Friday, December 22, 2017


A novel about a true historical crime, beginning in Memphis 1939 with a woman who stole children and sold them to wealthy families, under the guise of "helping orphans." Like quite a few good historical novels, this is a "split" novel, told from two different perspectives and from two time periods. Two different women, one who has been ripped from her family that lived, poor, on a riverboat; and one who has been brought up wealthy and whose life is deeply intertwined, both personally and professionally, with hers. Some lovely writing in here, and a compelling, painful story.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Emma Donoghue, THE WONDER

I found the premise of this book intriguing: an historical novel, set in back-of-beyond 1860s-ish Ireland, about a young girl who is, ostensibly, living on nothing but air and thus is possibly a miracle or a saint. Told from the perspective of a practical and somewhat jaded nurse named Lib (who served in Crimea under Nightingale), it suggests the various ways a child can be put to use--by a religion, by her family, by the townspeople--for their benefit, and to conceal their own selfishness, greed, and failures of character. At the bottom of the "miracle" is a sordid but not unexpected event; it is revealed at the end, giving the book the structure of a mystery. My one difficulty is that Lib seems slow to gather the clues; when she sees the picture of the brother "Pat" for example, her parents say he has "gone over, God bless him," I immediately assumed he had died; but Lib thinks, "Oh, he went to the colonies." Perhaps this might be indicative of a tendency of her character, but she gathers other, similar clues readily enough; so it just seemed odd. Still, I liked the book; a two-day read.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Chris Bohjalian, THE GUEST ROOM

This is certainly a disturbing book. The premise: a wealthy man, husband/father of a daughter, in Bronxville, NYC (a bedroom community for Manhattan; much of the action takes place very close to where I used to live) agrees to throw his younger brother a bachelor party, including two strippers. Except they're sex slaves, and one kills the two Russian handlers who are there at the party. Told in alternating chapters, third-person POV Richard and first-person Alexandria (one of the women), it's a compelling social comment about the white slave trade and how its violence can intrude so quickly (because it's just not that far away, even in Bronxville). The plot moves quickly from point to point. My difficulty was that there was not much (if any) character development arc; people remained largely unchanged, with the exception, perhaps, of his daughter who has her eyes opened to a horrible reality of our world.

Monday, October 16, 2017


I adored this book, stayed up until all hours, two nights in a row, reading it, and would put it in my top 5 for the year. Narrated in the first person by Katey Kontent, the daughter of Russian immigrants, reflecting back on her time in 1938 New York City, when she had one foot in the world of the absurdly wealthy and the other in the world of working-class girls with brains. How can you not love a book that has this on its first page: "In the 1950s, America had picked up the globe by the heels and shaken the change from its pockets. Europe had become a poor cousin--all crests and no tablesettings. ... True, the Communists were out there, somewhere, but with Joe McCarthy in the grave and no one on the Moon, for the time being the Russians just skulked across the pages of spy novels." It has references to Prufrock, Great Expectations, A Room with a View (among others ... but really, three of my favorite works of English literature EVER). Clever, evocative, beautifully written. I've already ordered his next, A Gentleman in Moscow.

Sunday, October 15, 2017


I found this book both compelling and eye-opening. I knew nothing of Paul Farmer (M.D., Harvard), contagious diseases specialist; nor about the politics and misguided US intervention in Haiti, where he began his work in one of the poorest areas; nor about the politics of medicine and pharmaceuticals and the WHO and UN; nor about how diseases evolve resistance to first-line antibiotics. Tracy Kidder (the author) writes himself into the book as a "ordinary person" asking questions that "ordinary people" would ask, particularly along the lines of, With so much poverty and disease, and so much working against you, how do you keep on? Farmer emerges as something between a brilliant renegade and a humble saint; I found myself admiring his perseverance and sheer capacity for work. (There is a long catalog of his publications at the end.) My gripes are small: sometimes the reported dialogs between Kidder and Farmer feel circuitous and just puzzling, even after a couple of rereadings; and sometimes the episodes seem a bit too "pat." But all in all, an important and informative book.

Monday, September 25, 2017


One of my favorite things about the Maggie Hope mysteries are the historical tidbits that feel like M&Ms in the ice cream. Like the fact that Le Figaro, the French newspaper, which takes its name from The Marriage of Figaro, finds its slogan in that same work: Without the freedom to criticize, there is no true praise. And the fact that Coco Chanel had a Nazi lover. And that the clocks in Paris were made to run on Berlin time. But the ice cream itself is rich, too--by which I mean the stakes of the book are high from the start, with one of the SOE agents captured and on the verge of being tortured. She kills herself to protect what she knows, but the question that drives the book is, Who betrayed her; who is the mole? And though the reader suspects by the middle of the novel, it's like watching a train wreck, as we hope Maggie figures it out in time to save herself and her sister. My quibbles with the book are the way a lot of backstory--including an astonishing number of love interests--gets dropped in, in synopsis; and for me, some of the plot points hang together a bit too neatly. But still, it's a fun, interesting, fast-paced and well-researched read.

Friday, September 22, 2017


The story of a 53-year-old woman excavating her father's traumatizing past--a stint as the Jewish supervisor in charge of an all-black Housekeeping Crew for planes in WWII--by way of interviews with one of the men who served under him. At the end of the book, in a section, "How this book came to be," the author explains that the book is largely autobiographical; this story is her father's story. The historical sections, which are compelling, reflect a world that is inhumane and brutal in its racism; but Rachel's story, about how she can't commit to David who loves her, how she pushes people away because she never learned what love is, how she refuses a therapist's help, how she cruelly refuses to empathize with an abused horse, felt flat and too pat to me. I know I was supposed to feel for Rachel, with her cold and embittered father, her worn-out and disaffected mother, her sister who can only overeat and grab belongings to fill the hole of lovelessness inside her. But I found myself impatient with Rachel; she seems to have insights throughout and yet purposefully remains stuck in her behavior, and so her sudden revelation and change at the end seemed, to me, unearned. I did like much of the writing; one of my favorite lines: "[Nature] can take a heart that has lived like an empty barrel, echoing angrily with noise from the past, and fill it with hope. Love, even."

Tuesday, September 19, 2017


As other reviewers have noted, this book holds at least three interrelated, mirroring stories: that of John Snare, who believed he had purchased a lost Valazquez when everyone else insisted it was a Van Dyck and who lost his family and his fortune defending it; Valazquez himself, who painted himself into the masterpiece *Las Meninas*, where there is represented both a mirror and a canvas; and Cumming (the author) who is retracing/mirroring John Snare's path, partly as an historian and art critic and partly, she admits, as a response to the death of her father (a painter) and her overwhelming sense of loss. At times I felt the book got a little hot and breathless over what is, at bottom, a relatively uncomplicated story; but I enjoyed it and learned a lot about painters and Valazquez, and I greatly admire the amount of research she did.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Hanya Yanagihara, A LITTLE LIFE

This is perhaps the most painful book I have ever read. It's beautifully written. Yanagihara traces the tiniest shades of emotion and thought, of interactions between characters, precisely and without getting overly writerly. The book begins as a story of four young men who leave a Massachusetts college for New York City. But it shifts fairly early into a deep delve into the traumatic past of one of the four, Jude St. Francis; and the other three characters largely recede into the background, except insofar as they relate to Jude (they love him, they paint and draw him, they're envious of him, etc.). Still, Jude's character is so well done that it's a wholly compelling read.
However (TOTAL SPOILER ALERT), the delve backwards reveals a harrowing childhood (like therapy, we get the worst and most deeply buried last) that includes being abandoned beside a dumpster, being rejected for adoption, continual sexual exploitation, a sadistic doctor, (and yes, there's more), all of which leads to Jude's self-abuse as an adult. It's just a really, really hard read. I confess that after the second passage about him cutting himself with a razor, I had to start skipping paragraphs. They were so graphic and perfectly described that they were putting images in my head that I couldn't set aside.
In some ways, the most heart-rending parts for me were those in which Jude interacted with all these kind people around him and always expected cruelty; he wonders how long he can keep them around, when they are going to leave, when he is going to arrive to find them locking the door against him and laughing at him. Of course they never do. We have the benevolent couple Harold and Julia, the heroic doctor Andy, and the brilliant Willem, all of whom love Jude constantly and with an almost unfailing generosity. And I have to confess, I found this part of the novel unbelievable. (Though that begs the question: what does it say about me that I can't believe anyone is going to love Jude so unconditionally?) They love him despite that fact that he frustrates them to no end by abusing himself and by distrustfully pushing them away, to try to reproduce the abandonment and cruelty he felt as a child ... and yet they all stay.
But that small gripe aside, this narrative is a testament to the capacity of the human spirit to survive and to find joy. I felt a hollow space carve out inside my chest reading this book; and yet I also felt it fill up. And it has haunted me for days after finishing it.

Monday, August 7, 2017


I haven't been this touched by a book since I read LIT, the memoir by Mary Carr. Avery's SONATA is at once deeply felt and light on its poetic feet, even playful, and I found myself putting little ticks in the margin for the lines that sang to me. I found myself in tears at parts; but this book is not a melodramatic tale of her disease; nor is it a cerebral meditation; nor an example of how to "make the best of a rotten situation." Far from any of these genres, it is a woman's deeply personal account of how she learned to create, build, rebuild, start over, and stay open and vulnerable and soft in the face of a cruel and unpredictable disease. I'm in awe, not just of her ability to craft a deeply meaningful life but to craft a book that I will probably push at everyone I know for the next month.

Friday, August 4, 2017


An incredibly well-researched historical account of a young man in Regency England who grew up in privilege but slid into debt, depravity, crime, and eventually the penal colony in Australia. One review I read said the book made the reader want to shake William--and I had to agree. Nowadays, he'd probably be diagnosed with narcissistic or borderline personality disorder. He seemed to have no ability to understand that his actions brought about consequences, with an attitude of "Well, yes, I bought eighteen shirts on my father's credit and then pawned them for ready money so I could get drunk and visit a prostitute, but it's my father's fault because he doesn't give me enough allowance!" As a parent, I found it a bit terrifying to contemplate. My one gripe is that William's repeated errors and crimes are precisely that--repeated--and I found myself skimming at points in the narrative because it was just another incident of his bad judgment. But as a researcher, I greatly admired Nicola Phillips's ability to make this individual story a lens into the historical period, illuminating many of the prevailing social and legal issues. I would recommend for anyone interested in early- to mid-1800s England.

Monday, July 17, 2017


If even half of what this book says is true, Edison was one of the most unethical, revolting (no pun intended) men on the planet in the 1880s. Westinghouse wasn't much better; J.P. Morgan and the rest of the businessmen come off as soulless and, at times, petty. The book is told in 3rd person but focalized through Paul Cravath, the young and somewhat idealistic lawyer hired by Westinghouse, out to prove his chops in NYC. The fight was ostensibly about who created the first lightbulb; Edison sued Westinghouse 312 times to assert his claims. I lost track of all the countersuing. The other question was whether Direct Current or Alternating Current would prevail. At one point, Edison fed false facts to newspapers and tested Westinghouse's A/C on dogs, killing them to prove that it was deadly. There are some odd touches; at the heads of chapters, Moore includes quotes from Steve Jobs in this book about 1880s New York; they felt jarring to me. But overall, the historical details are well managed; it's a compelling story, and toward the end I was race-reading, wondering how on earth Cravath was going to manage it all.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017


There is a tender story buried in this book, but I found the question-and-answer format, between Anderson and his mother, clumsy, workmanlike, and hard to read (and to take as truth). Gloria Vanderbilt comes off as whiny and not terribly self-aware; there is no real trajectory of discovery or enlightenment; and Cooper's repeated "Wow, that must have been hard for you" sounds like something out of a superficial therapy session. Bummer, because I like Anderson Cooper, and Gloria had talent to spare.

Abir Mukherjee, A RISING MAN

I enjoyed this debut mystery about a Scotland Yard inspector transferred to India in 1919 and asked to solve a murder. The depiction of Calcutta was very good, and I was rooting for the main character. I did have a few quibbles ... At times the phrases seemed anachronistic; perhaps I'm wrong, but "We'll have to abort" doesn't feel quite right for 1919 Calcutta. Captain Wyndham's backstory of the WWI trenches seems a bit too casually used; to me, the trauma of it seemed not to be deeply interwoven into his psyche; I would have liked to see more of a connection between his backstory and his present actions. There are two "teaching" characters in the book, who each explain to Wyndham (and the reader) what we need to know about the corruption in India and the unfairness of British rule in what amount to monologues; this felt a bit heavy-handed, although I found all the information interesting. And Wyndham's "eureka" moments were, for the most part, very sudden and a product of him ruminating, rather than immediately following a new discovery; he'd realize something and dash off, and I was still standing in the room thinking, hunh? But these are minor points. The Captain is engaging; his Indian sidekick is a charming foil; the politics complex; and the wry humor tucked in is welcome. I'd definitely try another.

Friday, June 30, 2017


Kudos to Welsh for some good research into Victorian Edinburgh and the medical profession, with only a few liberties with the facts (dates and such); I always love historical mysteries. My difficulty with this book was twofold: (1) Its unevenness in pacing. Some of the synopsis should be scenes, and vice versa; there is a lot of internal monologue and anxious cogitation; and the main plot line advances unevenly. (2) The psychological incoherence of the protagonist, Sarah. At times Sarah seems astute and "feisty," but her emotional states and loyalties shift from paragraph to paragraph. Trust turns to distrust on a dime; fierce energy flips to constitutional fatigue from having grown up in society; on one page she is so distraught she's retching up bile and on the next page (literally), she is taking a bath in lavender and giggling with her friend Elisabeth (who has just forgiven Sarah for mistakenly accusing her husband of consorting with prostitutes). The emotions felt overwrought to me and at times unwarranted. Sarah's haunting backstory seems to be inserted into the story merely to give her a "secret" for the reader to piece together rather than worked into the story organically, as an experience that shapes Sarah's motivations and behaviors. The author's 21st-century feminism appears at odd moments, and it felt at times that the author was trying to provide a (deserved) moral lesson vis-a-vis some of the characters: "So why turn on me?" I asked, exasperated. "We both had secrets, why persecute the one person who was in the same position? ... That's hardly sisterhood, Julia."

The book could also have used a bit more editing; the adverbs were at times overwhelming (e.g.: "I stared at him dumbly. I had forgotten that Elisabeth told me he and her husband were friends. Clearly, I thought bitterly, they had a lot in common") and repetitive: "Clearly looking after a houseful of mob-capped delinquents had its fair share of problems. Sergeant Lester and Miss Dawson were clearly acquainted, although quite how closely her blush only allowed me to speculate. He reassured us that his medical man was coming, clearly discomfited at Aunt Emily's unflappable demeanor."

But I have a feeling these are just the marks of a debut novel; I think Welsh could turn this into an engaging, interesting series, with a man/woman doctor-detective team, similar to some of Anne Perry's Monk mysteries.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Louise Erdrich, THE ROUND HOUSE

I'd read some short stories by Erdrich, but this was the first time I read one of her novels. This is one of my favorite genres to read--a mystery that unwinds amidst a network of relationships and actions that reach deep into the past. Given the 13-year-old observant protagonist/narrator and questions of the kinds of laws and mores that result in (in)justice, I found myself thinking of To Kill A Mockingbird; the plot twists and the emotional intensity reminded me of Tana French; and I felt shades of Sherman Alexie in the realism of life on the reservation and some of the wry humor (this hero, Joe, feels a bit like Alexie's of "True Diary"). And Erdrich writes wonderfully; I found myself underlining phrases and rereading them several times before moving on. They're never as good out of context, but here are some: "A life that had worn itself into bachelor grooves and a house of womanless chaos." "I felt the tremendous hush in our little house as something that follows int he wake of a huge explosion." "I knew if I moved I'd snap the pull between them." Enjoyed this very much, and still thinking about it.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Stephanie Danler, SWEETBITTER

This book could have been the fairly predictable story (think The Devil Wears Prada x Kitchen Confidential) of a lonely and naive 22-year-old coming from the sticks of Ohio to NYC, taking a job in a high-end restaurant, meeting a hot (but damaged, naturally) bartender, experimenting with drugs, scraping by in a rotten little apartment, finding a mentor who turns into an enemy when threatened, and evolving to a wiser self. But this book is both more nuanced and more painful than that synopsis suggests, showing how profoundly a lack of self (we don't even get Tess's name until a good way into the book) shapes every aspect of one's life. The knowledge of food and wine and the restaurant industry feels like we're being let in on secrets, like Tess is; and the writing is deft, playful, and suggestive. "A palate is a spot on your tongue where you remember." "I don't know what it is exactly, being a server. It's a job, certainly, but not exclusively ... One doesn't move up or down. One waits. You are a waiter." "So--some tomatoes tasted like water, and some tasted like summer lightning." A very good debut.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


Another historical page-turner by the author of *Devil in the White City*. Like that one, this book blends two related stories: that of the German U-boat commander and that of the Lusitania, including stories of the captain and some individual passengers (which I found fascinating). There's a kind of magic about the way Larson interweaves the two stories. I mean, we all know how it ends, right? But the alternating chapters mimic the feeling of watching the two vessels move closer and closer .... you can't put it down. What I liked most is the way Larson situates the sinking within several historical contexts--the recent Titanic disaster; the political machinations of WWI, with Britain desperately hoping the US would join in the war; President Wilson's personal life; the newspaper reports, etc. An intelligent, accessible read for history lovers!


I think this is an important book. It's pretty well acknowledged now that there's been a swing in the pendulum of parenting, from what some call "benign neglect" toward helicopter parenting. By "helicopter parents," she doesn't mean parents who care about their children and support their interests, even when it's not always convenient; she means the parents who try to forestall all failures, disappointments, and heartache ... and end up with kids who have a poor sense of self-efficacy and low self-esteem, and can't cope so well with the real world, once they're beyond their parents' realm.

My favorite Crazy Parent story: a young man working long hours as an investment banker had a mom who tracked down his boss's private number and called to complain on her son's behalf. The young man walked into work on Monday and was handed his personal items in a box with the note "Ask Your Mother" on top. Egads.

Lythcott-Haims is a former Stanford dean and a parent herself, in Palo Alto, which she describes as a hub for helicopter parenting. What I found valuable is (1) the way she historicizes this pendulum shift, pointing out why it has happened; (2) her discussion of the how helicopter parenting is harming our kids, leading to anxiety, depression, and addiction; (3) her condemnation of the arms race of college admissions and suggestions for how to stop perpetuating it; (4) her caution about "the perils of parenting alone"; and (5) the number of resources she uses (TED talks, other books, etc.), some of which I am going to look at later.

My one gripe is that she sets up the past as somewhat idyllic ... as if life skills were naturally absorbed by children in previous generations. She writes that "children who are otherwise healthy and developing normally used to develop these skills naturally in the normal course of childhood." Well, maybe. But there's a gray area there around "developing normally." I was brought up in a household that was normal in some respects, but my family was pretty non-relational; my parents were certainly not helicoptering. But while I learned some self-reliance, they didn't teach me a lot of the life skills on that list. I went to college having no idea about some things; I had to pick them up later, and was often embarrassed by my lack of knowledge or frustrated or just puzzled about how other people knew how to talk to professors, or cook a real meal, or change a tire, or whatever. So in my view, the "benign neglect" can go too far.

My favorite quote: " ... we've lost a sense that it takes a village to raise a child, and instead of being able to rely upon informal community networks to help us raise 'our kids' in the public sphere, we're each left to raise 'my kid' alone in the private sphere where we are anxious and alone in figuring out how to best prepare our kids for the world outside" (p. 120).

I would recommend to people who liked *Excellent Sheep* and (one of my favorites) Judith Warner's *Perfect Madness, Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.*

Tuesday, May 9, 2017


I enjoyed this spicy satire of money and manners in modern-day Singapore. It's full of shallow, scheming characters and lists of clothing designers and a lot of posturing and whining that is at times annoying and at other times just plain funny. So in some aspects, it's a beach read. But on another level, it's a satire with the social maneuvering writ VERY LARGE. So I found myself thinking of Jane Austen, the Best Satirist Ever of social manners and the ways money shapes people's lives. This book is in some ways a revved up modern-day Asian version of Pride and Prejudice, maybe combined with Emma. Lots of narcissism, controlling behavior, and obtuseness; a Mr. Collins figure; and an overbearing mother worthy of comparison to Mrs. Bennet, who is married to a man who hides in his study to watch action movies (a la Mr. Bennet). And through it all, a Lizzie (Rachel) who manages to stay true to herself. There's another couple that, despite best efforts, fails to keep their marriage together; they are the Fateful Warning of how pernicious this money-obsessed culture is. My only gripe was the "big reveal" at the end about Rachel's father, which to me felt unnecessary; the book was succeeding on its own terms; it felt to me like Kwan was setting a piece of filet mignon atop a delicate chocolate mousse to add some "heft" at the last minute. Sorry, food metaphors abound ... there was just so much good food in this novel! But I'd recommend this book for a fun, engaging read.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Melanie Benjamin, THE AVIATOR'S WIFE

I enjoyed this book about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of Charles Lindbergh; but I felt it was uneven in several respects. It is told in the first-person, and for the first thirty pages, it felt to me that the author didn't quite have a handle on Anne; I can understand the mixed feelings and uncertain identity of early adulthood, but Anne's psychology felt incoherent. Fro example, she repeatedly refers to herself as "tongue-tied and shy," uncomfortable with her siblings, the "second" sister in the Morrow family, in the "shadow" behind her older, blonde sister. (I kept thinking of Glinda and Elfaba; Elfaba is, of course, the quieter and smarter one, the one who ends up with the man.) But she's buoyant and chatty with her two siblings on the train all the way down to Mexico: "I can't wait to see Con! ... And Mother, of course. But mainly Con!" At one point, she almost seems to try to excuse the inconsistencies in her attitudes and feelings with "Before I could sort out my tangled thoughts ..." However, by page 100, her voice and her psychology emerges as more consistent. And from that point on, I was swept up into the story.

Some of the other reviewers seemed to dislike the book because Charles Lindbergh was a philanderer, a narcissist, tyrannical, and anti-Semitic. The episodes about his response to Hitler's Germany are chilling; there is almost a too-easy line drawn between his loveless childhood, his hard-nosed parenting style, and his appreciation for the Nazis. Others took issue with Anne's inability to stand up to him, or her own unfaithfulness. But I have no problem with characters who are neither heroes nor outright villains, who are struggling, inconsistent in their behavior, or lying to themselves and others. I feel it's to an author's credit if she is able to make us feel for the protagonist(s)--even if it's frustration or revulsion. I also appreciated the way Benjamin was able to suggest how the popular press, as well as the American desire for masculine heroes and for particular versions of supportive wife/motherhood, participated in constructing both Charles and Anne's public personae.

Having written historical fiction myself, I appreciate all of Benjamin's work to wrap her hands around the vast amount of material and to provide in a way that doesn't involve periodic "info dumps." Her handling of the episodes--the kidnapping, the fights with the press, the travels, the final discoveries--are, overall, well-done. I enjoyed.

Friday, April 21, 2017


This is an important book about a disturbing trend: high school students are jumping through hoop after hoop to reach college, only to find themselves disaffected, depressed, and disconnected from their own emotions and psychological selves, including their interests and passions, after they arrive. They have tremendous intellectual horse power, a great work ethic, and no clue of what fascinates or engages them. He holds the system accountable--primarily the college admissions process which, in the face of record numbers of applications, focus on the "easy" measures--the GPA, the SAT, the ACT, the number of APs, the number of extracurriculars--instead of how a student learns, thinks, and participates in meaningful ways in the world. He also has suggestions for how to change it ... but it's not an optimistic ending. This does, however, help parents and educators support students in resisting the NOISE and in trying to develop their authentic passions in ways that ultimately lead to fulfilling lives and careers. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Book Lover's Quiz for Historical Novel Fans

11 openings from 11 historical novels. It’s like name that tune. Only more fun.

(1) The play—for which Briony had designed the posters, programs, and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crepe paper—was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.

(2) A surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate.

(3) I lost my own father at 12 yr. of age and know what it is to be raised on lies and silences my dear daughter you are presently too young to understand a world I write but this history is for you and will contain no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false.

(4) Lieutenant William Bush came on board H.M.S. Renown as she lay at anchor in the Hamoaze and reported himself to the officer of the watch, who was a tall and rather gangling individual with hollow cheeks and a melancholy cast of countenance, whose uniform looked as if it had been put on in the dark and not readjusted since.

(5) [The heroine] was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tartleton twins were.

(6) When summer comes to the North Woods, time slows down. And some days it stops altogether. The sky, gray and lowering for much of the year, becomes an ocean of blue, so vast and brilliant you can’t help but stop what you’re doing—pinning wet sheets to the line maybe, or shucking a bushel of corn on the back steps—to stare up at it.

(7) The last time I saw Laurent Jammet, he was in Scott’s store with a dead wolf over his shoulder.

(8) He’s writing when they come for him. He’s sitting at his metal desk, bent over a yellow legal pad, talking to himself, and to her—as always, to her. So he doesn’t notice them standing at his door. Until they run their batons along the bars.

(9) In the beginning were the howlers. They always commenced their bellowing in the first hour of dawn, just as the hem of the sky began to whiten.

(10) I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light. The rumble of apples tumbling into the cellar bins. Smells and sights and sounds that said this year would be all right: there’d be food and warmth for the babies by the time the snows came.

(11) The sun poked out briefly, evidence of a universe above them, of watchful things—planets and stars and vast galaxies of infinite knowledge—and just as suddenly it retreated behind the clouds. The doctor passed only two other autos during the fifteen-minute drive, saw but a lone pedestrian even though it was noon on Sunday, a time when people normally would be returning home from church, visiting with friends and family. The flu had been in Timber Falls for three weeks now, by the doctor’s best estimation, and nearly all traffic on the streets had vanished.

Thursday, April 13, 2017


This was a very ambitious, very strong debut novel, that spans 300 years. It begins with two half-sisters in Ghana, and takes us through their lives and then the lives of their descendants, in parallel, in Africa and America, through the generations. Naturally, there are many lacunae; we pick up a new character not at birth but at age 50, for example. However, I didn't mind that; the narrative always orients us quickly, with a few important details, and brings us to the Important Moment in that character's life. This book is about race, yes; but also gender, power, silence, secrets, travel, displacement, laws, violence, education, drugs, memory, and family.

I have only two quibbles with it, and they're pretty minor. The first is the ending, which to me felt like it tied things up far too tidily for a book that otherwise suggests the roles of chaos, chance, and injustice in people's lives. Second, at times I felt a bit "preached to," through the characters. I'm not saying that the points aren't valid, and beautifully written. And I tended to agree with all of them. But here's an example:

"We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So, when you study history, you must always ask yourself, whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story, too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture."

However, those are quibbles. This is a beautifully written, big-hearted book. I will definitely be on the lookout for her next!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Hope Jahren, LAB GIRL

I liked this very much. In the vein of Elizabeth Gilbert and J.D. Vance, this bridges the genres of memoir and social-comment essay. Jahren writes about botany--the ways, for example, a parent tree supports a sapling by channeling water to it underground at night; the reasons the makeup of soil matters; the way trees communicate danger across miles; the way plants remember their beginnings. But she is also talking about herself, her own rather stark childhood, human communication, and parenting. The metaphor never becomes heavy-handed because, as she says at the end, plants are not people. She writes frankly about the difficulties of being a female academic in a male-dominated field and made me think also about the way gender inflects the stories that get told, the narratives that scientists produce in response to data. I think this book is brave, insightful, intriguing (I learned all kinds of interesting factoids about plants) and often amusing. Would definitely recommend.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Barbara Kingsolver, THE LACUNA

I think this might be my new favorite book of 2017. Beautifully written, epic, big-hearted, wide-ranging. Like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, or Forrest Gump, the story features an engaging, curious protagonist and spans years. It's told through journals, letters, scraps of paper, newspaper reviews, and official documents, and is assembled and framed by a woman who is nameless at the beginning ("VB") but later is revealed to be Violet Brown, who serves as the protagonist's stenographer (and friend). The protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, is first shown as a young man, born in America but relocated as a teen to Mexico with his peripatetic and unstable mother; he takes a job as plaster-mixer for Diego Rivera, and befriends Rivera's wife, Frieda Khalo, and their friend Lev Trotsky; he eventually becomes a successful novelist, writing about ancient Mexico. His voice is thoughtful and often very clever and wryly amusing. I found myself scribbling smile faces in the margins.

The villain that evolves in this book is the irresponsible press, which possesses a rabid craving for gossip, sensationalism, and fear-mongering about communists in the late 1940s and '50s, and which invents outright lies about Shepherd to satisfy the public. The accusations mount against him; his trial devolves into farce. (The "noose around his neck" is some words spoken by one of the boy characters in his second book, which a book review presents as the views of Shepherd himself; this is reprinted in 61 magazines worldwide, becoming solid proof of his communist leanings.) But the furious energy for persecution of people perceived as Other made my heart ache.

Themes range widely: art, love, homosexuality, the power of the written word, war, politics, what it means to be seen and known by another person, what is missing from a story and why it's important, what it means to be betrayed, and then saved again. Kingsolver even manages a happy ending, like the ones Harrison's readers want from him. Gratitude to my friend Mame for giving me a signed copy a while back; and to my bookclub for picking it, which meant I pulled it off my "to read" shelf.

Thursday, March 9, 2017


Part of a new series called "Hot Books," edited by former editor-in-chief of Salon David Talbot, this collection of essays was written by a young man, D. Watkins, who once dealt crack on the east side of Baltimore but eventually found his way to Johns Hopkins where he earned a master's in education. His essays outline the many reasons blacks in Baltimore, and other cities, are struggling to escape the cycles of drugs, poverty, poor education, and violence. The writing is raw and heartfelt; the statistics about literacy rates (e.g., only 7% of black 8th-grade boys in Baltimore read at grade level) and murders alarming; his observations shrewd; and his descriptions of his experience are variously poignant, heartrending, and infuriating. He describes people so poor they eat cereal with a fork to make sure there's enough milk for the last bite. The schools have metal bars on the windows, metal detectors, classes of up to 50 students, and subs that sit on their phone the whole time while chaos erupts around them; is it any wonder the schools are seen by some as feeders the private, for-profit prison systems? The drug-dealers work 80-90 hours a week, hustling; in fact, there's a lot of hustle going on, mostly illegal, but these people know how to work. Poverty is not the same as laziness, he insists. What's easy and hard are completely flipped around in this environment: "It's easier to get a gun than a job in east Baltimore. I went to Fat Hands's and Naked's crib with $300 and came out with a two-toned .45 ..." But he has antidotes, the first one being: "Simple communication, which I perfected at Hopkins, was the key Underneath it all,  found, the privileged whites and Asians at Hopkins were the same as the black dudes in my neighborhood. We all wanted love, success, purpose, and opportunity. ... Learning how to communicate with people so far removed from my reality made me smarter. ..."
This is a very quick but important read. I'd strongly recommend for anyone who is thinking about race, education, and public policy in America.

Monday, March 6, 2017


I enjoyed it, but it was an unusual book. There's very little by way of a plot arc; it represents a tangled web of four generations of a family; there are no main characters, really, and not much in the way of character change or development. To some extent, what develops is the sense (for the reader) that every character in this story has a different, competing, and at times contradictory story about the family and events. Sometimes the tales are wildly at odds: the grandmother Linnie Mae constructed a Romeo-and-Juliet narrative in which at age 13, she was kept from her (26-year-old) boyfriend for five years and then, when she was 18, followed him to Baltimore, having saved her money and believing that he has carried a torch for her all that time; but when she calls him from the bus station, he gropes for a memory of her, nearly refuses to pick her up, and doesn't want her to stay. So to some extent, this is a book about the narratives individuals construct in their heads about their web of family, in order to preserve their selves, to protect their personal Truths (or Lies). The one character who seems to change is Denny, but his change is not demonstrated throughout and the sign of it is tucked in on the fourth page from the end.  However, Tyler is a genius at representing the tiny interactions between characters and describing characters: "He was a brash and hasty man in all other areas of life, a man who coasted through stop signs without so much as a toe on the brake, a man who bolted his food and guzzled his drinks and ordered a stammering child to 'come on, spit it out,' but when it came to constructing a house he had all the patience in the world."

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Elizabeth Kostova, THE SWAN THIEVES

I enjoyed this one. At the heart of it is an event that happened back in 1879; I always like the novels that have a solid backstory and good research on a topic (here, it's art and a bit on the turmoil in France in the 1870s after the Prussian war); and I didn't mind that it's sort of a "baggy monster" like a Victorian novel. It's four stories, braided together: a manic-depressive but magnetic painter who comes to a psychiatrist for help after he slashes at a painting in the National Gallery; the psychiatrist/sleuth who is interviewing the painter's wife, his ex, etc., to figure out why because the painter isn't speaking; a romance, told in letters, between two painters in 1878; the psychiatrist's own romance. You'd think it would be a lot to juggle, but it all works; and while the "troubled patient who's not speaking" as motive for sleuthing has been done before, it doesn't seem contrived. Kostova has some lovely phrases: "the inevitability of [his desire] catches tightly in her rib cage"; "she senses something out of place in Gilbert Thomas, something loose and hard that rattles around inside him"; "the roadsides became crowded with evergreens, which pressed in on either side like armies of giants." I'll definitely give her others a try.

Saturday, February 11, 2017


I started this book about ten years ago and--for some reason--set it aside. After reading Chabon's *Moonglow* last month, I thought, hm, maybe I'll give it another try. I have NO IDEA what I didn't see the first time around. This book is big-hearted, beautifully written, by turns playful (without being writerly "clever") and poignant without being cloying. Six hundred pages of type that is so small I had to use cheaters, but I couldn't put it down. After the second day of reading, I started dreaming about it.

Young Sammy Klayman lives in Brooklyn in the late 1930s; his cousin Josef Kavalier barely escapes from Czechoslovakia as the borders close under the Nazis, and makes his way to Brooklyn. Together the boys become a comic book-writing team, evolve as artists, and survive WWII and heartbreaking loss. But this synopsis doesn't do the book justice. Think magic (Houdini, not Harry Potter), comic books, censorship, friendship, war, love, loss, homosexuality, anti-Semitism, forgiveness, secrets. 

A don't miss.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017


I'm so lame about late-night pop culture that I didn't even know Trevor Noah was the replacement for Jon Stewart on the Daily Show until I read the reviews. (I go to sleep too early, apparently.) 

This book is about a boy growing up mixed-race in apartheid South Africa and as the country transitions out of apartheid. Other comments mention that we should listen to this book because Noah has such an engaging voice. It comes across on the page as well; I felt as if I were sitting next to him, and he was telling me his story. And it's a shocking one that both shows the raw particularity of his own experience and (without preaching at all) illuminates Western (US) frames of reference by contrasts. While his mother makes some mistakes in judgment, she is the book's heroine; she loves her son fiercely; she also understands the nature of the place where they live. When she is beaten by her husband Abel (a true villain), she tries to file a report with the police; they refuse, again and again to accept it. (I felt my frustration growing each time.) The police wave her away, expressing sympathy for Abel, agreeing how irritating women can be. When Abel finally attempts to murder her (and nearly succeeds), shooting her with a gun twice, he walks free because he has no priors. Early on, she explains to Trevor, after he was taken to jail for (not) stealing a car: "Everything I have ever done, I've done from a place of love. If I don't punish you, the world will punish you even worse. The world doesn't love you. If the police get you, the police don't love you. When I beat you, I'm trying to save you. When they beat you, they're trying to kill you." Another example of a Western frame of reference that doesn't hold up in SA: Noah makes the point that every culture has its villain--the person they'd like to go back in time and erase. For the Congo, it's King Leopold of Belgium whose exploitation of the Congo for ivory and rubber led to the death of 10 million Congolese. For South Africa, it's Cecil Rhodes. Hitler isn't the villain we (in the West) know so well; he is "not the worst thing a black South African can imagine." There's a boy named Hitler who's a fabulous dancer, who accompanies Noah to the parties where Noah DJs with his pirated CDs. Noah makes the point also that because he fit in nowhere (being of mixed race), he had to find ways to fit in everywhere. He does that through (as you'd expect) humor, but also salesmanship, entrepreneurship, and language--because there are nearly a dozen "official" languages of South Africa, and the fact that Noah knows Tsonga from his stepfather may have saved his life in prison. He quotes Nelson Mandela in a passage I liked: 

"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else's language, even if it's just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, "I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being." 

Another passage I read several times over:

People love to say, "Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime." What they don't say is, "And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod." That's the part of the analogy that's missing. Working with Andrew was the first time in my life I realized you need someone from the privileged world to come to you and say, "Okay, here's what you need, and here's how it works." Talent alone would have gotten me nowhere without Andrew giving me the CD writer. People say, "Oh, that's a handout." No. I still have to work to profit by it. But I don't stand a chance without it.

The threads of empathy and understanding run through this book. It's a quick, thoroughly enjoyable read; I would say, don't miss it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017


Well worth reading. It's a heartbreaking story of Cora, a slave in the South, who attempts to escape the plantation, following her mother Mabel who (it is said) escaped years before, leaving her young daughter behind. In a way it reminds me of a picaresque, set in episodes, with Cora meeting a huge variety of people along the way. Whitehead's writing is beautiful and deft: "The house had been built fifty years before and the stairs creaked. A whisper in one room carried into the next two." "Ava was wiry and strong, with hands as quick as a cottonmouth." For me, what added to the painfulness of the read was the way he puts the most heartbreaking moments into the plainest, sparest prose, suggesting that all this cruelty and viciousness is all quite ordinary: "Cora started for the stairs but they complained reliably, warning her so often these last few months, that she knew she wouldn't be able to make it. She crawled under Martin's old bed and that's where they found her, snatching her ankles like irons and dragging her out. They tossed her down the stairs. She jammed her shoulder into the banister at the bottom. Her ears rang." The review in the New Yorker made the point that the book skewers the myth (that I heard in my earliest history classes) that the North was a land of tolerance, welcoming escaped slaves and helping them along. Whitehead's version of history shows that betrayals cross gender, age, race, and geography; they take every shape.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Michael Chabon, MOONGLOW

Chabon's writing is always adroit, economical, ambitious, inventive. But this book about his grandfather, drawn from conversations with his grandfather during his last six weeks of life, feels like the book he was always meant to write. Stunning, wide-ranging, poignant. The fact that Chabon and I both have a favorite Salinger short story--"For Esme, with Love and Squalor"--and that we have the SAME version of *Nine Stories* with the colored tiles on the cover made me smile.

There's plenty of praise and commentary on this novel already; so I will just mention just a few of my many favorite lines (even though plucking them out of context doesn't do them justice).

When the time came to leave for the synagogue, the only card my grandfather still held was to make himself disagreeable. Pick a fight and hope to be uninvited.

My grandparents forgave each other with the pragmatism of lovers in a plummeting airplane.

... a woman with a crack in her brain that was letting in shadows and leaking dreams

"That lighter," [Sally said, about a silver cigarette lighter that had belonged to his grandfather's friend in WWII, and which his grandfather had passed on to Michael].
"There was as a story behind it," [Michael replied].
"I'm sure. All of his stories were stuck behind something."

Tuesday, January 10, 2017


I was utterly impressed and moved by this brilliant book. I was one of those students Hochschild mentions briefly, who read Heart of Darkness in high school, where it was taught as a parable, a cautionary tale akin to Lord of the Flies, about what can happen when one man holds absolute power with no oversight. But Joseph Conrad based his account on several men he had met in Africa--station managers for King Leopold II (of Belgium)'s vicious, brutal extortion of ivory from the Congo. And the forced labor, kidnappings, and brutal treatment of Congolese only grew worse during the subsequent mad scramble for rubber (for tires for bicycles and automobiles). I am appalled and not a little ashamed that until I found this book, I knew next to nothing about any of this. The second half of the book offers a slightly less dismal conclusion to the story--the account of the first great human rights movement of the 20thC, spearheaded by E. D. Morel, Roger Casement and others, that helped put an end to some of the abuses. 

I appreciated how painstaking his research was, and how adroitly the author organized the material into a narrative that was as compelling as a novel. And his afterword, with its cautionary notes about "pretend[ing] to acknowledge something [such as a history of brutality] without really doing so," the need to look at causes, and "the cultural tolerance and even hero-worship" of men such as Mobutu, who, like Leopold II, exploited the Congo to enrich his own coffers, is still a relevant message and points to the need for ongoing dialog about the long shadows that are cast by brutality and the flagrant abuse of power.