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.”