Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

This is 21st Century Dickens. The story of a tough, thoughtful kid bouncing from place to place in the wake of societal upheaval. Crazy and memorable supporting characters, that will almost surely get two or three actors an Oscar nomination when the movie comes out. Like Dickens, The Goldfinch is loved by adoring fans and loathed by snobbish critics. Count me among the former.

The Golfinch has been criticized in some publications for imprecise language. Perhaps. But it also has some incredibly moving passages and pretty wonderful folk wisdom. It's not afraid to bend genres- at times a social commentary on a grand scale, in other moments a young adult novel, at its most exciting0 an adventure yarn.

Highly recommended - especially for Dickens fans, art-history lovers, and New Yorkers.

The Known World by Edward Jones

This Edward P. Jones novel is about black slaveowners, which was in actuality a thing that happened. It is one of the essential novel about slaveries; a more subtle (if less wrenching) companion to Beloved. There are some clever narrative turns in the story and several beautifully formed characters. I will say this never hit home with me in the way that the greatest novels do. White characters are central to the narrative and indeed are portrayed quite sympathetically.

A very good novel, but not quite a great one for me at least.

Sisters in Law by Linda Hirshmann

This duel judicial biography of Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a mixed bag for me. The story provides some interesting details about the first two women on the Supreme Court, does an excellent job chronicling RBG's litigation strategy in important women's right cases, and provides some wonderful behind the scenes information about several key cases. My issue with the book is that Hirshmann seems intent on cheerleading rather than neutrally analyzing her subjects. She elides over many of O'Connor's conservative decisions and never grapples with some of the seeming contradictions of Ginsburg's life. For instance, the book notes that she was criticized by Orrin Hatch for promoting affirmative action but never having hired a minority law clerk during her Supreme Court hearings. This seems like an interesting thing to delve into; Hirshmann never does.

Not a bad duel biography, but it would have been better had Hirshmann been more willing to put her subjects under the microscope.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

I think its quite human that authors tend to write about characters like themselves and that resemble people they know. It's also quite human that many of our favorite stories we can relate to in a personal way. There is nothing wrong with this phenomenon.

But I think the power of great fiction is that it allows to you to climb in someone else's skin and walk around in it, to paraphrase one of the finest fictional character ever, Atticus Finch. Indeed, reading fiction has been shown to be one of the few surefire ways to increase empathy in humans.

All of this is to say that Olive Kitteridge is about an elderly woman who lives in rural Maine who more or less has the concerns you would expect her to have. Her husband's health. Her son's family. Slights from other women. Not exactly my world at this point in life. But Olive's story is deeply human. She wants to be loved by those she loves, she must put up with annoying people; at times she feels at time she cannot escape her sadness, during other moments she finds surprising contentment from small victories.

A well-executed piece of fiction.

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize, this collage of stories is some pretty virtuoso shit. Each chapter is about a different individual, but their different stories constantly criss-cross and overlap. Stories take place on a safari in Africa, early 1980s San Francisco, 1990s Naples, an unnamed third world country, and modern day New York.

Sasha is the character who has the biggest role in the narrative, and the book is at its best when it focuses on her. A chapter that uses Power Point slides will move you a shocking amount.

Highly recommended.

Tinkers by Paul Harding

In my string of reading recent Pulitzer Prize winning novels, this was the only one I didn't like. The book is about a man with epilepsy in rural Maine and his son who makes clocks. That might be an unfair description but the book seemed about that mundane to me. Clocking (get it?) in at under 200 pages, at least Tinkers is a quick read. And there are some pretty passages. But I didn't find this book moving, adventurous, or informative. Not recommended.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

I liked this, but it never connected with me in a deep way. The rare Pulitizer Prize winner for Fiction that is a collection of short stories, I think some f Lahiri's pieces work much better than others. Some of the stories are set in India, others in the U.S. In general, I think the U.S. based stories work best probably because that is the world Lahiri knows better. Women unhappy with their romantic lives is the most common narrative but the stories touch on a number of larges themes. The final story- The Third and Final Continent- was certainly my favorite. It's simple and profound, optimistic but honest.

Recommended if you enjoyed the movie The Namesake, have an interest in immigrant experiences or India. 

Radicals in Robes by Cass Sunstein

There are a lot of constitutional law books, certainly the field attracts more popular press books than any other legal field. These normally fall under one of several genres: judicial biography of a judge or justice or general overview of recent cases. Sunstein, who is the most cited law professor in the world, does something different and brilliant in Radicals in Robes: Why Extreme Right Wing Courts are Wrong for America (2005). He lays out a completely different way of thinking about constitutional law.

He breaks SCOTUS justices into four categories: fundamentals, perfectionists, minimalists, and majoritarians. The book does two things incredibly well: (1) refute and point out the hypocrisies of the fundamentalists (essentially originalists) and (2) offer a thoughtful theoretical backing of the pragmatic jurisprudence that is how the court so often proceeds.

One of the best constitutional law books I've read. Highly recommended for anyone interested in constitutional law.