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  • Micro-Review #104: A Monk Swimming
    by Malachy McCourt

    This memoir by Frank McCourt’s younger brother is the literary equivalent of sharing a Guinness or ten with a loquacious, life-loving Irishman. Actor, bar owner, smuggler, raconteur—McCourt wears many hats. After escaping the grinding poverty of Limerick as a child, he comes of age in 1950s New York and lives life at full speed, becoming the man everyone wants to drink with, a regular guest on The Tonight Show, a terrible husband and father. He’s a big name dropper and (one suspects) embellisher of tales. At times the storytelling inches toward bloviation, but there’s always a chuckle or an outright belly laugh to keep you reading to the end. The book is a whole lot of fun.

  • Micro-Review #103: Teacher Man
    by Frank McCourt

    Before he wrote Angela’s Ashes, McCourt spent 30 years teaching in public high schools in New York. A typical educator he was not. There were odd-ball singalongs in class, field trips to the movies, and, inevitably, firings because he refused to suffer the foolishness of superiors. There was also a decades-long procession of students for whom McCourt felt unmistakable love. This account of his time with them is written with the same wry wit and honesty that infuse Angela’s Ashes. It’s uplifting and ennobling—public service without preciousness. It’s also thoroughly enjoyable.

  • Micro-Review #102: Not Forgotten
    by Kenneth Bae, with Mark Tabb

    An American missionary crosses into North Korea with “treacherous” religious materials on his hard drive. What follows is a 15-year sentence of hard labor and a life of deprivation and indoctrination. Throughout his ordeal, Bae maintains his faith and does what Jesus would do, trying to love his tormentors.

    The glimpses of prison life in the hermit kingdom give this book much of its flavor: the absurdity of labor tasks; the forced TV watching; the forgivable ignorance of the guards. It’s a book about faith, but heathens can enjoy it too. The insanity of Kim Jong-un’s Korea is gripping stuff. 

  • Micro-Review #101: The Motherf**cker with the Hat

    by Stephen Adly Guirgis

    This play about addiction, friendship and love is a hard-edged hoot and an affecting character study. Jackie is a recovering addict who’s going straight after his latest prison stretch. Ralph D. is his sponsor, a sage of Big Book wisdoms who can maybe help keep Jackie sober. But that’s no easy task given that Veronica, the love of Jackie’s life, is maybe sleeping with some guy who left his motherf**king hat in Jackie’s apartment. Against all better judgment, Jackie sets out to kill the guy.

    Sensitive souls be warned: this play has more lowbrow maledictions than you’ll hear at a Donald Trump rally. But the language has a kind of street beauty, a lyrical flow. It might not sound sophisticated, but there’s depth and humanity here. The themes are universal, and the characters are easy to get behind.

  • Micro-Review #100: The Top 10 Reviewed Books

    Cue the fireworks for our one-hundredth review. Only the grandest literary achievements deserve to be mentioned in this space. Here are the top 10 books I’ve reviewed in the last few years, in order of brilliance. Feel free to quibble.

    STORY OF A SECRET STATE (Jan Karski): The translation from Polish isn’t great, but this is one of the most harrowing yet instructive true stories I’ve ever read.

    THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (J.D. Salinger): Two hallowed Christmas traditions: watch BAD SANTA and read Holden Caulfield.

    THE NICK ADAMS STORIES (Ernest Hemingway): Papa. Maybe the best short story writer ever.

    THE ROAD (Cormac McCarthy): The most honest post-apocalyptic novel—also maybe ever.

    WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (Edward Albee): Scorching and hilarious. Not one word is out of place.

    THE PAINTED BIRD (Jerzy Kosinski): A viscerally shocking book with an important message.

    DARKNESS AT NOON (Arthur Koestler): A novel that reminds you that politics are the most personal thing in the world.

    PUSH (Sapphire): Searing social commentary and hope and tragedy and poetry all perfectly balanced.

    ESCAPE FROM CAMP 14 (Blaine Harden): An insightful, memorable book about the insanity of North Korea.

    A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS (Khaled Hosseini): Not as well received as THE KITE RUNNER, but a better book.

    Dishonorable mention:

    HANNIBAL (Thomas Harris): Easily the worst book I’ve ever read cover to cover in my entire life. I feel violated just thinking about it.

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