Monday, December 5, 2011

October & November Books

The Sherlockian by Graham Moore alternates chapters between Harold White's (a new member of eminent Sherlockian society) amateur sleuthing in Europe and Doyle's own account of his search for a serial killer, aided by Dracula creator Bram Stoker. White is inducted into the Baker Street Irregulars, at their annual New York City dinner. Scholar Alex Cale plans to present a long-lost diary penned by Arthur Conan Doyle, but someone strangles Cale before he can do so. Doyle's great-grandson hires White to solve the murder and trace the diary, which is missing from Cale's hotel room. The book is engaging and entertaining, but doesn’t challenge the master.

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks is described as “a moving and nuanced intellectual adventure, a story of achievement and a defense of progress.”Drawing on a wealth of current research from numerous disciplines, Brooks takes a composite couple, Harold and Erica, from infancy to school; from the “odyssey years” of young adulthood to the issues of poverty, success and effective leadership. He reveals the deeply social aspect of our very minds and exposes the bias in modern culture that overemphasizes rationalism, individualism, and IQ. Along the way, he challenges conventional definitions of success while looking toward a culture based on morality, trust and humility. The novel is interesting, important, but a bit wordy and sometimes jumbled.

The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker prize and received breathless reviews. The novel follows a middle-aged man as he contends with a past he has never much thought about—until his closest childhood friends return to his consciousness through a bequest from one of them. Tony Webster thought had had left it all behind as his marriage and family and career have fallen into an amicable divorce and retirement, but he gets to see his life in new perspective.

*This Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back by Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum is “a wake-up call and a call to collective action”. They analyze the four challenges we face—globalization, the revolution in information technology, the nation’s chronic deficits, and our pattern of excessive energy consumption—and spell out what we need to do now to sustain the American dream and preserve American power in the world. Yet Friedman and Mandelbaum believe that the recovery of American greatness is within reach and offer a five-part formula for prosperity that could enable us to cope successfully with the current challenges.

Portrait of a Spy by Daniel Silva follows the successful formula of his best selling series about art restorer and Israeli spy, Gabriel Allon. Even though almost a third of the book involves reminding the reader of characters and events from previous novels, Silva manages to keep a high level of energy and excitement as Gabriel and his team essentially demolishes a new group of Islamic terrorists with a little help from a Saudi heiress, the CIA and MI-6.

Tony and Susan by Austin Wright is a crime story within a domestic novel that was largely unnoticed in 1993 when it was originally published. Reissued this year to glowing reviews, Wright explores the nature of marriage and memory, while dissecting the potential impact of ‘minor’ choices.’ Susan reads her ex-husband’s first novel, Nocturnal Animals , in which an impulsive change of plan delivers Tony Hastings and his family into the hands of strangers who terrorize them. By counterpoising the eroding compromises of Susan's daily life with the sufferings of the fictional Hastings family, Wright shows that macho posturing, cruelty, and irresponsibility can be universal.
*The Paris Wife by Paula McLain brings Hadley Richardson Hemingway out from the shadow cast by her famous husband. The Hemingway relationship included a whirlwind courtship and a few fast and furious years of the expatriate lifestyle in 1920s Paris. This bonbon of literary tourism provides glimpses of literary giants of the era, including Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Despite her basic decency, Hemmingway outgrows his starter wife after six years. “Much more than a woman-behind-the-man homage, this beautifully crafted tale is an unsentimental tribute to a woman who acted with grace and strength as her marriage crumbled.”

Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance by by Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mihm is actually an excellent text on economic history and macro economic theory and provides an in-depth historical analysis of the role of crises in capitalist economies. With thumbnail sketches of nineteenth and twentieth century economic thought from Smith, Keynes, and the “Austrian school”, they reject the "quaint beliefs" that markets are "self-regulating," and blame Alan Greenspan's refusal to use the power of the Fed to dampen unbridled speculation, choosing instead to pump "vast quantities of easy money into the economy and keep it there for too long." A thoughtful, sometimes repetitive, important book that can be slow going for non economic wonks.

*The Rules of Civility by AmorTowles depicts an enchanting, martini-filled pre-WWII New York City. A chance meeting at a jazz club on New Year's Eve brings three memorable characters together for an enlightening and occasionally tragic search for a better life. “Towles' writing also paints an inviting picture of New York City, without forgetting its sharp edges…reminiscent of Fitzgerald.”

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

September Books

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Phillip Pullman is relatively faithful in style, time line, and events to the gospel canon-though Pullman has twins born to Mary, one called Jesus, and the other Christ. As children, Christ is a goody-goody and Jesus the popular one. Jesus and Christ continue down separate but intertwined paths. Jesus becomes a philosopher-revolutionary and Christ is the seemingly savvy brother. Pullman's story “reveals” how the politics and structure of the institutional church were plotted by power-hungry men, who used the renown of Jesus and his well-meaning brother as pawns in a corrupt game.

*The Sisters Brothers
by Patrick DeWitt reads like a Coen brothers’ script for a retelling of the Don Quixote legend—although their quest is initially to track down and kill a prospector. The brothers journey from Oregon to San Francisco, and eventually find their target in the Sierra foothills, after meeting a witch, a bear, a dead Indian, a parlor of drunken floozies, and a gang of murderous fur trappers. Initially Charlie is the “lead man,” but Eli, the rotund, deadpan narrator, develops personal insight, morals and leadership along the way. “DeWitt has produced a genre-bending frontier saga that is exciting, funny, and…moving.”

*Notes at an Exhibition by Cornwall’s Patrick Gale describes the impact of mental illness on a family of a brilliant, but troubled artist, and her family. Each chapter is introduced by a note from a posthumous exhibition of Rachel Kelly. The book is artfully constructed and told through several voices as Gale portrays Rachel, her Quaker husband and their four children, with insight and caring detail to each of them and to her art/creativity.

Frenchman’s Cove by Daphne du Maurier described the revolt of Lady Dona St. Columb against the boring confines of high society in the 18th century. She retreats to the Cornish country house where chance leads her to meet a French pirate and discovers that “her passions and thirst for adventure have never been more aroused.” A classic “bodice buster” that will disappoint fans of Ian Fleming or Tom Clancey.

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier was the first of the Cornwall books during our visit. A University of London chemical researcher, asks Richard to stay at Kilmarth, an ancient house near the Cornish coast. Here, Richard drinks a potion and finds himself at the same location—but in the fourteenth century. The effects of the drink wear off but it is wildly addictive, and Richard cannot resist traveling back and forth in time. He eventually finds emotional refuge with a beautiful woman of the past who is also trapped in a loveless marriage. Reminiscent of H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, the book is a professionally developed yarn of history, romance, and self deception.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

August Books

A Secret Kept by Tatiana de Rosnay (Sarah’s Key) fails to live up to her previous successful novel. Parisian architect Antoine Rey and his sister, Mélanie, celebrate her 40th birthday where they vacationed until their mother died there in 1974. Upon returning, Mélanie is gripped by a shocking repressed memory of her mother’s affair and loses control of the car. A skeptical Antoine investigates as an upsetting chain of events unfurls in his own family. “This perceptive portrait of a middle-aged man's delayed coming-of-age story rates as a seductive, suspenseful, and trés formidable keeper.”

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin provides the life story of the two-foot eight-inches tall Mercy Lavinia “Vinnie” Bump over a century after her story-book life. Although encouraged to live a life hidden away from the public, she becomes a ‘showboat freak,’ then reaches out to impresario P. T. Barnum, marries the tiny superstar General Tom Thumb in the wedding of the century, and became the world’s most unexpected celebrity. An engaging novel of public triumphs and personal tragedies, this “is the irresistible epic of a heroine who conquered the country with a heart as big as her dreams.”

* The Snowman by Norwegian author Jo Nesbø has been translated into 40 languages and compared to Stieg Larsson fans and Tom Harris. A child wakes up to find his mother has disappeared and, a snowman has appeared out of nowhere, the calling card of a terrifying serial killer. “Brilliantly crafted, this credible and dark page-turner fully fleshes out the characters. “ Is the Snowman a suspicious doctor, a notorious playboy, or someone on the police force? Despite a few improbabilities, the plot is intense and the book is hard to put down.

Sunset Park by Paul Auster is a decent novel by a much respected writer. New York native Miles Heller now cleans out foreclosed south Florida homes, falls in love with an underage girl and flees to Brooklyn where he moves in with a group of artists squatting in the borough's Sunset Park neighborhood. The narrative broadens to take in the lives of Miles's roommates and estranged parents. “The fractured narrative takes in an impressive swath of life and (recent) history.

**Father of the Rain by Whiting Award–winner Lily King is narrated by the insightful daughter of an alcoholic father, follows their evolving relationship over four decades. Daley watches her charismatic WASPy father flounder through divorce, disgrace and increasing alcoholism. With a caring, socially responsible mother and self-imposed distance from him, she eventually returns to her father's side after he is no longer capable of living alone. Dealing with deep and complex emotions, “King's latest is original and deftly drawn, the work of a master psychological portraitist.”

*The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan is “one of the most original, audacious, and terrifying novels in years.” Jake is over 200, but nonstop sex and exercise with a high protein diet have kept him physically healthy, but so distraught and lonely he is actually contemplating suicide—even if it means ending a thousand years old legend. “…A powerful, definitive new version of the werewolf legend—mesmerizing and incredibly sexy.”

Friday, August 5, 2011

July Books

*Blood Money: a Novel of Espionage by David Ignatius of the Washington Post is “a terrific, believable novel about the intersection of politics, ethics and finance.” A new CIA intelligence unit is trying to buy peace with America's enemies, but someone is killing its agents. Sophie Marx is asked to figure out who's doing the killing and why. She starts with Alphabet Capital, a London hedge fund that provides cover for this secret operation, but the investigation soon widens to include several Middle Eastern capitals. She wonders if her hard-nosed boss, Jeffrey Gertz, his genial mentor at headquarters or the well-mannered head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate are giving her the whole story.

A Little Death in Dixie
by Lisa Turner is a “tightly-plotted novel that turns the screws and sends readers racing to its surprise conclusion." Well, I thought it was professionally crafted but not great. One of Memphis' most seductive and notorious socialites has vanished. Is she's off on another drunken escapade or a victim of foul play? Aetective Billy Able quickly discovers a complex web of tragedy, mystery, suspicion, and sordid secrets including a few of Billy's own.

*My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands by Chelsea Handler is “as much fun as getting drunk and waking up in some stranger's bed.” I wouldn’t know, but she hilariously reports on photographing her parents having sex at seven and growing up to research the joys of one-night stands, i.e., “having sex early so you're not months into a relationship before you discover he's into ‘anal beads and duct tape’." She finds a date on, sleeps with a "little midget," and ‘enjoys’ a number of would-be partners less well adjusted than herself or with penises too small to consider. Some of the stories might not be completely true, but it would be a great loss to (mostly) single men (and her readers) if she eventually settles down with just one.

Swamplandia by Karen Russell is “a suspenseful, deeply haunted book” according to the NYT. Thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree has always lived at Swamplandia, her family’s island home and gator-wrestling theme park in the Florida Everglades. But when cancer fells Ava’s mother, their headliner, the family slips into chaos; her father withdraws, her sister falls in love with a ghost, and her brilliant older brother, Kiwi, defects to a rival park called “The World of Darkness”. As Ava sets out on a mission through the haunted swamps, we are drawn into a lush and dramatic terrain that challenges the concreteness of reality. Wonderful reviews, superb writing, and almost too imaginative for my tastes.

Flourish by Martin Seligman Seligman, the guru of the "positive psychology" movement, who abandons his previous emphasis on learned optimism and happiness, which he now views as too simplistic. This examination of how individuals might achieve a richer, multilayered goal: a life of well-being could have been his most important book. He identifies four factors that can help individuals thrive: positive emotion, engagement with what one is doing, a sense of accomplishment, and good relationships. Unfortunately, he does too much “cut and paste" from grant proposals, course syllabi and previous papers to provide more than an occasional nugget amidst the muck.

A Singular Woman:The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother by Janny Scott portrays Dunham as a feminist, an unconventional, independent spirit, a cultural anthropologist, and an international development officer who surely helped shape the internationalist world view of her son. The book is tirelessly researched, adds to our knowledge about her Indonesian experience, but sometimes gets lost in extraneous details… “a straightforward, deeply reported account-- a complicated portrait of an outspoken, independent-minded woman with a life of unconventional choices.”

Saturday, July 2, 2011

June Books

*Bill Warrington’s Last Chance by James King was 2009 Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award–winner. April Shea is a bright 14-year-old girl who experiments with pot and constantly squabbles with her single mother, Marcy. Together, Marcy and April care for Marcy's 79-year-old father, Bill, a Korean War vet, retired salesman, failed father and now, an Alzheimer’s patient. Bill longs to bring his family together for a reunion, but with no takers on this idea, Bill and April take off for California, where April plans on joining a band and Bill imagines he can force a reunion. With shades of “Death of a Salesman” and The Notebook, King fashions a good story with a terrific ending.

Nose Down, Eyes Up by Merrill Markoe features Jimmy, a canine seminar leader who instructs members of his pack in the art of manipulating their human masters. Jimmy's canine wisdom is made available when his owner, Gil, an unlucky in love handyman learns how to communicate with dogs. When Gil shoots down Jimmy's idea that he is Gil's biological son, Jimmy insists on meeting his birth mother, who happens to belong to Gil's now-remarried ex-wife. A series of setbacks beset the duo, and “the tribulations provide lessons in life, love and finding happiness.” Fun, cute, but hardly great literature.

In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Petroff won the Minotaur Books/MWA Best First Crime Novel award. Det. Simon Ziele has abandoned big-city policing for the quiet dullness of a town in Westchester County when someone kills a Columbia mathematics graduate student whose brilliance evoked jealousy in her peers, in her home. Ziele's investigation is soon joined by Alistair Sinclair, a Columbia criminologist who thinks he knows the killers identity. The period detail, characterizations and plotting are well-done, but I found the plot predictable and a little slow.

*The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall describes the travails of Golden Richards, the title patriarch, his four wives and 28 children. Golden's houses are the sort of places where the dog often wears underwear and a child or two doesn't. “Golden may be hapless, distracted, and deceitful, but he is large-hearted and so is his story.” Like John Irving and Pat Conroy, Udall is a great storyteller who sees humor in the human tragedy and enjoys pyrotechnics.

Dixie Divas by Virginia Brown introduces the Divas--a group of 12 women from the small Mississippi town near Memphis, Tennessee. This eclectic group holds a very private monthly meeting with chocolate, alcohol and an occasional transvestite stripper as the main staples. The main characters are Trinket, a 51 year old divorcee who just moved back to Cherry Hill and her cousin, Bitty, recently divorced from her fourth husband Senator Hollander who is discovered murdered in her coast closet. Most of the Divas work to help find the killer while we also learn about the history of the area, the people with a slice of southern small town living. Too clever by a third, but still a fun, quick read.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

May Books

*Three Stages of Amazement by Carol Edgarian's looks at the way the smart and privileged cope when luck turns against them. Dr. Charlie Pepper moves his family to San Francisco to start Nimbus Surgical Devices, just in time for the 2008 market crash. While he scrambles to find funding, Lena tries to cope with a premature infant with multiple health issues, a young son, and her own dysfunctional family. They are teetering on the edge when Charlie is offered support from Lena’s uncle Cal, the man behind her father's failed business. “Edgarian is in fine form, giving readers a well-told story with characters of great depth and complexity, but it is her crystalline writing and the unique narrative tone that elevates this the most.”

*Hector’s Search for Happiness by French psychiatrist, François Lelord, is a charming, whimsical fable around Hector's pursuit of the elements that comprise true happiness. Written with fairy-tale simplicity, the story takes the psychiatrist on a trip around the world to learn more about what makes people both happy and sad. His observations result in keen nuggets for attaining joy in life. The book is profoundly and deceptively simple and engaging.

The Priest’s Graveyard by Ted Dekke is “beguiling, compelling, challenging, and riveting.” Danny is a Bosnian trying to escape memories of a tragic war that took his mother's life, currently serving as a priest and as an avenging angel who shows powerful, evil men the error of their ways. Renee is the frail, helpless victim of one such man who now lives to satisfy justice by destroying him. But when Danny and Renee's paths become entangled, everything goes awry in a suspenseful, engaging manner.

A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block is not one of the author’s best 50+ novels. After being forced out of the NYPD, Matthew Scudder has given up drink and takes the reader on a tour of most of NYC’s AA meeting places after a fellow 8-stepper is killed while attempting to atone for past sins. Scudder solves the mystery, stays sober and manages to bore me more than any of Block’s previous books.

* The Next Decade by George Friedman compares the position of the United States today to that of Britain in 1910, and argues that the U.S. is an "unintended empire" and that its president is a "global emperor," because of the size of the country's economy. Friedman argues for an end to a reluctance to entangle the country in global affairs. He examines the past strategies of Presidents Bush and Clinton and stresses what President Obama and his successor must do about terrorism and technology to foster relations with the Middle East, Europe, the Western Pacific, Latin America, Africa, Israel, Iran, and Russia. He doesn't play favorites, criticizing their policies and comparing them with presidents who possessed more Machiavellian attributes. While his ideas are well-researched and compelling, Friedman makes some leaps of logic that some readers (including myself) can find confusing.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Recent Reads

*The Love of My Youth by Mary Gordon is part literary novel, part travelogue and partially a review of “roads not taken.” Miranda and Adam were young lovers but haven’t seen each other in 30 years. Their heady reunion takes place in Rome, a city of myths and ghosts Adam knows well. Miranda is there for an environmental health conference. Their intense conversations are psychologically intricate and complexly metaphysical and aesthetic that they seem a bit theatrical. We learn that their blissful love bloomed when they were 16 and slowly withered during their twenties as Adam devoted himself to becoming a great pianist and Miranda searched for a way to help make the world a better place. The more they talk on their Roman rambles, the more the reader wonders what finally drove them apart—and why their spouses don’t worry about their extended togetherness.

*The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein is about Enzo, a rescue lab terrier mix, adopted by race car driver Denny Swift. Enzo is a new age philosopher who hopes to be reincarnated as a person after watching Denny meet and marry Eve, have a daughter, Zoë, and risk his savings and his life to make it on the professional racing circuit. Enzo, frustrated by his inability to speak and his lack of opposable thumbs, watches Denny's old racing videos, coins koanlike aphorisms that apply to both driving and life. When Denny hits an extended rough patch, Enzo is a “reliable companion and a likable enough narrator, though the string of Denny's bad luck stories strains believability.”

*The Fifth Witness by Michael Connelly is the fourth legal thriller featuring Mickey Haller the LA L.A. lawyer who uses his Lincoln town car as an office. A foreclosure client, Lisa Trammel, may be fighting too hard to keep her home and becomes the prime suspect when a mortgage banker, is killed. Strong circumstantial evidence points to Trammel, but Haller crafts an impressive defense that concludes with "the fifth witness." “Connelly has a sure command of the legal and procedural details of criminal court, and even manages to make the arcane, shady world of foreclosure interesting.” The novel is timely because of its description of shady mortgage lending/foreclosure practices and because its publication coincides with the release of the movie, “The Lincoln Lawyer."

Ape House by Sara Guren is a disappointing follow-up to her wonderful Water for Elephants. This clumsy outing begins with the bombing of a university research center dedicated to the study of how bonobo apes communicate. The blast occurs one day after reporter John Thigpen visits the lab and is entranced with the bonobos. After a series of personal setbacks, Thigpen pursues the story of the apes and subsequent explosions for a Los Angeles tabloid. “Unfortunately, the best characters in this overwrought novel don't have the power of speech.”

**Room by Emma Donoghue's is about, Jack, a typical 5-year-old who likes to read books, watch TV, and play games with his Ma—but he has lived his entire life in an 11 x 11 room, sharing the tiny space with only his mother and a nighttime visitor known as Old Nick. For Jack, Room is the real world, but for Ma, it is a prison in which she has tried to create a normal life for her son. When they achieve the dream of experiencing “Outside,” the consequences are frightening. “Room is rife with moments of hope and beauty, and the dogged determination to live.” An amazingly original novel of survival, discovery and growth—an extended view of moving outside the comfort zone of “Plato’s Cave.”

The Incredible Mrs. Chadwick: the Most Notorious Woman of Her Age
by John S. Crosbie is a blend of fact and fiction about the career of a woman who became fabulously wealthy by borrowing huge sums of money, backed by forged bonds and a story about being the illegitimate daughter of Andrew Carnegie. Crosbie does a creditable job of research, fills in the blanks with reasonable assumptions and is a competent writer. The book, however, is less exciting than the story deserves.

*The Physics of the Impossible
by Micho Kaku introduces complex theories of physics to general readers. His knowledge of Physics is matched by his knowledge of science fiction and his references to pop culture—Star Trek to Terminator 3—that engage the reader and help make the frontier of physics almost engaging. Kaku suggests that time travel, teleportation, alternative universes don’t violate known laws of physics and could be achieved in the next century. He also “investigates the moral issues of futuristic technology…and asks provoking questions about the fate of humankind.”

Monday, April 11, 2011

March Books

Retirementology: Rethinking the American Dream in a New Economy by Gregory B. Salsbury was an excellent idea that, to me, is poorly executed. Salsbury attempts to apply behavioral finance to retirement planning during an economic downturn. He identifies classic mistakes in earning, spending, saving, investing, and borrowing. His chart identifying common financially unhealthy traits such as procrastination and overconfidence along with the consequences of such traits is relatively helpful. It is good basic stuff, but there are no new insights.

Hell’s Corner is David Baldacci's “implausible fifth Camel Club novel (and) disappoints with cartoonish plotting and characterization.” After the president persuades former assassin Oliver Stone to tackle the growing threat of Russian drug gangs, Stone finds himself in Lafayette Park when gunfire breaks out and a bomb explodes. Taken off his original mission, Stone tries to identify the forces behind the attack with assistance from the “Camel Club”. “Those who prefer intelligence in their political thrillers will have to look elsewhere.”

*Examined Lives by James Miller combines short biographies and synopses of 12 philosophers’ ideas of wisdom. The book is aimed at people like me who are intrigued by the history of philosophy but not prepared to take on the texts. Miller introduces Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes, Seneca, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Emerson, and Nietzsche, then describes how their mental abstractions were buffeted by demands of material or political realities that sometimes led contemporaries and posterity to bridle at inconsistencies between their words and deeds.

Left Neglected by Lisa Genova is narrated by Sarah Nickerson is a 37-year-old, overachieving multi-tasker with a demanding job at a Boston consulting firm. Her husband, Bob, works at a struggling start-up and shares the stresses and pressures of rearing their three young children in an affluent suburb. A car accident and traumatic brain injury leave Sarah with “left neglect,” a lack of awareness of anything to her left, including the left side of her own body. Sarah’s mother, Helen, can help, but their relationship has been rocky. Seven-year-old son, Charlie is diagnosed with ADHD, Bob’s job is in jeopardy, but there is “healing of body, mind, and mother-daughter relationship and acceptance that ‘normal is overrated’.” A good book, but not up to Genova’s Still Alice.

The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfield includes Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and several important American politicians and millionaires in a gripping historical novel. Freud is an all-too-human man of obvious charm and originality; Jung is cold, calculating and obviously envious; and fictional narrator Dr. Stratham Younger is an admiring early Freudian who helps ease readers through some of Rubenfeld's longer monologues about life and architecture in New York in 1909. A better plot than Rubenfeld’s sequel, but this book could have benefited from the improved writing (or editing) of Death Instinct.

Strategic Moves by Stuart Woods is a relatively “weak entry in the long-running Stone Barrington series.” Super lawyer Stone grapples with both financial and international intrigue, beds a couple of gorgeous women, eats wonderful meals at Elaine's, drinks lots of Knob Creek, negotiates incredible agreements with and for his clients (who include an international arms dealer and the CIA), while staying a step ahead of the Mossad. Woods is an entertaining, productive writer probably won't win the Nobel prize this year.

*Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay captures “the insane world of the Holocaust and the efforts of the few good people who stood up against it.” Focusing on the 1942 Paris roundups and deportations, in which thousands of Jewish families were arrested, held at the Vélodrome d'Hiver, then transported to Auschwitz, the novel captures the terror and courage of Sarah who lives through the ordeal and the lasting impact on France. Told from the prospective of forty-five-year-old Julia Jarmond as she, her arrogant, unfaithful husband and their 11 year-old daughter cope with personal and family issues.

**Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld (Yale law professor who is married to the “Tiger Mom”) uses the 1920 bombing of Wall Street as the backdrop for a superbly written novel and well-crafted historical mystery. The ambitious plot provides a believable solution to the never-solved search for the person/s responsible for the death and injury of more than 400 people. Rubenfeld weaves such historical figures as Marie Curie and Sigmund Freud through the shifting landscape with a historian's factual touch and a storyteller's eye for the dramatic. I was enthralled as Dr. Stratham Younger, his beautiful fiancée, scientist Colette Rousseau, and Det. James Littlemore succeed in providing a reasonable solution to an important ‘cold case.’ “This fat book is heir to Caleb Carr’s The Alienist.”

House Rules by Jody Picoult is a NYT’s best seller about an eighteen-year old with Asperger's syndrome, and his devoted single mother who has sacrificed her career, marriage and other son to help Jacob function. When he is accused of murder, his symptomatic behavior makes him look guilty. Picoult's deals intelligently with questions about autism and Asperger's, “the whodunit is stretched sitcom-thin and handled poorly, with characters withholding information from the reader throughout.” The book is engaging, but has too many voices with none asking the important, obvious questions.

Monday, February 28, 2011

February reads

*Heresy by S.J. Parris is set in 1583 against a backdrop of religious-political intrigue and barbaric judicial reprisals. Parris's debut novel features Giordano Bruno, a historical former Italian monk excommunicated by the Roman Catholic church and hunted across Europe by the Inquisition for his belief in a heliocentric infinite universe. Befriended by Sir Philip Sidney, the ambitious Bruno flees to more tolerant Protestant England, where Elizabeth I's secretary of state, recruits him to spy on suspected Catholic scholars suspected of plotting treason. As one Oxford fellow after another falls to gruesome homicide, Bruno struggles to unravel Oxford's tangled loyalties. Parris interweaves historical fact with psychological insight to provide an engaging read.

The Coming Population Crash: and Our Planet's Surprising Future by Fred Pearce is a contrarian view of population trends. Beginning with a critical historical review of Malthus, early eugenicists and contraceptive campaigners, Pearce visits regions of undeniably high contemporary population growth—India, Bangladesh, and Africa—and finds anecdotes to support the his hypothesis that world population will soon peak and then decline by citing declining fertility rates, aging baby boomers, and migration. I found the book to be challenging, provocative, well written, but not totally convincing.
**The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature by Timothy Ferris convincingly explains how and why science was an integral part of the intellectual toolkit of the leaders of political and individual liberty. A readable history of science and intellectual thought, Ferris begins with profiles of seventeenth-century philosophical pioneers, continues with champions of the Enlightenment’s intersection of science and self-government, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, and reviews contemporary threats to this tradition. “Lucid and captivating... Ferris’s clear and educative account makes for an enjoyable read.”

The Inner Circle by Brad Meltzer is an engaging, formulaic thriller about Beecher White, an archivist who stumbles upon an old book hidden away in a room used exclusively by the president. To me, Beecher is portrayed as a likable, indecisive bumbler. He can't decide if the woman from his past loves him or is as insane as her father who tried to kill a former president. He can't decide which of his colleagues is part of a cabal willing to kill to protect the president from a 20 year-old crime or might be a successor member to George Washington's “inner circle," who provided objective information to presidents for over 200 years. His shifting interpretations of the data provide interesting twists and turns at appropriate intervals.

*Sh*t My Dad Says
by Justin Halpern weaves a brilliantly funny, touching coming-of-age memoir around the best of his father’s most eloquent and profane quotes. An all-American story that unfolds on the Little League field, in Denny's, during excruciating family road trips, and in the Halperns' kitchen over bowls of Grape-Nuts, “Sh*t My Dad Says is a chaotic, hilarious, true portrait of a father-son relationship from a major new comic voice.” More than a million people now follow Mr. Halpern's musings on Twitter.

*Wench by Dolan Perkins-Valdez chronicles the lives of four slave women who are their masters' mistresses—Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet and Maw. The women meet when their owners vacation at the same summer resort in Ohio where they see free blacks and hear rumors of abolition. They are attracted to the concept of freedom, but are fearful about being caught and losing their children. An extended flashback in the middle of the novel delves into Lizzie's life and vividly explores the complicated psychological dynamic between master and slave. Reviewed favorability and compared to The Help, it is excellent, but not that great.

A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein is an enthusiastically reviewed suburban drama with an undercurrent of violence. Peter Dizinoff, a successful New Jersey doctor, is struggling to deal with undisclosed issues in his personal and professional life. His son, Alec, deflates Pete’s high expectations when he drops out of college and begins seeing Laura, the troubled daughter of Peter's best friend. Laura is ten years older than Alec and was acquitted for killing her baby she was 17, The details of Dizinoff’s malaise are slowly (very slowly) revealed to “build their way to a layered, emotionally wrenching climax” that I found as disappointing as Grodstein’s portrayal of the Dizinoff males.

A Shock of Gray: The Aging of the World's Population and How it Pits Young Against Old, Child Against Parent, Worker Against Boss, Company Against Rival, and Nation Against Nation
by Ted Fishman, a fretful jeremia, describes a number of locales--luxury retirement communities in Sarasota, Fla.; the rust-belt city of Rockford, Ill.; a village in Spain; Beijing--and finds a skyrocketing population over 65 with attendant problems: soaring medical costs, overwhelmed caretakers and government pension systems, with oldsters who feel sad and neglected. Fishman weaves these findings with all manner of demographic, economic, and cultural discontents, including plummeting birth rates, environmental degradation, underpaid immigrants, American industrial decline, globalization, and outlandish teen fashions. I especially enjoyed the chapter about how each decade brings new signs of aging. Unfortunately, you can't keep people from aging, and Fishman offers few helpful suggestions for coping with personal or societal aging.

Safe Haven by Nicolas Sparks shows why the author is King of Chic Lit. Well crafted and written, it follows the formula of his previous 14 romantic novels. A mysterious young woman Katie appears in a small North Carolina town, determined to avoid forming personal ties until events draw her into reluctant relationships with Alex, a widowed store owner with a kind heart and two young children; and another with her plainspoken single neighbor, Jo. “With Jo's empathic and stubborn support, Katie eventually realizes that she must choose between a life of transient safety and one of riskier rewards . . . and that love is the only true safe haven”.

** The Murderer’s Daughters by Susan Meyers begins with young Lulu finding her mother dead and her sister wounded at the hands of her alcoholic father. The novel traces the trauma’s impact for 30 years. Rejected by family, they are sent to an orphanage, where Lulu turns tough and calculating, searching for safety and control until they manipulate a way into an adoptive family. Lulu is a great student, becomes a doctor, marries an understanding husband and has two intuitive children who are confused the secretiveness about her past. Her sister, Merry becomes a victim witness advocate who is dependent on Lulu, drugs and alcohol, and looks for love in all the wrong places. In the background, their imprisoned father looms until a crisis forces Lulu and Merry to confront what happened years ago. I found the book psychologically complex, believable and enjoyable.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Recent Books Read

2011 Books Read

*The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and His Friend Marilyn Monroe
by Andrew O'Hagan is a clever satire from the perspective of a philosophical Maltese given to Marilyn by Frank Sinatra. You can almost imagine de Tocqueville describing mid-century United States from a pampered canine perspective. Maf, like Miss Marple, is well schooled in the classics and enjoy listening and sniffing the feet and ankles such notables as Natalie Wood, Frank Sinatra, and JFK, as he offers erudite commentary, sometimes in dialogue with other dogs, on such subjects as interior decorating, celebrity, authenticity, religion, and death.

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy, like his other books combine a charming narrative voice and often over written prose. In this ode to the books and book people that shaped his life. Conroy attributes his love of literature to his mother, who nurtured his passion for reading and at the same time educated herself by studying his school books. Her favorite novel (and his) was Gone with the Wind, which she read to him when he was five years old. Conroy pays tribute to the men who were substitute father figures and mentors, among them a dedicated English teacher/mentor and legendary book rep who appropriately chastised him for his "overcaffeinated prose."

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender is narrated by young, needy Rose Edelstein, who can literally taste the emotions of whoever prepares her food. This use of magic realism gives her unwanted insight into other people's secret emotional lives—including her mother's, whose lemon cake betrays a deep dissatisfaction. “Bender plumbs an emotionally crippled family with power and authenticity…her gustative insights don't have the sensual potency readers might crave, (still) this coming-of-age story makes a bittersweet dish.”

The Reversal by Michael Connelly proves that the author is still at the top of his game and among the best in this genre. Longtime defense attorney Mickey Haller is recruited to change stripes and prosecute the high-profile retrial of a brutal child murder. After 24 years in prison, a convicted killer Jason Jessup has won a new trial because of new DNA evidence. Haller is convinced Jessup is guilty, and he takes the case on the condition that he gets to choose his investigator, LAPD Detective Harry Bosch. Together, Bosch and Haller set off on a case fraught with political and personal danger—a pleasant, satisfying read.

The Weekend by Bernard Schlink (The Reader) describes a reunion of old friends after Jörg is released from prison. “Schlink's meditative (is about) the past's grip on the present and the possibility--or impossibility--of redemption.” Convicted of quadruple murder and numerous acts of terrorism on behalf of the radical left, Jörg spent 24 years in prison before being unexpectedly pardoned. His sister, Christiane, invites journalist Henner, whom Jörg believes betrayed him to the police; Ilse, who is beginning a novel about a common friend's alleged suicide; and Marko, a young revolutionary intent on convincing Jörg to speak out against the current government. While favorably reviewed, I found it slow going.