The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen


Viet Thanh Nguyen starts his book, The Sympathizer, saying: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.”

The novel gives us a important and unfamiliar perspective on the war from the point of view of a conflicted communist sympathizer who is a Captain in the South Vietnam army.

The story begins in 1975 with Saigon in chaos. A general in the South Vietnam army is deciding who will get seats on one of the last planes. His trusted Captain, whose name we never learn, is a double agent and the trusted assistant to the general. They make it to Los Angeles and start their new lives but the Captain is secretly reporting on the group to the leadership of the Viet Cong.

The Captain is the books narrator. He had a Vietnamese mother, and French Catholic priest father and was raised in Vietnam but attended college in the U.S.

The book gives a different focus to this war and the events that followed it.


  • “If youth was not wasted, how could it be youth?” ...

  • “I could live without television, but not without books.” ...

  • “We don't succeed or fail because of fortune or luck. ...

  • “While it is better to be loved than hated, it is also far better to be hated than ignored.”

The Shape Shifter by Tony Hillerman


Joe Leaphorn is a former, now retired, Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn.  Joes last case went unsolved and the thoughts about it still haunt him. He finds a picture of a rug that seems to be identical to what he felt was a one-of-a-kind rug that had been destroyed by fire in the still unsolved crime he just couldn’t forget. The rug was considered priceless and commemorated a terrible time in the American Indian history. The rug was felt to be cursed. The picture had been brought to Joe’s attention by a man that has now gone missing. It seems like a murderer could still be on the loose.  

Joe’s former colleagues officers Jim Chee and Bernie Manuelito just back from their honeymoon or  else Joe would have asked them right off to get involved but instead sets out to learn what he can about who owns the house and rug in the picture. Another officer is sent to check first and he winds up dead seeming to just run off the road on the way back.

Tony Hillerman doesn’t disappoint us with the twists and turns of this story. The Shape Shifter is Hillerman’s eighteenth crime fiction novel in the Joe Leaphorn & Jim Chee Navajo Tribal Police series, first published in 2006.

Quotes by Tony Hillerman

  • “From where we stand the rain seems random. ...

  • “Everything is connected. ...

  • “IF you are not for yourself, who will be for you? ...

  • “Terrible drought, crops dead, sheep dying. ...

  • “An author knows his landscape best; he can stand around, smell the wind, get a feel for his place.

Run Away, by Harlen Coben


Harlan Coben is well known for his writing style of misdirection and catching readers off guard,  his new book, “Run Away” is a masterpiece bringing unexpected twists to this mystery.

Simon Greene is a successful Wall Street executive and his wife Ingrid is a successful pediatrician. They have three kids but the oldest, Paige, recently quite college and disappeared. Simon saw his daughter, now a drug addict playing the guitar and panhandling in Central Park.  She runs. Simon chases her but is confronted by her boyfriend who is also an addict named Aaron.  Both Aaron and Paige get away.  The confrontation is captured on video and it goes viral and Simon looks bad. It isn’t long before Aaron is found beaten to death and Simon is a suspect. Both Simon and his wife, Ingrid, focuses on finding Paige.

Several story-lines are also unfolding. One has to do with a Chicago-based private investigator named Elena Ramirez, who is searching for another missing person and several other cases are taking place in Boston and New Jersey.  It becomes clear that the cases are connected but it is a surprise when it all becomes clear.


“Most religious people don’t believe the dogma, Ash. We take from it what we want, we discard what we don’t. We form whatever narrative we like—kind God, vengeful God, active God, laid-back God, whatever. We just make sure we get something out of it. Maybe we get life everlasting while people we resent burn for eternity. Maybe we get something more concrete—money, a job, friends. You just change the narrative.”

 “Terrific," Simon said. "The psychos are on my side.” 

“This is for Jersey, the good dog, who would be happy to share this bench with you”

 “And bad stays. Bad doesn't go away. You bury bad, it digs itself out. You throw bad in the middle of the ocean, it comes back at you like a tidal wave.”

 “Love your parents - while we are busy growing up, they are growing old.”

 “Truth is truth. By definition. Anything else is a lie.” 


The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron

Julia Camerson says of her book, “The Artist’s Way”, that it is the quasi-spiritual manual for “creative recovery.” 


The book, first published in 1992, explores what creativity is. It suggests two approaches to finding that self. The first is what she refers to as “Morning Pages” which are a stream of consciousness approach to writing where there is no right or wrong way to do it, just three pages of whatever is on your mind. She tells us that this organizes your thoughts and ideas.

The second approach is to take your “inner artist” on a date once a week and do something you enjoy and want to do. The effort is a creative expression.

Camerson said of her approach to teaching that: “My students don’t get lectured to. I think they feel safe. Rather than try and fix themselves, they learn to accept themselves. I think my work makes people autonomous. I feel like people fall in love with themselves.”

Now 70, she lives in a adobe house in Santa Fe, overlooking an acre of scrub and the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. A must read for the creative mind.


“Most of us are not raised to actively encounter our destiny. ...

“In times of pain, when the future is too terrifying to contemplate and the past too painful to remember, I have learned to pay attention to right now. ...

“As you move toward a dream, the dream moves toward you.” ...

“Leap, and the net will appear.”

“In times of pain, when the future is too terrifying to contemplate and the past too painful to remember, I have learned to pay attention to right now. The precise moment I was in was always the only safe place for me.” 


Target, by James Patterson


 First the President, Catherine Grant, dies and the story opens with a procession route from Capitol Hill to the White House that is lined with mourners. Then with Cross and his families at the funeral.

When Senator Elizabeth Walker is shot dead by a sniper every agency is on high alert and soon, we see that the United States Cabinet is also a target. A constitutional crisis is full-blown. Bree Stone, Alex Cross’s wife, is the chief of DC detectives and Dr. Cross is called by the new President to investigate both play a role in finding out what happened.

The plot is twisted and fast paced, and it involves a team of six assassins and James Patterson still holds our interest even after 26 books in this series. Even so, Cross’s impact seems to be less than in prior books in this series.

See the worlds best selling author James Patterson’s web site

See more about James Patterson in BJ’s Favorite Author Section

Quotes From Target

“Even wolves have moments of kindness.” 

“wondered at the human brain’s ability to seize on some terrible personal event and let that event define and control every action for years, decades, even lifetimes.” 

Other James Patterson Quotes

“The funny thing about facing imminent death is that it really snaps everything else into perspective.”

“Max, you're the last of the hybrids who still has...a soul.' ... 'She doesn't have soul,' Gazzy scoffed. 'Have you ever seen her dance?

“Popcorn for breakfast! Why not? It's a grain. It's like, like, grits, but with high self-esteem.” 

What Is Art, by Leo Tolstoy


Leo Tolstoy is best known for his epic novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina. He was a novelist and moral philosopher who studied and wrote about good and bad in relation to human life.

Tolstoy tells us in his book, “What Is Art”, that “Becoming ever poorer and poorer in subject-matter and more and more unintelligible in form, the art of the upper classes in its latest productions has lost all the characteristics of art and has been replaced by imitations of art.” He refers to this as “the perversion of our art.”

He defines art as anything that communicates emotion, rather than beauty: "Art begins when a man, with the purpose of communicating to other people a feeling he once experienced, calls it up again within himself and expresses it by certain external sign.”

Tolstoy wrote about the art of the future rejecting that is would be just a portion of highly refined art that only might appeal to the very enlightened but instead that it would evolve to art that is chosen from that known to all humanity, not just the upper classes, and would transmit feelings embodying the highest principles. This willingness to divide art into good art with morality being a judgement is a big step for defining art.

These conclusions shocked both his critics and admirers as attacked and rejecting cherished beliefs, institutions and established values, religious images and practices.

See Questions In Art Review Section


"A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist." ...

.Art is not a handicraft, it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced.

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.

The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.

All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

See the “Art Reviews Section” for more on Art click here


Along Came a Spider, by James Patterson


Along Came a Spider by James Patterson was published in 1993. It introduces Alex Cross, a forensic psychologist with a PhD in psychology and a Deputy Chief of Detectives, in this first of twenty-eight novels through 2018.

Two kids from well-known and wealthy families were kidnapped from the Washington Day School in Georgetown.  For such an important case the best of the best are needed. Alex Cross, a black detective with a PhD in psychology, and Jezzie Flanagan, a fast-rising young beautiful and white Secret Service agent are brought into the case and their relationship is a story in this story.

The killer is identified but he seems to be suffering from a multiple-personality disorder. Gary Soneji was obsessed by the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby back in 1932 and seems to be insane. The other half of this personality is Gary Murphy who in most ways is just a loser but seems like he is a good father and clearly sane man. Gary could switch from blood-crazed madness to clear-eyed sanity in an instant. He is either the helpless victim of a multiple-personality disorder – or a brilliant, cold-blooded manipulator?

The plot twists and turns. Gary isn’t the only challenge we face in an interesting cast of characters.  

If you have not read any Alex Cross novels or maybe just a few you will find this first story to be a valuable read.


“What do you talk about to a murderer, and someone you loved, over a perfect dinner and cocktails? I wanted to know so many things, but I couldn't ask any of the real-questions pounding in my head. Instead, we talked of the coming vacation days, a "plan" for the 
here and now in the islands.” 

“Oh no, it’s tomorrow again.” 

“It’s all right to put the weight of the world on your shoulders sometimes, if you know how to take it off.” 


Simple Genius by David Baldacci


Former Secret Service agents Sean King and Michelle Maxwell become partners in solving the suicide of a scientist that happened in the property of Camp Peary, a CIA facility, in Virginia.

Before partnering up Michelle walks into a bar and searches for the biggest toughest guy she can find and picks a fight with him. It is clear she may even win but instead lets herself be beaten unconscious. Sean rushes to the hospital but after learning what he can suggests she voluntarily commit herself to a psychiatric facility where Horatio Barnes, a psychologist and old friend of Sean, treats her.

Sean gets started on the Camp Peary investigation while Horatio begins treatment to find the childhood roots of Michelle’s death wish,

The two mysteries eventually come together with secret codebooks, high speed chases and violence.  The plot twists and turns as we would expect but isn’t as compelling as some of Baldacci’s others.  


“There’s a chromosome that goes haywire when you turn thirteen. It commands you to live in filth”  ( ok, truth is here that Michelle keeps her truck a little filthy)

“People who attempted to end their lives, no matter how amateurishly they might do so at first, often got better at it, with the result that on the third, fourth or sixth try, they ended up on a slab with a coroner poking around their remains.”

How To Read Literature Like A Professor, by Thomas C. Foster


In Thomas Foster’s book, “How to Read Literature like a Professor”, we are introduced to literary basics, symbols, themes and contexts to show how to make your everyday reading experience more rewarding and enjoyable.

His focus on memory, symbol and pattern claims that these features separate the professional reader from the rest of the crowd. Telling us the obvious, that many books can be enjoyed for their basic stories, but there are often deeper literary meanings interwoven in these texts. Foster suggests that seeing these hidden truths is something that is natural to the professor.

·        Memory. If the story seems familiar it may be on purpose. It will add meaning if you consider how it is different.

·        Symbols. A good example of a symbol could be the scar on Harry Potter’s forehead. Why is it on the forehead? Where else in literature was someone marked this way. What does its shape mean? Interpreting the symbols adds to the story.  

·        Patterns. If an author uses the same phrases and words in different events it may signal a connection. When certain characters follow a pattern it tells us that and explanation needs to be looked for?

When the same ideas come up again and again the repetition of the idea is likely a symbol. Foster tells us the repetition is intertextuality explaining that all texts depend on one another.

Foster’s book asks the broader questions of what literature is, how and why we react to it, the creative process, and the purpose of reading itself.

I have referred to the book several times over the years.


“Education is mostly about institutions and getting tickets stamped; learning is what we do for ourselves. When we're lucky, they go together. If I had to choose, I'd take learning.” 

“Always" and "never" are not words that have much meaning in literary study. For one thing, as soon as something seems to always be true, some wise guy will come along and write something to prove that it's not.” 

“We - as readers or writers, tellers or listeners - understand each other, we share knowledge of the structures of our myths, we comprehend the logic of symbols, largely because we have access to the same swirl of story. We have only to reach out into the air and pluck a piece of it.” 

“ a full-contact sport; we crash up against the wave of words with all of our intellectual, imaginative, and emotional resource

Becoming Michelle Obama, by Michelle Obama


Michelle Obama starts out her book, “Becoming Michelle Obama”, saying: “I’m an ordinary person who found herself on an extraordinary journey. In sharing my story, I hope to help create space for other stories and other voices, to widen the pathway for who belongs and why.”

When Michelle started out on the Presidential campaign in Iowa it turned out that how she saw herself became how she started to see the people who had turned out to listen to her. When she stood up to speak to a small group gathered in a home to her hear talk, she said:

Let me tell you about me. I’m Michelle Obama, raised on the South Side of Chicago, in a little apartment on the top floor of a two-story house that felt a lot like this one. My dad was a water-pump operator for the city. My mom stayed at home to raise my brother and me.”

Michelle said she liked her own story and became comfortable telling it. She said that she realized that she was telling the people who had come to listen to her, despite the difference in skin color, that they reminded her of her own family.

In talking about her neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, Mrs. Obama writes, “Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. It’s vulnerability that breeds with self-doubt and then is escalated, often deliberately, by fear.” Maybe this insight is in part why we see her as a meticulous planner. It reflected in her approach to her studies in high school and at Princeton and in her approach to the various professional jobs she held. Being a planner was her method of pushing through potential failure.

 Michelle wrote about her first impressions when she met Barack telling us that she was fascinated with how different he was but also how they were really opposites in many ways.  She said she was a planner how was obsessed with checking the boxes on her to do list and he was spontaneous. He must have also seen the differences and the story of their first kiss shows him seeking her approval carefully rather than just sweeping her off her feet.” She said about that event, “he was looking at me curiously, with a trace of a smile. “Can I kiss you” he asked. And with that, I leaned in and everything felt clear.”

Mrs. Obama writes about her critics. “I was female, black, and strong, which to certain people, maintaining a certain mind-set, translated only to ‘angry.’ It was another damaging cliché, one that’s been forever used to sweep minority women to the perimeter of every room, an unconscious signal not to listen to what we’ve got to say.”

The book was a surprise in how much I enjoyed it. A different, must read,  book.


“Now I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child—What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.” 

“If you don’t get out there and define yourself, you’ll be quickly and inaccurately defined by others.”

“For me, becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.”

 “Do we settle for the world as it is, or do we work for the world as it should be?” 

“failure is a feeling long before it’s an actual result.”

Four Past Midnight by Stephen King

Stephen King writes an introductory note in his book, “Four Past Midnight” explaining how he came up with the ideas for the four stories that covered 935 pages. He tells us, “Well look at this-were all here. We made it back again. I hope your half as happy to be here as I am. Just saying that reminds me of a story, and since telling stories is what I do for a living (and to keep myself sane), I’ll pass this one along.”

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No Man's Land, by David Baldacci

David Baldacci’s fourth novel in his John Puller book series was published in November 2016 and takes place 30 years after Puller’s mother disappeared from Fort Monroe in Virginia. A terminally ill neighbor has sent a letter to the CID accusing Puller father, now fighting dementia in a VA hospital, of having murdered his mother Jackie and an investigation begins again.

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The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible is a story that unfolds in the Congo. The historical figures and events described are real, but the lives of the Price family are fiction. Nathan Price is a Baptist missionary who takes his family with him to the Congo in 1959 but it is through the eyes of the 4 daughters and their mother, Orleanna, that the story is narrated.

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