Thursday, July 22, 2021
Structure. Joan Silber structures her novel titled, Secrets of Happiness, as linked stories and that was a perfect way to engage readers. Six narrators provide readers with deep perspectives as they reveal their part of the total story, and we continually improve our understanding of the “whole” story from these narrators. We never quite get a whole story, which is perfect. We get to observe different lives, some overlapping or connecting, and others oblivious to the world as experienced by other narrators. Happiness is different for these different narrators, and by the end of the novel, we are led to thinking about what happiness means for us. Silber’s prose draws us in, her insights intrigue us, and her ability to show us a wide range of people just like us allows us to connect whatever dots we choose in our own pursuit of happiness. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Secrets of Happiness from amazon.com.
Magnitude. There’s one big takeaway from this book titled, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, by Daniel Kahneman, Oliver Sibony and Cass R. Sunstein: there’s a lot more variability in judgments than you think there is. The authors elaborate in multiple fields how much we are unaware of the extreme variability in those judgments that should be identical. They explain why we are susceptible to noise in making judgments, and what steps individuals and organizations can take to reduce that noise. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Noise from amazon.com.
Unnamed. Perhaps Jane Candas Dorsey chose to withhold the name of the narrator of her novel titled, The Adventures of Isabel, because the narrator would assume that we know who she is. I expect few lukewarm reactions to this novel: most readers will either find this protagonist and narrator exciting or too different to accept. Mystery fans will love the sharp prose, the snarky amateur detective, and the plot’s rapid pace. Having read this first in a planned Epitome Apartments series, I want to get to know this narrator a lot better, and I am prepared to savor the fine writing and laugh at the sharp wit. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Adventures of Isabel from amazon.com.
Infighting. If someone you loved died of covid-19, take a pass on reading a book by journalists Yasmeem Abutaleb and Damian Paletta titled, Nightmare Scenario: Inside the Trump Administration's Response to the Pandemic That Changed History. Your heart will be broken again when you read about chaos, incompetence and infighting as the Trump administration responded to the pandemic. For readers interested in public policy, reading almost five hundred pages on this subject will involve reliving a recent experience with the guidance of journalists. This is the story of a tragedy in how a crisis was mismanaged. Despite my focus on what failed as described in this book, it’s fair to say that the authors also call attention to good things that were done. The running count of deaths as time went on overshadowed what good steps were taken in response to the virus. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Nightmare Scenario from amazon.com.
Haydn. For the twenty-first installment of his series featuring Israeli spy Gabriel Allon, a novel titled, The Cellist, Daniel Silva adds music to the arts he includes after focusing on painting in all the earlier novels. Silva focuses on dirty Russian money and how it is being used to cause mischief in the West. There’s an entity called the Haydn group that has a plan to foment violence in the United States, and Allon works on stopping the plot with help from a talented musician whose expertise from working at a dirty bank that launders Russian money helps Allon defeat the enemy. Fans of this series and protagonist are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Cellist from amazon.com.
Wild. The baker’s dozen collection of short stories by Whitney Collins in a book titled, Big Bad, are funny, thoughtful, quirky and in each case, deep. Collins’ finely written prose can capture character in a few sentences and reveal with great creativity some aspect of the darkness inside each of us, that thing that gets the best of us from time to time. Collins places characters in ordinary places and reveals the extraordinary depths of human behavior. Each of these stories can be a well-savored treat for those readers who love short fiction and enjoy the breadth of ways to live one’s life. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Big Bad from amazon.com.
Tensions. In Odie Lindsay’s debut novel titled, Some Go Home, individual people and particular places stand in for the tension in many families and communities over the past sixty years. The fictional town of Pitchlynn, Mississipi could be any hometown. The tension of race and class can be focused at antebellum Wallis House, now with new owners in contemporary and gentrifying Pitchlynn, but with vivid echoes of a murder there in 1964. Lindsay gives us race, class, memory and a cold hard look at reality. The prose is finely written, the characters complex, and the narrative flows in irregular ways that seep us into a story that we can come to see from many perspectives and time periods. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Some Go Home from amazon.com.
Change. Bill Bratton’s leadership of police forces in Boston, New York and Los Angeles has given him a front row seat for the significant changes in police work over the past five decades. In his memoir titled, The Profession: A Memoir of Community, Race, and the Arc of Policing in America, Bratton talks about the different roles he has performed, and how, in every case, he has assessed the situation, gathered data, and implemented change. His account is thoughtful and authoritative as he relates his perspective on policing. Readers will find it interesting to observe the pace of change, which changes stuck, and how fragile the profession can be to sustain goodwill and effectiveness when rogue cops behave in ways that taint those doing a good job. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Profession from amazon.com.
Haunting. Dennis Mahoney explores the boundaries between life and afterlife in his novel titled, Ghostlove. Protagonist William Rook has moved into a haunted house in upstate New York and revels in the exciting experiences inside the house. After he falls in love with June, who has been dead for a long time, he explores a way in which he can help relieve the pain she experiences while she’s trapped in a limbo state between her past life and what may be ahead. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Ghostlove from amazon.com.
Cemetery. Few readers would have imagined that work as a resident cemetery caretaker could be as life affirming and ebullient as it is for Violette Toussaint, protagonist of Valérie Perrin’s debut novel titled, Fresh Water for Flowers. Perrin tones down some of the cheer with dark stories including sexual violence, but we observe Violette create a satisfying life despite obstacles. Violette observes with compassion, listens with empathy, and greets all with hospitality. As we accompany Violette in her life, we feel the depth of relationship and friendship and feel wonderful about life, even as we spend time in a cemetery. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Fresh Water for Flowers from amazon.com.
Saturday, July 17, 2021
Twists. Readers who enjoy suspense novels are those most likely to enjoy Laura Lippman’s novel titled, Dream Girl. Protagonist Gerry Andersen moved from New York to Baltimore to care for his elderly mother. Ensconced in the penthouse of a new highrise, Gerry’s mother died, and Gerry has suffered an injury from a fall and now requires help from an assistant during the day and from a nurse during the night. In his drugged condition his dreams are haunting, and he has been contacted by someone who claims to be the character he created in a successful novel. Lippman maintains tension and suspense as she twists the plot in ways that will delight her loyal fans and all readers who enjoy suspense novels. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Dream Girl from amazon.com.
Bran. Mary Russell and her husband, Sherlock Holmes, head to the Carpathian Mountains in Laurie R. King’s novel titled, Castle Shade. After the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, Queen Marie of Romania, calls for help, Russell and Holmes head to the castle of Bran which Marie has received as a gift from the people. Perched in the mountains on the border of Romania and Transylvania, the setting is described by King with vivid prose, and the mystery will bring joy to fans of this series and the genre. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Castle Shade from amazon.com.
Agroecology. In his book titled, Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal, Mark Bittman reviews human history through the lens of food. After over three hundred pages of relating a litany of disasters from slavery to colonialism to famine to genocide to climate change to big food producing unhealthy and addicting junk, many readers may have lost the appetite to read further (or to eat anything processed ever again). But after laying out a sorrowful past when it comes to food, Bittman offers a way we can transform current practices and move toward a better future. He makes a strong case for all the benefits of agroecology. Readers interested in nutrition and public policy will find a lot to chew on after reading this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Animal Vegetable Junk from amazon.com.
Intensity. Prolific cartoonist Alison Bechdel offers laughs and insight in her graphic memoir titled, The Secret to Superhuman Strength. Bechdel chronicles her lifelong engagement in fitness, following one fad or program after another. Beneath that surface story is a thoughtful examination of our interdependent lives, expressed in multiple ways with sensitivity. For those readers who enjoy the visual stimulation of the graphic form along with the compact text to read will fine this book a delight. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Secret to Superhuman Strength from amazon.com.
Warriors. Maaza Mengiste’s novel titled, The Shadow King, is set in Ethiopia during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion. The novel elaborates on a lesser-known aspect of that episode: the role of women as warriors. The plans and actions of this brave women inspire the Ethiopian military as they face Mussolini’s army. Mengiste’s prose will appeal to readers who enjoy fine writing, and the story is likely to engage all readers who enjoy well-developed characters and historical fiction. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Shadow King from amazon.com.
Joe. Not your average Joe is the protagonist of Héctor Tobar’s novel titled, The Last Great Road Bum, While structured as a novel, this story of based on a real person, Joe Sanderson, who grew up in Urbana, Illinois and spent his life roaming the earth. Sanderson’s family entrusted Tobar with Joe’s letters and writings, and from that base, Tobar crafted an engaging story about a fascinating character who lived an extraordinary life. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Last Great Road Bum from amazon.com.
Audition. Catherine Steadman draws readers inside the competitive Hollywood scene for her novel titled, The Disappearing Act, in which we see the lengths to which some actors will go to get a role. After an unexpected relationship breakup, protagonist Mia leaves England and looks for new acting roles in California. The plot takes a noir thriller twist following an audition where she meets an actress named Emily. Emily disappears and Mia becomes focused on finding her, while continuing to audition for parts. Fans of thrillers are those readers most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Disappearing Act from amazon.com.
Scheme. Jon Land has written his first Capital Crimes novel in a series created by the late Margaret Truman. The exciting novel titled, Margaret Truman’s Murder on the Metro, uncovers a scheme at the highest levels of power that will demand the greatest suspension of disbelief by readers. Protagonist Robert Brixton, a private investigator, was on a Washington Metro train when his alertness led him to thwart a terrorist attack. Before long he teams up with an unlikely partner and together, they prevent a much larger plot from being enacted. Fans of crime thrillers will find a lot to enjoy in this novel, provided you can get beyond the incredulity of the plot itself. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Murder on the Metro from amazon.com.
Hands. Take a close look at the image of the hand on the cover of David Diop’s finely written novel titled, At Night All Blood is Black, because you are likely to retain the image of hands as you read this book. Set during World War I, the novel takes readers into the horror of trench warfare where hands will represent the madness that can take over the actions of soldiers, especially protagonist Alfa Ndiaye, who left Senegal to fight with the French. The spare prose leads readers to concentrate attention and receive images that place us in the setting of trauma. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase At Night All Blood Is Black from amazon.com.
Communication. Should we remain silent, or should we speak out? In her novel titled, The Secret Talker, Geling Yan explores the choices we have in communication. Chinese-born protagonist Hongmei and her American husband, Glen, live in California, and their relationship has become disjointed, falling to the level of leaving Post-It notes for each other instead of talking directly. After Hongmei receives an email from an unknown sender, she chooses to reply. The consequences of the reply provide much of the tension throughout this finely written novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Secret Talker from amazon.com.
Saturday, July 10, 2021
Hardware. María José Ferrada’s debut novel titled, How to Order the Universe, tells the story of a daughter and her father in Chile during the 1970s. Seven-year-old M loves when her father, D, takes her with him to hardware stores for his work as a salesman. We see the Pinochet era from M’s perspective and feel a sense of wonder as they drive an old Renault from town to town. Even the durability of hardware cannot protect them from the waves of change. It is the lessons about the human heart that M learns during her time on these sales routes, more valuable than what she would have learned in school. The simplicity of hardware contrasts with the complexity of the world. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase How to Order the Universe from amazon.com.
Unreliable. In most novels, we can count on at least one character to anchor the story, mostly because we recognize their behavior because of our own life experience. In Alex Michaelides novel titled, The Maidens, it seemed as if every character was unreliable in some form or other. We’re told that protagonist Mariana Andros is a brilliant psychotherapist, but she seems clueless or incompetent in every setting that would draw upon her expertise. A Greek professor at Cambridge does things no contemporary teacher would get away with, and his dialogue was often more suited to a London pub frequented by traveling salesmen than to the heights of the academy. The young female students referenced in the title seem quite different from what we would expect of anyone attending Cambridge. Some readers will delight in the plot twists, but I found some inevitability in how the story ends and was pleased to finish the last page here and turn to something else. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Maidens from amazon.com.
Competition. Here’s a free and important takeaway from Amy Klobuchar’s book titled, Antitrust: Taking on Monopoly Power from the Gilded Age to the Digital Age, she makes the point that this subject is more pro-competition than antitrust. The trusts were entities one hundred years ago. Today’s challenge is that competition is stifled by large entities that wield too much power and influence. In the book she reviews the past and present and offers concrete ways to move toward a better future. I read this book shortly after Josh Hawley’s The Tyranny of Big Tech, and continue to think that these two politicians and others should find common ground to take action. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Antitrust from amazon.com.
Disillusionment. The tone of the fifth installment of the Linda Wallheim Mystery Series by Mette Ivie Harrison turns dark. In the novel titled, The Prodigal Daughter, Linda and her Mormon bishop husband, Kurt, have started marriage counseling because with their five sons out of the house, and a bunch of other changes, they are going through a rough patch. Thanks to son Joseph’s request for Linda to find a missing babysitter named Sabrina, Linda gets out of the house, but she retains her disillusionment with her life and with the church. After she finds the missing girl, she learns that Sabrina had been gang raped by a group of good Mormon boys. Linda’s darkness grows deeper as she grapples with the likelihood that justice will not prevail. Harrison presents a more complicated Linda in this novel, and she has become more real and interesting as a result. Fans of the series may feel bummed with the turn in Linda’s life, but hope that the next installment will move in a direction that pulls Linda out of the darkness. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Prodigal Daughter from amazon.com.
Ambition. The protagonist of Annelise Mackintosh’s debut novel titled, Bright and Dangerous Objects, reveals the incredible power of ambition. While she works as a deep-sea diver, Solvig has a larger ambition: she wants to be among the first people to colonize Mars. Her partner, James, wants to have a child with Solvig. Mackintosh allows the competing demands of ambition and obligation fight it out as Solvig, like many women before her, have to make life-changing choices. The prose is well-written, the characters interesting, and the revelation of human behavior insightful. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Bright and Dangerous Objects from amazon.com.
Intensity. There’s concentrated intensity in every scene of Willy Vlautin’s novel titled, The Night Always Comes. Set in Portland over the course of a few days, we encounter all the things a person will do to make their dreams come true. Protagonist Lynette works multiple jobs trying to scrape together a way to buy the home where she, her mother and her brother have been renting. Vlautin forces readers to not blink as we observe the lives of people trying their best to stay above water. We feel Lynette’s hunger and anger and cannot look away as we watch mother and daughter come to terms with each other and with the next phase of their lives. The story is riveting, the characters complex, and the intensity captures the struggle of those on the margins to achieve the American dream. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Night Always Comes from amazon.com.
Ratings. Prepare to fall in love with the world as you read John Green’s brief essays in a collection titled, The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet. Green’s observations about our world are cogent, quirky, often humorous, and always packed with insight. In addition to presenting his observations, he also provides ratings on a five-star scale. Green exposes his personal weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and past and present insecurities and neuroses. Thanks to his fine writing, and clear-headed observations, most readers will find great pleasure in his ratings about our world and will gently add our own ratings and observations. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Anthropocene Reviewed from amazon.com.
Collective. After I finally read Noah Feldman’s book titled, The Arab Winter: A Tragedy, I realized what I had gleaned about the Arab Spring focused too much on Egypt, not enough on Tunisia, and I didn’t reflect much about the consequences of the collective action of the citizens of multiple countries. Feldman has expanded my perspective on that region and the implications of collective action on what’s likely to come next. Many of us may not have liked how the people in the region exercised their agency, but Feldman proposes that a future Arab Spring is more likely because the subservience of the people in the past to unrepresentative leaders may have changed for good. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Arab Winter from amazon.com.
Artists. What we see in others may not be matched in any respect by what others see in us. The characters in Rachel Cusk’s novel titled, Second Place, seem to bring out the worst in each other. At the least, they desire some reciprocal response from each other and instead find disgust or rejection. Thanks to Cusk’s finely written prose, we bask in the pleasure of observing complex and interesting characters pursue relationships. Writer M invites painter L to come to live and work in the second structure where she and her husband live in the primary house. That setting provides the landscape for this engaging novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Second Place from amazon.com.
Sustainability. Once you’ve seen the image of the doughnut illustrated and explained in Kate Raworth’s book titled, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist, you’re likely to remember it as you shake up your thinking about what you think you’ve learned about economics. Without quite saying bullshit or hogwash, Raworth explores a way to think about economics that deviates from where most economists have staked their careers. She offers a way to explore sustainability and reframes a way to think about economics. Her prose is straightforward, often playful, and she presents her views with clarity. In 2021, the city of Amsterdam has adopted Raworth’s framework and other cities are in process of putting her theory into practice. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Doughnut Economics from amazon.com.