The Postcard by Anne Berest

Once a year our book club reads a book in translation. This year, that book was The Postcard by Anne Berest, translated from the French by Tina Kover published in 2023. It is a semi-biographical novel that tells the history of the author’s family. Her grandmother received the titular postcard in 2003. On it were the names of her mother, father, sister, and brother who were all murdered in the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz. The story opens with the author’s mother showing her the postcard and then going on to tell her the history of the people on the postcard until they were deported from France by the Vichy government. The rest of the tale is the author’s journey to discover who sent the postcard and why.

This book was a mixed bag. The writing was vivid, really connecting with lived experience. The translator must be credited with taking the original French and making it feel like it was written in English. A sample: “Her legs feel as if they’re still vibrating from the train, the same way the ground seems to shift and heave after a boat trip.” On the other hand, the characters feel a little too stuck. Or maybe the author just dwells on a particular aspect of a character a bit too long, making it feel like they are a little unreasonable. For instance, despite the growing restrictions on Jews in Vichy France, the father on the postcard insists on doing everything the government asks of him in the hopeless effort to become a French citizen. In the end, he willfully and meekly goes with the police when he is finally arrested and deported. It made me want to scream at the book, “What are you doing!?” I suppose that this sort of thing really did happen, but it just left me empty, sad, and a little angry.

The conclusion of the book comes a bit too quickly for my taste. There is a revelation and then it feels as if the book just ends. It does tell the complete history of a family’s experience of the Holocaust and its aftermath, and for that is unique and valuable. But overall this book was only okay. I liked it. But I didn’t love it.

My rating: 3/5

Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn

Last weekend, my partner and I drove up to southern Ohio/northern Kentucky to visit friends. As we always do on a long car ride, we downloaded a few audiobooks to listen to. We do that in case the first one we pick isn’t to our liking. Well, we never got passed our first choice, *Killers of a Certain Age* by Deanna Raybourn.

This is the story of four dear friends, all women, who worked together for forty years and are about to retire. What is most unusual about these ladies is that they were all assassins for an extra-governmental agency. As they gather to celebrate their retirement, they discover that they have become targets themselves. The rest of the book explores how they work together to deal with this surprising turn of events, the hunters becoming the hunted.

This book is a romp! It is fantastic fun for those of us over fifty and learning all the challenges that go with getting older. These sixty-year-old women discuss everything that aging women go through while trying to stay alive and clear their names. While the dialog is snappy and engaging, the plot is propulsive and clever. My phone automatically restarted the book each time I plugged it into the car as we drove around last weekend. And no matter how short the drive, we couldn’t turn it off.

My rating: 4/5

Iron Flame by Rebecca Yarros

This sequel continues the story from the first book. It’s hard to summarize the plot here without giving away a major plot twist of the first book, so I won’t. The romance between the two main characters continues but becomes ever more problematic while starting to follow what for me are the worst romance tropes. Violet also gets more whiny and starts blaming herself for everything. I found it rather annoying. However, the characters are still interesting and some new and interesting dynamics arise between them. In the end, my curiosity for the story line and interest in the dynamics between the characters outweighed the negative, barely.

My rating: 3/5

Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout by Cal Newport

As I have progressed in my career, I have become more and more impatient with what I call BIC managers. BIC stands for “butt in chair”. These managers, rather than measure your productivity based on the results you produce, focus instead on your presence in the office where they can see your butt in your chair. Especially for any kind of salaried position, this has always felt absurd to me. These workers aren’t paid for the hours they work. They are paid for their expertise and the results they produce. The challenge of measuring productivity in this context leaves such poor managers scrambling for how to measure it. In his most recent book, Cal Newport explores both the history of why this is so as well as outlines how knowledge workers can create the space for the slow productivity that leads to outsized results.

Slow Productivity starts with a history of measuring productivity. This was easy in the industrial and agricultural ages. You measured output for each unit of input. But knowledge work is more creative and less easily measured. Still needing a way to measure success, managers fell into using what Newport calls pseudo-productivity. This is measuring hours on the job rather than results, which are much harder to quantify and manage (or micro-manage, as the case may be). He then goes on to outline what it means to slow down and focus on outcomes.

The final three chapters outline how to accomplish slow productivity in a world that insists on quarterly results. He does this by focusing on three principles: do fewer things, work at a natural pace, and obsess over quality. When he suggests doing fewer things, he means to focus on only one project at a time, keeping a ranked list of what comes next. Communication and transparency are key. Working at a natural pace means recognizing the ebb and flow of work and adjusting with it. No one does or can work pedal to the metal every day all year long. And when you relentlessly make sure that your results are high quality, those around you will trust your methods.

The details he covers in each of these final chapters are highly practical suggestions that readers can do right now to move their work out of the crazy making of pseudo-productivity and into the realm of a more peaceful and natural way of working that actually produces better results. This book is beyond the usual productivity business book just trying to help you squeeze more out of already busy days. Instead, it is the antidote to that life outlining how you can be an even more effective contributor. Highly recommended.

My rating: 5/5

The Measure by Nikki Erlick

Speculative fiction is often defined as including the genres science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I am a fan and reader of all three genres. In the past, I have thought of my favorite was science fiction. More recently I’ve come to see that a specific type of speculative fiction is my favorite. Speculative fiction can generally be described as the literature of “What if?” The author extrapolates on that question, puts their characters in that world, and explores answers to the question raised. That is my favorite type of fiction, no matter the genre.

The Measure, the debut novel by Nikki Erlick, is just such a novel. It asks the question, “What if everyone could know exactly how long they would live?” In the book every adult wakes up one morning with a box at their front door. In it is a string. On the box is a message that states, “Inside is the measure of your life”. The length of the string corresponds to the length of your life. This event changes the world forever.

The book explores why people might choose to look or not to look in their box to see the length of their string. It explores how such knowledge affects personal relationships, politics, who has what jobs, and even fundamental questions of identity. Many times while reading it I was reminded of one my favorite movies, Gattaca. In that movie a person’s place in the world is determined by their genetics instead of a string, but many of the same ideas are explored.

Perhaps what I like most about this book is that is doesn’t provide easy answers to such a deep question. Instead, it explores the question in the context of the vastness of the human experience. In today’s world where everyone thinks they have the answers to every question and is willing to argue about them with anyone and tell them they are wrong, it is refreshing to read a story that has no simple answers and instead explores why different, loving, caring, genuine people might make different decisions given the same question. And ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer. Just different ones.

My rating: 5/5

The Toll by Neal Shusterman

This is the conclusion of the Arc of a Scythe trilogy. It centers around the climax of the second book and how the world reacted. Its hard to say much more without spoilers.

I have to say that I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the first two. The action takes place over three years but it isn’t always clear what order things happen in. The story is not sequential. Some action is told toward the end of the three years, then it moves to right after the second novel concluded. It is made explicit the first time, but after that you pretty much have to track it on your own. And there is a lot more happening with more characters in more places. I liked the focused nature of the first two books better.

That said, I still enjoyed this book. There is a lot of action and introspection by the characters deciding who they are and what they are about. I have to admit that I saw in part the end coming, but even so, I found it satisfying.

My rating: 3.5/5

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

This is yet another book that I likely would never have read if it weren’t for my reading club. In April, we read a biography or memoir. While I was a fan of Bruce Springsteen in the ’80s, I had never heard of him before that. After that, I didn’t really follow him. So I was kind of “meh” about reading this book going in.

It is a little slow and choppy in the beginning part where he is talking about his childhood and family. The language is very poetic and flowery with similes and metaphors all over the place. Essentially what you would expect from such a prolific and successful songwriter. And the storytelling leaves gaps that seem to be expected to be filled in by the context but for me did not quite work. It left me feeling a little lost from what he was trying to say in places. But when he starts on his independent life and starting to make music for a living, it really hums! I listened to the songs as he mentioned them in the text. It felt a bit like having a soundtrack to the book.

Springsteen is a real poet and storyteller. He really gets to the heart of the human condition and shares it in a way that really connects with the reader and listener. While he doesn’t “tell all”, he is very open about the things he struggled with, particularly his mental health. He really did feel like an NJ working man who just happened to make it big.

My rating: 4/5

Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman

Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman is the sequel to his previous book Scythe in his Arc of a Scythe series. This book picks up about a year after the events of the first one. Rowan, as renegade Scythe Lucifer, has taken the ring of Scythe Goddard and is killing and burning the bodies of scythes who treat their role without the respect it deserves. Citra, now Scythe Anastasia, gleans in a new manner, giving her victims a month to get their affairs in order before she gleans them. But there is a someone out there who doesn’t seem to be okay with her new ways and seeks to end her.

There are a few new characters in the story, the main one being the Thunderhead itself. There is a quote from it before nearly all of the chapters. It is not allowed to interfere with the affairs of scythes but is concerned about the direction the scythedom is taking. It is fascinating to have the perspective of an all-knowing, all-seeing benevolent AI in this story. This sequel continues to look at the moral underpinnings and questions of this society while combining it with a rip roaring thriller of a mystery that has a number of mind-bending twists. This series still has me, and I can’t wait to read the next.

My rating: 4/5

Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros

I’ve been hearing about this book almost since it came out. There has been a lot of buzz around it. But historically I have not been a big fan of fantasy. When I think fantasy, I think elves and dwarfs and kings and queens and court intrigue and am just bored to death. Not interested. But I have read a lot more fantasy than usual lately and really liked it, though most of it has been urban fantasy. Recently, as my partner was reading this book, she told me numerous times that I would really like it. She has been right every other time, so I decided to finally read it. I think I need to change my first reaction to fantasy going forward.

The story is about a young woman who has studied to be a Scribe her entire youth. But as the day approaches for her to officially choose that direction, her military general mother requires her to become a Rider. This is a dangerous pursuit where most candidates die during training. At the end of the training, the cadets parade before dragons who may or may not choose them. And if they don’t find them worthy to even consider, may incinerate them. This would be challenging for any cadet, but the protagonist has limbs that easily disjoint and break, making her appear weak to other cadets and the dragons. The young woman makes her way through this school for Riders where her male best friend growing up preceded her by a year. Their relationship isn’t what is used to be. At the same time, the son of an executed traitor has it in for her as do many other cadets who see eliminating her a way to make their own path easier.

As I write this description, it all feels very melodramatic, but the writing is tight and keeps the story humming along. It never felt overly dramatic to me and very true to life as far as relationships go. This book falls into the newer category often referred to as romantasy, that is romantic fantasy. And there are some steamy sex scenes that would not be out of place in a romance novel. Remarkably, this all held together for me. I always wanted to find out what would happen next. But I never felt I knew for sure what that would be (though I had ideas). This is the first book in a series. I don’t often read the second book in a series these days, but I will be reading the sequel to this one very soon!

My rating: 4/5

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

I first heard about this book last year when someone suggested it in my book club. It didn’t get chosen then, but I heard more about it on a podcast episode. I was blown away by the story of these young women (girls, in many cases). So when this book came back around this year as a possibility for our book club, I was excited when it was selected.

It is the well-researched history of mostly teenage women who worked painting luminous watches and other instruments in the early part of the twentieth century. What made the watches glow was radium in the paint. At that time, they weren’t fully aware of the dangers of radiation. In fact, radium was often seen as a miracle cure. But as the dangers became known to the employers, they did nothing to protect their employees. These young women would even put the tip of the paint brush in their mouths to get a fine point. And they were playful with it, painting themselves with it like makeup before they went out after work.

Years down the road, they started having medical problems that no one understood. The most common was their teeth falling out and their jaws literally coming apart. Eventually they discovered that it was the paint that had caused their issues. They hired lawyers to sue the employers who fought them with everything they had.

This is a hard read, but not because of the writing. The writing is excellent. But to read what these women went through physically and emotionally due to the negligence and heartlessness of their employers was deeply effecting. If this had been fiction, I would have had a hard time finding it believable. It is important to remember what these women went through to fight for workers’ rights.

My rating: 4.5/5