All About Books

September

Fiction:

My daughter Cynthia Besteman gave us the excellent “The Cold Millions,” by Jess Walter, which just won the Washington State Book Award for Fiction.  Set primarily in early twentieth-century Spokane, it tells of the orphaned Dolan brothers who live by their wits, jumping freight trains and lining up for day work at crooked job agencies.  While 16-year-old Rye yearns for a steady job and a home, his older brother, Gig, dreams of a better world, fighting alongside the other union men for fair pay and decent treatment.  Enter Ursula the Great, a vaudeville singer who performs with a live cougar and introduces the brothers to a far more dangerous creature:  a mining magnate named Lem Brand who is determined to keep his wealth and his hold on Ursula.  Dubious of Gig’s idealism, Rye finds himself drawn to a fearless nineteen-year-old activist and feminist named Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (a real person who played a leading role in the Industrial Workers of the World – the IWW, also known as the Wobblies – and was a founding member of the ACLU).  But a storm is coming, threatening to overwhelm them all, and Rye will be forced to decide where he stands.  Is it enough to win the occasional battle, even if you cannot win the war?  The story eerily echoes our own time in its portrait of a nation grappling with the chasm between rich and poor, between harsh realities and simple dreams, with a colorfully drawn cast of cops and tramps, suffragists and socialists, madams and murderers.  I learned that the IWW had started in Chicago in 1905 and landed hard in Spokane, where seven freight and passenger lines converged in the busiest terminal west of Chicago, a kind of Tramp Central Station.  When Rye encounters the wealthy Brand in his palatial mansion “he knew, and he would know the next time he was curled up in a cold boxcar, that men lived like this, that there was such a difference between Lem Brand and him that Brand should live here and Rye nowhere.”  He thought about “all people, except this rich cream, living and scraping and fighting and dying, and for what, nothing, the cold millions with not a chance in this world.”   Some things do not change, even a century later.

At first I couldn’t remember what had drawn me to “Missionaries,” by Phil Klay, a National Book Award-winning author and Iraq War veteran, but once I began reading I was quickly swept up in the power of Klay’s examination of the globalization of violence through the interlocking stories of four characters and the conflicts that define their lives.  We are with a group of Colombian soldiers as they prepare to raid a drug lord’s safe house on the Venezuelan border, watching him with an American-made drone, about to strike using military tactics taught to them by U.S. soldiers who honed their skills to lethal perfection in Iraq.  For a man named Mason, a U.S. Army special Forces medic, and Lisette, a foreign correspondent, America’s long post-9/11 wars in the Middle East have exerted a terrible hold that neither is able to shake.  Where can such a person go next?  All roads lead to Colombia, where the United States has partnered with the local government to keep predatory narco gangs at bay.  Mason, now a liaison to the Colombian military, is ready for a “good” war, and Lisette is more than ready to cover it.  Juan Pablo, a Colombian officer, must juggle managing the Americans’ presence and navigating a viper’s nest of factions bidding for power.  Meanwhile, Abel, a lieutenant in a local militia, has lost almost everything in the seemingly endless carnage of his home province, where the lines between drug cartels, militias, and the state are semi-permeable.  Klay has written a novel of geopolitical suspense that is a window into not only modern war but also the individual lives that go on long after the drones have left the skies.  He is a terrific storyteller, and I went from not sure I was interested in reading more about wars to not being able to put the book down.  Here’s Lisette on reporting from Colombia: “All the reported facts in the world shrivel up and die in the presence of universal indifference.  People don’t even read about Afghanistan, where they are least sort of know there’s a war going on, and you think doing spade work in Colombia is going to make a difference to anyone?  Excuse me for not wanting to shovel words into a hole until I die.”   This is a war novel unlike any others I’ve read, one that is vividly filled with the impact of organized and persistent violence on individual lives.  Most of us are far removed from the wars in which our country plays a major part, but Klay sets us down right in the middle of them.

“Metropolitan Stories,” a fanciful love letter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Christine Coulson, who worked there for more than 25 years, takes us behind the scenes to show us the Met the public doesn’t see.  Hidden behind the Picassos and the Vermeers, the Temple of Dendur and the American wing, exists another world: the hallways and offices, conservation studios, storerooms, and cafeteria that are home to the museum’s devoted and peculiar staff of 2200 people – along with a few ghosts.  The book unfolds in a series of amusing and poignant vignettes in which we discover larger-than-life characters, the downside of survival, and the powerful voices of the art itself.  The novel is filled with irreverent humor, magic and detail, but it is also a beautiful story of introspection, an ode to lives lived for art, ultimately building a collage of human experience and the world of the imagination.  Here’s an exchange between Radish, a security guard, and his girlfriend, Maira, alsoa guard, when Radish asks, “Have you ever felt like the objects are kind of, well, reaching out to you?  Like when you look at something in the museum, you feel something, well, beyond what you would normally know?”  Maira, skeptically, “For example?”  “Well, do you ever get cold near the Washington Crossing the Delaware paining?  Or feel a breeze near that 18th century Indian watercolor of the huge bat in the Islamic Galleries, like it’s flapping its wings?” “No, Henry, I don’t,” she smirked, “And you sound like a fucking lunatic.”   He didn’t mention he could also hear the complaints of the boys in Washington’s boat as they crossed the Delaware: “This was a crap idea,” the soldiers grumbled as Radish shivered.  In the wake of Maira’s bite, he knew his insecurity could be recalibrated with Bronzino’s 16th century “Portrait of a Young Man.”  Its direct stare and mild condescension filled Radish with renewed swagger, like a houseplant freshly watered.  One character thinks of the Medieval Hall as “a cool cave at the building’s center, like the lungs of a giant whale.  The arches that punctuated its sides seemed to form a ribcage stretched wide to contain some ancient breath it had pulled in long ago and held steadily.”  He thought about the museum inhaling so much of the world – “all that history, all that spiritual juice, all the passions and laments of each visitor – without really exhaling.  He regarded the stone-clad walls as somehow porous, allowing the particles of time to soak needily into their surfaces.”  If you treasure the Met – or, actually, any fine art museum – you’ll appreciate this original gem of a novel.

If you love words and quirky but charming stories, “The Liar’s Dictionary,” by Eley Williams, is the book for you.  It is 1899, and Peter Winceworth is toiling away at the letter “S” for Swansby’s multivolume Encyclopaedic Dictionary.  Increasingly uneasy that his colleagues are attempting to corral language and regiment facts, Winceworth feels compelled to assert some sense of individual purpose and artistic freedom, and begins inserting unauthorized, fictitious entries into the dictionary.  (Mountweazel (n.), the phenomenon of false entries within dictionaries and works of reference.  Often used as a safeguard against copyright infringement.)    In the present day, Mallory, a young intern employed by the publisher, must uncover these mountweazels before the work is digitized for modern readers.  “Think of it this way, David Stansby said:  If you were compiling a dictionary, it would be very easy to purloin another person’s work and pass it off as your own since words are words are words, etc, etc.  But if they made up a word and put it in their text and then saw that it had bobbed up in your pages, they’d know you copied their stuff.”  Through the fake words and their definitions, she begins to sense their creator’s motivations, hopes, and desires.  More pressingly, she also has to contend with threatening phone calls from an anonymous caller.  Is the change in the definition of marriage (n.) really that controversial?  And does the caller truly intend for the Swansby’s staff to “burn in hell”?  As these two narratives combine, Winceworth and Mallory, separated by 100 years, must discover how to negotiate the complexities of the often untrustworthy, hoax-strewn, and undefinable path called life.  It took me a while to figure all this out, but the humor and playfulness and originality – and of course the clever wordplay – made the effort  well worth it.

 Rohinton Mistry is the author of one of my all-time favorite books, “A Fine Balance,” so I was happy to come across “Such a Long Journey,” published in 1991, a wonderfully evocative story about a family man in 1971 India who experiences a political scandal firsthand.  Set during the Indira Gandhi years, at the time of India’s war with Pakistan over Bangladesh, it convincingly dramatizes how an honest but naïve man can be compromised by events he doesn’t understand.  Gustad Noble is a bank clerk faced with an assortment of family problems – an inexplicable low-grade illness of his daughter Roshan; a son, Sohrab, who wins a college scholarship but refuses to accept it; and a nostalgic dream for a mythical golden age.  Having been to India, I found Mistry’s descriptions spot on – like this one about the main intersection of Flora Fountain, where the great traffic circle radiated five roads like giant pulsating tentacles.  “Intrepid handcarts, fueled by muscle and bone, completed temerariously against the best that steel, petrol and vulcanized rubber threw in their paths.  With the dead fountain at its still centre, the traffic circle lay like a great motionless wheel, while around it whirled the business of the city on its buzzing, humming, honking, complaining, screeching, ratting, banging, screaming, throbbing, rumbling, grumbling sighing, never-ending journey through the metropolis.”   Instances of domestic humor and travail give way to undercover intrigue when Major Bilimoria, an old friend who works for Gandhi’s secret police, recruits Noble to receive mysterious parcels and deposit sums of money (under a false name) in the bank where he works.  Scandal erupts, throwing Noble’s world into disarray and revealing gross governmental corruption.  With the war to “liberate” Bangladesh in the background, this is an engrossing look at India in a time of upheaval.   I loved the writing and was totally caught up in the story.

Non-Fiction:

Betty Colwell sang the praises of “Shoe Dog,” the memoir by Nike co-founder Phil Knight, and she was so right!  Fresh out of business school, Knight borrowed fifty dollars from his father and launched a company with one simple mission:  import high-quality, low-cost running shoes from Japan.  Selling the shoes from the trunk of his Plymouth Valiant, Knight grossed eight thousand dollars that first year, 1964.  Today, Nike’s annual sales top $30 billion.  In this age of start-ups, Knight’s Nike is the gold standard, and its swoosh is more than a logo – it’s one of the few icons instantly recognized in every corner of the world.  Knight himself, however, has always been a mystery – until now, in this thoroughly entertaining, funny, unfiltered, and beautifully told story.  It begins with a classic crossroads moment.  Twenty-four years old, backpacking through Asia and Europe and Africa, wrestling with life’s Great Questions, Knight decides the unconventional path is the only one for him.  Rather than work for a big corporation, he will create something all his own, something new, dynamic, different.  He candidly details the terrifying risks he encountered along the way, the crushing setbacks, the ruthless competitors, the countless doubters and haters and hostile bankers – as well as his many thrilling triumphs and narrow escapes.  Above all, he recounts the foundational relationships that formed the heart and soul of Nike, with his former track coach, the irascible and charismatic Bill Bowerman, and with his first employees, a ragtag group of misfits and savants who quickly became a band of swoosh-crossed brothers.  Believing in the redemptive, transforming power of sports, they created a brand and a culture that changed everything.   One of the things I found most impressive about this book as I was swept up in the story is that even though we readers know perfectly well that Knight’s enterprise would ultimately be fabulously successful, he is able to make us feel the suspense of the many setbacks he encountered along the way as he begged and borrowed from reluctant banks and constantly feared his business could fail.  This is a terrific memoir.

My daughter Catherine Besteman, Professor of Anthropology at Colby College, is the coordinator for Freedom & Captivity, a state-wide public humanities initiative in Maine this fall to bring critical perspectives from the humanities to the interrogation of incarceration.  She suggested I read “Until We Reckon:  Violence, Mass Incarceration, and a Road to Repair,” by Danielle Sered, and it is an eye-opener.  Sered envisioned, launched, and directs Brooklyn-based Common Justice, one of the few organizations offering alternatives to incarceration for people who commit serious violent crime, which has produced immensely promising results. Although over half the people incarcerated in America today have committed violent offenses, the focus of reform has been almost entirely on nonviolent and drug offenses.  This book offers approaches that will help end mass incarceration and increase safety.  Sared asks us to reconsider the purposes of incarceration and argues that the needs of survivors of violent crime and their communities are better met by asking people who commit violence to take responsibility for their actions and make amends in ways that are meaningful to those who have been hurt – none of which happens in the context of a criminal trial or a prison sentence.   She states that one thing is certain about the problem of violence:  we will never solve it through incarceration, in part because incarceration is an inadequate and often counterproductive tool to transform those who have committed violence or protect those who have been harmed, a message being sounded not only by justice reformers, but by crime survivors as well.  As she says, “If incarceration worked to secure safety, we would be the safest nation in all of human history,”  because in all the world and all recorded time, no country has locked up their own people at the rate we do.  The United States has nearly 5 percent of the world’s population and nearly 25 percent of its incarcerated people.  More than 2.3 million people are behind bars on any given day – and the number of black people incarcerated or under correctional control exceeds the total number of adults enslaved nationwide in 1861.  This review would go on forever if I included all the information and observations I made notes about, but suffice it to say that all of this comes at great cost.  In addition to the deprivation of their freedom, people who are incarcerated are likely to endure violence, mental distress, trauma, even suicide.  When they return home from prison, they face enormous barriers to securing safe housing, obtaining and retaining employment that pays a living wage, accessing medical care, voting and serving on juries, obtaining an education, reconnecting with their families, and meeting their basic needs.  Each of these barriers makes a person more likely to commit and to experience harm.  Their families also pay a price, both while they are incarcerated and when they come home.   There’s also the financial cost – incarceration is extraordinarily expensive.   Over the past three decades, state and local government expenditures on jails and prisons have increased roughly three times as fast as spending on elementary and secondary education.  One of the only things we spend more on than prisons is war.   Here is Seder:  “It is worthwhile to revisit the four-part test that any approach to violence should pass:  it should be survivor-centered, accountability-based, safety-driven, and racially equitable.  People who are hurt deserve a process that will help them heal.  All of us deserve responses to crime that make us safer. Those responses must be equitably available.  The promise of restorative justice can be understood through each of these four principles.”    The criminal justice system white people built has four main functions:  control (in the form of policing); punishment (in forms ranging from fines to imprisonment); exile (in the form of incarceration); and extermination (in the form of executions).  This way of being is a recipe for mass incarceration, and also a recipe for violence, as it assumes that behavior is shaped by power and control rather than connection and responsibility.  It certainly does not meet Seder’s four-part test.  I think anyone who reads about this revolutionary, sensible, and more humane approach to incarceration that diverts violent criminals from the prison system while at the same time helping victims to heal will understand its potential to keep us all safer.

“Memorial Drive:  A Daughter’s Memoir,” by Natasha Trethewey, a former US Poet Laureate, is the moving, deeply personal memoir of a daughter reckoning with the brutal murder of her mother.  At age nineteen, Trethewey had her world turned upside down when her former stepfather shot and killed her mother.  Grieving and still new to adulthood, she confronted her life in the aftermath of unimaginable trauma, and now investigates the way this experience lastingly shaped the artist she became in a brief novel that reads like a detective story.  Moving through her mother’s history in the deeply segregated South through her own girlhood as a “child of miscegenation” in Mississippi, Trethewey plumbs her sense of dislocation and displacement in the lead-up to the harrowing crime that took place on Memorial Drive in Atlanta in 1985.  The writing by this Pulitzer Prize-winning poet is both sorrowful and powerful, and her heartbreaking story is one that will stay with you.

As someone who has actually always enjoyed exercising, I was eager to read “Exercised:  Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding,” by Daniel E. Lieberman.  If it’s so healthy and good for us, why do many people dislike or avoid it, he asks, and if we are born to walk and run, why do most of us take it easy whenever possible?  In this myth-busting book, Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard and a pioneering researcher on the evolution of human physical activity, tells the story of how we evolved to walk, run, dig, and do other necessary and rewarding physical activities while avoiding needless exertion rather than to do voluntary physical activity for the sake of health.  His engaging stories and explanations change the way we think about exercising – not to mention sitting, sleeping, sprinting, weightlifting, playing, fighting, walking, jogging, and even dancing.  As our increasingly sedentary lifestyles have contributed to skyrocketing rates of obesity and diseases such as diabetes, Lieberman argues that to become more active we need to do more than medicalize and commodify exercise.  He suggests how we can make exercise more enjoyable, rather than shaming and blaming people for avoiding it.  After an introductory chapter, the book has four parts.   Part 1 begins with physical inactivity – what are our bodies doing when we take it easy, including when we sit and sleep?  Part 2 explores physical activities that require speed, strength, and power, while Part 3 surveys physical activities that involve endurance, as well as their effect on aging.   Part 4 considers how anthropological and evolutionary approaches can help us exercise better in the modern world.  Remember Jack LaLanne (who lived to 96)?  He liked to say, “People don’t die of old age, they die of inactivity.”   This book affirms exactly that.  Lieberman also points out that regular physical activity has multiple therapeutic effects we may not have thought of – it alters brain chemistry, enhances electrical activity, and improves brain structure, as well as lowering overall reactivity to stressful situations, improving sleep and getting people outside and in social groups.  Here’s how he sums it all up – “Make exercise necessary and fun.  Do mostly cardio, but also some weights.  Some is better than none.  Keep it up as you age.”  When you finish this book, you’ll want to immediately go on a walk or head to the gym – and you’ll feel great about it!

Mysteries:  I have enjoyed the atmospheric mysteries by Jane Harper set in the Australian outback.  In “The Surivivors” we move to a small town in Tasmania, where Kieran Elliott’s life changed forever on the day a reckless mistake led to devastating consequences.  When a body is discovered on the beach, long-held secrets threaten to emerge and upend everyone’s perceptions of that long-ago tragedy.   My brother Bob Pike likes Deon Meyer’s mysteries set in Cape Town, and now that I’ve read “Icarus” I agree.   A photographer discovers a plastic-wrapped corpse amidst the sand dunes north of Cape Town, which turns out to be that of Ernst Richter, the tech whiz founder of Alibi, an Internet service that provides unfaithful partners with sophisticated cover stories to hide their affairs. Assigned to the case is Captain Benny Griessel, experienced and savvy but struggling to retain his sobriety.  Filled with rich characters – including both the detectives and the suspects, who have multiple motives for murder – and involving us in South Africa’s famed vineyards, this contemporary police procedural is a treat.  When trauma enters your household, there’s nothing like a gripping thriller to take your mind off things, and that’s what “Island of Thieves,” by Glen Erik Hamilton, set mainly in Seattle and the San Juan Islands, did for me.  When his new security gig turns into a setup, expert thief Van Shaw finds himself the prey in a cross-country pursuit.  If you like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, you’ll also become a fan of the indomitable and complex Shaw, an ex-Army Ranger with a dark streak.

Abibliophobia -the fear of running out of books to read.

All About Books

August

Fiction:

“Great Circle,” by Maggie Shipstead, a Nancy Pearl recommendation, is stunning!  Within a few pages we know we are in the hands of a brilliant and mesmerizing writer who takes us from Prohibition-era Montana to the wilds of Alaska to wartime London to modern Los Angeles in an epic tale of two extraordinary women whose fates collide across geographies and centuries.  After being rescued as infants from a sinking ocean liner in 1914, Marian and Jamie Graves are raised by their dissolute uncle in Missoula, Montana.  There – after encountering a pair of barnstorming pilots passing through town in beat-up biplanes – Marian commences her lifelong love affair with flight.  At fourteen she drops out of school and finds an unexpected and dangerous patron in the wealthy bootlegger Barclay Macqueen, who provides a plane and subsidizes her lessons, an arrangement that will haunt her for the rest of her life even as it allows her to fulfill her destiny; circumnavigating the globe by flying over the North and South Poles.  A century later, Hadley Baxter is cast to play Marian in a film that centers on Marian’s disappearance in Antarctica.  Vibrant, canny, chafing in the claustrophobia of Hollywood and cult celebrity, Hadley is eager to redefine herself after getting fired from a romantic film franchise in the midst of scandal.  Her immersion in the character of Marian unfolds alongside Marian’s own story as the two women’s destinies – and their hunger for self-determination in vastly different places and times – intersect in unexpected ways.   There are wonderful descriptions of characters – Miss Dolly, who owns a bordello, is “a melted candle of a woman,” one short, stout man is “as pink as a pencil eraser, but much shinier” – and we even spend time in Seattle.  I don’t know if Shipstead is a pilot, but her descriptions of flying are magical, as are her observations about art (Jamie becomes an artist, like his uncle).  Don’t worry about how long the book is – the story is meticulously researched and so gloriously entertaining you won’t want it to end.

In “Klara and the Sun,” by Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara is an Artificial Friend, a humanoid machine who from her place in the AF store watches carefully the behavior of those who come in to browse and those who pass in the street outside, hopeful a customer will soon choose her for their child.  AFs aren’t tutors, they’re not babysitters, nor servants; they are nominally friends but not equals.  When Josie chooses her, the ostensible purpose is to help Josie get through the lonely and difficult years until college – lonely because in Josie’s world most kids don’t go to school but study at home using “oblongs.”  And difficult because Josie suffers from an unspecified illness, about which her mother projects unspecified guilt.  Her Father has been “substituted,” from the chemical plant where he worked – whole classes of workers have been replaced by machines, which themselves are subject to replacement.  It almost happens to Klara, when a new, improved model of AF arrives and bumps her to the back of the store.  The concern of the novel is whether Josie, with Klara’s help, will recover from her illness, and whether, if not, her mother, with Klara’s help, will survive the loss.  I loved getting to know Klara, who runs on solar power but lacks human mobility and thus finds things like gravel driveways perilous.  At one point, the Mother says, “It must be nice sometimes to have no feelings.  I envy you.” Klara replies, “I believe I have many feelings.  The more I observe, the more feelings become available to me.”    When Josie’s friend Rick’s mother meets Klara, she says, “One never knows how to greet a guest like you.  After all, are you a guest at all?  Or do I treat you like a vacuum cleaner?”  I had no problem suspending disbelief as I read this thoughtful and provocative novel.

“The Girl with the Louding Voice,” by Abi Dare, is the story of Adunni, a fourteen-year-old Nigerian girl who knows what she wants:  an education.  The only daughter of a broke father, she is a valuable commodity.  Removed from school and sold as a third wife to an old man, Adunni finds that her life amounts to this:  four goats, two bags of rice, some chickens, and a new TV.  When unspeakable tragedy strikes in her new home, she is secretly sold as a domestic servant to a household in the wealthy enclaves of Lagos, where no one will talk about the strange disappearance of her predecessor, Rebecca.  No one but Adunni . . .  As a yielding daughter, a subservient wife, and a powerless servant, Adunni is repeatedly told she is nothing.  But Adunni won’t be silenced.  She is determined to find her voice – in a whisper, in song, in broken English – until she can speak for herself, for the girls like Rebecca who came before, and for all the girls who will follow.  The story is written the way Adunni speaks, which takes some getting used to but which I felt added to its charm.  As she says, “We all be speaking different because we all are having different growing-up life, but we can all be understanding each other if we just take the time to listen well.”  When a woman named Mrs. Tia comes into Adunni’s life and tells her she is a person of value, that she is important, Adunni wants to believe her but says it is not so easy when you are born into a life of no money and plenty of suffering, a life you didn’t choose for yourselfThen, Adunni finally realizes, “But maybe, to believe it in my mind is the start, so I nod my head, drag it real slow up and down as I am saying:  Tomorrow will be better than today.  I am somebody of value,” and you want to hug her, knowing  she’ll be fine and her “louding voice” will be heard.  This coming-of-age novel is captivating.

Natalie Haynes, an author who has written and recorded six series of Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics for the BBC, gives voice to the silenced women of the Trojan War in the inventive and entertaining “A Thousand Ships.”  In the middle of the night, a woman wakes to find her beloved city engulfed in flames.  Ten seemingly endless years of conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans are over.  Troy has fallen.  From the Trojan women whose fates now lie in the hands of the Greeks to the Amazon princess who fought Achilles on their behalf, from Penelope awaiting the return of Odysseus to the three goddesses whose feud started it all – these are the stories of the women whose lives, loves, and rivalries were forever altered by history’s most infamous war.  Men tell the stories of men to each other, but the author asks, “Is Oenone, the first wife of Paris of Troy, whom he abandoned for the Queen Helen of Sparta, less of a hero than Menelaus?  He loses his wife so he stirs up an army to bring her back to him, costing countless lives and creating countless widows, orphans, and slaves.  Oenone loses her husband and she raises their son.  Which of those is the most heroic act?”  This is a fascinating feminist retelling of a classic story.

Non-Fiction:

I resisted reading “Eleanor,” by David Michaelis, because I felt I had read all the best books about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and this would be more of the same – but I was wrong.  This is the first cradle-to-grave, single-volume biography of this incomparable woman, and I found it comprehensive, stimulating, and compulsively readable.  Eleanor Roosevelt was America’s longest-serving First Lady, her husband’s indispensable surrogate during his governorship and presidency, a humanitarian, activist, and, after FDR’s death, a diplomat.  She remains one of the most influential and widely admired American women.   Eleanor’s life was a remarkable story of transformation.  An orphaned niece of President Theodore Roosevelt, she converted her Gilded Age childhood of denial and secrecy into an irreconcilable marriage with her ambitious fifth cousin Franklin.  Despite their inability to make each other happy, Franklin Roosevelt transformed Eleanor from a settlement house volunteer on New York’s Lower East Side into a matching partner in the city’s most important power couple in a generation.  When Eleanor discovered Franklin’s betrayal with her younger, prettier social secretary, Lucy Mercer, she offered a divorce and vowed to face herself honestly.  Here is an Eleanor both more vulnerable and more aggressive, more psychologically aware and sexually adaptable than we knew.  She came to accept FDR’s relationship with his executive assistant, Missy LeHand; she allowed her children to live their own lives, as she never could; and she explored her sexual attraction to women, among them a star female reporter on FDR’s first presidential campaign, and younger men.  Eleanor needed emotional connection.  She pursued deeper relationships wherever she could find them.  Throughout her life and travels, there was always another person or place she wanted to heal.  As FDR recovered from polio, Eleanor became a voice for the voiceless, her husband’s proxy in presidential ambition, and then the people’s proxy in the White House.  Later, she would be the architect of the Atomic Age, urging Americans to cope with the anxiety of global annihilation by cultivating a “world mind.”  She insisted that we cannot live only for ourselves but must learn to live together or we will die together.  While Michaelis expands our knowledge of and enhances our admiration for Eleanor’s public achievements, he also gives us a fuller picture of an often insecure and lonely woman with whom we come to feel enormous sympathy.  She and FDR could neither end old habits nor begin new ways – their son James would describe their marriage as “an armed truce” that endured to the day Franklin died.  Michaelis writes,” Their bond was more like the war itself:  lines frozen, an unbreachable gap widening between what each wanted and what the other could give.”  By 1921, judging herself critically, Eleanor wrote,” If I had to go out and own my own living, I doubt if I’d even make a very good cleaning woman.  I have no talents, no experience, no training for anything.”  Knowing what was to come, can you imagine that?  As always, she continued to transform herself, so that by the onset of WWII, when the U.S. was slow to accept political refugees, she was all over her husband until the State Department finally expedited their emergencyvisitors’ visas.  According to Joe Lash, “He kept bringing up the difficulties, while Mrs. R. tenaciously kept pointing out the possibilities.”  This book is a wonderfully informative and revelatory tribute to a complex woman unlike any other in our history.

Mysteries:  I have become a real fan of Anthony Horowitz’s intricate mysteries, including his recent “The Word is Murder.”  Diana Cowper, the wealthy mother of a famous actor, enters a funeral parlor in London one morning, there to plan her own service.   Six hours later she is found dead in her own home, strangled with a curtain cord.  Enter disgraced police detective Daniel Hawthorne, who needs a ghostwriter to document his cases – and chooses Anthony Horowitz, who soon finds himself at the center of a story he cannot control.  So tricky, and so much fun.

Reading can seriously damage your ignorance. Thanks, Marie


All About Books

JULY

Fiction:

Nancy Pearl told me about “Erasure,” by Percival Everett, and I marveled at its brilliance.  Thelonius “Monk” Ellison’s writing career has bottomed out:  his latest manuscript has been rejected by seventeen publishers, which stings all the more because his previous novels have been “critically acclaimed.”  He seethes on the sidelines of the literary establishment as he watches the meteoric success of “We’s Lives in Da Ghetto,” a first novel by a woman who once visited “some relatives in Harlem for a couple of days,” which purports to represent black inner-city speech.   Here’s what Monk says as he stares at Juanita Mae Jenkins’ face on Time magazine:  “The pain started in my feet and coursed through my legs, up my spine and into my brain and I remembered passages of “Native Son” and “The Color Purple” and “Amos and Andy” and my hands began to shake, the world opening around me, tree roots trembling on the ground outside, people in the street shouting dint, ax, fo,screet and fahvre! And I was screaming inside, complaining that I didn’t sound like that, that my mother didn’t sound like that, that my father didn’t sound like that and I imagined myself sitting on a park bench counting the knives in my switchblade collection and a man came up to me and he asked me what I was doing and my mouth opened and I couldn’t help what came out, ‘Why fo you be axin?’”  Meanwhile, Monk struggles with real family tragedies – his aged mother is fast succumbing to Alzheimer’s, and he still grapples with the reverberations of his father’s suicide seven years before.  In his rage and despair, Monk dashes off a satirical novel meant to be an indictment of Jenkins’ best seller.  He doesn’t intend for “My Pafology” to be published, let alone taken seriously, but it is – under the pseudonym Stagg R. Leigh – and soon it becomes The Next Big Thing.  How Monk deals with the personal and professional fallout galvanizes this bold novel that manages to be scathingly funny even as Everett skillfully skewers the conventions of racial and political correctness.

Gabriela Garcia, the author of “Of Women and Salt,” brings us deeply into the intergenerational family dramas of Latin American women who have immigrated to this country.  In present-day Miami, Jeanette is battling addiction.  Daughter of Carmen, a Cuban immigrant, she is determined to learn more about her family history from her reticent mother and makes the snap decision to take in Ana, the daughter of a neighbor detained by ICE.  Carmen, still wrestling with the trauma of displacement, must process her difficult relationship with her own mother while trying to raise a wayward Jeanette.  Steadfast in her quest for understanding, Jeanette travels to Cuba to see her grandmother and reckon with secrets from the past which are destined to erupt.  This is a kaleidoscopic portrait of betrayals – personal and political, self-inflicted and those done by others – that have shaped the lives of these extraordinary women.  From nineteenth century cigar factories to present-day detention centers, from Cuba to Mexico, we find ourselves meditating on the choices of mothers, the legacy of the memories they carry, and the tenacity of women who choose to tell their stories despite those who wish to silence them.  Here’s Carmen, in her mind, to Jeanette: “I never said, ‘All my life, I’ve been afraid.’  I stopped talking to my own mother.  And I never told you the reason I came to this country, which is not the reason you think I came to this country.  And I never said I thought if I didn’t name an emotion or a truth, I could will it to disappear.  Will.  Tell me you want to live, and I’ll be anything you want me to be.  But I can’t will enough life for both of us.  Tell me you want to live.”  This book is short but powerful, less about politics than about how to navigate the world as women.  These women do not surrender – in a book Carmen gives to Ana on her fifteenth birthday, Jeanette, who had loved the book, had written, “We are more than we think we are.”  It is a sentence Ana chooses to believe.  Garcia has given us a thoughtful, poignant story.

I am delighted that Nancy Pearl introduced me to the English and Australian novelist Angela Thirkell, as I found her “August Folly” to be thoroughly delightful.   It’s August in the Barsetshire village of Worsted, and Richard Tebben, just down from Oxford, is contemplating the gloomy prospect of a long summer in the parental home.  But the numerous and impossibly glamorous Dean family – exquisite Rachel, her capable husband and six of their nine brilliant children – have come for the holidays, and their hostess Mrs. Palmer plans to rope everyone into performing in her disastrous annual play staged in a barn.  Surrounded by the irrepressible Deans, Richard and his sister Margaret cannot help but have their minds broadened, spirits raised, and hearts smitten.  I think I smiled all the way through this very witty novel of England between the wars, with its way of life long gone, and was especially charmed by the conversational asides between Modestine the donkey and Gunnar the cat.   I can see that Thirkell’s writing could become addictive – she describes the head of the kitchen, Mrs. Phipps, as “a born cook only in the sense that she had brought up a large family chiefly on tinned foods” – and now I have to read another.  It’s a pleasure to spend time in a fictional world with no murders and no violence, one where all the wrongs get righted.   

Non-Fiction:

Even though I hate being cold in the winter and spend my days in fleece and down, I have always been drawn to stories set in places like Siberia, Iceland, Antarctica, the Himalayas (particularly those that involve climbing Mt. Everest), and now Greenland.  Go figure.  “The Ice at the End of the World:  An Epic Journey into Greenland’s Buried Past and Our Perilous Future,” by Jon Gertner, is a riveting, urgent account of the explorers and scientists racing to understand the rapidly melting sheet in Greenland, a dramatic harbinger of climate change.  Greenland is a remote, mysterious island five times the size of California but with a population of just 56,000.  The ice sheet that covers it is 700 miles wide and 1500 miles long and is composed of nearly three quadrillion tons of ice.  For the last 150 years, explorers and scientists have sought to understand Greenland – at first hoping that it would serve as a gateway to the North Pole, and later coming to realize that it contained essential information about our climate.  Gertner explains how Greenland has evolved from one of earth’s last frontiers to its largest scientific laboratory.  He begins with the explorers who arrived here at the turn of the twentieth century – first on foot, then on skis, then on crude, motorized sleds – and embarked on grueling expeditions that took as long as a year and often ended in frostbitten tragedy.  The goal of exploring Greenland’s seemingly infinite interior eventually gave way to scientists who built lonely encampments out on the ice and began drilling miles down with the aim of pulling up ice cores that could reveal the deepest mysteries of the earth’s past, going back hundreds of thousands of years.  Today, scientists from all over the world are deploying every technological tool available to uncover Greenland’s secrets before it’s too late.  As Greenland’s ice melts and runs off into the sea, it not only threatens to affect hundreds of millions of people who live in coastal areas, it will also have drastic effects on ocean currents, weather systems, economies, and migration patterns.  As early as 1975, a Russian climatologist calculated that rising CO2 levels would drastically raise Arctic temperatures and melt the sea ice cover, perhaps as early as 2050.  He also pointed to the tenuous balance between a livable and non-livable climate, and seemed to think that man’s industrial activities could tip the future toward “climate catastrophe [where] the existence of higher forms of organic life on our planet may be exterminated.”   In 2008, glaciologist Ian Howast was quoted as saying regarding the Arctic, “The remarkable shrinkage of the sea ice is the largest change in Earth’s surface that humans have probably ever observed,” and trying to get a handle on how that effects the mass of Greenland’s ice next door must surely be a priority.  One question, as Gertner saw it, was whether confronting Greenland’s long-term challenges requires a scientific response or a political one.  He imagines it ultimately requires both, but that any action first has to be preceded by some kind of factual and ethical awakening that has not yet occurred. In general, we seem disinclined to think too far – or too selflessly – as a species, he notes, but if, perhaps around the 2100 mark, the world’s coastal regions are struggling with catastrophic floods and mass migrations, we will have to.  Jack and I both thought this book was terrific.

As the mother of three mentally healthy adult children, I found the family in “Hidden Valley Road:  Inside the Mind of an American Family,” by Robert Kolker, terrifying to contemplate.  Don and Mimi Galvin seemed to be living the American dream.  After WWII, Don’s work with the air Force brought them to Colorado, where their twelve children – ten boys, then two girls – spanned the baby boom.  They all tried to play their parts in the “perfect family” script – hard work, upward mobility, domestic harmony – but behind the closed doors of the house on Hidden Valley Road was a far different story:  psychological breakdown, sudden shocking violence, and hidden abuse.  By the mid-1970s, six of the Galvin boys, one after the other, were diagnosed with schizophrenia.  And the other six children stood by, horrified, not knowing whether they would be next.  Since their story was so extraordinary, the Galvins became one of the first families to be studied by the National Institute of Mental Health.  Kolker tells the intimate story of the Galvins alongside the epic tale of science’s quest to uncover the true nature of this mystifying disease.  Each mentally ill brother emerges as wholly individual, with remarkably different expressions of the same disorder.  The two youngest children, girls and best friends, both victimized by their brothers, make sharply different choices about how to cope.  The Galvins’ story culminates in a breakthrough that, thanks to their unique DNA, offers hope of eliminating schizophrenia forever.  And how did the parents deal with all this? Here’s Kolker on Mimi, and her need to create the illusion of family perfection – “But she was also aware that the slightest acknowledgment that all was not well in her family risked coloring everything else about her life – Don’s new professional prospects, the standing of the other children, the reputation of them all.”  She tended to agree, most of the time, when Don said what he’d always said when there was something wrong with the children; that the boys should not be coddled; that they should leave the nest, make their own mistakes and learn from them, take responsibility for their actions, grow up.  “And she thought about how perfect their life was otherwise.  And how fragile her husband’s happiness had always seemed to her.  And how sometimes it seemed as if the slightest move in any direction could bring the whole place toppling down.”   The cover photo of the ten boys, teenagers down to baby (the only one not in a suit and tie), in descending order on the steps of a circular stairway with a pregnant Mimi and uniformed Don at the top – the staged epitome of Mimi’s “perfect” family – breaks your heart.  When you read that Dr. Robert Freedman, whose research has focused on the study of the brain, noted recently, “Half of young school shooters have symptoms of developing schizophrenia,” you realize the significance of what Kolker writes near the end of his book. “There is no way of knowing how life might have been different for the Galvin brothers if the culture of mental illness had been less rigid, less inclined to cut people off from mainstream society, more proactive about intervening when warning signs first appeared.  But there is, perhaps, reason to hope that for people like the Galvins born fifty years from now, things could be different, even transformed.”  This story is a shocking eye-opener.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, one of the first undocumented immigrants to graduate from Harvard,  reveals the hidden lives of those who share her status in the powerful and deeply personal “The Undocumented Americans.”  She was on DACA when she decided to write about being undocumented for the first time using her own name.  It was right after the election of 2016, the day she realized the story she’d tried to steer clear of was the only one she wanted to tell.  So she wrote her immigration lawyer’s phone number on her hand in Sharpie and embarked on a trip across the country to tell the stories of her fellow undocumented immigrants.  Looking beyond the flashpoints of the border or the activism of the DREAMers, Cornejo Villavicencio explores the lives of the undocumented as well as the mysteries of her own life.  She finds singular characters across the nation who are often reduced in the media to political pawns or nameless laborers and helps us come to know them with stories that are not deferential or naively inspirational but show the love, magic, heartbreak, insanity, and vulgarity that infuse the day-to-day lives of her subjects.  Here’s some of what she says in her Introduction:  “This is a work of creative nonfiction . . .  Maybe you won’t like it.  I didn’t write it for you to like it.  And I did not set out to write anything inspirational, which is why there are no stories of DREAMers . . . I wanted to tell the stories of people who work as day laborers, housekeepers, construction workers, dog walkers, deliverymen, people who don’t inspire hashtags or T-shirts, but I wanted to learn about them as the weirdos we all are outside of our jobs.”  In New York, we meet the undocumented workers who were recruited into the federal funded Ground Zero cleanup after 9/11.  In Miami, we enter the ubiquitous botanicas, which offer medicinal herbs and potions to those whose status blocks them from any other healthcare options.  In Flint, Michigan, we learn of demands for state ID in order to receive life-saving clean water.  “What I saw in Flint was a microcosm of the way the government treats the undocumented everywhere, making the conditions in this country as deadly and toxic and inhumane as possible so that we will self-deport.” In Connecticut, Cornejo Villavicencio, childless by choice, finds family in two teenage girls whose father is in sanctuary.   As she closes, this fierce writer lets Jesus Christ himself bring home what she most wants us to understand:  “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Mysteries:  Nancy Pearl recommended “Shadow Intelligence,” by Oliver Harris, which will quickly immerse you in the murky world of spies that most of us know little about.  There is a dark side to England’s MI6 that needs men like Elliot Kane – volatile, inquisitive, free-floating, with multiple identities.  When the woman he loves, another operative named Joanna Lake, vanishes without a trace in Kazakhstan, he is drawn ever deeper into a realm of deception and conflicting agendas in that snowbound country poised between China, Russia, and the West.  Today’s dark web intelligence and geopolitical complexities make the Cold War look simple by comparison.  I’m still reeling from the ending of ”Take It Back,” by Kia Abdullah, which was recommended by my brother Bob.  Zara Kaleel is an independent Muslim woman who has exchanged her high profile legal career in London for a job at a sexual assault center helping victims like Jodie Wolfe, a 16-year-old girl with severe facial deformities.  When Jodie accuses four Muslim boys in her class of raping her, even Jodie’s best friend doesn’t believe her, but Zara does, and is determined to find the truth in the face of public outcry.  Issues of sex, race, and social justice collide in an explosive criminal trial.  I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough as the tension rose and I raced toward the surprising conclusion.  I picked up the latest mystery by Louise Penny, “All the Devils Are Here,” delighted to be heading back to the welcoming village of Three Pines, only to find myself in Paris! The Gamaches are gathered there as a family to have a bistro dinner with Armand’s godfather, the billionaire Stephen Horowitz.  Walking home together afterward, they watch in horror as Stephen is knocked down and critically injured in what Gamache knows is no accident.  To find out why, they are led deep into the secrets Armand’s godfather has kept for decades, finding themselves in a web of lies and deceit that will make Armand question whether he can trust his friends, his colleagues, his instincts, even his own past.  His own family.  Penny’s books are always a treat.  I enjoy Jacqueline Winspear’s mysteries featuring investigator Maisie Dobbs that are set in England during WWII.  In “The Consequences of Fear,” it’s October, 1941, and while on a delivery young Freddie Hackett, a message runner, witnesses an argument that ends in murder.  After waiting until the coast is clear, he arrives at the delivery address – only to come face-to-face with the killer.  Dismissed by the police, who don’t believe his tale, he turns to Maisie Dobbs, whom he once met while on a delivery. She believes him, but has to be careful because she’s working secretly for the Special Operations Executive assessing candidates for crucial work with the French Resistance.  When she spots the suspected killer in a place she least suspects, her two worlds collide.   “The Stranger Diaries,” by Elly Griffiths, is a modern gothic thriller written with compassion and humor.  Clare Cassidy is a high school English teacher who specializes in and teaches a course on the gothic writer R. M. Holland.  But when Clare’s colleague and close friend is found dead, with a line from Holland’s most famous story, “The Stranger,” left by her body, Clare is horrified to see her own life collide with the story lines of her favorite literature.  Worse, one day she notices something odd – writing that isn’t hers, left on the page of an old diary: “Hello Clare.  You don’t know me.”   Police suspect the killer is someone she does know.  So delicious.

Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere. Jean Rhys

All About Books

JUNE

Fiction: 

“Shuggie Bain,” by Douglas Stuart, is one of those novels you can’t put down because you are so invested in the characters and so deeply entrenched in their lives you can’t bear not knowing what they’re up to.  It is the story of young Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland.  It is a difficult place to grow up, with men out of work as the coal mines close and a drug epidemic waiting in the wings.  Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, is Shuggie’s guiding light but a burden for him and his siblings.  Married to a philandering taxi-driver husband, Agnes keeps her pride by looking good, with her beehive, make-up (“it looked to Shuggie like the paint had been layered over several other faces she had forgotten to take off first”), and pearly-white false teeth.  But she is an alcoholic who drains away the lion’s share of each week’s benefits – all the family has to live on – on cans of extra-strong lager hidden in handbags and vodka poured into tea mugs.  Agnes’ older daughter and son find their own ways to get a safe distance from their mother, leaving Shuggie to care for her.  He is, meanwhile, struggling to somehow become the “normal” boy he desperately longs to be, but everyone has realized that he is “no right,” a boy with a secret that all but he can see.   His needs are so great he breaks your heart.  In fact, this whole story of addiction, and love, and sex is heartbreaking – but in a good way, if you’re the reader, because you so deeply feel the needs and the pain of this family and so badly want things to turn out well for them in this powerful, haunting novel.  “Shuggie Bain” won the Booker Prize and was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize and the National Book Award, and in my opinion well deserved them all.  I loved this book.

““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““““I thought “The Vanishing Half,” by Brit Bennett, was wonderfully insightful and thought-provoking.  The light-skinned Vignes sisters will always be identical, but after growing up together in a small southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything, including their racial identities.  Many years later, Desiree lives with her black daughter in the same town she once tried to escape.  Across the country, Stella secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past.  Still, although separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain interchanged.  What will happen when their own daughters’ story lines intersect?  The story weaves through multiple strands and generations, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, dealing with riveting emotional family issues against a background of race, gender, and identity.  At one point, seeking out her sister at her workplace, Desiree imagines herself as Stella – not the one she once knew, but Stella as she was now.  Her friend tells her, “Just keep it light, breezy.  Like a white lady with no worry on her mind.”  She felt queasy at how simple it was – “All there was to being white was acting like you were.”  This story will stay with you.

Several people mentioned enjoying “The Henna Artist,” by Alka Joshi, and I found it to be an engrossing trip back to rural India in the 1950s.  Escaping from an arranged and abusive marriage, 17-year-old Lakshmi makes her way alone from her village to the vibrant pink city of Jaipur, where she becomes the henna artist – and confidante – most in demand by the wealthy women of the upper class.  Known for her original designs and sage advice, she is careful to protect the secrets of her past from the jealous gossips who could ruin her reputation and her livelihood.  Then one day she is startled by the appearance of her husband, who has tracked her down these many years later with a high-spirited young girl in tow – a sister Lakshmi never knew she had.  Suddenly the caution that she has carefully cultivated as protection is threatened.  There are so many interesting aspects to this story – the complex artistic and social worlds of those who apply intricate henna designs and those who receive them, the long-reaching social aspects of the Indian caste system, the conflicts that can surface between ambition and family, the vulnerability of a woman alone who struggles to survive, much less thrive.  This is a rich and complex novel, filled with the vibrancy and color of India.  Don’t miss the bonuses at the back – a Glossary of Terms, the Story of Henna and a recipe for henna paste, a brief survey of the caste system in India, and recipes for Batti Balls and Royal Rabri (see the glossary for what they are). 

I wasn’t sure I wanted to write up “The Book of Longings,” by Sue Monk Kidd, as I had mixed feelings about it, but because its premise is so intriguing I decided to include it.  In her Author’s Note, Kidd refers to a sign on her desk with a quote by Virginia Woolf that says “Everything is the proper stuff of fiction,” motivating the novelist to imagine what’s possible.  In this case she reimagines the story that Jesus was a single, celibate bachelor and imagines the possibility that at some point he had a wife.  She notes the Bible is silent on the matter, and that the invisibility and silencing of women were real things, that if mentioned they were often unnamed.  Also that in the first-century Jewish world of Galilee, marriage was so utterly normative, it more or less went without saying.  So, Kidd imagines a young woman named Ana, raised in a wealthy family with ties to the ruler of Galilee, rebellious and ambitious, with a brilliant mind and a daring spirit.  She engages in furtive scholarly pursuits and writes narratives about neglected and silenced women.  An accidental encounter with eighteen-year-old Jesus changes everything – they fall in love, marry, and make a home in Nazareth with Jesus, his brothers, and their mother, Mary.  Ana’s pent-up longings intensify amid the turbulent resistance to Rome’s occupation of Israel, partially led by her brother, Judas.  When Ana commits a brazen act that puts her in peril, she flees to Alexandria, where startling revelations and greater dangers unfold, and she finds refuge in unexpected surroundings.  Ana determines her fate during a stunning convergence of events considered among the most impactful in human history.  This novel is grounded in meticulous research and written with a reverential approach to Jesus’ life that focuses on his humanity.  Perhaps at times too reverential, occasionally leaving me feeling at a distance from the story and its characters rather than absorbed in them.  But that’s a minor quibble, as due to Kidd’s extensive research her fascinating story is true to its historical, cultural, political, and religious backdrop and I suspect is unlike anything you’ve ever read.   

In the witty and delightful “His Only Wife,” by Peace Adzo Medie, Afi Tekple is a young seamstress in Ghana.  She is smart and pretty, and she has been convinced by her mother to marry a man she does not know.  Afi knows who he is, of course – Elikem is a wealthy businessman whose mother has chosen Afi in the hopes that she will distract him from his relationship with a woman his family claims is inappropriate. But Afi is unprepared for the shift her life takes when she is moved from her small hometown of Ho to live in Accra, Ghana’s gleaming capital, a place of wealth and sophistication where she has days of nothing to do but cook meals for a man who may or may not show up to eat them.  She has agreed to this marriage in order to give her mother the financial security she desperately needs, so she must see it through.  Or maybe not?  I really liked the spunky Afi – she is witty and smart and so very resourceful as she learns to traverse the minefield of modern life with its taboos and injustices and to create a new life that works for her.  You know  – actually you hope – Eli will regret not  making her “his only wife.”

It’s really difficult for the reader to shake off the eerie atmospheric tension created by Rumaan Alam in “Leave the World Behind.”  Amanda and Clay head out to a remote corner of Long Island expecting a vacation:  a quiet reprieve from life in New York City, quality time with their teenage son and daughter, and a taste of the good life in the luxurious home they’ve rented for the week.  But with a late-night knock on the door, the spell is broken.  Ruth and G.H., an older black couple who claim to own the home, have arrived there in a panic.  These strangers say that a sudden blackout has swept New York, and – with nowhere else to turn – they’ve come to the country in search of shelter.  But with the TV and internet down, and no cell phone service, the facts are unknowable.  Should Amanda and Cly trust this intruding couple – and vice versa?  What has happened in New York? Is the vacation home, isolated from civilization, truly a safe place for their families?  Are they safe from one another?  Events become increasingly sinister, and tension gradually builds as weird events increase – a sudden, loud, unidentifiable noise that cracks glass doors, thousands of deer on the move, flamingos – flamingos?  – filling the swimming pool.  It’s all deliciously unnerving as they – and we – question everything they  – and we – have always taken for granted.

“The Glass Hotel,” by Emily St. John Mandel, is an intriguing story with the ghost of Bernie Madoff hovering over it.  Vincent (a woman – from Edna St. Vincent Millay) is a bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star hotel on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island.  On the night she meets Jonathan Alkaitis, a hooded figure scrawls a message on the lobby’s glass wall:  “Why don’t you swallow broken glass?”  Leon Prevant, a shipping executive for Neptune-Avramidis, reads the words and orders a drink to calm down.  Alkaitis, the owner of the hotel and a wealthy investment manager, arrives too late to read the threat, never knowing it was intended for him.  He leaves Vincent a hundred-dollar tip along with his business card, and a year later they are living together as husband and wife.   In Manhattan, a greater crime is committed:  Alkaitis is running an international Ponzi scheme, moving imaginary sums of money through clients’ accounts.  He holds the life savings of an artist named Olivia Collins, the fortunes of a Saudi prince and his extended family, and countless retirement funds, including Leon Prevant’s.  The collapse of the financial empire is both swift and devastating, obliterating fortunes and lives, while Vincent walks away into the night.  Years later, she steps aboard a Neptune-Avramadis vessel and disappears from the ship between ports of call.  We cover a variety of landscapes in this captivating novel:  campgrounds for the near-homeless, underground electronica clubs, the business of international shipping, service in luxury hotels, life in a federal prison, and what it’s like to live in the “kingdom of money,” as Vincent came to see it.  “What kept her in the kingdom was the previously unimaginable condition of not having to think about money, because that’s what money gives you:  the freedom to stop thinking about money.  If you’ve never been without then you won’t understand the profundity of this, how absolutely this changes your life.”  This is a very entertaining novel, and it’s so satisfying to learn along the way that prison awaits the guilty.

I don’t feel I can fully do justice to the brilliant and profound “The Prophets,” by Robert Jones, Jr., whose lyricism has been compared to the prose of James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, so I urge you to discover it for yourself.  Set during a time of slavery on a Deep South plantation, this novel is about the forbidden union between two enslaved young men, the refuge they find in each other, and the betrayal that threatens their existence.  Isaiah was Samuel’s and Samuel was Isaiah’s.  In the barn they tended to the animals, and also to each other.  But when an older man – a fellow slave – seeks to gain favor by preaching the master’s gospel on the plantation, the enslaved begin to turn on their own.  Isaiah and Samuel’s love, which was once so simple, is seen as sinful and a clear danger to the plantation’s harmony.  Jones summons the voices of slaver and enslaved alike, from Isaiah and Samuel to the calculating slave master to the long line of women that surrounds them, women who have carried the soul of the plantation on their shoulders.  Tensions build and the weight of centuries – of ancestors and future generations to come – culminates in a climactic reckoning.   The writing is magnificent.  “To survive in this place, you had to want to die.  That was the way of the world as remade by toubab (white people), and Samuel’s list of grievances was long:  They pushed people into the mud and then called them filthy.  They forbade people from accessing any knowledge of the world and then called them simple.  They worked people until their empty hands were twisted, bleeding, and could do no more, and then called them lazy.  They forced people to eat innards from troughs and then called them uncivilized.  They kidnapped babies and shattered families and then called them incapable of love.  They raped and lynched and cut up people into parts, and then called the pieces savage.  They stepped on people’s throats with all their might and asked why the people couldn’t breathe.  And then, when people made an attempt to break the foot, or cut it off one, they screamed “CHAOS!” and claimed that mass murder was the only way to restore order.”  This novel is awe-inspiring and devastating.

Mysteries:  Along the way I thought John Grisham’s “A Time for Mercy,” might be too long, with too many legal details, but, oh boy, during the trial at the end I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.  It’s Clanton, Mississippi, 1990, and attorney Jake Brigance is appointed by the court as attorney for Drew Gamble, a timid sixteen-year-old boy accused of murdering a local deputy.  The case seems clear cut and many in town want a swift trial and the death penalty, but Jake digs in and discovers there’s way more to the story, and to save Drew puts his career, his financial security, and the safety of his family on the line.  With the courthouse scheming, small-town intrigue, and intriguing plot twists, there are no easy answers, even for the reader.   When Harlan Coben ropes you in, he doesn’t let you go until the last page.  Windsor Horne Lockwood III – or “Win,” as his few friends call him (and also the title of the book) – is a man of wealth, impeccable taste, and a personal approach to justice that too often lands him on the wrong side of the law.  But when the FBI hauls him to a murder scene in an Upper West Side penthouse, Win genuinely has no idea why – until he sees two objects in the apartment: a stolen Vermeer painting and a suitcase bearing the initials WHL3.  Turns out the murder victim was also the mastermind behind a notorious act of domestic terrorism decades earlier, and Win has to figure out the connection between the two cases.  He’s a terrific uber hero – antihero? – with echoes of Jack Reacher. There are many questions that begin “The House on Vesper Sands,” by Paraic O’Donnell, where high up in a house on a dark snowy night in 1893 London a lone seamstress stands by a window.  Why does she jump from the window?  Why is a cryptic message stitched into her skin?  And how is she connected to a rash of girls who all seem to have disappeared under similar circumstances?  We are with a wryly hilarious Inspector Cutter, a Cambridge dropout who becomes his sidekick, and clever young journalist Octavia Hillingdon as they peel back this inventive mystery layer by layer, leading them all, finally, to the secrets that are hidden at the house on Vesper Sands.   The darkly comic “Exit,” by Belinda Bauer, is one of the most delightful mysteries I’ve read.  Retired and widowed Felix Pink has led a life of routine.  He occupies himself volunteering as an Exiteer – someone who sits with terminally ill people as they die by suicide, assisting with logistics and lending moral support but not aiding in any way.  Then something goes terribly wrong, and Felix finds himself on the run from the police as he tries to discover whether it was a simple mistake – or murder.  This is a charming story with many twists and turns, and an ending you won’t anticipate.

A writer only begins a book.  A reader finishes it.  Samuel Johnson

All About Books

May

Fiction:

Both Kathleen Davis and my brother, Bob Pike, praised “Deacon King Kong,” by James Mc Bride, and it is a marvel.  In September, 1969, a fumbling, cranky old church deacon known in the neighborhood as Sportcoat shuffles into the courtyard of the Causeway Housing Projects in south Brooklyn, pulls a .38 from his pocket, and in front of everybody shoots the project’s drug dealer at point-blank range.  The reasons for this desperate burst of violence and the consequences that spring from it lie at the heart of this novel, McBride’s first since winning the National Book Award for “The Good Lord Bird,” also a favorite of mine.  McBride brings to vivid and compassionate life the people affected by the shooting:  the victim, the African-American and Latinx residents who witnessed it, the white neighbors, the local NYPD cops assigned to investigate what happened, the members of the Five Ends Baptist Church where Sportcoat was deacon, the neighborhood’s Italian mobsters, and Sportcoat himself.  As the story deepens, it becomes clear that the lives of these characters – caught in the tumultuous swirl of New York in the late 1960s – overlap in unexpected ways.  I loved McBride’s humor and shared the obvious affection he feels for his characters, especially as he addresses the complex issues and paradoxes of race they have to deal with.  He is a masterful and moving storyteller. 

I have written up the books by Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo as mysteries, but to me “The Kingdom” felt more like a gripping psychological novel.  Roy has never left the quiet mountain town he grew up in, unlike his little brother, Carl, who couldn’t wait to get out and escape his troubled past.  Just like everyone else in town, Roy believed Carl was gone for good.  But Carl has big plans for his hometown.  And when he returns with a mysterious new wife and a business opportunity that seems too good to be true, simmering tensions begin to surface and unexplained deaths in the town’s past come under new scrutiny.  Soon powerful players set their sights on taking the brothers down by exposing their role in the town’s sordid history.  But Roy and Carl are surivivors, and no strangers to violence.  Roy has always protected his younger brother, but as the body count rises,  Roy’s loyalty to family is tested.  And then Roy finds himself inextricably drawn to Carl’s wife, Shannon, an attraction that will have devastating consequences.  Roy will be forced to choose between his own flesh and blood and a future he never thought possible.   When on its cover a book reviewer refers to “the Shakespearean inevitability of the impending tragedy,” you know things are not going to turn out well for somebody.  This page turner has complex characters and unexpected plot twists, just what I look for in classic Scandinavian noir.

I thoroughly enjoyed being introduced to the multiple generations of four entwined families in a small town in Maine in W. S. Winslow’s debut novel, “The Northern Reach.”  Frozen in grief after the loss of her son at sea, Edith Baines stares across the water at a schooner, under full sail yet motionless in the winter wind and surging tide of the Northern Reach.  Edith seems to be hallucinating – or is she?  Edith’s boat-watch opens this novel, set in the coastal town of Wellbridge, Maine, where townspeople squeeze a living from the perilous bay or scrape by on the largesse of the summer folk and whatever they can cobble together, salvage, or grab.  At the center of town life is the Baines family, land-rich, cash-poor descendants of town founders, along with the ne’er-do-well Moody clan, the Martins of Skunk Pond, and the dirt-farming, bootlegging Edgecombs.  Over the course of the twentieth century, the families intersect, interact, and intermarry, grappling with secrets and prejudices that span generations, opening new wounds and reckoning with old ghosts.   The author helpfully supplies us with updated family trees as this sweeping story of tough, outspoken, no-nonsense people transports us to the harsh and unforgiving landscape of northern Maine.  As one reviewer noted, there’s nothing better than getting to walk through a small and unfamiliar town while peering through the windows into the lives of those in the houses there, exactly what reading this novel feels like. 

In Anita Brookner’s novels, you end up understanding what’s in her characters’ hearts and minds more fully than you do that of real people in your personal life, maybe even of your own, and that to me is the great appeal of her beautifully crafted novels.  When Anna Durrant disappears in “Fraud,” it is months before anyone notices.  Middle-aged, wealthy, and diffident, Anna has lived an ascetic life, submitting to the protective dependence of her frail mother and avoiding emotional entanglements with everyone else.  Acquaintances don’t think very much about Anna, and certainly none of them has understood her complexity, the conspiracy into which she has entered and the life she has denied herself.  When her absence is reported to the police, the few people who knew Anna begin to wonder what could have happened to her:  Mrs. Marsh, an elderly woman who observed Anna’s intense relationship with her mother, and Lawrence Halliday, the reticent doctor whose interest in Anna may have been more than professional.  As the story unfolds, we realize that none of the characters have been honest with one another or with themselves.  What they discover in confronting their own fraudulent behavior is both surprising and liberating.   The New York Times has called Brookner, a winner of the Booker Prize for fiction, “one of the finest novelists of her generation.”

Cormac McCarthy won the 20007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction with his bleak and searing post-apocalyptic novel, “The Road,” which I found stunning.  It’s the tale of a father and son on a journey south in a world where a disaster has occurred, reducing nature to a nuclear-grey winter and humans to savage scavengers.  All they have is a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food – and each other.  So grim – and yet, McCarthy’s language is poetic and his description of the powerful and poignant relationship between the boy and his father profoundly moving.  It’s a world without hope, but one in which the father and son, “each the other’s world entire,” are sustained by love.  This is a short novel, a meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of:  ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation.  As a reader, I was completely drawn into their agonizing journey, and still feel haunted by this mesmerizing story, truly McCarthy’s masterpiece. 

Non-Fiction:

I never wanted “The Best of Me,” a collection of David Sedaris’s best stories and essays, to end – they are hilarious, and thoughtful, and poignant, and absurd, and I ate them up.  In them, Sedaris shops for rare taxidermy, hitchhikes with a lady quadriplegic, and spits a lozenge into a fellow traveler’s lap.  He drowns a mouse in a bucket (or tries to), struggles to say “give it to me” in five languages, and hand-feeds a carnivorous bird.  He so vividly describes his five siblings and the tragic suicide of one of them that the reader feels enmeshed in his weird but loving family, especially as he loses one parent and comes to terms – at long last – with the other.   I’m not sure this is truly non-fiction, as I suspect Sedaris messes with the facts and elaborates on events to make them even funnier than they are, but who cares?  When you read these brilliant anecdotes that make you laugh out loud you know you’ve found a treasure.

Physician and sociologist Jonathan M. Metzl traveled across America’s heartland seeking to better understand the politics of racial resentment and its impact on public health.  In “Dying of Whiteness:  How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland,” he uncovers, after interviewing a range of Americans, how racial anxieties led to the repeal of gun control laws in Missouri, stymied the Affordable Care Act in Tennessee, and fueled massive cuts to schools and social services in Kansas.  Although such measures promised to “restore greatness” to white America, Metzl’s systematic analysis of health data dramatically reveals they did just the opposite:  these policies made life sicker, harder, and shorter in the very populations they purported to aid.  Thus, white life expectancies fell, gun suicides soared, and school dropout rates rose.  As he says in his introduction, “white America’s investment in maintaining an imagined place atop a racial hierarchy – that is, an investment in a sense of whiteness – ironically harms the aggregate well-being of US whites as a demographic group, thereby making whiteness itself a negative health indicator.”  Metzl’s research measures just how deeply modern-day American backlash conservatism demands that lower-and-middle-class white Americans vote against their own biological self-interests as well as their own economic priorities.  He kept wondering why people would reject their own health care, or keep guns unlocked when their children were home.  But because of the frames cast around these and other issues hued with historically charged assumptions about privilege, it became ever-more difficult for many people with whom he spoke to imagine alternate realities or to empathize with groups other than their own.  Compromise, in many ways, is coded as treason.  Metzl does not suggest that everyone become a Democrat – far from it – but that our nation urgently needs to recognize how the systems of inequality we build and sustain aren’t benefiting anyone.  The recent histories of Missouri, Tennessee, and Kansas thus serve as object lessons and cautionary tales that suggest how the racial system of America fails everyone.  Ultimately, the three states visited in this book show ways that, when white voters are asked to defend whiteness, whiteness often fails to defend, honor, or restore them.  In his conclusion, Metzl says that “getting back to a place where America is truly great depends on the hard work of talking with and listening to each other and recognizing how much we actually need each other, instead of falling prey to prefabricated and manipulated polarizations.”  I suspect that anyonewho reads this rational and thoroughly-researched book will say amen to that.

Mysteries::   Even though for most of my life I haven’t been able to even think about rats, much less read about them, I was totally into the intriguing “The Red Lotus,” by Chris Bohjalian, in which rats as laboratory subjects infected with pathogens play a major part.  In this twisting story of love and deceit, an American who works in the development department of a New York City hospital vanishes on a bike trip on a rural road in Vietnam, and his girlfriend, an emergency room doctor trained to ask questions, follows a path that leads her home to the very hospital where they met when he came in with a bullet wound in his arm.  Nothing is as it seems in this novel, which is  suspenseful as well as prescient.  I tried not to think about the rats.  “Miracle Creek,” by Angie Kim, is a courtroom thriller about an immigrant family and a young single mother accused of killing her autistic son.  In rural Miracle Creek, Virginia, Young and Pak Yoo run an experimental medical treatment device called the Miracle Submarine, a pressurized oxygen chamber that patients enter for therapeutic “dives,” including one child whose mom hopes will become more like other kids.  When the chamber mysteriously explodes, killing two people, the ensuing murder trial uncovers well-hidden secrets and lies.  Intriguingly, the author is the mother of a real-life “submarine” patient. Anthony Horowitz’s mysteries are so fiendishly clever I’m always looking forward to the next one!  In “Moonflower Murders,” retired publisher Susan Ryeland is living the good but exhausting life running a small hotel on a Greek island with her long-term boyfriend, Andreas, and is actually beginning to miss London.  Then the Trehernes come to stay, and tell her about the unfortunate murder of a man named Parris that took place on the same day and in the same hotel in which their daughter was married in a picturesque inn on the Suffolk coast.  One of Susan’s former writers, the late Alan Conway, knew the murder victim and once visited that very hotel and based the third book in his detective series, “Atticus Pund Takes the Case,” on that very crime.  The Trehernes’ daughter, Cecily, read Conway’s mystery and believed the book proves that the man convicted of Parris’ murder – a Romanian immigrant who was the hotel’s handyman – is innocent, and now Cecily is missing.  Susan knows she has to return to England to find out what really happened, helped by re-reading Conway’s book, which is actually included in the midsection of “Moonflower Murders” so we can also try to recognize the clue to the real murderer that Cecily discovered.  The plot twists keep us guessing as we relish the echoes of Agatha Christie.    It’s always a pleasure to be back in L.A. with Easy Rawlins, Walter Mosley’s Black private detective whose small agency finally has its own office.  In “Blood Grove,” Easy gets a visit from a white Vietnam veteran with a story about how he and his lover, a beautiful young woman, were attacked in a citrus grove at the city’s outskirts.  He may have killed a man, and the woman is now missing.  Easy takes the case, leading us through a California of hippies and tycoons, radicals and sociopaths, and cops and grifters as gets help from his – and Mosley’s readers’ – colorful, and sometimes dangerous, old friends.

The business of the poet and the novelist is to show the sorriness underlying the grandest things and the grandeur underlying the sorriest things. -Thomas Hardy, novelist and poet (2 Jun 1840-1928) 

All About Books

April

Fiction:

“Monogamy,” by Sue Miller, is one of those absorbing stories that pull you deeply into the lives of a couple and don’t let you go until you (reluctantly) reach the end.  Graham and Annie have been married for nearly thirty years.  Their seemingly endless devotion has long been the envy of their circle of friends and acquaintances.  By all appearances, they are a golden couple.  Graham is a bookseller, a big, gregarious man with large appetites – curious, eager to please, a lover of life, and the convivial host of frequent, lively parties at his and Annie’s comfortable house in Cambridge.  Annie, more reserved and introspective, is a photographer about to have her first gallery show after a six-year lull who is worried that the best years of her career may be behind her.  They have two adult children:  Lucas, Graham’s son with his first wife, Frieda, works in New York; Sarah, Annie and Graham’s daughter, lives in San Francisco.  Though Frieda is an integral part of this far-flung, loving family, Annie feels confident in the knowledge that she is Graham’s last and greatest love.  Until the unexpected happens, a ruinous secret is revealed, and Annie has reason to question all that she was comfortable believing.   Sue Miller is a compelling and compassionate writer who excels at burrowing into the intricacies of an extended family’s complex and often challenging relationships.

My family lived in Naples when I was in college, which may be why I am especially enamored with Elena Ferrante’s novels set in that colorful, chaotic, endearing city, beginning with her four-volume novel known as the Neapolitan quartet.  Her latest, “The Lying Life of Adults,” focuses on the adolescent life of her 12-year-old narrator, Giovanna, and the gulf between the Naples of the heights, which assumes a mask of refinement, and the Naples of the depths, with its excess and vulgarity.  The book’s first paragraph sets the tone – “Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.  The sentence was uttered under his breath, in the apartment that my parents, newly married, had bought at the top of Via San Giacomo die Capri, in Rione Alto.  Everything – the spaces of Naples, the blue light of a frigid February, those words – remained fixed.  But I slipped away, and am still slipping away, within these lines that are intended to give me a story, while in fact I am nothing, nothing of my own, nothing that has really begun or really been brought to completion:  only a tangled knot, and nobody, not even the one who at this moment is writing, knows if it contains the right thread for a story or is merely a snarled confusion of suffering, without redemption.”  Is Giovanna seeing things as they really are?  In search of her true reflection and a life she can claim as her own, adrift between extended family members with their complex relationships, Giovanna vacillates between the two parts of her city, falling into one and then climbing back to the other.  Neither seems to offer answers.  I agree with the reviewer who said that Ferrante is unbeatable at pulling readers into the mind of a teenage girl so that we see how everything that looks irrational from the outside – the moods, the silences, the jealousy, fears, tears, and resentments – are utterly logical and reasonable when you understand them.  She (if in fact she is a she – Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym) is a brilliant writer.

“Hamnet:  A Novel of the Plague,” by Maggie O’Farrell, a wonderfully creative speculation about Shakespeare’s life, is set in England in 1580 as The Black Death creeps across the land, infecting the healthy, the sick, the old, and the young alike.  A young Latin tutor – penniless and bullied by a violent father – falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman named Agnes who is known throughout the countryside for her unusual gifts as a healer, understanding plants and potions better than she does people.  Once she settles with her husband on Henley street in Stratford-upon-Avon, she becomes a fiercely protective mother of three and a steadfast, centrifugal force in the life of her young husband, whose career on the London stage is just taking off when his beloved young son, Hamnet (or Hamlet) succumbs.  This is a revelatory portrait of a marriage, of a family ravaged by grief and loss, and an inspired reimagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten and whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays of all time.  In her Author’s Note, O’Farrell says she has tried to stick to the scant historical facts known about the real Hamnet and his family, but a few details – names, in particular – have been altered or elided over.  For example, most people will know Hamnet’s mother as “Anne,” but she was named by her father, Richard Hathaway, in his will, as “Agnes.”  Also, it is not known why Hamnet Shakespeare died:  his burial is listed but not the cause of his death.  The Black Death is not mentioned once by Shakespeare in any of his plays or poetry, and O’Farrell has always wondered why.  To our benefit, this imaginative novel is the result of her idle speculation, one I couldn’t put down.

“Transcendent Kingdom,” a novel about a Ghanian family in the contemporary South, was written by Yaa Gyasi, who was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama.  (She won numerous prizes for her debut novel, “Homegoing.”)  It’s a profound story about race in America and an intimate portrait of a young woman reckoning, spiritually and intellectually, with a legacy of unmanageable loss.  Gifty is a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at the Stanford University School of Medicine, studying reward-seeking behavior in mice and the neural circuits of depression and addiction.  Her brother, Nana, was a gifted high school athlete who died of a heroin overdose after an ankle injury left him hooked on OxyContin.  Her suicidal mother is living in Gifty’s bed.  Gifty is determined to discover the scientific basis for the suffering she sees all around her.  But even as she turns to the hard sciences to unlock the mystery of her family’s losses, she finds herself hungering for her childhood faith and grappling with the evangelical church in which she was raised, whose promise of salvation remains as tantalizing as it is elusive.  This beautifully-written novel is a deeply moving portrait of immigrants ravaged by depression and addiction and grief – but it’s also about faith, science, religion, and love, and is ultimately uplifting.

Susan Abulhawa takes us to Kuwait, Jordan, and Palestine in her powerful and defiant novel, “Against the Loveless World.”  Sharp-tongued Nahr tells her life story from an Israeli solitary-confinement cell, recounting how she went from working in beauty salons to being locked up as a political prisoner.  In Kuwait as an abandoned wife not quite twenty years old, she is tricked into working as an escort for powerful men at late-night parties – until the US invasion of Iraq makes her Palestinian family refugees again.  Displaced and bewildered in Jordan, Nahr travels to Palestine seeking a divorce from the man who disappeared on her, wholly unprepared to confront the consequences of the secret that defined her past.  But there, in her homeland, she is transformed by the power of her roots, literature, and love.  She emerges a foul-mouthed critic, passionate dancer, and radical political thinker who risks everything to return her family to their native land.  Her fate fulfills her own prophecy that “the freest individuals were the ones who ended up in state prisons.”  At one point, she and the man she lovesread an essay by James Baldwin written as a letter to his nephew, Big James, in which he says, “Here you were:  to be loved.  To be loved, baby, hard, at once, and forever, to strengthen you against the loveless world.”  Baldwin also wrote, “To be committed is to be in danger,” words Nahr never forgot.  I will not forget the emotional impact of this book.

Non-Fiction:

Since I have read so much about WWII, I thought I didn’t need to read Erik Larson’sThe Splendid and the Vile:  A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz” – but, then again, everything Larson writes is completely engaging, so I dove in and, of course, was immediately engrossed in this fresh portrait of Churchill and England during the early days of the war when the outcome was deeply in doubt.  In Winston Churchill’s first day as prime minister, Hitler invaded Holland and Belgium.  Poland and Czechoslovakia had already fallen, and the Dunkirk evacuation was just two weeks away.  For the next twelve months, Hitler would wage a relentless bombing campaign, killing 45,000 Britons.  It was up to Churchill to hold the country together and persuade President Franklin Roosevelt that Britain was a worthy ally – and willing to fight to the end.  Larson shows in detail how Churchill taught the British people (and Hitler, who couldn’t believe they wouldn’t give up) “the art of being fearless.”  It’s a story of political brinkmanship, but also an intimate domestic drama set against the backdrop of Churchill’s prime-ministerial country home, Chequers; his wartime retreat, Ditchley, where he and his entourage go when the moon is brightest and the bombing threat is highest; and of course 10 Downing Street in London.  Drawing on diaries, original archival documents, and once-secret intelligence reports – some released only recently  – Larson pulls us into London’s darkest year through the day-to-day experience of Churchill and those closest to him:  his wife, Clementine; their youngest daughter, Mary, who chafes against her parents’ wartime protectiveness; their irresponsible son, Randolph, and his beautiful, unhappy wife, Pamela; Pamela’s illicit lover, a dashing American emissary; and the advisers in Churchill’s “Secret Circle,” to whom he turns in his hardest moments.  Larson does a wonderful job of combining the terrible tension of the war with colorful descriptions of Churchill’s eccentricities  – for example, after dinner one night at Chequers, fueled with champagne and brandy, Churchill fired up the gramophone and began to play military marches and songs, marching to the music while carrying a big-game rifle, executing rifle drills and bayonet maneuvers, “looking in his rompers like a fierce pale blue Easter egg gone to war.”   As Larson brings us to the darkest days of 1941 I actually found myself feeling tense about the possibility of Hitler’s success.  That’s marvelous writing.

There is simply no way to compare one’s own life with that of a thin, elegant woman who in 1945 lived in a small cottage in the leafy English Cotswolds with her three children and her husband, who worked as a machinist nearby.  Ursula Burton, as she was known, was friendly but reserved, spoke with a slight foreign accent, and seemed to be living a simple, unassuming life, revealing little about herself to her neighbors in the village.  They had no idea she was a high-ranking Soviet intelligence officer, the most important female spy in history, an agent code-named “Sonya,” who set the stage for the Cold War.  Or that her husband was also a spy, or that she was running powerful agents across Europe.  Behind the façade of her picturesque life, “Mrs. Burton” (born Ursula Kuczynski in 1907 to a Jewish family in Berlin) was a dedicated communist, a Red Army colonel, and a veteran spymaster, gathering the scientific secrets that would enable the Soviet Union to build the bomb.  Over the course of her astonishing espionage career she was hunted by the Chinese government, the Japanese secret police, the Nazis, MI5, MI6, and the FBI – and evaded them all.  Her story reflects the great ideological battles of the twentieth century – between communism, fascism, and Western democracy – and in “Agent Sonya: Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy,” Ben Macintyre tells it superbly.  He had unparalleled access to Sonya’s diaries and correspondence and has produced a page-turning history of this revolutionary secret agent, complete with maps and photos of all the major players.  You will be stunned by how “Sonya” juggled lovers, husbands, and children, was “ambitious, romantic, risk-addicted, occasionally selfish, huge-hearted, and tough as only someone who had lived through the worst of twentieth-century could be,” yet was never betrayed and  survived to July 7, 2000, when she died at the age of 93.  A bonus is the Afterword:  The Lives of Others, which tells us what eventually happened to the other participants in this true saga that is every bit as engrossing as any fictional spy thriller.

Mysteries:   We have happily worked our way through the Swedish mystery series by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo featuring Martin Beck, chief of the Swedish National Homicide Squad, and his group of disparate, contentious police officers that Michael Connolly called “One of the most authentic, gripping, profound collections of police procedurals ever accomplished.”  Dennis Lehane describes them as “Rendered with crisp, elegant prose and tension so thick the reader could crack a tooth.”  KCLS has all 10, most as books but two as an Audiobook or eBook, and they are quick reads as well as complex stories with characters you come to feel you know well and care about.  Enjoy.   “Winter Counts,” by David Heska Wanbli Weiden, a lawyer, professor, and enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation, is a gripping thriller that gives the reader a true sense of life on the Lakota Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, both the good and the bad.  Virgil Wounded Horse is the reservation’s local enforcer, hired to deliver his own punishment when justice is denied by the American legal system or tribal council.  When heroin makes its way onto the reservation and finds Virgil’s nephew, his vigilantism suddenly becomes personal.  This is a terrific debut novel with a stunning, surprising climax.   Tana French is in a class by herself when it comes to psychological mysteries, and “The Searcher” is no exception.   Cal Hooper thought a fixer-upper in a remote Irish village would be the perfect escape after 25 years in the Chicago police force and a bruising divorce, a place with a good pub in a pretty spot where nothing much happens.  Then a local kid comes looking for help in finding a missing brother when no one else, including the police, seems to care, and Cal can’t make himself walk away as he learns that even in an idyllic small town there are plenty of hidden secrets.  French is a master at setting a mood and developing characters you care about.

A bookstore is one of the only pieces of evidence we have that people are still thinking. – Jerry Seinfeld, comedian

All About Books

March

Fiction

“Homeland Elegies,” by Ayad Akhtar, a vivid, deeply personal book about an American son and his immigrant father (a prominent cardiologist) and the country they both call home, will keep you turning pages.  Blending fact and fiction, it is part family drama, part social essay, part picaresque (I looked that word up to be sure – “roguish, but appealing”) novel.  As Akhtar describes a country in which debt has ruined countless lives and the gods of finance rule, where immigrants live in fear, and where the nation’s unhealed wounds wreak havoc around the world, he attempts to make sense of it all through the lens of a story about one family, from a heartland town in America to palatial suites in Central Europe to guerilla lookouts in the mountains of Afghanistan.  No one is spared, least of all the author.  Akhtar is unflinchingly honest about himself in this intimate blend of memoir and fiction, and I found the entire novel stunning.  So much resonated with me, and here’s one paragraph I keep thinking about, in reference to a conversation he has with his father about Donald Trump (whom he says his father treated on several occasions) and his “great big beautiful wall,” saying it was something people could fixate on – classic storytelling, a visible, tangible goal that gets an audience rooting for a hero.  “Every good story has the same shape.  The beginning establishes a goal, the more tangible the better.  In the middle we watch the fight toward that goal.  The end is what happens when it’s been reached, or when reaching it has finally failed.  The longer the middle the better the story.  The middle is when we still don’t know the outcome.  That’s when we care the most about what’s happening.  The longer you can keep the audience engaged in the pursuit without actually resolving that pursuit – that’s real mastery.”  Akhtar, a playwright and novelist who won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his first play, “Disgraced,” is a brilliant, provocative writer who has had the courage to write a novel that doesn’t let us, his readers, know what is true and what is not.  I thought it was remarkable.

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and the mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born.  But “Circe,” the title character of this book by Madeline Miller, is a strange child – not obviously powerful like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother.  Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power – the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.  Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts, and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur; Daedalus and his doomed son, Icarus; the murderous Medea; and, of course, wily Odysseus.  But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians.  To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from or the mortals she has come to love.  The writing is rich with detail, the characters are vivid, the plot is suspenseful, and Miller beautifully brings Circe and the cast of mortals, monsters, and Titan and Olympian divinities colorfully to life.  Don’t miss the list of characters at the end of the book, as it is incredibly helpful in keeping everyone straight.  This magical story is captivating.

I felt I was smiling the entire time as I read “Becoming Duchess Goldblatt.” It ispart memoir andpart a joyful tongue-in-cheek romp through the story behind a beloved pseudonymous Twitter personality which reveals how a woman deep in grief rebuilt a life worth living.  There are two stories:  that of the reclusive real-life writer who created a fictional character out of loneliness and thin air, and that of the magical Duchess Goldblatt herself, a bright light in the darkness of social media.  Fans around the world are drawn to Her Grace’s voice, wit, life-affirming love for all humanity, and the fun and friendship of the community that has sprung up around her.  @DuchessGoldblatt (fictional eighty-one-year old literary icon, author of the fictional memoirs ”An Axe to Grind” and “Feasting on the Carcasses of My Enemies, A Love Story” and mother of a fictional middle-aged daughter, Hacienda, who is  incarcerated) brought people together in her name in bookstores, museums, concerts, and coffee shoppes, and along the way brought real friends home – foremost among them Lyle Lovett, who plays a major part in this story and actually has a comment on the book jacket.  It’s hard to explain the plot – an actual memoir of a fictional person – so I’ll just say it’s clever and funny and heart-breaking and you will love it. 

 “The Tunnel,” by A. B. Yehoshua, is a poignant, tender, witty story about an Israeli family wrestling with the mental decline of their husband and father.  Zvi Luria, a man in his seventies, is a retired engineer living in Tel Aviv with his devoted wife, Dina, a respected pediatrician.  Concerned about his decline, she encourages him to take an unpaid position as an assistant to Asael Maimoni, a young road engineer conducting a covert military operation:  building a road inside the massive Ramon Crater in the northern Negev Desert.  The challenge, however, is compounded by the fact that living on the proposed route, amid ancient Nabatean ruins, is a Palestinian family under the protection of an enigmatic archaeological preservationist.   Zvi’s faculties may be declining, but he rises to the challenge in no uncertain terms.  I loved being inside Zvi’s head as he copes – often humorously – with his diagnosis of early dementia, and also admired how beautifully Yehoshua conveys the deep love this couple has for each other, even in the most difficult and challenging times.   I’m so happy to have discovered Yehoshua, a lovely writer who has won many honors, and I look forward to reading more of his novels. 

The Death of Vivek Oji,” by Akwaeke Emezi, is both devastating and stunning, and left me feeling its deep emotional impact for days.  One afternoon, in a town in southeastern Nigeria, a mother opens her front door to discover her son’s body, wrapped in colorful fabric, at her feet.  What follows is the tumultuous, heart-wrenching story of one family’s struggle to understand a child whose spirit is both gentle and mysterious.  Raised by a distant father and a compassionate but overprotective mother, Vivek Oji suffers disorienting blackouts, moments of disconnection between self and surroundings.  As adolescence leads to adulthood, Vivek finds solace in friendships with the warm, boisterous daughters of the Nigerwives, foreign-born women married to Nigerian men.  But Vivek’s closest bond is with Osita, the worldly, high-spirited cousin whose teasing confidence masks a guarded private life.  As their relationship deepens – and Osita struggles to understand Vivek’s escalating crisis – the mystery gives way to a heart-stopping act of violence in a moment when Vivek experiences exhilarating freedom.  In the hands of this powerful and daring writer the reader shares Vivek’s joy and his pain every step of the way.  I should note that Emezi’s first novel, “Freshwater,” won multiple awards and was named a New York Times Notable Book and a Best Book of the Year by The New Yorker, NPR, BuzzFeed and the Chicago Public Library.  It’s now on my list.    

Non-Fiction

My grandson Darien Acero gave me the widely-praised “From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime:  The Making of Mass Incarceration in America,” by Elizabeth Hinton, and it is an eye-opener.  In the United States today, one in every thirty-one adults is under some form of penal control, including one in eleven African American men.  How did “The land of the free” become the home of the world’s largest prison system?  Challenging the belief that America’s prison problem originated with the Reagan administration’s War on Drugs, Hinton traces the rise of mass incarceration to an ironic source:  the social welfare programs of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society at the height of the civil rights era.  “Thus the War on Poverty is best understood not as an effort to broadly uplift communities or as a moral crusade to transform society by combatting inequality or want, but as a manifestation of fear about urban disorder and about the behavior of young people, particularly young African Americans.” This is an in-depth study of the issue, filled with surprising information that reveals how the militarization of the police we’ve witnessed in Ferguson, Minneapolis, and elsewhere had roots in the 1960s.  “In addition to focusing too narrowly on the tactical dimensions of crime control politics,” Hinton says in her introduction, “scholars have underestimated the federal government’s active role in revolutionizing American law enforcement before the 1980s.”  After all, she writes, ”in the absence of policing, juridical, and penal programs federal policymakers imposed, it is entirely possible that state and local governments would have decided to invest in an entirely different set of priorities.  At a time when the harms of mass incarceration are increasingly recognized by policy-makers, political candidates, and growing sectors of the public, national action is needed once again if we are to move toward solutions.”   When you read this along with “The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” by Michelle Alexander, it’s easy to agree with Hinton that our carceral state was built over decades “by a consensus of liberals and conservatives who privileged punitive responses to urban problems as a reaction to the civil rights movement,” and that it’s long past time for a consensus of liberals and conservatives to undo it.  

I suspect few of us understand much about the inner workings of Pakistan, which is why I was so intrigued by “The Nine Lives of Pakistan:  Dispatches from a Precarious State,” by Declan Walsh, formerly the New York Times Pakistan bureau chief.  Walsh has created a portrait of Pakistan over a tumultuous decade through the dramatic lives of nine fascinating individuals.  He traveled from the raucous port of Karachi, which despite its pervasive sense of decay and rot has a unique vibrancy and urban sensibility, to the salons of stately Lahore, to modern Islamabad, from Balochistan to the mountains of Waziristan (I really appreciated the map), and along the way met a diverse cast of Pakistanis, including a chieftain readying for war at his desert fort, a retired spy skulking through the borderlands, and a crusading female lawyer risking death for her beliefs.  Through these “nine lives” he describes a country on the brink – a place of creeping extremism and political chaos, but also personal bravery and dogged idealism that defy easy stereotypes.  Unknown to Walsh, however, an intelligence agent was tracking him.  Written in the aftermath of Walsh’s abrupt deportation, this book concludes with a surprising encounter with that agent, and his revelations about Pakistan’s powerful security state.  In his acknowledgements, Walsh thanks several friends who “carried me through joy and sorrow, helped to untangle the gnarled threads of their country, and left me with a sense of being rooted in it – a great and special privilege.”  Through his vivid storytelling, Walsh brings this complex country and his love for it fully to life.

Mysteries:  I’m always up for a Charles Todd mystery set in the post-war depression of England after WWI.  In “The Black Ascot,” Inspector Ian Rutledge receives an astonishing tip about a cunning killer who has eluded Scotland Yard for ten years, which if true could lead to capturing the suspect in an appalling murder during Black Ascot, the famous 1910 royal horse races that honored the late King Edward VII.  As he gets closer to finding the man, Rutledge’s life is changed by his darkest fear – the exposure of the shell shock which has haunted him since the Battle of the Somme.  This mother and son writing team has created a fine series.  It isn’t the most gripping mystery I’ve ever read, but “Murder in Old Bombay,” by Nev March, is one of the most colorful, starting with the glowing cover illustration and continuing with its vibrant description of life in 1892 in Bombay, the center of British India.  Based on a true story, it tells of a case that catches the eye of Army Captain Jim Agnihotri as he recovers from an injury received in a skirmish on the wild northern frontier – two women have fallen from the busy university’s clock tower in broad daylight, and the widower of one of the victims is certain that his wife and sister did not commit suicide.  Captain Jim approaches the Parsee family and is hired to investigate what happened that terrible afternoon.  This story, set in a tumultuous historical age, won the Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award.

Nora Ephron: ‘I always read the last page of a book first so that if I die before I finish I’ll know how it turned out.’ 

All About Books

February

Fiction:

My daughter Cynthia gave me “Rodham,” by Curtis Sittenfeld, and in this lively and compelling read Sittenfeld imagines what-might-have-been if Hillary Rodham hadn’t married Bill Clinton.  In 1971, Hillary Rodham was a young woman full of promise:  Life magazine covered her Wellesley commencement speech, she was heading to Yale Law School, and she was on the forefront of student activism and the women’s rights movement.  Then she met Bill Clinton, a handsome, charismatic southerner and fellow law student already planning his political career, and they found in each other a profound connection, intellectually, emotionally, and physically.  In the real world Hillary followed Bill to Arkansas and eventually, as we all know, became Hillary Clinton.   But in this work of fiction, feeling doubt about the prospect of marriage, Hillary endures a devastating breakup with Bill and leaves Arkansas.  Over the next four decades, she blazes her own trail – one that unfolds in public as well as in private, that involves crossing paths again (and again), with Bill Clinton, and that raises questions about the trade-offs we all make in building a life.  It’s very clever – I had not anticipated how much fun it would be to read.

I find books by Turkish Nobel Prize winner Orphan Pamuk beautifully written and rich with thoughtfulness and nuance, and “The Red-Haired Woman” is no exception.  On the outskirts of a town thirty kilometers from Istanbul, a master welldigger and his young apprentice are hired to find water on a barren plain.  As they struggle in the summer heat, excavating without luck meter by meter, the two develop a filial bond neither has known before – not the poor middle-aged bachelor or the middle-class boy whose father disappeared after being arrested for politically subversive activities.  The pair will come to depend on each other and exchange stories reflecting disparate views of the world.  But in the nearby town where they buy provisions and take their evening break the boy will find an irresistible diversion.  The Red-Haired woman, an alluring member of a traveling theater company, catches his eye and seems as fascinated by him as he is by her.  The young man’s wildest dream will be realized, but when in his distraction a horrible accident befalls the welldigger, the boy will flee, returning to Istanbul.  Only years later will he – and we – discover whether he was in fact responsible for his master’s death and who the redheaded enchantress really was.  This is an intriguing mystery and a romance, as well as a tale of fathers and sons, and I was completely drawn in by the way the dramatic true story finally reveals itself years later.

In Margaret Atwood’s “The Testaments,” it’s fifteen years after the events of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and the theocratic regime of the Republic of Gilead maintains its grip on power despite signs it is beginning to rot from within.  At this crucial moment, the lives of three radically different women converge.  Two have grown up on opposite sides of the border:  one in Gilead as the privileged daughter of an important Commander and one in Canada, where she marches in anti-Gilead protests and watches news of its horrors on TV.  The third voice is that of one of the regime’s enforcers, a woman who wields power through the ruthless accumulation and deployment of secrets.  Long-buried secrets are what finally bring these three together, forcing each of them to come to terms with who she is and how far she will go for what she believes.  I was riveted by this dramatic and suspenseful sequel to a book which I had found wildly imaginative and terrifying at the same time.

On the cover of “Tender is the Flesh,” by Agustina Bazterrica, a reviewer says, ”This book will pull you in, take hold, and not let go until you reach the final page.  Without a doubt, my favorite read of  this year.”   Amen to that – I am still reeling from its brilliance, even as I have to say the dystopian world in this book is not for the squeamish.  Working at the local processing plant, Marcos is in the business of slaughtering humans – though no one calls them that anymore.  His wife has left him, his father is sinking into dementia, his infant son has died, and Marcos tries not to think too hard about how he makes a living.  After all, it happened so quickly.  First, it was reported that an infectious virus has made all animal meat poisonous to humans.  Then governments initiated the “Transition.”  Now, eating human meat – euphemistically called “special meat” – is legal.  The prime fare, F.G.P.s (First Generation Pure) are born and raised in captivity, artificially inseminated, sold, butchered, and plated however you like.  Marcos tries to stick to numbers, consignments, processing, but one day he’s given a gift:   a live specimen of the finest quality.  Though he’s aware that any form of personal contact is forbidden, he names her Jasmine, little by little starts to treat her like a human being, and eventually gets her pregnant, a crime that could land them both in the Municipal Slaughterhouse.  As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think about our real-life factory- farm processes by mentally swapping humans for pigs or cows, which I presume is the point.  One reviewer referred to the “chilly aloofness” of Bazterrica’s writing that makes the horror of the story all the more disturbing and yet allows the reader to keep a tolerable distance from the grotesqueness of the plot.  This provocative and disturbing story will haunt you.

I waffled about writing up “The World That We Knew,” by Alice Hoffman, because despite Hoffman’s reputation as a fine writer, the book didn’t quite work for me.   At the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knew she must send her twelve-year-old daughter, Lea, away to save her from the Nazi regime.  She finds her way to a renowned rabbi, but it’s his daughter, Ettie, who offers hope of salvation when she creates a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Lea.  Once Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their lives forever linked.  Lea and Ava travel from Paris, where Lea meets her soul mate, to a convent in eastern France, to a school in the mountaintop village where three thousand Jews were saved.  Meanwhile, Ettie is in hiding, waiting to become the fighter she’s always known she’s destined to be, in a world of love and loss where evil is found at every turn.  I have mentioned I am not a big fan of magical realism, but I don’t think the golem was the problem – it was more that at times I felt the writing was pedestrian and didn’t sustain my interest.

Non-Fiction:

My daughter Catherine gave me the delightful and very thoughtful “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants,” by Robin Wall Kimmerer.   The author is a mother, scientist, decorated professor, enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi
Nation, and founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment who embraces the notion that plants and animals are our oldest teachers.  In this book she uses her extensive knowledge to show that the awakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgement and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the living world, that it takes humility to learn from other species.  Her passion enfolds the reader as she captures the images of giant cedars and wild strawberries, a forest in the rain, a meadow of fragrant sweetgrass, and so much else.  (Several years ago I bought several sweetgrass baskets from a woman who wove them in Charleston, South Carolina, and was moved to get them out and admire them again as I learned that “Sweetgrass is best planted not by seed, but by putting roots directly in the ground.  Thus the plant is passed from hand to earth to hand across years and generations.”  I love knowing that, and more fully appreciating their origin.  Kimmerer is a lovely writer, and it’s tempting to quote her at length, but what she wants us to remember is that “We are all bound by a covenant of reciprocity:  plant breath for animal breath, winter and summer, predator and prey, grass and fire, night and day, living and dying.  Water knows this, clouds know this.  Salt and rocks know they are dancing in a continuous giveaway of making, unmaking, and making again the earth.   Remember that the earth is a gift that we must pass on, just as it came to us.  When we forget, the dances we’ll need will be for mourning.  For the passing of polar bears, the silence of cranes, for the death of rivers and the memory of snow.” 
Catherine and I agree the book is longer than it needs to be, because Kimmerer has so much knowledge and cares so deeply about her subject, but the cumulative effect of her writing can’t help but affect the reader deeply.  “Restoring land without restoring relationship is an empty exercise.  It is relationship that will endure and relationship that will sustain the restored land.  Therefore, reconnecting people and the landscape is as essential as reestablishing proper hydrology or cleaning up contaminants.  It is medicine for the earth.”  Kimmerer is careful to say thank you for every gift the earth gives her.

When Chuck Sitkin told me about “Homo Deus,” he also mentioned the fascinating, enlightening, and ultimately challenging “Sapiens:  A Brief History of Mankind,” by the same author, Yuval Noah Harari.  One hundred thousand years ago, at least six human species inhabited the earth.  Today there is just one.  Us.  Homo sapiens.  How did our species succeed in the battle for dominance?  Why did our foraging ancestors come together to create cities and kingdoms?  How did we come to believe in gods, nations, and human rights; to trust money, books, and laws; and to be enslaved by bureaucracy, timetable, and consumerism?  And what will our world be like in the millennia to come?  If you are intrigued by these questions – and who wouldn’t be? – you will enjoy reading about this span of the whole of human history, from the very first humans to walk the earth to the radical – and sometimes devastating – breakthroughs of the Cognitive, Agricultural, and Scientific Revolutions.  Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, paleontology, and economics, Harari explores how the currents of history have shaped our human societies, the animals and plants around us, and even our personalities.  Are we happier?  Have we freed our behavior from the legacy of our ancestors?  And what, if anything, can we do to influence the course of the centuries to come?  Harari talks about concepts we take for granted, like capitalism (the idea that the profits of production must be reinvested in increasing production), which was alien to most people throughout history.  In premodern times, people believed that production was more or less constant, so why reinvest your profits if production won’t increase by much, no matter what you do?  Thus, the money spent on tournaments, monumental cathedrals, banquets, palaces, and wars, rather than developing better kinds of wheat or looking for new markets.  Harari also notes that over the last two centuries, the pace of change became so quick that the social order now exists in a state of permanent flux.  For example, the Internet came into wide usage only in the early 1990s, yet today we can’t imagine the world without it.  The only characteristic of modern society of which we can be certain is the incessant change.  Harari observes that this is the first time in history that the world is dominated by a peace-loving elite.  The threat of nuclear holocaust fosters pacifism; when pacifism spreads, war recedes and trade flourishes; and trade increases both the profits of peace and the costs of war.  We are witnessing the formation of a global empire which enforces peace within its borders – and since its borders cover the entire globe, the World Empire effectively enforces world peace.  But, of course, “History has still not decided where we will end up.”  What a gift it is to read something this stimulating!

Mysteries:   I started “Watching You,” by Lisa Jewel, yesterday morning, and there went that day.  The story begins with a detective examining a body which is  lying on a kitchen floor in a pool of blood, but we won’t know which of the residents of Melville Heights, one of the nicest neighborhoods in Bristol, England, is our victim until much later, after we’ve come to realize that even though it’s not the sort of place where people are murdered in their own kitchens, it is the sort of place where everyone has a secret and prying eyes lurk behind every curtain.  This is compulsive reading until the startling revelation on the very last page. In  “The Evil Men Do,” by John McMahon, Ennis Fultz, a hard-nosed real estate baron is dead, and detectives P.T. Marsh and Remy Morgan learn there’s a long list of suspects.  Mason Falls, Georgia, may be a small town, but Fultz had it filled with professional rivals, angry neighbors, and a wronged ex-wife.  As the detectives dig into the case, it becomes clear that Fultz’s death was not an isolated case of revenge, but may be part of a dark web of crimes connected to an accident that upended Marsh’s life a couple of years earlier, and that now threatens the life of a young child.  This is a fine mystery with a complex and compelling plot.  We read about young women who have disappeared from exotic Caribbean locations, so there is a haunting quality to “Saint X,” by Alexis Schaitkin.  Claire Thomas is only seven years old when her college-age sister, Alison, disappears on the last night of their family vacation at a resort on the Caribbean Island of Saint X.  Several days later, Alison’s body is found in a remote spot on a nearby cay, and two local men – employees at the resort – are arrested.  But the evidence is slim, the timeline is against it, and the men are soon released.  The story turns into national tabloid news, an unsolved lurid mystery, and Claire and her parents return home to broken lives.  A coincidence in New York City years later sets Claire on an obsessive pursuit of the truth, not only to find out what actually happened but also to learn who Alison really was.  Truthfully, I found the story longer than it needed to be, but gripping enough to keep me going, and I learned much that was eye-opening about life behind the scenes at an island resort.  If you encounter someone who becomes obsessed with you, you’ll head the other way if you have read the mesmerizing ”Our Kind of Cruelty,” by Araminta Hall.  Mike Hayes fought his way out of a brutal childhood and into a quiet, if lonely, life before he met met Verity, the first person to understand him.  To love him.  In return, Mike has dedicated his life to making her happy.  He’s ready to start their blissful life together, and it doesn’t matter that she hasn’t been returning his emails or phone calls – or that she says she’s marrying another man, Angus.  He’s sure it’s all just part of the secret game they used to play, and that if he watches V closely and keeps track of her every move, he’ll know just when to come to her rescue.  This is one creepy guy, and the book’s last line will give you shivers.  Wendy Lesser, in her homage to Scandinavian mysteries called “Scandinavian Noir,” has made the series by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo featuring Martin Beck her “top recommendation, now and for all time.”  Jack and I are reading them in order, starting with “Roseanna,” which begins when a young woman’s body is  dredged from Sweden’s Lake Vattern, with no clues either to a murderer or to her identity.  We stay with Martin Beck, the melancholic First Detective Inspector with the National Police, for the next several months as he narrows the list of the eighty-five people on the cruise who could have strangled her.  It’s a brilliant and suspenseful police procedural, and we are delighted there are nine more.

There is nothing more luxurious than eating while you read – unless it be reading while you eat.
 E. Nesbit

All About Books

January 2021

This month is a bit longer, as three weeks ago I had an aortic heart valve replacement due to stenosis and was told to take it easy for a few days.  What a reader hears, of course, is grab a book and head for the couch!   Heaven.

Fiction:

I’ve read many books dealing with Israeli-Palestinian issues, both fiction and fact, but I found “Apeirogon,” (defined as a shape with a countably infinite number of sides), by Colum McCann, to be one of the most memorable and emotionally impactful.  Bassam Aramin is a Palestinian.  Rami Elhanan is Israeli.  They inhabit a world of conflict that colors every aspect of their daily lives, from the roads they are allowed to drive on, to the schools their daughters, Abir and Smadar, each attend, to the checkpoints, both physical and emotional, they must negotiate.  Their worlds shift irreparably after ten-year-old Abir is killed by a rubber bullet and thirteen-year-old Smadar becomes the victim of suicide bombers.  When Bassam and Rami learn of each other’s stories, they recognize the loss that connects them and they attempt together to use their grief as a weapon for peace.  McCann constructs “Apeirogon” from a universe of fictional and non-fictional material that crosses centuries and continents, stitching together time, art, history, nature, and politics in a story both heartbreaking and hopeful.  It is written in an unusual narrative form – no chapters, short paragraphs alternating with longer passages – which I found incredibly powerful. Here is Bassam, as he accepts invitations to parties, dinners, symposiums – “He had one simple answer to the questions that inevitably came his way.  There was no symmetry between the jailer and the jailed.  Destroy the jail.  The Occupation was based on the fallacy of security.  It had to end.  Nothing else would be possible until that happened.”  And Rami – “It may sound strange, but in Israel we don’t really know what the Occupation actually is.  We sit in our coffee shops and we have a good time and we don’t have to deal with it.  We have no idea what it’s like to walk through a checkpoint every day.  Or to have our family land taken away.  Or to wake up with a gun in our faces.  We have two sets of roads, two sets of values.  To most Israelis this seems impossible, some sort of weird distortion of reality, but it is not.  Because we just don’t know.  . . .  Truth is, you can’t have a humane occupation.  It just doesn’t exist.  It can’t.  It’s about control.   Maybe we have to wait until the price of peace is so high that people begin to  understand this.  Maybe it won’t end until the price outweighs the benefits.”  Readers will not come away from this book unchanged.

How I enjoyed “All Adults Here” by Emma Straub!  Astrid Strick – mother to three grown-up children, has been keeping a secret.  Just as she is finally warming up to sharing it with her family, a forgotten memory from her younger parenting days is jostled loose, and it’s not a good one.  Suddenly, Astrid realizes, she may not have been quite the parent she always thought she was.  But to what consequences?  And is it too late to set things straight?  Astrid’s youngest son, Nicky, is drifting and unfocused, making parenting mistakes of his own.  Her daughter, Porter, is pregnant, yet struggling to give up her own adolescence in time to greet a baby.  And Astrid’s eldest, Elliot, seems to measure his adult life according to standards no one else shares.  But who gets to decide, so many years later, which were the mistakes that mattered?  It might be that only Astrid’s thirteen-year-old granddaughter, Cecelia,  (“all anyone in the middle of puberty wanted was a larger rock to hide under, and the spotlight pointed somewhere else”) and her new friend really understand the courage it takes to tell the truth to the people you love the most.  There were many observations in this story that resonated with me.  Here’s Elliot – “Maybe it was a blessing of childhood that most people couldn’t remember much before they were five – what good would it do to remember life as a savage toddler, totally divorced from societal norms?  It was as if each human evolved from being a chimpanzee in a single lifetime.  No one wanted to remember the jungle.”  And yet, he knew that the only thing that drove anyone – drove him – was the past.  To Cecilia, “Parents were supposed to be there. That was their whole job.  Good, bad, whatever – the very lowest job requirement was to be there.”  “That was the truth of a successful marriage that Astrid understood:  All you had to do was not get divorced or die!  Everything else was fair game.  Not settling for something less than you deserved, just settled down, the way breath settles in a sleeping body, not doing more than necessary.”  “When Porter was a teenager, Astrid’s own teenage memories still felt like a relevant part of her DNA, whereas now those same memories seemed like a sad, dull movie whose plot she couldn’t quite remember.”  This is a smart, thoughtful story with engaging characters who inspire us to reflect on our own lives and what makes up a family.

“Red Dress in Black and White,” by Elliot Ackerman, unfolds over the course of a single day in Istanbul, when an American woman attempts to leave behind her life in Turkey – and her marriage.  Catherine and her husband Murat, an influential Turkish real estate developer, have a young son.   When she decides to return home to the United States with their son and her lover, Murat takes a stand.  He enlists the help of an American diplomat to prevent them from going – and, in so doing, becomes further enmeshed in a web of deception and corruption, where the worlds populated by struggling artists, wealthy businessmen, expats, and spies intersect.  One reviewer admired Ackerman’s ability to get under his characters’ skin, which I felt was a perfect description of how involved the reader becomes with these people as they struggle to resolve their issues – which are complicated even more by an unexpected twist toward the end of the novel.   The story kept me fully absorbed, and I also appreciated Ackerman’s rich knowledge of Turkey, where he was based as a journalist for many years.  

Want to brighten a dreary winter day?  Read anything by Carl Hiaasen, whose satirical crime novels set in the Sunshine State will do it.  In “Squeeze Me,” it’s the height of the Palm Beach charity ball season:  for every disease or cause, there’s a reason for the local luminaries to eat (minimally), drink (maximally), and be seen.  But when a prominent high-society dowager suddenly vanishes during a swanky gala, and is later found dead in a concrete grave, panic and chaos erupt.  Kiky Pew was notable not just for her wealth and her jewels – she was an ardent fan of the Winter White House resident just down the road and a founding member of the Potussies, a group of women dedicated to supporting their President.  Never one to miss an opportunity to play to his base, the President immediately declares that Kiki was the victim of rampaging immigrant hordes.  This, it turns out, is far from the truth.  The truth might lie in the middle of the highway, where a bizarre discovery brings the First Lady’s motorcade to a grinding halt (followed by some grinding between the First Lady and a lovestruck Secret Service agent).  Enter Angie Armstrong, wildlife wrangler extraordinaire, who arrives at her own conclusions after she is summoned to the posh island to deal with a mysterious and impolite influx of huge, hungry pythons.  It’s all great fun, with especially satisfying and possibly close-to-the-truth revelations about our recently departed POTUS.  Oh – the swanky gala was the marquee fundraiser for the Gold Coast chapter of the IBS Wellness Foundation, a group globally committed to defeating Irritable Bowel Syndrome, in case you want to donate.

Historical fiction novels by our friend Fiona Davis bring together the past and present worlds of characters whose lives are closely tied to iconic New York City buildings.  In her latest, “The Lions of Fifth Avenue,” it’s 1913, and Laura Lyons couldn’t ask for more out of life – her husband is the superintendent of the New York Public Library, allowing them and their two children to live in an apartment building within the grand building (the seven-room apartment inside the library did in fact exist, and for thirty years was the home of the library’s superintendent and his family, but the Lyons family is fictional.)  Headstrong Laura wants more, and when she is accepted to the Columbia Journalism School her studies take her all over the city, where she discovers the Heterodoxy Club – a radical, all-female group in which women are encouraged to share their opinions on suffrage, birth control, and women’s rights.  Laura begins questioning her traditional role as wife and mother, but when valuable books are stolen back at the library, threatening the home and institution she loves, she’s forced to confront her shifting priorities.  Eighty years later, in 1993, Sadie Donovan struggles with the legacy of her grandmother, the famous essayist Laura Lyons, especially after she’s achieved her dream job as a curator at the New York Public Library.  That dream becomes a nightmare when rare manuscripts, notes, and books for the exhibit Sadie’s running begin disappearing from the library’s famous Berg Collection.  Sadie teams up with a private security expert to uncover the culprit, but the investigation becomes personal when it leads Sadie to some unwelcome truths about her own family heritage, truths that shed new light on the biggest tragedy in the family’s history.  Davis cleverly weaves these time frames together in a story that makes us want to immediately head to the city to wander through this magnificent edifice by way of its imposing front steps, which are flanked by two marble lions which in the 1930s Mayor La Guardia named Patience and Fortitude.  In her novels Davis skillfully and vividly brings historic New York buildings to life.

Non-Fiction:

I don’t think I’ve ever said this before in my reviews, but I’m saying it now – please, everyone put “Caste: the Origin of Our Discontents,” by Isabel Wilkerson (the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism and the author of “The Warmth of Other Suns”) on the top of your reading list.  “As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance.  The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality.  It is about power – which groups have it and which do not.” Wilkerson examines the unspoken caste system that has shaped America and shows how our lives today are still defined by a hierarchy of human divisions.  Beyond race, class, or other factors, a powerful caste system influences people’s lives and behavior and the nation’s fate.  Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodline, and stigma.  She includes personal stories about people like Martin Luther King, Jr., baseball’s Satchel Paige, and others to show the way the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day and documents how the Nazis studied the racial symptoms in America to plan their outcasting of the Jews.  She discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she writes about the surprising health costs of caste, in depression and life expectancy, and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics.  Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions toward hope in our common humanity.  A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it.  As Wilkerson writes, many people may rightly say, “I had nothing to do with how this all started.  My ancestors never attacked indigenous people, never owned slaves.”  However, we are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it, and any further deterioration is, in fact, on our hands.  In noting that it can be hard to separate racism and casteism, Wilkerson writes that “any action or institution that mocks, harms, assumes, or attaches inferiority or stereotype on the basis of the social construct of race can be considered racism.  Any action or structure that seeks to limit, hold back, or put someone in a defined ranking, seeks to keep someone in their place by elevating or denigrating that person on the basis of their perceived category, can be seen as casteism.”  Geneticists and anthropologists have long seen race as a man-made invention with no basis in science or biology – all human beings are 99.9% the same..  And yet, observed the historian Nell Irvin Painter, “Americans cling to race as the unschooled cling to superstition.”  Caste is the boundaries that reinforce the fixed assignments based upon what people look like.  “The essence of this overestimation of one’s own position and the hate for all who differ from it is narcissism,” wrote the psychologist and social theorist Erich Fromm.  A group whipped into narcissistic fervor “is eager to have a leader with whom it can identify.  The leader is then admired by the group which projects its narcissism onto him.”  Again, please read this profound and deeply compassionate book, which one reviewer called “the missing puzzle piece of our country’s history.”   

A book that took me to a place I don’t know enough about is “Eat the Buddha:  Life and Death in a Tibetan Town,” by Barbara Demick (who was a National Book Award Finalist for “Nothing to Envy,” her terrific book about North Korea).  For centuries, Tibet was known to Westerners as a hermit kingdom.  Hidden by the natural barrier of the Himalayas and governed by a reclusive theocratic government, the Tibetan plateau was off-limits to foreigners, save for a few enterprising adventurers who sneaked past its borders disguised as Buddhist monks.  Today, Tibet is still a forbidden land – it’s the Chinese government, which has occupied the region since 1950, that restricts visits by foreign tourists and blocks journalists almost entirely.  In this book, Demick tells the story of Ngaba, a Tibetan town perched eleven thousand feet above sea level that is one of the most difficult places in all of China for foreigners to visit.  Ngabe was one of the first places where the Tibetans and the Chinese Communists encountered one another, when in the 1930s Mao Zedong’s Red Army fled into the Tibetan plateau to escape their adversaries in the Chinese Civil War.  By the time the soldiers reached Ngaba, they were so hungry that they looted monasteries and ate religious statues made of flour and butter – to Tibetans, it was as if they were eating the Buddha.  Their experiences would make Ngaba one of the engines of Tibetan resistance for decades to come, culminating in shocking acts of self-immolation.   “Eat the Buddha” spans decades of modern Tibetan Chinese history, as told through the private lives of Demick’s subjects, among them a princess whose family is wiped out during the Cultural Revolution, a young Tibetan nomad who becomes radicalized in the storied monastery of Kirti, an upwardly mobile entrepreneur who falls in love with a Chinese woman, a poet and intellectual who risks everything to voice his resistance, and a Tibetan schoolgirl forced to choose at an early age between her family and the elusive lure of Chinese money.  All of them face the same dilemma – do they resist the Chinese, or join them?  Do they adhere to Buddhist teachings of compassion and nonviolence, or do they fight?  We tend to romanticize Tibetan culture as deeply spiritual and peaceful, but Demick reveals what it’s really like to try to preserve one’s culture, faith, and language against a seemingly unstoppable, technologically all-seeing superpower.  As for the Dalai Lama, after repeated attempts for a diplomatic breakthrough failed, he officially retired as head of the exile government in 2011, giving up the leadership to an elected prime minister and ending centuries of theocratic rule.  The Chinese will not negotiate with an exile government, only with him – and the rhetoric against him has continued unabated.   Having largely conceded in the fight for independence, the Tibetan exile government has lowered the bar for success – survival is now the goal.  The survival of Tibetan culture should not be threatening to a superpower that is posed to become the world’s largest economy, but unfortunately, Demick concludes, her travels inside Tibet suggest otherwise.  As one successful Tibetan businessman says, “I have everything I might possibly want in life, but my freedom.”

I have to be careful in recommending Samantha Irby’sWe Are Never Meeting in Real Life,” as I suspect she is not for everyone – does the fact that she writes a blog called “bitches gotta eat” give you a clue?  And that her book is dedicated to Klonopin?  Irby has been open about her struggles with Crohn’s disease, degenerative arthritis, her weight, and depression – and yet, this humorist and essayist manages to pinpoint emotional truths while chronicling with brilliant and biting humor the disaster that has been her life.  An ill-fated pilgrimage and romantic vacation to Nashville to scatter her estranged father’s ashes, awkward sexual encounters, a Bachelorette application gone awry, and more – sometimes you just have to laugh, even when your life is a dumpster fire. Here’s an example:    “Joanna, who owns the indie bookstore down the street from our crib, asked me the other day to give her the name of a good book I’d read recently, and because I value her opinion, I stood in front of her for, like three real minutes trying to determine which one would be the most impressive.  I just stood there with my ears on fire wondering if I should just say “A Little Life,” because no one would think you were dumb if you made it all the way through a seven-hundred page plus book.  And I didn’t; I did not make it through that book, because a quarter of the way in, this other book about teenagers in love that I wanted to read came out, so I abandoned the smart shit to spend an afternoon sobbing over a story about children I could have given birth to having sex.”  And here’s what she says about the cat with whom she claims to share a mutual loathing, ”I know I should feel happy that she survived her harsh early life, but I had a bad childhood, too, and no one’s letting me sleep all day in the sun while they serve me delicious, portion-controlled meals and take all my garbage out.  Could you imagine if Helen was your boyfriend?  You get up at 5:30 in the morning for work, tiptoe so you don’t wake up His Highness, stub your toe in the dark multiple times while hastily dressing in clothes that you don’t realize don’t go together until you’re out in the daylight waiting for the bus, and spend twelve hours slaving under a brutish dictator, only to come home and find that your companion is lying in the exact spot in which you left him.  Except now that the sun is up, you see that his stinky body is curled around that sweater so new you haven’t even had a chance to take the tags off it yet.  And then what does he do?  Get up to greet you with a kiss and a shoulder rub?  No, that animal yawns in your face before taking a shit with the door open and asking how soon you can get dinner ready.”  You get the pictureIrby is one savvy lady who writes with candor and bite.

Mysteries:  Do not, I repeat, do not begin reading “Perfect Little Children,” by Sophie Hannah, if you have anything else on the schedule that day, because once you read the intriguing and puzzling beginning you will have to know the answers – all of them.  Immediately.  Beth hasn’t seen  her ex-best friend Flora for twelve years, but when she drives her son to his football game near Flora’s house she can’t resist driving past and trying to catch a glimpse of her.  She parks outside the home’s open gates and watches as Flora arrives and calls to her children by name, Thomas and Emily, to get out of the car.  Except – there’s something terribly wrong.  Flora looks the same, only older – but twelve years ago Thomas and Emily were five and three, and today they look precisely as they did then.  No taller, no different.  How is it possible that they are still same two perfect little children Beth knew more than a decade ago?  It’s an ingenious and suspenseful plot, and you can’t wait to have it all sorted out.

A comfortable chair is of no use to anyone without a good book.  Kudelka Cartoons (Thanks, Marie!)

All About Books

December

Fiction:

“Interior Chinatown,” by Charles Yu, winner of the 2020 National Book Award for fiction, is a send-up of Asian stereotypes and of Hollywood that stunned me by its brilliance.  The book posits that we are reading a teleplay about Chinatown, specifically the Golden Palace restaurant, which is the setting for a cop show in perpetual production called “Black and White.”  Willis Wu, who has a small part in the show, doesn’t perceive himself as a protagonist even in his own life:  he’s merely Generic Asian Man.  Sometimes he gets to be Background Oriental Man Making a Weird Face or even Disgraced Son, but he is always relegated to a prop.  Yet every day he leaves his tiny room in a Chinatown SRO (single room occupancy) and enters the restaurant, where he dreams of being Kung Fu Guy – the most respected role that anyone who looks like him can attain.  At least that’s what he has been told, time and time again – except by one person, his mother, who says to him:  Be more.  Cleverly written like a teleplay, the book is both darkly hilarious and devastating in its treatment of Hollywood’s penchant for promoting cliches about Asians and Asian-Americans, and you will find yourself laughing and grimacing at the same time.  Wu is a remarkable writer.

“A Burning,” by Megha Majumdar, is a gripping debut novel about the ripple effects of our choices and how we are interconnected with what can sometimes be devastating consequences.  Its characters seek to rise – to middle class, to political power, to fame in the movies – and find their lives entangled in the wake of a catastrophe in contemporary India.  The premise is horrifyingly plausible in a country where lynchings are on the rise and a new citizenship law enshrines discrimination against Muslims.  Jivan is a Muslim girl from the slums, determined to move up in life, who is accused of executing a terrorist attack on a train because of a careless comment she posted on Facebook after witnessing a group of men torch a stalled train, killing almost 100 people, while the police looked on. “If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and me, if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?” P T Sir is an opportunistic gym teacher who hitches his aspirations to a right-wing political party and finds that his own ascent depends on Jivan’s fall.  Lovely – an irresistible hijra (a third gender recognized in India) outcast whose exuberant voice and dreams of Bollywood glory fill the novel with warmth and hope and humor – has the alibi that can set Jivan free, but it will cost her everything she holds dear.  The novel moves from the perspective of one character to the next, each of whom knows something the others cannot, with the components of a thriller; class, fate, corruption, justice, and what it feels like to face profound obstacles and yet nurture aspirations in a country spinning toward extremism.  Majumdar is a powerful writer who vividly evokes the lives of these characters and the injustices they suffer – misogyny, police brutality, the lack of access to clean water, the enforced poverty of the hijra community – bringing us to an ending that is both horrific and seemingly inevitable.

Simone Weil said “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him, ‘What are you going through?’”  That is the title of Sigrid Nunez’s latest book about the meaning of life and death, and the value of companionship.  A woman describes a series of encounters she has with various people in the ordinary course of her life.  Some are people she knows well; others are total strangers.  In each of them, she finds a common need: the urge to talk about themselves and to have an audience to their experiences – “Be kind, because everyone you meet is going through a struggle.”  The narrator, an unmarried, unnamed, childless writer, then agrees to a difficult and startling request from an old but not particularly close writer friend who is dying of cancer:  To help her die.  Specifically, to go away with her and stay until she is ready to take the euthanasia pills that will end her life.  “I will not go out in mortifying anguish,” the friend insists, adding, “Cancer can’t get me if I get it first.”   This is a book that makes you pause and think, about yourself and those you care about and the meaning of your life.  Of your life.  

Non-Fiction:

Chuck Sitkin highly recommended “Homo Deus:  A Brief History of Tomorrow,” by Yuval Noah Harari, and Jack and I both thought it was provocative, compelling, and actually alarming, a terrific read.  Harai’s vision of tomorrow maintains that humanity will lose not only its dominance, but its very meaning.  Over the past century humankind has managed to do the impossible:  turn the uncontrollable forces of nature – famine, plague, and war – into manageable challenges.  We are the only species in history that has single-handedly changed the entire planet.  Homo Deus explores the projects, dreams, and nightmares that will shape the twenty-first century, from overcoming death to creating artificial life, goals that may ultimately render most human beings superfluous.  So, now what?  We cannot stop the march of history, but we can influence its direction.  We typically assume that tomorrow will look much like today, with amazing new technologies but with old humanist values like liberty and equality to guide us.  Homo Deus opens our eyes to a vast range of alternative possibilities for the next century, such as:  the main products will not be textiles, vehicles, and weapons, but bodies, brains, and minds; the next big industrial revolution will create not the working class but the useless class, the way we have treated animals is an indicator for how upgraded humans will treat us; democracy and the free market will both collapse and authority will shift from individual humans to networked algorithms; and humans won’t fight machines, they will merge with them.  The gap between those who get on board and those left behind will be larger than the gap between industrial empires and agrarian tribes, even larger than that between Sapiens and Neanderthals.  Thus, homo deus, “god man,” a potential next stage in human evolution.  Alarmed yet?  Let me share some quotes that have stayed with me.  “If our ancestors knew what tools and resources stand ready at our command, they would have surmised that we must be enjoying celestial tranquility, free of all cares and worries.  The truth is very different.  Despite all our achievements, we feel a constant pressure to do and produce even more.”  “The new projects of the twenty-first century – gaining immortality, bliss, divinity – also hope to serve the whole of humankind.  However, because these projects aim at surpassing rather than safeguarding the norm, they may well result in the creation of a new superhuman caste that will abandon its liberal roots and treat normal humans no better than nineteenth-century Europeans treated Africans.” “Humanism holds that experiences occur inside us, and that we ought to find within ourselves the meaning of all that happens, thereby infusing the universe with meaning.  Dataists believe that experiences are valueless if they are not shared, and that we need not – indeed cannot- find meaning within ourselves.  We need only connect our experiences to the great data flow, and the algorithms will discover their meaning and tell us what to do.”  Harari closes by saying that all the scenarios in this book should be understood as possibilities rather than prophecies, and that if we don’t like them we are welcome to think and behave in new ways that will prevent these particular possibilities from materializing.  That’s not easy, because our thoughts and actions are usually constrained by present-day ideologies and social systems.  He ends by listing three interlinked processes, which raise three key questions he wants to stick in our minds.  I know after reading all this, you’ll desperately want to know what they are.  Page 402.

In 2001, when 63-year-old Madeline Albright concluded her service as America’s first female secretary of state, she didn’t slow down.  This “turbocharged” woman launched a new career as an author, professor, businesswoman, speaker, and activist in support of democratic institutions and values – hard to believe she’s only a year and a half younger than I am!  In her latest book (her seventh), “Hell and Other Destinations,” she recounts how she has clashed with presidents and prime ministers, warned against the potential revival of Fascism, championed the cause of women everywhere, and labored relentlessly on behalf of people who lack the power to be heard.  A mother of three, she was 39 when she landed her first professional job.  “I had a late start,” she says, “but once I found my voice, I was determined not to shut up.  Every stage of my life should be more exciting than the last.”   In reading her book I became fascinated by the wit, zest for life, wisdom, and relevance of this blunt woman who describes herself as “an optimist who worries a lot.”  She seemsto have been everywhere, done everything, and met everyone, saying, “my remedy to the passage of time is to proceed ardently and headlong with what I care about.”  For example, the month she turned 80 she taught her course at Georgetown, chaired business meetings, testified before a U.S. Senate committee, participated in the search for a new CEO of the Aspen Institute, worked on her latest book, delivered the commencement address to her grandson’s high school class, hosted a dinner of foreign policy experts, presented an award bearing her name to a group of women activists from the Central African Republic, made a speech on diplomacy and faith, lobbied members of Congress to support the National Democratic Institute’s budget, and spoke at a conference convened in Dallas by the George W. Bush Presidential Library and another in Lisbon by the government of Portugal.  Each activity involves using her voice for a cause in which she believes.  “Until I am carried out, I will carry on.”  I hated to part from this witty and stimulating – if exhausting! – woman.

When I picked up my holds from the library, I thought “The Choice: Embrace the Possible,” a memoir by Dr. Edith Eva Eger, was a mistake, as it looked like a self-help book, something I generally avoid.  I was so wrong!  Once I started reading it, I was hooked to the end.  Internationally acclaimed Dr. Eger – one of the few remaining Holocaust survivors – tells her unforgettable story in a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of choice in our lives.  At sixteen, Eger, a trained ballet dancer and gymnast, was sent to Auschwitz.  Hours after her parents were killed, the “Angel of Death,” Dr. Josef Mengele, forced her to dance for his amusement – and her survival.  He rewarded her with a loaf of bread that she shared with her fellow prisoners, an act of generosity that would later save her life.  Edie and her sister survived multiple death camps and the Death March.  When American troops liberated the camps in 1945 they found Edie barely alive in a pile of corpses.  But what a life she lived after recovering!  While struggling with flashbacks and survivor’s guilt, determined to hide from the past, Edie married, raised a family, and studied and practiced psychology, always refusing to speak about her experiences during the war.  Thirty-five years after the war ended she returned to Auschwitz, where she was finally able to heal and forgive the one person she’d been unable to forgive for years – herself, for a reason we finally learn.   Now 93, Dr. Eger maintains a clinical practice in La Jolla, holds a faculty appointment at U.C. San Diego, and serves as a consultant for the US. Army and Navy in resilience training and the treatment of PTSD.  She is still dancing – and still ends her talks with a ballet high kick!  I know we’d all love to meet her.

Mysteries:  An unsolved murder case with an unidentified victim and a cold trail with few clues faces Scotland Yard Inspector Ian Rutledge in “A Divided Loyalty,” by Charles Todd.  A woman has been murdered at the foot of a megalith shaped like a great shrouded figure in Avebury, a village set inside a prehistoric stone circle not far from Stonehenge, and Rutledge is asked to take a second look after even Chief Inspector Brian Leslie, one of the yard’s best men, could make no progress.  Rutledge finally discovers an unexplained clue that seems to point toward an impossible solution – or does it?  It feels nostalgic to be back in post WWI days when finding a telephone somewhere in the village is a challenge.  Scott Turow’s legal thrillers are always a stimulating read.  In “The Last Trial,” Alejandro “Sandy” Stern, a brilliant defense lawyer in failing health at age 85 but intact in spirit, postpones his retirement to defend his old friend Dr. Kiril Pafko, a Nobel Prize winner in Medicine, when Pafko is charged with insider trading fraud and murder.  Stern probes beneath the surface of Pafko’s dazzling veneer as a distinguished cancer researcher and finds himself questioning everything he thought he knew about his friend.  In the courtroom, Stern’s duty to his client and his belief in the power of the judicial system both face a final terrible test.  It was fun to revisit Lord Peter Wimsey, English aristocrat and amateur sleuth featured in mysteries set in the 1920s by English crime writer and poet, Dorothy L Sayers.  Written in 1923, “Whose Body?” begins with a corpse in the bathtub, wearing nothing but a pair of pince-nez spectacles.  Urged to investigate by his mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, Lord Peter quickly ascertains that the sudden disappearance of a well-known financier is in some way connected to the body in the bathroom – but in exactly which way is the question. Reading a cozy English murder mystery is always a pleasure.

My problem with reading books is that I get distracted… by other books.