In “House of Sand and Fog,” No Clear Moral Choices

Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog is a story of contrasts, of the twists and turns of fate, and of the modern pursuit of the American dream. Compulsively readable, this National Book Award nominee will keep you on edge throughout, as you try to decide, again and again, which character’s right, and which is wrong.

IMG_2350

On the one hand, we have Colonel Behrani, formerly of the Iranian Air Force. Forced to flee his home country (and his extravagant lifestyle) after the overthrow of the Shah, the Colonel has moved his wife, his daughter, and his son to the Bay Area of California. Given his background, Colonel Behrani assumed he could find employment easily at one of the aerospace companies there. However, as the book opens, he’s working with a trash detail composed of mostly immigrants, picking up garbage along a busy interstate. At night, he works behind the counter of a convenience store. He’s frustrated, beaten down, and nearly out of money, thanks to the expensive apartment he’s maintained to keep up appearances.

On the other hand, Kathy Nicolo is herself desperate and out of options. A former drug addict and current recovering alcoholic, Kathy’s husband has left her. She clings to the one thing she has left in the world – the house she lives in, which she inherited from her father.

The ownership of that house, and everything it represents, is the central conflict of this book. Kathy is evicted from it, on grounds (which turn out to be false) that she didn’t pay taxes she owed. Colonel Behrani decides to use his last bit of savings to buy it at auction, believing he can then sell it for three times the cost and put his family’s life back on track.

Both believe they are the rightful owners, and reading his point of view on the situation and then hers, it’s impossible not to sympathize with each. You feel as though you’re seeing two cars take off at top speed, heading toward each other on a dark road, knowing there’s no clean and easy outcome.

A third character, a married cop Kathy begins an affair with, tips the balance, and the whole mess careens out of control. I won’t give the ending away, except to say that it’s heartbreaking.

This is a novel about property rights and bureaucratic mistakes, yes, but also about expectations and appearances. It’s beautifully written, taut with tension throughout. Every character is flawed; there is no black and white. Like the fog of its title, it’s a book enveloped by gray.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2015/03/19/book-biz-this-novel-is-not-for-the-faint-of-heart/)

A Fun Guidebook, “Welcome to Your Brain” Has Something For Everyone

Is there anything more applicable to each and every one of us than the study of neuroscience? If you’ve ever wondered what’s going on in that head of yours – or, perhaps, what’s going on in the heads of your family, friends, and coworkers – this is the book for you.

IMG_2411

Written by two neuroscientists, Welcome to Your Brain provides an accessible and even fun entry point into what can seem like an intimidating topic. This isn’t some dry, college-level science textbook, however. Think of it more as a map or guidebook to what’s happening in that organ taking up space between your ears. And luckily for us, the authors are gifted writers, turning the complicated into the understandable, while making you laugh along the way.

Structured in six parts, Welcome to Your Brain takes us from the basics of your brain’s composition, to how the brain handles the five senses, to its development in childhood and its changes throughout life and old age. The authors also explore your “emotional” brain, your “rational” brain, and your brain in altered states. Each chapter within the sections contains interesting sidebars, either dispelling myths (no, we don’t only use 10% of our brain) or providing practical tips (such as how, scientifically speaking, to combat jet lag).

Many readers of this book would likely be especially interested in the section and chapters about brain development and the brain’s changes throughout our lives. We probably all want to know how we can best support brain development in young children, while also figuring out how to guard against brain function decay late in life. There’s a lot of societal anxiety, understandably, about both.

You’ll have to read that whole section for all the pertinent information on this, but I’ll say here, for the parents of young children, there’s no actual scientific evidence that playing Mozart for your babies makes them smarter. However, signing them up for piano lessons, for instance, does have a positive effect on brain development. Passive consumption of music does nothing. Instead, have them actually learn to play.

If you’re thinking about the opposite end of things and looking for a magic elixir to stave off mental decline late in life, look no further than physical exercise. That’s the single best way you can support brain health and fight dementia in age. Even older people who take up exercise late in life show mental benefits from it.

This book is filled with information that can help you better understand yourself and those around you. Use your brain and read it.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2015/02/12/louann-lofton-check-engaging-guidebook-brain/)

“Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas” Both Delights and Challenges

New Orleans is suffused with history, with mystery, with violence, and with sublime beauty. From shrimp po-boys to extravagant Mardi Gras floats, from the enormous live oaks lining St. Charles Avenue like silent, ancient sentries to second-line parades with loud brass bands weaving their way over pothole-laden streets, New Orleans leaves an impression. Trying to understand and make sense of all the facets of the place, and all the attendant contradictions, is a task with seemingly no end. The beautiful Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas can help with this, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone the least bit infatuated with the Crescent City.

IMG_2307

Part coffee table book, part history and culture guide, Unfathomable City is, like New Orleans herself, unique. Filled with twenty-two gorgeously illustrated and colored maps of the city, each spread across two pages, it’s an atlas that aims to both educate and challenge. Essays accompany each map, written by different people, giving us a host of voices as we traverse across the city. They all guide us to consider something different about the history of New Orleans – or about its future.

You won’t find staid street maps here, showing you how to get from the French Quarter to Audubon Park. Instead, you’ll uncover, for instance, the history and purpose of the social aid and pleasure clubs that dot the city, along with a map showing the routes and dates for all of their second-line parades. Several maps detail the city’s rich musical heritage, tracing its roots to its African lineage. Another eulogizes the city’s dead by highlighting its above-ground cemeteries. Yet another pays homage to the Native American tribes who were there first, including the Houma, who’ve been forced out over the years into the bayou communities south of the city proper – bayou communities that themselves are now facing extinction as the land continues to erode.

Maps bring to mind certainty: hard lines, boundaries, clarity. Certainty’s hard to come by here, though. The story of this atlas is change. Whether we’re looking at physical changes in the land near New Orleans (one acre of Louisiana coast disappears into the Gulf each hour) or troubling changes in the city after Hurricane Katrina (like the closure of Charity Hospital, which had been operating since 1736), the maps and essays here document history as well as evolution. They also focus on both pleasure and despair, like so much of New Orleans culture.

Unfathomable City is aptly named, but that “unfathomable” quality doesn’t diminish appreciation, it heightens it.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2015/03/06/louann-lofton-a-book-of-maps-for-lovers-of-new-orleans/)