressible longing and seemed to darken the sky. The ululant laughter that followed. Mirthless and sad. And from across the slough or from far downstream the cry that answered.” (Pg. 1160

There is a new book The Guide by Peter Heller which features Jack once again. Can’t wait.

The Cellist by Daniel Silva-Book

From a Google Image Search – Houstonian Magazine

The Cellist by Daniel Silva-Book

The Cellist by Daniel Silva begins with a painting, as Gabriel Allon spy stories often do. It begins at Isherwood Galleries with Sarah Bancroft, the beautiful agent Gabriel recruited in The New Girl. Sarah likes to believe Gabriel managed to ruin her for any other life. Right now, Sarah is running the gallery. She decides to sell a somewhat damaged painting called The Lute Player, attributed all these years to the wrong artist. She sees it as a challenge to do this during the COVID-19 pandemic and the gallery could certainly use a spectacular sale. Sarah thinks Viktor Orlov might buy the painting if Gabriel will restore it. Viktor is a Russian oligarch, out of favor with the leader of Russia, hiding in plain sight in England. However, when Sarah gets to Viktor’s house the door is unlocked, but no one answers the bell. She discovers Viktor dead in front of a packet of papers he has just opened. Fortunately, she knows better than to touch anything. The papers are covered with a fine layer of powdered Novichok, a nerve agent. 

And there begins a tale of Russia, one of Gabriel’s favorite places to try to fight for human rights and get rid of the bad guys. This is a story of the moment, and I liked it far more than Silva’s other modern story of terrorism, The Black Widow. Perhaps I was simply used to time-mellowed alleys in old world Vienna, scuffles with corrupt Swiss bankers who paid Nazis big bucks for stolen Jewish possessions, his vendetta with the Catholic priests who sided with Nazis, and his special relationship with the Vatican. Something as modern as dealing with ISIS in modern-day France seemed outside Silva’s usual oeuvre. 

But Isabel Brenner, the talented cellist who can hold entire symphonies in her memory, is a fine addition to the lovely women Gabriel recruits. He did not recruit her at random. She works for the Russian Laundromat, a secret arm of RhineBank (fictional substitute for DeutscheBank). She is the one who has been passing on RhineBank data sheets to a female Russian journalist Gabriel knows well. Isabel identified herself as Mr. Nobody. Gabriel must decide if Isabel is the one who dusted the documents handed to Viktor with Novichok, or if her spying had been discovered and she was now being used. 

We’re talking Russia here–a Russia run by thugs, killers, and thieves. A Russia still governed by a leader trained by the KGB and his cagey bag man Arkady Akimov. Arkady may be so blinded by wealth that he is willing to steal from a man who is more ruthless than he is, but he also loves classical music and indulges in philanthropy with his stolen money. Gabriel comes up with a plot which he hopes will topple RhineBank and Arkady, and perhaps even Arkady’s old neighborhood pal, the president of Russia.

Gabriel’s wife, Chiara, has wrested from him a promise that he will serve only one term as the head of the Israeli secret service after which they, and the twins, will retire to Vienna to be near Chiara’s aging father. Gabriel is using his old team, perhaps in an audition to see who will run ‘the office’ next. The women Gabriel recruits to help in his operations rarely come away unscathed, and neither does Gabriel. Gabriel ends his story in Washington, DC on the worst possible date, January 6th where he runs into an extremist Qanon believer with a gun. She shoots him through and through. Chiara has one more reason to extort a retirement from a husband who keeps saying that he wants to retire and then getting sucked in one more time. If he lives, will he finally retire. Not if Daniel has a few more books to write which we hope he does. Readers will demand more Gabriel Allon in some form. Although Silva’s commentary on January 6 th and Qanon will not please everyone, this reader felt he expressed himself very well on those subjects.

Gabriel serves as an investigator to allow Silva to expose injustices to his readers. Gabriel also exacts the kinds of vengeance we would all like to reap sometimes. The venality people get up to in this world often makes us despair. Do human beings have any redeeming qualities.? Gabriel not only gets revenge, but he has many redeeming qualities that remind us that life is both yin and yang, cowboys and outlaws, Nazis and resistance fighters. Some complain that this makes Gabriel unbelievable as a character, but not if we see him as a teacher, a symbol and ‘the tip of the spear’. 

The Guilt Trip by Sandie Jones-Book

From a Google Image Search-Barnes and Noble

Ali is marrying Jack’s brother Will, but everyone thinks that she is showy and inauthentic. She loses her passport just as they are all trying to check in at the airport to fly to a villa in Portugal-a destination wedding. Then everyone else loses their patience.

The Guilt Trip by Sandie Jones gives us a tale of misjudgments and suspicions. Rachel, Jack’s wife, tells the story, and we are inside her head. Her head tells her that Ali is having an affair with her husband Jack. Will, Ali’s husband-to-be, is Jack’s brother. Rachel’s best friend Noah and his wife, Paige, are also staying at the villa. After speaking with Noah about their past together, Rachel is obsessed with her own guilt trip, which makes it more difficult to focus on the social interactions around her. She draws several incorrect conclusions.

Fortunately, Jack and Paige are smokers, so they get to disappear periodically to have a smoke, thus giving Rachel plenty of time to indulge her fears and wallow in her guilt. Ironically, she is probably one of the least guilty people at the wedding. 

The events that bring the wedding weekend to a dramatic conclusion are certainly unusual, but it’s difficult to ‘suspend our disbelief’. The restaurant chosen for this expensive destination wedding is described as structurally unsound, somewhat ramshackle. Why would the couple pick such a spectacular villa to stay in before the wedding and such a rundown reception venue? Given what happens, far more casualties would have been expected. 

What kept me reading is the actual guilt trip at the center of the story. The guilt trip itself was entirely believable, as were the superficial judgments made about Ali’s character. However, the astounding events at the end were a bit too engineered and unlikely. As for Ali, well, I can’t even tell you, but all is revealed in the aftermath of the dramatic denouement. 

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells-Book

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells is a fun series for all fans of space and science fiction. This particular addition to the series is called Fugitive Telemetry. When our Murderbot removed his governor module and became aware of his intended purpose he was aghast. He really was not at all inclined to go around murdering humans, although it was much easier with evil humans. Much of the world at this time is run by corporations who have their headquarters in the corporate rim. GrayCris is one of the worst, willing to commit all kinds of mayhem for profit.

Murderbot met up with a research space lab piloted by a bot named ART. ART and Murderbot did not get along well at first. MB turned ART on to the videos of his favorite soap operas and saved the ship from an attack. Art helped MB use the medical unit aboard ship to change himself into a less obvious Security unit or Sec Unit. But he still has his guns in his arms so, if necessary, he will kill in self-defense or to save his new human cohorts.

Murderbot saved Mensah, the leader of Preservation Station, a semi-utopian independent colony established outside the corporation rim. She had a run-in with GrayCris and MB saved her. She took MB, now a Sec Unit, home to Preservation where he lived as the only augmented human. Sec Unit didn’t like humans much, but he did like Mensah and he knew GrayCris would come after her again.

But that’s not what happens in Fugitive Telemetry. This time Sec Unit solves a murder on Preservation Station, a very rare occurrence. What he uncovers is a crime we find fairly common on earth and his investigation involves a rescue. He also makes some headway in becoming accepted by the Preservation police force. Just a little candy bar of a story in the grand scheme of things; fast, nutty and satisfying.