Thursday, June 24, 2021
Exits. The protagonists of Lionel Shriver’s novel titled, Should We Stay or Should We Go, are looking for ways to address the reality of their mortality. Husband and wife Cyril and Kay are medical professionals who have watched the elderly depart the world in ways that are not gentle. While in their fifties, they decide to commit suicide together after their eightieth birthdays. Using humor regularly while exploring a sober topic, Shriver organizes her book into chapters in which Kay and Cyril exit the world in different ways. Readers in long term relationships will recognize the humanity of these characters and their patterns of communication and interaction. We laugh at the ways in which they agree and disagree, and how they deviate from plans in ways that we recognize as fully human. Beyond a certain age, it would be dysfunctional not to think about death. Shriver uses Kay and Cyril as stand-ins for us who will face a wide array of different things that happen as our lives end. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Should We Stay or Should We Go from amazon.com.
Wallace. As Brandon Taylor introduces readers of his debut novel titled, Real Life, to protagonist Wallace, we begin to feel a constant throb of pain along with this complex character as he navigates the world. We observe his anxiety as he leaves small town Alabama and secures a place in a science lab at a Midwestern university. We feel for all the ways in which he keeps others at a distance, as a response to past pain and to his struggle to fit in to his current situation. His father’s death seems to have the same impact on Wallace as the dead worms from a spoiled lab experiment. He desires intimacy and keeps others at a distance. Fans of literary fiction will appreciate Taylor’s finely written prose and will reflect thoughtfully about Wallace and his life. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Real Life from amazon.com.
Basketball. While I have no interest in basketball, I have often enjoyed John Grisham’s novels, so I opened a copy of his book titled, Sooley. Before long I was caught up in the story of Samuel Sooleymon, a young man from South Sudan, who gets the chance to play basketball in the United States. Grisham contrasts the break that Sooley gets with the situation in South Sudan. Most readers will become caught up in this moving story and with this charismatic character. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Sooley from amazon.com.
Twins. The protagonists of Sally Hepworth’s novel titled, The Good Sister, are fraternal twins Fern and Rose. Hepworth captures readers in just a few pages as we want to learn more about these women. Before long, we feel like we are inside their family and beginning to understand their interpersonal dynamics. After not very long, we realize that there are family secrets that have been long held, and we begin to see Fern and Rose in new ways. Hepworth’s prose is finely written, and her insight into human behavior resonates. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Good Sister from amazon.com.
Legacy. Few couples, upon hearing that one of them has terminal illness, will spend their final months writing a book together. Psychiatrist and author Irvin Yalom and feminist author Marilyn Yalom chose that unusual path for their book titled, A Matter of Death and Life, and all readers are beneficiaries of this legacy. Marilyn explores and shares how she tries to pursue what she considers a good death for her, and Irvin explores and shares how he focuses on what it will take to live on without his spouse and companion of many decades. On one level this is a love story, on another level it is a way for readers to see models for living out meaningful lives. We will each face death, for ourselves and for our loved ones. At such times, we need consolation, something this book can help us find. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Matter of Death and Life from amazon.com.
Alchemy. Be prepared to laugh and nod as you read Sanjena Sathian’s debut novel titled, Gold Diggers. Also, be patient with receiving a dose of magical realism. Sathain explores what immigrants are willing to do to make it in America. We meet high school student Neil Narayan who wants to meet his parent’s expectations to be accepted into an Ivy League university. Neil is smitten by neighbor Anita Dayal and discovers that her family has found a way to practice alchemy: converting gold into the means of achievement in the United States. I enjoyed this creative story and look forward to ordering Anita’s special lemonade sometime soon. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Gold Diggers from amazon.com.
Freedom. The story of Libertie Sampson in Kaitlyn Greenidge’s novel titled, Libertie, will encourage readers to stand taller and to pursue the life we desire. The core question in the novel involves where we find freedom. Libertie’s mother works as a physician in Brooklyn in a free Black community just after the Civil War. Libertie wants to escape her mother’s vision that she train as a doctor to work alongside her and instead pursue her interest in music. After a man from Haiti promises her a life of freedom married to him, she finds his expectation of her subordination to be another form of bondage. She searches again for freedom in motherhood, and wonders where a Black woman can find freedom. Fans of historical fiction will enjoy this finely written novel and become entranced by Libertie and root for her freedom. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Libertie from amazon.com.
Lost. Through her prose in a novel titled, Whereabouts, Jhumpa Lahiri found a way for me to feel the vertigo faced by her protagonist. This unnamed narrator has lost her bearings, and we join her disequilibrium as she wanders in search of what she has lost. The mood Lahiri creates joins readers to the loneliness of the narrator, and every fragment adds to our hope that she will find her way. Before long, we find ourselves becoming observant with the narrator and rooted as ourselves in a time and in a place. Fans of literary fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy this finely crafted novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Wherabouts from amazon.com.
Reforms. I’m always on the lookout for ways to achieve progress in solving national problems that bring together allies across the complete spectrum from left to right. I was delighted to find a glimmer of hope in Josh Hawley’s book titled, The Tyranny of Big Tech. I can imagine legislation that Hawley, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren could co-sponsor to reform the way the United States deals with companies that dominate sectors of the economy. I encourage readers to keep an open mind to hear the views Hawley raises in this book, and then to read Klobuchar’s book titled, Antitrust: Taking on Monopoly Power from the Gilded Age to the Digital Age. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Tyranny of Big Tech from amazon.com.
Classic. Fans of murder mysteries are those readers most likely to enjoy a classic closed room mystery by Seishi Yokomiso titled, The Inugami Curse. Detective Kosuke Kindaichi unravels the mystery with great skill as he reveals secrets of the Inugami family and uncovers hidden identities. If you love red herrings and blind alleys, there are plenty in this finely written novel. The setting of the novel is the 1940s, and Yokomiso’s work has finally been translated into English so that more mystery fans can appreciate the talent of a master of this genre. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Inugami Curse from amazon.com.
Saturday, June 19, 2021
Memory. Lovers of language will relish Cynthis Ozick’s novel titled, Antiquities. Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie struggles to write a memoir and encounters challenging aspects of his fading memory. Ozick reveals the pervasive aspects of anti-Semitism that defined the culture of Temple Academy for Boys, where Petrie had been a trustee. Ozick does more in writing a short phrase than many writers achieve in dozens of pages. The result is a story rich in irony and packed with insight. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Antiquities from amazon.com.
Center. In his book titled, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, Henry Louis Gates describes the myriad ways in which the Black Church in the United States has been the center of life for Black Americans. The form of that centrality has varied across time and place. Sometimes the church was a needed source of refuge. Other times, it was the place to go to mobilize with others for change. Always, it was a place for expression in words and songs the joy and pain of the people in the community. Whatever issues needed to be faced, the place for the community to come together has been the church. Readers of this book are treated to Gates’ own story, the stories of many others, and a clear-eyed examination of this important part of American life. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Black Church from amazon.com.
Hockey. Angeline Boulley’s debut novel titled, Firekeeper’s Daughter, introduces a strong female protagonist who will delight readers of this book. Daunis Fontaine plays hockey with great skill as she’s ready to leave home for college out of town in hope that she will find her place in the world. Family tragedy keeps her closer to home as meth plagues the community and the nearby Ojibwe reservation. Daunis’ knowledge of Ojibwe traditional medicine gets put to the test as she’s called on to do things beyond her eighteen years. The plot is engaging, the characters complex, and Daunis a heroine to be remembered. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Firekeeper’s Daughter from amazon.com.
Hope. Most readers will finish Robert D. Putnam’s book titled, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, with hope that better times can be ahead. Through alternating storytelling and presentation of statistics, Putnam describes a century-long transformation from I to We and back to I. Putnam proposes that we are capable of moving again to We. He makes a strong case that a society based on community can be achieved. We’ve done it before and we can do it again, and we should. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Upswing from amazon.com.
Touch. I rarely tire of finely written novels that offer a view of the world from a perspective unlike my own. Simon Han’s debut novel titled, Nights When Nothing Happened, explores the immigrant experience in the China to Texas version. Han describes the longing to find one’s place in a community that was made for others. The importance of touch as Han presents his story resonated in a special way following many months of pandemic isolation. The tenderness expressed during a sleepwalking motif provided deep understanding of family dynamics. Han’s prose draws readers into the intimacy of family relationships and the impact of past trauma on the challenges of assimilation, feeling safe and finding a new home in a strange land. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Nights When Nothing Happened from amazon.com.
Cousins. Multiple narrators collaborate to give readers of Akwaeke Emezi’s novel titled, The Death of Vivek Oji, many facets of the life and death of Vivek Oji. With finely written prose, Emezi discloses secrets and examines close relationships, especially the one between Vivek and his cousin, Osita. With great sensitivity to the complexity of human behavior, Emezi gently explores issues of identity and acceptance alongside the violence of forced alignment with community expectations. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Death of Vivek Oji from amazon.com.
Pursuit. After you read Victoria Gosling’s finely written debut novel titled, Before the Ruins, you can decide whether the complex story, multiple timelines and perspectives about modern life pay off for you. We gradually learn about five key characters, what happened in the past and why one character has now gone missing. A game played by the characters as children involving a lost diamond necklace, fake for the game, and possibly a real one to be discovered, takes form in different ways in the past and in the present. Life is often not what we want it to be, and frequently not at all like the one we dreamed of while young and naïve. Gosling uses this complex structure and interesting characters to help us think about how we became who we are, and how we feel about how our lives have turned out. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Before the Ruins from amazon.com.
Zippity. Former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives John Boehner’s memoir titled, On the House: A Washington Memoir, should delight all but a few readers. Boehner presents himself as a humble guy who grew up in a big family and the family bar, maintained conservative values and lived a consistent and genuine life following a set of Boehnerisms that are listed in the book. Looking beyond the awe shucks, regular guy persona, he displays his political chops in the ways he talks about a lot of people he worked during his time in Washington. Rest assured, Nancy Pelosi can look beyond his words of praise, and Ted Cruz won’t be using any Boehner quotes in his next campaign. This is a cheerful story from the guy who sang Zippity Doo Dah as he bid farewell to public service. Follow his example from the book cover and quaff the tipple of your choice as you listen to what Boehner has to say. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase On the House from amazon.com.
Clues. Jane Smith, protagonist of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel titled, Hummingbird Salamander, finds herself and her family in peril after she’s enticed by clues left for her by a dead ecoterrorist. This is not a spoiler, but the fact that the novel ends with a question was the perfect conclusion to a story in which Jane and us become absorbed in all the large and small questions about ourselves, each other, and our world. With this book, VanderMeer verges into writing a mystery novel, while not relenting in the ways in which he explores big questions with a unique voice. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Hummingbird Salamander from amazon.com.
Crib. Good fiction can lead readers to reflect about human nature and help us appreciate the complexity of people just like us. In her novel titled, The Plot, Jean Hanff Korelitz presents protagonist Jacob Finch Bonner, a young writer whose career trajectory has plunged after showing initial promise. While teaching creative writing in a bottom tier program, a student tells Jacob the plot of a planned novel that Jacob sees could be a real unicorn: an untrod story that would sell plenty of books. After he learns of the student’s death, Jacob decides to crib the student’s plot idea and use it for a novel of his own. Korelitz satirizes the publishing business with skill, and captures the anxiety faced by many writers who try to get their works published. Fans of literary fiction and observers of the publishing world are likely to enjoy that part of the novel. The intricate construction of this novel will also thrill those readers who appreciate such things. She also presents a thriller, and fans of those novels will likely find her efforts too predictable to be satisfying, but nonetheless a page turner. I, for one, was ready for several different final twists at the end of the novel, and closed the book wishing she pursued at least one of them. Fans of psychological fiction will reflect on several characters and how they responded to the challenges of their lives. There’s a great story at the core of this novel, and that is likely to sell a lot of books to be appreciated by different types of readers. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Plot from amazon.com.
Tuesday, June 8, 2021
Lift. If you’re likely to ready only one book this summer, consider Maggie Shipstead’s novel titled, Great Circle. Fans of historical fiction will find a compelling story about Marian Graves through most of the 20th century. After Marian and her brother, Jamie, are orphaned and rescued from a sinking ship, they are raised in Montana by their uncle whose neglect makes them self-sufficient. Marian falls in love with aviation when a biplane comes to town. At two critical points in her life, she is asked what she would like, and both times she answers that she wants to fly. In the first case, she wants to learn to fly an airplane. In the second, she wants to circumnavigate the earth from pole to pole. Shipstead enhances the total novel by adding a contemporary story in which a movie is being made of Marian’s life. There’s a big cast of compelling characters, engaging stories set in the past and present, and fine writing over the course of six hundred pages. If that doesn’t lift your summer to a new level, consider looking skyward every now and again as you read this novel, and think about the lift that Marian achieved throughout her life, and feel great about the world and all its possibilities for each of us. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Great Circle from amazon.com.
Compact. I’ve enjoyed every novel by Sara Paretsky featuring Chicago private detective V.I Warshawski. I don’t recall reading her short fiction, so I looked forward to a collection of her stories titled, Love and Other Crimes. Vic shows up in some of these stories, but this is certainly not a one-protagonist collection. Paretsky shows that she can tell a compelling story in a compact form and develop interesting characters with efficiency. Readers who enjoy crime fiction and short stories will find a lot to enjoy in this collection. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Love and Other Crimes from amazon.com.
Hope. I confess to rolling my eyes when I heard that the protagonist of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel titled, Klara and the Sun, was an Artificial Friend. Shame on me for thinking this was about robots or artificial intelligence. Before long, I found myself thinking about what it means to love. I observed Klara’s hope as a model for how each of us can live life fully. Klara is voice that most readers will remember fondly after reading this magnificent novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Klara and the Sun from amazon.com.
String. If like me, your science reading has been erratic, and you wonder if your knowledge has fallen out of date, you can get a quick and readable catchup with the world of physics in Michio Kaku’s book titled, The God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything. Like a university teacher to a class of non-majors, Kaku explains complex things in simple ways, and his focus on string theory may actually make sense to most readers. Kaku shares with great joy the beauty and symmetry of physics with readers, and how the great questions are worth asking. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The God Equation from amazon.com.
Visceral. Wracked with grief following the death of her father in 2020, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote a book titled, Notes on Grief, about her personal experience and as a loving tribute to her father. Through her fine writing, we participate in the visceral aspects of grief and want to howl with her at the great loss. Her words expose our own grief as well. During the past two years millions of people have experienced forms of pandemic grief as our world changed unexpectedly. Our connections to each other can become stronger in the context of grief, and this finely written book will connect deeply with every reader with a grief story of our own. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Notes on Grief from amazon.com.
Venice. An interesting novel by Christopher Bollen titled, A Beautiful Crime, about scheming and deception becomes more enchanted by the setting of most of the novel in Venice. Nick Brink and Clay Guillory meet in New York, fall in love, and plan a crime to give them a secure and happy future together. Bollen draws readers into their deception and before we know it, we are alongside the characters in Venice, agog at the setting, and shocked at the lengths to which people will go once plans are set in motion. Fans of crime fiction, and any reader who loves Venice, will find something to enjoy in this crime novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Beautiful Crime from amazon.com.
Answers. General readers looking for a comprehensive examination about sleep and dreaming will find out what science knows today about this topic by reading a book by Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold titled, When Brains Dream: Exploring the Science and Mystery of Sleep. Whatever questions you’re likely to have about what goes on while we sleep, you’re likely to find answers in this interesting book. I didn’t snooze once while I was reading it, but I think while I slept overnight, my brain processed what I read. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase When Brains Dream from amazon.com.
Erased. The seventh installment of Mick Herron’s series featuring the MI5 spies who are surplus to requirements is titled after the series, Slough House. Strong satire bites sharply on these pages, as news is manipulated, and MI5 has been used for private purposes. Internal politics has led to the erasure of Slough House in the MI5 records. Jackson Lamb, however, knows how to play an inside game. Amid deaths, diversions, lies and power grabs, Lamb finds a path toward survival for him and for most of the Slough House rejects. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Slough House from amazon.com.
Busman. The setting of the sixth installment of Jean-Luc Bannalec’s mystery series featuring Commissaire Georges Dupin, is a two-week beach vacation for Georges and Claire, a novel titled, The Granite Coast Murders. While it appears that Claire has disengaged from her medical practice during their holiday, Georges begins a clandestine investigation of a local murder. While Georges has been warned before about detecting outside his jurisdiction, he can’t stand inactivity, and prefers a busman’s holiday to lying on a beach towel. Some readers will salivate at the descriptions of some of the meals that Georges and Claire enjoy. Mystery fans will love the intricate plot. Fans of this series will enjoy the return of familiar characters. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Granite Coast Murders from amazon.com.
Context. Until I read Paul Farmer’s book titled, Fevers, Feuds, and Diamonds: Ebola and the Ravages of History, I thought I understood a lot about the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Thanks to the context that Farmer provides in this book, it will be obvious to all readers that the situation in West Africa in 2014 was the consequence of hundreds of years of exploitation and injustice. He shows how the strategy of containment may have limited the spread of disease, but by not also focusing on medical care of patients, the people in this region (and others) do not have the health systems to address problems when they arise, let alone provide basic health care for people. Farmer writes with clarity and empathy, explaining history and medicine in terms that all readers can understand. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Fevers Feuds and Diamonds from amazon.com.