An English professor and lifelong reader, David R. Anderson ’74 is rarely without a book — or three — to read. Here’s what is on his bookshelf today:
I think Malcolm Gladwell is one of the most interesting commentators on modern life writing today. He’s like David Brooks, the New York Times columnist: each new book takes on an important topic, looks at it from an original viewpoint, and leaves the reader with fresh approaches to and new insights into common topics.
David and Goliath starts off with the familiar Old Testament story. Although David appears to be the underdog—young, slim, untrained in the arts of war, armed only with a slingshot — in fact he entered into combat with Goliath, the heavily armored giant, as the favorite because David fought in a new way and with new weapons. Gladwell concludes, “There is an important lesson in [this story] for battles with all kind of giants. The powerful and the strong are not always what they seem.” The rest of this book elaborates on that insight.
The most interesting chapter of the book for me was the chapter on the assumptions that go into college selection. Gladwell tells the poignant story of Caroline Sacks, a young woman who loved science, studied hard, excelled in high school, and gained admission to both Brown University and the University of Maryland. She chose Brown for the prestige and the promise of an exciting opportunity for intellectual growth. It didn’t work out. Disappointed at her failure to achieve in science courses at Brown at the same level as other students, she left the sciences, despite her passion for them and her demonstrated ability.
It turns out that there is a scholarly literature on the topic of whether it’s better to be a big fish in a little pond or a little fish in a big pond. The answer, at least as far as persisting in college goes, is that it’s better to be a big fish in a little pond. Gladwell shows that, “The more elite an educational institution is the worse students feel about their own academic abilities,” because they are measuring themselves against other very gifted students. This affects your desire and ability to persist in your course of study because when your self-concept takes a beating every day in class, so does your “willingness to tackle challenges and finish difficult tasks.” Gladwell quotes a psychologist who wryly observed that, “if you want to see the positive effects of elite schools on self-concept … you should be measuring the parents.”
This book will unsettle you if you are in a position, or if you work at an institution that is in a position, of privilege and power. If you are a striver, or at a striving institution, you will find it energizing. Either way, I recommend it highly.
This is a very funny book.
It’s a satire of academics, in the tradition of Kingsley Amis’s hilarious Lucky Jim, Richard Russo’s Straight Man, and David Lodge’s Trading Places and Small World. Unlike those titles, this is an epistolary novel, which means that it is told entirely through letters. They are letters of recommendation, all written by Jason T. Fitger (he sounds like a pill already, doesn’t he?), Professor of Creative Writing and English at the fictional Payne University.
Fitger published one novel two decades ago that received a lot of attention and, subsequently, two that did not. He’s not writing anything now. Instead, from the safety of his tenured position, he is devoting himself to expressing his frustration with the world, with his students, with his colleagues, with administrators at Payne University (it’s a pain to teach there?), and ultimately with himself. But he does it with a kind of joyous anger and beautifully expressed frustration that makes you glad he’s so unhappy.
(I once had a Dean who remarked that English professors were the hardest faculty to deal with because they were so gifted at expressing their discontent.)
Many epistolary novels contain letters between two people, or among more than two. All of the letters in this book are written by Fitger, and they are all letters of recommendation, though to different people. He writes more than once to his ex-wife (who works at the Law School at Payne), to the woman he had a dalliance with (who works in Financial Aid), and to the other alumni of The Seminar, a course they all took in graduate school. Elements of a plot do emerge from these and other letters, but this isn’t a novel you read for the plot: you read it to find out what new thing exasperates Fitger and how brilliantly and how funnily he will express that exasperation.
Fitger isn’t all bile. His letter of recommendation for Oliver Postiglione, an undergraduate who is applying for a summer job at Flanders Nut House in Glass Lake, Wisconsin, evokes a sweet and melancholy memory of Fitger’s own youthful summer of employment there: “I recommend him to you warmly and without hesitation, in part because writing letters of reference such as this one allows me to reinhabit, if only fleetingly, the pensive, knock-kneed person I once was and to advocate for that former version of myself.” But, being Fitger, he can’t help but add, “I hope for the sake of Mr. Postiglione’s dignity your establishment no longer requires its most junior employee to dress as a human cashew.”
Julie Schumacher won the Thurber Award for American Humor for this novel, the first woman to win the award. It was well-deserved.
This is a creepy novel. I couldn’t put it down.
When people think of Jo Nesbø, they most likely think of the Harry Hole novels, a series about a police detective in Oslo who drinks too much coffee, smokes too much, has disastrous relationships, and basically makes the American hard-boiled detective look like the Easter Bunny.
Headhunters is nothing like those novels. The first-person narrator is Roger Brown, who is a headhunter — i.e. he runs an executive search firm. I predict that you will count him among the most memorable first-person narrators you have ever encountered. He is absolutely vile, but what makes him so creepy is that it’s not clear that he recognizes that fact. He is absolutely candid about his vile motives, plans, strategies, and actions. But it’s all matter-of-fact, whether he’s talking about what a great head of hair he has, about his sensitivity about being short in stature (when he introduces someone he first tells you how tall that person is), about how he refuses to “give his wife a baby,” about his mistress, about the kind of suits he wears, about manipulating his clients and job seekers — you get the idea. He is so unaware of any hierarchy of moral considerations that he seems ultimately clueless.
Brown is an art thief on the side. He gets wind of a recently discovered painting by Rubens that, if he could steal it, would bring him a vast sum. Its owner is the former CEO of a company who Brown wants to recruit to a CEO position he has been hired to fill. He proceeds to try to accomplish both of those jobs, and that unleashes a world of troubles — murder, infidelity, dead dogs, hiding in the tank underneath an outhouse, and mutilating corpses — among other things. (If you’re squeamish, you might give this novel a pass.) It turns out that he is not clueless; in fact, he is extraordinarily resourceful. It helps to have no moral sense of any kind.
You want to watch first-person narrators very carefully. Sometimes they completely misunderstand the significance of the events they are reporting, sometimes they deliberately color the narrative to serve their own ends, and sometimes they play tricks on you. Brown is this third kind of first-person narrator. Don’t trust him.
But do read this book, both to find out what happens (an excellent reason to read any book) and to meet a narrator you won’t soon forget.
This is a harrowing but important book about widely held myths about rape that color how the justice system treats victims and perpetrators of rape. The book pursues that topic by focusing on a series of sexual assaults at the University of Montana between 2010 and 2012. They were so egregious, and they were handled so badly by the University, the campus police, the Missoula police department, and the county attorney’s office, that the Department of Justice finally had to intervene.
Overlaid on the topic of sexual assault generally and of sexual assault on campuses particularly is a third element: the presence of an athletic culture at the University and in greater Montana generally that vastly complicated an already highly problematic environment. Members of the football team were implicated in a number of the sexual assaults described in the book, and football fans and boosters constituted a chorus that played an important role in the resolution of those cases.
Many passages of this book are difficult to read because they provide detailed descriptions of sexual assaults, but the most harrowing passage — which presents the core of the problem Krakauer is writing about — comes from Chapter Ten, which describes research conducted by means of interviews, that reveals that male college students who had committed rapes “had absolutely no sense of themselves as rapists,” because they think of a rapist as someone who jumps out from behind a bush wearing a ski mask, not someone who, for example, takes advantage of an incapacitated person at a party. One of the students interviewed described a practice of his fraternity: look out for attractive first-year women, invite them to a party making it sound like a special honor to be selected, serve them sweet drinks with lots of alcohol with the goal of making them incapacitated, and when they are incapacitated to have sex with them. This student, the researcher reports, “had no idea that what he was describing … were acts of rape.”
Most of the many figures in this book who failed the victims of rape were probably acting as best they could in light of what they knew or believed they knew. Krakauer’s contribution in this book is to disrupt common beliefs about such matters as what constitutes rape, who rapes, who are the victims, and what are the effects of rape.
Readers familiar with Krakauer’s other books, especially Into Thin Air may be surprised by what I would describe as a lower octane prose style in Missoula. Significant portions of the book consist of transcript or summaries of legal and extra-legal proceedings, interviews, and summaries of research findings. But there is a gathering sense of urgency as you read that gives the book its own narrative energy.
I recommend this serious and important book.
This is another in the series of books I’ve been reading by working cooks. (See Sous Chef; Yes, Chef; Back of the House; Knives at Dawn; Blood, Bones, and Butter; and Heat, all previously discussed on my bookshelf.)
Occasionally I fantasize that I could make it as a line cook in a professional kitchen. Then I read one of these books and confront reality: I’m a decent home cook, but I’m not ready for prime time.
Wayne Cohen was a college football player, an executive at a software company, an entrepreneur, and then the president of a cookie company. He was at a point in his life when he could do what he wanted, which was to be a line cook in a restaurant. It’s interesting that a guy who was obviously accustomed to independence and to leadership roles didn’t want to be the chef: he wanted to cook on the line, be the guy who received the orders from the servers, cooked the hot items, and sent them to the expediter to be plated and served. He wanted to be the guy who responds “Yes, Chef” to commands from the boss of the kitchen.
Cohen started in a German restaurant in Chicago and eventually made it to some of the best-known kitchens in that city, including Coco Pazzo and Piccolo Sogno. This book details that journey. It’s full of the kitchen drama that’s a staple of books like this: there’s a rush of customers, someone on the kitchen staff has a melt down, everybody gets behind, pans are flying everywhere, “We’re in the weeds!” and so forth. Lots of fun.
It’s also fun to read Cohen’s take on how kitchens are run. As a business executive he garnered a fair amount of administrative experience and organizational know-how. There are wonderful cooks in the food and beverage business, but apparently there are also lots of feckless people, and Cohen is always thinking “Wouldn’t it be better if we did it another way?”
Reading this book will make you hungry, but that’s okay, because it has lots of recipes. Enjoy!
I’ve long admired David Brooks as a columnist, a commentator on The PBS Newshour, and as an author, so I was excited to be given a copy of his new book by my wife, Priscilla, who gives me so many good books.
This is a serious book. It’s not that Brooks’s previous books have been lightweights — they haven’t — but there is a gravity and gravitas to The Road to Character that sets it apart from his previous works and from most other books written for the general public.
Brooks begins by distinguishing between “résumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” The former are the “skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success”; the latter are “the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being.” He then, borrowing a phrase from Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, describes two “opposing sides of our nature”: Adam I and Adam II. Adam I is the side that focuses on the résumé virtues; Adam II focuses on the eulogy virtues. “While Adam I’s motto is ‘Success,’ Adam II experiences life as a moral drama.”
Brooks argues, and he is right, that “we live in a culture that nurtures Adam I, the external Adam, and neglects Adam II.” In an unusually revealing passage, Brooks describes himself as naturally disposed towards shallowness and talks meaningfully about his struggle to elevate the Adam II side of his nature. “I wrote this book not sure I could follow the road to character, but I wanted at least to know what the road looks like and how other people have trodden it.”
Perhaps you would like to argue with Brooks’s contention that we live in a culture that nurtures Adam I. If so, I recommend the section of Chapter One called “The Shift.” Here’s an example of what you will encounter. In 1950 Gallup asked high school seniors whether they considered themselves to be important people. Twelve percent said yes. Asked the same question in 2005, 80 percent of high school seniors said yes.
The book then proceeds to describe and comment upon the lives of people Brooks considers exemplary of individuals who have elevated the Adam II side of their nature and thus achieved and displayed what he calls “character”: Frances Perkins, Dwight Eisenhower, Dorothy Day, George Marshall, A. Phillip Randolph, George Eliot, Augustine, Samuel Johnson. It’s a fascinating list of historical figures, all of whom are the subjects of lengthy biographies, but the point of Brooks’s analysis isn’t to repeat the biographer’s work. He tells you enough about the life so that you understand why this person is included in the book, but his focus is on the struggle that person engaged in on the road to character.
Ultimately, his analysis praises as pathways to character traits that we don’t often hear celebrated today: self-doubt, obedience, public-spiritedness, service, suffering, moderation.
Brooks writes deeply and meaningfully about love in the chapter on George Eliot, about allegiance to institutions in the chapter on George Marshall, about ambition in the chapter on Augustine, and so on. Those meditations are the best part of the book. As a college president I often think about institutions, why they matter, how to care for them, how to build support for them. Brooks has written the best description of what it means to be institution-minded that I have ever read. Here’s a part of it: “Life is not like navigating an open field. It is committing oneself to a few of the institutions that were embedded on the ground before you were born and will be here after you die. It is accepting the gift of the dead, taking on the responsibility of preserving and improving an institution and then transmitting that institution, better, on to the next generation.”
This is an improving book. I recommend it.
I was driving somewhere and heard an interview with this author on NPR. The interviewer had high praise for the novel, it sounded interesting, so I read it.
Red Sparrow is a spy novel. It revolves around a cat and mouse game being played between America and Russia involving double agents. Thus, even though it’s set in present times — Putin himself is a character — it has a Cold War feel to it. The intricate plotting will keep you engaged.
Its most appealing feature is all of the “tradecraft” in the book. The author spent many years working for the CIA. That must be the source of the authentic-sounding details about everything from disguises to various approaches to following people without being noticed, to how to recruit counter-agents, and so on.
Its author is often described as the new John Le Carré. He’s not. He is Le Carré’s equal in depicting tradecraft but not in exquisite psychological portraits of his characters. Perhaps it’s attributable to the general coarsening of culture since LeCarré was in his prime, but this novel relies a lot more on physical and sexual violence than the Smiley novels ever did.
A strange feature of this novel is its incorporation of recipes into the narrative. Every chapter refers in some way to food — the spies are eating in a restaurant, somebody remembers their grandmother’s best dish, or whatever. Then, when you get to the end of the chapter, there is the recipe for that dish. It’s odd that they just appear there without explanation or discussion, and even odder that the recipes don’t include any amounts for the ingredients of the dish. What’s up with that?
Kevin Carey, smart, funny, and mean, directs the education policy program at the New America Foundation. The End of College is an interesting book that I recommend to everyone. Part memoir, part history of higher education in America, and part jeremiad, it critiques the modern university on a host of grounds — cost, efficiency, quality of outcomes, to name a few — and offers a vision of a different and better way to do higher education.
Carey locates the problem in what he calls the “hybrid university,” the kind of institution that resulted from a failure in America to choose between the competing demands of practical training, research, and liberal arts education. “Instead of choosing,” Carey argues, “American universities decided to do all three things at once, with consequences that last to this day” (p. 29). Among those consequences, the worst is the “hybrid” university’s lack of value for and attention to teaching undergraduates.
Carey enrolled in a MOOC — massive, open, on-line course — offered for free by MIT. It was a terrific course offered by a legendary instructor for free. Why would anybody pay for such a course when it can be had for free? Moreover, since at their best such MOOCs employ the discoveries of neuroscience and cognitive science to recognize how students are progressing in their learning and then use that information to adapt to their individual circumstances the information that they are given and the problems they are asked to solve, the learning outcomes are much better than for students in a large lecture course that they paid for at a university. And it’s on-line, it’s available any time to anyone, and it’s free. It’s the University of Everywhere.
The university as we know it today, Carey, argues, is already obsolete but doesn’t know it. It will be replaced by organizations that offer better learning outcomes for less cost, that create faster and more rational paths to the credential showing what students have learned, and that are innovative and adaptive to their environment.
Much of Carey’s critique of higher education generally in America is fair. Much of it is not relevant to liberal arts colleges like St. Olaf where, for example, there is a relentless focus on teaching undergraduates. So, it’s easy while reading The End of College to dismiss its argument not only because of Carey’s penchant for broad generalizations but also because of his dismissive, arrogant tone.
But that would be a mistake. This is a book to take seriously. After reading it, the best question to ask yourself would be, “What can we learn from this critique?”
This is an important book written by two important figures in American Higher Education.
William Bowen is the former President of Princeton University and then of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the leading philanthropic institution providing guidance and support for liberal arts colleges; Eugene Tobin is the former President of Hamilton College and the leader of the Mellon Foundation’s programs to support liberal arts colleges.
American higher education is undergoing a dramatic re-thinking of most of its central tenets: What is a degree? How should progress towards the degree be measured? What is the return on investment in higher education, and how should that return be understood? Is the Federal government’s huge investment in financial aid for students paying off? What should a college faculty look like? Is tenure still a good idea? How much should college cost? Most importantly, as these questions get debated, who gets to decide what at America’s colleges and universities?
Most of these questions have been burbling under the surface for years, but they have been forced into the open by economic pressures, policy concerns, and the concerns of students and their families. This book takes them on.
The first part of the book might seem like inside baseball to readers who are not in higher education. It is a historical survey of the evolution of colleges and universities in American since their founding in the eighteenth century (mostly). The survey concludes that the means by which colleges and universities have been governed in America over time has varied depending upon the external environment. In short, there is no one right or wrong model of governance; instead, the challenge is to fine-tune governance to accommodate the realities of the world in which higher education operates at the moment.
This argument will be unwelcome to those who think there is only one right model of governance. It will be welcome to those who seek to adapt governance models to the exigencies of the moment.
The second part of the book then offers thoughts about how governance ought to look in 2015. The answer is that it should continue to be a model with shared opportunities for input into the discussion, that there needs to be clarity about where discussion ends and decisions get made, and by whom, and that higher education governance needs to be flatter, more nimble, and more adaptive to reality.
Ruth Reichl was editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine for ten years, and she is a terrific writer — not just about food. I read and loved her memoir Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table some years ago, so when I was at loose ends for something to read recently I picked up Tender at the Bone. It didn’t disappoint.
Reichl grew up in eccentric circumstances in New York. Her father was a quiet, self-effacing book designer, her mother a commanding and demanding presence who was afflicted with bipolar disorder, and she was in many ways left to raise herself. This is a book about growing up, not a book about food, but much of the narrative revolves around food and cooking: her mother’s parties where the food was not properly cared for and everybody went home sick; learning to cook beside Aunt Birdie’s cook Alice; hanging around the kitchen with her own family’s cook, Mrs. Peavy; working in a restaurant in Berkeley early in her marriage, and so on.
For a variety of reasons, many of the people portrayed in this book aren’t happy, Reichl among them, and as a result they face many challenges. You could think of it as a book about resilience: who has it and who doesn’t and why. In the last scene in the book, Reichl is driving over the Bay Bridge in San Francisco with a friend, having just successfully beaten back a panic attack about driving over this big bridge. They are talking about her friend’s victory over alcoholism. “You’re amazing,” Reichl tells her friend. “Oh, hon,” the friend replies, “Nobody knows why some of us get better and others don’t.” That’s a key subject this book explores.
Don’t read it if you’re only interested in mining it for recipes. It really is a memoir, not a food book. Nevertheless, there are some homey recipes you might want to try: Miriam Reichl’s Corned Beef Ham, Aunt Birdie’s Potato Salad, Alice’s Apple Dumplings with Hard Sauce, Weiner Schnitzel, and Lemon Soufflé, and more. Read it instead for a candid, funny, often sad account of growing up around food.
This excellent collection of short stories by an Ole (Class of ’97) was a gift from my friend Dr. Maggi Murdock of the University of Wyoming, who met the author at a book signing in Wyoming and sent me an autographed copy that I am proud to have.
Nina McConigley, born in Singapore and raised in Wyoming, is the daughter of an Irish father and an Indian mother. If you think this sounds like an interesting mix, you’re right. The stories in this collection are about that mix, focusing particularly on the intersections of the India and Wyoming as lived out by Indians and Americans in both places.
On the jacket cover of Cowboys and East Indians author Kevin Wilson describes McConigley’s stories as revealing “grace and understated power,” and he adds that “she knows the exact moment to let wildness rush into the story.” I think he captures these stories beautifully. They are quiet, understated, but at the same time relentless in their probing of the characters. Most of the characters in these stories aren’t happy, successful, well-adjusted people. For a variety of reasons they tend to be on the outside looking in, whether an American in India or an Indian in America.
McConigley can also be very funny. Perhaps “wry” is a better adjective. She sees the intentional and unintentional humor in the situations in which her characters find themselves. That perception is tempered by sympathy that makes these stories very moving.
You should read them.
Dr. Walt Carlson, a St. Olaf parent and a great reader, recommended this novel to me.
Joel Dicker, a Swiss writer, first published this novel to international acclaim in 2012. Penguin brought out the English translation last year. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a story about a cold case. A famous writer — Harry Quebert — living in a big house in a small town in New Hampshire hires some landscapers to plant hydrangeas in his yard. When they dig the hole where the hydrangeas are to be planted, they uncover a skeleton and the manuscript of a novel. It turns out to be the remains of a fifteen-year old girl from the town who disappeared thirty-three years ago.
The job of uncovering how she died and why she’s buried with a manuscript falls to Marcus Goldman — the narrator, also a writer, and the protégé of Quebert — because the manuscript in the grave was written by Quebert, and it turns out that he and the girl — the daughter of a pastor in town and half Quebert’s age — were in a relationship that was celebrated in the manuscript. Quebert is immediately reviled for as an adult having a relationship with a teenager and is arrested for the murder. Goldman, convinced of Quebert’s innocence, begins an investigation into the girl’s disappearance.
But much of this novel is about writers, writing, and publishing, not about the cold case at all. Goldman was Quebert’s student in college. After writing an acclaimed best seller he is imprisoned by writer’s block and has come back to his college mentor for help. Through the course of the novel, which jumps back and forth in time, Goldman and Quebert go back and forth about what good writing is, what writers do, how they work, and why they write. Dicker has been compared to Nabokov, and I can see why. This is a novel about someone who wrote a different novel who is, in turn, the subject of another novel. It’s very “meta” as people would say now.
The crime plot is compelling and the meta-discourse about writing engaging (though you have to put up with a lot of writerly self-importance). I recommend it.
This is a book I should have loved, because it argues that the best kind of college education is precisely the kind we provide at St. Olaf College.
After three chapters in which he excoriates the education provided at Ivy League universities (Deresiewicz used to teach at Yale), the author offers an ironic vision of what an undergraduate education ought to look like:
- “Curricula are designed to give coherence to the educational experience and to challenge students to develop a strong degree of moral awareness. Professors, deeply involved with the enterprise of undergraduate instruction, are committed to their students’ growth and insist on maintaining the highest standards of academic rigor. Career services keep themselves informed about the broad range of postgraduate options and make a point of steering students away from conventional choices ….”
But then he continues:
- “I’m kidding of course. None of this is happening, and none of it will happen without a fundamental change in higher education. Schools do little or nothing to wake students up from the values and habits they bring with them from high school …. Kids are basically handed a course catalog and told to figure it our for themselves.”
This is what’s wrong with this book. It’s not a thoughtful discourse on higher education in America. It’s a rant, full of gross generalizations like those in the preceding paragraph, by somebody who is angry that his values aren’t — in his view — mirrored by society at large. This becomes increasingly evident as you read the book and manifestly clear in the final chapter, which opens into a general critique of contemporary American values. We are in “an era of unprecedented national decline”; it’s time to “plot … another kind of society altogether”; “George W. Bush was the “apotheosis of entitled mediocrity”; Condoleeza Rice and Justice Elena Kagan are “resume jockeys devoid of discernible passion carefully maneuvering their way to the top”; Michael Dukakis is “a high-IQ moron if there ever was one”; President Obama’s “failure as a leader is precisely his conception of what is possible, his meek acceptance of the limits of the status quo.”
This is the language of a bully. It’s not the kind of sophisticated, nuanced analysis actually produced by that the liberal education the author praises in his book.
I came to this book through a review in The Wall Street Journal, downloaded it, and read it in an afternoon. The Removers begins with a scene that occurred near the end of the period of the author’s life described in this memoir. He and his father work for a company that contracts with mortuaries to go and pick up the bodies of persons who have just died and take them to the funeral home. The opening scene is pretty grisly, because this particular corpse has been left unattended in a hot room for a long time. I won’t go into the details.
How does a person end up in this line of work? And what does it tell us about him?
The author grew up in a close-knit family in a close-knit neighborhood in Philadelphia. His father, a poet, taught English at a college in Philadelphia. His mother worked in the home. He had a great kid sister. It was a loving environment full of neighbors and relatives, and Catholicism.
Then one day comes the expulsion from the Garden: his father has been fired for inappropriate relationships with female students. A deep-freeze sets in between the author’s mother and father, yet they stay together. So now the family is stuck in a claustrophobic row house, in financial straits, with parents who don’t speak to one another — indeed, are rarely in the same room together — and kids who are shocked, perplexed, sad, upended. The postlapsarian world is not so great.
The effect on the kids is predictable. The author has a semi-normal life outside the home growing up, but he’s off-kilter. He flunks out of several colleges, drifts around listening to obscure pop music, partying, drinking too much with his buddies, and generally failing to progress. His relationships with women are disastrous. Think John Cusack’s character in the film High Fidelity.
One day, in an attempt to get on a better path, he asks his father to help get him a part-time job at the place where his father had gotten work after his professorial days ended: the company that collects and delivers dead bodies.
This is a memoir about coming of age, about loss and repair, about the weights we all carry around and how we deal with it, about parents and children, about fathers and sons. It’s sad, it’s grisly (the discussion of cremation was just too much), and yet it ends — if not well, at least with promise.
(The author’s father is Joseph Meredith, and his most recent collection of poems is called Inclinations of the Heart.) The Wall Street Journal calls it a “rich companion” to this memoir.
This is a novel I have been seeing featured in airport bookstores for months. I’ve picked it up, put it down, and made lame jokes about the title to my wife Priscilla, countless times. In my last trip through an airport I bought and read it.
The novel divides into two parts, titled “Her and Him” and then just “Her.” In Part One, the chapter titles are “Her,” then “Him,” then “Her,” then “Him,” and so forth. Part two has no chapter titles. If you infer from this that the novel is about the relationship between two people and that it goes badly, you wouldn’t be far off.
Jodi Brett and Todd Gilbert live in a lovely apartment in Chicago looking out onto Lake Michigan. She is a therapist — attractive, fit, stylish, a great cook. Very disciplined, very self-contained. In fact, in the opening paragraphs we learn that “The sense of containment is what she loves most about living here, in her aerie on the twenty-seventh floor.” By contrast, Todd, a real estate developer, is an entrepreneur — a risk-taker with big appetites and a robust sense of the importance of his own needs. They met when she crashed her car into his in a rainstorm. H-m-m-m-m-m-m. Looking at the two of them, considering the metaphor, what could go wrong with this picture?
We don’t have to wait long to find out. In the second paragraph of the novel we are told that Jodi “is deeply unaware that her youthful resilience — which in her twenty-year marriage to Todd Gilbert has been slowly eroding — is approaching a final stage of disintegration, that her notions about who she is and how she ought to conduct herself are far less stable than she supposes, given that a few short months are all it will take to make a killer out of her.”
I like novels that begin by telling you what is going to happen. Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone is a great example. Relieved of anxiety about plot, the reader is free to focus on the journey, not the destination.
The journey in The Silent Wife takes time, as the layers of Jodi’s history get slowly excavated while Todd careens down a road of bad decisions. You realize right away that Jodi has issues — the silence referenced in the novel’s title is definitely not a good thing — but you don’t understand how she got that way until late in the novel. By then it’s too late for Todd and, at this point in her life, too late for Jodi, too.
After a busy Commencement Weekend, followed by a busy Reunion Weekend, I was looking for some downtime with some crime fiction. I ran across this novel in the house and read it in an afternoon.
Samuel Madison is an English professor at Coburn College, near Atlanta. He is arrogant, pedantic, cynical, and cold. Why would he be that way? Because his life isn’t living up to what he had envisioned for himself. He doesn’t want to be teaching at a small, liberal arts college — with what he says are undistinguished students. In fact, he really doesn’t want to be teaching at all. He wants to have written a great novel. He has a manuscript of a novel, but nobody wants to publish it.
The one good thing Sam had going for him was his wife, Sandrine, whom he met in graduate school at NYU. She also taught at Coburn College, but unlike Sam, she didn’t want to write a great novel, or any kind of book. She wanted to spend her time teaching students. She was beautiful, brilliant — unlike Sam, after graduate school she had job offers from leading universities — and increasingly unhappy. Sandrine was unhappy because when she first met Sam she loved him for his kindness, his intensity, his work with special needs students. All that went away.
Plus, she had learned that she had Lou Gehrig’s disease.
I refer to Sandrine in the past tense, because the novel opens with Sam in trial for her murder.
The plotting of this novel is interesting. It’s structured around the days of the trial, but in the course of reporting what happens at the trial, it repeatedly goes back in time to tell the story of Sam and Sandrine’s life together. The jacket blurb describes the author as “one of our greatest chroniclers of the human heart,” which is a preposterous claim, but the story is compelling.
I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that Sam finds his better self in a very interesting way. And that once again, college professors generally, and English professors in particular, and male ones especially, never seem to come off well in fiction. As I have had occasion to ask in these comments on my reading list before, What’s up with that?
This is one of the many books by working chefs (see Yes, Chef; Back of the House; Knives at Dawn; Blood, Bones, and Butter; Heat, all previously discussed on my bookshelf). Why is there so much drama in kitchens? I’m sure that cooks get busy when all of the diners show up at mealtime at a restaurant, but surely there’s a way to plan for that?
Maybe chefs are just drama kings/queens and there’s no getting away from that.
In any event, this is a great read on a cold, rainy spring day in Minnesota like today. Gibney is sous chef at a restaurant in the West Village in New York. Sous Chef takes us thorough a day in the life: showing up on Friday morning when there is a huge number of reservations, including a critic from the Times, through the day of preparing, cleaning up from, and preparing for the next day of serving, in a restaurant. Lots of bad choices by the people working there. Lots of “food porn”: delectable descriptions of menu items. I happened to be making dinner when I was reading this book, and I adapted mustard potatoes from the book for the menu at home. Yum.
This is a literate, well-written, well-paced book.
I was driving somewhere, listening to the radio, and I heard a review of Maggie Shipstead’s second novel. It didn’t sound very interesting to me — something about ballerinas running amok — but the reviewer’s description of Shipstead’s first novel, Seating Arrangements, sounded intriguing. I wasn’t disappointed.
This novel is set on an island off the coast of New England. The Van Meter family and friends are gathering there for the wedding of one of the Van Meter daughters, Daphne (hence the concern about seating arrangements). Over the course of the next four days a lot happens: several unfortunate hook-ups among the wedding party, embarrassing social gaffes by a number of the Van Meters, an accident, a beached whale, suffering over unrequited love, and so forth. I could go on, but you get the picture. In the end, the wedding happens (this was never in doubt), the key characters transcend the embarrassment they experienced and caused others in the run-up to the wedding, and they reach new levels of self-knowledge and peace.
This is a novel of manners. It’s also a marriage novel, a coming of age novel, and—perhaps mostly—a mid-life crisis novel. Winn Van Meter, the father of the bride, has to come to grips with the gap between who he thinks he is and who he really is. Watching that happen is one of the pleasures of this novel.
Seating Arrangements treats some of the classic themes of American fiction: What defines social class? What role does money play in determining class? Are love and social ascendancy compatible? Maggie Shipstead has been called a 21st-century Edith Wharton. That’s a good way to think about her.
This is a beautifully written and compelling novel. I recommend it.
This is a book about the 2012 presidential election. Why write such a book? The authors are convinced that “many of the stories behind the headlines had not been told,” and they state as their objective to “render the narrative … with an eye toward the high human drama behind the curtain, and with accuracy, fairness, and empathy foremost among our aims.”
I think they achieved their goal. If you sit down with this book, prepare yourself for an undertaking: it’s four hundred and seventy-six pages long. But it’s very readable because it’s well constructed. As the reader you move back and forth between the Obama and Romney camps as the campaign progress. It’s got narrative drive. First you hear how Romney is preparing for the debates, then Obama. You read about Romney’s vice presidential vetting process, and then you read about Obama and Biden’s relationship.
In the “high human drama” department, one of the most interesting and moving parts of the book is the recounting of President Obama’s angst in preparing for the second presidential debate after his disastrous performance at the debate in Denver. The scene recounts “The most self-contained president in modern history . . . laying himself bare, deconstructing himself before their eyes — and admitting he was at a loss.”
Even political strategists have to have some fun. During Romney’s vice presidential vetting process, the men under consideration were all given code names related to fish by the vetting team. Rubio was Pescado, Pawlenty was Lakefish, Ryan was Fishconsin, and Christie, who does not come off well in this book, was Pufferfish. (Did they really think “Fishconsin” would mystify people?) There’s a fair amount of this kind of gossip in the book, which is fun.
At the end of the day, though, I mainly found this book discouraging. It’s all about political operatives scheming ways to get an edge on an opponent, to pull the other guy down rather than to build yours up. The process of selecting a president came off to me mainly as sordid and cynical. I suppose I’m naïve about what it takes to win a presidential election, but this book, while interesting, sure wasn’t inspiring.
I encourage you to read this excellent novel.
Sheldon Horowitz is a retired Jewish watch repairman who, after the death of his wife, moves from New York to Oslo to live with his granddaughter, whom he raised, and her Norwegian husband, Lars. Sheldon witnesses the murder of a young woman, the mother of a little boy. Fearing for the boy’s safety, Sheldon at age — 82 — becomes his protector from a murderous Kosovar thug.
There are many complexities here. The ethnic cleansing that occurred in Bosnia renews the horrors of the Holocausts in Sheldon’s mind. Overlaid on that is the abiding guilt he feels for encouraging his only son to enlist in the Vietnam war, where he was killed during his second tour of duty.
Then there is Sheldon himself. At one point in the novel he says to a friend, “I don’t know how to talk without arguing.” That appears to be true. He argues with others, with himself, with the indignities and frustrations of daily life. His granddaughter thinks Sheldon is experiencing the onset of dementia, but I’d bet most readers think he’s actually very acute. A novel about all of the bad things that happen in Norwegian by Night shouldn’t be funny, but this one is, largely because of Sheldon’s musings on the world.
It is also a profound meditation on parents and children, on guilt, and on the evil humans perpetrate on one another. I recommend it highly.
Marcus Samuelsson is the owner and executive chef at Red Rooster Harlem in New York, a restaurant that I really need to go to.
His story is probably familiar to many visitors to my bookshelf: born in Ethiopia, orphaned (or so he thought) at an early age, adopted by Swedish parents, raised in Sweden, then trained as a chef in Sweden, Switzerland, France, and elsewhere, and ultimately at the young age of twenty-four named executive chef at Aquavit in New York, a fine restaurant that I have been to. (Readers in the Twin Cities metro area may remember the short-lived Aquavit restaurant in Minneapolis, that was part of an expansion Samuelsson and his business partner attempted with mixed success).
Samuelsson is well-known in part because his story is so intriguing: a striking African/Swedish/American chef who speaks Swedish, who is, as he says, ”so comfortable with gravlax and meatballs” and who runs a restaurant in Harlem with a multicultural menu. Samuelsson describes what he represents to people this way: “In Ethiopia, I am ferengi, or “white” because I am an American of means. In Sweden I represent “new Sweden,” which to them means an integrated Sweden. In America, I’m black or African American or an immigrant; it depends.”
This book is a memoir, rather than a book about food and cooking, though obviously those subjects come up. On the subject of food and cooking, Samuelsson describes himself as a chef who “chases flavors.” He writes compellingly about how when he came to New York he traveled all over the city trying new flavors and thinking about how to incorporate them into his own cooking. He trained in classical French cooking, but he has left it behind. A great example is his take on the lobster roll. The French “drowned” lobster in “cream-laden sauces.” New Englanders were “a bit heavy-handed when it came to the mayonnaise used to bind it” in a lobster roll. Samuelsson’s solution: roll the lobster “in a skin of thinly sliced pickled Japanese plums, with homemade mayo on the side, and a topping of diced bacon and glistening red caviar.” Yum.
But, as I say, most of this book is about the memoir, not cooking per se. It’s not a great memoir. Yes, Chef tells the intriguing story of Samuelsson’s life, but it’s not very introspective at the key points: the way he abandoned for many years a child he fathered out of wedlock, the discovery decades after his adoption from an orphanage that his birth father was alive, the death of his adoptive father. The one topic that does get more extended and thoughtful treatment is race. There was room for this to be a profound story about birth origin, national origin, family, and race.
Nevertheless, I read it with pleasure, and I recommend it to you.
This thoughtful novel, written by John Barbour of St. Olaf’s Religion Department, explores the meaning and consequences of renunciation — the act of purposefully giving something up in pursuit of a greater good. Acts of renunciation, undertaken for a variety of reasons, can be big or small: only one martini before dinner, no meat during Lent, celibacy, shunning the material sign of success, giving over one’s will to a higher power, suicide.
In Renunciation two brothers explore renunciation from very different perspectives. Will converts to a new religious movement and essentially renounces everything about the life he knew growing up as a pastor’s son in Duluth. His brother Peter engages asceticism as a graduate student of religion at the University of Chicago. Will is passionate, volatile, self-centered. Peter is deliberate, intellectual, but still a spiritual quester. Peter thinks about renunciation and studies examples of it; Will joins a religious community and wears a white robe.
Clearly, there are tensions between the way the two brothers see the world and the way they live in it, just as there are tensions between the desire for transcendence that lies behind acts of renunciation and the dangers inherent in renunciation — dangers to the self and to relationships,
I described this novel earlier as “thoughtful.” It’s challenging for a novelist to engage big ideas deeply and to keep the narrative energy alive, the characters vibrant, and the themes engaging. John Barbour meets that challenge in Renunciation. I recommend it.
“Driftless” alludes to the Driftless Region, an area of southwestern Wisconsin that the glaciers missed. It may also be a metaphor for the continuity of the lives of the inhabitants of Words, Wisconsin, a town so small it doesn’t appear on maps. This novel is set in Words (there’s another metaphor lurking here). It revolves around a couple who run a dairy farm, the pastor of the local church, the owner of the Words repair shop, another farmer, two sisters who live together, and some other characters. The novel moves back and forth among these characters as their lives unfold. It’s a little bit like Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology in that it seems like a succession of vignettes, only this novel has a more organic wholeness than Masters’ play.
Tone is tricky in a novel like this. You have to be clear-eyed about your characters’ limitations, shortcoming, and defects, without dismissing or mocking them. Rhodes manages to be wry, sympathetic, and gentle, but not sentimental, all at the same time. We all have faults. Naming them and appreciating them as part of the whole person is part of the work of this novel. Rhodes’ vision for his characters includes their ability to change. They are rooted in the land, connected to the past, enmeshed in the routines of daily life, but they nevertheless respond to what is around them in interesting and largely productive ways. The novel may be called Driftless, but its people do change.
The attention to detail is remarkable in Driftless. Landscape, machinery, peoples’ appearance, weather, these are all minutely detailed. In a town as small as Words, and in a novel as long as this one (429 pages), there is ample leisure for attending to the minute realities of daily life. These verities provide the context for and anchor the novel’s plot.
It has been a long time since I read a novel with such pleasure. Driftless combines profound attention to detail with an expansive and generous regard for its characters and its setting. When you finish it, you will feel better.
As followers of my web page know, I am a fan of crime fiction, and the gorier the better, but this book is just too creepy.
I love John Sandford’s crime writing. The Prey novels (they all have the word “Prey” in the title and they all feature Lucas Davenport, an agent for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension) constitute one of the best series in American crime fiction, in my view. Sandford’s attention seems now to have shifted to a new series featuring BCA agent Virgil Flowers (or “that f**king Flowers”) as most people seem to call him). I’m still a fan, but the Flowers novels aren’t as dark, Flowers isn’t as funny as Davenport, and, frankly, Flowers seems too much into himself for me.
This new Flowers novel marks a significant departure not only from the other Flowers novels but also from the Prey novels because it has an international dimension. The novel opens in Israel with the theft of a stele — a piece of an ancient pillar unearthed at a dig on the Jordan River. The thief, improbably, brings it to Mankato, Minnesota — where else? — thus the involvement of the BCA and of Flowers, who is based out of Mankato. Before long you have an agent of the Mossad, a representative of Hezbollah, a couple of Crocodile Dundee types, a hot woman who sells counterfeit old wood (really! apparently, that’s a thing), and near the end of the novel some spooks from the American security apparatus.
This stele matters because it contains an inscription that casts doubt upon the story of King Solomon in the Old Testament. He may not have been David’s son but rather an Egyptian. Jesus then becomes the descendant not of Solomon but of an Egyptian Pharaoh. That would confuse a lot of people. Not to mention national borders.
It feels like you’re suddenly in the middle of a Daniel Silva novel only set in Mankato. The whole thing is just too improbable. And it lacks the taut focus of Sandford’s other novels. Lucas Davenport, where are you?
Piper Kerman grew up with privilege, graduated from Smith College, and went looking for adventure. She found it in a woman named Nora, who was in the drug business. Not pharmaceuticals. Piper ended up briefly being a courier for some drug money, became disillusioned with the business and with Nora, left her, and began life anew. Roughly a decade later, the U.S. marshals are at her door. She has been ratted out by someone in the drug ring as part of a plea bargain, she is tried and convicted for her role in the operation, and sentenced to a year in the Federal women’s prison in Danbury, Connecticut.This memoir is based on that experience.
It’s a good read, much more engaging in my view than the Netflix series that is loosely based on this book. Spoiler alert: the series and the book have very little in common. There’s a lot less drama in the memoir, but on the other hand it’s a lot more thoughtful.
Many of the themes are ones you’d expect: the dehumanizing effects of prison life, the general lack of interest in rehabilitation in the prison system, loneliness, boredom, camaraderie with other prisoners. The author is both inside and outside of her experience at the same time: the things that happen to people in the book are happening to her, too, but unlike many of the other prisoners when her sentence is up she will return to a comfortable world where a job is waiting for her. She is supported by a remarkably patient and understanding fiancé and a network of family and friends with the resources to sustain her while she is in prison. She writes like both one of the inmates and what social scientists used to call—maybe they still do—a participant observer. There is a certain amount of whining in the book that, in light of these facts, gets tiresome.
Nevertheless, if like me you don’t know what happens in a federal prison for women—who ends up there, how they got there, how they do their time, how they get along, and what happens to them in the end, this is a good read. I recommend it.
Many readers may look at the title of this short but excellent book and conclude that it’s about insider baseball. At some level they would be right. They might also conclude that it foments academic gossip, and they’d be right about this, too. The book gives numerous case studies of “presidencies derailed” which it defines as presidencies that ended involuntarily before the term of the president’s first contract. The case studies deliberately obscure the name of the president and of the institution, but I know lots of people who are spending time identifying the particular people and places under discussion.
At the end of the day, this isn’t a book about colleges, but rather a book about leadership and governance. Sometimes a presidency (or the leadership of a business) fails for reasons beyond everybody’s control, but usually there were numerous points along the way when failure could have been averted, where problems should have been named and addressed, and where best practices—not to mention common sense—could have prevented a costly mistake.
If you are a trustee or director of an organization, someone likely to participate in the search for a CEO or a for-profit or not-for-profit organization any time soon, or someone who holds or aspires to a leadership position in an organization, you would benefit from reading this book.
My friend John Churchill, who is the highly regarded Secretary of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, had an occasion to look at this web page recently. After looking at the titles listed on my bookshelf, he told me with a chuckle, “David, you are spending too much time thinking about food.”
Perhaps he’s right.
At any event, I was in Washington D.C. on business, stopped in Kramer Books in DuPont Circle, and found Back of the House. I looked forward to another restaurant book like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, Bill Buford’s Heat, or even Steve Dublanica’s Waiter’s Rant. This isn’t that kind of book.
That’s probably because Haas, in addition to being a food writer, is a clinical psychologist whose day job is to be chief psychologist for a private clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts. So while he clearly knows a lot about food, and cooking, and the restaurant business, those aren’t what this book is really about. Rather, he’s interested in what makes a great chef tick. To that end, he spent eighteenth months in the kitchen at Craigie on Main in Boston, watching how chef Tony Maws runs the restaurant. At the end of the book, Haas also shares what he learned interviewing several other leading American chefs, including Thomas Keller, David Pasternack, Daniel Boulud, and so on.
I don’t think Back of the House really tells you that much about what makes great chefs tick, but it has many interesting things to say about leadership. The chefs at the kinds of restaurants Haas writes about don’t do much of the cooking. They write menus, they establish the mission and the tone of the restaurant, and they recruit, develop, and retain staff. That’s what leaders do any kind of organization, from a four-star restaurant to a company, to a non-profit organization, to a college. Over the course of the book we see chef Maws change, or talk about changing, from an authoritarian leadership style to one that’s more collaborative and team-based. We also gain some understanding of what elements of his experience contributed to making him the kind of chef he is (spoiler alert: his father is important to that dynamic).
I still think the best part of the book is the section where the author stops observing and asking people how things make them feel and gets in the kitchen.
I was invited to be part of a Renaissance Weekend, and Dr. Makary was another of the participants. As I listened to him argue for greater transparency in healthcare, part of me was thinking how the same argument could apply to higher education. Many observers think that the challenges facing healthcare and higher education are fundamentally the same. We both offer a service that is expensive to provide because of the amount of training required of the people who deliver it, the intimate nature of providing it — which necessitates a low ratio of “customers” to providers — and the cost of the technology we employ. The Federal government also plays a huge role in our marketplaces. The net result is that both sectors provide a service that people both need and want but for which many are unable, or unwilling, to pay the true cost.
Another commonality between higher education and health care is that many see us as a “black box.” It’s not clear why the costs are what they are, it’s not clear why we do things the way we do, and we do not do a very good job of providing evidence of outcomes. I think this is a fair criticism, so I got a copy of Dr. Makary’s book to see what it might tell me about how to implement greater transparency.
Makary’s book talks about a “new discipline in medicine: the science of measuring quality” (p. 2), which is needed because medicine is “an industry that does not abide by the same principles of accountability for performance that govern other industries” (p. 2). The solution is greater transparency because “Transparency of hospital outcomes for common services would reward good performance, identify bad outliers, and drive improvement, harnessing the power of the free market, as it should” (p. 5). Assuming that he’s right about the problem in medicine, these strike me as reasonable and appropriate solutions to it, and I think they apply with equal power to higher education: focus on outcomes, measure them, report them, compare them. St. Olaf seeks to be a leader among liberal arts colleges in this endeavor. Go to the College’s homepage and click on Outcomes at the top of the page to see more.
This isn’t really a book to read for pleasure. It needed more editing. It’s repetitious in places, and the author is often the hero of his own stories. Plus, it will terrify you if you have any reason to have to spend time in a hospital! But you don’t have to read it cover to cover.
Unaccountable addresses an important issue, it is forthright and passionate, and it stimulates good thinking about all of the areas of our work and lives where more transparency would be a good thing.
In my callow youth I scorned detective novels, which was easy to do never having read one. Then, as a graduate student I had to read one in order to be useful to my professor, John McAleer, who was writing the biography of the American detective novelist, Rex Stout. I’ve been reading crime novels ever since.
Ditto for spy novels. I scorned them, never having read one.That was until DeAne Lagerquist in our Religion department offered a copy of one of Daniel Silva’s novels featuring the Israeli spy Gabriel Allon. Read it. Loved it. Read them all.
Gabriel Allon, the son of a holocaust survivor and a painter, grew up in Israel. His plan was to become a painter himself, but he was recruited by the Israeli secret service and — after the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 summer Olympics in Munich — tasked with hunting down and killing the perpetrators of that crime. He did it, but hunting and killing people — even bad people — changed him. He returned from that work with prematurely gray hair at his temples and unable to continue as a painter. Instead, he went to Venice and apprenticed as a restorer of old master paintings. He continued in the Israeli secret service. This is where the series begins.
Silva has a very particular take on Israeli-Palestinian relations, and he is not sympathetic to Palestinians, so be prepared for that if you take up the series. The settings of the novels range across the globe, because that’s where Allon’s assignments take him.The novels also range back and forth in time, as Allon unearths Nazi hoards and lays bare crimes committed during the Holocaust. Allon himself ages with the series, but I don’t want to say more about that and ruin your own discovery of how he changes.
When the hero of the series bears the name of an angel who served as a messenger from God to His people, and when his profession is restoring damaged things, and when he is an agent of the Israeli secret service, you begin to sense a theme at work. At some level all spy novels have to be plot-driven, but — as the example of John le Carré proves — that doesn’t mean you can’t have rich characters and meaningful themes.The novels in this series do.
But be warned: if you pick one up you should clear your calendar, because you will be reading others.
This is a novel set in mid-coast Maine and Maine’s western mountains, which is where I was when I read it. It is the first novel in what has become a series, featuring Maine Game Warden Mike Bowditch. (Subsequent novels in the series are Trespasser, Bad Little Falls, and Massacre Pond.)
Detectives in my kind of crime novel have issues. Mike Bowditch has issues. For starters, he is a game warden, and his father is a poacher (also a tavern brawler, an unfaithful husband, and generally a lout). His mother is a nouveau riche, and her second husband (after Mike’s father) is a twerp. Mike has inherited his parents’ skills at handling intimate relationships, and as a result the woman he loves, and needs, has just left him.
Good news: he loves being a game warden. Bad news: during a dispute over property rights between a large timber company and small leaseholders, a game warden is shot and Mike’s father is the prime suspect. He believes his father is innocent, but no one else does, and his fellow game wardens do not take kindly to sympathy for the alleged murderer. No one takes kindly to Mike’s clumsy efforts to navigate his duty to the warden service and his interest in solving the murder.
In the course of this novel Mike finds the truth of what happened at the murder scene, he progresses in his relationship skills, and he finds the father he never had. There is also lots of great local color. It’s a good read.
This is a baseball novel, an academic novel, a coming-of-age novel, and a mid-life crisis novel all wrapped into one. It sounds like that won’t work, but it does. Harbach has sharp eyes and ears for the world of academe (especially residential liberal arts colleges in the upper Midwest), so anyone familiar with that world will appreciate both the fondness and the detachment with which he portrays it.
Baseball novels tend to be wistful. Baseball tends to be wistful. The Art of Fielding is wistful about baseball and about coming of age in a lovely way. It’s elegiac.
The coming-of-age plot ends well, the mid-life crisis plot not so much. English professors and college presidents rarely come off well in fiction or film. What’s up with that?
This is a compelling novel. I recommend it.
Searching for Utopia is the published version of the Clark Kerr Lectures on Higher Education delivered by Hanna Gray at the University of California in 2009. If you have any interest in American higher education, or in academic leadership, or simply in deep knowledge, clear thinking, and good writing, you should read this book.
Hanna Gray, who served as President of the University of Chicago from 1978-1993, begins her reflections on universities and their histories by contrasting the visions of two famous and influential American university presidents: Robert Maynard Hutchings of Chicago and Clark Kerr of the University of California. The contrast between them, she argues, “reveal[s] the two most familiar forms in which the American research university has been conceived.” Hutchins was “an uncompromising idealist,” while Kerr was “a pragmatic realist.”
Hutchins saw the modern university as characterized by “intellectual disorder and triviality.” He believed in what he called “permanent studies” which every educated person was expected to master. Sounding more like the eighteenth-century writer Samuel Johnson than a modern American university president, he declared, “Education implies teaching. Teaching implies Knowledge. Knowledge is truth. The truth is everywhere the same. Hence education should be everywhere the same.”
Kerr, Gray argues, “began by accepting the reality of an institution shaped by a history that could not be denied or undone and then worked to lay out a set of standards by which its strengths might be harnessed and its negative effects tempered.” Kerr, who coined the term “multiversity,” did not believe that “permanent studies” exist; rather, he sought to “rebalance and steadily to continue to adapt the university’s configuration to the always moving and changing landscape of learning.”
Having focused these two visions of a university, Gray then considers the treatment of the ideal of a university and of an ideal education in the writings of figures like Thomas More and Cardinal Newman and in the establishment and development of modern American universities. The search for Utopia takes many forms.
This volume concludes with a bold chapter on the “Uses (and Misuses) of Universities Today.” Not everyone will love this chapter. Gray argues for a “return to basics, to our academic center.” This means universities need to become “more deliberatively selective in what they choose to do.” Gray questions, for example, the amount of investment in facilities, and argues for a de-emphasis on teaching students to change the world versus a re-emphasis on advancing and preserving knowledge. She suggests we adopt the model of a “stripped down university” built on “an unfaltering commitment to academic imperatives.”
Wherever you come down on the argument of this last chapter, Searching for Utopia is an important book on American higher education. I encourage you to read it.
This novel, a signed copy, was a gift from my wife, Priscilla, who met the author at a writers’ workshop. One of the blurbs on the jacket cover describes it as “Part dazzling California noir, part dark American road trip, part sly psychological thriller.” That’s a pretty good description.
Daniel Hayes wakes up in the shallows of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Maine. Naked and cold, he can’t remember who he is or how he got there. The good news is that when he struggles to shore there is a BMW there with clothes that fit him and a fifth of Jack Daniels with a little bit of whiskey left in it. The car’s heater warms him up, the clothes fit him, and the registration papers tell him his name. The rest of the novel, with the narrative alternately moving backwards and forward in time, answers the question of how he got to be naked in the ocean on the Maine cost and what to do about it.
What to do about it involves driving to California, his home, re-discovering who he is, and combating an evil persecutor. The nice thing about not knowing who you are is that you have a chance to start all over again: “You are who you choose to be,” as Daniel says at one point. On the other hand, his past keeps on intruding on and shaping his future the more he re-discovers about himself. Re-making yourself is a central theme of California writing.
If you sit down with this novel, be prepared for a bunch of bad things happening to people in the novel — it’s a sly psychological thriller, after all — but it’s a compelling narrative.
This book is 164 pages long, and every sentence in it is a question. (I have resisted the temptation to have every sentence in this commentary be a question.)
It’s amusing to read in short bits. One of the blurbs on the jacket cover calls it, among other things, the “perfect party game,” and I could see that. Here’s part of a paragraph taken at random from p. 107: “When you go to a football game, will you wave a towel for your team? Do you have any mounted animals or pelts? Do you ever have a notion such as ‘Today would be a good day for me to use a lever on something?’ Are you very happy with your hands or could they be other hands and suit you better? Can you quickly name a good thing and a bad thing?” and so on.
The question is whether this book amounts to more than a bunch of mostly-clever questions? Does it have some shape or form? Does it mean anything? (Oops, I’m lapsing into questions.) The very sub-title, “A Novel?” raises this issue. I don’t think it’s a novel, and if it has shape or form I’m not smart enough to discern it. There are topics that recur in the book (scrambling in the sofa for loose change while you hear the ice-cream truck coming down the street, the sexual attractiveness of candy-stripers, little green plastic army men), and the narrative, while not broken up into chapters is broken up into sections or units through the use of white space on the page, so I’m guessing there is authorial intent about form. But it doesn’t appear to me to go anywhere in particular. It just stops at the end.
Some of the questions are just pointless (“Would you rather receive as a gift a boomerang or a dead-bolt lock set?”), but some use figurative language to raise serious topics (“Could you entertain the idea that what undoes couple over time is that they neglect to apply polish to the grain of their wood?”) Some exemplify artful prose (“Can we relax and trust that our wishes in these regards, our posthumous affairs as it were, will really be administered as we have stipulated, or will we be frustrated and yelling through the glass wall of heaven or the hot opaque obsidian walls of hell at the corrupt disregard for our eternal wishes?”) Some you should ponder (“How many generations back can you name your ancestors?”)
But at the end of the day, this is a book best enjoyed in small bits at the sentence-level.
My friend and St. Olaf librarian Inga Velde read The Unlikely Disciple for her book group and mentioned it when I was in Rolvaag Library trolling for a new book to read. The author, while an undergraduate at Brown University, decided to spend a semester at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, the university founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. This book relates his experiences there.
You can probably imagine the arc of this narrative already: Roose grew up in Oberlin, Ohio. One of his parents works at Oberlin College; the other is a lawyer. They are Quakers and, according to Roose, “spend a lot of time talking about peace and working for social justice.” I don’t know that his background qualifies Roose as a “sinner,” but it suggests a certain misalignment of values with the ethos of Liberty University. Roose enters this experiment seeing Liberty University and the people there as alien, intolerant, anti-intellectual. Will a semester there change his mind? Will he be “saved”?
Yes and no. Yes, he changes his view of the people at Liberty; no, he doesn’t go up for altar call. The Unlikely Disciple reads like a book written by a very smart undergraduate, which is fair enough, because it was. Its main tension is between the institutional values of Liberty University, the values espoused by the students and faculty there, and the real human connections he makes with the people there. Undergraduates at Liberty have the same interests and concerns as students elsewhere—academic performance, relationships, vocation, having fun. But they pursue these interests and deal with these concerns within a different set of parameters than most other students—no drinking, no dancing, no physical intimacy beyond hand-holding, required attendance at worship services, and so on.
During his time at Liberty, Roose manages to get an appointment to interview Rev. Falwell for a story for the student newspaper (“God bless college journalism and its low standards,” he crows.) That chapter is emblematic of the journey Roose takes in this book. He disapproves of Falwell, but he just can’t help liking the guy.
On a trip to Denver, I had some time to kill, wandered into a Barnes & Noble store, and saw this book on the shelf.
John Baxter is an Australian expat who has lived in France for thirty-some years. This book begins when he and a friend have dinner at the Grand Palais in Paris. It’s apparently a very fancy restaurant, what I call a “big plate, little food” kind of place. It’s the kind of place where when your soup comes it’s a little blob of something green in a big bowl. The waiter sprays foam into it and then pours in the liquid. It smokes. Baxter enjoys the meal, but after the dessert he wonders, “What had happened to the robust country dishes of fifty years ago, before the advent of nouvelle cuisine and food designed not to satisfy hunger but to show off the imagination of the chef?” (p. 8).
So, he embarks on a series of journeys around France, chronicled in the remainder of the book, to places where “typical” French cooking still flourishes. The goal at the end of the journey is a menu for a classic French banquet as defined by, of all organizations, UNESCO: a meal “commencing with an aperitif … and ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses, namely a starter, fish and/or meat with vegetable, cheese and dessert” (pp. 11-12).
Baxter’s travels take him from one end of France to the other in search of dishes that might comprise his menu, food cooked the way the locals had been cooking it for hundreds of years. There are chapters on caviar, on mushrooms, on lamprey, on anchovies, on bouillon, and, finally, on beef. Locavores will like this.
With any book like this you are going to have to put up with a certain amount of pretentious name-dropping and coy self-flattery (the “dear friend” who lives in a house overlooking Cannes was an irritating addition to the narrative, for example). But these elements are overshadowed by a flood of historical, etymological, cultural, and just plain humorous insights that make the read worth it. Baxter’s hymn to coffee is lyrical, and his diatribe against decaf hilarious (“Decaf — the essence of disappointment. The fumbled pass that loses the game; the ball that rims the hole but doesn’t quite drop; … the mystery you realize on page ten that you’ve already read,” and so on for several paragraphs.)
The chapter on his trip to the country to see a whole beef roasted al fresco has a paragraph on eating meat that is perhaps less successful: “To see the animal entire made us aware of our kinship, of a shared nature as creatures of flesh that walked and ate and breathed and bred and died.” I imagine that works a lot better for you if you are the eater, not the eaten.
The menu he decides upon, and recipes for dishes he encounters in his travels, are in an appendix. Bon appétit!
You don’t have to think for long about innovators who have fundamentally changed modern life before you come to Steve Jobs. I use a MacBook Air, an IPod, and an IPad almost every day, but I’m not one of those people who have embraced Apple products like a religion. The designs are attractive, but they do what I need them to do at about the same transaction cost as all the other devices in my life, which is all I ask. So I wasn’t drawn to this biography because of the cool things Jobs created.Rather, I was hoping to read about what enabled Jobs to be so successful at envisioning what people would need and want, at creating innovative new products to meet those needs, and at leading a company — now, the world’s most valuable company — that delivered those products at a price people are willing to pay.This biography answers those questions. Jobs had a distinctive vision and was incredibly disciplined in making it a reality. He wanted to make devices that wedded design and function. He wanted them to be complete and whole in themselves. He wanted users of his devices to experience clarity and simplicity. He wanted his products to be things of beauty that were made with excellent craftsmanship within and without. To that end, he needed to control every aspect not only of the devices design and production but also of its use. When he and Steve Wozniak were designing the Apple II computer, Wozniak wanted to have eight slots on the computer where users could customize their machine by inserting various peripherals. Jobs insisted on only two slots, one for a modem, one for a printer. He designed subsequent products so that they could only be opened with special screwdrivers available only to Apple technicians.
Jobs was like one of his own products: self-contained, and not in a good way. With his family he could be warm and engaging one moment and utterly distant another. He was abusive to his friends, his employees, and his business competitors. He was domineering, mercurial, and stubborn. In short, he behaved like a person with single-minded determination to achieve a particular goal at whatever cost to himself and others.
To me, the great question raised by this biography was whether it had to be this way. Did Jobs have be that kind of person in order to imagine and produce those products and to lead Apple? Could he have conceived, manufactured, and sold anything as satisfying as the computer I am typing on now and been a better person? If not, I’m not sure it was worth it.
This book caught my eye on the shelves of Rolvaag Library. It’s (another) mid-life crisis academic novel. It’s also about teaching, Catholicism, parenting, and friendship.Gordon Clay teaches music at Goldhurst Community College, north of Fresno. Once, he was one of the promising bass players at Eastman, but despite many auditions, he was never seated in an orchestra. He wasn’t good enough. His college sweetheart left him for another man after graduation. Not good enough there, either. When the novel begins, he is in a bad place: living alone, eating junk food, feeling bitter about teaching at a community college, treating his students with contempt, and generally being unhappy. Also, he’s experiencing chest pains.One night, in the middle of the night, the phone rings. It’s a mother desperately looking for her lost son. She calls Gordon because he has the same name as her ex-husband, and she gets the wrong number from the phone book. It’s as though the possibility of a child, or a family, opens him up. He visits the playground where the little boy was last seen, and he meets another little boy whom he befriends. He sees a cardiologist and begins to eat a healthier diet and to at least contemplate exercise.
And he opens up to other people. Clay was raised Catholic. One of his students, Sister Cecilia, who aspires to be a musician and has no sense of pitch at all, cajoles him into attending the Ministry of the Living Faith Study Group at her church. There he meets Mikilauni Kukula, an exotic beauty from an island in the South Pacific obliterated by nuclear testing. Repressed, lonely middle-aged white man meets exotic, sensual, beautiful island woman. You can guess where this heads. But it’s not just about Gordon’s sexual re-awakening. It turns out the Mikilaiuni’s son, Moopuna, is the little boy Gordon had befriended at the playground. And that relationship turns out to be the most important one in the novel.
Gordon generally sees the world through a satirical lens: take his reflections on modern Catholic music, for example(he has to clean out his ears with Gregorian chant after attending a service); or the music department faculty meeting where four he and his colleagues squabble over who should receive a music scholarship; or his clear-eyed assessment of the plight of adjunct faculty. College Presidents do not fare well, either.
But he is also capable of sweet affection, and over the course of the novel Gordon Clay generally transitions from the angry, lonely satirist to a person with both the desire and capacity for friendship and love. His heart disease is cured. In the end, this is a sweet book.
Gretchen Morgenson ’76 is an Ole, recently named by Worth magazine among “the 100 most influential people in finance.” According to the magazine, she “may be the foremost investigative chronicler of the financial crisis and its fallout.” Worth goes on to say, “Morgenson is a must-read, especially at Goldman Sachs, about which she is brutal, and in the offices of the Securities and Exchange Commission.” So I was excited to read her new book.As I was first reading Reckless Endangerment I thought the best word to describe it was “angry.” Perhaps you can see from title why: the authors are not reluctant for a moment to name the motives they discern behind the behavior that led to the financial meltdown. Neither are they reluctant to name the individuals who exhibited that behavior. In fact, the authors come right out in the preface and say, “We are angry that the American economy was almost wrecked by a crowd of self-interested, politically influential, and arrogant people who have not been held accountable for their actions.”But on reflection I think that a better adjective might be “relentless” (the authors also refer in their Preface to their “unrelenting search for facts.”) This book doesn’t point fingers and call names. It constructs a specific, detailed, coherent, and compelling narrative of the causes of the financial meltdown, showing how a series of connected events, decisions, and actions led this country to the brink of financial disaster. As the authors claim, this book “connects key incidents that have seemed heretofore unrelated.” It is, in their words, “an economic whodunit.”
This book begins with Bill Clinton’s 1994 declaration that, “More Americans should own their own homes . . . to harbor, to nourish, to expand the American Dream.” The authors don’t argue that this was a mistaken policy goal (though they do argue that it quickly became one when it led to irresponsible lending to Americans who were not in a position to buy homes.) Rather, they argue that the strategy for achieving this goal was deeply flawed. The government turned to “Banks, home builders, securities firms, Realtors” and others to join in this effort. The problem with this strategy was that “it was unheard of for regulators to team up this closely with those they were charged with policing.” Because the private sector participants in this partnership could profit immensely from increased home ownership, they drove aggressively forward towards that goal. Regulators, unable or unwilling to stop the resulting unsound business practices and unethical behavior by self-interested parties, failed to protect Americans and the American economy from the consequences of those actions. The result was “trillions of dollars in investments lost around the world, millions of Americans jettisoned from their homes and fourteen million U.S. workers without jobs.” To make matters worse, those responsible for the unsound practices that led to the economic collapse and those charged with regulating them have not been held to account.
The principal villain in this story is Fannie Mae and its chief executive, James A. Johnson. The authors charge him with devising “a corrupt corporate model” that yielded great riches for him by “eliminating the traditional due diligence conducted by lenders.” Others in the business copied the model, and Wall Street provided the capital to lenders that enabled them to implement the model. Congressional leaders, investment bankers, and highly placed regulators – all named – fare badly in this narrative.
This book tells that story in much greater detail than this summary. It’s as compelling as a good detective story and as readable, which is remarkable given the arcane financial and legislative matters that are its subject. I recommend it to you.
My adventures in Nordic crime fiction continue. Patricia Martin, Director of Government and Foundation Relations at St. Olaf, suggested this novel, and I’m glad she did. It’s a fine detective novel.But it’s bleak. Really bleak. Here’s a meditation on his work by the detective, Inspector Erlendur, near the end of the novel:
Maybe it’s best to let life run its course. Forget the whole business.
Start doing something sensible. Why should I want to get involved in
all this? All this filth. Talking to people like Ellidi. Doing deals with
shits like Eddi. Seeing how people like Holberg get their kicks. Reading
rape reports. Diggin up the foundations of a house full of bugs and shit.
Digging up little coffins.
The novel begins with the murder of a seventy-year old man. It would appear to be a random murder, perhaps associated with an attempted robbery, if it weren’t for the note laid on his corpse: “I am HIM.” The search of the crime scene uncovers, hidden away in a bottom desk drawer, a photograph of a child’s coffin, and the subsequent investigation uncovers a path leading back decades to a brutal rapist, an undiagnosed heredity disease, hidden identities, family tragedies, and sins of the father visited on the son, all of which combine to explain the murder with which the novel opens. They also give rise to Erlandur’s discouraged soliloquy.
The protagonist is Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson, and he is like the detectives in most other Nordic crime fiction (and American hard-boiled fiction too, for that matter). He’s estranged from his wife and children, his parenting skills are abysmal, he smokes too much, eats a terrible diet, doesn’t exercise, doesn’t get enough or the right kind of sleep, and his apartment won’t be on the Better Homes & Garden Tour any time soon. His colleagues regard him with a mixture of admiration and irritation. He’s impossible to supervise. On the other hand, he’s perceptive, brilliant, and tenacious. And – despite that moment of discouragement I quoted above – his personal problems don’t obscure his fierce desire for justice.
He is also, for such an unhappy person, deeply compassionate. The murder victim in the opening of this novel doesnt generate any sympathy at all, but the people whose lives have been bent by the train of events that led to his murder haunt Erlandur, and his determination that they should receive the justice they deserve drives him to pursue this investigation. The scene in which he re-buries a child’s coffin that had been exhumed is moving.
One reviewer commented that this novel “conveys the sense of painful inevitability underlying the old stories that medieval Icelanders told through the long winter nights.” That’s an interesting claim. I don’t know enough about Iceland to have an opinion about the extent to which the novel captures a sensibility or tone unique to that nation, but it clearly relies for a key plot element on the homogeneity of the Icelandic people. And that’s a theme worth pondering.
The prose is spare, the atmosphere is dark, the detective is unhappy, and the crimes are awful. Plus, it pours down rain throughout the novel. In the closing scene of the novel, we hear that “It had started raining again but he [Erlandur] thought the rain was somehow milder.” That’s as good as it gets in Erlandur’s world.
This novel was a gift from Jackie Henry, Administrative Director of the Norwegian American Historical Association, housed at St. Olaf. Followers of my bookshelf know how much I enjoy Nordic crime fiction. An introduction to a new writer in that genre is a real gift.Actually, Karin Fossum is not “new”; she’s only new to me. There are ten novels in her Inspector Sejer series, in addition to a long list of other works. Wikipedia says she is often referred to as “The Norwegian Queen of Crime.” If you haven’t read her, I urge you to start right away.
Bad Intentions begins with a drowninga young man recovering from a nervous breakdown who had been given a weekend away from the hospitalincluding Friday the 13thto spend with two old friends. Readers are given some insight into what happened that weekend, but not why, and the experience of the first half of novel includes watching Inspector Sejer and others come to understand both the what and the why. Then another young man’s body is discovered in a lake, there is a connection with the first drowning, and the reader and the Inspector learn together what it all means.
This is a novel about guilt, which the novel sees as corrosive, uncontrollable, irrepressible. Think Macbeth on the fjords. It’s also a novel about confession, the intermediary product of guilt, and about punishment and redemption, the end products of guilt. It is taught, clear-eyed, and spare. I recommend it.
My friend Einar Vannebo, who ably directs the International Summer School at the University of Oslo, gave me this book. He introduced me to Nordic crime fiction, for which I am most grateful.This is the sixth novel by Jo Nesbø featuring Oslo policeman Harry Hole, who specializes in catching serial killers. Harry is every supervisor’s nightmare: he has no use for systems and procedures, no regard for authority, and no fear of being fired. In fact, every time he gets fired, or quits, the police force ends up having to plead with him to come back. His personal life is a mess. He’s alcoholic, and when he’s trying to stay dry he uses drugs to replace the alcohol. He lives alone, and it seems hes likely to stay that way because every time he forms what looks like a healthy, loving relationship with a woman she gets caught up in his investigation when the killer sees her as Harry’s vulnerability, and bad things happen. In this novel there’s a further complication: his father is on his deathbed. It was a complex father-son relationship, but at least it was a relationship, and Harry doesn’t need to be further alone.At the end of the last Harry Hole novel, The Snowman, Harry’s lover Rakel and her son became victims of a really creepy serial killer. The Leopard opens with Harry estranged from them, living in a flophouse in Hong Kong, smoking opium, and in debt to the Triad, Hong Kong’s mob. But a new killer is on the loose in Norway, and Kaja Solness, a beautiful police officer, has been dispatched to persuade Harry to come home and catch the killer. You wouldn’t think that there could be a creepier killer, or one who uses creepier methods, than in the last Harry Hole novel, but there is. Don’t read this novel if you don’t have a stomach for some brutal, graphic death scenes.
The investigation in this novel plays out against a backdrop of internecine struggle within the Oslo police force between Harry’s Crime Squad and Kriposan elite crime-fighting unit that is seeking to absorb Crime Squad. This has been a running theme in Nesbø’s novels, and it’s hard to see why it’s so important to him. In any event, Harry ends up fighting on two fronts at once: trying to solve the crimes and trying to outwit Kripos. Keep your eye on Kaja Solness.
This is a seven hundred-forty page novel in paperback, so prepare yourself for a long ride that involves the Far East, Norway, Africa, avalanches, precious metals, instruments of torture, and off-market anesthetics. It’s like the Stieg Larsson novels in its ambitious scope but more tightly plotted. Though it’s a novel about solving a crime, it’s really a novel about Harry Hole. It starts with him taking refuge in opium, and it ends with him wishing for an “armoured heart.” Considering what happens in the intervening time, you can understand why.
I love John Sandford’s crime fiction. His twenty-one Prey novels (they all have the word “Prey” in the title) featuring Minneapolis detective Lucas Davenport are still my favorites, but a new Virgil Flowers novel is always welcome, too.Sandford is following a pattern similar to that of the late, great American detective novelist Robert B. Parker, who established himself with the Spenser novels, then added a second series, the Jesse Stone novels, and then a third series, featuring a woman detective, Sunny Randall. Similarly, Sandford became famous with the Prey novels, introduced the character of Virgil Flowers and then spun him off to his own series, and also began a series featuring Kidd, a shadowy figure in cyber-world who pursues bad people with his sidekick LuEllen. There haven’t been any recent Kidd novels, so I’m not sure where that one stands. The Prey novels are urban, the Flowers novels rural. Davenport wears expensive suits, is married to a doctor, and has a family. Flowers wears ratty old t-shirts featuring rock groups, has three failed marriages in his past, and tows a boat behind his truck on crime investigations just in case theres good fishing near the crime scene.This is Sandford’s fifth Virgil Flowers novel. A superstore chain wants to move into a small Minnesota river town, there’s a fight between proponents of the store and environmentalists, and deadly bombs start going offfirst one at the companys corporate headquarters, then one at the construction site, and then more. Virgil Flowers is sent to investigate. He uncovers civic corruption, discovers a lot of people sleeping with persons other than their spouses, survives a bomb that blows up his boat, and eventually catches the bomber. It’s not who you might think it would be. Nor is the motive.
It will be interesting to see where Sandford takes the Virgil Flowers series. At the end of the last Flowers novel, Virgil had a girlfriend, the sheriff of the town where he was investigating a crime. But she has caught the eye of a movie production company and is in Hollywood consulting with them on a movie about the crime. When your girlfriend goes to Hollywood while you’re towing a boat around, that can’t be good. The results are predictable. This novel ends with Virgil alone in a small town hotel, drinking a beer and musing about all the good women hes met that he’s not with, and feeling lonely.
This first novel, like so many of the interesting books I read, was a gift from my wife, the writer Priscilla Paton, who found it at the Twin Cities Book Festival. (Why she keeps giving me books about men having mid-life crises is a subject for another essay.)
This is a novel narrated by someone who doesnt seem to understand either himself or other people. Neil Fox, a venture capitalist who worked in New York and lived on Long Island, recounts the events of his life in 1970 from the perspective of twelve years later, after he has sold his partnership in his firm, moved to Key West, and contracted emphysema from all the cigarettes he smokes in the novel.
Fox is a difficult person. The novels first paragraph suggests why: I still had plenty of money in 1970, more than my neighbors could reasonably hope to come by, yet not so much anymore that I could forget them. My lawn was no longer quite big enough nor my hedges high enough. Fox seems to regard other people as an annoyance, an intrusion. Hes suspicious of them. He doesnt like his brother, who is also his business partner. He doesnt like his mother, who in truth does seem rather mean-spirited. He doesnt like his business partners. He cant connect with his daughter. Obviously, the marriage wasnt working.
The events of 1970 force him to engage with people, and this is a novel about what happens when he does. The novel, and Foxs mid-life crisis, begin with his wife announcing that she is leaving him. His daughter is departing for college as well. Out with the old. A new neighbor moves in next-door and keeps finding ways to insert himself into Foxs life. Eventually they form a business partnership, the neighbor introduces him to a woman who becomes his lover, and events take a course that I wont recount here so as not to spoil the plot. In with the new.
You can imagine a rich account from a self-conscious narrator about the changes in himself and his view of the world brought about by the changes in his circumstances, but you dont really get that in this novel. Rather, because Fox is not particularly self-conscious or self-critical you get his account of what is happening to him but its mostly up to you to understand the significance of whats happening to him or why he does what he does. You dont get much help from him. Its like a Henry James novel, or Ford Maddox Fords The Good Soldier in this respect.
I predict that you wont like the narrator, but you will likely feel sorry for him at times in his alienation and isolation. He has his opportunities to break out of them, and he may, to some extent. In his authors acknowledgements James Wallenstein that to an extent This novel may be said to be about failed partnerships. Thats a great description of it.
This novel makes brilliant use of acutely and minutely observed physical details of scenes, and many of these descriptions of the settings for the novels action provide clues to understanding the significance of those actions. For a guy who doesnt seem to see himself very well, Fox has a poets eye for the details of his surroundings.
At the conclusion of this interesting and well-written account of the birth of forensic medicine in the U.S., the author reveals that
“There are mornings, lit by the cold winter light, when I start talking about a poison in my book, revealing my own dangerous expertise, and as I do, I watch my husband quietly, not really thinking about it, slide his cup out of my reach.”
As with so many good books I’ve read, my wife, Priscilla, recommended this one. The fact that she rather gleefully recounted the numerous poisonings of one spouse by another that are described in the book may have put me in a similar position to the author’s husband: it seemed prudent to see just what she had learned from The Poisoner’s Handbook.
This book is organized by poison. There’s a chapter on chloroform, another on wood alcohol, one on arsenic, another on radium, and so forth. Many of these chapters open a window onto an important moment in American history that you see in a new light through the lens of poison. The wood alcohol chapter, for example, is about prohibition, and the radium chapter shines a light on Marie Curie and on the sad story of the dial painters, young women who painted radium onto watch faces to make them luminous and who poisoned themselves in the process. Industrial scandals abound.
The heroes of the book are Charles Norris, the first real coroner in New York (as opposed to cronies of the Tammany Hall political machine, men who bore the title of coroner but treated the position merely as a sinecure) and Alexander Gettler, a Hungarian immigrant whom Norris recruited to his laboratory in the Coroner’s Office. These two men, Norris with his vision for what a coroner should do and his tenacity in advocating for the office, and Gettler, with his brilliance as a bench chemist, founded forensic science.
You don’t have to be a scientist to appreciate this book. It is a readable, compelling narrative about key moments in early twentieth-century American history spiced with lots of remarkable stories about poison and poisoners. I recommend it.
You can overthink the business of deciding which books to read. On vacation we rented a house near the sea. It was full of interesting books, and this was one of them. I was on vacation, and I had loads of free time, so I read it.Though based upon the letters that Julia Child and her husband Paul sent to his twin brother between 1948 and 1954, this memoir covers more than the five years or so that they lived continuously in France, the period when she learned to cook and began to teach and write about cooking. This is the period imagined so charmingly in the recent film Julie & Julia. It also recalls their postings to Germany and to Norway and then their return to the States after Paul Child retired from government service and Julia Child became a celebrity.Mostly, though, it’s about the years in France, beginning in 1948. If there is a narrative arc to this book it is probably the story of how Julia Child “found herself,” as she puts it. She describes herself upon their arrival in France as “confused,” lacking in confidence, and “overly emotional.” “I was thirty-seven years old and still discovering who I was” (p. 67). Julia Child found herself through cooking, and one of the pleasures of this memoir is watching how her descriptions of herself change from this early one to the period of final preparation of the manuscript of Mastering the Art of French Cooking where she is the one who insists on precision, process, and clarity.
Good news: the book is full of talk about cooking and eating. On the cooking front, pp. 60-61 tell you how properly to scramble an egg. Page 69 offers a simple recipe for roast veal. Pages 202-3 describe the complex and gruesome preparation of pressed duck. Page 174 discusses the many different versions of bouillabaisse. On the eating front, p. 97 describes a dinner at a restaurant called The Artistes: loup de mer (sea bass), “its stomach cavity stuffed with fennel, grilled over charcoal . . . . After that Paul had two venison cutlets with a wine sauce . . . accompanied by a chestnut puree. I had roasted alouttes (larks) and puffed-up potatoes . . . . Finally, a wedge of Brie and coffee. A perfect meal.” This book is full of descriptions like these.
This memoir reflects a time in France when you could go to the butcher or the cheese maker or the fish monger or the wine merchant and buy what we would now call “artisanal” products — hand-crafted, locally sourced, traditionally made items. We don’t live that way now, but this book isn’t angry about that. Its joyful recollection of that world and how Julia Child found herself while living in it makes this memoir energetic and optimistic.
I picked up this book because I had seen the author interviewed several times on The PBS Newshour as the Madoff scandal unfolded, and she seemed, as one of my professors used to say, “pithy, trenchant, and germane.” I thought her account of what happened would be clear and readable, and it is.At the end of the day, the story of Madoff’s fraud was pretty simple: he took people’s money and told them he was investing it for them, but he didn’t. Instead, he spent it on himself.How do you start down this road? In Madoff’s case, the answer seems to be banal: you actually are investing people’s money, you make some bad bets and you come up short, but instead of telling the truth and taking your lumps you fake the results you wished you had achieved, using other people’s money. You never turn back.
Madoff is an enigmatic figure in this book. You understand what he did and the proximate reasons why, but you don’t get much insight into how he explained to himself what he was doing, or how he rationalized his actions, or how far his self-awareness reached. Did he have dark nights of the soul? When he stepped aboard his yacht in France paid for with money stolen from his “investors,” did he feel a pang?
The author is probably not to blame here; it’s not clear that Madoff has given anyone insight into his inner life. So, even though this book is subtitled “The Death of Trust,” I wouldn’t call it a moral tale. The closest the book comes to this kind of writing occurs in the Epilogue, where Henriques meditates on the Ponzi scheme as a crime. It’s “the crime of the egotist, not the sadist” because — until the money runs out — there is no pain, only grateful “clients.” Madoff’s Ponzi scheme is particularly interesting and morally complex because of the way it allowed some of his “investors” who received vast sums from later investors to direct those phony earnings to wonderful acts of charity, helping universities, hospitals, and all manner of worthy causes.
The Epilogue also delivers a sobering analysis of how difficult it is to detect a fraud like Madoff’s. There is a mismatch, Henriques argues, between investors and regulators, that makes detecting fraud highly problematic. Investors are from Mars, regulators from Venus; or to put it more clearly, regulators believe in the fine print while investors never read it. To Henriques, the Madoff fraud demonstrates that our current approach to regulation — the “full-disclosure regime” — doesn’t work. “Inadequate disclosure was not what inflicted the catastrophic losses that so many of Madoff’s victims sustained. What inflicted those losses was their failure even to ask for some fine print, much less read it. What went wrong was their rejection of basic bedrock principles of investing . . . .”
Henriques goes so far as to argue that “The Madoff case demonstrated with brutal clarity another truth that we simply do not want to face about the Ponzi scheme in our midst: He is not “other” than us, or “different” from us. He is just like us — only more so.” Madoff was not “inhumanly monstrous. He was monstrously human.” Any of us has within ourselves the capacity to commit his crimes.
This is a lucid, well-paced book about a complicated subject. I recommend it.