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 Weekly Words about New Books in
Independent Bookstores

October 7, 2018

Two Appealing Releases - Heartwarming Small Town Story and Singular Cat-and-Mouse Crime Thriller
 
Virgil Wander by Leif Enger. I was a big admirer of Enger's first book, Peace Like a River (2001), and I will be renewing my author fan club membership after reading his latest effort. In this warm and wonderful novel, residents of a small,  down-on-its-luck Minnesota town rally together to change their lot with the help of the local movie house - rundown but still with some magic left in its walls. The book's narrator, Virgil Wander, nearly lost his life (in a car accident) and is - like his town of Greenstone - attempting to recover from his near-death experience and pull off a rebirth of sorts. He is the town clerk and owner of the Empress Theater, which shows classic movies to dwindling audiences. As such, Virgil is a linchpin of his once-vibrant community, whose citizens decide to change their town's fortunes by holding a festival called Hard Luck Days. Enger's luckless small town and flawed but plucky townsfolk reminded me of Richard Russo's Empire Falls and Everybody's Fool, but Enger is a kinder, gentler Russo, with less cynicism and a quiet flair for making readers care about his characters. I found Virgil Wander to be a terrific, feel-good novel.  
 
 
November Road by Lou Berney. This is an unusual thriller that uses familiar themes in unexpected ways to create a nifty on-the-run love story. Berney won an Edgar in 2016 for The Long and Faraway Gone, so his ability to build suspense is no s urprise, but the course he takes to get readers turning pages is more unusual. For one thing, while the cross-country flight of his protagonist is triggered by the JFK assassination, Berney's imagining of who's responsible is really a device to set things in motion rather than a new whodunit conspiracy theory. Frank Guidry is an enforcer for New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello, presented here as the ringleader of the Kennedy hit. Guidry is tasked with going to Dallas and disposing of the getaway car used by Marcello's hitman, but he soon realizes that he's a loose end to be disposed of as well. So he hits the road to Las Vegas, seeking the help of a gangster crony. Guidry has a head start on the shooter sent to take him out, but stops to help a young woman, Charlotte, and her two daughters - on the lam from a drunken husband/father and with a broken-down car. He invites the family to travel with him, a self-serving act that backfires when he begins to fall for Charlotte. Berney skillfully turns gangster Guidry into an appealing protagonist, which helps ratchets up the suspense when his cold-blooded pursuer proves to be a resourceful and relentless tracker.  
Government Agencies at Work, Unqualified Leaders Notwithstanding  
 
The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis. The author of the likes of The Big Short, Moneyball, and The Undoing Project once again proves himself a masterful storyteller in a work that is part civics lesson and part (very) cautionary tale. Who knew the range of activities and monitoring government departments like Energy, Agriculture, and Commerce are responsible for?  As it turns out, they do complex and important work, much of which Tru mp-appointed department heads know little or nothing about. As a matter of fact, the ignorance and arrogance of men put in charge of critical agencies is actually quite disheartening. In Agriculture, the funding of vital programs like food stamps and school lunches is being slashed. The Commerce Department may not have enough staff to conduct the 2020 Census properly. Over at Energy, where international nuclear risk is managed, it's not clear there will be enough inspectors to track and locate black market uranium before terrorists do.   
 
The good news is that these departments are filled with intelligent, committed staffers who care about their work. Lewis found several such folks and allows them to tell much of the story. The focus of the book is on the three agencies mentioned above, and the scope of their responsibilities is quite remarkable. Reading about government bureaucracy may sound tedious, but Lewis excels in bringing seemingly arcane subjects to life. He devotes a good portion of his narrative to one of Commerce's most critical agencies, the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which (among other things) runs the National Weather Service and tracks hazardous weather conditions. It's fascinating reading and gives one hope, even if the person now in charge is one of the most inappropriate appointments made by this administration (you'll read why). Lewis has shone the light on the good and important work being done by unsung public servants while making a compelling case for it to continue under competent, informed leadership. 
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Hi, I'm Hut Landon, and I work as a bookseller in an independent bookstore in BerkeIey, California.

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