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"Dryland" by Sara Jaffe

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"Dryland" by Sara Jaffe
The strength of this novel arises from Sara Jaffe’s intimate treatment of her heroine’s painful self-questioning and doubt. Fifteen year-old Julie holds forth in Dryland; her just-awakening attractions and aversions play perfectly true. The somber, expect-the-worst tone of her monolog suits her situation perfectly. Julie is genuine and has kindness in her soul and we root for the best for her.

At story’s outset she misses her brother, nine years her senior, and purportedly living in Europe. His departure is wrapped in mystery for Julie, and at the newsstand she looks through swimming magazines for him pictures that might look like him - he was a notable athlete, a hero made of multiple school records and loads of trophies, some still displayed in the school lobby. It isn’t until she joins the swim team herself that her perspective begins to change.

This novel encompasses a passage for Julie. She tries to balance friends from different camps while still forging her own path. She grapples with her attraction to other students, and tries to make sense of her friend’s sometimes baffling crushes. This is the stuff of millions of young people’s lives, and Ms. Jaffe makes Julie’s journey special by couching it in unmistakable teen language. It’s a language built with rebellion, and an immanent maturity, but its largest ingredient is of course uncertainty. It all too clearly and accurately demonstrates that an adolescent’s life is brutally difficult.

The author keeps her descriptions to the bare minimum.
That and the young girl’s narration of her own process give the book a dream-like quality, but at the same time certain scenes have an indelibility that will stay with you. Swimming scenes are few, actually, and while I expected at least the possibility that competitive swimming would give Julie some transcendent moments, this is not the case. Julie is being born to everything. She needs to experience all the trials and triumphs first-hand, and experience these she does.

Dryland is soulful, honest work. It lives up to fiction’s highest calling: it is an accurate, sympathetic telling of a person’s progress through life. Take it up!

"The Nature of the Beast" by Louise Penny

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"The Nature of the Beast" by Louise Penny
In The Nature of the Beast, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sureté Québecois has become simply Monsieur Gamache, a retired officer. He has retreated to the remote and tiny village of Three Pines, Québec, but trouble soon follows him there. Louise Penny has worked more of her familiar magic in this entry, either the eleventh or twelfth entry in the Chief Inspector Gamache series, depending on your source.

As this story starts, a fanciful and attention-grabbing nine year-old announces to all and sundry at a local bistro that he has found a big gun, and it has a monster carved on its side. The boy Laurent is soon murdered because his observational skills are keen (though few believe him) and his big mouth cannot be subdued.

This is my first encounter with the Inspector Gamache series. He has been through the wars for his department, and the author’s fondness for her hero is evident. There are features of this story that weaken it, however. The murdered boy lacks the understanding that a responsible adult should really see the immense weapon hidden in the remote forest; that such a weapon could indeed be hidden for so long; that the Canadian intelligence service would perpetuate dangerous secrets at the expense of local citizens’ safety – all these plot factors placed a strain on my credulity, even as a fiction reader in good standing.

Be all that as it may, this mystery does contain the reasoning and deductive sequences which readers expect. And we can tell how much affection the author has for her hero, given the sympathetic portrayal. I have read a few mystery series in my time, and I can understand the attraction of Ms. Penny’s popular Inspector Gamache novels.

"The Undoing Project" by Michael Lewis

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"The Undoing Project" by Michael Lewis
The Undoing Project contains many charms, and chief among these is its full and intimate description of the friendship between Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky. These are the two pioneering psychologists who revolutionized decision theory and demonstrated its effect on economic thought. In Mr. Kahneman’s case, it led to the Nobel Prize in economics.

Michael Lewis tells his story with the enthusiasm of a newcomer to the subject. And these two innovative thinkers, who rattled the cages of the academic establishment in both psychology and economics, deserves this bight and spritely telling. The title refers to the emotional tug a person feels in the midst of regret - often people have the impulse to change an unfortunate circumstance or fact of their lives, because of its unpleasant consequences.

We follow the joint careers of Tversky and Kahneman as they discover each other: they become inseparable friends while performing a wholesale revamp of economic behavioral theory. They eventually drift apart, professional jealousy


playing a small and perhaps misunderstood role in their separation. This book excels in its portrayal of the progress of their joint thought. It does a good job of showing just how revolutionary their thoughts were, and the consternation they generated in the economics community.

"Anything is Possible" by Elizabeth Strout

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"Anything is Possible" by Elizabeth Strout
Elizabeth Strout has blessed us again. Anything is Possible is a faultless series of observations of the family and townspeople of her recently renowned heroine, Lucy Barton. She adopts the format that served so well in Olive Kitteridge - lives become illuminated in a series of superb short stories relating to the principals. I waited in vain for one of the pieces to revert back to a main character covered earlier in the book. It didn’t happen, and it didn’t happen because it didn’t need to. I expect Anything is Possible to bring home the hardware, just like Olive Kitteridge (2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) and My Name is Lucy Barton (long-listed for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, so far). It’s sublime.

A plot summary doesn’t really apply to this book, since it consists of a roundelay of short stories. In them, an older retired gentleman’s faith is tested by an unexpected response to kindness. A veteran of Viet Nam laughs at the (to him) antiquated concept of “character” when deciding to help his mistress out for the last time. A high school guidance counselor polices her own behavior, and shows kindness to a disrespectful teen (Lucy Barton’s niece) desperately in need of it. A middle-aged woman finally reaches an understanding with her mother who has fled to Europe to remarry. Children raised in abject poverty - foraging-in-Dumpsters poverty - raise themselves up to own and manage businesses.

And these bare synopses do nothing to tell how beautifully paced and painted these vignettes are. Strout again shows utter mastery of this form. We witness in distinct, utter clarity the heart-rending events in these lives; the language and heart couldn’t be more sympathetic or understanding. It inspires that awe we experience when in the presence of a master.

For instance, in “Snow Blind” we learn of the innocent and sanguine upbringing of a girl who becomes a captivating actress later in life. Farmland under a new blanket of blinding snow stands in for the young girl’s successful navigation of the threats around her. The beautiful and stark colors of the Italian coast set the scene in “Mississippi Mary”

of an elderly woman’s choice to live the last chapter of her life deeply in love. The uncertainty of his mistress’s given name corresponds to a troubled man’s confusion about the direction of his life in “The Hit-Thumb Theory.”

I could go on, but I don’t want to indicate that I followed the corners turned and characters revisited from story to story, because in fact I didn’t. I drank up these stories as they were poured out, with such clarity and such charity as can only be accomplished by Elizabeth Strout.

"Human Acts" by Han Kang

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Author Han Kang splinters her narrative in Human Acts into fragments, and thereby captures the pulverized lives of the survivors of the Gwangju Uprising of 1980. It’s not only highly evocative of the partial, debilitated existences of these poor unfortunate people, but in Deborah Smith’s translation, it’s eloquent and riveting.

An estimated quarter of a million South Koreans demonstrated for democratic reform a few months after General Chun Doo-Hwan seized power in the vacuum left after the prior strongman Park Chung-hee was assassinated in late 1979. These demonstrations took a particularly popular and energetic form in the historically under-represented city of Gwangju. (So much so that the city and its inhabitants have become emblematic of the struggle for human rights.) Human Acts depicts the fallout in human misery from the brutal crackdown that suppressed the uprising.

And this depiction achieves a stunning effectiveness by its unadorned painting of simple human reaction to atrocity. People lived through it somehow, their tortures starting out as physical but lasting their entire lives in their haunted psyches. This is where Deborah Smith’s sterling translation comes to the fore: she renders in beautiful, simple terms the human face of suffering South Korea. It’s beautifully done.
As another chapter in the saga of population under an authoritarian heel, this book takes its rightful place.



"Traveller - Inceptio" by Rob Shackleford

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"Traveller - Inceptio" by Rob Shackleford

Rob Shackleford’s ambitions are many for Traveller - Inceptio, his first novel. He strives to portray how a post-graduate project in security technology can evolve into a device for time travel. He wants to depict modern elite soldiers as they train for an unprecedented and intimidating mission. He wants to focus on a modern media frenzy over heroic and beautiful pioneers, and most importantly, he deeply desires to render realistically eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon villagers’ lives and culture.

The fact that he comes as close as he does to realizing all these ambitions testifies to the strength and consistency of his book.

A bare plot outline: 21st Century Australian students accidentally invent a device that will transport anything, animate or not, 1,000 years into the past. After thoroughly testing the device, the university and the corporation which funded the research become partners with various governments. In response to the clamorous calls of historians they settle on Saxon England as a logical destination to begin to use the apparatus. The authorities train a small squad of modern elite soldiers for the journey; they must learn the language, culture, and perhaps most important of all, the fighting techniques of the time. These soldiers do in fact make this trip, first singly, and then they go as a group. It turns out Saxon England is quite a challenging place, especially when vengeful Danish Vikings are roaming the land bent on plunder and destruction.

This broad ambition means that Shackleford must deal with events on the surface and carefully pick an choose which of his characters’ psyches deserve deeper treatment. This is not too hard a puzzle. After all this a science fiction novel of action. We start with a band of brilliant doctoral candidates whom we just begin to get to know, and from there the focus is on progress to actual time travel, and then time travel with a purpose. There are just too many elements to deal with in any depth, but our intrepid author stays his course, keeping the action, and the international politics of the action, in the foreground.

On a couple of occasions characters voice the existential questions and concerns which surround time travel. We don’t encounter any issues with creating different futures, for instance, or changing the courses of one’s own ancestors. Shackleford expounds competing theories on these issues, and comes down on the side that allows for minimal alteration of the future given traveling to a specific time in the past. Again, it’s an action novel, not a philosophical treatise.

The best thing about this novel is its sustained level of imagination. The author shows solid storytelling instincts in his pacing and his treatment of his readers. He makes good on his fictional promises and continues to surprise, even in such a lengthy piece. Ultimately, it’s a novel containing a whole series of elements for today’s reader: limited time travel is invented by a motley crew of young scientists; elite Special Forces soldiers live like Samurais, dispensing wisdom and protecting the innocent; Saxon England comes vividly alive, with its crude scents, its face-to-face fencing with death, and its superstitions. I congratulate Rob Shackleford for his effort. I don’t know if this is the start of a series, but even if it isn’t, it’s a memorable piece of science fiction.

"The Master and Margarita" by Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov

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"The Master and Margarita" by Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov


Translated with notes by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Introduction by Richard Pevear.

The Master and Margarita teases the reader in many ways: improbable people and the  supernatural activities they engage in confound you a little at the outset. But as with any consistent narrative we learn to expect traits and characteristics; outcomes begin to gratify us, and treat us to a series of accelerating surprises.

Bulgakov composed and revised Master between 1928 and 1940. (He died in 1940, a short time after dictating the last revisions.) It contains multiple narrative threads, each with its own style and level of speech. There is a prominent story featuring Pontius Pilate, a close and almost sympathetic portrait that includes forgiveness for the Procurator. Moscow’s ordinary citizens populate another strand, and they exhibit pomposity, cynicism, greed, and jealousy. The main players, the writer called the Master, his lover Margarita, and a poet named Homeless emerge with deeper coloring, and a lot more sympathy. The third distinct thread folds in the eerie and omnipotent Satan and his retinue, slumming in Moscow for a time.

These three skeins have something in common: they each prominently display themes and scenes forbidden from Soviet literature under Stalin. Master and Margarita first saw light when it was serialized in the Soviet Union in 1966 and it caused an immediate sensation. We encounter many scenes which satirize and vilify the Soviet police state, sometimes through the use of a code word, like “sitting,” a term for incarceration in a work camp or prison. Or when citizens disappear, Bulgakov’s narrator says no one knows where, such a mysterious thing! The book almost certainly would have made Bulgakov disappear had it appeared in his lifetime.

The mix of fanciful, almost fairy tale aspects, with the everyday drabness and shiftiness of Moscow life, sharpens both into crystal focus. This juxtaposition proves Bulgakov’s brilliance. It makes several points clearly, unmistakably: there is a desperation and dreariness to life when it contains no freedom; the devil is all-powerful and you may need his services to achieve a happy ending; certain citizens live a life of luxury and work assiduously to keep others from it. Lay over the top of these observations a vivid, remarkable picture of Pontius Pilate in his moment of cowardice and doubt, and the whole sparks and trembles and shifts in our consciousness. It’s a product of its time and place, but that doesn’t stop it from being brilliant, a masterwork.

I don’t usually read introductions to books, preferring to let the work settle on me with my own set of views and experience. But after finishing Master and Margarita I took up Richard Pevear’s introduction, and if more were like his, I would definitely read more. He impresses with his knowledge of the book’s compositional history, and makes a number of compelling observations about the historical and political milieu in which it was written and then published. His observations on the text are astute and helpful, and the end notes eminently useful. This introduction definitely adds something to the reading, which a good introduction should.

Take up Bulgakov’s parable. See what all the fuss is about.

"Dance of the Jakaranda" by Peter Kimani

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"Dance of the Jakaranda" by Peter Kimani
In Dance of the Jakaranda Peter Kimani constructs a model of Imperial Britain and its administration (plunder, despoliation, usurpation, oppression) of what was once called the British East African Protectorate, and is now called Kenya. It features an insecure and ambitious British grandee who controls, or, we should say lords it over, the hundreds of workers imported to build a railroad from Mombasa to the interior. The narrative follows the exploits and misadventures of a handful of characters, and creaks a bit as it tries to bear up under the pressure of betrayal, misunderstanding, and the larger forces of prejudice and political upheaval.

Three generations of a Punjabi family figure prominently here: the grandfather is one of the artisans imported from across the Indian Ocean to Kenya to help build the railroad as the 20th Century dawns. The middle generation is not known in the story, for a couple of reasons, but the third generation reaps the unfortunate results of the sins of their forebears. For me these characters lacked depth; they apparently stand as totems or emblems of geopolitical actors: the old Englishman with his crippling doubts and weaknesses, least entitled to hold the position he comes into; the young besotted singer and musician, who we’re to believe inspires widespread protests and dies a political martyr’s death.


The difficulties I found stem from a failure to put the reader on site with any effectiveness. The twists of the plot gain momentum toward the end, a momentum flowing from history, but came across to me as quite a bit less than inevitable - even a little forced. The strength of this book lies in its stark depiction of the human cost of colonialism. The construct of everyone’s tied-together fates is inadequate support for the themes developed.

I found this an unrewarding read.

"Outline" by Rachel Cusk

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"Outline" by Rachel Cusk

Rachel Cusk introduces her readers to a cast of characters in Outline; these characters don’t interact with each other much, and the only action to move the narrative forward is a series of monologues about their lives. I wouldn’t blame you for thinking, Why would I want to read that? Well, you would want to read it for the unique insights that intelligent and articulate people bring to judging themselves and their lives. In Ms. Cusk’s hands, this turns into a very compelling read.

Our first-person narrator, a woman whom Ms. Cusk takes the trouble to identify only once in the book - by first name only - meets a talkative Greek gentleman on a flight from London to Athens. This older man recounts the struggles he has had through a series of marriages, and this is the first of our deep and wide-ranging conversations. His tale of woe continues on a couple of jaunts they take together on his powerboat, and the narrator finally confronts him about the self-serving nature of his complaints, and the built-in hopelessness of his approach to women. His reaction to this carries perhaps the central theme here: he confesses his attraction for her and awkwardly approaches her across the deck of his boat to give her a clumsy, ill-aimed kiss, which winds up on her cheek.

His refusal or inability to change his attitude toward the people he meets aligns with the other stories told here by other characters. There is the beautiful woman who can’t get past something she overheard her lover tell someone. There is the fellow writing teacher who climbs away from a dreary life of illness and stagnation in Ireland on a stair-climbing machine in America. There is the poetess who encounters the same unstable man, who may or may not be a fan, on all her readings throughout Europe. The narrator subjects her own life to the same kind of scrutiny, and she has imposed a self-exile with her trip to Greece.

Ms. Cusk rivets us to the page with the depth of her characters’ observations about life and love and various philosophical issues. There is a wide variance between our private and public domains, for example; in given situations some people immerse themselves in the moment while others become detached, observing for transcribing later. We have observations about the infinite capacity for humans to delude themselves, about how safety and security are illusions, about how people can go through life missing all its essential truths, remaining unaffected by all if it in their small, myopic orbits.

Throughout this, the author makes intermittent use of quotation marks, which makes all the speech appear more detached, less personal. Thus are thoughts and beliefs given to the reader, in an exposition in which we must read into the person’s remarks their frustrations and beliefs and hopes.

You will need to be prepared to encounter a wide range of ideas at the expense of structured plot; you will need accept self-exposition in place of dramatic action, to enjoy and appreciate this book. It’s fortunate that I am habitually in that realm and could sample these dishes with pleasure.

"The Eastern Shore" by Ward Just

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"The Eastern Shore" by Ward Just


In The Eastern Shore Ward Just considers the life of a newspaper editor who works his way from small-town Indiana all the way to Washington, DC. In the nation’s capital he heads up a major, influential daily. He spends his career preparing each day’s newsworthy events for the world’s consumption, but … his life contains only a few those moments of drama - becoming estranged from his father after as a teenager incurring his wrath, finding out his onetime lover has died in Africa - that form a stark contrast from the lives he publicizes. The man spends his retirement struggling to write his memoirs, and eventually he figures out that he’ll never get it done. Even the stately country home he purchases for his golden years has fallen into disrepair and desuetude.

It’s a curious journey Mr. Just takes us on: he provides the life of an unappealing protagonist, a man who’s married to his job, and lives with it for better or for worse for 40 years or more. This hero sustains his bachelorhood throughout his life, and never has any very grand regrets about it, apparently, in spite of the fact that he loves and is loved pretty deeply several times in his life.

It could be that the title provides a major clue. When the chief character Ned reaches his (ineffectual, rather stilted) retirement in a crumbling estate on the Maryland shore, he has reached the end of the land, and is forced to stop. But it’s the only thing that’s stopped him. His focus is on other peoples’ news - those who are the subject of the stories, and those for whom the various newspapers are published, has dictated his life in spite of a handful of promising affairs. Even the journalism trade is reaching a retirement point: daily print withers in favor of real-time mass consumption of “news” on the internet.

The storytelling here adds to the art, and may be the main recommendation of this book. It’s bare-bones, almost like a news article in a big-city daily. The few excursions we have into Ned’s deeper self are the times when he frustrates his would-be life partners by preferring his career to any kind of close companionship. There are a few lessons learned along the way about journalistic responsibilities, and it could be we’re supposed to be touched and gratified that Ned learned the lessons and applied them to his work.