When you just don’t care

Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

What’s it about?
I don’t even know. It’s about a boy, Theo who steals a painting and loses a mother; psychologically, he’s a mess. His father’s a professional gambler and he alternates between a nerd genius and the son of a Russian mobster for a best friend. Theo grows up. And then I put the book down, fully intending to come back to it. That was many, many months ago. I finally called it last week, looking at The Goldfinch yet again and yet again passing it over for a different story.

Why should you read it?
I have a lot of respect and admiration for Donna Tartt because I loved Secret History that much. You should read it if you feel the same way about one of her other books. But there’s a casual cruelty to some of the characters that I found off-putting, not to mention there’s at least one sub-plot that could be resolved if the characters would just talk to each other. At the end of the day, I didn’t care enough to finish it. You might like it better.

Finishing up

Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan

What’s it about?
The Blood of Olympus is the last one of the Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan, he of the Percy Jackson fame. It was a pretty standard Rick Riordan book – mythical creatures, snarky teenagers, two heroes that it’s maybe kind of hard to tell the difference between.  There are battles, one of which happens in Greece, the other of which happens at Camp Half-Blood. The prophecy was fulfilled. Nothing was surprising – it was comforting that way.

Why should you read it?
You should read it if you’ve read the first four books. If you’ve made it this far, why not finish up the series?

(Un)necessary sequel

Split Second by Kasie West

What’s it about?
Split Second is a sequel to Pivot Point. Which means that it’s about the choice that Addie makes in Pivot Point and its fallout. It’s also about her best friend, Laila. It finally makes her into a full character with quirks and foibles instead of just a good-hearted rebel. Also, the author begins to dip her toes into exploring some of the more societal questions when you live in a world where everyone can manipulate everyone else’s perceptions. What is real? How could “reality” be used and abused by those in power?

Should you read it?
Yes, if you want to get closure on Addie’s & Trevor’s relationship, and if you want to see Laila become a full person – she’s pretty awesome. The world-building political questions kind of felt like they were explored because the author thought she should instead of really wanting to. If that makes sense. It was an ok book, not particularly good or bad. That’s ok too – I enjoyed what it delivered. I am glad there’s not a third book. I don’t think the story could be stretched that far.

World building without a point

Pivot Point by Kasie West

What’s it about?
I’m mildly embarrassed to like Pivot Point. The premise is that a group of people with special mental powers – think telekinesis or mind-erasing or healing – exist. They live in a special compound by choice, where life is better for them than for the Norms outside. (I know.) Addie, our heroine, has to make a choice when her parents divorce: will she stay in the compound with her mother, or go out into the real world with her dad? Luckily, her ability is to Search – to go down two different paths in her head to see how everything will play out, depending on who she chooses. The book alternates between the two plot lines, eventually coming back to the beginning of the story once she’s seen her choices play out.

Should you read it?
Maybe? It’s not as interesting as it could be – I mean, keeping the mentally gifted in a compound? By whose choice? How does that come about? And if you can manipulate the world around you with your mind, do you ever experience the real world? If others can manipulate the world around you, how do you ever know what’s real? There are a lot of issues to explore, but Pivot Point concentrates on the romance. Seriously. It’s a fun book, but the world could lead to way more interesting stories/ideas.

People are interesting, companies aren’t

The Loudest Voice in the Room by Gabriel Sherman

What’s it about?
The Loudest Voice in the Room is about Roger Ailes and Fox News. It’s a biography of a man born into circumstances – hemophilia that turned him into a risk-taker, a mildly abusive father – that combined with his interest in television (and men like the Coors heir who wanted to fund overtly conservative news channels) made Fox News almost a fait accompli. As far as I know, it’s unique in that it’s not written from either a liberal or conservative viewpoint. The book is most interesting when it’s talking about Ailes early life and career. I put it down once it started concentrating on Fox News because I cared way less about that. Ailes is fascinating. Fox News isn’t.

Why should you read it?
I’m not sure you should. It feels like it’s about twice as long as it needs to be; unless you really, really care about the news industry you’ll likely be bored.

Gossip, shmossip

Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton

What’s it about?
Hatching Twitter is an oral history of Twitter. It’s more interesting than you might think. I knew it’d grown out of Odeo (an early podcasting company, killed when iTunes launched), but I hadn’t realized that so many of its early employees were, in fact, anarchists. Nor did I know how much of that ethos made it into its corporate culture – the aversion to making money, insisting that twitter is first and foremost about communication, its management’s disorganization, and, of course, why the fail whale was so prominent for awhile. This is the story of how Twitter started and how it’s grown up.

Why should you read it?
Look, most books about specific businesses or business people are gossip. This one’s no different – but it’s really, really GOOD gossip. There really is betrayal and friendship and money, and I’m sure there’d’ve been more sex if there had been more than one female early employee. In some ways, Twitter comes across as close to the platonic ideal of a Silicon Valley start-up: moving fast, trying to change the world, dominated by big egos. (Jack Dorsey does not come off well.) If you want to know how the Silicon Valley tech/internet industry works, it’s not a bad primer.

A lesson in graciousness

The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B.

What’s it about?
The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B is the first book in a trilogy that encompasses Empress Josephine’s entire life. This particular volume is about her childhood, first marriage, and life during the French Revolution. It’s told from her point of view – her diaries in fact, and the occasional letter. I knew little about her going into the series: I didn’t know she was from Martinique or that she’d been married before Napoleon. Josephine – called Rose in this volume – is charming and gracious and constantly fighting to help individuals, both her family and people she barely knows.

Why should you read it?
Rose is so sweet and charming and gracious, that she will naturally infect you. It’s also an intimate look into the French Revolution, which is so often treated grandly. It’s a big subject, so that’s understandable. But this book shows the human side of it. What was it like to live during such interesting times? Josephine will get swept into those grand events, but this volume is immediate and human. Which is probably why it was a bestseller when it came out.

Men and Women, living together

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

What’s it about?
The Paris Wife is a fictionalized account about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife Hadley and their marriage from her point of view. It’s a counterpoint to A Moveable Feast – Hemingway’s own account of those years. The Paris Wife isn’t written as well – how could it be – but it does bring Hemingway’s life into view. We know about his writing and who he wanted to be, his projection of himself. We have less insight into his thoughts and very little information (at least from A Moveable Feast) of how he affected people around him. This posits how his first wife might have dealt with Hemingway, the man vs Hemingway, the author. Ms McLain goes to great pains, the afterword assures us, to be historically accurate.

Why should you read it?
Because Hemingway is both a brilliant writer and kind of an asshole. The Paris Wife documents his magnetism, but also his infidelities. Hadley was a naive, unworldly girl; she grew up because of him.  Hemingway turned 20th century literature into a man’s man’s world – so much of the literary establishment after him was men obsessed with themselves. I like to think The Paris Wife shows what happens to other people, particularly the women, in atmospheres like that. Perspective is important.

What’s a synonym for charming?

Isla and the Happily Ever After

What’s it about?
Isla and the Happily Ever After is a YA romance. Which means there’s a boy and there’s a girl and it takes place in freaking Paris. Of course. That said, it’s also about impostor syndrome. Josh and Isla, our couple, get together quickly for a romance. Most of the rest of the book is Ilsa convinced that her own insecurities make her an unworthy person. She is unique in the Stephanie Perkins books in that she doesn’t have a driving passion in her life, and that makes her feel less than worthy. So the rest of the book is about her learning to love herself.

Why should you read it?
Isla and the Happily Ever After could easily be schlocky, but it’s not. Isla isn’t as charming as Perkins’ other heroines (they’d be Anna and Lola), but the book is noticeably better written. Anna was a charming book, but you could see the outline in the story. Isla is slightly less charming, but a much more robust book. If you’ve read the first two, it’s worth picking up.

Are you asking the right question?

Think Like a Freak by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt

What’s it about?
The previous Freakonomics books were both kind of the same: they told stories of surprising findings about society by looking at a problem differently. The first book was responsible for pointing out that swimming pools were more dangerous than guns, that legalizing abortions in the 1970s lead to a crime drop in the 1990s, and how sumo wrestlers cheat. How to Think Like a Freak sets out to teach you to get at underlying issues in your own life, by asking the right questions, by thinking more creatively, by saying “I don’t know,” by getting rid of preconceptions, and by getting yourself better feedback mechanisms.

Why should you read it?
Well, I don’t know. Maybe you shouldn’t. But for me, it inspired me to change a project that I’ve been working on already, specifically, to take on a series small improvements rather than fix everything all at once. It reinforced the idea that I should be admitting that there are aspects I don’t know about. I have grandiose ideas about how to change things, but grandiose will almost certainly fail. How can I make small changes that will hopefully add up to a larger change? I like that it had an immediate, practical impact on my life. How to Think Like a Freak might do something similar for you.