Thursday, June 25, 2009

Past Imperfect

Quest. Julian Fellowes’ second novel, Imperfect Past, presents an ensemble of characters as they were in the late 1960s and as they are today. This was the “class of 1968,” a segment of the upper class in England who were part of a cultural transformation (free sex and plenty of drugs and rebellion from past values) but still rooted in tradition and bound to the will of their parents. Damian Baxter was a striver in 1968 and broke his way into higher society for a brief time until he was cast aside. He became wildly successful in business and lost all contact with the acquaintances of his youth. After he receives an anonymous letter that he might have fathered a child forty years earlier, he contacts the first person narrator of Imperfect Past, a person whom Damian used to gain access to society and then spurned with great drama. Although he hated Damian, the narrator meets with him, learns of Damian’s imminent death, and agrees to try to find out if Damian has an heir. That quest defines the action for the novel. Fellowes proceeds at a ponderous pace to introduce one potential mother of Damian’s heir after another, placing the action both in 1968 and the present. Fellowes is at his writing best when he presents vivid scenes of the stuffy or wild behavior in the past and the present. Some episodes led me to laugh, others were deeply sad. Character development remains weak throughout Imperfect Past; I found it a stretch to empathize with any of Fellowes’ characters. While the vagaries of who loved whom was somewhat understandable, and often led to sadness, the motivation of characters and their behavior was often so disconnected from the personalities Fellowes created, the individuals seemed unreal. If one can overlook the weakness of character development, the pleasure of the vivid scenes in Imperfect Past along with the interest in finding out how the quest turns out contribute to a lot of reading pleasure in this novel. The meandering pace might be just the right selection for relaxing summer reading.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)

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Succession: Are You Ready?

Behavior. Prolific author and prominent executive coach Marshall Goldsmith presents a candid and plain-speaking guide to CEO succession in a new book in the Memo to the CEO leadership series from Harvard Business Press titled Succession: Are You Ready? Goldsmith structured his compact message in the form of memos on the key elements in succession: preparing yourself; helping select a successor; coaching the successor; and passing the baton. In each area, Goldsmith focuses on behavior and encourages CEOs to see the human aspects of succession in themselves and in their potential successors. Conversational in style, this is a quick book to read, filled with good advice that will take time for anyone involved in succession to absorb. While targeted to CEOs, managers at other levels in organizations will find practical and useful advice to apply in their own succession plans.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)

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Reliable. The latest Kurt Austin novel from Clive Cussler and Paul Kemprecos is titled Medusa. In this outing, the NUMA hero tackles the exploits of a Chinese gang who are trying to overthrow the government through the spread of a virus, and have stolen an undersea lab that is developing a cure by using jellyfish toxins. While the action can be adrenaline-packed at times, and the structure of the novel follows Cussler’s typical formula, most of the writing is weak, and the extremes of character development: super-heroes and super-villains leave little room for the nuances found in most real personalities. So many of the entrances and exits of both heroes and villains were unlikely and unexplained that I found myself laughing when one or the other made a slippery getaway. I find most of Cussler’s novel to be the Lay’s Potato Chips of action novels: reliable in taste, one you start, you’ll probably finish, and in the end, it’s still junk food. For a summer escape that doesn’t require any thinking, consider picking up Medusa for a few hours of mild entertainment.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)

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Tea Time for the Traditionally Built

Children. The tenth novel in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by prolific author Alexander McCall Smith is titled, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built. With her gift for listening carefully to others, Precious Ramotswe solves cases this time out by listing to what comes from the mouths of children, who are often the most observant of creatures. Most of the action in this novel centers on the case of a local soccer team whom the owner expects is losing games because of the actions of a traitor. Along the way, Precious faces the demise of her beloved white van, and she grieves over this loss more than expected. A cup of bush tea goes a long way to helping one deal with all the challenges of life. Fans of this series will love the latest installment, and new readers can easily start here and then want to read others. Reading Smith’s books is like enjoying a piece of fine candy: sweet and satisfying.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)

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Losing Mum and Pup

Devotion. Christopher Buckley’s new memoir, Losing Mum and Pup, focuses on the deaths of his larger-than-life parents, William F. Buckley and Patricia Taylor Buckley, within the same year. Fans of Christopher’s witty fiction will find the same quality of writing in this memoir. As an only child, Christopher discloses the end of life caregiving that can be overwhelming, especially when it comes to caring for strong willed parents. Beneath some of the shots Christopher takes his late parents, his devotion to them, and their devotion to each other come through on these pages. Through his writing skill, Buckley allows readers to share his mourning, and come close to experiencing his grief. I was teary after reading some of these pages. The anecdotes from their lives and their dying are packed with vivid description and with all the issues that any family faces. After reading this memoir, I found myself recounting some of the Buckley family stories to friends. Losing Mum and Pup captures the laughter and tears of living and dying in ways that will make readers reflect on our own relationships and losses of loved ones as well as the elements that constitute a life well-lived.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)

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