THE ROSIE PROJECT by Graeme Simsion

THE ROSIE PROJECTRegular readers of this blog may recall that after this year’s Valentine’s Day episode of The Big Bang Theory, I drew one simple conclusion: In a world where Sheldon can kiss Amy, anything is possible.

While reading THE ROSIE PROJECT, a romantic comedy in which Don Tillman, a genetics professor, decides to embark upon a Wife Project in order to find a romantic partner, I kept hearing Sheldon’s (well, Jim Parsons’s) voice. It’s a straightforward story, well-paced, and thoroughly entertaining. What makes it so endearing, I think, is that the characters are very human, witty, and likable.

In short: If you like The Big Bang Theory, this is a great summer read.

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UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT by Stuart Taylor, Jr. and KC Johnson

UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENTAs someone who leans in the liberal direction, I might have been put off by the inflammatory subtitle of this book (“Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case”), but since a good friend recommended it, I decided to pick it up.  On the one hand, I’m glad I did.  On the other hand, the story is so disturbing that I almost want to cancel my subscription to the New York Times.

If you didn’t follow the Duke lacrosse rape case as it was ongoing in 2006-7—or even if you did—you probably were not aware of the facts of the case.  I say, “even if you did” because although District Attorney Mike Nifong spent considerable time on TV talking about the case, it turns out that most of what he said was untrue.  It was true that the boys hosted a stripper party (which of course was a bad idea and contributed to the narrative that they were “hooligans”), but other than that, Nifong told numerous lies and fanned racial tensions in Durham, where he hoped to win black votes in his upcoming election by supporting the fraudulent claims of an African-American woman (I say “claims” because she repeatedly changed her story and in fact only said she’d been raped when threatened with being involuntarily institutionalized).  In the end, Nifong was disbarred and removed from office for his unethical actions.

If, like me, you’re inclined to trust prosecutors (thinking, Why would they bother if they didn’t have a case, when there are so many other crimes to deal with?  They must have enough evidence if they’re going to spend all of this time and money…), and if you’re inclined to be sympathetic to women who are brave enough to assert that they have been raped, then when you heard what Nifong said, you probably believed that these three lacrosse players were guilty.  And the biased, inaccurate coverage in the New York Times (among other newspapers) would have led you to that same conclusion.

This book examines the rush to judgment, abuse of power, and toxic academic culture that milked the story for ideological purposes, and it is quite unsettling.  Reade Seligmann, one of the accused players, said, “If police officers and a district attorney can systematically railroad us with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, I can’t imagine what they would  do to people who do not have the resources to defend themselves.  So rather than relying on disparaging stereotypes and creating political and racial conflicts, all of us need to step back from this case and learn from it.”

Indeed.  We cannot undo the past.  But we ought to at least learn from it.

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THE ROAD TO SHINE by Laurie Gardner

THE ROAD TO SHINEWhenever you read a friend’s memoir, you inevitably confront three questions: 1) Is it interesting, period? 2) Is it interesting only because it’s about your friend? or 3) Is it utterly fascinating, no matter who wrote it?

If you are lucky enough to have friends who’ve lived purposeful lives, who also happen to be insightful writers, then the answer will be #3. I am pleased to report that Laurie Gardner’s memoir is a #3. Or, more accurately, #3: WOOHOO!!!

When I first met Laurie many years ago, she was one of the smartest, hardest-working people I knew. She was also quite funny. But since she lived in California and I lived in New Jersey, we didn’t get to know each other as well as we might have. So I didn’t know her whole backstory or later, why she left the job I’d seen her in. I didn’t know anything about her vision quest—why she did it, how it went, or what she learned. I didn’t know about her myriad adventures and courageous attempts to figure out how to live the most meaningful life she could. But now I do. Wow.

THE ROAD TO SHINE is a powerful, suspenseful, often poignant narrative about one woman’s quest for personal meaning. And it is so much more than that. In some ways, it’s a roadmap for the rest of us, exhorting us to be vigilant about our own journeys, to awaken our own spirits to the potential that lies within us.

It’s a potent reminder that we can live fuller lives. But first we must decide that we want to.

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SEATING ARRANGEMENTSMost weddings I’ve attended have utterly bored me, so I don’t normally have much interest in wedding-related novels, either. But Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements is a fun, summery romp that also maintains an edge of plausibility as it carves through a family ensconced in WASP society. The characters are well-drawn, the dialogue is often brisk and humorous, and it captures more than one point of view effectively.

In short: a good beach read.

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ONE MORE THINGOne of my favorite books for teaching creative writing is What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.*

I was thinking of that book the whole time I read B.J. Novak’s hilarious collection of stories, One More Thing. The subtitle, Stories and Other Stories, immediately introduces an element of silliness (you read it and think, Right, what else would there be? and grin), and every piece in this book ponders “What if” questions. What if a man had a female robot custom-designed for his romantic pleasure… then returned her because she fell in love with him? What if Elvis faked his own death, then spent the rest of his life (“until 1994”) working as an Elvis impersonator? What if Comedy Central roasted Nelson Mandela? What if a K-8 principal announced to the entire student body that they would not be allowed to take math until high school?

Novak clearly has one of those wide-ranging brains that makes other people think differently. This book is a fun one. I look forward to seeing what he does next.



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BROKEN OPEN by Elizabeth Lesser

BROKEN OPENWe live in a society where people often pretend things are fine when they aren’t. There are doubtless many reasons for this, some of them economic (you have to earn a living, and most jobs require a modicum of good cheer), some cultural (we’re all so busybusybusy, we don’t have time to stop and reflect; also, if you do have spare time, you’re expected to watch the latest TV series or movies, or go shopping), and some educational (for better or worse—often worse—we learn how to deal with emotions from our parents, who learned from their parents, and so on). One consequence of pretending (AKA living in denial) is that when we resist change and growth our lives stagnate and we become numb.

But you can only kick the can down the road for so long. Sooner or later, something happens that you cannot ignore.

In this book, subtitled How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, Elizabeth Lesser, who co-founded the Omega Institute (“the world’s largest center for spiritual retreat and personal growth”), explains not only how but also why we must seize these crises as opportunities for growth. The epigraph, a quote from Anais Nin, captures this idea succinctly: “And the time came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Lesser’s story of how she first encountered this quote, like many other moments in this book, is quite poignant.

This book reminds me of another good one, THE ART OF RESILIENCE by Carol Orsborn, which exhorts readers to “think of yourself as experientially gifted.” Both writers suggest that when we find ourselves most challenged, we should look for ways to appreciate the situation—not deny the pain, but figure out what it is trying to teach us. Then go from there, and live more fully.

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FLASH BOYS by Michael Lewis

FLASH BOYSIf you have any money in the stock market, you need to read FLASH BOYS. Of course, I am biased because Michael Lewis (author of Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, The Big Short, Boomerang, etc., etc.) could write the phone book and I would read it. His writing unrolls like a gorgeous set of waves, story after story—all true—and you cannot help but be mesmerized. This book, like his others on financial topics, is both mortifying and enlightening. And this one is also inspiring, because finally there are some good guys.

FLASH BOYS is about how Wall Street brokers, banks, and traders have been ripping investors off, which is not news, but it is actually worse than you thought. In the past few years, the invention of high-frequency trading has enabled brokers to receive information on trades micro-seconds in advance in order to take steps to alter stock prices. The fact that this is not illegal and in some ways was precipitated by a regulation attempting to close another loophole simply underlines how dysfunctional the financial system is. Through a suspenseful narrative, Lewis explains how this situation came to pass and what one man (ultimately, along with some colleagues) decided to do about it.

It is truly an amazing story, and it gives me hope in humanity. Margaret Mead continues to be right: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Brad Katsuyama is my new personal idol. I am grateful to Michael Lewis for telling his story. Bravo!

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GETTING THE LOVE YOU WANTWow. I know this book has been in print for 20 years, but I guess I wasn’t ready to read it until this weekend. And I’m glad I finally did. If you are wondering why you are attracted to particular people and what it means, this book provides some answers.

Harville Hendrix argues that we are drawn to people who manifest the positive and negative traits of our parents. Which is, of course, the good news and the bad news. While it can be challenging to deal with the negative traits, we NEED to in order to heal our childhood wounds. But alas, how? It takes a serious commitment. Although Hendrix focuses on success stories, I am sure there are plenty of people who would prefer not to invest the time and energy needed, and in some cases, they may conclude that, for other reasons, the relationship is irreparable and an equal partnership is not possible. This is not a process for the faint of heart or for people who feel “obligated.”

Although subtitled A Guide for Couples, the way this book explains how intimate partners can work through their conflicts and become stronger and more loving is absolutely relevant to single people, as well. It has given me new hope that more profound partnerships are possible, for me and all of my friends.

So much food for thought here. I am stuffed with ideas.

(PS—Many thanks to Margaret Lin for the recommendation!)

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STILL LIFE WITH BREAD CRUMBSIf you are on vacation or if you need a vacation, Anna Quindlen’s latest novel, STILL LIFE WITH BREAD CRUMBS is a perfect escape.  A modern-day fantasy about a formerly famous photographer who is down on her luck and meets a roofer who changes her life (OK, maybe I am oversimplifying a bit, but still—he does), it’s totally predictable but at the same time completely engrossing.  The characters are believable and, except for the mean ones, lovable.  Quindlen’s romance is not so much a comedy as a social critique of upper-class New Yorkers that peels back a few layers and—why not mix in another metaphor?—levels the playing field.  In short, if you are tired of workworkwork and the 24-hour news cycle, it’s a good way to spend an afternoon.  (PS—Thanks to my friend Sandy Gingras for the recommendation!)

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LITTLE FAILURE by Gary Shteyngart

LITTLE FAILUREOne advantage to living alone with two cats who don’t drive is that you can get more reading done.  Not just at the dinner table and in bed, but also at the mechanics’ since there is no one to help drop your car off.  I was thinking about this today while waiting two hours to get a flat repaired.

Fortunately I had Gary Shteyngart’s memoir to keep me company.  I’d picked it out of a lineup of several attractive options, and it grabbed me by the throat from page one.  There is something about his story—his self-deprecation, his vulnerability, and the challenges of growing up Russian in America during the Cold War—that makes this book engrossing.  The title is, of course, ironic: he is a best-selling novelist (most recently of Super Sad True Love Story).  But his father calls him “Little Failure.”  Not ironically.  And that is the heart of the narrative, but that is not all.

Little Failure is one of those books that—like a scary movie—makes you want to look away, but then you can’t help it: you want to see what happens next.

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