Friday, March 26, 2010

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness and Obsession

Eclectic. David Grann’s book, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, will appeal to all readers who enjoy fine writing about an astonishing array of real people. In fiction, many of these characters would be dismissed as implausible, certainly as more extreme that we would see in the real world. Grann chooses people whose work or lives grabbed his attention, and he uses his writing skills to present these people and their stories to readers in ways that fit a short form well, and for me, left me wanting to learn more about many of these people.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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By His Own Rules: The Ambitions, Successes, and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld

Raw. I’ve had Bradley Graham’s massive biography of Donald Rumsfeld sitting around for almost a year. Titled By His Own Rules, this book provides an extensive look at one of the most beguiling characters of recent decades. I plodded through about 250 pages, and then stalled out. I had come to the point at which Rummy became the Secretary of Defense. Probably because so much of what happened under his tenure remains raw, I didn’t have the enthusiasm to keep reading, despite several attempts. More hearty readers might plow on, but my heart wasn’t in it.

Rating: Shelf of Ennui
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Monday, March 22, 2010

Sacred Hearts

Cloistered. Sarah Dunant transports readers into a convent in 16th century Italy to tell an engaging story about the lives of women during that period. Sacred Hearts is a well-told story featuring a cast of fully developed characters who reveal so many aspects of human nature and the range of our behavior that at times I forgot the action was taking place behind the walls of a cloistered Benedictine convent. The Council of Trent has just ended and reforms are being implemented by bishops. Convent life is about to change, and the convent of Santa Caterina in the town of Ferrara is trying to keep a low profile and maintain good relations with their bishop. The abbess, Madonna Chiara, is equal parts CEO and politician, and she runs convent meetings expertly, charms money from the local swells, and gives the bishop what he wants. Born to a noble Ferrara family, Chiara has lived inside the convent since she was a child. The novice mistress, Suora Umiliana, would like the convent to return to greater simplicity and mortification of the flesh. A newly arrived novice, Serafina, provides the tension in the novel. She’s been sent to the nunnery to end what he father considered an undesirable relationship with a fellow musician. She’s mentored by protagonist Suora Zuana, who was also sent to the convent against her will following the death of her physician father. Zuana is the dispensary mistress and provides medical care to the nuns. Sacred Hearts is fine historical fiction that will captivate any reader who enjoys good writing and the joy of arriving in an unfamiliar place and uncovering a full range of behavior that displays human nature.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Devilry. Any reader looking for fun that includes an imaginative plot and finely written dialogue will find a lot to like on the pages of Joe Hill’s latest novel, Horns. Protagonist Ignatius William Perrish awakes following a night of heaving drinking and other bad stuff to discover that he has grown a set of horns. A side effect of the horns is that after he touches other people they tell him things that they would normally keep secret. Hill uses this novel to explore the nature of good and evil and the battle of these forces within each of us and in the world. It’s also novel of love, loss, and plenty of snakes. Another horn in the novel is the instrument played by Ig’s brother, Terry. Hill finds a place in the novel to reference every phrase about the devil we’ve ever heard. Character depth remains shallow, and while I read Horns swiftly, the pace slowed often enough to lead to some level of annoyance with wanting things to move along. Hill’s writing and vivid descriptions kept me going, and by the last page I realized that the whole book was fun to read.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Noah's Compass

Tangles. From the beginning of Anne Tyler’s novel, Noah’s Compass, protagonist Liam Pennywell, finds himself in one tangle or another as he tries to stay afloat. Liam, age 60, has been fired from his teaching job at a private school. He moves to a crummy apartment in a dicey neighborhood, and ends up in the hospital after someone breaks into his apartment and clocks him. Packed with messy relationships, small kindnesses, and the perfect blend of life’s misery and happiness, Noah’s Compass will captivate many readers, especially those who appreciate the richness of character that Tyler can deliver. Here’s my favorite line from Liam, “I just … don’t seem to have the hang of things, somehow. It’s as if I’ve never been entirely present in my own life.”

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Privileges

Detached. There’s a moral vacuum in the lives of the protagonists of Jonathan Dee’s new novel, The Privileges, the Morey family. Having acquired great wealth, some of which was gained illegally, Adam Morey has grown in wealth over the course of the novel, but not in conscience or character. Despite philanthropy, Cynthia Morey seems to live an unexamined life that comes across as empty and ordinary when money is stripped away. The children have received everything they want, leading them nowhere. Each of the Moreys has an expectation of entitlement that detaches them from the experience of living in relationships with close friends. For those who wonder why a lot of money is never enough for some, here’s a great quote, “Success was a fortress at which fear constantly ate away.” The unsatisfying lives of the Moreys provides some entertainment, but little insight for readers looking to novels for deeper understanding about life.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Ford County

Story. I enjoyed reading each of the seven short stories in John Grisham’s Ford County. Grisham writes crisply on these pages, providing readers with just the right amount of description and character development. He delivers well-told stories here, with characters that are memorable and situations that reveal the breadth of human behavior. While I have been entertained by some, but not all, of Grisham’s novels, I found these stories to be engaging and entertaining and recommend them to any reader who enjoys a well-written story.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Friday, March 12, 2010

Split Image

Twins. Readers don’t yet know how many manuscripts Robert B. Parker left behind when he died earlier this year. Split Image may or may not be the last novel featuring Paradise police chief Jesse Stone. Parker moved forward the relationship between Stone and private detective Sunny Randall on these pages, as each continues to work through therapy to come to terms with prior romantic relationships. Their dialogue ratcheted up several levels in this book, and their development as individual characters continued to deepen and grow. Sunny is tracking down a young woman whose parents want her removed from a religious cult. There are murders to solve, and the antics of randy identical twins to enjoy. This book is Parker at his best: crisp dialogue, characters who come to life, and a story that’s well-told.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

Protection. Atul Gawande has written another thoughtful book, this one titled, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. In it, Gawande highlights a simple method to provide protection against failure: a checklist. Even the most expert professionals can benefit from help in the form of a structured approach to ensure that communication and engagement occurs among team members working together to achieve results. He examines the way pilots and builders use detailed checklists, and describes how the use of a surgery checklist led to improved results. His writing style allows readers to remain fully engaged, and any expert upon finishing the book, will be hard pressed to conclude that those involved in complex work can get by without a tool like a checklist. Resistance is futile: try a checklist as protection against unintended ineptitude.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime

Inside. John Heilemann and Mark Halperin must have talked to everyone involved in the 2008 presidential race. The result is titled, Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, an insider’s view of the feats and foibles inside each major candidate’s campaign. This is required reading for political junkies, for whom every step and misstep can be savored. For those interested in the dirt, within days of release, the most startling revelations were covered in the press. I was less interested in the gossip, and more intrigued by strategy and execution. With even the short distance from these events, it is easy to see the gaps in the Clinton and McCain strategies that led to their losses. At times the level of backbiting and infighting among staffers of the same candidate made me feel like I was reading about high school cliques. Any reader looking for a distraction from the current political mauling over healthcare will find a few hours of gossipy revelation and a bit of insight into strategy and execution on the pages of Game Change.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Light. I’m rarely willing to read three hundred pages of a novel featuring a protagonist that I dislike. Usually, I’ll give up after a few dozen pages and read something else. Ian McEwan’s fine writing in Solar kept me reading, and by the end I found the novel fully satisfying. After protagonist Michael Beard won a Nobel prize in physics, his work had begun to coast in a detached way for years, as he has become an eminence grise garnering speaking fees and figurehead roles. Always an unfaithful partner in his personal life, his fifth marriage is on the verge of failure; this time his wife is also unfaithful. He’s become overweight and drinks to excess. The time periods in the novel are 2000, 2005 and 2009, so we see the consistencies and changes in Beard during these times. Quantum physics plays a part in Solar, and it is light itself that becomes a motif. I laughed hilariously at Michael on a skidoo in the bitter cold in one scene, and couldn’t wait for Beard’s deceptions to be revealed. Each of us knows a Michael Beard of one sort or another, and reading Solar brings to life a character with whom we would gladly spend our lives avoiding.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Derailed: Five Lessons Learned from Catastrophic Failures of Leadership

Character. I decided to read Tim Irwin’s Derailed: Five Lessons Learned from Catastrophic Failures of Leadership to obtain a dose of schadenfreude. While there was some of that available on these pages, Derailed offers a study in character, and allows readers a great opportunity to reflect on one’s own character to examine where one’s strength and weaknesses can lead to successes and failures. Irwin focuses on character flaws in six highly competent executives: Robert Nardelli, Carly Fiorina, Durk Jager, Stephen Heyer, Frank Raines, and Dick Fuld, and makes a case that it was a flaw in character that led each person to behave in ways that led to derailment. As executives take on broader roles, there can be a decline in self-awareness and candid feedback that can allow unchecked character traits to diminish effectiveness and possibly lead to personal or organization failure. Leaders at any level in an organization will find some insight on these pages and those readers who enjoy putting oneself in another’s shoes will find pleasure on these pages. You’re likely to finish the book ready to take a look at your own character in a fresh way.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Friday, March 5, 2010

The Help

Moving. There’s a reason why Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel, The Help, is so popular: it’s an uplifting and moving story, packed with well-developed characters, and a plot that will engage most readers. Set in Mississippi in the early 1960s, The Help presents the polarized world of black maids and their employers. I found myself immersed in the lives of this cast of characters, rooting for some and booing others, as I turned pages as fast as I could to see how everything turns out. If there’s one debut novel you read this year, make it The Help.
Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Point Omega

Focus. After finishing Don DeLillo’s novel, Point Omega, I closed the book and had two immediate reactions: “huh?” and “wow.” Protagonist Richard Elster is in the California desert reflecting on his life and the role he played in helping plan the invasion of Iraq in 2003. With a funnel-like focus, DeLillo deconstructs Elster’s troubling questions. The title refers to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s notion that humans are evolving a consciousness that is moving toward a point of exhaustion that could lead to paroxysm or to the sublime. Readers will choose for ourselves one or the other by the end of Point Omega. I find that I keep thinking about the art exhibit DeLillo uses in the novel, the 24 hour Psycho, in which the Hitchcock movie is played at a slow speed to cover a full 24 day. In that way, one’s focus moves to elements not observed at the regular rate. The focus that DeLillo demands will reward some readers and frustrate others.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Her Fearful Symmetry

Entwined. Audrey Niffenegger gives readers over 400 pages of finely written prose in her novel, Her Fearful Symmetry. I found myself mesmerized by this odd story of two generations of twins whose lives and relationships are entwined. A supporting cast of characters provide plot movement and opportunity for Niffenegger to display her skill in character development. Readers with low tolerance for the paranormal will be overwhelmed by how much of the novel is outside the world we can see and feel. Readers willing to suspend disbelief and allow the novel to proceed will be rewarded by the behavior of character that disclose fundamentals about the ways we relate to one another. I suggest any reader sample some pages before committing to this unusual novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Lacuna

Sweeping. Barbara Kingsolver propels readers across the U.S. and Mexico border during the 1930s and 1950s in her novel, The Lacuna. Constructed as the presentation of diaries, memoir, letters, archivist’s notes and other sources, Kingsolver discloses the life and adventures of protagonist Harrison William Shepherd. In Mexico, he’s in the household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, including during the time when they sheltered Leon Trotsky. Later, he’s called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Any reader who likes historical fiction is likely to find these 500+ pages highly enjoyable. The title refers a gap, a missing piece, the hole in the story, that thing you don’t know. Kingsolver takes us there as she leads readers to care about Shepherd and his desire to be left alone.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Food Rules: An Eater's Manual

Policies. Omnivore Michael Pollan restates many of the key points of his recent books in a compact paperback titled, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. In this simple little book that can be read in less than an hour, Pollan translates the seven summary words from In Defense of Food (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) into 64 rules that he calls personal policies. Unlike the rules of say the 10 commandments, these are common sense approaches to choices about what, when and how to eat. It’s worth the purchase price of five bucks if a reader adopts one or more of these rules and winds up eating a healthier diet.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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