Day by Michael Cunningham [8/10]

Michael Cunningham Day review

Petulance is the consequence of arrogance, something I brought to my reading of Day, the eighth novel by Michael Cunningham. Exasperated by films, for example, that seem to lack any appreciation for Modern Scriptwriting 101, I can find myself muttering, “But nothing happens…” This was the exact phrase in mind halfway through Day, a deceptively “simple” novel about seven characters: Robbie, an unachieving teacher living in the Brooklyn attic of his sister Isabel and filling out the imaginary life of his Instagram avatar Wolfe; Isabel, professional but unsatisfied, unhappy with marriage; Dan, her husband, a handsome ex-minor-rock star; Nathan, their sensitive ten-year-old son; Violet, their imaginative five-year-old daughter; an artist brother and his wife. We spend time in their various heads on April 5, 2019, then amidst pandemic lockdown on April 5, 2020; and finally in post-pandemic, changed circumstances on April 5, 2021. Cunningham’s writing is almost conversationally immersive, deep inside the characters’ chattering minds. Conventional plot action is limited, hence my readerly griping midway through the book. Yet, in the second half, something magical occurred: I found myself “knowing” the characters in a way that suggests I’ll remember them, in quite some detail, long after more dramatic novels fade from memory. By the time of the minor climax, I was admiring the author’s consummate characterization skills and stagehand plotting, and, more importantly, much moved. Day, I realized, is a welcome book reminding us of the wondrous variety in the human race. Recommended.

Co-Intelligence by Ethan Mollick [8/10]

Ethan Mollick Co-intelligence review

An academic in the fields of innovation and entrepreneurship, Ethan Mollick has written one of the few AI books in 2024 that could change my life. Engaging fully with all the current and future uncertainties around the current incarnation of AI, namely LLMs such as Chat-GPT, Gemini, and Claude 3, Mollick adopts an approach that at first appears provocative but quickly seems essential. Namely, whether you approve or decry the LLMs, whether you welcome them or quake from them, the only thoughtful approach is to use them and come to know them. And in Co-Intelligence: Living and Working with AI, Mollick vigorously espouses diving in and treating them as if they are human interns, flawed but useful if employed sagely. In the words of his blurb, we should “engage with AI as co-worker, co-teacher, and coach.” Wow! The scales fell off my eyes. Mollick is a wonderful writer on the subject, setting matters out clearly, explaining his approach step by step (with numerous practical examples), and writing in an engaging manner. Some of the more enticing suggestions felt rather bold when reading them but also thrilling. For example, he uses three different “characters,” called Ozymandias, Mnemosyne, and Steve to help edit written material. For such a weighty idea, Co-Intelligence is not of doorstop size, and a couple of evenings of reading might, as it did for me, radicalise your approach to this new, weird technology.

Burn Book by Kara Swisher [8/10]

Kara Swisher Burn Book review

A perky, opinionated, morally upright memoir about a quarter century of tech journalism in America, Kara Swisher’s Burn Book might be for you, as it was for me, a welcome, oblique retrospective on a tumultuous period of industrial and political history. One of the key journalists in this field (although I never noticed her, this does not surprise me, I paid little attention to the daily fray), she wrote for most major mastheads and then formed her own conference and news company. A glance at the front cover, showing a steely face behind reflective sunglasses (filled in with flames, giving you a sense of her overall message), reveals that the reader is in good hands throughout: the narrative control is firm and clear, the style is brisk or combustive, depending on her mood, and the tone is distinctive. In other words, this book is a pleasure to read. It seems Swisher knew and knows everyone in Silicon Valley; I was especially fascinated by her close-up portrayals of Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs. The arc she delineates from the 90s to now is one of moral decline amongst the tech billionaires and at the end, Swisher is a robust advocate of what we all want, which is societal control, via regulation, of one of the central elements of our lives. Neither a polemic nor a self-hagiography, Burn Book is a hoot to read and hugely valuable.

Dictionary of Fine Distinctions by Eli Burnstein [7/10]

Eli Bernstein Dictionary of Fine Distinctions review

Eli Burnstein’s Dictionary of Fine Distinctions: Nuances, Niceties, and Subtle Shades of Meaning is in that class of books you must have if the title tells you you must have it. Any serious wordsmith should consider this precise, deftly humorous presentation of a hundred slippery group of words close in meaning. Take the sixth distinction, ”Bay vs. Gulf vs. Cove,” it begins with a stylish, explanatory drawing (by cartoonist Liana Finck, whose contribution to the book is major) of: “Bays are recessed bodies of water. Gulfs are very large bays.” Then a drawing of a scrunchy tiny nodule of water, labelled “cove,” followed by: “A small bay, usually with a narrow entrance and sheltered by steep cliff walls.” It couldn’t be better expressed nor clearer. Number 32 is of similar orientation: “Harbor vs. Port vs. Marina.” Some of the distinctions proved immediately useful: I assume too much when I should be presuming (that is, with decent confidence). Others are revelatory. Who knew that ball = gala + dancing? Or that sarcasm = irony + insult? Or that monks live in monasteries, while friars don’t? I commend Dictionary of Fine Distinctions to anyone fascinated by word choice.

American Fiction by Cord Jefferson [8/10]

American Fiction review

Criminally, I have never read any of Percival Everett’s acclaimed and wildly eclectic novels, but after relishing American Fiction, based on Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, I shall redress my errors. For this is one smart, genuinely funny (and that is something rare, I find) satire on Black novelists in America. The storyline is simple: Thelonius “Monk” Ellison, a serious literary novelist with acclaim but few book sales, spits the dummy and dashes out a crass Blaxploitation novel under what he feels sure is a transparent pseudonym, only to find himself the “next new big thing” of the literary scene. Writer/director Jefferson Cord, working with what is clearly a savage Everett blueprint, spins a fast, always oblique tale that fleshes out the satire with side dramas of family tensions and new love. The heart of the film’s success, however, is Jeffrey Wright’s pitch perfect rendition of Monk, allied to a surprisingly large roster of perfectly cast, sophisticated actors. The ending, a very “literary” piece of cleverness, fits in seamlessly with American Fiction’s wittiness and depth. Highly recommended even for those perhaps sick of movies about authors.

Dark Ride by Lou Berney [8/10]

Lou Berney Dark Ride review

American noir novelist Lou Berney shines out from the pack (just go read his November Road, okay?) but with Dark Ride, he has sashayed to write about a meek twenty-one-year-old stoner without an ounce of violence in his bones. When “Hardly” Reed spies two young kids with clear cigarette burns on their legs, something in him awakens for the first time, and after pursuing official channels for rescue and justice, decides to bumble his own way forward. Part of the pleasure of the read is the support characters who stumble into his adventure: a geeky dork who wants to be loved, a young Goth woman working as a public servant. Hardly starts to learn, often the hard way, how to find, track, and discover, while his increased knowledge inflames his sense of injustice even further, while menace hovers and builds. Berney writes the tale close-up, in Hardly’s confused but intelligent frame, and the tension cooks and cooks toward a fitting climax. I recommend you read anything Lou Berney takes his fancy to write, and Dark Ride is an excellent introduction.

My Life in Orbit by Richard Blandford [8/10]

Richard Blandford My Life in Orbit review

What a treat My Life in Orbit is, as both captivating read and deep illumination. Fantasticus Austisticus is the tag given to the hero of this tale and that tag tells us we are reading one of those renderings of a life on the spectrum, a kind-of-sub-genre I’ve read often for the simple reason it fascinates me. How to portray the inner life of such a hero varies dramatically from one novelist to another, and Richard Blandford adopts a persona that is dense, ritualistic (the “orbit” of the title is the hero’s rigidly set daily meander in his British village), and anxious, yet bursting with intelligence and hugely self-aware. The result is a wonderfully immersive experience, as Fantasticus Autisticus proceeds through a day like any other, but hey, it’s not at all the same, an event looms that will shatter it all, and events spiral and niggle until the hero reflects on his entire troubled-yet-triumphant life while waiting for that life to shift, to shift at last. My Life in Orbit is necessarily solipsistic but a small supporting character group is vividly portrayed, as is the hero’s humdrum yet vibrant landscape. The writing is flawless. Overall … latch onto this and revel in the experience.

The Holdovers by David Hemingson & Alexander Payne [9/10]

The Holdovers review

An old-fashioned movie of modest drama but deep character immersion, The Holdovers sees a posh American boys’ school vacating for the long summer break and leaving as the only holdover a stuck, bright but volatile student in the hands of a reclusive, eccentric, unloved teacher. The two of them, and the obese black cook, squabble and then come together, and end up on a minor road trip to Boston. Paul Giamatti mesmerizes as the smelly ancient history teacher, Dominic Sessa is as riveting as the student, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph almost steals the show from those two with a deep portrayal of the grieving cook. When I label the film as old-fashioned, what I mean is that there aren’t any extreme plot devices and the character reveals are gradual, not sudden, and the overall narrative arc is a subtle one. Coupled with wonderful dialogue, a varied and perky soundtrack, and evocative snowbound cinematography, The Holdovers is a minor gem of ruminative discovery.

Best Interests [9/10]

Best Interests review

A literary work that has stood the test of time is Ian McEwan’s slim 2014 novel, The Children Act, about the state battling parents about continuing life support for a child close to death. That novel was told from the viewpoint of the presiding judge, and was harrowing enough. Imagine then seeing the tale of a hospital and its doctors wishing to turn off life support for a comatose muscular dystrophy child, only to be taken to court by the mother, whilst the father disagrees, all of this from the parents’ points of view. Such is the premise and the storyline of Best Interests, a brilliant, relatively short (4 episodes) series written by prolific British screenwriter Jack Thorne. The first episode sets up the courtroom conflict, the final three view the current battle and the past through the lenses of mother, father, and older sister. The direction by Michael Keillor never misses a beat and the supporting characters are solid, but the hearts of this wrenching, illuminating drama are the four key actors: Niamh Moriarty as the poor soul in question; Alison Oliver as the sister; Michael Sheen in top empathic form as the father; and, most of all, Sharon Horgan unstoppable as the mother. In the end Best Interests provides no slick answers to an unfathomable moral dilemma, but through superb filmic drama, it transports us.

Quiet War by Frank Kennedy [8/10]

Frank Kennedy Quiet War review

Master of the space opera, Frank Kennedy has now turned his narrative focus to the murder mystery genre, albeit set on a space station in his capacious Collectorate universe. In Quiet War, Deputy Trevor Stallion, aboard the massive Amity station that houses the heart of the People’s Collectorate, battles his personal struggles and his own relentless, detail-driven personality as he deals with something rare: the death by apparent drug overdose of a brilliant young scientific student. Against official whitewashing efforts, Stallion races to uncover the truth, something far more sinister and with ramifications throughout the Collectorate. Our detective hero is a classic detective, sharp-witted, obstinate, and conflicted. The author is, as ever, a fine stylist, with a firm grip on a baffling, intriguing plot. Quiet War, the first episode of a trilogy, makes for a thoroughly enjoyable, intelligent read.