Book Review: Gmorning, Gnight: Little Pep Talks for Me & You, Lin-Manuel Miranda

Book Review: Gmorning, Gnight: Little Pep Talks for Me & YouLin-Manuel Miranda and Illustrations by Jonny Sun

Poetry: Gmorning, Gnight: Little Pep Talks for Me & YouLin-Manuel Miranda and Illustrations by Jonny Sun

If you are on Twitter and not following Lin-Manuel Miranda, you are missing out. He regularly tweets short poems/phrases/words of encouragement to start the day (Gmorning) and then follows them up by echoing the sentiments later in the day (Gnight). He has collected many of those tweets into a book, GMorning, Gnight: Little Pep Talks for Me & You, and frankly, you should buy a copy for yourself, your loved ones, your neighbors, random strangers you meet in the park, and frankly anyone who has to keep working at this thing we call “life.”

 

Miranda is probably still best known for his musical Hamilton, but he is also starring in Mary Poppins Returns, wrote music and lyrics (and sang) for Disney’s Moana, and wrote and starred in the Tony winning musical In the Heights. He has won multiple Tonys, a Pulitzer Prize, Grammys, an Emmy, and has been nominated for an Oscar, among the many other prizes he has been nominated for or won. He also received a MacArthur “Genius” Award. This work probably will not get him his second Pulitzer, but it is pithy, heartfelt, and poignant.

 

Miranda encourages. His introduction (in rhyming couplets!) tells us:

Most often the greetings I wish you

Are the greetings I wish for myself.

 

So if I write “relax,” then I’m nervous,

Or if I write, “cheer up,” then I’m blue.

I’m writing what I wish somebody would say,

Then switching the pronoun to you.

 

This book is not meant to be a deep exploration of the human condition. It is meant to connect. And this is a good thing. We cannot always understand. We don’t always need to understand. Sometimes what we need to do is remember that we are not alone, that we are surrounded by people who have the same needs and feelings and desires and dreams and fears and disappointments that we do. Sometimes we just need to know that we are loved, that we are wanted, and that the world is survivable together. That’s why I say buy this book for everyone you love–even for everyone you just know. We all need this, and although Miranda wrote the words and Sun drew the pictures, if the book comes from you then the connection comes from you and that may be exactly what someone needs!

 

Good morning, stunner.

You’re just getting started.

Your age doesn’t matter.

The sun is up, the day is new.

You’re just getting started.

 

Good night, stunner.

You’re just getting started.

Your age doesn’t matter.

The stars are out, the night is warm.

You’re just getting started.

 

Jonny Sun’s illustrations are simple but profound. The basic line drawings put the words into images, sometimes whimsical, sometimes moving. In a powerful combination of word and drawing (written the day of the late Anthony Bourdain’s suicide), Miranda writes in all caps: “YOU ARE LOVED AND WE LIKE HAVING YOU AROUND.” Those words are rendered into a picture of multiple hands holding onto ropes, with the knots in the ropes forming the words.

 

It’s not Hamilton. But Hamilton is not for everyone. Gmorning, Gnight is a book for everyone (though parents be warned that sometimes Manuel has a “potty mouth”). Seriously, buy one for yourself. You could use the encouragement!

Book Review: Gmorning, Gnight: Little Pep Talks for Me & YouLin-Manuel Miranda and Illustrations by Jonny Sun

Book Review: The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s Young, Somini Sengupta

Book Review: The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s YoungSomini Sengupta

Book Review: The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s YoungSomini Sengupta

The End of Karma is an extraordinary look at India, written by someone who has known India from both inside and outside its borders. Somini Sengupta reports for the New York Times. Born in India, she grew up in California but returned yearly with her parents to visit family. As an adult she became the NY Times bureau chief for New Delhi, living there for several years. She is a daughter of India, the mother to a daughter of India, and yet also brings an American perspective to her stories. She is, in her words, N.R.I.–Non Resident Indian. This is a term used by Indians themselves for the vast diaspora from their country, people who now make their homes in lands far away and yet find the pull of this ancient culture still tugging at their hearts.

 

Sengupta tells the stories of several young Indians raised during a time when India stepped out onto the world stage unlike any previous time. In many ways, the last (roughly) three decades have been a time of incredible advancement in the country. Poverty is down. The economy has boomed. Construction has exploded. Life expectancies have nearly doubled. Education is widespread. Childhood vaccination has become widespread, and disease is commensurately lower. Hunger is much rarer. India soon will be the most populous country on earth, and with this enormous population and dynamic economy has come new stature in international politics.

 

The stories of young adults coming of age during this time tell of the hopes and aspirations of this generation. They are better educated, richer, and have higher expectations from life than their parents. But the old India has not fully released its grip on their lives. Marriages are still largely arranged. Female feticide, though illegal, is not uncommon, leading to a huge disparity in the male/female ratio. Girls are on average less educated than boys and have fewer prospects. Infant mortality is down, poverty and hunger are reduced, vaccinations are up, but India still has more people living on less than $2/day than any other country in the world. The caste system has been legally abolished, but it still plays a significant role in daily life. Indians can see a day coming when the caste system is a memory, when arranged marriages are historical oddities, but that day is not here yet and there are many who do not want to see that day arrive.

 

The women in Sengupta’s stories fascinate me. One of them, Mani, aspired to escape her impoverished rural village. She set herself a goal to move up in the world, and she achieved that goal. What is hard for this western reader to appreciate is that her “moving up” was not a rags to riches story–it’s a rags to better rags story. She worked for years as a nanny/housekeeper for a middle class family, cleaning their apartment, doing their laundry, cooking their meals, watching their children. This family was more inclusive than most–they did not always insist that she eat separately, use her own dishes, never sit on their furniture, and otherwise maintain the physical separation between themselves and their unclean lower-caste servant. They even gave Mani a day off each week so she could attend church. Mani made enough money to send home and give her siblings a chance at better lives, enough money to help her mother build a better house, enough money to make a real difference in the lives of her family. And the family she worked for helped her in other ways: when Mani’s cousin was kidnapped and sent into forced labor as a housekeeper in another city, Mani’s employer actually helped find her and paid some of the bribes to free her. Mani’s situation is not a story where she was manipulated by an evil employer. On the contrary, she was extraordinarily fortunate to be hired by the people she worked for.

 

But the entire situation spoke to me about both the similarities and the differences between us. Mani had a dream and she pursued it. Her dream came true! She found employment in the city, away from the desperate situation at home. She made enough money to change the future for her entire family. She was even able to rescue a cousin who had been kidnapped! What could be more American than that?  Yet, that dream had her living in a small room of a small apartment, with little or no property of her own, working all day six days a week, in a position with no prospects for advancement and no expectations of that. And Mani knew that she was one of the more fortunate people in her position!

 

Sengupta, though, is careful to show that in many ways India is not so different from America. Few Americans have live-in servants. But many of us hire maids or gardeners whom we do not allow to live with us and we show no concern about their personal living conditions. Many of us hire people to cook and deliver our food, with no thought as to their medical benefits. And how many Americans would personally step in to help the kidnapped niece of our Lyft driver? Americans rely heavily on low-paid workers to take care of a multitude of tasks. We’ve just separated ourselves from their lives.

 

India is a huge country, with a huge population. It has made incredible progress, and there is every reason to believe that progress will continue. But it continues to face huge challenges. Mani’s story, along with the others in the book, powerfully shows how far they have come in such a short time. But the stories also show what challenges remain. Whether those challenges come from an increasingly restive Facebook generation insistent on having their free speech respected, from an impoverished rural region which can now see online how the “other half” lives, from women who will no longer stand for being objects of abuse, or from religious minorities or from long disrespected castes, how the country reacts to those challenges will shape how the next set of stories are told.

 

Somini Sengupta did not set out to write the definitive story of modern India. With over 1 billion people, there are far too many stories to tell than any book could hold. But the stories she tells show us an India in transition, an India finding its way in a changing world, an India that is held in tension between a very modern high-tech society that they are helping to shape and a very ancient culture they are fighting to preserve. The resolutions they find will not only shape their future. The future of India is in many ways the future of the world.

Book Review: The End of Karma: Hope and Fury Among India’s YoungSomini Sengupta

Book Review: The Fifth to Die, J.D. Barker

Book Review: The Fifth to Die, J.D. Barker

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Fiction Mystery/Thriller: The Fifth to Die, J.D. Barker

 

He’s ba-a-ack!

 

Considering the cover of the book says this is a “4MK Thriller,” I’m not giving too much away by saying that The Fifth to Die, J.D. Barker’s sequel to The Fourth Monkey, features the return of Detective Sam Porter and his white whale, Anson Bishop, also known as the Fourth Monkey Killer or 4MK. Detective Porter and his team have been pulled off the hunt for 4MK when a body is found in a frozen lake. The body is that of a young girl who has been missing for a couple of weeks…but she is found under the ice, dressed in the clothes of a girl who disappeared just that morning. Chicago immediately fears that 4MK is back to his old tricks, but Porter believes this to be the work of someone else. Serial killers tend to have a unique style, and this murder does not fit the pattern of 4MK. As the body count climbs and the mystery deepens, the question persists: does this have anything to do with 4MK?

 

The hunt for the killer (or killers) expands beyond Chicago, reaching first to New Orleans and then to North Carolina. Bishop is back, but what if anything does he have to do with these new deaths? Why has he sent a picture of a mystery woman to Detective Porter, a woman being held in jail in New Orleans? What clues remain in his diary? And can they catch him in time to prevent whatever plans he has made from coming to fruition?

 

Barker has taken the loose threads remaining from The Fourth Monkey and woven them together to create a new and even more involved story. Tension mounts throughout the book. As the view shifts from detective to victim to killer, we learn more about the mysterious Anson Bishop. But each new revelation brings more questions. By the end of the book we see some mysteries solved. Many more, though, remain tantalizingly unresolved. Bishop remains free to wreak more mayhem. Porter has lost him again. His team is in desperate straits. And the reader, at least this reader, is left with nightmares about an elusive killer and a very satisfying thriller.

 

In just two books, J.D. Barker has become one of my favorite thriller writers. The Fifth to Die could be read by itself. Enough backstory is given that it stands on its own. But it will be more satisfying to read the two books in order. Just, don’t start them if you need to get some sleep. You will have trouble putting either of them down.

 

Again, a warning to more sensitive readers. There are violent scenes depicted in The Fifth to Die. If that sort of thing bothers you, this is not the book for you. And it is not a book I would recommend to children or tweens. The victims in the book include teenagers, which may make the violence even more disturbing to some. For the genre it is not particularly violent, but the thriller genre can be violent and Barker does not shy away from the grittier aspects of his subject.

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Book Review: The Fifth to Die, J. D. Barker

Book Review: The Fourth Monkey: J.D. Barker

Book Review: The Fourth MonkeyJ.D. Barker

1328915395

Fiction Mystery/Thriller: The Fourth Monkey, J.D. Barker

Hear no evil. See no evil. Speak no evil. Most of us are familiar with the three monkeys and their advice, often depicted with actual images of monkeys covering eyes, ears, and mouth. J.D. Barker’s book tells us about The Fourth Monkey: do no evil. But the monkey in his book does all kinds of evil. He is a serial killer, nicknamed the Fourth Monkey Killer, and time is running out for his latest victim. WARNING: if you have a weak stomach or tender constitution, stop reading and find a different book. The book (and consequently this review) do have descriptions that might upset some readers.

 

Detective Sam Porter has been hunting 4MK for over five years. It looks like they have finally caught a break when a pedestrian killed by a bus is found to be carrying a box wrapped in the distinctive style of the killer. Every previous victim was preceded by the delivery of three carefully wrapped boxes. The first contained the victim’s ear. The second, the victim’s eyes. The third, her tongue. Finally, some days later, the victim herself, always a young woman, would be found. This box contained a young woman’s ear. The man himself also had a diary in his pocket, one that told a grisly tale about a young man growing up in a house of horrors.

 

As Porter and his fellow detectives follow the clues, they start with several unanswered questions. Was the dead man really 4MK? Whose ear was in the box? And, most importantly, where was she? If indeed her kidnapper is dead, she only has a couple of days before dying of thirst. This urgency presses the team to follow every lead, even when those leads come dangerously close to the wealthy and politically connected elite of Chicago.

 

The Fourth Monkey shifts perspective often, usually between Detective Porter and the diary of 4MK. As the stories unfold, we realize that Detective Porter is carrying a great burden, one that inevitably affects his ability to follow the killer’s trail. And we realize that the diary is being told from the perspective of the serial killer–how much of its narrative is reliable? Meanwhile, a girl’s life hangs in the balance.

 

The Fourth Monkey is one of the best thrillers I have ever read. The police procedural rings true. The officers are dedicated, not perfect but not corrupt, frustrated at times with red tape but concerned about following procedure so that the result is a clean arrest and conviction, not to mention rescuing the missing girl. The diary never brought this reader to the point of sympathizing with the serial killer, but it made it easier to imagine how someone might lose his grip on appropriate choices when confronted with a distorted childhood. Of course, it is possible the diary was entirely a fiction within the fictional book–that is a possible interpretation that the author leaves for his readers to consider. All in all, a very well told story that leaves room for many of the characters to return again.

 

Barker tells a story that is both compelling and chilling. He does a superb job of leaving small clues in the story which later bloom into full reveals. There were several times when I realized that “something” was about to happen, only to realize that Barker had left enough clues for my subconscious to go into overdrive but not enough for me to fully figure it out ahead of time. And Barker leaves just enough in the cupboard that even on the final page there is a surprise for the reader. It makes this reader quite eager to see what else this writer has in store for his audience. Despite the occasional gore and graphic detail, The Fourth Monkey is a book I highly recommend to any fans of the thriller or police procedural genres.

 

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Book Review: The Fourth MonkeyJ.D. Barker

Book Review: The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner

Book Review: The Mars RoomRachel Kushner

Fiction: The Mars RoomRachel Kushner

Considering that The Mars Room is on the short list for the 2018 Man Booker Prize and that author Rachel Kushner has twice previously been nominated for the National Book Award, there may not be much left to say in praise of either the book or the writer. The Mars Room is extraordinary. The plot is straightforward enough, but the characters are rich, deep, compelling, and the voice telling their story (sometimes first person, sometimes an omniscient narrator) is honest and unsparing.

 

Romy Hall is in prison for murder. She murdered a man who had followed her from her home in San Francisco to Los Angeles, where she had fled with her young son to escape his attentions. Despite the stalking, the jury only heard about a young woman beating a physically challenged man to death with a child nearby. Romy was sentenced to spend the rest of her life behind bars, her mother was given custody of her son, and the story begins with Romy on the bus heading to prison.

 

The Mars Room is the name of the strip club in San Francisco where Romy danced and where she met Kurt Kennedy, the man she would eventually kill. The book shifts perspective often, from Romy’s flashbacks to her present situation to other inmates to acquaintances and victims and accomplices of those other inmates and even to Kurt Kennedy in the days prior to his death. Throughout, Kushner is neither judgmental nor particularly sympathetic. Her characters are who they are, they did what they did, and whether the reasons behind the crimes matter is up to the reader to decide. The result is a haunting book that reminds me in weird ways of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The Mars Room has nothing directly in common with The Grapes of Wrath (apart from being set in California), but the unforgiving yet nonjudgmental voice telling the stories of people with no legitimate reasons to hope has antecedents in literature. Kushner just does it much better than most other writers.

 

Romy tells about her broken family. Her troubled, immigrant mother. The father she never knew. The child she had to leave behind. The men she spent time with, including the one who sent her fleeing to Los Angeles and whom she later killed. She does want some measure of understanding, perhaps even forgiveness, but has learned not to hope. After her mother dies and her son is made a ward of the state, Romy does hatch some desperate plans to try to “save” him. She recognizes the plans are foolish and hopeless, but does not let that stop her from trying to implement them. Despite her situation, she is a mother who feels compelled to save her son. Yet as her situation may indicate, her judgment and decision-making are not always the best. Kushner lets Romy make her choices, lets those choices play out, and the reader sees how the consequences affect the characters. It is sometimes harsh and there is no “and they lived happily ever after” but the result is a powerful and moving novel that speaks to the heart.

Book Review: The Mars RoomRachel Kushner

Book Review: Odds Against Tomorrow, Nathaniel Rich

Book Review: Odds Against TomorrowNathaniel Rich

Dystopian Fiction: Odds Against TomorrowNathaniel Rich

Mitchell Zukor lives in a phobopolis. A city of fear. Not an actual city; he has a Manhattan apartment and works in the Empire State Building for a company named FutureWorld. But his job mirrors his interior life. Zukor is a mathematician, focused on the probabilities that a disaster might happen. He has long believed that some kind of disaster was coming: plague or earthquake or war or something. Now, his job requires him to predict the coming of disaster and help companies indemnify themselves against those disasters.

 

Somehow, though, despite the startling accuracy of his predictions, he did not see what that disaster would mean to him.

 

Nathaniel Rich’s ecological dystopia Odds Against Tomorrow tells of the destruction of New York City through the story of Mitchell Zukor. He is making a fortune predicting that there will be a disaster. Companies (in this scenario) cannot be sued if they have tried to prepare for the future, say by hiring a company that presents disaster scenarios. If they prepare for one disaster but another one actually occurs, they can hide behind their partial efforts–and the company that predicted multiple disasters gets paid nicely for their efforts. Zukor has long feared that a disaster was indeed coming. His mathematical models predicted the odds of mega volcanoes, pandemics, war, even another asteroid crashing to earth (those odds were–drumroll, please–astronomically small). But after a summer-long drought that parched the US East Coast, making the ground too dry to absorb water, Mitchell begins calculating the effects a major hurricane might have if it were to make a direct hit on New York City. He predicts it would be catastrophic. And, sure enough, Hurricane Tammy forms and makes landfall just as he predicted.

 

Rich uses language very evocatively throughout the book. The word “phobopolis” is his (at least, I’ve never seen it before). He compares the color of the sky immediately pre-hurricane to the colors of a dying salmon, and with more than a little foreshadowing reminds the reader how salmon end life with their bodies rotting away near the very pools where they spawn. The FutureWorld business model is described as being built on the fact that “Frightened people didn’t want bromides, expressions of hope, happy predictions. They craved dread, worst-case scenarios, end times. What would the future cost them? They wanted to hear that the price would be exorbitant.”

 

The next paragraph concludes: “This was excellent news for FutureWorld. FutureWorld would provide. FutureWorld would take their money. Oh God yes, we would.”

 

After the hurricane hits, the descriptions of a flooded NYC are horrifying. Mitchell escapes with a coworker, but the scenes painted by Rich are of a hellscape that is both hard to picture and yet realistic after the images from Hurricane Katrina and this year’s hurricanes Florence and Michael. Rich never loses sight of the sad reality, though, that regardless of the destruction nature can bring, humanity can bring further destruction in desperation. Zukor finds that his worst predictions failed to account for the human element…but also finds that there is a resilience in people, a resistance to succumbing to the mercies of a cruel climate. And he finds that there is more to his own nature than merely a scared mathematician afraid of the probability of disaster.

 

Odds Against Tomorrow is in some ways a bleak look at a possible future. But it is also a delightfully written, imaginative, and potentially hopeful look at what humanity can endure and survive.

Book Review: Odds Against TomorrowNathaniel Rich

Book Review: The City of Brass, S.A. Chakraborty

Book Review: The City of BrassS.A. Chakraborty

Fantasy: The City of BrassS.A. Chakraborty

The City of Brass is as lush a story as you will find in modern fantasy. S.A. Chakraborty has somehow managed to create a world that is as magical as Arabian Nights with characters that relate to a very modern mindset. The result is beautiful, rich, and promises much more to come.

 

This debut novel was nominated for both a Locus Award and a World Fantasy Award, and has been recognized by several journals as one of the best books of the year. Filled with characters that are both heroic and flawed, the story follows the lives of two characters who live very different lives. Nahri is a thief and con artist who does not believe in magic. She lives by her wits in Cairo, convincing people that she can heal them in exchange for money. Oddly enough, though she does not believe in magic, she actually can heal people. She can also understand any language she hears. Those two talents come together unexpectedly and horribly when she tries to heal a girl possessed by an ifrit, and finds that she can understand the demon inside the child. This leads to a harrowing confrontation, where she is unexpectedly saved by the appearance of a djinn. He takes her on a long and dangerous journey to the city of Daevebad, where they hope to find answers to the questions raised by her extraordinary talents and her lack of memory.

 

Ali is a prince in Daevebad, torn between his love for his family–especially his older brother, who will someday become king–and his pity for the oppressed in his city. When he tries to help the people of his city, he is unwittingly betraying his father, the king. But when he fulfills his duties to the crown, it often comes at the expense of the most vulnerable within the city. These tensions are not eased by the arrival of the mysterious Nahri and her ancient companion, a historic enemy to the throne returning at perhaps the worst possible time.

 

Chakraborty does a masterful job of creating a world that is filled with terror and wonder, danger and delight. Her descriptions of the desert are compelling and real. The heat and dryness, the contrast with places of oasis, the vast distances (even by air carpet) that separate city from city, all carry echoes of other stories set in the desert yet are uniquely her own. The confrontations with the ifrit are terrifying, truly the stuff of nightmares. You can almost taste the dust of Cairo, feel the heat of the desert, and hear the bazaar of Daevebad. I almost felt like wiping the blood off the desk after reading a fight scene between two of the characters. Love and betrayal and kindness and cruelty are the coin of this realm, and Chakraborty’s characters spend all they have and more to reach their goals.

 

Chakraborty also rejects the temptation to answer every question, leaving much to address in the sequels to come. She lets her characters face temptation and fail. Nahri is human–or is she? Ali is loyal to the crown–or is he? Is Nahri’s rescuer a hero or a monster–or could he be both? These are among the questions that are asked, then answered, then have the answers revealed as inadequate. Without revealing too much, I will say that the characters we meet and think we know at the beginning of the book are very different by the time we reach the end of this story–and I cannot wait until the next book comes out in January. (I have already requested it from our local library, so hopefully I am first on their list when it arrives!)

 

Despite occasional scenes of violence, this is a beautiful adult fantasy that would capture the imagination of younger readers as well. Nahri is as well-crafted a heroine as you are likely to find. Ali is the warrior/scholar that many young men might dream of being. Though neither character is as good–or bad–as they may seem at any given point of the story, both are intriguing and unique and delightful and infuriating and so well written. If you like great stories, if you like beautiful settings, if you like fascinating characters, and if you like really good novels, The City of Brass deserves a place on your shelf.

Book Review: The City of BrassS.A. Chakraborty