Friday, April 29, 2016

Dear Great Book Guru,  I went to a commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising at Cooper Union in Manhattan recently,  and I was very impressed with how much the labor movement here and abroad has done to improve the lives of workers.  One of the people attending mentioned a beautifully written but horrific new book about working conditions on an Arctic whaling ship.  Are you familiar with this book? 
 Student of the 1916 Rising

Dear Student ,  I too was very impressed with the 1916 Easter Rising commemoration at Cooper Union. The book you mention is a tale of great brutality and poetic beauty: THE NORTH WATER by Ian McGuire.  Patrick Sumner is a disgraced Irish physician left with few options who enlists as a medic on the Volunteer, a whaling vessel bound for the Arctic- the North Water.  On board is a bloodthirsty, drunken harpooner Henry Drax and a crew of wretched men under the command of the ill-fated Captain Brownlee. Before the journey ends, many are dead and all semblance of civilization destroyed. This book is a carefully crafted mystery with many shocking twists and turns, a chronicle of  the 19th century shipping and whaling trade, an historical perspective on British/ Irish class hostilities, and ultimately an indictment of the cruelty and perversity of humankind. A difficult but very rewarding read!

Friday, April 22, 2016

Dear Great Book Guru,  Last weekend I was at opening day of Sea Cliff Baseball rooting for my favorite team “The Artful Dodgers” when I overheard a heated discussion of a new book about widespread injustices in America.  I would love to learn more but didn’t catch the title.  Any idea?                            
  Fan of Sea Cliff Baseball

Dear Fan,  Yes, I was part of  that discussion and the book is EVICTED by Matthew Desmond. Desmond, a young sociologist, writes about eight families living in Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhood. We learn in exquisite detail the struggles these families endure as they face seemingly insurmountable odds.   The cumulative effect for the reader is shame and horror.  We read of a single mother paying 80% of her $628 income in rent; failing to pay this rent, she is evicted during a brutal Wisconsin winter.  A father  struggling to care for his young children is evicted after three 911 calls trigger “a nuisance citation” and, yes- the calls were because of his son’s asthma attacks. The book focuses on two points:  that growing numbers of low income families are paying astonishing shares of their income for rent  and secondly, evictions aren’t a result of poverty but a cause, resulting in job losses, school absences, illness… To lose one’s home, the author discovers is often to lose everything- your possessions, your job, your children,  your future.  These evicted families  enter into Dante’s inferno- “abandon all hope,  you who enter here.” Highly recommended!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Dear Great Book Guru, My friends and I are thinking of starting a monthly book club focusing on non-fiction.  Do you have any suggestions for a good book we could begin with- something short, something compelling?  
Reality Reader

Dear Reality Reader, I have a wonderful book for your group: WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR by Paul Kalanithi. Kalanithi was a brilliant scientist, writer, and linguist with advanced degrees in medicine and literature. Then at age 36 he received what was basically a death sentence:  a diagnosis of advanced lung cancer. This slim (240 pages) volume details his last years as he tries to answer a question he has been obsessed with his entire adulthood: “given that all organisms die, what makes a virtuous and meaningful life?” We learn about his parents, his large family of cousins, siblings, aunts and uncles, his wife, his many friends- all who play a part in his quest for understanding. We see as he goes from powerful physician to contemplative patient and are with him as he decides to have a child so that he can experience the joy and pain of loving and leaving something of himself. Beautifully written, this book with its poetry and carefully crafted prose is not so much sad as instructive, offering profound insight into human mortality. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Dear Great Book Guru, I am planning on attending a book lover's delight: Long Island Reads on Tuesday, April 12 from 7-8:30pm at the Metropolitan in Glen Cove. Readers from all over the North Shore area join together to discuss one book- this year Jodie Picoult’s LEAVING TIME.  Well, while I enjoyed this book,  I am now looking for my next read, something perhaps that will help me understand the current geopolitical scene.  Any suggestions?    
Long Island Reads Reader

Dear L.I.R.R., I am looking forward to this event too and- yes, indeed- I have a great book for you to read next: THE ASSOCIATION OF SMALL BOMBS by Karan Mahajan. The novel opens in 1996 (chapter 0) with a bomb detonating in a crowded open air market in Delhi and concludes sometime post- 2016.  It is a small bomb and thirteen people are killed. The rest of the book deals with the lives impacted- the parents of two young victims, their young friend who survives, his family, the bomber, the wrongly accused, those who defend the accused, and those who torture them.  The inner lives of all these players are explored and we find a myriad of emotions and motivations- mundane and sublime in each of them.  In beautiful prose, the author shows us these small bombings which go unheralded have far, far reaching effects on victim, perpetrator, and… all of us. Highly recommended!  

Friday, April 1, 2016

Dear Great Book Guru, I have found this current election cycle fascinating and wonder how things will all work out. While I have attended a number of debate parties here in Sea Cliff,  I still crave for more insight.  Is there a book you would recommend to help me really understand what’s going on?  Election News Junkie

Dear Election News Junkie,  I just finished a fascinating historical novel that in many ways mirrors our current political scene: IMPERIUM by Robert Harris.  Set in Ancient Rome, it details the political rise of Cicero, one of Rome’s most famous rulers.  His story is told from the perspective of his slave/secretary Tiro, who invented a system of shorthand -vestiges of which we still use ( e.g. &, etc.). The Cicero we meet as a young man is from a modest middle-class background but with extraordinary intelligence and ambition. The  political world he takes on is eerily like our own: vast amounts of money spent to sway voters, the slandering of opponents and their wives,  the demonization/deification of party leaders, and terrorist attacks (in this case pirates) frightening the citizenry.  Yes,  secretly recorded conversations (ala Nixon),  political jaunts,  forged documents, and  crass entertainment-  all   play a part in  Cicero’s first election campaign. We watch with fascination, but also with a feeling of dread as we witness the escalating corruption of Rome and wonder where are we headed? Highly recommended!