THIEVES OF STATE by Sarah Chayes

When we reflect on politics in America, as annoying/frustrating/horrifying as things might seem, Sarah Chayes reminds us that they could always get worse. In THIEVES OF STATE: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, she explains how corruption has overtaken Afghanistan, Nigeria, Egypt, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan and why it has increased the spread of destabilizing religious extremism.

And we’ve had a role in this problem. For example, in places such as Kabul, where we’ve had a military presence for years now, while our stated goals have been to support democratic governance and destroy radical terrorists, the citizens of Afghanistan have had to choose between being led and abused by corrupt officials or being led and abused by religious extremists. Ironically, she points out, because we have not taken corruption seriously enough, the people we are trying to help do not believe we are really trying to help them, so it makes them look around for other options.

This book sheds a bright light on a global problem. It is also an important reminder to citizens of this country that freedom isn’t free. We must remain vigilant.

Posted in For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, History, Investigative journalism, Nonfiction, Politics | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment


This book reminded me how lucky I have been.

I grew up in a house full of books. From first grade forward, every school I attended had its own library, and as soon as my parents let me ride my bike without supervision, I made daily treks to the public library three miles away, where I checked out as many books as I could carry, bringing them back the next day for more. I ate books the way I now sometimes eat potato chips, and I soon became equally enthralled with writing.

I had a sense that my writing would improve if I just kept practicing—and plus, it was fun—so I kept a journal and wrote poems and stories whenever the whim struck me.

One day, my father gave me his copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and I gobbled it up. It reinforced my suspicion that good writers were not born but made, and it gave me hope that some day I’d write something that other people would want to read. In retrospect, I had many, many teachers who encouraged me to write—more than ten that I can think of right now—and while I loved them at the time, I didn’t realize how unusual that was. My family was not wealthy, but my parents and teachers were an embarrassment of riches.

Fast-forward 40 years (give or take), and having published two books (with a third in the wings, if anyone knows a good agent), I’ve begun another—this time, on how to use grammar to improve writing. Naturally I ordered a dozen grammar books to suss out the competition. That’s how Stanley Fish’s HOW TO WRITE A SENTENCE (subtitled And How to Read One) was delivered to my door.

Fish begins with an anecdote from Annie Dillard’s 1989 classic, The Writing Life, in which she tells the story of a fellow writer who was asked, “Do you think I could be a writer?” to which he responds, “Well, do you like sentences?”

A hook like that is almost unfair. I love sentences.

Fish focuses on form, craft, and appreciation, and his insights about writing are dazzling. If you like (or love) sentences, you should really read this book.

Posted in Creativity, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, For PARENTS, Nonfiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

EVICTION by Matthew Desmond

Having just finished DREAM LAND, about the opioid crisis, I turned to EVICTION, the 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winner subtitled Poverty and Profit in the American City. You could say I’m a glutton for bad news, but it’s more like I’m trying to understand our country’s biggest problems in order to figure out how we could solve them.

While many things in this book surprised me, perhaps most surprising was that no one knew much about eviction much until Matthew Desmond came along. Not long after he moved to a trailer park in Milwaukee in 2008 to begin his research, he discovered that no one had previously studied eviction enough to answer the most basic questions, such as: “How prominent is eviction? What are its consequences? Who gets evicted? If poor families are spending so much on housing, what are they going without?” Poverty researchers had focused on public housing or other housing policies, he noted, “And yet here was the private rental market, where the vast majority of poor people lived.” Desmond dug in, and in addition to conducting the hundreds of interviews and observations that enabled him to tell the stories of the people he describes so compellingly in this book, he created systems for data collection so that people could understand the scope of the problem. He won a well-deserved “Genius Grant” from the MacArthur Foundation for his work.

Millions of people in this country—millions—are evicted every year. Some lose their jobs, can’t pay rent, and are evicted; some are evicted and then lose their jobs while they try to figure out where to live next and how to feed their children. As Desmond notes, “Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.” He explains the interconnectedness of housing, family stability, schooling, and community stability; when people don’t have stable shelter, he notes, “everything else falls apart.”

This book should be required reading for high school students, as part of a very robust class on civics.

Posted in Anthropology, Crime, Drug addiction, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, Investigative journalism, Nonfiction, Poverty, Pulitzer Prize Winner, Race relations, Social Justice, Social psychology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

DREAM LAND by Sam Quinones

Depending on where you live and whom you know, you might know quite a lot about opioid addiction. You might have seen firsthand how someone goes to a doctor for back pain and ends up hooked on OxyContin. You might have heard about a friend’s child who overdosed on heroin. You might have received a phone call from your own child, asking for help.

While you might know that we are—in dozens of cities and towns around the country—in the midst of an almost unfathomable opioid epidemic that has undermined families, communities, and large chunks of our national economy, you might not know how it started. Everything starts somewhere, somehow. In DREAM LAND, subtitled The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, Sam Quinones tells the stories of many key individuals involved and explains so much, and so much of it is infuriating.

I will not explain it all here. Not surprisingly, corporate greed and fraud play a role. Our problematic health care system shows its weaknesses. The desperation of unemployed men also factors in. The details of how this crisis spread are astonishing.

The consequences are staggering.

Posted in Crime, Drug addiction, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, For PARENTS, History, Illegal Immigration, Investigative journalism, Nonfiction, Poverty | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE POWER OF MOMENTS by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Not long after I turned 14, I was hired to do salad prep at a local restaurant. On my first day, a young man probably in his early 20s was assigned to train me. He picked up a knife and began chopping mushrooms so rapidly that the knife was a blur. In no time, he’d created a sizable pile of sliced mushrooms. It looked so easy. “See?” he said.

I’ll never forget what happened next. As I reached for the knife, our boss—a rotund, jovial man—suddenly appeared at my side and intercepted the knife. “I just want you to remember something,” he said. He looked me straight in the eye. “This knife is very, very, VERY sharp. VERY sharp. So be careful.”

He set the knife on the cutting board and walked away. Besides having probably saved me a trip to the ER, in that moment he also showed that he cared and that he was truly in charge: two very important messages to send to a new employee.

This moment is exactly the kind of thing the Heath brothers explore in their latest book, THE POWER OF MOMENTS. Subtitled Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, it reminds us that we can have more impact by being more purposeful about the impressions we create, and it explains how.

No matter what line of work you’re in, this book provides a large pile of sliced mushrooms and a very sharp knife for thought.

Posted in Change, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, For PARENTS, Nonfiction, Self-help, Social psychology | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THANKS, OBAMA by David Litt

I recognize that the title of this book might discourage some portion of the population from picking it up, but that would be a missed opportunity. David Litt’s entertaining memoir, subtitled My Hopey, Changey White House Years, is more than a story of a Democratic presidential speechwriter. It’s a humorous, self-deprecating account of a young man who finds himself in a situation where he needs to grow up and deal with a challenging job.

Litt captures perfectly the perspective of a recent college grad who fell in love with then-candidate Obama and dove into the campaign headfirst. Though not immediately hired after the election, he eventually secures a small role, and works hard to climb the ladder. Though this may sound a bit mundane, it is actually fascinating because along the way he pulls back the curtain to reveal the inner workings of the Obama White House. Even if you’re a devoted fan of the TV show The West Wing (or maybe especially if you are), the details will surprise and engage you.

As a writer reading about another writer’s life, I found Litt’s description of his work both painfully honest and amusing. It’s hard to pick a favorite part, but this “translation” of his boss’s “unique dialect of one-line e-mails” in which he delivers feedback on Litt’s drafts would be near the top:

My edits. Unmitigated disaster. Pure garbage. Rewrite.
Here are my edits. I disliked this, but I didn’t completely hate it.
Some edits. This was acceptable, but only by the smallest possible margin.
Good job. Good job.

In some ways, though we might not have been in the White House, we have all been there.


Posted in Humor, Memoir, Nonfiction, Politics, Writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

RED NOTICE by Bill Browder

I admit I took my eye off the Russia ball for a while. For years, actually. Once we signed nuclear disarmament treaties with them (or first with the “Soviet Union” then “Russia”), I thought, OK, so they’re not going to blow us up; who else should we worry about? But recently—well, for obvious reasons—that has changed.

When I heard about Bill Browder’s memoir/thriller about his involvement in Russia, it seemed like a good opportunity to learn a thing or two.

This book is subtitled A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice, and it is All That and More. Browder was one of the first major investors in Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and he made a fortune. Until he didn’t.

I don’t want to spoil anything. You’ve probably heard of the Russian oligarchs and allegations of their corruption. Bill Browder needed to hire an attorney to help him fight this corruption, and he hired the best one he could find, a truly upstanding man named Sergei Magnitsky.

If you’ve heard of the “Magnitsky Act,” you might know where this is going. But even if you do, this book deserves your attention. It is an astounding story, with implications for our future.

Posted in Biography, Crime, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, History, Investigative journalism, Memoir, Nonfiction, Russia | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment


The beauty of a good book is that it makes you want to read more. Or write something. Or both. Therese Anne Fowler’s Z, a fictionalized account of Zelda Fitzgerald’s life, is such a book. You will want to read more about the Fitzgeralds or write a story of your own. Or think, Maybe I should write a novel.

If you’ve read anything by or about F. Scott Fitzgerald (especially The Great Gatsby) or Ernest Hemingway (especially A Moveable Feast, his memoir about his time in Paris, often with the Fitzgeralds; or The Sun Also Rises, a novel which feels like a thinly-disguised memoir), you probably already have some preconceptions about the Fitzgeralds—e.g., her penchant for wild behavior and his penchant for booze. They clearly lived flashy lives, but it’s unclear who derailed whom more. As Ms. Fowler notes in the Acknowledgments, “Where the Fitzgeralds are concerned, there is so much material with so many differing views and biases that I often felt as if I’d been dropping into a raging argument between what I came to call Team Zelda and Team Scott.” This book aims to tell Zelda’s side of the story, and I must say, it comes across as entirely plausible. And it makes me want to read her writing, which was sometimes published as “co-written” with her husband, even though it wasn’t, to garner a bigger paycheck.

Was Zelda an ambitious woman? Yes. A crazy woman? Maybe. Maybe not.

If you’ve read Flapper (which I blogged about here) or The Paris Wife (ditto), I promise: you will love this book.

(PS: Many thanks to Molly Wagner for this recommendation!)

Posted in 1920s, Fiction, For EDUCATORS, Historical fiction, Novel, Writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment


Sometimes, especially when you’re in pain, it’s hard to accept help.

Lisa Ko’s engrossing first novel, THE LEAVERS, is about that phenomenon—and also about trust and betrayal, fear and longing, adoption, illegal immigration, mother-son relationships, feeling lost and uncertain, trying to find your place in the world, and trying to figure out what to do with your life. Yep, that pretty much sums it up. Plenty to work with, and Ms. Ko does a great job of interweaving the lead points of view to capture at least two sides of a difficult situation: a Chinese mother who disappears on her American-born son, versus the son (who misses her) who ends up getting adopted by two professors—a married couple—who earnestly want to help him.

This is a book you won’t soon forget.

(Many thanks to Judy Wilson for the recommendation!)

Posted in Adoption, Fiction, For EDUCATORS, Illegal Immigration, Novel, Social Justice | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment


When a friend recommended the new novel by Amor Towles, GENTLEMAN OF MOSCOW, I did a little research and discovered that his first novel, RULES OF CIVILITY, received high praise, too. Let’s start with the paperback, I thought.

RULES OF CIVILITY is, on one level, a delicious story about a young woman in Manhattan in the late 1930s, doing whatever she can to climb career and social ladders, hobnobbing and trying to fit in with people who were born into wealth. It is also a bit of a mystery novel because it is told in flashback, and this woman’s life revolves to some degree around a man who—we learn in the first few pages—somehow went from being super-rich to down on his luck. The plot shows us how.

It’s a fascinating setting, New York City at the tail end of the Great Depression but before World War II—a place we’re familiar with and a time period we perhaps haven’t spent as much time thinking about. While Europeans were fighting for their lives, we were not involved yet. We had our own little dramas. This novel captures that notion beautifully.

Posted in 1930s, Fiction, Historical fiction, Novel | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment