Geniuses & Gods, Podcasts & Presidents, “Mene” Moms, & More | What We’re Reading & Watching

This week we have a whole raft of watchers, readers, and…podders? LJS Assistant Managing Editor Mahnaz Dar adds another medium to the “What We’re Reading & Watching” stew: podcasts. And WWR/WWW emerita Henrietta Verma wants to share what she’s eating these days (hint: healthier!). The rest of the crew go crazy with bibliomysteries, Holmes’s & Watson’s descendants, TV dramas, YA magical realism tales, social media tomes, and Matthew Broderick’s birthday present from Sarah Jessica Parker. It’s the usual mixed bag of goodies from new and veteran WWRers.

Ellen Abrams, WWR/WWW emerita
Who hasn’t wanted to know what made Albert Einstein tick? The NatGeo short series Genius, based on Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe (S. & S.), attempts to answer the question we have all asked ourselves: What made Einstein so…Einsteinian? While there is no way to comprehend genius, it is most entertaining to watch the show try. In fact, the goal is so nearly impossible that while the series attempts to explain Einstein’s greatest theories by showing how he thinks, it focuses primarily on the personal, private Einstein, a life story that is little known to the general public. And it is fascinating: his youthful romances and failures, his relationships with his family, his wives (yes, he had more than one!), his friendships, and his battles with other envious and grumpy physicists. Johnny Flynn, the actor who plays the young Einstein, is adorable and intelligent-seeming. You can see why women fall for him. Samantha Colley plays Einstein’s first wife, Mileva, a physicist who aches at the surrender of her own career. She gives a heartbreaking performance as a prefeminist career woman relegated to the role of wifey to the Great Man. Geoffrey Rush, as the older Einstein, who intuits, earlier than most, what the new German chancellor, Adolf Hitler, is really up to, delivers a typically charming and nuanced performance as well. A bit biography, a bit soap opera, a bit historical parade, Genius is as informative as it is entertaining—although, in truth, I can understand about .01 percent of the physics. And that’s only after it is illustrated for idiots.

Mahnaz Dar, Assistant Managing Editor, LJS
Lately, I’ve added a new medium to the mix: sound! I’ve been slow to board the podcast train, but I’m enthusiastic! I became a die-hard Serial fan a few years ago, and this past week, I listened to another NPR podcast, S-Town. To say much about S-Town would be to deprive would-be listeners of an utterly divine experience, so I’ll keep it brief. It entices listeners with the promise of true crime but delivers so much more. At the center is John B. McLemore, who contacts NPR, dangling the possibility of corruption and a murder cover-up in the small town of Woodstock, AL. Tinged with elements of Southern gothic, this podcast easily competes with Harper Lee, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor when it comes to presenting unforgettable characters—and has gotten me rereading short stories by Faulkner and O’Connor.

As for the books? I’m enjoying Bill James’s Popular Crime: Reflections on the History of Violence (Scribner), a look at murder, kidnapping, sexual crimes, and the like through the ages. James chronicles well-known events—the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, Lizzie Borden—and some that are lesser known but received tons of attention at the time. This is more than a mere documentation; it’s a musing on how the justice system has transformed over time and an explanation of why certain crimes catch our fancy—and what that says about society. It’s rare to find highbrow analysis when it comes to the world of true crime, as James points out, and this title is one I would recommend to any fans of the genre.

Liz French, Senior Editor, LJ Reviews
I’m paging through the Otto Penzler–edited collection Bibliomysteries: Stories of Crime in the World of Books and Bookstores (Pegasus Crime), which I’m reviewing for LJ’s Pop Fiction Editor Wilda Williams. So far I’m about halfway through and the count is: Nazis, many; Sigmund Freud, one; Columbo, one; Tess Monaghan, one; satanic forces, one. And Mickey Spillane makes an appearance, aided by Max Allan Collins. Don’t want to give away too much, but the collection is a fun read. I would love to see more mentions of libraries, but perhaps Pegasus and Penzler have that one waiting in the wings. One can hope….


Guy LeCharles Gonzalez, WWR/WWW emeritus
I read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (HarperCollins) several years ago and was as intrigued by its premise as I was apparently disappointed in its execution, based on a brief review I wrote at the time, noting “the ending falls somewhere between cheap bait-and-switch and outright letdown.” I can’t for the life of me remember what the ending was, but when the adaptation was first announced, I was hopeful a TV series might be able to deliver on its premise more effectively, and so far, so very good, especially the last two episodes!

Meanwhile, I’m slowly making my way through Alex Pentland’s Social Physics (Penguin), a fascinating dive into real-life and virtual social networks, how ideas are born, and how behaviors are normalized. Here’s a quote from p. 65:

The Facebook voting example suggests that information by itself is a rather weak motivator. On the other hand, both the ape troop and Bell Stars examples suggest that seeing members of our peer groups adopting a new idea provides a very strong motivation to join in and cooperate with others.

While a bit on the academic side, Pentland’s research and findings are particularly relevant today in light of ongoing controversies over fake news and the increased visibility of so-called alt-right views, and someone with more free time than I have might tackle a think piece that connects it to Gaiman’s underlying premise: “People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.”

Tyler Hixson, WWR/WWW emeritus
In my attempt to familiarize myself with the Brooklyn Public Library summer reading program, I just finished Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap ( Balzer + Bray), which won the Printz Award and was a National Book Award finalist. It tells the story of Finn, who witnessed the kidnapping of Roza, a beautiful young Polish immigrant who had been living with Finn and his brother Sean, but he can’t remember the face of her kidnapper. Everybody in the town of Bone Gap thinks that Finn is making the story up to cover for Roza, who they believe simply ran away, but Finn knows what he saw. Sean becomes distant and cold, since he believes the townspeople over his brother, so Finn searches for Roza by himself. During his investigation, he falls for Priscilla (Petey; she hates being called Priscilla), the local beekeeper’s daughter, who helps him in his search. It turns out there’s a surprising reason Finn can’t describe Roza’s kidnapper—and why he falls in love with Petey. There are also alternate universes, a magic horse, and a world-creating psychopath bad guy.

Bone Gap truly is magical realism at its finest, but the book definitely takes some serious contemplation upon its completion to really “get” it. I stewed over this title for a few days before I decided that I liked it. There is a twist near the end that sheds light on the rest of the narrative; I like when stories do that, when they force you to go “wait, what?” and flip frantically back through so you can piece things together.

In terms of what I’m watching, I’ve shown up late to the game that is Criminal Minds, and I’m disappointed that I haven’t been following this show since the beginning. It’s so smart, tense, and even a little pretentious, but honestly, who cares? I have more fun trying to figure out who the killer is before the FBI does than watching the actual show. It almost makes me feel like I’m finally putting my undergrad psych minor to good use.

Amanda Mastrull, Assistant Editor, LJ Reviews
This week I’m reading Brittany Cavallaro’s A Study in Charlotte (Katherine Tegen). I’d heard a lot of good things about it last year but didn’t get around to reading it until now. Which was my mistake, really, because this book is great. Charlotte Holmes and Jamie Watson, the great-great-great-grandchildren of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, respectively, end up at the same Connecticut boarding school, where they meet for the first time. Charlotte is brilliant and consults on cases with Scotland Yard and doesn’t really relate to her peers. She did something that caused her parents to send her to the school, while Jamie, who has been much more sheltered from his legacy, ended up there on a rugby scholarship after his parents struggled to pay for his private school in the UK. When a fellow student who has had run-ins with both teens is killed in the same manner as someone in a Sherlock Holmes story, they realize they’re being framed and pair up to investigate. It’s all very fun and clever, and I’m really enjoying it. Below, here’s the first time Jamie, lacking Charlotte’s experience and expertise and trying to convince himself he’s not completely out of his depth (he is), visits her on-campus lab:

I belonged here, I thought, with her, as surely as anyone belonged anywhere.

As weird as here was.

Because there was just so much else crammed in that space, and any one part of it would have made her Prime Suspect #1 in Every Murder Ever. One wall was plastered with diagrams of handguns, obscured by a hanging set of giant bird skeletons. (A vulture peered knowingly at me, its eyehole bullet-black.) The tatty love seat against one wall was spattered in what had to be blood, dripped, most likely, from the riding crops hung above it. There were sagging shelves filled with soil samples, blood samples, what looked like a jar of teeth. Beside the jar was a violin case, a lone bastion of sanity.

I fervently hoped that I was the only visitor she’d ever had to this lab. Or else she was most definitely going to jail.

Lisa Peet, Associate Editor, News & Features, LJ
Like recent LJ interview subject Sarah Jessica Parker, I, too, just read George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo (Random). And although I didn’t buy a copy for Matthew Broderick for his birthday—hey, he has one already—I did like it, but I suspect I liked it in a conditional way. While I think that at some other point in my life—any other point, maybe—I would have found this tale of Abraham Lincoln and the dead a bit gimmicky, it happened to hit that right-book-right-time factor for me. I did like the worldbuilding off the bat (which sent me to reread the first chapter of Kevin Brockmeier’s weird and wonderful The Brief History of the Dead) but found the hand of authorial research on the heavy side. What injected the needed degree of soul for me, though, was the Buddhist subtext (and sometimes text) on suffering and sorrow, and the reminder that much of living involves entering into the suffering and sorrow of others—in the novel’s case, literally, which might have struck me as overly crafty at another time but, just now, I’m totally okay with. The historical “climax” was a bit pat. But I still felt more uplifted than not and got that little visceral thrill of noncritical happiness when I finished, so that’s good. (Granted, maybe this means I should just be reading some Buddhist texts and dispensing with the fictional cloak, but that’s a point for another WWR.)

Henrietta Verma, WWR/WWW emerita
As I mentioned in the last column, I’m trying out a plant-based diet. I’m enjoying cooking different things and feeling far more energetic than I have in a while. In the same vein, I’ve taken down a book I’ve had on the shelf for some time, Dan Barber’s The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food (Penguin). It’s a thoughtful examination of the four realms that produce our food: soil, land (i.e., dry-land animals), sea, and seed. I’m in the soil section now, where Barber introduces pioneering organic farmers and the idea that what is a weed is in the eye (tummy?) of the beholder. Students doing a history of the dust bowl could pick up a lot here, though the book is mainly for the likes of me: those who are tired of being tired and are looking for a new way.

What am I eating these days? Everything except meat and dairy, which leaves A LOT. I used to make this chickpea curry anyway, but have been making it more often. I’m also partial to this chili jam even though it scares the kids (I got my six-year-old to try it and then found a note from him that said “Your mene”). Lastly, I’m making lots of the goodies to be found in Katie Parker’s The High-Protein Vegetarian Cookbook (Countryman, 2015), which includes instructions for an open-faced pistachio tofu sandwich, a veggie and quinoa wrap with sun-dried tomato aioli, and much more.

Liz French About Liz French

Library Journal Senior Editor Liz French edits nonfiction and women's fiction reviews at LJ and also compiles the "What We're Reading" and "Classic Returns" columns for LJ online. She's inordinately interested in what you're reading as well. Email:, Twitter: @lizefrench

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