Category Archives: book reviews

Cover of The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist, showing a hearse under a storm cloud

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist : a True Story of Injustice in the American South, by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

Cover of The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist, showing a hearse under a storm cloudInvestigative journalist Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington, Director of the Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi, have put together a heart-rending account of the institutional racism embedded in the intersection of law and science in Mississippi. The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist of the title are Dr. Stephen Hayne and Dr. Michael West, who together held sway over the murder investigation and prosecution  for decades. Leaning heavily on an antiquated system of county coroners, complicit officials who fought hard to maintain the Jim Crow status quo and a gloss of CSI-style razzle-dazzle and jargon, Haynes  literally cornered the market on autopsies in the state and brought along his friend West, who professed expertise in a number of shaky forensic techniques.

The two became the favored experts for prosecutors. not least for their creativity and willingness to shape the “evidence” to the state’s needs.  Judges accepted the “science.” State officials refused to staff or fund a modern medical examiner’s office. Haynes and West grew rich and famous.  And innocent people, mostly African-American, went to jail.  While two of the wrongly convicted men detailed in the book were exonerated when Haynes and West eventually fell from grace, many others remain imprisoned with no systematic review of this deep injustice likely.  This is not a story with a happy ending, but one that will leave you shaking your head and whispering Mississippi goddam.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

An epic novel of the violence and depravity that attended America’s westward expansion, Blood Meridian brilliantly subverts the conventions of the Western novel and the mythology of the “wild west.” Based on historical events that took place on the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s, it traces the fortunes of the Kid, a fourteen-year-old Tennessean who stumbles into the nightmarish world where Indians are being murdered and the market for their scalps is thriving.

*Recommended by Mike

 

Grimacing toddler on the cover of Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness by Melissa Dahl

Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkardness by Melissa Dahl

Grimacing toddler on the cover of Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness by Melissa Dahl You probably know the feeling well. You’re lying in bed, just trying to fall asleep, but images of your worst moments in junior high — the bad haircut, the wrong clothes, the time you called the teacher “Mommy” —  just will not stop tapdancing through your painfully conscious mind.

That’s the feeling Melissa Dahl investigates in Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness.  To get deep inside the cringe, Dahl talks to anthropologists, sociologists, neuroscientists and advice columnists. She puts her own social discomforts, teenage angst and work dilemmas in the spotlight to illustrate and individualize scientific studies and broad research. She pores over her own online writing; attends workshops to learn to talk about race; even reads from her teenage diaries on stage.

Her eager search for compassion for her awkward self — indeed, for all the cringing selves everywhere — is deep and kind and just plain funny. You’ll cringe in sympathy, and maybe stretch your understanding of this very, very human experience.

The awkward in me sees and bows to the awkward in all of you.

*Recommended by Susan.

Bookcover - Master and Commander

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

Here is the maiden voyage of Patrick O’Brian’s acclaimed ‘Aubrey-Maturin’ series, which follows the unique friendship between Captain Aubrey, R.N., and Stephen Maturin, ship’s surgeon and intelligence agent. It is the dawn of the nineteenth century; Britain is at war with Napoleon’s France. When Jack Aubrey, a young lieutenant in Nelson’s navy, is promoted to captain, he inherits command of HMS Sophie, an old, slow brig unlikely to make his fortune. But Captain Aubrey is a brave and gifted seaman, his thirst for adventure and victory immense.

With the aid of his friend Stephen Maturin, Aubrey and his crew engage in one thrilling battle after another, their journey culminating in a stunning clash with a mighty Spanish frigate against whose guns and manpower the tiny Sophie is hopelessly outmatched. O’Brian renders in riveting detail the life aboard a man-of-war in Nelson’s navy: the conversational idiom of the officers in the ward room and the men on the lower deck, the food, the floggings, the mysteries of the wind and the rigging, and the roar of broadsides as the great ships close in battle.

*Recommended by Al

Bookcover - The Heist by Daniel Silva

The Heist by Daniel Silva

Gabriel Allon, art restorer and occasional spy, searches for a stolen masterpiece by Caravaggio in #1 New York Times bestselling author Daniel Silva’s latest action-packed tale of high stakes international intrigue.

Sometimes the best way to find a stolen masterpiece is to steal another one . . . 

Master novelist Daniel Silva has thrilled readers with sixteen thoughtful and gripping spy novels featuring a diverse cast of compelling characters and ingenious plots that have taken them around the globe and back—from the United States to Europe, Russia to the Middle East. His brilliant creation, Gabriel Allon—art restorer, assassin, spy—has joined the pantheon of great fictional secret agents, including George Smiley, Jack Ryan, Jason Bourne, and Simon Templar.

Following the success of his smash hit The English Girl, Daniel Silva returns with another powerhouse of a novel that showcases his outstanding skill and brilliant imagination, and is sure to be a must read for both his multitudes of fans and growing legions of converts.

*Recommended by Karen

Bookcover - State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Award-winning, New York Times bestselling author Ann Patchett returns with a provocative and assured novel of morality and miracles, science and sacrifice set in the Amazon rainforest. Infusing the narrative with the same ingenuity and emotional urgency that pervaded her acclaimed previous novels Bel CantoTaftRunThe Magician’s Assistant, and The Patron Saint of Liars, Patchett delivers an enthrallingly innovative tale of aspiration, exploration, and attachment in State of Wonder—a gripping adventure story and a profound look at the difficult choices we make in the name of discovery and love.

 

*Recommended by Stephanie 

Bookcover - Travels with Alice by Calvin Trillin

Travels With Alice by Calvin Trillin

This delightful book collects Calvin Trillin’s accounts of his trips to Europe with his wife, Alice, and their two daughters. In Taormina, Sicily, they cheerfully disagree with Mrs. Tweedie’s 1904 assertion that the beautiful town “is being spoilt,” and skip the Grand Tour in favor of swimming holes, table soccer, and taureaux piscine. In Paris, they spend a day on the Champs-Elysées comparing Freetime’s “le Hitburger” to McDonald’s Big Mac. In Spain, Trillin wonders whether he will run out of Spanish “the way someone might run out of flour or eggs.” Filled with Trillin’s characteristic humor, Travels with Alice is the perfect book for summer travelers.