Saturday, May 1, 2021

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Retro Harlem springs to vivid cinematographic life in this delicious romp. Family man Ray Carney is trying to be an upstanding citizen but his cousin Freddie and his gangster dealings won’t leave Carney alone. Generous helpings of heists and shady conmen make this a fun narrative even if sometimes there’s more flash than substance. Worth reading for Whitehead’s exquisitely crafted sentences alone: “You want to know what’s going on, you ask the block wino. They see everything and then the booze pickles it, keeps it all fresh for later.” Whiteheads fans will love it, newbies should read Underground Railroad first.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Death at La Fenice (Commissario Brunetti Book 1) by Donna Leon


The renowned German conductor is dead from cyanide poisoning, in the bowels of Venice’s Opera House, La Fenice. A series of suspects line up as many hated the Nazi sympathizer: his young wife, the talented singer Flavia, are just a few. It’s up to Commissario Guido Brenetti to investigate the tangled web and find out the real killer. This fun novel is the first that introduces Brenetti — author Donna Leon has delivered 30 in the series — and it’s an entertaining one. Most fascinating is Venice, its waters quietly lapping at the shores of this whodunnit. Good summer reading.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting

The bells in the historic stave church in the village of Butangen, Norway, have legendary powers: They ring when danger lies ahead. What will happen when the church, as part of a preservation project, is dismantled and moved to Dresden, Germany? The descriptions of rural Norway in the nineteenth century, as well as the stave church, are spellbinding. Less riveting is the narrative around the humans: the dashing pastor Kai Schweigaard, Gerhard Schönauer, the German architect tasked with the disassembly of the church and Astrid Hekne, the strong-minded young woman from the village. Enchanting Norwegian folklore makes this a winner.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

This is One Way to Dance by Sejal Shah


Sejal Shah’s various identities — as a woman of color, a feminist, a teacher, a daughter — swirl together in this touching collection of essays, where she is unafraid to be deeply vulnerable and authentic. My favorite captures Shah’s visit to the Burning Man festival. Newly unemployed and rudderless, Shah aims for a personal catharsis of a sort in the middle of the desert. “All my life, I have been biking with brakes on. I wanted to just go,” she says of the experience. It deeply illuminates how the weight of every carefully calibrated decision can sometimes smother a spirit.

The Lowering Days by Gregory Brown


The raven is considered a symbol of death -- and of healing. Early on in The Lowering Days, you know David Almerin Ames’s life has been cleaved apart by tragedy. As he narrates the story of his childhood, growing up along the Penobscot in Maine, he touches on the threads that link his family with the neighbors, the Creels. Deep-rooted resentments tinge their complicated history. The natural beauty of Maine is a vital presence, highlighted by the Penobscot native who’s had enough of the paper mill that has decimated the land. The novel also emerges as a measured look at masculinity.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer


The three strands of braided sweetgrass symbolize the fusion of mind, body and spirit according to indigenous wisdom. This remarkable volume weaves these threads together in gentle prose that reminds us we have much to learn from plants. Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, threads biographical elements into this iconic collection of essays that discusses a wide range of subjects from indigenous folktales to reciprocity in nature and the role of lichen in ecosystems. There is a warning here too: Windigo, the monster let loose by man’s selfishness, needs to be tamed before the damage is irreparable.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

Nothing to see here? Well, think again. For one thing, the adorable twins that Lillian agrees to watch over for a while, combust quite spontaneously. Second, the rudderless Lillian doesn’t quite know what she’s gotten herself into. Fortunately she is a decent human being and there’s nobody quite like kids to sniff out the good from the bad. This is a layered feel-good book about class, realizing your true bearings, and above all, finding allies in the unlikeliest of places. Too often kids in novels come across as overly precocious mini-adults. Wilson’s creations are authentic and huggable, fire and all. 

The Charmed Wife by Olga Grushin

Wait, the princess is warned as she drifts off in search of the zest that will reignite her dull life. You can’t forge straight ahead, you can only turn left or right. But the princess throws caution to the wind and discovers life’s many underexplored paths. Grushin chronicles the many ways real life upsets the traditional stories of “happily ever after” we are fed as children. This brilliant narrative, a mashup of Cinderella and other fairy tales, reveals the struggles that women cope with even as they try to reconcile their everyday lives against a promised paradise that never materializes.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte MConaghy

Looking to rewild the forests of Scotland, Aussie wolf expert Inti Flynn moves to the highlands. She confronts opposition from farmers worried about livestock attacks and things get immensely more complex after a local goes missing. McConaghy delivers another knockout performance on the challenges ahead in our fight against climate change. Moving back and forth, tracing Inti’s own personal baggage and the obligations she works with, this is a breathtaking novel about violence and the feral nature of humanity. At the end of the day, it turns out that the last thing we need to worry about are the wolves. 

Sunday, January 3, 2021

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante

“She’s getting the (ugly) face of Vittoria.” Teenager Giovanna overhears this one devastating comment from her father, a harshness that forms the basis for Giovanna’s rebellion. Determined to meet the estranged aunt Vittoria, Giovanna gets to know the extended family and learns how to wield her sexuality as a weapon. Above all, she stumbles under the weight of the realization that her parents are imperfect beings. The adults Giovanna knows are so mediocre and petty that they deserve for their fates to be corralled into one life as the title suggests. A bold coming-of-age story narrated in a riveting voice.