Saturday, November 28, 2015


A young boy loses his father in the 9/11 attacks and afterward finds a "key" in an envelope that he believes will lead him to some understanding. (The "key" could be too heavily symbolic, but it didn't seem so to me, partly because it isn't Oskar's, or even his father's.) There are also other stories of loss and departure and pain woven in too, giving a sense that heartbreaking, history-making tragedies occur periodically ... and by facing our own losses, we can help the next generation with theirs. A clever, outside-of-the-box sort of narrative, with pictures and other elements that call attention (in a good way) to the many ways we make sense of our world by representing events to ourselves. I was moved to tears several times, and some of the phrases and sentences are so beautiful, I found myself wishing I'd written them. (Thanks to Lucy for this one!)

Friday, August 21, 2015


Beautiful writing, a feeling of otherworldliness, and all the heartache of Ondaatje's The English Patient. Arg.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Daniel James Brown, THE BOYS IN THE BOAT

Extremely well-written, engaging, page-turner about the eight boys from Washington who won gold in the 1936 Olympics. While it tells the story of all eight boys, it is focalized largely through the personal memories of the #2 man in the boat, Joe Rantz; it begins with his horrifying childhood (his stepmother was like something out of Disney), creating a psychological trajectory of him transcending not just his material poverty but his lack of trust in others, to become part of this team. The author is also very congnizant of the historical context--the myths that the Eastern US was writing about the Western US, for example, and how that created a sort of "meta" story (intertwined with the Seabiscuit story, for example, rough-hewn but real power coming out of the west), about the boys of Washington and Cal (UC Berkeley) versus the "privileged" Yale, Cornell, Harvard crews. The boat story is also cross-cut with the rise of Hitler and how the Olympics were used as a propoganda opportunity, with Leni Riefenstahl and Goebbels duking it out for power. Fascinating. Couldn't put this one down. If you liked THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY (Erik Larson), you may like this one too.

Saturday, August 1, 2015


The author happens to be the cousin of Sasha Baron-Cohen (as in BORAT). That notwithstanding, the book presents a pretty unshrinking and unhumorous look at the lack of empathy which allows people to be able to see others as objects, to commit atrocious cruelties upon them, and to feel no remorse. He provides some historic, collective examples of genocide and systematic torture; then he switches to discussing the individual, tracing out the Psychopath, Borderline, Narcissist, and Zero-negative (less common; think Asperger's) types in terms of behavioral, environmental and genetic causes. His goal in writing the book is to suggest the need for a change in the DSM-V, to identify a new category called "Empathy Disorders." He makes a compelling case ... I for one believe we do need more discussion about empathy both in everyday life (as opposed to the shame and blame that have the potential to make us shrivel inside) and in extreme circumstances. Interestingly, though, he brings up how empathy depends upon the ability to keep our own consciousness as well as that of another (akin to two spotlights) in our mind simultaneously; but he never mentions Jessica Benjamin, the profoundly insightful psychoanalyst who wrote about this ability--what she calls "interdependence"--in her book BONDS OF LOVE, decades ago. I was surprised he didn't know it or reference it; seems a very odd oversight. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015


OK, this is not literary; the prose is workmanlike, the dialogue has lines like, "What?" and "Shit!" But then again it's a book about (and intended to create in the reader) disbelief and shock; a complete page-turner. The first half of the book represents the author's meteoric rise in the land of high finance in Russia, as he makes money hand over fist for the clients of his fund (Hermitage). But the wheels come off when he won't buckle under to the corruption (as in a $230 million fraud) that threatens to wipe out his profits; he and his staff are threatened and, finally, his lawyer is taken into jail and tortured to death. At that point, the book changes gears, and it becomes about Browder's fight to have Sergei Magnitsky's story heard and to have it make a difference. There's sort of a happy ending (SPOILER) in that there is some new accountability, in the form of a law signed into law by Barack Obama, to punish the Russians who perpetrated the crimes; this all takes place on an international stage. I had no idea that Putin's law about Americans not being allowed to adopt Russian orphans derived from this tangle. But if even half of what Browder wrote about Russia, the press, the coverups, and the willful denial and disavowal that happens in that country is true, it reads like 1984 on steroids. I read it in two days.


I'm usually a sucker for anything Victorian, but this one didn't grab me. In fact I'd probably give this closer to 2.5 stars. I guess my lukewarm feeling is because this feels half-mystery novel/half-fantasy ... perhaps partly because nearly every character is half-human/half-monster. We've got a bearded lady with an appendage that sticking out of her chest, the eponymous giant who communicates by writing on a slate (in misspellings) and can survive having swords stuck through him, a human fly, and (SPOILER ALERT) S.T. Coleridge appearing, like Frankenstein's monster, having been stitched up and reanimated by some mysterious green substance, just in time for the apocalyptic scene at the end. Not that Victorian England didn't have its horrors, certainly, but I like my Victorian fictional world to have the feel of the real. But Barnes is a good writer, has a wonderful facility with language, I was often wowed by his turn of phrase. I would certainly give him another shot.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


I read this in one night; it's quick and well-written. A painful and at times heartbreaking story about a family, the members of which leave some crucial things unsaid at important moments. An Asian man and a white woman with children who just don't fit in, in a small midwest town in the 1970s. The most painful moment for me is when the daughter fakes talking to "friends" on the phone, so that her father won't know she doesn't have any--because her being popular is so important to him. The enormous gaps between what the parents think they know about the kids and the truths (and vice versa) are alarming and, in the end, tragic.  (I'm not spoiling anything ... you know the daughter dies on page one.)


I'm a sucker for any historical mystery, and this one was just plain fun, sardonic, with good period details and some interesting plot twists. Set in early 1700s London, it's told first-person by a rake, who drinks too much, constantly gets himself in trouble by provoking the wrong people in the worst sections of town, and is in love with a profane and clever owner of a printshop that specializes in porn.


Enjoyed this debut novel, told as a collection of legal memos, emails, lists, legal documents, etc. Yes, I found myself skimming some of the long legal documents that only supported the more accessible cover memos, for example. But I found parts of it touching, much of it wry. There's one primary divorce--an acrimonious one between a high-end doctor and his brilliant, funny wife (who comes off as the Good one, pretty unambiguously) that is largely concerned with the custody of their 11-year-old daughter Jane--but there are quite a few others too, so there's a kaleidoscope effect: Sophie's own parents were divorced; her current boyfriend is actually married and separated and seeking a divorce; the high-end doctor has been divorced before ... plus there are plenty of references to adultery, etc. Reminded me a bit of DEAR AMERICAN AIRLINES, or I DON'T KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT. The book covers a serious topic, with a slightly breezy and literary treatment. (No surprise that she's a lawyer and David Denby's better half.)