Three months into the year, 15 books completed. My meager math skills tell me that puts me on pace for 60 books this year. I imagine that pace will slow a bit.

March was a bit of a mixed bag. A couple books I really enjoyed. A couple duds. And one re-read from way back.

The Flamethrowers – Rachel Kushner
This book was, perhaps, a little too artsy for me. It tells the story of ‘Reno’, a young artist from Reno, NV who gets sucked into the artistic world of New York in the mid–1970s via her Italian boyfriend. Eventually she lands in Italy on his family’s compound, and finds herself in the midst of broad protests by workers and leftist intellectuals against the power of big business and the government.

It’s a little wacky. And I can’t say that the story kept my attention as it zigged and zagged.

The Age Of Lincoln – Orville Burton
I heard Burton on NPR on the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, a speech Burton believes to be one of the finest in American political history. I loved listening to him expound on the brilliance of Lincoln, especially since Burton, based on his accent, is from the American South. At the next red light, I quickly wrote down his name and searched for his writings when I got home.

This book is not a biography of Lincoln, nor a history of the Civil War. Rather, it is a brisk look at the United States in the 20–30 years before the War, during the War years, and in the years of the reconstruction. He highlights the issues that were soon to divide the country, the big battles and challenges of the war years, and how the South rebuilt not just its physical world, but also its culture after the War.

It’s a fantastic book. He writes lovely prose, and is clearly passionate about the era in general and his thesis in particular. He argues that Lincoln brought about a fundamental change in American society, where personal freedom was guaranteed by the constitution and government. From that profound adjustment of the meaning of freedom, not only were the slaves freed, but voting rights were dramatically expanded to, within 60 years, include nearly all adults in the US.[1]

For years I’ve wanted to read a good Civil War history but have often been daunted by the sheer size of so many of the best ones. This was far from exhaustive, but it was a fine way to get a reminder about an era I really had not studied much since the spring semester of my fifth grade year.

The Hunt For Red October – Tom Clancy
When Clancy died last year, I wondered if I should revisit one of his books. I was a faithful reader of his Jack Ryan books for a solid 5–6 year stretch, until I grew tired of his often ponderous prose and less interested in where the series was going.

But, between watching The Americans and the 30 for 30 about the 1980 Soviet Olympic hockey team, it seemed like the perfect moment to jump back and read his first book, which fit in nicely to that 1980s, US-USSR Cold War vibe.

I believe I read this book twice – perhaps three times – in high school, the first time coming in the fall of 1986. But I saw the movie many, many times after that. So it was funny to re-read the book and realize my memory of it was seriously clouded by the movie. I kept expecting a couple scenes that never came about. I forgot about twists in the book that were cut from the screenplay. It’s funny how memory works sometimes.

And while I enjoyed racing through this again, the entire time I was reading I was thinking about the 15-year-old kid who read it for the first time 29 years ago. Man, I loved it then. Jonesy, the sonar operator extraordinaire on the U.S.S. Dallas, appealed to my interest in sleuthing via monitoring electronic signals. I think, for a week or two, I might have even thought that it would be an awesome job to be a sonar operator on a nuclear submarine. Thank goodness that interest passed!

Fourth Of July Creek – Smith Henderson
This book made me angry. Not because it was bad. No, it was a freaking fantastic book.

What made me mad was this was Henderson’s debut novel. And it’s nearly perfect. Engaging, emotional, joyous, and heart-breaking. Evocative of a specific moment in American history, one that resounded with me strongly. Centered on a tortured yet heroic main character. With some nice themes of the paradoxes of modern American society. It has it all.

Quickly, Pete Snow is a social worker in Montana in the early 1980s. As he attempts to help families who are in the clutches of addiction and economic collapse, his family is also falling apart. While he works tirelessly to help his clients, he often chooses to let his own home drama spiral deeper into disaster without attempting to fix it. A mysterious child who shows up at a school one day eventually pulls him into an anti-government movement that is growing in the wilderness. Despite Snow’s best efforts, just about everything ends up badly.

This is, by far, the best book I’ve read so far this year. Everything else will have a difficult time challenging it.

Black Moon – Kenneth Calhoun
The second disappointing book of the month. I swear this was on several Best Of lists last year, but after reading it I was mis-remembering.

In the story, an unexplained epidemic of insomnia is sweeping the nation. Most Americans are unable to sleep, and after a week or more of being awake, turn into shuffling zombies that only show signs of life when they come across someone who can still sleep. Then they turn into shrieking, raging lunatics bent on tearing the “sleepers” to shreds.

The book follows a few people from each side. A couple “sleepers,” a couple people who are slower than others to catch the illness, and one who works at the sleep research lab that seemed to create and release the plague and is frantically searching for a cure or fix. They each travel in search of family, friends, and loved ones hoping that they can find and save them before it is too late.

There’s a lot of wandering in the book. But, unlike a Stephen King story, or other semi-apocalyptic books I’ve read, here the wandering seems aimless. I never felt like a cure or explanation for what was happening was just a chapter away. Things just seem to get a little worse as the story unfolds. And the end, to me at least, was thoroughly dissatisfying.

  1. Of course those rights were not protected for all Americans, specifically African Americans in the South, until the mid 1960s.  ↩