Before the Fall – Noah Hawley. As soon as I saw this on a list of recommended books to read this summer, I knew I had to read it. Hawley, who has worked in TV for years, is the main creative force behind the FX show Fargo. I’ve still only watched season two of the show, but you may recall that I was floored by how brilliant it was. Could Hawley’s brilliance translate to a novel?

The answer is mostly yes.

Before the Fall is the story of the passengers on a small, private plane that crashes during its flight from Martha’s Vineyard to New York. The only survivors are an artist, who joined the flight at the last minute as guest of one of the passengers, and a 4-year-old boy. The artist swims 10 miles while towing the boy until they reach the shore. Although he attempts to avoid the media glare, eventually the artist is sucked into the frenzy. A frenzy that is especially intense given that the boy’s father, who died in the crash, was president of a Fox-like news network. Soon the fictional network’s version of Bill O’Reilly is suggesting that the artist was far from an innocent passenger, but rather sleeping with his boss’ wife and somehow responsible for the plane going down.

As that story flows forward, Hawley looks back, with brief accounts of each passenger’s life, how they came to be on the flight, and what demons they brought with them that could have caused the crash. Although the cause of the accident comes clear well before its full reveal, the manner in which Hawley uncovers it, showing how both the federal investigators learn it privately as the entire country learns it in a bitter, televised interview, is pretty damn good. In fact, it felt like the end of a sprawling series. Like Fargo for example.

Great Plains – Ian Frazier. I tried to time this, a book about – hold onto your hats – the Great Plains of America, for my trip to Kansas City. I had it with me that weekend, but didn’t crack it once. Turned out that was a wise decision. I did not know, for example, that the Great Plains don’t officially begin until you’re well out into central Kansas. So it would have been silly to read about them when I wasn’t actually in them! Well, except then I read about them back in Indiana. Sometimes the best laid reading plans…

Anyway, this is one of the books that has been on my list for years and years. And by waiting for years and years, it’s even further out from its publication date, which for a travel/history book, made it feel a bit dated.

Frazier spent several years in the 1980s traveling back-and-forth, up-and-down the plains. He explored the geographic history of the region, dove into the Native American cultures of the lands, learned about the difficult age in the late 1800s when the white folks came and killed off all the buffalo, rounded up all the natives, and began dividing the land up into the towns and states we know today. He explores more modern issues, too, like how the region was dotted with missile silos that were waiting for the signal to launch and race toward the Soviet Union. Which was a perfect angle, as I was watching season four of The Americans as I read this, and the episode that revolved around The Day After popped up right in the middle of my reading.

As I said, this feels dated. I would love to read an updated edition, where Frazier looks at how things have progressed, or gotten worse, over the last 30 years.

Johnny Jihad – Ryan Inzana. It was a light month of reading, so I grabbed a graphic novel to round out August. This was loosely based on the life of John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban dude who became notorious in the early days of the war on terror. Inzana shares the story of a disaffected American kid who gets drawn into the world of radical Islam, is turned by the CIA, and then sent to Afghanistan to spy on the Taliban. Quick, harsh, but reflective how strange the world was in 2003, when it was published.