Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today

Stars. Readers interested in the American military or leadership are those most likely to enjoy Thomas E. Rick’s book, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today. Ricks explores an interesting question: why is it that the generals in World War II were respected and successful, while most since then have failed. I found this book to be well-researched and presented with clarity and insight. Ricks explores the isolation of modern generals, who are treated like rock stars. There’s a modern bias toward conformity and a culture of entitlement. Because rotation takes place so often leaders don’t know their subordinates. Leaders are rarely relieved of duty when they fail. The model of effective military leadership, George Marshall, behaved quite differently when he fired ineffective generals and rewarded individuality by selecting the right person for the right job. My blood boiled when I read Rick’s insight into some of our modern generals. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase The Generals from amazon.com.

Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot

Selective. There’s one thing for sure that I can say about Bill O’Reilly: he comes across with confidence and certainty, no matter what. In his book Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot, written with Martin Dugard, O’Reilly animates the build-up to the assassination of John Kennedy. He selects highlights from the Kennedy presidency and the political environment, injects the swagger of his confidence and certainty and keeps readers begging for more. Some historians need great communicators to convey the results of their research. Some events are not well known and can benefit from being promulgated. I learned nothing new here; the well-known story was retold clearly. For readers who want a refresher on the Kennedy years and the assassination, this book provides a crisp way to skim through the surface of what happened. Readers who like that kind of dramatic, brisk and selective presentation of history are those most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended) Click here to purchase Killing Kennedy from amazon.com.

Company Orders

Brisk. I read David J. Walker’s Company Orders in two sittings. The plot’s pace started quickly and seemed to accelerate. I wanted to finish the novel so that I could breathe easier. Protagonist Paul Clark is a Catholic priest in Chicago. His comfortable life gets upended and he ends up in Guyanese jungle fighting for his life. Walker tells a great story, and develops characters quickly and effectively. Readers who like an action-packed mystery are those most likely to enjoy this one. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Company Orders from amazon.com.

Unassisted Living: Ageless Homes for Later Life

Showy. I am the target demographic for a book by architect Wid Chapman and gerontologist Jeffrey P. Rosenfeld titled, Unassisted Living: Ageless Homes for Later Life. The 33 homes presented in this book are intended to provide readers with examples of home design that can allow for alternatives to the senior housing choices of earlier generations. I found all the spaces to be severe and cold. They contained lots of open space, designed for show more than for daily living and practical utilization of space. There’s fine photography to present these houses, but most floor plans were far too small to read or interpret accurately, in other words: useless. I found that few of these unusual buildings respected their settings: most look like they crash landed. Take a pass on this book unless you find from a sample that you think you can find something useful here for you. Rating: One-star (Read if your interest is strong) Click here to purchase Unassisted Living from amazon.com.


Pieces. I admit to being befuddled by Aatish Taseer’s novel, Noon. If the four sections of the book make sense as a whole, I didn’t get it. Each on its own seemed finely written and interesting, but my reaction when I finished the whole novel was: “huh?” The character holding together the four pieces is Rehan Tabassum. In the first chapter, he recalls the departure of his father from India to Pakistan. The second involves Rehan’s relationship with his stepfather, a wealthy industrialist. The third chapter involves the reaction to a theft and the place of servants in Indian society. The final section is set in Pakistan. Throughout the book, Taseer presents episodes that highlight the contrasts in society. When I finished all the pieces, instead of a whole, I felt left with a recollection of anecdotes and pieces of a whole that left me blank and somewhat confused about what I had read. On the premise that others might see something here that I missed, I offer a mild recommendation for the novel, and suggest sampling an excerpt first. Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended) Click here to purchase Noon from amazon.com.

Dick Francis's Bloodline

Plodding. My patience was exhausted by the time I finished Felix Francis’ latest book titled, Dick Francis’s Bloodline. I wanted to shout: “get on with it!” A good mystery rewards readers with the satisfaction that comes from connecting clues and using at least a few brain cells in the process. Francis plods along a very slow pace in this novel and I found myself not caring a wit about solving the mystery, or what happened to any of the characters. I’ve read books from the Francis franchise for mild entertainment, but this latest novel left me even less entertained than usual. Readers who are keen on low levels of excitement and predictable mysteries are those most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended) Click here to purchase Bloodline from amazon.com.

It's Fine By Me

Bleak. Readers who enjoy a closely examined character study without demanding an engaging plot are those most likely to enjoy Per Petterson’s novel, It’s Fine By Me. All is really not fine for protagonist and narrator Audun Sletten. When we meet him as a teenager, an age when most want to be liked and to blend in with their peers, Audun prefers separation, marked by the dark glasses he refuses to remove indoors. Petterson mines the extent of pain in Audun’s life and presents a bleak family life in a cold landscape as a young man copes with sadness and alienation. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase It’s Fine By Me from amazon.com.

The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days: A Novel

Weary. Ian Frazier expanded his Cursing Mommy character from brief New Yorker pieces into a novel titled, The Cursing Mommy’s Book of Days. While I laughed at some parts of this book, I became weary before long, and there just weren’t enough funny bits to keep me entertained. Structured like a diary, some entries were terrific, and others fell flat for me. At his best, Frazier is hilarious, and the Cursing Mommy expresses her frustration with life with precision cursing that caused me great delight. The hilarity was spread a little too thin, and after a while I became tired of the Cursing Mommy and was ready to emit a curse or two of my own. Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended) Click here to purchase The Cursing Mommy’s Book of Days from amazon.com.

Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety

Disclosure. People are funny. Most of us enjoy spending time with those people who can laugh at themselves or who are willing to tell self-deprecating stories. Readers can experience that enjoyment from Daniel Smith’s book, Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety. Smith has suffered from profound anxiety, and he describes some of his life experiences with great wit as well as insight. I experience what I suspect to be an average level of anxiety, so what Smith has faced is far outside my personal experience. Memoirs can introduce readers to aspects of human behavior that can be enlightening. Smith’s disclosure of the extent of his anxiety may comfort those who are severely anxious. General readers can find insight on these pages into what others face in their daily lives. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Monkey Mind from amazon.com.

The Prisoner of Heaven

Atmospheric. Having enjoyed The Angel’s Game, I readily picked up Carlos Ruiz Zafron’s novel, The Prisoner of Heaven, another part of his series of an uncertain number of books set in Barcelona involving the Cemetery of Forgotten Books . Zafron’s prose is highly descriptive, and for readers of the earlier novels, the characters are immediately familiar and recalled. Zafron sets this novel in two time periods, 1939 and 1958, and he develops more fully the characters of Fermín Romero de Torres, David Martin and Daniel Sempere. When I finished this novel, I considered reading the earlier novels again, expecting even more pleasure from them all. Readers who like novels in which the setting and time period come alive and descriptive language dominates in creating a realistic atmosphere, are those most likely to enjoy this novel and the others in the series. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Prisoner of Heaven from amazon.com.

The Chemistry of Tears

Broken. The protagonist of Peter Carey’s novel, The Chemistry of Tears, finds herself brokenhearted at the sudden death of her lover. Catherine Gehrig hides her grief because her lover was a married man, and few knew about their relationship. Her boss offers a chance toward healing by offering a new work assignment: the restoration of a nineteenth century mechanical device. Catherine becomes obsessed with the device and its commissioner, Henry Brandling, who saw the device as a way to heal his ill son. Carey weaves together the stories of Catherine and Henry through the use of lyrical prose and deep insight into human behavior. I was captivated by Carey’s fine writing and enjoyed the display of his talent and cleverness. Intelligent readers with patience to accept indirect plot and satisfaction with the unresolved messiness of life are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Chemistry of Tears from amazon.com.

Dogfight: The 2012 Presidential Campaign in Verse

Waggery. Political junkies of all persuasions will find a laugh or two when reading Calvin Trillin’s Dogfight: The 2012 Presidential Campaign in Verse. I prefer Trillin’s prose over his poetry, but found a few laughs in this short book. The account of Callista Gingrich’s cough is the best of the lot, in my opinion. There’s more content on the Republican side, given the primary contest, but Trillin pokes some merry wit at Obama as well. Readers who have the courage to revisit the 2012 campaign and can do it with the intention of laughing are those most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Dogfight from amazon.com.

All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother's Dementia. With Refreshments

Nourishment. The clarity and candor of Alex Witchel’s writing made reading her latest book a delight. In All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia. With Refreshments, Witchel expresses the range of reactions when her mother experiences dementia. There’s a way in which Witchel deals with the grief of being with someone who is both present and absent, changed and the same. Through cooking, especially the comfort foods of childhood, Witchel struggles to reconnect the broken links in their shared lives. The meatloaf alone is a reason to read this book. Anyone close to the struggle of those facing dementia and their loved ones will find hope and nourishment in this finely written book. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase All Gone from amazon.com.

Sad Desk Salad

Lighthearted. Jessica Grose’s debut novel, Sad Desk Salad, is a humorous excursion into the out-of-balance and conflicted life of a blogger. Protagonist Alex Lyons writes a gossip blog for the site Chick Habit. The pressure of feeding the blog with new posts leads Alex to bathe irregularly, dress in a dirty muumuu and eat a salad at her home desk when she has time to eat. She hopes her audience of women at work eating their own sad desk salads will generate lots of hits, especially for her lunchtime posts, because she fears losing her job. Her relationships experience the impact of her stress as she addresses the concerns of how much privacy the web allows. I found this novel to be funny in many places, while the subject matter allowed for a degree of seriousness. I expect the target audience for the novel is young women, so readers in that demographic should certainly sample an excerpt to see if this style is to your taste. For an older guy, this was not humorous enough to rate a recommendation for humor. If it is satire or parody, I didn’t get it. I was mildly entertained as Grose took me in a lighthearted way into a world I know little about and to characters for whom I developed no empathy. Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended) Click here to purchase Sad Desk Salad from amazon.com.

The Fateful History of Fannie Mae: New Deal Birth to Mortgage Crisis Fall

Quasi. Readers looking for a deeper understanding of the rise and fall of Fannie Mae will find a crisp account of the past seven decades of that organization’s highlights and lowlights in James R. Hagerty’s book, The Fateful History of Fannie Mae: New Deal Birth to Mortgage Crisis Fall. Bob Hagerty is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who has covered the mortgage business and the government sponsored enterprises (GSEs) extensively. He relates how a public purpose was paired with private capital to create a quasi-governmental entity that became the largest holder of residential mortgage debt. Political machinations over many years led to inadequate capital and a weak regulatory framework. Investors took gains in the good years and taxpayers are now covering losses. I worked at Freddie Mac from the mid-1970s to the late-1990s, so I know the subject of this book from an inside perspective. Hagerty gets all the headlines right in this book. There is more to each story than what he presents, but those nuances may be meaningful only to those who were immersed in the business. General readers will find in this book a cogent presentation of how Fannie Mae came to be, to grow and to generate huge losses. Any reader with an interest in public policy, especially relating to housing, will enjoy reading this book. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase The Fateful History of Fannie Mae from amazon.com.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Why I Left Goldman Sachs: A Wall Street Story

Junior. Greg Smith expanded the fifteen minutes of fame he earned by resigning from Goldman Sachs in a startling 1500 word New York Times editorial and has written a 250 page memoir titled Why I Left Goldman Sachs: A Wall Street Story. All memoir becomes a matter of perspective, and Smith’s junior role at Goldman gave him a perspective that represents one slice of the firm and one set of experiences. Reading this book is like eavesdropping, bringing the reader into places where we might not normally be, to the point where there was entirely too much recollection of chatting at urinals. Yuk. That and other unnecessary contexts pack this book with anecdotes that meant something to Smith, but not to many others. His main point is that his values and the behavior he saw at his company became misaligned. From p. 236, “I knew in my heart there was something deeply wrong in the way people were behaving, in the way they didn’t care about the repercussions, in the way they saw their clients as their adversaries.” Readers who want an inside view of Goldman will get a sliver here. Readers who like a coming-of-age memoir are likely to find this one interesting. Any reader expecting the revelation of secrets won’t find them in this book. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Why I Left Goldman Sachs from amazon.com.


Confusing. Readers with a high tolerance for confusion and with patience to allow ambiguity to last a long time are those most likely to enjoy reading Zadie Smith’s NW. I was infuriated and confused for at least the first half of the book. I struggled to try to piece together what Smith presents which required me to allow her to take me where she chose, not where I expected or preferred to go. By the end of the novel, I felt it was an unusual experience, but her writing was worth my time. After I finished, I read part of the beginning of the novel again, and felt far less confused than I did on the first reading. I recommend sampling an excerpt before plunging into this creative and unusual novel. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase NW from amazon.com.

In Sunlight and in Shadow

Images. If you’re looking for a long novel to enjoy on these cold winter nights, consider Mark Helprin’s In Sunlight and in Shadow. The vivid images of Manhattan after World War II provide a lush backdrop for two main motifs: a love story between protagonist Harry Copeland and heiress Catherine Thomas Hale, and Harry’s violent encounters with the protection racket. Harry inherited a struggling leather goods business from his father, and Catherine is the only child of a wealthy Wall Street financier. If there is such a thing as a character who is too virtuous, Helprin may have created one in Harry. Without fail, against all obstacles, Harry’s character remains steadfast in doing what’s right. The light and dark themes from the title to the descriptive language to the scenes of love and war, provide striking contrasts of the best and worst in human nature and behavior. This is a big book set in a big city addressing big issues. Readers who like to become immersed in a place and time alongside likeable heroes and wicked villains are those most likely to enjoy this lushly written and satisfying book. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase In Sunlight and in Shadow from amazon.com.

Ancient Light

Memory. I find that as I get older the sharpness of my memory comes into very clear focus, especially when I recall people or events decades ago. John Banville writes lyrically about memory in his novel Ancient Light. I read this novel slowly and savored the fine language. I found myself pausing to reread Banvillle’s choice of words and appreciate how perfectly constructed his prose can be. I’ve liked Banville’s crime novels written as Benjamin Black, and that quick pace and unadorned language is a sharp contrast to this more literary style of fiction. Readers who like detailed images and finely crafted prose are those most likely to enjoy this finely written novel. Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended) Click here to purchase Ancient Light from amazon.com.

Live by Night

Gangster. It’s the vivid storytelling that brought me pleasure while reading Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night. I wanted to know what would happen next in the fascinating life of Joe Coughlin. As the criminal son of a senior Boston police executive, there were many directions that Joe’s life could take. Lehane plucks him from Boston and delivers him to Tampa where he turns around a flailing criminal enterprise and makes millions during Prohibition. Readers who like novels mostly for the story are those who are likely to enjoy this one. Rating: Three-star (Recommended) Click here to purchase Live by Night from amazon.com.