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  • Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 9/17/20

Greetings and Happy Thursday!



Here it is; a new installment of books worth reading. As you may recall, I asked a little over a week ago for some commentary on award-winning books. Here is the first list of some suggestions:

• Howard Rodman suggests The Sympathizer, by Viet Nguyen, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize. His commentary: “It’s a spy novel and more—think Graham Greene—set among the Vietnamese diaspora in Southern California. Bitterly funny, deeply insightful, bleak.” I agree. I heard Mr. Nguyen speak. He is intelligent and witty and this book that tracks the stories of three Vietnamese young men caught on both sides during the war and their travels after the war is an excellent read.

• Dennis Mulhaupt recommends Augustus, by John Edward Williams, winner of the 1972 National Book Award. It is historical fiction based on the life of the eponymous emperor of Rome. This is the emperor who was adopted by Julius Caesar and took vengeance on Caesar’s murderers. Dennis and I have made a deal to read Ten Caesars, a history of Rome focused on the reigns of the ten “greatest” emperors, beginning with Augustus and continuing through Constantine.

• George Lefcoe loved Andrew Sean Greer’s Less, winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize. It is great summer reading, light comedy: “funny, engaging, beautifully moving though slightly uneven”:

“You are a failed novelist about to turn fifty. A wedding invitation arrives in the mail: your boyfriend of the past nine years now engaged to someone else. You can’t say yes--it would all be too awkward--and you can’t say no--it would look like defeat…How can you avoid the pain of heartbreak? For Arthur Less, the answer is clear: run away.” Less thinks, “What could possibly go wrong?”

Like you, many reviewers have been underwhelmed.

No book had so much commentary as Less. Nathan Hochman adds:

I am still waiting to get the point. The writing was good but did not blow me away; the story was all over the place and did not keep me engaged; and I finished it because it was on people’s “Lists” but wish I could have those hours of my life back to read other books.

• I thought Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead, the 2020 Pulitzer Prize winner, was a great book; although not quite the towering greatness of the Underground Railroad, also by Mr. Whitehead, winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize. I think it interesting how novelists get their ideas. This was not a book Whitehead initially intended to write, but he decided to write this book in response to the true story of a Florida school for boys, both White and Black (but treated quite differently). The true story is sordid and shocking, particularly given that the school existed over 100 years and didn’t close until 2011. The New York Times says, “"Were Whitehead’s only aim to shine an unforgiving light on a redacted chapter of racial terrorism in the American chronicle, that would be achievement enough. What he is doing in his new novel, as in its immediate predecessor, is more challenging than that. . . . He applies a master storyteller’s muscle. . . . The elasticity of time in The Nickel Boys feels so organic that only when you put the book down do you fully appreciate that its sweep encompasses much of the last century as well as this one. . .

• Jake Sonnenberg recommended All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize, to me several years ago. I enjoyed it very much; it is unlike any novel I have read in its unusual parallel stories and the way in which they relate and interconnect. It is the story of a German soldier who, as a child was an amateur radio hobbyist, and a blind French girl, whose father works in the Natural History Museum in Paris. They struggle through World War II and have a moment toward the end, when the connections between them and their stories are revealed.

• Andrea Sonnenberg recommends The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. The book is the story of a boy who survives a terrorist bombing in which his mother is killed. I haven’t read the book; it played to mixed reviews.

• Allison Gingold likes Let the Great World Spin, the 2009 National Book Award winner, and Nickel Boys. She liked The Overstory, the 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner, saying “I really liked the depth of appreciation of trees and earth; it’s a big book and a lot of underlying meetings. It was not for everyone who read it with me.” That is enough for me to say no. It clocks in at 512 pages and the lead characters are trees (yes, I know I’m not being fair…).

• Michelle Rosenbach recommended The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner. In her words, “It takes place in North Korea and provides fascinating and often horrifying insights into what life is like in that largely mysterious world.” The New York Times says “In making his hero, and the nightmare he lives through, come so thoroughly alive, Mr. Johnson has written a daring and remarkable novel, a novel that not only opens a frightening window on the mysterious kingdom of North Korea, but one that also excavates the very meaning of love and sacrifice.”

• Alok Gaur recommends The Known World, Edward P. Jones’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize winner. I haven’t read it. It is the story of a former slave who now owns slaves. It apparently is apparently a bit of a difficult read, but a “powerful read,” which received mixed reviews.



I get several magazines in hard copy like clockwork (favorites being the Atlantic, the New Yorker and the American Scholar). Trying to get through all of them is a task. Check out this short clip from The Good Place, of a “demon” sending Ted Danson to an eternity of torture spent with the New Yorker:



He nails it. The incompetence is bad enough. But the lack of caring and the singular pursuit of personal electoral success render him unfit:

Have a great day,


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