RED NOTICE by Bill Browder

I admit I took my eye off the Russia ball for a while. For years, actually. Once we signed nuclear disarmament treaties with them (or first with the “Soviet Union” then “Russia”), I thought, OK, so they’re not going to blow us up; who else should we worry about? But recently—well, for obvious reasons—that has changed.

When I heard about Bill Browder’s memoir/thriller about his involvement in Russia, it seemed like a good opportunity to learn a thing or two.

This book is subtitled A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice, and it is All That and More. Browder was one of the first major investors in Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and he made a fortune. Until he didn’t.

I don’t want to spoil anything. You’ve probably heard of the Russian oligarchs and allegations of their corruption. Bill Browder needed to hire an attorney to help him fight this corruption, and he hired the best one he could find, a truly upstanding man named Sergei Magnitsky.

If you’ve heard of the “Magnitsky Act,” you might know where this is going. But even if you do, this book deserves your attention. It is an astounding story, with implications for our future.

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Posted in Biography, Crime, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, History, Investigative journalism, Memoir, Nonfiction, Russia | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Z: A NOVEL OF ZELDA FITZGERALD by Therese Anne Fowler

The beauty of a good book is that it makes you want to read more. Or write something. Or both. Therese Anne Fowler’s Z, a fictionalized account of Zelda Fitzgerald’s life, is such a book. You will want to read more about the Fitzgeralds or write a story of your own. Or think, Maybe I should write a novel.

If you’ve read anything by or about F. Scott Fitzgerald (especially The Great Gatsby) or Ernest Hemingway (especially A Moveable Feast, his memoir about his time in Paris, often with the Fitzgeralds; or The Sun Also Rises, a novel which feels like a thinly-disguised memoir), you probably already have some preconceptions about the Fitzgeralds—e.g., her penchant for wild behavior and his penchant for booze. They clearly lived flashy lives, but it’s unclear who derailed whom more. As Ms. Fowler notes in the Acknowledgments, “Where the Fitzgeralds are concerned, there is so much material with so many differing views and biases that I often felt as if I’d been dropping into a raging argument between what I came to call Team Zelda and Team Scott.” This book aims to tell Zelda’s side of the story, and I must say, it comes across as entirely plausible. And it makes me want to read her writing, which was sometimes published as “co-written” with her husband, even though it wasn’t, to garner a bigger paycheck.

Was Zelda an ambitious woman? Yes. A crazy woman? Maybe. Maybe not.

If you’ve read Flapper (which I blogged about here) or The Paris Wife (ditto), I promise: you will love this book.

(PS: Many thanks to Molly Wagner for this recommendation!)

Posted in 1920s, Fiction, For EDUCATORS, Historical fiction, Novel, Writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

THE LEAVERS by Lisa Ko

Sometimes, especially when you’re in pain, it’s hard to accept help.

Lisa Ko’s engrossing first novel, THE LEAVERS, is about that phenomenon—and also about trust and betrayal, fear and longing, adoption, illegal immigration, mother-son relationships, feeling lost and uncertain, trying to find your place in the world, and trying to figure out what to do with your life. Yep, that pretty much sums it up. Plenty to work with, and Ms. Ko does a great job of interweaving the lead points of view to capture at least two sides of a difficult situation: a Chinese mother who disappears on her American-born son, versus the son (who misses her) who ends up getting adopted by two professors—a married couple—who earnestly want to help him.

This is a book you won’t soon forget.

(Many thanks to Judy Wilson for the recommendation!)

Posted in Adoption, Fiction, For EDUCATORS, Illegal Immigration, Novel, Social Justice | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

RULES OF CIVILITY by Amor Towles

When a friend recommended the new novel by Amor Towles, GENTLEMAN OF MOSCOW, I did a little research and discovered that his first novel, RULES OF CIVILITY, received high praise, too. Let’s start with the paperback, I thought.

RULES OF CIVILITY is, on one level, a delicious story about a young woman in Manhattan in the late 1930s, doing whatever she can to climb career and social ladders, hobnobbing and trying to fit in with people who were born into wealth. It is also a bit of a mystery novel because it is told in flashback, and this woman’s life revolves to some degree around a man who—we learn in the first few pages—somehow went from being super-rich to down on his luck. The plot shows us how.

It’s a fascinating setting, New York City at the tail end of the Great Depression but before World War II—a place we’re familiar with and a time period we perhaps haven’t spent as much time thinking about. While Europeans were fighting for their lives, we were not involved yet. We had our own little dramas. This novel captures that notion beautifully.

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US by David Nicholls

The novel US is based on what movie directors call a “high-concept” premise: shortly before a husband and wife take their son on a multi-week European vacation, the wife informs her husband that she thinks she wants to leave him. But she still wants to take the trip.

The key word is “thinks.” She’s not sure. Therein lies the suspense. Toss in the story of how these two people met and fell in love, witty dialogue, and enticing descriptions of vibrant tourist attractions in Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Barcelona, and Madrid, and you’ve got a great 396-page escape.

More seriously, though, this book explores the question: “What does ‘Happily Ever After’ really mean?” Anyone who has seriously entertained the notion of marriage has probably given this some thought. So, clearly, has David Nicholls.

I won’t spoil the ending except to say that it is plausible and satisfying.

Posted in Fiction, Novel, Relationships, Travel | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by Elizabeth Strout

In Washington, DC for a conference this week, I of course made a pilgrimage to one of my favorite spots on the planet, Kramerbooks, where they display most of the books with the covers facing up or out. There’s nothing better than a delicious buffet of books. So many tempting choices! I didn’t really need a book. I had brought one along for the train ride, and—let’s face it—left a dozen piled on my bedside table, awaiting my return. So I limited myself to just one.

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by Elizabeth Strout, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of OLIVE KITTERIDGE (which I also loved), calls to mind the first sentence of MOBY DICK. In a deceptively simple way, it both echoes “Call me Ishmael” and reinterprets the line through the voice of a woman who is somewhat timid, somewhat brave, and somewhat matter-of-fact. The narrator’s voice is clean, spare, and factual. One chapter begins, for example, “Until I was eleven years old, we lived in a garage.” The older Lucy recalls both her childhood and a time when, as an adult, she spent an extended time in a hospital and her estranged mother came and stayed at her side for a few days.

As you read it, see if you feel the same way I did: like you are being confided in by someone who can’t say everything, but says enough.

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ELIGIBLE by Curtis Sittenfeld

I held off on reading ELIGIBLE for a few years because I adore Jane Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and I was afraid that this book, a modernization of that classic novel, could not possibly compare. So why bother?

I was wrong. In fact, I love Curtis Sittenfeld’s adaptation so much that it has made me want to re-read the original. And I hope someone is making a movie out of this.

I don’t want to spoil it, but here are a few tidbits: it’s 2013; the Bennets live in Cincinnati; Mr. Darcy is Dr. Darcy, a neurosurgeon; and Chip Bingley is a doctor/star of Eligible, a reality-TV show suspiciously similar to The Bachelor. And the banter among Liz and Jane and the rest of the siblings is priceless.

I think Ms. Austen would be delighted.

Posted in Classics, Fiction, For EDUCATORS, Humor, Novel | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

 

In the opening scene of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s AMERICANAH, the main character has to travel from Princeton to Trenton because no one in Princeton knows how to braid her hair. And it goes on from there. Following Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who falls in love, moves to America, then moves back, this book uses the perspective of a highly observant outsider, a “non-American born” African, to shed light on what it is like to be black in America (and in Great Britain and Nigeria), and it does so with insight, humor, and attitude.

Though focused on race relations, this book is also more broadly about finding your place in the world. On some level, all of the characters struggle with this issue.

As we all do.

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OLD FRIEND FROM FAR AWAY by Natalie Goldberg

Ten minutes. That’s all you need. So many friends say, “I would love to write, but I don’t have time.” Let me save you some time by keeping this review short. All you need is this book. Subtitled The Practice of Writing Memoir, it offers page after page of writing prompts that require only ten minutes. Here’s page 14, titled “Die”: “Tell me what you will miss when you die.” Prefer something more mundane? Try page 94: “Write everything you know about mashed potatoes.” Not all of the entries are this sprinkly-short; Natalie Goldberg mixes in thoughtful explanations along the way.

Trust me. You can do this. Natalie Goldberg shows the way.

PS: Many thanks to Sandy Gingras, a great writer and an even greater friend, for this inspiring recommendation!

Bonus note: Two other books in this genre have been helpful companions over the years: Natalie Goldberg’s classic WRITING DOWN THE BONES: Freeing the Writer Within and WHAT IF?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.

Posted in Creativity, For EDUCATORS, Inspirational, Memoir, Self-help, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

BORN A CRIME by Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah’s memoir BORN A CRIME (subtitled Stories from a South African Childhood) is actually three books in one: an insider’s account of what it was like for a mixed-race person to grow up in South Africa during apartheid, a memoir of his impoverished childhood (PS, as I write this, he is still young: only 33), and a biography of his mother, who is a force of nature.

Noah begins each chapter with an overview of some aspect of South Africa. For instance, he points out in Chapter 1 that black South Africans outnumbered white South Africans nearly five to one, “yet we were divided into different tribes with different languages: Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, Sotho, Venda, Ndebele, Tsonga, Pedi, and more.” The whites capitalized on tribal animosity and divided and conquered. In this book, Noah sheds light on how he used his capacity to learn different languages as a way to navigate challenging social situations. If you could speak someone’s language, he would see you as “one of us.” He learned this—among many other lessons—from his headstrong mother.

Noah’s mother, a black woman who chose to ask a white man to help her have a child even though he told her he didn’t want one and wouldn’t marry her, left her family to work in the city. Because of apartheid, she had to hide and sleep in public restrooms until she learned the ropes from other black women who had figured out how to live there. They were prostitutes. She was not. She bought maid’s overalls to pretend to be a cleaner so that she would not be noticed. She went out, but it was difficult to know whom to trust. As Noah observes, “As far as her white neighbors knew, my mom could have been a spy posing as a prostitute posing as a maid, sent into Hillbrow to inform on whites who were breaking the law. That’s how a police state works—everyone thinks everyone else is the police.” That police state also made it impossible for Noah to walk in the park with his father; as a “colored” person, he could not be seen as the son of a white man.

I won’t give away all of the stunning stories that Noah shares about his experiences. He is unflinchingly honest and a remarkably resilient young man. While he might be known now for being the current host of The Daily Show, he also deserves to be applauded for producing this insightful, revealing book.

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