Friday, November 17, 2017

I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street by Matt Taibbi

Hardcover, 304 pgs, Pub Oct 24th 2017 by Spiegel & Grau ISBN13: 9780812988840

The detailed nature of this book about the life and death of Eric Garner allows us to see, in horrible living color, exactly where we’re at in terms of race relations in the United States. Eric Garner died July 17, 2014 in Staten Island, victimized on this day by police who put him in a chokehold and ignored his pleas that he could not breathe. What Taibbi does exceptionally well in this difficult book is allow us to see Eric Garner for the man he was—a well-liked and respected member of his community.

The entire story told here is a long and winding one, going back to pick up relevant cases along the way, including that of Carnell Russ of Alabama, whose death in 1971 by pistol shot at close range in a police station was challenged in court a number of times until finally we learn a monetary award was never paid to Carnell’s widow. Forty-five years later the original prosecutor in the Eric Garner trial, Dan Donovan, was elected to Congress, proud of his role in protecting the white people, in his eyes, unjustly under attack for upholding the law.

So carefully has Taibbi prepared his case in the writing of this book that when we read the words “disrespect for the law, contempt for society, a refusal to abide by the responsibilities of a civilized people,” we briefly imagine the words were chosen to describe the men and women of the NYC police force who refused to give credence to citizen complaints about uncalled for police harassment and reckless endangerment. But no, this language was used by Joseph Concannon, retired NYPD captain and staunch defender of whatever the police did in the course of their duties, illegal or not.

City politicians elected before, during, and after the prosecution of the Eric Garner case come off looking weak and ineffectual at best, deliberately obfuscating at worst. The case of the killing of Eric Garner came amidst a rash of police killings around the country that were well publicized, mostly due to actual video of the crimes. It is absolutely horrifying to imagine for a moment how these cases would have been treated in the absence of a video record. Even in these cases, obstruction into the behaviors of repeat offender police is rampant, common, and from the point of view of the citizenry, indefensible.

The black lives examined in this work are extremely stressful. Putting ourselves in their place, we might even say these lives and conditions of life are hopeless. But Eric Garner did not see things that way, and certainly on the day he died, he was the happiest he’d been in a very long time, his son having just been awarded a sports scholarship for advanced education. Taibbi is able to make us feel the heat that day in July, and the satisfaction the big man would have felt. We’re plenty pleased, too.

I have wondered, in thinking of Taibbi’s past work, what it would be like to to be on the other side of one of his scathing investigations. Now we know, because he co-authored a book during his expat days in Moscow, in which he targeted everyone in the outsized-profits-fueled economy, from foreigners gaming the system to Russian oligarchs and their deadly, beautiful hookers. Adolescent, ridiculous, and forgettable, excerpts I read from that earlier work should have meant a far longer, more circuitous path to legitimate journalism. The argument in the link above charges Taibbi with sexism and misogyny, a shadow of which, it could be argued, appeared in his description here of Assistant DA Anne Grady.

It is my contention that Taibbi’s work uncovering the hows and whys of the life surrounding Eric Garner is a far weightier thing on the scales of right and wrong-doing than that earlier work. It is important we all scour our own past for sexism—doling it out or letting it pass—before nailing the coffin shut on the talent and real heart shown here. With this book, Taibbi blows past any criticisms that could be leveled for those earlier errors in judgment and gives us something terribly important: a honest, raw look at where we stand in our race relations right now. Perhaps only bad boys could understand, empathize with, and give us the nuance of all the imperfect characters Taibbi details for us here, and get to the depth in this story that explains Eric Garner’s life and untimely death.

Several of the Irish-sounding names in this history are exactly those of loved ones within my own family, though I don’t believe I am related to any of them. My grandfather was a Boston cop. What I take from this is that whatever place these white policemen go to in their heads when it comes to fairness and justice, it is not inevitable, and it doesn’t come from the color of their skin. I recall the recently-discovered 19th-C diary of African American boy convict Austin Reed,
“Yes, me brave Irish boys, me loves you till the day that I am laid cold under the sod, and I would let the last drop of this dark blood run and drain from these black veins of mine to rescue you from the hands of a full blooded Yankee…Reader, if you are on the right side of an Irishman, you have the best friend in the world.”
A lot has happened from then to now, but nothing that can’t be undone.

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Saturday, November 11, 2017

What It's Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience by Gregory Berns

Hardcover, 320 pgs, Pub Sept 5th 2017 by Basic Books, ISBN13: 9780465096244

Berns uses what he’s learned about human cognition and emotion in the title of this book, which promises insights into the understanding of the dog brain. To be fair, the book does discuss experiments and findings involving what happens in a dog’s brain while commands are given and associations are made. But the book goes far beyond the dog to discuss cognition and sentience in animals of many kinds, principally by using evidence from MRI and fMRI brain scans. It is a fascinating look at the study of neuroscience on animals.

Despite the density of terms required to study neuroscience, Berns guides us easily through the basics, allowing us to understand the principal goal of their studies on dogs: to determine how dogs process information. I will admit to a degree of awe to think they could manage to get a dog to voluntarily crouch within a noisy MRI machine and stay immoveable long enough to be scanned while the scientists perform tests. Georgia dog trainer Mark Spivak was given a shout-out at the end of this book for his insights and indefatigable efforts to this end.

The decades-long work of Peter Cook of the pinniped labs in Santa Cruz, CA is highlighted for several chapters beginning with “Seizing Sea Lions.” Berns and Cook worked together to determine the effects of domoic acid toxicity on normal patterns of connectivity in the brains of dead sea lions. Domoic toxicity caused by agricultural runoff was determined to be the cause of a wave of malnourished sea lion strandings during El NiƱo years.

After the sea lions come dolphins, a discussion of how echolocation manifests in the brain, and some indication how dolphin brains resemble and differ from other mammals. Then back to dogs, where studies have shown a real possibility that rats and dogs may experience regret: regret for choices that do not turn out as desirable as anticipated. Berns acknowledges it is difficult to imagine regret in a rat, but he suggests that our word for it does not limit the experience of the emotion to those who understand the word. From here he moves from “what do words mean to animals”?

The detail in his discussion of dog training with words and visual cues may lead other scientists to suggest tweaks that may lead to even greater understanding of the emotional responses of animals. Enough work has been done now on a variety of mammals (and even crows!) to show emotions are a part of their brain activity and daily life. But what appeared to be almost a failure of dogs to recognize words led to a new insight:
“It may be that in a dog’s semantic space, actions and things are very close, which would explain why it was so difficult to teach the dogs the names of things. The semantic representation for ‘squirrel’ might be to ‘chase and kill,’ while ‘ball’ becomes ‘chase and retrieve.’…Human represent the world with nouns…it might require a shift in perspective—in this case, from a noun-based worldview to one based in action…In an action-based worldview, everything would be transactional.”
In one of the final chapters, called “A Death in Tasmania,” Berns tries something completely different. He writes of his experience traveling to Australia to view the habitat and scan the brain of an Tasmanian Tiger, a marsupial mammal species thought to be extinct. As an experience and as a piece of research, it is as different from his earlier work as studying the brains of placental mammals and marsupial mammals, two animals who evolved differently over millennia. Berns uses narrative nonfiction techniques to situate us visually, historically, physically in “one of the last great wildernesses on Earth…utterly unique and worthy of protection.”

The chapter on Tasmania really highlighted Berns’ special skills as a scientist—his ability to look beyond the lab to the wider meanings of neuroscience “for the rest of us,” as he emphasized in his final chapter on the “Dog Lab.” Working for so long on understanding the extent of animal cognition, consciousness, sentience, or self-awareness has led him to animal advocacy, if only for our own selfish reasons. “We, Homo sapiens, might soon be an animal in the eyes of our successors…” given our tinkering and experimentation with the human genome. One day unmodified humans may be considered undesirable, inferior.

Berns has skill in involving us, allowing us to follow his work. He would like to map the brains of the Earth’s megafauna with the best science and equipment available today.
“The WWF estimates that two-thirds of many species’ populations maybe gone by 2020. [Is 2020 a misprint?] Apart from the ecological catastrophe, scientific opportunities may be lost forever. It is imperative that we begin the archival process for all species, and especially for megafauna…”

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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Hardcover, 338 pgs, Pub May 9th 2017 by Dey Street Books, ISBN13: 9780062390851

Maybe everyone does lie. But they don’t lie all the time. Stephens-Davidowitz makes the good point that asking people directly doesn’t always, in fact may not often, yield true answers. People have their own reasons for answering pollsters untruthfully, but it is clear that this is a documented fact. People sometimes lie to pollsters.

Stephens-Davidowitz was told by mentors and advisors not to consider Google searches worthwhile data, but the more he looked at it, the more he was convinced that Google searches contained the best data for determining what people are concerned about. He has uncovered some interesting trends that are not apparent through direct questioning because people are sometimes ashamed of their fears, feelings, prejudices, and predilections.

This book was better read rather than listened to, though the production by HarperAudio and the narrator, Tim Andres Pabon, were excellent. Stephens-Davidowitz gives charts, graphs, data points that obviously cannot be represented in the audio version. These usually help me to grasp things easily and maybe bypass pages of material that is not as interesting to me. It wasn’t that his material was hard, it was that I oftentimes did not like what he was talking about. He had a tendency to focus on deviant behavior, e.g., sexual predators, abuse, porn, etc. One might make the argument that these behaviors are important to understand and therefore worth looking at. Possibly. However, if ‘everybody lies,’ one might make the argument that we do not have to look at deviance to find untruthfulness.

What we discover is that to test Stephens-Davidowitz’s thesis that ‘everybody lies,’ we have to spend quite a lot of time with statistics and creating studies, which is fine. Stephens-Davidowitz argues that 'big data' is the source of the insights, not the insights themselves. This is kind of important and may overlooked. The true point he makes about lying is that big data probably irons out discrepancies in the reasons for our Google searches, e.g., that it is not me that is interested in the herpes virus, it is my brother, because in the end it doesn’t matter why we did the search; what matters is that we did the search. Besides, maybe I’m lying about my brother having the virus, but my interest in the topic is not a lie.

Stephens-Davidowitz has made a career so far out of the study of big data, showing us ways to slice and dice it so that it is useful to our view of the world. Only thing is, I am not as interested in what big data tells us as he is. He’d trained as an economist, and towards the end of the book he hit a couple of areas I did find more interesting, like the notion of regression discontinuity, a term used to describe a statistical tool created to measure the outcomes of people very close to some arbitrary cut-off.** S-D talks about using this tool on federal inmates, discovering criminals treated more harshly committed more crimes upon their release. But S-D also studied students on either side of the admissions cut-off for the prestigious Stuyvesant High School: those who attended Stuyvesant did not have a significant performance difference in later life than students who did not.

Apparently Stephens-Davidowitz went into data science because of Freakonomics, the bestselling book by Steven D. Levitt. He believes that many of the next generation of scientists in every field will be data scientists. I did finish the audiobook, another study he took note of in the last pages. Apparently few readers finish ‘treatises’ by economists. He believes this is his big contribution to our knowledge base, and there is no doubt his contrariness did highlight ways big data can be used effectively.

If I may be so bold, I might be able to suggest a reason why many female readers may not be as interested in the material presented, or in Stephens-Davidowitz himself (he was/is apparently looking for a girlfriend). Stay away from the deviant sex stuff, Seth. It may interest you but I can guarantee that fewer women are going to find that appealing or reassuring conversation material.

An interesting corollary to this economists’ data view is the question of whether the truth matters, which is how I came to pick up this book. Recently on PBS’ The Third Rail with Ozy, Carlos Watson asked whether the truth matters. At first blush the answer seems obvious, and two sides debated this question. One side said of course truth matters…but most of us know one man’s truth to be another man’s lie. The other side said ‘everybody lies.’ It got me to thinking…I do think the two ways of coming to the notion of lying dovetail at some point, and one has to conclude that truth may not matter as much as we think. What matters is what we believe to be true.

Finally, it appears Stephens-Davidson agrees to some degree with Cathy O'Neill, author of Weapons of Math Destruction, in that he agrees you best not let algorithms run without human tweaking and interference. The best outcomes are delivered when humans apply their particular observations and knowledge and expertise along with big data.

** S-D describes it this way:
“Any time there is precise number that divides people into two different groups, a discontinuity, economists can compare, or regress, the outcomes of people very very close to the cut off.”

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Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Paperback, 291 pgs, Pub November 14th 2017 by Catapult (first published April 6th 2017), ISBN13: 9781936787708, Lit Awards: Man Booker Prize Nominee Longlist (2017), Goldsmiths Prize Nominee (2017)

McGregor's remarkable achievement in this novel long-listed for the 2017 Man Booker Prize is the flammable combination of his intimacy and his distance. He is daring in never mentioning Reservoir 13 again after naming his novel after it and insinuating, merely by its prominence, that it had something to do with the disappearance of Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex, the 13-year-old girl who disappeared one year and was never accounted for, though she’d been looked for and not forgotten for the thirteen years of this novel.

The book is a slow burn, like fire in peat, smoke hinting at fire somewhere, though pinpointing the source is difficult. McGregor is an impassive observer with no dog in any fight, recognizing the churn of seasons and families and friends, and recording how lovers grew apart and found new lovers, or did not, or how difficult it is to keep an allotment well-weeded and producing. Except that the story was his to create and so he must have had some reason for choosing the threads as they crossed, their color and texture and placement. In the end, this diet of village life recorded in the most entrancing language fills one with surprise, curiosity, delight, and despair.

Wondering, once finished, how this book was received by critics, I came upon a review by Maureen Corrigan in The Washington Post in which she says
“Those bland details of everyday life fill McGregor’s mammoth paragraphs like foam insulation being sprayed into walls.”
That made me laugh. She was the one to point out that the girl was thirteen when she went missing, and the time recorded in this novel is thirteen years. I would have thought it was much longer. It felt longer. I started noticing the time I spent reading, and treated myself to an occasional skim, just to see if I could uncover his mystery before I succumbed to numbing despair.

I admire McGregor's prose immensely and like his idea. It was a risky thing, this novel. I am pleased his daring and initiative was recognized by the Man Booker Prize committee.

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Grant by Ron Chernow

Hardcover, 1104 pages, Pub October 17th 2017 by Penguin Press ISBN13: 9781594204876, Lit Awards: Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Nonfiction (2018)

This book requires a serious time commitment. Grant lived 132 years ago, not so long in the course of things. Much had been written about him at the time, and much after. He himself wrote memoirs that are highly regarded and that showed his intelligence and shrewdness. His mother-in-law Dent, defender of southern slave holdings, noticed that although he had failings (alcohol) and could sometimes get off-track career-wise (an inability to make money as an independent entrepreneur), he had a fine political mind. That his mother-in-law had such good things to say about his instincts speaks to his political successes.

The cover copy says Grant was unappreciated for much of his career. This should give succor to individuals who struggle through various jobs, unable to find something in which they can excel. Grant went to West Point almost by accident, disliking the jobs assigned him by his father, a tanner. He apparently hated the smell of the tannery and warm blood, and found himself unable to eat meat unless it was charred beyond recognition. His horsemanship was legendary, even from a young age, and the skill served him well throughout his military career. His career stalled after a stint in the Mexican War, and revived during the Civil War when he could showcase his particular skills in strategy and logistics.

The book cannot adequately be recapitulated in short form, so I resort to impressions hammered home by Chernow in a thousand examples: that Grant decided to trust certain people whether they were knaves or not. He tended to hold onto his initial impressions even when he had reason to abandon support for individuals who’d done him wrong. It strikes me that this failing of his, a failing of accuracy in judgment, could be a reason he as so well liked as a leader. He was loyal, generous, kind, and willing to forgive as well as extraordinarily skilled himself in being able to read a battlefield, the condition of his men, and the heart of the opposition.

Grant was not as skilled at the diplomacy he would later be asked to perform in his role as president, though he gave more positions to people of color than any previous government, and he was instrumental in reforming the civil service. I would like to read more about a diplomat that Chernow seems to praise above all others, Hamilton Fish, Secretary of State for the entire of Grant’s presidency.

More than anything, Chernow makes clear that Grant’s life, despite the lofty heights of public regard during certain periods, was a real struggle all the way through. Never has a presidency seemed like such a bum job: after having fought a terrible, bloody war on one’s own soil for so many years, Grant had to face the unrepentant vanquished again as leader of a divided nation. The racism and bitterness we see and hear now is a mere echo of what was going on during Reconstruction, when every attempt to raise the quality of life of black people was fought every step of the way. Makes one want to force those who refuse to accept their defeat to their knees now—no more talk, no more accommodation. I wish it were as simple as bringing out the big guns (the law) and ending this. But we see now how deep the sense of entitlement still is.

Any portion of this book is worthwhile to read even if you can’t get to the whole thing. It's so important to recall the details of the Civil War and its aftermath now, in this time of division in our own country. For the past few years I have tried to look closely at race in the United States and this book was a huge revelation. We’re fighting battles begun 100+ years ago. We can get past this, we must get past this and we will get past this. Some people are going to change their minds and we’re moving ahead.

If I had my druthers, this book would be shorter. My brain’s ROM has been gummed up with this work for months now and it nearly crashed my hard drive. I feel I am cheating in some way by not being able to express more moments of revelation, but there were so many. I’m sure there is something to be said for putting in every detail of a man and his country, and perhaps it is reasonable to repeat oneself occasionally. Readers may select portions of the whole, or spread out the reading over a long period. However, it is difficult to digest a book of this size.

I listened to the audio of this book and looked over the hard copy. The audio was very well read by veteran actor Mark Bramhall, produced by Penguin Audio. Below please find an excerpt of the reading of Chernow’s work by Bramhall.

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Friday, November 3, 2017

Autumn by Ali Smith

Hardcover, 263 pages Pub February 7th 2017 by Pantheon Books (first published October 20th 2016) ISBN13: 9781101870730 Series Seasonal #1, Lit Awards: Man Booker Prize Nominee (2017), Gordon Burn Prize Nominee Longlist (2017)

It is November and outside my front door roses are still blooming. Their color is a deep rich clear pink. They look better than they did in the dry heat of summer.

Smith’s first novel in her proposed quartet of volumes is an utter delight. I’d never encountered her voice before but when I got to the end, I looked again at the beginning. Just as well, because I had forgotten that Daniel speaks, briefly, before the story gets picked up by “his granddaughter,” Elisabeth, with an “s.”

What I find queer, now having finished the novel, is why people talk about this as a Brexit novel. It is a novel of our times, told by a smart and savvy observer, but I would have put the emphasis squarely on the exploitation and disregard of women, their work, their point of view. Especially at this moment of lurid sexual scandal with roots supposedly in the 1960’s, “when the ethos was different,” we hear a voice that pierces that veil of ignorance and disregard and looks squarely at the mystery of history. Smith has caught our moment perfectly.

The real beauty of this novel is the heart of the novelist. She sees the hard truths we negotiate every day and does not deny them but looks instead at our vulnerabilities, and how we need one another to perfect our world. The work is something reminiscent of pop art, jazzy and clever but with echoes…instead of a piece of pink lace stuck variously under paint on the canvas, a memory…of children washing up on a beach, or women being pushed and herded onto buses…so slight a mention they are mere shadows.

But then Daniel asks explicitly, the first time they play Bagatelle, “Sure you want war?” before patiently instructing Elisabeth in the importance of diversity of thought: how the idea of ‘threatening’ is not unidirectional and can all be in one’s own mind. Daniel becomes companion, teacher, friend to adolescent Elisabeth, dismissed by Elisabeth’s mother as ‘that old queen.’

What to make of Elisabeth’s mother?

Smith marks time in this novel by describing the physical environment, the state of the roses, the chill in the air, the gossamer filaments of spider webs bearing beads, the color and position of leaves (on the trees, fallen to the ground). It positions us in a shifting timescape, though Daniel’s lifetime, and encapsulating the art of the first (and only?) female pop artist in Britain. Pauline Boty was…dismissed is too intentional a word…ignored during her career as an artist because she was beautiful and female. It makes one want to pair those two descriptors forever, in solidarity.
“And whoever makes up the story makes up the world…So always try to welcome people into the home of your story…”
I felt welcomed into the kindnesses Smith creates in this novel. There is wickedness in the world, and tragedy, but it doesn’t have to define us. We can create a world that turns inexorably, like the seasons, to longer days and more clement weather. And we can find people to love in the most unlikely places. Love may be the [only?] thing that makes life worthwhile.

This novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017.

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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig

Hardcover, 355 pages Pub May 2nd 2017 by Grove Press ISBN13: 9780802126450 Literary Awards: National Book Award Nominee for Fiction (2017); Man Booker Prize Long List (2017)

This deeply impactful novel, contrary to what the title might suggest, is not merely beautifully written and proportioned; it is weighted with historical, cultural, philosophical, and political insights from an area of the world well hidden from the sight and understanding of the majority of Americans. The novel is so dense with authentic-seeming detail that it demands the kind of close attention few novels warrant.

In a L.A. Times interview, Charmaine Craig tells us this novel is based on her mother Louisa’s story. Craig could not have done a better job of memorializing her mother’s memory, and it was heartbreaking to hear her recount meeting the popular Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi a few years ago and being recognized as her mother’s child.

Craig spent nearly a decade writing this novel, using some of the time researching and reading declassified CIA documents to see how her mother’s first husband was murdered in the process of peace talks with the Burmese leadership, apparently with the help of some double-dealing by the CIA. Her mother, a one-time beauty queen, became a leader of Karen rebels in the mountainous eastern region of Burma. While at first Craig did not want the book to be political, it is clearly a political document, and extremely informative for that. It puts the political wrangling in Burma, particularly now in this time of Burma’s opening to the West and the Rohingya persecution, in historical and global perspective.

Books of such regional particularity are rare things in English; that Craig attempts to share with us the tumultuous experience of her parents and grandparents growing up in such a consequential time and in such a distant clime is a rare gift. What makes this spectacular novel well worthy of its place on the 2017 Man Booker Prize long list is not the accuracy of its history, but how Craig’s characters navigate and philosophize their roles in their own fictional histories. Deeply meaningful statements on the human condition are sprinkled throughout the book, observations and philosophies articulated by one or another character facing a great challenge.

The predominant religion of Burma is Buddhist, though many Karens are animist or Christian. Craig spent some time explaining the following phrase:
“It is better to be in a position of having to ask for charity than to be in the position of never having to ask.”
This sounds very close to a lesson I’d once heard from Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk from Vietnam, who said that having less than one needed offered an opportunity for developing and expressing compassion. Craig explains that having to ask for something develops one’s spiritual muscle.

In another circumstance, Craig draws a lesson from a Jewish rabbi when one of her characters is appealing for advice:
“One of man’s injunctions is to strive to live joyously. In the face of these terrible wars abroad, when our very peace is threatened, we must find a way to rejoice in our circumstances. We must find a way to do more than endure.”
What a remarkable and completely freeing and true thing to say. At the end of the novel, several characters look upon their lives and recognize this necessity to strive…to find greatness in the midst of failure. The lessons are applied, and it is grace-giving and forgiving and loving, despite all.

Individuals engaged in a civil war lasting generations are concerned with the state of their souls:
"I’ve been trying to figure out all these years—in defending our rights with this revolution—is whether or not we have the right to kill…It seems clear enough that violence, murder even of the murderous, is a surrender of a kind. But do we have the right to stand by and watch people be made slaves…"
I love that Craig asks these big, earthshaking questions because the answers are the things that may save us. The questions show us we are worthy to be saved. We will all come across these questions in the course of a life and to have a story big enough, consequential enough, to introduce them without pedantry is a tremendous gift.

Craig mentioned in her interview that she worked as an actress for a time until the stereotyping in Hollywood became too much of an obstacle to great work. I can tell her from this side of the screen the failures of imagination by casting directors and producers are agonizingly apparent. But I wish I could encourage her to “be the change you seek” and to write for the screen if she can. I would tell her the country is hungry for diversity of color and experience and she is likely to be very successful, if that is where her heart lies.

I feel so grateful for this big dense book of history and imagination. Craig is enormously talented and I wish her every success. The book is also available in audio, read by the author, produced by Blackstone Audio. The author has a disconcertingly American voice when one might expect something accented, even British. However, were Craig to publish the book she says in the interview that she wrote first--the one about her mother and herself growing up--that American accent would make all kinds of sense. Sounds like a good sequel, doesn't it?

However one consumes this book, I highly recommend it.

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