Thursday, March 16, 2017

Dear Great Book Guru,  I plan to be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in Brooklyn this week with friends and family.  I know I annoy them with my many, many questions about this popular borough so I would like to read something that will provide me with some answers. Any suggestions? Baffled by Brooklyn

Dear Baffled by Brooklyn, I remember reading a short story by Thomas Wolfe “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” and wondering if it were true since for me Brooklyn has always seemed cloaked in myth and mystery. Well, I just finished a book that brought great enlightenment to me: THE NEW BROOKLYN by Kay Hymowitz.  The author takes us on a journey of hundreds of years from the 1600’s Dutch farmlands, through the Civil War, the Southern migration,  two World Wars, the postwar suburban exodus, and finally bringing us to today’s Brooklyn, one of the world’s most desirable urban locations.  The roles ship building, sugar distilleries, subway lines, bridges, and -yes- breweries played in Brooklyn’s  history is highlighted throughout in colorful detail. Focusing on seven neighborhoods: Park Slope, Williamsburg, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Sunset Park, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, and Canarsie,  she details how each exemplifies “what it takes to bring a city back.”  In later chapters, she wrestles with the question “can this new wealth lift up the long disadvantaged?”  Highly recommended!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Dear Great Book Guru,  Next week my friends and I are attending the annual Barbara Pym literary conference at Harvard .  It is always a great weekend and to prepare, I would like to read or reread one of Pym’s novels.  Please suggest a favorite of yours.    A Very Enthusiastic Pymite

Dear Enthusiastic Pymite,  I have just finished rereading LESS THAN ANGELS by Pym and it was a delight from start to finish.  The story opens in 1950’s London at a reception for anthropologists, some returning from Africa, some students beginning their careers, plus a bevy of eccentric administrators and wealthy benefactors.  Catherine Oliphant, a writer of romance novels is somewhat involved with Tom Mallow, a “callow” younger researcher recently back from the field. She is the true anthropologist here and a stand-in for Pym herself.   Catherine observes those around her, recording their patterns and eccentricities in exquisite detail.  When the story shifts to the London suburbs, we meet sisters Rhonda and Mabel whose days are filled with observing   neighbors, friends, and relatives and we realize we are experiencing yet another anthropological study.  When the story moves to the countryside, we soon recognize the rituals with which the landed gentry organize their lives.  Throughout, we see Pym at her best: describing the smallness of life in all its grandeur.  However and wherever, people will find meaning in the distractions which make up their lives and ….ours.  Highly recommended!  

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Dear Great Book Guru,  Last weekend, I attended a startlingly beautiful opera I was unfamiliar with: Dvorak’s “Rusalka”. Based on a Czech fairy tale of water sprites and human royalty,  this work has the most romantic music I have ever heard.  While waiting for the second act to begin, I overheard a group of people discussing a new book reviewed on NPR about psychosomatic illnesses. It sounds fascinating.Have you read it? 
Opera Lover in Search of a Good Book

Dear Opera Lover in Search…. Suzanne O’Sullivan, an Irish neurologist, has written IS IT ALL IN YOUR HEAD? - a look into seven patients’ histories of debilitating illnesses. In each case, the cause of the illness was a mind- body connection gone awry.  Rachel, a young dancer, suffers from chronic fatigue and finds her career in shambles but is it her body helping her mind deal with life’s stresses?  Does Matthew who can no longer walk suffer from MS or are his legs paralyzed by his fear of failing? The cases O’Sullivan presents show the intricate connections that exist between our bodies and brains. Tracing the evidence of psychosomatic disorders back through time, she sees a contradiction in the 21st century belief that “we can think ourselves better” and the generally accepted fact that our emotions can cause our physical ills. She ends with a less than satisfying but honest appraisal: “There is no single answer because there is no single cause.” Recommended

Friday, February 24, 2017

Dear Great Book Guru, While celebrating Presidents’ Week with friends and family, a group of us decided to form a book club which will focus on works new and old which might help us understand the present political climate. Do you have any suggestions?
 Looking for Political Enlightenment

Dear Looking for Political Enlightenment,  My book group  just finished reading FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury.  Since many of us had read the novel in high school, we returned to it with some hesitation, fearing it would seem dated and simplistic.  On the contrary, we were amazed at how eerily prescient this 1953 novel proved to be with its descriptions of homes flanked by walls of flat screen TVs, seashell ear pieces replicating iPhone buds, and a numbing fascination with “reality” based entertainment. We quickly  became part of Guy Montag’s world- somewhere in the United States, somewhere in the future, somewhere none of us would want to be…  but also strangely familiar. Montag is a fireman whose job it is to burn books because the government had determined reading made people think and thinking made them unhappy The happiness of all its citizens was purported to be the government's ultimate goal so  all books had to be destroyed.    When Montag notices the malaise and mindlessness of those around him, he rebels with horrific results.  My original reading had focused simply on the censorship aspects of book burning but this time around, I saw Bradbury’s condemnation of so much more of our society’s ills – coupled  with the frightening realization  that we are all amusing ourselves to death…. Highly recommended!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Dear Great Book Guru,  Friends went to see the Oscar nominated movie “The Arrival” last weekend and I am eager to see it now too.  They said it was based on a short story. I would love to read it beforehand.  Are you familiar with this story? 
Book Lover- Movie Goer

Dear Book Lover- Movie Goer, Yes this award winning movie is based on a novella which appears in a collection of eight short stories: STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS by Ted Chiang.  “Story of Your Life”- the piece “Arrival” is based on- is the story of a young linguist who is taught the language of an alien culture allowing her to think beyond the normal constraints of time- its beginnings and endings and all that comes between. Throughout the story we- like our linguist narrator- experience time as a totally different dimension.  By the end, we realize how limited our approach to existence might very well be. The other seven stories are also mind bending as they explore possibilities we might never have considered. This is science fiction without battles or technical jargon; instead, it is an exposition of ideas. Chiang was born in Port Jefferson, Long Island.  How great it would be, if his work were chosen in the future for the prestigious annual Long Island Reads event!

Friday, February 10, 2017

Dear Great Book Guru,  With the Winter Break coming up, I am looking for a good book or two to have on hand. I really like an intelligent, fast moving mystery but one with a social message.  Any thoughts? 
Presidents’ Week Eager Reader

Dear  Eager Reader,  John Grisham’s latest bestseller THE WHISTLER is a wonderful choice for winter’s waning months. Known as an immensely talented writer of thrillers, Grisham is also a social critic of much note. In this novel he takes on corrupt judges, whistle-blowing, Indian casinos, capital punishment, and organized crime.  The main character Lacy Stoltz is an investigator for the Florida Board on Judicial Conduct. She and her partner Hugo Hatch, a former Florida State football star, are contacted by a previously disbarred , charismatic attorney Randy Mix who has information on…. as he says:  “the most corrupt judge in American history,” Claire McDover, a local justice with a very extensive collection of condos, jewels, and gold coins. Before the story ends, Lacy is confronted with grave mortal and moral dangers. Adding to the suspense, neither she nor the reader knows the identity or motivation of the “whistler,” until almost the end of the novel.   The complex laws that govern Native American lands and the Panhandle terrain add a rich subplot to this fast moving thriller.  Highly recommended!

If you have  time over the next week, check out this very insightful look at our political system:

Friday, February 3, 2017

Dear Great Book Guru,  As we begin the month of February, thoughts turn to- yes- Valentine’s Day.  My friends and I are planning a rather unique Valentine’s celebration: dinner, discussion, and dessert at the Metropolitan Bistro. We have the reservation…now we need the book. Any suggestions? 
Lover of  Books and Such

Dear Lover of Books and Such,  My book group just finished  THE SELLOUT by Paul Beatty and I must say some loved it and others found it too painful to finish. If you think your friends enjoy satire, dark humor, and a provocative read, this might be just the book for you.  The narrator is nameless- referred to only as “Me”- the son of a fanatical black psychologist also known as “The Whisperer” for his educational experiments and ability to talk down suicidal neighbors.   The Whisperer is killed early in the novel by LA police in “a driving while black” incident in the beleaguered town of Dickens, California.  Me becomes a farmer in this semi- rural about to be gentrified locale- growing watermelons.  Shot through with racial satire, the book is a painful expose of imbedded racism in a supposedly post-racial America. He ends up in the U.S. Supreme Court after he reintroduces segregation into his local school (“apartheid worked to unify South Africa”) and taking on an elderly friend ( who was the understudy for Buckwheat in the “Little Rascals”) as his slave at the friend’s insistence.  Black History month, Maya Angelou, P.C. academics and countless  icons are all dissected by our narrator until we are left looking  at the shameful missteps of our nation. First American winner of the Booker Prize, this book is not for the fainthearted – but for everyone else- highly recommended!