A quick run through the books I read last month.
Arcadia – Lauren Groff. I really wanted to like this book. It received great acclaim in 2012 when it was published, so it’s been on my To Read list for ages. Unfortunately, Groff’s writing style just didn’t connect with me.
The book mostly takes place on a hippie commune in upstate New York, from the early 1970s through the 1980s, then jumps ahead to the near future. Through the eyes of Bit, a boy born as his parents were traveling to the commune in the late ’60s, we view the early, difficult days of the commune, the brief moments where it met its ideals, and then its calamitous fall into chaos. In the near-future section, Groff throws in a super illness that threatens the entire world.
I found Groff’s style tedious. There is a sparseness to it that I struggled with. There are so many good elements in the story, but I found it a bit of a slog because of my discomfort with her writing.
Underground Airlines – Ben H. Winters. The first novel I’ve preordered in ages. Winter’s The Last Policeman trilogy was brilliant; so good I may re-read it soon. And I wanted to give some love to Winters, who just recently moved away from Indianapolis to begin writing for TV in LA.
This book is set upon a fascinating premise: the American Civil War never happened. It was averted when, after newly elected President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated before he was inaugurated, a grand compromise was passed by Congress that not only allowed slavery in the southern states, but amended the Constitution to say that no law could ever be passed that would outlaw the slave trade. In modern America, The Hard Four southern states still practice slavery while the remainder of the nation struggles with the economic impact as most of the rest of the world boycotts American goods in protest.
Our protagonist adds another layer. He’s a bounty hunter employed by the Federal government, sent north to capture escaped slaves and return them to their bonds. An act US law requires. He just happens to be a freed former slave. So a black man who was once a slave is searching for another black man in order to return him to slavery. Yikes.
He travels to Indy in search of his escapee and gets pulled into the struggle between Northerners who seek to end slavery and his obligations as an agent of the government.
I loved the concept. Winters comes awfully close to nailing it in execution. The book is engaging, his characters sympathetic. He doesn’t overload the reader with details about how life is different in a modern nation that endorses slavery. Rather, he slowly spools them out and lets the reader build an image of the country.
Honestly, what keeps this from being a home run is The Last Policeman series. That was so well done, and ended absolutely perfectly, that even in this broader story, it’s difficult to measure up to.
The Arm – Jeff Passan. An engaging look at why baseball pitchers’ elbows keep blowing up by Yahoo!’s main baseball writer. Passan examines players at all levels and tries to determine why Tommy John surgery is so prevalent. While there are concerns about workload, especially at a young age, and the love of velocity over all else in the modern game, he concludes that there are no clear indicators of when/why a pitcher’s elbow will fail. In addition to looking at the history of Tommy John surgery, he also looks at developing techniques that could offer players a way to get back quicker, and better, than Tommy John surgery allows.
How Music Got Free – Stephen Witt. Witt dives into the recent history of the music business, from its heyday in the CD era, when sales and profits were massive, to the era of iTunes, when the old order had been completely destroyed.
He focuses on a few key individuals to tell his story. There was the team of German engineers who created the MP3 format in the 1980s. There was Doug Morris, perhaps the most powerful music industry exec who chased profits better than anyone else in the CD era, saw his empire crumble in the MP3 era, and in his waning days before retirement, latched onto YouTube ads as a way to recapture lost revenue. There was Dell Glover, an employee at a CD manufacturing plant in North Carolina who was responsible for leaking thousands of albums to the Internet before their official release dates. And there was iTunes, the only online music store that ever gained any real traction with the buying public, but which couldn’t begin to return the music industry to the profit levels it once enjoyed.
Witt’s exploration is deep and enlightening. As with all books based on technology, it falls a little flat simply because Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music have shifted the way we consume music to the streaming model over the past 2–3 years. The game has already changed on a book about game changes. Despite that, this is still a terrific, and honest, look at how drastically the technology has affected the music industry.
The Golden Hour – Todd Moss. Finally, a little geo-thriller written by a former Under Secretary of State who currently runs an NGO that focuses on global poverty.
In The Golden Hour, State Dept. official Judd Ryker is a former academic who has developed a theory that coups can be reversed if met by swift, decisive pressure by the United States and other western governments. He gets a chance to test his theory when a coup is launched in Mali, where he did research in his younger days and was injured by a roadside bomb blast just a year earlier. As with most coups, the good guys have dark sides, and some of the bad guys seem a little less bad because of the friends they keep. Ryker has to fight through a lack of support in Washington to bring about the proper conclusion in Bamako.
This is a quick, not entirely satisfying novel. It wraps up a little too easily. Moss touches on the complexity of local politics in the third world without overwhelming the reader with a dense history lesson. Yet it feels like he needed to offer just a little more. That relative lightness makes it a good summer read: something you can blow through quickly and likely forget soon after.