Monday, March 30, 2009

The Women

Taker. T.C. Boyle’s novel about the wives and mistresses of Frank Lloyd Wright titled, The Women, leaves readers with one clear impression: Mr. Wright got what he wanted. Boyle writes the novel from the later to the earlier periods of Wright’s life. He begins with the wife who survived Wright, Olgivanna. He goes on to Miriam, whose drug addiction and narcissism gave Wright heaps of trouble. Mamah is next, Wright’s soulmate, who is murdered at Taliesin. Then there is Kitty, Wright’s devoted first wife and the mother of his children. Boyle uses as the narrator a student and apprentice at Taliesin, and it is that place that becomes the central core of the novel. As with other Boyle novels, his insights into characters is strong, the use of language precise and finely written (although I only learned two or three new words from this offering,) and the setting described with a precision and clarity that places come alive. The fact that Boyle lives in a house in California that Wright designed gave him an extra level of involvement that helped him explore the personality of this larger-than-life character who packed a lot of complicated living into his twentieth century life.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Lethal Legacy

Library. In the eleventh installment of her series featuring Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cooper, novelist Linda Fairstein chooses the New York Public Library as a perfect setting for a thriller titled Lethal Legacy. Alex and sidekick NYPD detective Mike Chapman investigate a murder and uncover a secret world at the library involving a wealthy family’s feud, stolen books with secrets, and a legacy that leads to murder. As with her prior books, Fairstein peppers the text with the results of her research, in this case giving readers insight into rare books and the history of the New York Public Library and its surroundings. Her characters are reliable and behave with consistency to how she has developed them from the first novel on. The plot is interesting, and requires a reader’s close attention. Fairstein’s mini-lessons are instructive to those readers who enjoy getting background and a perspective about places that seem familiar, yet have more to their stories than most of us know.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Fool's Paradise

Escape. For decades, Miami Beach has provided an escape: for snowbirds, to get away from the cold of winter; for gangsters, a place to get things done without much interference; for beautiful people, a place to show off with few inhibitions. Steven Gaines captures these and more in his book, Fool's Paradise: Players, Poseurs, and the Culture of Excess in South Beach. Gaines tells the story of the hoteliers, the Art Deco preservationists, the nightclub operators, gangsters, druggies, models and politicians. Fool’s Paradise is packed with interesting characters, and unlike the title, not nearly enough excess to please those readers who want to know even more than Gaines tells. If you’ve ever been to Miami Beach, you’re likely to enjoy this story of places and people that will be familiar. If you’ve not visited, here’s a way to experience the place vicariously and not get sunburned while you think about what you’re missing.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Divine Justice

Tiresome. David Baldacci’s fourth Camel Club novel, Divine Justice, picks up where he ended the third one, Stone Cold. Protagonist Oliver Stone (John Carr) has to get out of D.C. following his murder of both a United States Senator and the head of the CIA. He ends up hiding out in Justice, Virginia, a mining town with a supermax prison. Despite Stone’s skills, he couldn’t successfully hide from either his government pursuer or from the remaining members of the Camel Club who wanted to find him. Since trouble always follows Stone, life in Justice, Virginia isn’t what it seems to be, and the cast of bad guys there leads to big trouble for Stone. There’s violence, murder, secrets and more near-death experiences than one individual could ever expect. Baldacci stretches it all out, milking the chapters for all he possibly contrive, and may actually bring this series to an end with this book. Fans of Baldacci and the series will probably appreciate the effort in Divine Justice, but fans of thrillers and mysteries may find the writing too tiresome to enjoy reading this mediocre offering.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
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Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Silent Man

Nuclear. Alex Berenson reprises superhero John Wells to save the world again in a new novel titled, The Silent Man. Isn’t there someone else who can do what Wells does? Just before Wells and Jennifer Exley are about to take a well-deserved vacation, they are attacked while stuck in traffic in their minivan. Exley suffers a gunshot wound, and Wells has to get revenge for that at the same time he needs to avert a nuclear terrorist attack. While reading the prior novels adds some richness to the experience, each novel stands alone, and in some ways, a fresh approach to The Silent Man may be more pleasurable than having the expectations of past performance influence the current book. For fans of fast-paced thrillers, there’s a lot of reading pleasure to be found here. If you are reading this book on a plane, you will enjoy any delay that permits you to keep reading.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House

Executive. There seemed to be few dull moments during President Andrew Jackson’s White House years, and thanks to Jon Meacham’s fine writing in American Lion, there are few dull pages to read about that time. The hero of the Battle of New Orleans found all the main issues of the day ending up on his White House desk, and he followed a guiding principle of setting the issues of the nation first in resolving them, never losing the pulse of the will of the common citizen. He refused to cower to Congress, and ensured a strong Executive branch. He fought Calhoun and nullification. The strains of slavery and succession weighed heavily on Jackson, and he did the best he could to keep the union intact. The writing is lively throughout the 500 pages, and thanks to Meacham, every time I look at a twenty dollar bill I think something different about Jackson.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama

Profiles. Gwen Ifill’s new book, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, presents readers with an extensive cast of characters across multiple generations. As a result of lots of interviews, Ifill is able to assemble the outlook, perspective and experience of both well-known and lesser-known individuals. Ifill excels at allowing the voices of the individuals she interviews express themselves. Despite an overall structure in The Breakthrough, there isn’t a great deal of analysis. Consider this for what it is: a journalist using her skills at interviewing to assemble a book that provides readers with the insights of many individuals. A bonus for me was reading about individuals who are up and coming in the political world, and gaining some understanding of what race may mean for the next generation of politicians and voters.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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When Will There Be Good News?

Clever. Kate Atkinson reprises retired police detective Jackson Brodie in her new novel, When Will There Be Good News? She adds a cast of interesting and quirky characters, and engages them in clever plots and subplots that keep a reader thinking and engaged throughout the 400 pages of the novel. The past looms like a shadow over characters like Dr. Jo Hunter, and how she behaves in the present has much to do with tragedy from her past. Dr. Hunter’s teenage nanny, Reggie Chase, is an orphan and acts as an amateur detective to great success. She is wiser and more focused than her age would lead others to expect. Her brother looms over her life. Brodie and Detective Chief Inspector Louise Morris rediscover each other on these pages, and each has a marriage partner that may not bring the same quality of relationship that these two have with each other. The clever writing and depth of character development combine to make this novel a very satisfying book to read.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

Patronage. This collection of eight connected stories by Daniyal Mueenuddin is titled, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. All are set in Pakistan, and present characters who are linked by long-term patronage. The daily struggles of these characters disclose a way of life that often seems hopeless. Even joy becomes tainted with melancholy. The roles of the individual within the society are so proscribed, that all behavior occurs within the tension of constraints. Whether patron or servant, the connections rarely lead to happiness, and often end in tragedy. The fine writing and strong character development made reading this collection a real pleasure.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Friday, March 20, 2009

Lyrics 1964-2008

Poetry. The lyrics of 187 songs written over 44 years by Paul Simon are presented in a new book, aptly titled, Lyrics 1964-2008. As I turned each page, I found myself humming, or singing, rather than reading, the lyrics. After all, the lyrics are only part of the art: the music is the other part. When viewed as words on the page, Simon’s poetry becomes clearer. I considered indulging in an album at a time on my ipod, reading along with the lyrics. I learned that while I enjoyed many of Simon’s songs during the past four decades, there were many I missed, both in the late seventies and early eighties, then again in the late 90s and recently. My surprise was that the impact and meaning of songs written in the 1960s and 1970s had even deeper meaning today. Anyone who minimized Simon’s talent and skills, will appreciate his prolific output and prodigious talent after absorbing the contents of this book.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)

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The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008

Understanding. Krugman makes the case in his new book, The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, that we have a scarcity of understanding, not resources. He claims that “the only important obstacles to world prosperity are the obsolete doctrines that clutter the minds of men.” If you have any interest in uncluttering your mind and achieving some degree of understanding, consider reading this fine book. Krugman writes in a clear style, and uses plenty of examples to illustrate his key points. This book updates the one he wrote in 1999 on the same general topic. The intervening years have made his message even more compelling: we need to abandon the conventional thinking that’s getting us nowhere. This engaging and thought-provoking book led me to reexamine my thinking, and to consider the degree to which my mind is cluttered with obsolete thoughts. I highly recommend this book to any reader interested in exploring our economic problems.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)

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The Spare Room

Friendship. Helen Garner masters the challenges of conflicting emotions in her new novel, The Spare Room. Protagonist Helen prepares the spare room in her Melbourne home for the arrival of her friend, Nicola, who will arrive from Sydney for three weeks of cancer therapy. Three weeks could be the blink of an eye, but caregiving turns Helen’s life upside down, and when she feels Nicola is being treated by charlatans, her anger overflows. Nicola surrenders to Helen and other friends while maintaining confidence that she will be cured. Nicola’s expectation of what friends will do seems misplaced, but Helen proves that friends can be true to one another. Any reader who has experienced hospice care or cared for a loved one will likely recognize the range of conflicting emotions that Garner’s characters feel on these finely written pages.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)

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Night and Day

Obsession. I like to read a Robert Parker novel whenever I want a book that is fast and simple to read. The characters are familiar, dialogue moves the action, and you can be distracted externally, and pick up where you leave off with ease. His books are ideal for travel: like snack food. The eighth police chief Jesse Stone novel, Night and Day, focuses on the theme of obsession. Readers know that Jesse remains obsessed with his ex-wife Jenn. After a peeping Tom in the town of Paradise increases his obsession and progresses to home invasion, molestation and then murder, Stone and his police team work to track him down. Along the lines of “it takes one to know one,” Stone examines the obsessive Night Hawk, as they call him, from the perspective of Stone’s own obsession with Jenn. Sunny Randall and Spike make cameo appearances, as does Spenser’s Susan Silverman. The pace of the novel is as quick as ever, and the dialogue is peppery. Before you know it, you’ll have finished the book, the flight attendant will be announcing imminent landing, and you’ll be somewhat satisfied that you didn’t totally waste a boring flight doing nothing.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)

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