A WELL-BEHAVED WOMAN by Therese Anne Fowler

Coincidentally, a few months before I read Therese Anne Fowler’s latest novel focused on another dynamic woman in history (her previous gem was ZELDA), I visited some friends in Asheville, North Carolina and took an eye-popping tour of the Biltmore Estate, George Vanderbilt’s sprawling 250-room French Renaissance chateau featuring 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces, the landscaping for which was designed by Frederick Olmsted (also known for the landscape architecture of the Washington Capitol, Central Park, and the Chicago World’s Fair, among 500-plus other projects). The Biltmore, finished in 1895, is a testament to the astonishing wealth of the Vanderbilts, who built a shipping and railroad empire. It is, shall we say, one way to see how the other half lived.

So it was with special interest that I read A WELL-BEHAVED WOMAN, the story of Alva Smith Vanderbilt (1853-1933), a woman from a respected Southern family that lost much of their wealth during the Civil War, who made the pragmatic decision to marry William K. Vanderbilt for his money. Ordinarily I wouldn’t waste my time on the saga of a gold-digger, but Alva was so much more complicated than that, and Ms. Fowler presents the details of her life in a way that actually invokes sympathy. Alva was both a force of nature and also very human.

While some of the particulars—e.g., decisions about what to wear to various social occasions—might seem superficial, they capture this historical period authentically, and the human interactions remind us that no matter how much money you have, money isn’t everything.

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CALYPSO by David Sedaris

If you are not already familiar with David Sedaris’s writing, then you should start with ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY, for reasons which I’ve explained here. Then, read everything else he’s written. He has a dysfunctional family (Who doesn’t?) and he travels widely, so he has plenty of stories to tell. Eventually you will arrive at CALYPSO, his latest collection of essays, which is as hilarious as all the rest. While it might be sacrilegious to analyze humor, when I read his work I’m always struck by two things: his precise attention to detail and his willingness to contemplate the absurdities of ordinary life. For example, in “Your English Is So Good,” he mulls over the inane conversations that we endure when traveling:

As a business traveler, you’ll likely be met at your destination by someone who asks, “So, how was your flight?” This, as if there are interesting variations and you might answer, “The live orchestra was a nice touch,” or “The first half was great, but then they let a baby take over the controls and it got all bumpy.”…

That’s just a tiny taste of this delicious collection. I encourage you to dig in.

Posted in Essays, Humor, Memoir, Nonfiction | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

BECOMING by Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama’s memoir, BECOMING, is a humble, honest account of what so far has been an amazing life. “When I was a kid,” she begins, “my aspirations were simple. I wanted a dog. I wanted a house that had stairs in it—two floors for one family. I wanted, for some reason, a four-door station wagon instead of the two-door Buick that was my father’s pride and joy….” From these first few lines, she draws us in and—because we know that her life has become so much bigger than that—we can’t stop wondering how she was transformed from a little girl with such modest dreams into a powerful, influential First Lady.

When I picked this book up, I already knew a fair amount about Mrs. Obama. I knew that she grew up in a two-parent household with an older brother on the South Side of Chicago; I knew that she went to Princeton and then Harvard Law School. I knew that she met her future husband when she was assigned to mentor him at the law firm where she worked.

What I didn’t know—and what this book makes clear in an open, lively way—is how she has felt all along about her various experiences. She knows who she is, and she is remarkably candid and reflective about what she has been through. Her reflections remind us that no matter what hand we might be dealt, we all have choices to make and consequences to deal with. But she also acknowledges how much our family, friends, colleagues, and mentors can help shape our lives, and she wants to inspire young people—young women, especially—as much as she can.

With this book, I have no doubt that she will.

Posted in Biography, For EDUCATORS, History, Memoir, Nonfiction, Politics, Race relations | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE FIFTH RISK by Michael Lewis

What I have loved about Michael Lewis’s writing, from LIAR’S POKER forward, is how he follows his intellectual curiosity to investigate timely problems then tells engaging stories to explain these problems and shed light on the people trying to solve them.

When you think about everything happening in the world, it seems a safe bet that Mr. Lewis will never run out of material.

His latest book, THE FIFTH RISK, looks into how specific federal agencies have been operating since Donald Trump was elected. Whether you voted for Trump or not, you should care about how effectively the government functions—both because we are all paying for it and because it has the potential (through action or inaction) to make our lives easier or more difficult. And even if you think So what? or They’re all incompetent/crooks/whatever. Trust me: Michael Lewis has somehow managed to turn the inner workings of the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and Energy into an engrossing set of tales. And, I am relieved to say, there are some heroes out there.

This book should be required reading in civics classes. I think it would inspire more students to pursue careers in public service.  Which would be a good thing.

Posted in For EDUCATORS, History, Investigative journalism, Nonfiction, Politics, Science, Technology, Weather | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE LIBRARY BOOK by Susan Orlean

I read Susan Orlean’s latest book in half-hour installments for two reasons: 1) because I’ve been exhausted from long rush-hour drives to and from work, and 2) because her sentences warrant patient appreciation.

In fact, THE LIBRARY BOOK, a mélange of a true crime investigation and historical exploration of the Los Angeles public library system, reminded me intensely of my first dinner at Herbsaint in New Orleans. For starters, I ordered the Jumbo Lump Crab with Watermelon Gazpacho, expecting a cup of tomato-y soup with some crabmeat in it, and instead was treated to a low tide of watermelon gazpacho surrounding a giant mountain of fresh-out-of-the-net sweet crabmeat. I quickly realized that it would take me hours to eat this meal because I wanted to take tiny bites and savor every delightful flavor.

Before that meal, I hadn’t known the difference between eating and truly tasting one’s food. Susan Orlean’s writing has a similar effect.

PS—If you haven’t read any of Orlean’s other books yet, I also recommend THE BULLFIGHTER CHECKS HER MAKEUP and THE ORCHID THIEF.

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Like many people who answer, “I’m fine” when they are anything but, the title character of Gail Honeyman’s first novel is not, in fact, completely fine. Some colleagues in the office where she works think she’s “mental,” and on some level she is, for good reason. I would say she’s also lonely and analytical and naïve, and she often thinks or says things that are laugh-out-loud funny.

Exhibit A, the first paragraph, captures her voice perfectly:

When people ask me what I do—taxi drivers, dental hygienists—I tell them I work in an office. In almost nine years, no one’s ever asked what kind of office, or what sort of job I do there. I can’t decide whether that’s because I fit perfectly with their idea of what an office worker looks like, or whether people hear the phrase work in an office and automatically fill in the blanks themselves—lady doing photocopying, man tapping at a keyboard. I’m not complaining. I’m delighted that I don’t have to get into the fascinating intricacies of accounts receivable with them. When I first started working here, whenever anyone asked, I told them that I worked for a graphic design company, but then they assumed I was a creative type. It became a bit boring to see their faces blank over when I explained that it was back office stuff, that I didn’t get to use the fine-tipped pens and the fancy software.

Hers is the kind of voice that makes me want to write a novel myself. Throw in Raymond, an IT colleague who takes an interest in Eleanor, and you have even more reasons to keep reading.

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DOPESICK by Beth Macy

As I noted in my review of Dreamland by Sam Quinones, most of us either know someone or know someone who knows someone who has suffered from opioid addiction. This horrifying epidemic, precipitated by the release of the addictive painkiller OxyContin in 1996, has cost this country $1 trillion since 2001 through lost productivity and increased health care, social services, education, and law enforcement costs. And as of 2017, more than 64,000 people were dying every year from drug overdoses.

In DOPESICK, subtitled Dealers, Doctors, and The Drug Company That Addicted America, Beth Macy tells the stories of people who find themselves directly involved in the systemic problems associated with opioid addiction—the parents, children, and grandchildren whose lives are affected; the doctors who have either contributed to or fought this problem; the law enforcement officials who find themselves overwhelmed; and even the drug dealers who flatly admit that the “shit don’t stop”—meaning, You can arrest me, but 10 more dealers will take my place. The demand is relentless. Macy cites a recent Harvard Medical School study that it takes the typical opioid-addicted user eight years and four to five treatment attempts—to achieve remission for just a single year.

You might not want to read such bad news. This is an epidemic that crosses every demographic line, and it has not even peaked yet. But Macy provides some glimmers of hope that we could turn the corner, and many individuals are working to solve this problem.

Regardless of your role, becoming informed by reading this book could be a helpful step.

Posted in Crime, Drug addiction, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, For PARENTS, History, Investigative journalism, Nonfiction | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


If you are a human being, sooner or later you will need to ask someone for help. And more often than not, you will dread having to do so. Maybe you’ll ask in some strangulated way and the person will say no, or maybe the person will say yes but the whole situation will become awkward and both of you will feel uncomfortable for days afterward. Whether your request is for work, personal, or fundraising purposes, there are reasons why asking for help is so problematic. Researchers have actually studied this phenomenon.

In her latest book, REINFORCEMENTS (subtitled How to Get People to Help You), social psychologist Heidi Grant (author of No One Understands You and What to Do About It, among others) once again provides clear-eyed, humorous explanations that connect extensive research with real life. She systematically addresses 1) why it’s difficult/painful to ask for help, 2) how to ask anyway, and 3) how to create a culture of helpfulness.

Bottom line: You should ask for help. Directly. And read this book for further instructions.

Posted in For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, For PARENTS, Nonfiction, Nonprofit boards, Self-help, Social psychology | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

ONE PLUS ONE by Jojo Moyes

This book sat on my nightstand for months, but once I picked it up, I read it in two days. Good books are like that: ready when you need them. This novel by Jojo Moyes (the author of Me Before You) is delightful and another reminder that not everything that seems awful turns out to be bad; in fact, often we come out the other side stronger and happier. The characters in One Plus One—largely on an eventful car ride to Scotland—are quirky, flawed, funny, and likable, and the plot, while not overly complex, is engaging.

Whenever you get to this one, it will be a fun ride. #punintended

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LOVE AND RUIN by Paula McLain

If you are a Paula McLain fan like me, you already know that she is brilliant at capturing the voices and lives of strong women in history. You’ve read Circling the Sun (about Beryl Clutterbuck—later Markham) and The Paris Wife (about Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife), and you’ve likely already purchased her latest historical novel, Love and Ruin, told from the point of view of Martha Gellhorn, a relentless war correspondent who happened to be Hemingway’s third wife (of four) and in fact was the only one who dumped him instead of the reverse. Martha was brave and bold and also witty and passionate—and deeply committed to her own writing, which is partly why their marriage didn’t last. She was so much more than Hemingway’s wife! So I’m probably not telling you anything you didn’t already suspect: This book is another must-read.

The beauty of Paula McLain’s writing is that she inspires you to want to read more about her subjects. I had barely closed this book before I bought Martha Gellhorn’s travel memoir, Travels with Myself and Another. (I’m only a few pages into it, but it cracks me up that in her description about a trip to China, she refers to Hemingway as “U.C.,” which stands for “Unwilling Companion.”)

Posted in Biography, Fiction, Historical fiction, Memoir, Travel, Writing, WWII | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment