Tag Archives: non-fiction

Book round-up: what I’ve been reading lately

It’s been a long time since I’ve done a good ol’ fashioned book round-up on the blog. To be precise: it’s been eight months. Oops. As usual, I’ve read more books in eight months than can fairly be reviewed in one sitting, so I will sort them into my handy categories of Great Reads, Good Reads, Meh Reads, and Bad Reads. The Great Reads, I think, each deserve a word of explanation.

So, here goes.

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Great Reads

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell: Rowell’s sweet, moving novel about a college freshman (Cath) who loses herself in writing fan-fiction as she struggles with her real-life relationships was un-put-downable. As usual, Rowell continues to produce the only “romance novels” that I can stomach. Smart Bitches, Trashy Books review here.

Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell: A sort of companion novel to Fangirl, Rowell visits the universe that Fangirl‘s Cath was obsessed with — a Potter-esque school for aspiring magicians — and creates a love story between two of the main characters. Confused? This NPR review may help.

Fortune Smiles, by Adam Johnson: This collection of short stories is as beautiful and poignant as any of Johnson’s other work. I continue to marvel at his ability to bring to life such an array of rich, believable worlds (North Korea, post-Katrina New Orleans, Palo Alto) with such nuanced, complicated characters. Adam Johnson is such a treasure. Did I mention Fortune Smiles won the National Book Award?

The Royal We, by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan: I never wanted this book, which can fairly be described as the literary equivalent of a rom-com, to end. It follows a pair of Prince William-Kate Middleton analogs (in this case, the fictional Prince Nicholas and his American girlfriend Rebecca Porter) from their meet-cute to their wedding, with lots of juicy drama and intrigue thrown in for good measure. I really felt like I understood the now Duchess Kate’s plight after reading this book. Cocks and Morgan, the geniuses also known as The Fug Girls, make a delightful novel writing team. I recommend The Royal We even to readers, like me, who hate most romance novels and are trepidatious about rom-coms. Read it. Or, just wait for the movie to come out.

Ghettoside, by Jill Leovy: I was turned onto this book by a recommendation from (personal hero) David Sedaris, who encouraged all of his Facebook followers to check it out. Leovy, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, explores the epidemic of violence among African-Americans, the often toxic relationship between law enforcement and poor communities, and the systemic failure of the criminal justice system to prosecute black murders. Fair warning: Ghettoside is not an easy read, but it is fascinating, and gripping, and important. New York Times review here.

The Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeev Sohata: Months after finishing this book, which tells the story of several Indian immigrants struggling to carve out lives in the U.K., and a British-Indian woman whose life intersects with theirs, I cannot stop thinking about it. As soon as this book ended, I experienced that particular kind of mourning one feels when you have to say goodbye to characters you really care about. What makes The Year of the Runaways even more remarkable to me is that it is Sohata’s debut novel and he never read a novel until he was eighteen. What?! Guardian review here.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt: This classic came out in 1994, but I never thought to read it until now. Berendt manages to make a true-crime novel read like fiction — and charming, winsome fiction, at that. Despite the fact that this book is about a murder, it made me want to visit Savannah and stroll through its storied gardens.

Good Reads

Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff

The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy

Troublemaker, by Leah Remini

Challenger Deep, by Neal Shusterman

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy

Bringing Up Bébé, by Pamela Druckerman

Little Victories, by Jason Gay

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King

The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

I Didn’t Come Here to Make Friends, by Courtney Robertson

The Expatriates, by Janice Y.K. Lee

The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, by Jeffrey Toobin

After Birth, by Elisa Albert

The Dark Net, by Jamie Bartlett

Meh Reads

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

Loving Day, by Mat Johnson

The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer

We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart

The Red Parts, by Maggie Nelson

Bad Reads

Black Eyed Susans, by Julia Heaberlin

The Tastemakers, by David Sax

 

 

Great reads, good reads, meh reads, and bad reads: a book round-up

Since May, which was the last time I posted a book review round-up, I’ve read (or started to read and gave up on — more on that below) almost thirty books. THIRTY. The experience of reading approximately six books a month for the past five months has had some sharp peaks and deep valleys, as you might imagine. Some of the books I read were fantastic, wonderful, absorbing, un-put-downable! Others, however, were real stinkers. Weirdly, it’s the stinkers, rather than the masterpieces, that are sticking with me as I sit down to write this, perhaps because it seems like there were just so many of them, and they were all so disappointing/maddening.

Given the quantity of books I’ve consumed over the past five months, I’ll not be writing reviews of each one. Instead, I’ve divided the books into four rough (and necessarily reductive) categories: Great Reads, Good Reads, Meh Reads, and Bad Reads. Instead of individual book reviews, I will let the categories do the talking. If you’d like any more color on any of these books, drop me a note or a comment here and I’ll tell you what I think.

Now, a brief explanation of my categories:

A Great Read, in my estimation, must possess excellent writing as well as a gripping plot (if fiction) and/or unique perspective/angle on its subject (if non-fiction). The experience of reading a Great Read is one of absorption. You look forward to reading the book, and while you’re reading it, you’re lost in its world. You want to tell people about it. You want others to read it so that you can share the experience of it with someone else. I will vouch for all of the books in my Great Reads category. They are, like I say, great.

Standards are slightly lower for Good Reads. A Good Read must be thoroughly enjoyable, with solid writing and/or a lively enough plot/story to make up for just pretty good writing. A Good Read is a book that you look forward to picking up, but won’t necessarily tell anyone about at a dinner party.

A Meh Read is just okay, either because the plot is sluggish, or the writing is not up to snuff, or both. A Meh Read, however, is not bad enough for you to actually stop reading. Whatever failures of writing or plotting or research they may contain, Meh Reads are not terrible or a waste of time, necessarily. They’re just okay. They’re the reading equivalent of a shrug. They’re meh.

Bad Reads, of course, are actively awful. Most of the books on the Bad Reads list landed there because the writing was so piss poor that I wanted to toss the book into a bonfire and dance around it while muttering dark incantations. As a writer who would gladly saw off an appendage — any appendage! You name it, I’ll saw it! — to have a novel published, it irks me, to put it lightly, that so many books with stupid, crappily constructed plots and lazy, hackneyed writing are getting published and purchased. And from a reader’s perspective, it’s endlessly frustrating that these horrid books are marketed to the unsuspecting public with bait like, “If you liked Gone Girl, you’ll love [Shitty Novel That Sucks]!” Here’s the thing: we all liked Gone Girl because it was fast-paced and twisty, with smart observations about male-female relationships, and Gillian Flynn can actually write. Yet somehow, any piece of dross that fancies itself a “psychological thriller” gets compared to Gone Girl, and we, the reading public, keep falling for it. Or, at least, I do, and I consider myself a somewhat discerning reader (although perhaps I shouldn’t give myself so much credit). Three out of the four books on my Bad Reads list are “psychological thrillers” that I was dumb enough to pay good money for. I only managed to get all the way through one of them (The Good Neighbor, which contained shockingly bad writing and enough loose plot threads to knit a winter sweater); the other three I gave up on in order to preserve my own sanity.

Great Reads

Among The Ten Thousand Things, by Julia Pierpont

Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, by Sarah Hepola

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

My Documents, by Alejandro Zambra

Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari

This Is Not a Love Story, by Judy Brown

Good Reads

Lost at Sea, by Jon Ronson

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., by Adelle Waldman

Sisterland, by Curtis Sittenfeld

The Splendid Things We Planned, by Blake Bailey

Hyacinth Girls, by Lauren Frankel

Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh

Pretty Is, by Maggie Mitchell

Drink, by Ann Dowsett Johnston

The Lifeboat, by Charlotte Rogan

Meh Reads

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker

Luckiest Girl Alive, by Jessica Knoll

The Ice Twins, by S.K. Tremayne

Visiting Hours: A Memoir of Friendship and Murder, by Amy Butcher

In the Unlikely Event, by Judy Blume

How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti

Days of Awe, by Lauren Fox

A Good Killing, by Allison Leotta

In a Dark, Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware

Bad Reads

The Good Girl, by Mary Kubica

Remember Mia, by Alexandra Burt

The Good Neighbor, by A.J. Banner

The Martian, by Andy Weir

Book review: Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, by Dinty W. Moore

The back cover copy for Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals promises that this book is a “unique writing guide” to creating personal essays. As someone who likes to write the odd personal essay, I was interested. I was also intrigued by the format: a series of questions asked by “top contemporary essayists” (including Cheryl Strayed and Roxane Gay) and answered by Dinty W. Moore, an actual person and essayist and not, as I had imagined, an animated can of beef stew.

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I first opened Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy expecting, if not inspiration, then at least some solid ideas for kickstarting my next personal essay. But I got bogged down in the book’s preciousness and soon closed it again. What do I mean by “preciousness?” Well, the introduction is written in the second person (eesh) and includes this sentence: “You are a good-looking person whose minor flaws seem to only accentuate your considerable charm.” This winking tone continues throughout the book, much to my chagrin. For example, there is a question answered entirely in a series of cocktail napkin drawings. Some might find this adorable, but for me, the humor wasn’t strong enough to overcome the cutesiness. I’m afraid I’m just not the target audience for this kind of thing.

I reopened the book and tried to read it straight through. The first question, from essayist Phillip Lopate, is about how to write about ex-girlfriends without coming off as a “chauvinist pig.” Putting aside my own question about whether Lopate’s letter was sent via time portal from the mid-1990s, I found Moore’s response pat (“don’t be a chauvinist pig”) and the accompanying essay boring. Perhaps the problem here is that I am not familiar with Dinty W. Moore’s essay writing, and that to fully appreciate this book, one must be a fan of his work. I’m not sure. But I found myself skimming, and skimming some more, through the rest of the questions and answers.

Some of the questions struck me as so esoteric as to be useless (e.g., what is “the connection between Buddhism and writing?”), at least to my own writing, but others were somewhat more helpful. I enjoyed Moore’s response to Cheryl Strayed’s question about the distinction among the hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash. I also liked Moore’s “Four Essential Tips for Telling the Truth in Memoir and Securing That Blockbuster Book Deal,” in response to a question from Michael Martone about whether to use one or two spaces after a period. Incidentally, Moore never answers Martone’s question about spacing, but he does discuss the concept of telling the truth and fictionalizing in memoir.

I’m sure that fans of Moore’s work will find this volume entertaining and perhaps even inspiring. But for me, earnest seeker of writing advice, it fell flat.

Book review Tuesday: Better Than Before, by Gretchen Rubin

The more I read by Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, the more I begin to suspect that she and I would really get along. As far as I can tell, we have extremely similar personalities and preferences. Also, we’re both former lawyers who became writers. In fact, when I was first considering jumping ship from my law firm and starting a writing career, I sent Rubin an email asking for her advice, and she very kindly responded with a warm, encouraging note. So, I like Gretchen Rubin, even though I don’t know her personally — and I always enjoy her writing, including her newest book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives.

Rubin’s latest book focuses on habits, asking how we form successful habits, what makes us stick with them, which habits are worth pursuing, and so on. I find the question of habits quite interesting because I am someone who’s fairly consistent with certain habits (for example: getting daily exercise) but struggle to form other, lasting habits (e.g., keeping a budget). So I read this book with interest and really enjoyed it.

Rubin has a real gift for coming up with useful personality taxonomies, and this book introduces what Rubin refers to as “The Four Tendencies.” In order to make and stick with a habit, she says, one must identify which of four personality tendencies one has. The four tendencies, described on Rubin’s website, are Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. As Rubin puts it:

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations 
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense 
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves

This was an easy one for me: I’m an Upholder, through and through (just like Rubin). Also, like Rubin, I was surprised to learn that Upholders are in the minority. Apparently, responding pretty much equally to both inner and outer expectations (that is, getting up for a run because you told yourself you’d do it AND/OR getting up for a run because you told a friend you’d meet them in the park) is not a common personality attribute. Alastair is most definitely a Questioner. He only does something if there’s a sound justification for it; he hates arbitrary rules. He and I have had the same argument about why our bed needs to be made countless times. Al thinks making the bed is pointless, since you’re just going to get into it and mess up the sheets again at bedtime. I think making the bed makes the room feel neater and consequently makes my life feel less chaotic. Also, I’d hasten to add, adults just make their damn beds. Anyway. Knowing one’s Tendency is the first step, Rubin says, to understanding how to form effective habits. You need to know yourself and what kind of expectations to which you respond best in order to set a plan for yourself that will work.

Once you’ve identified your Tendency, you can tackle what Rubin refers to as the four “pillars of habits:” monitoring, foundation, scheduling, and accountability. As an Upholder, I think I can actually take some of these pillars of habits too far. For example, I can go a bit overboard with monitoring. Just this week I stopped using my phone to obsessively track Lucia’s sleeping, eating, and diaper output, because, I finally realized, it was making me crazy. I’m the type of person who loves data. Staring at numbers gives me the illusion of control. I figure if I can study the record of Lucia’s sleep patterns for the last three months of her life, I can crack the code to baby sleep and win at parenting forever. It took me this long to realize that babies don’t work like that, and I was driving myself nuts tracking every second of napping, every poopy diaper, every drop of milk consumed. But I do understand that monitoring, when exercised responsibly, is useful for habit formation; for example, I try to keep track of what I eat and the amount of exercise I get on another app on my phone, and it helps keep me accountable to my commitment to eat healthfully (most of the time).

Having established the pillars of habit formation, Rubin then dives into the nitty gritty of establishing and maintaining habits. One comes away from this book feeling that one can now take on the world, new habits firmly in place (or, at least, the manageable beginnings of new habits in place). As always, Rubin’s take is practical, relatable, and full of interesting anecdotes. I came away from this book feeling motivated to tackle some of the habits I want to introduce into my own life. Recommended!

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

Book review Friday: several quick takes

I’ve been doing a lot of reading ever since my lovely mother got me a Kindle Paperwhite in April. Its lit-up screen allows me to read in the dark while I’m feeding Lucia at night (or early in the morning) and want to keep her room dark so as not to wake her fully. With my old Kindle, I’d have to turn on the light to read, so I ended up playing on my iPhone and reading New Yorker articles on its tiny screen instead. Not awesome. Anyway, since my reading life has been restored to me, I’ve torn through a bunch of books, and thought I’d do some short reviews here while the baby is napping. One never knows how long one has when a baby is napping, so these will be short and sweet and probably not finely edited. Here we go!

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

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I had high hopes for The Circle, mostly because Dave Eggers and his wife wrote the screenplay for Away We Go, one of my favorite movies, and because I’ve volunteered at 826DC, a great non-profit also spearheaded by Eggers. Unfortunately, The Circle was a big disappointment. Well, let me qualify that: I did enjoy the first 40% or so of the book, which consisted of some great world-building and suspense-building, but hated the last 60%, when the entire thing came crashing down in a pile of heavy-handed metaphor, unrealistic outcomes, and an increasingly irritating protagonist. There are so many problems with this book, and I think this reviewer on Goodreads ably summarizes most of them, but what irritated me most was the squandered potential the book had to be great. The set-up, in which Eggers introduces us to The Circle, a utopic, monolithic version of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and every other major tech/social media company in the Silicon Valley, was interesting in itself, and the idea that the heads of The Circle had secretive, nefarious plans had great potential for intrigue and suspense. But the plot ended up flopping majorly when it became a dull-edged warning about the dangers of intrusive social technology in our lives. Eggers doesn’t have anything new to say about the overuse of social media, unfortunately, and in trying to impart the oft-repeated message that it can be dangerous and dehumanizing, he relies on such ham-fisted, hackneyed metaphor that the book’s message comes across as obvious and trite. When I was done reading the book, I realized that I wanted to rewatch Charlie Brooker’s excellent, super creepy, and incisive TV series Black Mirror, which provides much smarter and more unique commentary about the creeping dangers of technology in society. In fact, that’s my recommendation: skip The Circle and check out Black Mirror (and don’t watch alone and/or at night — you’ll have nightmares).

Missoula, by Jon Krakauer

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I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Krakauer (Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, Under the Banner of Heaven), and his latest effort, Missoula, did not disappoint. The book provides a thoughtful look at the serious problem of non-stranger rape, particularly on college campuses, and particularly at the University of Montana in Missoula. Krakauer examines several cases of non-stranger rape in the college town and the way they were handled, variously, by the university, the police, the prosecutors, the media, and the public. I read in an interview with Krakauer in which he said that he and his publishers decided to release the book early given the disastrous, poorly researched Rolling Stone article on the alleged rape culture at UVA, because Krakauer felt that his book would provide a much-needed counterpoint to the idea floating around post-Rolling Stone debacle that many women lie about being raped. In fact, Krakauer points out, most women do not lie about sexual assault, and most victims of non-stranger rape do not ever report the crimes. This book provides an eye-opening and moving account of a disturbing problem that does not get talked about often enough.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson

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It feels wrong to refer to a book about the devastating effects of internet shaming as a “confection,” but when I say that this book, like most of Ronson’s smart, wry work, is like a delicious piece of non-fiction fudge, I mean it in the best way. Ronson’s dry wit makes even the most serious and depressing of subjects, including the power of anonymous internet commenters to destroy strangers’ lives without so much as a backward glance, digestible and light. I tore through this book and loved every page of it. Granted, I am a giant Jon Ronson fan and will read anything he writes, but I think this is some of his best work. Highly entertaining but also chilling, this book will make you rethink that nasty Twitter post or forum comment you were about to dash off.

Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum

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I have mixed feelings about this novel, a dark tale about a bored, repressed American woman living with her Swiss husband and children in quaint, suburban Switzerland, and the ultimate consequences of her terrible decisions. I very much enjoyed the book’s strong sense of place and its sharp musings about Swiss culture. I enjoyed the deep character development. I enjoyed the sense of something dire lurking just around the corner. But when the Something(s) Dire finally happened, I ended up feeling deflated and depressed. The book became so heavy, so dark, so quickly, and offered no hope of a redemptive arc, that in the end I felt a bit cheated, or at least misled, by it. The writing is good, the story engaging, but the ending is a big bummer, and I’m not sure it served the story — or the characters — as well as the author seemed to think it did.

Yes Please, by Amy Poehler

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Amy Poehler’s memoir is a quick, light read with quite a few laugh-out-loud passages. Poehler is a good writer and a smart person, and her book, while not particularly hefty or revealing, is a fun read. One feels that one knows Poehler much better after reading about her childhood, her early career in improv and then at Saturday Night Live, and a few dustups with famous people. She talks about her achievements as a female comedian and actress without ever veering into arrogance or Gwyneth-like cluelessness, and she comes across as a genuine person who has managed to keep a good head on her shoulders despite her enormous success.

As an added bonus, here are a few even shorter reviews of books I read so long ago I can’t remember plot details, necessarily, but can recall how I felt about them overall.

Descent, by Tim Johnston: I read a glowing review of this novel on NPR and was expecting great things. The book was good, if plodding at times, but not great. There were genuine moments of suspense that paid off very well toward the last quarter of the book, but there were also wide swaths of boring prose and side-story that I could have done without.

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins: This book has gotten a lot of buzz lately, and rightly so. An excellent, tightly constructed psychological thriller. Very, very good.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel: I waited far too long to read this gorgeous book about the world after a devastating pandemic has drastically reduced the human population. The book is weird, and sad, with surprising, uplifting moments of beauty and lightness. It’s also one of the few books with descriptions of art that didn’t bore me to tears. Highly recommended.

Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi: I wanted to like this book, a unique spin on Snow White, more than I actually did. Interesting premise, good writing, but often boring.

The Damned, by Andrew Pyper: A friend whose taste I generally trust recommended this horror novel that takes place in the suburbs and city of Detroit. Unfortunately, despite the setting, I didn’t connect with Pyper’s writing. I found the style affected and distracting, particularly the author’s fondness for peppering his paragraphs with incomplete sentences, which I suppose were intended to provide dramatic heft, but came across as unpolished and trying too hard. I’m such a stickler for good writing in the novels I read that I couldn’t get past the author’s style and ended up not enjoying this book much at all, even though its premise — a man being haunted by the ghost of his malevolent sister — had potential.

Deep Down Dark, by Héctor Tobar: A fascinating look at the ordeal of the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground for months and the highly technical rescue operation that finally extricated them. Some of the technical aspects of the rescue were lost on me, but the human stories of the men trapped below the earth were touching and engaging.

Whew, okay! That’s all for now. If you’ve read any of these, let me know what you think! I welcome a lively book chat any time! Especially when the baby’s asleep.

Book review: eight short reviews to round out 2014

It’s almost the end of the year and the internet is bursting with comprehensive end-of-year book round-ups. This post, I must warn you, will not be one of those. If you want a great list of recent books to check out, the NPR Book Concierge is a fun, interactive collection of book recommendations that I used to find some of these very books that I’m about to review. This post, on the other hand, will be a list of eight books that I’ve read recently, in no particular order. So — you know, forewarned is forearmed.

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

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A friend from high school, Erin, recommended this book to me (as well as some of Patchett’s other books, including This is the Story of a Happy Marriage), and I’m so glad she did. The premise — a famous opera singer is taken hostage, along with a number of other people, during a birthday party at the home of the Vice President of an unnamed South American country — did not immediately grab me, but I was soon sucked in by Patchett’s beautiful writing and vividly drawn characters. The book is told from the perspective of a number of these characters — both hostages and kidnappers alike — which, in another author’s hands, might have come out as clunky or overreaching, but Patchett pulls it off seamlessly, easily flowing out of one character’s head and into another’s. The result is that we get to know these people deeply and intimately, and we really care about what happens to them, even the ones who seem, at first glance, completely unsympathetic. The ending of the book is both wrenching and lovely, and will stick with you the way only a truly satisfying ending can. Highly recommended.

The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

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When I was a freshman at Stanford, I was lucky enough to take a creative writing class taught by Julie Orringer, who at the time was a Stegner fellow and is now a successful novelist (please check out her gorgeous novel, The Invisible Bridge). One day, as a special treat, she brought our entire class to her house in the Haight district of San Francisco and invited over her friend Adam Johnson, who read aloud to us one of his short stories from his collection Emporium. I remember sitting on the floor, eating strawberries, and listening to him read. Then, twelve years passed and I never read anything else Johnson wrote, until I became aware, two years after it was published, of his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son. “Oh yeah,” I thought, “that’s the guy who read to us at Julie Orringer’s house. I should check out that book.” Anyway, all of this is to say that as I was reading The Orphan Master’s Son, jaw ajar, I kept reminding myself that, oh my God, Adam Johnson READ ALOUD to me and a few other students twelve years ago, and how awesome is that? The Orphan Master’s Son is a truly impressive piece of fiction. It takes place in North Korea in the 1990s and 2000s and manages to capture the overwhelming brutality of daily life in that regime while still telling quite a beautiful story of love and hope. I’ve read non-fiction about North Korea before (see, e.g., Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy), but Johnson’s fictional version of the place felt even more real, even more oppressive and urgent, than the real-life stories I’ve read. This isn’t a lighthearted beach read, by any means, but there are quite a few moments of humor and lightness. Highly recommended. NYT review here, for those interested.

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

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I was a big fan of Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, so I was eager to pick up The Bone Clocks, which follows a similar structure of interwoven, temporally distinct stories told from different characters’ perspectives. It’s hard to succinctly describe the plot of The Bone Clocks, since it spans sixty years and a host of characters and sub-plots, but suffice it to say the main action revolves around a metaphysical war between the good guys (the Horologists, a group of immortal souls who are eternally reborn into different bodies) and the bad guys (the Anchorites, a group of evildoers who manage to evade death by drinking the lifeblood of humans with “psychosoteric” abilities). Now that I’m writing this out, the Anchorites sound a lot like the bad guys in Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, don’t they? Anyway, in my opinion, the drawn-out battles between the Anchorites and the Horologists were the least interesting part of The Bone Clocks; I preferred the smaller scale stories about the mortal humans caught in the middle of the larger war. As always, Mitchell’s writing is a delight — who else could coin the term “gentle-twat?”– and even the convoluted fight scenes among the warring forces were pretty fun to read. Recommended for fans of Cloud Atlas who are itching for something else weird from Mitchell’s brain.

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

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This book got a lot of buzz this fall, and as soon as I started hearing about it, I knew I’d buy it since I’ve read and enjoyed (for the most part) two other books by Sarah Waters. This one might be my favorite so far. The Paying Guests, which takes place in 1922 London, explores the reverberating consequences of a series of bad decisions involving love and violence. The plot includes a torrid lesbian love affair, betrayals, money woes, the justice system, lying, scheming, cheating — it’s a page-turner! As always, I love Waters’ writing; she has a gift for capturing universal truths in little snippets of prose. When describing the main character’s solo wanderings through London, she writes: “She loved these walks through London. She seemed, as she made them, to become porous, to soak in detail after detail; or else, like a battery, to become charged. Yes, that was it, she thought, as she turned a corner: it wasn’t a liquid creeping, it was a tingle, something electric, something produced as if by friction of her shoes against the streets. She was at her truest, it seemed to her, in those tingling moments — these moments when, paradoxically, she was also at her most anonymous.” Recommended.

The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman

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Like The Paying Guests, The Light Between Oceans is another story about the lasting consequences of a series of bad decisions — in this case, the misguided decision by a childless couple living in a remote lighthouse off the coast of Australia to keep a baby who washes ashore in a boat, rather than alerting the authorities on the mainland. I have mixed feelings on this book. On the one hand, I was absorbed in the story as I read, but on the other, when the story ended, I felt quite let down by the patness of its conclusion. There’s a tough balance to be struck by an author in resolving a plot satisfactorily — tying up loose ends and answering big questions — and tying everything into such a neat bow that the story feels less authentic as a result. I think M.L. Stedman veered too far into “happily ever after” territory in concluding this story, which, at its heart, should have recognized the fact that sometimes, things do get ruined, and you can’t go back to how things were before.

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

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I love a good story about a mysterious disappearance. This story, set in 1970s small-town Ohio, revolves around the disappearance of one Lydia Lee, the eldest daughter of James and Marilyn. The Lee family sticks out in their small college town because James is Chinese-American and Marilyn is white and their children, consequently, are considered oddities at their otherwise all-white high school. When Lydia goes missing, speculative articles in the local paper wonder about whether Lydia’s status as one of the only “Orientals” at her school could have led to her committing suicide. The circumstances leading up to Lydia’s disappearance, we come to understand, seem to have something to do with her unhappy family and social life, but it remains unclear what, exactly, happened until the very end of the book. Along the way, Ng tells a complex tale about family dynamics affected by racial and cultural tensions. My only real complaint about the way the story is told has to do with Ng’s tendency to pepper her story with “ripped from the headlines” real news items, as if to remind the reader that, yes, we’re still in the 1970s. It adds nothing to the story of Lydia Lee to be reminded that “1976 was a topsy-turvy time, [ ] culminating in an unusually cold winter and strange headlines…” Otherwise, the story is well told, moving, and keeps you guessing until the end. Recommended.

The Fever, by Megan Abbott

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The Fever may be one of my favorite books that I’ve read in recent months. It is a deeply creepy, beautifully rendered look at what happens when a mysterious affliction sweeps through a high school, sending girls — and only girls — to the hospital en masse. What’s causing it? The HPV vaccine? Environmental causes? A virus? Or something else entirely? I flew through this book, enjoying how utterly creeped out I was by it, and didn’t read a single review until today, when I read the New York Times review and realized that, yes, there were some troubling assumptions about female sexuality baked into this story. But even accepting that Abbott’s starting point about young women and sex might be problematic and recognizing that her portrayals of female and male characters are somewhat skewed, this book sucked me in and spat me out. Highly recommended for lovers of dark mysteries.

Delancey: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage, by Molly Wizenberg

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This is a slim little memoir about a couple who opened a pizza restaurant in Seattle, and the trials and tribulations they faced along the way. It’s also sprinkled throughout with some scrumptious sounding non-pizza recipes. I enjoyed reading about the nitty-gritty involved with launching a business, and a peek behind the scenes at the blood, sweat, and tears that go into the day-to-day operation of even a small restaurant. Recommended for food lovers and those looking for a light, quick non-fiction read.

What have you read this year that you couldn’t put down? Let me know; I’m always looking for my next read!

Book review: Confessions of a Sociopath, by M.E. Thomas

It seems to me that recently, sociopaths have been enjoying a bit of time in the pop culture limelight. I was first turned on to the sociopath craze a few years ago when I listened to this This American Life episode, which was inspired by British journalist Jon Ronson’s excellent book of the same name, The Psychopath Test. After Al and I read The Psychopath Test, we both entered into a phase in which we frequently diagnosed people around us with sociopathy. We still do this occasionally, but it was a lot easier to sociopath-spot when I worked at a corporate law firm (a word on that later). But, having spent the last almost two years working for myself and choosing to surround myself with primarily non-sociopaths (aka “empaths”), I had sort of forgotten about sociopaths. Then, I received M.E. Thomas’s book, Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight, and was reminded, once again, of those pesky psychopaths wandering among us.

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Confessions of a Sociopath, as the title suggests, is a memoir written by a self-proclaimed (and supposedly clinically diagnosed) sociopath. M.E. Thomas is a pseudonym, but it didn’t take the internet long to figure out that the author of this book is actually (most probably) a woman named Jamie Rebecca Lund, a former law professor at St. Mary’s School of Law in Texas and then, before she was “outed” as a sociopath and subsequently fired, BYU. Lund didn’t help to keep her identity secret when she went on Dr. Phil in a bad wig and talked openly about her sociopathy (a move that led some to question whether she was in fact a sociopath or merely a narcissist). Indeed, in the paperback edition of her book, Thomas/Lund acknowledges that she has been “outed” and has lost her job as a law professor. All of this is to say that it’s unclear whether Thomas is actually a sociopath or merely an attention seeker who observed sociopathy’s rise in the zeitgeist and decided to cash in on it. As I read the book, it was impossible for me to decide one way or the other, so I decided to take Thomas at her word and assume that she is, in fact, a sociopath.

For those who haven’t done much reading on sociopathy, sociopaths (a term usually used interchangeably with the more loaded “psychopaths”) are people who suffer from a personality disorder that renders them unable to feel empathy and/or tap into a conscience. They know right from wrong, but they don’t feel right from wrong. Some sociopaths turn out to be violent criminals; others end up being wildly successful in business, law, medicine, and other fields in which the typical traits of sociopathy (ruthlessness, manipulation, charm, risk-taking, and lack of empathy) are advantageous. Thomas is one of the latter, a sociopath who has succeeded in her chosen field (law), has never been arrested, and who claims to live a full and happy life filled with friends and family. She attributes her success in large part to her strict Mormon upbringing, arguing that adherence to a set of external values (in this case, the ones set by her church) has helped keep her on the straight and narrow. Even though she doesn’t feel moral outrage, guilt, or compassion, she nonetheless adheres to the rules set by the church because they make sense, and they keep her in line.

Thomas divides the book into nine chapters, each of which discusses a different facet of sociopathy, which she backs up both with research and with anecdotes from her own life. She discusses, among other things, how sociopaths experience emotion, the impact of family life and upbringing on steering young sociopaths toward good or evil, how a sociopath might interact with an external moral or ethical code, and what sociopaths are like in romantic relationships. To me, the most interesting discussions were the ones focusing on Thomas’s religion (she remains a practicing Mormon) and her experience working in the law, particularly in corporate law (also known as BigLaw, a realm with which I am intimately familiar).

In explaining how she balances being a sociopath with being a Mormon, Thomas writes that because Mormons believe that “we are all sons and daughters of a loving God who only wants our eternal progression and happiness,” and that because all beings have the potential for salvation, she has concluded that only her actions matter, “not [her] emotional deficits, not [her] ruthless thoughts, and not [her] nefarious motivations.” She explains that Mormonism is “especially well suited” to her needs, “because its rules and standards are very explicit,” and following them has always helped her to blend in with everyone else. She argues that her lack of guilt is not a hindrance in practicing her religion; she says she follows the tenets of Mormonism simply because they tend to be rational and lead to good outcomes. “Rather than feeling a moral certainty about the rightness of the church and its articles of faith, my affiliation with the church makes sense to me in the language of efficiency,” she writes.

However, rather than following the letter of the church’s law, Thomas bends or interprets the rules as she sees fit. For example, she writes that the church only explicitly bans “pre-marital relations,” and she has interpreted this to mean that she can enjoy a full sex life, presumably as long as she refrains from intercourse (although this is not made explicit). In another chapter, she discusses her fluid sexuality and many sexual conquests of both men and women. So, it’s unclear to me how she squares her sexual behavior with the Mormon church’s rules, particularly when she claims to believe that only her actions matter with regard to her eventual salvation. Then again, Thomas is explicit about her reasons for being Mormon: it’s about efficiency, and getting ahead. So maybe these questions don’t matter to her that much.

Thomas’s discussion of her success as a lawyer was not surprising to me. In fact, it brought back a lot of memories from my time working in BigLaw, when I saw a lot of people seemingly devoid of empathy not only survive but thrive. Thomas’s observations about law school were also interesting:

Some of the most amoral and manipulative people I met in my life I knew in law school — rats who gamed the system with little regard for others at a level of meticulousness baffling even to me. They calculated every event or encounter to optimize their advantage, even when the advantages were so trivial as to mean having a slightly better breakfast. Many of them seemed capable of committing massacre, grand theft, or real destruction, had a sufficient motivating desire struck them to do so.

Thomas/Lund went to University of Chicago law school; my experience at Harvard was somewhat different. Most law students at Harvard are not manipulative, scheming rats, but are instead socially stunted, hyper-intelligent, neurotic head-cases. But there were some of the sociopathic schemers that Thomas describes in my class; they were just far fewer in number than the harmless nerds. Where I encountered the real sociopaths was at my law firm job. There’s a reason for this, Thomas argues; sociopathy actually helps lawyers to succeed:

The stereotypes about the bloodlessness of lawyers are true, at least about the good ones. Sympathy makes for bad lawyering, bad advocacy, and bad rule-making. … Working the slippery knot between right and wrong to my advantage is not only personally satisfying but has the additional benefit of being good lawyering…. And like all sociopaths, lawyers recognize the self-interest that hides in every heart, ferreting out the hidden motivations and dirty secrets that underlie criminal acts.

Reading the book made me glad, for the zillionth time, that I no longer practice law, and that my interactions with people like Thomas are consequently much reduced. By the end of the book, I was tired of her self-aggrandizing tone and stories of her own ruthlessness and seductiveness. Much of Thomas’s discussion of the study of sociopathy, particularly how it plays out in her professional and personal life, was interesting, but some of her anecdotes and conclusions struck me as inflated, as if she was trying too hard to prove her own sociopathy. Part of the problem with reading a firsthand account of sociopathy, it turns out, is that you have to listen to a sociopath drone on about herself for 300 pages.

Overall, I’d recommend this book to those who are interested in sociopaths and want to hear a firsthand account from a self-diagnosed (but possibly lying) sociopath, but wouldn’t recommend it if you’ve already read The Psychopath Test, a superior and more entertaining book, in my estimation.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Book review Monday: Into the Abyss, by Carol Shaben

I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction lately. In fact, I’ve been craving it. There’s just something about real stories with an impact on real human lives that’s been appealing to me more than fiction. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I just finished a first draft of my second manuscript (huzzah!) and so I’ve been so immersed in my own brand of fiction that I’ve wanted a break from it when I sit down to read at night. In any case, over the last couple weeks, I’ve read Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s excellent Half The Sky, about the importance of ending the oppression of women worldwide, Charles Graeber’s The Good Nurse, which I discussed last week, and, most recently, Carol Shaben’s Into the Abyss: An Extraordinary True Story, which tells the story of a plane crash in Canada in 1984 that killed six and left four survivors, including Shaben’s father, Larry.

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Shaben, by interviewing her father and other survivors of the crash, managed to piece together the tragic story of Wapiti Flight 402, which crashed in the Canadian wilderness on October 19, 1984. The four survivors were Shaben’s father, Larry Shaben, a prominent Alberta politician, Erik Vogel, the pilot of the plane, Scott Deschamps, a young officer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Paul Archambault, a criminal in Deschamps’ custody. The other six passengers, including another prominent Alberta politician, Grant Notley, perished. The commuter flight had been traveling from Edmonton, the provincial capital of Alberta, to High Prairie, Alberta, transporting people who worked in Edmonton (including Shaben and Notley, the other politician on the flight) to their homes.

In the book, Shaben explores the factors that led to the crash — including pilot exhaustion leading to a loss of situational awareness, plus Wapiti Aviation policies that forced pilots to “push” bad weather to stay on schedule, despite severe safety risks. Ultimately, the pilot of Wapiti 402 lost track of where he was as he was flying and became so confused he crashed the plane. Shaben explains:

Whether in aviation, mountain climbing or other high-risk scenarios, several factors can predispose individuals to lose situational awareness. Broadly, these factors are environmental, psychological and physiological. Erik experienced all three. Foul weather reduced his visual information to nil and severe icing had slowed his speed over ground to a degree that put him several miles further back from his destination than he’d estimated. Psychological factors — those imposing an additional processing load on the conscious brain — taxed Erik’s ability to determine his exact location using dead reckoning, and impaired his decision-making. 

Shaben goes on to explain that Vogel simultaneously had to battle task saturation, during which he “needed to handle more information than his highly stressed brain could process” and fatigue, which contributed to his making an error in reckoning that led to him trying to land approximately 40 km outside of the airport. Considering Vogel’s fatigue plus the bad weather in which he was forced to fly, Wapiti Flight 402 had a high probability of crashing.

Shaben delves into the long night in the wilderness that the four survivors spent together and their struggle to stay alive in the brutal cold despite the lack of adequate firewood and serious injuries sustained by three out of four of them. Shaben tells each of the survivors’ stories: how they came to be aboard Wapiti Flight 402 in the first place, as well as their lives after the crash. Perhaps the most heart-wrenching story was that of Paul Archambault, the prisoner who was being transported from Edmonton back to High Prairie to go to court for his previous offenses. Archambault was, according to the other three survivors, a hero. He helped keep the other three men alive, even going back to the wreckage of the plane to rescue his police escort, Deschamps, from where he was trapped. After the crash and the survivors’ eventual rescue, Archambault tried to start his life over, giving up alcohol, holding down a steady job, and falling in love. But things eventually fell apart for him, and, in a twist of cruel irony, he died at age 33 of exposure in Grande Praire, Alberta, near a men’s shelter where he had been staying.

The thing about non-fiction is that the stories don’t always come out the way you want them to. If the story of the crash of Wapiti 402 had been a work of fiction, miracles would have happened to the survivors, and their lives would have changed for the better in some sort of grand Karmic righting-of-wrongs. But in reality, the survivors of the crash struggled. Some of them ultimately ended up happy, but some of them, like Archambault, experienced even more tragedy after surviving their ordeal. Shaben’s book is sensitive to their stories and their struggles, and she doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulties all four of the men experienced as a direct result of the crash of Wapiti 402.

Highly recommended for fellow non-fiction lovers, people interested in aviation, and anyone looking for sensitive journalism about an avoidable tragedy.