Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Mortgage Wars: Inside Fannie Mae, Big-Money Politics, and the Collapse of the American Dream

Perspective. History is usually written by the winners, and over the past decade it appears that both Fannie Mae and former CFO Timothy Howard were beaten and bruised from a series of events. In his book, The Mortgage Wars: Inside Fannie Mae, Big-Money Politics, and the Collapse of the American Dream, Howard describes the ways in which ideologues who wanted to constrain Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac used politics, media and dirty warfare to change the mortgage business. Howard’s voice was muted by ongoing litigation over the course of many years, and after he was vindicated of wrongdoing, he decided to present this book which tells a side of the story readers have not seen until now. Howard has written a plain speaking and straightforward presentation of his insider perspective about what happened to damage the housing finance system in the United States. By way of disclaimer, I was a Freddie Mac executive from 1976 through 1998, and came to this book with a viewpoint and perspective of my own. After reading this book, I concluded that it’s about time this other part of the story got told. For any reader willing to revisit events leading up to and during the financial crisis, this book fills in the gaps from previous accounts and offers an insider’s knowledge that goes deeper than most other books. Readers interested in public policy will find this book fascinating, and anyone involved in the mortgage business should consider this book required reading. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Mortgage Wars from amazon.com.

Fin & Lady

Guardians. Within a few pages, I was hooked by the charming characters in Cathleen Schine’s novel, Fin & Lady. Schine set this novel in the 1960s, and she describes that turbulent time period with wit and through great dialogue and descriptive language. The protagonists are half-siblings and while the older Lady has legal guardianship over eleven-year-old Fin, her panache leads to his strong feelings of responsibility for her. They are both children, and rely heavily on each other. In Dickens, they would be poor orphans. Schine prefers portraits of wealth: they live in a Manhattan apartment with cleaning and cooking provided by Mabel, the maid who comes there every day. They slip off to Capri every summer. While this is not the story of average orphans, their unconventional life resonates for every reader: caring for those we love with diligence. I enjoyed this novel from beginning to the very satisfying end. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Fin & Lady from amazon.com.


Gifted. I’m a sucker for a good dystopian novel. I loved reading Brilliance by Marcus Sakey because of his skill in a constructing a world just close enough to our own to give me chills. He presents a new way in which we separate “us” versus “them,” and constructs a government that manipulates citizens and operates without oversight or accountability. In the world Sakey creates, one percent of the population born since 1980 has a level of giftedness, or brilliance, a special enhanced skill of one kind or another. The majority are called “norms” and the brilliant are labeled, “abnorms.” Through testing children, the government identifies and selects the most brilliant, then removes them from their families to attend special schools in which their names are changed and their talents are channeled. Some of the abnorms have become terrorists, and a special unit of the government called “Equitable Services” tracks them down. The protagonist of this novel is Nick Cooper, an abnorm who works for Equitable Services. The suspense and tension of this novel remains sharp from beginning to end. Nick and the other characters are well developed, and the current or near future world that Sakey creates is believable enough to be truly frightening. I loved this novel from beginning to end, and expect that it will appeal to those readers who like action novels with a dystopian twist. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Brilliance from amazon.com.

Dark Lies the Island

Menace. Something is ready to go wrong every few pages in a finely written collection of short stories by Kevin Barry titled, Dark Lies the Island. For the Irish characters in these stories, there are no leprechauns with a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: just another cloud to bring rain and turmoil. Barry’s lyrical language soars in these stories. Some of the sentences I read aloud to savor the rhythms of his carefully selected words. While menace abounds in these stories, I laughed often. Barry creates fully formed complex and interesting characters. Spend a little time with each story before jumping on to the next one. This baker’s dozen will bring satisfaction to those readers who enjoy finely written short fiction, especially when injected with dark humor. A sip of Irish whiskey with one of these stories is the perfect combination for a happy hour. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Dark Lies the Island from amazon.com.

Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence

Rehash. Buried inside the 320 pages of Daniel Goleman’s book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, there’s a great twenty page essay that would present the subject with clarity and focus. Instead, Goleman meanders through many chapters that came across to me as a rehash of what I’ve read before from him or other authors. While I enjoyed reading Emotional Intelligence as well as Primal Leadership many years ago, I found this book shallow and boring. I started rolling my eyes when he described the marshmallow study in detail. Readers who are unfamiliar with the subject may find this book more interesting than I did. Rating: Two-star (I didn’t like it) Click here to purchase Focus from amazon.com.

Crooked Numbers

Intentions. The second crime novel by Tim O’Mara to feature Raymond Donne is titled, Crooked Numbers, and I liked this one even more than his debut novel, Sacrifice Fly. I enjoyed the sharp dialogue in this novel, which always seemed to me to capture the way characters such as the ones in this novel would really speak. Donne works as a dean at a middle school. One of his former students was murdered, and when the boy’s mother asks him to try to get the police to take more action to solve the case, he intends to nudge his former NYPD colleagues, but not interfere. For most of the novel, Donne interferes, despite his best intentions. All the characters are well developed in this novel, and the many ways in which Donne interacts with kids, parents, criminals and the police provided me with hours of entertainment. The pacing of this novel was faster than the earlier book. Any reader who likes well-written character-based crime fiction should consider reading this one. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Crooked Numbers from amazon.com.

The Return

Expiation. The protagonist of Michael Gruber’s novel, The Return, may well be the most fully formed complex character that I’ve enjoyed in a novel in many years. Richard Marder is a book editor who is reconciled to dying from an inoperable brain tumor. The manner in which he places his affairs in order provides the plot for a thrilling novel. Marder buys a home in the Mexican town where his late wife and her family lived. His plan is to bury his wife’s ashes in her hometown. He travels to Mexico with a Vietnam War comrade, Patrick Francis Skelly, and they find themselves in the middle of conflict between two drug cartels. Gruber presents alternating peace and violence in Marder with great care, and the kindness and benevolence Marder shows to the people of the community provides an added level of depth. Marder’s daughter, Carmel, leaves her doctoral program at MIT and tracks him down in Mexico, joining his effort to build a sustainable community free from the violence of the criminals. The tension remains taut throughout the novel which will appeal to those readers who enjoy thrillers. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Return from amazon.com.

Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever

Fraud. Wall Street Journal reporters Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell present the story of Lance Armstrong and doping in a gripping book titled, Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever. As I expected, the authors do a great job in presenting what happened. They make it clear that Armstrong did not act alone. Albergotti and O’Connell describe the interests of many people who had a stake in wanting Armstrong to succeed, and were willing to either enable doping, look the other way, or prefer not to know. As fans, we wanted Armstrong to succeed, and we were willing to believe him when he said he wasn’t taking banned substances. This is a sad story on so many levels that will appeal to those readers who love integrity in sports, and want to try to understand how this fraud could have happened, and perhaps how to prevent it from happening again. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Wheelmen from amazon.com.

The Facades

Loneliness. Eric Lundgren’s debut novel, The Facades, left me scratching my head, and almost tempted to read it a second time. Protagonist Sven Norberg is a legal clerk whose wife, Molly, has disappeared. They live in a city called Trude, a place that is a shadow of its former grandeur. We learn about Trude as we follow Sven around town in her search for Molly, who is the star mezzo-soprano of the Trude opera. Lundgren’s descriptions of Trude are finely drawn and close to dystopian. I felt for Sven’s loneliness and alienation as he tries to find Molly, and watches as his son, Kyle, moves out of the family home to live with the family of the minister of a fundamentalist church. There’s fine writing in this novel that will appeal most to those readers who enjoy literary fiction and are interested in reading debut novels. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Facades from amazon.com.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Thank You For Your Service

After-war. Whether you’ve actually said, “Thank you for your service,” to a veteran or not, you are likely to rethink that phrase and the service being done as well as what happens after a solider returns from war. David Finkel has done an extraordinary thing in his book, Thank You For Your Service. He keeps his own views off the page, and lets readers form our own viewpoint on what happens to troops, families and friends after all the deployments are over. Finkel brings readers into the lives of a handful of people and lets readers see what the after-war is like for them. You may think you know something about PTSD or about the sacrifices made by soldiers and their families. Read this book, and you will definitely know more. I learned much about the challenges of reintegrating into society following service. Any citizen who reads this book will want to talk to others about it, and look for some way to make things better. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Thank You For Your Service from amazon.com.


Absence. The four of them were together at one moment, then three of them were gone. Sonali Deraniyagala and her husband, Steve, were on vacation with their two sons at an oceanside hotel in Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004, when a trunami hit. Sonali survived. In her book, Wave, she expresses what happened on that tragic day, and mostly how her grief unfolded over weeks, months and years. In some ways, she filled the absence of their loss by bringing them back to life on these pages. Her writing could have become melancholy, but she never crosses that line. This is fine writing that grabbed my attention from the first page, and I wanted to stay with her to do whatever I could as a reader to ease her pain, perhaps just by thinking about her and her lost loved ones. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Wave from amazon.com.

The Apartment

Recovery. We are searching for something. We don’t always know where we are, but we have all been to places and done things that combined to make us who we are today. Greg Baxter’s debut novel, The Apartment, lets readers spend one day with our unnamed protagonist in an unnamed European city on a search for an apartment. We meander with this character as he searches. Along the way, we learn of his recent experience as a contractor in Iraq, and his previous life in the Navy. I began to feel that he is dealing with the aftermath of something, and struggling toward recovery. Baxter’s finely crafted prose impressed me a lot, and I was willing to meander with this interesting character anxious to see what would happen. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Apartment from amazon.com.

Doctor Sleep

Wheel. Decades after writing The Shining, Stephen King decided to answer a question he was often asked: “What happened to Danny?” The very satisfying answer to that question arrives in King’s novel, Doctor Sleep. Dan Torrance is now a middle aged alcoholic working in a hospice where he provides comfort to the dying. During the course of the novel, Dan hits bottom, then begins recovery through a sponsor and Alcoholics Anonymous. I can imagine King’s delight in using his own experience in AA to develop Dan’s character. King writes, “Life was a wheel and it always came back around.” This is not a sequel as much as it is an updating. Dan is older, and still very special. His help is needed, and he provides it, in protecting a young woman, and in defeating a powerful foe. As constant readers expect from King, this is a great story, full of frights, and one that can prompt an urgency to reach to the ending. I read this novel during a deep winter freeze, and I couldn’t distinguish the shivers that came off the page from those that were caused by the cold wind. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Doctor Sleep from amazon.com.

The Fault in Our Stars

Universal. A friend recommended that I read John Green’s novel, The Fault in Our Stars, and I’m glad she did. Green explores concerns that are universal and cross-generational. Am I loved? Does my life have meaning? Will anyone remember me after I’m dead? The protagonists are teenage cancer survivors, Hazel and Augustus, who fall in love. Green deals with pain and loss while avoiding pathos or melodrama. This is a Young Adult novel that may appeal to any adult who thinks about those universal concerns. This novel celebrates life, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Fault in Our Stars from amazon.com.

Sycamore Row

Ensemble. While a handful of characters in John Grisham’s novel, Sycamore Row, were reprised from the earlier book, A Time To Kill, the real success in the new novel is the huge cast of interesting and well-developed cast of complex characters through whom Grisham displays the full range of human motivation and behavior. We’re back at the Clanton courthouse in Ford County three years after the earlier novel, and attorney Jake Brigance gets a new case that will strain racial tensions in the county. The question for the court to resolve involves the settlement of a multi-million dollar estate. Grisham tells a great story in this novel, and I was thoroughly entertained, especially by the quirks of so many of the interesting characters in this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Sycamore Row from amazon.com.

The Good Lord Bird

Plan. I did not expect to laugh as much as I did while reading historical fiction about John Brown and his raid on the Harper’s Ferry arsenal to free slaves. While the abolitionist movement was serious business, thanks to James McBride and his finely written novel, The Good Lord Bird, readers can see this time period from a different point of view than most history books. John Brown has a plan, and McBride riffs on how that implausible plan failed on so many levels, yet came very close to succeeding. Using the point of view of a young black boy, Henry, McBride takes us inside Brown’s world, including contact with Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas. On one level, this is Henry’s coming of age story as he recalls in old age this time in his life and in the history of slavery. Brown’s version of reality is often separate from that of others, including how he thinks Henry is female, and renames her from the Henrietta he thought to his “Little Onion.” Henry dresses as a girl for the bulk of the novel, and whenever he is recognized as a male, the humor quotient in the novel became elevated. The lively prose from McBride in this novel entertained me to the point that I reread some of the finest dialect he writes. Any reader of this novel will think of John Brown in new ways, and with a smile. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Good Lord Bird from amazon.com.

& Sons

Ampersand. David Gilbert constructed a 450 page literary novel titled, & Sons, around the word, “and.” You can see it in the ampersand of the title, and in the three letters in white on the book jacket. Inside, Ampersand is the title of a novel by protagonist A.N. Dyer, whose monogram also reads, “and.” Dyer’s lifelong friend, Charles Topping, dies at the beginning of the novel, leading Dyer to confront his own mortality. The action of the novel centers on Dyer’s attempt to bring together the lives of his older sons from his first marriage to their half-brother, whose birth caused that marriage to dissolve. Gilbert creates many sentences that I read more than once with pleasure. I enjoyed the ways in which he deconstructed the relationship between fathers and sons, the bonds of friendship, literary life in New York, and the longing for legacy. There’s a lot of “and” in this novel that will appeal most to those readers who love literary fiction. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase & Sons from amazon.com.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Andrew's Brain

Confusion. I first read E.L. Doctorow’s novel, Andrew’s Brain, in a single sitting on an airplane flight. For much of the book, I remained confused, but enjoyed Doctorow’s skill in presenting images using just the right words, and the way in which he gradually revealed the memories of the protagonist, Andrew. My second reading occurred a few days later, and having completed the novel, I was able to reduce my confusion and more fully enjoy and appreciate Doctorow’s fine writing. There are three brains required to unravel this novel: Doctorow’s, Andrew’s and the reader’s. This novel will appeal in a special way to those readers who prefer to engage one’s brain while reading. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Andrew’s Brain from amazon.com.

You Can Date Boys When You're Forty: Dave Barry on Parenting and Other Topics He Knows Very Little About

Aging. There are several comic gems in each of the nine essays in a collection from Dave Barry titled, You Can Date Boys When You're Forty: Dave Barry on Parenting and Other Topics He Knows Very Little About. While I chuckled at his humor in being at a Justin Bieber concert with his thirteen year old daughter, I laughed more when he reflected on what it’s like being sixty five years old, and in the way he offers wisdom on what women want. Any reader looking for a few laughs will find them in this collection. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty from amazon.com.

Bitter River

Loyalty. The second novel by Julia Keller to feature Bell Elkins, the prosecuting attorney of Raythune County, West Virginia, is titled, Bitter River. Many of the interesting characters in this novel exhibit loyalty, especially to family members. Mystery lovers will enjoy the red herrings that Keller dangles before readers, and this novel will also appeal to those readers who are unhurried and enjoy getting to know the characters and the setting of a novel. Keller excels at these three elements: character, setting and continuity with the previous novel in this series. While either novel can be read on its own, readers of both can enjoy the connections and continuity. I’ve enjoyed Keller’s writing, and look forward to the next novel in this series. I’ve become as loyal as some of her characters. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Bitter River from amazon.com.

The Stench of Honolulu: A Tropical Adventure

Language. What I liked most about Jack Handey’s The Stench of Honolulu: A Tropical Adventure, is the way in which he twists a sentence in one direction at the beginning, then veers in a very different direction to end the sentence. Sometimes I felt as if he were filling in the blanks of Mad-Libs. Handey’s humor appeals most to those of us who enjoy the playful use of language. Handey may be an acquired taste, but for any reader who liked his Deep Thoughts segment from SNL, this book will provide a lot of reading pleasure. If you’ve not been a fan, read a sample before you jump in. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Stench of Honolulu from amazon.com.

Going Home Again

Choices. I finished reading Dennis Bock’s novel, Going Home Again, and was so satisfied and impressed that I couldn’t think of anything Bock could have done better in writing this book. The protagonist, Charlie Bellerose, finds himself in his early forties having achieved success at work, but separated from his wife. After twenty years in Madrid, he decides to return home to Toronto. Bock explores the choices Charlie and others have made, and the consequences of those choices. I often read literary fiction to reflect on the complexity of life, and to consider the many ways in which we can choose to live. In fewer than three hundred pages, Bock provides fine writing through presenting compelling characters whose behavior, both good and bad, offers insight into our human condition. I highly recommend this novel to any reader who enjoys the examination of choices in life, and who appreciates the skill of fine literary writing. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Going Home Again from amazon.com.

Traveling Sprinkler

Words. Having started to read several books by Nicholson Baker, and having finished some, I’ve concluded that his love of words can become so obsessive that it requires more patience than I usually have to stay with him to the end. I finished reading his novel, Traveling Sprinkler, that reprises the character Paul Chowder, a poet from an earlier novel, The Anthologist, one that I gave up reading after a few dozen pages. Baker meanders with readers over the course of three hundred pages, finding every possible way to reinforce the sprinkler metaphor, or to digress on any number of subjects. I found some of this writing to be enjoyable, but after a while I couldn’t take Paul Chowder’s stream of consciousness any longer, and was reluctant to join him on another trip to Planet Fitness. I endured to the end, but found only mild satisfaction. Read a sample to test your own patience before you commit to reading this quirky novel. Rating: Two-star (I didn’t like it) Click here to purchase Traveling Sprinkler from amazon.com.

Levels of Life

Grief. Julian Barnes crafts great sentences. From his personal grief at the death of his wife, Barnes has written a powerful 140 page essay titled, Levels of Life. The power of love dominates this essay, and Barnes pulls readers into the beautiful writing as he packs a wallop through his spare prose infused with strong underlying emotion. Whatever form grief has taken in one’s own life, there is an expression of that grief in this essay. Readers who have both loved and experienced loss will be overpowered by the beauty of this essay. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Levels of Life from amazon.com.

Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste

Legacy. A confluence of chefs, cookbook writers, and publishers were in Provence in 1970 cooking together, eating together, and arguing about food. Thanks to the discovery and reading of M.F.K. Fisher’s journals and correspondence, her grand-nephew, Luke Barr, describes that place and time in the food movement, mostly from Fisher’s perspective in a book titled, Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste. Barr sees this time as a turning point away from snobby French cuisine and toward cooking more simply with fresh, local ingredients. This book is a homage to Fisher by her nephew as well as an interesting viewpoint on the transformation of culinary taste. While this book will appeal most to foodies, Barr’s writing style will also appeal to general readers who like a good story. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Provence 1970 from amazon.com.