Saturday, April 20, 2013

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

Strange. Lawrence Wright’s book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, may be the strangest work of nonfiction that I’ve read in years. Wright bends over backwards to be fair and objective in his presentation of Scientology, and if the voluminous notes are any indication, he appears to have support for everything he writes. We use the phrase “leap of faith” because the nature of belief requires going beyond factual evidence. The beliefs that comprise Scientology may require a larger leap than most religions. The treatment of believers by the leaders of Scientology seems very severe, and the sources and uses of money made for fascinating reading. Wright’s profiles of founder L. Ron Hubbard and current leader David Miscavige are detailed and disturbing. I finished the book with a much deeper understanding of the people, practices and appeal of Scientology. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Going Clear from

Truth in Advertising

Charming. I was charmed by John Kenney’s debut novel, Truth in Advertising. Protagonist Fin Dunbar works as a mid level copywriter for an ad agency and finds himself faced with what could be a career changer: working on an ad for the Superbowl. At the same time, his estranged father is dying. Kenney creates a workplace with vivid accuracy, and with the insight that there is never enough time to do everything that needs to be done. Work and life balance is an issue, as is maturity. Before readers know it, we’re rooting for Fin, caring about what happens to him, and laughing at the client, the work, and Fin’s relationships. We’re also charmed by the people who care about Fin, and how he seems to start to grow up, at last. For readers looking for a novel that depicts work and life with realism, consider this one. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Truth in Advertising from

Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace

Difficult. If you’ve ever felt envious of a talented genius, reading D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace titled, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, should stop that from happening again. From childhood until his death by suicide at age 46, Wallace suffered from severe depression, and he was often a difficult person to be with. An addict, a perfectionist and a hard working writer and teacher, Wallace found some things came to him easily, and others were elusive. He found bliss in writing, until he didn’t. He struggled with personal relationships, and sponsored many other addicts in recovery. I thought Max presented this complicated life with as much clarity as a biographer could provide, and with compassion and insight into mental illness. Readers who like to know about the lives of authors are those most likely to enjoy reading this biography. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story from

The Oath: The Obama White House and The Supreme Court

Upheaval. Jeffrey Toobin’s book, The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court, came out last September at a perfect time: after the health care ruling and before the presidential election. Geared to a general audience, the book presents a viewpoint about each justice and what the court did in their deliberations and rulings during the first Obama term, as well as how the court has changed with new members and under Roberts’ leadership. Toobin was a classmate of Elena Kagan at Harvard Law, and I’ve enjoyed his writing for The New Yorker, as well as his earlier book on the court, The Nine. His viewpoint stresses the many ways in which the Roberts court has been an activist one, making big changes rather than incremental ones, sometimes setting aside decades of precedent. Political junkies and court watchers may consider this as required reading. General readers will gain a perspective on the Supreme Court and its importance from this book, whether one agrees or disagrees with Toobin’s viewpoint. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Oath from

We Live in Water

Variety. I enjoyed each of the short stories in the debut collection from Jess Walter titled after one of them, We Live in Water. Walter draws characters efficiently and tells a story with humor or sadness that fits perfectly to the subject and content. These are interesting lives of people whose variety and differences helped me appreciate how much each of us has in common with one another, no matter what the specifics of our particular situations. Fans of the short story are most likely to enjoy this collection. A book club might find the variety in these stories would lead to interesting conversations. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase We Live in Water from

Friday, April 12, 2013

Life After Life

Again. Very few readers are likely to receive Kate Atkinson’s novel, Life After Life, in a lukewarm manner. Chances are you will love it or hate it. The conceit she develops is that the protagonist, Ursula Todd, dies again and again. In each new life, some things remain the same, and other things change. While I am often impatient, I yielded to Atkinson and let her lead me again and again to a similar and different life. I found the nuance and the repetition to be so carefully crafted that I marveled at her skill and enjoyed her prose thoroughly. This novel is like nothing else I’ve read and I loved the creativity are imagination displayed. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Life After Life from

Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry

Hucksters. I’ve always been a bit repulsed by the popular purveyors of financial advice, and it was a pleasure to find a kindred spirit in Helaine Olen when I read her book, Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry. Olen calls out the hucksters and describes how their advice is often false. She does this in a lively writing style, and with a bright spotlight, as the subtitle indicates. My takeaway: be the advisor not the client. That’s where the money is. Read a sample. If you like what you find, chances are you’ll enjoy the whole book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Pound Foolish from

The Fun Parts

Humor. Intelligent readers who like their humor infused with social satire and the occasional snarky tone are those most likely to enjoy the baker’s dozen stories in a new collection from Sam Lipsyte titled, The Fun Parts. The most interesting characters in these stories have trouble with something: drugs, booze, restraint. I had read some of these stories in The New Yorker, and on a second reading, they retained the fine sharp writing, humor, and efficiency that I loved the first time around. Treat yourself to almost two weeks of reading pleasure if you restrain yourself to one per day. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Fun Parts from

Standing in Another Man's Grave

Civilian. Whether Standing in Another Man’s Grave is the first detective novel you’ve read that features John Rebus, or if you read every one of these terrific novels from Ian Rankin, chances are you will enjoy the characters, plot and complexity of this novel. Rebus is an old school detective and while now retired, he is working as a civilian in a cold case unit, and is considering a return to the police force. Having saved the life of a criminal, Ger Cafferty, in a prior novel, Rebus now has a fortnightly drink with Ger. That causes suspicion from an old nemesis of Rebus, DI Malcolm Fox of the Complaints (also known as Internal Affairs or Ethics and Standards). Through good luck, Rebus stumbles into a case, and charges ahead with his usual persistence, instinct, and skill. Some characters from earlier novels show up and the new ones are well drawn. I enjoyed every page of this finely written novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Standing in Another Man’s Grave from


Varieties. Any reader interested in the workings of the mind should consider reading Oliver Sachs’ Hallucinations. Dr. Sachs is a neurologist and professor and in this book he presents a wide variety of types of hallucinations, and presents them in a lively manner through case histories, including his own experience. I found this book to be engaging reading, and in the section where Sachs described his personal experimentation with psychedelics in his youth, I almost said, “I’ll have what he’s having.” Instead, I took a sip of wine and read on. At least I think that’s what happened. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Hallucinations from

Y: A Novel

Lucky. Marjorie Celona’s debut novel, Y, would be the perfect selection for a book club because it’s short enough for all members to read it, and it prompts discussion about what constitutes a family and how we make our decisions in relationships. The protagonist is a young woman who was abandoned by her mother on the steps of the Vancouver YMCA shortly after her birth. Bounced through several foster homes, her life is difficult and also lucky. Celona presents both the story of the child and her mother in ways that will make most readers want to think and talk and share, perfect for a book club. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Y: A Novel from

Wise Men

Legacy. Stuart Nadler’s debut novel, Wise Men, has four ingredients that combine to make a tasty dish of fiction: love, money, race and identity. Set in the mid-20th century, love happens in unexpected places, money arrives in a large amount quickly, and things happen that lead to betrayal, a need for forgiveness, and satisfactory resolution. The key father-son relationship produces a legacy that has consequences. Nadler’s prose is finely crafted, the characters are well drawn, and the story entertaining. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Wise Men from

The Reckoning

Partners. Readers who like crime fiction should consider reading Jane Casey’s The Reckoning. This was my first exposure to Casey, and I found her character and plot development produced a most satisfying and entertaining novel, supported by finely written descriptive prose and dialogue. Protagonist DC Maeve Kerrigan works on a London murder task force and has been assigned to a difficult boss, DI Josh Derwent. Their partnership provides a great motif within the novel, as does a romantic relationship Maeve has with another member of the task force. The murders are gruesome, and the insight into police work highlights how things are not always what they seem to be. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Reckoning from

Red Rain

Horror. I found myself deferring reading the first adult novel from R.L. Stine titled, Red Rain. I tried not to think about Goosebumps before starting to read this novel, and finally admitted that I should just go ahead. Stine presents a very creepy horror story in this book with more than ample description of grisly outcomes. For fans of that genre, the yuck factor hits the target. Where Stine falls short is in character development and empathy. The master of this style, Stephen King, would have presented characters with whom readers would identify and for whom we would care. Instead, I found myself not caring much about what happened to these characters, and the horror was somewhat diminished because it was not inflicted on innocent and ordinary people. Read a sample before you commit to reading this novel. Rating: Two-star (I don’t like it) Click here to purchase Red Rain from

The Night Ranger

Consistency. Each principal character in Alex Berenson’s latest John Wells novel titled, The Night Ranger, behaves with great consistency. Berenson places Wells in a new setting, East Africa, where he goes on a humanitarian mission in response to a request from his son. Wells acts with competence and integrity to complete his mission. Along the way, he finds himself working solo as well as asking for help from his former employer, the CIA. Readers who love action thrillers are likely to love reading this one. Berenson presents well-drawn characters and a fast-paced plot. I zipped through this novel quickly and was very well entertained. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Night Ranger from

Friday, April 5, 2013

News from Heaven

Place. The fictional coal mining town of Bakerton, Pennsylvania, is the place that links the ten stories in a new collection from Jennifer Haigh titled, News from Heaven. The stories present the lives of people in or from Bakerton in prosperity and in decline. After I finished the last story, I felt as if I knew Bakerton and these people. Haigh’s prose uses just the right amount of descriptive language and character development to complete each story. Any reader who likes short stories and finely written prose should consider reading this fine collection. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase News from Heaven from

Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Fantasies. We often want authors to transport us somewhere new and in that setting reveal some truths about human nature. Karen Russell’s collection of eight stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, presents very different fantasies that are intense and revealing. Russell’s creativity and originality are almost unmatched among contemporary writers. I can appreciate her odd style in small doses, and I spread my reading of these stories over several weeks. Readers who enjoy fine prose and heightened creativity and originality are those most likely to enjoy this collection. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Vampires in the Lemon Grove from

See Now Then

Sweet. The new novel by Jamaica Kincaid, See Now Then, is likely to frustrate those readers who bear with her to the end. I found that I had to give myself up to her poetic meandering and not worry much about what was going on. By bearing with her to the end, I closed the book with a sense that I had absorbed the life of protagonist Mrs. Sweet, and in some ways I began to see the world from her point of view. Read a sample before deciding to plunge in. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase See Now Then from

The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People

Sweeping. Readers who like readable popular science are those most likely to enjoy Neil Shubin’s The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People. Instead of a dense presentation of developments in paleontology, physics, biology and geology, Shubin tells a story that will captivate and engage most general readers. He shows how we are connected to the elements that make up the universe. Shubin talks about his own fieldwork with enthusiasm, but never to excess. Most readers will learn a thing or two from this book, and enjoy the experience. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Universe Within from

Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail

Death. Be careful where you go looking for answers. Taz Chavis, protagonist of T.J. Forrester’s novel, Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail, chooses to walk away from his unhappy life and decides to walk the Appalachian Trail to look for answers. Instead of answers, he finds other unhappy people. Forrester writes tightly structured prose that can be a real pleasure to savor. He riffs on life and death through a vivid setting and a cast of well-drawn troubled characters. Readers who appreciate good prose and dark subject matter are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Black Heart on the Appalachian Trail from