Friday, September 23, 2011

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State

Transparency. Investigative journalist Dana Priest and her Washington Post colleague William Arkin, have aggregated their long-held interests in and writing about the national security infrastructure in a finely written new book titled, Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State. Their fine reporting and exhaustive and careful analysis provide citizens with an alarming story about just how huge and costly the security infrastructure has become in response to 9/11. My first reaction was along the lines of “enough already!” A second reaction was sobering: the expectation that even more costs are being incurred that Priest and Arkin were unable to reveal because of the secrecy surrounding many activities conducted in our name. Every reader will come away from this book with new information and knowledge, and perhaps with an interest in reform.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Train Dreams

Descriptive. Somehow I missed Denis Johnson’s novella, Train Dreams, when it won the O. Henry prize in 2003. Recently released in hardback, I read it in a single sitting and found Johnson’s descriptive language to be pitch perfect. Readers are transported to the West in the early 20th century, and Johnson wastes no words in fleshing out a protagonist shaped by the West. Any fan of literary fiction, good writing, and especially the West, will find much to enjoy in this finely written short work.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Haiti After the Earthquake

Gripping. Dr. Paul Farmer has worked in Haiti for three decades, and his work there was described in a finely written book by Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains, which I recommended highly in January 2004. Farmer has written a book of his own, Haiti After the Earthquake, which presents both his own gripping account of this disaster and the reflections of a handful of others who provide readers with a deep understanding of the plight of the people of Haiti. Farmer’s work with the poor is inspiring, but he does little back patting in this book. He expresses with experience and concern what has brought the people of Haiti to their current situation, and what can be done to help them build a better society. Many readers will finish this book and want to do something to help.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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The Magican King

Quest. It’s a challenge to find decent writing in fantasy fiction geared to adult audiences. Lev Grossman offers good writing in his second Fillory book titled, The Magican King. Readers are more likely to enjoy this book after reading the earlier novel, The Magicians. While the first book focused on coming of age with special skills, this one pays attention to finding purpose in life, and most of the four hundred pages involve a quest that will keep most readers well-entertained. Grossman’s main characters are recognizable to modern readers as friends and neighbors, just ones who are doing remarkable things. Fans of this genre are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Northwest Corner

Taut. John Burnham Schwartz reprises characters from his earlier novel, Reservation Road, and picks up the story twelve years later in his new book, Northwest Corner. Those readers with a bias against sequels may want to suspend that reaction and consider reading this finely written novel. Schwartz excels in three ways: his poetic and descriptive language is taut and often beautiful; the characters are deeply developed and relationships are both troubled and true; and the plot provides more satisfaction than many literary novels in telling a story that readers want to see resolved. Readers need not have read the earlier novel to enjoy this one.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Fed Up!: Our Fight to Save America from Washington

Shrinkage. How can I possibly award a three-star rating (recommended) to a book that takes positions opposed to my own on every issue? There’s one clear reason: given Rick Perry’s high poll ratings, any citizen wanting to understand how he approaches political issues will learn a lot from reading his book titled, Fed Up!: Our Fight to Save America from Washington. If Perry wins the White House, this book warns readers to expect not just minor changes in spending around the edges, but radical transformation, assuming a supportive Congress and Supreme Court. Perry has found little of value from Washington since sometime in the 19th century. Everything from the federal income tax, through the New Deal and the Great Society represent unwarranted federal intrusions into our lives, according to Perry. Republicans and Democrats both come under fire from Perry for expanding spending and for allowing the federal government to take on activities and roles beyond his interpretation of the Constitution. His goal would be to return most decisions from the centralized federal government to the states, where he feels decisions made closer to the governed will best reflect what people want. Whether you agree or disagree with Perry, reading this book can help citizens understand his version of America and the role of the federal government.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

This Beautiful Life

Vulnerable. Our lives can change in an instant. We are vulnerable to the twists of fate, and to the actions of others that can become tragic for all. Helen Schulman presents a contemporary tragedy in her novel, This Beautiful Life. The Bergamot family has relocated to Manhattan from Ithaca, New York, and they are adapting to their new environment. Fifteen-year old Jake opens an email from a girl at his private school, and in the message the girl appears nude and performs an erotic dance. After Jake forwards this message to a friend, the lives of the Bergamots are changed forever. The image on the book jacket summarizes the plot: there is a house of cards, and being vulnerable to falling apart, we are not surprised when it does. The Bergamots are not the average family, and none of the characters are particularly appealing, but the story of their vulnerability to tragedy can be the story of everyone.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Last Werewolf

Hunger. Most of the three hundred pages of Glen Duncan’s latest novel, The Last Werewolf, are narrated by Jacob Marlowe, who has become reconciled to his fate: an imminent death as the last of his species. He is being hunted down by an enemy hungry for revenge. Jake asks all the big questions as he records this diary, and explores the depths of hunger that prod us ahead. Duncan’s writing often soars, and his throwaway lines are often the best ones. Jake’s lunacy is an existential one that presents ways in which contemporary life leads to alienation and death. This is also a story about relationships that reinforces the ways in which love conquers all. Readers need not be drawn or repulsed by the werewolf motif; Duncan uses the werewolf as the element that targets Jake as the enemy that needs to be destroyed.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris

Lively. One joy that can come from reading is the pleasure of listening to someone talk about something they really enjoy or love. Such an experience awaits readers of John Baxter’s The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris. A longtime resident of Paris, married to a Frenchwoman, Baxter injects personal anecdotes with the settings he describes, and the spirited writing takes readers into Baxter’s enthusiasm. Readers who have never been to Paris will be enchanted, and will want to be there. Those who have been in Paris will feel as if one has returned. Those most familiar with Paris may quibble with Baxter, but are likely to feel proud of how the city of light shines on these pages. Readers looking for a travel guide will find more useful books than this one, but few of those capture the city’s spirit as well as this one.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Sinner's Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe

Roadtrip. Personalized tours of Europe and elsewhere provide travelers with experiences that are tailored perfectly to one’s interests. Tony Perrottet designed such a tour, and used a family vacation for him to present his wife and young children with the experience of a lifetime: a romp through Europe’s best sites with sexual themes. His account of their trip is titled, The Sinner's Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe. Perrottet’s narrative is engaging and entertaining, and the places he describes are peculiar and most of them have been omitted from the history texts most of us have read. Among my favorite chapters: visiting the bathroom that Raphael painted in the Pope’s apartment at the Vatican, and being invited by Pierre Cardin to see the bowels of the house in southern France that had been owned by the Marquis de Sade. Armchair travelers will revel in Perrottet’s crisp writing, but trip planners may want to stick to Baedeker or an equivalent.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Family Fang

Performance. Readers who are up for a quirky and humorous reading experience may enjoy Kevin Wilson’s witty novel, The Family Fang. The parents of this family, Caleb and Camille Fang, are artists, and for their performance art, they have used their children, Buster and Annie, who are referred to in the videos of these performances as Child A and Child B. The stage for these relationships over time and the things they do for love and art provide a backdrop for Wilson’s sharp writing. The comfort of home takes many forms, and the home that Buster and Annie seek refuge in brought comfort and chuckles to me as I read this engaging novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Taker

Story. Over almost 450 pages of her debut novel, The Taker, Alma Katsu weaves a good story that kept me interested throughout. I closed the book with the feeling that character development was weak, and the supernatural elements may appeal best to those readers who enjoy tales outside the scope of one’s own experience. At its heart, this novel is a love story injected with betrayal and redemption. Katsu’s prose presents vivid descriptions of past and present settings. Readers willing to take a chance on a new author, and those who like imaginative fiction in the spirit of Edgar Allen Poe will find this novel to be a good choice.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
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Buried Secrets

Familial. Joseph Finder continues the story of Nick Heller in a new novel titled, Buried Secrets. Having left his super spy role in D.C. over matters of integrity, Heller has opened his own business back home in Boston, and the case presented in this novel is close to home. His mother’s former employer, a mega-wealthy hedge fund manager, faces financial concerns and his daughter has been kidnapped and buried alive. Finder maintains a thrilling pace with his plot, and his development of Heller as a tough and kind hero continues in this novel, setting an expectation for more to follow. Readers who like fast paced thrillers with strong central characters are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Friday, September 9, 2011

A Trick of the Light

Chiaroscuro. The first Louise Penny novel I’ve read is her latest, A Trick of the Light. Set in Quebec, this is a murder mystery featuring a character she has developed over multiple novels: Chief Inspector Gamache, the head of homicide at the Sûreté du Québec. I was impressed by the ways in which Penny fleshed out each character with precise strokes, and with how her theme and title, what is real and what isn’t, used a painter’s portraits of darkness and light to reveal the inner character of the individual subjects. This novel is also a study in relationships and in finding ways to overcome the barriers to living an authentic life. Readers will care about these characters and what happens to them, and thanks to Penny’s fine writing, will be absorbed in their stories from beginning to end. The mystery itself respects a reader’s intelligence, and the solution will please most readers.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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A Dance with Dragons

Extravagant. Does George R.R. Martin get paid by the word? Book five of the Song of Fire and Ice series titled, A Dance with Dragons, comes in at over a thousand pages. Considering that this book was meant to extend the stories of half the characters in book four that he left dangling in that large book, the volume seems excessive, and would benefit from editing. The popularity of the Game of Thrones television adaptation will bring Martin new readers, but I expect those who enjoy the visual grandness of this fantasy world will become tired by the prose and the ways in which Martin leaves one storyline and starts up another. Readers with patience and who are tolerant of wordiness will find extravagant and imaginative stories on these pages. Those who find value in more pages per dollar spent will find such value here. Most readers will bore easily and become confused by all the characters and their backstories. Fans will also be bored by the wasted paragraphs retelling the backstories that loyal readers may know as well as the author. All that said, this is a genre with little of decent writing to entertain readers, and for those who like fantasy tales, there’s much to enjoy here, very much.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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My American Unhappiness

Offbeat. Protagonist Zeke Pappas in Dean Bakopoulos’ new novel, My American Unhappiness, may be the poster boy for why some politicians want to stop government funding for arts and humanities projects. Zeke is director of the Great Midwestern Humanities Initiative, based in Madison, Wisconsin, and his special area of interest is “The Inventory of American Unhappiness,” which assembles all the whiney ways in which people are bummed by the speed bumps of life and the many irritations that can be part of every day’s experiences. This amusing and offbeat satire will appeal to those readers who like a spot-on critique of contemporary life, but one that doesn’t take itself or ourselves too seriously.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life

Enchanté. Readers who enjoy light storytelling in nonfiction may be amused by Elaine Sciolino’s charming book about France titled, La Seduction. Sciolino sees an organizing principle underlying most aspects of French culture: seduction. She moves from personal relationships to politics, to eating and drinking, to intellectual life and every aspect of life, finding in each area ample ammunition to support her premise that understanding seduction is the key to understanding the French. American Francophiles will be particularly amused by this book. It’s a quick read, and her prose keeps readers engaged. Just when she comes close to beating the horse to death, she moves to another area of focus.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Flowering Judas

Layers. Jane Haddam’s new novel, Flowering Judas, will satisfy most readers of mystery novels, especially those who like the assurance and stability that comes from a recurring detective. Gregor Demarkian unravels this case, as expected, while readers are presented with the twist of the detective’s distraction because of his concern for the health of his ninety nine year old friend and neighbor, George Tekemanian, who was taken to the hospital as Gregor was called to solve an out of town murder. Haddam explores many layers and levels of familial concern in this novel, and draws readers into both the light and dark sides of close and extended family life. This likeable protagonist can deal with grisly matters and come away with his humanity intact, to the great pleasure of readers who like things to be resolved in the end.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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