Monday, November 28, 2011

The Cat's Table

Voyage. Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The Cat’s Table, presents the story of a boy’s journey by boat from Sri Lanka to England in 1954 using two perspectives: as it was underway and how it was remembered much later. I found Ondaatje’s writing to be outstanding throughout this novel, and the characters became richly developed from both perspectives. The descriptive and poetic language became beguiling at times, and I found myself re-reading passages that were particularly enjoyable. The title refers to the shipboard table located furthest from the Captain’s table, the one at which all the strays were gathered. It is these strays that become the liveliest characters in the novel. Readers who appreciate literary fiction are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Cat’s Table from

The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food

Yummy. If one of your favorite meals is to savor a finely constructed sentence, sit down at the table and enjoy reading Adam Gopnik’s The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food. Intelligent readers who appreciate fine writing and have a strong interest in food are those most likely to enjoy this book. Gopnik can alternate between taking food very seriously and poking fun at the ways in which we inject meaning in food. There’s much in this book about the history of restaurants, cooking for others, and the pleasure of sharing a table. If any of those topics interests you, thanks to Gopnik’s talent, reading this becomes a feast.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Table Comes First from

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Marriage Plot

Burdens. The three protagonists of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, The Marriage Plot, carry heavy burdens. They came to Brown from different Oregon, Detroit and New Jersey, and as they graduate in 1982, they are uncertain what comes next. Madeline Hanna is considering post-graduate work in literature, but Yale did not accept her. Leonard Bankhead met Madeline in a Semiotics class that Eugenides describes in rich detail. Leonard has bipolar disorder, and his manic and depressive episodes dominate the book. The third protagonist, Mitchell Grammaticus, is a religious studies major who heads to India after graduation. The three characters are in a love triangle that would have developed one way in Jane Austen’s world, and develops in another way under Eugenides. The fine writing here is lively and descriptive, and the burdens carried are made real through the ways in which Eugenides brings the characters to life. These are not necessarily appealing characters, but they are real. The love relationships mirror the reality of our contemporary society.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Marriage Plot from

Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life

Contagious. We want to be around joyful people. James Martin is a Jesuit priest, a prolific writer and an editor at America magazine. His latest book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life, explores the many ways in which spirituality becomes evident through joy, humor and laughter. He explores each of those areas with wit and self-deprecating stories. The result is an entertaining book that leads to laughter as well as to reflection. I found myself passing along at least two or three anecdotes from this book. Readers who like spiritual themes and humor are those most likely to enjoy this book.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Between Heaven and Mirth from

The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories

Unease. Don DeLillo’s novels have received raves from readers over four decades. His debut short story collection covers that time period, and is titled, The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories. I can’t recall reading any of these stories before. In each one, I discovered the same precise writing from DeLillo’s novels, and the way in which he holds a mirror to readers about our unease and discomfort with what’s happening around us. The difference between these stories and his longer fiction is that I had the sense that every single word in his stories was carefully chosen, and that nothing extra was needed. He leads readers to see what he sees in American life, and presents connections between his characters and readers that are unmistakable.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Angel Esmeralda from

What It Is Like to Go to War

Warriors. Karl Marlantes answers a question the majority of Americans cannot answer because of our lack of experience. In his book, What It Is Like To Go To War, Marlantes uses his own experience in Vietnam to try to explain with honesty and openness what war was like. Those who have been in war may find that Marlantes speaks for them or describes something quite different from their own experience. Through fine writing, Marlantes explores the psychological intensity of the experience of war, both at the time and for long afterward. He examines spirituality and the process of reflection about what took place in shadow.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase What It Is Like to Go To War from

A Man of Parts

Cranky. It didn’t take me long to get cranky while reading David Lodge’s fictional biography of H.G. Wells titled, A Man of Parts. Perhaps the genre of fictional biography leaves me cold. While I found Lodge’s writing to be engaging, I found the character of Wells to be far less interesting than either Wells’ writing or Lodge’s. The constraints of this quirky subject who lived a complex and vibrant life became tiresome for me after a hundred or so pages. I slogged through to the end, but remained cranky to the last. Readers with affection for Wells or who enjoy Lodge’s writing are those most likely to enjoy this book.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
Click here to purchase A Man of Parts from

Eisenhower: The White House Years

Middle. Readers of political biography usually want two elements to dominate: a vivid portrait of the individual that makes him or her come alive, and a description of the context or world situation in which the subject engaged. Jim Newton’s biography, Eisenhower: The White House Years, masters both elements. For readers like me who think of the 1950s as a boring and stable decade, and who recall Ike as a grandfatherly golfer who led his Administration with a light touch, this book debunks such myths. This was a very complex time and Ike was fully engaged on the issues and challenges we faced. He pursued a middle path that seems quaint in the context of today’s partisan political environment. Readers who enjoy good writing and lively political biography are those most likely to enjoy this book.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase Eisenhower from

Social Q's: How to Survive the Quirks, Quandaries and Quagmires of Today

Sharp. I rarely read Philip Galanes column in the Sunday Styles section of The New York Times. After I picked up a copy of his new book, Social Q's: How to Survive the Quirks, Quandaries and Quagmires of Today, I came to appreciate how witty and crisp writing can apply to almost any topic. Galanes’sharp writing style is entertaining and he knows how to turn a phrase. Fans of the column will savor this large dose. Any reader who likes wit and enjoys the social commentary that an advice column can provide will find much to enjoy in this entertaining book.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Social Q’s from

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Litigators

Cheery. Many of John Grisham’s novels have been ponderous or overly dramatic, with odd dialogue and predictable plots. The Litigators is lighthearted with endearing characters (even the lawyers), realistic dialogue and a well-paced plot. I found myself rooting for protagonist David Zinc, and genuinely interested in how things would turn out. Maybe it was the Chicago setting that made the characters come alive with their Midwestern authenticity. Readers who have given up on Grisham should give this one a try.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Litigators from

The Caller

Troubles. Karin Fossum continues her entertaining Inspector Sejer mystery series with a novel titled, The Caller. Fossum takes an ordinary situation, injects it with danger and crime, and then allows multiple perspectives to envelop the reader. In this novel, we see the situation from the criminal’s perspective, the victims, and the detectives. While we learn early who the criminal is, interest remains strong because of the skilled character development and the ways in which Inspector Sejer deals with the pieces of information he grasps. A twist at the end brings added pleasure to mystery fans. Fossum’s a skilled writer and this novel will provide rich entertainment to those readers who like this genre, even in translation.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Caller from

The Great Leader

Character. Readers who like novels that develop deeply rich and complex characters are those most likely to enjoy Jim Harrison’s novel, The Great Leader. Protagonist Simon Sunderson has recently retired as a detective in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and he can’t let go of his last case, which involved a cult leader named Dwight, called the Great Leader by his followers, often teenage girls. Each character and the physical environment are presented and developed by Harrison with lyrical writing and understanding of human behavior. The engagement and kindness and desires of characters in this novel will keep readers interested from beginning to end.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Great Leader from

No More Mr. Nice Guy

Raunchy. Readers who can tolerate an abundance of explicit and raunchy sexual narrative will find Howard Jacobson’s novel, No More Mr. Nice Guy, entertaining and funny while addressing the serious subject of marital relationships. Protagonist Frank Ritz finds himself thrown out of his house by his partner Melissa Paul. He travels around the country remembering sex past and looking for sex present. His introspection about his life and sexual activity leads him to view his life in a more complete way. I picked up this novel after I read Jacobson's Man Booker award winning novel, The Finkler Question. The two books hold little in common in subject matter and style, but share fine quality writing from a skilled novelist.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase No More Mr. Nice Guy from

That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back

Rediscovery. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has teamed with foreign policy professor Michael Mandelbaum to write a stimulating book titled, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. As with earlier Friedman books, this one is packed with a ream of selected observations and facts that are used to support the authors’ opinions and desired policies and actions. The core approach is that we need to rediscover how we came to be the country we are today, and to restore those things that made us great. The authors propose that we need to answer the questions of what world are we living in and what do we need to do to thrive in that world. They propose a rediscovery of the public-private partnership we’ve embraced since our founding and deal with education, infrastructure, research and development, immigration and regulation. Whether readers agree or disagree with the diagnosis and prescription, the subject is interesting, the authors offer a lively presentation, and readers are prompted to engage in the issues raised.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase That Used to Be Us from

The Race

Soars. Clive Cussler takes protagonist Isaac Bell to the skies as the heroic Van Dorn detective protects a skilled aviatrix from harm during a cross-country airplane contest. This latest novel, set in 1910, is titled The Race, and no fan of this series will be surprised to learn that Bell masters the skill of flying a plane with ease. There’s a wide cast of interesting characters, and the usual level of detail that Cussler readers demand. Bell’s romance with his fiancĂ© Marion Morgan proceeds at what seems like a glacial pace. The usual contest between the good guys and bad guys turns out as expected. Readers looking for some light reading that entertains without requiring a lot of thought are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Race from


Understanding. The four volume series that Christopher Paolini started writing as a teenager comes to a conclusion with Inheritance. Readers of the earlier books will want to read the finale to see how everything turns out. I’ve been wondering how Eragon would deal with Galbatorix in this last book and the clever way in which Paolini resolved their conflict was one of the highlights of the book for me. Readers who like a lot of pages for their dollar with find value here. The quality of writing is spotty, but the combination of plot and character provide enough momentum for most readers to overlook the shortcomings. The heroic story in all four volumes might have been better if condensed, but Paolini indulged readers by stringing us along in a story that developed slowly and left the door open to future books with these now familiar characters.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Inheritance from

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Night Circus

Repercussions. Erin Morgenstern uses the setting of a magical circus as a place to unveil many components of human relationships that bring illumination to the best and the worst of human behavior. The Night Circus caught my attention from the outset and maintained my engagement throughout. As the complexity of the plot and the development of characters progressed, I gained increased respect for Morgenstern’s skills. The circus becomes the locus of a contest between magicians. Thanks to her writing skills, it became much more than a competition, and the repercussions of what was set in motion became significant. This is a novel that most readers will want to discuss with others.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Night Circus from


Spunky. Readers who enjoy satire will find a lot to like in Chuck Palahniuk’s latest novel, Damned. Each chapter begins with these two sentences: “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison.” We get to see the hell of Palahniuk’s imagination through the eyes of thirteen-year-old Madison who finds herself there. She’s a spunky and lively character in every chapter, and the descriptions of hell are vintage Palahniuk.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Damned from

What I Hate: From A to Z

Neurotic. As a longtime fan of Roz Chast’s cartoons in The New Yorker, I thoroughly enjoyed reading her new collection, What I Hate: From A to Z. A perfect riff on a children’s ABC book, Chast chronicles her list in both grim and hilarious scope. Any reader who can laugh at a bit of neuroticism in oneself and others will appreciate this book. It can also provide a perfect gift to that special someone, especially a person who hates at least one of the things that Chase highlights.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase What I Hate from

Blue Nights

Disconnected. How can one speak about what life is like following the death of a spouse and a child within a short span of time? Joan Didion finds a way to do that in her new book, Blue Nights. Whatever form of grief a reader has experienced will become raw again as one reads this book. Even Didion’s writing seems lost and disjointed at times as she describes her experience. One poignant scene was of Didion filling out her own medical form and struggling with the selection of who to notify in case of emergency. The two people closest to her are dead, and she feels lost.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Blue Nights from

Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain

Perspective. Curious readers will gain a rare perspective from reading Jim Lehrer’s book, Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain. Having moderated so many political debates, Lehrer can provide both an inside view as well as perspective about this important element of American political life. This short book is presented in the folksy manner that has made Lehrer a popular journalist. Political junkies will devour this book as a tasty diversion from the current round of debates.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Tension City from