Make Russia Great Again by Christopher Buckley

The bad news is I am back from vacation in Michigan and no longer have access to a lake simply by stepping out of my tent and choosing the form of my water transportation (pontoon boat, row boat, or kayak). The good news is I read another political satire and am here to report back.

First, the basics:

Make Russia Great Again Book Cover
Make Russia Great Again Fiction Simon & Schuster Kindle 288 NetGalley

The award-winning and bestselling author of Thank You for Smoking delivers a hilarious and whipsmart fake memoir by Herb Nutterman—Donald Trump’s seventh chief of staff—who has written the ultimate tell-all about Trump and Russia. Herb Nutterman never intended to become Donald Trump’s White House chief of staff. Herb served the Trump Organization for twenty-seven years, holding jobs in everything from a food and beverage manager at the Trump Magnifica to being the first general manager of the Trump Bloody Run Golf Course. And when his old boss asks “his favorite Jew” to take on the daunting role of chief of staff, Herb, spurred on by loyalty, agrees. But being the chief of staff is a lot different from being a former hospitality expert. Soon, Herb finds himself deeply involved in Russian intrigue, deflecting rumors about Mike Pence’s high school involvement in a Satanic cult, and leading President Trump’s reelection campaign. What Nutterman experiences is outrageous, outlandish, and otherwise unbelievable—therefore making it a deadly accurate account of being the chief of staff during the Trump administration. With hilarious jabs at the biggest world leaders and Washington politics overall, Make Russia Great Again is a timely political satire from “one of the funniest writers in the English language” (Tom Wolfe).

Of the recent political satire books I have read Make Russia Great Again was by far the best.

Christopher Buckley makes the White House activity all too believable and doesn’t go so far over the top as to spoil the humor. The dry humor works with just enough absurdity to add spice. Sure, it is at times sophomoric and crude, but given the subject matter what do you expect?

Why the three stars? I guess there is a fine line between humor that is funny and that which is depressing. So even as I smiled wryly at the humor, I was shaking my head at the reality that makes satire of the Trump era so difficult.

And this is where judging this book becomes difficult. If you WANT to laugh at/with Trump World, Buckley provides the opportunity. But in some ways it seems to normalize the absurdities involved. Ironically, the humor works in important ways because Buckley gets at the absurdity that lies close to any form of politics and celebrity culture and plays it straight. And he highlights how Trump turns this all up to 11. There isn’t a seething anger or a bitterness either.

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The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

I’m not sure how I stumbled on The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu and translated by Ken Liu. I saw it on Goodreads but it also came up on an email list serve, I believe. Somehow multiple mentions pinged my brain and I decided to pick it up to see what all the fuss was about. I was able to get a copy from the library and set out to read what I hoped was the first in a promising series.

The Three-Body Problem Book Cover
The Three-Body Problem Remembrance of Earth’s Past Science Fiction Tor Books Hardback 400 pages Library

A secret military group sends signals into space in hopes of establishing contact with aliens―and succeeds.

Picking up their signal is an alien civilization on the brink of destruction who now readies to invade Earth.

News of the coming invasion divides humanity like never before. Some want to help the superior beings take over a world they see as corrupt. Others prepare to fight the invasion at all cost.

The Three Body Problem begins a ground-breaking saga of enormous scope and vision.

Quick Verdict: Alas, I was not as wowed by this as others. Perhaps because I don’t read a lot of science fiction or find complex science hurts my head.

I was mostly interested in the connection to the Cultural Revolution in China and it was this part that kept me going for most of the book. It starts right off with the brutal reality of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960’s. I wanted to see how the characters impacted by these events were involved in the story forty years later. And I enjoyed this thread.

I liked the characters, despite some awkwardness from translation and cultural differences, and the set-up of the game as connection to an alien species, but it moved a little slow in parts. Whenever it delved into the physics and science aspects, I started to tune out. I’m not what you would call a math and science guy… :-) But I did enjoy trying to figure out how it all connected to some degree.

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Shaming the Devil by Alan Jacobs

Close readers of this blog or who follow me on Goodreads, will recall that I’m working my way through Alan Jacobs books, catching up on those I haven’t read, and I further impressed with his skill as an essayist and thinker. He is able to hold the reader’s interest even as he explores weighty issue of literature, culture and faith.

After A Visit to Vanity Fair, which I finally was able to pull of my shelf and read, I read Shaming the Devil: Essays in Truthtelling which I had grabbed for my Kindle.

Shaming the Devil: Essays in Truthtelling Book Cover
Shaming the Devil: Essays in Truthtelling Essays Wm. B. Eerdmans Kindle 247 pages Amazon

Shaming the Devil offers a series of reflections that explore how hard it is to tell the truth about the world of culture – and how central that task is to the Christian life.

Employing the literary essay as a means for cultural criticism and using other writers and thinkers as friends and foils in his quest, Alan Jacobs revisits the question asked by Pilate and so many others throughout history: “What is truth?”

In the first part of the book, Jacobs contemplates the work of people whom he takes to be exemplary truth seekers: Rebecca West, W. H. Auden, Albert Camus, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Linda Gregerson, and Leon Kass.

He then engages writers who challenge the search for truth: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Iris Murdoch, Wole Soyinka, Philip Pullman, and Anne Carson.

The third section of the book consists of a single lengthy essay that pursues the provocative question of whether today’s computer technology helps or hinders us in our pursuit of truth.

His skills highlighted for me the vast gulf between casual blogging (me) and a talented essayist (Jacobs). It also makes me wish I could sit in on one of his classes. I have a feeling it would be both challenging and deeply rewarding.

I find reading the essays in large doses over the course of a weekend really allows the reader to see how the ideas and issues relate and interact. Despite being dated they shine with wisdom, wit and clarity.

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Frozen Dreams by Moe Lane

Last week I mentioned my policy of reading books by friends, online or “in real life,” in relation to Jim Geraghty.  Well, it was actually a conversation about Moe Lane which sparked my memory of not reviewing Jim’s book. Which brings us around to Moe’s book. Wait, what?

Let me start again. I try to read and review books written by people I know.  Writing a book is hard. Getting it published is too. So I try to do my small part by reading and offering thoughts in pixels when friends/acquaintances achieve this milestone. Well, Moe-another blogging friend from way back- has a book out. Frozen Dreams.

Frozen Dreams Book Cover
Frozen Dreams Flying Koala; Kindle 210 pages Amazon

It’s a very straightforward detective story! Well, one where the detective lives in a post-apocalypse fantasy setting where there are orcs rampaging in the eastern desert, evil sorcerers lurking in their towers to the north, and Adventurers looting and exploring the post-American ruins. But they all come to Cin City: Cinderella, the capital of the Kingdom of New California. Maybe it’s because of the glitter. Maybe it’s because of the giant iceberg in the middle of the Gulf of California. And maybe it’s because they got nowhere else to go.

I should confess that I am not really a Geek in the sense of plugged into and fluent in the language of fantasy, comics, and elements of pop culture (TV, video & role playing games, etc.). I am sorta Geek adjacent, if you will.

I bring this up because, Frozen Dreams is a mash-up of classic detective fiction and urban fantasy with a dash of dystopia. Someone on Goodreads explained it this way:

Dragonlance ala Dashiell Hammett during a Canticle for Leibowitz.

Sounds about right. I enjoyed it because I know Moe and found it interesting to picture him creating the world and story; and voicing the main character, to be honest. Could have used a little more world building setup and character depth, but as I have frequently noted, most first time novels do; particularly in what is the first in a series.

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The Captain and the Glory by Dave Eggers

I get that it is hard to make satire of our current situation but isn’t that what talented writers are supposed to offer?

This is the question I have been asking myself this summer. OK, perhaps that is an exaggeration. But it is a useful literary device for a blog post…

If you are scoring at home, I am on a quest to read 100 books in a year.  As a result, I am always tempted by short books.  I stumbled on two politically orientated satires this summer which I thought would be both entertaining and present a theme for this on-again off-again blog.

No so much…

First was The Cockroach by Ian McEwan which I found rather sad all things considered.

Next up, The Captain and the Glory by Dave Eggers

The Captain and the Glory Book Cover
The Captain and the Glory Satire Knopf Hardback 114 pages Library

When the decorated Captain of a great ship descends the gangplank for the final time, a new leader, a man with a yellow feather in his hair, vows to step forward. Though he has no experience, no knowledge of nautical navigation or maritime law, and though he has often remarked he doesn’t much like boats, he solemnly swears to shake things up. Together with his band of petty thieves and confidence men known as the Upskirt Boys, the Captain thrills his passengers, writing his dreams and notions on the cafeteria wipe-away board, boasting of his exemplary anatomy, devouring cheeseburgers, and tossing overboard anyone who displeases him. Until one day a famous pirate, long feared by passengers of the Glory but revered by the Captain for how phenomenally masculine he looked without a shirt while riding a horse, appears on the horizon . . . Absurd, hilarious, and all too recognizable, The Captain and the Glory is a wicked farce of contemporary America only Dave Eggers could dream up.

My quick take: it was funny (and depressing) in spots, but just too heavy handed and preachy by the end. Better than its British equivalent, The Cockroach, but that is a low bar.

Perhaps reassuringly, many critics agree with me.

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Between Two Scorpions by Jim Geraghty

I have a basic policy of reading and reviewing books by friends or acquaintances; even if only the friendship is an online one.  Today, I realized that last year I read a book by a longtime friend and never reviewed it.  In my defense, last year I started a new job, bought a house, and moved to a new town. But still I felt bad when this came to mind today, so I decided to rectify my error.

I have known Jim Geraghty for quite a while and have even met him in person.  We go way back into the golden age of blogging.  Jim is an excellent journalist and has really established a reputation during the pandemic as a voice of reason and information.  If you are interested in politics/public affairs I recommend The Morning Jolt.

So when Jim published Between Two Scorpions I grabbed a copy and read it.

Between Two Scorpions Book Cover
Between Two Scorpions A Dangerous Clique Thriller Discus Books Kindle 305 Amazon

A long dormant CIA asset emerges from hiding to request a meeting with his former handler, the beautiful, enigmatic intelligence operative Katrina Leonidivna. She’s skeptical that the source, a shady arms dealer, is on the level. But when Katrina barely escapes with her life after an explosion rips through the café where they met, she’s forced to take his tip seriously. Alongside her husband, Alec Flanagan, and a rogue crew of covert agents from every corner of the intelligence community, Katrina races around the globe to uncover the truth.

What this dangerous clique of operatives discover is a plot that could rip America apart from the inside. A plot that pits neighbors against one another and turns everyone into a potential threat. A plot that could make anyone take up arms against their own country. A plot that Katrina, Alec, and the rest of their crew have to stop before it’s too late. But when everyone is a suspect, no one is safe and the entire nation is under suspicion. Hot on the trail of a terror cell capable of turning anyone—and everyone—into a deranged killer, only this dangerous clique of spies has a chance to stop the terrorists from weaponizing America’s greatest asset—freedom.

As long as we are confessing, I also failed to read Jim’s novel The Weed Agency so this is my first experience with his fiction, having read his journalism near daily for years.

I don’t think I will hurt Jim’s feeling by saying BTS has some elements common to new fiction authors and first books in a series.  Despite the explosive start, literally, it takes awhile for the book to get going and not all of the characters are all that flushed out. This is also just part of the genre, however, as I have noted when reading books from book-a-year type established authors.  There is always a tension between action and color and character development.

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Jonah Goldberg on the Tyranny of Feelings

We’re creating a worldview that other peoples’ feelings are sovereign. The intentions of the offender do not matter, only the feelings of the offended. Even when the offenses happened doesn’t matter. Five minutes ago or five years, it’s all the same. An official at Boeing was just forced out of his job for being “wrong” about something 33 years ago.

Instead of clear rules, rationally conceived and universally applied, the new rules are opaque, emotionally conceived and subjectively applied. If we lived under some fickle absolutist king, who arbitrarily decided what was offensive, outrageous, or even criminal, we’d all recognize the illiberalism of it. But when a mob arbitrarily rules the same way, we call it social justice. It’s really just the tyranny of feelings.

— Jonah Goldberg, Isn’t It Romantic?

Book Review: Of Vengeance by J.D. Kurtness

As I have mentioned on occasion, I am trying to read 100 books this year.  To that end, when I see a short book that grabs my attention I will usually take a chance on it.  1) it is short which helps me towards my goal 2) if it isn’t a great book I haven’t sacrificed a lot of time.

Hence, my reading Of Vengeance by J.D. Kurtness

Of Vengeance Book Cover
Of Vengeance Novella Dundurn Paperback 160 pages Library

“Let’s be honest: Who hasn’t fantasized about shooting someone in the face with a hunting rifle?”

One day, a thirteen-year-old girl decides to startle a classmate. Instead, she accidentally kills him.

And she likes it.

Over the years, she begins experimenting with murder. Her victims are, of course, people that deserve it: a careless driver, a CEO of an energy corporation that is destroying the planet, a rapist. Every crime scene is flawless — untraceable and made to look like an accident or suicide. But, as she sleepwalks through her day job and lives in a crummy apartment, one thing becomes increasingly clear: she needs more.

Because nothing compares to the thrill of violent retribution.

Kirkus:

A chilling justification of a life of violence, as nonchalant as it is grim.

My take? What a weird little book.

I think the supposed charm is the nonchalant tone and descriptions as a chance accident leads to the development of a psychopath. It is the story of a clearly morally deranged person but who approaches her “hobby” as if it was hiking or a competitive sport. Not sure I see the appeal.

Sure, everyone has had the urge to get revenge on the jerks and inconsiderate among us but reading about how a person might go about building a life around living out such a choice is unsettling and dark. Maybe that was the point…

On the other hand, we have the Montreal Review of Books:

This isn’t, in the end, an attempt to solve or get away with a murder; instead, Of Vengeance hints at another layer of crime that forms the undercurrent of the novel. In deceptively simple prose, Kurtness mounts a poignant and timely argument about the danger of running headlong into the hands of technologies we don’t fully understand.

I agree with PW:

Kurtness writes smoothly, but the black humor won’t be to every taste. Readers into passive-aggressive fantasies will best appreciate this one.

The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri

We are continuing our little tour of books I read through some sort of odd or serendipitous circumstance.

I stumbled on The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri (Stephen Sartarelliin, translator) in a rather odd way. My wife’s book club was going to read a book with the title “The Shape of Water.” I was told it was not the book that corresponds to the movie so I thought it was the first book in the Commissario Montalbano series. And it was available on Kindle for $2 so I bought it for my wife.

Turns out it was the book by Anne Spollen. I decided to read this Inspector Montalbano mystery anyways.

The Shape of Water Book Cover
The Shape of Water Commissario Montalbano Mystery Penguin Books Kindle 244 Amazon

Andrea Camilleri’s novels starring Inspector Montalbano have become an international sensation and have been translated from Italian into eight languages, ranging from Dutch to Japanese. The Shape of Water is the first book in this sly, witty, and engaging series with its sardonic take on Sicilian life. Early one morning, Silvio Lupanello, a big shot in the village of Vigàta, is found dead in his car with his pants around his knees. The car happens to be parked in a rough part of town frequented by prostitutes and drug dealers, and as the news of his death spreads, the rumors begin. Enter Inspector Salvo Montalbano, Vigàta’s most respected detective. With his characteristic mix of humor, cynicism, compassion, and love of good food, Montalbano goes into battle against the powerful and the corrupt who are determined to block his path to the real killer. This funny and fast-paced Sicilian page-turner will be a delicious discovery for mystery afficionados and fiction lovers alike.

Quick verdict: It was entertaining but not really my style. 1) I am not a big mystery/crime reader and 2) was rather put off by the vulgarity (if that is the right word) of much of the plot. It was well done and evokes the time and place well. But just not my style.

Kirkus is full of praise:

Subtle, sardonic, and molto simpatico: Montalbano is the Latin re-creation of Philip Marlowe, working in a place that manages to be both more and less civilized than Chandler’s Los Angeles.

Publishers Weekly, less so:

Camilleri’s strength lies in his gallery of eccentric characters: Signora Luparello, the victim’s admirably cool widow; Gegè, a pimp and old classmate of Montalbano’s; Giosue Contino, an 82-year-old schoolteacher who shoots at people because he thinks his 80-year-old wife is cheating on him; and Anna Ferrara, Montalbano’s attractive deputy, “who every now and then, for whatever reason, would try to seduce him.” Even the two garbage men have Ph.D.s. The maverick Montalbano doesn’t hesitate to destroy clues or extract money from a crook to help a child, but his wrapping up the case by telling rather than showing, while acceptable to European audiences, may disappoint action-oriented American fans.

I think this is the sort of book you have to be in the mood for. The humor just didn’t resonate with me and none of the characters really struck me.  Perhaps, I should read the second book in the series, The Terra-Cotta Dog, as series often get better as they go.  But on the other hand, perhaps this is just not my kind of novel

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald

Here is another book I’m not sure how it ended up on my reading list.  I think When We Were Vikings was an Amazon recommendation; one of so, so many books I have on my Kindle thanks to a $1.99 impulse buy.

Anywho, it did have an interesting description which led to my buying it:

When We Were Vikings Book Cover
When We Were Vikings Fiction Gallery/Scout Press  Kindle 336 pages Amazon

Sometimes life isn’t as simple as heroes and villains.

For Zelda, a twenty-one-year-old Viking enthusiast who lives with her older brother, Gert, life is best lived with some basic rules:

1. A smile means “thank you for doing something small that I liked.”

2. Fist bumps and dabs = respect.

3. Strange people are not appreciated in her home.

4. Tomatoes must go in the middle of the sandwich and not get the bread wet.

5. Sometimes the most important things don’t fit on lists.

But when Zelda finds out that Gert has resorted to some questionable—and dangerous—methods to make enough money to keep them afloat, Zelda decides to launch her own quest. Her mission: to be legendary. It isn’t long before Zelda finds herself in a battle that tests the reach of her heroism, her love for her brother, and the depth of her Viking strength.

When We Were Vikings is an uplifting debut about an unlikely heroine whose journey will leave you wanting to embark on a quest of your own, because after all…

We are all legends of our own making.

Looking for some light but engaging bedtime reading, I metaphorically pulled this from the Kindle pile.

I have mixed feelings about this book as well. First of all, the publishers description above might not give you a complete picture of the story line here.  Zelda has cognitive disabilities from fetal alcohol syndrome.  The story is told from her perspective and with that challenge in mind.

The positive side of the book is clear: Zelda is a great character and has a great voice.  She really drives the story and gives it depth and meaning.

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