Monthly Archives: January 2016

Review: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Where did I get this book? I bought it, because it's a new Margaret Atwood book, so OF COURSE I BOUGHT IT.

Where did I get this book? I bought it, because it’s a new Margaret Atwood book, so OF COURSE I BOUGHT IT.

In this near-future dystopia, Stan and Charmaine are a young married couple caught up in the economic collapse of the northeastern United States. Despite working hard and following the rules, they find themselves living in their car, wandering from one unsafe parking lot to another just to stay alive. Charmaine brings in some meager income from her job bartending at a makeshift bar/brothel called Dust; Stan is unemployed and increasingly desperate.

When Charmaine hears about the new planned community of Positron/Consilience, it sounds like a dream come true. Residents receive housing, food, guaranteed employment and complete security. In exchange, they agree to spend every other month living in the community’s prison, wearing orange prison jumpsuits, sleeping in a shared barracks, and working at whatever occupation they are assigned.

Stan and Charmaine jump at the chance, even after Stan’s brother Conor, a criminal who seems to be thriving in the new chaos, warns him against signing up. All seems to be going well until the couple become entangled with their Alternates, the married couple who live in their house while they are in Positron prison and switch places with them monthly. It soon becomes clear that, like Charmaine, Positron/Consilience has some fairly dark stuff going on under that cheerfully innocent exterior.

The Heart Goes Last raises uncomfortable questions about just how much personal liberty people would sacrifice to ensure their own economic safety and security, and just how far those in charge would go when given the chance to exploit a captive population. When the world is all before us, do we really want freedom? Or do we long for a lost paradise of no choice at all?

Genre: Speculative fiction with robot prostitution, Elvis impersonators, and a Doris Day soundtrack.

Read it if: You’re an Atwood fan; you fear that technology will increasingly lead us into the darker crevices of the human imagination; you are interested in the relationship between free will and society.

Skip it if: You are squeamish about language, sexuality, or robot prostitution; you are easily frustrated with everyman protagonists; you were hoping this was the utopia that finally worked out for everyone.

Movie-worthy: To be honest, I was picturing Chris Pratt and Anna Faris as Stan and Charmaine the whole time. You would have to get the right director for this blend of dark and wacky though–maybe the Coen brothers or the Wachowskis.



Review: Hush, Hush by Laura Lippman

Where did I get this book? I bought it at the National Book Festival!

Where did I get this book? I bought it at the National Book Festival!

“Being a mother was like being trapped in the first fifteen minutes of a horror film. Everything was fine, lovely. But there was this persistent sense of dread.”

In Hush, Hush, Laura Lippman’s journalist turned private investigator Tess Monaghan must deal with a demanding client, Melisandre Harris Dawes, a woman once found not guilty by reason of insanity in the tragic death of her baby girl. Now Melisandre has returned to Baltimore after a decade abroad in self-imposed exile, intent on funding a documentary about her case. She seeks to reconnect with her surviving daughters, now teenagers, over the objections of her ex-husband, who has since remarried and has a newborn son.

Meanwhile, Tess struggles to balance the realities of motherhood with the demands of her job. Her daughter, Carla Scout, is now three years old, a source of both joy and exasperation. Crow, Carla’s father, takes on the bulk of the child-care duties and makes parenthood seem easy. Tess worries that she is failing as a mother, that she yells too much, that she’s unnaturally happy when Crow takes Carla Scout for the day.

As always, Lippman delivers an engrossing, suspenseful thriller with genuine emotional depth and an abiding love for all things Baltimore. While the subject matter is intense, it is handled thoughtfully and with compassion.

On a side note, I was fortunate enough to hear Laura Lippman speak at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC last September. She was just as frank and funny in real life as you would expect from reading her books.

Genre: Detective story with true crime authenticity and Baltimore flavor.

Read it if: You are a fan of the Tess Monaghan series; you enjoy reading about private investigators with relatable problems (child care! tantrums at the grocery store!); you like your mysteries with psychological complexity and local flavor.

Skip it if: You are particularly sensitive to stories involving the death of children; you are a “sanctimommy” who enjoys judging other women for their perceived child-rearing failures; you seriously can’t stand Baltimore.

Movie-worthy: I would love to see a mini-series encompassing the entire Tess Monaghan story arc.

Review: The Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner

Where did I get this book? A giveaway sponsored by The Reading Room and Simon & Shuster.

Where did I get this book? A giveaway sponsored by The Reading Room and Simon & Shuster.

In The Geography of Genius, “philosophical traveler and recovering malcontent” Eric Weiner travels the world in search of the source of genius. Why did Athens experience a golden age in the time of Pericles? Why was Hangzhou home to genius during the Song Dynasty? What sparked the Enlightenment in Edinburgh or the Bengal Renaissance in Calcutta?

Weiner walks the streets of modern cities, visiting the former homes and old stomping grounds of geniuses like Mozart, Michelangelo, and Rabindrinath Tagore. He interviews current residents and searches the historical record to determine what combination of factors led to the concentration of great minds and extraordinary talents in these particular places and times.

While there’s ultimately no mathematical formula for genius, Weiner identifies a number of forces and conditions that appear to foster the onset of a creative surge: the perfect combination of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation,  the imposition of hardship or a set of constraints, the type of society that fosters serendipitous interactions and interdisciplinary cross-polination. Ultimately, however, genius is the product of a nonlinear system, where the slightest input can result in huge changes in the outcome. No one can predict when and how it will arise.

Genre: Nonfiction that blends history, travel and sociology.

Read it if: You enjoy meandering through history and exploring the roots and influences of creativity; you appreciate the journey as much as the destination.

Skip it if: You are looking for an instruction manual on how to create instant brilliance; you dislike digressions, trivia, and similes about genius (“Genius is like a toddler…”)

Movie-worthy: Actually, I can imagine a really interesting documentary based on this book. All those exotic destinations would make a great visual accompaniment to Weiner’s distinctive voice.