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  • Micro-Review #107: Flights
    by Olga Tokarczuk

    In BAMBI VS. GODZILLA, David Mamet notes that the secret to writing compelling female characters is to approach them unsentimentally. The same rule seems to apply to just about everything Tokarczuk writes in this book. The Nobel laureate gives us a loosely connected deluge of short story fragments that largely steer clear of obvious emotion while somehow creating a lasting emotional effect.

    Flights is jammed full of cool discourse on human anatomy and random-seeming streams of consciousness about travel in eras past and present. If you’re after splashy conflicts or a commercial plot, read something else. If you take nourishment from brilliant writing and keen reflections on smart, unselfaware people, you won’t find a better work of fiction. This is a slow, cerebral work that’s also absolutely at the heart of things. It hits you unawares.

  • Micro-Review #106: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
    by Yuval Noah Harari

    Here is everything you ever wanted to know about the human race but were afraid to ask. Oxford-educated historian Harari takes us on a journey from the birth of the species through the beginning of language, the agricultural revolution, the advent of cities and industry and everything else interesting about humankind. The heavy-sounding subject matter is couched in layman’s terms and is both enlightening and enjoyable.

    The highlights include descriptions of early humans (when six kinds of homo sapiens shared the planet) and the argument that agriculture and industry may not have been the civilizational godsends that we generally assume they were. There’s also an argument that humans won’t go extinct as a result of war or disease or ecological degradation. The thing that will end us: biogenetic engineering.

    Fastidious readers might quibble with some of Harari’s finer points (e.g. his expansive definition of religion), but there’s no arguing the fact that this book is education in its finest form: science and social science presented without flag-waving or parochial rancor. There’s a reason this book has been a huge international bestseller. As the Russian said to Marlow in Heart of Darkness, “The man has enlarged my mind.”

  • Micro-Review #105: The Waverly Gallery
    by Kenneth Lonergan

    This “memory play” follows the last years in the life of Gladys, a Greenwich Village art gallery owner who is dying slowly of Alzheimer’s disease. While Gladys falters, her children are left to deal with a growing sense of helplessness. Grandson Daniel guides us through the journey with an honest perspective and not a little humor. This isn’t a dirge. The subject matter is tragic, but the play is actually a celebration of human strength, a beautiful depiction of a woman who, in her own understated way, rages against the dying of the light. Everyone over 50 (and under 50, for that matter) should read it.

  • Micro-Review #104: A Monk Swimming
    by Malachy McCourt

    This memoir by Frank McCourt’s younger brother is the literary equivalent of sharing a Guinness or ten with a loquacious, life-loving Irishman. Actor, bar owner, smuggler, raconteur—McCourt wears many hats. After escaping the grinding poverty of Limerick as a child, he comes of age in 1950s New York and lives life at full speed, becoming the man everyone wants to drink with, a regular guest on The Tonight Show, a terrible husband and father. He’s a big name dropper and (one suspects) embellisher of tales. At times the storytelling inches toward bloviation, but there’s always a chuckle or an outright belly laugh to keep you reading to the end. The book is a whole lot of fun.

  • Micro-Review #103: Teacher Man
    by Frank McCourt

    Before he wrote Angela’s Ashes, McCourt spent 30 years teaching in public high schools in New York. A typical educator he was not. There were odd-ball singalongs in class, field trips to the movies, and, inevitably, firings because he refused to suffer the foolishness of superiors. There was also a decades-long procession of students for whom McCourt felt unmistakable love. This account of his time with them is written with the same wry wit and honesty that infuse Angela’s Ashes. It’s uplifting and ennobling—public service without preciousness. It’s also thoroughly enjoyable.

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