Reviews of the Week with Ann Beattie, Andrew McCabe, Colson Whitehead, and More!

Every weekday we feature a different review on Booklist Online. These reviews are notable for different reasons—they may be starred, or in high demand, or especially relevant to the current issue’s spotlight.

An intricate and psychologically laden character study from a literary master; the harsh conditions facing a Somali youth; the politically prescient observations of a former FBI director; a slice of life for a young girl in a closely knit town; a relentless drama set in the unjust environment created by Jim Crow laws. From heavy emotions to historically significant events we bring you the Reviews of the Day from this week, February 28–March 1, below.

Monday, February 25

 A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, by Ann Beattie

Beattie (The Accomplished Guest, 2017) anchors her latest psychologically forensic novel to a New Hampshire prep school where troubled “overachievers” are enthralled by teacher Pierre LaVerdere, a charismatic master of irony and dissemblance who will haunt them. Ben, a student with family issues, narrates, and his cynicism, passivity, and existential viewpoint make him a millennial Holden Caulfield whom we accompany into perplexing adulthood. Bewitched by sexually adventurous and brazenly manipulative women, as well as by a neglectful friend, and bereft of conviction and ambition, post-college Ben flees New York City for a small, shabby upstate town about to be transformed by a boutique-generating tide of rich Manhattan refugees. Ben’s attempts at friendship and romance fail; he is shaken by a request from a former classmate and lover, now in a lesbian relationship, and stricken when the diabolical LaVerdere resurfaces with a dire claim. Gimlet-eyed Beattie has created a stunningly unnerving and provocative tale spiked with keen cultural allusions and drollery.

 

Tuesday, February 26

Let’s Go Swimming on Doomsday, by Natalie C. Anderson

Like so many Somali boys, Abdi’s older brother was forcibly recruited by al-Shabab, a terrorist group seeking to upend the government. Then Abdi himself is recruited by the opposite side, charged with infiltrating al-Shabab and reporting their operations. To insure Abdi’s cooperation, a U.S.-backed agency is holding Adbi’s mother and younger siblings captive. When the story begins, Abdi is in a Kenyan jail, beaten and missing two fingers. In the temporary custody of a UN social worker, Abdi befriends young women who have been differently victimized by war. His harrowing backstory is revealed through rapid-fire flashbacks. Trapped between the government’s threat to his family and the terrifying demands of the al-Shabab training camp, Abdi is ultimately a mere tool in this world of ruthless, power-hungry adults.

 

Wednesday, February 27

The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump, by Andrew G. McCabe

The hottest disclosures from former FBI acting director McCabe were revealed in his 60 Minutes interview two days before this book was even released. After that, McCabe has seemingly been everywhere, discussing the disconcerting nature of the Trump presidency and comparing it to the Mob (many of whose members he has investigated). On television and in the book, he has chronicled what it felt like for him and his wife to be the butt of Trump’s withering tweets and the shock of being fired a day before he was to retire with benefits. But this is so much more than the airing of a personal vendetta (though it’s also that). McCabe brings readers along as he gets the urge to join the FBI and undergoes the intense training, and then he offers an almost “you-are-there” account of the stress that working cases like the Boston Marathon bombing puts on an agent. Along the way, he offers insight into many people with whom he has worked, including former FBI directors James Comey and, intriguingly, Robert Mueller. Most important, this book is a primer on how the FBI works and why its independence is an essential part of the American justice system.

 

Thursday, February 28

 Birdie, by Eileen Spinelli

Three years ago, after Birdie’s father died, she and her mother moved to her great-grandmother Maymee’s small town and into her home. Twelve-year-old Birdie still mourns for her father, but change is in the air. Previously preoccupied with planning her funeral, Maymee loses her heart to a man visiting relatives nearby. To Birdie’s dismay, Mom starts dating, too. And even Birdie secretly longs for her best friend, Martin, to become her boyfriend, though he has a crush on another girl. For a while, every change seems wrong to Birdie, but gradually she gains perspective on the shifts within her circle of family and friends, sorting out the temporary, awkward, or painful changes from those that feel right as time passes. Birdie’s fascination with birds is as integral to the storytelling as references to her father. Written with a light hand and from Birdie’s point of view, this accessible, sometimes amusing narrative comes alive through its portrayal of characters.

 

Friday, March 1

The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead

There were rumors about Nickel Academy, a Florida reform school, but survivors kept their traumas to themselves until a university archaeology student discovered the secret graveyard. Whitehead follows his dynamic, highly awarded, best-selling Civil War saga, The Underground Railroad (2016), with a tautly focused and gripping portrait of two African American teens during the last vicious years of Jim Crow. There is no way Elwood Curtis would ever have become a Nickel Boy if he was white. Raised by his strict grandmother, Elwood, who cherishes his album of recorded Martin Luther King Jr. speeches, is an exemplary student who earns admission to early college classes. But trouble whips up out of thin air, and instead he is sent to Nickel, where the Black boys are barely fed, classes are a travesty, and the threat of sexual abuse and torture is endemic. As Elwood tries to emulate Dr. King’s teachings of peace and forgiveness, he is befriended by the more worldly and pragmatic Turner, and together they try to expose the full extent of the brazenly racist, sadistic, sometimes fatal crimes against the Nickel Boys.

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About the Author:

Michael Ruzicka, Office Manager, was raised in suburban Los Angeles, received a BA in Creative Writing/Poetry at UC Santa Cruz, then moved to Birmingham, AL, where he spent five years owning an independent bookstore and earned an MLIS. He has brought his librarian skills to Vanderbilt’s Television News Archive, Battle Ground Academy, The Museum of Contemporary Art-Chicago, and the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Michael is very excited to be a part of Booklist and call Chicago his home.

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