Thursday, October 27, 2011

Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President

Mismanagement. Over the course of 500 pages in a book titled, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President, Ron Suskind presents the many missed opportunities and mismanagement in the early years of the Obama administration. He also explores every possible meaning of “confidence.” Assembled from hundreds of hours of interviews with hundreds of people, I found this book to be comprehensive, and also packed with errors in details that were sometimes distracting. Given the broad scope and journalistic style, some errors are to be expected, and historians should sort it all out. The villains of the book are Larry Summers and Rahm Emmanuel, the best examples of Suskind’s key premise: “the key president’s authority was being systematically undermined or hedged by his seasoned advisors” (p. 458). Any reader interested in contemporary politics will enjoy this book.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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The Dog Who Came In From the Cold

Warm. One reason that I enjoy reading books by Alexander McCall Smith is that I know that when I finish, I will have both a smile and a warm feeling. In The Dog Who Came In From the Cold, Smith brings readers back to Corduroy Mansions and to a familiar dog, Freddie de la Hay. Freddie has caught the attention of MI6, who want to use him to spy on a Russian. The many characters in this novel keep a reader engaged as the simple plot proceeds and resolution takes place. Readers who like tender and warm stories are those most likely to enjoy this and other Smith novels.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Jazz. Sometimes when I read a novel translated from its original language, I wonder what I am missing from the original. I never once had that feeling when I read Arne Dahl’s novel, Misterioso. Plot takes prominence in this crime novel, as does character development. The title refers to a classic jazz piece by Thelonious Monk, and like music, this story needs no translation. The protagonist is a detective, Paul Hjelm, and Dahl develops his character in ways that engaged me throughout the novel. The slow pace of the novel and the gradual solution of the mystery was very satisfying; it always seemed just right.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Lady of the Rivers

Fortune. Philippa Gregory has written another fine historical novel set the time of the War of the Roses. Titled, The Lady of the Rivers, this book presents readers with the life and times of Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford, and the mother of Elizabeth Woodville, who became the white queen. In what seems like endless war, the wheel of fortune turns for Jacquetta and her family one way or the other every fifty pages or so. Readers are taken up in the vivid description, and the development of characters that makes us feel that we are in that time and those places. Readers who like historical fiction, especially that period of turmoil in England, are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Also, readers who like to see history from a woman’s point of view will find precisely that on these pages.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Lost Memory of Skin

Shadows. It’s a rare novelist who can hold up a mirror to readers about modern life by using unsympathetic characters to provide insight into human nature from the behavior of outcasts. The shadows and dark corners of society and personality are explored by Russell Banks in his new novel, Lost Memory of Skin. A protagonist whose only name is The Kid, finds himself in his early twenties as a convicted sex offender, a virgin, and living underneath a Florida causeway, the only place far enough away from children to meet the terms of his probation. Another nameless character, The Professor, is also an outcast. Banks uses both characters to lead readers to think about people around us, and ourselves, in new ways.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness

Normal. If you’ve ever thought that someone would have to be nuts to run for political office, there’s a book to give you backup for this view. Psychiatrist Nassim Ghaemi has written A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness. Ghaemi presents the psychological profiles of certain leaders, mostly political figures, and presents a case showing that individuals with certain mood disorders can be more successful when facing crisis than their “normal” counterparts because of the resilience they have developed in dealing with their own problems. Readers are likely to think of leadership and mental illness in new ways after reading this book. Anyone interested in psychiatry or leadership will likely find this book to be a good reading experience.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Novice: A Story of True Love

Response. Renowned Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has rewritten an old Vietnamese story in a new book titled, The Novice: A Story of True Love. As with most Buddhist teaching, this story helps readers understand the response of love to situations of injustice and suffering. For readers who want to take a break from daily concerns and read a short book that can lead to reflection about our responses to what life throws us, this book is a great choice.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World

Delusions. In a case of one good book leading to another, Michael Lewis leaped from his recent book, The Big Short, to a series of Vanity Fair articles focused on financial delusions taking place around the world. Those articles have been bundled in a new book titled, Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World. As a financial tourist, Lewis takes readers to personal and corporate stories in Greece, Ireland, Iceland, Germany and California. In each setting, Lewis’ writing is lively, likely to engage readers of any level of financial acumen. I enjoy the breezy way in which Lewis gets to the heart of a situation, and finds a way to convey what can be a complicated story into one that is easily grasped by any reader.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Submission

Faith. Amy Waldman’s debut novel, The Submission, tackles a sensitive subject with skill. The plot involves the selection of a design for a 9/11 memorial in New York. The judges select a garden motif from a vast selection of blind submissions. When it turns out that the architect is Muslim, the wonderfully crafted characters react in ways that address trust, vulnerability, and the multiple levels and meanings of “submission.” Mo Khan, the architect, reacts with a coldness and rigidity that adds to strength of the novel. Waldman spares no one as the story proceeds, and she allows multiple perspectives to develop simultaneously. Readers can identify with any number of characters. Any reader who likes fine writing, complex characters and a satisfying plot is likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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The Most Dangerous Thing

Games. The characters in Laura Lippman’s novel, The Most Dangerous Thing, are developed in ways that blend childhood and adulthood. Through story development in 1979 and the present, Lippman creates the context in which these individuals have become who they are today. The games of childhood, and the secrets long kept, become defining for these characters, and have consequences beyond anyone’s expectations. Lippman sets this novel in Baltimore, as she’s done with her earlier novels, and reprises Tess Monaghan in a minor role late in the book. Readers who like character-driven fiction are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

Globalization. Readers who think of globalization as a modern process will learn much from Charles Mann’s book titled, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. Mann’s lively writing engages readers as he describes the Columbian Exchange, and the ways in which the Americas, Europe and Asia transferred animals, minerals, fauna and flora to create what he calls the “Homogenocene Age.” We’ve been living in one world for hundreds of years, not decades. Readers who like history and biology will find much to enjoy in this book.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Leftovers

Grief. It’s possible that Tom Perrotta’s novel, The Leftovers, has created a new genre: the post-apocalyptic comic novel. Perrotta’s action follows an event not quite like the rapture from the Left Behind series in a religious sense, but like it in that that some people have vanished, and others are still around. Families now have missing members, and characters are grieving their losses. While there’s plenty of Perrotta’s fine humor on these pages, there’s a poignancy as well as he allows the characters to grieve and carries readers along with them in a state of disbelief and confusion. One example of that humor was that followers of a certain cult were required to smoke cigarettes. An example of the poignancy was the gift of a cigarette lighter from the daughter of a cult member to her mother, who had been a nonsmoker before joining the cult. The daughter missed her mother who moved out of the house to be with the cult, and the gift was perfect. Unknown to the daughter, the mother used it once and had to throw it away because the cult didn’t keep possessions. Perrotta’s writing is terrific, and most readers will find this to be an enjoyable reading experience.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Bad Intentions

Control. Bad Intentions is the first Karen Fossum novel that I’ve read. Translated from the Norwegian, this is a crime novel about control and remorse. Part of a series featuring Inspector Konrad Sejer, this is a psychological novel, tightly focused and slowly paced as the characters develop and Sejer performs his investigation diligently. Reading a novel in translation is always different from the original, and we rely on the skill of translators to make it work. I found that the characters were well developed in this short novel, and the pacing seemed just right to me. I found Sejer to be an especially interesting character, and I expect to read other Fossum novels in the future.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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No One Would Listen: A True Financial Thriller

Persistence. Six or seven times over the past eighteen months, I picked up and put down Harry Markopolos’ book about Bernie Madoff, No One Would Listen. I’d get interested quickly, then get bored quickly. I found his communication skills to be weak, and I began to understand at least one reason why the SEC didn’t follow up: he seemed like a crank. As everyone knows, he was right, and the whistle he tried to blow wasn’t heeded. My persistence, and his, endured to a resolution. I’m glad I read his account of what happened. I just wish he had made it more engaging. Readers with more patience than me are likely to enjoy this book, and anyone interested in finance and the Madoff scheme will find something of interest in this book.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Affair

Backstory. The fictional character Jack Reacher, who Lee Child created more than a dozen novels back, remains something of an enigma to readers. His backstory is the focus of the latest Reacher novel, The Affair. Set in 1997 when Reacher was in the Army, this novel sends him to Mississippi to investigate a murder that might be linked to a soldier. The local sheriff, Elizabeth Deveraux is also ex-military and she and Reacher understand each other. Reacher’s integrity leads him to uncover the truth wherever it leads, and in Child’s capable hands, readers are unsure about the truth until very late in the novel. Fans of thrillers and Reacher are those most likely to enjoy this fast-paced and entertaining novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Robert B. Parker's Killing the Blues

Brutality. Fans of the Jesse Stone series created by Robert B. Parker will find some familiar elements in Michael Brandman’s debut effort, Robert B. Parker’s Killing the Blues. The short chapters with simple sentences are there, just weaker. The protagonist, Jesse Stone, remains a complex character, but somehow less appealing. The plot progresses with confidence, and by the end, the issues are resolved and justice is done. But Parker would never have had the dogs killed. This novel is worth a quick read to see the difference between Parker and Brandman. I’m not likely to read another Brandman novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Mob. Robin Cook’s novel, Cure, has three elements that might appeal to fans: the return of protagonists Laurie Montgomery and Jack Stapleton; an interesting crime uncovered by forensic medicine; and a passionate expression of a point of view about health care. The burden on readers to achieve satisfaction is to plow through four hundred pages of weak writing. I found myself intrigued by Cook’s description of Japanese mobsters. Laurie and Jack are quirky and interesting characters, but their dialogue often falls flat. Most readers will find better books than this to bring reading pleasure. Serial readers like me will put up with weak writing in exchange for a decent story and familiar characters.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
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We the Animals

Brothers. Some debut novelists try to cram every possible component of their writing experience into a first novel. Justin Torres displays intensity and focus on the pages of his first novel, We the Animals. The result is a finely crafted short novel that tells a coming of age story by the youngest of three brothers, and how their entwined lives became one. At times, this writing is lyrical. At other times, there is such fast pacing that I found myself reading faster. Most readers will find something to like in this short novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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