Archive for the ‘nonfiction’ Tag

Crime, ethics and truth   Leave a comment

In Bad City, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Paul Pringle provides an in-depth look at the culture of silence regarding scandals at the University of Southern California while addressing the threat to journalistic integrity at the Los Angeles Times.

When Pringle, a Times investigative reporter, gets a tip about Carmen Puliafito, then dean of USC’s Keck School of Medicine involving drug abuse he’s initially skeptical.

Through diligent inquiry, Pringle pursues the doctor’s activities, which include dispensing and using illegal drugs. His wealth and power allow him to lead a double life as a respected member of academia and the medical community. He’s also the manipulating lover of a much younger woman to whom he provided drugs, money and apartments.

Inquiries to USC are dismissed at the same time his editors attempt to quash the story. Slowly, Pringle suspects a conflict of interest with the paper and its relationship with the renowned university. This only further motivates him to continue his probe.

Pringle is able to substantiate his story, but his editors want more thus delaying publication. When it’s evident the story will languish indefinitely, he and a handful of other reports secretly work to expose the Times and USC connection.

While the focus is on Puliafito, Pringle also addresses other USC scandals including the gynecologist who sexually abused hundreds of women; and the Varsity Blues scandal involving bribes to gain admission to elite colleges and universities around the country.

Pringle successfully challenged both the power in play USC while championing journalism’s important role.

Bad City: Peril and Power in the City of Angels

Four Bookmarks

Celadon Books, 2022

289 pages including acknowledgements and notes


Opening Up to the Unknowns   Leave a comment

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Reading The Power of Strangers made me think about how I interact with people I don’t know, which I suspect is among author Joe Keohane’s  goals. He presents  a lot to consider in an entertaining, applicable, albeit often research-heavy, manner.

Through interviews with psychologists, anthropologists,  and average citizens , among others, Keohane identifies the good feelings resulting from an exchange, no matter how brief, with those with whom we share our world. Engaging in such interactions isn’t all about personality type. Innate fears of rejection and lack of trust often inhibit extending ourselves.

Examples of other cultures where the importance of an initial greeting determines the safety of those involved are referenced. Details are shared about individuals in public spaces who encourage strangers to share their stories or simply talk about whatever is on their minds.

The work is split into three sections: “What Happens When we Talk to Strangers;” “Why Don’t We Talk to Strangers;” and “How to Talk to Strangers.”

Admittedly, sometimes I don’t want to talk to someone I don’t know: for example, when on a plane in the middle of a good book. I always acknowledge people and try to establish eye contact. And, when ignored, I am disgruntled. I live in a place where I encounter fellow hikers on beautiful trails. There is usually some exchange of trail talk. Keohane likely would consider this a start, but for a more meaningful connection he offers a lot of interesting ideas worth reading about.

The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World

Four Bookmarks

Random House, 2021

328 pages (includes index)

Osage Murders and Beginnings of the FBI   Leave a comment


Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI is an exhaustive look at a compelling story. Unfortunately, the narrative is bogged down with too many details. While this has all the makings of an excellent series perfect for streaming, as a book it lacks binge-worthiness.

Author David Grann has certainly done his research. He combines two story lines: how the Osage nation in Oklahoma, once among the wealthiest people in the world, lost its fortune; and the early days of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover.

New to me was the story of the numerous Osage Indians who were murdered as a means of obtaining their oil rights. Grann focuses on the Burkhart family, although many others are mentioned, whose members were either shot or poisoned. Efforts to identify the murderers and press charges were stymied. Evidence was often conveniently misplaced, coroner’s reports were inaccurate and juries in the 1920s were reluctant to convict a white man of murdering an Indian.

Initially, it was believed the death toll rose to 24, which is when the FBI got involved. Grann’s research indicates the number is much higher. Nonetheless, federal agents at Hoover’s directive began an investigation led by Tom White, a former Texas Ranger.

The story deals with double agents, small town politics and grossly unfair treatment of the Osage. American history buffs are sure to find Grann’s work a gripping true-life account. As much as I wanted to be captivated, it didn’t happen for me.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
Three bookmarks
Doubleday, 2017
338 pages, including selected bibliography

Investing in Justice   Leave a comment


Red Notice by Bill Browder is a true-life tale involving financial investments, conspiracy, Russian intrigue and, ultimately, murder. A look at how U.S. laws are enacted is also included. A red notice is essentially an international arrest warrant. Putin tried, unsuccessfully, to have one placed on the author. The political climate with Russia makes this a timely read.

Browder recounts his experience as a foreign investor in Russia following the breakup of the Soviet Union. He discovers a motherlode, secures investors and founds his own capital management firm. Initially, the focus is on Browder’s financial acumen. Then, things get ugly for him and his associates when he exposes corruption in – surprise! – the Russian government.

Browder’s visa is revoked, but he’s able to covertly move his company’s holdings out of Russia saving his clients’ fortunes in the process. However, this isn’t where the author reveals his valor. That comes in the narrative’s final third as he seeks justice for the abuse and murder of his friend/attorney, Sergei Magnitsky, who revealed a multi-million dollar fraud committed by the Kremlin.

Browder’s efforts, along with assistance from U.S. government officials, helped put in place the Magnitsky Act, which, initially*, blocked Russian officials and business leaders from entering the United States and froze their assets held by U.S. banks.

Guilt motivates Browder’s actions, but the true hero of the story is Magnitsky who steadfastly believed truth and fairness would prevail.

With some exceptions, such as occasional extraneous details, the rapid-fire pacing makes Browder’s story engaging.

Red Notice: A True Story of Finance, Murder, and One Man’s fight for Justice
Four Bookmarks
Simon & Schuster, 2015
396 pages, includes notes and index

*The act was expanded in 2016 and now applies sanctions to human rights abusers worldwide.

Engulfed in Grief   2 comments

In Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala writes with intensity and candor as she describes the tsunami she survived but which her family did not.

The memoir begins in the minutes before one of the most deadly forces of nature hit the Sri Lankan coast Dec. 26, 2004. She is initially incredulous that she should survive; it only makes sense that her husband, their seven- and five-year-old sons, along with her mother and father also made it through alive. Unlike the 2012 film, The Impossible, about the same topic, Wave does not have a happy ending. Neither does it have a happy beginning.

Deraniyagala slowly moves through the stages of grief and gets stuck in denial. She is angry, she is depressed and though her narrative extends to 2012, she can’t wrap her heart or mind around the loss she has endured. Yet, she brings her family to life in the memories she shares. She vividly details her sons’ antics and dissimilar personalities. She recounts her courtship with her husband, Steve, and their life in London before and after kids. It takes longer for her to deal with the loss of her parents, so they aren’t as fully portrayed.

Gradually, she’s able to revisit family homes, places her children played, friends and even the devastated Yala resort. The author moves from the present to the past, from her childhood in Sri Lanka to Cambridge, from Yala to London. At each juncture pain is never far from the surface; fortunately, it becomes less raw.

Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2013
228 pages

Never Too Old to Play   Leave a comment

I ‘m somewhat uncomfortable admitting that for all the years LEGO were scattered throughout my house, I used the plural and lower case (Legos) to identify the multi-colored blocks. Thankfully, Jonathan Bender has set me straight in his comprehensive book LEGO: A Love Story.
None of my sons live at home, but their LEGO are safely stored in multiple readily-accessible bins. I still have an MOC (My Own Creation, not from instructions) made by one of my sons as a gift on my dresser. Recently, my husband and I’ve been told it’s not Christmas without LEGO to build. I share this because LEGO have long been a part of my family. And we are not alone. According to Bender, in 2010, when his book was published, there were 62 LEGO bricks for every man, woman and child in the world.

Bender recalls his childhood fascination with the Danish-made pieces and his personal transformation to an AFOL (Adult Fan of LEGO). He explains that LEGO developers acknowledge the Dark Ages, when kids quit playing with the bricks. However, Bender’s focus is on AFOLs and their worldwide presence. He travels to LEGO conventions, he visits LEGOLAND, the LEGO factory in Denmark, and interviews an assortment of LEGO designers, builders and collectors. Who knew of the various LEGO-related web sites, nor the impressive number of LEGO User Groups (LUGs – acronyms are big in this world).


Bender nimbly details the evolution of his passion for LEGO while also revealing a personal side-story about creating family.

LEGO: A Love Story
Four Bookmarks
John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2010
270 pages, including notes

The Value of Cheese and Friendship   Leave a comment

It’s interesting that I’ve recently read two nonfiction books that both include the word betrayal in their subtitles. After all, it’s a powerful assertion.  Michael Paterniti shares his in The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese. Initially the last word, the cheese, is what caught my attention more than the previous three. Those are experiences most of us know on some level, but the best cheese in the world? That’s something outside my realm.

Paterniti tells three stories: that of Ambrosio Molinos, a Spanish farmer turned cheesemaker; of life in rural Spain; and of the author’s own infatuation with the subject of his book, which isn’t the cheese at all, but the man behind it. Although Paterniti’s self-revelations are the least interesting, they’re fun to ride along with since he does such a magnificent job of bringing the larger-than-grand Ambrosio to life off the pages. It’s easy to see how he became so enmeshed in Ambroiso’s world, which is described in rich and vivid detail.

A combination of greed, poor business decisions and, ultimately, different versions of the same story result in Ambrosio’s fall from grace as a gentleman farmer to a man plagued with debt who is no longer able to produce the cheese that garnered worldwide attention.

The Telling Room could easily have been subtitled the power of friendship. It is power that comes from the beauty of reliance, fun and sharing to the more destructive and sad aspects that emerge when friendships fail.

The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese
Four Bookmarks
The Dial Press, 2013
349 pages