Calypso – David Sedaris

David Sedaris is a humorist who writes about his life, making unique observations which resonate. I picked up one of his books a few years ago and wasn’t impressed. I found him arrogant and the laughs sparse. However, a review of Calypso said it focused primarily on aging and mortality so I decided to give him another go. I’m glad I did. This is a funny book. I laughed out loud more than once. Make no mistake, Sedaris has a strange offensive brand of humor so he’s definitely not for everyone. For me, I was happy to find someone who’s ideas are quirkier than my own. For instance, Sedaris has a benign tumor which needs removing. He asks the doctor if he can keep it, with the idea of feeding it to a snapping turtle near his North Carolina vacation home, but the doctor says no it’s against federal law. So he allows a Hispanic woman he meets at one of his book lectures do it in less than ideal conditions. Weird, I know, but oddly satisfying. If you like funny; you’ll love Calypso.

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How to Change Your Mind – Michael Pollan

Weirdly fascinating non-fiction book charting the history of psychedelic drug use by the 1960s counterculture, and the resulting backlash, to the recent resurgence of LSD as a tool to help with mental illness. Pollan explores how such drugs were invented as well as the more traditional use of plant-based psychedelics like mushrooms. It came as news to me but research into these substances is being conducted by many respected medical institutes like Johns Hopkins. Clinical trials suggest psychedelics help with depression, addiction and the terror that accompanies terminal illness. The author also looks at mystical aspects, with many test subjects reporting a better understand of God and collective consciousness. In the right circumstances, psychedelics can open the mind to experiences our brains shut down as we age and neural pathways become fixed. Authenticity is provided by Pollan having tried several of these substances himself. Fear would probably prevent me from volunteering for this kind of research, but I enjoyed reading about the possibilities. While the book stalls sometimes due to excessive detail, like the mind numbing discussion of mushroom species, it’s a unique, well-written read.

 

 

A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman

I resisted reading this book for a long time because the main character-cranky old Swedish guy-didn’t sound very appealing. I’m so glad I finally took the plunge. Ove is the angry old man next door. He’s a curmudgeon with sometimes strange principles set in stone. (Only people who drive Saabs are to be trusted.) He has a strict routine and a short fuse. He distrusts the modern world and isn’t afraid to say so. But Ove’s well-ordered yet stark world is upended one day when a young couple with two small children move into the neighborhood. Suddenly, he’s confronted with seemingly endless requests, a stray cat who looks like the devil but won’t go away, and an old enemy who can’t fight anymore and is in desperate need of help. This is a funny book, but one with tons of heart. Set in Sweden, it could really take place anywhere because we all have an Ove in our lives. At its core, the book’s about community and serves as a reminder life is only worth living when shared with others.

Sold – Patricia McCormick

It’s awful to say this is one of the best YA books I’ve ever read, given the topic, but I went through it in one sitting unable to put it down. At 13, Lakshmi lives a hand-to-mouth existence in a small village in Nepal. She’s smart and enjoys simple pleasures courtesy of a hard-working mom. Unfortunately, she also has a step dad who drinks and gambles away what little they have. When a monsoon destroys their crops, he gets Lakshmi a job which she thinks involves working as a city maid. Upon reaching India, however, she learns she’s been sold into prostitution instead. A cruel woman named Mumtaz runs the brothel, trapping young girls with babies and unfair debts. Lakshmi’s intelligence helps her survive even in this harsh new world and is a factor when she must make a decision which is essentially a death trap or a life line. The writing in this novel is superb, bolstered by research the author did in India and Nepal. It’s short and terse but packs a powerful punch enabling readers to realize how difficult life remains for many millions of women worldwide.

The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

Starr Carter, 16, has one persona in her poor black neighborhood and another in the predominantly white prep school she attends. But the uneasy balance is upset when she sees her best friend, Khalil, shot to death by police while unarmed. It’s complicated. Khalil is a drug dealer albeit an unwilling one. Her uncle is a cop and her boyfriend white. When the shooting makes national headlines, as the only witness, Starr is caught between a friend at school who thinks Khalil might have had it coming and her neighborhood which has seen one too many young black men killed. The dialogue in this well-written YA novel feels totally authentic. The writer manages to convey the complexity of the issue of racism and police violence through the protagonist’s life circumstance. Starr isn’t perhaps the typical victim, and her school friends at times seem somewhat two-dimensional in their political correctness, yet the book is still a compelling read lending insight into one of the most disturbing facets of modern American life.

Fire and Fury – Michael Wolff

Having read Katy Tur’s book about the tRump presidential campaign and Luke Harding’s book about tRump’s alleged dirty dealings, I wasn’t expecting much from Fire and Fury in terms of style. I was pleasantly surprised. Wolff is a smart writer and although he gets bogged down at times in observation, overall the book makes for a satisfying read as it covers the first year of the tRump presidency. The most explosive contents have already been spotlighted extensively on cable news. However, the book is a revelation as Wolff delves into the White House infighting between tRump’s closest aides. It reveals the ugly side of politics–that the presidency represents power and those closest to the president can wield it with impunity. It reveals the fight to control a man who is essentially a loose cannon and uncontrollable. It reveals how everyone had a personal agenda and how hard they fought to get it front and center. It’s an unflattering portrayal of an unpopular president who along with his aides aren’t worthy or qualified to hold positions affecting the lives of people worldwide. 

Belgravia – Julian Fellowes

I started this book by the man who gave us Downton Abbey and couldn’t put it down! Disclaimer: it won’t be for everyone. The closest thing I can liken it to is a really well done Regency (minus the sex) which is maybe my number one guilty pleasure. In 1815, beautiful Sophia Trenchard is in Brussels before the battle of Waterloo. There she falls in love with with Edmund, Viscount Bellasis–an impossible match given he is the son of an Earl and she the daughter of a tradesman. Fast forward 25 years and the Trenchard family has outpaced even their wildest expectations moving among the London aristocracy as though they actually belong. Enter Lady Maria Grey who develops unexpected feelings for Christopher Pope, the son of a country vicar and an unabashed businessman. Can the tragedy of Sophia’s affair translate into something positive for a new generation? This is drawing-room repartee at its best, although the plot is contrived with stock characters and at times feels a bit silly. Still, it makes for compelling reading with a highly satisfying end. 

Carve The Mark – Veronica Roth

If you like YA Dystopian, this book’s for you. Written by the author of Divergent, it’s more sci-fi than what we’ve come to expect, but there are plenty of fantasy elements to placate the faithful. Cyra is Shotet; sister of the violent brutal leader. Akos is from a prominent family of the opposing Thuvhe tribe. Akos is kidnapped as a child to prevent Cyra’s brother from meeting a dismal fate predicted by planetary oracles. In this universe, people are gifted with various powers. Cyra’s gift, killing by touch, causes her a great deal of pain. Akos is given to Cyra because his gift is able to counteract hers. Cyra has spent her life trying to survive her sadistic brother. Akos’s only goal is to escape. As their relationship flourishes, Cyra joins forces with rebels attempting to overthrow her brother to help him get away. Although the plot in this book seems unnecessarily complex, Roth has not lost the ability to pen a page-turning story with compelling lead characters, romance and adventure aplenty.

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

The Bolshevik revolution in Russia brings about sweeping changes, especially for the aristocracy. Count Rostov finds himself sentenced to house arrest in The Metropol, a grande dame of a hotel not far from the Kremlin. Rostov isn’t permitted his usual accommodations but must make do with a tiny room in the attic. How he adjusts to his confinement and reduced circumstances provides the crux of the novel. Instead of crumbling, the Count uses his charm and wit to carve out a life for himself as year after year slips by while tumultuous events occur outside the hotel’s doors. Even in his small world, Rostov manages to make friends, fall in love, experience fatherhood and find purpose in life. The pacing of this book is slow and it took me awhile to get into it. However, the writing is eloquent and the Count such a gentleman I soon found myself worrying about and rooting for him. An epic story well worth the time and effort.