Koestler’s Arrival and Departure


Arrival and Departure
Arthur Koestler

A taught little novel about intrigue and politics in a town of transients and refugees. Our protagonist is a leftist hero, who has left the growing dictatorship in his country to either return to fight on the side of justice or flee to an apolitical life across the sea. He meets first a gorgeous woman who takes his heart, then dives into deep analysis with a woman who wants to know what makes him tick, what makes a good boy from a good family become a revolutionary; and why he’s so damaged now. And eventually, he ends up debating with a fascist with whom he shares a social economic class, but nothing more.

I wasn’t sure when I was reading this whether I liked it or not. Some of it is a bit post-war European for me, I thought. But much of the book — the characters, the setting, and the mood, especially, has stayed with me. And that says a lot.

Recommended.

Arthur Koestler

Review: Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn


Motherless Brooklyn
Jonathan Lethem

I bought Motherless Brooklyn right when it came out and then immediately leant it to a friend who soon after became a hopeless junkie. I never saw the book again.

But this year, without a book at the New Haven train station, I picked it up again, and blazed through it in just a couple of days. Lethem’s noir Brooklyn crime novel with a touch of Zen Buddhism and smattering of neuro-divergent ruminations on what it might feel like to be Tourettic was exactly up my alley. I found the writing propulsive and clean, my generally preferred aesthetic, and the love letter of sorts to a mobbed up Carrol Gardens that is now long gone hit my Brooklyn nostalgia hard. Some find the book too clever by half, but I are it up.

Recommended.

Cline’s The Girls


The Girls
Emma Cline

A novel about a cult leader, very much like Manson, and a woman, very much like Susan Atkins, who befriend / seduce a very young teenage girl and bring her into the dark side of the post-summer of love hippie land. Our hero, the very young teenage girl (Evie) is lost, and pissed at her single mom. She falls for the free spirited confidence of Suzanne (clearly modeled on Atkins) and is willing to do anything to gain her attention, whether that’s robbing a store, moving to a commune with manipulative drifter con artist leader, Russell, or sleeping with much older men who might be able to help Russell.

At first it appears that Suzanne is going to lead Evie right into murder, but she doesn’t. She saves her. And the why, and what it means to be left behind, to be complicit but not guilty is what Evie struggles with the rest of her life.

This is a gorgeous, haunting novel about love and solidarity between women, and the cruelty too often heaped upon them by manipulative men. I couldn’t put it down. If you love a compelling story, well told and can stomach some violence and many creepy sex scenes, this is an arrestingly good novel. I’ll read whatever Emma Cline writes next.

Recommended

Winslow’s The Force


The Force
Don Winslow

Don Winslow if not the best crime writer alive, definitely top five. His pacing is always full speed ahead, but without sacrificing character develop, or whip smart dialogue. His two books on the rise of Mexican drug cartels, The Power of the Dog and the Cartel are deeply researched and utterly compelling.

Here, he turns his attention to the NYPD and an imaginary unit of super cops that shares a lot of similarities with the notorious Street Crimes Unit. They’re touted around the city as a team of super cops out to get the baddest of the bad guys, but in reality they’re deeply corrupt and their leader is spiraling out of control.

An ode to New York City and a sympathetic portrait of the NYPD, with its blemishes and all, this book is catnip for a New Yorker like me. Dialogue is on point, story moves at a blazing speed, landmarks all check out. If you like crime novels, or New York City novels, or novels with a plot that flies, this is worth the read.

 

Recommended.

Don Winslow

Brandes’ The Orchard

The Orchard

Yochi Brandes

A fictionalize portrayal of the life of Rabbi Akiva, told from the perspective of his loving, but long suffering wife.

Akiva is a luminary of early rabbinic Judaism and one of the central figures in the Talmud. He was, allegedly, a simple Shepard, who won the heart of the daughter of one of the richest men in Judea. At her insistence, he began the study of Torah while already in middle age and became one of the most importance forces in the development of Judaism, working to establish the cannon of the tanakh, the development of halakha and more. In this novel, he even comes into contact with the early strains of Christianity and is part of the development of early kabbalah. Eventually, he was tortured and murdered by the Romans for his support of the Bar Kokhba revolt.

According to the Talmud and associated stories, he was a humble, good, man, but it was not an easy life. Scores of sacrifices had to be made for his place as a Torah scholar and his wife bore the brunt of most of it. This is the story that is told here.

The writing is uneven, but perhaps that’s the translation. The story is compelling and at times, clever in how it centers Akiva and the other Tannaim in so many aspects of not only Judaism, but early Christianity. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and despite it being a work of fiction, learned quite a bit. The book assumes no knowledge of the Talmud, but I’m sure a deeper understanding that I have would have open up much more.

I do quickly want to note that the title refers to the story of four rabbis of the Tannaim visiting “the Orchard”. In this book, they do so using some sort of magic, and what they see, when they get there is some version of paradise, or the divine. It changes them all forever, killing one, driving another mad, sending one into blasphemy, and brining Akiva to a place as the most prominent rabbi of his generation.

Just trying to write a single paragraph on the Orchard story reflected back to me how little I understand the story, and the Talmud in general.

So much more to learn.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Rabbi Akiva

Nguyen’s The Sympathizer


The Sympathizer
Viet Thanh Nguyen

There are novels that when you’re reading them you can tell that the autor agonized over every word, thought deeply about every plot point, knew intimately every character. You can tell that the book is more than a work of fiction, its an attempt to tell something true and real about a time, a place, or a person.

The Sympathizer is such a book. The story of Vietnamese refugee, told in flashback form, from his time in Vietnam working for the government (but secretly spying for the North Vietnamese) through his time in the refugee communities of Southern California, and then back to Vietnam. Nguyen knows the Vietnamese community of Southern California intimately, that’s clear, and he’s researched the hell out of the Vietnamese war its aftermath, all of which has produced a book of exquisite writing and deeply sympathetic characters. I’ll note that, like many great books, the ending felt a little off, but still a wonderful book.

Recommended.

*See what I did there?

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Harris’s Dictator

Dictator: A Novel

Robert Harris

The final volume in Harris’s novelization of the life of Cicero, this one covering his actions during the time of the assassination of Caesar up to his death on the orders of Marc Anthony. Cicero is one of Rome’s most memorable senators. A brilliant lawyer and rhetorician who was also deeply immersed in the political upheavals that brought Rome from a democracy of sorts to a dictatorship under Augustus.

Harris takes liberties here, for sure. For instance, we know little to nothing of the motivations of many of the actors in this time period, never mind what they actually said. And the apparent warmness between Augustus and Cicero, at least for a time, is dubious, I think. But whatever, it’s a popular novel, not a text book, and if you’re interested in ancient Rome, as I very much am, it’s a fun ride.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Robert Harris

Robert Harris

Book Review: Sternbergh’s Shovel Ready


Shovel Ready
Adam Sternbergh

A crime novel set in post-apocalyptic New York City featuring a hit man with a heart of gold as the hero.

New York has been hit with a dirty bomb, and most of the city has fled, or now lives their entire lives jacked into virtual reality. Except our hero, who lives in Jersey and kills people. Except when he teams up with a group of misfits to take on the powers that be and protect a young girl.

A mix of the clever and the trite, this book is by turns clever, and too loose with the corny jokes and crime novel clichés. Still, I enjoyed it for the dark confectionery ride it is. If you have a tolerance for a certain level of crime novel cliché, you’ll probably enjoy it too.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

 

Review: LaValle’s The Changeling

A book that starts out as a heartwarming tale of parenthood, turns real dark, real fast, and ends up a surreal exploration of a world of monsters, cults, and heartbroken parents in New York City.

Kinda about parenthood, kinda about race and difference, kinda about the role of social media, and kinda about the immigrant experience. All and all pretty spectacular. Some of the best writing about what it feels like to be a new dad that I have ever read, some of the most disturbing scenes of grief. Written with a love of New York City and subtle type of immigrant and racial justice politics.

A great book, if you can buy in on some supernatural elements, but fair warning, some of this can be tough going for parents of young children.

Recommended.

Review: Bacigalupi’s The Wind-Up Girl


The Wind Up Girl
Paolo Bacigalupi

Global warming, mega corporations bent on world domination, genetically modified food, floods, plagues, mechanical sex slaves. The future in the Wind-Up Girl isn’t very uplifting, but the way Bacigalupi tells this story of a future Thailand beset by environmental disasters, and voracious mutlti-national corporations is incredible. No surprise, I guess. When Bacigalupi isn’t writing science fiction, he’s working on environmental issues. It shows. The nuance with which he walks us through what the world could look like in a 100 years is specific, jarring and compelling. I couldn’t put this one down and it remains one of my favorite science fiction novels of the past decade. Well written and excellently plotted, with carefully constructed characters inhabiting all levels of this future dystopia, it’s a must read if science fiction is your thing.

Recommended.