Friday, March 2, 2018

February Books

A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny explores a murder at an artist's village home where Chief Inspector Gamache and his team encounter deceptive nuances in the art world that distort every clue.  Similar to others in this series with atmospheric writing, subtle insights into the characters and the art world.  For me, there was a little too much retelling of the previous novel and similarities to others in this series… Ok, I’ve probably read too many of these in the past year.

*The Sympathizer by Viet Thank Nguyen is narrated by a communist double agent, is a “man of two minds,” a half-French, half-Vietnamese army captain who arranges to come to America after the Fall of Saigon. He builds a new life with other Vietnamese refugees in LA while secretly reporting back to his communist superiors in Vietnam, but always feels like an outsider because of all the dualities in his life. This Pulitzer prize winner has much excellent writing, psychological insight combined with humor and wisdom, but tends to get caught up in its own eloquence
**Green by Sam Graham-Felsen is a coming-of-age novel about race, privilege, and the struggle to get ahead in America, written by a former Obama campaign staffer and energized by an exuberant, unforgettable narrator.  As one of a few whites at MLKing Middle School, David Greenfield is part hip-hop, part nerd, and a totally unique creation.    Green earns . . . a spot on the continuum of vernacular in the American literary tradition, from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to The Catcher in the Rye.” (Boston Globe)

The Rooster Bar by John Grisham was inspired by an Atlantic article and highlights the disturbing world of for-profit legal (and other types of) education.  Three students who borrowed heavily to attend a third-tier, for-profit law school so mediocre that its graduates rarely pass the bar learn that their school is owned by a shady New York hedge-fund operator who also happens to own a bank specializing in student loans team up to seek justice.  The plot is creative, but the writing is mixed and not up to Grisham’s usual standard.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

January, 2018 Books

The Old Man by Thomas Perry is hardly his first book about an “Everyman” with a hidden wealth of money, special training and ratiocinative ability, but this follows the formula and is an enjoyable escape. Dan Chase is not a harmless retiree in Vermont. At sixty, he thinks he has escaped the Middle Eastern terrorists who are still irritated that he has millions of dollars intended for their ‘evangelism’. Almost a primer for paranoids with plenty of money, the plot “moves faster than a speeding bullet.” (WSJ)      

*Principles by Ray Dialo is not just another “How to Succeed” book. Reflecting the wisdom, experience and insights of one of the “100 most powerful men in the world” and legendary founder of arguably the world most successful hedge funds. There are brilliant insights and powerful, well-written paragraphs, but I wish he could have condensed it from 210 principles and 567 pages.  My summary is clarity about values/principles combined with radical honesty and transparency will lead to success in business, relationships and life.  Ben Franklin might have written this book if he had enjoyed access to super computers and big data.    “Significant...The book is both instructive and surprisingly moving.” (NYT)

The Baker’s Secret by Stephen Kierman is an engaging story of subtle French resistance in a small Normandy village on the eve of D-Day.  When her Jewish mentor is shamed and imprisoned, Emma decides to dilute the ration of floor she receives to bake baguettes for the occupying troops and shares two loaves a day with the starving villagers. “A shimmering tale of courage, determination, optimism, and the resilience of the human spirit,” but it lacks the kind of originality provided by the best of this genre like The Light We Cannot See

Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny is largely set in Quebec with an obsessive historian's quest for the remains of the founder of Quebec, Samuel de Champlain, and ends in murder. Although recuperating from injuries, Chief Inspector Gamache can’t walk away from a crime that threatens to ignite long-smoldering tensions between the English and the French even while receiving information from the village of Three Pines, where Bistro owner Olivier was recently convicted of murder. Readers interested in the history of Quebec may find this the best of the Gamache novels.  Others will find another enjoyable read.

*Turtles All the Way Down by John Green is a coming-of-age story about Aza Holmes, a high school student struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder.  With her best friend, she tries to focus on searching for a fugitive billionaire who happens to be the father of her almost boyfriend. Despite the potential reward and the powerful attraction, she feels for Davis, his kiss makes her think about the 75 million microbes that just entered her mouth. This mystery and romance is a “deeply empathetic novel about learning to live with demons and love one's imperfect self.”

Bob's Best Books for 2017

**A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is the best book I’ve read this year.  It “immerses us in an elegantly drawn era” and life of Count Alexander Rostov. In 1922, he is sentenced to house arrest in a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin.  With an indomitable spirit, erudition, wisdom and wit, he ‘witnesses’ some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history while living in an attic room and losing none of his aristocratic civility. 

**Rules of Civility by Amor Towles is a first novel almost as good as his A Gentleman in Moscow. Witty and intelligent Katey Kontent’s life is changed by an encounter with a handsome banker in a on New Year's Eve, 1938.  She is quickly catapulted into the upper echelons of New York society, where she befriends a shy multi-millionaire, an Upper East Side ne'er-do-well and a single-minded widow in her search for a better life.  Reminiscent of Scott Fitzgerald, the novel masterfully weaves intricate imagery and themes with surprisingly appealing characters.

*Sing, Unburied, Sing is Jesmyn Ward’s "searing and profound journey, told in the varied voices of 13-year old Jo Jo’s dysfunctional family. Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam (dying of Cancer) and Pop (role model), and the occasional visit of their addict mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Coast of Mississippi with occasional input from his dead uncle and distant white grandfather.  Clearly an important book, but not easy reading.

**The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin, bestselling author of The Aviator’s Wife, is historical fiction about the “scandalous, headline-making, and enthralling friendship between literary legend Truman Capote, peerless socialite Babe Paley” and other members of New York’s high society in mid-20th Century. Like me, you may have missed some of the glamour (and heart-break) of this era.

**Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly is a debut novel inspired by the true story of New York socialite, Caroline Ferriday. The lives of three women intertwine through WWII and converge at the Ravensbruck concentration camp as Caroline becomes increasing involved from her post at the French consulate. Kasia Kuzmerick becomes a courier in the Polish resistance and a subject for medical experiments, while Dr. Herta Oberheuser learns surgery at Ravensbruck. “Smart, thoughtful and just an old-fashioned good read.”

*Our Souls at Night is the last of Kent Haruf’s sparse novels about Holt, CO and a sweet love story about a deep senior friendship growing out of a mutual search to escape loneliness, and leads toa a surprising reprieve of life neither expected. The quiet drama plays out against the backdrop of a gossiping (and at times disapproving) small town with special angst from their grown children with further complications from an extended visit by a sad young grandchild… “A spare yet eloquent, bittersweet yet inspiring story.” (See the movie with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda.)

**The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis describes how Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky wrote a series of articles challenging assumptions about the decision-making process, redefined our belief in rationality, and won the Nobel prize in economics.  Not Lewis’ best work, but still engaging, informative and insightful.

**Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice is Bill Browder’s autobiographical story of how he became the world’s largest and most successful investor in the kleptocratic Russian economy before gaining international respect as a human rights advocate. The transformation came when his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, was arrested and murdered in prison after uncovering a $230 million fraud committed by Russian government officials. Browder has been leading a campaign to expose Russia’s endemic corruption and human rights abuses. “Red Notice is part John Grisham-like thriller, part business and political memoir." 

*Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari who has received rave reviews from the likes of a former U.S. president, a Nobel laurate and Bill Gates for this book and its predecessor, Sapiens.  Harari is brilliant, witty, insightful…and verbose. The first and last chapters contained amazing analysis of how we have evolved through past epochs and how the 21st century may evolve “from overcoming death to creating artificial life” and merging with it. Much of the other 350 pages were dense, repetitive, but still impressive.

*Before I Forget by life style maven, B Smith, and her husband, Dan, (with Vanity Fair’s Michael Shnayerson), is B’s unfolding story on coping with early-onset Alzheimer's. Alternating short chapters interweave their individual stories with advice that can help seniors and other readers learn about living with memory loss and other challenges of aging.

*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 book is too long, a bit confusing and 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. Still, I thought the discussion of “Mother Nature’s Political Party” made the slog worthwhile.