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.”

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