Promising Books By Ta-Nehisi Coates, Thomas Piketty, And Anne Tyler

NEHISI COATES (via Wikipedia)

TA-NEHISI COATES (via Wikipedia)

The world is full of troubles, no doubt about it. I cannot sugarcoat the facts to turn bad news into good. I think nearly every great religion holds to a basic premise that good will triumph over evil in the end. What we can do is point out some of the positive thoughts and actions along the way. With luck, the accretion of positive thoughts and actions will lead us in the right direction.

Good books are harbingers of hope and progress. My reading list never lacks for worthy books, and more are published constantly. I’ll never catch up. Here are three that I urgently need to read.

I   “Between The World And Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is the most recent addition to the reading list, thanks to a review by Carlos Lozada in the Outlook section of Sunday’s Washington Post. Coates is America’s “foremost intellectual,” and also “liberal America’s conscience on race,” according to Lozada. If you’re interested in understanding America’s struggles with “racism, white privilege, institutional violence and structural inequality,” this would appear to be the book to read. The Washington Post book review is here.

II   “Capital In The Twenty-First Century,” by Thomas Piketty, the renowned French economist. It’s a treatise on wealth concentration and distribution over the past 250 years. The author proposes a progressive global tax on wealth, according to Wikipedia. The Economist review in four paragraphs.

III   “A Spool Of Blue Thread,” by Anne Tyler, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. “Blue Thread” is a study of a fictional Baltimore family. I think I can promise that this one will be easier going and more comforting than Piketty’s “Capital,” but it’s sure to be a good read. I’ve read all of Tyler’s previous novels, and they all provide more psychological insight than your average novel. Tyler is one of America’s greatest contemporary novelists. The NPR book review is here.

By coincidence, for my Maryland readers, both Coates and Tyler are Baltimoreans.

I can’t personally recommend books that I haven’t yet read. I’m trusting that all three will live up to their advance press. If anyone here has read one of the books, your thoughts are welcome. If you haven’t read a book this year, your thoughts are still welcome.

(Note: Ta-Nehisi Coates is the correct spelling of the author’s name. I apologize for getting it wrong in the original posting.)

— John Hayden

Uncommonly Good Books By Great American Writers

It’s not exactly writer’s block. But I have chronic difficulty writing about exceptional  books and great American authors.

How long has it been since I promised to finish my review of J.K. Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy?”  Is it a novel about small-town life, or hypocrisy, or intolerance, or poverty? Local politics gone crazy, or class warfare? Darned if I know. I’d have to read the whole thing again to sort it all out. (Rowling is British, but her story resounds in American culture.)

As I read the final page of “The Casual Vacancy,” I was struck speechless. Partly it’s a sense of grief that the book is over. Partly it’s awe at the author’s virtuoso performance. What can I say but, “Bravo!”?



Among contemporary authors, Ann Patchett amazes me the most. I never wrote a word about Patchett’s “State of Wonder.” What could I say? What kind of story is it, science fiction? Corporate treachery vs. scientific deception? Human hubris? The premise is a discovery so unlikely that you find yourself believing it, combined with an adventure so implausible that it has to be real. Yet it’s all nothing more than a figment — an elaborate figment — of Patchett’s hyperactive imagination! (Patchett and the following authors are all American originals.)

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Anne Tyler’s Excellent Paragraph(s)


I know, I know. I’ve bogged down in two treacherous subjects. Politics (boring) and economics (more so).  This political-economic obsession can only lead to dystopia, which is a particularly virulent strain of paranoia. Dystopia-paranoia flu is spreading quickly. Scientists worry about a pandemic.

There’s no known cure, but a good novel about human beings and their foibles couldn’t hurt. (You might also try a bowl of chicken soup.) If it’s foibles you want, Anne Tyler is the leading specialist. As Exhibit A, I submit the following paragraph from her latest book, The Beginner’s Goodbye.

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Anne Tyler — ‘Noah’s Compass’ — The End

Liam and Eunice were in the blush of romance, last we saw them. That didn’t last long, naturally. What “Noah’s Compass” needs is a little more love and a little less reality. I won’t spoil the story by revealing the details of the relationship’s failure. It was painful, and sad, and just plain disappointing. But you knew that.

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Anne Tyler — ‘Noah’s Compass’ — Take 2

I’ve read nearly 100 more pages of “Noah’s Compass.” When we left Liam Pennywell, he was alone and depressed, and, as he put it, “Almost waiting to die.” Naturally, Anne Tyler wasn’t going to let Liam’s story go in a straight line.

Liam soon becomes involved with a younger woman, a woman who says, “My parents think I’m a failure.” Next thing you know, Liam’s teen-age daughter, Kitty, has moved out of her mother’s house and settled in  Liam’s den, for the summer. Liam’s romantic interest, Eunice, is coming over every evening, under the pretense of helping him with his resumé, Kitty’s teen-age boyfriend visits all the time, and Liam is providing taxi service for the two teens. ‘Nother words, Liam’s life is getting complicated.

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Anne Tyler — ‘Noah’s Compass’ — Take 1

It doesn’t take long for Anne Tyler to establish our hero, Liam Pennywell, as a  pathetic character. He has been recently “fired,” or “downsized,” depending on your viewpoint, from his teaching job.

In the first few pages of “Noah’s Compass,”  Liam bravely assesses the situation and recognizes that he ought to live more simply and frugally. He gives up his comfortable apartment and moves to a small, nondescript one-bedroom place.

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Anne Tyler — ‘Noah’s Compass’

I’ve got it. Noah’s Compass, the 18th novel by Anne Tyler, one of the great authors of my lifetime. It’s just out in hardback. I don’t buy many books anymore, but I need this one. I think it might be about me.

The dust jacket says Noah’s Compass is the story of Liam Pennywell, “A schoolteacher, who has been forced to retire at sixty-one, coming to terms with the final phase of his life.”  With a name like Liam Pennywell, you know right away he’s not an Alpha Male.

I don’t know which is worse, the lost job or the “final phase.” It sounds so . . .  so Final.

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