The Geometry of Holding Hands by Alexander McCall Smith (Literary Fiction)

An Isabel Dalhousie book. For those unfamiliar with McCall Smith’s less well-known protagonist (Mma Ramotswe of Number One Ladies Detective Agency is far more popular), Isabel is a philosopher of independent means. She serves as the publisher and editor of the Review of Applied Ethics. What an unusual character on which to base a series! These books center around questions of morality, and amidst the light plots that loosely guide each episode, we are treated to a constant stream of philosophical musings and epiphanies. I love the fact that rather than read the (probably) dry research papers that populate Isabel’s Review, we instead get to hear the intriguing summaries.

In this installment, Isabel is asked to serve as executor of a dying man’s trust while simultaneously coming to terms with her niece’s engagement to an (to Isabel) unsuitable man. These situations give rise to musings about the accidents of love, moral obligations, moral strangers, the sphere of moral proximity, and what it means to act graciously. Populated by the educational elite of Edinburgh, this series also gives rise to discussions on a wide variety of topics — this time including Himalayan languages and Scottish Country dancing.

I have a very good vocabulary and have read most of McCall Smith’s books and yet he *still* surprises me with new words. This time: Gluckschmerz and commensality. Gluckschmerz is feeling pain in the face of another’s success — the opposite of Schadenfreude. Commensality refers to the positive social interactions that are associated with people eating together.

My favorite phrase in the book: “the suppurating corruption of greed.”

Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 28th, 2020.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik (Fantasy)

A heroic fantasy novel with a YA slant from the author of Spinning Silver and Uprooted. Think Harry Potter meets Hunger Games with the ironic style of The Name of the Wind.

The action takes place at Scholomance — a school for the magically gifted. Unlike Hogwarts, however, there are no kindly Dumbledores anxious to help you survive and master your skills. Indeed, there are no teachers, or adults, or even any communication with the outside. Induction into the Scholomance is sudden and permanent. The only way out is to graduate, and there a lot of malevolent beasties that will do their best to ensure you make a tasty magic meal rather than a full wizard.

El (short for Galadriel — don’t ask) has an affinity for mass destruction — not what you want if you desire to be a “good witch”! She is roundly shunned by most — but is this because of her affinity for evil or because she is rude, off putting, and endlessly defensive? And the local hero, Orion Lake, keeps saving her life. How annoying!

The world building is complete and awesome — crawling with outlandish and execrable monsters, arcane rules and physics that doesn’t work in any way that I’ve experienced. Full of action (which normally bores me but somehow the sarcasm and wit and characters that I cared about in spite of myself carried me along quickly). Some not-so-thinly disguised political commentary on the haves and have-nots, but well-done and not completely one-sided. Overall enjoyable. I admit to liking Spinning Silver and Uprooted a little bit more but found this eminently consumable. Looks like it may be a series based on the last line of this book (not a cliff hanger in any sense but a promise of more to come).

I forgot to add that our heroine comes from Cardigan, Wales. That doesn’t have a lot to do with the story but it’s a beautiful place and I was tickled to find it in the book.

Thank you to Random House Publishing Group — Ballantine and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Sept. 29th, 2020.

The Lantern Men by Elly Griffiths (Mystery)

I gulped this book down in (almost) a single sitting. Perfect for long quarantine days: part novel with great characters who have evolved over the 12 books in Griffiths’ Dr. Ruth Galloway series and part mystery with all that closure we crave in these anxious days.

Four dead woman and a convicted murderer, but do they have the right man? In this installment, Ruth has moved to Cambridge with a new partner and a new job but is drawn back to Norfolk by the prisoner offering to disclose the location of additional bodies if Ruth promises to do the excavation. An artist colony and cycling group feature prominently in the story with plenty of local history, folklore, and archeological digs. All our favorite characters are back, each slowly progressing in their own long term narrative arcs.

Now I just have to wait for the next one…

p.s. For those who are new to this series, Dr. Ruth Galloway is a forensic archeologist who, before this book, lived in a remote area near Norfolk amidst the marshes near the sea. She works with the large and brooding but spectacularly capable Detective Chief Inspector Nelson. Another favorite character is Cathbad — part-time University employee and full-time modern druid. You can start the series anywhere, really, but the it never hurts to start at the beginning!

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 14th, 2020.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (psychology, philosophy)

This classic — first published in 1959 and claiming “more than 15 million copies in print worldwide” — was disappointing to me. Two sections: part one deals with his survival in the concentration camps of WWII; part two discusses Logotherapy — the author’s theory that our primary driver in life is a search for meaning.

My problem is that part one has very little insight. The biggest insight to me was his statement that those who survived the camps were “not the best of us.” His other insight seemed to be obvious — that those who survived had something to look forward to — someone they hoped to find alive or some work they wanted to do. Quite a bit of discussion focused on finding meaning through suffering — in your reaction to suffering and the inner decision each man makes to be the kind of person he becomes. However, quite a bit seemed to be predicated on survival of some sort, either in this world or in a religious belief in an afterlife. Primo Levi’s <i>Survival in Auschwitz</i> was a far more thorough coverage of a similar topic.

Part two on logotherapy was overly simplified and dated. It’s possible that I would have gotten more out of it had I been willing to read the 12 volumes he wrote on it rather than this simplified version. I had to keep reminding myself that this was written in the late 50s. One interesting point: he compares his “will for meaning” to Freud’s “will to pleasure” and Adler’s “will to power.” I don’t claim to be a psychology expert but I wouldn’t have summarized Freud and Adler in that way. In any case, surely it’s clear that different people have different motivations and personal makeups.

The good news is that it is short at 154 pages. Possibly good to read for a history of psychological thought at the time but frankly pretty dull.

Just Like You by Nick Hornby (Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Story: 3.5/5

London, England.  Boy meets Girl in this simple story with character depth and plenty of everyday life thrown in. Girl is Lucy — a 42-year old white English teacher, divorced with two sons. Boy is Joseph — a 22-year old black “portfolio worker” (someone who works lots of jobs rather than one) interested in grime music and hoping to DJ. (As an aside, it is not possible to have a Nick Hornby book in which there is no character who is immersed in music).

I’m a Nick Hornby fan — this book had the great dialog and likable characters I’ve come to expect from him — while the characters didn’t all agree with each other, I would be happy to spend more time with most of them. Plenty of topics covered in ways that gave me something to think about: race, age and socioeconomic gaps, stereotypes, affinity groups, and how opinions can be formed by one’s willingness to to cling closer to or distinguish oneself from a group.

Brexit and later the Trump election form the larger-than-life background topics. He must be kicking himself to have finished this too soon — the pandemic would have made another excellent backdrop! By throwing together two people with wildly different backgrounds and characteristics, each situation can be specific to them and not representation of a category. I liked the way difficult issues could be presented and discussed as part of daily life without the heavy handedness of larger-than-life events. I also liked the fact that there was no clear resolution, because guess what? How often do we get real resolution in life? Deftly done and entertaining to boot.

Thank you to Riverhead Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Sept 29th, 2020.

 

The Party Upstairs by Lee Conell (literary fiction)

Thank you to Penguin Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on July 7th, 2020.

Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5 Writing: 4/5

A single day in an Upper West Side apartment building in New York City: we tag along inside the heads of a father and daughter. Martin is the long time super for the building, snagging the free apartment in the basement as part of his salary. Martin has internalized the building — the tenants, the systems, the various immigrants that continually circle around building infrastructure to keep it all running. Ruby is his daughter — recent Art History graduate plunged into a jobless recession and back living in the basement with her parents. As they churn through a disastrous day amidst plenty of existential angst, they are prodded along by two wildly different characters: Caroline lives in the building’s penthouse and has been Ruby’s friend since childhood; Lily is the now deceased, rent-control, neighbor who serves as a kind of Marxist Greek chorus narrating Martin’s every movement in his head. These narrations are priceless.

As a novel, I very much enjoyed this book about relationships across socioeconomic divides. Clear, insightful writing that absolutely captures the “voice” of the two main characters. Plenty of morally ambiguous action where judgement is left to the reader. On the other hand, the “wealthy” tenants were not painted with much sympathy. While we care about Martin and Ruby and understand (though possibly disagree with) their actions, the tenants are all depicted as hypocrites, rationalizers, or virtue signalers (except for Lily — the last representative of pre-gentrification!). In this book, there is no way for these wealthy tenants to behave that would earn them any appreciation from the “oppressed.” There is no way for them to be sympathetic or “good.” As a description of the way Martin and Ruby saw those people, I can’t argue with the narrative, but I don’t believe all New Yorkers are easily divided into just two categories: rich or exploited.

However — a fun read with plenty of good quotes (see below) and some great descriptions of specific aspects of individual jobs and the way a building works! I’m very interested in reading her previously published “Subcortical” which sounds like it might be right up my alley.

Some fun quotes:
“ ‘It’s not Ruby’s fault the fever dream of free-market capitalism has corrupted the realm of higher education.’ Lily had always tried to cheer Martin up by blaming his parental angst on the free market.”

“He’s got the Manifest Destiny glaze in his eyes.”

“The culture of grievances in this country is an unseemly stain, spreading fast! Wherever you come from, rich or poor, there is suffering. The problem is the way we quantify that suffering, revel in suffering — tired of those pesky self-pity streaks? Try growing a pair.”

“… in a real utopia the super wouldn’t exploit the voice of the dead to think the thoughts that he can’t let himself think on his own because his own voice is too quiet, too soft, too accommodating, he’s so good-natured they all think, not knowing that he’s only that way because if he acted out, if he shouted at Caroline over her little sporks, it would only confirm what they hoped was most true in him, he was a beast, he deserved his position in this world, he deserved to be exploited, I mean, that temper they would say, no wonder he’s …”

“The collar of the shirt under his gray cardigan was half down, half up, which gave him the sartorial look of a friendly dog unable to coordinate the orientation of its ears.”

“The city just operated this way sometimes; you could have a day fueled by coincidences that lined up wearing the mask of fate, trying to fool you into thinking there was some secret order to your life.”

 

 

The Overstory by Richard Powers (Literary Fiction)

This book absolutely deserved the Pulitzer — the writing is probably the best I have ever seen; the characters have the level of depth and detail that makes them more real than the people we interact with daily; the plot — like life — is in no way predictable.

I can try to explain what the book is “about,” but it will sound like a plot and in no way will explain what it will be like to read it —to be drawn into the world it depicts in a complete immersion. It’s a book about forests — the trees and plant life that came into being about 400 million years ago and have been thrumming along ever since. It’s about philosophy and psychology and activism. It’s about how eight wildly different people with wildly different backgrounds and interests became part of the story about recognizing the rights of forests as more than simple utility for humans. I’m still not getting across what it’s about exactly 🙂

The first eight chapters serve as the introductions to each character. Each is like a short story in itself. While this served to provide the backstories, each was intriguing in its own way. Except for chapter one! I can’t explain but I didn’t like that chapter at all, and in fact this stopped me from continuing the first two times I attempted it! I can’t explain it — hated the first chapter and then got completely absorbed and never looked back.

Eight individual narrative arcs are superimposed on a segment of an ultra-long term narrative — that of forests and the planetary ecosystem. An engineer, a gaming prodigy, a property lawyer, a plant specialist, a behavioral economist, an activist, an artist, and a man I’m having a difficult time categorizing all twirl around in our current world engaging with our trees. Some cross physical paths, some influence others, all have their minds shifted in one way or the other … and we go along for the ride. All are misfits in the sense that they don’t feel forced to adhere to cultural norms and this makes them both more interesting and more capable of growth.

I love the way the author brings in so many different angles. From actual behind-the-scenes information to new (to me) concepts about rights. In succinct and yet poetic language do we learn about the nature and mechanisms of the ecosystem, the wood industry, and the way human societies behave. As an aside, this is a book that writes about nature in a way that appeals to me — I’m not a visual person so long descriptions of the way something looks does zippo for me. This book describes nature in terms of its systems using vivid imagery and detailed behaviors. And the concept of plant rights — sounds ridiculous and yet by the end of the book I was thinking about it. A quote: “Until the rightless thing receives its rights, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of “us” — those who are holding rights at the time.” Wow — doesn’t that sound familiar from past and current fights?

Beautiful writing, beautiful sentiment — every sentence is perfect. Covers the gamut of interaction styles — between each other and within ourself — intellectual, spiritual, emotional. The scale of this book is only barely comprehensible to the reader — but it is. Definitely not a fast read — you’ll want to take your time with this one.

So many quotes! I had to whittle down the list but here are some of my favorites:

“Even as an infant, he hated being held. Every hug is a small, soft, jail.”

“Adam can’t stop reading. Again and again, the book shows how so-called Homo Sapiens fail at even the simplest logic problems. But they’re fast and fantastic at figuring out who’s in and who’s out, who’s up and who’s down, who should be heaped with praise and who must be punished without mercy. Ability to execute simple acts of reason? Feeble. Skill at herding each other? Utterly, endlessly brilliant.”

“We’re all trapped in the bodies of sly, social-climbing opportunists shaped to survive the savanna by policing each other.”

“… the backs of her thighs bitten Braille by wasps…”

“The understory fills up with tracks like longhand accusations scribbled on the snow. She listens to the forest, to the chatter that has always sustained her. But all she can hear is the deafening wisdom of crowds.”

“And still a part of him wants to know if his few and private thoughts might in fact be ratified by someone, somewhere. The confirmation of others: a sickness the entire race will die of.”

“You know, you look at those mountains, and you think: Civilization will fade away, but that will go on forever. Only, civilization is snorting like a steer on growth hormones, and those mountains are going down.”

“Once Ray starts a book, he force-marches through to its conclusion, however hard the slog. Dorothy doesn’t mind skipping the author’s philosophies to get to those moments when one character, often the most surprising, reaches down inside herself and is better than her nature allows.”

“Righteousness makes Mimi nuts. She has always been allergic to people with conviction. But more than she hates conviction, she hates sneaky power. She has learned things about his mountainside that sicken her. A wealthy logging outfit, backed by a pro-industry Forest Circus, is exploiting the power vacuum prior to a big court decision by rushing through an illegal grab of mixed conifers that have been growing for centuries before the idea of ownership came to these parts. She’s ready to try anything to slow the theft down. Even righteousness.”

“The article stokes his distress. Should trees have standing? This time last month, it would have been his evening’s great sport to test the ingenious argument. What can be owned and who can do the owning? What conveys a right, and why should humans, alone on the all the planet, have them? … His entire career until this moment — protecting the property of those with a right to grow — begins to seem like one long war crime, like something he’ll be imprisoned for, come the revolution.”

“His heart contracts back down to the size it was when she found him.”

“All that’s left to sell up here is nostalgia, those recent yesterdays when tomorrow seemed the answer to everything a human might ever want.”

“This is her freedom. This one. The freedom to be equal to the terrors of the day.”

“At some time over the last four hundred million years, some plant has tried every strategy with a remote chance of working. We’re just beginning to realize how varied a thing working might be. Life has a way of talking to the future. It’s called memory. It’s called genes. To solve the future, we must save the past. My simple rule of thumb, then, is this: when you cut down a tree, what you make from it should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.”

“It strikes her that she envies him. His years of enforced tranquility, the patience of his slowed mind, the expansion of his blinkered senses. He can watch the dozen bare trees in the backyard for hours and see something intricate and surprising, sufficient to his desires, while she — she is still trapped in a hunger that rushes past everything.”

“A massive, crowd-sourced urgency unfolds in Like-Land, and the learners, watching over these humans’ shoulders, noting each time a person clicks, begin to see what it might be: people, vanishing en masse into a replicated paradise.”

Ruthie Fear by Maxim Loskutoff (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5

A story about a young girl growing up in a trailer in the Bitterroot Valley, just South of Missoula, Montana. Raised by her father when her mother abandons them, she alternates between absorbing his values and lifestyle and wishing she could have almost any other life. We follow her from age six through her early thirties as she tries to find her place in the world.

The book is beautifully written, evoking the wild beauty of the valley, surrounding mountains, and wildlife as well as depicting small town Montana life amid a sea of changes. We see the world through Ruthie’s eyes as she struggles to reconcile the violence and injustice that she abhors with her own inner darkness and the natural and man-made disasters that beset the Valley.

The overall tone of the book is (to me) depressing. Her perceptions of most (not all) of the men around her is as pathetic, angry, and beaten down by life. The story is a slow parade of natural and man-made disasters and the impact on the relatively impoverished people around her: fires, a giant earthquake, the mills closing and ensuing lack of work, the incursion of the “California carpetbaggers,” ski areas closed due to warming weather, thousands of geese killed from polluted ponds, etc. She is a constant witness to conflict and violence — against animals and against other people. She observes that much of the anger percolates through the hierarchy of locals: white settlers who have been there for generations, the Salish Indians (the “original” locals), and the constant influx of people who came fleeing someplace else — hippies, polygamist mormons, retirees. Everybody wants the others to disappear and nobody wants anyone new to show up.

The last chapter took a wild turn into left field. I don’t know where it came from, and I can’t decide if it was symbolic or something that was actually happening. I’m going with largely symbolic, but I don’t want to include any spoilers so you’ll have to read it and let me know your thoughts…

Overall I enjoyed reading this book — gorgeous writing, character depth, and a level of detail that made it all so palpable. I would have preferred a more balanced view of life in the area — I understand that this really was one person’s experience, but it painted the area as somewhat hopeless, full of victims who were unable to stem the tide of unwanted change (or adapt to it). It reminded me of Louise Erdrich books which I’ve stopped reading — incredibly beautifully done, but on the depressing side.

Thank you to W.W. Norton & Company and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Sept. 1st, 2020.

500 Miles From You by Jenny Colgan (Chick Lit)

This is just one of those happy, sweet, books that buoys my spirits. The fact that all the action takes place in London and a Scottish village near Loch Ness (two of my favorite locations on the planet) doesn’t hurt a bit. OK — also I am a Jenny Colgan fan, so no surprise that I enjoyed this one.

Kind of a cross between “The Holiday” and “84 Charing Cross Road,” two Nurse Practitioner Liaisons switch jobs and houses for a three month period — Lissa Westcott leaving London for Kirrinfief, Scotland while Cormac MacPherson heads to London. Having never met, they get to know each other via daily email check ins and … you can guess the rest. Very nicely done — the perspective of the stranger learning the ropes in a foreign place (I’m sorry, but Scotland wins every time) — made me hunger to visit (a little difficult right now as we have to wonder when we will ever be able to travel again). Some lovely descriptions of nature, tight knit communities, friendship, and the excitement of learning something new. Very sweet ending.

Thank you to William Morrow Paperbacks and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 9th, 2020.

The Peppermint Tea Chronicles by Alexander McCall Smith (literary fiction)

Another nice installment of the 44 Scotland Street series — number 13. I enjoy every one of the books in McCall Smith’s series — I look forward to them as a treat.  McCall Smith is the master of exquisite usage of an enormous vocabulary. His writing is precise and insightful, and he wields his vocabulary in such a way as to make the nuance between words of similar meaning obvious.

His characters opine on subjects of private and public matters, and some of his “rants” are masterfully done. The paragraph on reading the news of the world on page 195 was worth the whole price of the book. I also loved his short treatise on “hold music” including this: “…although extensive research has revealed that the Flower Duet from Lakme is not only capable of soothing callers through delays of up to twenty minutes, but also has remarkable qualities in combating airsickness. That piece of music, purloined by British Airways as its theme tune, is suggestive of the soaring of both the human spirit and of aircraft — a happy coincidence for the airline with which it is identified.”