FATES AND FURIES by Lauren Groff

FATES AND FURIESAfter a while, if you’ve read enough good books, you begin to approach them the way a chef eats in someone else’s restaurant, trying to discern the content of each dish. How could I make this? you think, savoring every bite. You pick out the garlic, the onions, a dash of thyme….

Not long into Lauren Groff’s novel FATES AND FURIES, I detected some James Joyce, who in Ulysses brings us the voice of a button (“Bip!”) and an intensive focus on time (let’s just call it a very full day). Groff early on shares the point of view of a neighbor’s cat (“Confusing, these people lounging around their food like enormous cats sated from the kill”) and tumbles through time in a succession of quick scenes—parties from year to year in the same basement apartment—in a way that also brings to mind plays such as Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular, for example, in which a set of friends meet annually around the holidays and we watch their lives spin through time. Plays are, indeed, one focal point of this book: Lotto, the husband in this headlong tale of marriage, fails as an actor and becomes a successful playwright. Meanwhile his wife, Mathilde, whose secrets are uncovered largely in the second half of the book, does more than he will ever know to support his work.

To continue the tasting: the internal monologues evoke Virginia Woolf, and we find more than a sprinkle of poetry in Groff’s beautifully-crafted sentences: a minor character’s death, reported as “Ski tumble; embolism,” reminded me of the Billy Collins poem “Picnic, Lightning,” which itself was a reference to Lolita (“My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three.”). Page after page, there is more to admire and absorb.

All of this is to say that if you love literature, FATES AND FURIES is absolutely delicious.

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CIRCLING THE SUNOne thing we could all use in this world is more empathy. I was thinking about this problem while reading Paula McLain’s latest historical fiction memoir, CIRCLING THE SUN, which puts us deeply in the shoes of Beryl Clutterbuck—later Markham—who lived a bold and courageous life.

Born in England, Beryl grew up in Kenya and learned how to train horses with her father after her mother abandoned them. As the book jacket states, she would become “a record-setting aviator caught up in a passionate love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen” (AKA Isak Dinesen, who wrote the memoir OUT OF AFRICA). This gives you a headline, but not nearly enough about the fascinating details such as what the landscape of Kenya looked like in those days or what it’s like to have your leg chewed on by a lion. McLain fills in those details, and more.

McLain wowed me with THE PARIS WIFE, her fictional memoir of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, and here again her writing impresses, page after page. I particularly love how, in showing how Beryl tries to find her way, she interconnects descriptions and feelings: each sentence carries so much water. Here is just one example:

“This was certain: I belonged on the farm and in the bush. I was part of the thorn trees and the high jutting escarpment, the bruised-looking hills thick with vegetation; the deep folds between the hills, and the high cornlike grasses. I had come alive here, as if I’d been given a second birth, and a truer one. This was my home, and though one day it would all trickle through my fingers like so much red dust, for as long as childhood lasted it was a heaven fitted exactly to me. A place I knew by heart. The one place in the world I’d been made for.”

If we could bottle McLain’s empathizing skills, just imagine how much better we might understand one another.

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KATRINA by Gary Rivlin

KATRINA by Gary RivlinTen years ago today, the National Weather Service announced that “Tropical Depression 12” had become “Hurricane Katrina.” From that point on, day after day, the news became more and more grim.

We all know what happened—well, we knew what the news media was able to report, given that for some time virtually all methods of communication went down. More than 100,000 residents of New Orleans, without personal means of evacuation, struggled to catch buses out of town, and many were left in the Superdome and the Convention Center without sufficient food or water.

The problems were predictable—in fact, in 2004, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) had developed a “Hurricane Pam Exercise” to prepare for the event that became Katrina. But on every level—federal, state, and local—the leaders failed to respond with a proper sense of urgency, and as a result, more than a thousand people died and many, many more lost their homes. Many of us who lived at a distance watched TV in disbelief. Days were passing, and still people were stranded. How could this happen in America in the 21st century?

Gary Rivlin’s compelling account, subtitled After the Flood, sheds more light on what happened in those early days and for years afterward, as residents attempted to not just survive but recover.

It is a national shame that this story ever transpired, but Rivlin tells it well.

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AN ASTRONAUT'S GUIDE TO LIFE ON EARTHIf, like me, you are lucky enough to have a great father, you could easily imagine him writing a book like Colonel Chris Hadfield’s recent bestseller, AN ASTRONAUT’S GUIDE TO LIFE ON EARTH: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything. In fact, I think the only thing stopping my dad is that he was never an astronaut. He is, however, one of those guys who, like that scene in the film Apollo 13, could take a pile of routine household items and a roll of duct tape and fix almost anything. Admittedly, living on a tree farm in a house full of dogs, his specialties are fences, gates, and pooper-scoopers, but still—he can do more when presented with interesting challenges (e.g., he once built what my mother called “The Invention,” a step-stool/ladder so I could paint the ceiling above my staircase). And like Chris Hadfield, he has a flair for telling stories that teach lessons about how to live a decent life.

Hadfield’s memoir provides one added dimension that makes it a worthwhile read: it answers many questions about what it’s like to be an astronaut—not just the “during” of space flight, but also the “before” in which they practice countless simulations to anticipate and solve problems before they occur. Or as he calls it, “What’s the next thing that could kill you?”

Hadfield also offers some insights into the importance of the space program and how it has progressed over time. Sometimes, in our day-to-day lives, we forget that things are happening up there.

All in all, it’s a pretty cool read, and I think my dad will like it.

Posted in Biography, Exploration, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, For PARENTS, History, Memoir, Nonfiction, Self-help, Space travel, Technology, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment



BETWEEN THE WORLD AND METoni Morrison has called this book “required reading,” and I agree. Carved as a letter to his teenaged son, BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME explains why Ta-Nehisi Coates feels the way he feels and views the world the way he does. He is consumed by fear, rage, and above all, determination.

Given what he has experienced—from the violence in his West Baltimore neighborhood through the murder of an innocent college friend to the present-day litany of lost black lives—his perspective makes complete sense. I wish the world were different, and I am glad he has lifted his voice to it.

After it is announced that the killers of Michael Brown will not be indicted, Coates’s son says, “I’ve got to go,” and Coates finds him in his room, crying. He writes: “I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”

This is the struggle, and the struggle continues.

Posted in Biography, Change, Crime, For EDUCATORS, For PARENTS, History, Memoir, Nonfiction, Race relations | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment


NO ONE UNDERSTANDS YOU AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT ITI don’t have any children (yet), but I have thousands of former students, which is the next best thing because the chances they will do something that makes me proud are greatly multiplied. To clarify: I take zero credit for their successes. But I am absolutely thrilled for them.

Heidi Grant Halvorson is a perfect example. As a teenager, she was already one of the most intelligent people I’d ever met. It was obvious from the thought-provoking questions she asked and the delight she took in tackling difficult texts that she would eventually become a mover and a shaker.

Today she is a social psychologist who researches, writes, and speaks about the science of motivation, and she has published four bestselling books. Her latest effort (#5), NO ONE UNDERSTANDS YOU AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT, manages to synthesize academic research, pop culture references, and her playful sense of humor all in one remarkably lucid package that asks and answers questions relevant to all of us.

The title absolutely captures both halves of this book. In the beginning, you will wonder if there is any hope for anyone to understand anyone else, ever. And by the end, you will realize: Yes. Yes, there is.

But first you need to read this book.

Bravo, Heidi!

Posted in Change, Coaching, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, Nonfiction, Relationships, Self-help, Social psychology | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SICK IN THE HEAD by Judd Apatow

SICK IN THE HEADWith Stephen Colbert preparing for a new gig, Jon Stewart leaving The Daily Show, and Amy Schumer’s first movie coming out this week, we have plenty to muse about when it comes to comedy these days. Judd Apatow’s SICK IN THE HEAD gives us even more.

Apatow directed The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People, and This Is 40 and had a producing hand in Anchorman and Bridesmaids, among others. The title of his latest film, Trainwreck, gives some indication of how brave (or ironically defiant) he is. His new book reveals the roots of his courage: after his parents divorced when he was a teenager, he became increasingly self-reliant, and he worked up the nerve to pursue his passion for comedy quite literally, by speaking directly to some of the most famous comedians in the business. His pitch was that he was “Judd Apatow from WKWZ 88.5 FM.” That was true. He just left out the fact that it was a high school radio station.

Amazingly, all of the people he interviewed—including the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Allen, and Martin Short—were incredibly generous with this awkward, earnest teenager who appeared at their door.

Now, 30 years later, having interviewed and re-interviewed several dozen of the most prominent stand-up comics on the planet, he shares the transcripts with us.

If you like comedy—and who doesn’t?—this book is pure gold.

Posted in Biography, Humor, Nonfiction | Tagged , | 1 Comment


HOW TO START A FIRERegular readers of this blog know I am a HUGE fan of Lisa Lutz, the author of the Spellman File series and Heads You Lose (with David Hayward). So it should come as no surprise that she has once again wowed me.

What’s different this time is HOW she did it.

HOW TO START A FIRE is ostensibly a novel about three women who meet in college and continue, on and off, to remain friends into adulthood. But it is also a mystery novel, a study in human relations, and yet another brilliant Lutz example of how to write effective snappy dialogue. The story is told forward and backward, bouncing around from the late 1990s up till almost the present day, and the organization is simply brilliant.

It leaves traditional beginning-to-end novels in the dust.

Posted in Crime, Fiction, Humor, Mystery, Novel, Relationships, Storytelling, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

THE BOYS IN THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown

THE BOYS IN THE BOATI admit, I avoided reading this book for many months even though it received glowing reviews. I had very little interest in crew (well, except for the handsome guys at college whose training regimens and resultant physiques left me gobsmacked), and anyway, we already knew how it ended: they won gold at the 1936 Olympics. Where was the suspense in that?

I’m not going to lie. It took a few pages to get into it. I wasn’t sure why I should keep reading. Then I met Joe Rantz, whose humble, heartbreaking story epitomized the word “underdog.” Abandoned by his father and the whole rest of his family, Joe was forced to survive on his own during the Depression while the rest of his family lived nearby and completely avoided him.

Even though I knew Joe would triumph, I wanted to see how he and the other boys pulled it together. For many pages, it seemed impossible that they would. I had already seen the gold medal in the Prologue, and still, I couldn’t believe it.

This is a great story of courage and guts. Very poignant.

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COLUMBINE by Dave Cullen

COLUMBINEApril 20, 2015: Sixteen years ago today, two teenage boys conducted a violent assault on their high school, murdering twelve students and a teacher and wounding dozens of others before turning their guns on themselves.

Dave Cullen’s COLUMBINE needs no subtitle. With every new school shooting—sadly, the list continues to grow—the name comes up. Many people have seen the images of students fleeing with arms raised in the air to signal their innocence, police cars and ambulances surrounding the building, and afterwards, parents hugging their children as though they would never let them go. Many of us watched CNN or read the newspaper afterwards and thought, How did this happen? Why did they do it?

Rumors and speculation emerged immediately: they had been bullied, they had been members of something called “The Trench Coat Mafia,” they had been gay…. The truth, revealed in this painstakingly-researched comprehensive account, took ten years to reach publication. In 2009, when this book came out (I finally picked it up yesterday and finished reading it this morning: it is that engrossing), it showed that most of the rumors were wrong. Also, some people had known enough to possibly prevent what happened. And some people had covered that up.

Cullen answers many questions, and while the first two are important, he also addresses one that is equally pressing: How do people live through and get over such a terrible tragedy? The balance in this book is that it is not just about the murderers; it is also about the survivors.

My favorite was Patrick Ireland, still limping at graduation when he gave his valedictory address, who said, “When I fell out the window I knew somebody would catch me. That’s what I need to tell you: that I knew the loving world was there all the time.”

COLUMBINE explores unthinkable evil, but it also tells a story about resilience, compassion, and love.

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