18-minute reviews

Beast in View by Margaret Millar

In this 1950s crime novel by Mrs. Ross Macdonald you’ll find an obese, predatory lesbian (stock character in every movie ever set in a women’s prison), a young gay man with a weak, clingy mother (we turn them gay, remember), a villainess with multiple personality disorder, a murder committed with scissors, booze, Nembutal, Hollywood, nonstop melodrama. I’m not sorry I read the book, but I’m just not that into campy trash. I believe I heard about this on the Slate Culture Gabfest, often a good source of ideas for what to read and see, but in this case, not. 10/1/2014

The Enigma of Anger by Garret Keizer

My second Garret K. book and I’m a fan, though Enigma of Anger -- less rooted in lived experience than Getting Schooled -- took me a few weeks and some mental fortitude to finish. The book is an exploration of why we get angry, why we should control our anger, and why, on certain occasions, we shouldn’t. There’s a lot of analysis of anger in the Bible (Jesus and the fig tree), a bit about anger in the novels of Russell Banks, plus: miserable jobs that make people furious, road rage, anger as motivator, angry women, and (my favorite part) anger in the life of Garret Keizer, who is a very angry man. A small note: Keizer lets women off the hook too readily. He’s one of those feminist men who thinks that females are, on the whole, superior to men. On the face of it, flattering. He must have a lovely wife. But he is naive and this is a flaw, if small, benign, and forgivable, in his world view. Women aren’t any better or less angry than men. They’re just physically weaker and (somewhat) better trained at controlling their fury.  9/29/14

Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer

Inspired by some rapturous reviews, most notably Maureen Corrigan’s on Fresh Air, I bought this graphic novel for Owen (obsessed with comics) for his birthday. Having let Owen unwrap it, I promptly borrowed it to read myself. I am puzzled by the high praise. What am I not understanding or appreciating here? It’s a chaotic, flimsy, noirish crime story involving a drunk private investigator, a couple of ungrateful daughters, World War II, murder, mystery, mayhem, and cross dressing. You can read it in an hour. The plot careens all over the place and I found it neither funny nor suspenseful. The art has terrific energy and the last lines really are wonderful, but as a whole the book left me cold. 9/27/2014

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

Finishing this novel, I wanted to flip back to page one and start again, but it’s already overdue at the library so it’s going back. And I guess I’m not all that motivated. Though fascinating and full of darkly comic scenes and complex, thought-provoking observations, it’s a deeply unpleasant book and I hated every minute I spent in the company of it’s narrator. Adam Gordon is a young, unstable and self-obsessed American poet in Spain on a fellowship. He pops prescription pills, smokes weed, drinks to excess, worries obsessively about what other people think of him, manipulates, lies, and has some serious panic attacks. He’s also perceptive and super-smart and has a lot to say about Americans abroad, poetry, and alienation, all of it interesting, most of it depressing. 9/26/2014

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher 

Super-short, sly, surprisingly poignant academic comedy told through letters of recommendation from a disillusioned middle-aged English professor on behalf of former students, colleagues, ex-girlfriends. Clever. Often very funny. This is the rave review that convinced me to put the novel on my list. I didn’t love it quite as much as she did.  9/23/3014

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast

It takes about two hours to read Chast’s graphic memoir about the aging and death of her parents and those are two hours well spent. 9/22/2014

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe

In the early 1980s, Stibbe was nanny to the sons of the formidable London Review of Books editor Mary Kay Wilmers and wrote airy, funny letters to her sister about the experience. These are those letters. Literary celebrities (Claire Tomalin, Michael Frayn) are constantly popping in to visit MK (as she’s known in these pages) and the topics of conversation (dialogue is relayed verbatim) range from the merits of Thomas Hardy and Seamus Heaney, to haircuts and cooking. Cute. 9/21/2014 

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

Not good. She can write, for sure, and she’s not stupid, but this novel has no weight, despite the fact that it’s packed with grave events: a mother abandons her child, a woman burns to death, a man perishes slowly from a brain tumor, a boy is stolen from an orphanage, World War II, et cetera. The tone is arch and oddly playful and some chapters unfold as letters (unconvincing) and others as first-person narration. I didn’t believe any of it.  9/18/2014

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis

At first I thought I was going to have to quit reading this novel, that’s how much I hated the eponymous protagonist, who’s fourteen as the book begins. Fourteen, gorgeous, casually cruel, larcenous, and sexually manipulative. What’s not to hate? But it soon becomes clear that she has her reasons. It’s 1972 and Rainey’s father is a smarmy jazz musician who preys on her teenaged friends, lets young men and women come and go from their Greenwich Village townhouse, and seems unconcerned that a long-term houseguest enters Rainey’s room every night to rub her back. Or something. Something Rainey doesn’t like. However powerful she may be at school, Rainey has no power whatsoever at home. And as the novel unfolds, she becomes less feral and hateful, begins to develop as a human being and as an artist, one who makes strange, inspiring tapestries. (At one point, I had the strongest impulse to put down the book and get out my sewing machine.) The novel is comprised of linked stories, some more successful than others, and ends when Rainey is in her mid-twenties. The writing is fresh and sensual and smart and I was reminded of both the Cass Neary novels by Elizabeth Hand (fierce heroine) and that sad, dark little movie Ginger and Rosa (slippery, seductive father.) Not for everyone, this book, but I ended up liking it quite a bit. 9/15/2014

Through the Narrow Gate by Karen Armstrong

I’ve read and admired some of Armstrong’s other works, including her book about Buddhism, and had high expectations for this memoir of the seven years she spent as a nun, starting when she was 17. I was actually shocked at how light the book felt, almost breezy, even when she was writing about struggles with loneliness, physical illness, and cruel convent superiors. Maybe she was still too close to the experience to write about it with full understanding. Maybe she was pandering to readers who were more curious about repressed sexuality than about spirituality. Maybe Armstrong was just young and undeveloped as a writer. (Published in 1982, this was her first book.) I don’t know. She tells an interesting story here, but it’s nowhere near so thoughtful as her later work. 9/14/2014

The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

I cheat on my “18 minute” rule all the time, but usually only by a matter of minutes. I could write about this book for hours if I got started, so I won’t get started. I’ll just say this:  The Hare with the Amber Eyes is about tiny Japanese figurines, European history, art history, family history, Jews, Nazis, wealth creation, wealth destruction, class envy, Vienna, Odessa, Paris, Proust, and more. It’s an epic work of nonfiction told in minute detail, written with passion, tenderness, and controlled rage. Read it. Or, as I did, listen to it. The narration (by Michael Maloney) on the audio version was a bit breathless, but obviously I got past that.  9/9/2014

Delancey by Molly Wizenberg

This book doesn’t work and that’s a shame. Molly Wizenberg is a graceful, thoughtful writer and she has a meaty story to tell about the struggles of young marriage and the travails of opening of a buzzy Seattle restaurant. But she doesn’t tell it. The book feels wan and stunted and while you get occasional glimpses of what it might have been, they don’t add up to much. I have four theories as to why she didn’t write this richer, bigger book:  1. She was simply too busy (baby, pizzeria).  2. She didn’t have enough distance from the turmoil of these years to see them in perspective and write with full comprehension. 3. Her marriage remains fragile (this is just a theory, one I hope is incorrect) and she couldn’t write with full candor because it would compromise the relationship. 4. She wanted to write a fundamentally sunny sequel to her fundamentally sunny Homemade Life, which is what she thinks her fans and editor expect, so she couldn’t take her material to the interesting, darker places it clearly needed to go. Why do I think the book needed to go to darker places? She repeatedly describes herself screaming, crying, and resenting the hell out of her husband. She repeatedly depicts herself as lost and depressed. And then she moves on to a recipe for meatloaf or rice pudding. The emotional storms are never adequately explained, explored, or resolved, and even the recipes feel half-hearted. Like she knows deep down that nothing is ever really fixed with a tomato salad. I think Wizenberg should consider untethering herself from food as a subject. I think it may be constricting her growth as a writer, and I think, unlike most food bloggers, she's a real writer. September 9, 2014

Life Work by Donald Hall

I opened this expecting a smooth, hushed meditation on Hall’s life as a writer, but that isn’t exactly what I got. Midway through the writing of this slender book, Hall was diagnosed with a recurrence of colon cancer and surgeons removed half of his liver. His chances of long-term survival were slim. It was poignant, knowing he wrote the second half of the memoir while living under a cloud of pain and fear. It was also very meta, allowing him to illustrate one of his central points about meaningful work: that it can absorb you completely and help you transcend personal troubles. And so we read and read and read about his hard-working grandparents while knowing that Hall is in the midst of a crisis. Sadly, this didn’t really work for me. I was reminded of someone singing while covering his ears to avoid hearing what he doesn’t want to hear. I just didn’t love this book as much as others have and feel strangely bad about that. September 6, 2014

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

I listened to this and can’t recommend the audio version (read by the superb Peter Altschuler) more highly, at least if you’re up for a topnotch sweet-tart comedy of manners (and romance!) set in the English countryside. There’s even a vicar. September 6, 2014

Biophilia by Edward O. Wilson

Wilson: “Think of scooping up a handful of soil and leaf litter and spreading it out on a white ground cloth, in the manner of the field biologist, for close examination. This unprepossessing lump contains more order and richness of structure, and particularity of history than the entire surfaces of all the other (lifeless) planets. It’s a miniature wilderness that can take almost forever to explore.” 

I picked up this short, fascinating book after reading Song of the Dodo, in which David Quammen wrote about Wilson’s work on island biogeography.  Biophilia, defined by Wilson, means “the innate tendency to focus on life and life-like processes.” Wilson suggests that we’re all biophiles, whether we know it or not, drawn to the living tree rather than the pile of dead leaves beneath. It’s a complicated attraction, to be sure. We must subdue nature in order to survive, but to completely destroy nature would be a devastating blow to the human psyche.  Wilson: “Nature is to be mastered, but (we hope) never completely. A quite passion burns, not for the total control, but for the sensation of constant advance.” I’ve reread that passage a dozen times and think it perfectly articulates where we stand in relation to nature. He likens clearing the rainforest to “burning a Renaissance painting to cook dinner.”

Although always vaguely “green,” I’ve never been the most ardent tree-hugger. That’s changing. Song of the Dodo made me see the world with new eyes and this book reinforced what Dodo started. I’d like to add that the chapter on snakes was particularly interesting, as was the theory that we design our shopping malls and parks to resemble tree-studded African savanas, the natural environment preferred by our ancestors. Such a thoughtful book. Not perfect, not totally polished, but full of quiet intelligence and insight. I checked it out of the library, but plan to buy it. September 5, 2014

Getting Schooled by Garret Keizer

Such a crisp and thoughtful book, exactly what I needed during a very rocky transition to high school for one of my children who seems to want nothing more than to spend the rest of his life watching YouTube videos. I wish he had a Mr. Keizer in his life, encouraging him to get off the internet and read, but I’m afraid he doesn’t. Keizer’s book is divided into chapters each of which is dedicated to a month of the school year. At 57, to get health insurance after his wife left her job, he went back to the same rural Vermont high school where he had taught years before. He’s bracingly candid about his frustrations and dislikes (deadbeat parents, cell phones, Sparks Notes), but also about the joys of his connection with the kids. He has an acid tongue, not always held in check in the classroom, but also a passion for literature that he works overtime trying to instill in his students. He is, to use one of his own terms, “teacher as artist.” This book is full of sharp insights into education, books, and American culture at large and I imagine that anyone who spent a year in his classroom would come out of it looking at the world quite differently. Like I said, I wish my son had a Mr. Keizer. 8/30/2014

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

“Never in his life had he seen a river before -- this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver -- glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble.” In my youth, I wouldn’t have savored this wonderful passage, I would have rushed past it, eager for something to happen. Which, of course, it does. Mole meets Rat and heads off down that river and many adventures follow, some involving the hilarious, fatuous Toad. But to read this book for the plot is to miss so much of its beauty. The observations and depictions of nature. The great, soulful characters. The underlying sweetness and melancholy. I enjoyed this book much more as an adult than I did as a child. Curious about the author, I flipped to the short bio of Grahame at the back. After recounting the details of Grahame’s lonely, motherless childhood, here’s how the bio concludes: Wind in the Willows “began as a bedtime story told to his only child, Alistair whose tragic death at twenty was so great a sorrow that he and his wife lived in eccentric seclusion thereafter. In a life of much sadness it seems that all he found pleasurable in this world he put into the best-loved children’s book of all time.” 8/28/2014

Song of the Dodo by David Quammen

Komodo dragons, Tasmanian aborigines, Alfred Russell Wallace vs. Charles Darwin, island biogeography, wildlife corridors, chuckwallas in Mexico, lemurs in Madagascar, passenger pigeons, spiders with bodies the size of prunes, Indonesia, dams, thylacine sightings, scientific feuds, snakes in Texas, kestrels in Mauritius -- this book is a treasure chest. But “treasure chest” sound like a collection of random wonders when in fact Song of the Dodo is a powerful and cohesive saga about animal extinction, past, present and future. A better image than treasure chest: a fantastic journey led by an intelligent, wry,  passionate, and tireless guide. The poignant first half -- focused on evolution and extinctions on islands -- quietly sets you up for the deeply depressing second half. Make no mistake, although the book seems to wander all over the place, a strong narrative thread runs throughout. I will say that Quammen is occasionally obnoxious, something I never noticed in Spillover, written over a decade later. Back in 1996 when Dodo was published, he seems to have been infatuated with pretentious allusions. I appreciate some of his heady descriptions, like when he writes that the Dutch language has “a pleasing musical inscrutability, like the late Beethoven quartets.” I wouldn’t know a late Beethoven quartet if I heard one, but I liked this. On the other hand, I’m not so keen on: “The distributional pattern of the Galapagos finches is a puzzle that would have pleased Metternich.” Also, he used to be a bit too fond of profanity and snide, macho, Edward Abbey-ish posturing. For instance, of his visit to a Komodo dragon-viewing park:  “A small clearing suddenly fills up with slathering, reptiles, doltish tourists, and a frenzy of amateur photography . . . A blue-haired American lady could lose her forearm while trying to feed one of the dragons a banana.” Doltish tourists? A blue-haired American lady? Such casual contempt doesn’t make me think less of the curious humans who spend disposable income and vacation time traveling halfway around the world to see reptiles, but of the science writer (on expense account?) who sneers at them. Quammen can do better. I didn’t see any of this attitude in Spillover, so perhaps he figured that out. I realize I’ve just spent half of this tiny review harping on a few sporadic glitches in a 700-page book that I loved ardently, a book that blew my mind. It’s tremendous. Don’t let my petty quibbles stop you. Read it. 8/25/2014

The Idealist by Nina Munk

I once fact-checked a story about the economist Jeffrey Sachs, way back when he was the boy genius who was going to save South America. Or was it Poland? I was so ill suited for that job! I remember little about the piece except the breathless awe in which everyone held Sachs’s intelligence. That in itself is telling. A lot of people, including Sachs himself, seem to have overestimated his abilities. At some point Sachs began a massive, much-publicized campaign to eradicate extreme poverty in Africa, but it turns out there are limits to what even a towering IQ can accomplish. This tough, smart, tenaciously reported book tells the story of how Sachs’ grand plan failed in two of the destitute villages he set out to save. It’s about the monumental challenges of effecting change in Africa, but equally about one man’s hubris. I’d feel sorry for Sachs if he didn’t come across as such a bully. Excellent, engrossing, thought-provoking book. (I listened to it.) 8/20/2014

Public Apology by Dave Bry

A quirky memoir disguised as a series of apologies to people Bry felt he wronged in his life, from a girl he failed to kiss as a teenager to the roommate whose piece of carrot cake he once stole when he was stoned. (He’s often stoned in these pages.) Such a fantastic idea for a book. A lot of the apologies are patently ridiculous and some of them seem less than sincere, which is fine. Bry is trying to be funny and generally succeeds. A few of the apologies towards the end are incredibly sad, like Bry’s apology to his father, who basically died in arms in an airplane lavatory. That one made me cry. 8/19/2014

Wounded by Emily Mayhew

Loosely stitched together collection of true stories about what it was like to be wounded -- or treat the wounded -- during World War I. Mayhew doesn’t provide a lot of context or connective tissue, and she retells these first-hand accounts, drawn from letters and journals, in somewhat flat prose. At first I was put off by this. Soon I stopped caring. The stories are simply told and powerful, full of horror and unsung heroes. 8/17/2014

Spillover by David Quammen

I loved this book. Just a few of my abundant thoughts expressed  here. 8/16/2014

Henry and Cato by Iris Murdoch

It’s been two decades since I read an Iris Murdoch novel and I plucked this off my shelf on a whim. I’d read it before, but remembered nothing about it except the daft and hilarious haikus composed by a minor character. I don’t know what to make of Iris Murdoch and never have. I probably never will. There’s something intriguing and delicious about her fiction, and yet it’s also pretty terrible. Her physical descriptions of characters are among the worst in all literature! (And she is relentless with those labored physical descriptions, never letting you forget that one character has the head of a bird, that another is fat, thick, and slovenly. Why? Why do appearances matter so much to Iris M?) Here’s the plot of Henry and Cato: Following the death of his (hated) older brother, the titular Henry has just inherited his family’s estate in rural England and returned from an academic job in America to take the reins. What will Henry do with his ancestral estate? Will he sell it to spite his imperious mother? Will he really marry the woman (fat, thick, slovenly) he believes to have been his late brother’s mistress? Meanwhile, Cato, a childhood friend of Henry’s, has become a Catholic priest and is suffering a crisis of faith. He works among the impoverished and has fallen in love with “Beautiful Joe,” a seductive young hoodlum. Will Cato leave the Church? Will he run away with Beautiful Joe? Will Beautiful Joe betray him? Will Beautiful Joe kill him? The plot is lurid but strangely static. I didn’t really care about any of these characters -- they range from slightly to extremely unpleasant -- and yet I read with interest. Intriguing, delicious, pretty terrible. Ever a puzzler, Iris Murdoch. 8/14/2014

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

I seem to be rereading a lot of books I didn’t like and thought I should have. McEwan’s grim, chilly novel of obsession got a second chance and will not get a third. A cerebral, cultivated Londoner, Joe Rose (science writer), is picnicking with his wife, Clarissa (Keats scholar), when he witnesses -- and attempts to avert -- a fatal ballooning accident. In the wake of the accident, another witness, Jed Parry, develops a not-at-all-believable erotic-religious obsession with balding, middle aged Joe and proceeds to stalk him, wreaking havoc on his marriage and mental equilibrium. McEwan is quite excellent when depicting the way a happy relationship can suddenly fall apart, the way trust between two people can evaporate in a day. “Didn’t love generate its own reserves?” Answer: No. He also has sharp insights into people. Clarissa’s state of mind while arguing: “She can’t help feeling that every hostile utterance of hers takes her further not only from Joe’s love but from all the love she’s ever had, and makes her feel that a buried meanness has been exposed that truly represents her.” That’s exactly how I feel when I fight and never, in 4+ decades of reading, have I seen it expressed. But McEwan aims to write about more than feelings. He likes to grapple with big themes and at this he is less successful. The obvious theme here is the conflict between the coldly rational view of life, represented by Joe, and the literary, humanistic view, represented by Clarissa -- but what does McEwan do with this? In my view, very little. I struggled with the same thing I often struggle with in McEwan’s fiction: A cool, schematic, slightly clumsy plot that never lets me escape McEwan’s brain into something larger. His fictional world is chilly, precisely detailed, and narrow. I become claustrophobic. Though I loved Chesil Beach, I read Sweet Tooth just a few months ago and have forgotten it already. I didn’t even love Atonement, heresy though that is to admit. 8/9/2014

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

I first read this a decade or more ago and liked it ok, but in the intervening years, with the publication of her Jackson Brodie novels and Life After Life, Atkinson became my favorite author. I’d forgotten the plot details of Behind the Scenes, so decided to reread. I still like it only ok. Atkinson has raised her game since this book, which has a lot more ragged edges than her recent work. The novel tells the life story of Ruby Lennox, youngest daughter of George and Bunty, a spectacularly unhappy couple and owners of a pet shop in York. George is a boorish philanderer; Bunty, a tightly-wound prig. We get to know Bunty a lot better than we ever do George, because the novel also recounts the raucous multigenerational saga of Bunty’s family, a clan that abounds with illegitimate children, lies, secrets, loveless marriages, runaways, and violent deaths. Atkinson has a terrific dark wit and lets her characters be thoroughly awful and human. There’s no one quite like her.  But the story careens around so wildly I was never confident it was going somewhere, a problem Atkinson solved when she started writing about crime. (She’s never had a problem coming up with brilliant titles.) 8/8/2014

With, by Donald Harington

One of the oddest, most original novels I’ve ever read. The first chapter is told from the point of view of a dog, and when I figured this out, almost put the book down. Not for me, animal books. But in subsequent chapters, it became clear that the narrative hinges on the abduction of a 7-year-old girl by the dog’s owner, a pedophile cop. He plans to take her to a remote Ozarks cabin and live off the land, Jack Daniels, and pickled pigs feet for the rest of their lives. A dark crime novel with thoughtful animals? Bizarre! I read on and I can’t write about what happens without giving the whole thing away, but let me just say that the novel is thoroughly crazy and unexpectedly sweet and it mostly works. I was absorbed in Harington’s cracked vision until the last 100 pages or so when the story goes off the rails. The ending is really, really bad. I wish I could remember where I heard about this book, but it was years ago. I bought it used, put it on the shelf, and didn’t think about it again until I was looking for a big, fat novel to take on vacation. I can’t quite recommend With, but I won’t forget it. August 3, 2014

Relish, Lucy Knisley

Slight, winning, occasionally precious cartoon memoir of the author’s life (so far -- she’s really young!) in food. An only child, Knisley’s parents divorced when she was small. Her beloved chef mother worked at Dean & DeLuca in New York CIty, then moved Knisley to the country in order to grow a garden and raise chickens. Her father, a more distant and ambiguous figure, comes across as a food snob who is deeply upset to spot a McDonald’s near the European hotel where he takes Knisley on vacation. Knisley? She finds food snobbery ridiculous. She’s cheerfully catholic in her tastes, which include not just homemade chocolate chip cookies and tomatillos straight off the bush, but pizza pockets and McDonald’s fries. Is this typical of the generation raised by politically-correct foodies in the 1980s and ‘90s? Too soon to tell, but it’s refreshing. She writes well about flavors: “an oyster is like “consuming cold liquid metal, the way I imagine the TI-83 robot from Terminator would have tasted, but saltier.” Her unbounded relish for food, from the molecular gastronomy of Grant Achatz to cheap tamales on a vacation in Mexico, is infectious. The book takes about an hour to read, including a 5 minute break in the middle to find a snack. You will need a snack. I really wanted to try some natto, which appears in the book, but had to make do with an oatmeal cookie. 7/24/2014

The Big Necessity, Rose George

She’s a snappy writer, Rose George, an indefatigable reporter, a serious thinker, and a wit. She makes dull-sounding subjects come to life. Interested in shipping? Me neither, but I was such a fan of Ninety Percent of Everything, her book about shipping, that I decided I was willing to tackle her book about sanitation.  Sanitation, as in toilets, or the lack thereof. And it turns out there’s a lot of lack thereof, far more than I’d thought. Four out of ten people on the planet “have no access to any latrine, toilet, bucket or box. Nothing.” The consequences are dire: contaminated drinking water and rampant diarrhea and disease. Terrible fact: the number of children who have died from diarrhea in the last decade exceeds the number of people killed in armed conflicts since World War II. George looks at the topic of sanitation from every perspective. She travels to the slums of Tanzania and India to show the challenges of bringing sanitation to the poor, and draws the link between lack of an acceptable latrine at school and the disinclination of poor children to attend. She outlines the pros and cons of night soil in China and investigates the absurdist world of high-tech toilets in Japan. She also wades through the sewers of London and shares the details of sewage treatment in developed countries, which temporarily (I hope) destroyed my interest in drinking tap water. The book was informative, important, sad, and improbably funny. While it wasn’t always enjoyable, I’m glad I read it.  7/23/2014

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families, Philip Gourevitch

Gourevitch went to Rwanda shortly after the 1994 genocide and his book is not just a detailed account of the tragedy’s context, players, and short-term aftermath, but a model of clear historical thinking and forceful argument. He repeatedly makes the point that Westerners tend to be disrespectful of other peoples’ wars, treating them like natural disasters unworthy of close scrutiny. We don’t take the trouble to sift through the reasons for these wars or assign culpability, almost the way we dismiss fights between unruly children. The long history of ethnic tension in the small country began when the Belgians made invidious distinctions between the tall, thin, “refined” Tutsis and the ostensibly less tall, thin, and “refined” Hutus. Accounts in the West following the genocide tended to point out wrongs on both sides, but according to Gourevitch there is no equivalency between what the Hutus and the Tutsis did. In 1994 the Hutus, egged on by unscrupulous leaders, committed genocide, killing one million Tutsis in three months, faster than the Nazis killed Jews. (If we didn’t already get it, Gourevitch’s trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. exposes the empty pieties of “Never again.”) What the Tutsis did later in reprisal does not fall into the same category. Some of his most interesting material involves the refugee camps that filled up with fleeing Hutus after the genocide, many of them murderers. The international community that failed to step in with military force to end the slaughter, rushed in with humanitarian aid to the slaughterers.  Not uncontroversial, but an excellent book. Should read. 12/26/13

6. Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed (1/22/13)  Collection of her “Dear Sugar” advice columns from The Rumpus. Wise and big-hearted and brilliantly written and I think I might have to buy a copy after I return this one to the library. In the days after I tore through it, I found myself asking in minor daily crises, what would Sugar do? And behaving accordingly, which is to say, behaving better. Yes, I had some gripes. I got tired of hearing Strayed go on about her scrappy self-reliance as a young woman and how much she learned from her crappy jobs and lack of money, these tales usually directed at some letter writer she perceived as “privileged.” Good for her. After a while I just wanted her to shut up about it, maybe because we all know she is now very rich? If you were once very poor and scrappy and hard-working and had nothing handed to you etc., as soon as you become rich you should be quiet about all that, or expunge any hint of self-righteousness when you bring it up, because, it’s irritating.  This is unfair, of course, because people who get rich and were once poor should still be allowed to talk about their lives. Though perhaps not use it in their advice columns? I don’t know. And I’m doubly unfair because Strayed wrote these columns before she got rich with Wild, so she couldn’t have known. So my gripe is unfair and it is also small. I loved this book.

5. Help. Thanks. Wow. Anne Lamott (1/22/13.) You can read it in an hour. I did. A long essay about prayer and it’s funny and it made me think, though in a few days I won’t think about it ever again, unlike Tiny Beautiful Things. 

4. The Street Sweeper, Eliot Perlman (1/21/13). Big and muddled and uneven, way too flawed to recommend, but not without some long, powerful segments that had me postponing chores to read. David Gates sure hated this book. If I’d read his New York Times review before I started I never would have. I think he was too harsh and other reviews, the ones I did read before I started, way too kind. The book is about: The Holocaust, 20th century African-American history, academia. There’s a love story. There’s a historical mystery. Everything and everyone is glancingly connected, like in Babel or Crash, except it doesn’t come off. 

3. Passion and Affect, Laurie Colwin (January 14, 2013). I liked this collection! Her stories are weirder and darker, less cozy and arch, altogether better than her long form fiction, which has never really worked for me. I liked “Wet” and “Mr. Parker” particularly.  She does have her writerly tics that I don’t adore. One character is “thin as a ruler” while another is “impassive as an apple,” and yet another has eyes “wide as plates.” But I do finally understand why her fiction had a following. 

2. Shine on Bright and Dangerous Object, Laurie Colwin (1/11/2013). Read this the old-fashioned way, on paper. Liked it. Didn’t change my opinion of Colwin as a novelist though. She’s breezy and charming and clever and all-on-the-surface and cozy and it’s very enjoyable but nothing more. Plot is: heroine is widowed at 27 and what happens next! Which is, predictably, new love. There’s a lot of summarizing and not much dramatizing. Strange final act that I didn’t quite buy. Likable, though. Colwin is always likable.

1. Lost Memory of Skin, Russell Banks (1/5/2013). First book finished in 2013. Listened to it and the narration by Scott Shepherd was quite excellent, although when Mark wandered into the kitchen where I was cooking and listening he would say, “WHY are you listening to this? WHAT are you hoping to learn?” And leave in disgust. Out of context all the talk of pornography, masturbation, and child molestation was disgusting. But in context? Essential and matter-of-fact and not especially disgusting. The main characters are a homeless convicted sex offender called Kid and an obese professor we know as “the Professsor.” They meet,  build trust, talk, hatch plans, talk more, and then the plot implodes in the most bizarre way and the book ends. Banks proposes that humanity has fundamentally changed, that the way we live now -- connecting over the internet, hard-core porn available to all -- twists psyches and libidos. That the Kid would be “normal” if he’d been born centuries before. The thing is, he’s pretty normal once you get to know him. Banks seems unable to commit to creating a truly twisted protagonist. Margot Livesey was actually braver in her depiction of sexual deviation in House on Fortune Street, a more decorous yet darker novel. Less bleak, but darker, if that makes sense. And better. I was glad I read this, but I can’t think of anyone I’d recommend it to.

The Sister Brothers, Patrick DeWitt

I loved Deadwood and True Grit (Coen Brothers version) and expected to love this novel more than I did. Eli and Charles Sister work as hit men in the Old West and wander trough a landscape of grizzly bears, whores, gold miners, “weeping men,” and con-men. Eli narrates. He uses super-precise, poetic language (Deadwood, True Grit) and some of it seemed gratuitous. Gratuitous poetic writing, gratuitous Western color. Also, the story was dark all along, and then ended soft. Cheat. 4.22.12

When Will There Be Good News? Kate Atkinson

So ardently do I admire Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels that I’m on my second reading of all of them. Ranking: 1. Case Histories 2. Started Early, Took My Dog 3. When Will There Be Good News? 4. One Good Turn. The best thing about WWTBGN: Reggie Chase, though she’s my second favorite supporting character, trailing Tracy Waterhouse from Started Early. As usual in a Brodie novel, you get crimes against children, crimes against women, dogs, the tortured inner life of a handful of characters. Wobbles toward the end, but still tremendous and I’ll probably read it again in 5 years. 4.22.12

Bringing up Bebe, Pamela Druckerman

Juicy and provocative. I enjoyed the first half in which Druckerman describes and analyzes French attitudes toward child-rearing, comparing them favorably to the permissive American approach. Sometimes she puts her finger on the scale. That’s okay. It made me think harder. Less charmed by the second half, but all in all, thoroughly a amusing book. 4.22.12

The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka. Otsuka writes about a group of Japanese mail-order brides who came to America roughly a century ago. She uses the first person plural, as in “We came from small farming villages, from big cities. . . “ and keeps this going throughout the book to create a powerful, if impersonal, group portrait. The novel reads less as fiction than as an imaginative presentation of social history. Very impressive and engrossing, but don’t expect characters or a gripping traditional narrative. 4.22.12

Are you My Mother? Alison Bechdel. This graphic memoir came unsolicited in the mail and I dropped everything the minute I opened the package. Bechdel’s first memoir, Fun Home, about her late father’s tortured life, was a perfect book, one of my all-time favorites. This book is imperfect. I don’t mind that Bechdel writes about therapy and writer’s block, both of which interest me, but I can see how they clog the storytelling. The subject of this book: Her complicated relationship with her mother. Which sounds, to me, not that complicated. In fact, it sounds quite warm and loving. Bechdel is always smart and funny and I enjoyed this book a lot, but definitely read Fun Home first. 4.22.12

A Kipper with my Tea, Alan Davidson. I found this used at the Green Apple and bought it because Elizabeth David (I've been on a kick) was such a champion of Davidson's work. It turns out I like Davidson's voice even better than Elizabeth David's, which I find a bit too cold and vinegary. The topics in this essay collection include Thai funeral cookbooks (my favorite piece of writing in the book, as well as a fascinating topic), Welsh cheese, Laotian food, and why yogurt is never (or seldom) served with fish. Entertaining, droll, and informative. I would go on a Davidson binge, if most of his books weren't about fish. 3.29.12 

An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, Elizabeth David. A grab bag of David's published magazine and newspaper pieces covering topics ranging from an antique Welsh cookbook to her search for an elusive stew of pork and prunes in the Loire Valley and what to do with gooseberries. It's not a book you'll want to sit down and read cover-to-cover. The very thing that makes it wonderful -- David's tart opinions, imperiously expressed -- is the very thing you'll need the occasional break from. 3.24.12

The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis. What have I been doing with my life? Why didn’t I read Middlemarch or The Screwtape Letters until I was in my mid-forties? This book is very short, very funny, very brilliant, very relevant to our world today, will probably make you wince in recognition, and must be read. 3.21.12

People Who Eat Darkness, Richard Lloyd Parry. A young British woman working as a “bar hostess” in Tokyo vanished without a trace. Parry recounts the story of her life and and -- spoiler, but not much of one --  death. I could not put the book down. It’s a cut above the usual true crime page-turner, offering a window into Japanese culture -- though not the loveliest part of that culture. For instance: what is a “bar hostess?” The book will answer that question and many more and you won’t necessarily be inspired to book a trip to Tokyo. Occasionally, Parry goes into too much detail. The victim was not as interesting to me as she was to him. The villain, however, was one of the worst and most fascinating I have read about in decades of thriller and crime book consumption. 3.21.12

Writing at the Kitchen Table, Artemis Cooper. Competent biography of the great British food writer Elizabeth David. If you are interested in David or food writing you will find this book engrossing. If not, not. Trivia about David: she had lots of love affairs, she drank Nescafe, her eyes were likened to "prunes in brandy." 3.21.12 

Yellowthread Street, James Marshall. Short, deft, dark police novel (first in a series) set in Hong Kong. No mystery to speak of, but plenty of grimy atmosphere. Whores, gangsters, chopped-off body parts, gunplay, hard-boiled dialogue, black humor, a homicidal Mongolian. Well written. Very enjoyable. Lots of typos in my copy, though. More than I’ve ever seen in a published book. 3.14.12

The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes. A meditation on how we tell/interpret/fabricate our own life stories. The complacent sixtysomething protagonist of the novel turns out (midway through the action) to be a deeply unreliable narrator of his own life story. This is the first turn of the screw. But even when he resolves thereafter to own the checkered past he had so blithely rewritten (second turn of the screw), the truth still proves unwieldy, elusive, hard to interpret. Maybe impossible to interpret. Third turn of the screw. I finished the book and immediately started it again because there was much I missed and didn’t understand. It’s very short and very powerful. You should read it. 3.13.12

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan. I read this book when it first came out and didn’t respond to it. Time passed, it won awards, my friends loved it, I decided I had to read it again because the problem was clearly me. And, to some extent, it was. I listened to the novel this time and liked it more. But not 100%. About 80%. (Backstory: I crossed paths with Jenny Egan when I was 11 or so and she was probably 14. She was the friend of my best friend’s older sister and I was star-struck because “Jenny” was radiant, sophisticated, and very, very beautiful. Can’t really overstate how beautiful and how vividly I remember this encounter.) Her descriptions of San Francisco in the 1970s resonate, as do her comments in interviews about what it meant to grow up here  (i.e. the feeling we were living in a wan postscript to the 1960s.) But the book didn’t feel entirely weighty to me. I thought it was too shiny, too pyrotechnic, for its material. The novel is about a lot of things, but most centrally (I thought) the ravages and twists of time, of age. Grave topics. And yet the novel seemed incredibly playful and energetic -- good things! But working at cross purposes with the subject matter. I admired the technical brilliance and some of the writing and thought it was incredibly effective the way the stories linked together to form a (fairly) cohesive narrative and I was in awe of Egan’s ability to channel so many different voices. And yet I never felt any of it as profoundly as I wanted to. I haven’t articulated this well as I would have liked, but my eighteen minutes are up. 3.13.12

Golden Boy, Martin Booth. After he was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor, Booth wrote this memoir about his childhood in Hong Kong in the early 1950s. What comes through: his ardent love for the city, for Chinese culture, and for his spirited mother. What also comes through: his loathing of his priggish naval officer father whom he mocks and derides on more or less every page. This was initially amusing, eventually grated and made me like Booth -- not his father -- less. Also, for a boy of 8 or 9, Booth consorted with an awful lot of opium addicts, gangsters and homeless crazy people. Either his parents were negligent, or he has fictionalized a bit. Which is forgivable. The portrait of Hong Kong is generous and vivid and he was a novelist on his deathbed, which isn’t the moment to fret about scrupulous adherence to dry facts. 3.8.12

The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach. Not for me. Partly because I’ve never read Moby Dick and partly because I have zero interest baseball, but mostly because I didn’t believe the characters. Not a single one of them, but particularly not Owen. Every time this character opened his mouth, I rolled my eyes. Owen is brilliant! And sexy  and soulful and gorgeous and kind and stylish and droll and really really neat. He’s an outrageous nelly -- but also an amazing college baseball player totally accepted by his jock teammates! Everyone just adores him! Harbach most of all. I can see that the novel is well written and I know people who loved it, but this one was a struggle for me. 3.4.12

The Honourable Schoolboy, John Le Carre. Couldn’t put this down. However much I loved Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and however much I think he deserved that Oscar (he deserved that Oscar!), he isn’t quite George Smiley. Le Carre created such a vivid character in Smiley -- tubby, myopic, cleaning his glasses on the fat part of his tie -- that no actor can ever vanquish my longstanding mental image of the mild little spy. Plot summary: sub rosa Cold War dramas unfold in Hong Kong and other steamy Eastern locations and actors include drug traffickers, drug addicts, party girls, tycoons, slimy bankers, journalists, and, of course, spies, including Smiley. That’s not much of a plot summary, is it? Le Carre’s knotty books don’t lend themselves to summary. That’s their strength. Two weaknesses in this novel: First, the central femme fatale is supposedly very fatale, but Le Carre never adequately conveys her allure. (Not an accusation of sexism, as Le Carre can write females well when he tries; Russia expert Connie Sachs -- “a huge, crippled, cunning woman” -- is one of his greatest creations.) Second weakness in the book: The ending. Everything falls apart at the climax. A common problem in the thriller/spy/mystery genre, so I forgive. 3.2.12
Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo. A minutely detailed portrait of Mumbai slumdwellers who survive by recycling the trash dropped in and around the city’s sleek airport. The people Boo writes about are variously complex, fatuous, shrewd, shallow, attention-hungry, funny, lovely, ambitious, and monstrous. Their lives are basically tragic and there are no easy solutions to their problems. Sadly, as Boo points out, instead of banding together address judicial and economic injustices, the members of this benighted community tend to turn on each other, hoping to gain some small advantage. The book is brilliant, depressing, a must-read. 3.2.12

Middlemarch, George Eliot. Reading Middlemarch made me wish I’d gone to graduate school and become an Eliot scholar. Is it pity or blessing that I didn’t read this book 20 years ago? Come to think of it, why didn’t I read this book 20 years ago? Never required by a single English class! The novel is wonderful for both the wise authorial asides and the sharply drawn characters. Like Casaubon. Like Dorothea. Like Rosamond, the one character in the book whom George Eliot -- usually so generous -- really, really hates. If you haven’t read Middlemarch, you should get off the internet right now and go read it. 2.28.12
Savor, Thich Nhat Hahn I liked bits and pieces of this quirky weight loss book by a Vietnamese Buddhist master. I like the concept of “habit energy” that leads us to overeat, have practiced some of the recommended breathing meditations, and know I would be happier if I treated negative emotions like naughty but beloved children. However, I also know from long experience that weight loss is more complicated than cutting out sugary soft drinks, turning off the TV, and embracing a plant-based diet. It is also, I’m happy to say, simpler. Becoming a thoughtful and mindful human being who respects the planet is a worthy goal, but to drop a few pounds, try South Beach. Also: I found Hahn’s anti-television lectures tiresome. I doubt you burn any more calories lying on the bed reading a book, even an interesting Buddhist diet book like Savor. 2.28.12
Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, Robert Louis Stevenson. A breezy account of Stevenson’s youthful ramble through rural France with a stubborn donkey named Modestine. Stevenson admires pretty girls, sleeps under the stars, sleeps in rustic inns, sleeps in a monastery, eats chocolate, eats bread, opines about religion, battles Modestine, philosophizes. I wouldn’t seek this out unless you have a special interest in either travel literature or Robert Louis Stevenson, but you could do a lot worse. 2.28.12
Hong Kong by Jan Morris. Excellent portrait of the city, packed with digestible history, sharp opinion, anecdote, and terrific writing by the grandmotherly transsexual. The book was published before reunification so there’s some outdated speculation about the region’s political and economic future. Needs foreword or update. Still, this is essential reading for the first-time visitor to Hong Kong. Enjoyable reading for anyone else. 2.28.12

Wacky Chicks, Simon Doonan. If you’re just delving into the floral print world of the former Barney’s window dresser, you might want to start with Eccentric Glamour or Gay Men Don’t Get Fat and see how you like the schtick before you tackle this volume. Here, Doonan profiles and celebrates a handful of extraordinary women, but we’re not talking Madeline Albright or Meryl Streep. We’re talking about some unusual ladies who sell junk at flea markets, live with reptiles, and wear outlandish clothes. One of the joys of Doonan’s small (but growing!) oeuvre is his infectious disdain for boring societal norms that constrict us all. His books are exciting and inspiring and funny and I think his advice to lighten up and embrace your quirks is 100% salutary. However, sometimes while I was reading this particular book I felt that the women he chose to profile are not so much charmingly wacky as . . . clinically insane. I suspected that I have met their soul sisters and they were the self-centered divas in college who dyed their hair pink, sucked all the air out of a room, got really drunk and cried a lot, broke down, dropped out, and were, in the end, impossible. As a shy chick who struggled to keep her act together and mostly did, I can’t totally share in his admiration for the pink-haired sloppy drunks. Still, I relished this book, as I do everything Doonan writes. 2.13.12

Old Filth, Jane Gardam. A colleague recommended Old Filth a few years back so it was on my list, but hadn't made it to the top. Recently, though, I was looking through a Hong Kong guidebook in anticipation of an upcoming trip and saw the novel recommended for background reading. Off to the library! Well, my colleague was right: smart novel. The guidebook was wrong: it offers no insight whatsoever into Hong Kong. Why are guidebooks so feeble? The elderly protagonist is nicknamed Filth, which stands for Failed In London Try Hong Kong. But the novel actually unfolds in Britain, where he spent his dismal boyhood and is now retired and reflecting on his past. Very staccato storytelling, but also sharp and insightful with some startling and dark plot twists. A beautiful ending. This isn’t exactly a page turner; for literature lovers only. I liked it immensely. 
11/22/63, Stephen King. Over six weeks I listened to all 30 hours and 44 minutes of this behemoth while driving, walking, folding laundry, and scrubbing the kitchen sink. Plot: King's narrator discovers a staircase that leads from the 21st century back to 1958 (just go with it!) and starts exploring “the land of ago.” He eventually decides to travel back and “fix” the world, first by preventing a small-town murder and later by preventing the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Unintended consequences predictably ensue; ghouls and hammer-wielding thugs abound; King meditates at length on the butterfly effect, which I find truly fascinating. The book is crepuscular and sentimental; smart and overstuffed with cliches; twisty, preposterous, thought provoking, engrossing, and way, way too long. Classic King. Not as good as Salem’s Lot, but what is? People who think they don’t like Stephen King can’t be convinced that they might actually like Stephen King, so I won’t even try. I enjoyed this audiobook thoroughly and highly recommend it for speeding through chores.

The Fury of Rachel Monette, Peter Abrahams. Peter Abrahams is my favorite thriller author by a wide margin. I've read the novels he's written for children (the excellent Echo Falls series), for adolescents, and a wacky series told from the voice of a dog that is not nearly as awful as it sounds. But my favorites are his straight-on adult thrillers, like Oblivion and End of Story, which are cool and smart and, unlike most thrillers, peak -- rather than crumble -- on the very last page, sometimes in the very last paragraph. Those are the titles you should start with. The Fury of Rachel Monette, published in 1980, is a good read, but it's really for Abrahams completists. You can see some of his signature narrative techniques beginning to emerge, but they haven't been honed. Plot summary: Rachel Monette is a middle class American wife and mother whose professor husband is murdered and young son abducted one snowy day. The crimes appear to be connected to long ago Nazi atrocities in North Africa and the troubled state of Israel. Juicy! Rachel solves the crime and proves herself a badass. Would I recommend the book? Sure. But not as heartily as I recommend almost any other Peter Abrahams novel for adults. (I started this writeup at 8:38 a.m. and am declaring it done at 8:56 a.m.) January 31, 2012


  1. I really enjoy your book reviews. Keep it up! My husband says to tell you that you should rent the original BBC Le Carre miniseries starring Alec Guiness. He says Guiness is the perfect Smiley. I loved Deadwood, too! I really missed it when they discontinued it. Great scripts.

  2. I have never read crime novels. But upon your critique, I have been reading Kate Atkinson's novels. Forever, I have been into Best Am. S.S., literary fiction, etc., etc. But Atkinson, is first and foremost a WRITER! Love her books. Never thought I'd be reading crime fiction, but it's the writing that has me hooked!

    Thanks for leading me to her.

  3. I drive a lot for work, so I go through audiobooks like crazy. Thank you so much for giving reading recommendations; I had run out of ideas for what to listen to next. I just downloaded Buddha in the Attic, and I'm excited to check out some of the other titles listed here.

  4. I have never read Colwin's fiction, but from what you say, it sounds like her food writing which is cozy and simplistic. That style would make her fiction like pablum, I would think. The House on Fortune Street is on my list; will bump it up. I recommend Fragile Beasts by Tawni O'Dell. It's not deep literary fiction, but it is so delightful. The story is quite original. As mother of a teenaged boy, I would think you would enjoy it. Thanks for the book reviews and keep them coming!

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  21. I was just reviewing your reviews to find a good novel to read and I noticed you mention Peter Abrahams. I'm going to try his Oblivion. Did you know he has another pen name, Spencer Quinn? Under the name Spencer Quinn he has a series called, Chet and Bernie. These are Sam Spade-like detective stories told in the voice of a dog named Chet. When I began reading the first book of the series I thought it was corny but after about two chapters I was hooked, and by the end, in love with the dog and looking for the next book.

    Jennie Grant

  22. I don't know how I missed this for so long (blame it on my Reader format, I guess), but I'm SO glad you've done this. I always appreciate your recommendations, and I've found most of my favorite audiobooks and some of my favorite books through this blog. Since it looks like you stopped updating this in January, I had to make a plea to keep it up. Pretty, pretty please. :)

  23. I'm so glad to see you have posted more book reviews. I told my book group that you are a reviewer whose recommendations I trust. When the group picked "Wild," I told them about "Tiny, Beautiful Things," a book that can change one's world view. If you hadn't written about it, I don't know how I would have known it.

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