If you've ever laughed your way through David Sedaris's cheerfully misanthropic stories, you might think you know what you're getting with Calypso. You'd be wrong. When he buys a beach house on the Carolina coast, Sedaris envisions long, relaxing vacations spent playing board games and lounging in the sun with those he loves most. And it's as idyllic as he imagined, except for one tiny, vexing realization: it's impossible to take a vacation from yourself. With Calypso, Sedaris sets his formidable powers of observation - and dark humor - toward middle age and mortality.
The latest collection of essays from David Sedaris has an undertone of mortality and advancing age. Not gloomy, by any means, but his stories—while side-splittingly hilarious—are also just slightly more pointed and often poignant. As in “Theft by Finding,” Sedaris has accumulated more hindsight, context, and confidence. The deaths of his mother and a sister are part of what shapes his thinking as he enters his 60s. And his writing just gets better and better.
But very, very funny. Who else would have a benign tumor excised, just so he could feed it to a turtle?
Tom Wolfe's best-selling modern classic tells the story of Sherman McCoy, an elite Wall Street bond trader who has it all: wealth, power, prestige, a Park Avenue apartment, a beautiful wife, and an even more beautiful mistress - until one wrong turn sends Sherman spiraling downward into a humiliating fall from grace. A car accident in the Bronx involving Sherman, his girlfriend, and two young lower-class black men sets a match to the incendiary racial and social tensions of 1980s New York City.
Tom Wolfe’s blistering takedown of the excesses of 1980s New York still echoes with authority today—just add a few zeroes to the dollar amounts.
There are crooked cops, sleazy journalists, airhead socialites, Bronx delinquents, self-serving activists, and especially the rapacious traders of Wall Street, for whom a million-dollar salary isn’t nearly enough to cover the basic costs of living well. Even the protagonist’s sweet young daughter is obviously headed for a future of privilege and snobbery.
Upon reflection, there isn’t a single noble character in the entire book. Some are classier than others, but only superficially.
It’s amazing how much trouble people who have everything can create for themselves. But they are brilliantly terrible, thanks to Wolfe. There is never a dull moment in his breathlessly paced work.
The narrator, Joe Barrett, delivers a masterpiece in his portrayal of dozens of characters in polyglot New York. His interpretation of the pompous laughter at a mega-pretentious high society dinner party (what Wolfe calls “the hive”) is alone worth hearing, and that soiree is a brilliant indictment of the book’s target of well-heeled scoundrels.
Barrett’s work here is the best I’ve heard since he voiced “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” He is the perfect conduit for Tom Wolfe’s vocabulary, characters, storyline, dialogue, and caustic caricature.
Buried in the middle of the book is an ominous reference to Poe’s short story, “The Masque of the Red Death,” in which a prince named Prospero (of all things) seals his eminent guests in a castle for a masked ball, to protect them while the Plague rages outside. It doesn’t work.
Reap the whirlwind.
In his audiobook, A Higher Loyalty, former FBI director James Comey shares his never-before-told experiences from some of the highest stakes situations of his career in the past two decades of American government, exploring what good, ethical leadership looks like and how it drives sound decisions. His journey provides an unprecedented entry into the corridors of powe, and a remarkable lesson in what makes an effective leader.
James Comey had a long and distinguished career before he was fired by Donald Trump, and his blockbuster best-seller spends more time establishing his credibility than dishing dirt. His autobiographical account is necessarily one-sided, since that’s what an autobiography is, but persuasive.
The man who ultimately inherited the job of the legendary J. Edgar Hoover is obviously intelligent and principled, and deeply patriotic. He’s also an excellent writer and narrator whose tales of prosecuting mafia dons and even Martha Stewart make this a real page-turner. He does a credible job of explaining how he handled the Clinton email investigation, which was a series of incredibly difficult decisions, often with no good choices. Diehard Hillary partisans will probably disagree.
He’s more than halfway through before the subject swings to Trump. Ominously, Comey repeatedly returns to the parallels with the mob bosses he prosecuted.
At a highly uncomfortable private White House dinner, Trump demands his loyalty, and seems either incapable of understanding the independent role of the FBI, or simply doesn’t care.
“It would never occur to an ethical leader to ask for loyalty,” Comey observes.
In Comey’s telling, the White House becomes a bizarre house of mirrors, inhabited by a president who is dishonest, unhinged, narcissistic, and just not very bright.
“As I found myself thrust into the Trump orbit, I once again was having flashbacks to my earlier career as a prosecutor against the mob. The silent circle of assent, the boss in complete control, the loyalty oaths, the ‘us versus them’ worldview, the lying about all things large and small in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality, and above the truth.”
The book’s epilogue in the closing minutes is a brilliant summation to a jury of the American people by a veteran federal prosecutor. It should be required reading in every high school civics class.
For dinosaurs, it was a big rock. For humans: Coronal Mass Ejection (CME). When the Earth is hit by the greatest CME in recorded history (several times larger than the Carrington Event of 1859), the combined societies of the planet's most developed nations struggle to adapt to a life thrust back into the Dark Ages. In the United States, the military scrambles to speed the nation's recovery on multiple fronts including putting down riots, establishing relief camps, delivering medical aid, and bringing communication and travel back on line. Just as a real foothold is established in retaking the skies (utilizing existing commercial aircraft supplemented by military resources and ground control systems), a mysterious virus takes hold of the population, spreading globally over the very flight routes that the survivors fought so hard to rebuild.
I enjoy good post-apocalypse stories, but found this one to be tiresome. It started slow and largely stayed that way as a small band of survivors made their treacherous way toward safety at a mountain retreat in Wyoming. The plot is a plausible one: a powerful coronal mass ejection from the sun immobilizes a vast swath of modern machines, and a deadly plague soon follows, taking out much of civilization in an overwhelming one-two punch.
The expedition by the main characters consists of longwinded descriptions punctuated by bursts of violence. Descriptions of exactly how to fire assault rifles, for instance, or how to extract gasoline from the tanks of abandoned cars. The painfully detailed account of a chess game is something I thought would never end.
The book needs an editor.
R.C. Bray is a much-loved narrator of audiobooks, but seemed a poor choice for this one. He doesn’t do a credible female voice, and this book is written from the viewpoint of the characters—a woman, Amanda, in most of its chapters.
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At the height of the air war in Europe, Captain Joe Farley and the baseball-loving, wisecracking crew of the B-17 Flying Fortress Fata Morgana are in the middle of a harrowing bombing mission over East Germany when everything goes sideways. The bombs are still falling, and flak is still exploding all around the 20-ton bomber as it is knocked like a bathtub duck into another world. Suddenly stranded with the final outcasts of a desolated world, Captain Farley navigates a maze of treachery and wonder.
A brand-new B-17 bomber rises into the sky for a bombing run over Nazi Germany, and flies through a storm of anti-aircraft fire to land in another world: a ruined and desolate place that is gradually revealed to be not another planet, but the future of our own. It has the ring of a long-ago “Twilight Zone” episode, but with a more elaborate plot and plenty of surprises.
The plane is named the Fata Morgana, for a complex kind of mirage that is sometimes seen just above the horizon. Its tightly-knit crew struggles to return home from this strange new world, while battling twisted fantasies about time itself. There are some mind-bending concepts that only grow more fantastic as the story moves on.
Just as the crew returns against impossible odds--or thinks it has--something is still not quite right. Captain Joe Farley, the pilot, sums it up: “Time’s not an arrow. It’s a shock wave. It spreads out in all directions at once, from every possible past, to every possible future… There is out there a hub around which all times turn.”
The book has a fairly large cast of characters, and at times I felt it was difficult to keep them all straight, despite Macleod Andrews’ excellent used of regional accents and voices. It merits attentive listening. (This could also be a case for reading the book in print.)
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A greedy, philandering Baptist minister, Elmer Gantry turns to evangelism and becomes the leader of a large Methodist congregation. Often exposed as a fraud, he is never fully discredited. Elmer Gantry is considered a landmark American novel and one of the most penetrating studies of hypocrisy in modern literature. It portrays the evangelistic activity that was common in 1920s America as well as attitudes toward it.
You know the book, at least by reputation, but it’s the narrator’s audio sample that draws you in immediately. Anthony Heald is an accomplished actor who injects amazing energy into the novel.
Sinclair Lewis, who among other formative impressions counted a visit to a Billy Sunday show in 1917, was known to refer collectively to evangelists as “the religion racket.” In “Elmer Gantry,” he portrays the rise and fall of a silver-tongued young Kansas preacher, rising and falling again, over and over, each time reaching greater heights (or depths) of audacity than the time before.
It is a brilliant treatise on hypocrisy. Elmer is a predatory preacher with an abject dearth of scruples, capable of being deeply moved by the adoration of his flock on a Sunday morning, and then hustling those same parishioners, and perhaps stealing one of their daughters, or wives, by nightfall.
Curiously, he studies hard, works on self-improvement, and devises creative new ways to serve his congregations. He’s smart, innovative, and likeable. No one ever worked harder – but only to enrich and empower himself.
After serving faithfully in a succession of tiny towns that he believes don’t deserve a man of his talent, working his way up, Elmer finally rises to lead a major church in the fictional Midwestern town of Zenith. There, he perfects his skills, commands attention, womanizes, and aspires to even greater acclaim.
Given the contemporaneous Scopes “Monkey Trial” on the teaching of evolution, Lewis observes, “It was at this time that the brisker conservative clergy men saw that their influence in oratory and incomes were threatened by any authentic learning... They saw that a proper school should teach nothing but bookkeeping, agriculture, geometry, dead languages made deader by leaving out all the amusing literature, and the Hebrew Bible as interpreted by men superbly trained to ignore contradictions; men technically called Fundamentalists.”
As Barnes and Noble notes in a review: “The founding of the Moral Majority would not have surprised Lewis; he would only have wondered why it took so long.”
In the closing minutes, a gullible Elmer is exposed in his infidelity by the badger game, the oldest trick in the world, just as he is about to be appointed to a lofty position policing the nation’s morals. He is, briefly, a broken man. There is panic, and then, a miraculous escape. “Never again,” he vows, glancing sideways at the appealing ankle of a new choir member, and Elmer Gantry lives to swindle another day.
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College student Joe Talbert has the modest goal of completing a writing assignment for an English class. His task is to interview a stranger and write a brief biography of the person. With deadlines looming, Joe heads to a nearby nursing home to find a willing subject. There he meets Carl Iverson, and soon nothing in Joe's life is ever the same. Carl is a dying Vietnam veteran-and a convicted murderer. With only a few months to live, he has been medically paroled to a nursing home after spending thirty years in prison for the crimes of rape and murder.
I have to disagree with the praise of Zach Villa as narrator. He has an appropriately youthful sound for the voice of Joe Talbert, a college student. But the combination of careless diction and reading too fast—together with a flat, monotone delivery—makes the book a very tough listen.
There is certainly no requirement for narrators to be booming announcers, and actors often make the best readers. Villa is an actor. But his almost rambling recital, for me at least, made this story impossible to follow.
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In 1986, Eddie and his friend are just kids on the verge of adolescence. They spend their days biking around their sleepy little English village and looking for any taste of excitement they can get. The chalk men are their secret code; little chalk stick figures they leave for each other as messages only they can understand. But then a mysterious chalk man leads them right to a dismembered body, and nothing will ever be the same.
A band of 12-year-olds in a small British village are jolted from their idyllic existence by the discovery of a dismembered teenage girl in the woods. The experience will test their friendship over 30 years as the story alternates smoothly between 1986 and 2016, seen through the eyes of Eddie Adams, a rather timid boy who grows up to become a teacher with a colorless life and a penchant for strange collections.
More tragedy follows, and almost anyone could be a suspect. In fact, with plenty of false starts and misdirection, the mysteries are still unwinding in the final two minutes of this psychological puzzler.
C.J. Tudor’s debut novel has been compared to Stephen King’s “Stand by Me,” or even “It.” But by the end, the comparisons seem superficial, and the mysterious, primitive chalk drawings behind the title are fresh and inventive.
The morose-sounding British narrator is Euan Morton as Eddie. His dour tone interprets the book in a way that is perfectly professional, yet I would be curious to have heard it with a different voice, or read it myself from the printed page. It might be a very different experience. Then again, Mr. Morton seems more and more appropriate as the story approaches its unexpected conclusion.
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A new breed of evil has come to old New York. The horribly mutilated body of a young male prostitute turns up in the East River in 1896. Reporter John Moore and his mentor Laszlo Kreizler decide to investigate.
In the sordid underworld of child prostitution in late 19th-century New York, a psychotic killer is hunting and killing on the rooftops of the city, and his victims are immigrant children. This seamless abridgment makes for a fast-paced mystery populated by period characters, including the real Theodore Roosevelt as police commissioner, and read by the incomparable Edward Herrmann.
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Why we think it’s a great listen: Seabiscuit was a runaway success, and Hillenbrand’s done it again with another true-life account about beating unbelievable odds. On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared....
The first impression of “Unbroken,” even more than most audiobooks, is that the narrator is a total pro, and a familiar one. His warm, articulate, animated delivery makes you want to sit back and let him entertain you. He’s Edward Herrmann, the actor and prolific narrator of programs on The History Channel and PBS, who died in 2014.
Combined with the uncommonly sparkling writing of Laura Hillenbrand, the singular life story of Louis Zamperini is a spellbinder from start to finish.
He is an almost-feral delinquent, and the tale of his transformation into a world-class Olympic runner would be satisfying in itself. But then the war breaks out, and a young man with a fear of flying becomes a standout bombardier. Rather than missing the record for a four-minute mile (barely), he survives a record-breaking ordeal on a raft, drifting thousands of miles into the hands of the enemy, and trading schools of sharks for brutal conditions as a prisoner of war, given up for dead.
He eventually falls under the shadow of a sadistic Japanese prison official known as The Bird, who practices beatings and all manner of psychological torture, and harbors a special hatred of Louis. The conditions are unspeakable, and routinely fatal for thousands.
For POWs, the description of the end of the war is like nothing I’ve heard before. Yet its effects didn’t end for many, who were afflicted for decades with enduring psychiatric effects, PTSD, alcoholism, and high rates of suicide.
It is a very long time before Louis finds religion, and at long last, peace, forgiveness, and compassion. But he does, with an unceasing resilience that characterized his entire remarkable life.
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