Sunday, December 31, 2017

Best of 2017

Who would have thought that I would read two zombie/vampire books in 2017 or that I would take up more science fiction than ever before or that I wouldn't read a single mystery I thought was worthy of the "Best of" designation? Still, there were some worthy books:

Best Novel(s)
Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout. With this book, Strout returns to the form she so successfully employed in Olive Kittredge--creating a set of interlinked narratives about individuals with a connection to a central character, in this case Lucy Barton, one of the few Amgash, Illinois, residents who has "escaped" and become successful (but not without scars). The stories are sad, funny, and ultimately redemptive.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. Saunders' novel won the Mann Booker and made more "best books of 2017" lists (22!) than any other book this year. It's innovative in form and content--Willie Lincoln, son of President and Mrs. Lincoln dies and, after the funeral, the President visits the crypt where his body lies as an entire community of dead but not departed spirits observe, comment, and attempt to influence; interspersed with the story are accounts of historical events constructed from primary sources. It's odd and enthralling.

Honorable Mention: A House among the Trees, by Julia Glass; Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel; The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson (for a newcomer to science fiction, I feel it would be presumptuous for me to have a "Best of Science Fiction/Speculative Fiction" category, but the latter two books would be on it if I did have such a category!)

Best Short Stories
The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. I didn't read that many short story collections this year, but this one would be worthy of a "best of" designation even if I had read dozens. The stories depict the lives of refugees from Vietnam, including struggles unique to their experience as well as universal human challenges. Nguyen just received a MacArthur fellowship and I have no trouble granting that he deserves the genius designation often associated with that award.

Best Nonfiction
You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, by Sherman Alexie. This memoir combining prose and poetry and featuring a complex structure is filled with rage, pain, love, and humor. I thought it was fantastic.

Honorable Mention: Light the Dark, edited by Joe Fassler

Surprisingly (for me), I read a number of memoirs that I admired this year. They included: Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage, by Danie Shapiro; Society's Child, by Janis Ian; Hunger, by Roxane Gay; The Bright Hour, by Nina Riggs; Brain on Fire, by Susan Cahalan; and Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken (yes, I am sad just typing this).

Favorite Passages
Last year, a lot of my favorite quotes were about truth. This year my theme seemed to be writing and story--maybe it's a sign I'll be writing a novel in 2018 (ha!).

I think it demonstrates why we need poetry, why we need songs--to say the things tha can only be expressed in this kind of elegant, inexplicable way. Things that, if you could explain them straightforwardly, you wouldn't have to have poetry, you wouldn't have to have songs.

Jeff Tweedy, quoted in Light the Dark

It is supposed that a writer writes what he knows about and knows well. It is not necessarily so. A writer's subject may just as well, if nor more likely, be what he writer longs for and dreams about, in an unquenchable dream, in lush detail and harsh honesty.

Mary Oliver, Upstream

She thought how for years onstage she had used the image of walking up the dirt road holding her father's hand, the snow-covered fields spread around them, the woods in the distance, joy spilling through her--how she had used this scene to have tears immediately come to her eyes, for the happiness of it, and the loss of it. And now she wondered if it had even happened, if the road had ever been narrow and dirt, if her father had ever held her hand and said that his family was the most important thing to him.

Elizabeth Strout, Anything Is Possible

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Why We Need Poetry: The Best Books I Read This Month

It's an unusual month for me when my two favorite books were nonfiction, but such is the case for December. Still, Louise Erdrich kept fiction from being totally disgraced!

The Best Books I Read This Month

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, edited by Joe Fassler
Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich
Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War, by Helen Thorpe

The Hate U Give has been something of a sensation as a young adult novel inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. While author Angie Thomas is clearly outraged by the police killings of black men, the novel is not a diatribe; rather, it's a complex look at how teenager Starr Carter reacts when her friend Khalil is killed by a police officer in her presence. The decisions she must make about what to tell people, including her white friends at the suburban private school she attends, whether to take a public role in speaking out about the killing, and how to speak up on Khalil's behalf are problems are young people should not have to face. While some characters seem constructed to represent a point of view (Starr's police officer uncle), the book still works and would be a great stimulant to conversation with young people.

Light the Dark is a collection of essays put together by Joe Fassler, who interviews writers for the "By Heart" column in The Atlantic.  The focus is on what inspires writers and how that inspiration affects their creative work. Among the authors represented: Elizabeth Gilbert, Amy Tan, Junot Diaz, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Chabon, Stephen King, Roxane Gay, Jonathan Franzen, Claire Messud, Edwidge Danticat, Khalid Hosseini--the list goes on and on. The authors' processes and views of literature are incredibly diverse, as is what they value--narrative, truth, language, communicating with a reader, finding the voice, writing an opening line that works. Considering how they read their "inspirations" is a model for reading, interesting to me as both a reader and a writer. Two odd things I can't keep myself from sharing: Hanna Yanagihara is inspired by Lolita but has never read past the first 100 pages--for her it's all about Nabokov's language. She seems to actively resist the narrative and the characters. Jeff Tweedy, a songwriter, mumbles sounds while he sings his melodies; he lays tracks over each other, so that his mumbles rest on top of each other. But then he listens to what he has recorded and "hears" actual words and ideas in the mumbling, which then become lyrics?!?   Highly recommended.

Future Home of the Living God is a dystopic novel, set in the near future when climate change has continued, with many negative consequences, and evolution has reversed itself, with women giving birth to babies that have regressed on the evolutionary scale (i.e., become more monkey-like). The first part of the narrative seems to be an almost comic story about Cedar Hawk Songmaker finding her biological family; Cedar Hawk is Native American but was adopted by an Anglo couple despite the laws that discourage such adoptions but wants to find her birth family for a variety of reasons (they do not have the special powers she hoped they would). But then the narrative shifts and becomes the story of Cedar Hawk's attempts to elude the powers that are imprisoning pregnant women for nefarious purposes. Much about the book was confusing to me and I don't think it is Erdrich's best work--but it's still worth reading and pondering. It may even merit a second read.

I resisted Helen Thorpe's first book for a long time but really liked it when I finally read it. Then I repeated the pattern with Soldier Girls, a look at three Indiana women who served in the National Guard, with deployments to Afghanistan (all three) and Iraq (two of the three). Much about their stories was interesting, but I was particularly struck by two points: (1) how difficult the readjustment to civilian society is whether you saw combat or not, whether you come home injured or not and (2) the extent to which we do actually have what Thorpe refers to as "the economic draft"--two of the three women are in the Guard because their financial circumstances made it one of their few options (the third had more enthusiasm for the military but still had financial issues as well). Thorpe raises the issue of whether, given the potential damage to children,  mothers should serve overseas (interestingly, I read an interview with her when the book was published, in which she said she had not gone to Afghanistan or Iraq as part of her reporting because she had a young child and she didn't want to take the risk); personally, I would raise a similar question about fathers (and sons and daughters and husbands and wives). I also would question the title, though I get the reference to the Shirelles song (or I assume that's the reference)--these are women, not girls. All of that notwithstanding, Soldier Girls is well worth reading.

Also Read

Gustav Sonata, by Rose Tremain--a story full of pain not redeemed by what feels like an inauthentic happy ending.
Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin--Baldwin was a gifted writer and observer of society, but this autobiographical novel did not, for some reason, move me.
I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson--Since I hadn't seen the movie, I didn't know this was another zombie/vampire book, but it was free from Audible!
Meet Me at the Morgue, by Ross McDonald--Classic noir.
I Know a Secret, by Tess Gerritsen--I've already forgotten the plot of the latest Rizzoli and Isles mystery.
Gray Mountain, by John Grisham--a screed against coal mining and strip mining particularly masquerading as a novel.
Deadfall, by Linda Fairstein
Absolute Power, by David Baldacci
16th Seduction, by James Patterson

Resolution for 2018: Read fewer mediocre mysteries.

Favorite Passage

Intentions always look better on paper than in reality.

Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give

We forget as readers of long form fiction that at one time we didn't know how to do that--we had to acquire the skill through cultural education.

William Gibson, quoted in Light the Dark

I think it demonstrates why we need poetry, why we need songs--to say the things that can only be expressed in this kind of elegant, inexplicable way. Things that, if you could explain them straightforwardly, you wouldn't have to have poetry, you wouldn't have to have songs.

Jeff Tweedy, quoted in Light the Dark

. . . there's a degree to which literature's means and methods are unknowable. We don't know what's happening when somebody reads a poem. We know that even if a writer labors and labors to make a precise text, much will be lost in translation--we'll have no real idea, even, how much gets through. It gives me tremendous respect for the difficulty and variety of language.

Ben Marcus, quoted in Light the Dark

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Back from the Brink: The Best Books I Read This Month

The extreme ennui brought on by October's reading has passed, but I have decided to focus on the books I really liked and to simply list the rest with no more than a one-sentence comment (neither section in any particular order other than what I read early in the month and what I read later). Luckily, I read a number of interesting books this month. Read on . . .

The Best Books I Read This Month

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage, by Dani Shapiro. As I was reading Shapiro's story of her marriage, I kept asking myself: "Is this book really brave or a betrayal of the intimacy she shares with her husband?" Assuming that she had her husband's permission, I guess it was the former. Shapiro intersperses excerpts from the journal she kept on her honeymoon (interestingly, the last journal she ever kept--despite having been a lifelong diarist); quotes from philosophy, poetry, and theology (she is also a keeper of commonplace books--collections of quotations) with reflections on and anecdotes from her long marriage. The effect is almost collage-like, building ideas from numerous small pieces. Particularly interesting to me are her reflections on whether she made the right decision in getting married and becoming a family person and who she (and her husband) might have been if they had made difference decisions--similar to the questions asked by the fictional protagonist of our One Book One Broomfield 2017 book Dark Matter. Beautifully written and thought-provoking, even for a long-time divorcee like me!

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. I'm embarrassed to admit I had never read this classic dystopian novel describing a society based on Henry Ford's concept of the assembly line; mass production (including of people), homogeneity within a rigid class structure, and consumption of disposable goods are hallmarks of the culture. When vacationers bring back a "savage" raised in a different culture, he is treated as a celebrity and has trouble adapting to the ways of the World State. This synopsis just hints at the complexity of Huxley's work, which remains relevant nearly a century after it was written.

The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth. Roth imagines what the world would have been like for a young Jewish boy named Philip Roth if Charles Lindbergh had been elected president in 1940. It's a frightening prospect--and one that feels scarily apropos to some of what we are observing under our current president. I was a little disappointed with the ending, which wrapped things up very quickly and neatly after building dramatic tension over the course of the book, but the novel is still well worth reading. As always with Roth, his brilliance is tempered by his need to include some gross sexual content--here young Philip's fantasizing about nuns and his aunt--but somehow with Roth I manage to get past this.

Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky -- This book presents two parts of what the author intended to be a five-part "suite," but tragically, she died in Auschwitz in 1942. Her manuscript languished in suitcases for decades until being published in 2006. Both parts of the book deal with aspects of the defeat and Occupation of France that I knew almost nothing about. The first part focuses on the chaotic mass exodus from Paris in 1940 when the Nazis were about to enter the city; Parisians of all classes/incomes evacuated, suffering a variety of physical and emotional deprivations. The second section of the book looks at how the life of a small town is affected when German soldiers occupy their town for an extended period of time, often living in their very homes. Some of the villagers resist, while others try to get along with the Germans; a few even fall in love with their occupiers. For me, a very different look at World War II.

Society's Child, by Janis Ian -- I was never a particular fan of Janis Ian, though it seems like I should have been (that was the type of music I liked and sang). However, I am a big fan of her autobiography, which is well written and provides insight into the music business and the creative process. It must also be said that Ian had a lot of bad luck and faced a lot of prejudice--but it all makes for an interesting story. The audio version is enhanced by Ian singing a snippet of at least one song per chapter, which brings the discussion of music and composing to life.

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing -- Not at all my usual type of book, but the unbelievably grueling nature of what Shackleton and his men went through is riveting.

Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books, by Cara Nicoletti -- Voracious is yet another food-related blog that has been turned into a book--but don't hold that against it. The author is obsessed with food scenes in books and what they mean. She talks about food in a wide array of works, from Little House in the Big Woods to If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, Lord of the Flies, Middlesex, and The Odyssey. For each work she discusses, she also provides a recipe that, to her, reflects the role of food in the book--pea and bacon soup for Charlotte's Web, biscuits with molasses butter for To Kill a Mockingbird, and a perfect soft-boiled egg for Emma. It's fun and just migh tmake you pay a little more attention when a character in a novel is eating!

Also Read

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert -- an early and very dark example of realism
Chaos, by Patricia Cornwell -- mediocre
A Taste for Murder, by Claudia Bishop -- very silly
Deep Freeze, by John Sandford -- latest Virgil Flowers, of whom I am growing weary
The Good Girl, by Mary Kubica -- one of Audible's 20th-anniversary freebies; has a twist at the end that I didn't see coming, and yet I also didn't care
The Color of Fear, by Marcia Muller -- meh
My Mad Fat Diary, by Rae Earl -- the author's late 80s diary about teen life in the UK is scary!
Dignity, by Donna Hicks -- a friend described reading this book as a "gift to yourself," but, while I think Hicks makes valid points about how humans should interact with one another, I found myself unmoved.
The Memory Watcher, by Minka Kent -- another mystery with a twist that you really don't care about.
Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes -- I don't understand why this author is so popular.

Favorite Passages

It was as if an internal axis had been jarred and titled downward; words and images slipped through a chute into a dim, murky pool from which I could not retried them.

The future you're capable of imagining is already a thing of the past.

Dani Shapiro, Hourglass

Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly--they'll go through anything. You read and you're pierced.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Friday, November 3, 2017

Reading (or Posting) Ennui

As I sit here looking at the (rather short) list of books I read in October, I really have very little to say about any of them. Whether it's because I didn't read anything I truly liked for an entire month, I'm suffering from post-vacation fatigue (aren't vacations supposed to be restful?), or I don't want to post any more, I don't know. But I'm just going to list the books here and then contemplate whether to continue the blog, once again change direction, or gracefully retire from blogging.

The Girl Before, by J.P. Delaney
The Three, by Sarah Lotz
Celine, by Peter Heller
Please Don't Tell, by Elizabeth Adler
Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
The Graybar Hotel, by Curtis Dawkins
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelous
The Girl with Seven Names, by Hyeonseo Lee
Gift from the Sea, by Anne Morrow Lindberg

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Starting Serious Fall Reading

I don't think my fall reading is, in fact, more serious than my summer reading, but perhaps suggesting that it is will guilt me into abandoning mysteries (and bad memoirs!) and focusing on works of serious literary merit. Yeah, right. . .

Red Ribbons, by Louise Phillips
Y Is for Yesterday, by Sue Grafton
Proof of Life, by J.A. Jance
Boar Island, by Nevada Barr
The 14th Colony, by Steve Berry

Red Ribbons was the first in a series that now has additional numbers. It features Dr. Kate Pearson, a psychologist and profiler who is brought into what appears to be a case involving serial murder of young girls. The story is told from Kate's perspective, as well as those of the killer (quite creepily portrayed) and a woman who has been in a mental hospital for more than a decade because she is believed to have killed her daughter. Even the noncriminal characters are not very sympathetic, perhaps because they do so many stupid things. Doubt I will give book 2 of the series a try.

Y Is for Yesterday (Kinsey Milhone) and Proof of Life (J.P. Beaumont) are the latest titles in long-running series. Both are okay but not the best of their respective series--still better than most series after 20 or so books! Boar Island is also part of a lengthy series (Anna Pigeon), but not one that I have regularly read. I read a couple of the early titles in the series, set in different national parks, but didn't really care for them; I just picked this one up because I couldn't find anything else on Overdrive--and I didn't care for it either.

I didn't care too much for The 14th Colony either (sometimes I'm just hard to please), but it did seem relevant to current events, since it deals with Russian interference in U.S. politics (interference may be too tame a word for what happens in the book, but I'm going with it anyway) and questions having to do with the 20th Amendment and succession in the event of a mass murder at inauguration. Although the 25th Amendment would be even more relevant (perhaps wishful thinking), the constitutional twist was interesting to me, as my sister, who mentioned the book to me, thought it might be.

Moshi, Moshi, by Banana Yoshimoto
The Chalk Artist, by Allegra Goodman
Longbourn, by Jo Baker
Class Mom, by Laurie Gelman
New People, by Danzy Senna
The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Love and Other Consolation Prizes, by Jamie Ford
And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer, by Fredrik Backman

The set-up for Moshi, Moshi is intriguing: Yoshie is a 20-something whose musician father has died in an apparent suicide pact with a mysterious woman. She struggles to deal with her grief and the shocking circumstances, which to her are unbelievable. As Yoshie finds some comfort in learning the restaurant business and moves out of her parents' upscale condo, she comes home one day to find that her mother has moved in with her. She acquiesces with this new living situation, recognizing that her mother is struggling as well, and she tentatively builds a relationship as she investigates the woman who died with her father. I didn't find the book's ending entirely satisfying, I take responsibility for not fully understanding the Japanese perspective.

The Chalk Artist is a love story set among millennials in a video game world. The main characters are Collin, the title character whose life seems as aimless as you might expect from someone whose medium is transitory, and Nina, an inadequately prepared high school teacher struggling to reach her students. Nina's father also happens to be the head of a cutting-edge video game company and she decides to "help" Collin by getting him a job at her father's company. Disillusionment, a break-up, and way too much description of video games ensue. Disappointing.

Also disappointing was Longbourn, about which I had recently read some very positive comments. Baker tells the story of servants at the Bennett family home (in case you are like my older son, who claims Pride and Prejudice ruined his reading life, these are the people in P&P). It was eye-opening to read about the amount of work that went in to keeping such a household going but the story made even the most far-fetched soap opera twists of Downton Abbey seem believable.

Satirical treatments of millennial and Gen X parents are popular of late, and Class Mom is another entry in that vein. As her third, much younger child enters kindergarten, Jen Dixon isn't about to be the perfect class mom that the other parents expect. The book offers some laughs but lacks both the bite and the warmth of, say, Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies.

As the mother of biracial children, I have found Danzy Senna's exploration of related issues in Caucasia and You Are Free both uncomfortable and insightful. Consequently, I was looking forward to New People. and found that the discomfort outweighed the insight. At the center of the book are Maria and Khalil, an engaged couple who met at Stanford and were "the same shade of beige." They now live in New York, where Khalil is busy with professional concerns while Maria works on her dissertation about music in Jonestown. They have been chosen to be among the subjects of a documentary on racially ambiguous people; meanwhile, plans for their wedding are proceeding as Maria tries to convince herself that good sex isn't so important and she can tolerate Khalil's dreams for their future, despite their being antithetical to her notions of the life she wants. While all of this is happening, Maria is also stalking a poet and getting into increasingly strange and potentially dangerous situations. Is her breakdown caused by the expectations placed on a woman of her background, her struggles to figure out who she is, racially and intellectually, or her bad decisions? I don't know--and, frankly, I care more about the injustice to Khalil, which I doubt is what Senna intended.

The Refugees is a collection of eight short stories by Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, The stories depict the lives of refugees from Vietnam, including struggles unique to their experience and universal challenges. A woman, a ghostwriter of autobiographies about scandalous lives, is haunted by the ghost of her brother, who died in the escape (by boat) from Vietnam. Another woman tries to deal with her professor-husband's dementia, as he mistakes her for someone she gradually surmises was the real love of his life. A man has two sets of children--one of which escaped to the United States with their mother, the others, to whom he gives the same names as the first set, lives in Vietnam. When the American daughter Phuong visits the Vietnamese daughter Phuong, secrets will out. An orphaned boy is adopted by a gay couple in San Francisco, experiencing multifaceted culture shock. Even this short story skeptic found these stories evocative and well worth reading.

At the heart of Love and Other Consolation Prizes is a shocking story--the raffling of a Chinese immigrant orphan at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition held in Seattle in 1909. That boy--Ernest Young--is recalling the events that led to and followed from that moment as Seattle celebrates another World's Fair in 1962. Ford weaves in details about the experience of coming to the United States in steerage, working in the red light district, the crusade against prostitution, and much more as he weaves a story of a young man who loves two girls and what happens when he chooses one. An enjoyable read.

Since And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer is a novella, the title seems overly long, but the work is a sweet reflection on the relationship between a boy and his widowed grandfather as the grandfather's mind slowly deteriorates. I haven't read any of Backman's much-hyped longer works, but this lovely piece convinced me that I should.

Science Fiction/Fantasy
Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

Anathem is my second book by Neal Stephenson, an author who creates complex worlds populated by interesting characters. His books are difficult to synopsize, but this one is about a young man, Fraa Erasmas, who lives in a concent, similar to a monastery, but for mathematicians rather than the religious. His generally peaceful life comes to a crashing halt when the world (not Earth) is threatened by interplanetary forces. Some parts of the book were a little too philosophical and mathematical for me, and I somewhat regretted that I was listening to it rather than reading it, since Stephenson engages in a lot of word play that I felt I would have appreciated more in print. Nonetheless, I found the book entertaining.

Murder in the Cathedral, by T.S. Eliot

Murder in the Cathedral is a classic, a dramatization in verse of the assassination of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett. To be honest (and I'm 100% sure the problem is mine and not Eliot's), I found it difficult, although it started to make more sense when I read it aloud.

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens
It's Always Something, by Gilda Radner
Book of Days, by Emily Fox Gordon

Christopher Hitchens' detailed argument against religion seems, to me, to be a book without an audience. Those who agree with him do not need his close reading of texts and analysis of the ways in which religion, a man-made phenomenon has been destructive in human history. Those who disagree with him will be unmoved by his arguments--faith is unlikely to be shaken by logic, reasoning, or science. Without even mentioning in which camp I fall, I found the book tedious.

Gilda Radner was a brilliant comedian, and her book is sometimes funny. But mostly it is terribly sad description of her illness, her treatment, her relationships with various doctors as well as with her husband, and her efforts to help others through the Wellness Community. Knowing that she died about a month after recording the audio version of the book (which I listened to), her effort to be optimistic is truly heart-breaking.

Last month I read several memoirs that were well worth the time. This month, I encountered a memoir that reaffirmed for me while I have traditionally had little respect for the genre and its writers. Emily Fox Gordon spent her early adult years apparently doing very little, which she regarded as preparation for finding her metier as a memoirist (she calls her works "personal essays," according to her an essentially modest form compared to the grandiosity of memoir--yet she refers to herself as a memoirist). To me, that would seem to give a person little to write about, but this doesn't stop Gordon. I found her "personal essays" empty of interesting or meaningful content and found myself highly annoyed by her condescending attitude. She found herself a faculty wife by default--but she was a faculty wife because she was married to a professor, just like all faculty wives (or spouses). Because she didn't want to think of herself as a faculty wife does not exempt her from that descriptor. Her husband is a philosopher, long possessed of a university appointment and widely published (by her own description)--yet she dismisses him as not being a scholar. Perhaps most damning (for me) is her statement that "For the essay, the equivalent of plot and characterization is thought." Please!! Good fiction requires so much more thought than bad memoir, I can't even stand it.

Pick of the Litter: The Refugees (somehow I feel it's wrong to pick a brief novella, but And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer was wonderful)

Favorite Passages

We shared a passion for words, but I preferred the silence of writing while she loved to talk.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Refugees

If life is a process of accumulating more and more things you simply can’t bring yourself to make peace with, well, my feelings about this are vast and deep enough for an entire lifetime’s worth of hang-ups.

Banana Yoshimoto, Moshi Moshi

That's why we get the chance to spoil our grandchildren, because by doing that we're apologizing to our children. 

Fredrik Backman, And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer

Saturday, September 2, 2017

"My Profanity Has an Aesthetic"

"My profanity has an aesthetic," from Sherman Alexie's excellent memoir, may be my favorite line of the year. I actually read several memoirs that I found interesting in August, plus some very good fiction and a couple of books recommended by my granddaughter.


Bone Box, by Faye Kellerman
Bury the Lead, by David Rosenfelt
Do Not Become Alarmed, by Maile Malloy
Her Every Fear, by Peter Swanson

Bone Box is the most interesting book in the series since Faye Kellerman moved Peter and Rina Decker to New York. Not great--but readable.

I hadn't read any of David Rosenfelt's books about attorney Andy Carpenter before, but somehow I did not enjoy the combination of goofy humor and mutilated bodies. Maybe I'm losing my sense of humor in my old age, but I won't be reading any more of the series.

Do Not Become Alarmed should perhaps not be in the mysteries section, as a number of reviews have treated it as serious fiction. However, I could not take the story of three families on vacation in Nicaragua seriously. The actions of the parents (particularly the mothers) seem unrealistic--I'm not saying that it's impossible for parents and children to become separated, it just seems unlikely to happen as described here. Nor do the experiences of the children after they drift down river and become separated from their mothers seem believable to me. A disappointment.

If your every fear revolves around the plethora of creepy men in the world, then don't read Her Every Fear because you'll never sleep again. The protagonist, Englishwoman Kate, has survived an attack by a crazed ex-boyfriend and is now venturing back into the world by trading apartments for six months with her cousin Corbin, a Bostonian. Corbin's life, it turns out, is ground zero for problematic men--Peter Swanson makes the situation seem unendurable. Men . . .

Mrs. Fletcher, by Tom Perrotta
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
Standard Deviation, by Katherine Heiny
The Wide Circumference of Love, by Marita Golden
Barkskins, by Annie Proulx

Tom Perrotta has a gift for creating characters who seem average but have some dark or bizarre secret--and he puts it to good use in Mrs. Fletcher, whose title character seems like a typical suburban divorcee, overmothering her only child as he heads off to college. But, in her newly empty nest, she becomes addicted to Internet porn and becomes involved in a potentially inappropriate relationship with an employee at the senior center she directs. Meanwhile her son is struggling at college, both academically and socially. The story kept me interested and ended with a twist that really did surprise. Recommended.

I hadn't read Jane Eyre since my teen years and I was surprised at how much I had forgotten--pretty much everything before Jane arrived at Thornfield Hall. I actually enjoyed that part of this classic novel, but once she got to Thornfield, despite Jane's alleged proto-feminist character, I found the novel's gothic turn less than compelling. I guess I understand why it's a classic, but there won't ever be a third reading for me.

Standard Deviation is an interesting book. The main character is middle-aged Graham, who finds himself wondering why he divorced his first wife Elspeth, so much better suited to his nature, to marry Audra, a younger, irrepressible, and seemingly shallow woman. And yet, Audra is also the dedicated mother of a challenging son on the spectrum, a role she handles admirably. It's an interesting and entertaining look at what makes marriage work, what constitutes a "good" person, and more. Occasionally, the characters are annoying, but overall I enjoyed the book.

My sister recommended The Wide Circumference of Love, an exploration of a successful African American couple's experience with the husband Gregory's Alzheimer's disease. Although I found the writing a bit stilted, I thought it was a good exploration of the effects of this terrible disease on wife Diane and the couple's two adult children, Lauren and Sean. I also enjoyed the character of the milliner who sets her sights on Gregory when Diane moves him to a memory care facility--she knows what she wants and she gets it, creating an even more painful situation for Diane.

Barkskins . . .  what to say about this book that made many "best of" lists in 2016? It's an epic--Proulx traces two families, both descended from indentured French immigrants to North America, from the late 18th century to the 21st century. Her goal seems to be political--to demonstrate the short-sighted use of the continent's forests, primarily by white settlers. Fine--I salute the research Proulx must have done to gain the encyclopedic knowledge of the forest over centuries. But I found the book boring and choppy--just as you might get interested in a character's story, Proulx jumped to another person, location, and (sometimes) time. Sadly, not recommended.

Young Adult

Big Bad Detective Agency, by Bruce Hale
Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Roald Dahl

These two books were both recommended by my granddaughter, and they were both amusing animal tales. Big Bad Detective Agency is similar to the fractured fairy tales that have been written for younger readers--it was silly fun, but I hope Hale doesn't plan to make it a series; I don't think the conceits he uses could stand up to repetition. Roald Dahl, of course, is a master, and Fantastic Mr. Fox is great fun.


The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank
You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, by Sherman Alexie
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay
The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying, by Nina Riggs

I can't believe I had never read Anne Frank's diary, but I hadn't. What I found so refreshing about it was not her bravery or optimism in the face of dire circumstances, but the fact that she was really just a girl, exploring her emerging sexuality, struggling with living in close quarters with people who were annoying her (particularly her mother), and questioning what her future might hold. Obviously a classic.

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, Sherman Alexie's recent memoir, comprised of an equal number of poems and prose pieces, is filled with grief, rage, and humor. There are sections of the book that are painful to read--when, for example, he compares the treatment meted out to Indian children by his second-grade teacher to the torture practiced at Abu Ghraib or when he mourns the fact that his mother, believing English would be his most powerful tool, did not teach him their native language, which he regrets and yet acknowledges was his mother's way of protecting him and his siblings from a grave responsibility.  He argues convincingly for a museum of the Native American genocide, pointing out how fond Americans are of Holocaust museums and memorials while not acknowledging our own sings. Alexie's mother quilted, and the book feels like a quilt, put together of many pieces, sometimes repeating ("Great pain is repetitive. Grief is repetitive"). Alexie's work isn't for everyone, but I loved this book.

Also filled with pain is Hunger, by Roxane Gay. If you aren't familiar with Gay's work, she is a brilliant writer of fiction and essays who is also a very large woman--both tall and obese. She was gang-raped as a child and ate to create a shell that would protect her, make her safe. I think most women can understand this, even if they do not share Gay's experience. What was eye-opening to me, probably because I had never stopped to think about it, was the all-encompassing pain that her body has caused her--pain that is physical and emotional/psychological. She describes humiliating situations that most people cannot even imagine. Reading the book is emotionally exhausting--I several times wished it was shorter--but I feel the better for having read it.

And, to round out the painful memoir trifecta, we have The Bright Hour, the surprisingly joyful story of Nina Riggs's diagnosis with terminal cancer when she was in her late 30s and the mother of two young children. The great-great-great granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Riggs brings the writings of the transcendentalist--and Montaigne, her favorite philosopher--to bear on her dilemma: how to live well when one will not live long. Of course, The Bright Hour is sad, but it's also quite lovely.

Pick of the Litter: You Don't Have to Say You Love Me

Favorite Passages:

It took me a long time, but I prefer “victim” to “survivor” now. I don’t want to diminish the gravity of what happened. I don’t want to pretend I’m on some triumphant, uplifting journey. I don’t want to pretend that everything is okay. I’m living with what happened, moving forward without forgetting, moving forward without pretending I am unscarred.

 --Roxane Gay, Hunger

My profanity has an aesthetic.

This is who I am. This is who I have always been. I am in pain. I am always in pain. But I always find my way to the story. And I always find my way home.

--Sherman Alexie, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me (and I could have picked many other passages)

Sunday, July 30, 2017

A Bit of a Mystery Binge

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know that I occasionally go on mystery-reading binges . . . and it's not usually rewarding, as this month once again proves. In fact, the month's reading was only redeemed by Al Franken's latest. Hoping for a better month in August!


Death Match, by Lincoln Child
Most Wanted, by Lisa Scottoline
Memory Man, by David Baldacci
Killer Look, by Linda Fairstein
Ill Will, by Dan Chaon
He Said/She Said, by Erin Kelly
Heartbreak Hotel, by Jonathan Kellerman
Late Show, by Michael Connolly

There's not one of these books I would actually recommend. Several were especially terrible or annoying but none are worth a synopsis.


Upstate, by Kalisha Buckhanon
Men Without Women, by Haruki Murakami
Never Again So Close, by Claudia Serrano
The Vegetarian, by Han Kang

Upstate was an interesting book that I listened to because I couldn't find anything else I wanted on Overdrive. It's an epistolary novel featuring letters between two teenagers--Antonio, who is in jail, accused of killing his father, and his girlfriend Natasha, who believes he will be acquitted and their lives will return to normal. After Antonio's conviction, their lives diverge--Natasha goes to college and then to law school--but they continue writing to each other. Some of the letters are rather crude (remember, they're teenagers in love), but the emotion feels authentic and the ending is hopeful. The book is categorized as YA, but I would say it's only suitable for older teenagers. Not a great book, but I didn't kick myself for the time spent reading it (as I did with the mysteries!!).

Like the Hemingway work of the same name, Men Without Women is a collection of short stories. Murakami's men are not only without women--they seem to be without the ability to build connections. Given those characteristics, loneliness is a predominant theme in the collection. Some of the men reach out in strange ways--one befriends his late wife's last lover, while another tries to convince a friend to date the girl he likes. Characters disappear--a plastic surgeon essentially starves himself because he is lovesick, a bartender is told to leave town and does. In perhaps the most unusual story, Gregor Samsa (of Kafka's Metamorphosis) returns to human form in the midst of political upheaval in Prague. I certainly did not love this collection (it takes a lot for me to love a short story collection), but I found it engaging.

Never Again So Close was one of the free book options from Amazon Prime some months ago. It's the story of a young writer Antonia who gets involved with an older, more sophisticated and detached man named Vittorio. Her love causes her to put her own work on hold in a doomed attempt to build a long-lasting relationship with Vittorio. Their inevitably unhappy story is interspersed with excerpts from Antonia's book about a young girl with Down's syndrome and vignettes about Antonio baking. Although the author's writing (and the translation) is often lovely and poetic, overall the book fell flat--perhaps because I am jaded and wanted to yell at Antonia "Wise up!"

The Vegetarian was written more than a decade ago but was just released in English in 2016. It appeared on several "Best of 2016" lists; despite being perhaps the only Korean novel I have ever read, it wouldn't even appear on my "Best Korean Novels" list. It's the story of how people react when a woman decides to stop eating meat because of a dream; the book is narrated by her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. It's bizarre and sometimes graphic and distasteful. The section narrated by her brother-in-law is most disturbing; he is an artist who becomes obsessed with painting the woman's body and then filming her having sex. If I were able to glean some meaning from the book, I would have liked it better, but I somehow missed the message, or the message was just not for me (the NYT reviewer called it a "death-affirming" book). So not recommended.


Becoming Grandma, by Lesley Stahl
Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken

Lesley Stahl became a grandmother, loved it, and, as a journalist, decided to cover grandparenthood as a story. She recounts her own experiences and draws "lessons" from them, but also interviews many other grandparents and examines the research on grandparenting. To someone who also loves being a grandmother, the book is somewhat interesting but not terribly insightful.

For anyone who has wondered how and why Al Franken became so serious and unfunny after his election to the Senate--his staff made him do it! Most of Giant of the Senate focuses on his decision to run, the campaign and disputed election, and his service in the Senate--it's educational for us noninsiders and also funny. My favorite chapter is the one devoted to Ted Cruz, who Franken claims to like more than most of their Senate colleagues do--and Franken hates Cruz, for what seem to be good reasons: he's a narcissistic liar who is impossible to work with. Franken comes across as a really smart guy, who's also a good man (and funny). Recommended!

Pick of the Litter: Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken

Favorite Passages:

At one time I believed that love was a gift. Instead, you pay for everything, piece by piece.

Claudia Serrano, Never Again So Close

. . . if we don't start caring about whether people tell the truth or not, it's going to be literally impossible to restore anything approaching a reasonable political discourse. Politicians have always shaded the truth. But if you can say something that is provably false, and no one cares, then you can't have a real debate about anything.

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

Friday, July 28, 2017

What Is Novel Conversations Reading?

Working the Library Friends booth at the Farmer's Market with two friends from the old book group, I realized I hadn't checked out or posted their slate for the upcoming months. So here it is:

August - Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel by Robin Sloan
September - The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes 
October - Dark Matters by Blake Crouch (OBOB)
November - The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
December - No meeting
January - Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Shaking It Up in June

June's reading got off to an unusual start for me, with a violent Western and a zombie novel (I'm so out of it zombie-wise I didn't even realize it was a zombie novel until I was almost done). Luckily, it ended on a more positive note . . . but it took awhile.


Pretty Baby, by Mary Kubica

Pretty Baby is more of a thriller than a mystery. Social worker Heidi sees an apparently homeless teenage girl and her baby on the train and becomes concerned. After a few meetings, she invites Willow (the girl) and Ruby (her baby) to stay at her home. Heidi's husband Chris and daughter Heidi are not excited, and Heidi's subsequent behavior justifies their hesitation, as she becomes obsessed with the baby. As one might expect, Willow has had some very difficult times; although Kubica likely thinks we will not expect other aspects of the denouement, some of the intended surprises are completely predictable. Mediocre at best.


Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy
Zone One,by Colson Whitehead
The Boat Rocker, by Ha Jin
Everybody's Fool, by Richard Russo
The Mothers, by Brit Bennett
Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Eastbaum
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut
A House Among the Trees, by Julia Glass

Blood Meridian is the story of an unnamed teenager who travels the borderlands in 1849-1850 with the notorious Glanton gang. I could not discern any actual plot--just a series of violent episodes. When I told my son the literary scholar that I hated the book and thought the persistent violence became boring, he made the case that the writing is so lyrical that the plot and characterizations don't matter--it's all about the beauty of the language. I was not convinced.

Said son somehow knew when I told him I was reading a book titled Zone One that it was a zombie novel, something I had not realized. I thought it was a post-apocalyptic story in which people ate each other because they were starving. Yes, sometimes I am clueless. It is a post-apocalyptic story--the world has been ravaged by disease, and now Buffalo (the new government) is marketing areas as safe. But protagonist Mark Spitz knows this is not true, as he is a "sweeper," working to clean out Zone One in Manhattan to make it safe for rehabitation. Whitehead, better known for his 2016 The Underground Railroad (my favorite book of the year), uses the zombie apocalype genre to satirize 21st-century American life, which (I assume--since I've never read another zombie book) elevates Zone One above other zombie books. Worth reading--but it won't be on my best of 2016 list.

The Boat Rocker was another book that made me feel somewhat dumb, as I constantly felt that I needed to know more about publishing in China to understand the story (I kept wondering if it was intended as satire or a serious story, suggesting I have some shortcomings as a Ha Jin reader). The book's protagonist is Chinese expatriate (he's just become a U.S. citizen, which has given him a sense of some security) Feng Danlin, who is a reporter with a news agency that serves the Chinese diaspora. When his boss assigns him a story involving his ex-wife, Yan Haili, he is concerned--and rightly it turns out--that this may be a bad idea. Haili, who aspires to be a novelist but is a terrible writer, is conspiring with the Chinese government and high-placed publishers in China to capitalize on 9/11 to create a bestseller (it's more complicated, but I'll leave it at that). Danlin's reporting draws him into conflict with powerful interests in China, and the outcome is not positive. If you're interested in China and/or journalism, worth your time. Otherwise, I'd stay away.

Everybody's Fool is a sequel to Richard Russo's Nobody's Fool, which, nearly 25 years ago, introduced readers to Sully Sullivan and North Bath. Sully is again a character, but less central; the sequel gives greater attention to Doug Raymer, a butt of many of Sully's pranks in Nobody's Fool, but now the chief of police. This is vintage Russo, with a bit of the paranormal (Doug has a voice in his head that sometimes takes over his actions and speech) thrown in. The ending surprised me with its relentless positivity. A fun read but not one that will change your life.

Several reviewers had The Mothers in their lists of best books of 2016, but I had been avoiding it because I had seen it described as an "anti-abortion screed." Well, I finally got around to reading it, and I did not find it such. It's the story of a teenage couple, Nadia and Luke, and Nadia's best friend Aubrey. Nadia becomes pregnant and has an abortion--but that's only one piece of the story. Yes, the decision does bother Luke, a pastor's son, as he grows older, but Nadia never wavers from her belief that it was the right decision. The story is about friendship, betrayal, relationships with parents, and finding one's true path in life. The Mothers of the title are a group of older "church ladies," who act as a Greek chorus in the narration--this trope could have been overdone, but Bennett employs it skillfully, allowing it to convey the judgment being passed on the teens. I ended up liking The Mothers quite a bit.

The same cannot be said of Hausfrau, which is the story of an American woman, Anna, who is living in the Zurich suburbs with her rather repressive Swiss husband and three children (the youngest of whom is not the husband's). Anna feels isolated and seems to use affairs as an antidote to that isolation. In addition to the current narrative, we get flashbacks to earlier times in her life and glimpses into her therapy sessions. It's hard to like a book with such a sullen main character who makes idiotic decisions; by the end, we recognize that the author wants us to draw parallels with Anna Karenina, but the similarities are only on the surface. Not recommended.

Station Eleven shares with Zone One the premise that disease has brought the world's institutions to a halt--but the similarity ends there. Survivors in Station Eleven are working to rebuild--one community develops in an airport; another, nomadic, group brings Shakespeare and classical music to small settlements; a charismatic leader forms a cult with nefarious goals; a former paparazzo training to be an EMT when the plague hit becomes the doctor in a settlement.  Unbeknownst to them, members of each of these communities are connected through their past relationship with an actor who died on the first day of the plague (although, ironically, he died of a heart attack); two of the central characters share an additional link in their devotion to a comic book drawn by the actor's first wife. The book is about the nature of humanity and how culture and relationships are essential to meaningful human survival. The author does not tie the characters neatly in the end (for the most part, they never discover their connections); in fact, she does not create a neat ending at all and the book is the better for it. Definitely recommended.

Over the past several years, I've been trying to read Kurt Vonnegut's work, something I somehow missed out on in my youth. Breakfast of Champions is the story of two men on a collision course: Dwayne Hoover, a deranged and wealthy car dealer in Indiana, and Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer whose only success has been due to pornography publishers including his stories in their works as a vehicle for nude pictures. Part of the book is the story of Hoover's descent into madness. The other is Trout's hitchhiking trip to appear at an art convention in Hoover's hometown. When they meet, Hoover becomes convinced that one of Trout's novels, in which the Creator tells the reader he is the only person with free will on Earth, is true and goes on a rampage around his hometown. Vonnegut places himself in the book as the author, explaining why he made certain decisions. As usual, the tone is satirical; while I appreciated the satire of the wealthy, environmental destruction, and race relations, I must be getting old because I found Vonnegut's style rather gross. Ergo, I can't say I loved the book.

I'm a fan of Julia Glass and A House Among the Trees did not disappoint. The book has three narrators: Tommy Daulair, the assistant to famed children's author Mort Lear, who has recently died, leaving her in charge of his estate (Lear, who reportedly was inspired by Maurice Sendak, is very much a major character in the book); Nick Greene, the actor who will play Mort in a movie about his life and is trying to get to know Mort post-mortem; and Merry Galarza, a recently divorced museum director who thought Mort's estate would be left to her museum and is consequently in a tailspin. Glass weaves their stories together skilfully, moving in time and space without ever losing the reader. While the book explores many topical issues--AIDS, trends in children's literature, single parenthood, child abuse, the role of art and how it is created, and more--to me it's most essentially about the search for home. Highly recommended.


Molly on the Range, by Molly Yeh
The Nine, by Jeffrey Toobin

Molly on the Range is a memoir/cookbook combination based on a blog--no, not a new idea. However, Molly Yeh is immensely likable and her story of moving from suburban Chicago to New York City (to attend Juilliard) and then to a beet farm on the North Dakota-Minnesota border is rather charming. But, sadly, I didn't find many of her recipes appealing. So I'm glad I read the book and equally glad I didn't buy it.

I'm a little late getting to The  Nine, which came out in 2007. It is a look behind the scenes at the Supreme Court, focusing primarily on what might be considered the Sandra Day O'Connor years. Among the interesting topics Toobin, a staff writer at The New Yorker, covers are the processes of nominating justices (especially in the Clinton and GW Bush administrations), the factors that kept the Court a moderate organization despite the efforts of conservatives to change its nature (this, Toobin makes clear, began to change with the appointments of Roberts and Alito), and how the process of building a majority occurs. Of course, the portrayals of the justices are also interesting--I was perversely happy to read that Scalia was a jerk disliked by his colleagues. I was also surprised to read that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was quiet and not very engaged with the other justices--we have all come to see her as more fierce, and perhaps that's a post-Roberts development. Definitely worth reading.

Pick of the Litter: A House Among the Trees and Station Eleven

Favorite Passages:

There were one quadrillion nations in the Universe, but [the United States] was the only one with a national anthem which was gibberish sprinkled with question marks.

Not even the President of the United States knew what that was all about. It was as though the country were saying to its citizens, "in nonsense is strength."

Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

First we only want to be seen, but once we're seen, that's not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Anything Is Possible in May

Anything Is Possible, Elizabeth Strout's new book is a gem, but happily it wasn't the only good book I read in May.

A Rule Against Murder, by Louise Penny
The Brutal Telling, by Louise Penny
Golden Prey, by John Sandford
Good Behavior, by Blake Crouch
Red Mist, by Patricia Cornwell
Flesh and Blood, by Patricia Cornwell
Last Chance Olive Ranch, by Susan Wittig Albert

Since I read the first one, I have been less than enthralled with the Inspector Gamache series; however, I keep reading them, hoping they'll grow on me (I have friends who enjoy them, so . . .). After reading two this month, I think I can say with finality that I'm through. A Rule Against Murder is at least set somewhere other than in Three Pines (though one of the couples from the village is important to the story), but the change of scenery didn't save the book for me.

In Golden Prey, Lucas Davenport has yet another new job, as a U.S. Marshall with no set assignment (in other words, he can pick cool cases--what a set-up for an author!). The case here isn't really a mystery because we know who the bad guys are--the book is more of an extended chase scene broken up with gun battles. It's also an obvious set-up for the next book. Not my favorite.

If you enjoyed the Good Behavior series on TNT, you will find the book of the same name interesting. It's a collection of three novellas about Letty Dobesh, recently paroled from prison (and played extremely elegantly in the TV series by Michelle Dockery, formerly Lady Mary on Downton Abbey). The collection also includes commentary by Blake Crouch on how the TV show developed from the stories, why certain aspects of the characters in the stories were changed/retained in the series, and so on. The commentary is almost more interesting than the stories--I wished for more of it!

I took a break of several years from Patricia Cornwell but have recently picked up several of her Scarpetta books and found them less annoying than previously. Still, when Benton says to Kay near the end of Flesh and Blood, "You're the most perfect person I know," I groaned because Cornwell's admiration of her own character is what drove me away from the series in the first place. Cornwell can create an intricate and intriguing plot, but her characters are wearying (and, sadly, when I read a short book featuring a new character, I disliked it intensely). Once again, done with Kay for awhile!

Sadly, I may also have to be done with China Bayles, who seems to be getting dumber and dumber with each succeeding book.  Last Chance Olive Ranch is really two stories, one involving China at an olive ranch where she and Ruby are to offer a class, the other involving China's husband Mike McQuaid, who is trying to recapture an escaped convict who is engaged in a murderous revenge-motivated rampage. I found the China story ridiculous and was irritated by McQuaid's consternation when he learned his son Brian was living with a black woman. Did he vote for Trump or does he live in 2017? Geez.

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, by Hannah Tinti
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson

The Book Thief has an unusual narrator--Death. While many reviewers have pointed to this device as particularly effective, but the setting--Germany before and during World War II--and circumstances of the plot made the theme of mortality all too clear and the narrative device somewhat pretentious (IMHO). The other prominent theme is the significance of language, reading, and writing. The central character of the book is Liesel Meminger, whose younger brother dies as their mother is taking them to live with foster parents in the small town Molching, near Munich. At first Liesel doesn't like her foster parents, Hans and Rosa, but Hans gradually wins her over, in part by helping her to read a book she stole, The Gravedigger's Handbook. Rosa's story is also shaped by her friend Rudy and Max, a Jewish man her foster parents' hide. The Book Thief is a tribute to the power of story and love--and I'm glad I finally read it.

In Anything Is Possible, Elizabeth Strout returns to the form she used to such great effect in her award-winning Olive Kitteridge: a collection of stories about characters with some connection to one person, in this case Lucy Barton, the protagonist of Strout's last novel. Barton is less present in most of the stories than Olive Kitteridge was, though it's clear that she is somewhat symbolic as the one who managed to escape from their depressed home town of Amgash, Illinois.  When she actually appears in the book, however, it's clear that she may have escaped physically and economically, but not psychologically. Each of the nine stories in the book focuses on a different person, from the school janitor who may have been harmed by the Barton family and yet cares deeply about them, to Lucy's brother and sister (both damaged people), a school counselor who loses her cool when Lucy's niece mocks her, a cousin who has also gotten out of Amgash with scars. My description makes the book sound depressing, and some of the stories are indeed sad--but Strout also gives us humor and redemption. I plan to read this book again because I know I will get more out of it as I did on repeat reading of Olive Kitteridge.

I also recommend highly Lincoln in the Bardo, a novel quite different from anything else I've read lately. The core of the story is this: Willie Lincoln, son of President and Mrs. Lincoln dies and, after the funeral, the President visits the crypt where his body lies, as an entire community of dead but not departed spirits observe, comment, and attempt to influence. Yes, it's weird, and the aspect of people caught between life and the afterlife didn't really excite me, but the way Saunders puts the book together is remarkable. First there the voices of an array of dead folks who provide commentary, sketching as they do a portrait of the city of Washington in 1862, in a manner that reminded me (and, I now see, the NYT reviewer) of The Spoon River Anthology. Even more interesting to me were  chapters describing historical events that Saunders put together from historical accounts (I assume they are real sources and that he didn't make them up--but could be wrong about that); these accounts show how differently people can see the same event. Finally, there's something about the way in which Lincoln is described/portrayed that I found deeply moving (of course I am a daughter of the Land of Lincoln). A unique and worthwhile reading experience.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley has gotten a lot of positive attention. It's the story of a man with a questionable past and the bullet wounds to prove it and the daughter he is raising alone. The book goes back and forth between accounts of how Hawley got each wound and current accounts narrated by his daughter, Loo, who is trying to figure out how to live in one place and become part of the community (for most of her life, she and Hawley have been nomads, moving whenever Hawley felt trouble from his past getting too near (and there was lots of trouble from the past). There's something of a mystery about how Loo's mother died but as more of Hawley's past was uncovered, I found myself less and less interested in his story of bad decisions and associated bad consequences. Definitely don't quite understand why people have found this book so laudable--definitely not my cup of tea.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is one of those gently satiric accounts of the British upper crust that make you laugh and simultaneously love and hate the British. The titular character insists on being called by his title (preferably with a description of his units and service), dislikes Americans, cares more about reuniting a matched pair of guns than he does about his brother's death, and has rather rigid ideas about what is proper and what is not--and yet he's still kind of lovable. However, one can imagine what happens when he falls for the Indian widow who runs the local corner store--the path of true love certainly does not run smoothly. An amusing read.

Nine Parts of Desire, by Geraldine Brooks
Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance
Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, by Svetlana Alexievich
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

Before turning to writing novels, Geraldine Brooks was a journalist, and Nine Parts of Desire was the result of her years of covering the Middle East. The book focuses on the lives of Islamic women (the title is a reference to the Koran's description of sexual desire as having ten parts, one part given to men, nine to women) in different countries and different situations. To a Western woman who has never visited the Middle East, the book seemed pretty even-handed, informative, and thought-provoking. I am always interested in the varying ways in which wearing the veil can be perceived: Brooks discusses it as repression by the male culture and/or rebellion against Western colonialism. I always found it interesting that the male Muslim's view of women's sexuality seems comparable to that of some Christian evangelicals (cf. Mike Pence's comments on not eating dinner alone with a woman not his wife). However, the book is more than 20 years old, so I found myself questioning how accurate the information is today--I'm guessing women's portion has improved in some ways and gotten worse (possibly much worse) in others. Guess I need another book.

Hillbilly Elegy is another book that has been much lauded. Vance grew up in a dysfunctional but loving (in an odd way) family in southern Ohio and northern Kentucky, where, it is claimed, the white lower class has lost the American Dream. Yet Vance's own story, which includes a law degree from the nation's top law school, epitomizes the American Dream.  While many reviewers have said the book helps readers understand Trump enthusiasts, they remain a mystery to me. If these white folks have lost the American Dream, it seems to be due to their own bad decisions and the inevitable globalization of the economy rather than a Democratic government's actions (they take advantage of welfare programs) or the rise of minorities. If they truly see Trump as somehow a solution to the problems, then I continue to find little to empathize with (sorry not to be more caring).

Secondhand Time is a collection of oral histories gathered and compiled by the Nobel prize-winning journalist Svetlana Alexievich. Alexievich has spoken with people from all walks of life; they comment--often with anger or wistfulness--about their hopes during the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras and their nostalgia for the Soviet period. There are so many references about kitchen conversations one comes to realize that the kitchen is where change was born in the Soviet Union. The book is reminiscent of Studs Terkel's work, with little text written by Alexievich, although of course one must consider that she edited and arranged the material. One confusing thing is that the material is not dated, so you're not sure when the person was talking with Alexievich. Definitely interesting, although perhaps a bit long for those of us who aren't deeply knowledgeable about Russia.

I haven't watched a television sitcom regularly for 20 years, since someone described sitcoms as having devolved to the "art of the insult" and a bell went off in my head. I saw maybe half an episode of 30 Rock, none of Parks and Recreation, one episode of The Office, and none of The Mindy Project. I have watched a lot of SNL, so I use that as my reason for reading Tina Fey's and Amy Poehler's recent books. Not sure why I decided to read Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? -- guess I was just hoping for some laughs. Sadly, I think I am too old for Mindy Kaling, as the most the book drew from me was a wry smile.

Picks of the Litter: Anything Is Possible and Lincoln in the Bardo

Favorite Passages

She thought how for years onstage she had used the image of walking up the dirt road holding her father's hand, the snow-covered fields spread around them, the woods in the distance, joy spilling through her--how she had used this scene to have tears immediately come to her eyes, for the happiness of it, and the loss of it. And now she wondered if it had even happened, if the road had ever been narrow and dirt, if her father had ever held her hand and said that his family was the most important thing to him.

The sense of apology did not go away, it was a tiring thing to carry.

--Elizabeth Strout, Anything Is Possible

(So why grieve? The worst of it, for him, is over.) Because I loved him so and am in the habit of loving him and that love must take the form of fussing and worry and doing. Only there is nothing left to do.

--George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo

Their mother knew where all their buttons were. And why not? She'd installed them.
--Louise Penny, A Rule Against Murder

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Reading No Poetry in Poetry Month

For poetry month, I tried a poetry challenge--write a poem every day--and I actually wrote 28 (bad) poems. It was fun and worthwhile and I might do it again, just for the mental exercise of playing with words. Being an actual poet is not in my future, however, and my poor record of reading poetry, sadly, continued despite its being poetry month!  But on to what I did read.

I See You, by Clare Macintosh
All Is Not Forgotten, by Wendy Walker
Man Overboard, by J.A. Jance
Alibi Man, by Tami Hoag
The Front, by Patricia Cornwell

I See You is based on an interesting concept--someone is stalking women, compiling data on their habits, and then including photos of them in the classifieds of a free newspaper; soon after a woman's picture appears in the paper, she becomes a crime victim. Sadly, the execution of the novel is deeply flawed--too many red herrings, female characters (a potential victim and a police officer) who act in an unbelievable manner, and more. There is a chilling twist at the end that came as a surprise--but only because the character involved was so poorly developed that we had no previous insight into the character's thinking. This was entertaining enough to listen to while walking, but it could have been a lot better.

Similarly, All Is Not Forgotten has an interesting premise--a teenager subjected to a brutal rape and a veteran who feels responsible for the deaths of his comrades are given a drug that makes victims of trauma forget what happened to them. They still feel the emotional effects, however, creating difficult psychological problems--and their ability to help law enforcement is limited. Again, however, the execution is flawed. In the first part of the book, the narrator is unidentified--but is very fond of explicating psychological theories. In fact, the book feels like an excuse for a discussion of trauma-related mental problems. Then we learn who the narrator is and some stuff actually happens, but the characters still feel like paper dolls created to make a point.

Man Overboard is the latest entry in J.A. Jance's Ali Reynolds series, but it's not one of her best.  Alibi Man and The Front feature relatively new (at least to me) characters from authors Hoag and Cornwell, and both books were pretty bad.

Our Short History, by Lauren Grodstein
The Good Luck of Right Now, by Matthew Quick
The Painter, by Peter Heller
Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, by Lisa See

Our Short History is the second book I've read recently that is structured as a mother writing to her child(ren), and it's vastly superior to the first (Tomorrow).  The protagonist is Karen, a political consultant and single mother who has been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer; she has created a plan for her son Jacob to live with her sister's family and is writing a book for him, explaining her life and expressing her love for him. Then her son becomes persistent about finding his father, a man Karen loved but who did not handle well the news that she was pregnant. When she finds him, though, he wants to be a father to Jacob, and Karen is not happy. While the reader cannot help feeling sympathy for Karen, I also occasionally just wanted to smack her. Still, it's a book that makes you think about what you would want your children to know about your life if you were dying and whether you could rise above past hurts to help your children.

Matthew Quick (also the author of the Silver Linings Playbook) seems to specialize in 30-something male narrators with mental health issues. In the Good Luck of Right Now, the protagonist is Bartholomew Neil, a developmentally delayed man who lived with his mother until her recent death. Struggling to figure out how to make sense of his life in the wake of her death, he makes a friend at a grief therapy group; lets his former priest, who has left the priesthood and seems to be suffering from depression; and begins to write to Richard Gere, his mother's favorite actor. The story is quirky and ends in an upbeat (and slightly unbelievable) fashion--a pleasant read that offers some insight into the thinking of those with mental issues.

Peter Heller is a fine writer--his The Dog Stars was a compelling post-apocalyptic story. The Painter focuses on Jim Stegner, a talented painter with a troubled personal history that includes alcoholism, violence, and jail time. When his life seems to be going well, he sees a man abusing a horse and what starts with good intentions--protecting the horse--quickly spirals into a series of increasingly violent events. While the violence in The Dog Stars seemed purposeful, here the violence is pointless, the outcome of a man's inability to control his baser instincts. Although the writing is strong, I can't recommend the book.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane focuses on the Akha ethnic group from the mountains of China's Yunnan Province. The group was isolated until the late 20th century, and reading about young Li-Yan's life in the late 1980s and early 1990s feels like they must be occurring much earlier. The Akha follow cultural mores that feel primitive--twins are seen as "human rejects" and must be killed by their father at birth. When Li-Yan becomes pregnant and cannot locate the father, who has gone to Thailand to try to earn money and, thus, her parents' blessing for their marriage (one of the reasons for their opposition has to do with the days of the week on which the lovers were born), her daughter is also regarded as a "human reject." She and her mother plot to save the child's life--and the daughter is adopted by an American couple. The ongoing narrative of Li-Yan's life (which teaches the reader a lot about tea) is intercut with documents from her daughter's life--doctors' notes on her condition, her mother's emails, school reports she has written, etc. I thought the ending was unrealistic, but overall I enjoyed the book, its insight into ethnic minorities in China, international adoption, and some of the ramifications of increasing wealth in China. Definitely recommended.

Young Adult
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L'Engle
Wind in the Door, by Madeline L'Engle

Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time series is so well known I hardly need to describe anything about the books--you've probably either read them or don't want to. I decided to read them because my granddaughter wanted a set for her birthday last year.  I enjoyed the first book but found the second book in the series a bit overwrought. Don't think I'll venture on to volumes 3-5.

Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan
Medium Raw, by Anthony Bourdain
In the Darkroom, by Susan Faludi
A Truck Full of Money, by Tracy Kidder

As a 24-year-old reporter in New York City, Susannah Cahalan suddenly found herself plagued by an array of inexplicable mental and physical problems. After suffering an apparent breakdown, she was lucky to eventually find a doctor who could diagnose and treat the rare condition that was causing her problems--an autoimmune disorder that caused brain inflammation resulting in paranoia, loss of verbal ability, seizures, and more. What made Brain on Fire particularly interesting to me was that Cahalan actually remembers very little of what happened during her illness; she had to approach the book as a work of reportage. Although her illness is a rare condition, it does make you wonder how many people with mental health issues might actually have pathogen-caused diseases. Definitely a thought-provoking read.

Based on Kitchen Confidential and some television appearances, I always thought Anthony Bourdain was something of a jerk, a funny jerk who can really write, but a jerk nonetheless. After reading Medium Raw, which I enjoyed immensely, I've changed my opinion. In the essays in this book, he his much more self-effacing, although he still pulls no punches whether he's talking about his years as an addict or the venerable (but annoying to Bourdain) Alice Waters (he criticizes her pretty roundly, but softens at the end of the essay). Some pieces missed the mark for me, but I loved enough of them--his ode to pho, his loving description of the man who cuts fish at Le Bernardin, basically anytime he was writing about food, its preparation, and consumption--to give the book a strong recommendation for foodies. Warning: His language is extremely coarse, which doesn't bother me but would turn off some folks I know.

Feminist writer Susan Faludi was estranged from her father for most of her adulthood--until, in his 80s, he emailed her to let her know that he had transitioned to become a woman. This event (in ways I don't understand) brought about a reconciliation, and Faludi made efforts to get to know her father (she still used that appellation while using feminine pronouns) in the last 10 years of  her (Stephanie--not Susan) life. Her father had repatriated to Hungary some years before, and In the Darkroom is full of not only Steven/Stephanie's life story but the history of Hungary and transgender people.  Faludi's father clearly struggled with issues of identity through a long life, including not only gender identity but being Jewish and being Hungarian. The book is long and I found some of the history tedious, although the description of politics and anti-Semitism in Hungary in recent years revived my interest. I can only imagine how difficult writing this book must have been for Faludi, but I can't fully recommend it despite some interesting content--a tighter edit would have been greatly appreciated.

I think Tracy Kidder is a genius of nonfiction writing. His early books--House, The Soul of a New Machine, and Among Schoolchildren--hooked me, and I was excited when I saw he had written a new book about someone in high-tech--Paul English, co-founder of Kayak. Subtitled One Man's Quest to Recover from Great Success, the book purports to be a look at how English dealt with suddenly becoming immensely wealthy when he sold Kayak. Certainly, it does treat that event as a turning point in English's life, but I didn't find the recovery from great success to be the real focus of the book, which is a profile of English, an incredibly intelligent, charismatic (in an interesting nerdy way), and energetic person who also deals with bipolar disorder. The way in which English churns out ideas was fascinating to me although, overall, the book is not one of my favorites by Kidder.

Pick of the Litter: Medium Raw and Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

Favorite Passages: 

To have a child is to give fate a hostage.

Frightened people become angry people--as history teaches us again and again.

We know, for instance, that there is a direct inverse relationship between frequency of family meals and social problems. Bluntly stated, members of families who eat together regularly are statistically less likely to stick up liquor stores, blow up meth labs, give birth to crack babies, commit suicide, or make donkey porn. If Little Timmy had just had more meatloaf, he might not have grown up to fill chest freezers with Cub Scout parts.

Anthony Bourdain, Medium Raw

Sunday, April 2, 2017

In Like a Clueless Millenial, Out Like a Clueless Senior

It's said that March cames in like a lion, out like a lamb--and sometimes it's even true here where March is, on average, the snowiest month (not this year!). My reading might be characterized as both coming in and going out with clueless characters, from Tess the narrator of Sweetbitter to Lou (AKA Lulu) of Bridge of Sighs. In between, some folks with clues, which is good!

The Highwayman, by Craig Johnson
Caught, by Harlan Coban
The Perfect Girl, by Gilly Macmillan

The Highwayman was my second Longmire mystery (though this one is a novella rather than a full-length book), and I liked it better than the first--despite its having a mystical element that is usually not my style. The story features strange occurrences--including the appearance of a state trooper who has been dead for years--on a remote stretch of highway running through a canyon. The descriptions of the landscape are lovely, and the mystery itself is okay. Might tempt me to read another Longmire (or watch some episodes on Netflix).

On a recent road trip with my sister, she asked me if I read Harlan Coban and I said I'd read a couple but hadn't been overly impressed. Her comments led me to give him another try--and it will be the last. I think all I need to say is that I read Caught about two weeks ago and can't remember a damn thing about it except that someone who's supposed to be dead isn't--something that has happened in every Coban book I've read!

The Perfect Girl is a creepy story about a blended family with two teenagers (both talented pianists) and a newborn. The teenage daughter has spent time in a juvenile facility because she was driving (without a license) when an accident occurred, killing her three passengers. This event broke up her parents' marriage and her mother now seems to be building a near-perfect "Second Life" with her wealthy and handsome new husband. To avoid any spoilers I won't say anything else except, based on this book and her previous novel What She Knew, author Gilly Macmillan seems to enjoy calling into question what a good mother is.

Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler
Moonglow, by Michael Chabon
Nightwoods, by Charles Frazier
The Sleepwalker, by Chris Bohjalian
Harmless Like You, by Rowan Hisayo Buchanon
On Turpentine Lane, by Elinor Lipman
Bridge of Sighs, by Richard Russo

I printed out a list of the 20 books that landed on the most "best of 2016" lists, and Sweetbitter and Moonglow were both on it--but neither would even be on my "best of March" list. Sweetbitter is the story of a recent college graduate, Tess, who moves to New York and gets a job in a fine dining restaurant, where she works tirelessly, does a significant amount of cocaine, hooks up with a bartender, and hero-worships a long-time server who seems more pathetic than obsession-worthy. A completely pointless book as far as I'm concerned.

Moonglow must be taken more seriously, if only because its author is generally held in high regard--but I really didn't like it any better. It's structured as a grandson telling his grandfather's life story as it was told to him in the grandfather's dying days. Inspired by the author's experience with his own grandfather (the character of the grandson is named Michael Chabon), the story jumps back and forth in time, covering the grandfather's terrifying experiences in World War II his somewhat tortured marriage to Chabon's grandmother, who struggled with mental illness; and, is the way with Chabon's books, much much more. I didn't care for it, finding the characters somewhat cartoonish, but Moonglow has been positively reviewed by many, so don't let me hold you back if it sounds like something you would enjoy.

Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, a Civil War tale, was a sensation -- I think I was one of the few readers who found it mostly a bore, which was also how I felt about his novel Nightwoods, set in the 1960s. A young woman named Luce, who lives mostly cut off from civilization, tending an abandoned lodge, "inherits" her sister's children when the sister is murdered by her husband (although he is not charged with the crime). The children are mute, severely damaged by whatever they experienced in their home life. Meanwhile the sister's evil husband comes after them, and the heir of the lodge's former owner appears and falls in love with Luce. Sounds like the basis for an action-packed and moving story, right? And yet. mostly (I think) because of Frazier's overblown style, it feels like nothing is happening.

I enjoy Chris Bohjalian's work and admire his ability to write from a female perspective, as he does in The Sleepwalker. The protagonist here is college student Liana, whose mother, a sleepwalker, has recently disappeared. The police seem unable to figure out what is going on, and Liana takes on some investigating on her own. In the course of her investigations, she develops a relationship with one of the police officers, which seems pretty unlikely.  There's quite a lot of information about sleepwalking and the problems of sleepwalkers and a surprise at the ending, but overall, not one of Bohjalian's best but still a fairly entertaining read.

Harmless Like You is narrated from two perspectives. The first belongs to Yuki, a girl of Japanese heritage (but U.S. citizenship), set in the late 1960s and 1970s; when her businessman father is transferred back to Japan, her parents allow her to stay in the United States, living with a friend and her mother. But little goes well for Yuki, who hooks up with the mother's boyfriend and then, when the abusive relationship sours, hastily marries a friend. While trying to become an artist, she gives birth to a son and falls in to what appears to be a severe depression, leading her to abandon her husband and son. The second character is that son, an art dealer who is traveling to Berlin, where his mother now lives, while contemplating leaving his wife and newborn child. The author deals with several themes, most notably the role art plays in various people's lives and what it means to be married and a parent. Both the connections between Jay's shortcomings as a father and his mother's obvious parenting issues and the ultimate resolution seem too pat, but I still found the book interesting.

I enjoy Elinor Lipman's books--to me, she is a Jane Austen for the 20th/21st centuries. Her stories are relatively light, but they do include social commentary. On Turpentine Lane is a perfect example. Faith Frankel is a 30-something professional who is somewhat underemployed, engaged to an idiot who is walking across the country to find himself (and, apparently, meet women), and concerned about her father, who has moved out of her parents' home to become an artist (he paints faux Chagalls). She decides to buy a small house, which she eventually discovers has been the scene of two murders and the mysterious disappearance of two biracial children. It has a happy ending (at least for Faith, if not for other characters) and it's just good fun!

I have a more troubled relationship with Richard Russo. I loved Empire Falls, but then my 90s book group (not Novel Conversations) got on a Russo kick that caused me to get really sick of him. Recently, I seem to have initiated my own kick, reading both Nobody's Fool and Bridge of Sighs in the past couple months. Bridge of Sighs tempted me to declare this Russo kick over, but I still want to read Everybody's Fool, so I'm going to persist. Anyway, Bridge of Sighs is primarily the story of Lou Lynch and his hometown of Thomaston, a rather run-down burg in upstate New York. Lou has done well with the convenience store business he  inherited from his father, and he's happily married to his high school sweetheart Sarah. But Lou suffers from "spells" that started after a traumatic childhood incident and worries that his wife really loves his friend Bobby, who had to flee Thomaston after nearly killing his own father, Bobby became a successful painter, living in Venice. Although Lou is the central character, sections of the book are also narrated by Bobby and Sarah. Sadly, the book doesn't have the pop of Nobody's Fool or Empire Falls, perhaps because Lou is intentionally designed as a rather boring guy. Despite the infusion of such issues as domestic abuse and racism, the book never takes off and the ending is totally ridiculous.

Science Fiction/Fantasy
The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson
Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch

My son Kevin recommended The Diamond Age, and I surprised myself by thoroughly enjoying it. It's a very complex story set sometime in the future but at its heart is a high tech primer that master engineer John Percival Hackworth designed for a wealthy nobleman who wants to subvert the education his granddaughter is receiving in the schools. Hackworth makes an unauthorized copy for his own daughter, but that copy is then stolen by a young tough who gives it to his sister Nell. The primer becomes Nell's constant companion and educator as she grows up into a woman of destiny. Meanwhile, Hackworth loses his job and goes on a quest for a mysterious figure known as the Alchemist.  This synopsis really gives no sense of the book, which is rich and complex and strange. The ending was not as satisfying as I might have wished, but nonetheless quite wonderful.

Dark Matter starts out as the story of a rather ordinary college professor, Jason Dessen and his wife, who gave up her career as an artist to raise their son. But then, on the way home from a bar, he is kidnapped by a stranger, driven to an abandoned power plant in south Chicago, and drugged; he wakes up in a lab, greeted by a team of people who are delighted to see him and curious to find out what has happened to him while absent from his life. Eventually, Jason realizes that he is in a parallel universe where his career is much more exalted but he has no family. He desperately tries to make his way back home, journeying through various Chicagos where he encounters even more versions of himself. The premise is interesting, as is some of Crouch's exploration of the concept of how each decision an individual makes creates alternate universes. The latter part of the book devolves into an action movie sequence (the book is, in fact, being made into a movie), which definitely made detracted from the very interesting first half.

Young Adult
A Night Divided, by Jennifer A. Nielsen

My nine (and a half)-year-old granddaughter recommended A Night Divided to me, describing it as "intense." And she wasn't wrong. It's the story of a family living in East Berlin when the wall went up. The family's father and one son were working in the West at the time and were unable to return home to the mother, older son, and daughter. The daughter, 12-year-old Gerta, is feisty and insightful--and she quickly realizes that being trapped in the East foretells a life that she does not want. She and her brother decide to take action, which leads to a heart-pounding conclusion. A good read with some history kids may not otherwise learn much about.

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain

Despite being written in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 remains a compelling dystopian novel in which books are burned and thought is tightly controlled. The protagonist, Guy Montag is a fireman whose wife finds television characters more authentic than Guy or anyone else in the "real world." Then he meets a young neighbor who has her own ideas about the past and the future, and he begins to question the foundations of his life. He begins hoarding books, eventually becoming a fugitive. More than likely, everyone but me has already read this book, but if you haven't, do so!

Double Indemnity, on the other hand, is a rather silly book. An insurance agent becomes instantly enamored with a woman who comes into his office, agreeing to murder her husband on very short acquaintance. Seriously? Apologies to all who find it tightly plotted, suspenseful, or exciting, but I really thought it was ridiculous.

Old Age: A Beginner's Guide, by Michael Kinsley

Being past retirement age (but not retired), I may be fixating on illness and aging. Last month it was Richard Cohen's book about being diagnosed with MS at a young age, this month it's Michael Kinsley (like Cohen, a journalist) discussing an early Parkinson's diagnosis. The title is somewhat misleading, as the book is not so much about aging as about Parkinson's and the author's own experience. In the last chapter, he argues that baby boomers ought to use their accumulated wealth to pay off the national debt, an achievement he believes would surpass the contributions of the so-called Greatest Generation--definitely an odd conclusion. If you don't want to get into a full-blown obsession with books on aging and illness, I would recommend Cohen's work over Kinsley's.

Pick of the Litter: The Diamond Age and (at a very different level) On Turpentine Lane

Favorite Passages

Most of their children had reached the age when they were no longer naturally endearing to anyone save their own parents; the size when their energy was more a menace than a wonder; and the level of intelligence when what would have been called innocence in a smaller child was infuriating rudeness. A honeybee cruising for nectar is pretty despite its implicit threat, but the same behavior in a hornet three times larger makes one glance about for some handy swatting material.

Not very honourable, I suppose, but then  there is no honour among consultants. 

Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age

We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were
really bothered? About something important, about something real? 

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451