Tuesday, April 27, 2021
Upbeat. I’m thrilled that Tammy Duckworth is one of my senators, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading her memoir titled, Every Day Is a Gift. Partisans should note that politics are only slightly present in this book. What all readers get to savor is a life well-lived and told with candor and grace in a voice that’s totally down to earth. The whole narrative is upbeat and involves doing whatever it takes to meet a goal. She tells of her early life spent helping her family survive poverty and make their way in the world. We hear of her patriotism in joining the military and becoming an officer and helicopter pilot. We learn about the rocket propelled grenade that hit her helicopter, caused her to lose her legs, and of the heroic efforts of those who saved her life. We learn of her becoming a mother later in life, and about the path by which she entered politics. This is the inspiring story of a patriot who loves her country, has served it with honor, and now works every day to help all citizens. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Every Day Is a Gift from amazon.com.
Satire. In her debut novel titled, Temporary, Hilary Leichter leads readers toward laughing at the ephemeral reality of life and work. This is a satire about capitalism that will delight those readers who see the futility of tying one’s identity to their work. Welcome to a finely written swipe at the gig economy and the precarious nature of contemporary work. Leichter’s language will delight those whose eyes roll when faced with corporate-speak. If you can take any break at all from your work, consider reading this novel and then reflect on what’s most important in your life. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Temporary from amazon.com.
Decades. Naima Coster packs so much of the range of human experience in a handful of characters across a few decades in her novel titled, What’s Mine and Yours. The narrative moves back and forth in time, as we get to know these characters and how they navigate through life and its struggles. We settle in to appreciate the different ways that families are made and broken, and how love and marriage can be both deep and fragile, strong and weak. It doesn’t take long for us to care deeply about what happens to these characters as they go through their lives. Coster addresses issues of contemporary life with a light touch, since it is all done through those characters that we come to know and appreciate as humans just like us, doing their best with the hands they’ve been dealt. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase What’s Mine and Yours from amazon.com.
Manuscript. Join the stream of consciousness of the narrator of Jen Craig’s novel titled, Panthers and the Museum of Fire, and enjoy a fascinating trip visiting the narrator’s world. The title refers to a manuscript of that title that the narrator received from a recently deceased writer. That dead writer picked the title from a highway sign directing drivers to two locations, Panthers, and to the Museum of Fire. The riffs in this novel explore friendship, conversations, and adolescent struggles. The prose is finely written, and the novel will appeal to those readers who enjoy literary fiction and appreciate not needing a novel to follow any specific rules or expectations. Sit back and enjoy the prose and become enthralled by the life of this narrator. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Panthers and the Museum of Fire from amazon.com.
Schemes. Fans of crime fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy Belinda Bauer’s novel titled, Exit. Protagonist Felix Pink is a retired widower who volunteers as an Exiteer, someone who accompanies a terminally ill person exercising their right to die. The role of the Exiteer is to be present and not to assist the patient. After Felix and a new volunteer arrive as scheduled to be present for a planned death, a mistake is made, and the bulk of the novel’s plot drives from that error. The prose is well written, the characters are finely drawn, and the plot twists very satisfying. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Exit from amazon.com.
Imagination. The power of imagination is on full display in Alexander McCall Smith’s novel titled, Pianos and Flowers: Brief Encounters of the Romantic Kind. Each chapter opens with an old sepia image. What follows is the writer’s imagination running off with what is seen in the image and creating a story that will lead a reader to take another look at the photograph. I used my second examination of the photo as a jumping off point for my own imagination to conjure a different story. In Smith’s imagination, all the images lead to stories of happiness, friendship, even love. Readers are reminded of how much a picture can contain, and how what looks simple can be deeper and more complex. Readers who love to indulge one’s imagination can have a field day with this little book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Pianos and Flowers from amazon.com.
Empathy. Will we be prepared to offer a friend what they need when the time comes? In her novel titled, What Are You Going Through, Sigrid Nunez explores empathy, and what it means to be a companion to others as they face struggles. When all else passes away, what’s left is love. In this novel, we see the enduring love of a long friendship. Nunez finds words to express what we can often feel and never talk about. We journey through life together. With some or with many, but not alone. There’s a grace in this novel, and an emotional resonance that captures the essence of life lived together, in love. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase What Are You Going Through from amazon.com.
Dreamy. I love a novel in which illusion and reality drift seamlessly in and out of the narrative. Horoko Oyamada’s novel titled, The Hole, presents readers with the world that protagonist Asa finds when she moves with her new husband to the countryside where he is now working. While her husband works, Asa explores her new rural surroundings, and what she sees makes her question her sanity. We are all looking for our place in the world, and Oyamada shows how some creatures find places that are fit perfectly for them, while others search endlessly for the right fit. Isolation and disconnection have become unexpected parts of contemporary life around the world during the COVID-19 epidemic. This novel captures those sensations and makes readers disturbed and uncomfortable in all the right ways. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Hole from amazon.com.
Rain. Sarah Moss wastes no words in her novel titled, Summerwater. All of domestic life becomes condensed into one rainy day on vacation in Scotland. She develops characters smoothly, sometimes through just a few sentences of the character’s inner thoughts. We picture the setting easily when we learn of poor construction of tiny cabins too close together on a loch. As the rain falls, we feel the frustration of vacationers who are not receiving the value they desired. We feel the boredom as neighbors turn their focus on each other. Then there’s that one cabin of partygoers, oblivious to their proximity to others who may be disturbed by their rowdiness. I enjoyed spending this particular rainy day in Scotland, thanks to Moss’ fine writing. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Summerwater from amazon.com.
Released. Fans of thrillers want to feel our hearts beating faster as we become engaged in the action of a story. In his novel titled, Never Far Away, Michael Koryta opens with thrilling action, relaxes the tension for a bit, and then tightly winds a coil until the tension demands to be released. A mother made what she thought was the best decision for her children. Her plan falls apart, and she and her children face mortal peril. There’s a battle between worthy adversaries at the climax of the novel, and by the time the tense coil is released, our hearts have been beating at an elevated rate for a long time. This is a well-told thriller that’s packed with action. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Never Far Away from amazon.com.
Thursday, April 22, 2021
Character. The ingredients of Susie Yang’s debut novel titled, White Ivy, combine to offer readers a tasty reading experience. We find a mix of class, race, culture, expectations, thievery, and desire. Protagonist Ivy is trained as a thief by her Chinese grandmother, fails to meet her immigrant parents’ expectations, and finds herself in a relationship with “that” boy, Gideon, desired by many in the mainstream culture. We find love, deception, yearning, privilege, and insights into family. We keep trying to figure out Ivy and see what she really wants out of life. We gawk at Ivy’s obsession and struggle to watch her separate shallowness from depth and to see the difference between wanting and having. This character study finally clicks when we realize it is always all about Ivy. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase White Ivy from amazon.com.
Complexity. Crime novels often exclude many of the real-life dead ends that non-fiction detectives pursue in their cases. In the 23rd installment of the mystery series featuring Inspector Ian Rutledge by the mother-son team writing as Charles Todd, Rutledge meanders down lots of dead ends. Even longtime fans of the series may become frustrating that in this novel titled, A Fatal Lie, Rutledge seems to be more puzzled by the half-way point than he was at the beginning. I found the complexity to be just what I needed in spending more time with this intriguing and troubled protagonist. I found that my own “brain fog” from covid-19 fatigue was akin to Rutledge’s loss of sleep as he drove around a northern Welsh county in circles for this 1921 case. As the Todds piled on more characters and led others to reappear, I felt Rutledge’s fatigue and found myself trying extra hard to figure out the puzzle, which I found to turn the fatigue into excitement. Fans of crime fiction and this series may be challenged by this installment, but I found the detective and the case to be top notch and satisfying by the end. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Fatal Lie from amazon.com.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life
Views. Teachers never have answers, but the best teachers lead us toward finding our own answers to the right questions. In a delightful book titled, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, Syracuse professor and prominent writer George Saunders uses seven short stories to help readers answer questions. We hear Saunders’ views on these stories, and we join him in exploring answers to all the right questions that lead us toward finding views of our own. Writers need readers. Readers who approach texts with good questions and who develop cogent views often find great joy in reading. For a glimpse of what the world of closer reading can provide to you, read this exploration of how great writing works and how our mind behaves as we connect with the words we read. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase A Swim in the Pond in the Rain from amazon.com.
Precarious. In her novel titled, Want, Lynn Steger Strong dissects the fragility of contemporary life for those we used to be members of what we call the middle class. The desires of protagonist Elizabeth are not fleeting whims. It just seems that she is unable to get what she wants. Instead of getting a tenured university job with her English literature Ph.D., she has one job at a charter high school, and another as an adjunct at her alma mater. Her husband had the bad luck to lose his finance job at Lehman Brothers, and now does artisanal woodwork when he finds a client. There were big medical bills and past psychological strife and addiction. There are now kids in their crowded Brooklyn one bedroom. There’s a bankruptcy looming. A cherished friendship ruptured, and now that friend’s life has also taken a turn for the worse. Therein we find what we all really want: kindness and the nourishment we can receive from friends. The litany of laments could have overpowered this narrative, but Strong’s writing skill kept us facing reality while she led us to appreciate our vulnerability and the precarious nature of life for all of us. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Want from amazon.com.
Impressions. During the first half of Poetry Month, I read two or three of Mark Wunderlich’s thirty-two poems in a collection named after one of them, God of Nothingness. So much of reading poetry can be absorbing impressions. I found myself observing the reality of loss. I came to feel resilience and hope. I found humor. I followed connections from past to present to whatever is ahead. I watched the ways in which resilience forms, often following despair. At one line, I felt solitude, and at another line, I celebrated survival. Fans of poetry will find a lot to enjoy in this collection. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase God of Nothingness from amazon.com.
Identity. Katharina Volckmer structures her debut novel titled, The Appointment, as a monologue by a female narrator during a medical appointment with Dr. Seligman. We are entertained and shocked as we listen to her struggle to become herself. I found myself laughing, then becoming a bit unmoored. I felt hopeful then stunningly pessimistic. As the monologue progressed, I felt the narrator’s unburdening, and also felt that I was picking up some of that burden and taking it on myself. While Dr. Seligman was toiling away, I wondered whether only readers were left listening. Readers looking for a quirky and inventive short novel should consider reading this one. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Appointment from amazon.com.
Informative. As an amateur singer and multi-decade member of a choir, I came to John Colapinto’s book titled, This Is the Voice, with some knowledge about the instrument I use when I sing. Happily, I was both entertained and informed by this book which crosses many disciplines to describe the ways in which our ability to convey meaning through sound has defined our species. I ached when I read about how Colapinto damaged his voice and thought about the skills of those otolaryngologists who restore and strengthen voices. Next time I feel strain while reaching for a note, I’ll think of this book, relax, and not put my vocal instrument at risk. Readers who enjoy popular science books will find a lot to learn from this entertaining and interesting book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase This Is the Voice from amazon.com.
Evil. Leave it to Stephen King to give us a novel titled, Later, about facing up to evil during our current turbulent times. Protagonist Jamie Conklin has the ability to see the recently dead. He learns that when questioned, they must tell the truth. We all wrestle with evil in one form or another, but most readers will feel goosebumps when we read about Jamie’s battle with evil. Isn’t that exactly what we want from a Stephen King novel? Of course, we also end up thinking about good and evil, and there’s never any harm in that, is there? Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Later from amazon.com.
CRISPR. If you don’t think gene editing is exciting, you will after reading Walter Isaacson’s book titled, The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race, in which he presents the history of CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) and its many applications to date. Isaacson’s personal excitement about this subject appears on every page, as he introduces us to scientists, their methods, and their achievements. Readers quickly become engaged in the process of unlocking the mysteries of nature. We see the ways in which curiosity will literally save us. We learn how we reach the future one step at a time. The liveliness of the narrative becomes enhanced as we get to know Jennifer Doudna, her fellow Nobel Prize winner, Emmanuelle Charpentier, their many colleagues and competitors, and learn about the race to provide applications for their research, including a vaccine to treat COVID-19. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Code Breaker from amazon.com.
Realignment. Many of us have the tendency to think that the way things are now will continue into the foreseeable future. In their novel titled, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, former military officers Elliot Ackerman and James Stavridis present a plausible realignment of the world order in the relatively near future. We often read fiction for a good story about people we recognize as fully human. The authors provide readers of this novel with a cast of compelling characters from multiple countries. Each main character is called upon to play a role or complete a mission, and through luck or fate they take actions that forward the strategic interests of their respective countries. Ackerman and Stavridis capture the individual and collective vulnerability we face and prompt readers to consider how likely it is for their fictional tale to become true. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase 2034 from amazon.com.
Tuesday, April 13, 2021
Values. Readers can learn a lot about national security from former CIA Director John O. Brennan’s memoir titled, Undaunted: My Fight Against America's Enemies, At Home and Abroad. If we are able to set aside our political alignments for a moment to read about the career of a civil servant, we can find values that are likely to be held in common by citizens at all points along a political continuum. Brennan grew up in working class New Jersey, and a thread of integrity connects his upbringing to his most important roles in government service. Brennan is smart and scrappy, and he leans toward candor in this well-written book. I encourage readers to set aside any preconceptions about Brennan and listen to him tell the story of his life and the jobs he performed in the national security interests of the United States. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Undaunted from amazon.com.
Quartet. Four characters form something of a quadrant in helping readers sort out Nina Sadowsky’s novel titled, Convince Me. Justin Childs connects three other characters, and he is not who he seemed to be. Suddenly dead from a car accident, we learn about Justin from three narrators: his wife Annie, his mother Carol, and his friend and business partner, Will. Sadowsky’s fine writing unravels Justin as each of the three narrators comes to terms with the reality and the illusions. We begin to understand how Justin the charmer developed the capability to deceive with great skill. The narrative twists brought me great reading pleasure and I enjoyed spending time with this intriguing quartet. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Convince Me from amazon.com.
Intensity. Protagonist Ari Eden finds his life turned upside down after his family moves from their insular ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhood to the fleshpots of Florida, even inside the walls of the Jewish academy where he faces his senior year in high school. The debut novel titled, The Orchard, by David Hopen captures the essence of adolescence and the intensity of life among a small group of smart and privileged friends. Prompted by a charismatic rabbi, the students examine their religion and philosophy in ways that disturb their comfort. Ari’s reinvention in Florida feels nothing like the life he left behind in Brooklyn. Many readers will finish this novel thinking about divine intervention and suffering as well as the resilience of youth. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Orchard from amazon.com.
Astrophysics. Every time I read a good science book, I think fondly of those college friends who, unlike me, majored in physics and were compelled to take the mandatory 8am Saturday class with the head of the department. While I slept in until closer to lunch, these friends were learning laws of physics that have since been disproven, while I continue to enjoy a good night’s sleep. With that fondness, I was enraptured when I read Avi Loeb’s book titled, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth. Holy cow! Somehow I did not pay attention to what happened in 2017 when scientists observed an anomaly passing through our solar system that points toward its origin in a distant alien civilization. Was this not a page one story? Did I miss the PBS Newshour story? In case you missed this story as well, Loeb’s book offers critical thinking that supports the view that what was observed has implications and consequences that requires more thought and study. Nerd out. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Extraterrestrial from amazon.com.
Warmth. The fourteenth collection of the 44 Scotland Street serial that Alexander McCall Smith writes for The Scotsman is titled, A Promise of Ankles. Life in Edinburgh for the large cast of characters continues to present opportunities to live life to the fullest: love, loss, anticipation, adventures, and even ankles. I turn to Smith’s writing when I need a good dose of warmth and an affirmation of the best qualities in human nature. Even those characters who can sour aspects of life for those underserving of malice seem to become disinfected of their malevolence by the sunshine of love and caring that comes from others. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Promise of Ankles from amazon.com.
Odile. Janet Skeslien Charles takes the true story of the actions of the librarians of the American Library in Paris during World War II and uses her fine writing skills to present a novel titled, The Paris Library. Protagonist Odile Souchet was a young librarian at the American Library in Paris when the Nazis take Paris. Charles tells us what Odile did at that time, and also draws her in Montana in the 1980s where she lives next door to a young woman named Lily who loves language and books. Charles connects Odile and Lily as she lets readers see how relationships make us who we are, and our relationships with books and authors can also link us together. After I read this novel, I made a list of the libraries that have enriched my life, and each of the ten I selected contributed in significant ways to a life well lived. Everyone who reads this novel will think more about books, about libraries and about the power of relationships. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Paris Library from amazon.com.
Focus. I reflected not long ago that I wasn’t reading as much poetry as I’d like, so considering that April is National Poetry Month, I increased my focus. One of the collections I loved is by Margaret Atwood and is titled, Dearly. The wide range of themes is this collection demanded that I read one poem per sitting, and that worked just fine. It allowed me time to read the same poem two or three times and then think about it before reading another. I will not stake a position on how Atwood’s poetry compares with her longer fiction. I will say with clarity that these poems are a delight and should satisfy every reader who enjoys contemporary poetry. Atwood is a close observer of us and our world, and her focus in these poems captures what is important and essential in who and where we are. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Dearly from amazon.com.
Setup. The fourth novel by Phillip Margolin to feature attorney Robin Lockwood is titled, A Matter of Life and Death. Robin reluctantly accepts becoming the defense attorney for a homeless man who has been setup to take the fall for the murder of a judge’s wife. DNA evidence makes a strong case for her client’s guilt, and Robin pursues the hardest path toward release of her client: discovering how her client was framed and identifying the true murderer. Fans of crime fiction are those most likely to enjoy the details of capital crime litigation. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Matter of Life and Death from amazon.com.
Chilly. Choose a warm place to read the eighteenth NUMA files novel by the Clive Cussler franchise, a book titled, Fast Ice. So much of the action takes place in frigid conditions that you might feel the chills as the action propels readers from one cold place to an even colder one. The familiar NUMA cast is back, led by swashbuckling Kurt Austin and his sidekick Joe Zavala. All their skills and the expertise of other recurring characters are drawn into a race to defeat a finely drawn villain, Ryland Lloyd, who is in the final stages of implementing actions that will lead Earth into another ice age. While the formula of this series demands that the good guys win, it’s a close-run thing that will satisfy those readers who love fast-paced action novels. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Fast Ice from amazon.com.
Waters. The thirtieth crime novel by Donna Leon set in Venice featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti is titled, Transient Desires. The introspective Brunetti reflects his own prejudices as he becomes involved in uncovering serious criminal acts outside his jurisdiction. A larger than usual part of the plot involves the waters around Venice and requires Brunetti to trust colleagues he’s never met based on a web of connections that encourage treating strangers well because of who vouches for them. The characters in this novel are drawn with complexity and deep insight into human behavior. Fans of crime fiction with strong protagonists are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel and this series. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Transient Desires from amazon.com.