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.