As I was reading Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation, I felt a little sorry for the author, an earnest New Yorker writer, who seems to struggle to think that our fellow humans are not always rational and restrained like, apparently, his colleagues and fellow Brooklyn dinner-party attendees. To his credit, he spent a lot of time following and interviewing alt-right extremists, who will not miss an opportunity to shock and attack, but that makes for pretty depressing stories, sadly not because of the venom that they spew but because of the extreme banality of their lives. Yes, they live for ratings and likes, and it’s the fault of the communication platforms. Maybe. Perhaps the real problem is that we have all been willfully ignoring the inconvenient truth of evil in our midst.
The heroine of Reasons to be Cheerful is a young woman who gets a job as an assistant to a shady dentist (he extracts, or tries to extract, his own teeth!) and tries to figure out her life with the help of women’s magazines–and no help from her mother, who has her own bohemian life.
It’s all charmingly bumbling, sometimes a little too bumbling, but the author keeps throwing in well-observed details about grandmothers, NHS reimbursements for dental procedures, or the awkwardness of having your boyfriend be your mother’s lodger.
The Testaments is the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, although it stands on its own, and, coming twenty years after it, it further highlights the eerie intuitions of the author about men-led dictatorships, not to mention the MeToo movement. Written cleverly and seamlessly by three women, one with considerable power and two who can only be described as rebels, it describes how the bleakest of oppressive powers can be brought down by apparently powerless agents. Chilling, but inspiring. I almost gave it four stars.
The heroine of A Girl Returned is suddenly thrust into a new family, which turns out to be the biological family from which she had been adopted, but she did not even know she was adopted. From one day to the next, she move from a comfortable life to a life scrabble existence, sharing a bed with a younger sister since there is literally no place for her, and scrounging for information about her adoptive mother, who seems to have disappeared entirely, and the reasons why her biological parents allowed her (entirely informal) adoption. The mood of the book reminded me strongly of the Ellena Ferrante series (perhaps because it has the same translator), but I liked it much more in that it focused on the emotions of the two girls (the adopted one and her sister) more than the events of their life.
The Disordered Mind: What Unusual Brains Tell Us About Ourselves reads more like a textbook than a non-fiction book (sample sentence: “excessive action of dopamine in the mesolimbic pathway, resulting from an overabundance of D2 receptors, could be the main cause of schizophrenia cognitive symptoms-because this pathway connects to the prefrontal cortex, the site of the cognitive symptoms.”). Kandel earned his Nobel prize, but no Pulitzer.
Through a series of unlikely coincidences, the octogenarian in Akin finds his back-to-his-roots vacation in Nice, France, transformed as he needs to take along a newly-discovered great-nephew who grew up in a poor and violent neighborhood. The relationship between the two is wonderfully captured as the two struggle to understand each other across the divide of age and background.
The trip is not just for fun, but to discover the mysterious activities of the elder’s mother during WWII, and this is where the story was not so enjoyable for me, as it felt over-rehearsed and researched. But I did love the many well-observed moments between the two protagonists.
Do we need yet another family saga of Italian immigrants to the US? With The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna, the answer is, surprisingly, yes! The heroine, Stella Fortuna, journeys from dirt-poor in Calabria to considerably less poor in the factories of Connecticut, but always in strong conflict with her brutal father, and various other brutal men around her. It’s a wonderful story of a woman who makes the best of what life gave her.