It's been a while since I've done this so I'm past due for an overview of recent books I enjoyed, including, yes, one about cruciverbalists in love. Click the images to buy on Amazon if you feel so moved, or tell me why you disagree.
The Girls by Emma Cline
It's amazing how much advanced publicity this book by a first-time novelist received. I read several stories about it a month before it became available. Having read it, I understand. Sure, it's the standard girl grows up and joins a murderous cult plot, but this is brave writing. It made me think of Updike’s Rabbit stories in its shamelessly raw insights into human feelings. I've never been a young girl but reading this makes me feel like I might understand their journey a little better. This story packs a punch so perhaps not the best reading for the beach.
The Regional Office is Under Attack! By Manuel Gonzales
I'm not a fan of super-hero stories or magical power stories or good vs. evil epic struggles but this book is all three and I love it. The plot is impossible to describe so I won't bother except to say that it’s packed with thrills, chills, action and adventure and it’s beautifully written. It seems simultaneously made for a summer blockbuster and impossible to imagine as a movie. Someone will try. Strange read but oodles of fun.
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
I tend to avoid sci-fi epics too but this showed up on a recent Bill Gates list so I thought I’d give it a try. (Whatever you think of that print driver bug in MS-DOS 2.1 or whatever other beef you have with the man, he regularly promotes thought-provoking books that might otherwise escape your notice.)
Like the Hitchhiker series, the story starts with the imminent destruction of the earth but it's unlike Hitchhiker in every other way. For one thing, it's obsessively science-based, kind of like The Martian but actually serious. It accomplishes what sci-fi does at its best, exploring the big issues as a way to focus on what it means to be human.
You’ll be three-quarters of the way through before you know what the title means or even how to pronounce it. Some reviewers believe the story fades in that last quarter. To me, it's both a bit of a mess, and the essential part that makes the whole thing worth reading.
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
Updating Jane Austen has become a bit of a thing, since the brilliant film Clueless, I suppose. Without having to introduce a single vampire, Ms. Sittenfeld re-imagines The Bennet sisters and Mr. Darcy in modern day Cincinnati with a plot revolving around a TV dating show. Reviews of this are all over the map.
Here’s my theory. If you’ve never read Pride and Prejudice, then much of the humor will escape you. If you have P&P on your nightstand and re-read it at least once a year because you revere every word, then this bastardization will annoy the hell out of you. If, however, like me, you read it years ago, have fond memories of it, and vaguely remember most of the important scenes, this might strike you as brilliantly comic. I laughed several times.
Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler
Similarly, Ms. Tyler tackles updating that most difficult of the Shakespeare plays for modern audiences, Taming of the Shrew. I've probably seen more different productions of this than any other play. Artistic Directors love to program it because it ensures controversy. Directors love to try to find a way to rationalize or contextualize the ending which, left as is, will crush the hearts of feminists everywhere. Does Ms. Tyler succeed? It helps that she's a hell of a writer. I think her solution is brilliant.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
You’ve already been hearing a lot about this – a curmudgeonly old man whose life is a disaster and who poisons everyone else’s, gradually grows on you. More flashbacks to Rabbit Angstrom for me as a jerk transforms into something a little bit noble before your eyes, only Mr. Backman can do it in only one book. You might choke up a little but you’ll be glad you read it.
How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg
The people who most need to read this book never will but if you have enough humility to question your most deeply held beliefs, and if math doesn't scare you, read this book. It's an eye-opener in the same way The Selfish Gene changed how you thought about evolution. There isn't a lot of actual math but if you're not comfortable with statistical concepts like Bayesian Inference, parts of this will be a bit of a slog. But worth it!
Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization by Parag Khanna
The Secret Life of the American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built by Jack Viertel
I expected to enjoy this book but not learn a lot in a subject I like to think of myself as well versed in. I've directed or music directed or conducted many musicals and studied the scores of many more. It turns out Mr. Viertel knows more than I do. His step-by-step breakdown of how musicals are constructed and how they have evolved over time is a joy for anyone who loves this art form. It covers musicals from the early days up to Book of Mormon and Hamilton.
Understanding more will make you appreciate more. Here’s an example. Knowing that every musical has an “I Wish” song, typically as the second number, will make you appreciate how the literal “I Wish” that opens Into the Woods not only accomplishes the necessary goals of laying out the drivers for each character, it’s a subtle joke about musical tradition. I wish to go to the Festival…
Two Across by Jeffrey Bartsch
Nah, I'm kidding. Crossword people want to nitpick the details. What does Mr. Bartsch get right and more importantly, wrong, about the construction, editing and distribution of American crosswords?
The surprising answer is that he’s surprisingly accurate. He knows basic facts about symmetry and themes, and even historical facts about when NYT puzzles did or didn’t have constructor bylines. Of course there are a few details that might cause insiders to wince. For both technical and traditional reasons, constructors are unlikely to start a new grid by placing the first two themers (symmetrically!) as down answers in the first and fifteenth columns. The role of editor, in particular the amount of changes editors might make, is downplayed. You’ll find a few more.
But otherwise, is it worth reading? Sure. It gets stuck somewhere between trying to be both genre fiction and, by way of a gratuitous ending, literary fiction, but it mostly works and crossword romance as a literary device is not yet overdone.
This isn’t a book. Until Danny Glasser mentioned it to me recently, I had never heard of this brilliant TV show and it's now 4 or 5 years old. How is it possible that I'm so out of touch?