Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Book of Lies

Super. Brad Meltzer’s latest novel, The Book of Lies, takes readers on a somewhat convulted journey from Cleveland to the biblical story of Cain and Abel, with lots of work in the middle centered on the relationship between fathers and sons. Protagonist Cal Harper is a former government agent and current advocate for the homeless. One night he encounters a homeless man who turns out to be his estranged father, Lloyd. Before we know it, they’re on a journey to Cleveland to the former home of Jerry Seigel, the creator of Superman, whose father was killed when Jerry was a boy. They’re searching for a missing book, The Book of Lies, which may have the answer to what weapon Cain used to kill Abel, and what might have been the genesis of the Superman comic. With a nod to Dan Brown and the Da Vinci code genre, The Book of Lies provides a few hours of entertainment for those readers who can leap across the many chasms in the plot.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)

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The White Tiger

Success. I paid no attention to Aravind Adiga’s debut novel, The White Tiger, until it won the Man Booker prize, and then I decided to read it. Adiga is imaginative and clever in the way he has structured the novel, and in how he explores the levels of darkness in a society polarized by wealth. The narrator and protagonist is Balram Halwai, who rose from poverty in a villiage in India to become the driver for a wealthy man in Delhi, and then the owner of a fleet of cars serving Bangalore. His path to wealth was through murder and theft. The novel is structured as letters from Balram to the premier of China who is about to visit India, and wants to learn how to apply the entrepreunership of India for China. Adiga presents wealth in India as corrupt, and the wealthy as venal and abusive to those who work for them. While the darkness can be comic at times, the starkness of the contrast between wealth and poverty, and the triumph of evil makes The White Tiger a stark tale with characters who are more caricature than authentic.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)

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Leadership. The third installment of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance series is titled, Brisingr, which means “fire.” The hero Eragon begins to deepen his understanding of the leadership that is expected of him, and throughout this novel there are leaders who are elected, or ones who prove their worthiness to lead by succeeding in passing tests to that leadership. Paolini continues to do a fine job at creating a fantasy world that capitalizes on prior heroic tales and legends. One would think that he could have wrapped up the series in these new 763 pages, but this remains a transition book, leaving fans with time to kill until the next installment. Despite new revelations and maturation, Eragon, Sephira and the Inheritance series still have a ways to go before they face Galbatorix. Given the pleasure it is to read a fresh heroic novel in a classical style, I’m willing to wait and read on until Paolini has gotten out all that he wants to write.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)

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The English Major

Forward. The 60-year-old protagonist of Jim Harrison’s latest novel, The Engligh Major, decides that a road trip might be the best way to move forward after his wife of 38 years divorces him, and he loses the family farm in a scheme that she managed. I laughed often at Cliff’s adventures and peculiarities. The title refers to Cliff who was both an English major and a high school teacher before he landed on the family farm he inherited. As Cliff drives west, he decides to rename every state bird, and he tosses a puzzle piece from the car every time he crosses a state line. His adventures become amplified when Marybelle, a former student, and 17 years his junior, joins his trip and both releases and increases sexual tension. She and Cliff become especially energized when they arrive in San Francisco and Cliff’s affluent gay son, Robert, provides them with a well-needed respite. Throughout the road trip, waitresses play a big part in Cliff’s adventures, especially one who recognizes his identity as an English major. The English Major is quirky, funny and entertaining.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Rough Weather

Calm. The methodical and unflappable Spenser never wavers, and despite the title of Parker’s latest Spenser novel, Rough Weather, all seems calm in Spenser’s capable hands. Spenser’s client in this novel is the wealthy Heidi Bradshaw, a divorcee whose wealth came from divorcing rich husbands. She hires Spenser to stand by her on her private island for the wedding of her daughter. She already has island security, but wants something extra. Since Spenser’s beloved Susan Silverman will be a guest, Spenser readily agrees. All seems to be going well until Spenser sees a familiar adversary: Rugar, the Gray Man. (Rugar almost killed Spenser in the 1977 novel Small Vices.) Before we know it, there’s murder, kidnapping, and a wild storm. As readers have come to expect, the dialogue is always direct and repartee almost predictable.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)

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The New Paradigm for Financial Markets

Reality. After reading George Soros’ book, The New Paradigm for Financial Markets, I can imagine him tracking us down, asking, “Can you hear me now?” Much of this new book revisits and explains again his earlier work, The Alchemy of Finance, and his theory of reflexivity. Under his theory, there is constant interaction between the objective dimension of cognitive analysis, and the subjective component of trying to beat other investors by taking particular actions. In both books he makes the case for imperfect markets, arguing against the prevailing theory of market equilibrium. Soros suggests that we would be well served if we worked toward a better understanding of the human condition. We are sorely mistaken if we think financial markets can be captured and understood solely by mathematics. He notes that the recent cycles of bubbles and bust prove his theory. The 162 pages of this book are well worth reading, and it’s always interesting to listen to what a billionaire has to say.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)

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The Widows of Eastwick

Aging. John Updike’s new novel, The Widows of Eastwick, is a sequel to his 1984 novel, The Witches of Eastwick. Alexandra, Jane and Sukie are older, slower, and remain true to the personalities readers met in the earlier novel. Updike begins this novel slowly with the widows traveling to Egypt and China. The pace increases when they agree to see what it would be like to return to Eastwick, Rhode Island. These women and the town have both mellowed, and as the memories and guilt of their lives in Eastwick increase, the three decide to try witchcraft again to right their past wrongs. Not everything works out as planned. Updike’s prose can become mesmorizing on these pages, a spell in and of itself. While few may rate The Widows of Eastwick as his finest work, it’s a welcome treat.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Arctic Drift

Warming. Clive and Dirk Cussler’s latest collaboration, Arctic Drift, continues a formula for writing action novels that sell loads of copies. Through reprising a cast of characters that are reliable and predictable in their behavior, a familiarity develops for readers that provides for comfortable reading. In a cold snap of outside weather, reading Acrtic Drift gave me a good excuse to stay inside and warm. The Cusslers can and have done better. We have a nasty and un-nuanced villain. While I can live with the herculean competence and just-in-time heroism by Pitt and team (after all, that’s part of the successful formula), it’s more fun to have a worthy and more complicated adversary than the bad guys in this novel. The imagined belligerence of Canada made me laugh out loud. This is truly a Canada of the imagination, and nothing like our friendly neighbors to the north. Aside from those shortcomings, Arctic Drift provides reliable suspense and adventure reading, especially for those Cussler fans who are willing to accept less than the best from these writers.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)

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The Trophy Kids Grow Up

Expectations. Journalist Ron Alsop (The Wall Street Journal) has taken a group of columns and expanded them into a book titled, The Trophy Kids Grow Up. Alsop’s kids are the millennials, those born between 1980 and 2001, who have grown up with prosperity and have had lavish attention and praise wash over them throughout their lives. Now that they are arriving in the workplace, Alsop proposes ways that companies need to change to accommodate this generation of workers. I’m not as sure as Alsop is that this generation is shaking up the workplace. It may be that this group, to whatever extent they represent a real group, may be unrealistic in their expectations of the workplace, and are making their concerns heard. Some companies are listening and making changes; other companies are likely to tell them to grow up. Alsop provides lots of examples of what changes some companies are making. Each chapter ends with “chapter highlights” to recap his key points. I found this book to be tedious to read and sometimes repetitive. I was aghast to read about helicopter parents wanting (and sometimes getting) to sit in on performance assessment meetings with their children who are adults. My forecast is that this cohort called millennials may be starting out with expectations that some companies will be willing to meet. As the bulk of millennials come to the workforce, their expectations may become more realistic and more consistent with current corporate practices. If you read this book and decide to copy what some companies are doing, I encourage you to think twice, and make only those changes that you conclude are absolutely necessary to avoid alienating the talented millennials you want to become part of your organization.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)

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The Private Patient

Motive. P.D. James’ latest Adam Dalgliesh novel is titled, The Private Patient. In this finely written mystery, James presents readers with dozens of ways to think about motives, and ponder the question of whether or not we can ever understand another’s motive. Investigative journalist Rhoda Gradwyn decides to have an unsightly scar removed from her face after decades of living with it. Why now? She chooses a private clinic in Dorset, that’s part of an old manor house. Why there? She’s murdered, and Dalgliesh is called in to solve the case. His questions remain after he knows who did it. Completion without understanding feels like unfinished business to A.D. At the same time, feeling that one knows “the truth” is arrogant and impertinent. We may gain some understanding and insight, but do we ever understand motive? I enjoyed this book from beginning to end, and well after I figured out whodunit, I enjoyed the process by which James led me to keep thinking.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)

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American Wife

Shallow. Within the 576 pages of Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel American Wife, an editor might have been able to carve out a fine 250 page book. Instead, readers have to decide how much time to devote to reading a novel that has more gimmick than insight. By basing the protagonist, Alice Lindgren Blackwell, on Laura Bush, but clearly creating a fiction character, readers end up with a shallow character who remains to the end an enigma. By clearly painting other characters with Sittenfeld’s image of the Bush extended family and social milieu, readers have to reconcile the fictional wife with the somewhat known Laura Bush and then try to reconcile Alice Blackwell with the real Bush family. On so many levels, none of that worked. I read on valiantly hoping that the characters would become more real and less caricature. I awaited some reconciliation or insight into the reasons for Alice’s loyalty to her husband despite her opposition to so many of his beliefs. By the last page, I came away with satisfaction that the book was finished, but with little pleasure at having read it.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)

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Lulu in Marrakech

Stumbling. Diane Johnson’s novel, Lulu in Marrakech, is packed with a series of interesting scenes full of confusion and cultural misunderstandings and prejudices. The protagonist, whom we know by her undercover name, Lulu Sawyer, works as a CIA agent in Marrakech trying to identify the source of funds for terrorism. Lulu landed in Morocco to follow her new English lover, Ian Drumm, whom she met in Kosovo when they both worked there with refugees. Lulu is the unlikeliest of spies, and her cultural clashes are often both hilarious and tragic. While Lulu stumbled and bumbled her way through one scene after another, I read on, hoping that all the pieces would come together and that relationships and characters would develop. This didn’t happen. Diane Johnson is a fine writer, and she added a treat in the form of interesting quotes at the beginning of each chapter. The sum of the pieces here don’t add up to become an enjoyable, entertaining or enlightening novel.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Outliers: The Story of Success

Opportunities. I’m hard pressed to think of an author better than Malcolm Gladwell at exploring an issue that seems familiar and obvious, but finds a way to express the issue in a new way. In Outliers, Gladwell challenges the notion of meritocracy by showing how no one ever succeeds on his or her own. Chance, luck and seizing opportunities are key to success: there’s no substitute for being in the right place at the right time. On the other hand, individuals with high potential are unlikely to succeed if they are not given opportunities to use that potential. Another great insight in Outliers involves the importance of practice. Gladwell proposes that 10,000 hours of practice makes all the difference.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)

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The Right Mistake

Release. Walter Mosley’s latest Socrates Fortlow novel, The Right Mistake, maintains an emotional intensity throughout that engages readers and made me catch my breath at the end of some chapters. Ex-con Socrates gathers people together in West Central Los Angeles to talk. Like his namesake, he asks questions, and claims no wisdom of his own. Along the way, he builds community, finds redemption alongside other characters, and in some way or another, each character finds a release from whatever constrains them. This is a finely written novel with real characters living as best they can.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)

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The Tales of Beedle the Bard

Playful. Unlike the pleasure of curling up for days on end with a hefty Harry Potter book, J. K. Rowling's new book, The Tales of Beedle the Bard, contains five stories and can be read in a single sitting before a pot of tea would get cold. The stories are playful and a pleasure to read, but the real bonus is the commentary on each story written by Albus Dumbledore. I especially enjoyed the mildly veiled references to the Beatrix Potter stories. Net proceeds from the sale of this book are being given to a charity, the Children’s High Level Group, co-founded by Rowling to help make life better for vulnerable young people.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)

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