WAMC Reviews 2nd May, 2017

Anything is Possible
Elizabeth Strout
Reviewed by Phil

I loved Elizabeth Strout's earlier book Olive Kitteridge, but was a little disappointed with her follow up, The Burgess Boys. The latter was a fine book in its own right, just not as sharp and crackling as Olive. Anything is Possible marks a brilliant return to form. In its structure, Anything is Possible is similar to Olive Kitteridge, but the stories, the perspectives are all new.

Former Amgash resident Lucy Barton, now living in New York, has just published a book. News of the book triggers memories in the minds of various people in the small Illinois town where Lucy grew up.

There is sadness, hope, and love in the tales Strout so deftly weaves from the lives of this small town's residents. This is such a beautifully written book, moving and thoughtful and rich. I can barely wait for her next one!

Fredrik Backman
Reviewed by Phil

Small town politics and pride set the scene for Backman's latest novel, Beartown. Loyalty is the underlying theme of this marvelous book and Backman poses the question: just where do our loyalties lie when everything we believe in is threatened? Beartown is a hockey town: The mood of the residents ebbs and flows with the weekend performances of the high school hockey team. This year, the team is on a winning streak, and the team players are heroes who can do no wrong. Until... (There are echoes of small-town America here, and the glory piled on the youthful shoulders of the high school football team.)

This is a beautiful book. It touches so gently on trust, and love, and respect, and where we fit in, or don't. I read it in one sitting.

Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow
Yuval Noah Harari

Listeners may be familiar with Harari’s earlier book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Homo Deus looks to the future and asks: What’s next for humanity? It’s a thoroughly thought-provoking book.

Harari throws out challenges throughout the book. Questions like: Is Homo sapiens a superior life form, or just the local bully? Or, How did humans become convinced that they not only control the world, but also give it meaning? Or, How do biotechnology and artificial intelligence threaten humanism? He says that the predictions that pepper the book are an attempt to discuss present-day dilemmas, and an invitation to change the future.

Harari argues that humans are finally in a position to manage the three great threats to life in the past: famine, plague, and war. Whereas in the past, these threats were seen as the result of incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature – the wrath of the gods, even -today, famine, plague and war have become manageable challenges, he says. Famine, for example has been humanity’s worst enemy for thousands of years, often resulting in the deaths of an entire family or village. Yet in 2010, obesity killed 3 million people while famine and malnutrition combined killed about 1 million people.

Yes, I said it was thought-provoking. There’s barely a page that does not contain some gem, as Harari explores the challenges facing humanity in the twenty-first century. But it’s not a quagmire of dense discussion, more a rippling of sparkling thought. It’s a beautifully written book. I keep dipping into it to reread certain passages – there’s so much to think about and discuss.

And a little nugget for the language nerds out there: Harari originally wrote the book in Hebrew, and translated it into English himself!

The Rules Do Not Apply
Ariel Levy
Reviewed by Linda

When thirty-eight-year-old New Yorker writer Ariel Levy left for a reporting trip to Mongolia in 2012, she was pregnant, married, financially secure, and successful on her own terms. A month later, none of that was true. Levy shares the story of how she built an unconventional life and then watched it fall apart with astonishing speed. Levy reveals that she was raised to resist conventional rules—about work, about love, and about womanhood.

I wanted what we all want: everything. We want a mate who feels like family and a lover who is exotic, surprising. We want to be youthful adventurers and middle-aged mothers. We want intimacy and autonomy, safety and stimulation, reassurance and novelty, coziness and thrills. But we can’t have it all.

In this powerful memoir, Levy chronicles the adventure and heartbreak of being “a woman who is free to do whatever she chooses.” Her own story of resilience becomes an unforgettable portrait of the shifting forces in our culture, of what has changed—and of what is eternal.

Saints for All Occasions
J. Courtney Sullivan
Reviewed by Linda

In 1957, Nora and Theresa Flynn leave their small village in Ireland and set sail for New York. Nora is the older, responsible sister who is engaged to be married to her high school sweetheart, now living in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Theresa is outgoing and mischievous -- she is looking forward to fun and adventure in America. However, things do not turn out as either had hoped. Decisions are made; secrets are kept; plans are put in motion. Fifty years later, Nora and Theresa are reunited at a funeral after decades of silence. 

This is a moving, unforgettable novel that accurately captures the Irish-Catholic immigrant experience in Boston as well as the dynamics of multi-generational Irish-Catholic families. The story is captivating and resonated with this Irish-American Catholic girl from Massachusetts.

On Night's Shore
Randall Silvis
Reviewed by Phil

I reviewed one of Silvis’s books on an earlier show and said that I was looking forward to reading more of his work. Well, he didn't disappoint.

On Night’s Shore is based on a story by Edgar Allen Poe, The Mystery of Marie Roget, which Poe in turn based on an actual murder that happened in New York.

On Night’s Shore is a galloping adventure set in 1840s New York featuring street urchin Augie Dubbins and a young journalist struggling to make his name, Edgar Allen Poe. There are cameo appearances from Mark Twain and James Fenimore Cooper and even Walt Whitman. This book is so much fun: it's a mystery and historical fiction combined. I couldn't put it down. It was one of the Whodunnit? book club picks earlier this year. Everyone rated it as the best book we’d read since we started the club in January last year. Definitely worth a look!

The Devils of Cardona
Matthew Carr
Reviewed by Phil

Set in Spain in the late 1500s, this historical thriller is a mixture of politics, religion and murder mystery.

A priest is murdered in a small Spanish town near the French border. The town's inhabitants are mostly Moriscos, Muslims who have converted to Catholicism. Worried about the possibility of revolt in this distant province, the king sends a trusted investigator, Bernardo de Mendozo, to get to the bottom of the murder. Mendozo's investigations uncover a world of greed and cruelty, with the religious tensions of the region deliberately inflamed to further private gain.

The Devils of Cardona is a gripping read, with startling parallels to the present day. Carr knows his stuff, and brings this historical period to life. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

The Railwayman's Wife
Ashley Hay
Reviewed by Linda

The Railwayman's Wife takes place in 1948 in a Sydney suburb by the sea. Three people are struggling with great loss and search for peace in the town's library. The novel is written in clear, shining prose and with an eloquent understanding of sorrow and loss. Each character is grappling with a common question -- how do I continue to live? While the story may break your heart at times, it ultimately celebrates love and human connection as well as nature's beauty.