Dear Life by Alice Munro
Kirkus Reviews –
A revelation, from the most accomplished and acclaimed of contemporary short story writers. It's no surprise that every story in the latest collection by Canada's Munro , 2009, etc.) is rewarding and that the best are stunning. They leave the reader wondering how the writer manages to invoke the deepest, most difficult truths of human existence in the most plainspoken language. But the real bombshell, typically understated and matter-of-fact, comes before the last pieces, which the author has labeled "Finale" and written in explanation: "The final four works in this book are not quite stories. They form a separate unit, one that is autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact. I believe they are the first and last--and the closest--things I have to say about my own life." The "first" comes as a surprise, because her collection (2006) was so commonly considered atypically autobiographical (albeit drawing more from family legacy than personal memory). And the "last"? When a writer in her early '80s declares that these are the last things she has to say about her life, they put both the life and the stories in fresh perspective. Almost all of them have an older character remembering her perspective from decades earlier, sometimes amused, more often baffled, at what happened and how things turned out. Most pivot on some sort of romantic involvement, but the partners are unknowable, opaque, often even to themselves. In "Train," a character remarks, "Now I have got a real understanding of it and it was nobody's fault. It was the fault of human sex in a tragic situation." In "Leaving Maverley," she writes of "the waste of time, the waste of life, by people all scrambling for excitement and paying no attention to anything that mattered." The author knows what matters, and the stories pay attention to it.
Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon
Kirkus Reviews –
National Book Award–winning journalist Solomon ( began to take shape as the author explored more deeply the question of disability. Additional chapters cover Down syndrome (a genetic disorder), autism (of unknown origin), transgenderism and more. Solomon writes about the transformative, "terrifying joy of unbearable responsibility" faced by parents who cherish severely disabled children, and he takes an in-depth look at the struggles of parents of autistic children who behave destructively. He also explores the fascinating mental lives of independently functioning autistic individuals and speculates on the possibility that geniuses such as Mozart and Einstein were at the far end of the spectrum. Throughout, Solomon reflects on his own history as a gay man who has been bullied when he didn't conform to society's image of masculinity. An informative and moving book that raises profound issues regarding the nature of love, the value of human life and the future of humanity., 2001, etc.) uses issues raised by disability to examine the nature of parenthood, the definition of disability and the ability to control reproduction to create designer children. More than a decade ago, when he was assigned to cover a student protest at the Lexington Center for the Deaf in Queens, N.Y., over the hiring of a CEO with normal hearing, the author began to look at medical and cultural issues raised by disability. The protesters demanded that deafness should not be considered a disability, but rather a neuro-diversity on par with ethnic diversity. Some members of the deaf community even considered cochlear implants in young children as "a genocidal attack on a vibrant community" because of the linguistic richness of sign language. Solomon also wrote a piece on child prodigies based on an interview with the Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin, and he followed with a story about the lives of dwarfs based on the experience of a friend who sought role models for her daughter. Gradually,
Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
Kirkus Reviews –
A young woman discovers her rural Tennessee community has been invaded by monarch butterflies in this effective tear-jerker cum environmental jeremiad from Kingsolver (, 2009, etc.). At 17, English honor student Dellarobia thought she would escape a future of grim rural poverty by attending college. Instead, she got pregnant and married. Now 27, feeling stifled by the responsibility of two young children she loves and a husband she tolerates, Dellarobia is heading to her first adulterous tryst when she happens upon a forested valley taken over by a host of brilliant orange butterflies that appear at first like a silent fire. She skips the tryst, but her life changes in unexpected ways. Soon after, Dellarobia leads her sweet if dim husband, Cub, to the butterflies, and they become public knowledge. The butterflies have landed in Tennessee because their usual winter habitat in Mexico has been flooded out. The local church congregation, including Dellarobia's mother-in-law, Hester, embraces the butterflies' arrival as a sign of grace. Influenced by her beloved preacher, usually antagonistic Hester (a refreshingly complex character) becomes a surprising ally in convincing Dellarobia's father-in-law not to cut down the forest for much-needed cash, although she is not above charging tourists, who arrive in increasing numbers to view the spectacle. Soon, a handsome black scientist with a Caribbean accent has set up in her barn to study the beautiful phenomena, which he says may spell environmental doom. Dellarobia is attracted to the sophisticated, educated world Dr. Byron and his grad school assistants represent. When she takes a job working with the scientists, the schisms in her already troubled marriage deepen. Yet, she is fiercely defensive against signs of condescension toward her family and neighbors; she really goes after a guy whose list of ways to lower the carbon footprint--"bring your own Tupperware to a restaurant," "fly less"--have no relevance to people trying to survive economically day-by-day. One of Kingsolver's better efforts at preaching her politics and pulling heartstrings at the same time.
The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today by Thomas E. Ricks
Kirkus Reviews –
contributing editor Ricks ( , this book is bound to cause heartburn in the Pentagon., 2009, etc.) assesses the state of generalship in the U.S. Army and finds it wanting. During World War II, Gen. George Marshall designed a template for identifying leaders and selecting generals, rapidly promoting those who met the standard and readily relieving underperformers. For Marshall, firing a general was part of the natural order, a necessary tool of personnel management in the notoriously difficult business of battlefield success. How is it, asks the author, that we've fallen away from this strict standard over the past 75 years? After acknowledging the occasional flaw in the Marshall system and identifying the grand exception, Douglas MacArthur, Ricks turns to the Korean War, where only O.P. Smith and Matthew Ridgeway met the Marshall standard and prevented disaster. Post-Korea, senior officers acted "less like stewards of their profession, answerable to the public, and more like keepers of a closed guild, answerable mainly to each other." In Vietnam, the system collapsed entirely, with rotation, ticket-punching and micromanagement the norms. Relieving a general came to be seen as a system failure. From this low point--Ricks recites the manifold sins of Maxwell Taylor, Paul Harkins and William Westmoreland--the Army retooled, improving training, doctrine and weaponry, but leaving its concept of generalship untouched. As the author turns to our recent wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan, none of Colin Powell, Norman Schwarzkopf, Tommy Franks, Ricardo Sanchez, or George Casey will much appreciate what Ricks has to say about continuing deficiencies in military leadership. Only David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno emerge unscathed. Informed readers, especially military buffs, will appreciate this provocative, blistering critique of a system where accountability appears to have gone missing--like the author's 2006 bestseller,