Night School by Lee Child

My mother also reviewed this novel here. We had similar feelings.

Above-average, even for Reacher. I loved this one. It’s set back in the time when Reacher was still serving as a military police detective – maybe we need more of those; they make up a minority of the canon. Here’s the set-up: fresh off receiving a medal for “the thing in Bosnia,” Reacher is sent back to school for a course in “Impact of Recent Forensic Innovation on Inter-Agency Cooperation.” He finds himself in a room with two guys from the FBI and the CIA, respectively, in similar positions: good competent agents who’d expected better than some bullshit course in cooperation. Luckily it’s not what it seems. Reacher and his counterparts are instead assigned a top-secret mystery involving an unknown American trying to sell something to someone for an unknown reason. They can have anything they need; so Reacher gets Sergeant Frances Neagley, who we know from books like Without Fail and Bad Luck and Trouble (among others). I like her.

The action of Night School takes Reacher and Neagley (and some of his new teammates) to Hamburg, back to Virginia, and back to Hamburg again, where they tangle with some far-right Nazi-types and the mostly pretty good Hamburg police. Plus of course the mystery American and the mystery foreign interest who wants to buy the mystery thing.

I thought this one was excellent fun. I enjoyed seeing Reacher do the kind of mental detective work he excels at (a la Criminal Minds), and I enjoy seeing him still in the Army’s grasp; that system gives him something to push-and-pull with in ways that I think serve the narrative well. There is a little less physical ass-kicking here than in some Reacher novels, and that’s fine with me; that action stuff is fun here and there but it doesn’t make a story the way the mental game does. There’s also a little sex (as usual) but not in a way that takes over the novel, either. And again, I really like Neagley. The mystery itself has elements of unreality, but welcome to Child’s fiction: it’s escapist-realism, not hyperrealism.

Without spoilers, I will say that I often thought this was one of the more cinematic efforts of the series; I especially enjoyed thinking of the final action’s setting onscreen. But as long as they keep Tom Cruise as the big screen’s Reacher, nah.

This is the most enjoyment I’ve gotten out of a Reacher novel in some time. Maybe it just caught me at the right time.


Rating: 8-and-a-half backpacks.

Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh

I used to follow Allie Brosh’s blog, Hyperbole and a Half. (I always loved that name.) I did not read her first book, by the same name, but I love the blog. This is her second.

Solutions and Other Problems is brilliant. Brosh is so vulnerable, honest, willing to share, and hilarious. Her openness is disarming and I think healthy both for her and for her readers who are comforted by knowing that they’re not alone in their struggles. And some of what she has to share is raw and painful. But also, she makes me laugh harder than almost anything, ever. I mean I laughed until I cried, gasping, couldn’t breathe, peed on myself. I was oxygen-deprived; she nearly killed me, I laughed so hard. (The funniest bits, for me, are anything about pets, and the chapter about the car stereo system and the smartphone trying to boss her around.) I would love to be able to spend a few minutes every day laughing this hard. I guess I need to re-follow her blog.

This is a graphic work – as in graphic novel, but nonfiction. A graphic memoir-in-essays, if you will; it’s not linear, but a sampling of experiences that have been especially funny or painful or moving. Because she jumps around so much and generally gets a little silly (in all the best ways), I thought it was neatly appropriate that (as noted by a brief “Explanation” following chapter 1) Brosh’s chapters are numbered but there is no chapter four. “Because sometimes things don’t go like they should,” she explains, and because she’s exercising a little power here, and we should be grateful she didn’t take it further than she did. It’s a random little bit of ridiculousness; but it’s also expressive of the kind of fun and angst I think she excels at.

Brosh’s illustrations are also a little ridiculous, fanciful, hilarious, and distinctive. I love them. She explains the world as she experiences it, in part, through fictional monsters and fantasies. Her drawings capture the mystery and awkwardness of life in a way that feels precisely right. (And I think she has dogs down pat.) (The Oatmeal‘s pretty good at this too.)

At one point she notes,

Experiencing real loneliness for the first time is like realizing the only thing you’ve ever loved is your home planet after migrating to the moon.

and I think that’s just perfect. I recognize this feeling. I had to migrate to the moon to find out just how place mattered to me.

I find Allie Brosh’s work comforting, as well as so funny that it leaves me a little breathless and wrung out. I recommend her so strongly, and I guess I need to go back and find the first book now too. Thanks, Liz, for the recommendation.


Rating: 9 sneakponies.

Psalms for Mother Emanuel: Elegy From Pittsburgh to Charleston

Psalms for Mother Emanuel is a brief chapbook commissioned by the Pittsburgh Foundation on the first anniversary of the 2015 shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. It includes nine poems and one visual piece, and they are beautiful and impactful. Beyond that I hardly know what to say about this collection; it feels almost holy, and many poems do maintain the reverence of the title, so that to comment sort of feels inappropriate.

The whole thing is… wrenching and also lovely.

Here is the title and first line of Cameron Barnett’s contribution:

If a bag of silver coins and a bag of bullets sound the same
then take my ears, I do not need them

You can actually view the book here, and I recommend you just do so.

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

At just under 200 pages, Red at the Bone is a brief novel, but rich. I read most of it in a single day and finished it the following, but that doesn’t mean it’s not full of feeling. In fact, it has the kind of multigenerational sweep that we usually find in big, fat novels of 500+ pages, the kind that require lots of time and rest to take in. I appreciated the compressed depth.

Each chapter takes a close third-person perspective (sometimes first person) of a different person in the family, beginning with sixteen-year-old Melody, on the night of her presentation to society in a formal ceremony in her grandparents’ Brooklyn brownstone. The first word of this novel is ‘but,’ which you don’t see very often: “But that afternoon there was an orchestra playing.” They’re playing Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” but without the lyrics, naturally.

In other words, the novel begins in media res. Gradually we move through the perspectives of Melody’s mother Iris and father Aubrey, and Iris’s parents Sabe and Po-Boy; in their memories, especially Sabe’s, we learn of earlier generations. This family has come from all over – Aubrey from cities up and down the Gulf Coast, his mother from Santa Cruz and Berkeley; Sabe’s family stretches back to Tulsa and, crucially, the massacre of 1921. When Iris gets pregnant as a teenager, Aubrey is all in, but she wants to get out, and eventually goes away to college at Oberlin where her world widens while Aubrey and baby Melody make a family with Sabe and Po-Boy in the brownstone of the opening scene. The “fire and gold” remembered from Tulsa reaches forward in time to 9/11, and beyond.

This is a story about family and legacy, about what does and doesn’t carry from one generation to the next, about love and changing cultures and also about class. It has tragedy and comedy and love and heartbreak and love – again, that large and sweeping scope, but in a compact form, easy to take in practically in a single sitting. This is some very fine storytelling, especially because each chapter inhabits a different voice. And I appreciate all the markers of culture and time, like music, literature and fashion. In other words, Red at the Bone checks a lot of fine-fiction boxes in a really accessible package (no small feat). Woodson makes it look effortless. I enjoyed Another Brooklyn, but I think this one is better still. I’ll look for more from this author.


Rating: 8 drops of milk.

Thunderbird by Chuck Wendig

It’s been years since I got into a Wendig, but I had an itch. Frankly, at this point the specific events of previous books in this series (Blackbirds, Mockingbird, The Cormorant) are blurry, but the character of Miriam Black and the shape of those events still have a clear flavor for me, and I missed her. So, Thunderbird is book 4. Miriam is traveling the southwest states, deep in nic fits as she tries to quit smoking, running through the deserts. She’s searching for a woman who might just be able to relieve her of her curse, her gift, whatever it is.

Miriam’s curse is that when she touches a person for the first time – skin to skin – she can see how they die. She’s used this to her advantage, and she’s occasionally used it to try and change the events she sees, but that’s tricky: to change a death she has to cause a death. She’s ready for it to just all be over; she’s trying to get healthy and be a better person; she’d like to try and settle down. (Yes, this is all a little unbelievable to those who know Miriam; she’s as surprised as anyone.) But she’s having trouble finding the woman, and naturally, she’s running into all kinds of trouble along the way. For example, a crazy woman trying to protect her son; a mad militia; and an FBI agent following her around. Also, Miriam’s got an accomplice of sorts this time: a woman named Gabby who wants them to be more than friends.

It’s a fevered run around the New Mexico and Arizona badlands and cities. There’s lots of violence and some dark magic. There’s a kid in danger; and we learn more about Miriam’s past than we knew before. There are birds, magical birds, “a Hitchcockian apocalypse.” There are double- and triple-crosses, and of course there’s Miriam herself, who is an angry, profoundly antisocial, foul-mouthed, dirty, bad woman, who is also a sentimental softie. She reminds me of Mickey Milkovich. She’s got a certain badassness to her, but unlike a Reacher-type hero, she excels in poor decision making.

I thoroughly enjoyed this read. It’s snappy and well-paced; chapters are extremely short. Some of them are ‘interludes’ that shift backwards in time to help give context. It feels like a cinematic technique in which scenes move kind of choppily in time and space; we are often just a little off-balance, but that’s Miriam’s experience, too. She takes a pretty good beating in this book; perceptions are often challenged and challenging.

I find Wendig’s secondary characters engaging – friends like Louis and Gabby, enemies like those in this book, and then the ones who don’t quite fit either category at first – and entertaining, and the plot keeps me hooked and moving. Crisp pacing and clever language are definitely part of the appeal. But I think it’s clear that it’s the character of Miriam herself that makes this work; I’m here for her, whatever she does and whoever else comes along for the ride. She’s intoxicating, deeply messed up and sympathetic and with a delightfully sick sense of humor. I love her. I’m going to go order book 5 right now. Good stuff, Wendig. Keep it coming.


Rating: 7 cigarettes.

The Company We Keep: Drive-By Truckers’ Homecoming and the Fan Community

Continuing with DBT and Wes Freed (see also this review from last week), here’s another big beautiful coffee-table book about the Truckers and their fans. The subject here is more focused than the Truckers generally: it’s about the annual event called Homecoming, a three-night series of shows at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia, DBT’s “home” even as members have moved away over the years. In particular it concentrates on 2018’s Homecoming, when this book was being put together. There’s still quite a bit of band info and history, but the annual event and that ‘fan community’ of the subtitle are front and center.

The Company We Keep was put together as a fundraiser for the incomparable Nuçi’s Space. As such it’s a lovely effort; I’m always glad to give to this cause. As a final product I think it’s less than perfect; I would like to see the fan interviews, in particular, more carefully edited and proofread, that is, both for grammatical errors and for redundancy and long-windedness. Some sections and writers could have used more context or introduction. It can sometimes feel indulgent of the fan community, as if they are talking among themselves and to one another, and I’m welcome to listen in but it’s not really for me as much as it’s about themselves. Ironically, with themes of friendly inclusiveness, the book feels a little exclusive, a little in-group.

Despite being a glossy, large-format production, this book contains quite a bit of text. There are chapters about the rock show itself; opening bands; the club; the town; Nuçi’s Space; the fans; weddings, wakes, and friendships; and more. It’s led by a foreword by Patterson Hood, and I’m always glad to hear from him in any form. I marked a few points that felt like they encapsulated different parts of why I love this band so much. Hood: “Cooley and I have always written songs that used geography as an anchor to hold down some big ideas or stories.” Jay Gonzalez: “[Patterson]’s always trying to break down barriers, to bring people together socially and otherwise.” Gonzalez again: DBT is “a ‘lyric band’… but the music matters too, otherwise there’s poetry for that. And good lyrics are not ‘like poetry,’ it’s about how the music and lyrics work together, and Patterson and Cooley are definitely songwriters [not poets].” Trae Crowder (a comedian who’s opened for them at Homecoming): “My whole life I had never understood why being from the south and speaking with a drawl meant that you had to look and think and act and feel a certain way, and I could tell that DBT were wondering that same thing, and they were doing it out loud. This band was for me, by god, and has been ever since.”

Carter King, of Futurebirds (another opener), contributes an essay I found really well done as a piece of writing, regardless of its content (also sympathetic and hilarious). Reading more about the good work of Nuçi’s, including the Camp Amped Band, is always rewarding. I was thrilled to learn about a fan who’d written his undergraduate thesis about the Truckers; it’s available here. (I went and read it, too, and while a lot of the music theory went right over my head, it’s another well-designed piece of writing, entertaining and with some clear ideas to boot.)

These were high points. I regretted a few details – the need for editing; the in-group feel. But there was good Truckers content, and a good cause means I’d have no regrets even if it had had far less to offer.


Rating: 7 notes.

The World of the Woodchuck by W. J. Schoonmaker

I come from a place without woodchucks (or groundhogs, or whistlepigs, or whatever you prefer to call them). Now I live in a place where I get to watch them root and run around and sun themselves from my office window, or on dog walks. This is an exciting novelty for me. I’ve been looking for a book to learn more about these funny, personable little creatures, and I’ve been having kind of a hard time, but I did finally find this 1966 publication, The World of the Woodchuck (part of a series, A Living World Books, from J. B. Lippincott).

It’s a fairly simple collection of naturalist knowledge about woodchucks, part of the family Sciuridae (tree squirrels, ground squirrels, flying squirrels), genus Marmota, group monax. (My local species is the Marmota monax monax, or Maryland woodchuck.) W.J. Schoonmaker (zoologist, photographer, illustrator, educator, and lifelong resident of New York state) compiles all the information he can find in chapters titled “Meet the Woodchuck,” each of the four seasons, “Relation to Man and Other Animals,” and more. His writing style is mostly straightforward, a comprehensive catalog of stories and facts from his own considerable observation of woodchucks (and other animals) and the work of other naturalists and farmers, hunters and friends. He has a clear affection for his subject, when he describes them smiling and showing fear and love, or telling stories like the “comedy” of a black dachshund that chased a woodchuck and then got chased in turn.

I am left with a similar affection for Schoonmaker, who can be unintentionally funny (noting that three chucks he found with overgrown incisors were each “alive when killed”). The book is definitely dated in its language and style, and perhaps in its emphasis on the question of whether wild animals are useful to humans in terms of hunting, farming, and recreation – we have only partially moved past that perspective, but this does feel like the perspective of an earlier era in ecology. However, Schoonmaker observes, “It is believed that every plant and animal fits somewhere in the great plan of Nature, and the woodchuck definitely occupies an ecological niche in this scheme.” I can’t say if the body of knowledge about woodchucks has expanded since this book was published, but I have been looking in vain for more to read about them, so The World of the Woodchuck may remain the authoritative monograph on this subject. I learned a fair amount. The chambers of a woodchuck burrow adhere to dimensions with variation of only an inch or so between individuals (even individuals of different sizes). Woodchucks can climb trees, and they both ascend and descend headfirst. They hibernate in winter (I last observed my across-the-street neighbor on November 10, which is kind of late – we had a warm fall here). They are herbivores, and playful as puppies when they’re young, although they have to spend a lot of time eating and thus less time playing than a puppy does – it takes a lot of eating to prepare for hibernation on the caloric content of alfalfa and clover. They can eat a third of their weight at a time.

This book is no great work of research or fine writing, but it gave me what I needed, with a charming authorial voice and plenty of pictures. I’m glad I found it.


Rating: 7 accounts of the courage of woodchucks.

At the Edge of the Haight by Katherine Seligman

In this quietly compassionate novel, a young homeless woman stumbles into a crime scene on the edge of Haight-Ashbury, and eventually reconsiders how she got there.

Katherine Seligman’s gripping debut novel, At the Edge of the Haight, explores a community on the edge of a historic setting and on the edge of getting by, with a compelling protagonist and an array of issues to wrestle.

Twenty-year-old Maddy Donaldo lives in present-day Golden Gate Park, after Jerry Garcia and Janis Joplin are long gone, with a sort of chosen family. There’s Ash, “a skinny upside-down triangle” of a young man, “the most no bullshit guy around” with a talent for effective design of cardboard panhandling signs. Quiet, gentle, strawberry-blond Fleet has a pet rat named Tiny. Spike-haired Hope talks to everyone; she’s good with the tourists, but a bit of an instigator, too. And, most importantly, there’s Root, Maddy’s devoted dog. Together the friends scavenge food, find shelter, protect one another and navigate their tricky streets. It is Root who leads Maddy into the bushes in the first pages of this absorbing novel, where she stumbles upon a young man taking his last breath, and a man standing over him.

Maddy knows immediately that this sight will haunt her, that she is danger. She’s been handed a problem she didn’t earn; quickly the death of the boy named Shane follows her. The cops have questions. A man shows up at the local shelter and identifies himself as Shane’s father and asks for Maddy’s help. She gets to know Shane’s parents, Dave and Marva, and finds her loyalties beginning to split. Dave is a birdwatcher; Maddy observes the creatures, human and nonhuman, who live with her in the park. She investigates Shane’s murder, and along the way alienates her friends and finds herself nudged toward her own past, which she most wants to avoid.

At the Edge of the Haight is told in quiet prose from Maddy’s first-person point of view, so the reader is privy to her thoughts and fears, including an interiority that both protects and isolates her. All other characters are secondary, but this is a novel captivating in both its story and its characters. It is concerned with the social ills of homelessness, including addiction, mental health challenges and economics, without becoming polemic. The mystery of Shane’s death is a side plot, not the central focus; rather, it’s the situation that pressures the tenuous life Maddy has set up in the park. Seligman’s San Francisco is colorful and detailed. Readers are drawn into a challenging world with sympathetic characters, but it is Maddy’s internal turmoil that makes this novel memorable.


This review originally ran in the December 11, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 green apples.

The Art of Wes Freed: Paintings, Pin-Ups & Possums

I know Wes Freed’s artwork via the Drive-By Truckers, one of my greatest musical loves, and this visual art is inextricable for me from that music. Freed writes, “I don’t separate the drawings and paintings I create from the music I make, or from the music I listen to and love so much.” So there you go. I was an easy sell for his book, which comes in chapters by category of art (of which DBT is the biggest), and with a foreword by Patterson Hood.

I can’t imagine how many DBT pieces Freed has created over the years; this can only be a tiny sampling. Next are rock’n’roll legends, including Hank, Johnny, Gram Parsons, Bowie, the Dead, and more; one of the prints that hangs on my wall, of a scene from a Jason Isbell song, is included. (My Townes Van Zandt is absent.) There’s a chapter of Capital City Barn Dance fliers – that’s a monthly show put on by Freed and his then-wife for years. It was interesting to see the kinds of acts who played those shows, and see how much crossover there’s been between my musical tastes and the bands Freed has worked with – Cracker, Camper van Beethoven, the Supersuckers, Those Darlings, and more. I shouldn’t be surprised! Then there’s artwork from Freed’s own bands, some from a comic strip called Willard’s Garage, and photographs of sculptures and cutouts. I would love to someday own a big, solid Moongal like he makes in three dimensions. (I would also like more Freed-drawn tattoos. Time will tell.)

This is a beautiful, large-format, glossy, full-color production. It contains few words: just Hood’s brief foreword and a still-briefer intro to each chapter by Freed. The rock’n’roll legends chapter includes captions. I guess I’d love to learn a little more, but it’s the art that we’re here for, and I can’t get enough of it. I’d buy another several volumes this size just to see more of Freed’s perfectly recognizable, wacky, intoxicating imagination in action.


Rating: 9 moongals.

If you would like to consider owning some Freed art, too, check out his Facebook page, where he posts new prints for sale. They’re quite affordable and he is nice to work with.

My Alexandria by Mark Doty

I read this quotation the other day, and I’ll let it open this review.

Nothing which does not transport is poetry. The lyre is a winged instrument.

–Joseph Joubert, essayist

I first know Doty from a prose work that informs my love of objects in writing. (Plenty on Still Life With Oysters and Lemon here.) So it’s not surprising that there are lots of lovely, striking details and things here, in the first Doty poetry I’ve attempted. “What was our city / but wonderful detail?” What, indeed.

These poems feel perfect, crystalline, like they couldn’t be any better or any different. Each word is so carefully chosen. I love the internal rhymes and the music, and I love the enjambment, and the images, and the surprises. I still don’t feel like a very expert reader of poetry, but these have everything I feel like I want a poem to have. There are clear themes throughout the book: death, mortality, grief, with references to the author’s partner dying of AIDS and of others in the same situation. (I found that subtext easy to see, but I know a little of Doty’s life story, so I’m not sure how visible it would be to a reader who doesn’t.) It’s not a book of grief, though. It’s a book of seeking meaning and a way to carry on, of trying to see beyond death, and it’s a book of really seeing the world. Something else I recognize from Still Life is a constant, serious attention and observation.

What I think the title, My Alexandria, brings to this collection: a reference to a storied place no longer quite accessible, where things were famously better or at least very good, but in ways we can’t see from here.

Not for the first time with Doty, I noted many lines I want to keep forever. From a poem called “The Wings” (which takes place in part at the auctions that I know, from another book, Doty and his partner Wally used to attend together),

Some days things yield

such grace and complexity that what we see
seems offered.

I love that enjambment (made greater by the stanza break).

Later in that same poem,

An empty pair of pants
is mortality’s severest evidence.

This is something Doty does so well, the distillation of concept into an object.

And from the poem “No” (I so love turtles),

the single word of the shell,
which is no.

Besides these, my favorite poems are “Esta Noche,” “Chanteuse,” “Fog” and “Brilliance.”

I had success with reading these poems aloud, which I’m sure is always a good strategy, but one I don’t always use. Also, reading very slowly. Many of Doty’s perfect, perfectly fleshed images take several lines to come together, and I need to grasp them completely. It takes concentration. As much as I love a poetry reading, these are not images I could take in by just hearing them. I need to take my time.

Poetry is still hard, but so rewarding, when done this well.


Rating: 8 fused layers.
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