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So Many Books, So Little Time

It’s book time here at the blog. I read so you can get the good stuff and skip the rest.

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus; fiction, 386pp.

I know, you’ve already read it. But just in case you’ve been trapped in a snow cave for the last six months, this is the hot book group book—with good reason. Every woman over 40 has lived parts of this story about a woman chemist in the nineteen-fifties and sixties dealing with life as a second class (i.e.female) citizen. It’s more empowering than depressing and wickedly funny to boot. I’ve heard that “younger” women don’t really embrace the story of that time, but then, they’ve missed quite a bit of it, at least so far.

Trust by Hernan Diaz; fiction, 402pp.

Winner of the 2022 Booker Prize for Fiction by Pulitzer Prize finalist Diaz. Sometimes, a prize winning book isn’t such a reading prize, but “Trust” is both an engrossing story and an example of some very sharp writing. Set primarily in New York in the time from the turn of the 20th century until the years before World War II, “Trust” is the saga of the rise and eventual fall of Benjamin and Helen Trask, the “it” couple of their day. The story is revealed in four parts: as a novel, an autobiography, a memoir and a final section that I’ll just say is worth the wait. A worthy prize winner and a good use of your time. Put this one on the top of the pile.

Horse, by Geraldine Brooks, fiction, 401pp.

“Horse” is another in the hot book derby this season. Everyone seems to be reading it and I picked it up for a book group. The horse in this story is Lexington, the most famous racehorse of his day (the 1850s). The book tells how he was foaled and campaigned and then links his story to modern times with the discovery of his painting and his skeleton at the Smithsonian Museum. Lexington is the vehicle that Brooks uses to tell her story which brings slavery, horse racing, art history, osteology and modern day racism together in an entertaining but essentially cliched telling.

Lexington’s story is told through Jarret, a young slave who is the horse’s trainer throughout his racing campaign until Lexington’s death and entombment in Kentucky. He and Jarrett move through several owners (of them both) following the factual path of Lexington’s races. Brooks provides an image of what slavery might have been like for young Jarrett as he transfers from Kentucky to Missouri, Mississippi and Louisiana (and back).

The modern part of the story is told through the art history student Theo (a Black man) who virtually stumbles upon a painting of Lexington, and Jess, the director of the Osteology Lab at the Smithsonian. (Osteology is the study of bone structures). In a “meet cute” scenario worthy of “When Harry Met Sally”, Jess and Theo stumble across each other at the Smithsonian. It turns out that Jess knows that Lexington’s skeleton is in a storage attic at the museum and is planning to articulate it while Theo has brought a picture of the same horse to the museum to be examined! I can’t believe I’m writing this. Jess and Theo end up dating (of course) and because we are in the George Floyd era “things” do not end well.

Much of the book is very well written and provides a compelling story, but when Brooks gets to the dialog between Jess and Theo, the cliches come fast and furious. Author Vivian Gornick is well-known in writing circles for her treatise “The Situation and the Story” where she differentiates between the plot and the story the author is actually trying to tell. “Horse” is the perfect embodiment of this concept. The plot may be about Lexington but the story is about racism. Still, it’s worth a look.

Unscripted, by James B. Stewart and Rachel Abrams, non-fiction, 344 sordid pages.

This one definitely falls into the category of “I read this so you can avoid it.”

The tag line on the book is “The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy.” No matter what it says, this book isn’t a written version of “Succession”. By the end of the book, no one comes out unscathed. The book is written in four parts, with cutesy TV show references. Sections are called “seasons” and chapters, “episodes. The prologue is “trailer.” That should have been a sign.

The first two “seasons” cover the odious and maniacal Sumner Redstone’s relationships with the two women (Manuela Herzer and Sydney Holland) who moved into his Beverly Park mansion and took control of his life. If you find yourself unable to resist this sordid tale, you might want to read these “seasons” with rubber gloves and a large tub of disinfecting wipes. He gave them millions (hundreds of millions) and they took even more. They separated the aging Redstone from his family and trusted advisors and took total control of his life. Nothing says “me too” like these “seasons.”

The second two “seasons” cover Les Moonves’ fight with Shari Redstone (Sumner’s daughter) for control of CBS and the discovery of Moonves’ rampant sexual aggression which eventually unseated him. Again, whip out the gloves and wipes. There are no “good guys” in this tome. Shari Redstone comes off as disingenuous; Moonves as a sex addict and the CBS board as the three monkeys “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil.”

James B. Stewart usually writes a taught book but this one looks like it was slapped together and thrown on the press.

Finally, I’ll pass on a tip about an excellent French spy video. “The Bureau” is on Sundance which can be found on the AMC+ streaming network. Five seasons, 50 episodes of riveting, real world fictionalized stories on how the French DGSE (CIA) works.

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