Sunday, May 29, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts

Beacon. Among the least desirable jobs in the world in 1933 was that of American ambassador to Germany as Hitler came to power. Erik Larson tells the story of the man who took that job in his new book, In the Garden of Beasts. University of Chicago history professor William Dodd accepted Franklin Roosevelt’s offer of the ambassadorship in the hope that he would be able to complete the book he was writing about the American South. Not a wealthy man, his frugality grated on the members of the foreign service elite club. Dodd’s independence and outspokenness made him shine as a beacon of American values in the midst of the evil growing in Germany. Dodd’s daughter, Martha, features prominently in this book, and her vivacity enlivens the book immensely. Fans of history, Larson, and those readers who like history to come alive will all enjoy this finely written, animated and gripping story.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Comedy in a Minor Key

Refuge. Even the busiest reader who has no time for a novel can spend a few minutes reading a finely written novel by Hans Keilson titled, Comedy in a Minor Key. This closely written short novel was first published in 1947, and the first English translation came out last year. Set in Holland during World War II, Keilson tells of a young couple who hid a Jewish perfume salesman in their house to avoid Nazi persecution. His refuge becomes their new life, and turns ironic when he dies, and they realize they have become vulnerable themselves. Much of life can be absurd, and Keilson captures the nuances with precision in this finely written novel, as timely now as it was sixty years ago.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Twists. Readers who like psychological thrillers will find a lot to enjoy in Belinda Bauer’s new novel, Darkside. Not all is as it seems in the quaint village of Shipcott, where the vulnerable are being murdered. Beneath the surface of each character, there is a depth, often bleak, that Bauer exposes with precision. The plot twists just when a reader gets comfortable, providing great satisfaction to those readers who like a good mix-up. Fans of crime fiction and those who like the dark side of human nature will enjoy reading this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Bee Balm Murders

Cons. The latest Martha’s Vineyard novel from Cynthia Riggs is titled, The Bee Balm Murders. While the Miss Marple-like detective Victoria Trumbull is slightly slowed down by medication, her mind pierces through the con at the center of this story, and resolves the mystery in grand style, thanks to the first class transportation provided to her by the sons of a murder victim. Most readers can start and finish this book during a relaxing day at the beach.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Once Upon a Time, There Was You

Marriage. The suspense and tension in Elizabeth Berg’s novel, Once Upon a Time, There Was You, departs from how she has written previous novels. Fans will continue to enjoy the ways in which she explores the complexity of our relationships and presents characters that are fully formed and recognizable to readers. In this novel she focuses on a divorced couple drawn together again when their daughter has gone missing. Berg examines marriage, and the ways in which we enter and exit from this commitment. As with earlier novels, readers close the last page with both satisfaction and a wish that there was just a bit more.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Known and Unknown

Right. I found no surprises on the more than 800 pages of Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir, Known and Unknown. As I expected, he presents his perspective on his life and the key decisions he made or recommended while in public service for a major part of his working life. He footnotes many of his points, and seems to be using this book (and the website) to provide a reservoir of documentation that shows how often he was right in what he did or recommended. It also comes as no surprise that he states that his brusque comments were often misunderstood or misperceived. His major regret was not resigning after the Abu Ghraib incident. Even that regret is not his fault: it was the fault of President Bush who refused to accept his multiple resignations. Rumsfeld uses the passive voice so often that I had to put the book down after each chapter and take a breather. Another expectation well met is that he speaks his mind about those players with whom he disagreed, and puts them in their place, with footnotes. Readers who like politics will find this book rewarding, whether one has been for or against Rumsfeld, his policies and his actions. Most readers will bore easily, and those opposed to his politics will face elevated blood pressure while reading most chapters.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
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The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris

Sparkling. However well you know Paris and many of the characters presented in this book, thanks to the fine writing of David McCullough you will learn more and enjoy yourself when you read his new book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris. McCullough focuses on the 19th century, 1830-1900, when many Americans of various professions headed to Paris for education and inspiration. The huge cast of characters he presents provides a range of experiences that McCullough describes in lively prose that continually entertains and informs. The city of light shines, even while embattled, and the camaraderie and vivacity of the characters provide a range of drama that will absorb every reader interested in that time, that place, and any of the people who were there.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

Moving. Readers who like true stories about amazing individuals have to read Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. She tells the emotionally moving story of the life of Louie Zamperini. If this were fiction, we would criticize the portrayal of the protagonist as too much larger than life. Since this is a true story, I found myself constantly blown away by Louie and his life. After growing up in the Depression as a hell raiser, he found discipline in track, and competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin where he met Hitler. World War II interrupted his athletic career, and led to near death experiences in the Pacific, where one plane he was in crash landed, and another crashed into the sea, leaving Louie and other crew on a raft for weeks, battling sharks, shot at by the enemy, and starving to death. His capture led to the worst experience of his life: his treatment in a prisoner of war camp in Japan. Throughout everything, Louie’s indomitable spirit survived, rebounded and he dealt with whatever life threw at him next, which required even more resilience as he faced PTSD with nightmares of his treatment in captivity, and resorted to alcohol to numb his pain. This moving and powerful story engages readers from the first page to the last.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Patience. Reading Charles Yu’s debut novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, requires more patience than I have. While I completed it, and believe I understood many of Yu’s references, and even found myself laughing at times, I closed the book thinking that this book is just too strange for my taste, and probably that of most readers. I find that after watching some Doctor Who episodes, I am as bewildered at what happened as I was from this novel. Perhaps my mind isn’t structured to accept either time travel or science fiction with enough openness to lead to pleasure. Perhaps those readers who love science fiction will find more pleasure on these pages. Yu’s writing often soars, and readers who want to take a chance on a new author, and have some patience, may be rewarded by this unusual novel.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
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Words. Paul Auster’s prose in his new novel, Invisible, could be dissected by a college English course and analyzed as an extreme case of fictional architecture in which each element combines with others to produce an integrated whole, while adding no element not required to make the whole complete. Fans of literary fiction will enjoy these mechanics, while ordinary readers will find an odd tale from multiple narrators. If you’re the former, you’re likely to enjoy this book. If the latter, your time could be better spent with another author and another novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Complaints

Roles. About a hundred pages into Ian Rankin’s latest detective novel, The Complaints, my grief at the loss of long-time series protagonist Inspector Rebus departed. The protagonist of this novel is Malcolm Fox, and all he shares in common with Rebus is police work. Rankin presents and develops Fox as a complex character and places him in a complex plot with challenging twists and turns for readers to navigate as Rankin explores the roles that we play and how characters can transcend their roles and be victims of roles, often at the same time. It was when I realized how much I liked the novel and Fox that I let my grief for Rebus pass. Then I relaxed and enjoyed this finely written, interesting and entertaining detective novel.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Discipline. Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother might well be the most entertaining work of nonfiction that I’ve read this year. This law professor relates how she has raised her children to achieve and excel through discipline, monitoring and constant badgering, and tells that story in an engaging, humorous and entertaining fashion. Parents will agree, disagree, admire or disparage her child rearing methods. In many respects, that’s beside the point. We live in relationship with others, and this book tells of the family relationships and the dynamics of love and care that play out in everyday interactions. By the time the dogs arrive on the scene, I was mesmerized. Any reader who likes to peek over the fence at what the neighbors are up to will be well-entertained by what goes on in the Chua household.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Secret Soldier

Freelance. Alex Berenson reprises John Wells for a new adventure in his latest novel, The Secret Soldier. The melancholy hero of the earlier novels no longer works for the CIA, and the freelance assignment he accepts in this thriller comes from elderly King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia who can feel the tension of a family feud leading to disaster for his country. The plot lines are drawn from the current news, and the tension delivers the excitement that readers of thrillers crave. While the action is often predictable, Berensen still delivers enough pages of adrenaline-pumping action to make reading this thriller fun, while not requiring any thinking.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Variety. There are 23 stories in a new collection by Charles Baxter, one of which shares the title, Gryphon. The sheer variety and diversity in these stories is commendable, and they share one thing in common: very fine writing. The short story form trips up many writers and can disappoint readers, but Baxter delivers fine writing and engaging, complete narratives in each of these stories. I budgeted myself to reading a single story a day, so I could appreciate and savor each one individually. Ordinary lives and events come alive and present insight to readers, thanks to Baxter’s skills.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Started Early, Took My Dog

Identity. Intelligent readers who like a complicated plot can count on Kate Atkinson to give us well-written pages to enjoy. Her latest Jackson Brodie novel is titled, Started Early, Took My Dog. By the time Brodie appears in the novel, several interesting plot lines have been developed. Keeping track of who’s who is part of the pleasure, and Atkinson’s literary references provided added entertainment. The question of identity is at the center of concern for many of the characters, and Atkinson plays with that theme in multiple ways. The result is a very satisfying novel that requires a reader’s attention and engagement throughout.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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