Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Best Books of the Year 2016

Here is a list of my favorites of 2016.You will see some of these on other "best of" lists but some of them are unique to my life situation. Have you read any of these?

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley. This was by far the best mystery I read all year.  I read it pre-publication but it showed up on most of the "best of" lists for the year.
My Brilliant Friend by the mysterious Elena Ferrante. The first book I read in the new year, given to me by a friend. What a furor this series has caused. Well worth reading.
Zero K by Don DeLillo was the first DeLillo book I have read. It is a meditation on death written in DeLillo's signature bleak language.
A Covenant with Death   by Stephen Becker. This was a reissue of a novel from the 1960s, and it is a meditation on the nature of justice and of capital punishment.
The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton. This is a lovely coming of age story not billed as YA, but certainly appropriate for teenagers. Just about my favorite book of the year.
Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick tackles teenage anxiety in literary fashion. 

Historical Fiction
Last Days of Night by Graham Moore tells the story of the feud between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. Nickola Tesla and a host of other characters enrich an exciting conflict.

The Journey  by Francesca Sanna is much more than a children's book. It's timeliness regarding the plight of the refugees has influenced my thought every day.
Slade House   by David Mitchell is not an important book but it is a great diversion. Totally fun.
Between the World and Me by Ta'Nehisi Coates is one of the most important books of the year. An explanation of how to live as a Black man.
The Nordic Theory of Everything  by Anu Partanen. I read this in preparation for my June trip to Norway. A fun read.

My life on the Road by Gloria Steinem is the iconic woman's memoir. Important to the political discussions of this year.
You'll Grow Out of It  by Jessi Klein is a memoir in essay/ storytelling style. Totally fun read.

Most Hated
The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up  by Marie Kondo. Frankly, I hated every moment of this smug look at my clutter. Unlike what many of Kondo's advocates told me, it did not change my life.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Twenty-Three

by Linwood Barclay
Berkley Books    2016
464 pages     Mystery/Thriller

I am seeing the number 23 everywhere—now that I have completed the Promise Falls trilogy by Linwood Barclay, and it occurred to me that 23 is a prime number. I wonder if that is why Barclay chose it as the number to run through the entire series. At the beginning, the number was very mysterious, and then I thought it meant the number of people that would die over the course of Broken Promise, Far from True and The Twenty-Three. However, now that I have finished the series, I believe that the number doesn't really matter because there are way more than 23 dead people---too many to count!  

The Twenty-Three begins with another disaster; more than a hundred people die after drinking the water early one morning of Memorial Day weekend. The hospitals and the morgue are filling up and ambulances are screeching down every street. Every character from the other books in the trilogy shows up, but almost first on the scene is Randall Finley, who owns a local water bottling company and is also running for mayor. It seems that his company has been bottling water in anticipation of some big event—he says it is for the warm summer weather ahead. Of course, every bottle has his name on it, and he sets up shop to distribute the water in the city park. He allows himself to be filmed by every major news outlet in the country and his name is on everyone's lips, both literally and figuratively. The reader immediately suspects that he may have poisoned the water for his own ulterior motives.

Mayhem is happening all over Promise Falls—not just because of the poisoned water. Every character's drama from the past two books is played out in this finale—but not every plot twist is resolved. Some of the characters die from the water; others are murdered; and still others are enormously conflicted. Promise Falls remains a town that I wouldn't go to visit if you paid me!

I believe that the two major plot devices are ripped from the headlines. Surely the poisoned water is a reference to the Flint water crisis, with which we in Michigan are still coping. Just as I was reading The Twenty-Three, indictments came down on the Flint Department of Public Works director and two of the emergency managers who were involved when the water got poisoned. The director of the water department in Promise Falls was a bit of an idiot, so apparently Barclay was well aware of the idiots who were running the city of Flint. The other ironic thing is the self-serving Randall Finley, the would-be mayor, with his name plastered over all the bottled water in the city. Remind you of any other self-serving would-be public servant with a name plastered all over everything!!! But I digress. 

Don't try to read The Twenty-Three without having read the other two books in the series. There are too many characters and too many crazy plot devices. Some of the loose ends get tied up satisfactorily, but others cause the reader to shrug and groan. All in all, however the Promise Falls trilogy is great escapism and a reminder that sometimes fiction is stranger than truth.

Linwood Barclay website.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Waiting Room

by Leah Kaminsky
Harper Perennial     2016
304 pages     Literary Fiction

Dina is a family practice physician in Haifa, Israel, during an extremely difficult time, the Second Intifada in the early 2000s. Born and raised in Australia, Dina met her husband Eitan on a trip to Israel several years before. They have a young son, and Dina is pregnant and about to deliver a baby girl. Haifa is a very multicultural and multi-religious city, and Dina's practice includes Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Bah'ai. She muses: "At school the children sing songs of wild cyclamens and anemones in the hills—of a time when there will be peace. People in this country live with a hope that all these wars will end someday. Even a simple hello or goodbye in both Hebrew and Arabic—shalom, salaam—has the word 'peace' embedded in it. The whole region utters it like a mantra, millions of times every day."

Most of The Waiting Room takes place during the morning and afternoon of a single day; a day that there is the threat of a terrorist attack. The actual attack happens in the first chapter, with Dina present for the chaos. The plot quickly shifts back to the morning—before the attack when the family is getting ready for work and school, and worrying about the possible attack. Eitan is quite blasé about it; he is a native Israeli and bombing threats are an everyday occurrence in his mind. Dina is extremely worried about sending their son to school and going to work at her clinic that morning. Besides, she is very pregnant and very tired. She shouldn't be going to work, her mother says.  We become aware almost instantly that Dina and Eitan are not getting along very well. And we wonder if one of the irritants is Dina's mother who seems to be living with them, kibitzing and smoking and offering unneeded advice constantly. It isn't very long, however, before we discover that Dina's mother is dead and has been dead for 20 years. All the conversation, advice, and annoyance with her mother is in Dina's head.

Dina's mother is a Holocaust survivor, and her life story is the source of much of the existential back story that motivates Dina's current anxiety and depression. Dina is suffering from what psychologists are currently calling "inherited trauma." Scientists first began to notice inherited trauma in the second generation of the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Now they are seeing it in the second generation of Vietnam war soldier's children. I recently read and reviewed a book that addresses this issue, It Didn't Start with You by Mark Wolynn. A reviewer of The Waiting Room suggests that "Kaminsky's novel explores intergenerational trauma with approachable simplicity." The dissociation that Dina is experiencing when she separates herself from reality is apparently a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. As an example, Dina wears shoes that her mother wore in the concentration camp, Bergon-Belsen. She wears them on this particular day—a very overt symbol of her inherited trauma.

This is not an easy book to read. I began it the week of the election, but had to put it down because it was too depressing. However, when I picked it up again, I appreciated it very much. The Waiting Room is extraordinarily well crafted, with intensely written descriptions that make the scenes come painfully to life. It was, for me, a truthful, albeit fictional, follow up to my new understanding of inherited trauma. It is, in the words of Geraldine Brooks, an early reviewer, "both haunted and haunting."

The Waiting Room just won the Voss Literary Prize 2016, which is Australia's top literary prize. Leah Kaminsky, the author, a physician, lives and works in Australia, although she lived for a time in Israel, and there is a definite autobiographical feel to the novel. Here is Kaminsky's website.

I especially appreciated the thorough review in Slate.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Last Days of Night

by Graham Moore
Random House     2016
384 pages      Historical Fiction

Greenfield Village is an historic village recreation in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn. Among its many exhibits are those specific to the industrial revolution and the era of invention. Greenfield Village was designed and created by Henry Ford, one of the scions of both eras. Among the exhibits is a replica of Thomas Edison's Menlo Park laboratory. Thomas Edison is revered as one of the greats of American initiative and invention. In the book Last Days of Night by Graham Moore, however, he is a villain as he attempts to drive his rival George Westinghouse out of business. Edison has invented DC current and the light bulb, and Westinghouse is electrifying entire towns with a more useable AC current and a different light bulb. 

A very young, inexperienced lawyer, Paul Cravath, is hired in 1888 by Westinghouse to deal with the myriad lawsuits Edison filed against him—lawsuits worth about $1 billion. It was Cravath's first case, and also the case upon which Cravath built a successful law firm in New York City that still bears his name.

AC current was invented by Nikola Tesla and its advantage over DC current was that it could extend electric current a much further distance than DC and was also safer. Tesla's AC current was revolutionizing electricity, which made Edison furious and afraid for his company, Edison General Electric. In an attempt to stop Tesla, Edison has his lower Manhattan laboratory burned. Tesla escapes and Cravath helps hide him for several months for his safety but also to protect the court case he is developing for Westinghouse.

Here is where a fascinating character named Agnes Huntington enters the narrative. Agnes is a young Metropolitan Opera singer, who meets Cravath and Tesla and helps hide Tesla. She is extremely beautiful,  smart and inventive, and Cravath falls in love with her, but he is just a young lawyer from Tennessee and she is a New York celebrity, highly involved in Manhattan society. Turns out she is just a girl from Kalamazoo, attempting to make a new life for herself in New York. The love story is a small but significant part of the story.

Nikola Tesla comes off as the most interesting of the characters. His mind was so creative that he wanted nothing more than to do his experiments and eat soda crackers. Several of his creations—his  inventions—were so ahead of their time, like the wireless phone, that they have just recently come to fruition. Because he had to be way on the autism spectrum in today's parlance, all his actions were construed to be extremely strange, and he became a curiosity in New York society.

Moore deftly melds historical fact with historical fiction to create a marvelous look at invention, ingenuity, and business in the late 1800s. Names we know from history, like J.P. Morgan, are bandied about, and my husband and I, as we read Last Days of Night aloud, had a marvelous time looking up the events trying to decide which were fact and which were fiction. This is historical fiction at its absolute best.

Review in the Washington Post.

Moore is the author of the well regarded The Sherlockian and won an Academy Award for the  screenplay to The Imitation Game. Here is his website.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Far from True

by Linwood Barclay
Signet     2016
532 pages     Mystery

Remind me, please, never to move to Promise Falls, New York!

 Far from True by Linwood Barclay picks up where Broken Promise, the first book in the Promise Falls trilogy, left off—and I do mean left off, or more appropriately, left hanging. Nothing gets solved in Broken Promise

In the startling first chapter of Far from True, a bunch of young adult guys decide to go to the last night at the local drive-in movie theater before it is torn down to make way for progress. Derek, who we met in Broken Promise, decides to hide in the car trunk as a prank. Just as they arrive at the theater, there is a huge explosion and the movie screen falls on two cars killing four patrons. At that point, nobody cares about Derek, the stowaway. Is it terrorism? Or from what we already know about Promise Falls, it may be something far more sinister, although I do have to reassure you that the sinister force (or forces) are neither vampires nor aliens. Oh--but I don't know that for sure.

Several  more of the characters from Broken Promise show up in Far from True, although some of them just wander in and out. This time out, Cal Weaver, a local PI is investigating a break-in at the home of one of the victims, while Detective Barry Duckworth has got a caseload full of murder, mayhem, and violence. The number twenty-three appears and reappears throughout this episode as well. 

As I am writing this, I am wondering how in the world there could be so much bad stuff going on in such a small town. Yet, Barclay is so good at juggling all these subplots, that the reader just keeps reading and reading, totally immersed in page turning. Another of Barclay's skills is character development, which keeps the huge number of characters unconfused in the reader's mind. Several of the characters are memorable, including a treacherous ex-mayor, a highly conflicted college professor, and a little girl who seems to have psychic powers of some sort. There is even some colorful sex to spice things up a bit.  One reviewer called it "a Richard Russo novel gone off the rails."  

And frankly, we get no satisfactory ending. Some crimes are solved, some sort of disappear, and we are reminded of some from the last book. We are left hanging, once again. However, the third book in the trilogy is called The Twenty Three. Maybe we will get some justice yet. 

Barclay is a great storyteller. There are almost 1500 pages in the Promise Falls trilogy. It is incredible that one little town could have so many stories. Read on! Read on!

Review in the Kirkus Reviews.
Linwood Barclay website.