Monday, February 23, 2009


Relationships. If you’re willing to take a risk on a debut novel this year, consider Stephen Lovely’s Irreplaceable. I found myself enjoying this novel more every fifty or so pages as the characters deepened and their lives become more connected. If the protagonist of a novel is the central character, or the heart of the story, in Irreplaceable, the protagonist would be Isabel, or more specifically, her heart. Isabel and her husband, Alex, have been happily married for three years. While riding her bicycle, Isabel is struck by a truck and killed. Having signed an organ donor card, her organs are harvested, and her heart is transplanted into Janet, who teaches art at an inner city school in Chicago. Lovely presents Alex’s grief with great skill, and allows that to play out on these pages, alongside that of Isabel’s mother, Bernice. Having overhead her doctors comment about the source of her new heart, Janet tracks down Alex and tries to find ways to express her thanks. Janet’s own family is dealing with many issues, and Lovely allows those to develop on these pages as well. Another connection comes from the ways in which the driver who killed Isabel, Jasper, enters the lives of Alex, Bernice and Janet. Lovely describes the transplant process with what seemed like accurate thoroughness. He presents intense emotions without making them more outsized than was necessary. His restraint in developing some characters, such as Janet’s husband, David, was in many ways a strength, while it left some gaps in understanding David as a real person. All in all, Irreplaceable is a promising debut by a talented writer.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)

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The Numerati

Algorithms. Each of us is more than a number: we’re the product of complicated algorithms. That’s what I concluded after reading Stephen Baker’s book, The Numerati. Many smart mathematicians are developing all sorts of ways to predict our behavior, and Baker presents some of the ways in which that is happening. Baker is a Business Week reporter, and confesses to being more liberal arts major than math wiz. Thanks to that perspective, The Numerati provides a sweeping exploration of data mining without plodding down in details that might be of interest only to algorithm writers. Baker structures The Numerati to describe how our personal information is gathered and used in seven dimensions of our lives: worker, shopper, voter, blogger, terrorist, patient and lover. In each of those chapters, I learned something new, and winced or laughed often. If you’re looking for a general overview on the many ways in which personal information is being gathered, analyzed and used, this book provides such an overview.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)

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As a Friend

Opening. Poet Forrest Gander opens his first work of fiction, As a Friend, with a description of childbirth that will tend to lead childless readers to remain so. It’s the birth of protagonist Les to a teenage mother. The structure of As a Friend entails four connected stories, with Les tying them together. Les is a quirky and charismatic individual who works as a land surveyor. His friend, Clay, emulates him and then betrays him. Gander’s descriptive language is poetic throughout this odd book. Les is made larger than life in some respects, almost godlike, and his flaws seem pedestrian and defining at the same time. While married to Cora, Les lives with Sarah. As a Friend is loaded with lamentations, and part of it soars with such emotional intensity that I found I had to pause a while before reading on.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)

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Man in the Dark

War. Darkness can take many forms, and in this short novel, Man in the Dark, Paul Auster explores many of those forms. Following a car accident, protagonist August Brill at age 72 is recovering in the Vermont home of his daughter. In pain and sleepless, Brill tries to write his memoir, but instead creates stories to battle his depression. During the day, he watches movies with his 24 year old granddaughter, Katya, whose boyfriend was tortured and murdered in Iraq. His divorced daughter, Miriam, struggles to write about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s youngest daughter, Rose. Each of these characters grapples with the darkness of their lives. Brill uses the darkness of night to write about a parallel world, one in which the war in Iraq didn’t happen. He creates the parallel protagonist, Owen Brick, who finds himself involved in the Second American Civil War, between the red states and the blue states, and on a mission to kill August Brill. Any war ravages relationships and leaves consequences for survivors that can feel like a permanent state of darkness. Man in the Dark might be our common condition as long as we engage in war. In the meantime, stay up in the dark for a few nights, and read Auster’s way of trying to make sense of the nonsense of war.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)

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A Mercy

Ambiguity. Reading Toni Morrison’s A Mercy slowly during Black History Month gave me plenty of time to absorb her lyrical language and reflect on her depiction of life in America in the late 17th century. A Mercy presents that time and place through multiple narrators and through the description of setting and feelings in a way that readers can come closer to understanding all the moral ambiguity of the era. One could be opposed to slavery and also participate in its practices. Individuals can yearn for a better life while despairing the present one. One can be subject to the mastery of another while fearing the absence of that master. The language becomes mesmerizing at times, and I found the best way to absorb the story was to relax and take it in, rather than try to over-analyze or think too hard about what was going on. Morrison and her work have been recognized and rewarded. A Mercy adds to her legacy.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)

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