What I’m Reading

Steven Soderbergh keeps a blog of what he reads and watches. I’ve decided to do the same for books, and may mention visual media. (When the kids were little I prohibited the discussion of TV and movies at dinner – a rule I now routinely violate).

All caps, bold: BOOK

March 2024:

FROM SCARSDALE, By Dan O’Brien
“Why does everything you write have to be depressing?” O’Brien’s mother asks as he proves very good at writing growing up in Scarsdale. It’s O’Brien’s way of clawing out of the wreckage of his family life. O’Brien is an accomplished playwright now. This memoir is bracketed around an older brother’s odd attempt at suicide by upper-story window plunge. It’s a tale of gross parental inadequacy. Cheever also plied these suburbs. So did I. I grew up on the same street, just up the hill, a bit over a decade earlier. Childhoods like O’Brien’s can be cancer-inducing, it seems. And O’Brien writes piercingly about that trauma, too. He writes with such unforgiving honesty it’s no wonder his parents don’t talk to him anymore.

IN WARTIME, STORIES FROM UKRAINE, By Tim Judah
A lot of this was published in the The New York Review of Books and its blog, the NYR Daily, in 2013 and 2014 after the ouster of Kremlin lackey Viktor Yanukovych for scuttling Ukrainians’ bid to join the EU. Judah has a knack for finding precisely the right people to tell the story of this very complicated, troubled piece of Europe that’s been a hornet’s nest of competing political and ethnic loyalties for generations. The war has mostly drowned out discussion of Ukraine’s recent past, making this book especially valuable. The chapter “Lemberg to Lviv” should be required reading for anyone who desires a quick toe dip into Ukraine’s past in order to better understand its present.

MEANS OF CONTROL, By Byron Tau
The author, while a Wall Street Journal reporter in Washington, D.C., had a bunch of important scoops while endeavoring to trace and expose the lucrative, privacy-stealing marriage of surveillance capitalism and military and intelligence agencies. Sen. Ron Wyden’s been at this for years and has had great synergy with Tau and other reporters. Wyden’s tech advisor, Chris Soghoian, helped me years ago when I was researching Colombia-related privacy abuses involving U.S. supplied equipment. He was at the ACLU at the time. My review of the Tau book for the AP.

February 2024:

ISTANBUL: MEMORIES AND THE CITY, By Orhan Pamuk
This Nobel Literature Prize laureate takes a lot of heat for his constant references to his city’s melancholy, or “hüzün” in Turkish, in this meandering memoir published in 2006. But melancholy isn’t gloomy for Pamuk. I wouldn’t recommend this book as either a history or contemporary portrait of this remarkable maritime intersection of East and West. It does give one a remarkable feel, though, for a world gone by and packs in some terrific texture on the artists and writers who nourished the author as a young man. If you’re a Pamuk fan — I’ve only read “Snow” of his novels — you’ll likely love it. I found it atmospheric and endearing even if it is a rather Pamuk family-centric bildungsroman at essence.

THE HEAVEN AND EARTH GROCERY STORE, By James McBride
Chona Ludlow, the compassionate heart of this novel, is partly fashioned after the author’s maternal grandmother, a Polish Jew whose joyless marriage to an imperious, money-grubbing failed rabbi left McBride’s mother, Ruth, emotionally scarred. They ran a grocery in rural Virginia. In this rollicking tale of race relations in Pottstown, Pennsylvania in the 1920s and 30s, McBride gets to rewrite history a bit. Chona’s marriage is good. What’s more, the community’s Jews and the Blacks, sharing outcast status, come to get along thanks in large part to her. She runs the grocery story — at a big-hearted loss. McBride imagines unforgettable characters, pickles the novel with sly humor and delivers poetic justice.

January 2024:

THE COLOR OF WATER, By James McBride
My second McBride read after THE GOOD LORD BIRD. A love letter to the writer’s remarkable mother — a Polish-born Jew who fell in love with a Black man (a preacher) in Harlem, lost him early to cancer (after James was conceived but before he was born) then remarried only to become twice a widower. The testament to Ruth McBride Jordan’s character, fearlessness and fortitude are her 12 children. All are immensely accomplished. I love how James coaxed Ruth’s life story out of her. It took more than a decade. Also incredible: James’ description of food’s nonexistent shelf life in the McBride-Jordan home.

NOTES ON A FOREIGN COUNTRY, AN AMERICAN ABROAD IN A POST-AMERICAN WORLD
By Suzy Hansen
I discovered Hansen after reading her New York Review meditation on American imperial adventure in the age of outsourced war the new U.S. Spartan class shoulders — ostensibly a review of Phil Klay’s “Uncommon Ground” but like all the best writing in this genre much deeper. She finds the superpower of her youth drained of purpose, kicking off hatred-inducing sparks like a reckless flywheel. I missed the book when it was published in 2017 probably because I, too, had just returned to the homeland after years abroad. Hansen’s soul-wrenching, bitter Obama-era awakening — from apostle of American exceptionalism raise in white New Jersey to world-weary foreign correspondent witnessing Turkey’s turmoil — seems almost a cliche. But Hansen’s telling is electric and honest. She learned quickly, and embarrassed herself. She also made me want to visit Istanbul. Which I will. This book is so much more than a story of one woman’s cultural awakening. There’s a great James Baldwin component.