Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Associate

Wasteful. Of all the lawyers presented in John Grisham’s latest legal thriller, The Associate, only one or two are developed enough to engender any reader empathy. While protagonist Kyle McEvoy is presented as if he is a good guy, his behavior will come across to most readers as inconsistent and often conflicted in ways that would reflect multiple personalities rather than an integrated individual. Really smart people, like Kyle and other editors of the Yale Law Review, can do stupid things, but not to the scale on which Kyle has behaved. While I’ve come to anticipate character development shortcomings in Grisham’s novels, the plot of The Associate also left a lot to be desired. Bad guys of unknown origin blackmail Kyle to spy for them at the world’s largest law firm handling a huge lawsuit involving two big defense contractors and a multi-billion dollar contract. Grisham riffs on intelligence gathering and surveillance methods, but uses blunt ways like murder to start and stop plot developments. These plot twists made me laugh at times, and that brought some pleasure to reading The Associate. Consider reading The Associate at a time and place where you can relax and not care a lot, like the beach or on an airplane. Don’t anticipate any insights into our human condition or into the way law is practiced.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)

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The Lost City of Z

Dogged. David Grann presents parallel accounts of expeditions to the Amazon in his new book, The Lost City of Z. Most of the book presents Percy Fawcett, a British explorer, and his early twentieth century treks into uncharted depths of the Amazon. Grann supplements those expeditions with background information on the ups and downs of Fawcett’s life. On Fawcett’s 1925 expedition in search of El Dorado, which he called Z, neither he nor his son, Jack, returned. Other explorers who tried to retrace Fawcett’s journey also never returned. The parallel story is Grann’s own obsession with Fawcett and in trying to find out what happened, and where the city of Z might be. Unlike Fawcett who trained to be an explorer and who thrived in the wilderness, Grann hadn’t even spent time camping. There’s drama in both these stories, and Grann presents them with fine writing, backed by solid research. Better than most fiction thrillers, you’ll want to keep turning pages to find out what happens.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)

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Pirates. No writer does heroes with the flair that Cussler unapologetically delivers. In the ninth Oregon files novel, Corsair, Cussler (with co-author Jack Du Brul) presents protagonist and hero Juan Cabrillo as a ship’s captain who, like Stephen Decatur before him, challenges and defeats Barbary pirates. Cabrillo is cool, especially when under fire. Corsair is filled with tension, high energy, toys and tricks that provide jolly reading entertainment. The real-life exploits of Somali pirates add to the timeliness of Corsair.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)

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Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating

Dietless. Leave it to “The Minimalist” writer of New York Times and PBS fame, Mark Bittman, to use shortcuts even in his book title to convey multiple messages. Food Matters means both that the food we select makes a difference, and this book concerns food. Following a personal medical wake up call, Bittman chose to make some improvements to his diet along the lines that all of us know when it comes to clarity on what’s good for us: eat more plants, fewer animals, and skip junk food. In a non-doctrinaire manner, Bittman surveys the state of food in America, habits of eating, and offers practical suggestions for making choices that improve health without leading to feelings of deprivation. For those readers who hate being on a regimented diet, Food Matters offers simple ways to buy and prepare good food, including dozens of recipes. It’s simpler than most of us imagine.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)

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Better. It’s been decades since I needed to draw on reserves of patience to get through a 144-page book. It took all the patience I had to finish reading David Denby’s brief book, Snark. Denby writes film criticism for The New Yorker, and in Snark, he uses clever writing to try to define and crush what he sees as increasing tendency from many quarters to turn wit, vituperation and invective into a form of verbal abuse that he views as witless and uncivilized, called snark. He tries to use examples of wit that works and snark that doesn’t, and verbal cruelty that succeeds, and verbal abuse that falls flat. We can be nasty in better ways, according to Denby. If you care, give Snark a try.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)

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