Framed by the oil shale bust and the real estate boom, by protests against Reagan and against the Gulf War, The Optimistic Decade takes us into the lives of five unforgettable characters and is a sweeping novel about idealism, love, class, and a piece of land that changes everyone who lives on it. There is Caleb Silver, the beloved founder of the back-to-the-land camp Llamalo, who is determined to teach others to live simply. There are the ranchers, Don and son Donnie, who gave up their land to Caleb, having run out of options after Exxon came and went and left them bankrupt.
Summer camp provides the setting for this busy novel. The central tensions in the book are between affluent kids going back to the land at Llamalo, a quasi-wilderness camp in Colorado ranch country, and the struggling locals whose jobs were lost when the mining company (Exxon!) left town. There’s Caleb, the founder of Llamalo, trying to handle locals Don and Donny, whose ancestors settled the area and who lost their land to Caleb following the shutdown of a mining project. Then there’s Rachel from Berkeley, whose father owns a famous left-wing weekly, and her lifelong crush David, who wants to leave school to live at Llamalo year-round.
The characters tend to lie, to others but mostly to themselves. Caleb sees himself as a heroic land preservationist, but he shamelessly manipulates people. Rachel sees herself as a left-wing revolutionary, but she is still Daddy’s girl. The portrait of Llamalo itself is quite appealing. As the reader, I wanted to visit there myself.
The book has a serious weakness. In the first half, the characters tend to be one-dimensional, closer to stereotypes than to real people. That is bad enough, but the Jewish characters in particular come off as cartoonish—especially the Jewish liberals like Rachel and her father. This changes as the book progresses and the characters deepen, but it left a bad taste. The book is nowhere near as subtle as Meg Wolitzer’s “The Interestings,” another novel about affluent teenagers finding themselves at summer camp.
Having said that, I enjoyed “The Ordinary Decade” and became increasingly engrossed in the characters and the plot. Heather Abel is a talented writer, wrestling with important contemporary issues like class conflict, individualism, environmentalism and the value of protest.
The narrator did a good job, nicely differentiating the many voices.
A riveting and emotionally harrowing debut about two young brothers and their physically and psychologically abusive father - One of the Boys is a stunning work by a major new talent.
“One of the Boys” was an absorbing novel about two brothers whose father abandons their mother, removing the boys from their family home in Kansas to a small, creepy apartment in Albuquerque, where they are often brutalized, lied to and kept under lockdown. Despite the father’s increasingly violent behavior, the boys remain loyal to him. There are other, minor characters, but the boys’ only relationship appears to be with Dad.
Surprisingly, I found myself more interested in the father’s psychology than that of his sons. He was capable of charm and profound self-deception, something of a sociopath. The boys’ inability to protect themselves was disturbing, something of a Stockholm Syndrome.
The ending was weak—the reader needed more resolution of some of the conflicts. Perhaps Daniel Magariel is planning a sequel, which would be helpful.
The narration was good.
Stillwater College in Virginia, 1966. Freshman Peggy, an ingénue with literary pretensions, falls under the spell of Lee, a blue-blooded poet and professor, and they begin an ill-advised affair that results in an unplanned pregnancy and marriage. The couple are mismatched from the start - she's a lesbian, he's gay - but it takes a decade of emotional erosion before Peggy runs off with their three-year-old daughter, leaving their nine-year-old son behind.
I usually like quirky characters, but not these. I didn’t believe any of them, and mostly I kept wishing for the book to end. The only character I liked was Temple, a black (really, unlike the two white characters who pretend to be black) student who wants a normal successful life. I am sure the book had a lot to say about racial and gender identity, class and corruption, but if you don’t believe in the characters you have trouble engaging with the themes. The book picked up in the last quarter, and the narration was okay.
In 2007, a short blogpost by Gawker Media outed PayPal founder and billionaire investor Peter Thiel as gay. Thiel's sexuality had been known to close friends and family, but he didn't consider himself a public figure, and believed the information was private. This post would be the casus belli for a meticulously plotted conspiracy that would end nearly a decade later with a $140 million dollar judgment against Gawker and its bankruptcy. Only later would the world learn that Gawker's demise was not incidental - it had been masterminded by Thiel.
Ryan Holiday narrates his tale of the takedown of Gawker like a college senior keeping his younger classmates awake with an all-night monologue in the dorm. He has a world-weary, slightly nasal, slightly condescending voice that sounds like he is keeping himself going with No-Doz (remember that?). He speaks with odd rhythms, pausing every couple of words midsentence, as if to let the listener absorb the points he is making. He casually drops in obscure factoids of history (the Spartans lost an important if forgotten battle through overconfidence), and he quotes repeatedly from smart conspiracy philosophers (Herodotus, Seneca and repeatedly Machiavelli).
I mention the dorm because there is something sophomoric about this entire story. Peter Thiel, the outed billionaire, goes on a vengeance quest that costs millions and smacks of an immature need to boost his self-image by destroying a company—and all the jobs that go with that—that did him wrong. Nick Denton, the arrogant and blinkered owner of Gawker, is stubborn, smug and seemingly incapable of empathizing with the victims of its often pointless gossip. Hulk Hogan, who comes off as a minor character in his own story, has dignity, but he is also the one who could not resist sleeping repeatedly with his best friend’s wife.
There is much to learn from this book. Holiday has a broad knowledge of philosophy, world history and literature, and he doesn’t mind showing it off. This gives his story a little more gravity and oomph than it may deserve. Much of the philosophy focuses on the methods and risks of conspiracies. Peter Thiel’s conspiracy to take down Gawker and Nick Denton is well-planned and well-executed, following a Machiavellian playbook. In light of the damage done by Gawker to so many celebrities, Thiel is almost sympathetic. But he ultimately loses that sympathy because of the implications of his secret vendetta. If Thiel can take down Gawker, will other billionaires with extreme political views use their wealth, secretly, to go after other, more responsible media outlets that may offend with their opinions? Can they destroy these voices merely by financing multiple questionable lawsuits and pursuing them relentlessly? Holiday raises these troubling issues but has no clear solutions.
So this was a thoughtful, surprising and challenging book. I only wish Holiday had engaged a professional narrator who would have focused the listener more on the story and less on his own quirky voice.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
Cooper Gosling has just answered 500 questoins, and her results indicate that she's abnormal enough for polar life. Cooper's not so sure that's an achievement, but she's got nothing left to lose, so she accepts a one-year assignment to the National Science Foundation's Artists and Writers Program in Antarctica. There, she encounters the Polies, a group of misfits that only have in common their conviction that they don't belong anywhere else. But when a fringe scientist arrives, he brings them to the center of a global controversy.
What an unusual book. The first half is a romantic comedy, with a group of likeable misfits working together at the South Pole Station and looking for their “ice wives” and “ice husbands” for the long dark winter. The second half turns philosophical, with a bitter battle between science and religion and a sweet but troubled artist acting as the go-between.
The main character, Cooper Gosling, has come to the South Pole Station to escape her demoralized family. Her twin brother was a suicide, and her parents have turned against each other and, to a degree, Cooper. She fits in well with the South Pole loners, especially Sal, a physicist with issues with his own father. The author gives several of the “Polies” their own chapters, well-done profiles that highlight the psychology of those who are attracted to the desolate station.
I confess that my interest waned in the second half. The science was hard to follow, and the plot became a little strained. Nevertheless, author Ashley Shelby showed ambition and a readiness to wrestle with profound issues of science, religion, politics and relationships. She is off to a great start as a novelist.
The narrator was good with the different characters' voices.
3 of 3 people found this review helpful
With extraordinary access to the West Wing, Michael Wolff reveals what happened behind-the-scenes in the first nine months of the most controversial presidency of our time in Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. Since Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, the country—and the world—has witnessed a stormy, outrageous, and absolutely mesmerizing presidential term that reflects the volatility and fierceness of the man elected Commander-in-Chief.
I was surprised by what I regarded as the author's balance in this amazing tale of unexpected success and its consequences. Donald Trump is a fascinating character, and the author tries to be level-headed and fair in reporting the rivalries, the ambitions and the apparent chaos around Trump.
Holter Graham is one of my favorite narrators. (Check out his reading of the novel Canada, by Richard Ford.) He reads Fire and Fury like a roller coaster ride, filled with thrilling ups and downs. His narration has the inflections and enthusiasm of an Aziz Ansari monologue, kind of excited and kind of stupefied by the amazing tale he is telling.
Overall, this book was both fun listening and insightful into the current administration.
2 of 4 people found this review helpful
The Great Lakes - Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, and Superior - hold 20 percent of the world's supply of surface fresh water and provide sustenance, work, and recreation for tens of millions of Americans. But they are under threat as never before, and their problems are spreading across the continent. The Death and Life of the Great Lakes is prize-winning reporter Dan Egan's engaging portrait of an ecological catastrophe happening right before our eyes.
Dan Egan notes at the end of this absorbing study that those who love the Great Lakes often cherish early memories of fishing on one of the lakes. As someone who grew up in Buffalo, I remember a lot more than the good fishing on Lake Erie. I remember swimming in water that was clear and cool when I was a kid, then filled with muck and scary as I got older. I remember storms on the lake, when the water rose to wash over the beaches. I remember the occasional great blue heron, which brought us tiptoeing down to the water to look more closely.
The lakes have suffered greatly in the last 50 years, and Egan carefully follows one ecological disaster after another—first the lampreys, then the alewives, then the mussels. The book focuses on the damage wrought by invasive species, not industrial pollution. Egan returns again and again to the dangers of international freighters bringing contaminated ballast water down the St. Lawrence Seaway to the lakes, often with creatures from places like the Black Sea or Caspian Sea. But he also discusses the problems with intentionally introduced species, like chinook salmon that were imported as better catches for sport fishers, because the salmon fought harder than native fish.
Egan sometimes shifts to parallel problems in lakes and rivers around the world, and he brings a wide view of the consequences of weak regulation of our fresh water supplies. But he also brings hope, noting recent successes in bringing back native species in some of the lakes.
This was a thoughtful, factual book of interest to anyone who cares about fishing, natural beauty, our water supply and our health.
3 of 4 people found this review helpful
Early on a grey November morning in 1941, only weeks after the German invasion, a small Ukrainian town is overrun by the SS. This new novel from the award-winning author of the Booker Prize short-listed The Dark Room tells of the three days that follow and the lives that are overturned in the process. As their stories mesh, each of Rachel Seiffert's characters comes to know the compromises demanded by survival, the oppressive power of fear, and the possibility of courage in the face of terror.
“A Boy in Winter” offers a variety of perspectives on the horrifying events of the Nazi occupation of a small Ukrainian village during World War II. Surprisingly, the author presents the German occupiers—primarily Pohl, a dissident engineer who is nevertheless a cog in the German war machine—as sympathetic characters, trying to do their best in situations they find unpleasant and, to some, morally reprehensible. The author shifts her focus from one character to another: a Jewish optometrist, a former Red Army soldier, a farm girl torn between romance and her own safety, the runaway boy of the title.
I did not think the book worked well until the final scenes. So much has been written about the Holocaust, it is hard to be original or to offer a new perspective. I have read that two of the author’s grandparents were Nazis, her grandfather not unlike her character Pohl. This is unusual but does not necessarily make the book better. I found Pohl, with his conscience and his struggle to maintain his integrity, somewhat cardboard. Only in the surprising final scenes did I find the novel moving and effective.
The narration was very good, with subtle shifts to reflect the voices of the various characters.
3 of 3 people found this review helpful
From one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists, an exquisitely crafted coming-of-age novel set in the high-stakes world of English soccer - for fans of Nick Hornby and The Art of Fielding.
“A Natural” offers a gritty, realistic view of second-tier soccer, focusing on a small-town professional team and the rivalries of its players. The focus is on two would-be stars. Chris Easter’s career is nearing its end, along with his marriage to Leah. Tom Pearman’s career is just beginning, unevenly, and his romantic life is difficult. He’s closeted, falling for the club’s groundskeeper and loathing himself for it.
The novel’s strengths are in its characters. Peripheral characters are well drawn, like the Davies, in whose home Tom lives when he first joins the team and who are the parents of the groundskeeper, and Bobby, an emerging soccer star with a money problem. The soccer matches are well done, and the locker room scenes capture well the mix of practical joking, mutual support and petty resentments among the players.
The narrator was a bit quirky, but overall I enjoyed his reading. This was a well-written book. Ross Raisin is a thoughtful writer who gets the psychology of competitive athletes.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
A prisoner in a secret cell. The guard who has watched over him a dozen years. An American waitress in Paris. A young Palestinian man in Berlin who strikes up an odd friendship with a wealthy Canadian businessman. And The General, Israel's most controversial leader, who lies dying in a hospital, the only man who knows of the prisoner's existence.
Nathan Englander is a favorite writer. His plots mix current world politics with challenging questions of right and wrong, and they are always well written. His last novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, was absorbing but deeply troubling in its story of the treatment of college students in Argentina during the days of political oppression and murder.
Dinner at the Center of the Earth focuses on the middle east and terrorism. The central character, Prisoner Z, made an almost off-hand decision that has resulted in his solitary imprisonment in an underground cell in Israel. The characters on both sides of the conflict are well-drawn, and there are some wonderful scenes. Action moves between Paris, Berlin and Jerusalem. But while the action raises questions of honesty, loyalty and punishment, I did not always find it compelling. Some of the plot twists were predictable. The scenes between Prisoner Z and his guard would have been better with sharper back-and-forth between them.
Overall I enjoyed the book. Englander continues to be a deeply creative and thoughtful writer.
3 of 3 people found this review helpful