Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner (Aug 2011)

atochaIf you’ve ever lived as an ex-pat, you’ve gotta read this novel.  You will see yourself in Lerner’s descriptions of the ex-pat community in Spain, even if it’s not particularly flattering.  And if you’ve ever tried to learn a foreign language, you will crack up at the riffs on misunderstood dialog.  Let us count the myriad ways that we can fail to grasp what is being said to us in a language we hang on to by our fingernails.  It’s also a good reminder of how hard it is to become fully fluent in English.  Hence, an appropriate sympathy for immigrants.  This novel is also about the art world, poetry, pretensions, feeling like a fraud, drugs, the nature of intimacy, how lies impinge on our relationships . . . there’s a lot here.  It’s literary fiction that is relatively easy to read and often humorous.  It’s not light, but it is short.  It’s not a novel that will appeal to everyone.  But I thought it quite brilliantly written.

Archetype by M.D. Waters (Feb 2014)

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I loved this book. It’s futuristic, dystopian, scifi that should attract even those who, like me, don’t normally get into that genre.  I’m dying to read the sequel, Prototype, coming out next summer.  What I really like about this book is that you’re never really sure exactly who’s the good guy, and who’s the bad.  And with the bad guys, you’re not sure exactly how bad, or if the bad bits are actually kind of good.  There’s also romance, which is a plus on my checklist.  But again, you’re not sure whether the love is well-placed.  I’m reading another book, Parasite by Mira Grant, that reminds me a little of Waters’ Archetype, in that both deal with medical advances, and what they could mean for our future.  Corporate medicine, pharmaceutical giants, loom large — and don’t they loom large in our own lives lived off the printed page?  This real-world connection makes it easy to relate to and get absorbed in these fast-paced novels.  Hooray for M.D. Waters!  It’s too bad you’ll have to wait until February when it comes out — but put it on your list today!  Advance Reader’s Copy provided by Penguin.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt (Feb 2013)

righteous-mindQuestion:  Do you ever feel righteous anger?  Like, you KNOW you’re right, and the other guy is WRONG-O reindeer, and there is no doubt that you are perched on the moral high ground.  And, bloody hell, how can people BE so IMmoral?!  Do they have no moral compass?  I had a bad case of this recently.  Something someone (anonymous) did threw me for a loop.  I couldn’t understand her/him.  I had thought she/he had higher principles.  And so I sought help.  I did what many people — especially librarians — do:  I looked for a book.   I found it in “The Righteous Mind”.  It was the perfect antidote.  While the book placated me with the assurance that every single human on the planet is plagued by their own feelings of righteous anger, it helped me get some remove from the emotion as well, by getting some perspective.  I learned the evolutionary reasons that righteous anger is actually adaptive, and has helped our species survive, although for most of our history that was in groups of fewer than 150 individuals.  The emotion seems less adaptive in our highly mobile, constantly changing, global society.  I also learned that I tend to base my moral assumptions on only 2 of the 6 main “modules”, or platforms, that Haidt cites.  Could it be that this person who threw me for a loop, this one so lacking in a moral compass, could simply be basing her/his views of morality on a broader range of “modules” than I?  Could I (in league with most liberals), in fact, be in the moral minority — when looking at how most people globally come to their moral beliefs — by using relatively narrow criteria for deciding what is right and wrong?  After reading this book, I won’t go so far as to think I’m the one who was wrong-0 reindeer.  That would be asking a bit much.  But I’m not quite so convinced I’m righteous.  And I can allow that this someone’s principles might not be bottomed out — just based on values on which I don’t happen to place importance.  In the final analysis, Haidt indicates we all make our moral judgements based on gut intuitions first, and then find intellectual justifications for those intuitions afterward.  So it’s a little bit harder now, after reading Haidt’s book, to be convinced of my superior moral reasoning — even when I KNOW I’m right.  Which I am.

Zealot by Reza Aslan (July 2013)

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This is the perfect book to read along with Naomi Alderman’s “The Liar’s Gospel”, which is historical fiction about Jesus and Roman occupied Palestine.  I listened to the audiobook of Zealot, which, although it’s always interesting and engrossing on some level to hear the actual author speak his book into life, I wouldn’t wholeheartedly recommend.  Aslan is brilliant, but his reading overemphasized, over-dramatized, words and phrases that a trained voice actor would make flow more smoothly.  Nonetheless, this book is an eye-opener.  Having been raised in a fundamentalist, evangelical household, it’s the sort of book I would have loved to have had as a teenager, to serve up on a silver platter at dinner after the 15-minute prayers had made our meals cold.  Not that anyone would have paid no never mind.  As another book I review here, “The Righteous Mind”, makes clear, we all are evolutionarily destined to come to our moral and religious conclusions first, based on gut intuitions, and decide (read: rationalize) later, intellectually, why.  It’s not as if I had never read Biblical archeology before reading Zealot.  I think I already had an above-average knowledge of the Bible and it’s contradictions, as well as some of the actual history.  But Zealot covered a lot of new ground for me.  It’s well researched, fascinating stuff, for those who want to know who Jesus might actually have been — and even more so, for those who think they already know.  Highly recommended.

Love Overdue by Pamela Morsi (August 2013)

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The trope of the frumpy librarian breaking out in 5-inch stilettos is amusingly (from a librarian’s perspective) resilient in its attraction to the general public.  I guess it’s that madonna/whore thing. And I can’t say I’m immune to the trope’s attraction.  I’ll refrain from showing up to work in heels that hobble.  But I did amuse myself with this little mass market confection.  There were a few places where I thought, no way, that’s not how libraries work.  But in general, Morsi got it right.  I loved the Miss NO NO NOOOOOOooo! character.  Every library’s gotta have at least one.  I had to suspend my disbelief in a serious way, when the main male character didn’t recognize his siren librarian from a brief encounter with her break-out form eight years earlier.  It’s quite the conceit to believe someone you once slept with isn’t going to recognize you just because you’re actually wearing clothes this time.  Or am I giving men too much credit?  Regardless, this is a fun, contemporary romance, that is well-written enough I only winced a couple times at the sweetness.

How To Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman (October 2013)

how-to-be-a-good-wife-emma-chapmanChapman has written a novel that reminds me of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.  I suppose it also reminds me of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.  It’s quite a good book, I couldn’t put it down.  How To Be a Good Wife is creepy in a slowly oozing sort of way.  It’s not slow, I don’t mean that — it moves along quickly enough.  I just mean it’s scary, but not in the monster jumps out of closet suddenly way.  There is no graphic violence.  There was physical harm in the main character’s past, but it is not described in detail.  The harm is mostly psychological, and it is a harm that is primarily part of the female experience: the roles we play as young women, as wives, as mothers.  The novel is about how hard it can be to be believed, and how quickly our experiences can be trivialized.  There were two junctures in the novel where I thought, “but why aren’t you doing the obvious?!”  But I believe now that the failure of the main character to do some key things to save herself, while not rational, is realistic.  We make choices.  And it’s not always about saving ourselves, when our freedom and vindication and attainment of justice means, for someone else, destruction.  There are many questions that linger after finishing this novel, in the best sense.  I can see this being a great read for book clubs.  Advance Readers Copy provided by BEA.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (October 2013)

signatureElizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame, deserves every bit of that fame.  Her writing is exquisite.  This novel of the 19th century will sweep you away with the esthetic of it’s period language.  And that esthetic is not in the least bit stodgy; it’s rather humorous.  For a large book that covers two generations and travels the world (London, Philadelphia, Tahiti, Peru), it was quick and engulfing reading.  The story centers on Alma, a woman who does not fit her century’s mold for females:  She is not only brilliant, but she lives the full life of the intellect, pursuing a life-long study of mosses and evolutionary theory.  MOSSES?  you say.  Yes, mosses, that lowly plant that perhaps you dislike if it invades the shady places of your pristine lawn, or perhaps you discount because it has never grabbed your attention.  I’m actually quite fond of the stuff, having grown up close to the PNW rainforests.  And I once tried to grow it in my sidewalk garden, only to watch the fragile plant whither to wiry brownness in the unrelenting New York sun.  But I guffawed at first at the notion of spending one’s life dedicated to understanding moss.  Nonetheless, I was entranced by Alma’s enthusiasm and complete absorption in the subject.  And heartbroken at the price she paid for being brainy, tall, and not terribly attractive.  The consequences of Alma’s choices, coupled with those things out of her control — those aspects of her time and culture that determined her fate — combine to form a deeply drawn character whose life was, in the end, very full in spite of gnawing absences.  Like the fragile mosses she studied, Alma struggled to thrive.  But when she found the right ecosystem, she flourished.  One of the best books of the year, I think.  Advance Readers Copy supplied through BEA.

The Universe vs. Alex Woods by Gavin Extence (June 2013)

alex woodsFabulous book.  And it surprised me.  It’s not about what I thought it was going to be about.  And I don’t want to ruin it here by telling you.  I’ll just say it deals with a somewhat controversial subject, and humanizes it in a wonderful way.  This is a coming-of-age story of a 17-year-old boy in England.  Like any other young person who doesn’t fit the standard mold — Alex has epilepsy brought on by being hit by a meteor — he gets bullied.  This might make you think it’s a YA book.  It could be.  But some of the allusions are ones that YA’s may not get, so I’d put this in more of the adult reading category.  This is a funny book.  Such a light sense of humor (in that lovely British way), especially given what ends up being weighty subject matter.  I had no problem, as a middle aged woman, relating to the story.  Maybe in part because one of the characters is a quirky (slightly crazy?) mother, and if I’m honest, I probably fit into that broad (not specific: I do NOT hold seances or collect all things witchy) category.  You’ll close this book feeling pretty certain that your own uniqueness is quite all right.  And you’ll likely have a refreshed perspective on what makes life worth living.

The Liars’ Gospel by Naomi Alderman (March 2013) and The Evolution of God by Robert Wright (June 2009)

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If you are easily shocked by unorthodox portrayals of Jesus and all that is precious in the surrounding religious tradition, do not read this book. If you are offended by the suggestion that the historical Jesus is not the Jesus of tradition, do not read this book. If blasphemy is a word that even momentarily enters your general vocabulary, do not read this book. If you are now curious, and can soldier on through descriptions of creative Roman torture and heinous means of delivering slow death, and tend to be delighted when your assumptions are slaughtered . . . do, please, read this book. And to make the experience of revelation even more interesting, read The Liars’ Gospel in conjunction with The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, or a book of its ilk (scholarly research into the historicity of religious belief). I have by day been listening to Wright’s audio book, and by night reading Alderman’s novel. Though Alderman’s work is fiction, it is based on dogged research, and much of how she portrayed Jesus is similar to how Wright described the historical man. I got the same feeling for who Jesus may have been, from both authors. And I must add here that the audio version of The Evolution of God is well worth the time spent on 15 discs. Wright starts with prehistoric religious belief and works his way through the historic origins of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, their connections and conflicts, and concludes with a vision for how the Abrahamic faiths can foster tolerance and peace in place of what we have now in world affairs. His presentation of the historical record is frequently surprising and always engrossing. Pairing his book with The Liars’ Gospel was perfect serendipity (I didn’t actually plan it out). Alderman’s novel is written from four distinct perspectives, starting with Mary (mother of Jesus), then Judas, followed by Caiaphas (High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem), and concluding with Barrabas. I have used the Anglicized names here, but the book uses their Hebrew names, in keeping with a story that fully immerses the reader in the Jewish world to which Jesus (Yehoshuah) was born, and in which he functioned, under the thumb of Roman rule. This novel is actually more about the politics of Roman Jerusalem than about Jesus, especially in its second half. Nonetheless, if you are well acquainted with the Gospels, you come out of this reading experience thinking about familiar stories is quite a different light: you will question motives, incentives, and the political alignments of players and authors. Although Alderman’s novel was not a fast read — it is not dense, but it IS brutal, and that took some time to breathe and regroup — I highly recommend it, especially as an entre to a nonfiction work such as Wright’s.

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty (Aug 2013)

husbandI’m not much on being secretive.  I pretty much have to work hard to keep my thoughts appropriately stuffed away.  But as I came to the end of Moriarty’s newest novel (after What Alice Forgot), I kept going back and forth on the question “to tell or not to tell?”.  I still don’t know the answer.  It’s not possible to blithely proclaim “always tell the truth”, unless you’re a total black and white person, in which case, you probably don’t like the moral complexities of good fiction.  In The Husband’s Secret, there are actually multiple characters who hold secrets.  Lives are protected, and destroyed, by these secrets.  The story revolves around 3 women and their families in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia.  Most of the story takes place in the present, while at times reverting back to the 80s.  It took a little effort at first to get the characters and families straight (though not like trying to sort through Game of Thrones families and locations and loyalties, so don’t worry), but soon enough, I was totally engrossed in each character’s life.  Moriarty’s ability to flesh out characters is extraordinary, her dialog impeccable.  This is a fabulous novel that won’t let you go until you’ve read the last page, and even then, it won’t be finished with you.  You’ll keep mulling over the quandaries days later: would I have told?  Would I have kept the secret?  Could I have lived with the consequences of either choice?

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