We’re All Damaged by Matthew Norman – Novel

Were all Damaged big


We’re All Damaged by Matthew Norman is a novel of this moment, this cultural age, as yet unnamed, in the America we are all currently immersed in. It is interesting to have our main character and narrator be a guy, Andrew, Andy, with a sort of funny way about him (not in a ha-ha way, but in an ironic, self-deprecating, nerdy but shell-shocked way). As we meet him Andy is reliving the end of his marriage to Karen. He wishes that the setting had been somewhere more appropriate than an Applebee’s. He wishes for a different soundtrack although he sees the “jagged little piece of pop music irony” in  “Wake me up before you go-go” which was playing at the exact moment that Karen breaks the news, not even affected, apparently, by the older couple enjoying drinks and touching hands at a nearby table.

It has actually been a year since these events and Andy is now a bartender in NYC, but he is still feeling as bad psychically as his body feels when he gets hit by one of those speedy New York bicyclers. He has to go home with all his bruises and breaks because his family calls to tell him his Grandpa does not have long to live. He has to go home to Omaha, Nebraska, where Karen is now living in their old house with the ripped EMT guy she left Andy for. Andrew is definitely not over this. Will going home help?

When Andy stops in a local bookstore he runs into a tattooed 30-something pretty girl named Daisy. Daisy is a sort of cool girl, a seeming psychic savant and a rebel which is probably the part of her personality that connects with Andy at this point in his life. But who is Daisy and why is she so interested in his Grandpa?

You may ask if this is sort of the guy equivalent of chick lit as many have suggested, and it could be, but it is still a nice little novel about the way guys can sometimes experience a breakup as a sort of killer ego-destroying treason and how it can, perhaps, with time, lead to a higher level of maturity. I am sorry that the author chose the picture he did on his author page – it makes a handsome man with humor look cruel. Other than that, good job.


Behind Closed Doors by B A Paris – Book Review

behind closed doors big

Behind Closed Doors by BA Paris was a difficult book to read. It was not complexity that made it difficult; it was content and awareness. From almost the first page we are aware that all is not right with Jack and Grace Angel, although they are often described as perfect. He’s perfectly handsome, has great taste, good manners, and he is such a successful lawyer that he has never lost a case.

Grace is obviously pretty, although we don’t hear an awful lot about this. She is a good cook and hostess. Her home with Jack is well decorated and she is devoted to her much younger sister, Millie, who has Downs Syndrome and who currently resides at a great school in North London.

How do we know that there is something not quite right in all this stylish perfection? There are small details that give us the beginnings of our goose bumps. At the dinner party which opens the book Jack and Grace entertain two couples – Esther and Rufus who Jack just met, and Diane and Adam who they have known for a while. The question is raised of how Grace manages to stay so very thin despite a seemingly ravenous appetite. When Esther presents Grace with a box of very expensive chocolates Grace seems to be worried that if she doesn’t open them before her guests leave she won’t get any. Grace is very fearful that there might be noticeable flaws in her meal. Jack makes sure that no one is ever alone with Grace. Grace doesn’t seem keen on showing the pictures from their honeymoon in Thailand – and more, much more. In fact Millie dislikes Jack until Grace gets Millie to transfer her dislike to Jorj Koony (George Cooney).

Since I sense right from the beginning that all is not as it appears it fills me with a sort of unspecified dread. It also makes me question whether the author should tip her hand so early. Sometimes I like obvious symbols but even the last name Angel doesn’t really work here. Somehow John Irving always carried this off. The stuffed dog Sorrow that kept popping up in Hotel New Hampshire is one of the best examples ever of an obvious symbol that works. But Paris is not John Irving. There is just not enough subtlety here. But even so I could not stop reading (even though I wanted to) and I hoped all the while that somehow all would be well.

We know situations like this really happen. In my small city there is a famous, fairly recent case of Mr. Jankowski, living in an upper middle class suburb, who built a secret underground room behind his basement. He was a serial kidnapper who kept a woman locked in a prison-like cell where he had complete control over her. When he was done with one victim he kidnapped another. He got away with this several times. There were also the three woman held prisoner for a decade or more who escaped from their captor perhaps because he sort of let them. There are other stories like this, fortunately somewhat rare, but even one such imprisonment is too many.

Most of Behind Closed Doors is spent showing how Jack managed to turn an independent woman into the fearful woman that Grace became, incapable of finding a way out, and how he was able to have such a seemingly normal social life. Could anyone actually have so much control over someone that they did not have to keep their prisoner physically locked up? A good part of the book is also spent telling us what happens to Millie, as Millie is the emotional blackmail Jack uses, and Millie is the one Jack really wants.

This novel is chilling and sadly all too believable, but I think the writer’s skills were not quite up to the task of dealing with the subject matter. It’s as if the entire book is written to tick off a check list the author has created of the ways Jack was able to fool Grace and everyone else. However, there is a part of us that likes to know how such a captivity could take place in such a crowded world and the topic is an important one. The book is not long and reads fast, but you will have to decide for yourself whether you want to tackle this one.

From Silk to Silicon by Jeffrey E Garten – Book Review and Comments on Globalization

from silk to silicon big

I tend to think that we are living in the most global age ever and my take on global government often harkens back to the science fiction books I have always enjoyed so much, so my construct tends to actually be governance of the galaxy. In The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov the Galactic Empire exists but it is on its way out. Preparations have already been made to train brilliant humans who will bring the Empire back from the Dark Ages into which it has been plunged. In Dune we have the Spacer’s Guild, the Bene Gesserit, and the noble houses in a feudal society with everyone owing allegiance to the Padishah Emperor. In Star Wars we know that there is a rebel alliance at war with the empire and prequels fill in the backstory showing us a government full of corruption, swollen, unwieldy, and divided.

So I often try to imagine what our government might be like if we did have a global government. I can imagine a system where we keep our individual nations but belong to some overarching body that coordinates everything and keeps a more and more complex world ticking along smoothly and peacefully (which you would think might be the United Nations, except that this idea makes some people paranoid). I realize that this is as much science fiction right now as any of my old beloved sci-fi books, but there is a corner of my mind that believes that we could possibly pull this off (a very optimistic corner of my mind).

But, Jeffrey E. Garten the author of From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization through Ten Extraordinary Lives does not see globalization as something to be achieved in the future if we ever get our act together. He feels that people on this planet have been making the world smaller and more connected for centuries and he doesn’t even go back as far as the Roman Empire. He goes back to Genghis Khan (1162-1227) ravaging his way across most of Asia and even perhaps into a swath of Europe conquering and killing out of motives very like vengeance but also mixing cultures along the way, sending beautiful objects and bright people to live in the peaceful parts of his empire and setting up the trade routes that became the very well-traveled Silk Road.

He goes on to talk about nine more people who have connected parts of the globe and made it easier for goods, services, and people to wander further and/or faster or even to stay in one place and still connect with distant corners of the planet. He includes Prince Henry the “Navigator” (although he believes that name is a misnomer), too young a son to inherit a kingdom but driven to find his niche in Portugal and perhaps his legacy. He begins as a conqueror, continues as a sponsor of explorations, and sadly winds up bringing slaves to Europe from Africa.

We have Cyrus Field who tried time and time again until he devised a system that worked to lay a trans-Atlantic telegraph cable from Newfoundland to England allowing messages to travel in minutes rather than weeks and months. Garten tells us about a Jewish banker who went home to the Jewish ghetto each night but was trusted to bring funds and investment money to and from rich and even royal men all over Europe and England. He tells us how Mayer Amschel Rothschild continued to live in his old neighborhood even as he founded banks in all of the important European cities and sent his sons out to run them. Would we have a modern banking system without him? Maybe, but it might not have gotten off to such a prosperous start.

Even Margaret Thatcher, a Prime Minister who people love to hate, is given credit for breaking up socialism in England and sponsoring free trade, things which ended what might have been a long-standing recession in Great Britain, at least for a time. And he tells us about Andrew Grove, eventual CEO of Microsoft, with his grasp of detail and his apparently inborn work ethic who revolutionized the microchip production industry when no one else seemed to be able to manufacture microchips that had the necessary qualities of consistency and usability.

There are a few others I did not name in this book review (great book, you should read it) but one of his main points was about what these folks had in common. They did not set out to contribute to the overall globalization of the world. They were not even always people who you would want to be in the path of, they could be cruel, they were all extremely determined, and their goals were often quite narrow, but offered out-sized consequences, sometimes deliberate, sometimes not.

So it seems all our talk about globalization in the 21st century needs to be placed in the context of all the connections made on our planet which began long before any of us existed. In other words, there is a historical context in which modern globalization is a continuation of a human tendency, rather than an innovation that is just coming into existence. Who will be the extraordinary individual who takes the baton and runs the next lap? Is this person already here, or far in the future? Only hindsight will tell. It could be you.

At The Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier – Book Review


The Edge of the Orchard big


My journey with Tracy Chevalier, author of At The Edge of the Orchard, began years ago in book that featured a tapestry of a unicorn (The Lady and the Unicorn). Her current book is worlds away from her first book but if you like trees and following history across the American frontier then here is another sort of tapestry, more realistic and much grimmer, but still somewhat gripping. My favorite Chevalier novel is still Girl with a Pearl Earring and this novel did not displace it.

I acknowledge that all the cruel things people do to each other is upsetting enough when the people are real flesh and blood figures. It seems redundant sometimes to create fiction that captures our inhumanity (or perhaps our too, too human nature) when we can read about it in the news. But still, to create a world with fictional characters and even fictional events that rings true is a true talent and many agree that fiction can immerse us in experiences that are foreign to our own and which help build our capacity for empathy. And while literature that tells us of unpleasant human experiences can seem unrewarding, it can help rid us of the gullibility that partners with being too innocent of life’s trials. Bad things, after all, do happen.

When the Goodenough family decides to leave New England and move west a bad marriage turns into a nightmare. The family puts down their new roots (literally and figuratively) in an inhospitable plot of land in the Black Swamp in Ohio in 1838. James and Sadie Goodenough are a terrible match. He is hard-working and stable, even perhaps a bit dull if you are Sadie who enjoys being admired, likes to party, and is very social. James is obsessed with growing an apple that was brought to America by his family from England, the Golden Pippin. He has carried plants with him from New England to the Black Swamp. But the swamp presents a constant struggle with many indigenous trees to be cleared through massive human labor, too much moisture for growing apples that are good for eating, and a fever that kills.

The Goodenoughs can only keep their land if they have fifty fruit trees growing successfully in five years. They grow the Golden Pippins for eating and they grow other apple trees (spitters) for cider and apple jack. Sadie knows that they don’t have to grow the pippins and she hates how much her husband is obsessed by them. Their children, Caleb, Nathan, Sal, Martha, Robert, and Charles are expected to work as hard as they are able to help make ends meet. The swamp and the grueling labor has already killed two children, Jimmy and Patty. John Coleman (Johnny Appleseed) is almost their only visitor and he brings new apple trees for sale every time he paddles his canoe to the homestead. He also brought Sadie the apple jack, an alcoholic cider to which she, perhaps to tune out this life she is so unsuited for, becomes addicted. James and Sadie have reached a point where they are barely civil and James is so frustrated that he often hits Sadie, who sometimes hits back.

When Sadie and James finally reach the breaking point young Robert is so appalled and feels so guilty that he leaves home at nine and we follow him for the rest of the book as he keeps moving west across America, doing odd jobs and making a living any way he can until he reaches California. Here it seems that Robert finds that he too, like his father is a tree man. He wants to see the redwoods and the sequoias. His interest and the fact that he can’t move any further west leads to his last and most important job. He works for an Englishman, William Lobb who sends seeds and seedlings back to an employer in England to sell to rich estate owners who want to try to grow the giant trees. When his sister Martha catches up with him we finally learn what happened in the aftermath of his parent’s meltdown. This book review of At the Edge of the Orchard  finds that this is an odd sort of novel; I think I liked the one with the unicorn better, but I did read the whole thing and it is, of course, well-written. It did make me want to eat a Golden Pippin apple and perhaps hug a sequoia.


The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney – Book Review

The Nest

Families “do be crazy” (a term I have inappropriately appropriated) (although The Big Bang writers did it first). There are all kinds of books about families, but what they all seem to have in common is idiosyncratic family members and a certain amount of dysfunction (or a lot of it).

The Plumb family is at the center of the book The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. They are a modern family, Leonard, Sr. and Francie, and their four children – Leo, Beatrice, Jack, and Melody. The family grew up in New York City with a father running a business that involved feminine hygiene products and a mother who was not exactly a hand’s-on mom, although she seemed to understand her children’s differences well enough.

Leonard, Senior set up a nest egg trust fund for his children to be divided equally when the youngest, Melody, turned forty. Why did he make his children wait so long to inherit? Senior will explain if you read the book. The nest was meant to be small, but the administrator was an astute investor and the fund grew larger than expected.

Just before Melody’s 40th birthday something happens that changes everything. Of course I can’t tell, but think about the situation. Four adult Plumbs have been planning to inherit and living their lives accordingly. How would it affect your life if you knew you would come into money at a certain age? Would you spend ahead, or would you wait. Would it make you less or more ambitious about your own life goals? Each of the Plumb siblings is affected differently by the unexpected series of events. How will they adjust if their inheritance is less than expected?

This could be a very dark story but the author’s treatment keeps it light. There is angst but not deep anguish. It is a book to enjoy as summer reading – to shake your head at – but it is no great literary masterpiece. Still, this book review finds that it is well-written, a quick read, and entertaining enough to be a best seller.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough – Book

The Wright Brothers sm

My entire mental schema for the Wright brothers contained a total of 4 facts. I knew that one brother was Orville and one was Wilbur. I knew they built the first airplane capable of flight and that the first flight was made from Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. My schema also contained some visuals: a rather sketchy approximation of what that first airplane looked like (it looked like a cross between a box kite and a paper airplane model) and a visual image of the dunes at Kitty Hawk, NC from a visit to the Outer Banks, where my friends showed absolutely no interest in digging deeper into the wonders of flight, focused as they were on the joys of flirtation and looking good in a bathing suit.

But the newest biography called The Wright Brothers by David McCullough got such great press that I, who had always been somewhat fascinated with man’s quest to fly and with the first time this was successfully accomplished, was tempted to stray from fiction. This biography was well worth the detour.

I have seen drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, quite antique, that show wing assemblies that could be strapped to men. These drawings (looking like angel wings) attest to man’s envy of s bird’s ability to soar above the earth, perhaps to the very heavens. The drawings also trace the historical roots of our actual attempts to emulate the birds and lift off from solid ground, free of gravity, into the blue sky.

Wilbur and Orville Wright did not live in Kitty Hawk, NC. They only went there for the dunes and the wind and to study the shore birds that inspired them so strongly.  Indeed the ocean winds over the dunes at Kitty Hawk enabled man’s first flight ever on December 13, 1903 and then the first flight caught on film on December 17, 1903. Sustained flights took more time, more tinkering, and more tests; even a few accidents. But those two brothers who came from Dayton, Ohio, from the steady, devout and loving family of a preacher possessed the strong work ethic and the drive that kept them working until they made a plane that could reliably take off, fly and land.

The brothers (Wilbur, older – Orville, younger) were the kind of men who almost always wore suits even when tinkering in their workshop. They got their income from their bicycle shop and when they realized how passionately they wished to invent a machine that could fly, they were able to use the workshop behind the bicycle shop to fashion their flying machine. They immediately grasped the advantages that flying would give America in a war and they asked, unsuccessfully for money from the War Department.

A number of people in America (even at the Smithsonian), in Great Britain, in France were all racing to create a glider with an engine which could sustain flight over time and distance. This pursuit was scientific and the brothers knew their physics. They studied wing design and lift. Secrecy was somewhat important because the men who competed to be first and best were not averse to a bit of what we would classify now as “corporate espionage”. Fortunately for the brothers the others were not as meticulous and did not have the brothers’ gift for the physics of flight. Still there were many legal battles with competitors over patent issues.

Going back to the gritty and very inspiring beginnings of something we take so much for granted in our era of jets and airbuses is good for our souls and David McCullough, however workman-like his account may seem, also takes us “up, up in the air with those glorious men in their flying machines.” Flying has become essential both in warfare and in peace. Whatever would those brothers think of stealth bombers and drones? At any rate, I now consider my Wright brothers’ schema well-plumped with new connections – and that is just one of the reasons I love reading books.

May 2016 Book List


books small 3

Amazon Books


The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee – (NF)

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett

The After Party: A Novel by Anton DiSclafini

Sweetbitter: A Novel by Stephanie Danier

The Summer Guest: A Novel by Alison Anderson

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

Happy Family by Tracy Barone

The Sport of Kings: A Novel by C E Morgan

Born of a Tuesday: A Novel by Einathan John

The Noise of Time: A Novel by Julian Barnes

LaRose: A Novel by Louise Eldrich

The Atomic Weight of Love: A Novel by Elizabeth J. Church

The Honeymoon by Dinita Smith


Biographies and Memoirs


Braving It: A Father, a Daughter and an Unforgettable Journey into the Alaskan Wild by James Campbell

The Romanovs 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Valient Ambition: George Washington, Bendict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick

Rough Riders: Theodore Roosevelt, His Cowboy Regiment and the Immortal Charge Up San Juan Hill by Mark Lee Gardner

Paul McCartney: The Life by Philip Norman

My Lost Brothers: The Untold Story by the Yarnell Hill Fire’s Lone Survivor, by Brendon McDonough, Stephan Tally

A Different Kind of Daughter: The Girl who Hid from the Taliban in Plain Sight by Maria Toopakai, Katharine Holstein

The Bridge Ladies: A Memoir by Betsy Lerner

The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones by Rich Cohen

Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story by Matti Friedman

Ruthless: Scientology, My Son David Miscavige and Me by Ron Miscavige, Dan Koon


Mystery and Thriller


The Fireman by Joe Hill

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

Redemption Road: A Novel by John Hart

The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin

The Second Life of Nick Mason by Steve Hamilton

Girls on Fire: A Novel by Robin Wasserman

Don’t You Cry by Mary Kubica

The 100 Year Miracle: A Novel by Ashley Ream

Night Shift (A Novel of Midnight, Texas) by Charlaine Harris

Wilde Lake: A Novel by Laura Lippman


Publisher’s Weekly Books


Gold of Our Fathers by Kivei Quartey (Darko Dawson)

Father’s Day by Simon Van Booy

Behind Closed Doors by B A Paris

One Hundred Twenty-One Days by Michele Audin

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens

Born on a Tuesday by Einathan John

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo (YA)

Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

Boy Erased by Garrard Conley (Memoir)

Zero K by Don Lillo

La Rose by Louise Erdrich

Sergio Y by Alexandre Vidal Porto

The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay

The Fireman by Joe Hill

Some Kind of Happiness by Claire Legrand (YA)

Devil and the Bluebird by Jennifer Mason-Black


Independent Booksellers Books


In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

My Sunshine Away by M O Walsh

The Crossing by Michael Connelly

Zero K by Don DeLillo

The Last Mile by David Baldacci

Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

Life’s Golden Ticket by Brendon Burchard

The Green Road by Anne Enright

The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahan

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett

Redemption Road by John Hart

Journey to Munich by Jennifer Winspear

The Lost Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

Maestra by L S Hilton

Britt-Marie was Here by Fredrik Bachman

Extreme Prey by John Sandford

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church

The Sport of Kings by C F Morgan

Glory Over Everything by Kathleen Grissom

Heat and Light by Jennifer Haigh

Robert B Parker’s Slow Burn by Ace Atkins

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett