Monday, November 24, 2014

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Questions. Physician and writer Atul Gawande explores end of life care in his book titled, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. I expect most of us want a good death, not too soon. Gawande explores how healthcare lets down patients especially at the end of life when actions are taken to stave off death, but end up prolonging suffering and eliminating any consideration of how a patient would like to spend their final days. Asking the right questions of patients and giving them the ability to make better choices is at the core of achieving well-being as defined by the individual. Rather than a cold exploration of the topic, this book presents personal stories, including the end of life care received by Gawande’s father. For most of us, the questions about the quality of life as we approach the end of life can be difficult. Isolation and avoidance of death is not the answer. We can all count on dying. This book can help readers think through what well-being means for each of us and what might constitute a good death. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Being Mortal from


Opposites. I had the great pleasure of reading Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Lila, in a single setting one evening. It was a delight to return to the town of Gilead and to see the kindness of Reverend John Ames in a new light. Most of all, I was overwhelmed by Robinson’s fine prose and the ways in which she presents Lila, an abused, neglected and uneducated young woman. Full of questions and with a deep inner life, Lila seems so opposite from John Ames that the likelihood of them developing a close relationship would seem remote. Instead, there is love and richness in life found in Gilead in unexpected ways. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Lila from

Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics

Clout. I spent about six months reading Terry Golway’s fine book titled, Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics. I took my time to savor the story and reflect on how what Tammany created played out in the American political environment of 2014. Instead of the caricature I had of Tammany Hall before reading this book, I came away with increase knowledge and respect for the impact of Tammany Hall on politics in the United States. The divisions in society then and now are similar, and the nativists Tammany fought appear today in the form of those opposed to immigration reform. Anyone interested in politics will find a lot to enjoy and learn from reading this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Machine Made from

The Laughing Monsters

Rogues. Fans of literary fiction who enjoy the ways in which a short novel can lead a reader to think about some big questions are those most likely to enjoy reading Denis Johnson’s novel titled, The Laughing Monsters. One such question for me after reading this finely written novel is: how do we regain trust after something has happened to cause doubt? Protagonist Roland Nair is an intelligence officer who heads to West Africa to connect with a friend, Michael Adriko, who has an idea to make them rich. These rogues are wary of each other, which Johnson allows to develop gradually, and the setting leads readers into the darkness of Africa as the plot unfolds and we become present in the places described. I zipped through this novel quickly and enjoyed it thoroughly. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Laughing Monsters from

The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection

Unplug. In a book titled, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, journalist Michael Harris reflects on his own experience of how his life has changed both while he was digitally connected and then unplugged. He peppers the text with tidbits of what others have to say about technological change, attention, and a spate of other topics. Other than the loss of solitude that we can experience while constantly connected, I’m not sure I gleaned much from Harris’ reflections. It hasn’t been very long since the Internet and our smart devices gave us the capability to become constantly connected. It will take some more time to understand all the consequences of this development. Harris opens a conversation with readers on this subject through these reflections. One’s own experiences may be different. This might be an interesting book to discuss among book club members. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The End of Absence from

Friday, November 21, 2014

Prince Lestat

Ensemble. The progenitor of the modern vampire novel, Anne Rice, is back after a decade with another book in this genre titled, Prince Lestat. I spend a pleasant few days during an early cold snap reading this novel in my warm home and recalling when and where I read all the earlier novels in this series. Fans of the series are those most likely to enjoy this updating and maturing of the huge cast of characters reprised from the earlier novels along with new ones updated for this decade. This ensemble cast requires a reference guide, which Rice offers for any of us who may have trouble keeping them all these characters straight. While I read this novel quickly, I noted just how much tedious exposition detracts from the core story. First time readers who start here may find the action timid, the dialogue brief, and the exposition somewhat long. By the time I finished, I concluded that I’ve enjoyed these chronicles from the beginning, and was content along with many of the characters that they have become mature and settled in their lives. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Prince Lestat from

How to Speak Money: What the Money People Say--And What It Really Means

Tools. I expected to skim John Lanchester’s book titled, How to Speak Money: What the Money People Say--And What It Really Means. I’ve been involved in finance for four decades and know the terminology that Lanchester explains in clear prose in this finely written book. Instead of skimming, I read the book from cover to cover, including the complete lexicon that comprises two-thirds of the text. Thanks to Lanchester’s fine writing, I was delighted by his lighthearted and accurate presentation of the terms used by those in finance. I was amused by how many terms he defines as “another way of saying ‘sacking people’.” When I came to “onions,” I laughed out loud. Lanchester wrote this book to provide tools to non-finance people to understand the arcane terms used with ease by those in finance. Non-finance readers should love this book, and insiders may also find a lot both to learn and to enjoy from this finely written book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase How to Speak Money from

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World

Margins. General readers who like to be entertained by nonfiction while learning something new should consider reading Steven Johnson’s book titled, How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World. He explores six breakthroughs in six chapters that he names: glass, cold, sound, clean, time and light. There’s a PBS miniseries of this content, so decide how you’d like to engage: by reading or by watching. One insight I gained from reading this book (reading was faster for me than watching the series) is that breakthroughs often come from the margins, from outside one’s core discipline. Inside a core discipline, we tend to see the benefits from gradual improvement, but an outside view can lead to big advances. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase How We Got to Now from

Beautiful You

Control. Jonathan Swift would love reading Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Beautiful You, an over-the-top satire of modern life. A billionaire, C. Linus Maxwell, plans to control the behavior of women worldwide by offering irresistible products that provide stimulating personal pleasure, and then make them buy whatever he wants them to buy. Alternating as his partner and nemesis is Penny Harrigan, a twenty-five year old working in New York City for a law firm. Palahniuk riffs on porn, marketing, power, control, narcissism, and many other aspects of contemporary society. Many readers will be distracted by how extreme this novel may seem, but I think both Swift and I agree that for satire to succeed, you need to make a modest proposal that will catch the attention of wise readers. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Beautiful You from

Mindless: Why Smarter Machines are Making Dumber Humans

Process. Simon Head raises an important issue in his book titled, Mindless: Why Smarter Machines are Making Dumber Humans. All the redesigned business processes and algorithms that have transformed work through computer business systems may be displacing the greater value of the judgment of a skilled worker. While he rails against this latest application of scientific management to the workplace, he does it using prose that will likely be tedious to most readers. If you have an interest in business process, this is a book that should be part of your education. Let’s hope that more authors engage on this topic and offer greater eloquence, especially for general readers. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Mindless from

Let Me Be Frank With You

Sandy. The Jersey Shore that featured so prominently as the backdrop for all the fine fiction by Richard Ford featuring protagonist Frank Bascombe, changed dramatically thanks to Hurricane Sandy. Ford brings back Frank after the storm in a finely written new book titled, Let Me Be Frank With You. Using the structure of four connected novellas, Ford presents Frank as the familiar Everyman character from three earlier novels, and reveals his life as he looks ahead to age 70. Appearances change, especially in a place like the Jersey Shore after Sandy. What remains is Frank’s essence: that core of individuality, personality and reality that makes each of us who we are. I was delighted to see Frank Bascombe approaching seventy as the man he has always been. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Let Me Be Frank With You from

Havana Storm

Calm. Like most fans of the Dirk Pitt series by Clive Cussler, I expect fast-paced action within a predictable formula. The calmest, most laid-back novel in this long running series may be the latest titled, Havana Storm. The familiar cast of characters return to sea and are performing heroic feats to battle against evildoers. My heart rate remained low as I read this novel, and I was able to set the book aside whenever the action accelerated since I knew that a slowdown would follow. While calm, I remained entertained, mostly because of my familiarity with the characters. New readers of this series may want to begin with a more exciting novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Havana Storm from

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

Delightful. While I loved reading Hilary Mantel’s long and intricate historical novels, I didn’t know what to expect from a collection of ten short stories titled after one of them, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. A few pages in, I had the image: here’s Mantel tossing off great writing as a sweet break from her longer writing. I found my eyes bulging during some of these stories, as I chuckled my way through others. I’m more impressed than ever at her versatility and the breadth of her writing skills. Any fan of short fiction will find a lot to enjoy in this collection, and book lovers who attend author readings will laugh at what that can be like from this author’s hilarious point of view. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher from

On Such a Full Sea

Journey. Chang-Rae Lee’s prose in his novel, On Such a Full Sea, delighted me in three ways. The society he describes in the near-future America he creates in this novel provides a plausible trajectory from our current situation. Environmental decline, stratified social classes isolated by economics, and brutal self-interest prevail over any sense of community life. Second, the journey of protagonist Fan provides the plot and structure of the novel in ways that ranged from the mythical to the typical behavior that we recognize in each other. Finally, Lee’s lyrical prose led me to re-read some sentences with great joy and admiration at his skill. Fans of literary fiction are those most likely to enjoy this finely written book. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase On Such a Full Sea from

The Handsome Man's De Luxe Café

Help. Many characters in the fifteenth novel of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series need help, and all of them receive it with care and love. Fans of this series will be delighted by the latest installment titled, The Handsome Man’s DeLuxe Café. The café in the title is a new project of Mma Makutsi and she needs help for the restaurant to succeed, and offers help to others who need what she can give them. Mr. JLB Matekoni doesn’t have enough work for both apprentices, so the one let go needs a job. The case that Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi are trying to solve involves a woman in a desperate situation. At a calm pace, Smith moves along the story, punctuated with tea when needed, and before a reader notices, another delightful time in Gabarone has been spent by all. I finish each of these novels feeling good about the world and all those in it who try to help others. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Handsome Man’s DeLuxe Café from

A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention

Guilt. Accidents happen. During an early morning commute in 2006, two rocket scientists in Utah were killed in an auto accident caused by college student Reggie Shaw who was texting while driving. Matt Richtel presents the full story in a finely written book titled, A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention. I expected that the story warranted a brief magazine article, but not a full book, so I thought I’d turn a few pages and set the book aside. Instead, Richtel’s fine writing about the case and about brain science drew me in. Richtel presents each character in this story with great detail, so we come to understand the motivations behind each person’s behavior. The brain science is presented with clarity for general readers to understand and appreciate. Reggie’s guilt, as described by Richtel, matches the descriptions by our finest fiction writers, and the redemption as it happened goes beyond what readers would willingly believe in fiction. The result is a finely written book, packed with a message for all of us: even great drivers are distracted, and all it takes for lives to change forever is inattention during the wrong few seconds. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase A Deadly Wandering from

Enough: Our Fight to Keep America Safe from Gun Violence

Sensible. There’s no shortage of strongly held views in America about gun ownership. Those views at one extreme call for no limits on the right of citizens to bear arms, and on the other to pressing for a ban on the ownership of certain automatic weapons. Expressing a middle view are Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly in their book titled, Enough: Our Fight to Keep America Safe from Gun Violence. As longtime gun owners and supporters of the right to bear arms, one would think that their modest views for sensible ways to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill would receive universal acceptance. Read this short book about their personal story and the policies they want to see, and decide whether you agree with their take on what they consider to be commonsense ways to regulate the sale and use of weapons. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Enough from

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Meaning of Human Existence

Teacher. Our best teachers find ways to take their observations and extensive study and condense and communicate it to us in ways that we can think for ourselves and gain greater understanding. Edward O. Wilson is a very fine teacher, and the synthesis he offers in his book, The Meaning of Human Existence, will lead most readers to much thought and reflection. After finishing this book, I’ve been thinking about the interplay of science and the humanities and the importance of each to our lives. Very often while reading this book, I found myself captivated by the simplicity of his language, and at other times, I was frustrated by why he chose to pursue a particular line of exposition. Like all teachers, Wilson has strengths and weaknesses, and I found the strengths were reason enough to listen to what he has to say. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Meaning of Human Existence from

Gray Mountain

Mining. I doubt that very many people who make a living from big coal will buy John Grisham’s novel, Gray Mountain, in which he portrays the practices of the coal industry as criminal. Given the visible environmental damage throughout Appalachia, and the problem with West Virginia drinking water last year that drew widespread media attention, there are plenty of readers who don’t make a living from big coal who will find a great story in this novel. Protagonist Samantha Kofer is a young New York commercial real estate attorney who gets furloughed from her law firm in the financial crisis of 2008. She ends up working at a legal aid clinic in Brady, Virginia. Drawn from the headlines, and packed with action, I found myself very well entertained by this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Gray Mountain from

Station Eleven

Insufficient. I found the perfect novel to read while Ebola virus hysteria swept the United States: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The contagion she creates, the Georgia flu, spreads easily and quickly infects almost the entire global population. In the post-apocalyptic world she builds there is art and hope, thanks to the Traveling Symphony, a troupe of artists who travel from one settlement to another performing music and Shakespeare for the remnant of humans who realize “survival is insufficient,” or, there’s more meaning and purpose to life, and art is of great value. This novel stands alone as being a sweet tale of relationships and the importance of community. There’s tragedy and villains and loss, but at the core, there is love and hope. I expected dystopia and found happiness in this version of life after an apocalyptic event. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Station Eleven from

Kinder Than Solitude

Separation. Readers who enjoy psychological fiction will be delighted by Yiyun Li’s finely written novel titled, Kinder Than Solitude. She presents three characters, Moran, Ruyu, and Boyang, and draws us into their lives over two decades. The three friends experienced the mysterious death of another friend, and we learn how this haunted each of them in different ways. In some respects, their separation from each other never removed them from the poison of their youth, and that poison has formed their personalities, keeping them distant from love and contentment. The prose is finely written, the insight wise, and the story captivating. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Kinder Than Solitude from

House of Debt: How They (and You) Caused the Great Recession, and How We Can Prevent It from Happening Again

Radical. If your mortgage is underwater, you may become even more depressed after reading Atif Mian and Sufi Amir’s book titled, House of Debt: How They (and You) Caused the Great Recession, and How We Can Prevent It from Happening Again. The authors’ key point is that the financial crisis of 2008 came about because there was too much debt taken on by Americans. They assemble ample data to support their presentation, and offer possible ways to prevent this from happening again, including what they call the “shared responsibility mortgage.” While I found this to be an engaging book that readers interested in public policy, especially housing policy, will enjoy reading, the analysis presents a focused point of view that may exclude other perspectives, and their solutions are likely to be viewed as radical. Nonetheless, this is another good contribution to the discussion of what happened and what should be done differently. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase House of Debt from

A Crack in the Wall

Weaknesses. I’m still scratching my head a little after finishing Claudia Pineiro’s novel, A Crack in the Wall. The protagonist, Pablo Simó, is a middle-aged architect with a secret relating to a character named Nelson Jara. When a woman named Leonor Corell two decades junior to Pablo visits his office asking about Jara, years of pent up dissatisfaction release. Pineiro explores human weaknesses in this novel, and through the weak Pablo she allows readers to see aspects of human nature that are widespread. I found the prose to be quirky to read, but that could be a matter of translation. Readers looking for something unusual might find enjoyment from reading this novel. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase A Crack in the Wall from

Hold the Dark

Wolves. I can’t recall the last time I read a finely written novel as packed with evil and violence as the new one by William Giraldi titled, Hold the Dark. Set in Alaska where the wolves seem to be coming for the children, Giraldi explores close family ties in the remote tundra. Giraldi develops the characters so completely that before very long in the plot I understood behavior that I would have judged differently had I not allowed myself to let Giraldi unveil the story. Thanks to his fine writing, the setting and nature become characters in their own way. Not a single sentence made me smile, and that seems just right. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Hold the Dark from

The Emerald Light in the Air

Compact. I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading the seven short stories by Donald Antrim assembled in a collection named after one of them, The Emerald Light in the Air. I recalled each story from when I read it first in The New Yorker, and yet I never felt I wanted to skip or skim even one of them. Antrim’s prose style is likely to be appreciated by those readers who enjoy literary fiction. Antrim has the ability to present characters very completely developed within the constraints of a short story. Fans of fine writing should take a look at this collection. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Emerald Light in the Air from