hadn't seen Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), which is impossible, but it's such a cultural touchstone that I knew what to expect. I knew the main character was a socialite called Holly Golightly. I knew she had a cat named Cat.
I will admit I was mistaken about one thing. As far as I know she does not have a friend named Tiffany.
I intended to dislike this book for two reasons. First, I am tired of the sort of female character whom everyone indulges, despite her poor behavior, because she is whimsical and pretty. Natasha from War and Peace is another one like that. I don't know if I mentioned I read War and Peace. I did, earlier this year actually.
Second, it is literary fiction. Literary fiction is a genre where characters reflect on thoughts. Ideally the characters do this reflecting in New York City. Otherwise the book is not eligible for literary awards.
Attractive young girl about town muses on life in the city and goes riding with her horses and people love her even though she kind of sucks. This is not a book I should like. This is the opposite of a book I should like.
But there's a scene where Holly and the narrator shoplift some Halloween masks and I felt like I was right there with them, running on the sidewalks with my stolen mask.
For literary style, character development, and atmosphere, Truman Capote reminds me of J. D. Salinger and Raymond Carver, who are obvious comparisons, and Madeleine L'Engle, who is not--but she wrote some novels that had nothing to do with time travel but lots to do with New York.
I enjoyed Michael C. Hall's audiobook narration. And for those of you with the same earworm, the group was Deep Blue Something and the year was 1993. It sounds like 1993, doesn't it? Like yeah, that's what life sounded like then.
On the one hand, Consider Phlebas is a smart, fast-paced opener for The Culture books, an acclaimed science fiction series by Iain M. Banks. On the other, there are two stereotypes all tied up in one villain package. One of the villains is a Jabba the Hutt knockoff who invites us to equate corpulence with corruption. Then audiobook narrator Peter Kinney comes along to give him the voice of an effete homosexual. Banks strikes me as an intelligent writer, and Kinney is one of my favorite narrators, so I am mad at both of them.
And before you go telling me how Things Were Different back then, the book's pub date is 1987. The moon landing was old enough to vote.
So to enjoy this book, you'll need to have tolerance for some unfortunate stereotypes, and you'll need to have a stomach made of steel, because there is one scene that is revolting. I have a high tolerance for reading disgusting things and I about lost my lunch.
If you're still with me, this is a fun space opera. I see why it endures on Best Of lists, and I expect I'll continue sampling from The Culture books. This is not the kind of science fiction that makes you contemplate your own humanity. It's the other kind. the SPACE LASERS kind.
I had fun getting lost in Brent Weeks's Night Angel trilogy, starting with The Way of Shadows. In the slums of a city where crime lords hold the power, a street urchin named Azoth tracks down the deadliest assassin the world, Durzo Blint, and begs to become his apprentice. Blint reluctantly agrees to train Azoth, but only if he first kills the sadistic leader of his street gang.
Weeks makes ample use of fantasy tropes. That kid living on the streets? Spoiler, he's the chosen one. His teacher is a worn-out assassin, grown cynical and weary after these many years of being alone; his girlfriend is a young, morally pure woman who acts as an externalized conscience; his mother-figure is a hooker with a heart of gold.
Other fantasy elements will be familiar, such as legendary enchanted objects and mad wizards. I'm generally okay with this as a reader. One of the joys of genre fiction is seeing how different authors handle different genre conventions. But there are some tropes that could stand to go into retirement, notably: Violence against women as the plot device that motivates the main character to achieve his destiny.
I enjoyed the adventure and careful plotting within the books. These are not advisable if you prefer to avoid violence, but if you can tolerate some squicky scenes, these are adventure-filled, plot-driven stories that will satisfy the itch when you want action and magic. I particularly recommend the audiobooks, since Simon Vance is such an enjoyable narrator.
I listened to a classic of science fiction, The Lathe of Heaven (1971), written by Ursula K. Le Guin and narrated by George Guidall, easily one of my favorite voice actors.
George Orr transforms reality through the power of his dreams. He's terrified each time he falls asleep because he can't control what he dreams.
No one else realizes it's happening. Each time George dreams up a new reality, everyone else enters the new continuum unwittingly. His only ally is his psychiatrist, who is secretly developing a dream machine that will replicate George's powers in other people.
This is what science fiction was made for, to help us consider alternate realities, the nature of dreams, and parallel universes. I give Le Guin full marks for investigating these concepts.
But I didn't like the book. I find Le Guin to be humorless and largely unemotional. The characters felt flat and the prose was dry. There was nothing wrong with it, but the stylistic choice to be deadly serious did not suit me.
I have similar criticisms about many, many, many science fiction books, especially those written in the twentieth century. The science fiction writers I love best--Connie Willis, Martha Wells, Becky Chambers, Tom Holt, Tamsyn Muir--can manage thought-provoking speculation without treating character development like an embarrassing hookup they'd really rather forget.
I've been similarly disappointed by Le Guin's fantasy--The Wizard of Earthsea bored me as a teenager--though I did enjoy The Left Hand of Darkness, a pioneering novel about gender. And the short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" is terrific. I recommend that as an entry point for anyone wanting to try Le Guin.
For those wanting to learn more about alternate realities and the interconnectedness of everything, you could take psychedelic drugs like mushrooms or LSD, only those are illegal in most places to please don't construe this as legal advice.
A generally less criminal approach would be reading classic authors like Philip K. Dick (only I haven't read him yet, given my prejudice against 20th century speculative fiction writers), or you could read "The Life of Chuck," a Stephen King short story I read last year that I still haven't recovered from, it was that good.
Retired from the Brussels police force, M. Hercule Poirot has settled into obscurity in a sleepy little English town--but when a wealthy local man turns up murdered, he is not exactly reluctant to get back into detective work.
I admit I did not guess whodunnit. I had to wait like everyone else gathered in the parlor to learn the identity of the killer.
Christie eventually tired of Poirot, but the public clamored for him. He is eccentric and pompous, with quite a high opinion of himself, but justifiably so. I don't feel moved to read the Miss Marple books, but I think I'll read some more Poirot mysteries. I recommend the audiobook narration by Hugh Fraser (who played Captain Hastings to David Suchet's Poirot).
Tom Holt is among my favorite contemporary writers. It's his prose style that does it for me. When I write fiction, it's his voice that I try to emulate, more than any other writer. He sets up his words in such a way that an ordinary sentence turns into a vehicle for comedy.
Under pseudonym K. J. Parker, he writes fantasy novels that are laugh-out-loud funny, but it's hard to persuade anyone of that, what with the high body count and catastrophically tragic story lines. As Tom Holt, he writes science fiction novels that feature somewhat less slaughtering.
For example, although the protagonist of When It's a Jar does at one point take a mortal wound, it's not a permanent condition. He's able to free himself from Valhalla after a few weeks, so no harm done.
This is the second book in Holt's YouSpace series, which can be roughly summarized as: madcap escapades through the multiverse. Or putting it another way, this is like A Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but funnier. And Ray Sawyer's audiobook narration is pitch perfect.
This week I read Eat & Flourish by food writer Mary Beth Albright, with audiobook narration by Caroline Shaffer.
Unlike books that emphasize weight and other aspects of physical health, this book examines the relationship between food and mental wellness. At various times a chef, a food attorney, and a journalist, Albright finds a wealth of medical information and makes it accessible for general readers. Some tidbits that stayed with me:
Taste is perceived beyond the taste buds. When Cadbury changed the shape of its chocolates from squares to circles, consumers were in an uproar about the sweeter formulation...even though the recipes were identical. This is why you should add a spring of fresh herbs to your plate. You will derive more pleasure from your meal, just from seeing a sprig of parsley or rosemary.
In a tightly controlled experiment, people in two groups ate food with identical caloric and nutritional compositions, but one group ate clean, unprocessed foods while the other ate ultra-processed foods. The people eating ultra-processed foods gained weight.
In another experiment, mice were fed identical diets, but some mice received injections of gut microbes from a fat twin, while other mice received injections of gut microbes from the slender twin. The mice with the microbes from the fat twin gained weight.
I mention those experiments not to hyper-focus on weight but to observe that there's so much to food and wellness beyond "eat less, move more." How food is prepared and processed, the microbes in your gut, how often you share meals: so many different factors contribute to your overall well-being.
Albright provides lists of foods that can help with specific emotional goals, such as eating to feel less angry or less anxious. There are also some recipes and a few high-level ideas to implement at the grocery story, such as a plan to focus on anti-inflammatory foods for a week. I consider myself well informed on food and nutrition, but I learned a lot.
My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite
My Sister, the Serial Killer is a slender little thriller about the complicated love between sisters. Korede is older and plainer, working as a nurse in Lagos. She's a compulsive cleaner, and she has a secret crush on Tade, an eligible doctor at her hospital. Ayoola is younger and gorgeous and she's just finished killing a boyfriend--the third time this has happened. Her claims of self-defense sound hollow, considering her complete lack of remorse. Sensible older sister Korede has to stop Ayoola from posting happy selfies when she's supposed to be mourning a missing boyfriend.
And then the beautiful, dangerous, probably psychotic Ayoola sets her sights on the handsome doctor.
There are some dark themes along with the dark humor. If you don't like reading violence, this is not the book for you! But on the unlikely chance you've wondered what it would be like, mixing Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle with the movie Arsenic and Old Lace, you have an answer! Nigerian author Oyinkan Braithwaite delivers something a little different from dainty murders in the English countryside. I enjoyed it as an audiobook, read by Adepero Oduye.
I read Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace.💅 I started microdosing it daily on January 1st and finished all 921 pages this morning.
I devoured Anna Karenina as a teenager, but I I was not expecting that same breeziness here (if a lengthy Russian novel about adultery can be said to be breezy). One of my college professors once told me that Tolstoy was embarrassed by the melodrama in Anna Karenina and considered the more serious War and Peace to be his masterpiece.
There is a small bit of truth to this. Let's get that out of the way. Tolstoy occasionally interrupts his narrative to, I am sorry there is no other verb for this, pontificate. He'll end a battle scene on a thrilling cliffhanger, then spend a couple of chapters talking philosophy. Tolstoy loves to criticize the historians of the Napoleonic era. He does not merely do history. He does historiography.
But leaving aside those digressions: this book is a damn soap opera.
We've got affairs, gambling, botched abortions, pistols at dawn, secret societies, heirs vying for fortunes, peacetime deaths, wartime deaths, love triangles, broken engagements, controlling fathers, and bigamy. The only thing missing is a premature burial.
I read the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (ISBN 978-1-78888-652-9, Sirius Publishing, part of Arcturus Publishing). If you'd rather watch the movie, there have been a ton of adaptations. I haven't seen any, but when I was getting started and still trying to keep the characters straight in my head, I kept looking up images from the BBC adaptation, and the costuming is gorgeous.
I am glad I can finally settle that question that every person must ask of themselves: Dostoevsky or Tolstoy? I am #TeamDostoevsky. While I enjoyed War and Peace immensely (the melodrama parts , at any rate), The Brothers Karamazov will never be dethroned.
In Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, Dr. Vivek Murthy uses his pulpit as the U.S. Surgeon General to focus not on heart disease or obesity or addiction but on loneliness.
As a person who is lonely (a bad thing) but who enjoys solitude (a good thing), I am a sucker for books that examine isolation and loneliness. I'm always looking for insights into my own existence and what changes, if any, could be made.
Though each individual's social needs are unique, humans generally are hardwired to fear loneliness. Murthy discusses an experiment showing that students, arbitrarily informed they were likely to be lonely as adults, performed poorly on academic tests compared to students informed they were going to have successful marriages and social connections. (A third group, informed they were likely to suffer physical pain from accidents and injuries, did not perform poorly.)
I disliked some of Murthy's assumptions, e.g., that technology is bad because it distracts us from in-person relationships. WHAT in-person relationships? Pray tell, Dr. Murthy.
Also, I get mighty irritated when eye contact is regarded as something virtuous. The neurodivergent folks would like a word. So would the people from cultures where eye contract is construed as aggressive.
Nor was there enough discussion of people with personality disorders. Do they need the same connections? Do they want them? They were barely mentioned in the book.
So at times I found myself snapping at Dr. Murthy as he narrated the audiobook. Still though, I learned some new things, and I don't mind recommending it for people who get lonely at times. In a world that is increasingly fractured, with economic systems that are hostile to community, that would be most of us.
When Covid first hit, I started doing book talks on social media as a way to keep in touch with people. I never got out of the habit. I don't discuss books by my clients, and if I don't like a book, I won't discuss it at all. While I will sometimes focus on craft or offer gentle critical perspectives, as a matter of professional courtesy, I don't trash writers. Unless they're dead. Then the gloves come off.