Friday, March 30, 2012

March Books

**Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante is a literary thriller about a retired orthopedic surgeon suffering from dementia and suspected of killing her best friend, Amanda who was found dead with four fingers surgically removed. The prime suspect, Dr. White doesn’t know whether she did it. Told in White’s fractured and eloquent voice, a picture emerges of the surprisingly intimate, complex alliance between these proud, forceful life-long friends. As the investigation deepens, White’s relationships with her live-in caretaker and two grown children intensify and everyone wonders if White’s shattered memory is preventing her from revealing the truth or helping her hide it? “A startling portrait of a disintegrating mind clinging to reality through anger, frustration, shame, and unspeakable loss.”

The End of Marking Time by C. J. West is a dystopian novel about gifted housebreaker, Michael O'Connor, who awakens inside an ultramodern criminal justice system where the Supreme Court has declared long term incarceration to be cruel and unusual punishment. Felons now enter reeducation programs where they must satisfy an army of counselors and a black box that teaches them everything they failed to learn from kindergarten through adulthood. Michael slowly realizes everything he does is evaluated to determine whether he lives or dies.

*Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje recounts a 1950s voyage by an 11-year-old boy from Colombo to England. For meals, he is seated at the “cat’s table”—far from the Captain’s Table—with a ragtag group of “insignificant” adults and two other boys. As the ship moves across the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal, and into the Mediterranean, the boys tumble from one adventure to another. One man talks with them about jazz and women, another opens the door to the world of literature. The narrator’s elusive, beautiful cousin Emily becomes his confidante, allowing him to see himself “with a distant eye” for the first time, and to feel the first stirring of desire. A well-written and reviewed ‘coming of age’ novel, but a little slow in places.

Lost Souls of Tennessee by Amy Franklin-Willis mines the fault lines in a Southern working-class family as forty-two-year-old Ezekiel Cooper and his mother, Lillian, journey from the 1940s to 1980s and Zeke moves from anointed son, to honorable sibling, to unhinged middle-aged man. After Zeke twin brother drowns and his wife divorces him, Zeke attempts to escape by leaving his two young daughters and his estranged mother and finds refuge with cousins in Virginia horse country. As severe weather, illness, and a new romance collide, Zeke has to decide the fate of his family. A good, but not great, southern voice makes a respectable debut.

The Night Train by Clyde Edgerton is set in 1963 when Dwayne Hallston discovers James Brown and wants to perform just like him and his black friend Larry aspires to play piano like Thelonius Monk. A dancing chicken and a mutual love of music help Dwayne and Larry as they try to achieve their dreams and maintain a friendship, even while the North Carolina culture makes it difficult. Not Edgerton's best, but it recalls our divided national history and how music sometimes helped bring us together.

Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right by Thomas Frank is described as “, a wonderfully insightful and sardonic look at why the worst economy since the 1930s has brought about the revival of conservatism.” Frank looks for the anger about the recent economic crisis but finds loud demands that the economic system be made even harsher on the recession's victims and that the winners should receive even grander prizes. Good documentation and humor but too repetitive and one-sided, even for someone who still wears an Obama baseball cap.

*The Drop by Michael Connelly is not a great book, but it is very well written and fun to read. Harry Bosch is dealing with a cold case and one that is very hot. DNA from a 1989 crime matches a 29-year-old convicted rapist. Was he an eight-year-old killer or are all of the lab's DNA cases questionable? Then Bosch's longtime nemesis, Councilman Irving demands that Harry handle the investigation of his son’s death. Bosch’s investigation discovers a killer operating unknown for decades and a political conspiracy that threatens the LA police department.

Monday, March 5, 2012

February Books Read

*Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the Nobel prize for economics, draws on an impressive stream of research to introduce his "machinery of the mind" model on human decision making to reveal the faults and capabilities of intuitive versus logical thinking—and how easily we slip away from our assumed rationality. He weaves threads of Charles Darwin, Adam Smith and Sigmund Freud and is “arguably the most important psychologist in history.” “Kahneman has reshaped cognitive psychology, the analysis of rationality and reason, the understanding of risk and the study of happiness and well-being .”

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta was a ‘notable book of 2011’ exploring a world after a “rapture” takes many people, some not even particularly deserving. The bewildered citizens of Mapleton have to figure out how to cope in an uncertain world where nothing is the same—not marriages, not friendships, not even the relationships between parents and children. Some join “the Guilty Remnant,” a homegrown cult whose members take a vow of silence or follow sketchy prophets like “Holy Wayne.” An interesting hypotheses with some sharp satire, but, to me, it was someone of a one-note song.

Swim Back to Me by Ann Packer, “one of our most talented archivists of family life, with its hidden crevasses and unforeseeable perils,” doesn’t live up to her successes with The Dive from Clausen’s Pier and Songs without Words. This collection of two novella and short stories suggests that Packer is a talented, insightful writer who wasn’t able to pull together a focused, single project in time to meet her publisher’s contract timetable.

The Silent Oligarch by Chris Morgan Jones has been compared to “the work of Deighton, Archer, and le Carré.” The story moves between London and Moscow, Kazakstan and the Caymans as private spy agencies duel for power and influence. A nondescript bureaucrat in a drab government agency secretly controls a vast business that dominates the nation’s oil industry, and enemies plot to bring him down. , Benjamin Webster, an investigator at a London corporate intelligence firm, finds the weakest link and brings down his quarry with wit and research rather than guns and bombs.

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys' is a first novel offering a horrifying account of the forcible relocation of Lithuanians in the wake of the 1939 Russian invasion. For 16-year-old Lina, her mother, and her younger brother, this means deportation to a forced-labor camp in Siberia, where conditions are painfully like a Nazi concentration camps. Simply, but well-written, this would be a great gift for middle or high school students.

Dead Zero by Stephen Hunter may be the worst book I’ve read in several months. Hunter won a 2003 Pulitzer for literary criticism so I assumed he would be thoughtful, insightful, excellent writer—bad assumption! The book is a series of compound clichés and predictable crises involving two almost super-human snipers trying to unravel a conspiracy deep in the heart of the intelligence community. The strongest part of the book is Hunter’s “hallmark accuracy on modern killing technologies.”