Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Books Read Since July 1

Out Stealing Horses by Pers Petterson is the story of Trond Sander, a widower nearing seventy, who moves to a bare cabin in remote eastern Norway, seeking the life of quiet contemplation. A chance encounter with a former neighbor causes him to ruminate on the last summer he spent with his adored father, who abandoned the family soon afterward. The novel focuses on an afternoon, when he and a friend set out to take some horses from a nearby farm. Beginning as an exhilarating adventure, the day ended abruptly and traumatically in an act of unexpected cruelty. “Petterson’s spare and deliberate prose has astonishing force, and the narrative gains further power from the artful interplay of Trond’s childhood and adult perspectives.”

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet by David Mitchell is one of the NYT “Top Ten for 2010.” Mitchell is known for his experimental, puzzle-like fiction. Unfortunately, some of the puzzles, names and places in this historical novel set in Edo-era Japan, eluded me—obviously, my bad. This suspenseful and meticulously detailed story of forbidden love — between a young Dutchman and a Japanese midwife, who is abducted by a mysterious group of monks —“ unfurls, musically, to become a meditation on East and West, superstition and science, tradition and change.” An important work for more sophisticated readers.

Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez is a post-apocalyptic tale told by 13-year old Cole, the son of liberal atheists and a smart, self-contained boy who loves to draw and is a keen observer—“a classic coming-of-age story with a terrifying medical catastrophe and a profound battle between secular and religious viewpoints.” The pandemic orphans and nearly kills Cole, who ends up living with a kindhearted Evangelical pastor and his wife in Salvation City, a community preparing for the Rapture and focused on bible studies, guns, rapture children, and saved adults. “ Nunez brilliantly contrasts epic social failure and tragedy with the unfurling of one promising life, reminding us that even in the worst of times, we seek coherence, discovery, and connection."

The Confession by John Gresham is a not-too subtle critique of capital punishment in general and the Texas justice system in particular. In 1998, in the small East Texas city of Sloan, Travis Boyette abducted, raped, and strangled a popular high school cheerleader. He buried her body so that it would never be found, then watched as police and prosecutors arrested and convicted Donté Drumm, a local football star, and sent him to death row. Nine years later, Travis has just been paroled in Kansas for a different crime; Donté is four days away from his execution. Travis suffers from an inoperable brain tumor. For the first time in his miserable life, he decides to do what’s right and confess. The book focuses on the challenges of trying to get the attention of politicians who are rewarded for their conviction and execution record. Travis and an idealistic minister try to convince lawyers, judges, and politicians that they’re about to execute an innocent man.

*The Rembrandt Affair by Daniel Silva is an excellent thriller about Gabriel Allon, art restorer and Israeli super agent. In Glastonbury, an art restorer is murdered and a long-lost portrait by Rembrandt mysteriously stolen. Despite his reluctance, Gabriel is persuaded to use his unique skills to search for the painting and those responsible for the crime. But as he follows a trail of clues leading from Amsterdam to Buenos Aires and, finally, to a villa on the graceful shores of Lake Geneva, Gabriel discovers there are deadly secrets connected to the painting dating back to WWII. He deals with a remarkable cast of characters: a glamorous London journalist who is determined to undo the worst mistake of her career, an elusive master art thief who is burdened by a conscience, and a powerful Swiss billionaire who is known for his good deeds but may just be behind one of the greatest threats facing the world. “Filled with remarkable twists and turns of plot, and told with seductive prose.”

The Four Corners of the Sky by Michael Malone, one of my favorite Southern writers is an overly- ambitious blend of humor, mystery, adventure and sentimentality. Navy pilot Annie P. Goode comes home for her 26th birthday to her doting aunt and uncle in Emerald, NC, exactly where Jack, her con man father, left her 19 years earlier. Jack calls to say that he is dying and needs Annie’s help. Within a week, Ann finds herself in St. Louis, Miami, and Havana, always a step behind Jack, as everyone seeks a golden, gem-encrusted statue. Malone employs his trademark cast of Southern characters, literary references and wry humor, including using titles of old movies for his 55 chapters. With some serious editing, this long novel could have been one of his best, but “Bizarre coincidences, caricatured criminals and characters who spurt groan-worthy puns, classic movie lines and Shakespeare quotes in place of meaningful dialogue keep the novel teetering toward the absurd.”

Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz, psychology professor and dog person, applies ethology (the science of animal behavior) learned from white rhinos and bonobos, to dogs. Over eight years of study, she concludes that dogs know us better than we know them. Horowitz invites readers to imagine living 18 inches or so above the ground, with incredible olfactory senses comparable to the human capacity. Social and communications skills are also explored, as well as the practicalities of dog owning (Horowitz disagrees with the "pack" approach to dog training). “Dog lovers will find this book largely fascinating, despite Horowitz's meandering style and somnolent tone.”

Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carré shows that the author is near, but not at, the top of his game. This Russian mafia spy thriller has an Oxford tutor and his lawyer girlfriend meet Dmitri "Dima" Vladimirovich Krasnov, an avuncular Russian businessman who challenges Perry to a tennis match. Perry wins, Dima takes a shine to the couple, and soon, Perry conveys a message to MI6 in England that Dima wishes to defect. They are ‘invited by MI6 to an exhausting debriefing. Not only is Dima a Russian oligarch, he's also one of the world's biggest money launderers. After a slow start, Le Carré gradually ratchets up the tension until the sad, inevitable end. One reviewer said, “His most accessible work in years.” A good read but not his best.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larrson is “the exhilarating (and exhausting) conclusion to Millennium trilogy.” Lisbeth Salander, the brilliant computer hacker who was shot in the head in the final pages of Fire, is alive, though still the prime suspect in three murders in Stockholm. While she convalesces under armed guard, journalist Mikael Blomkvist works to unravel the decades-old cover-up surrounding the man who shot Salander: her father, Alexander Zalachenko, a Soviet intelligence defector and longtime secret asset to Säpo, Sweden's security police. Sometimes the details of Swedish political history and personal backgrounds of minor characters are overpowering and there are almost endless sub-plots, Larrson is still hard to put down.

*The Widowers Tale by National Book Award winner, Julia Glass, is “elaborately plotted and luxuriously paced, … inquisitive, compassionate, funny, and suspenseful… addresses significant and thorny social issues with emotional veracity, artistic nuance, and a profound perception of the grand interconnectivity of life.” The widower is Percy Darling, an acerbic patriarch and former Harvard librarian His historic property includes a large house, pond and a spacious old barn, once his late wife's dance studio, now an upscale preschool. A mischievous and erudite curmudgeon, Percy only agrees to the school’s intrusion in the hope that his floundering daughter, Clover, will finally secure a job that makes her happy. Not that she'll ever catch up to her sister, a celebrity oncologist. Glass is great with character development of family members and associated contacts from a variety of social classes.

*Comeback America by David M. Walker, former comptroller general of the US is an important analysis and set of recommendations to address the fiscal catastrophe facing America. Walker does excellent analysis and makes courageous recommendations in a totally non-partisan manner. Everyone needs to read this book—or at least the summary provided at the Peterson Foundation web-site.

Dog Tags by David Rosenfelt got a positive reference from the NY Times and the mystery does have almost everything: a brilliant, lazy attorney with an attitude, two lovable dogs, an innocent man accused of murder, an almost super-human hit man, a nefarious criminal mastermind, etc.—You get the picture.

*The Privileges by Jonathon Dees is an intelligent, contemporary, morality tale about a charmed couple, a hedge fund, insider trading, vast wealth and the impact of acquiring great wealth. Supremely confident and ambitious Adam and Cynthia marry right out of college and quickly have children, April and Jonas. Adam excels at a private equity firm in Manhattan, but, impatient for the big money, he also launches a high-stakes insider-trading venture. The gleaming Moreys become so impossibly rich they don’t seem quite human to others, and, of course, money doesn’t preclude suffering. It could have been a compound cliché but excellent writing and good humor make it an excellent book despite a weak ending.

*The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity by Richard Florida is a broad, optimistic look at the current economic crisis and the opportunities it presents. Florida examines the latest of the "Great Resets," moments of transformative upheaval (like the Great Depression) "when new technologies and technological systems arise, when the economy is recast and society remade, and when the places where we live and work change to suit new needs." Though Florida often rushes to neat generalities and cheerleading, his background as a historical geographer provides interesting insights and a unique perspective on the yet unresolved economic calamity.

The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larrson continues the chronicle of Lisbeth Salanderelf paired and journalist Mikael Blomkvist on the trail of another sinister criminal enterprise. This time, however, Lisbeth must return to the darkness of her own past if she is to stay out of prison-and alive. One reviewer described the book as “a break-out-in-a-cold-sweat thriller that crackles with stunning twists.” That’s true but some of the twists and coincidences strain the credulity of even Larrson fans. Expect healthy doses of high tech hacking, murder, betrayal, and deceit, as well as more varied sex and family disfunctionality than a Jerry Springer show.

*Rich Boy by Sharon Pomerantz “digs into notions of class and wealth in her debut novel, chronicling the upward strivings of a middle-class Jew as he loses himself in the strange world of the fabulously wealthy.” Handsome and smart, Robert Vishniak dreams of escaping his lower middle-class Philadelphia neighborhood. At Tufts, he rooms with the unconventional, but wealthy, Sanford Trace. Trace and his buddies introduce Robert to Smith College girls, fancy clothes, and New York State's elegant Tuxedo Park. Much of the novel evolves around Robert's relationships with three women: Gwendolyn, a Brit with a terrible secret; his wife, Crea, the daughter of his law firm's founding partner; and Sally Johannson, a shoeshine girl from his old neighborhood. The fascination with Sally makes the book more a soap opera than an insightful analysis of the spiritual malaise of the wealthy. Still, the novel is insightful, well-written, easy-read with an intriguing, complicated hero at its center.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson the first in a trilogy of Swedish best-selling page-turners. Mikael Blomkvist, a once-respected financial journalist, watches his professional life rapidly crumble around him. Life looks bleak until a unique offer extended by an elderly titan of Swedish industry. Blomkvist will be paid handsomely to spend a year preparing a history of the family, their businesses—and, researching a mysterious disappearance from nearly four decades. With few other options, he accepts and enlists the help of investigator Lisbeth Salander, a misunderstood genius with a few authority issues. Lots of twists, turns and coincidences, but the theme is “you really don't want to mess with the girl with the dragon tattoo.”

*Homer and Langley by E. L. Doctorow is “a small but sweeping masterpiece about the infamous New York hermits, the Collyer brothers.” It offers a broad panorama of modern U.S. history from an iconoclastic point of view—ranging from WWI through the boomer ascendency. The Spanish flu pandemic kills Homer and Langley's parents, Langley, the elder, goes to war leaving Homer, alone and going blind. When Langley returns, real darkness descends on the eccentric orphans. Langley hoards newspaper clippings and starts innumerable science projects inside their shuttered Fifth Avenue mansion. Occasionally, outsiders wander through the house, exposing it as a living museum of artifacts, Americana, obscurity and simmering madness

The Stiglitz Report: Reforming the International Monetary and Financial Systems in the Wake of the Global Crisis by Joseph E. Stiglitz is a summary ofwork done by a UN panel of 20 leading global economists to review the recent financial crisis and suggest ways of preventing further disruptions of major proportions, chaired by Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz the panel ees the recent financial crisis as the latest and most damaging of several concurrent crises—of food, water, energy, and sustainability—that are tightly interrelated. The analysis and recommendations in the report cover the gamut from short-term mitigation to deep structural changes, from crisis response to reform of the global, economic, and financial architecture. An important and well-reasoned analysis, but it isn’t beach reading.

I’ll Never Be French by Mark Greenside “is one of the nicest of the trillions of books about (life in) France.” After a ten-week visit in Brittany, Greenside decides that his attachment to France is more permanent than the relationship that brought him to France. The quasi-impulsive purchase of an old stone house is made possible with the help of Madame P. who figures prominently and entertainingly through the rest of the book by facilitating several of the author's transactions with the sellers and the local servicemen who provide necessities such as heating oil and insurance. “Greenside tells a charming story about growing wiser, humbler and more human through home owning in a foreign land.”

One Good Dog by Susan Wilson is melodramatic fiction for dog lovers. Self-made Adam March loses his temper, his job, his family, and his house and is living in a bleak apartment working off his community-service sentence in a local men’s shelter. Adam’s story alternates with the perspective of Chance, a former fighting pit bull who has escaped, lived on the streets, and back at the animal shelter. Adam adopts Chance and comes to realize the joy and comfort of animal companionship. Adam’s and Chance both fight to begin new lives and relationships. Too saccharine, even for Miss Marples’ humble servant.

*The Inperfectionists by Tom Rachman charts the goings-on at a scrappy English-language newspaper in Rome. Each chapter is an exquisite short story with the intersecting lives of the men and women who produce the paper—and one woman who reads it religiously. Obit writer Arthur Gopal, whose overarching goal at the paper is indolence, encounters personal tragedy and, with it, unexpected career ambition. Late in the book, as the paper buckles, recently laid-off copyeditor Dave Belling seduces the CFO who fired him. Throughout, the founding publisher's progeny stagger under a heritage they don't understand. As the ragtag staff faces down the implications of the paper's tilt into oblivion, “there are more than enough sublime moments, unexpected turns and wretchedness to warrant putting this on the shelf next to other great newspaper novels.”

The God of the Hive: A novel of suspense featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes by Laurie King should appeal to die-hard fans of Sherlock Holmes or lovers of the previous nine novels about Russell and her much older husband, Conan Doyle's iconic detective. The plot picks up in the summer of 1924 right after the Rev. Thomas Brothers, who seeks to unleash psychic energies through human sacrifice, has shot Holmes's artist son, Damian Adler, seriously wounding the young man. Holmes's desperate quest for medical help takes him to Holland, while Mary travels through Britain in an effort to keep Damian's half-Chinese daughter, Estelle, safe from Brothers and his allies. Cliffhanging situations abound as both leads benefit from the convenient appearance of extremely helpful strangers.

The Postmistress by debut novelist Sarah Blake Blake takes readers between small town America and war-torn Europe in 1940. Single, 40-year-old postmistress Iris James and young newlywed Emma Trask are new arrivals to Cape Cod. They listen to American reporter Frankie as she delivers powerful and personal radio reports from London and Europe. Emma waits for the return of her husband—a volunteer doctor in England. Iris comes across a letter with information that she chooses to hide. Dependent on a series of coincidences, yet “Blake captures—a naïve nation in denial and… a continent wracked with terror—with … willingness to take on big, complex questions.”

*The Promise: President Obama, Year One by Newsweek editor Jonathan Alter records Obama's first year (plus) as U.S. President, from pre-inauguration planning (when he assumed, by default, responsibility for managing a financial melt-down through the passage of health care reform in March, 2010. An engaging, fast-moving, well-written contemporary history, Alter explores Obama's "temperament, his approach to decision making, and a thoughtful analysis of his ambitious first year.

*The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller explores the psyche of four people who are bound together by the 9/11 death of Gus--Leslie, his older sister, his girlfriend, who has written a new play that explores the agonizing hours when a family gathers, not knowing the fate of their mother/ wife who was on a train attacked by terrorists. Rafe, the actor playing the ambivalent husband, processes his own guilt about his terminally ill and Sam who is being “fixed up” with Billy. While the plot doesn't have much suspense or action, the NY Times said, “… (It) conveys the subjectivity of all experience but also succeeds in creating a haunting chamber-music piece with many different solos. . . . Its power grows from Ms. Miller’s intimate understanding of her characters.”

*The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern is a madcap romp through the anguish and ironies of the Jewish tradition that “matches mysticism with mayhem, beatitude with organized crime, creativity with crassness”. The manic, almost surreal, action revolves around Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr who is frozen in a block of ice in 1889 but makes it to the U.S. where, in 1999, when the “great thaw” brings the reanimated rabbi to Memphis, Tennessee, where, enthralled by America’s TV capitalism, he opens a profitable and controversial House of Enlightenment. Excellent reviews and a fun read, especially if you know a bit of Yiddish.

Rules of Vengeance by Christopher Reich is a better than average thriller. Dr. Jonathan Ransom flies to London for a medical conference. The next day, Jonathan's world is torn apart after a large car bomb explodes in Westminster. Jonathan is sure his wife (Emma), a former ‘operative,’ is behind the bombing, but the police think Jonathan is responsible. A convoluted chase ensues with Jonathan hunting his wife, and the cops along with an MI5 agent tracking Jonathan. Everyone, including the reader, remains clueless during much of the book—and sometimes afterwards.

Money to Burn by James Grippando's is an “overwrought financial thriller” with a Kafka-est hero, Michael Cantella,facing scandals with subprime lending, short selling, and Ponzi schemes providing a timely backdrop. On his 35th birthday, Cantella goes from being a star Wall Street performer to a financially wiped-out victim of identity theft. His Job-like problems rock his second marriage and his firm and set him up for a life on the run or worse. Lots of surprising (and illogical) plot twists, but it is an engaging read.

Hannah’s List by Debbie Macomber is, I suspect, classic ‘chick lit.’ Hannah Everett dies at 36 of ovarian cancer, leaving a letter for her pediatrician husband, Michael to be opened a year after her death. In it, she suggests he consider one of three women as his next wife: her cousin, Chef Winter Adams; Leanne Lancaster, Hannah's divorced oncology nurse; and Macy Roth, a ditzy, animal-loving artist. It seemed formulaic and very predictable, but then I’m not a chick.

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