Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Clash of the Cultures: Investment vs. Speculation

Contrarian. Mutual fund veteran and Vanguard founder John C. Bogle’s latest book is titled, The Clash of the Cultures: Investment vs, Speculation. Here’s his premise in a nutshell: “when a value-destroying culture of salesmanship overwhelms a value-enhancing culture of stewardship, of course there’s a clash.” (p. 217) Bogle encourages individuals to be long term investors and not speculators. He calls for regulated fiduciary duty by financial intermediaries because those entities routinely place their own interests above those of the individuals they serve. Bogle’s views are cogent and consistent with his position held over decades. For better or for worse, he remains a contrarian. Bogle packs the book with data and examples to illustrate his viewpoint. Readers interested in finance are those most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Clash of the Cultures from


Captive. With great skill in her story collection titled Astray, Emma Donoghue takes fourteen historical events and writes a story that brings to life characters and setting. I parceled myself one story a day, and came away from each story dazzled and satisfied. The efficiency of the short story requires a writer to manage every sentence with precision. I was held captive by Donoghue’s fine writing, and found every character to be well developed and their situations and behavior believable and insightful. I found her use of the first person narrator in several stories to be particularly effective. Readers who like short stories and fine writing should consider reading this excellent collection. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Astray from

The Child's Child

Mores. Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine, compares the mores of two time periods in her novel, The Child’s Child. Structured as a novel within a novel, we see troubled characters from the present and from 1929 struggle with the reactions of society to their behavior. Unwed mothers, same sex attraction and sibling relationships are all developed in both time settings. Rendell writes with great skill and I was entertained from beginning to end. If you like fiction with strong character development and psychological and social insight, you should consider reading this one. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Child’s Child from

A Foreign Country

Imaginative. Post-cold war spy novels can lack the tension that follows from the large scale deceptions that superpowers wrought on each other. Charles Cumming skillfully recreates that tension on a smaller scale in his finely written novel, A Foreign Country. Protagonist Thomas Kell had been tossed out of MI6 and doing very little for a half year when he’s called in from the cold to investigate the disappearance of the incoming chief, Amelia Levene. What follows is an imaginative and engaging story of personal and professional betrayal and support. If you like spy novels, you’re likely to enjoy this one. If you enjoy fine writing and avoid spy novels, you might want to give this one a try. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase A Foreign Country from

The Black Box

Persistence. Fans of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels will enjoy his latest installment, The Black Box. The cold case that Harry opens in this novel involves a murder from the 1992 L.A. riots in which Harry himself had been called to the scene, but someone else handled the case. In his trademark dogged and consistent manner, Harry follows one lead after another as he tries to solve the case. Harry’s persistence survives internal politics that threatens his job. Both new and longtime readers who enjoy well-paced crime fiction with strong character development are those most likely to enjoy this engaging novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Black Box from

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Telegraph Avenue

Messy. I love reading Michael Chabon’s fiction because I find that the words and phrases and sentences he builds are among the best I’ve read. In Telegraph Avenue, Chabon displays all that virtuosity with language while drawing readers into caring about the messy lives of the protagonists, Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, and their wives, Gwen Shanks and Aviva Roth-Jaffe. Archy and Nat are partners in Brokeland Records, located in a former barbershop in Berkeley, where they sell used vinyl records. Gwen and Aviva are midwives. All these characters are facing threats to the status quo, and Chabon builds on their love, their history, and the setting to reveal a slice of humanity that speaks to every one of us. The business troubles, relationship challenges, and threats to harmony are all familiar themes that Chabon mines with great skill and precision. I cared about these characters by the end of the novel, and I thought of them as if they were my neighbors. I reread many sentences, savoring Chabon’s skilled writing, especially when he seemed a bit off track, and found those elaborations to be beautiful. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Telegraph Avenue from

The Double Game

Dredging. Fans of spy fiction will have fun reading Dan Fesperman’s The Double Game. In some ways, this is a homage to spy novels. Protagonist Bill Cage yields to the temptation of being led by some unknown person on a trail through Europe to uncover secrets from decades earlier. Having read classic spy stories, Cage is hooked by the way he is being manipulated, and along the trail of dredging up the past, he has to face what was real and what was pretend in his own past. Cage wonders about what work his father did in his State Department job when they lived in Europe. Fesperman keeps up the suspense about who’s manipulating Cage, and which characters are out to help or harm him on his trail of discovery. The whole trope of counterspy comes alive on these pages, leaving readers entertained by the puzzle. I liked Fesperman’s craftsmanship in constructing a fine spy novel and keeping me interested from beginning to end. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Double Game from

In One Person

Mutable. John Irving writes with eloquence about desire and sexual identity in his novel, In One Person. Protagonist Billy Abbott is a likeable and entertaining narrator as Irving guides readers through five decades of Billy’s life on the 400+ pages of this novel. While many characters are presented or revealed with a label: bisexual, transgender, homosexual, cross-dresser; they are not defined or limited by those labels. Their sexual desires matter, but they are not the sum of those desires. Irving presents episodes of tolerance and intolerance, of understanding and disappointment, as he allows readers to become involved with characters most of us might not meet in our everyday lives. Irving displays a range of human behavior while reinforcing the bonds of what we share in common. If the subject of mutable sexual identity makes you too uncomfortable, this is probably a novel you may not enjoy. Any reader who appreciates fine writing and who is open to spending time with characters that may be unfamiliar is likely to enjoy this finely written novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase In One Person from

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking

Balance. I can think of several reasons for readers to purchase and read Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. If you hate self-help books and the Pollyanna approach found in many of them, this book takes a different path that you’re likely to enjoy. Burkeman writes in a way that will engage and entertain most readers. After you’ve read it, you’ll think of at least one unbalanced optimist to whom you will present a copy of this book with special glee. Finally, if you love self-help books, you need to read this one to round out or balance what you’ve been getting from other authors. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and found that Burkeman’s way of connecting his perspective with threads of classic philosophical thinking made me reflect on happiness in a broader way. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Antidote from

Back to Blood

Shaggy. Tom Wolfe often takes a magnifying glass focus on some aspect of American life and culture and uses his novels as a form of social commentary. It took me a long time to plow through the shaggy dog story he presents in his latest novel, Back to Blood. Wolfe sets the novel in Miami, and uses the diversity of that place to swipe at Cuban-American assimilation, art world snobbery, pornography, body building, media sensationalism, prejudice and the decadence of modern life in general. I think Wolfe enjoyed writing the 700+ pages of this novel more than I enjoyed reading them. Buried inside, there might be a very fine 300 page novel. While I read through to the end, Wolfe tested my patience at many turns as he wove his story to be sure to include every element he wanted to display. Readers who like a lot of pages for the buck, and who are fans of Wolfe are those most likely to enjoy this sprawling novel. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Back to Blood from

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Dog Stars

Home. There’s nothing like a beautiful dystopic novel to restore one’s confidence in the indomitable human spirit. I read Peter Heller’s debut novel, The Dog Stars, just after the infuriating political morass involving the fiscal cliff. I was ready to spend time in another society. Along came the world Heller creates: one in which 99.7% of the population has been killed by a super-flu. The people still living do what is necessary to survive, and find love or a home where they can. There is a longing for connection, and a pressing need to protect oneself from those who are set on doing harm. Protagonist Hig is a pilot, who still has fuel for a 1956 Cessena, and he flies with his dog Jasper to keep the perimeter secure for the compound where they live with the competent and gruff Bangley, who is quick to kill anyone who threats their protected home. In our world or in Heller’s all we really need is love, and after Jasper dies, Hig flies beyond his comfortable range to make a new human connection and by the end of the novel he learns the meaning of “home.” Readers who haven’t tired of post-apocalyptic fiction should consider reading this heartwarming novel about hope and love, and what home can become. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Dog Stars from

Night Watch

Bones. The fourteenth novel by Linda Fairstein featuring Alex Cooper, assistant district attorney in Manhattan, is titled Night Watch. Fans of the series will enjoy many familiar elements: the reprised characters who continue to develop; some new tidbit about Manhattan that comes from Fairstein’s research; and an entertaining story that brings reading pleasure. Alex is in France with Luc Rouget when old bones are left on his doorstep following the discovery of a woman’s body in a nearby pond. Alex is called back to NYC after a diplomat is accused of sexually assaulting a hotel made. The maid becomes an unreliable witness as Alex becomes involved in this high profile case. Meanwhile more old bones show up at another murder site. Needless to say, the plot thickens to the delight of most readers. I enjoyed the way Fairstein uses the backdrop of Luc’s venture into a new restaurant as a way to display the methods used by restaurants during prohibition. As usual, I found Fairstein’s writing to provide me with reliable and enjoyable entertainment. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Night Watch from

This Is How You Lose Her

Voice. Junot Diaz reprises his well-developed character, Yunior, in nine short stories collected under the title of one, This Is How You Lose Her. Diaz knows how to riff about love: passion, heartbreak, mistakes, falling head over heels. Yunior’s longing for love and his ease for losing what he most desires, made me laugh and wince. Diaz does an outstanding job of presenting well fleshed out characters quickly, and using imagery and dialogue to allow readers to enter into their world. You may not like Yunior, but you will understand him. You will also understand the parade of women he loves and loses. I paced myself by reading one story at a time. That gave me time to reflect and to savor the treat of Diaz’ fine writing. Readers who love crisp writing with a distinct voice should take a look at this well-written collection of stories. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase This Is How You Lose Her from

Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction

Partnership. The relationship between writer Tracy Kidder and editor Richard Todd may not be typical, but the result in the form of the finely crafted books by Kidder proves that something has worked well in this four-decade partnership. Their new book, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, has both individuals reflecting on the writing and editing process. As I read it, I marveled about how special their relationship has been, a deep friendship, and how the skills of each harmonize to create very fine writing. On one level, this book offers writers some very cogent advice on what to do and what to avoid. On another level, readers can enter into the personal lives of these two talented individuals and eavesdrop on their collaboration. As a reader, I found myself entertained by the fine writing of this short book, the wisdom of the authors’ advice, and the realization that when both authors and editors are skilled and strong-willed, the books that flow from such a talented partnership are ones well worth reading. Writers and editors who pick up just a few tips from Kidder and Todd will make me an even happier reader. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Good Prose from

Sweet Tooth

Deception. Deception is at the core of Ian McEwan’s novel, Sweet Tooth. McEwan sets the novel in England in the early 1970s, and uses a female protagonist and narrator, Serena Frome, to tell a slowly paced entertaining story about a new MI5 recruit and her relationship with the target of her initial assignment, a promising writer named Tom Healy. Serena’s deception with Tom provides the plot action to engage readers in this story. As their relationship becomes intimate, the risks of the deception unraveling increased, adding a narrative tension that I found enjoyable. McEwan develops the complexity of both characters in ways that made me feel that I understood them quite well. Lovers of finely written prose will appreciate McEwan’s skill in this novel. I especially enjoyed his use of Serena as a reader to provide context and insight into writers and writing as viewed from the perspective of a reader. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Sweet Tooth from

Friday, January 4, 2013

Broken Harbor

Control. One of the many things I like when I read novels by Tana French is the way in which she includes the past in such a powerful way that it takes on the weight of a character. In Broken Harbor, protagonist detective Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy (who was a minor character in her earlier novel Faithful Place), investigates a murder near the place where he and his family spent two weeks holiday in a caravan close to the water. The psychological tension and insight French presents kept me captivated by this novel from beginning to end. This is crime fiction at its very best. The case is complicated, the characters human and complex, and both the power of the past and the projection of the future make for decisions in the present that are both expected and insightful. The relationship between Scorcher and his rookie partner, Richie, allows French to develop both characters effectively. French uses the backdrop of the collapse of the Irish economy and the housing bubble to present ways in which those who followed all the rules still became damaged. This is novel about maintaining control, and what happens when through depression and loss, one loses control. Readers who like crime fiction, character-driven novels, and psychological novels will find much to enjoy in this finely written book. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Broken Harbor from

Open City

Wandering. I usually have the patience to overlook the absence of plot in fiction. My patience was sorely tested by Teju Cole’s debut novel, Open City. The protagonist, Julius, is a Nigerian immigrant and graduate student studying psychiatry in New York City. The novel is an assembly of the vignettes of his dreamy wandering, mostly around NYC. Cole presents the inner thoughts of Julius and the connections he makes between what he sees now and what it reminds him of in his earlier life. Just when I started to get into the spirit of the NYC wandering, Cole jets Julius to Europe, where the wandering continues. I kept reading, but never became engaged enough to care about Julius, and I found Cole’s writing became methodical and tiresome. Read a sample to see if these vignettes will bring you reading pleasure. For me, it never clicked. Rating: Two-star (I didn’t like it) Click here to purchase Open City from

Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore

Friendship. Debut novels often disappoint me because they can be stuffed with so many elements that a writer has been struggling to express. The restraint and economy in Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore stood out for me. Sloan tells a story well, keeping up plot momentum and providing effective character development. At its core, this novel is a story of the power of friendship, and Sloan is clever in the ways he uses protagonist Clay Jannon as a bridge from the print books of the past to the digital future. Readers who like puzzles and who enjoy books that are fun to read are those most likely to enjoy this one. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Mr. Penumbra from

Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child

Depth. Whatever you think you know about Julia Child, the chances are excellent that you’ll learn something new if you read Bob Spitz’ fine biography titled, Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child. When I picked up this book, I expected to skim a few pages and get bored quickly. Instead, I became intrigued by the depth and complexity that Spitz reveals about Julia Child. Spitz allows readers to become part of the highs and lows of her life: deeply felt loving relationships alongside strong disappointments and great losses. Child’s hard work and optimism provide a great model for anyone who wants to live life to the fullest. When you put the book down, drink a toast to Julia, and eat something yummy, especially with those people you hold dear. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Dearie from


Hope. I loved the exquisite prose in Lauren Groff’s novel, Arcadia. Here’s a sample of one sentence I read twice: “He thinks of the rotten parachute they played with as kids in Arcadia: they hurtle through life aging unimaginably fast, but each grasps a silken edge of memory that billows between them and softens the long fall.” If you like that sentence, chances are you’ll like the whole book which presents protagonist Bit Stone, who was born in an upstate New York commune named Arcadia. Groff presents his life from the late 1960s to 2018. The commune was built on hope, and Bit’s hope survives great upheaval. This story of family and community was a great start for me to a new year of rewarding reading. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Arcadia from