The Editor by Steven Rowley (Literary Fiction)

An incredibly touching novel about motherhood, life, and forgiveness. Masterfully crafted, the plot weaves together author James Smale’s effort to publish his first novel and his own personal growth through the process. The surprise yoda-like catalyst for this — wait for it — is his editor: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. I admit to fearing the book would be a fictionalized history of Jackie and her glamorous life; however it was anything but. This book celebrates Jackie’s work as an editor, and while James is the main character, Jackie provides the stimulus, advice, and motivation to make his work great.

As The Editor winds through the editing process of James’ Ithaka — a loosely fictionalized story about James and his mother — the interplay between author and editor, fiction and life is brilliantly done. With clear, concise, and humorous writing, carefully crafted sentences, and excellent, in-depth characters, it was a real pleasure to read.

As an interesting aside in these virus-infested times — while we don’t get treated to any excerpts from Ithaka, we do know that the action occurs during a 40-day quarantine (!) that forces mother and son to confront all of their issues. So perhaps we can look forward to some valuable personal and relationship insights from our own shelter-in-place experiences 🙂

Some Quotes:
“To me, typing was akin to publishing. I lived for that typewriter, and I would agonize when the ribbon became twisted, or the keys stuck, and I needed my mother’s assistance. She didn’t prioritize typewriter repair the same way I did.”

“When we exhausted all possible topics of conversation, I dropped my news like I was carpet-bombing Baghdad in Desert Storm.”

“Is the mark of adulthood putting others first? Or is it standing behind your own vision, your own work, your own view of the world? Beads of sweat form on my forehead and I have to wipe my brow.”

“To find something in a manuscript that you recognize as familiar truth, but also as wisdom you’re hearing voiced in a new and articulate way.”

About sausade: “It’s like a nostalgia or melancholy, but more than that. With a recognition that the something we’re longing for hasn’t happened, or isn’t returning. Or maybe never was.”

“Women like your mother and me, from our generation, we were duty bound. Things were expected of us, marriage and motherhood. But we were girls once, with dreams and aspirations of our own. When we see our children succeed, of course part of their accomplishments are our own. But it also reminds us that life doesn’t turn out for everyone the way they dreamed.”

“Jackie has lived most of her adult life in the long romantic shadow cast by history. What must it be like to have a whole nation idealize a past that you know firsthand was painfully imperfect?”

Thank you to Penguin Group Putnam and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 30th, 2020.

One Fatal Flaw by Anne Perry (Mystery)

Like many people, I’m sticking to light and entertaining books these days.  Although I’m not posting a review of it (because I’ve already read it 4 times and multiple reviews is CHEATING) my favorite go-to destresser book is Just One of the Guys by Kristan Higgins.  Just in case you need it!

And now for this latest mystery from Anne Perry…

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

The third book of Perry’s new series starring twenty five year-old Daniel Pitt (Inspector Thomas Pitt’s now grown son pursuing a legal profession). It’s the first of this series that I have read — decent, twisted, plot; some good characters including Daniel himself and and 40-year old Miriam fforde Croft — a talented scientist who has been denied entrance to an all-male profession. The plot of this novel hinges on the expert testimony of a most unpleasant man who argues that a cracked skull is the result of a fire’s high heat and not a bludgeoning. Strong themes of the importance of justice and proof, and the lengths to which some will go to maintain their (unearned) high reputation.

I liked the themes and the characters — I found the whole thing a little repetitive but overall entertaining.

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez (Non-fiction)

A fascinating (but somewhat uneven) book that looks at the way the needs of half of the world’s population (women) are ignored in the design of almost every system and object on the planet. From transportation systems, to medicine, to the sizes of tools, cars, and piano keyboards, Perez points out the insidious way that women’s needs aren’t considered unless they perfectly align with men’s. She divides the book into three themes: the female body, women’s unpaid care burden, and male violence against women. It’s a mixed bag — a huge pile of information (with references) — some of which is deeply insightful, some politically motivated, and some really about the needs of groups which may be predominantly women but are not necessarily problems of women because they are women.

The best parts (for me) focused on the (ignored) biological differences in the female body. Examples include different heart attack signs, incorrect medication dosages, and pacemaker thresholds. What amazed me was that some studies have shown different medication efficacy at different stages of the menstrual cycle — and yet no pharmaceutical trials ever even consider that. Why? As one researcher said — it’s just too hard! Other aspects of the “female body” theme are a little less cut and dried. Many, many, things from tools, to voice recognition systems, to pianos, to car seats, to the temperature in offices are designed for “the average man.” I always have trouble with averages because that means that many men — who are not average size — will also have trouble with these things depending on the shape of the curve and the spread in sizes. Still — I found all of these stories to be fascinating and primarily things I had never considered. I had some issues with the other two themes — the assumptions and calculations didn’t always make sense to me — though they did give me something to think about.

Overall this is a really fascinating collection of data (or lack of data) about how the world that we live in considers women to be the “exception to the norm.” While I found that some of the examples strain the point — really belonging to other groups, many of whom happen to be women; calculations of economic productivity that leave out factors not supporting her conclusion; items based on averages that are not working for non-average men as well as women, etc — there are an equal number of truly fascinating studies and examples that completely shifted the way I thought about things.

Recommended, but keep your own thinking cap on before blindly accepting all of her conclusions….

The Escape Artist by Helen Fremont (Memoir)

Very well-written memoir about the author growing up in a dysfunctional family full of mental illness and big-time secrets. Raised as a Catholic, her discovery that her parents and aunt were instead Jewish holocaust survivors was the subject of her first book — After Long Silence (1999).  The Escape Artist starts with the aftermath of the previous work — estrangement from her family and an invitation to her father’s funeral only to find that she had been cut out of his will with the phrase “as if she had predeceased me.” The narrative bounces between 1965 and the present (well-labeled and easy to follow) and follows the wild dynamics of a sister who is alternately her best friend and a foaming-at-the-mouth crazy person vowing to kill her. While the first book uncovers the Catholic / Jewish secret, this book uncovers a second large family secret (which truthfully is not the main purpose of the book and is not over dramatized in any way — it’s just something we find out / figure out near the end). The primary focus is on her relationship with the family, particularly her sister, and her own slow self-discovery of the person she wants to be.

I enjoyed reading this book — it was well-written and the characters were deeply portrayed — intentionally from the author’s perspective. Exactly my kind of memoir where the author makes plain her interior logic, experiences, and even her own doubt as to what actually happened vs what she remembers happening. My only complaint might be that it was a tad too long — I was ready to be done about 40 pages from the end. I admit that there is also something that disturbs me about one person writing a memoir that exposes the secrets of others. There was a good reason her family did not want people to know they were Jewish and I can see being equally unhappy about the family exposure in this book.

I Was Told It Would Get Easier by Abbi Waxman (Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Character: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5

A fun new offering from the author of The Bookish Life of Nina Hill. LA lawyer and single mom Jessica and her 16-year old total-teenager Emily tour East Coast colleges. Along the way they connect with old friends, colleagues, and a personality-ridden tour group. Plenty of great banter (both live and text based), likable characters, and some quite decent insight. Amidst the lightness are serious themes around getting into college: pressure, competition, how far parents are willing to go to give their offspring a boost. There is a lot of focus on how to know what the “right thing” is and how to make sure you are doing it. Nicely drawn relationships — mostly female but without (too much) male bashing.

I put this in the category of “hanging out with friends” books — meaning that while I’m reading it, that’s exactly what I feel like I’m doing. While some of the events towards the end veered off the credible scale, they really didn’t affect the main themes or take up too many pages so I found them easy to forgive.

Just a couple of fun quotes:

“I know a lot about philosophy, and people say it’s a pointless subject, but I swear I see human thought changing in front of my eyes every day. In the two decades I’ve been teaching, opinions and attitudes have evolved and altered and swung back and forth, and I have a ringside seat.”

“It’s not a constant interview which is what seems to happen when two adults get together. What do you do for a living? where did you go to school? What does your wife do?” She looked out the window. “You guys are weird, you don’t know how to communicate, you’re too busy stratifying.”

Thank you to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 16th, 2020.

Old Lovegood Girls by Gail Godwin

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5

Thank you to Bloomsbury Publishing and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 5th, 2020.

The story of a lifelong friendship between two women who first meet at Lovegood College in 1958. Feron comes from a terrible, dark, background and has trouble connecting with people in any meaningful way; complacent and composed, Merry comes from a happy background and yet suffers a tragedy that forces her to withdraw from school after only one semester. Both develop literary interests and talents which feature in the story.

It’s an odd (to me) friendship and an odder narrative. After bonding immediately as freshman roommates, their next contact isn’t for ten years and remains sporadic after that. The narrative plays off this strange relationship by leaping from contact to contact and filling in the (event rich) intervening years via memories and asides. Thus whole marriages are relegated to a sad memory summarized in a couple of lines.

In some ways the book is written well — the language is good, the characters interesting, the dialog decent. However, it was difficult to get invested in the characters and this central relationship when there was so little to it. The author does convey the closeness each feels to the other, in spite of the fact that neither seems to make much effort to connect more often. It’s possible that these are just not people or modes of interaction that would work for me — I didn’t particularly like either of the main characters. I could not manage to find empathy for Feron, despite knowing her background and being privy to her inner thoughts. Merry was less well developed and while likable, she was far too passive for my taste. I feel like a real friendship would have brought out more in the other — the fact that these two felt close, despite rarely seeing or talking to each other, wasn’t much of a story.

While there was a lot in the book I liked — the (very different) literary aspirations, motivations, and processes for the two; the full depictions of Merry’s tobacco farm, Feron’s New York City life, Lovegood college, and the other characters — overall I found it rather depressing. Nobody in the book has a particularly happy life, and while the tone is not overly dramatic (the action is removed since it’s all in history), I felt dragged into an emotional pall. While each character seemed to have found some happiness or sense of accomplishment in their life, we don’t get to experience that directly. Overall I found the book mildly interesting from an intellectual perspective and mildly depressing from the emotional.

Ask Again,Yes by Mary Beth Keane (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Character: 5/5

I ended up loving this story exploring the impact of a “tragic event” on two families. In general, I don’t like reading about tragic events — it’s depressing, upsetting, and being the emotional sponge that I am, I don’t feel the need to soak up more misery than is absolutely necessary. But! This really wasn’t that kind of book. Instead, it’s a book about people making their way through life, living with choices — both the ones they make and the ones thrust upon them — and learning about themselves and each other.

Two families brought together happenstance (two rookie cops in the same class, a move to adjacent houses in the suburbs) are inextricably bound together by the aforementioned “tragic incident.” The book does a brilliant job of showcasing the full impact of mental illness — from the person who suffers, to his or her family, and the swath of destruction left in its wake. Ranging from the early seventies to the present day, we get intimate portraits of each character as his or her innate personalities are molded, expanded, and stunted by his or her experiences — a kind of a human development lab examining the twining of nature and nurture. Some excellent portraits of marriage — I love one of the lines: “Marriage is long. All the seams get tested.”

Absorbing writing, in-depth, and insightful characters — an exploration of the impact of the vicissitudes of life on evolving into the person you become.

Good for fans of Ann Packer or Joyce Carol Oates.

The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger (Fiction)

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

A surprisingly good read that explores the impact of a new and glittery School for the Gifted plonked down in a privileged Colorado enclave. Crystal Academy — with the best of intents — seems to draw out the worst in a set of parents who had until this point been perfectly happy with their children’s schooling. The book’s epigraph — penned by the author’s mother — sums it up nicely: “There is something so tantalizing about having a gifted child that some parents will go to almost any lengths to prove they have one.”

The story follows the four families associated with through the various stages: learning about the school, making the “first cut,” building up a case for “the whole child,” and on to the final cut. Emerging from the narrative are arguments for and against the venture, rants by parent’s whose children didn’t make the first cut, and the lengths parents go to — surprising even to those making them — to get their children in. Within the well detailed descriptions of the eight parents (and a brief description of a Quechuan family from the “wrong side of town” whose child is also under consideration) we are presented with a variety of ideas, worries, hopes, machinations, hypocrisy, entitlement, and interesting permutations on liberalism. Never boring and full of moral quandaries fascinating to the uninvolved bystander (me).

From a diversity viewpoint, it was interesting to me that the father characters were all a little sucky — weak or wildly irresponsible or perfect in every way … but dead. The wives were stronger, more interesting, and possessed decent cores, albeit cores that get derailed by the glittery object stressor. The (male) author gives only one of the parents a completely decent, honest, and calm personality: Azra — the only non-Caucasian in the group. I’m always interested in the underlying message here!

Fast, absorbing, read — I wasn’t able to empathize with all of the parents or the steps they took, and I disagree with *most* of the arguments pro and con the school. I’m a big, big, believer in gifted education, but mostly I wish we could educate each person in his/her own style, at her/his own pace, and with all the stimulation and support s/he needs.

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd (Historical Fiction)

Characters: 4.5/5 Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5

A dramatic and fiercely feminist bit of historical fiction. Sue Monk Kidd inserts a remarkable character into the life of Jesus Christ — a wife named Ana. This is Ana’s story, however, not his. From childhood, the secret longing of this determined and deeply intelligent girl has been to have a Voice. Beginning with writing the stories of the matriarchs of the bible, she continues throughout her life to document the stories of forgotten and neglected women everywhere.

I was completely pulled in to the story. The historical context is rich with detail and insight into both the lives of individuals and the social and political currents of the time. Full sensory descriptions of Ana’s writing — the scrolls, inks and pens; the libraries and codices; the requisite hiding places; and the rare and tenuous gift that she had been allowed, as a woman, to learn to read and write at all. As we go through her life, we experience the inspiration for her writings and read samples as well. I was fascinated to learn that one such sample — Thunder: Perfect Mind — was an actual text unearthed from the 1942 Nag Hammadi excavation and dated to the time of the story.

There is plenty of drama — Ana’s father Matthias is the chief scribe and advisor to Herod Antipas; her adopted brother is Judas; and she meets and marries Jesus — but the actual story was far more political than spiritual … and I appreciated the historical depiction unencumbered by later religious trappings. As an aside, I loved the description of life in Therapeutae — an actual community of Jewish philosophers in Alexandria.

While Sue Monk Kidd’s style is often a little too emotional for me, I was completely drawn into this story of a strong woman insisting on her own voice — in some ways relegating the “greatest story ever told” to a mere influence. This book managed to completely shift my perspective on a period of time I knew little about.

Thank you to Penguin Group Viking and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on April 21st, 2020.

 

Human Compatible — Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control by Stuart Russell (Nonfiction)

An extremely well-written, comprehensive overview of Artificial Intelligence (AI) — with a focus on the very real risks it poses to the continued viability of the human race and a proposal for how to move forward reaping the benefits of AI without making us “seriously unhappy.”

AI Pioneer Stuart Russell is a Professor of Computer Science at UC Berkeley, has numerous awards, fellowships, chairmanships, etc. and has co-authored a textbook on AI with Peter Norvig. This is a book written by that rare creature — someone who knows his subject thoroughly and can explain it. He does not shy away from the complexity of the topic but breaks it down and explains it, simply making it accessible to anyone who is willing to read and think. He includes short, clear examples from science, philosophy, history, and even science fiction and references current and historical work from academia, research labs, and startups from around the world.

The book is divided into three parts: the concept and definition of intelligence in humans and machines; a set of problems around the control of machines with superhuman intelligence; and a proposal for shifting our approach to AI to prevent these problems from occurring rather than trying to “stuff the genie back into the bottle” once it is too late.

Russell explains the potential problems of unleashing a massively intelligent machine on the world. An AI machine offers incredible scale. Think of an entity that (with the proper sensors) can see the entire physical world at once, that can listen and process all concurrent conversations at once, that can absorb all the documented history of the planet in a single hour. And we plan to control this entity via programming. With a superhuman intelligence, the programming would need to be at the objective level. And yet — specifications — even with every day human programmers — are incredibly hard to get right. Russell uses the example of giving the machine the task to counter the rapid acidification of the oceans resulting from higher carbon dioxide levels. The machine does this in record time, unfortunately depleting the atmosphere of oxygen in the process (and we all die). Remember the old stories about getting three wishes and always screwing it up? This would make those stories look trivial. Russell never uses scare tactics and does not wildly overstate the thesis — instead he uses practical examples and includes one tremendously simple chapter (the not-so-great debate) that lists every argument people have made that we don’t have to worry and rebuts them quickly.

His solution: we should design machines correctly now so we don’t have to try to control them later. He wants to build a “provably beneficial machine” — provably in the mathematical sense. His machine would operate on only three principles: the machine’s only objective is to maximize realization of human preferences; the machine is initially uncertain as to what these preferences are; and the ultimate source of information on human preferences is human behavior. This is interesting — he wants to “steer away from the driving idea of 20th century technology that optimize a given objective” and instead “develop an AI system that defers to humans and gradually align themselves to user preferences and intentions.” There follows an entire chapter devoted to how we can program the machines to determine what those human preferences are, particularly in light of competing preferences, potentially evil preferences, the cognitive limitations of humans to understand their own preferences, behavioral economics, the nature of mind, definitions of altruism — you name it — all the fascinating areas of understanding human behavior become part of the problem. Which, while completely fascinating, strikes me as even more difficult than trying to work out how to define exact specifications in the first place!

I was left with a knot in my gut about how fast AI is moving without much oversight and how suddenly relevant these issues (that I had long relegated to comfortable musings in science fiction) have become. While I find his proposed solution intriguing, it is hard, hard, hard — and expecting random investors and startups to tackle harder design problems instead of racing towards monetization will be tricky. On the other hand, we move forward as a civilization by raising the issues and embedding them in our moral consciousness and Russell has done an excellent job of clearly teeing up a huge number of costs, benefits, and issues from technical to ethical. Highly recommended if you have any interest in the topic.