Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Feral Detective

By Jonathan Lethem

Ecco     2018
336 pages     Literary?

OK, so I am way confused. What did I just finish reading? The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem. Was it a mystery? Was it dystopia? Was it political? Was it a love story? Four days after finishing it, and I am still not sure. I read it because it was on a bunch of lists and also because I had just finished Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult, and I thought I was going to read something lighter. WRONG!!!

Here’s a quick synopsis of the book.  Phoebe Siegler, a consummate New Yorker, travels to the Mojave Desert in search of Arabella, a friend’s missing daughter and an 18-year-old dropout of Reed College. She hires hirsute Charles Heist, the “feral detective,” who lives with three dogs and an opossum. Quickly falling for his woodsy charms, Phoebe travels with Heist to the far reaches of the desert, where the mostly female Rabbit group is engaged in a long standoff with the male Bear group. To save Arabella, Heist will have to do battle with the charismatic Bear leader, called Solitary Love, as Phoebe learns to question her assumptions here on “the far side of the Neoliberal Dream.” 

There is a lot of questioning of life after Trump. (The book was written right after the election.) The Publisher Weekly reviewer suggests that “The novel feels like it was written as a kind of therapy in the aftermath of the 2016 election” but the election references scarcely engage the reader--like just more of the weirdness of the plot and the characters. By the same token, there are a lot of references to Leonard Cohen, in very reverential tones. Why bring Leonard Cohen into this mess?

Phoebe is a ditzy character, sometimes entertaining, but mostly an enigma. Why in the world is she here—a New York girl in the Mohave desert. Ostensibly she is there to find her friend’s daughter, Arabella, who has disappeared. Phoebe is here because she quit her journalism job in disgust after the 2016 election. She is not someone that the average reader can identify with—well, with the exception of the Trump stuff! But then neither is Charles Heist, the private investigator she hires to help her look for Arabella. Ditz that she is, she immediately falls in love with Heist, so when she loses him in the desert, we are not sure who she is now looking for—Arabella or Heist. The plot is disjointed and crazy.

The best part of the novel are some of the written descriptions. All the settings in the book are very elegantly written. The reader can visualize exactly where the characters are at any given moment. They are perhaps too eloquent for the crazy plot. As the New York Times reviewer says, “There’s a good book lurking in this material. The plot is shaggy and complicated; so much so that even the author loses interest in it.” Here is a sample quote to illustrate what I mean.  Laird and Phoebe have just left the highway to head out into the desert. “We were hardly the first to go here, though the marks on this Etch A Sketch surface grew directionless and baroque. The joyriding treads inscribed grooves on the planet, suggesting the possibility of a tire-based language with communication with drones or satellites above, for beaming meaning back at passing contrails.”

I knew the name Jonathan Lethem, although I had never read any of his books. Most reviewers complained that this was a poor representation of the author. Part of me is curious to see if that is the case, but on the other hand, I really don’t think I want to attempt any more.

When I was two, my post-war Marine father was stationed in the Mohave Desert dismantling the Marine war machine. I lived there for one year. When I was in my 50s I went back to the desert to see if I could find where I lived as a toddler. Found the base, but the Quonset huts had been replaced by nice condos. You know what, after The Feral Detective, I have no desire to return.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Vancouver Noir

Sam Wiebe, editor

Akashic Books     2018
250 pages     Short Stories (Noir)

As my readers know, I am intrigued with Akashic Books’ series of noir short stories based in cities all around the world. I was particularly attracted to the stories in Vancouver Noir because we had a marvelous few days in Vancouver on our way to an Alaska cruise.  We fell in love with the city. In this collection of 14 stories, however, we see a different side of Vancouver than seen by the tourist traveling through.

Sam Wiebe, the collection’s editor, has written an intriguing story about a elderly policeman with dementia who believes that he is still solving crimes. More importantly, in the collection’s introduction, Wiebe has created an excellent definition of noir, which he used when choosing the stories for the collection. He says, “Noir is bad shit happening to people much like ourselves. At its heart, noir is the ugly shadow of ourselves we always knew was there, but out of convenience, chose to ignore.” He goes on to discuss how it is possible that there can be such a destructive underbelly to a city with such an idyllic image. He says, “So welcome to Vancouver, the place where the west ends. And welcome to Vancouver Noir. It gets dark here. Know that going in.”

The narrator and protagonist of the story, Terminal City, visits the city for the first time. She’s not sure what she will find. “I’m not certain there will be anything good to eat. Maple syrup and beavers. Possibly cheese. I just can’t imagine what Canadians might eat.” However, what she finds when the plane lands far exceeds her expectations. “The city itself is stunning. City of Glass. Of Oceans.” The narrator arrives in Vancouver as a paid hitman—or woman, in this case. The discovery of who she is going to kill comes as a big surprise to her and to us. A great story.

Another story I particularly enjoyed had a Big Little Lies feel to it. Called The Perfect Playgroup, the story has a terrific first line: “Sage is more fabulous dead than alive.” The story takes place in the ritzy neighborhood of West Vancouver and concerns a group of upper middle class moms with young children. The construction of the story is ingenious and keeps you questioning how and when Sage is going to be fabulously dead!

Vancouver Noir is one of my favorites of the Akashic noir collection. It is eminently readable with vibrant characters and haunting stories. Every entry gives us a sterling example of the city I didn’t get a chance to see when I was visiting. The collection’s authors are all renowned writers, as one would expect from a city like Vancouver.

Here are some of the other Akashic noir books that I have read and blogged about: Montana Noir, Lagos Noir. At one point about a year ago, I wrote a posting about the difference between noir and neo-noir, which you can find here. Take a gamble. Take a dip into the sea of noir.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Small Great Things

By Jodi Picoult

Ballentine     2016
470 pages     Fiction

If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am embarrassed to say that I hated this important book and almost didn’t finish it. Am I a bad person?

Jodi Picoult is no stranger to topical novels ripped from the headlines. In Small Great Things,  Jodi Picoult tackles race and racism, white privilege, and white supremacy all in one ugly and divisive story line that almost defies description.    
Here in a nutshell is a summary of the book. Ruth, a Black nurse, is forbidden from treating the baby of white supremacists. When the baby goes into cardiac arrest, Ruth hesitates before giving the baby CPR, leading to a devastating outcome, and a legal battle against the baby's parents. The novel explores not only overt racism, but the more subtle ways prejudice shapes relationships and our worldview.

I was angry all the way through the book. I thought, Why is Picoult trying to speak in the voice of a black woman and a young white supremacist? Why so many stereotypes? Why is she tackling so many topics, leaving me to be agitated and uncomfortable the whole 470 pages! Why did she write such a long book? Why couldn’t she just use the voice of Kennedy the white woman public defender?

I almost stopped reading several times, bolstered by a friend telling me that she got so angry she quit the book. I finished because my sister, who was as uncomfortable as I was, finished reading it—and she didn’t even get to book club on Thursday night. My copy of the book is riddled with handwritten questions, exclamation points, question marks, and other signs of exasperation.

I finished it because of book club and because the wise women who are in my club were going to  have a lot to say. And did they ever! First, we all acknowledged that the plot was a bit contrived and conveniently ended. We all wondered why she chose to add so many plot devices. We all acknowledged that we are so filled with our white privilege and our liberal white bias that we think that we are doing all we can to help race relations in our country, when in effect we are actually less liberal than we think we are. In the end, we decided that having this discussion was the ultimate value
of the book and that despite its many flaws, Small Great Things delivered exactly what Picoult wanted the book to deliver. One reviewer said, “But it’s also exciting to have a high-profile writer like Picoult take an earnest risk to expand our cultural conversation about race and prejudice.” Another reviewer called it a courageous and important work.

Well, if you read it, you will have to decide for yourself what you think about it.  Me—I’m moving on to a cozy mystery. Whew! Thank God this is over.

Here is an interview with Jodi Picoult at Book Expo 2016.


Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Golden Sequence: A Manual for Reclaiming Our Humanity

By Jonni Pollard

Ben Bella Books     2018
200 pages     Spiritual

Sometimes a book comes to you just at the right time. The Golden Sequence has been just such a book for me. A family member is doing a lot of soul searching contemplating a career change. I have been suffering along, and then The Golden Sequence helped me think through the challenges he is facing and find my role in the solutions.

From the book cover: “The Golden Sequence is based on ancient Vedic teachings re-envisioned for a 21st century mindset to provide a practical blueprint to owning your purpose and your power. Rediscover our human nature, learn how to reclaim it as your greatest power, and start to love yourself by seeing the difference you can make in the world.”

Pollard found a new purpose for life when he embraced the Vedic tradition and its teachings called The Golden Sequence. He says, “This teaching is the product of years of teaching people from all walks of life, who, like me, were no longer willing to tolerate the weight of suffering and who desired a simple process to learn how to transform their suffering into lasting fulfillment."

The Golden Sequence has four parts called the “Four Golden Insights” and Pollard explains all four parts. Life is sacred; love is our nature; wisdom is our power; fulfillment is our purpose. As a person who has practiced meditation for more than 15 years, I found his insights to be easily understood, especially by those who have not ever practiced meditation. I particularly liked this statement, “love evokes the desire to be in deep relationship with life—to know it, to unite with it, to cooperate with it, to create with it, to nurture it, and to grow with it. And it is through that love that we discover the deepest meaning of life and our highest purpose.”

After discussing the fear that keeps people from love, Pollard develops the techniques to invite the Golden Sequence into our lives. It is intention-based and involves “the power of our will, infused with our intent” to bring about the shaping and the transforming of our reality. He closes with an invitation to daily practice to close the Golden Sequence and bring peace, love, and service to others.

As I pondered how best to respond to my family member’s quandary, I found this book to be of immense benefit. I have found that is very easy in the midst of a crisis to forget to meditate and to forget to pause and reflect. The Golden Sequence brought me back to intentional living and to the reality of love and fulfillment. Pollard says, “it is a practical methodology to use when you become lost or trapped in suffering, defensiveness, and fear.”

Jonni Pollard’s website. The Golden Sequence is published today.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Library Book

By Susan Orlean

Simon and Schuster     2018
336 pages     Nonfiction

I will just start out by saying quite flatly, The Library Book is the best book I have read this year. More than just an exploration of the fire that destroyed the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986, Susan Orlean’s newest book, The Library Book, is a love story about libraries, librarians, and books.

Susan Orlean had just recently moved to the Los Angeles area when she learned about the library fire that had happened decades ago. She had decided that with this move, she was done with writing books—too long, too hard. “Working on them felt like a slow-motion wrestling match.” Yet, she became so intrigued with the fire that she couldn’t stand not getting involved. And her narrative encompasses not just the fire, but the history of the Los Angeles Public Library, one of the first major library systems in the country, as well as the challenges libraries across the country face in the 21st century.

There are a lot of stories being told. There are Orlean’s reminiscences about growing up reading and combing the library stacks as a young girl with her mother. There are the stories about the people who directed the Los Angeles library through its history. There are details about the fire and how it spread. There are interviews with many librarians, patrons, and the security guard. She even explored the life of Harry Peak, the young man who was accused of starting the fire, although he was never charged with the crime.

One of my favorite quotes from the book: “Libraries may embody our notion of permanence, but their patrons are always in flux. In truth, a library is as much a portal as it is a place—it is a transit point, a passage.” This type of philosophical pondering fills the pages and echoes what I have always felt about libraries. The book filled me with remembrance of the two Carnegie libraries of my childhood and youth in Little Falls and  Duluth Minnesota—particularly of the marble stairways leading up to the treasure trove of magic—of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott and on and on and on. It reminded me of my career choice of being a children’s librarian and how much I loved story time and reading precious picture books to rapt audiences of children. It also reminded me of how busy the Kalamazoo Public Library is, the tremendous number of activities that go on there daily, and the sheer number of people who walk through the doors every day. For example, this morning I booked an appointment to the free legal clinic for a friend. The library has always been a portal for me, and Orlean expands on that sense of discovery in every way possible.

Most of all, thankfully, The Library Book is an ode to the public library and its place in the lives of the patrons and the communities in which they reside. Orlean says, “The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality. In the library, we can live forever.” Susan Orlean has a marvelous article about growing up in the library in The New Yorker, where she is a frequent contributor.

Here are a few of my favorite books about libraries: The World’s Strongest Librarian; This Book is Overdue;  and The Badass Librarians of Timbuktu. Here is also where you can find an essay I wrote several years ago about public libraries.

The Library Book is narrative non-fiction at its best.  Go to your closest library and check it out. You will love it as much as I did.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Super Hero Ethics

By Travis Smith

Templeton Press     2018
152 pages     Philosophy

The subtitle of Super Hero Ethics is: 10 comic book heroes, 10 ways to save the world. Which one do we need most now?

My husband loves superhero movies, as do two of my sons-in-law and numerous grandchildren. Until now, I have tried to stay away from the compulsive watching and the related arguing about the relative merits of one or the other superhero. When the publicist sent me Super Hero Ethics, I realized that it seemed like the next good read for my husband and me to delve into. We enjoyed reading the book very much, especially the ways in which the personalities and ethics of the ten highlighted superheroes reflect the ethical and political mores of our country—currently.

Smith, who is a political science professor at a Canadian university, seeks to look at these ten superheroes—all males, I might add—through the lens of discovering which one is most praiseworthy, whose behavior represents our highest ideals and whether they should serve as models for “admiration and emulation.” Smith says, “the book is premised on the idea that it’s not their superpowers that make superheroes so super. It is their extraordinary character, their inherent qualities that make them heroic and render them worthy of praise. . . Superheroes provide exaggerated and extraordinary representations of the qualities that human beings must cultivate in order to confront the quandaries of ordinary life.”

So, with that ethical high ground in mind, Smith compares the Hulk and Wolverine, Green Lantern and Iron Man, Batman and Spiderman, Captain America and Mister Fantastic, and Thor and Superman. Smith has an intimate relationship with the comics and movies that have fueled the history of superheroes. He looks at these superheroes through Christian eyes, although his emphasis is not overtly Christian in focus. In the last chapter, he crowns the most ethical hero.

I am a novice at this stuff, as I said. I didn’t know, for instance, that there was a rivalry between DC and Marvel, although to my credit, I had heard the name Stan Lee. I do watch the Big Bang Theory on occasion, so I am familiar with people debating superhero strengths. For a while, one of my nephews dressed only in Captain America clothing, and my little grandson is Ant Man for Halloween this year. With this book, however, I rapidly became an expert.

I had never heard of Mister Fantastic, so we watched the Fantastic Four movie the other night, and just last night we watched Thor Ragnarot so we could understand Thor a little better. Now, I am up to date and feeling really trendy since we finished the book this morning. One thing I loved about Travis Smith and Super Hero Ethics is that it was philosophical without being stuffy, and I also loved how devoted Smith is to these characters. My husband and I both agreed on Smith’s reasoning for picking the super-superhero he chose. I do wish, however, he had focused a little attention on Wonder Woman, my own personal superhero.

Super Hero Ethics is a geeky but fun read. We recommend it. One more thing—if Travis Smith uses this book in his political science or ethics classes, I’ll bet his classes fill up in a second. A lot better than the Ethics textbook I had to read.

Here is an interesting interview with Travis Smith.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Repositioning Educational Leadership: Practitioners Leading from an Inquiry Stance

James H. Lytle,

Susan L. Lytle,
Michael C. Johanek
And Kathy I. Rho, editors
Teachers College Press     2018
192 pages     Nonfiction
The Shortlist

This posting is a brief look at a book on educational leadership sent to me by the publicist. Information on the book says, “This groundbreaking volume encourages today’s educational leaders to reposition the way they think about leadership and its challenges. Through essays, experienced school and district leaders reveal how they conceptualize their roles, how they learn by posing and solving problems of practice, and how they cope with increasing expectations and complexity of their work.”

There are eleven essays by educational practitioners on three basic elements of educational leadership: learning from and with students; collaborating with teachers and the school community; and leading system-level inquiry. “The argument is that when school, district, and other educational leaders position themselves as inquirers, their leadership can illuminate and improve many aspects of institutional life and create intellectually demanding and rich learning environments - for both adults and children"

Like everything else in the country, K-12 education is in a major transition, and these essays seek to understand the  challenge of looking at education from the standpoint of inquiry learning. Reading them should benefit educator leaders everywhere.

For more information, please visit