Wednesday, September 11, 2019


Holy crow, what a book! And I had never heard of it until my son brought it home from school. How did I miss this Pulitzer winner? I think it was because the book won the same year I was immersed in studying for my PhD exams. There's my excuse. But I would say it doesn't matter that it was written 20 years ago. It holds up.

This book has a very ambitious scope and yet is still accessible, with anecdotes and examples and even bits of humor to keep the theory and the long history (he begins 13,000 years ago, when the last Ice Age ended) from turning dry. Diamond begins with a question posed to him by his friend Yali: "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea but we black people had little cargo of our own?" More broadly, the question is why did some countries conquer others, develop more technology, expand their empires, acquire wealth, and so on, when others did not?

This book explores a range of what he calls "proximate causes," but the most significant "ultimate causes" are the geography and the ecology of different areas. One reason is that some environments allowed for a shift from hunter/gatherer to food production. Among other things, this enables people to stay put, which facilitates interactions such as collaboration and the formation of tribes as well as immunity to certain diseases (most of which come from animals, apparently); and food production, which allows for stock-piling, permits some people the option of not acquiring food, so they can devote their time to other pursuits--for example, trades, art, language, politics, religion--and the technology such as the guns and steel in the book's title. A key insight: because Europe is on a east/west axis (it's longest axis runs from Portugal to China, say) the climate is common across a long stretch, which facilitated the transfer of plants and languages and early technology. By contrast, North America and South America have an axis that runs north/south. The corn grown in, say, Nebraska might do well if transplanted down to a similar climate in South America, but how is corn to cross the arid desert and skinny little Panama in between?

Another distinction I liked was the one Diamond makes between two different types of information transfer, for disseminating ideas, skills, or technologies. One means is called blueprinting. I hand you a camera, and you use it as a model to make your own camera. The other is idea diffusion, in which you have seen me use the camera, so you know it's "out there" and ready to be created, and you go home and make one for yourself.

All in all, a dense but great read. Some of the chapters toward the end got a bit repetitive for me--but that's perhaps natural with a book that is covering all the continents and different cultures, all of which in various ways are following the lines of his general argument.

One of the most interesting suggestions is in the Afterword, when he explains that his discoveries about the different forms of organization of human groups have implications for business and our world today. (Bill Gates has applied some of these principles to his workplace, for example.)

An intriguing read, I would definitely recommend this to anyone who wants to understand the evolution of modern humankind.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019


This true history reads almost like a novel, and O'Brien has a fine eye for the details that bring these individual women alive on the page. Maybe that's why this book broke my heart a bit. (A spoiler here: we all know that Amelia Earhart dies. All but one of the other four women die in ways that are either similarly violent or quieter tragedies.) The four other women he follows are Florence Klingensmith, Ruth Elder, Ruth Nichols, and Louise Thaden. Although they hail from different parts of the US and disparate economic situations, each woman faces the challenge of trying to be taken seriously as a pilot in an age when men were making statements like "If women spent more time making homes pleasant and less time trying to get men's jobs there would be less domestic trouble ... The world would be happier" and "Our experience has disclosed the fact that most women have insufficient mechanical ability and little desire to observe and learn." Arg.

Unsentimentally engaging and well researched, this book is for readers of Hidden Figures and anyone who wants to learn more about the 1930s and recovered women's histories. One of my favorite lines is the one O'Brien puts on the frontispiece, from Louise Thaden: "If you will tell me why, or how, people fall in love, I will tell you why, or how, I happened to take up aviation."

Thursday, August 15, 2019


I liked this book for many of the same reasons I loved Miller's more recent CIRCE. It's sort of a warp-to-weft novel, with the story of the Iliad's hero being told not by Achilles but by his sidekick and (in this book) lover Patroclos. The language is lovely and poetic; the pace quick. I thought the homosocial/homosexual bend is handled beautifully. Miller convincingly elaborates and elevates the psychology of these two men during the events of the ten-year war, so we understand why the theft of Briseis, for example, matters so deeply to Achilles, and as a result, Briseis becomes a rounder, more complex characters as well.

A few favorite lines that I read aloud just for the pleasure of hearing them in my ear. (And I know this doesn't do them justice; part of why they strike me is how they appear in relation to their context. But still, I want to share!)

I was listening to the drumbeat of my own impatient heart. "Hurry, I remember saying."

The gray sand, the gray sky, and my mouth, parched and bare.

I sank into the trailing thoughts of dreams.

Cleopatra, Patroclus. Her name built from the same pieces as mine, only reversed.

No spoilers but my heart broke a bit at the end. Would definitely recommend!

Thursday, August 8, 2019


I had high hopes for this book, as I love historical novels, especially those featuring strong women protagonists, and this split narrative, set in 1929 and 1974, had two! I truly appreciated the author's research, for the book contained interesting historical details about Grand Central and the art school that was located there. But I found the intertwining of the two plots forced and rushed at the end, for it felt to me that Virginia's work to uncover the truth about Clara--which might have been an opportunity to reveal how Virginia's character had evolved--occurred almost entirely offstage and is explained to the reader through the rather clumsy device of Virginia's monologue to a rapt audience. I felt as though the extramarital sex/romance plots were used to stand in for the psychological daring that I was never convinced the characters possessed. I was also repeatedly pulled out of the narrative by phrases that felt anachronistic for the 1920s and 1970s, at least to me--phrases like "freaking out" and "Virginia didn't care that she was coming off as a train geek," "looking forward to catching up" and "we're not a good fit." I see that many, many people loved this book ("Riveting, sophisticated and utterly sublime" from Tasha Alexander); I guess it just wasn't for me.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019


Just finished and enjoyed this mystery by Anthony Horowitz, who created the TV series FOYLE'S WAR, which is one of my all-time favorites. This novel is literary, meta- and clever. The main character is an editor named Susan Ryeland, who has received her client Alan Conway's last mystery. He is dying of cancer, and he has written a novel that features an inspector named Atticus Pund, who is (also) dying of cancer. The entire mystery, entitled MAGPIE MURDERS, the last in a series of nine, is included inside this book, so there is a sort of Russian doll structure to it. The themes are broad: the publishing industry, the creative process, the line between autobiography and fiction, human curiosity, what authors owe readers, and what we owe the people we love. It's also wry and playful. I found myself scribble "Ha!" in the margins many times. Here's a typical passage that made me giggle:

"Haven't the public had enough of murder?" I asked.

"You're joking," [Redmond, a TV producer replied]. "Inspector Morse, Taggart, Lewis, Foyle's War, Endeavour, ... Broadchurch ... --British TV would disappear into a dot on the screen without murder. They're even bumping people off in the soap operas."

Would recommend.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Andrew Gross, BUTTON MAN

This is both an historical mystery and a pull-himself-up-by-his-bootstraps coming-of-age novel, set in early 1900s New York City. It is based on the author's grandfather's true story, about growing up poor on the Lower East Side and making his way in the garment industry. New York City feels terrifying and lawless, with no higher authority to whom anyone can appeal; it's only gangs and mobsters, until Dewey comes along. I found the story compelling, the pacing quick, the setting immersive, the plot turns unexpected. The story has heart. Enjoyed it very much!

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Claire Fuller, BITTER ORANGE

First off: this is NOT a tear-through-it page-turner. For one, the writing is too darn good. I found myself rereading phrases and passages because they were so evocative or so perfectly tuned to capture a character's internal state. For another, the "action" is minimal. The narrator, an elderly Frances, is immobile in bed, and she describes both her painful present and a slice of remembered past--what seemed to have the makings of an idyllic summer in the 1960s. Invited to make a study of architectural curiosities on a tumbledown English manor estate, Frances takes up residence at Lytton, which is also home to a (ostensibly married) couple who seem to be in love but clearly have a past imbued with pain. (I found myself thinking of *Sophie's Choice*.) For the first time in her nearly-40-year-old life, Frances is not merely an observer. Together, Peter, Cara and Frances share picnics and dinners and explore the manor house. But from early on, the reader senses that the three of them are going to destroy what they have. The tragedy is not writ large or explosively. But it is deeply, painfully heartbreaking, and I wasn't surprised to see other reviewers mentioning DuMaurier's *Rebecca*.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Madeline Miller, CIRCE

I truly enjoyed every minute of this book. It's what I call a "warp/weft" novel because in the craft of weaving, the warp is in one direction, weft is in the other.

In THE ODYSSEY, Circe appears as a secondary character, present in 2-1/2 books out of 12. There, she is a sorceress who lives on an island alone and turns Odysseus's sailors into pigs as punishment when they behave badly, gobbling her food and eying her lasciviously. After convincing her to release the pigs from their spell, Odysseus remains with Circe for a while on his ten-year journey home; while she was memorable (to me, at least) she is merely one of many characters he meets along the way.

In Miller's book, Odysseus is relegated to a secondary character. This is similar in project to WIDE SARGASSO SEA, a postcolonial novel that flipped JANE EYRE sideways, putting the alleged madwoman in the attic Bertha Mason's character at the center instead of the periphery; also Peter Carey's novel JACK MAGGS, which did something similar for Magwitch from GREAT EXPECTATIONS. In telling a secondary character's story, these novels render them as more sympathetic than in the original; often there is a not-so-subtle nudge to us to consider where our sympathies should lie and how perspective and narration shape what we think we know. (Neither of those books is overly didactic, I don't meant that. But they do nudge and provoke thought, in a productive way.) Similarly,  CIRCE flips a primary narrative sideways--and Miller crafts a narrative that is evocative and innovative and a wonderful read. This novel is at once a coming-of-age story and a love story ... and I haven't met anyone yet who hasn't enjoyed it. Highly recommend.

Sunday, March 24, 2019


I loved this novel. It's beautifully written, atmospheric, and full of heart without being predictable or sentimental. It is also unusual because it's focalized through three different characters--two in first-person and one in third-person, a feat that I think is hard to pull off convincingly. Here, it works. Set in the South in present-day, it concerns three women--Ginny age 45, Liza age 30, and Mosey age 15. When a willow tree is dug up to build a pool for physical therapy to help the Liza recover from what looks like a stroke, a box is discovered that, when opened, reveals a tragedy that's been kept hidden for fifteen years. The novel doesn't slot neatly into one or two genres: it's a mystery, a love story, a coming-of-age story ... and it's the story of three women at once, all fumbling and loving and longing. Yet there's a wry humor to certain passages that keeps it from becoming over-wrought. The author has several other books (and one forthcoming in July, NEVER HAVE I EVER) and I'm not sure how the heck it took me this long to find her. Reminds me a bit of early Kingsolver and Laurie Colwin. Would recommend.

Thursday, February 28, 2019


I am the coordinator for a parenting roundtable at my son's school, and another parent recommended this book for our selection this semester. Overall, I found it an insightful and practical read that represents listening as an intentional activity (not just maintaining silence while the other person speaks) that conveys something in return to the speaker. The book outlines the fears and anxieties that keep us from being the listeners we mean to be and suggests ways to reframe our thoughts and how to implement better strategies in our daily lives (for example, effective vs. ineffective questions with your teen, the value of restraint, the importance of remembering that just because we listen to someone else's POV doesn't mean that we are locked into agreeing with it, or that we won't get our turn to talk).

"It isn't that we're bad listeners; it's our hidden emotional agendas that crowd out understanding and concern. When we clear away automatic emotional reactions--criticism, fear, hurt--we get to compassion, curiosity, and tenderness."

"One reason people doubt that we understand how they feel is that we fail to let them know we heard them. Silence is ambiguous. ... The point isn't to convey that you understand but to convey that you're trying to."

The author provides plenty of anecdotes from his practice and his own family life for illustration, and often provides bits of humor, which acknowledges that we're all trying and flawed. I've already implemented one change. When my daughter called to tell me about a situation she's dealing with at college, I know not to jump in and offer a quick fix; but this time, instead of trying to sense what she wanted from me, I asked outright and openly: "Are you sharing this to let me know what's going on (which I appreciate) or would you like a suggestion?"

Some of the book retraces principles we find in the more "pop" psychology books, about inquiring first rather than jumping to making judgments, but even that is pretty well theorized without getting laden with PhD jargon.

My one gripe with this book, and it has to do with the assumptions underpinning its project, is that Nichols begins: "Nothing hurts more than the sense that the people we care about aren't really listening. We never outgrow the need to have our feelings known." That is absolutely true, so far as it goes. But I think he doesn't quite acknowledge that we also need to have other people's stories told to us. We grow with those, and they are a gift that I (at least) crave. Otherwise, why would we read books, for example? This question is sort of outside the realm of the book; I just felt he might have acknowledged that need. I do think that in this hurried world, listening is undervalued and underachieved; there are a lot of people who don't get enough listening, who don't have enough of that sense that they matter. So this book addresses a prevalent and painful issue.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Tana French, THE WITCH ELM

I will always read anything by Tana French. The emotional tension she creates among her characters, and between the protagonist and the reader, is astonishing. I don't know anyone else who does it as well, for me. But the ending of this fell a bit flat for me--the sudden revelations by the cousins felt a bit unearned; and, frankly, the protagonists final desperate acts felt somewhat implausible. Still, a great read. But it's not going to dislodge French's FAITHFUL PLACE from my favorite top 5 mysteries ever. :)


Such a powerful book. I think the first time I read it I was 15 ... and I'm not sure I understood the nuances and layers and even the language. But this time, my heart just ached ... and that hurricane scene just kills me.


I'd give this 3.5 stars, rounding up for some really beautiful, spare language, which is Penney's strong suit. This novel feels to be an exploration of two landscapes: one geographic (of the arctic in the late 1800s) and one sexual. The arctic plot arc held my interest--partly because I know next to nothing about it. The problem with the exploration of the sexual landscape is there's only so much you can do with a narrative arc about sex. It falls flat, after a while. The tension vanishes; and having the sex scenes become more graphic just doesn't make up for it. The arctic exploration plot, though--and the conniving and competitiveness of the various explorers--was very good. I finished the book, and my heart ached at the end for Flora's loss. However I have to admit, I never quite felt I got inside her feelings, in the same way that I was inside the characters of Penney's first, THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES--which is still one of my fave novels of the past decade, and a book I recommend to anyone who loves good historical fiction.