The World As It Is – Ben Rhodes
This memoir by the former speechwriter and national security aide to President Obama has been on my list since it came out earlier this year. I had heard good things in several places about it. But I was not sure if I was ready to re-live the Obama years, or if I wanted to read anything about politics for that matter.

I had profoundly different reactions to the book. On the one hand, it was good to read through the high points of the Obama era from someone who was inside and a part of those moments. Rhodes began working for Obama in 2007 and stuck through until inauguration day 2017. It is not an exhaustive account of those years. Rhodes isn’t interested in getting into the most finite details of each policy debate, national security crisis, or showdown with Congress. Since we’re still so close to the Obama years, that higher altitude view felt better to me. Right or wrong, good or bad, I think we need more time to judge Obama’s legacy before we dive into a deep breakdown of everything he tried to do.

On the other hand, much of the book was infuriating, as the Obama years were the moment when the Republican party shifted its focus from being for a set of conservative policies to being more interested in destroying its opponents. It was the moment when the party decided to fully embrace the racist elements that it had always tried hard to keep behind the scenes. It was also the moment in American politics when the normal stretching of the truth that every politician of every party has always engaged in shifted to constant, systematic, outright lying.

Regardless of your view of him and his policies, Obama was a decent man who made efforts to implement policies that made the US, and the world, a better place for more people than they hurt. It was hard reading Rhodes’ book and then hearing the nightly headlines of our current president, who seems only interested in promoting himself and uses blatantly racist fear mongering to motivate large swaths of the population to vote for policies that are focused on dividing people and taking a larger chunk of the pie for a smaller group of people.

The Downhill Lie: A Hacker’s Return to a Ruinous Sport – Carl Hiaasen
Talk about interesting timing, I found this randomly on a recent visit to Half Price Books while waiting for them to price out my latest offerings. I’ve read a bunch of Hiaasen’s novels over the years, but I had no idea he had written a non-fiction golf book. And one about getting back into the game after taking many years off. It’s like this book was written for me!

In his case, he retuned to the sport in his 50s, after taking roughly 30 years off to build a family and career. But, otherwise, I felt some strong parallels between his return and my more abbreviated return.[1] He was a shitty golfer in his 20s. So was I! (And in my 30s, too.) He didn’t jump back into golf in some misguided belief that after three decades away from the game he’d magically be better. Rather he just wanted to beat his best score from his youth, which was a modest 89.

The book is part diary, with small entries after a day of action, part longer pieces that follow his quest to shoot 88. He was fortunate in that he had sold a bunch of books, so he could go buy a new club each time an old one pissed him off. He could join a private club and play daily, mixing in rounds at other clubs along the way. He could drop a grand on a private lesson at an officially PGA-sanctioned training facility. He could spare no expense in trying to get better. Not exactly the typical golf experience.

Like everything Hiaasen has ever written, the book is laugh out loud funny. He makes fun of himself and his game often. He shares the most embarrassing things he does on a golf course – the winner being when the parking brake on his cart failed and it rolled into a possibly gator-infested lake and he had to dive in to try to save his clubs.

The best thing about the book is that it gives me, and anyone else who is contemplating a return to the game after a long time away, a reasonable goal: just beat your best score from your previous, shitty golf life. I never shot an 89, so that should be even easier for me than it was for Hiaasen if I decide that 2019 is the year I play more than one round.

In The Woods – Tana French
I read a book like this about once a year or so, and it just pisses me off: a debut novel that is almost completely perfect and makes me feel ashamed I’ve ever harbored any hopes of writing anything.

In The Woods is a brilliant crime/psychological novel. It follows the investigation of the murder of a 12-year-old girl, whose body is found on an archeological dig just south of Dublin. The lead detective assigned to the case, Rob Ryan, grew up on the same estate, playing in the area where the body was found. In fact, he was at the center of a similar case 20 years earlier: in the summer of 1984 his two best friends disappeared from the same woods, never to be found. Ryan, who then went by the name Adam, was found catatonic and with no memory of what happened, but otherwise safe. He was immediately sent off to boarding school in England, where he adopted a new name and accent, and eventually joined the Irish Garda’s murder squad without anyone other than his partner knowing his true background.

Ryan’s initial hope is that by solving the new murder, he will find answers into what really happened to he and his friends when they were 12. The pressures of both trying to crack a difficult case and confronting his own demons takes a toll. He slowly falls apart, destroys his relationship with his partner, and finds himself under the spell of a particularly evil person of interest in the case.

The book is a rather straightforward presentation of the case, told from Ryan’s perspective after the fact. Thus there are some moments in the middle where it drags just a little as the tension slowly builds. But for the most part it is an exceptional read, especially in the final third. French offers many twists and turns and feints as to who the actual murderer is. As both a police procedural and a psychological thriller, it is first rate. I’ve heard some readers disliked its ending and how Ryan, over time, becomes a rather dislikable person. Neither of those bugged me, though. I enjoyed that French challenged both what a traditional crime novel should be and her readers to have different expectations.

  1. I still have played just the one round back in September, although I’ve hit plenty of balls since. I may be going to TopGolf later this week with a buddy at lunch, though. Not that that counts as real golf.  ↩