Books in Review: Fiction, politics, and sweet Island reads


Six of Time magazine’s top 10 nonfiction books in 2017 had to do with the 2016 presidential race, the state of our national and world union, and with women’s issues, including sexual predation by men.

With national concern soaring about the safety of our nation and of women, look for more of the same next year, as harsh light is shone on our cultural shortcomings and growing concern about the ability of our president to run the affairs of state.

We got the same sense of the trend in books with Island connections that we reviewed in 2017. Only three fiction titles made the list of top reads this year. Eight dealt with Island life in biography and history, and we read some top-flight essay and photography books.

Six books we read dealt with understanding the politics of our times against the backdrop of real-time 2017 events.

Two others were luxurious reads, one a history of Benedict Arnold by Nathaniel Philbrick, and the other, “Tides,” by Jonathan White, captures the nature and impact of ocean tides, a mostly overlooked twice-a-day event here.

Many of us have the sense these days that the center is not holding or, at least, that someone’s moved our cheese, so seasonal resident Amor Towles’ “A Gentleman in Moscow” was a welcome break from predicting political Armageddon. Mr. Towles followed up his first book, the bestselling “Rules of Civility,” with this delightful tale of brutish post-Revolution Russia. The hero actually is a gentleman, by temperament, who’s a welcome relief from the self-serving adolescent political chatter we hear daily.

Island resident Susan Wilson published “Two Good Dogs,” the fifth in her canine fiction series about life from a dog’s perspective. Ms. Wilson’s dog characters don’t solve crime or wisecrack, but move easily in a human world.

Fellow resident Linda Fairstein doubled up this year with “Deadfall,” the 19th Alexandra Cooper

crime thriller, and debuted her first book for middle-school readers. Called “Into the Lion’s Den,” the book features tweener Devlin Quick, a kid with a nose for mystery.

Resident Richard Patterson got out of the gate early and vociferously with “Fever Swamp,” a reprise of his weekly columns at Huffington Post. Mr. Patterson, an early anti-Trump voice, reprised his columns with extended margin-note updates on what he — and Donald Trump — got right and wrong during the campaign last year.

Two other books I recommend about the matter of national health include “A Colony in a Nation,” MSNBC news guy Chris Hayes’ look at the racial divide in this country. Mr. Hayes told The Times that he purposely did not mention Donald Trump, but allowed the reality of two separate treatments under our laws to stand on its own, without the help of Trumpian dog whistles.

On that subject, I have scratched my head all year about the dizzying effect of Vladimir Putin on Mr. Trump. Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist who worked in Russia before and during the Putin ascendancy, offers a richly detailed and chilling picture of the Russian president in “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.” Originally published in 2013, her story tracks Mr. Putin as a street kid in St. Petersburg through a career as a gray bureaucrat before his ascension in 1997 to the Russian presidency.

Putting the best face possible on it, we can hope the Trumpian allure relates to images of macho Putin, bare-chested, riding his horse in Russian hills, and not the means by which Mr. Putin converted a nascent Russian democracy into an autocratic kleptocracy by disassembling the foundations of law, governance, and free press.

We had a delightful look at dissent and natural living in “What Would Henry Do?” a whimsical look at how Henry David Thoreau would regard the world today. Essentially a collection of essays, the book includes a piece by Island resident Holly Nadler.

This year produced an excellent cadre of books about the Island and living on it, including Chilmarker Conrad Neumann’s prose and poetry in “Up Island Poems” and a sweet but haunting sprig of poems, “Not so dear Jenny,” from former Island resident Jennifer Tseng. James Hart contributed an autobiography, “Lucky Jim,” which chronicles his life and times, including a long marriage to Island resident Carly Simon.

No Island publishing year is complete without photography books. Two particularly stand out.

Longtime resident Peter Simon galvanized 50-plus years of Island photography into “Martha’s Vineyard: To Everything There Is a Season,” a visual masterpiece compendium of our life and times.

Chappaquiddick scientist and author Edwina L. Rissland brought us “Morning Shore: A Turn of the Year on Chappaquiddick,” a slim volume of her photographs, including an opening essay and epigrams that perfectly suit her photos. Ms. Rissland ranges far for her epigrams, from classical Haydn to Beatle George Harrison, and to Island voices, including Laura Wainwright, Kevin Keady, and Dan McLagan.