Census: A novel by Jesse Ball (Harper Collins, 2018)
This was a much stranger novel than the book jacket described. Although the back flap says Jesse Ball was “born in New York” it doesn’t say where he lives now, and what country he imagines this story to take place in. It is certainly not the United States. I guess it takes place in a fictional country. He doesn’t bother to name the towns; he literally labels them A through Z. Conveniently there is a train running from Z back to A. I could buy the idea that a dying surgeon living alone with a Down syndrome son decides to travel the country working for the census bureau until he dies, but in modern times the census bureau mails you the form, the census takers don’t visit you in person. And they most definitely do not tattoo you to prove you’ve been counted. The novel is a vehicle for some worthwhile commentary about people and their attitudes towards individuals who are different, but it has a very strange vibe overall. There is an obsession with birds (specifically cormorants) and clowns that I don’t even begin to understand.
Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything by Becky Bond and Zack Exley (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016).
This non-fiction book tells the story of the Bernie Sanders for President campaign from the unique perspective of mid-level paid staffers Becky Bond and Zack Exley. I was interested (as a CREDO Mobile customer) to learn that they came from CREDO. It is also literally a set of rules (one per chapter, alternating chapters by author) for organizing a political revolution in the sense of a mass populist movement, not a violent overthrowing of government. This is not the usual high level campaign retrospective, written by the candidate him or herself; this is about the day to day organizing problems and how they were solved, and the lessons that were learned for next time. Some of the takeaways include the advantages of the vast mobilization of volunteers for Bernie, and the way the paid staff were able to leverage consumer software tools to manage and fully utilize those volunteers.
The Mothers: A Novel by Brit Bennett (Riverhead Books, 2016)
This is not a terrible book, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. I guess I thought it would be about young married moms in their twenties and thirties, but it wasn’t. The title seems to refer to two groups of women: the judgmental older women (mostly grandmothers) who keep a black church in Southern California going, and the two young adult best friends who grew up in the church and went on to become very young mothers. Actually one of them did not become a mother, because she had an abortion, but she spends the rest of the book regretting both that choice and the choice to leave her first boyfriend who would have been that baby’s father. The novel is set in a present day African-American community, and promotes the idea that abortion is a mistake.
Why Dinosaurs Matter by Kenneth Lacovara (TED Books, Simon & Schuster, 2017)
This small (but bright orange) hardback is the book version of Dr. Lacovara’s TED talk, which I saw and which was also awesome. He is a surprisingly good writer for a paleontologist. Why Dinosaurs Matter is charmingly illustrated by Mike Lemanski and is easily accessible to all high school and adult readers. In 2005, Dr. Lacovara (now at Rowan University in New Jersey), discovered one of the largest dinosaurs that ever lived, and named it Dreadnoughtus. This book is the story of that discovery, but also the story of how geology and paleontology became sciences, and how understanding our planet’s past is critical to its future. I was interested to realize that human have only known about dinosaurs for a couple hundred years; before the early 19th century, the widespread belief that the earth was only 6,000 years old kept people from interpreting fossils for what they were. Dr. Lacovara also emphasizes that dinosaurs are now known to have been killed off by an asteroid hitting the earth; they did not simply “fail to adapt” to changing conditions, as implied in Disney’s movie Fantasia. Also, they did not all become extinct; the “non-avian” ones evolved into birds. Science is amazing.
Now that you mention it by Kristan Higgans (HQN Books, 2017)
The overall plot of this novel is so much like a Hallmark movie that the main character comments on that fact early in the book. For those of you who are not Hallmark movie fans, they all go like this. Young woman in her thirties gets in a accident, breaks up with her boyfriend, and takes a leave from her high-powered big city job to go back her hometown and reconnect with her family. While there she rediscovers an old flame, falls in love, and decides to stick around in small town America. In this story though, the details are a little darker than Hallmark would allow. Nora (a Boston doctor) not only got hit by a van in a freak accident, she was also still getting over a narrow escape from a man who broke into her apartment and tried to kill her. Her hometown family consists of a single mother on an island off Maine; her father left when she was a child and her sister is in jail in Seattle. A high school classmate, still bitter about her getting the Tufts scholarship he expected, is now a drug addict and an ongoing violent threat during her summer visit. Ultimately, there are some surprises you’d never see in a Hallmark movie that keep this novel from being a cliche.
The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce (Random House, 2017)
This is a new novel by an accomplished British writer I haven’t run across before, though she has published several previous novels. It is set in 1988 in a run down suburb in England, in a music shop obviously. The main character Frank runs the music shop, which stocks only vinyl records, no CDs. He has a knack for interviewing customers and determining what music would be perfect for their needs. Unfortunately this is not enough to keep his shop in business. The story centers around a mysterious woman customer to whom Frank gives music appreciation lessons, and of course falls in love with. I won’t spoil the plot but it is very sweet.
This Could Hurt by Jillian Medoff (Harper-Collins, 2018)
This is a very entertaining novel about people who run a Human Resources department in a large corporation. No, really. You find out what each of them is really thinking inside, how they feel about each other and the company, and what makes them do the things they do. The company is not doing well and layoffs are part of the story, as foreshadowed by the employee termination notice decorating the front cover of the book. Although I assumed the author was male at first, due to the frequent gutter language and focus on everyone’s appearance, it turned out to be one of those female chick-lit authors. She should be commended for portraying two strong woman executives (one of them Latina) in a positive light.