Friday, June 15, 2012
Loss. It’s a rare novel that causes me to slow down my pace of reading. Richard Ford writes in a quiet and calm style that forces me to slow down, pay attention, and enjoy every sentence. His novel, Canada, is the best I’ve read this year, with one of the finest opening lines: “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed.” Not a wasted word there, and certainly a gripper. The narrator is Dell, and he and his twin sister, Berner, face great loss in their lives when they are in their teens. Ford’s masterful writing presents the motivations of characters with great care, and his deep understanding of human nature shows in his development of every character. Any reader who loves fine writing is likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase Canada from amazon.com.
Exchanges. I had the feeling while reading Tom MacDonald’s debut novel, The Charlestown Connection, that he had been thinking about writing this book for a long time. Readers who like crime fiction should consider reading this one. The names of the characters alone were a kick: protagonist Dermot Sparhawk, for one. Set mostly in Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood, MacDonald makes the people and the place appear vivid to the reader. The imaginative plot kept me engaged and entertained, especially with the interesting exchanges of art works. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Charlestown Connection from amazon.com.
Choices. Perhaps it is the quality of my own liberal arts education that made a receptive audience for Andrew Delbanco’s book, College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be. This Columbia University award-winning professor explains the origins of higher education in the United States from the time of the Puritans onward. He lucidly describes the current high costs, unprepared students, and lack of attention to classroom teaching by great teachers who are directed toward research and away from the classroom. He offers ideas on how we can choose to change from the current state to one in which students are better served. Any reader interested in higher education should consider reading this book. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase College from amazon.com.
Characters. History can come alive when a writer fleshes out particular characters and tells an engaging story of their lives and time. Gary Krist enlivens the characters in his book, City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago. Set over the course of a dozen days in 1919, Krist tells of a dirigible crash in the central business district, a race riot at a hot beach, the murder of a child and a transit strike. Since this is set in Chicago, some of the liveliest characters are the politicians. This is a great story and it is well told. Readers who like history, especially those with an interest in Chicago, are those most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase City of Scoundrels from amazon.com.
Lyrical. Before I finished the first page of Toni Morrison’s new novel, Home, she had me. This finely written story of a Korean War veteran, Frank Money, riffs on the nature of “home,” and every sentence is crafted in a way that tells Frank’s story with just the right words. Morrison describes the time, the places and the community in ways that bring it all to life in a reader’s mind. Treat yourself to a few very enjoyable hours reading this fine novel. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase Home from amazon.com.
Quirky. Both economists and foodies may be left hungry after reading Tyler Cowen’s book, An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies. It is through the lens of an economist that Cowen does one of his favorite things: eat well. He makes a passionate case for good, cheap food. Some fellow economists may view that food is always priced accurately based on market factors. Some foodies would never consider eating at some of the strip mall places Cowen prefers. For those readers who are neither foodies nor economists, this is a quick book to read, in the style of Freakonomics, and Cowen’s writing style is often highly entertaining. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase An Economist Gets Lunch from amazon.com.
Thursday, June 14, 2012
Homiletic. Harvard professor Clayton M. Christenson became something of a celebrity following his landmark book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. Readers who know him and his work will find something completely different in his latest book, How Will You Measure Your Life? Expanded from a summer 2010 article in Harvard Business Review and a speech to the 2010 graduates of Harvard Business School, this book provides Christenson’s reflections on his own life and the advice he offers others to live more fully. Some readers will find this to be another self-help book, either useful or not. Some readers will learn new things about Mormon values from reading these pages. Some readers will pass this book along to recent graduates who are making decisions about work and relationships. Read an excerpt before deciding to buy and read this book. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase How Will You Measure Your Life? from amazon.com.
Acrobat. The formula for the Isaac Bell series by Clive Cussler is for the competent hero to overcome the treachery of a villain who is a worthy adversary. In The Thief, the villain is Christian Semmier, a talented German military leader who wants to steal technology to help his country in the run up to a likely war. His acrobatic skills provide much dramatic action in this novel. Readers who like to read quick and entertaining thrillers will find some entertainment here. It’s no spoiler to relate with satisfaction that the good guy wins in the end. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Thief from amazon.com.
Tethered. Readers looking for something controversial to read may consider Elizabeth Badinter’s The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women. Think of this as the anti-La Leche League book on motherhood, sure to raise the hackles of many readers who have a different point of view. Badinter’s key point is that contemporary expectations of mothers tethers them so closely to their children that the stimulating adult lives of these women becomes stifled. Readers wanting to toss a lit firecracker into some close familial relationship can consider presenting this book as a gift to a particular relative. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Conflict from amazon.com.
Grounding. Award-winning journalist Timothy Noah has reworked some insightful articles he wrote for Slate into a book titled, The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do about It. The bulk of the book presents evidence for the first part of the subtitle. Any reader who thinks that income inequality is no big deal may be persuaded otherwise by the facts Noah presents. His prescriptions for change are covered in a single chapter, and represent a partisan political viewpoint that may lead some readers to cheer and others to stop listening. Any reader interest in current political and economic affairs should consider reading this book to acquire grounding in the facts of how we have arrived in the current state of wealth distribution. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Great Divergence from amazon.com.
Thrilling. Norb Vonnegut’s novel, The Gods of Greenwich, is a classic thriller that uses the backdrop of hedge funds and the financial crisis to provide the setting for the action. The likeable protagonist, Jimmy Cusack, is offset by a smarmy character, his boss Cy Leeser. Readers familiar with financial services will find some plot elements ring true, but it is fans of thrillers with strong character development and interesting plot who will most like this novel. This novel provides entertaining light reading, and may be a perfect summer vacation selection. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Gods of Greenwich from amazon.com.
Condensed. If all that you know about Aaron Burr is his duel with Alexander Hamilton, consider dipping into a short book by historian H.W. Brands titled, The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr. During a time when most histories and biographies run hundreds of pages in length, and provide sweeping depth and breath, this short book, 176 pages of text, is a refreshing change. Brands writes with simplicity and directness, providing all readers with the highlights of Burr’s life. He pays special attention to Burr’s relationship with his daughter and grandson. I enjoyed this condensed presentation of Burr’s life, and I was reminded of aspects of his life that I had not thought about in a long time. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr from amazon.com.
Culture. The two birds pictured on the cover of Nell Freudenberger’s novel, The Newlyweds, prepare readers for what’s inside. Protagonists Amina Mazid and George Stillman are of the same species, but appear and act in very different ways. The novel presents their courtship and early marriage as a slow journey toward understanding, with Amina’s roots in Bangladesh informing her behavior, while George seems insensitive to the cultural differences that divide them. Their work lives in Rochester, New York, mirror the struggles of many in a tough economy. For some readers, there may be too much drudgery in their lives for this novel to provide entertainment. For me, I found their story interesting, and a reminder of the blend we become in marriage of our similarities and our differences. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Newlyweds from amazon.com.
Thursday, June 7, 2012
Cleansing. I suggest reading David Vann’s novel, Dirt, on a sunny day. Readers who are prone to immerse themselves into the lives of fictional characters should be aware of signs of depression. This finely written novel is tragedy at its finest: set in the heart of a dysfunctional family, each member manipulating another. The levels of dirt Vann explores range widely, and it was only after I finished reading that I realized that even dirt can have a cleansing effect when exposed to deeper dirt. The four characters of the novel are drawn with precision, and a reader can anticipate behavior and consequences. Readers who can tolerate disturbing content and who appreciate fine writing are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Dirt from amazon.com.
Poverty. Almost all readers of Katherine Boo’s fine nonfiction book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, will never have experienced the poverty she describes. I became immersed in the lives and struggles of some of the people living in a slum called Annawadi near the Mumbai airport. Life in this community involves constant struggle and setback. Dreams of a better life are thwarted by the smallest obstacles. All readers share much in common with the people Boo presents in this book, and those empathetic readers who pick up this book will see the humanity we share. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Behind the Beautiful Forevers from amazon.com.
Exciting. Matthew Quirk’s debut novel, The 500, has arrived just in time to please those summer readers who love a heart-pounding fast-paced plot. Protagonist Mike Ford has been recruited out of Harvard to work for the Davies Group, the most powerful consulting firm in D.C. Much of the action in the novel is so implausible that every reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is severely tested. I can almost imagine Quirk’s strain in deciding how to place Ford into a particular sticky situation, and then struggling to get him out. I kept reading because I found the excitement to become fun as the novel progressed, and once I gave in, it was easy to reach the end. I’m always willing to overlook a few clunky elements in a debut novel, and I was entertained by this one. Readers willing to give a first-time novelist a try should consider reading this novel. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The 500 from amazon.com.
Odd. Readers need to like two things to enjoy Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes: Hawaii and her unique and quirky voice. This talented author can delight many readers with trenchant observation and wickedly funny prose. I found that my own interest in the transformation of Hawaii by American missionaries not strong enough to glide me across her pages of odd narration while I awaited a fine witticism which always arrived. If you like Hawaii, this is the book for you, since your guide presents the history of Hawaii with lively and entertaining writing. Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended) Click here to purchase Unfamiliar Fishes from amazon.com.
Place. I can’t recall reading anything that’s quite like Alice Hoffman’s The Red Garden. This book is a collection of connected stories in which the shared protagonist is a place: a garden in the town of Blackwell, Massachusetts. People come and go over more than 200 years, and this garden continues to produce only red plants. The characters in each story are striking, and Hoffman’s imagination makes some of the stories magical or mystical in tone and content. Readers who like short and lyrical fiction are those most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Red Garden from amazon.com.
Times. If you are considering reading a memoir this year, you can’t go wrong if you choose John Darnton’s Almost a Family. Darnton’s writing is superb: clear, interesting and engaging. Darnton’s decades of experience as an award-winning writer at The New York Times inform every chapter of this book. After his retirement, Darnton began to explore the life of his father, Byron Darnton, a New York Times war correspondent, who was killed by friendly fire in the Pacific in 1942, when John was a toddler. Darnton tells the story of his own life and what he uncovers about the character, personality and professionalism of his late father. Readers who like finely written nonfiction and who prefer reading about real people are those most likely to enjoy this memoir. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase Almost a Family from amazon.com.
Chosen. The formula that Steve Berry has used in his prior novels has been to take a few historical facts and weave them into a modern adventure story, led by a strong protagonist. Berry left behind his familiar protagonist, Cotton Malone, in writing his latest novel, The Columbus Affair, and gave us a weaker lead, Tom Sagan who has been chosen to carry out a particular mission. The historical tidbits involve threads of speculation that Christopher Columbus was Jewish, and that he buried precious objects in the New World to protect them from harm. Berry inundates readers with lots of characters and he flits the action between present and past to relieve developing boredom. Readers looking for light entertainment and who like a busy plot and a large cast of characters are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Columbus Affair from amazon.com.