ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK by Piper Kerman

ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACKWhen I finally picked up ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (originally published in 2010), I did not know what to expect. The buzz around the Netflix series, which I have not yet viewed, seems to suggest high drama, machinations, and lots of attitude. But this is one of the most compassionate books I have ever read. It provides a very human look into the life of a woman who makes some bad decisions and later pays the price: a year in a minimum-security prison. Though of course we know how it ends (she is released and writes a book), the book pulses with suspense because like the narrator, we do not know what to expect from one moment to the next. Although certain aspects of prison life are predictable, many depend on human variables—some surprisingly uplifting and heartening, some humiliating.

If you know anyone whose life has been touched by incarceration—directly or indirectly—Piper Kerman captures not only what life is like on the “inside” but also some of the absurdities that land people there and the consequences for their family and friends.

And given that 2.3 million people are locked up annually, those consequences are vast.

Posted in Anthropology, Change, Crime, Inspirational, Memoir, Nonfiction, Relationships | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

GHETTOSIDE by Jill Leovy

GHETTOSIDEIn order to solve a problem, you must first unpack it. What is really going on? What are the causes, as opposed to the signs and symptoms? Too often, perhaps, we leap to conclusions without sufficiently exploring the depths of a problem’s causes. And sometimes there are multiple causes, and we weigh some more heavily than others, which in turn affects how we devise solutions.

This may all seem very vague and abstract until you consider, for example, the homicide rate in Los Angeles County. Which, for a whole variety of reasons (emotional, psychological, financial…), is a huge problem.

In GHETTOSIDE, subtitled A True Story of Murder in America, Jill Leovy presents both a case study of what happened when a Los Angeles detective’s son was killed and an exploration of the myriad challenges for citizens and law enforcers in that environment. One cause of the high murder rate is that citizens believe they cannot trust the legal system to protect them, so they take the law into their own hands.

Leovy does not suggest easy answers. But the questions she raises are profound and worth considering.

Posted in Crime, Environment, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, History, Investigative journalism, Nonfiction, Poverty | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson

LIFE AFTER LIFEThe idea of immortality is, to say the least, not new. To consider some popular media examples: in the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character, an arrogant weatherman, is forced to live the same day over and over until he gets it right. In the more recent ABC TV show Forever, the lead is a man who in the past two centuries has “died” dozens of times but for some reason keeps getting reborn as his astonishingly handsome 34 year-old self. I don’t know why it keeps happening, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t repeatedly happy to see him.

In the novel LIFE AFTER LIFE, Kate Atkinson offers us Ursula Todd, who is born in England in 1910, then either dies (choked by the umbilical cord) or lives (the doctor makes it through the snow to snip the cord) and dies later (falls off a roof), or lives, then dies a different way. Essentially we get to see variations on the theme of her life and the lives of everyone who comes into her orbit, including but not limited to her family, various friends and lovers, and Eva Braun and Adolf Hitler.

Atkinson creates the impression that we can rewind the tape and try again. A lousy marriage to an abusive man can be erased, replaced by first one lover (an admiral) then another (an architect), then back to the admiral. It might sound fantastical, but it actually works. Her genre-busting approach makes me wonder if we will see more texts like this in the future. I feel as though she’s revealed a new path, but left us more to explore.

And all along, it is fascinating to consider the parallel lives we might have led if we’d made different decisions.

Posted in Fiction, Historical fiction, Magical Realism, Novel, WWII | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel

STATION ELEVENThis post-apocalyptic novel was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award. Which made me think: If this was a finalist, I absolutely must read the winner. It is richly layered, raising and beautifully answering the question, What if the world as we know it fell apart?

Seen through the eyes of several sympathetic characters whose lives overlap in curious ways before and after a 99.9% effective epidemic, it shows why, in the words of a Star Trek Voyager episode, “survival is insufficient.”

Beyond food, water, and shelter, what do we think we need? And what do we actually need? STATION ELEVEN asks these questions and more.

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THE PAYING GUESTS by Sarah Waters

THE PAYING GUESTSThis historical novel by Sarah Waters is inviting, seductive, mysterious, extremely attentive to detail, and densely stuffed with dilemmas about desire.

The story begins with deceptive simplicity: a British mother and her only surviving relation, her daughter, are unable to make ends meet, so they take in a married couple as “paying guests.”

Very quickly, things become complicated. Then: more complicated.

I won’t spoil it. Enjoy.

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EUPHORIA by Lily King

EUPHORIAMost works of fiction include a disclaimer about how any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental blahblahblah, but in the case of EUPHORIA, Lily King omits that stock epithet because in fact her novel is based on three real people: Margaret Mead, her second husband Reo Fortune, and her third husband Gregory Bateson.

The book is an utterly fascinating account of how Nell Stone (Mead) and Andrew Bankson (Bateson) meet and fall in love. Although it’s clear that King did months and months of research—from the detailed descriptions, we learn precisely what it was like to be an anthropologist living among natives in New Guinea in the 1930s—it reads like a great novel. And if you know what actually happened, you are in for some surprises. Unlike Paula McLain’s THE PARIS WIFE, which remains faithful to the facts of Hemingway’s marriage to Hadley Richardson, Lily King takes a “What if?” approach to the original situation and creates an equally plausible alternative ending.

The result is memorable, and it made me glad that I had a cold and had to stay in bed all day.

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IN THE KINGDOM OF ICE by Hampton Sides

IN THE KINGDOM OF ICESome of my earliest memories are of tall bookcases filled with books, mostly my father’s books, which I found endlessly intriguing though for years I couldn’t read them. Couldn’t read, period. Just a word here and there. Prior to entering a new school for first grade, I was tested on a list of sight words and recognized only a few. In retrospect, I’m not even sure I knew what they meant. I knew I’d seen them. Also I was aware that it would look really bad to circle nothing.

It will sound corny and unbelievable, but the first word I truly remember learning was “book.” It was on a TV show called Captain Kangaroo. The mustachioed Captain held up a book, said the word, and I saw the caption. BOOK. Oh, I thought. Now I get it.

Around the age of 12, combing through my father’s library one day, I picked up his copy of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot and had to laugh: my younger self had tried to read the book and circled every word she knew on the first few pages: mostly “the” and “and.”

Fast-forward through several decades: I tore through thousands of books—books at school, books from Santa, books from the library…. More recently, since my father “retired” (let’s be honest: he has retired and un-retired at least eleven times), he has taken to giving me a box of books every time I visit. This is a function of two things: first, that my parents have run out of shelf space; second, that he has more time on his hands and chews through books the way some people eat potato chips.

I couldn’t possibly read every book he gives me, of course. I still have a day job. Also he tends to like mysteries and dense, thick histories more than I do. But I like to think that eventually I will retire, too, and get to them all.

In the meantime, the latest installment delivered this: IN THE KINGDOM OF ICE by Hampton Sides. Subtitled The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette, it was not necessarily going to make the pre-retirement cut because I am about as interested in polar expeditions as I am in giant wildfires.

Obviously, if you are a fan of this blog, you can see where this is going.

It’s 410 pages, and I read it in three sittings. Wow. Thanks, Dad!!!

Posted in Biography, Exploration, History, Inspirational, Nonfiction | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

BARK by Lorrie Moore

BARKAs any true short story junkie knows, you cannot go wrong with Lorrie Moore. Beginning with her first collection, SELF-HELP (published in 1985), she established herself as a deft musician with words, and she has rarely hit a wrong note. BARK is no exception. From the first story, “Debarking,” which grabs us by the shoulder with “Ira had been divorced six months and still couldn’t get his wedding ring off,” she makes us care about characters who are often—let’s face it—helplessly lost and flailing around, trying to make sense of their lives.

Even her tales of the most mundane dysfunction—broken marriages—sparkle with a humorous sheen. “Paper Losses,” for example, begins: “Although Kit and Rafe had met in the peace movement, making no nukes signs, now they wanted to kill each other. They had become, also, a little pro-nuke.” It could be the start of a Garrison Keillor novel except that the characters become darker and more obsessed with power struggles: “Divorce, she could see, would be like marriage: a power grab, as in who would be the dog and who would be the owner of the dog?”

I read BARK quickly, but it has stayed with me. The sign of a good book.

Posted in Dogs, Fiction, Humor, Relationships, Short story collection | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

THE BIG BURN by Timothy Egan

THE BIG BURNI admit I’ve had a slight crush on Teddy Roosevelt ever since reading about his adventures in the Amazon in Candice Millard’s RIVER OF DOUBT. But I probably would not have picked up THE BIG BURN, subtitled Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America, had it not been assigned for a research writing workshop that I’m taking next month. I am not necessarily interested in wildfires, even really big ones.

But Timothy Egan quickly drew me in with sentences like this one: “These little fires would smolder for days, only to be kick-started anew by a sneeze of wind.” And this one: “The smoke was like a stale dream that hangs on through awakening into the bright hours of day.” He also does a seamless job of stitching historical facts into an engaging narrative, such as when he cites the New York Times obituary for Senator Weldon Heyburn, which described him as “a stalwart who was widely known for his unyielding bitterness.” I can picture Egan jumping up and down and giggling with glee when he came across that little tidbit. It is one of the many delights of this absorbing history.

Egan won a National Book Award for The Worst Hard Time, a history of Americans who survived the Dust Bowl, so obviously he is no slouch. And even though it sounds totally depressing, how can I pass it up?

Posted in Biography, Environment, For EDUCATORS, History, Investigative journalism, Nonfiction, Teddy Roosevelt | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

ME BEFORE YOU by Jojo Moyes

ME BEFORE YOUME BEFORE YOU, a page-turning, tragic/romantic/comic novel by Jojo Moyes, brought up three things for me. First, how your life can change at any moment, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, and sometimes both. Second, it reminded me how we can’t allow these crises to paralyze us (no pun intended). We can’t allow the clock to stop; we have to keep growing. And third, there is this great line in Ann Patchett’s essay collection, THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE—in fact, in the title track—in which a friend asks this question about her first husband while she is trying to decide whether or not to stay with him: “Does he make you better and do you make him better?”

In the end, maybe things are that simple. And that’s how you know it’s love. Which is why I’m still waiting.

(PS, thanks to Sandy Gingras for this excellent recommendation!)

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