Review: Warlight

In the aftermath of WWII 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister are left in the care of a mysterious man they nickname The Moth and his possibly criminal cohorts. Warlight follows Nathaniel’s adventures with this eccentric lot and his efforts to discover why his mother seemingly abandoned him.

This coming of age story is unfortunately a disjointed and at times confusing novel. During most of the book we’re told his mother was involved with a secret government agency and that Nathaniel has heard stories about her war service. But these are only vague references for such a key plot point and we never get to hear those stories or discover their source.

Warlight (Knopf, digital galley) was written by Michael Onjaaatje, who also wrote The English Patient, which was turned into a movie. His latest effort, however, is an opaque and enigmatic book that leaves too many questions unanswered.

Very short reviews of books

The original, and surreal, Spaceman of Bohemia is highly recommended. The Mars Room and I am, I am, I am area also among my favorites from April.

Spaceman of Bohemia: Czech astronaut Jakub Procházka leaves his wife behind and heads on a mission to Venus where he befriends a possibly-real, alien spider. (5/5 stars.)

The Mars Room: A bad history with an obsessive strip club visitor leads a young mother to an unfortunate encounter and two life sentences in prison. This is a brutal, yet empathetic look at a life gone sideways. (5/5 stars.) Read my full review.

I am, I am, I am: A remarkable and captivating memoir that recounts author Maggie O’Farrell’s 17 near-death experiences.  (5/5 stars.)

The Immortalists: A family drama that follows the lives of four siblings who, as children, are told by a spiritualist the day they will die. (4/5 stars.)

Gateway to the MoonGateway to the Moon:  Mary Morris’ latest novel combines a coming of age story with historical fiction to explore ideas of identity and how history echoes across time. Set in a remote New Mexico town founded by crypto-Jews fleeing the Spanish inquisition. (4/5 stars.) Read my full review.

Final Girls: The “final girls” are a loose-knit trio of girls who were all lone survivors of mass murder. Now one of them is dead and the other two form a troubled bond in this psychological thriller. (4/5 stars.)

The Stars Are Fire: As Grace Holland reconciles the fact that she is in a loveless marriage, a fire breaks out in rural Maine and her husband disappears, and is assumed dead, while fighting it. Her chance at a new life is severely derailed after her husband returns disfigured. (3/5 stars.)


Review: The Mars Room

Rachel Kushner’s new novel The Mars Room is a heartbreaking and unsparing look at a life gone sideways. From a young age Romy Hall became acclimatized to life on the street in San Francisco and seemed like someone who could navigate the fine line between survival and self-destruction. But a bad history with an obsessive strip club visitor leads the young mother to an unfortunate encounter and two life sentences in prison.

Separated from and unable to get in contact with her son, Hall tries to reconcile her new life with her old. Kushner draws a vivid picture of a woman growing up only knowing poverty and getting caught up in a system that has little regard for her plight.

The Mars Room (Scribner, digital galley) alternates between the present and Hall’s earlier life. While at times brutal, the novel offer an empathetic look at prison life and the rich cast of characters who reside there.


Friday morning coffee reads

Here is a regular roundup of interesting stories from the week.

  1. A landslide of classic art is about to enter the public domain.
  2. There is an arms race in artificial intelligence.
  3. The most serious environmental problem is indoor air pollution from burning dirty fuels like wood and dung.
  4. The rise of Russia’s neo-Nazi football hooligans.
  5. Southwest 1380: Think about the flight attendants.
  6. A farewell to free journalism.

Friday morning coffee reads

A weekly compendium of interesting articles. Grind, brew, sip and enjoy.

  1. Inside the booming black market for Spotify playlists.
  2. Why disco should be taken seriously.
  3. A video trip through 1911 New York City. The playback speed is corrected and that makes the video come alive.
  4. What you get with a $150,000 vacation package.
  5. Is British English Conquering America, or Vice Versa?
  6. The fate of the $100 laptop.
  7. Disney is building a Netflix rival.
  8. An extra wine of glass a day will shorten your life by 30 minutes. Related: Did drinking give me breast cancer?
  9. Dog rescuers, flush with donations, buy animals from the breeders they scorn.
  10. Jamie Livingston’s one Polaroid a day project is now a book.

Review: Gateway to the Moon

Mary Morris’ latest novel, Gateway to the Moon, combines a coming of age story with historical fiction to explore ideas of identity and how history echoes across time.  The remote New Mexico community of Entrada de la Luna is rooted in the history of the Spanish inquisition and converesos, or crypto-Jews, who fled from persecution. But the residents have lost touch with their past and don’t remember why they maintain certain rituals, such as shunning pork and lighting candles on Friday.

Gateway to the Moon (Doubleday Books, digital galley) primarily follows Miguel, a poor high school student who discovers some unexpected similarities between his own life and that of the transplanted Jewish family for whom he babysits. The novel alternates between Miguel and his forebearers, who made their way to Entrada along with Spanish explorers.

This unique novel works hard to wed the contemporary with the historical and for the most part succeeds. But the story of Miguel and his relationship with those around him is most captivating. The interludes into the past are brief, fill in the backstory and tie in nicely with a personal discovery Miguel makes at the end of the book.


Friday morning coffee reads

A selection of stories to enjoy this Friday morning as you roll into the weekend.

  1. Inside the worst U.S. maritime disaster in decades. A recording salvaged from three miles deep tells the story of the doomed “El Faro,” a cargo ship engulfed by a hurricane.
  2. There’s a lot that goes into a riot. Here’s a closer look.
  3. Photographs of Andy Warhol’s apartment, just after he died.
  4. Inside the secret workshop of the Louvre.
  5. The 100 best one-star Amazon reviews of The Great Gatsby.
  6. How the Wes Anderson aesthetic took over the world.
  7. The dizzying story of the largest cruise ship ever built.
  8. The Twitter accounts of famous, dead authors.

What photography is doing to our memories

I joined Kenny Smith on The Best Story I’ve Heard Today podcast to discuss the Vox story “What smartphone photography is doing to our memories.”

We discuss research that shows the taking and sharing of smartphone photos is changing the way we remember experiences. Because of that, what we remember may not be an accurate version of events.

But the good news — in what may seem like a paradox — is that if used mindfully, cameras can actually enhance memories of certain experiences. The key is to understand what’s happening when you start taking pictures.

You can go directly to the podcast or listen below. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss out on the interesting stories discussed on each episode.

Review: The Sun Does Shine

In 1985 Anthony Ray Hinton was arrested and charged with the death of two men in Birmingham, Alabama. Hinton was certain that because of his rock-solid alibi, everything would be cleared up and he would soon be released. But due to an ineffective and unmotivated defense attorney and a criminal justice system indifferent to the plight of a poor, black man, Hinton was wrongly convicted of murder and spent 30 years behind bars.

Written by Hinton with the help of Lara Love Hardin, The Sun Does Shine is an extraordinary testament to power of rising above hate and enduring hardship with dignity. Hinton stoically served as a source of hope to those around him on death row, even befriending and changing the beliefs of Henry Hays, a KKK member on death row for lynching a black man in Mobile.

As we read of Hinton’s ordeal we are left infuriated with a system that consistently turned a deaf ear to his appeals. But with the help of a relentless civil rights attorney, Hinton was eventually freed in 2015.

The are usually two or three books each year that I would recommend as must reads. And this inspiring memoir will certainly be among them. The Sun Does Shine (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) is a powerful story that will serve as inspiration to anyone looking to live a life filled with grace and love.

Related coverage:

Friday morning coffee reads

An assortment of articles to while away the hours this Friday morning.

  1. Smartphone photography may subtly change what — and how — we remember.
  2. If you want a reservation at this Maine restaurant, you need to mail a letter. “You’re free to mail a handwritten request between April 1 and April 10. They’ll gather them all up and draw names in a lottery on April 11 to fill tables.”
  3. If a Banksy appears on a building overnight. Who gets to cash in?
  4. Elderly Japanese women are shoplifting in search of the community and stability of jail.
  5. Live Nation rules music ticketing, some say with threats.
  6. How Instagram became art’s new playground.
  7. Paucity of phosphorus hints at precarious path for extraterrestrial life.
  8. If everyone’s a “curator,” does the word loose its meaning?