SEVEN CIRCUMSTANCES

Original Book Reviews, Recommendations and Discussions


Not much of a mirror – You Don’t Look Your Age, by Sheila Nevins

Hardcover, publisher: Flatiron Books, a division of US Macmillan Publishers, New York, US, 2 May 2017, 255 pages. ebook: Flatiron Books, 250 pp.

With reference to the title of her new biography, Sheila Nevins does not look her age, which is 78 years. When I saw her interview with Charlie Rose last Friday on PBS, I was struck by how beautiful she is, in the same class of timeless good looks as Elon Musk’s mother, Maye Musk (69), and Carmen Dell’Orefice (85) who are both (still) models. She was also funny, self-deprecating, and sharp as a blade, so I immediately ordered her new book, You Don’t Look Your Age…And Other Fairy Tales, published two days ago. It is a very short, slight production and, contrary to Nevins’ stated intent, reveals only the well-disguised, carefully curated thoughts and back-stories that Nevins, who has spent her career behind the scenes as a producer of documentaries for HBO, wants to reveal. Continue reading


A questionable method of child-rearing – Perfect Little World, by Kevin Wilson

Perfect Little World, by Kevin Wilson, Publisher: Ecco; 1st edition (January 24, 2017); hardcover: 352 pages.

I imagine a woman must’ve sat Kevin Wilson down and explained to him in excruciating detail what pregnancy, childbirth, breast-feeding and the mothering instinct feel like – the pain, the physical sensations, the associations, memories and convoluted reasoning. These descriptions in his latest novel, Perfect Little World, are not the descriptions you’d read in a medical handbook. They seem to be intensely personal and individualistic, even a bit voyeuristic. Reading how “Isabel (Izzy) Poole”, the main character, feels during those moments is like feeling it yourself, and it is really not pleasant. However, Perfect Little World is a near-perfect depiction of what happens to people when they have children, the good and the bad. Continue reading


This guy knows food – Appetites, by Anthony Bourdain

Appetites – A cookbook, by Anthony Bourdain, with Laurie Woolever. Publisher: Ecco, HarperCollins Imprint, Oct. 25 2016, 304 pages, photography by Bobby Fisher, cover design by world-famous illustrator and artist Ralph Steadman, illustration “Bourdain Perfect Burger” by Theo van den Bogaard.

Sometimes you have to admit you don’t know enough to give an opinion. For Appetites – A Cookbook, I asked food and wine critic, Andreas Rompel, for his review. In the past I’ve judged Anthony Bourdain’s memoirs from a literary point of view, no problem, and I’ve admired and enjoyed his writing, “…a poetic, stream-of-consciousness food-rap.” But this time, it’s about food and recipes – about which I know just about enough to not ruin scrambled eggs completely. It’s Bourdain’s first cookbook in ten years, and it’s a demonstration of his expertise. The man knows food – no doubt about that. Continue reading


Nice but Light-Weight – Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

Britt-Marie Was Here, by Fredrik Backman, translated from the Swedish by Henning Koch, published by Sceptre, an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton, UK, May 3, 2016, 336 pp., paperback.

I did not like Backman’s previous novel, A Man Called Ove, but was spurred on to buy book no.3, Britt-Marie Was Here, by a very insistent salesperson in the Chapters bookstore, who had been so entranced by it that she was practically hugging her own copy. I bought it against my better judgment and I was underwhelmed all over again, despite trying my best to be objective. When Backman writes, he repeats certain words and phrases over and over, and makes each chapter and paragraph follow the same basic pattern, so that it sounds almost like a children’s rhyme, a medieval poem, or a traditional fairytale. The novel is nice but light-weight, like a pretty balloon. Because I do not agree with people categorizing a frothy piece of writing like this one as a literary masterpiece, I will, below, debunk the myth. In any case, when I see the words “international bestseller”, particularly “New York Times International Bestseller”, on a book’s cover I am immediately suspicious.  Continue reading


Hard-hitting Alt-history novel – Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters, published by Mulholland Books, Little, Brown and Company, New York, U.S., July 2016 (1st ed.), 327 pp., hard cover.

Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters, published by Mulholland Books, Little, Brown and Company, New York, U.S., July 2016 (1st ed.), 327 pp., hard cover. (Classified as alternative history, thriller, detective fiction, and suspense fiction.)

Ben H. Winters wrote the acclaimed, award-winning Science Fiction series, The Last Policeman. I called the hero of the series, “Detective Hank Palace”, “the Thinking Woman’s Crumpet” –  and the detective in his latest novel Underground Airlines is another yummy crumpet. Like No. 3 in The Last Policeman trilogy, World of Trouble, Underground Airlines was also shortlisted for the Goodreads Choice Awards in the Science Fiction category, amongst other kudos. So one can safely say he knows how to write a hit and create really appealing, admirable protagonists. I was expecting something good, and was not disappointed; a polished, refined, sharp piece of alternative history writing which, due to its premise, is also a bugle call for the defence of democracy, freedom and the U.S. Constitution. Continue reading


From the inside looking out – A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, New York, Sept. 6 2016, 480 pp., hard cover.

Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, New York, Sept. 6 2016, 480 pp., hard cover.

This is a stylized, studied novel, about a stylish gentleman, written in elegant style. It has a fin-de-siècle feel to it, of events passing and times moving on, and of the struggle to adapt to changes or stay in the previous era. Towles conjures up a romantic and fascinatingly intricate pre-WWII-era hotel in Moscow, the “Metropol Hotel”, in which the main character, “Count Alexander Rostov”, lives. The Count is a surprising character – he is a gentleman and a gentle man, yet he can handle a gun and is not afraid to use it (which is a hugely enjoyable moment!), nor is he afraid to pull strings and do a bit of theft and smuggling on the side. He is as intriguing and multi-faceted as the rest of the gallery of charming rogues working in the hotel. Readers will find this novel very entertaining and suspenseful – and the best bit, I can assure you, is the ending, and in order to understand it, you will have to remember what you read right at the start of the novel.  Continue reading


“Kǔ lé”, a state of both joy and sorrow in Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien

Published by Knopf, Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Ltd., and Granta (U.K.), May 31 2016, 475 pp., hard cover.

Published by Knopf, Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Ltd., and Granta (U.K.), May 31 2016, 480 pp., hard cover.

This important novel about two families of brilliant musicians in China during the “Great Leap Forward” (1958 – 1961), the “Cultural Revolution” (1966 – 1976) and the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, will have you crying buckets, get into a deep funk, and nurse an aching heart for days afterwards. Reading it creates a feeling of “both joy and sorrow”, which Thien, in the novel, calls “kǔ lé” (or “bitterness in the music”, or “joy in sorrow”). The story is not entirely dark, but rather bitter-sweet, and amidst the tragedies there are happy moments and hopeful glimpses of a better future. But while I read it I often wondered in exasperation: Just how could people put up with this relentless repression? How could they put up with such massive insults to their dignity, how can they have such cowed acceptance of the bullying and betrayal by their own neighbours, peers, friends, and colleagues? How could they stand the mindless repetition of idiotic slogans? The novel illuminates the darkest, and most censored, years of the 20th century in China, and after I read it, I felt relief that I had the dodged the bullet of being born Chinese in those times.  Continue reading