Category Archives: Reviewed by Michael

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

The Boys in the Boat

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This is a work of non-fiction that reads like a novel.

The “Nazi Olympics” of 1936 are remembered for the stunning victory of Jesse Owens.  But a group of young men from the state of Washington also made a splash.  After winning the national collegiate rowing championship — held in the Hudson at Poughkeepsie — a team of mostly rural rowers traveled to Berlin to take on the best in the world.

The book will introduce you to a host of characters you’ve probably never heard of.
Together, they would overcome incredible odds and make history.


White Teeth by Zadie Smith

White Teeth

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Zadie Smith is recognized as one of England’s premiere fiction writers.  Her first book, published in 2000, made an enormous splash and vaulted her to instant prominence.

White Teeth features a complex weave of fascinating characters, from multiple ethnic and racial backgrounds, reflecting modern-day England.  The story centers on two friends — Archie, a redheaded English person married to an Afro-Caribbean woman, and Samad, a Muslim immigrant from Bangladesh.  Their adventures are simultaneously funny and moving.  The storyline is entertaining, but the novel’s spice comes from the mosaic of peoples, cultures, and customs living in the same neighborhood, and the tensions and relationships that ensue.

I rarely laugh out-loud at a book, but I did with this one.  Give it a try.


The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

The Wright Brothers

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How did two bicycle mechanics teach the world to fly?

Prize-winning author David McCullough is just the person to answer that question.  Along the way, we learn about the private lives of the brothers.  Their skills were a perfect fit — Wilber was a genius and Orville was a mechanical wiz.  Together, they made history.

McCullough’s stories are always set in a rich, historical context.  The story takes us from their Ohio hometown, to the banks of North Carolina, to Paris and beyond.

I enjoyed the journey.  I’m sure you will, too.

The Great Bridge: the epic story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge by David McCullough

The Great Bridge

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One of McCullough’s early books, this is the amazing story of the planning and building of what would become, at the time, the world’s longest suspension bridge.  It’s a tale of tremendous optimism and accomplishment as well as a story of greed, political rivalry and corruption.

McCullough devotes a good portion of the book to the engineer behind the project.  But he sets his accomplish into a broader, historical context.  It is the tale of two cities — New York (Manhattan) and Brooklyn — their growth, development and increasing inter-dependence.  The engineering obstacles were enormous.  The construction obstacles more so – bodies were crushed and broken; danger was the constant companion of the construction workers.

It’s a fantastic story.  Give it a good read, then, take a walk over the Brooklyn Bridge.


The Alienist by Caleb Carr

The Alienist

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Caleb Carr is a military historian turned novelist.  In The Alienist, he employs his specialty to paint a stark picture of the underside of New York City, circa 1896.

An “alienist” was the popular term used for people in the then-budding discipline of psychology.  Carr’s main character uses his skills to develop what we now call a “profile” to find a serial killer, stalking the male bordellos of lower Manhattan.

Carr populates his novel with prominent people from the history of  NYC in the late 19th century.  Central to the story is Theodore Roosevelt, in his role as Police Commissioner.  You’ll also meet folks like author Jacob Riis and J. P. Morgan.

This is a police procedural which uncovers the complex social history of NYC in an era of rapid social change via immigration, the rise of a super-wealthy class, and class conflict.  Carr also pushes the social envelop by making a woman police employee a central character.

For a strong taste of life in New York in this era, read The Alienist.

Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of the New Yorker by Thomas Kunkel

Man in Profile

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This is a biography of one of the most famous staff writers for the New Yorker Magazine.  Mitchell, from small-town North Carolina, was drawn to a writing career and landed in New York as a journalist.  He quickly became noticed by the New Yorker, and joined the staff in the heyday of the magazine.  The New Yorker featured the most notable writers of the day —  James Thurber, E. B. White, A. J. Liebling, Dorothy Parker, John Hersey…the list goes on and on.

Mitchell was interested in the characters in New York who made the City tick — bartenders, fishermen, eccentric characters, tug boat captains.  He is credited with raising journalism into the realm of literary art.  There were controversies along the way, and toward the end of his life, a stunning mystery.

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

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New Year’s Eve in London finds a desperate woman climbing the stairs of a tall building with the intention of throwing herself off.  Then, she finds three other people up there with the same intention.

Thus begins this quirky, dark -humored novel by British author Nick Hornby.  The four people talk themselves down, go for coffee, then decide to form a support society.  Each is completely different from the other – a disgraced TV personality, a punk young woman, a failed (American) rocker, and a middle-aged woman with a terribly disabled child.

It concludes relatively happily, as the four encourage one another to accept and conquer the challenges they each face.