Deep reading and deep reflection, leading to lyrical musing, that’s what we’ve grown to love in Maria Popova’s wonderful Brain Pickings blog. Her first book, “Figuring,” transcends the blog, with a staggering sashay through the lives and achievements of a range of geniuses such as astronomers Maria Mitchell and Caroline Herschel, mathematician Mary Somerville, writer/critic Margaret Fuller, artist Harriet Hosmer, and poet Emily Dickinson. Popova is not afraid to meander off course, nor to wax hyper lyrical, but somehow she still wrests a reasonably cohesive narrative out of a huge number of sources. A patient reader is required; sometimes the hyperbole fails, though I loved it when it succeeded, such as with this ardent sentence: “It is a life’s work to reconcile ourselves to the fact that none of the things we gain by force of effort—admiration, awards, wealth, chiseled abs—ever make up for the unbidden gifts we are given and inevitably lose.” Popova’s final hero is the one I championed most during reading, the luminescent marine biologist/environmentalist Rachel Carson, author of “Silent Spring,” the book that kicked off environmentalism. I revelled in her life, her philosophy recreated, and Popova’s paean. Brilliant, brightly brilliant.
“The Great Hack” is an “in the moment” documentary digging into the Cambridge Analytica scandal (that’s the term that’s often used; watch this film and you’ll call it a crime) of a firm using Facebook data to help bring about Trump and Brexit. Does anyone realize how recent those events were? Now directors Karin Aimer and Jehane artfully and unobtrusively, but to great dramatic effect, cover the ongoing (and still “going on”) series of revelations about the real truth. A multi-pronged examination, “The Great Hack” focuses on brave academic David Carroll, intrepid journo Carole Cadwalladr, and, from the trenches, whistleblowers Brittany Kaiser and Chris Wyllie. It’s a stunning, tense narrative that zings from an atmospheric start to its savage climax. CA, in particular its former CEO, fight hard to seem relatively innocent but instead reveal the consultancy as a propaganda gun for hire marketing to despots and would-be despots around the world. This is a must-see for anyone concerned about data privacy and a fine piece of film-making.
In the How-To field, Gretchen Rubin is one of my favorites. From each of her previous books on happiness, betterment, etc., I’ve gleaned at least a couple of great ideas for organizing my own life, and I’ve always admired her clarity of purpose and thought. Now, with “Outer Order Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room for Happiness“,” Rubin takes on Marie Kondo. Her central thesis, that being tidy and organized, even with small matters, can calm the inner beast, is one she’s always espoused, but now she tackles it systematically. The five steps she prescribes are: decide why you’re doing it; declutter vigorously; don’t listen to others, do it your own way; once decluttered, stay habitually neat; and finally, avoid an antiseptic, decluttered life by seeking beauty for your home. As ever, Rubin doles out helpful ideas and methods, while moving the reader along the path of righteous organization. If you’ve been hankering to rectify your lifetime of hoarding, this could be a lifesaver. Me, I’ve already downsized, decluttered, and generally slimmed down my footprint, so for the first time, there’s nothing in this Gretchen Rubin book that I’ll seek to apply to my life. And I also have the feeling that decluttering is a minor topic for this imaginative life guide.
If “When They See Us” is judged by its emotional freight, it will count as one of the year’s best series. This wrenching tale of the most egregious miscarriage of justice strikes at the heart of the underlying American racism revealed over three decades, since the Central Park Five, teenagers all, were bullied into “kind of” confessing to the near-murderous 1989 rape of a female stockbroker in Central Park. I remember the event – I arrived in New York on a business trip that night – but barely registered the subsequent story, so it was all brand new to me, and by the fourth episode I could not contain my tears. Director and cowriter Ava DuVernay has absolute control of her incendiary material and how she structures the plot, especially the positioning and framing of the final episode, with a well-pitched sharp closing, is a masterclass in modern filmmaking. All the key actors, including the Five doubled up in their original and subsequent lives, are insanely well acted, and Felicity Huffman’s antagonist performance feels as real as real can get. Each episode’s script is tight, tight, tight, and the wonderful relatively sparing soundtrack is a mix of well known and unfamiliar music. Most highly recommended.
What a quixotic, brilliant movie “Woman at War” is! Benedikt Erlingsson, who directed and co-wrote this feature, is not familiar to me, but he has not only written a searching, pitch-perfect script, his direction delights throughout. The film opens up with what becomes a familiar scene, with fifty-year-old Halla, choir director, out in the starkly filmed Icelandic wilderness sabotaging power lines in order to bring the local aluminium industry to heel. She’s an eco warrior passionate about climate change! This theme is interesting enough, but the movie rattles along like a thriller, albeit marked by sprightly eccentricities, like a three piece playing the movie soundtrack inside each scene. Halla is played spectacularly well by Halldora Geirharosdottir, who also portrays Halla’s twin sister Asa, around which a couple of neat plot twists unfold. The backdrop of a government under the sway of foreign interests, bringing in American technology, including drones, to track the saboteur, adds contemporary relevance. Most recommended, both intelligently entertaining and thought provoking.
Fans of Frank Kennedy’s Asimov-league series The Impossible Future began the journey with “The Last Everything,”a breakneck adventure featuring three teens: James the hidden Jewel with hidden powers, Samantha with a hidden time-spanning past, and “normal” Michael. The finale of that first volume involved some of the best action scenes of my recent reading, but I had no idea what “The Risen Gods” might involve in terms of storyline. Well, reader, jump in for a treat, for within a page of the Book 2, we’re in the vastly intergalactic Earth of the universe-domineering Collective, and now James, Samantha, and Michael are plunged into a space opera adventure within a brilliantly conceived world as evocative as that of the master, Isaac Asimov, and as politically intricate as James Scalzi’s. Nothing is as it seems, the headlong pace sucks you in, and our three heroes evolve and mature rapidly. Plot twists gyrate, new key characters sizzle, and the action stage keeps expanding. A highlight of this year’s reading, “The Risen Gods” presages an enduring, mind-blowing, kinetic sci-fi feast. May the series’ volumes come thick and fast!
Classy nonfiction writer Susan Orleans was raised in Cleveland. “I grew up in libraries…,” she writes in “The Library Book.” She drifted away from library usage but after a chance visit to the Los Angeles Public Library eight years ago, “the spell libraries cast on me was renewed,” and then she grew fascinated with the 1986 fire that burned or damaged more than a million books. Who caused it and why? The fire’s history proved fascinating, with a local actor-wannabe accused of arson, and “The Library Book” see Orleans digging into it all. But the fire, which provides the book’s narrative spine, is just the launching pad for a generous, contemplative paean to the world of public libraries. As a lifelong library tragic myself, I basked in the artfully constructed mix of reconstructed history and insightful reflection. The writing is elegant, the innards of the Library are vividly described, and one comes away with a renewed sense of how important the world’s libraries are.
The hero whose thoughts we inhabit for the length of “Milkman,” the third novel by British author Anna Burns, is Middle Daughter, a disaffected eighteen-year old enmeshed in the Northern Ireland “Troubles.” From the outset the reader is plunged into a claustrophobic tale of gossip, murder, stalking (a paramilitary type called Milkman), family, love, lust, and friends. The author’s style is as claustrophobic as the plot, a discursive style that can expand a paragraph for pages, a style that warps every conversation into a formal debate, a style that sashays like twenty conversations going on in a crowd. “Milkman” is experimental in a long line of such novels, and normally I relish such challenges, but here I floundered. I could admire some of unpicking of issues, I could enjoy sentences, I could appreciate technical skill, but the unusual style sapped the characters, especially Middle Daughter, of any life off the page. Not much happens and when it does, it is not mined for narrative impact. Reading a Booker winner is always a treat, and this novel was a test worth undertaking, but as a novel it is barely readable.
Lee Kofman is a brave and iconoclastic memoirist with a lyrical and barbed pen. Her second book, “Imperfect: How Our Bodies Shape the People We Become,” tackles a vexed subject I never knew I should be fascinated about, namely how our bodily faults impact our lives, our psyches, and our souls. Kofman frames the book around her lifelong efforts to understand and come to grips with her own imperfect “body surface,” as she puts it, but she then ventures out in an astonishing array of directions through her own reading, through sympathetic interviews, and through reflective thought. The writing sparkles, the ideas are never weak-kneed, and the book’s flow is superb. Very much in the seemingly fresh modern tradition of discursive, lucid memoirs, “Imperfect” is a wonderment.
What a beguiling, touching character Eleanor Oliphant is! Traumatised by a mysterious past, odd to the point of weird, yet luminously human, Eleanor romps through this comedy of manners or existential drama or love story or … you get the picture. One can situate the novel in the stream containing “A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” or “The Rosie Project,” a stream that’s notoriously difficult to nail stylistically, but Gail Honeyman (this is her debut!) immerses us so completely, we’re under her spell. The plot is simple – Eleanor’s regimented solo life is disrupted by falling in love with a distant pop star and a random act of compassion on her part – but swirls in unexpected directions and the climax offers not only twists but also completely solid logic. “Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine” is a treat and a triumph.