Mary Ann Gwinn
Mary Ann Gwinn is the book editor for The Seattle Times, where she oversees books coverage and writes a weekly books column, and the co-host of “Well Read,” a nationally broadcast books and authors television program. She won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for coverage of the Exxon Valdez disaster. You can find her on Twitter @gwinnma
MixedThe Minneapolis Star TribuneReading her story, the overriding question for readers in our fraught times might well be: Where did Eleanor get her grit? But Michaelis seems more preoccupied with her needs, as, trapped in a passionless marriage, she chased affection wherever she could find it, whether in her love affair with journalist Lorena Hickok or her close and at times passionate friendships ... Michaelis does a credible job at re-creating the traumatic history that the Roosevelts both endured and shaped, but his informal style presents challenges. He has a maddening habit of presenting a character without introduction, then explaining who they are several pages later. Characters appear, then leave the narrative with the briefest of explanations. Keep your smartphone handy ... Perhaps there is too much of Eleanor Roosevelt’s life to get it all in one book — it took Blanche Wiesen Cook three volumes to cover it ... Michaelis’ zeal for his subject is apparent, but in the end the mystery of what made this astounding woman persist remains elusive.
RaveThe Star TribuneSouder documents Steinbeck’s complicated personal life, including his struggles with depression, his three marriages, his friendship with philosopher/biologist Ed Ricketts and his troubled relationship with his children. He smoothly incorporates literary criticism of Steinbeck’s work, though he falters when he insists on defending Steinbeck against critic Edmund Wilson’s astute analysis of the writer’s flaws ... it misses the point that in analyzing Steinbeck’s weaknesses, Wilson was just doing his job. Still, Souder, a gifted writer with a sure grasp of Steinbeck’s time and place, has created a memorable book. The best biographers balance empathy for their subjects with an unblinking accounting of their shortcomings, and Souder succeeds at this tricky business. Mad at the World is a vivid portrait of a complicated man, and John Steinbeck, who prized realism above all things, might have approved.
RaveLos Angeles Times... one of the saddest and most gripping books you will ever read ... Every character is flawed, fragile and believable ... As his characters veer from seizures of panic to intimations of loss, it becomes impossible to put the book down, to look away. This novel describes with documentary precision the profound irrationality of the way we live—the wretched excess, the obsession with status and wealth, the refusal to face the increasing likelihood of catastrophe in the face of fires and floods, pandemics and weaponized dictators ... What might have been a suspenseful and socially realistic piece of dystopian fiction has become something far more resonant, a vision of an entirely plausible future ... Sometimes it takes a gifted storyteller to make us see what our imaginations cannot grasp. Leave the World Behind tells us, with a heart-stopping insistence, that the time to fix what’s broken is now.
RaveBooklistFor many contemporary readers, Joseph McCarthy is a done and dusted relic for the history books, but Tye brings him back to ferocious life ... The firebrand senator’s battles with the press, his political vendettas, his disdain for facts, and his dismissal of his campaign’s human costs are documented in appalling detail, but Tye is an even-handed reporter, tracking the truth of stories advanced by both McCarthy’s devotees and detractors. Though readers may grow to loathe McCarthy, it’s painful to watch his alcohol-soaked deterioration and death. This is a must-read biography for anyone fascinated by American history, and every reader will blanch at its events’ resemblances to today’s fraught political conflicts.
Sue Monk Kidd
MixedNewsdaySome things Kidd does very well. She makes you see, hear and smell the world Jesus and Ana lived in ... Despite its strengths, this novel is a forced marriage of mainstream storytelling with the triumphs and tragedies of Jesus’ life ... you can’t feel it if it doesn’t seem real, and The Book of Longings is more the present imposed on the past than a true gateway into its mysteries.
PositiveNewsday... an exhaustive, 900-page journey though the American artist’s shapeshifting life ... Gopnik assembles a brilliant portrait of Warhol and this milieu, but it’s still hard to know why the artist changed so much ... Gopnik concludes that Warhol has \'overtaken Picasso as the most important and influential artist of the twentieth century,\' and now occupies \'the top peak of Parnassus, beside Michelangelo and Rembrandt.\' This seems like a leap.
RaveThe Los Angeles TimesIs it as good as the first two books? Yes. Is it a masterpiece? Yes. Will you grow so attached to the antihero Cromwell (if you weren’t already) that you might just weep at the end? Entirely possible ... Mantel may be unique among modern novelists in her ability to make the past as viscerally compelling as the present. A sensualist, she re-creates an age rife with beauty and dread. The pleasures of a good meal, the flash of cloth-of-gold, the joy of the first crop of plums — the reader is immersed in a more vivid age through Cromwell’s never-miss-anything perspective ... Mantel has a profound understanding of politics and power, and to that end she delivers savage dialogue ... She is an intricate and flawless plotter. She pays astute attention to historical detail ...But her overriding genius is for characterization ... Mantel keeps us with [Cromwell] to the last; you feel that you have to honor his life by attending to his terrifying death.
MixedBooklistDorothy Day led a contradictory, complex life that makes for compelling reading ... phases of Day’s life are cogently presented, notably including the privations of life in the Catholic Worker houses ... Missing is deeper psychological insight into what drove Day towards such a difficult life and what inspired such fierce loyalty among her followers. Too many names of minor characters slow the narrative. Still, this biography will be eagerly devoured by anyone interested in Day and her current prospects for canonization.
MixedNewsweekSolomon raises some plausible doubts about the true cause of the tragedy ... Hay is a congenial protagonist—intelligent, witty, and world-weary ... Solomon fondly recreates the Washington, D.C., of that era ... But there are minuses. In his perambulations, Hay interviews and interrogates everyone from corrupt Sen. Mark Hanna to wealthy financier J.P. Morgan, then ratiocinates at length on the possibilities. This succession of leads and blind alleys gets a little repetitive; one starts to long for someone to just fess up and say they did it. Also in the minus column—the resolution of the mystery. Many suspects with a motive to kill Theodore Roosevelt were famous, with reams of words written about their lives. In considering the possible mastermind, the informed reader will have to weigh the evidence of history against the likelihood of their plotting to murder the President. Still, The Attempted Murder of Teddy Roosevelt is a pleasant gateway to Hay.
RaveThe Seattle Times[Egan\'s] conclusions about his faith are best left to the reader, but here’s a critic’s opinion: A Pilgrimage to Eternity is one of Egan’s best books, a moving combination of history and memoir, travelogue and soul-searching, buoyed by Egan’s strengths as a writer: color and humor, a sense of wonder and a gift for getting to the point.
PositiveBooklistMorris... takes a risk with his new biography of Thomas Edison—he runs the inventor’s life backwards like a film in reverse, finding fresh truths in the story of a genius of almost metaphysical proportions ... This absorbing biography, Morris’ last (he died in May 2019), has flaws, notably an excess of scientific and engineering detail. Its life-story-told-backwards technique demands attention, but at the end the reader sees Edison fully revealed, a small child about to transform the world.
RaveThe Seattle TimesEvery so often I read a work of narrative nonfiction that makes me want to get up and preach: Read this true story! Such is Sam Quinones’ astonishing work of reporting and writing ... Dreamland will be out in paperback in April. Think it doesn’t affect you? Check out the scene on Seattle’s Third Avenue, where any bus rider can see drug deals going down. Think of the stories you’ve heard of prescription-opiate addiction among bright young people with everything going for them. Think again — for better or worse, Dreamlandis a true American story.
RaveBooklistHendrickson takes an oft-told story and turns it into a braid of multiple narratives that portrays Wright’s family, lovers, clients, and enemies, all charmed and cursed by the spell of an extraordinarily gifted man ... Hendrickson is a researcher of unquenchable curiosity. He peels away layers of myth from the lives of Wright’s wives and lovers ... Hendrickson’s attention to detail and Faulknerian storytelling require a dedicated reader, notably when he revisits the murders in lurid detail in the prologue. Some long digressions lead to dead ends, but as Hendrickson travels the arc of Wright’s life, his investigation into its deepest mysteries achieves a powerful momentum. Wright was a genius, an egotist, and a man tormented by conscience and regret, and Henderson’s inspired storytelling is worthy of its subject.
RaveThe Star TribuneNot an easy hero to warm up to, but in A Guest of the Reich, Washington Post national security editor Peter Finn creates a compelling story ... In her final days of captivity, [Gertie] witnessed the Allied bombing of German cities, and through her eyes Finn vividly re-creates the apocalyptic landscape and the desperation of the German people. As the war winds down, the suspense ratchets up. Finn tells Gertie’s story with irony, humor and detail—the first thing Gertie got rid of after her escape was her orange Gestapo-issued underwear. Legendre is a flawed hero, but Finn’s narrative is a vivid chronicle of the waning days of Nazi Germany, when a country answered for its own hubris and one American woman witnessed the nightmare.
MixedNewsday...Olmsted’s position as a well-situated Northerner occasionally blinkered his vision, and to some degree Horwitz follows suit. Olmsted complained about the tacky villages he passed on his river journeys (it’s the frontier, mate), and on a quick visit to Nashville, Horwitz, who calls Martha’s Vineyard home, laments that \'Music City felt like a themed, blocks-long mall anchored by familiar brands.\' Fair enough, but he skips the city’s beautiful old neighborhoods, its extensive 3,100-acre Warner Parks system and its crown jewel, Vanderbilt University. Both men are food snobs ... Horwitz is a dedicated, imaginative reporter and a great raconteur, but this book is one man’s travelogue, not an in-depth report from, as the subtitle puts it, \'the other side of the American divide.\' Read it for its humor, for Horwitz’s thorough excavation of Southern history and for the delights of Olmsted\'s own dispatches. For the truth of today’s South, go and see for yourself.
PositiveThe Seattle Times[Orringer\'s] narrative bursts with color and life, from the sights and smells of southern France to the wild goings-on of the Surrealists hiding out in a Marseilles mansion, awaiting their chance to get out of the country. There’s suspense and tragedy, unexpected twists and deliverance, though not for everyone. The flaw in this extraordinary book is Orringer’s decision to drive the plot with an affair between the married Fry and Elliott Grant, a secret love from Fry’s Harvard days ... There’s no firm evidence that Fry had an affair on the order of the one portrayed in the novel, but Orringer turns Fry’s love for Grant into a driving force in his life. The larger issue with this approach is that Fry’s agonies over the love affair dominate the portrayal of his inner monologues. At the end of this book, I knew plenty about how Fry felt about Elliott, but it was unclear what angels or demons drove him to take such extraordinary risks ... Still, Orringer has delivered a story with a splendid cast of characters and an intoxicating portrait of a time and place. And she illuminates the central dilemma—for every artist saved by Fry, thousands perished ... The Flight Portfolio vividly portrays those agonizing choices.
Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch
MixedNewsdayMeltzer and Mensch have taken an obscure chapter of U.S. history and retold it as a thriller, with a dark-and-stormy-night beginning, short chapters, staccato one-sentence paragraphs, ominous foreshadowings and cliffhanger chapter endings. They aim to make the past come alive for a modern audience, but readers who enter this literary wayback machine are in for a bumpy ride ... There’s a great story in this material. The authors vividly portray Washington’s multiple challenges ... It’s a dramatic story, and the authors try to make the most of it, but they are working with a limited palette. While there’s abundant material on Colonial New York to draw on, proof of the extent of the actual conspiracy is patchy ... This shortage of facts may have impelled the authors to gin up the narrative using methods that Meltzer, a best-selling political thriller author, has mastered. The steady drumbeat of doom begins to feel strained, and the cliffhanger endings, frequent repetitions and constant reminders that George Washington is a very great man and William Tryon is a very, very bad man indeed begin to grate. It’s as if the authors can’t trust the reader to enjoy a complicated story with an ambiguous ending ... It\'s too bad.
PositiveBooklistSeymour charts the shoals of sex and class both women navigated as they pursued their dreams and aspirations. There’s particular sadness in the foreshortened life of Ada Lovelace. Today she is revered as a female pioneer of computer technology, but in life she battled sexism, severe mood swings, poor health, and the entangling demands of life in Britain’s aristocracy. They were an extraordinary mother-daughter pair, and Seymour tells their story with wit, smarts, and insight.
Jane Sherron de Hart
MixedNewsweekDe Hart’s narrative is most revealing when she analyzes Ginsburg’s work as a brilliant legal strategist whose advocacy career began in earnest in 1972 when she helped found the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU ... De Hart displays an impressive grasp of each area of Ginsburg’s legal influence, from women’s rights to voting rights to gay rights to immigrant rights, with a particular focus on striking down laws that discriminated on the basis of gender ... De Hart’s fidelity to detail in these matters may frustrate those hoping for more about Ginsburg’s private life ... Statements from friends and colleagues are largely encomiums. However sincere, there’s a certain deadening quality to praise heaped on praise ... A complete portrait of her inner struggles, and the outcome of her very public ones, will have to wait for a future biography.
PositiveBooklistMacCulloch’s challenge is that most of Cromwell’s correspondence to others was destroyed after his execution, leaving historians to sift for clues in letters that others wrote to him. Still, this is a landmark portrait of a complex, confounding man.
PositiveNewsdayJuliet is the latest creation of Britain’s Kate Atkinson, an author almost unique in her ability to write like a wizard ... Atkinson is fascinated with the way the Fates toy with humans, teasing and tormenting until the thread of existence is snipped ... Atkinson’s exquisite prose, mordant wit and tenderness for her characters are on abundant display here but she doesn’t entirely answer the question of character, which in the best of novels drives the plot. The key to the riddle of Julia remains out of reach.
RaveThe Seattle Times[I] barely put it down until I was done ... Brown, a brilliant British writer and satirist, reclaims Margaret through 99 short chapters. He seems to have absorbed everything ever recorded about the princess and her times ... This unsettling, incisive and honest book also manages to be laugh-out-loud funny, and is a startlingly original contribution to the genre of biography.
PositiveNewsdayIn the 1930s, Shanghai was an outpost of wealth, culture and vice in a country riven by civil war. Within the port city’s borders was a smaller island, the International Settlement, created by Britain in the 19th century as a beachhead for the opium trade it forced upon the Chinese ... the Settlement and its adjacent neighborhoods, the French Concession and Badlands, were hemmed in by a China \'constantly on the point of collapse, about to fragment into a hundred warring states,\' its denizens \'the paperless, the refugee, the fleeing; those who sought adventure far from the Great Depression and poverty; the desperate who sought sanctuary from fascism and communism; those who sought to build criminal empires; and those who wished to forget,\' writes British-born author Paul French in his new nonfiction book, City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai ... French conjures out of old records, newspaper clippings and survivors’ memories a true story with the dark resonance of James Ellroy’s novel L.A. Confidential and the seedy glamour of Alan Furst’s between-the-wars mysteries. It’s the tale of two antiheroes, men who had lived several lives by the time they got to Shanghai.
PositiveBooklistDavid Hosack was an exemplary citizen of New York, intelligent, ambitious, public-spirited. A respected physician, he attended his friend Alexander Hamilton’s duel with Aaron Burr ... But Hosack’s passion was botany. In the days when drugs came entirely from plants, he believed their systematic study was essential to discovering cures for humanity’s ills ... plant-lovers and gardeners will savor the tales Johnson discovered about nineteenth-century botanizing and empathize with the trials of saving a garden, the most ephemeral of treasures, for posterity ... Though festooned with too many subplots, American Eden is a worthwhile read for history fans, botany and garden enthusiasts, and everyone interested in the challenge of turning a good idea into a legacy.
PositiveThe Seattle TimesAnyone in philanthropy or the nonprofit sector will empathize with his struggles to raise funds from wealthy New Yorkers ... Gardeners will savor stories of 19th century botanizing and appreciate Hosack’s quest to save a garden, the most ephemeral of treasures, for posterity ... The flaw in this interesting story is that the narrative veers off ... a worthwhile read for history lovers, gardeners and anyone interested in the challenge of turning a good idea into a legacy.
RaveThe Seattle Times\"...a story of secrets and revelations that unfolds like a night-blooming flower ... Nathaniel’s expeditions with the Darter, floating the cuts and canals north of the Thames on a barge, smuggling illicit greyhounds to illegal races, have the texture of a dream that hovers on the edge of nightmare ... Warlight is a spy story, a mother-son story and a love story. They are eloquently told and heartbreakingly believable, but the main reason to read this novel is that no other writer builds a world with the delicacy and precision of Michael Ondaatje. You enter it, fall under its spell and never want to leave. Read Warlight to unearth its secrets, and read it again and again for the experience of total immersion into the imagination of a great writer.\
PositiveNewsday\"Each of these early chapters could be a book, and in the name, perhaps, of moving things along, sometimes Ehrenreich attempts a rhetorical knockout punch ... Ehrenreich’s complex explanation boils down to a simple prescription, though the medicine may be hard to take: \'You can think of death bitterly and with resignation . . . and take every possible measure to postpone it,\' she writes. \'Or, more realistically, you can think of life as an interruption of an eternity of personal nonexistence, and see it as a brief opportunity to observe and interact with the living, ever-surprising world around us.\'”
RaveBooklist\"Coll has interviewed players in the Bush and Obama administrations, Afghan and Pakistani officials, spies, diplomats, and soldiers on the ground. With his evenhanded approach, gift for limning character, and dazzling reporting skills, he has created an essential work of contemporary history.\
MixedNewsdayJefferson’s Daughters is as much about the father as the daughters, and it’s not a flattering portrait … Jefferson’s Daughters is a richly textured and satisfying book, but there is unavoidable frustration in the author’s many caveats – that Maria ‘may have’ done this or that Harriet ‘probably’ did that. We simply don’t know. Still, this is a striking portrait of how women in Jefferson’s era lived, bravely and resourcefully, in an age that demanded fealty and absolute obedience to men.
RaveNewsday...[a] brilliant and sobering new book about totalitarianism’s takeover of contemporary Russia ... Gessen fears that Russian society is dying under Putin — even life expectancy is shorter than in many developing countries. It’s hard to imagine how any creativity, originality or innovation can survive such a societal straitjacket. And yet — perhaps most amazing is the resilience of the Russian resistance. Harassed, jailed, beaten, murdered — Russians still march against and protest the outrages of Putin’s regime. Will they prevail? Hard to say ... Gessen vividly chronicles the story of a mortal struggle.
PositiveBooklist[White] tells this tumultuous story with authority, an eye for detail, and a dash of moral outrage ... Perceived threats to this vision spawned waves of counter-reaction—the murder of blacks in the Reconstruction South, the temperance movement, fear of immigrants, and mistrust of labor unions—as industrialization and mechanization leached independence from workers and consolidated power in the hands of business titans. By the end of the era, these forces had created a more complicated world. Contemporary readers will find that this era casts a long shadow over the present.
PositiveThe Seattle TimesBeautiful Ruins dissects popular media — reality TV's race to the bottom to find the lowest common denominator, story arcs for audiences with the attention span of a flea, bad taste in grotesque abundance … Beautiful Ruins asks: How do you balance desire with doing the right thing? It's the epic struggle of our time, when so much choice is at our fingertips, and finding the right path is correspondingly difficult. Pasquale's mother tells her son the key is balance: ‘what we want to do and what we must do are not the same ... Pasquo, the smaller the place between your desire and what is right, the happier you'll be.’
RaveNewsdayHenderson is a pro at distilling mountains of research into a smoothly told tale, and here he has found an irresistible story arc ... Sons and Soldiers kicks into high gear with the invasion of Europe, as many Ritchie Boys traveled with the 82nd Airborne and Patton’s 3rd Army, questioning POWs in time to use the information for the next day’s battle plans. They were in extreme jeopardy — if they were captured and the Germans discovered who they were or where they came from, they risked execution on the spot. Henderson tells their stories with clarity and detail, but without sentimentality or cant. This is a war story, but it’s not pro-war.
RaveThe Seattle TimesLife After Life is a dazzling juggling act that plays with chronology, conventional narrative and the meaning of existence ... British author Atkinson, with an ever-so-dry sense of humor, has also shown an uncanny knack for testing the limits of her characters’ brains and hearts ... Atkinson’s finest writing in this novel is devoted to the horrors of the Blitz and World War II ... As Life After Life, progresses, the logic behind the sequence of alternate histories begins to unfold. Ursula is moving slowly toward her ultimate fate. A pattern emerges from the palimpsest... Ursula finally learns who she is, and the world changes.
PositiveThe Seattle Times...Where'd You Go, Bernadette, Maria Semple's hilarious sendup of 21st-century Seattle's affluent elite and the spell it's cast over our formerly funky city ...love this multilayered farce, which skewers the pretensions of Seattle's new money like nothing you're likely to read for a good long while ... Bee, the family glue, labors heroically to keep her mom and dad together, but things start to fall apart when Bernadette contracts with a 'virtual assistant,' based in India...achingly funny and perfectly timed until Bernadette actually flees her troubles ... Semple has a big heart, and possesses that rare ability to skewer, dissect and empathize with her targets, all at the same time.
RaveThe Seattle Times...chronicled in Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, a slim book that's both a powerful statement on grief and dying and an indelible glimpse into the 40-year marriage of two of the most talented writers on the planet ... Part of this book is Didion watching herself becoming irrational: unhinged, as the saying goes, by grief ... Because of Didion's superb ability to conceptualize and contextualize, this book is both a meditation on death and an observation of how our contemporary world deals with it — or not ... Didion's writing always has displayed an almost musical sense of repetition. A seemingly innocuous passage is repeated and amplified until it swells with an undercurrent of portent ... The Year of Magical Thinking may be the apotheosis of that kind of reading experience. This is a sad and anguished book, told in some of the plainest, yet most eloquent prose you'll ever encounter.
PositiveThe Seattle TimesOne of Home's pleasures is watching Glory and Jack rediscover each other after years of separation and misunderstanding. Each possesses a wry, almost mordant sense of humor; for such a serious writer, Robinson can be very funny. Through hardship and humor, these two siblings find in one another an empathy unique to those in the same gene pool, shouldering a similar burden of parental expectations. But Home has more serious aims, and they're centered on the Rev. Boughton. In decline, he still speaks with two voices: that of a loving father, and the voice of a God taking the measure of lives fallen short of perfection.
Thomas E. Ricks
PositiveThe Los Angeles Times[Ricks] compares the two, highlighting not just their skills and strengths, but the tumultuous times that demanded the highest exercise of their talents ... Ricks doesn’t try to make connections where none exist — the men lived parallel but separate lives. However, the last article Orwell published before his death in 1950 was a review of the second volume of Churchill’s war memoirs. His main character in 1984, a man whose abiding desire was to live free, was named Winston ... Readers of this book will realize, if they needed reminding, that the struggle to preserve and tell the truth is a very long game.
David J. Skal
PositiveThe Seattle Times...an exuberant combination of biography and cultural history that thoroughly investigates the real-life horrors of the Victorian era that influenced the creation of the Count. Copiously illustrated, it is a keepsake for any Dracula enthusiast.
PositiveThe Seattle TimesThe Dig has a feeling of hush about it, in part because the reader knows the turmoil of war that the country and these characters are about to be plunged into. There’s the restraint with which the English express themselves, even when some cutthroat museum politics are involved. And there’s the sense of awe and wonder that unfolds as the ground gives up its secrets ... This novel will be catnip for viewers of Time Team and Detectorists. Fans of stories told with economy and grace will love it, too.
RaveThe Seattle TimesThe title of this exemplary book comes from a quote by French writer Albert Camus. 'Men of our generation,' he wrote, 'have had Spain in our hearts … It was there that they learned … that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, and that there are times when courage is not rewarded.' Hard lessons, but worth learning again from this moving and powerful account.