Bruce Jacobs reading archive

September 2021

The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden by Peter L. Bergen

Now that the USA has run up the white flag on its questionable escapade in Afghanistan, Bergen's biography of bin Laden provides some perspective on the chief target of our two-decade misadventure.

Should We Stay or Should We Go by Lionel Shriver

Shriver's superb fiction doesn't shy from the tough questions, and her latest is a wry, thoughtful take on growing old...and, of course, passing on.

Razorblade Tears by S. A. Cosby

With another drop-dead title after his much-awarded debut Blacktop Wasteland, Cosby continues to explore the lives of blacks navigating the South and its violence and crime.

The Dope by Benjamin T. Smith

Another Norton publishing winner: for perhaps the first time, a serious historian gives us the straight dope on the Mexican dope biz from a humble family farming sideline to a literal cutthroat behemoth protected and skimmed by governments on both sides of the river. Smith covers it all.

The Last Usable Hour by Deborah Landau

I just discovered Deborah Landau with this ten-year-old poetry collection. I want more.

The Bachelor by Andrew Palmer

A clever, haunting, and well-written first novel by a writer to keep an eye on.

Hollywood Eden by Joel Selvin

Longtime SF Chronicle music critic who dissected the Grateful Dead in Fare Thee Well now takes us through those Surfin' Safari  - California Dreamin' days that weren't as euphoric as the music implied.

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan

Tasmanian and Booker Prize-winning Flanagan's new novel is a masterpiece about the threads binding family in an age when everything is unraveling.

Skunk Works by Leo Janos and Ben Rich

My entrepreneur/engineer 30-year-old son convinced me that this 1994 book is a great read. He's right.

Second Place by Rachel Cusk

Cusk's latest short novel is a moody story of a woman coming to grips.

The Killing Hills by Chris Offutt

The well-regarded novelist Offutt is going after the crime genre to make a few bucks this time. It turns out that this may be his best novel yet...a hillbilly noir story with poignancy and superb characters.

August 2021

The Truth About Lies by Aja Raden

Raden's first book Stoned was a terrific story of the history of jewelry. This new one about the human propensity for a little fibbing now and then shows that her interests roam widely, and she can write entertainingly about practically anything. She has a knack for great titles...and she's also very funny in a hip sort of way.

A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ni Ghriofa

Prize-winning poet Ghriofa's new book is a hybrid novel/history/poetry pastiche that is a marvel.

The Coward by Jarred McGinnis

A paraplegic himself, McGinnis tells a brutally honest tale of a young wild and crazy guy who loses the function of his legs in a car crash. This fine first novel will perhaps open literature to others featuring protagonists stuck legless in wheelchairs roaming a leg-centric world.

Dead of Winter by Stephen Mack Jones

Jones has a winner in his Detroit detective August Snow who roams the fringe Mexicantown streets where race and culture collide with gentrification and real estate moguls. This third in the series has an elevated level of violence as Snow and friends tackle numerous sicario heavies.

The Window Seat by Aminatta Forna

Forna's thoughtful, personal essays roam the world...both that within us and that around us.

Punch Me Up to the Gods by Brian Broome

Broome's debut is a stark, gritty, funny, honest memoir about growing up and living in the midwest as a dark-skinned black man who is both queer and intellectual. As he describes the other boys in his 'hood: "It's like they have a Black boy rule book that they won't show me, and I always end up doing the wrong thing."

Wayward by Dana Spiotta

Spiotta's novels are all good, but this may be here best. Its unsettled, ruminating protagonist Sam is wayward indeed.

The Joy of Sweat by Sarah Everts

Another delightful Norton nonfiction debut by the chemist and clever journalist Sarah Everts.

Suburban Dicks by Fabian Nicieza

All enduring crime fiction requires a healthy dose of irony and humor. Comic Book writer Fabian Nicieza's first novel nicely fits the bill (although perhaps not in the full-on, whacked-out style of Tim Dorsey). Stay tuned for more from Nicieza.

Till the End by CC Sabathia

I'll always admire what Sabathia did for the Brewers in 2008. His new autobiography makes me admire him even more for his courage, honesty, and love of baseball. Vote him into the HOF right now.

The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu by Tom Lin

Lin's first novel set in the days of conscripted Chinese labor on the Transcontinental Railroad is a retelling of Odysseus-like travels and battles told with Homeric bravado and a little Have Gun Will Travel thrown in. It even has its own Tiresias (a blind old Chinaman called Prophet) leading the heroic Ming Tsu on his quest for revenge and his young deaf protege named Hunter who has a bit of Kesey's Chief Bromden about him.

Falling by J.T. Newman

I need a quick pageturner and Newman's debut does nicely. I'd call it an airplane read...but given the white knuckle plot, maybe not.


July 2021

The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard

After reading Lee's new biography of Stoppard, I had to check out this play that I had missed. It's an unheralded great one.

Sidecountry by John Branch

Extreme sports have always struck me as...well, too extreme. Branch brings out their humanity.

The Uses of the Body by Deborah Landau

I'm late to the party on this superb 2015 poetry collection, but it's a party worth being late to.

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

The debut novel that publishers and booksellers love. It's a solid entertaining launch to a writing career by a former Doubleday editor.

Lorna Mott Comes Home by Diane Johnson

Johnson's novels are always a pleasure. While this latest seems a bit unfocused, she certainly gets how domestic life with or without money can get messy.

Tom Stoppard by Hermione Lee

Ever since his groundbreaking Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, I've tried to stay on top of Stoppard's eclectic writing oeuvre. Now we have 900 pages of his life by one of the world's top biographers of writers and artists. But 900 pages is a damn lot of life. Fortunately, it is a fascinating life and an extraordinary primer on writing for the theater and staging, acting, and directing productions. It's also an exuberant life of loyalty, love, wit, and charm. This excellent biography is worth every penny of its price tag.

The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade

This fine first novel of intergenerational border families starts slowly, but savor the characters and prose as Valdez Quade's tough story unfolds.

Zorrie by Laird Hunt

Hunt's new novel is a concise midwest, midcentury story focused on the complex and resilient protagonist Zorrie Underwood. 

Festival Days by Jo Ann Beard

This is a dynamic, exceptional collection of personal essays from New Yorker contributor and Whiting Award-winner Beard.


June 2021

The Pension Plan by Josiah Vencel

Nothing like a debut crime novel focused on a pension plan scam. Actuaries, discount rates, and present value formulas abound.

A Man Named Doll by Jonathan Ames

A new PI hits the noir streets of L. A., and Ames has an entertaining (but gruesome) winner with this one.

Early Morning Riser by Katherine Heiny

This follow-up to Heiny's excellent debut novel Standard Deviation is another funny, wise, character-driven winner. 

The Life of the Mind by Christine Smallwood

Smallwood is plenty smart, and this first novel is plenty smartass...and wise and great fun. Her protagonist is one of those underemployed adjunct English professors who can't get her life together or write anything she likes.

Dark Sky by C. J. Box

It's always a great pleasure to welcome back Joe Pickett, his pal Nate, and the whole Pickett family. Box is the best.

Beeswing by Richard Thompson

It's nice to hear a little of Thompson's story in his own words...although this narrow window on a decade of songs and bandmates is less interesting than I hoped. 

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton

A first novel about a 70s rock duo, Walton's debut has a dynamite title and a great story to tell.

Raft of Stars by Andrew J. Graff

In this first novel, a couple of ten-year-old boys hightail it into the northern Wisconsin woods in fear that they killed one's abusive father.


May 2021

Every Last Fear by Alex Finlay

I'm keeping it light this Spring. Finlay's debut thriller is a plot-driven whirlwind ride.

Sooley by John Grisham

In the battle between the Godzilla and King Kong of bestselling authors, Grisham clearly wins over Patterson. In this new novel about roundballers, however, he turns in a maudlin failure. Perhaps he should stick to the courtroom.

Monkey Boy by Francisco Goldman

Like much of his work (both fiction and nonfiction), Goldman's new novel is heavily autobiographical; but notwithstanding, it tells another powerful cross-border story.

Patient Zero by Tomas Q. Morin

I'm late to Morin's poetry; but based on this 2017 collection, I can't wait for his new collection Machete coming this October.

The Night Always Comes by Willy Vlautin

Vlautin's concise new novel paints a portrait of a woman living on the economic fringe as Portland gentrifies around her and she works her butt off trying to create a secure financial future for her troubled family.

Stranger on a Train by Jenny Diski

An unrepentant smoker, British essayist Diski is funny and on-the-money in this collection of wry observations from two trips by train across the United States (and numerous trips to the trains' smoking coaches). Much as she dislikes other people, she is great company.

Now We're Getting Somewhere by Kim Addonizio

As always, Norton publishes the best poetry (and poets). Addonizio's latest collection is funny, accessible, scary, and just plain first-rate. If you only buy ten poetry books in 2021, make this one of them.  "Men like to say they're not mind readers, but the ones I'm drawn to aren't readers at all..."

Last Chance Texaco by Rickie Lee Jones

"'s a gas, gas, gas!" What a life she's lived!

Flight of the Diamond Smugglers by Matthew Gavin Frank

A rambling, digressive, but also focused account of the De Beers South African empire and diamond smuggling. In this latest iteration of Frank's immersion in unusual cultures, he exhibits once again his deep-drilled savvy and storytelling chops...and a fascination with the mysteries of the homing pigeon.

The Blizzard Party by Jack Livings

A lively first novel featuring a classic New York City upper west side co-op, an historic winter storm, a writer's eponymous novel describing the resulting storm-driven bacchanal in the penthouse, the six-year-old daughter of the author of this best-selling "fiction" who witnessed the wild adults' antics, and dozens of urban characters on different paths through troubled lives. Livings writes the hell out of this supercharged tale.

Horizontal Vertigo by Juan Villoro

An entertaining perambulation through the colonias of my favorite North American city.


April 2021

The Bona Fide Legend of Cool Papa Bell by Lonnie Wheeler

Baseball is back. (Finally, something to follow besides news about Covid, politics, guns, and a world full of people angry with everyone else.) The Negro Leagues had some great ballplayers finally getting their due. Cool Papa Bell was one of the coolest.

2034 by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis

Ackerman's a helluva writer and Stavridis adds military verisimilitude. This co-authored thriller is a winner. Unlock your now useless bomb shelters.

Foregone by Russell Banks

Banks is one of those old-school novelists who chronicles characters on (or over) the edge. In his latest, he tackles the ruminations of a dying leftie filmmaker. It's it.

Fortunate Son by Rick Bass

Bass has written some great fiction, but these older essays focused on his birth state exhibit his early obsession with environmentalism which sadly has drawn him away from fiction.

Pickard County Atlas by Chris Harding Thornton

Thornton's first novel centers on families, crime, and intrigue in Nebraska with all sorts of sandy, loamy midwestern angst and ambiance...but her prose is disappointing.

frank: sonnets by Diane Seuss

Seuss is a fine poet who gets better with each collection. These more-or-less sonnets are terrific.

The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

Put a somewhat esoteric scientific story in the able hands of Walter Isaacson, and you get a surprising nonfiction page-turner.

Shine, Darling by Ella Frears

This first poetry collection by British visual artist Frears is sensual, sensitive, sensible...and in many ways quite sensational.

Blood Gun Money by Ioan Grillo

Grillo has made a career out of reporting on the Mexican cartels and the cross-border drug and human smuggling trade. In his latest book, he traces the return trip of guns and cash from the USA to Mexico


March 2021

My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee

Lee's long new novel takes a little work, but he is always entertaining and thoughtful.

Tropic of Stupid by Tim Dorsey

When your reading (or life) gets too heavy, grab the latest Dorsey Serge and Coleman romp through the swamps, beaches, parks, offices, and strip motels of Florida. From the title to the conclusion, this is one of Dorsey's best.

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

With her second novel after the odd little gem The Pisces, Broder tells another funny, hip, slightly off-plumb tale.

The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen

Danish writer Ditlevsen chronicled her life on the margins in perhaps more detail than you really want...until the third leg of this trilogy when her marriages, Hitler, writing, and addiction take over. Like Milton's Paradise Lost, the appearance of Satan in The Copenhagen Trilogy makes the story take off.

Here is the Sweet Hand by francine j. harris

Time for a poetry break, and harris's new collection exhibits all the depth and scope of this talented poet.

The Unwilling by John Hart

Hart's new crime novel throws the Vietnam War heebie-jeebies into a heavy mix of the South, brutality, loyalty, and family. A little on the sociopathic rough side, but good stuff nonetheless.

Landslide by Susan Conley

Conley's new novel tracks a family living in the remote Maine / Canada coastal border. Geographically remote, maybe, but the family has its own very up-to-date problems as its smart matriarch deals with two teenaged sons and her husband, a taciturn lifelong fisherman running out of fish.

Sybille Bedford by Selina Hastings

A substantial biography of the extraordinarily long life of the transcontinental writer and openly lesbian, multi-partner Bedford...about whom I shamefully knew nothing.

Blood Grove by Walter Mosley

Mosley's written a new Easy Rawlins. I'm smiling.

The Lives of Lucian Freud, Vol 2 by William Feaver

In this final volume of Feaver's meticulous biography of Freud, we see the mercurial artist enshrined with fame and fortune while still pursuing his own personal obsessions: gambling, women, and, of course, art.

Super Host by Kate Russo

When the going gets tough, go Airbnb. Russo's debut novel is an entertaining winner.

The Low Desert by Tod Goldberg

Goldberg's high-life crime and low-life criminals fiction is the best. Can't wait for the next novel.

Tangled Up in Blue by Rosa Brooks

A law professor at Georgetown, Brooks decided to become a Washington DC armed reserve police officer for several years. This is the fruit of that complicated labor. Like her excellent first book about the militarization of life (How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything), Tangled Up in Blue is full of personal observations grounded in academic analysis. She has become the go-to voice of reason in our polarized, gung-ho, open-carry world. She makes the Dylan lyric of her epigram ring so true: "We always did feel the same / We just saw it from a different point of view / Tangled up in blue."


February 2021

Love and Garbage by Ivan Klima

Somebody whom I trust advised me to read this 1990s Czech novel in translation. Not sure what it says about me, but I liked this dark, brooding, East European first-person tale told by a writer who adores Kafka, the working man, his girlfriend, and his wife. Heavy stuff.

Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen

Now that the Trumpster is stuck inside of Palm Beach with the White House blues, who better than Hiaasen to blow up the blowhards of this money pit enclave?

Crap by Wendy A. Woloson

A fun history of all the gewgaws, tchotchkes, Whoopie Cushions, and miscellaneous crap we accumulate over the course of our lives until we die and our children take it all to Goodwill...or the dump. Woloson calls them "material manifestations of the always creative, often half-baked, and sometimes truly visionary imaginings of geniuses, charlatans, and cranks." Witty, erudite, with quotes from Harry Crews to Thorstein Veblen, Crap is no bullshit history with style.

Our Days Are Like Full Years by Harriet Pattison

This illustrated memoir with correspondence from the renowned architect Louis Kahn is a tantalizing look at late 20th-century art, architecture, culture, and romance among the privileged and cognoscenti. From her perspective in her 90s, Pattison tells of growing up on Chicago's north shore of private schools and high expectations but then falling in love with a man 30 years her senior and maintaining a fifteen-year exhilarating affair.

Fraternity by Benjamin Nugent

A debut fiction collection about that odd beast - the college fraternity. As Zadie Smith puts it: "Take a boy, transform him into a ‘bro,’ and then release into the wild…"

Lake of Urine by Guillermo Stitch

An odd, crazy, funny little small press novel by a dude whose bio only says he lives in Spain. Strange brew indeed.

The Detective Next Door by W. C. Gordon

This self-published crime novel by a Florida cop is a bit cliched but not bad.

Nights When Nothing Happened by Simon Han

A somewhat slow debut novel about a Chinese immigrant family in the Dallas burbs.

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies

Davies' new novel is short, emotionally charged, and hard to forget.

She Lies Close by Sharon Doering

Doering has been compared to Gilliam Flynn. This first novel is a little rocky and convoluted, but she shows promise.

The Silence by Don DeLillo

DeLillo's new novel is a one hour read about a life-changing ellipse in the lives of five New Yorkers during the 2022 Super Bowl. They are over-educated privileged confused adults. DeLillo captures their disorientation with perfect dialogue and description.

Gangster Nation by Tod Goldberg

Goldberg's mob noir fiction is terrific. Funny and featuring an inspired protagonist Chicago hitman gone to ground in Las Vegas hiding out as a rabbi in a creative temple/school/mortuary/cemetery scam.

Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg

I've only recently discovered Tod Goldberg's gangster noir novels featuring mob hitman Sal Cupertine. This is the first. It's a pistol!

Little Constructions by Anna Burns

Burns' Man Booker winner Milkman was an odd little novel. This new one is equally strong: funny and ferocious.


January 2021

The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin

A bit of a convoluted first novel, but a good one nonetheless.

And Now She's Gone by Rachel Howzell Hall

This may be yet another "gone" crime novel, but it's a good deal better than the many that followed the 2014 bestseller Gone Girl.

The Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Gyasi's award-winning, innovative debut novel Homegoing is a tough act to follow. In this second novel, she doesn't follow but goes innovatively further.

Abbott Awaits by Chris Bachelder

Someone I trust said this little beauty is a novel not to be missed...and it is. A funny, thoughtful look at newish dad, suburban not-so-handy man, and trying-his-best-husband Abbott.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

Opening with a delicious family car ride, this is a top-notch novel.

Orchid and the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes

I so enjoyed this talented Irish poet/novelist's new book The Wild Laughter that I've gone back to her first novel to discover even more wit, character, and first-rate writing.

Make Them Cry by Smith Henderson and Jon Marc Smith

Two author fiction often doesn't work; this border noir novel does.

Memorial by Bryan Washington

This first novel is a bit of an extension of his award-winning collection of stories Lot ...but still pretty damn good.

The Law of Innocence by Michael Connelly

A new Connelly Lincoln Lawyer...oh boy!