Tag Archives: books

Blue Nights

Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.

That’s from Blue Nights, Joan Didion’s new book on her daughter, who died soon after her husband did.  The Year of Magical Thinking is one of my favorite books, and this one was just as moving and honest.  I’ve never seen Didion speak, but she seems like the kind of person who says little but is so fully observant and reflective.

My one critique is that I wanted to know more about her daughter’s adult life.  I wonder why this wasn’t included.

One more excerpt:

In theory these mementos serve to bring back the moment.

In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here.

How inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here is something else I could never afford to see.

Nice review in The New York Review of Books here.


Little Liberia – book review

He relives some of this as he speaks, something he has studiously avoided until now; his hands are shaking in his lap.  When he sees me watching his hands, he shoots me a look of accusation, as if I have caught him out.

That’s from Little Liberia, Jonny Steinberg‘s latest impossibly good book about two Liberian men who come to Staten Island, one in 1986, the other in 2002.  Steinberg is a South African scholar and writer.  You can buy Little Liberia via Amazon UK.  (I got my copy 12 days after ordering it, and shipping costs were not bad at all.)

Rufus, one of the men, has established himself as leader of Liberians in Staten Island by the time Liberian refugees start flooding the borough’s Park Hill neighborhood.  Jacob arrives toward the end of the war.  He is shocked to find that there are no reliable immigration and health services–the most pressing concerns for many Liberians in the community.  The two men clash.  Jacob wonders if the politics of Americo-Liberian exclusion have replicated themselves across time and the Atlantic.  Steinberg summarizes the concern: “Could it be that wherever Liberians settled, some among them would become Congos, the rest helpless indigenes?”

Steinberg brings Rufus and Jacob to life through his attentiveness to their words, actions, and demeanor, which he observed during two years of shadowing them in New York and Liberia.

One of the most powerful passages in the book comes when Jacob describes his first reaction to America: He was infuriated.

…the level of development…it reinforced my belief that the Americo-Liberians had used Liberia as their farm, their dumping ground, their pet project.  They had their homes here in America.  They…went to hospital here when they were sick.  I lost all respect for Americo-Liberians; for all those years, sending their children overseas and leaving us in the dark.

Beyond the substance of the book, I love Steinberg’s transparency about his interactions with his subjects, and how he wrestles to interpret what they are thinking and saying.  “One is always performing, even in the most private corridors of one’s soul,” he writes.  He describes Jacob’s unhappy response to the book manuscript, interprets the source of this unhappiness, and discusses the process of revision.

I also admire how Steinberg captures the small and large humiliations people suffer–humiliations that are only apparent to an outsider who is empathetic and understands the context.

I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did.  I’d love to hear other thoughts.

You can buy the book here.  You can read an excerpt from another review I very much liked here.  You can read a short profile I wrote of Steinberg here (pdf, p. 18)


The Tennis Partner

When I find the pulse, I look into my patient’s eyes.  Sometimes the pupils dilate, and the pulse itself quickens, as if recognizing that I have discovered its hiding place.

That’s from The Tennis Partner, by Abraham Verghese.  Verghese is a doctor, and the book is about his intense friendship with one of his interns who turns out to be a recovering cocaine addict.  If you like reading about health or tennis, you will love this book.  If you are like me, and like reading about both health and tennis, this will easily become one your favorite books.  (Verghese is the author of the equally amazing Cutting for Stone, a novel about Indian doctors in Ethiopia.)

Here are two other quotes I liked from The Tennis Partner:

It is an obsession as silly as not stepping on the lines between points during a tennis match.  But it is out of such rituals that we carve lives for ourselves.


I have come to believe that AA and NA worked…by leading him out of his isolation, showing him he was part of a community, he did not walk alone…”Within your secrets lies your sickness,” Dr. Talbott had said…


What I’ve been reading

I’m not in Africa this winter break.  But I feel like I am, based on the amount of reading I’ve been doing.

Here’s what I’ve been reading.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman.  Through the story of an epileptic Hmong girl in California, Fadiman describes the clash of perspectives on healing between American doctors and the Hmong community.  Fadiman is wholly empathetic to both, resulting in torturous stories where the reader can’t say what should have been done to avoid worse outcomes.  My favorite part of the book was the demonstration of the inadequacy of translation alone.  Describing the perspective of one doctor, Fadiman writes: “someone who merely converted Hmong words into English, however accurately, would be of no help to me whatsoever. ‘I don’t call my staff interpreters,’ she told me. ‘I call them cultural brokers.  They teach me.'”  Of course this reminded me of witness testimony translation issues at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.  This book was truly fantastic.

The Greatest Trade Ever: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of How John Paulson Defied Wall Street and Made Financial History by Gregory Zuckerman.  Immensely readable.  Zuckerman explains the housing market crash through the story of John Paulson, a guy who bet against the housing market and made $15 billion.  Aside for a brief discussion about some traders (not Paulson’s) squeamishness about cheering for homeowners to fail to make their mortgage payments, there wasn’t much talk about ethics in this book.  But that was it’s only weakness.  By getting you attached to the players involved, Zuckerman managed to make the book really suspenseful, despite knowing generally how things would end.

Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, by Michael Sandel.  Sandel gives a readable overview of different perspectives on justice.  Through various gut-wrenching dilemmas, he shows how you can evaluate decisions based on different ways of thinking about justice.