Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Goldfinch

Redemption. I often lose patience while reading a fat novel. I find myself selecting how many hundred pages could be jettisoned without losing much value. While Donna Tartt’s novel, The Goldfinch, comes in at just under 800 pages, I never once found myself impatient or wondering which pages could be deleted easily. Tartt’s plot kept me engaged from the opening crisis through the redemptive denouement. The protagonist narrator, Theo Decker, calmly relates his coming of age story from age 13 when an accident kills his mother, until about a dozen years later when his moral compass finds a true course and leads him to face the consequences of his past mistakes. The many other characters are all complex and interesting: fully fleshed out humans whose actions, like ours, are a mix of doing good and choosing a lesser path when expedient. Tartt uses a painting to hold the novel together, and that layer alone made the construction of this novel both interesting and enjoyable. I loved the plot and the characters, as Tartt’s language brought me hours of reading pleasure. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Goldfinch from amazon.com.

The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence on American Business

People. Duff McDonald’s book, The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence on American Business, appeals to many different readers. Any businessperson who has worked for an organization that used McKinsey & Company as consultants will find in this book a context in which to place that experience, whether positive or negative. Readers who have never heard of this influential consultancy will learn what it is, what it does, and how it has achieved ongoing success. Consultants of all stripes will resonate with the work McDonald describes. The writing is brisk and is full of stories about the people who led the firm and who formed its corporate culture. McDonald accomplishes in this book what most journalists try to achieve: he catches the interest of readers by the way he calls attention to what may be otherwise overlooked. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Firm from amazon.com.

Ghana Must Go

Broken. What I enjoy most about a finely written debut novel is the pleasure in savoring well-written prose from a new voice. Taiye Selasi’s debut novel, Ghana Must Go, gave me precisely that pleasure. The word choices always seemed perfect, and I found myself rereading some finely constructed sentences. This is the story of family and the life of Kweku Sai, a broken man whose life soared to the pinnacle of becoming a prominent surgeon in the United States and then crashed to his death in poverty in Ghana. We learn of this man in a meandering way through his former wife and his children. There is unconditional love and grief matched with resentment and sadness. Readers who like to experience new fiction voices should consider reading this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Ghana Must Go from amazon.com.

The Maid's Version

Secrets. In fewer than two hundred pages, Daniel Woodrell provides readers with a gripping story about a catastrophe and the secrets kept about its cause. The Maid’s Version is a tightly written compact novel that moves forward and backward in time, from multiple points of view. Because of Woodrell’s skill readers gradually come to understand the mystery. Most readers are likely to read this novel quickly and then consider reading it a second time. Woodrell’s lyrical prose is worth more than a single glance. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Maid’s Version from amazon.com.

Dr. Seuss: The Cat Behind the Hat

Brilliant. There are several great reasons to buy Caroline Smith’s Dr. Seuss: The Cat Behind the Hat. First of all, this is a beautiful book. The illustrations are finely printed and are beautiful to see. Second, if the only image you have of Dr. Seuss comes from The Cat in the Hat, you are in for a treat. While many of the images from Ted Geisel’s children’s books were familiar to me, I especially enjoyed seeing the midnight paintings, his ads and the political cartoons he drew. Finally, any reader who likes to learn more about a creative individual will discover in this finely written book a comprehensive perspective on Ted Geisel. Treat yourself to this expensive book with a value that far exceeds its cost. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Cat Behind the Hat from amazon.com.

Never Go Back

Forward. After a dozen and a half novels featuring Jack Reacher, can author Lee Child still surprise readers with aspects of this complex character? In a word: yes. In Never Go Back, there were a few times I paused to reflect that this is something I didn’t quite expect Reacher to do. With reliable skill, Child moves this character forward in the latest novel, providing fast-paced action, good dialogue and interesting twists. I was entertained by this novel, and recommend it to new and old Reacher fans. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Never Go Back from amazon.com.


Hope. Tom Drury reprises the Grouse County, Iowa setting from his debut novel, The End of Vandalism, and some of those characters for a new novel titled, Pacific. I enjoyed this book as a novel of hope, and appreciated the ways in which Drury contrasted a Midwestern small town with life on the West Coast. Drury’s prose can be captivating, but I found myself pushing myself toward the end of the novel just wanting to finish it, not quite savoring it. Read a sample to see if you think his writing in this novel will appeal to you. For me, it was ok, but not one that I can highly recommend. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Pacific from amazon.com.

Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others

Joy. I imagine two significant audiences for Stacy Horn’s delightful book titled, Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others. The first audience comprises all of us who sing regularly in groups, or who have been choir or singing club members in the past. For this group, Horn puts into words the wide range of emotions that we feel but may not possess the words to express. The second audience represents all those who know singers who rehearse and perform and wonder why this is done, especially by amateurs. Horn expresses the pure joy of being part of a community creating art, and expressing deep thoughts and emotions through our vocal instruments. I loved this book, but didn’t skip a choir rehearsal to read it. After all, how can I keep from singing? Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Imperfect Harmony from amazon.com.

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish

Rhyme. It takes an unusual writer to even consider writing a novel in verse. It requires a very skilled writer to pull it off, especially in just over one hundred pages. The late David Rakoff accomplished both successfully in his final book, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish. I felt compelled to experience this novel in two ways: I read it on paper, and then listened to it being read by Rakoff. With my knowledge that he was dying as he recorded, I found myself listening even more closely to his expression and delivery. This novel does what we want any good novel to do: hold up for us life in all its richness and help us see and feel the wonders of human behavior. I highly recommend that you consider reading this novel, and then consider listening to Rakoff reading it to you. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Love Dishonor from amazon.com.

Swimming Home

Stranger. I added Deborah Levy’s novel, Swimming Home, to my reading list after it was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker prize. I found this dreamy and short book to be filled with very satisfying prose, but I finished the book feeling that I had just experienced a bad dream. The stranger who shakes up the lives of two vacationing couples never quite became a fully formed character for me. I recommend that any interested reader consider an excerpt before purchasing this book. I’ve concluded not for the first time that the tastes of those who select finalists for literary prizes don’t always align well with what I like. Rating: Two-star (I didn’t like it) Click here to purchase Swimming Home from amazon.com.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Circle

Amazoogle. I knew as soon as I started reading an excerpt from Dave Eggers novel, The Circle, in The New York Times Magazine, that I’d enjoy reading the whole book. Readers who love satire are those most likely to love reading this novel. Protagonist Mae Holland gets to leave her boring job when a friend draws her into a powerful internet company called The Circle. Under the company’s business plan everybody comes together with a single identity that links together all aspects of life. Eggers blends all the ambition and potential of companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook and others, to draw out the progression toward a world in which all behavior is transparent all the time. Eggers holds a mirror to the obsession with social media and a 24/7 approach to being connected. Readers who see this future state as desirable or as a nightmare may equally enjoy reading this novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Circle from amazon.com.

Bleeding Edge

Conspiracy. Here’s my advice if you decide to read Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Bleeding Edge: sit back, relax, laugh, and let him take you to people and places for amusement and entertainment. Don’t bother trying to keep track or figure things out: this is a plot-free novel. It’s a romp through New York City with protagonist Maxine Tarnow whose investigation provides the action for the novel. Pynchon sets the novel at the end of the dot.com bubble, and while we know 9/11 is coming, he handles that with precision. Thoughts about conspiracies abound, and shady characters are found everywhere, even in virtual reality called “DeepArcher.” The writing soars on every page, and the realistic dialogue made me feel like I was in Manhattan. While I caught many of his references, I know I missed more than I caught. I could care less about what I might have missed because I laughed a lot, and enjoyed the time spent reading these 500 pages. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Bleeding Edge from amazon.com.

The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy

Ambition. It took me almost a year to read the 800 or so pages of David Nasaw’s fine biography of Joe Kennedy titled, The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy. I spread out the reading not because this was slow reading, but because I found that the raw ambition and imperious personality of Kennedy was best served in small doses. Nasaw captures the politics, business, family and character with a wide scope and a presentation of episodes and anecdotes that kept my attention throughout. Any reader interested in this era, this person, and this family, will likely enjoy all the time spent in reading this well-written biography. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Patriarch from amazon.com.

The Silent Wife

Cheating. The time I spent reading A.S.A. Harrison’s debut novel, The Silent Wife, sped by as I enjoyed the way the personalities of the main characters were dissected. Any reader who enjoys psychological fiction will likely enjoy this one. Todd and Jodi are an affluent married couple. Todd is a property developer who cheats on his wife. Jodi is a part-time psychologist who chooses to avoid and deny Todd’s infidelity. Their lives appear to be in a state of balance or even satisfaction. Harrison then increases the tension, and readers are in for a fast-paced plot full of twists and insights. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Silent Wife from amazon.com.

The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son

Therapy. It’s pretty clear to any casual reader of Pat Conroy’s books that he had a tumultuous relationship with his father, Don, also known as The Great Santini, whom Pat featured in an earlier book that also became a movie. Conroy’s latest book, The Death of Santini, reflects on the full range of their relationship from Pat’s childhood to Don’s death. I came away from this memoir with a sense that it was the product of hundreds of hours of therapy. I was reminded that each of us brings a point of view to all our relationships; siblings can seem to have had different childhoods because of one’s unique perceptions of what happened, what it meant, and how one felt. For any reader who enjoys great storytelling, this memoir presents a well-told story of a powerful relationship from one point of view. While I enjoyed the writing, I could have done without this recap of the dynamics of yet another dysfunctional family. Read a sample before deciding if this is a memoir that you’re likely to enjoy reading. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Death of Santini from amazon.com.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Double

Warrior. Readers who like intelligent crime fiction should consider reading George Pelecanos’ The Double. Pelecanos develops protagonist Spero Lucas in this second novel featuring this DC based Iraq War veteran Marine who works as an investigator and freelances at property recovery for a percentage of the value recovered. What Pelecanos explores with great care is the duality of human nature: goodness and evil coexist in each of us. Spero and his main adversary in this novel tilt slightly toward good or evil and are so much alike, that they are doubles, one level of meaning for the title. The property recovery in this novel involves a painting titled, The Double, providing another level of meaning. The adrenaline rush from Iraq remains powerful in Spero as he continues his warrior behavior at home. The tensions in his life provide great entertainment for those readers who like well-written crime fiction. I can’t wait for the next novel to feature this complex character. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Double from amazon.com.

Sister Mother Husband Dog: Etc.

Tasty. I noticed that after I read a dozen pages of Delia Ephron’s Sister Mother Husband Dog: Etc., I got up to pour myself a drink and prepare a hearty snack. Then, I settled down for ninety minutes of enjoyable reading. The next day, I prepared the snack and drink first, and sat in a comfortable chair to finish reading the book. My reflection is that I found her writing to be both tasty and enjoyable, and led me toward nourishment. Her writing is witty as she calls attention to so many of the absurdities of life. The memories she selects of life with her late sister, Nora, were moving and were a pleasure to read. Readers looking for some good laughs and some wise writing about love are those most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Sister Mother Husband Dog from amazon.com.


Mellow. I love spy thrillers for two main elements: an interesting, complex protagonist and a fast-paced plot. Former CIA spy Valerie Plame teamed up with thriller writer Sarah Lovett and produced a novel titled, Blowback. My expectation was that given Plame’s CIA experience, the protagonist, Vanessa Pierson, would be something of an alter-ego to Plame, and she would bring us inside what life as a CIA spy is like. If that’s what ended up in the novel, my conclusion is that there’s a lot of boredom and infighting in the intelligence world. I found the plot mellow and the main character interesting, but not complex. I finished the novel and came away with no enthusiasm for reading a sequel. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Blowback from amazon.com.

Still Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys?

Entertaining. Readers looking for some laughs and light entertainment should consider reading Billy Crystal’s memoir, Still Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys?. Crystal is a master storyteller, and the personal and family stories in this book provide a great balance between the downright funny and the heartfelt and moving. If you’re looking for an entertaining book for an airplane trip, consider this one. I zipped through this book on a trip and found myself smiling often and reflecting on the components of a life well-lived. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Still Foolin from amazon.com.

Goat Mountain

Creatures. David Vann pulls no punches as he examines dark dimensions of human behavior in his finely written novel, Goat Mountain. An eleven year old boy anticipates a coming achievement: bagging his first buck on the annual hunting trip he joins with his father, grandfather and a family friend. The setting is the family’s 640 acres of land in rural California. Violence and tragedy follow, as the line blurs between man and beast. All the creatures in this novel suffer. The tightly written prose kept me turning pages despite my revulsion at the story. Written as a recollection decades later, the calmness of the narrator contrasts with the violence among the characters. Readers who appreciate fine prose and are open to contemplating the dark sides of human behavior are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase Goat Mountain from amazon.com.