Best of 2016: Nonfiction

I didn’t have to think twice about this one. This category includes any nonfiction published for the first time this year except for biographies and memoirs, which have their own category on this site. If you haven’t read this one, you should. It’s not only important, but oddly fascinating.

Fire Lover, by Joseph Wambaugh*****

fireloveratruestory John Orr was a fire fighter that wanted to become a cop. The psychological test weeded him out; his personality wasn’t stable enough for a guy that carries a gun for a living, and they turned him down. Over the years, however, he became not only a fire chief, but a highly respected arson investigator, and took tremendous pride in the fact that he was part of the law enforcement community. However, occasional snubs from that group made him livid, and he dealt with his rage in the most horrific manner imaginable: he became the most prolific arsonist in California history. Joseph Wambaugh captures this true crime story in electrifying detail. I received my copy from Open Road Media and Net Galley in exchange for an honest review, but you can get your copy Tuesday, October 18, 2016 when it is digitally released.

It starts with the Ole Hardware Store fire. Ole is a family owned business, but it is large in scale, the size of a big box store, and four people die there. Wambaugh provides personal, poignant details of those that perish, and I appreciate this. The white Volkswagen is particularly moving.

Orr doesn’t see it as poignant or tragic, however; he is enraged at the cops and insurance investigators for calling it an accident, and in order to achieve recognition for his twisted projects, he sets more fires. More. And still more. And as the fires increase, the budget, which had been going to be cut, isn’t cut after all, and Orr has all the work he can handle and more, because he is investigating his own crimes. Time and time again, he is seen at the sites of fires doing uncharacteristic things, or before an alarm has yet been sounded, but no one is ready to suggest that he is the party responsible until it is screamingly obvious.

The author is tremendously skilled at shifting the mood from the somber, to the ironic, to the occasional moment that is genuinely comical, without ever missing a beat, setting an inappropriate tone, or dropping his documentation, which is meticulous and must have taken a lot of years to compile. I usually am not fond of true crime stories because I know I may not like the ending; the author can’t choose how it comes out if his story is true. But this one drew me like a moth, and I had to get a closer look.

Wambaugh chronicles Orr’s life as well as the arsons, investigations, and then the trials that follow, and he does it brilliantly. He received an Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime, and it was an honor he earned.

Highly recommended.

The Birthday Boys, by Beryl Bainbridge**

thebirthdayboysThe Birthday Boys is a fictionalized account of the Scott expedition’s travel to Antarctica in 1910. It’s told sequentially through the perspectives of five men that participate, each picking up where the last has left off and of course, also including some personal reflections and memories to make them more real to us. I was invited to read and review this novel based on my enjoyment of the book Ice Brothers, which was also a maritime tale (and is reviewed here: https://seattlebookmamablog.org/2015/01/03/ice-brothers-by-sloan-wilson/ ). Thank you to Net Galley and Open Road Media, but this isn’t my book. I pushed myself all the way through it hoping for some redeeming aspect of it to pop up at the end, but it only gets worse as it goes, at least from my perspective.

Our story begins in Cardiff, and the men and The Owner (always capitalized) are eager to get started before the Antarctic winter sets in, so they pass their whaler off as a yacht in order to prevent safety regulations from slowing them down. They understand they are sailing across the world in a leaky tub, but one of them is too unprincipled to care, and the others are so darn young. In fact, wouldn’t reaching the destination on one’s twenty-first birthday be the best gift ever? Hence the title.

At the outset, I struggled a bit with some of the technical terms, looking up “plimsol line” and a couple of others, but by the 15% mark I had my legs under me, so to speak, and felt more confident. Soon thereafter, however, the nasty references to gender and race came into it. I looked back at the copyright; since this author, highly respected in the UK and winner of awards, was born in 1932, might this be a digital release of a very old book? But not so much: the original copyright date was 1991. Perhaps Dame Bainbridge felt that ugly racist terms might provide some flavor here. Likewise, the women included here, generally wives of the men involved that were tucked safely away at the base camp, were carping or hysterical, squabbled with one another, and Mrs. Scott, the only woman with any character at all according to the narrative, kept insisting that she hated women.

Whoa.

The plot is rugged and gruesome. If not for the issues just mentioned, I might compare the writing to that of Jack London, fascinating for those that love the adrenaline rush of life-or-death adventures, but too grisly for me. There’s some good work with figurative language and at times the scenes are tremendously visceral. Yet at times the pace actually plods along rather slowly for a book of its kind, and so I find myself wondering how this writer managed to be recognized by the queen; that is true, at least, until I find the following passage:

“It’s difficult for a man to know where he fits in any more. All the things we were taught to believe in, love of country, of Empire, of devotion to duty, are being held up to ridicule. The validity of the class system, the motives of respectable, educated men are now as much under the scrutiny of the magnifying glass…”

Well, perish the thought!

If not for the racism and sexism I’d call this a three star read. If an Antarctic expedition thrills you and you have the stomach for the…never mind. I can’t finish that sentence without scrunching up my face and squinting, so let’s go with the bare truth: I don’t recommend this book to anybody.

Even the Wicked, by Ed McBain**

eventhewickedBest known by the pseudonym Ed McBain, Richard Marsten, the name under which this book was originally scribed in 1958, was born as Salvatore Lombino.  I was a huge fan of McBain’s, and every time I see some small thing he wrote that I haven’t had a chance to read yet, I snap it up. And so it was with this DRC, which I received compliments of Net Galley and Open Road Media. But once I reached the halfway mark, I felt sort of queasy and couldn’t continue. I suspect that much of what he wrote as Marsten might as well be left in whatever obscure attic corner it’s perched in, because society has moved forward since the 1950s, and this book is still there.

The re-publication date for this book is October 25, 2016.

The premise is this. Our protagonist, Zach, is returning to the beach house where he and his now-deceased wife stayed on their wedding night. He brings their little girl Penny along with him. Before he can commence to do any sleuthing, however, the real estate concern that rented the place to him tells him it’s been taken by someone else. Zach isn’t going down easily for two reasons: first, he wants to see if his suspicion regarding the possible murder of his wife is true, and second, he’s already paid in full for the entire stay. The story starts with the excellent, tense build up that would become Lombino-Marsten-McBain-Hunter’s hallmark. I rolled up my sleeves and snuggled in.

And then bit by bit it all went to hell.

First of all, why would a man on a deadly mission bring his little girl with him? Leave the tot somewhere safe or stay home. And then there’s the stereotypic, racist crap about the local Indian. (He’s ‘chiseled’, of course, but he’s also just plain creepy looking.) Next, Daddy Zach tells Penny that he’s pretty sure her mommy was murdered.

The fuck?

And as he sets up his date with destiny, he finally realizes he has to have a sitter for Penny after all—in the contested house, of course, where surely nothing bad will happen to her while he’s away—and so he asks a complete stranger for the name of a babysitter, and the person refers him to someone that’s also a complete stranger. He sets it all up, arranging to leave his little girl, all he has left in this world, with someone he’s never heard of till today and doesn’t even plan to interview, and hits the road to solve the crime.

I got halfway through this thing and finally threw up my hands. Had I read the rest, I might have thrown up, period.

I know that in bygone times, people in the US were much more relaxed about child care arrangements than we are today. Many Caucasian people were also really racist, and men and sometimes even women were sexist, too. But that doesn’t mean I care to see it in my escapist fiction.

If you haven’t read Ed McBain, find something he wrote after 1980 and you’ll be in for a treat. But this one is a thumbs-down.

Doctorow: Collected Stories, by EL Doctorow*****

doctorowcollectedEL Doctorow died last year, and the literary world—well, at least the English-speaking part of it—mourned. I know I did. He was one of the finest writers ever to grace the planet, and so when I spotted this collection of stories, even though I understood that I had probably read most or all of them already I snapped it up. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. The collection will be available to the public November 1.

I am bemused by “The Writer in the Family”; I had read it before, but it’s worth reading again. Families are complicated, and Doctorow deftly creates a deeply dysfunctional dynamic with this one. Check out the premise:

“In 1955 my father died with his ancient mother still alive in a nursing home. The old lady was ninety and hadn’t even known he was ill. Thinking the shock might kill her, my aunts told her that he had moved to Arizona for his bronchitis…And so it came about that as we mourned him in our stocking feet, my grandmother was bragging to her cronies about her son’s new life in the dry air of the desert.”

But Grandma can’t understand why her son isn’t writing to her; this will never do. Thus the aunts approach the protagonist. “You’re the writer in the family,” they open, and then present the obligation to him, that he must forge a letter to Grandma from his late father. The aunts will go to the nursing home and read it aloud to her; all he has to do is write something. And of course one letter isn’t enough; there must be more, more, more, and so even as he is grieving his father’s loss, our protagonist, the good son, nephew, grandson that doesn’t make waves, is required to plagiarize one letter after another in his father’s name, until a shift alters the equation.

Because Doctorow wasn’t just any writer, I visited his Wikipedia page before writing this review, and I learned that his first name was Edgar and that he was named for Edgar Allan Poe; he was expected to become a writer. I trust his parents were satisfied. At the same time, I found myself wondering how many times he had been told that since he was the writer in the family, it was up to him to do this, that, the other. All speculation, of course, but they say to write what you know, and perhaps to some extent, he did.

On my actual bookshelves, the ones made with wood and that have books made of cardboard, cloth, and paper on them, I have half a shelf devoted to this writer’s work, and so when I downloaded this DRC, I went and retrieved the collection of his short stories that I already owned (and paid for), All the Time in the World, which was published in 2011. I wanted to see what difference there was. I found that this new collection has two stories I hadn’t read before, and so that was where my focus began. For those that also already have this author’s complete works up to now, the new short stories are “Baby Wilson” and “Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden”. The other difference is that the short story on which his outstanding novel The Waterworks is based is presented here. That one is short indeed, and it’s strong enough that it’s easy to see why he selected it to expand into novel form (which I highly recommend).

Ordinarily I would say that I’d have been annoyed had I paid full jacket price for this one, with a dozen reprinted short stories I already own; the premise for a novel I already own; and two lonely stories that are new to me. But this is Doctorow, and so my rules are different. Were I not a book blogger and able to get a DRC, I would probably wait for this one to turn up in used bookstores so that I could buy it on the cheap, but one way or another, I would have to have it. And to be sure, both stories—though maybe not good choices for the pregnant reader, given that they involve a dead child and an abducted newborn—are absolutely brilliant. Baby Wilson in particular builds irresistibly and is a masterpiece, but the voice in the Rose Garden story is guaranteed to produce chills.

I also reread my old favorites, among them “Walter John Harmond”. Whoa.

As always, Doctorow’s writing is hyper-literate. If you try to read this while doing something else, you will be lost, and I don’t recommend it to anyone for whom English is not the mother tongue unless the reader is so steeped in the language as to be comfortable with heavy literary fiction.

Don’t try to skim; savor it.

Highly recommended to the fluent reader that loves great literary fiction.

Combustion, by Martin J Smith*****

combustionPaul Dwyer is dead, a floater that has only been found because his construction business diverted the water from the place where his body is dumped, and it dries up in the Southwestern desert heat, leaving his body exposed to the world.  I was lucky to be able to read this book early, thanks to an invitation from Net Galley and Diversion Publishing, in exchange for this honest review.  I am overjoyed to rate it five stars. I knew nothing at all about either Smith or Diversion, but it turned out to be a risk that worked out in my favor and the author’s.

Our detective is Ron Starke, a single man whose father has Alzheimer’s. The reader cannot help but warm to him as we see him appear in his father’s room, hamburgers in a paper bag, prepared to patiently have the same conversation with his dad that he had with him several times yesterday and most likely will have tomorrow too.

Shelby Dwyer, the victim’s widow, is a very wealthy woman now. She isn’t sorry that he’s gone, and neither is their teenage daughter Chloe. Dwyer was a violent, ugly man in private, regardless of the shine he demonstrated publicly. Naturally, Shelby is the chief suspect, a thing made more difficult by the fact that she was Starke’s girlfriend a decade ago, when they were in high school.  But it’s a small town, a tiny exurb of Los Angeles, and everyone really does know everyone, aside from Starke’s supervisor, Kerrigan, a recent transplant from the big city. To make matters even more awkward, Starke had been considered a shoo-in for the job Kerrigan now occupies, and Kerrigan knows it.

He has a feeling that his new boss is gunning for him.

The story is told from alternate points of view, and Smith creates whiplash tension by shifting between them at key points.  Character development is solid, and it makes me wonder about the possibility of a series emerging from this debut.

Shelby may be rich now, but she is in tremendous personal jeopardy. All of the lonely nights spent holed up in the study, cruising online for connections she can’t find at home, have led her to expose herself in a horrifying way. And as she is forced to confess to Chloe about the unwise things she has said to another visitor in a chat room, a person using the handle LoveSick, and despite the horror of the moment I had to smile, as the traditional tables are turned and 17 year old Chloe has to tell her mother that you should never, never provide a stranger with personal details.

Smith’s debut is hot as the desert sun, a page turner that will live in your head after the last page has turned. Those that know me are aware I finish an average of three titles weekly for review, and so months or even weeks later if I am contacted by the writer’s publicist, I sometimes have to flip back through my records to remind myself…wait, this what which book again? And this is especially true of mysteries, which no matter how unique, tend to share a certain sameness. But in this case, that didn’t happen. The settings are so resonant, the characters so well sculpted that I felt as if I were an unseen guest among them.

It’s for sale today, and I highly recommend that you read it.

In Such Good Company: Eleven Years of Laughter, Mayhem, and Fun in the Sandbox, by Carol Burnett****

suchgoodcompany  When I saw that Burnett had published a memoir of her years as America’s favorite comedic performer on The Carol Burnett Show, which ran from 1967 through 1978, my first thought was, what, another memoir? She’s already published at least three others, one of which I have read and reviewed. But the fact is, she hadn’t used up all her juice yet. Each of her memoirs focuses on some particular aspect of her life, and so this book is new, it’s original, and it’s probably the stuff you were hoping she’d talk about in her other memoirs. Lucky me, I read it free thanks to Net Galley and Crown Archetype. It was published September 13 and I am sorry to be on the late side, but I scored my own copy just prior to publication; I had no idea it was available till Crown put a promotion up on Facebook and it showed up on my home page.  I genuinely held my breath as I logged onto Net Galley to see if I was too late, and happily, the Literature Fairy smiled on me.

As the memoir begins, I am at first a trifle disappointed, because it appears as if she is just going to list every single person that’s ever appeared on her show and gush about how nice they were.  But she’s just warming up, and it gets more interesting. She describes how she made her way into show business, and though she skims over the early years, knowing that the reader wants to get to the show, it sounds very much as if she was the overnight success that aspiring actors only dream of becoming.  She was on a show that I wasn’t around yet to watch called “The Garry Moore Show”, and she must have made not only a tremendous impression, but also a lot of friends, because she was offered her own variety show—think of it!—and then was able to bring a head writer, a choreographer, a bunch of dancers and some other people west with her from New York to Los Angeles.

This show was a fixture in my childhood and adolescence. One of Burnett’s regular satirical sketches lampooned soap operas, and it was called “As the Stomach Turns”. It was one of the few things that made my parents and me laugh out loud at the same time. My friends and I spent ridiculous, late night hours creating our own satire of a satire, which we dubbed “As the Stomach Churns”, and which featured imaginary illicit relationships among our own teachers along with the administration, janitorial staff, and especially our librarian, a book hoarder that chased away all potential clientele from her sacred gates.  So when I saw that Burnett was writing about the show, I had to see what she’d written, because she had been an intrinsic part of my own development.

All comers that want to read this should do it near an internet source if at all possible, because the comedic sketches can be viewed on television and now also on YouTube. This is fairly new: I tried to view them a couple of years ago and they weren’t there yet, so this is exciting all by itself.

And if you have never seen any of her work and wonder what I am carrying on about, check it:

 

 

and with Robin Williams:

 

The life that she led sounds like something most actors could only dream of. She got up, got her kids off to school, started work on the show mid-morning Monday-Friday, with a single run-through on Thursday followed by a live show before a studio audience Friday, and then they were done at three o’clock and she was done by the time her kids were out of school. It came down to disciplined behavior on the part of the cast and crew, and to the unusually respectful atmosphere in which the show was done. Once a guest misbehaved and when he threatened to storm off the set, she let him go and said good riddance; they did the show without him.  (She won’t give us a name, but he was short. I have been speculating ever since.)

 

She does tell the many spoofs that were done on movies of the past, and which actors called to say they just loved what the show had done with their film, and which either called up and were angry or sent indirect messages that they were not amused. And she  offers a retrospective look at the way women in show business were expected to behave back then; she was sometimes a doormat, and exultantly recounts how Edie Gourmet, on a guest visit, gave some of it back to those that bullied Carol.

 

Some of the funniest bits of writing are included, and some of the regular cast’s best onstage moments are recounted, along with those of favorite guest stars. A complete list of every show and which guests were featured is at the back of the book for those that want to look up particular entertainers, or  peruse it for fun.

 

But the bottom line is that this is pure gold for those that love Burnett and the show, and that can follow along some of the high performance points online. If you aren’t interested in her work, then the memoir won’t mean much to you.

 

Recommended to Burnett’s many fans.

 

The Big Change: America Transitions Itself 1900-1950, by Frederick Lewis Allen***

thebigchangeamericatr2.5 rounded up. The Big Change was a National Book Award finalist back in the day as well as a New York Times bestseller. I was invited to read and review it now that it’s being released in digital form; thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media. I’ve read and reviewed more than 50 titles for this publisher, and they’ve been wonderfully tolerant when I have written less than glowing praise for a book such as this, whose shelf life is well and truly over. This title is available for purchase now.

Allen’s book is written as a popular history. For a lot of people that makes it more accessible than a more scholarly approach would. As for me, I appreciate a citation, and I read those notes to see where the author gets his information. If he’s citing other secondary sources, the obvious thing to do is go read the secondary sources instead. If he’s done some real work, puttering from one obscure regional library to another in order to peruse their rare books, original diaries of heroes long gone, and so forth then I know I have found a researcher who can do me some good.

But for those delving into this period for the first time, this is in most regards a sound overview of the period in question, kind of like a contemporary history 101 for white men. Allen covers the turn of the century, when capitalism was unchecked and unashamed; The Progressive Era and World Wars I and II; the Depression, and the postwar boom. He devotes some of his space to the huge labor struggles and mentions the IWW (International Workers of the World, or ‘Wobblies’). The uses a friendly, readable tone and if there had been any women or people of color anywhere, anywhere, anywhere (other than a quick nod to suffrage) I might have found another star. Or half a star.

Having said that, I should also point out that Allen was not especially conservative or reactionary in comparison to other historical writers during the 1950’s, which is when he wrote and published this. In fact, anyone that did include women in a more than passing manner, or that included people of color, was considered a radical by many. Most academics would have laughed at them. So it’s all about context; some best sellers of the past, such as the Pulitzer winning Bearing the Cross, David J Garrow’s biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, just get better with time; others, like this title, have a more limited shelf life.

I’d recommend this title to those with a special interest in the time period, but only as supplementary material.

All the Good Parts, by Loretta Nyhan*****

allthegoodpartsThere are times when a novel is more than the sum of its parts, and this is one of those times. Loretta Nyhan combines strong character development, our changing social mores, and sassy, kick-ass word smithery and this is the result. Thank you Net Galley and you too, Lake Union Publishing, for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. The title is available today, hot off the presses.

Leona is 39 years old, taking online classes, working part time as a home health aide, and living in her sister and brother-in-law’s basement. She is unchallenged by any real ambition until her doctor—an old school friend—tells her that if she wants to have a baby, she’d better get to it before her eggs are dead. So now Leona—‘Lee’ to her family—is ready to get preggers and pop out a child. Let’s do it!

Leona is the woman I want to grab by the elbow and drag into the kitchen so I can tell her some hard truths. Instead, her sister Carly does it for me. Everything Carly says makes complete sense. She points out to Leona that she is so passive that even the baby idea is not her own; it was her doctor’s. Leona drifts through life letting people tell her what to do, and is that any way to raise a kid?

In addition, since Leona is not dating, she needs a sperm donor. The sperm bank and intro fertilization is crazy-expensive; she really only knows four possible donors. There’s an elderly patient growing accustomed to his status as a double amputee, but although he offers, it would be so unprofessional to take him up on it! There’s an online study-buddy that she hasn’t even met in the flesh; there’s her niece’s tutor, a very bright, handsome homeless man who’s actually even more passive than Leona; and there’s Paul, the son of the patient who dislikes her and fires her.

My, my, my.

This dandy little book is full of interesting philosophical questions and home truths that pop in and out of the narrative and dialogue like fireflies, blinking here and there without slowing anything down or stopping too long in any one place. And in some places, it’s drop-dead funny.  Nyhan uses deft, clever prose to move both the story and the protagonist forward, and in doing so she creates a very visceral, tangible protagonist. I don’t always like Leona, but I do always believe her.

I’ve never liked the category “chick lit”, because women read books featuring men—sometimes men only—and there’s no special category for that, so in the best world, men should want to read this book too. But in the world we have now, this will sell primarily to women. But whoever you are, you should get this book and read it. I have seldom enjoyed a DRC so much; it was my go-to book when I didn’t feel like reading another mystery or delving into George Washington’s past.  I would read something else out of duty, and then turn to this one as my reward. And I was sorry when it ended.

Recommended without reservation to anyone with a pulse.

George Washington’s Secret Spy War: the Making of America’s First Spy Master, by John A. Nagy***-****

georgewashingtonssecretspyNagy does a more than serviceable job in documenting Washington’s intelligence methods. Thank you for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for an honest review from Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. This title is for sale today.

Washington first learned spy craft when he was fighting for the British Crown during the French and Indian war, a nasty conflict that puts the American Revolution in the shade in terms of lives lost and financial expense.  Later he would take the education he had gained as a member of His Majesty’s forces and use it to lead the American colonists to victory as citizens of an independent nation.

Nagy conscientiously documents his case that it was this knowledge of spy craft that won the Revolution. He cites everything, and he uses primary documents that you and I would never ferret out in order to do so. Students of the American Revolution, the French and Indian War, or the history of American intelligence-gathering should consider this book an indispensible addition to your research material.

In the tradition that continues to this day, Washington found there were only two possible outcomes once a spy was apprehended. The first and most usual thing to do was hang them. Once in awhile one could turn them. And he had absolutely no scruples about torturing them first and hanging them later.

As a popular read, I rate this title three stars, and it’s really not due to any shortcoming of the author’s. He quotes extensively from primary documents such as Washington’s diary, and he didn’t use the same expressions and syntax that are used now, nearly two and a half centuries later. The accepted speech mannerisms for that time are unwieldy to us, and make for some difficult, hyper-literate reading that is not always enjoyable.

But for those that need the information, there are not a lot of places to go, and I think you need this one. As research material this is easily a four star book, and depending upon one’s area of study, it might even be more.

Recommended to researchers and students in this realm.