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.