(Blue Rider Press, pp 302, $27.00)
A great undiscovered jewel, and from what I infer, a book that deserves to get into every single book club in the nation, and beyond. My enthusiasm is perhaps excessive. There comes a time when a book appears and has valuable lessons to teach us. We learn something we never suspected existed. People in their 60s’ have a life as well, and they go through ups and downs like the rest of us, and still have to learn lessons along the way. They can even display resilience and an appetite for life. It is pleasant surprise that a publisher would release a book that actually concerns our aging nation, where so much emphasis rests on the land of twenty-something Lena-Dunham wannabes teaching the world with great self-assurance life lessons and proper etiquette. Which begs the question: what is more interesting, someone who fumbles through life while brandishing a narcissistic flag and seems to have all the answers? Or someone who has worked hard to build a life, only to lose everything overnight and who has to pick herself up to start again—at age sixty?
This is exactly what happens to Meredith Maran who had a perfect life, meaning living with a sense of safety that no one could ask for more, with a good marriage (to the woman of her dream), a beautiful Victorian house, a good writing career, and an active social life. And then Life comes knowing at her door, like it tends to when things are going too well, and it takes everything away, and more. The best friend dies; her father is diagnosed with Alzheimer; she loses her job, and the house, along with the marriage. Welcome to “The New Old Me.” This is where we meet Meredith, dead broke about to move to La La Land, CA, where she struggles to rebuild her life and self, with all the scrawny feathers that come attached to them, fanned by heartache, loneliness, and self-doubt. The energy of the prose however shows us that beyond the circumstances lies a strong-willed and witty woman, and sure enough slowly Meredith crawls out of her trenches, and she does so with humor. For those in search of summer inspiration, this is your book. Look no further. (It was my wife’s favorite read so far this year.)
(Grand Central Publishing, pp 399, $28.00)
Whoever came up with the subtitle for this fascinating book did an excellent job creating a strong hook. Who indeed would not want to live longer? Contrary to what you may consider, that life is just a game of roulette, with molecules moving one way and DNA reacting in another, the authors claim that you can certainly influence your longevity. To entice you into their secret, they ask: why some people at 40 look like 60, while others at 60 look like 40? The story narrated here deals with telomerase and, more precisely telomeres, which are the capstones at the end of the DNA, whose states mirror the way we treat ourselves. Good telomeres will keep you disease free longer. Translation: your lifespan will be elongated.
Here, as in diet books, we find that the main culprits for premature aging: quality of sleep, frequency of exercise, types of diet, and chronic stress, all of which deeply impact our telomeres. Over the book, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn (Nobel Prize winner) and Dr. Elissa Epel clearly demonstrate the mind-body connection. Having recurring negative thoughts for example will affect also your telomeres, and your appearance. Telomeres shorten in repeated adverse conditions. People looking healthy have long telomeres. So the main question you should ask yourself, and it should make you want to pick up this book at once, is whether a body who has been exposed to all types of unhealthy habits and physical and self-inflicted mental abuses can reverse damages done to the capstones of its DNA? In other words, are frayed telomeres irreversible? The book goes at great length to provide answers. Particularly fascinating are the chapters discussing the impact of early trauma during pregnancy and income inequalities to show the relations between depression and schizophrenia . . . which logically would mean that we may pay the price for circumstances that we do not control and that, in turn, impact our appearance. But nothing is set in black and white, and life choices still play their part. One thing is certain, reading this book will not age you.
(Library of America, pp 896, $40.00)
Besides the inviting silky quality of the paper, this volume from the Library of America offers an impressive collection of articles, essays, personal stories, and declassified documents from WWI, from both participants and observers. The volume aims at providing a never-before kaleidoscope view of the “never again” war, that is the French-German butchery which supposedly was going to be the war that ends all wars.
I can only imagine the headaches A. Scott Berg, the supreme editor of the book, must have experienced to decide what to include and exclude. The wealth of the materials is just staggering, spanning the beginning of the war to the ratification of the infamous “Versailles Treaty.” Lots of names will be recognizable to the modern readers, Edith Wharton, John Reed (who proceeded to go to Russia), Willa Cather, W.E.B Dubois, and of course Woodrow Wilson. But there are many others to whom history has not been so kind and who nonetheless made important contributions. Charles Lauriat is one of them. His telling of the sinking of the “Lusitania” reads like a novel, a first direct personal account of the tragedy during the swift German Torpedo attack. The sinking of the luxury liner was pivotal, for it signaled an important escalation towards the eventual US entry into the WWI conflict in 1917. The major lessons to be learned here come from the abundance of testimonies left to us as vestiges of the past, from which we are still trying to make sense. Given that in our new millennial age the past seems to carry less and less weight, the publication of this volume offers an in-depth ballast to anchor ourselves with the understanding that where we stand today is not so random. Especially in the light of the upcoming 100-year anniversary. Time for reflection is never wasted.
March 2017. Only six weeks have elapsed since Trump took power, and what a contrast with the previous administration. The country seems to have been seized by the invisible hand of hysteria and neurosis. In recent memory, never a concentration of angry and vocal citizens has been so strident and quick to gather. In this time of uncertainty, it is always wise to take a deep breath and step to the sideline to better understand what is happening. Are we deluding ourselves with this new administration? Is the threat real? Or are we just venting the seething resentment that has been cementing since the beginning of the Great Recession and, why not, the costly Iraq War? This month’s selection provides reflections on our national and chaotic mental states.
(Open Road Integrated Media, pp 488, $16.99)
Sanity can be regained in many ways. While there are those who go to great lengths to analyze a person’s psyche to better penetrate it and spend a great deal of time to suggest curative solutions by trial and error, there are also those who advocate the more expeditive fire-by-fire approach. Divergent psychologies imply different perception and understanding of humankind. This is where Alan Jacobson (a truly underrated author) situates himself. Not that he necessarily believes in the latter approach, but in terms of thriller writing, his willingness to throw his characters into the darkest recesses of the human mind makes his story feel like boarding a hell-train from page one. His new Karen Vail’s novel, “The Darkness of Evil” is beautifully layered for this reason.
Think for a second if you woke one morning and found out your father was a serial killer. What would you do? What would you say? This is what happens to Jasmine Marcks, one of the protagonists. Is it possible to love a father who tortures innocent young women? Can a sadistic killer be a good father? Whose allegiance should a daughter have in mind, the community or her father? No easy answer, no matter who we are. But here the novel addresses the question in an original way. Jasmine, who turned her father in to the police, has written a book about him. But the incarcerated serial-killer father manages to escape and now seeks revenge. Karen Vail must protect Jasmine from her own father. But what is Jasmine now going to do about it? . . . “The Darkness of Evil” is a brisk, surprise-filled twisted ride, which will drain every ounce of darkness out of you and make you feel like a sober angel.
(Abrams pp 280, $45.00)
“The Wines of My Life” is a very important book for two reasons. First it was written by, perhaps, the most influential sommelier in the world, Eric Beaumard, who from humble origins and a major road accident that left him physically impaired (he lost an arm), but which only fortified his spirit, hoisted himself to the top rank of the wine tasting industry. For years, Beaumard was head sommelier of “Le Cinq” the prestigious restaurant located inside the Four Seasons George the Fifth in Paris. The second reason is more prosaic. BJD contributed to the translation of the book in the US.
Eric Beaumard narrates his tribulations around the world where he visits established names in red, white and champagne wines, Chateau Petrus, Dom Pérignon, Rothschild, to name a few, as well as discovers new upcoming crus and grapes. The present book portrays 75 exceptional wines. Beaumard goes to great lengths to describe why these wines standout from the rests. He traces their origins, history, and evolution through time, meaning winemaking process, traditional or scientific. His meditations are a nose-filled journey through the memoirs of deep musty echoing cellars, the wafting scents of fermentation-stained barrels, and the climbs of steep arid and muddy hills. Whether you are a wine aficionado or not, “The Wines of My Life” will seduce your palate so much that you will not be able to reject the indelible notes this man is offering you.
“The One Man” by Andrew Gross
(Minotaur Books, pp 418, $26.99)
“The One Man” marks a radical departure for Andrew Gross. His past novels (nine and counting) were all in the pure thriller genre, a craft he learned straight from the Lord himself, James Patterson, with whom he co-authored several novels. “The One Man” however is a war novel, set in WWII, with a thriller plot. A daring move for an author of this caliber with a large following. But audacity combined with skills and originality can only translate in superior work, which is what “The One Man” bears witness. The characters have gained depth. Descriptions are layered, breathing life, while the plot is more organic and humanly warmer, an anachronism despite being set in a death camp.
In this finely chiseled engaging novel, a Polish-descent polyglot intelligence officer, Nathan Blum, is offered the mission of a lifetime: enter Auschwitz and escape with one of the prisoner, a professor named Alfred Mendl, who is believed to hold crucial secret that could put an end to the folly of the Third Reich. The ending will not be disclosed here . . . but the novel questions the nature of meaning and devotion to a cause, especially when the involvement calls for huge personal sacrifices for the good of all.
(Da Capo Press, pp 468, $27.99)
If you are a fan of books dealing with the history of salt, timber or something more exotic like sex, you will delight in “Heads,” a book about psychedelics. Though the term has now gained multiple definitions, notably in relation to music and culture, the psychedelics refer to here belong to drugs, yes narcotics. A well-time book, given the massive popular wave to legalize Marijuana. However, you will find no bell chiming in favor of psych drugs.
In this well-documented spiraling history of how these drugs transformed our present culture, Jesse Jarnow offers a fresh outlook. While we can talk about peyote and other forms of LSD derivatives, it is impossible to understand the meaning of Psychedelic without going back to the 60’s, starting first as a counter-culture on the eve of the Vietnam War and the Civil Right Movements. Thinking Huxley having a bad trip in “Doors of Perception,” or Leary’s promoting drugs in Harvard, via Richard Alpert, aka Ram Dass, experiencing a spiritual awakening, would confine the movement to known anecdotes.
Jesse Jarnow has dug deep into the roots of Psychedelia. For a generation, which perceived itself as living in a repressive society, music became the catalyst of a cultural revolution, the bedfellow able to unleash repressed psychological emotions. If Grateful Dead means anything to you, I will set you on course, as you may wonder what “New Age practices, hacktivism, yoga, natural childbirth, Burning Man, Central Park graffiti, with artist like Bilrock and the late Keith Haring, and the internet, have in common. The answer may surprise you.
(William Morrow, pp 397, $27.99)
The title spells it all. “Forty Autumns,” is about survival on both sides of the Berlin Wall. If you know the history of the Cold War, you will quickly infer that we are talking about two different kinds of survival. East and West spell out different hardships. In the case of the East, we are dealing with communist repression on all fronts in a Big-Brother-like society, restriction of liberties, listening, spying, suspecting, ideological enforcement, in brief, a constant climate of distrust and cultivated fear. For the West, the survival is more nuanced. It comes from isolation, fragmented family, unfulfilled desires, which, perhaps, indirectly, is the consequence of the severed ties created by the Berlin Wall.
In this historical memoir, Nina Willner tells us the story of her family, the escape of her mother, Hannah, into the West, and her struggle to survive away from her family. A family she would only be reunited to 40 years later, after the fall of the Wall. “Forty Autumns,” emphasizes the metaphor that sometime politics and ideologies act as crushing silent forces standing in the way of families, and their reconciliation. What makes the book stand out from memoirs on the same topic comes from the author’s real life situation. Nina Willner worked for the American Intelligence and got to be stationed in Berlin, during the cold war, just a few miles away from her Eastern family . . . and got to lead missions into the Eastern block. No matter what, human spirit always prevails.
(Other Press, pp 284, $24.95)
If you remember the Pulitzer Prize winning book, “The Years of Extermination,” you will know at once that this review refers to Saul Friedländer. If you also know that he spent sixteen years writing his magnum opus, you could claim that he spent 80 years writing his new memoir “Where Memories Leads.” It is riveting account, the coda marking a life intertwined with the Holocaust, a project already initiated with his first memoir “When Memory Comes,” published more then thirty years ago (a book re-released at same time). Besides from the heart-wrenching topic depicting the trauma of a childhood spent during the Third Reich, watching his parents being deported, the memoirs have a different tone. The former deals with a man struggling with comprehension and uncertain answers about his life, at the peak of it, while the second has the feel of a man looking at his journey, with the mindset that he has reached the sunset of his life. The questions have been fulfilled, unless he is now reluctant to open new paths. With resignation comes insight.
Friedländer’s life has been defined by his “monumental” contribution to Holocaust Studies. The book spans his whole life, from his birth at the worse possible time, the beginning of WWII, to present day, fitting perhaps the cliché that most Jews encountered after the war: finding a home, moving from country to country, if not continent to continent. The book clearly stipulates that Friedländer found a home in the intellectual journey of his own childhood and destroyed Jewish heritage, by building a defense and knowledge that could not be taken away from him. It ultimately cemented his strong Jewish identity. This makes for a different stance, more confident, accepting, resigned, engaged and engaging.