Monday, March 25, 2013
Obsessive. If Jean Russo had appeared as a character in one of Richard Russo’s novels, her behavior would have strained my willing suspension of disbelief. I would have dismissed her as an outlier: no one could be believed who is so odd, obsessive, and controlling. Instead, Jean is Russo’s mother, and her behavior provides the focus of attention in the memoir, Elsewhere. Richard Russo is an only child, and Jean was an active demanding presence in his life from his birth in Gloversville, New York, to her death many decades later. At times darkly humorous, and at times sad and bewildering, this memoir presents a close relationship of love and caring, despite unrealizable expectations and heavy demands. I especially enjoyed the detailed descriptions of the many changes in living quarters, from Jean going off to college with Richard, to her pickiness about assisted living accommodations. Any reader whose patience has been strained by any difficult close relationship will delight in reading this finely written memoir. Rating: Five-star (I loved it) Click here to purchase Elsewhere from amazon.com.
More Baths Less Talking: Notes from the Reading Life of a Celebrated Author Locked in Battle with Football, Family, and Time Itself
Columns. I drew an unremarkable conclusion after I finished the latest collection of the Stuff I’ve Been Reading columns by Nick Hornby titled, More Baths Less Talking: Notes from the Reading Life of a Celebrated Author Locked in Battle with Football, Family, and Time Itself. I’d much rather be reading a good book than reading about someone else’s reading. Hornby writes quite well, and I found something I liked in every column. The problem for me was that by the time I read this selection, I had either already read or passed on the books that Hornby was writing about. If you are looking for great reading selections, you’re likely to enjoy reading Hornby’s columns. If you’re curious about how other readers make their choices, you’re likely to find this book informative and useful. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase More Baths Less Talking from amazon.com.
Surreal. Readers with patience for the surreal and a taste for absurdist fiction are those most likely to enjoy reading the 500 pages of Nick Harkaway’s novel, Angelmaker. I found great pleasure in Harkaway’s fine use of language in this novel, and I found myself amused often by his choice of just the perfect word or phrase. There’s a great cast of machines and villains, heroes and genuine eccentrics. I found myself surrendering to Harkaway, and letting him lead me along wherever he chose to go. By the end, I was satisfied with my journey into Harkaway’s creation. Read a sample before plunging in. Chances are if you like a selection, you’ll enjoy the whole piece, and vice versa. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Angelmaker from amazon.com.
Cogent. There are a few cogent points buried in the 270 pages of Ken Stern’s book, With Charity for All: Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give. It’s too easy to start a charity. Once started, a charity keeps going even when it fails. Outcomes are inadequately measured, and there is usually a lack of focus and accountability. Government support of nonprofit entities is huge, and very dysfunctional when it comes to achieving desired results. Surrounding those key points and a few others, the book presents some interesting and many boring case descriptions. Stern is a former NPR executive, and he understands nonprofits from that perspective, but he brings no particular expertise to this complicated topic. After I finished the book, I went online and made a contribution to a charity I’ve supported for years, confident that the money will be well spent, even if inadequately measured. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase With Charity for All from amazon.com.
Focus. It’s highly unlikely to find “humble” and “Fortune 500 CEO” in the same sentence. That rare combination can be found in Edward Whitacre, former CEO of both AT&T and GM. Any manager looking for a wise and thoughtful perspective from this successful CEO will enjoy reading Whitacre’s book, American Turnaround. In a folksy Texas conversational writing style, Whitacre describes how attention to focus and accountability leads to outstanding results. There’s no magic formula to success as a manager, from Whitacre’s point of view, just a lot of common sense, humility, and respect for others. With those elements in place, success follows, even in the situation of a challenging turnaround like General Motors. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase American Turnaround from amazon.com.
Wits. Fans of detective fiction who revel in the matching of wits between criminal and cop are those most likely to enjoy reading The Paris Directive by Gerald Jay. Protagonist Paul Mazarelle is a detective who moved from Paris to a village in the Dorgogne, Taziac, to be closer to the home of his ill wife’s family. He wife died, and Mazarelle seems stuck in the village, unsure of what’s next for him. When a worthy criminal advisory, Klaus Reiner, commits murder in town, Mazarelle engages in a fast-paced game of wits to solve the case. I was thoroughly entertained by this novel, and found character development and plot to be well done by the author who writes using a pseudonym. Jay promises a sequel featuring Mazarelle, and I look forward to reading it. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Paris Directive from amazon.com.
Neighbors. It’s rare for me to remain patient while reading a novel that crosses four hundred pages. I usually feel that editing would have produced a better book. John Lanchester’s sprawling novel, Capital, comes in over 500 pages, and it sat on my shelf unread for a long time. I shouldn’t have waited because I enjoyed reading every page. Lanchester presents the lives of individuals living on or associated with those on Pepys Road, a street in London. There’s a large cast of interesting characters, and the time period, 2007 and 2008, allows Lanchester’s knowledge of the financial crisis, the art world and the treatment of suspected terrorists to filter into the novel with clarity and precision. Family relationships are presented with a sharp eye to observing genuine human interactions and presenting them to readers with insight and empathy. Neighbors are close and distant, share things in common, and lead very different lives, the same as on your street or mine. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Capital from amazon.com.
Originality. Readers who like discovering something new will delight in the structure and style of Laurent Binet’s debut novel, HHhH. The protagonist of the novel is the Nazi war criminal Reinhard Heydrich who was known as the “Butcher of Prague.” One structure in the novel represents historical fiction and relates the horror of what Heydrich did. Another structure is the author or narrator’s introspection about how to present the story in the novel. That second structure allows a reader to pause from the brutality. Binet’s originality delighted me as I read this novel, even though the violence and cruelty were often hard to read. This is historical fiction like nothing else I’ve read. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase HHhH from amazon.com.
Absolution. Literary novels can provide readers with deep insight about human nature through how ordinary people deal with life’s common challenges. Helen Armstead, the protagonist of Jonathan Dee’s novel, A Thousand Pardons, faces the reality of her family situation. Her husband, Ben, has exercised poor judgment in his life as a lawyer, and their marriage seems doomed. Helen moves out with their adolescent daughter, Sara, and she finds a way to support them. Helen learns that she has skill in advising others about confessing to their missteps, and finds rewarding employment in the public relations specialty of crisis management. Dee allows the themes of forgiveness and absolution to weave through this story in ways that I found interesting and engaging. Dee’s writing is finely crafted, and this short novel packs a wallop in just over 200 pages. Rating: Five-star (I loved it) Click here to purchase A Thousand Pardons from amazon.com.
Pursuit. Fans of detective fiction are those most likely to enjoy reading Charles Todd’s latest novel featuring Inspector Ian Rutledge titled Proof of Guilt. Set in 1920s England, this Scotland Yard inspector finds himself micromanaged by the Acting Chief Superintendent as he pursues leads in a murder case. Todd provides ample characters to keep a reader’s brain engaged, and just enough red herrings to have readers consider alternative solutions. Despite those trying to thwart his efforts, Rutledge remains in dogged pursuit of the criminal. This novel didn’t make my heart beat fast or keep me up late at night to finish reading it, but I found the pacing appropriate and I was well entertained by this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Proof of Guilt from amazon.com.
Saturday, March 16, 2013
Candor. Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir, My Beloved World, tells the story of her life from birth until she became a judge. In a candid and conversational writing style, Sotomayor tells a story that will resonate with any child of immigrants. That she is a justice on the Supreme Court makes this an inspiring story for any reader. This is a love song to the Bronx and the Puerto Rican community, as well as encouragement to all that obstacles can be overcome through hard work and perseverance. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase My Beloved World from amazon.com.
Spunky. I admit it was the title, Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach, that led me to the latest novel from Colin Cotterill, a novelist I had not read before. What I found inside was a spunky protagonist, Jimm Jurree, whose slapstick actions provided ongoing mild humor. Beneath this façade of this comedy set in Thailand, Cotterill increases the awareness of readers of the plight of refugees from Burma. This juxtaposition of a serious social issue with comedy may be jarring to some readers, but I found that I appreciated the way in which Cotterill made this work. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Grandad from amazon.com.
Uplifting. Whenever I want to read a short novel that is likely to make me feel good about humanity, I turn to Alexander McCall Smith, especially the series featuring the kind and wise Scottish philosopher, Isabel Dalhousie. In the ninth novel of this series, The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds, Isabel turns away from the pressing needs of editing the next issue of The Review of Applied Ethics, to help recover a stolen painting that has been promised to the National Gallery. All the familiar characters are back, and fans will enjoy, as I did, the time spent with Isabel as she thinks things through and navigates a complicated path to solving the case. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds from amazon.com.
Betrayal. Charles Dubow excels at developing the cast of characters in his novel, Indiscretion. He accomplishes what most novelists attempt: presenting us with human behavior in ways that resonate for us in nuance. Each character is neither totally good nor totally evil. There is love and betrayal. There are mistakes and consequences. These recognizable characters, like all of us, live in ways that are shaded, not black and white. What appealed to me so much was the way in which Dubow drew me in from the beginning and helped me care about what happened to these characters. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Indiscretion from amazon.com.
Initiation. A debut novel from Lachlan Smith titled Bear Is Broken will appeal to those crime novel readers who prefer a strong protagonist over a clear and focused plot. Leo Maxwell has just passed the bar exam, and when his brother, Teddy, is shot, Leo’s initiation into the criminal law practice becomes less gradual than either brother had planned. Smith packs this novel with plenty of action, and I was well entertained. I had the sense that Smith included every plot idea he thought of, while not paying enough attention to how it all fit together. Any reader wanting to sample a first novel with an appealing protagonist should consider reading this one. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Bear Is Broken from amazon.com.
Thursday, March 7, 2013
Masterful. Readers who enjoy short stories are those most likely to appreciate the first collection in six years from a real master of this genre, George Saunders. The stories in Tenth of December are short and shorter, and each one packs a wallop. I finished some only to reread, trying to answer the questions: what did he just do and how did he do it. Some readers will find selected stories to be disturbing or dystopic. Part of Saunders’ skill is in taking elements of our familiar world, and using extreme characters and unusual situations as ways to reflect the range of human behavior. I loved these stories, and highly recommend this collection. Rating: Five-star (I loved it) Click here to purchase Tenth of December from amazon.com.
Details. Mystery fans looking for something new and different should consider the debut novel from Kieran Shields titled, The Truth of All Things. Set in Portland, Maine in 1892, Shields presents historical details and tidbits that provide just the right amount of diversion that mystery lovers savor. Three protagonists are well drawn and come to life readily. Archie Lean is a deputy marshall; Perceval Grey is a freelance criminologist; and Helen Prescott is a historian. The interaction among the three provided me with great entertainment, and I found the mystery to be engaging from beginning to end. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Truth of All Things from amazon.com.
Monsters. Sometimes even the best meals can be hard to swallow. Herman Koch presents an extended family in his novel, The Dinner, and structures the book to match the stages of dining out in a fine restaurant. This is a dark novel in which Koch reveals the darkness of our worst behavior: inhumanity to each other. The tension in the novel remains taut throughout, and the pacing is slow, allowing for gradual revelation of what has happened that led up to this meal. The tension finally breaks with an ending that is unlikely to satisfy all readers. Some of the characters could be considered monsters, and they are not necessarily the ones you suspect. If you like psychological novels and books that make you keep thinking after you finish them, you should consider reading this one. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Dinner from amazon.com.
Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy
Bully. If one of Emily Bazelon’s objectives in writing Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy was to help readers think more broadly about the subject of bullying, she succeeded with me. As a journalist and attorney, Bazelon approached this subject open to understanding the complexity of the issues involved. What preconceptions she brought to the subject became questioned as she investigated a variety of situations. The stories she presents in this book reveal the many gray areas involved in individual incidents of bullying and in the culture in which we live. Parents are an obvious target audience, and this book gives a lot of information to be worried about as well as some suggestions on what to do when raising children. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Sticks and Stones from amazon.com.
Slapstick. If Dave Barry’s writing tickles your funny bone, you’re likely to enjoy his zany book, Insane City, presenting Miami in all its weirdness. If you’re not sure, read an excerpt. Chances are you can tell from the sample whether you will laugh throughout the book, or just shake your head at the slapstick absurdity of the behavior of a cast of unusual characters. I fell into the laughing category, and was thoroughly entertained by this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Insane City from amazon.com.