Michael Denison, a recently renewed member, joined us for Book Lovers SIG in January. He is the third new member to join our growing group since we shifted to Zoom meetings this past summer. It’s so great to see members getting involved.

Joining Michael was the usual gang: Nathan, Peggy, Jeanette, Barbara, Coleen, David, and Cynthia.

On to the books…

Barbara read A Libertarian Walks into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (and Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling. The title appears a setup for a joke but entertaining though it often is, is not a joke. Hongoltz-Hetling, a Pulitzer nominee and George Polk Award winner, combines the history of what is now New Hampshire from pre-Revolutionary times, natural history, and current events in a fascinating story of the attempt by some radical libertarians to turn the town of Grafton, population around 1,300, into the libertarian utopia of Free Town. This attempt ended in failure, undone by the increasing encroachment of black bears into the area which, it seemed, might be considering humans as prey, and by a greater, more successful plan by more organized libertarians to turn the entire state of New Hampshire into a Free State.

With a large and colorful cast of real characters, both natives of Grafton and incomers, the account reads at times like fiction. The history of bear management in New Hampshire, from earliest times to current regulations, is also engrossing. A timely and thought-provoking read.

Jeanette finished The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson. That’s all I remember off the top of my head; we’ll include the rest of her list in a later issue.

Coleen read Owl Be Home for Christmas, by Donna Andrews, a fun mystery. The protagonist is a young woman named Meg. In this book her grandfather, who is an ornithologist, has organized a conference about owls, taking place the week before Christmas. Meg is the de facto conference troubleshooter. They all get snowed in by a huge snowstorm. Of course, someone is murdered. The police can’t get there so Meg must solve the murder. Never a dull moment. Lots of quirky characters. Entertaining read.

She also read the classic The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. She first read this book about 45 years ago. Upon rereading it this month, she found that she remembered nothing about this book! Set about 75 years ago, some of the things that happen are definitely dated, but the same types of things still happen to young people — just in different ways. Holden Caulfield is coming of age, but I think he is obviously having some sort of mental crisis. Still, a pretty good book. She felt she probably liked it better when she was younger.

David finished the last volume of a long series he’s been reading, Homeward Bound by Harry Turtledove about an alien invasion by lizard people. The saga came to a satisfying conclusion with several original characters negotiating a truce at the end. Earth lives!

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson. The six innovations are glass, cold, sound, clean, time, and light. Discussions of how each of these things changed our modern world.

Through Space to Mars and Lost on the Moon by Roy Rockwood. Early science fiction which was part of the Stratemeyer Syndicate (Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, etc.) that was published between 1905 and 1908. Speculation is that Robert Heinlein may have read books like these as a young man.

Peggy had an interesting list for January:

How to Raise an Elephant, by Alexander McCall-Smith, the 21st novel in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Peggy found it similar to the others in the series, only with more elephants.

The Searcher, by Tana French. A mystery, but not in the way you think.
Company of Liars, by Karen Maitland. A reinterpretation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Curry, a Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, by Elizabeth Collingham. The first authoritative history of Indian food. [Mmm, Indian food.]

Peggy reported on the following in December, but I didn’t get them included in the last report:

War Lord, by Bernard Cornwell. This is the 13th book of the Last Kingdom series, which follows the tale of Alfred the Great and his descendants through the eyes of Uhtred, an English boy born into the aristocracy of ninth-century Northumbria, captured by the Danes and taught the Viking ways.

Where Law Ends: Inside the Mueller Investigation, by Andrew Weissmann.
Conspiracy (a Giordano Bruno mystery), by S.J. Parris.
Murder by Milk Bottle, by Lynne Truss (author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves).

Cynthia read Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain by psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett. She discusses how our brain’s number one priority is to keep us alive, that brains are one big network rather than three separate layers, and that they are really good at predicting what we are going to do next. She found it an enjoyable science book that she wants to read more than once.

Nathan read Jonathan Strange and Mr. NorrelI, by Susanna Clarke. This was his third time reading the book, this time aloud to two of his children. It takes place in the early 19th century, mostly in England. Magic is real, but nobody knows how to do it except for Gilbert Norrell, and he isn’t sharing information. Despite Norrell’s best efforts at hoarding all magical books to prevent anyone else from learning, Jonathan Strange successfully takes up magic after a vagabond magician named Vinculus tells him a prophecy about two men reviving English magic. I really can’t say enough good things about Strange and Norrell. It’s one of the finest books he’s ever read. A long read but rewarding.

Other books Nathan powered through to reach his Goodreads goal of 70 books for the year:

The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us — and How to Know When Not to Trust Them by David H. Freedman
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor
Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot

Michael is currently reading a classic, East of Eden by John Steinbeck. He recently read The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. He found it interesting to compare them with the film versions.

Caroline wasn’t able to join us but did read several books: a biography of Margaret Thatcher; Hemingway on Hunting, by Ernest Hemingway, edited by Sean Hemingway, foreword by Patrick Hemingway; and The Rainbow, by D. H. Lawrence.

My top read for the month is A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov has never worked a day in his life but must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Towles’ writing is almost a character in itself. I highly recommend this book.

Next up is Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, by Robert Kolker. This is a fascinating book about an American family with twelve children, six of them diagnosed with schizophrenia. That story is interwoven with the history of the study of schizophrenia and the numerous and varied attempts to study, diagnose, and treat the disease over the decades.

I finally got around to reading Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh. This has been on my to-read list for well over a year. Smarsh grew up in Wichita, about 21 years after I did. She writes about how hard it was growing up there. I expect so, given that her grandmother and mother both had kids by the time they were 16, and Smarsh managed to break the cycle. People who didn’t grow up in that area seemed to love this book. I think of them as misery tourists. I, on the other hand, lived just as hard of a life, so really didn’t feel the tug of pity she wrote for.

In between the real books I finished the latest by Michael Connelly and Ian Rankin. Both write excellent detective stories and give one a quick read after being immersed in either schizophrenia or the despair of Wichita.

Connelly’s book: Defense attorney Mickey Haller is framed for murder in The Law of Innocence. Haller is pulled over by police, who find the body of a former client in the trunk of his Lincoln. Haller decides to represent himself. It’s not enough to win an acquittal; he is determined to prove his innocence. Stepbrother Harry Bosch, a retired detective, helps along the way.

Rankin’s book: In A Song for the Dark Times, retired DI John Rebus assists in identifying the person that murdered the husband of his estranged daughter. Rebus has aged considerably and has had to move to a ground floor apartment because he can no longer climb the stairs. Rankin writes a darker, more realistic character, which I enjoy.

Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice by Bill Browder, is the true story about an American financier in the Wild East of Russia, the murder of his young tax attorney, and his dangerous mission to expose the Kremlin’s corruption. The first half of the book is about Browder’s education and early years in finance. The final half of the book goes into the details of how Vladimir Putin organized the theft of his company. Not satisfied with that, Putin set out to destroy Browder personally. Unable to reach him in London, Putin instead ordered Browder’s Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, arrested on trumped up charges, then had him beaten to death while in prison. Browder vowed to avenge this action. It took him many years, but he finally persuaded the U.S. Congress to pass the Magnitsky Act, which barred the Russians responsible for these actions from traveling to the U.S., while also freezing their assets. Notable in this tale is the fact that President Barack Obama ordered Senator John Kerry to do everything he could to prevent this legislation from passing. Obama was attempting to reset relations with Russia and didn’t want to upset Russian leadership. Kerry went along because he wanted to be appointed as Secretary of State. Fortunately, other senators and congressmen weren’t as corrupt and the Magnitsky Act finally passed. Fascinating story.

Dark Abyss is the fifth and final book in the Eternal Frontier military space opera series. Author Anthony J. Melchiorri writes characters you can care about and always keeps the action moving.

Rounding out the quick reads is Salt, by Colin Barnes. A dystopian version of Waterworld, only with more water.

Goodreads reports I read 46 books in 2020, totaling 18,621 pages. My goal is to read 50 books this year, with the first three already completed.

Book Lovers SIG meets at 2:00 p.m. on the 2nd Sunday of each month. That means in February we meet on the 14th, which is Valentine’s Day. So, if you LOVE books, email me so I can add you to the Zoom invite list. ~Brad Lucht