The Art of Reviewing Books

For a number of years, I have been reviewing books for two different organizations, the Washington Independent Review of Books and the Internet Review of Books. I discovered early on that reviewing is an art in itself that requires both humility and impartiality.

The purpose of a review is to tip off readers about a new book coming on the market so that they can decide whether to invest the time and money required to consume the new work. That means that I, as a reviewer, can’t assume that my biases are the same as those of my readers. In fact, I have to try to judge the book I’m reviewing with no biases at all.

So I have to portray fairly the essence of the book, point out its most important features, ideally offer some quotes that demonstrate what the book is up to, compare it to other volumes in its genre, and offer a recommendation.

I don’t write reviews recommending against a book. If I don’t think well of a book, I simply don’t review it. Fortunately, because of the wide range of subject matter in books given to me for review over the years, I can view a book against a broad background and judge its quality fairly. I find few books so unlikeable that I won’t review them.

That said, as the two organizations that supply me books well know, I specialize in works about Vietnam and warfare, two subjects I am all too well acquainted with. Through the years, I have reviewed at least a dozen books on Vietnam and many more on combat. I favor narratives that pull no punches in describing the savagery of the battlefield and the grisly deaths that result. Typical of a book I admired for its frankness about combat was Mark Treanor’s A Quiet Cadence (Naval Institute Press, 2020).

The reason that impartiality is required of a reviewer may be obvious, but maybe the obligation to stay humble is less evident. Book reviewers, myself included, are authors. The ever-present temptation in reading another’s work is to draw comparison’s with one’s own in hopes of boosting one’s own sense of superiority. But the reviewer’s job is to read from the point of view of the reader, not that of the writer. That demands a humble approach—my task is to help, not to dominate.

Trump’s Illness

The press and the media are overwhelmed with reports of President Trump’s diagnosis with covid-19. Many of those around him and, especially those who attended his Rose Garden nomination of Barrett for the Supreme Court, have also contracted the disease. I’m sure many more infections will be confirmed within the next two weeks.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Trump and his supporters have dismissed the pandemic and ignored the warning of scientists about distancing, masks, and avoidance of crowds. It was almost as if they were going out of their way to dare the disease to attack them. We should have seen this coming.

The White House and presidential staff offered conflicting reports about when Trump was diagnosed. Trump’s physician failed to provide critical details including whether Trump was ever on oxygen. Only later did a “senior official” confirm that Trump had been given oxygen at the White House before his trip to Walter Reed National Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

My greatest concern is that the American people will be so taken with the specter of Trump struck down by the virus that they will be moved to support him. We need to divorce our sympathy for the ill from our support for a budding fascist who has threatened to hold onto the presidency even if defeated in the election.

The president and the first lady will almost certainly worsen as the disease progresses. Let us send our best wishes while holding fast to our determination to defeat the worst president the U.S. has ever seen.

My Apple Tree

As a matter of health and self-discipline, I eat lots of fruits, vegetables, and eggs, and little fish or meat. As a result, I end up with plenty of seeds, especially from apples. I usually toss the seeds into the trees and bushes behind my house (I eat on my deck whenever possible) in hopes that they’ll sprout. If they do, someday there will be a wild apple orchard at the back of my house.

But I planted two of the seeds in pots on the deck. Both sprouted, but one really flourished. I kept it in the sun on my picnic table and fertilized it once a week. It grew so quickly I had to find a larger pot for it. When the weather cooled, I brought it and the other potted plants in. Now it’s about a foot tall sitting by a sunny window in my piano room.

Eventually, I’ll plant my sapling in the ground between my house and the pond to my immediate north. Meanwhile, I guess I’ll keep putting it in larger pots.

Or maybe I’ll be the first in my neighborhood to have a potted tree bigger than he is on his deck.

The Debate

Tuesday night’s debate between President Trump and Joe Biden is being hailed by the press as the worst presidential debate in history. Biden did fine, but Trump disgraced himself and the presidency with a performance marked by strings of lies, incendiary rudeness, and repeated attempts to bait his opponent. None of that comes as a surprise.

What was startling to me was Trump’s indication, once again, that he will not accept defeat in the November election. He suggested that mail-in ballots are fraudulent. He shocked me when he called upon Proud Boys, an extreme white-supremist rightwing group that includes violence among its tactics, to defend him: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” He went further: “I’m urging my supporters to go into the polls and to watch very carefully because that’s what has to happen.”

Those remarks should set off alarm bells across the land. The president is threatening to use armed force to shape the election and to remain as president even if the election goes against him.

If Trump does indeed attempt to intimidate voters or to hold the presidency by armed force, we are faced with a coup d’etat. If that doesn’t constitute treason, what does?

U. S. Health Care

According to the Peterson Center on Healthcare, between 2010 and 2019, health spending across the 37 nations that make up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) averaged about 8.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) annually. But healthcare spending in the United States rose from 16.3 percent to 17.0 percent of GDP during that same time period.

The Peterson Center reports that “In 2019, the United States spent about $11,100 per person on healthcare—the highest healthcare cost per capita across the OECD. For comparison, Switzerland was the second highest-spending country with about $7,700 in healthcare expenses per capita, while the average for wealthy OECD countries, excluding the United States, was only $5,500 per person.”

The U.S. spends about $940 per person on healthcare administrative costs—four times the average of other wealthy countries and significantly more than we spend on preventive or long-term healthcare.

Despite significantly higher healthcare spending, the U.S. actually performs worse than other OECD countries in some common health metrics like life expectancy, infant mortality, and unmanaged diabetes.

Why do we pay more and get less in healthcare? Because in the U.S., healthcare is a for-profit business. Doctors are in business to make money rather than being professionals dedicated to the care of others. In most OECD countries, medicine is a government-provided service. In both Canada and the U.K., for example, the public health service, a government agency, provides healthcare for all citizens. It is paid for by taxes.

The U.S. compromise is health insurance, often provided by employers. That still leaves many Americans uninsured. Obamacare, that is, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), was an attempt to reduce the number not covered. But even with the ACA, some 27.5 million Americans (9.1 percent) are without health insurance.

It’s long since time that Americans changed the way we do healthcare and made it a government function. We are hesitant because of our traditional distrust of government. We fear “socialized medicine.” Our working model stresses rugged individualism rather than brotherly assistance. It’s time we grew up and joined the other nations in the world in caring for our citizens.

Gun Ownership-Gun Deaths Ratio

When I read of the number of Americans killed by firearms every year and the number of weapons we own, I’m repeatedly shocked. More than 15,000 people died by gunfire in the U.S. in 2019. That was up from almost 11,000 in 2018.

And our rate of gun ownership is the highest in the world. Forty percent of Americans say they own a gun. Americans own some 390 million firearms. That means that most gun owners have multiple guns—we have more guns than we have people. In the U.S., our firearm ownership rate is 120.5 per 100 people.

The ratio between gun ownership and gun deaths is relatively constant worldwide: the more guns, the more deaths. Our gun death rate  in 2017, the most recent year for which I can find statistics, was 12.2 per 100,000 people with an ownership rate of 120.5 per 100 people. Compare us with our neighbor to the north. Canada has 34.7 guns per 100 people and an annual gun death rate of 2 per 100,000 people.

Americans are forever telling me that guns are at the heart of American culture. Ever since our pioneer days when guns were a necessity, guns have been an intrinsic element of our daily life.

There’s no question that they’re right. My answer: is it better to nourish our culture or to change it and prevent an annual death rate now approaching 20,000?

Alarmed About Trump—Again

For several days running, even when directly questioned by reporters, President Trump has declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the November election. He avers that voting-by-mail is fraudulent based on no evidence whatsoever. He himself has voted by mail. Make no mistake: He is threatening to refuse to cede the White House if he is voted out of office.

Rejection of the will of the American people as expressed in an election is the act of a dictator. As Trump has made clear repeatedly, he admires the dictators and looks down on democratically elected leaders. He believes that as president he is all-powerful. Over and over again, he has taken actions forbidden to the president and has refused to comply with legal orders from other branches of government including subpoenas. His Republican supporters, who still control the Senate, refuse to take him to task. They are complicit in the attack on American democracy. If the November election goes as I expect, the Republican party as we know it may cease to exist.

What I would love to see happen is for Trump to lose the election by a landslide, refuse to leave the White House, be arrested and tried for treason, and convicted. It seems to me that, even if that doesn’t happen, he has committed so many crimes he’ll surely be arraigned after he quits the White House—whether voluntarily or by force. And the evidence for conviction on multiple fronts is overwhelming.

Meanwhile, we Americans need to heed the warning: we have a president who is, in effect, threatening to seize dictatorial power. As Representative Adam Schiff warned, “This is how democracy dies.” We need to be prepared for the worst.

Solitude (2)

These days I prefer to be alone because I am grieving. My partner of many years died in March. Nothing can replace her. Mourning is not something I share.

A reader might ask why I am so careful to avoid contagion during the pandemic. It’s because I’m an older man with a history of lung cancer. That makes me a prime target for covid-19 that would likely prove fatal. For me, avoiding others is avoiding death.

So my weeks alone turn into months and maybe into a year. I mostly don’t mind, but sometimes I wonder if so much time alone might make me into one of those old people who’s alone so much he becomes erratic. My cure is to be disciplined—eat, dress, clean normally every day.

We’ll see if it works.


I’m now in my sixth month of isolation. The coronavirus pandemic has required me to spend all my time alone. The only breaks have been for groceries, and then I war a mask and stay at least six feet away from all others.

This morning, the outside temperature is in the fifties, but it has been down in the forties some mornings. That means it’s time to bring in my potted plants from my deck and arrange them next to the sunny window on the eastern side of the piano room. The change in weather reminds me that my seclusion began last winter, before I put the plants out when it got warmer in the spring.

How long will the pandemic last? Since the U.S. under President Trump still is doing nothing to combat the covid-19, I presume I’ll still be sequestered six months from now. More than a year in isolation.

I’m fortunate that I’m a loner by habit. I normally spend little time with others. I’m a writer, a profession that requires many hours working alone. My diversions are weight lifting, reading, playing the piano, a little gardening, and working on my house—all activities I do by myself.

But under normal conditions, I have a heavy schedule of readings and presentations to assembled groups of readers. Barely a week passes that I’m not out appearing in public. All that is, of course, on hold. And so far, I’ve only managed to arrange one remote reading. More will come.

More tomorrow.

Covid-19 Deaths in The U.S.

The U.S. continues to be hurt far more by the coronavirus pandemic than any other nation. We have now reached 200,000 deaths, the highest by far of any country in the world. We have just 4 percent of the global population but roughly 21 percent of both deaths and overall cases.

But six months into the pandemic, President Trump has still done nothing at all to combat the virus’s spread. With no evidence whatever, he claims that we have started to improve. He says we have done an amazing job in fighting the spread of the virus. He maintains that young people are “virtually immune” and repeats the claim that the virus “affects virtually nobody.” Meanwhile, more than 800 Americans are dying of the virus each day.

I trust that Trump’s performance on this issue alone will be enough to see him defeated in November’s election. His record on the virus is but one small part of his overall colossal failure as president. As a friend of mine recently observed, if we fail to remove Trump from office in the election, we deserve what we will get.