Martin Scorsese has such stellar cred, deservedly so, that “The Irishman” was always going to captivate true fans. Think about it. The gritty tale of a New York mob fixer and hitman, entwined around the famous disappearance of unionist Jimmy Hoffa … De Niro perfectly cast as the American-irish mobster … Pacino as Hoffa … dialogue and violence the drivers … a sinuous assemblage of scenes composed as Scorsese can … how can this not be a late masterpiece of the master? And I admit “The Irishman” is so, so watchable. Time vanishes. The only trouble is, the story is vacuous, offering neither any conclusion nor any reflection. It’s just a life and we know biopics are the dullest of cinematic fare. I sat glued to the screen but then walked off, wishing Scorsese had used his moral compass and imagination to turn this eye-and-ear candy into something imbued with meaning.
“The Night Fire” continues the seamless LA crime busting odyssey of Harry Bosch. Now retired and limping, in this outing he lines up, in satisfying constellations, with renegade lawyer Mickey Haller and firebrand night-shift cop Renee Ballard. Three murders – a cold case prompted by an ex-mentor’s murder book passed to Bosch at a funeral, the slaying of a judge, and a homeless man’s fiery tent death – come to vigorous life under Connelly’s brisk, elegant pen. All three characters pulse with life but it’s Bosch who fascinates most, even after all these years. The interweaving plots contain more twists than most crime writers unveil in a decade, and all the outcomes sing of naturalness. If “The Night Fire” reeks a little of comfort rather than explosiveness, this reader, for one, could not care less.
Australia’s recycling ecosystem has been rocked by China’s withdrawal from mass gleaning. I was disturbed and did some digging, but it’s a tough subject to penetrate. By sheer coincidence, American academic environmentalist Kate O’Neill has just put out a definitive examination of the topic in “Waste.” Covering the mechanics, economics, and politics of a baffling global subject of huge importance, O’Neill somehow manages to juggle myriad perspectives and yet produce a readable and rather concise book. Reading it, I realized my thinking had been shallow. Waste can be a bad or a good, an environmental blight or a vital resource. Anyone with the slightest interest in this accelerating issue would be well served by a keen read of “Waste.”
James Sallis has been my reading companion for years, from his Lew Griffin noir series, through the stunning “Drive” and “Driven” pair, to his increasingly oblique recent lit-noir offerings. He writes with a wonderful literary yet spare style. “Sarah Jane,” his latest, promises plenty with its tale of a female sheriff with a baroque past investigating her ex-boss’s disappearance, but alas, the reputational allure is misplaced. Sallis’s last half dozen books have increasingly had skating, baffling plots (baffling, even, I have to say, to someone who loves to be mentally tested). “Sarah Jane” is a plot mess and although I revelled in the poetic language, the storyline flopped again and again and again. For completists only.
What a beguiling concept! In “A Word for Every Day of the Year,” Steven Poole brings us 365 words that are “old and half-forgotten, or thoroughly forgotten.” He takes care, he announces at the start, to avoid two categories of words that crop up in similar books or websites, namely “nonce-words” used only once in history, and “dictionary orphans” that have a technical history “without ever being used in anger.” As soon as I opened the book, gratitude flooded me, for I’m forever bemoaning my lack of lexical self-education. Dear reader, in contravention of my contract with you, I have not read the entire book, because in 2020 I plan to work through “A Word for Every Day of the Year,” day by diligent day, and I don’t want to spoil the pleasure and impact. (If interested, check out the Day Zero post.) Instead, I have browsed the first seven entries, from “dringle” to “ultracrepidarian.” This dip of toes into the water is sufficient, I reckon, to report that Poole is a smart, engaging writer with a keen vocabulary curator’s eye. If the book’s very concept interests you, buy it and, I’m sure, enjoy.
2019 finished as a superlative year of reading. My preoccupation with climate change influenced the list in obvious ways but the Top 10 is eclectic enough for all tastes. The first two books below received the rare accolade of a 10/10 rating, the others were 9/10. Enjoy!
Jon Gertner orchestrates a combo exploration/science history masterpiece with “The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future.” It is as vital as it is compelling. Review.
Jonathan Safran Foer weaves a classic polemic with sophisticated philosophical discussion in “We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast.” Review.
You must not miss the unique voice of George Packer in his scintillating biography, “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century.” Review.
Also check out reviews of these honorable mentions: Lou Berney’s noir “November Road“; Max Gladstone’s space opera “Empress of Forever“; Mick Herron’s spy thriller “London Rules“; Joe Ide’s mystery “Wrecked“; “The End of Ice“, a climate change eyewitness account by Dahr Jamail; “Nanaville: Adventures in Grandparenting” by Anna Quindlen; Nathaniel Rich’s “Losing Earth: A Recent History“; and “The Incomplete Book of Running” by Peter Sagal.
The brilliant author of the six-strong Sean Duffy series, Irishman Adrian McKinty has shifted terrain with magical effect. “The Chain” is one of those blockbuster thrillers with a premise so remarkable one wonders why it hasn’t been used before. A single mother, on an ordinary day, is thrust into hell when her daughter is kidnapped and she’s told by the kidnapper to pay a ransom (in bitcoin!) and to perpetuate “the chain” by kidnapping someone else’s child. The book kicks off at a ferocious pace and then accelerates, building up tension to an almost unbearable level. The characters, both heroes and villains, are vividly portrayed. McKinty is a robust yet elegant stylist and manages to both catapult the action and mystery forward and retain deep character connections. For this reader, “The Chain” was a single-night midnight-breaching read. A 2019 standout.
“The Testaments” is not, repeat is not, a sequel to Margaret Atwood’s revolutionary dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Indeed it could not follow that classic novel’s trajectory, if only because the TV series has usurped the plot. Instead Atwood reexamines the perverted, horrific world of Gilead, commencing a decade and a half later, and switching from a claustrophobic single viewpoint to three interwoven narratives, two of handmaids and one of ruthless Aunt Lydia. Atwood is among the world’s most assured novelists, each word and sentence carefully chosen, and the story zips along pleasingly. By the halfway point, one spies an overall arc and then races to uncover the dramatized endgame, and the overall read is intriguing and satisfying. But the deep immersion in political terror that “The Handmaid’s Tale” engendered is missing and the plot-driven structure distanced this reader somewhat from any of the three characters. If you’re a fan of the original, this is a must-read, but “The Testaments” will surely not sit as the same class of classic.
Jon Gertner, NYT journalist and historian, has penned a modern masterpiece of natural history at the outer edge of climate change science with “The Ice at the End of the World: An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future.” Greenland has never been on my reading list but from the first page, Gertner propels a spellbinding, eloquent account of the history of that frozen mass. The first seven chapters recount macho death-defying exploration, the rousing tales of Nansen and Peary at the end of the nineteenth century, crossing and exploring one of earth’s last and most forbidding frontiers. Rasmussen and Wegener take the story through the first half of the twentieth century, still mostly raw exploration, but an emerging realisation of the scientific secrets locked in Greenland’s ice morphs the tale after World War II towards knowledge. Gertner is brilliant describing how American Cold War might and money transformed the frozen waste into an air base and a science Camp Central (eventually crushed by the ice). Ice core drilling into the eighties is described in thrilling terms. When it was realized Greenland had begun melting, albeit slowly at first, airplane surveying at first, and then satellite blanketing, began to pursue astonishing science: how much ice is on Greenland and how is it changing? Gertner’s thrilling account of the 2010s includes images of cautious glaciologists stunned by the accelerating ice melt. Rising sea levels beckon, far faster than anyone predicted. “So we have very little time,” Gertner warns, “a few years, maybe a few decades.” Every thinking human should read “The Ice at the End of the World” tomorrow.
Ten years ago, Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals” proved to be instrumental in shifting me towards vegetarianism, so naturally I gravitated to his altogether new take on the subject in “We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast“.” But whereas the first was a polemic for vegetarianism, “We Are the Weather” turns out to be a remarkable philosophical exploration of the terror and meaning of climate change in the Anthropocene Era. Sure, Foer is now recommending we all just skip meat for breakfast and that this alone would greatly impact global carbon emissions, but that fades before the power of his intelligence and prose in addressing the heartbreak and attendant nihilism that any sensible appraisal of our future entails. His penultimate chapter, “Dispute with the soul,” is extraordinary, a dialogue of one mind with itself, oscillating between despair and various forms of hope. I felt the author had a direct line into my head as I read it, and I’ve returned to the teasing, looping discussion again and again. Throughout the book, Foer’s prose is personal and precise and elegant: “There is a far more pernicious form of science denial than Trump’s: the form that parades as acceptance. Those of us who know what is happening but do far too little about it are more deserving of the anger.” Ah, so true. I predict this lively, wise reflection will remain a classic for years. Go grab it, it won’t fail you.