Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India

Inspiration. Joseph Lelyveld has written an outstanding biography titled, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India. This is not the Gandhi I learned about in school, the saintly skeleton preaching non-violence and who was constantly fasting. Lelyveld goes beyond hagiography and presents a more complete image of a complex individual. This book is not meant to be a complete biography, but focuses on social reform, and as such, places Gandhi as the resolute nationalist, placing India above any religion, and struggling with the ways in which social reform is achieved. The attention in this book is on Gandhi’s time in South Africa and India and the ways in which this remarkable individual inspired others to change their lives.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase Great Soul from amazon.com.

Remarkable Creatures

Friendship. Historical novelist Tracy Chevalier continues her formula of bringing the past to life through real characters in fictionalized narrative focused on craft with a new novel titled, Remarkable Creatures. The craft this time is fossil hunting, and the narrative focuses on the friendship between fossil hunter Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. While from different classes and background, a love of fossils brings them together and provides the glue for what would have been a tiresome novel without the complexities of their friendship. The difficult position of women in Victorian England provides ample grist for Chevalier to present these two women, especially with their contribution to the scientific thinking of the era. Readers who like historical fiction are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Remarkable Creatures from amazon.com.

Drawing Conclusions

Justice. I never tire of Donna Leon’s novels featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. The twentieth in the series is titled, Drawing Conclusions, and the focus of Brunetti’s attention is violence against women. In his persistent and dogged fashion, Brunetti tries to figure things out and follow his instincts to bring answers to his many questions. Wandering around Venice, Brunetti skirts the bureaucracy, finds the answers that eluded him, and determines a form of justice that seems superior to any other. Readers who like character-driven fiction or who like to feel present in the setting are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Drawing Conclusions from amazon.com.

Driving on the Rim

Doctor. The big questions about life are never far away from the characters in Thomas McGuane’s latest novel, Driving on the Rim. Protagonist Irving Berlin Pickett is a housepainter and doctor who has never strayed far from hometown Livingston, Montana, and seems constantly in wonder on the puzzles of what life is all about. McGuane’s choice of words had me re-read many sentences in admiration. At times, I laughed out loud. Spending time with Pickett and McGuane is a real pleasure, and any reader who enjoys fine writing is likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Driving on the Rim from amazon.com.

Swim Back to Me

Loss. There are six works of short fiction in Ann Packer’s new collection, Swim Back to Me. These are either short stories or novellas, depending on how one draws that distinction. In each story, Packer presents the emotional tension in relationships, and explores the many forms of loss we experience throughout life. While I find Packer’s longer fiction to be outstanding (I loved The Dive from Clauson’s Pier), there was something too quirky about these stories that left me wishing for any of these stories to be longer and more complete. She’s a great writer, and even lesser work from her is far better than that of most writers. Readers who like fiction that reflects the complexity of human behavior and that contains psychological insight are those most likely to enjoy this collection.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Swim Back to Me from amazon.com.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Uncoupling

Enchanted. “Comfort was the best thing, and maybe the worst.” (p.182) I smiled often at sentences like that one as I read Meg Wolitzer’s latest novel, The Uncoupling. After a new drama teacher selects Lysistrata as the next play for the high school, discomfort invades the suburban community of Stellar Plains, New Jersey. A spell was cast over the community, and the women in town cease physical relations with men, to the discomfort of all. This imaginative novel is quick to read, and many readers will find it entertaining. I was enchanted from beginning to end.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Uncoupling from amazon.com.

All the Time in the World

Virtuoso. I think I’ve read all of E.L. Doctorow’s novels, and most of his short stories. His new collection of a dozen previously published and new short stories is titled, All the Time in the World. Within the constraints of the short story form, Doctorow masterfully presents fully developed characters in situations that are described well and that unveil aspects of human behavior that will resonate with and engage readers. Those readers who are too busy for long forms of fiction will find that reading one of these stories at a time is pleasurable and achievable. Any reader who recognizes and admires fine literary writing will enjoy each of these twelve stories.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase All the Time in the World from amazon.com.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary

Illuminating. Pat Moynihan was a prolific writer who served in government in a variety of roles for over forty years. A new book, Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary, presents the scope and scale of his interests in a succinct 700 pages. The fine editing by Steven Weisman allows the words of Moynihan to come to life and to illuminate readers on the issues that engaged him, and the sage and visionary advice he provided to many United States Presidents. After both short and long pieces in this collection, I found myself saying, “Wow.” Here’s one such summary (p. 664): “In some 40 years of government work I have learned one thing for certain. As I have put it, the central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself. Thanks to this interaction, we’re a better society in nearly all respects than we were.” Any reader interested in politics, especially over the past half-century, will find much to savor in this fine book.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase Daniel Patrick Moynihan from amazon.com.


Swindles. The plot of A.D. Miller’s debut novel, Snowdrops, became so predictable that I found my mind wandering about ways in which I could have made the events unravel in a more interesting way. Set in Russia, a cast of characters led by British lawyer Nick Platt, meander in the madness that was (is?) Moscow as it embraces capitalism. The subject of the novel is property crime, and the appeal to readers is how lust can overcome all sense. The swindles are straight forward, and the fact that Nick found this experience to be one of self-discovery will appeal to those readers, perhaps lawyers, who are patient with tedium. This may also appeal to those readers who are willing to give debut novelists a try.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
Click here to purchase Snowdrops from amazon.com.

The Trinity Six

Secrets. I place a premium on those spy novels where the characters are clever and when the secrets are worth keeping. Charles Cummin delivers both in his latest novel, The Trinity Six. All the key characters are clever, and their wily ways contribute to a reader’s engagement with the plot. Cummin takes the rumor that the infamous Cambridge Five soviet spy ring in Britain had a sixth member, and he methodically pursues the secret that has remained closely guarded for decades. The pacing of the novel begins modestly, and once a reader becomes comfortable with all characters, the pace accelerates toward a very satisfying resolution. Any reader who enjoys spy novels is likely to be entertained by this one.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Trinity Six from amazon.com.

The Tiger's Wife

Outcasts. Tea Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, introduces her talent to readers with imaginative storytelling and memorable imagery. The youngest writer noted in The New Yorker’s latest 20-under-40 list, Obreht selects intriguing characters to develop: many are outcasts and all are involved in actions that are unusual. The threads of her narrative are filled with mythic elements and struggles with life and death. This unusual debut novel should appeal to those readers willing to try out new writers, and those who enjoy well-written fiction in which all the elements are not clearly resolved.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Tiger’s Wife from amazon.com.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Land of Painted Caves

Concluded. Three decades ago, a co-worker told me that I had to read a hefty new novel, The Clan of the Cave Bear, telling me that the strong female protagonist was a very well-developed character. I plodded through that first novel, and agreed that the story was engaging and the character interesting, but I found the writing to be flat. Every few years, author Jean Auel has added another hefty novel to a series she called Earth’s Children, and I think I’ve read them all. What we expect to be the last novel of the series has been published recently and is titled, The Land of Painted Caves. Well-developed protagonist Ayla returns with husband Jondalar, the horses, wolf and child, as they are now living in what we assume to be the Lascaux region of France. It takes Auel over 750 pages to present this installment, and at times the repetition made me think that even the author never bothered re-reading or editing what she wrote. Somewhere inside, there might be a 250 page well-written novel. Instead, we’re presented with a bloated manuscript. For those readers who like to finish what one starts, this novel might be required reading. For most readers, there are plenty of better novels to select.

Rating: One-star (Read only if your interest is strong)
Click here to purchase The Land of Painted Caves from amazon.com.

The Troubled Man

Melancholy. The 11th Kurt Wallander title from Henning Mankell is titled, The Troubled Man, and most fans of the earlier novels would assume the title refers to the 60-year-old detective himself. While troubled enough, Wallander finds a person even more troubled, 75-year-old HÃ¥kan von Enke, a retired naval commander who has spent decades trying to get to the bottom of an incident involving a foreign submarine in Swedish waters. Wallander becomes engrossed in unraveling this mystery, as he also tries to cope with his mortality and the reality of aging. This novel seems to bring the Wallander series to a melancholy conclusion, which should satisfy most readers. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Troubled Man from amazon.com.

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Training. I admit that I had never heard of the U.S. Memory Championship until I read Joshua Foer’s book, Moonwalking with Einstein. After 320 pages, I was exposed to more information about memory than I can recall. Through a commitment of time, practice and specific training, anyone can develop improved recall. Foer entered the championship and interviewed lots of participants from the U.S. and abroad about how they have gained remarkable memory skills. I thought I’d nod off turning these pages, but Foer writes well and presents the story in a way that should keep most readers engaged throughout. I don’t remember nodding off, anyway.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Moonwalking with Einstein from amazon.com.

The Paris Wife

Feast. Historical fiction about well-known figures can run the risk of verging on the shallow insight level of People magazine or gossip tabloids. Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife never comes close to falling off that precipice. This lively account of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, stands well on its own as literary fiction: the account of a complex relationship that provides insight into human behavior. Knowing several of the characters of the novel increases a reader’s engagement in the story. McLain enlivens the young Hemingway, his bride Hadley, and makes their life in 1920s Paris seem magical.
Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Paris Wife from amazon.com.

Conversations with Myself

Reminiscences. Nelson Mandela’s memoir, Conversations with Myself, seems as unique as the man himself. After some number of pages, there is a facsimile of old notes in Mandela’s handwriting. Throughout, there is a combination of reflection and revelation. The person about whom most readers know highlights becomes vivid through these reminiscences of an extraordinary life. Prison, politics and relationships are covered in ways that most readers will find interesting.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Conversations with Myself from amazon.com.