Friday, April 27, 2012

Imagine: How Creativity Works

Magic. Most readers of Jonah Lehrer’s new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, will learn a dozen or so new things about creativity as a result of reading this book. His lively writing will keep all but the most distracted readers engaged. The stories and anecdotes bring to life some underlying science that would be a bit boring to read in a different manner. I found his chapter on outsiders to be particularly informative. Promoting creativity, especially in the workplace, involves some magic, and Lehrer provides some useful thoughts on how to tap into the possibilities. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase Imagine from


Connections. Sara Paretsky’s fifteenth and latest V.I Warshawski novel is titled Breakdown. As fans have come to expect, Paretsky’s plot is complicated, her politics are raw, and issues from the headlines provide ample opportunities for Paretsky to exploit. The connections she makes from contemporary headlines to novel plots are always well done. Partisans of Paretsky’s leftward leanings will cheer her character portrayals, while righter leaning readers may find her characters incomplete. Readers who like character-driven crime fiction are those most likely to enjoy this novel and this series. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Breakdown from

Sacre Bleu

Colorful. The last time I read a novel about a color must have been when I was three or four years old. I have a distant memory of dreaming of the colors coming to life. Maybe that experience prepared me to enjoy reading Christopher Moore’s novel, Sacre Bleu. The Impressionist painters come to life in this novel, and the illustrations and the beauty of the book itself were a joy to experience. This is a funny and imaginative novel that can be best enjoyed while sipping French wine. Readers who are looking to read something a little different should consider this novel. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Sacre Bleu from

11/22/63: A Novel

Obdurate. Readers who like to settle in and spend a lot of time with a well-told story should consider Stephen King’s latest novel, 11/22/63. King’s imagination soars as he considers the question of what would have happened if Kennedy wasn’t shot and killed in 1963. The device he uses to riff on this topic is time travel, and by using protagonist Jake Epping as an everyman who gets to decide the future of reality itself. A lot of the book is a love story that is endearing and important to the plot. Changing the past has consequences, and as King restates often, “the past is obdurate,” it does not want to change. Jake finds events become harmonized and his best plans can lead to unexpected outcomes. This is fine story telling with just enough speculation and imagination to keep a reader interested and willing to suspend disbelief. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase 11/22/63 from

Stone Arabia

Siblings. Literary novels can concentrate on the lives of characters in ways that lead readers to deep insights into our human condition. Dana Spiotta’s novel, Stone Arabia, performs that feat with skill and efficiency over the course of about 250 pages. The protagonists are siblings, Denise and Nik, and while this sibling relationship provides context, what Spiotta explores are the ways in which awareness can lead to isolation, especially when it comes to our knowledge of world events. Anyone who has experienced difficult and challenging relationships, particularly with close family members, will find Spiotta’s sensitive treatment of these relationships to be sensitive and profound. Readers who enjoy fine writing should pick up this novel. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase Stone Arabia from

The Compass of Pleasure

Lively. David Linden does for neuroscience what the Freakonomics authors have done for social science: he finds a way to make the subject accessible for general readers. His latest book, The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good, provides a lively presentation about how the brain works and how our pleasure circuits become activated. One aspect of the book that I found particularly interesting is his exploration of the relationship between pleasure and addiction. Most readers will feel entertained by Linden as we learn key concepts from evolution and modern neuroscience. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Compass of Pleasure from

When I Was a Child I Read Books

Cogent. I read each of the ten essays in Marilynne Robinson’s collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books, in a single sitting on separate days. I needed to engage my wits to follow her thorough and thoughtful arguments, and then needed a rest afterwards to absorb what I read. She must be the kind of teacher for whom alert students should schedule free time after her class for recovery. In many respects, she comes across as a writer’s writer, with her careful choice of words and deliberative style. There may not be a better contemporary description of liberal Christianity and its sources and demands. Readers of her novels will gain insight from these essays and may consider re-reading the novels in light of the revelations from these essays. Any reader who appreciates fine writing and cogent reflection should consider reading the book. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase When I Was a Child from

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Spinoza Problem

Reason. It’s rare to find a historical novel that links two time periods effectively, while retaining the complexity and depth of each. Such a rare find is Irvin Yalom’s latest novel, The Spinoza Problem. There are two protagonists: philosopher Bento Spinoza in 17th century Holland, and Alfred Rosenberg in Nazi Germany. The Spinoza problem is raised out of Rosenberg’s anti-Semitic perspective: how could this Jew from Amsterdam have written works revered by Goethe, the greatest of German thinkers? Yalom uses the fictional Rosenberg to illuminate the philosophy of Spinoza and provide an entertaining way of learning to those readers who enjoy historical fiction.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Flame Alphabet

Toxic. For some “meat and potatoes” readers, reading a literary novel can be like being told to eat one's vegetables because they’re good for you. The taste is often less appealing, especially when plot can be confusing or absent, or the subject matter is depressing. The latest novel from Ben Marcus, The Flame Alphabet, may be an acquired taste for most readers. This is a dystopic novel in which the speech of children causes disease, while the reaction of parents is to continue to love and be drawn to the suffering from this toxicity. Our desire for community comes through in the odd way in which religious practice is conducted. You may not read a stranger novel this year if you approach this one. Sometimes, it’s worth the stretch to explore something imaginative and unusual. For some readers, this novel is worth the stretch.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power

Compelling. Open-minded readers will find a compelling argument about American military bloat in Rachel Maddow’s book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. Those readers who have pigeonholed Maddow as a liberal automaton may be deaf to her articulate, witty and thoughtful approach in this book. I found this book to be a reasoned and reasonable exploration of the ways in which we have drifted from our foundational values about a standing military, and for a variety of reasons have funded a military that is too easy to engage in foreign entanglements. True conservatives and libertarians will find her case to be compelling. Any reader interested in public affairs and public policy issues should seriously consider reading this book whether you generally agree or disagree with Maddow.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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An American Spy

Complexity. Readers who like complex spy novels and characters that are multi-dimensional are those most likely to enjoy the fine writing in Olen Steinhauer’s latest novel, An American Spy. This is his third novel to feature Milo Weaver, and readers who have not read the earlier books may find Milo to be developed somewhat incompletely in this novel. The Chinese characters in this novel are developed very well, and the complex plot requires readers to pay close attention as a large cast of characters move around the world carrying out their actions. Don’t read this novel while distracted at the beach, since you’re likely to become lost on who’s who and what’s what. Find a time and place when you can pay attention and enjoy the complexity.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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The Conundrum

Cross-purposes. If you’re pretty smug about the ways in which you’re green: recycling, locavore, hybrid, etc., be sure to avoid reading David Owen’s book, The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make Our Energy and Climate Problems Worse. Owen’s basic premise is that we turn efficiencies into increased consumption and thereby make our problems worse. These usage changes don’t lead to sustainability. The conundrum entails our inability, thus far, to commit to taking steps that would actually make a lasting difference on a global scale. According to Owen, we need to find ways globally to live smaller, closer to each other, and to drive less. Readers who enjoy gathering a broader perspective on issues are those most likely to enjoy this book.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Cinnamon Roll Murder

Nice. Readers looking for an escape to the world of “Minnesota nice” can find a few hours of pleasure by reading Joanne Fluke’s 15th installment in her Hannah Swensen mystery series. Titled, Cinnamon Roll Murder, this novel opens with Hannah serving as a first responder to a bus accident. The action proceeds at a good clip, and the recipes included provide a sweet diversion of another type. Most characters are caring and loving people who treat each other with kindness. Readers who like to feel good after reading a novel are those most likely to enjoy the books in this series.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times

Nonconformists. Eyal Press’ short book, Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times, presents a reflection on a dimension of human behavior: standing alone for one’s convictions. He tells the stories of nonconformists who exhibit moral courage in taking stances that conflict with the will of their superiors or peers. This book provides a thought-provoking launching point for conversation with friends or colleagues about the decisions we make to conform or to stand our ground. Readers looking for inspiring stories of courageous behavior will find those here. Readers looking for an interesting book club selection will find this book will stimulate lively discussion.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Cues. Readers who like science written for lay people are those most likely to enjoy Charles Duhigg’s new book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Duhigg explains the science in enough detail to inform and in a writing style that entertains because of great examples and stories. The loop we all engage in is that some cue causes us to behave in a certain way to achieve a desired reward. Some readers are likely to become more self-reflective after reading this book, and may recognize the patterns that we follow without much thought.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Beastly Things

Companions. Fans of the Donna Leon novels featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti will enjoy this 21st installment in a reliable and consistent series set in Venice. Titled Beastly Things, the novel opens with the homicide of a veterinarian. While Guido investigates the case, his wife, Paola, struggles with an issue of her own at the university. As expected, both Guide and Paola find ways to reach the right resolution. The scenes of Brunetti and his sidekick Vianello visiting a slaughterhouse were more vivid than some readers might appreciate, and the good character and decency of some characters provides a striking contrast to the criminals. By the time Leon shifts to pets as companions at the end of the novel, most readers will have become vegetarians.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East

Restoration. Within the span of a few pages of Anthony Shadid’s memoir, House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East, I smiled and then teared up. The centerpiece of the book is the story of his restoration of a family home in southern Lebanon. He owns a fraction of this house with a load of cousins, and decided to just go ahead and live in it, since he was the only owner residing in the region even part of the year. Anyone who has tried to restore an old house will smile at these travails. The havoc of war in the region is never far from the scene, and Shadid provides crisp and clear insight into the issues and the effects of decades of strife. What Shadid does so well is describe the people of the town and members of his family in ways that all readers will enjoy. The fact that Shadid died earlier this year led me to tear up on occasion as I read this book. A major part of his legacy involves his extensive journalism career with The Washington Post and The New York Times. Another part of his legacy is the restoration of a stone house, as told in this finely written memoir.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Starboard Sea

Truth. Amber Dermont’s debut novel, The Starboard Sea, takes the 99% into a slice of the lives of the 1%. Set at a co-ed prep school for the outcasts of other prep schools, Dermont draws a picture of the loneliness and alienation of the rich children of busy parents. Their coming of age can be hampered rather than enhanced by privilege. Their search for the right path in life can be elusive. Demont’s writing is lyrical, the story engrossing, and the sailing exciting. Readers willing to give a debut novelist a try are likely to enjoy this novel, as will those who attended prep school, are wealthy, or who love sailing.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

Understanding. To the extent such a thing could happen, it seems that Susan Cain may have written an introvert’s manifesto with her book titled, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. Cain presents the importance and value of the perspective and contributions that introverts can make in relationships and work settings, if given the chance. Her call is for understanding and the achievement of balance. This book is quick and easy to read, and extroverts are likely to feel they got the point, while introverts will ponder and reflect on Cain’s viewpoints and discover ways in which their contributions can be acknowledged and recognized.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Gods Without Men

Searching. A rock formation called The Pinnacles provides the backdrop to the action in Hari Kunzru’s novel, Gods Without Men. Kunzru presents a story of a search for meaning capitalizing on the desert journey experience used for millennia of stories, and adds a quirky UFO dimension for modern interest: the role of the Ashtar Galactic Command. While Kunzru uses various time periods to present the story of our ongoing search for meaning, the part that gripped me most was the modern story of the search for a missing child. Readers looking for a well told but somewhat odd story are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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