Saturday, March 4, 2017

February Books

*The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrott “explores the complex spiritual and sexual lives of ordinary people…(and) is characterized by (a) distinctive mix of satire and compassion.”  Sexuality teacher, Ruth Ramsey believes that "pleasure is good, shame is bad, and knowledge is power” but an evangelical Christian church doesn't approve of Ruth's style of teaching. She challenges the intrusiveness a group prayer of her daughter’s soccer coach, a born-again, former rocker and druggie, but finds herself attracted to him but appalled by his beliefs.  Thankfully, the book doesn’t end with her conversion to his thinking, but lacks a sense of denouement.  

*Huck Out West by Robert Coover, a veteran remixer of America's tall tales, fables, and myths, “is both a tribute and a fitting postscript to Mark Twain's canonical work.” Told in the vernacular and dialect of Twain’s character, the novel reintroduces readers to Huck a few years after their move to the “territories” and their adventuring as scouts for both sides in the Civil War, surviving (barely) the Gold Rush and various other mythical ordeals. Cleverly told, and moderately engaging.

The Festival of Insignificance by Nobel Laurate Milan Kundera was either too sophisticated for me or not Kundera’s best work.  Described as “an ode o friendship set in present-day Paris follows the long-running discourse among four companions on sex, desire, history, art and the meaning of human existence.” My Philistine response  was thankfulness that it was a short book…my bad.

**A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny  is her 12th novel  about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of Sûreté du Québec Québec.  After ‘failing’ retirement, Gamache is back to salvage the notoriously corrupt Sûreté Academy. Rooting out the corruption is an underlying theme as Gamache mentors the brightest students who seem to be on the wrong path until a sadistic administrator is murdered and suspicion falls  on the students and even Garache.  I found the mystery engaging, but the lyrical description of life in "3 Pines" is straight out of a Currier & Ives lithograph is the best part of the book.  I need to read more of Penny’s writings but worry that they all might sound similar—the curse of most series.

I Am No One by Patrick Flanery is "A mesmerizing novel about memory, privacy, fear, and what happens when our past catches up with us.” Jeremy is a history professor, recently returned from teaching at Oxford. Despite this good life, he continues to feel the pangs of loneliness when a series of strange events makes him wonder if he is losing his memory, his sanity or is the victim of a conspiracy.  The book's style makes the unraveling of  Jeremy's world more Kafkaesque and frightening, but led me to conclude that the plot and development were a bit contrived.

Ellie’s Story: A Dog’s Purpose Novel by W. Bruce Cameron is a NYTimes formulaic bestseller, apparently written for young readers and ‘over the top’ dog lovers. Okay, I’m not a young reader, but the formula is nice and the narrative sloppy. Ellie a search-and-rescue dog who can track and find people who are lost, but  her owners, widower Jakob and lonely Maya, challenge her to find a way to save people who are lost in other ways. 

Friday, February 3, 2017

Books Read-January, 2017

*Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Glide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration by Thomas L. Friedman is a big book with some excellent insights and analysis.  But like the title, the books is too long, a bit confusing and also included too much cut and paste from interviews, columns and conversations.  Still, there is gold if you have the patience for the search.  Friedman believes that the year 2007 was a major inflection point with the release of the iPhone, together with advances in silicon chips, software, storage, sensors, and networking, creating a new technology platform that opened unbounded opportunities and challenges. Despite his obvious wisdom, Friedman could have benefited from a tough editor, yet I thought the discussion of “Mother Nature’s Political Party” was worth the slog.

*The End of your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe is true story of a literary son and his activist mother, who start a “book club” that brings them together as they try to make her battle with pancreatic cancer more humane. Over the next two years, Will and Mary Anne have conversations that are wide-ranging and  personal, prompted by an eclectic array of books and a shared passion for reading. Their list jumps from classic to popular, from poetry to mysteries, from fantastic to spiritual but ultimately focuses on relationships and life.

*Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future by Joichi Ito and Jeff Howe of MIT’s Media Lab tries to describe how everything digital is getting faster, cheaper, and smaller at an exponential rate.  This and the growing power/impact of the Internet have created an explosive force that has changed the process and prospect for continued innovation and how we live. There are some excellent insights, but too much breathless, journalistic retelling of familiar stories with less about the future than I had hoped.

*Books for Living continues Will Schwalbe’ s journey through his voracious, eclectic reading addiction. Each of the 26 short chapters is about a favorite book ranging from Stuart Little, David Copperfield, Song of Solomon, Bird by Bird and is a candid and personal essay with special recognition to  lost friends and his boarding-school librarian who shaped his reading habits by introducing  him to James Baldwin. I agree with Schwlbe that, “Good books often answer questions you didn’t even know you wanted to ask.”

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Bob's Ten Best Books of 2016

**Eligible   by Curtis Sittenfeld is a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice from the author of Prep and American Wife.    The Cincinnati Bennet’s have fallen on hard times, thanks to exorbitant medical bills, reckless spending, and the perpetual underemployment of four of the five Bennet daughters. Liz is the novel’s central character, voice of reason, and the only one holding down a regular job. Yes, after much travail, she does ‘get’ her Darcy.  Eligible sparkles with Austen-esque wit and intelligence and is a pure pleasure to read.”

**A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin is “a compelling family saga that follows troubled math genius Milo Andret from birth to death”. Milo goes from inauspicious beginnings in rural Michigan to solving a decades-old mathematical problem and teaching at Princeton. He destroys a promising career because of his alcoholism and womanizing. The second half of the novel is told by his son, who inherits many of the same skills and problems. In addition to the engaging prose, “the novel is a subtle meditation on creativity, happiness, and fate, and Canin's ability to explain complex mathematics is nothing short of miraculous.”

**Nutshell by Ian McEwan is essentially “a womb with a view” account by a precocious fetus who narrates the tale about the diabolical murder of his father - by his mother and uncle.  What might have been just a clever literary gimmick becomes a “devilishly clever and darkly humorous” in the hands of a world class talent who deserves the awards and accolades he has received.

**All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage is a “lyrically written, frequently shocking and immensely moving . . .literary thriller.”  At its heart of this gothic insightful story about two families entwined in their own unhappiness, is a gruesome and unsolved murder.  “A rich and complex portrait of a psychopath, marriage and community.” “Superb…think a more literary, and feminist, Gone Girl.” (Vogue) 

*A Man Call Ove by Fredrik Backman is a Swedish first novel that won raves in 25 countries as “the most charming book of the year.”    Ove was a curmudgeon when he was young and has always seen the world in black and white.  Without his Sonja, Ove decides to join her in the next world. But a young couple, their children and a bedraggled cat move in next door and upset his plans and world view.  Curmudgeons of all ages and their partners will find much hilarity and heartbreak to enjoy in this engaging story.

** Seven Brief Lesson on Physics by Carlo Rovelli is a lucid, insightful, almost poetic review of the scientists, from Einstein and Niels Bohr through Werner Heisenberg and Stephen Hawking who have shaped the science of Physics. The “concise and comprehensible writing makes sense of intricate notions such as general relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology and thermodynamics” (The Scientific American) and “artfully hints at meanings beyond its immediate scope.” (NYTimes).

**The Lucky Years: How to Thrive in the Brave New World of Health by bestselling physician David Agus presents numerous fascinating scientific morsels—such as parabiosis (anatomically connecting two living creatures) and CRISPR (a tool for editing the genome).  Agus recommends a daily aspirin and statin drug, envisions the smartphone as both a health diary and a "virtual personal therapist," and even suggests that individuals consider banking their plasma.  He argues for a scientific and Zen-like approach to wellness that emphasizes listening to your body's signals, measuring and tracking important numbers (blood pressure, activity, weight, sleep), trusting your intuition, and keeping active.

*Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance “is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis that of white working-class Americans.” Vance writes like an insider who escaped Appalachia and understands the panic that comes from deprivation and fear, but sees his past through the lens of a law degree from Yale. “An unusually timely and deeply affecting view of a social class whose health and economic problems are making headlines in this election year.”

*The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross, former Senior Advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, identifies immerging innovations while making strategic recommendations for taking advantage of opportunities in such fields as robotics, cybersecurity, genomics and digital technology.  Google’s Erick Schmidt says Ross “can see patterns in the chaos and guidance for the road forward.” He has an unusual diversity of expertise that allows him to apply multiple lenses to the world's challenges. Despite good writing and excellent mastery of complex subjects, the book is heavy going at times.