"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.