On Animals by Susan Orlean [7/10]

Susan Orlean On Animals review

Susan Orlean is a brilliant writer and indefatigable researcher driven by her startlingly varied fancies. “On Animals” gathers up sixteen essay articles from the last quarter century, mostly from The New Yorker. A self-confessed animal lover, albeit one more typically at home in an American city, Orlean writes about laboring donkeys in Morocco, her own chicken-owning experiences, the strangeness and popularity of pandas, a “lion whisperer,” the world of taxidermy, and pigeon racing in Boston. She is a smooth, individualistic stylist, able to throw in barbed humor whilst expounding history and technicalities in a readable yet intelligent manner. I was most swept up by the author’s wry but heartfelt narrative of the life of Keiko, an Orca whale who achieves stardom, and a spotlight essay on Biff, a prizewinning show dog. Entertaining and educational (in the best way), On Animals is sure to delight anyone curious about our non-human earthly neighbors.

Late City by Robert Olen Butler [7/10]

Robert Olen Butler Late City review

I thought I had read some Robert Olen Butler back in the eighties but none of his huge list of works chimes with me, so “Late City,” written at age 70, could be a first for me. And I’m delighted. A decidedly literary novel, written from a hazy but erudite viewpoint of a dying 115-year-old man on the eve of Trump, it posits a final earthly dialogue with God (a decidedly jaded deity), which then sashays through our hero’s life. A country boy, a soldier, a newsman, a husband, an old person’s home resident … all these phases of his life are recalled, reflected upon, and synthesized. Butler is a poetic stylist and his dreamlike scenes are a pleasure to read. A final mild plot twist failed to excite me, and somehow a century of recollections about America did not amount to much more than broad opinions on war and race, but overall, Late City is a minor readerly pleasure.

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann [4/10]

Daniel Kehlmann Tyll review

Daniel Kehlmann is a top German author and in “Tyll,” he employs the trope of the eternal trickster, in this case the legendary Tyll Ulenspiegel, to span the tumultuous Thirty Years’ War that wracked central Europe in the early sixteenth century. Charismatic Tyll connects a range of participants, lowly and kingly, as he strives with wit and grace and almost supernatural sleight of hand to survive when most don’t. Kehlmann is a consummate stylist and his eclectic scenes are convincing, but from the outset, I felt Tyll mainly suits those intrigued by the times, for the plot bogs down into treacle again and again. The bit-player characters are evocative but I found our juggling and tightrope-walking hero unfathomable and often uninteresting. Reader, check this out if the cover blurb intrigues you; Tyll was not for me.

The Stranger by Simon Conway [6/10]

Simon Conway The Stranger review

Deeply imbued with military knowledge and spycraft, “The Stranger” is a tumultuous entry into the modern post-Le-Carre spy thriller field. Starring a stubborn, wayward British operative thrust into blowback from a long-ago rendition, with a huge cast of complex characters from different nations, the first third skirts with plot overkill, but thereafter the storyline settles into a globe-trotting race that culminates gracefully (if in bloodthirsty fashion). Action scenes pulse with tension and threat. The author is an assured stylist, the dialogue is sharp, the double-crossing ambience is well portrayed. The Stranger makes for a one-night read that promises a welcome sequel.

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu [7/10]

Charles Yu Interior Chinaman review

Having tagged Charles Yu as a science fiction author (his wonderful How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe cluing me in), it took me a couple of pages to realize that “Interior Chinatown” is a quirky and quirkily told literary novel tackling stereotypes (Asian, Hollywood) and roleplaying in life. Daringly told in the second person, it walks in the shoes of Willie Wu, a downtrodden Chinese American stuck playing the part of Generic Asian Man Number Three/Delivery Guy but dreaming of attaining Kung Fu Guy. His life swirls among his family’s in a blur of performance and longing, until love arrives and he must choose between ambition and happiness. Super playful, forever inventive, often chuckle-aloud amusing, Interior Chinatown is a bracing corrective to my 2020 diet of seriousness, at the same time thrusting a sharp epee at my preconceptions. And Yu’s style is so nimble that the novel races along. A wonderful novel.

When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut [7/10]

Benjamin Labatutu When We Cease to Understand the World review

Chilean author Benjamin Labatut has created a tour de force fiction-nonfiction hybrid, “When We Cease to Understand the World,” that in a slim volume barely longer than a novella pulses through key early 20th Century physics, mathematics, and mass evil, focusing on key luminaries. Fritz Haber invents poison gas, Schrodinger and Heisenberg engage in a titanic battle over the invention of quantum physics, Karl Schwarzschild invents the black hole … all these tales told as pithy education but also imagining personal battles commensurate with the scientific ones. A final chapter sees the narrator engage with a “night gardener” about the merits of all this thinking. To an ex-mathematician like me, the most spellbinding chapter concerns Alexander Grothendieck, a mathematical prodigy of such obsession that he mesmerized a generation, and his baffling disciple Shinichi Mochizuki who in 2012 published six hundred pages of proof of a key conjecture, but published it on his own blog, and no one, but no one, could understand it! Labatut writes with a lyrical fervor that hypnotizes, even if sometimes you wonder where he is going. “The quantity of fiction grows throughout the book,” confides the author, and the mixing of “real” and “imagined” could irk some readers. I rode with the flow and experienced a sustained rush of intellectual and emotional pleasure. When We Cease to Understand the World is a maverick, kinetic boon.

Honeybee by Craig Silvey [6/10]

Craig Silvey Honeybee review

Craig Silvey’s bestselling debut, Jasper Jones, stormed the Australian literary scene and prospered overseas. A decade later, “Honeybee” is also a coming-of-age tale but boldly ventures into deep territory. The novel kicks off with teenager Sam Watson preparing to suicide off a bridge, only to be befriended by an older man with the same aim, and from there Honeybee rockets along as Sam attempts to navigate a tough world and his own transsexuality. He is a welcome hero, alternately frail and spirited, and the author shoots the plot in startling directions, but fundamentally the grand theme is love and acceptance. I found Honeybee to be wholly admirable but unaccountably flat, and the only factor I can attribute that to is the author’s style, a close-up, earnest, plain, Young-Adult-ish tenor that ultimately distanced me. So … don’t let me dissuade you from tackling this serious, worthy novel, for you may well take to Sam Walton’s in-the-moment voice. I certainly look forward to Silvey’s next work.

The Practice by Seth Godin [7/10]

Seth Godin The Practice review

Seth Godin is one of those How-To gurus you either adore (because you desperately need his advice) or despise (he can seem slick). His writing style, the endless aphorisms and cool stories, belies the acuity of his vision, and, whilst I have found most of his books to be useful, it is this one, “The Practice: Shipping Creative Work,” that has begun to shift my own writing productivity. Godin offers a holistic framework around concepts of daily practice, professionalism, giving, passion, individuality, and shipping (actually producing creative works). He spins yarn after yarn, slowly building up the case for a steady life of work that is never easy but contains its own rewards. A highly nuanced and effective set of tools for the creating, shipping creator.

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante [7/10]

Elena Ferrante The Lying Life of Adults review

The searingly intense internal landscapes of Elena Ferrante’s books can divide readers. I know plenty of friends who struggle with her novels and, to tell the truth, I have to work at them, simply because I can get overwhelmed. “The Lying Life of Adults” is a quintessential Ferrante, covering the teen years of Giovanna as she quizzes her identity and her purpose and her sexuality, until she bursts into adulthood. Suffice it to say that the book’s title gets a good working over. And, as usual with this author, the city of Naples hovers as a seamy, vibrant, contradictory character in its own right. In The Lying Life of Adults, Ferrante digs further in on setting, sending Giovanna back and forth between her home in the refined upper heights of Naples and her in-laws’ suburbs in the sordid depths. The author maintain a hypnotic, hectic pace through Giovanna’s years. The prose is fervid and brutal simultaneously. And the frankness of the story never lets up. Summing up, if you adored the Neapolitan quartet, rush to snap this up; if you struggled back then, steel yourself and embrace The Lying Life of Adults for the sake of your appreciation of courageous, immersive modern literature.