Boisterous neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta has penned a highly useful everyperson manual on the human brain, “Keep Sharp: How To Build a Better Brain at Any Age.” Multidisciplinary understanding of how the brain works, and in particular how it declines, both naturally and under dementia conditions, is accumulating rapidly, and Gupta is an engaging, lucid reporter on this topic. After a general overview of our frontiers of knowledge, he offers five general prescriptions for staving off mental decline, followed by a twelve-week “program” to put all five into place. As someone “in the market” for such advice, I found the advice and the program rather general and even a little obvious, but I could imagine Gupta’s advice being revelatory for many. Gupta winds up Keep Sharp with an overview of how cognitive decline can be expected to unwind, and he offers sane (if, once again, a tad simplistic) caregiver advice that might resonate. The author writes stylishly, with lashings of enthusiasm, and I found myself bound up in my reading. Keep Sharp is not as astounding as the blurb promises but it is rational and balanced. Recommended.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell [8/10]
I can only wish I’d begun reading Maggie O’Farrell earlier, for “Hamnet” is scene after brilliantly written scene delivering technicolor mental pictures and breath-catching emotiveness. When the plague visits Stratford, twins Hamnet and Judith, are accosted by death. Their parents, an individualistic, expressive woman and an aspiring playwright in London, must wrestle with fate, grief, and each other. Out of this stew of family trials, O’Farrell has woven a speculative, fierce novel at the edge of one of the English language’s most famous plays. Hamnet is a lush, intimate literary novel that deserves a wide audience.
The Girl in the Mirror by Rose Carlyle [6/10]
A breathless “guess the twist” thriller written in an earnest, first person present style that irks the reader every few pages, “The Girl in the Mirror” arrives laden with its inciting premise. Iris and Claire are identical twins who separated in the womb just before birth; quite alike to strangers, inside body and mind they are completely unalike. And when Iris, sailing from Thailand to the Seychelles with Claire, finds herself alone on the boat, a classic identity ploy kicks off, one that involves trickery, inheritances, and double crosses. The twist and the double twist seemed to telegraph themselves to me (you might have a completely different experience), and the characters swirling around Iris were clearly props, but the author is adept at propelling and muddying the story. In the end, The Girl in the Mirror delivers on its promise: a serpentine plot unraveled at the speed of an evening’s sofa read.
The Dig [8/10]
Based on a novel about a real event, “The Dig” is one of those minor-register British films that basks in deep character study and deep place orientation. Just prior to World War II, a burial mound in Suffolk is dug up for investigation by a self-taught archeologist Basil Brown (he self-effacingly labels himself ” an excavator”), revealing a hugely significant archeological treasure trove. The film mostly revolves around the Brown’s growing connection with the farm’s owner, plus the London bigwig archeologists who arrive to try to gain credit, but towards the end an engaging subplot emerges involving two young people. Without a doubt, Ralph Fiennes is the centerpiece of the film, superb as the pipe-smoking, laconic, prickly Basil Brown, but Carey Mulligan also shines as the widow farmer. Mike Eley’s cinematography evokes those Suffolk fields and interiors, and Simon Stone’s direction bustles the mild plot along. The Dig tackles the joy of scientific discovery and the loneliness of hearts, depositing on this viewer a satisfied aftertaste of insights. Altogether satisfying in an unemphatic style.
The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine by Rashid Khalidi [7/10]
I cannot pretend to adequately grasp the detailed interlocked histories of Israel and Palestine, though I have some knowledge of Israel’s nuclear weapons history and have read reasonably deeply over the past four decades. I was therefore delighted to come across the newly published “The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonial Conquest and Resistance,” from the pen of historian Rashid Khalidi. This is a rigorously referenced, passionately written history with its heart on its sleeve, correctly, I believe. I enjoyed its broad sweep and the fact that it cogently focuses on six historical segments – 1917 (two decades), 1947 (two years), 1967, 1982, 1987 (eight years), and 2000 (a decade and a half) – struck me as most canny. An intelligent, worthy read, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine should be soaked up by many.
The Escapement by Lavie Tidhar [9/10]
How come the prolific, multifaceted Israeli author, Lavie Tidhar, never came to my attention? My loss entirely, for if “The Escapement” is any guide, Tidhar is a spellbinding stylist with a spell-casting imagination. Part fantasy, part sci-fi, part surreal mainstream, this novel plonks the reader into a vast, surreal landscape, the Escapement, in which clowns and stone monsters and cowboys and classic fictional characters coexist in a shifting tableau. The Stranger is our hero, a warrior searching for mythical flowers, even as in another universe he sits at his sick boy’s side in a hospital. None of this should work but all of it does, the author managing to evoke sadness, awe, and even humor. I could only compare my reading to old Philip K. Dick married to Samuel R. Delaney. The Escapement is a captivating triumph of imagination.
The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz [7/10]
Jean Hanff Korelitz writes thrillers by digging deep into characters under stress, not through plot per se, but in “The Plot,” she does both. When a writing teacher, himself a now-failed writer, appropriates the outrageously wild plot recounted by a student, since deceased, his life lifts into the stratosphere. But then the threats arrive… Not only is the fictional plot only gradually revealed (artfully, through extracts), this novel’s plot is sly and intended to surprise. The author is an immersive, rhythmic stylist, and the tension throughout is high. My own enjoyment was eventually thwarted because I picked the twist ending, probably only because I read way too many “give me a twist” thrillers. The Plot is also a brilliant window into the world of writers and their approaches, ecosystems, and psyches. Overall, an enjoyable, slightly atypical literary thriller.
Body Count by Paddy Manning [7/10]
In “Body Count,” journalist Paddy Manning has travelled our vast continent of Australia, seeking and talking to the victims of what are now the self-evident impacts of the climate emergency. In clear, empathetic prose, he explores the tragedies, slams the villains, and hails the heroes. Successive chapters cover fire, heat, flood (this was an eye opener to me), disease, and breakdown. One of the more intriguing aspects of Body Count is varied are the responses to Manning’s perennial question to survivors or relatives of victims: how much do you believe climate change contributed to this event? Manning makes his own view crystal clear but generously allows his interviewees full scope to range across the full spectrum of possible responses. A penultimate chapter offers an optimistic message and his final words address his conviction that our Coronavirus pandemic is twinned to climate change. Solid in exposition, revelatory in the breadth of warming impacts upon Australia, Body Count packs a much-needed wallop.
Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout [7/10]
Elizabeth Strout’s immersive, piercing stories and novels place ordinary lives under her microscope. I missed reading the first two novels concerning the life of Lucy Barton, New York author with a terrible past. “Oh William!” tells of her first husband, William, a bafflingly distant but distinctive man who, when this novel opens, has aged and seen his wife walk out, and the two former soulmates embark on a joint journey of memories and stunning family revelations. The author weaves a masterful dense tale, the human insights are profound, and an intimate, lyrical style knits it all together tightly. The storyline cannot be described as momentous, and a sense of domestic ordinariness drags some of the chapters down, but I was moved to near tears a couple of times, and came away from a fast read thoroughly wrung out. Oh William! is a minor key triumph, one that will send me backward to read the other two series’ books.
Dark Is the Grave by TG Reid [7/10]
A luminous literary fiction novelist (under a different name), TG Reid has now launched a archetypal police procedural series set in the dark, hilly Campsie Fells of central Scotland. The opening instalment, “Dark Is the Grave,” quickly sets the scene with the death of a policewoman at the hands of someone who is clearly a copycat of the Peek-al-boo maniac recently killed in an explosion that also caught the series’ hero, DCI Duncan Bone. Bone is now damaged goods, but like all good crime fiction heroes, the new killer brings him back to the fray. With his colourful crew of detectives at his side, Bone races to catch a macabre killer, somehow perilously close to Bone himself, even as he attempts to recover his place within his shattered family. Bone is a wonderful protagonist, the Scottish dialect livens up the dialogue, and the underlying crimes are captured with chilling authenticity. The story roars to a fine climax (though I guessed the twist, possibly due to good luck). I read heaps of this sub-genre at the moment, treasuring its theme of justice, and Dark Is the Grave brings a welcome new hero to my roster of regulars. Grab and enjoy.