“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?” (This is Water by David Foster Wallace)
Listen to this speech while you’re doing the most mundane task imaginable. Any of the building blocks of normal adulthood will do: folding laundry, doing dishes, driving home from work. The more boring and repetitive the better. Best case scenario: you check out the audiobook right now and then forget about it on your digital bookshelf for 13 days. Give it an air of careful nonchalance. Don’t look at reviews or blurbs or summaries – to facilitate this, I won’t even write one myself.
“There are too many loose ends in the world in need of knots.” (An American Marriage by Tayari Jones)
I respect a book that doesn’t feel the need to Tidy Things Up. Jones lets her characters take control of the story, doing what they want and leaving a mess of a plot-line in their wake. The ending doesn’t have a big emotional payoff, it’s a realistic and honest compromise of the characters’ conflicting motivations, but the unsatisfactory conclusion only adds to the poignancy of the subject material (race, class, wrongful incarceration). If there were a way to make each character perfectly happy after such injustice, then it would be much easier to write off.
And yet, I wish that books were required to declare when they use multiple first person narratives, much like the surgeon general’s warnings on packs of cigarettes: IF STRESSED BY MULTIPLE FIRST PERSON NARRATORS, AVOID. And I would avoid them. To the best of my recollection, I’ve never seen one done well. Different people think differently! Each narrator should have their own voice, their own way of thinking and looking at the world. This was one of the more disappointing examples because the first character’s voice was so strong and unique. If it had all been written from his perspective, it would have been a terrific book all around.
“If end-of-life discussions were an experimental drug, the FDA would approve it.” (Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande)
If I ever won the lottery, my first order of business would be to purchase hundreds of these books. I’d hand them out at the slightest opportunity. Greet me in the park? Book in your hand. Stop next to me on a red light? Book through your window. I’d mail them to family members – no matter how loose the relation – with cajoling notes scrawled onto the covers. I’d scatter them throughout my neighborhood in the hopes they’d get picked up.
I assure you, this is not a morbid fantasy. Though the book may be about death and dying, it is one that every single person needs to read. We do not think enough about getting old or about being seriously injured or falling ill, about what kind of death we would like to have. We assume that, when it inevitably happens to us, we will know what to do; but Gawande shows that it isn’t that simple. Death in modern times is full of complexity that neither we, nor our doctors, are trained to face.
This is a brave book, and beautifully written. Find some way to procure it as soon as you can, and then talk to your family – to anyone you know – about it.
There is a phenomenon (someone somewhere has probably named it) where kids always want to do what their slightly older peers are doing. Pre-teens want to read YA lit, young kids want to play minecraft, preschoolers want to go to kindergarten. I have a bit of a ‘younger kid’ crush on Lane Moriarty’s books. She writes almost exclusively about 40-something women with kids in kindergarten. Though I’m a thirty-something woman with tiny tots, I’ve read almost all of her books over the past six months (they are wonderful for keeping you awake when you’d rather be sleeping). I suppose this means I’m looking forward to the next stage of my life, which will apparently involve lots of murder and scandalous family drama.
It’s rare that I enjoy multiple books by the same author (let alone the 4 or 5 of Moriarty’s that I’ve somewhat thoughtlessly read), but Moriarty has a light, friendly writing style and a clever eye for unspooling drama. Though her characters tend to run on a theme from book to book – imperfect extroverted women, beautiful socially awkward ones, women who either have children, can’t have children, or suffer from secret post-partum depression – she throws in enough details to keep the women realistic and individual. Plus, you get to do a bit of armchair traveling, since all of her works are set in Australia.
Though mostly meaningless, here’s my Moriarty preference list : 1) Big Little Lies, 2) What Alice Forgot, 3) The Husband’s Secret, 4) The Last Anniversary, 5) Truly Madly guiltily
The Millionaire Next Door avoids both opposing pitfalls for practical nonfiction: it is neither poorly written nor filled with excess author-centric material. The authors escape these common mistakes by sticking to the facts. They’ve done their research and they put it down in dry language, without any cringe-worthy attempts to bribe your interest. They trust that their subject material will be of sufficient interest to their target audience and they center it in your attention throughout.
Though this book may be intended for readers looking to better their financial situation, I also found it fascinating on a wider field: challenging assumptions about how wealthy people look. We’re handed down the image of wealth melded with a high consumption lifestyle so casually that many never question it. The book, while still giving sound practical advice, also stakes a claim that the frugal life is the better life, no matter your financial situation. Like their financial advice, they back up this moral claim with research – people who live below their means are less fearful, happier, and more likely to take risks. Who would have thought?
Buy – Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime – Avoid
Ending: predictions for future stable jobs -eerily accurate
Incidental Learning: How to be frugal
Further Reading: I’ve never read anything similar in terms of subject material.
All the synopsis writers and book reviewers seem to be in cahoots to convince the innocent reader that this book is somehow about Lincoln. What they get out of this deception is beyond me; perhaps it’s the power of name-dropping, or an attempt to anchor a largely indescribable book to something known and comprehensible. Lincoln does make an appearance, and his life and times are briefly described, but he merely provides a framework for the true characters: a collection of ghosts in denial about being dead. If there is a plot, it’s not about Lincoln’s life, but rather about these ghosts and their attempt to save the soul of a boy from eternal imprisonment in a torturous, morphing cocoon.
Secondly, to even call it a novel is more than a little misleading. The reading experience is more akin to a play, with character attributions interrupting a smooth reading process, mixed with a modern stream-of-consciousness poetry. Because of the way Saunders sets up his cast, as ghosts in various states of awareness and sanity, he can insert beautiful monologues about any kind of life and in any writing style or accent or dialect that he desires. So, read this book for its poetry and originality, but don’t let the title lead you to expect ordinary things like presidents or novels.
Buy – Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime – Avoid
Incidental Learning: Some information about Lincoln in 1862
I usually associate experimental fiction with young authors hoping to break boundaries. Some of the brave effect of exploration is inevitably lost to youthful writing blunders, so I generally find myself fantasizing not about the current book, but about future authors who will use the groundbreaking techniques with more poise. With Auster, you get the best of both worlds: a mature, sure-footed author who still delights in twisting old genres to suit his needs.
This is a book where the silences are just as powerful as the words. It’s a cradle to grave biography written about four different versions of the same person; Auster covers segments of their lives within sub-chapters (1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4 cover the same years for each). As each version of the character dies, Auster forces the reader to keep confronting the death by leaving their sub-chapter heading suspended on a blank page during each successive epoch of life. The blank pages come as a shock each time you turn to them, negating the tendency in your head to blur the different versions, to take away their individuality and meaning. Auster’s silence brings a reality to a book that otherwise might have felt academic or untethered.
Do not let the page count deter you – I could easily have read another 800 pages of Auster’s detailed, flowing account of the various versions of Archie.
Recommended Action: Buy –
Borrow Now – Borrow Sometime – Avoid
Incidental Learning: New York in 1950s and 60s
Further Reading: More Auster. Also, American Pastoral by Roth.