Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Dinner Party

Insight. I had read in different periodicals many of the eleven short stories in the collection by Joshua Ferris titled after the opening story, The Dinner Party. What I appreciated in reading eleven stories together was the depth of insight into human behavior that Ferris uses to form his characters and frame his stories. There are great characters in these stories, and Ferris conveys their complexity with great skill and efficiency. The twists are wicked and the moral issues of modern life are presented with sensitivity and insight. I loved many of these stories, and recommend this collection to any reader who appreciates finely written literary fiction. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase The Dinner Party from amazon.com.

On Living

Hospice. I knew that Kerry Egan works as a hospice chaplain when I opened her book titled, On Living. I wasn’t sure what to expect as she began to present her story and the stories of people she met in hospice. Before I knew it, I noticed that each story built up my strongly positive feelings about the joy of living, and the important lessons that experience can teach us about living the best life we can live. There’s nothing preachy in the short book, just some personal stories. Readers looking to feel good about life should consider reading this inspiring book. I was surprised how moved I was by this finely written book. Rating: Five-star (I love it) Click here to purchase On Living from amazon.com.

Why Wall Street Matters

Reform. Many complicated issues are reduced to what can fit on a tweet, and too much explanation can’t overcome a few memorable phrases. “Break up the banks,” or “fat cats on Wall Street,” can convey sentiment, but not nuance or context. Financial writer William D. Cohan has written an easy to read, mostly jargon free book titled, Why Wall Street Matters, that provides readers without financial expertise with reasons why the demonization of Wall Street should stop. Cohan provides a history of Wall Street to create context, and explains why Wall Street should continue in its important role of allocating capital. He also calls for reform, but cautions against vitriol leading to actions with unintended consequences. He makes it plain that Wall Street compensation needs to be fixed, but that the core role of capital allocation keeps our economy strong. If you know something about finance, this book won’t teach you anything new, but it may help explain to doubters why you agree that Wall Street helps all of us. If you don’t know much about finance, this book can inform you about the role that Wall Street plays in your life and why that role should continue. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Why Wall Street Matters from amazon.com.


Next. Some of us fear what comes next. Richard Russo offers four stories in his book titled, Trajectory. The characters are tied up in knots of one form or another, in relationships, with medical issues, with ambivalence, anxiety and concern about what comes next. Russo mines that fear and shares it with readers using finely written prose that makes us love and hate different characters and want to see them progress on either their current or a different trajectory. Fans of literary fiction are those readers most likely to enjoy this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Trajectory from amazon.com.

Anything Is Possible

Depth. Sometimes after reading a novel, a reader can wonder about fictional characters, wanting to not let the character go and get to read more about a favorite protagonist. The popularity of serial fiction with recurring protagonists rarely crosses into literary fiction, but Elizabeth Strout chose to do that in her novel titled, Anything Is Possible, because she had more to say about Lucy Barton. Strout brought Lucy back in this volume of connected stories, alongside some new and old characters. Strout’s prose is constructed with great care, and the depth of character development brought me great pleasure. Things are not as they appear, and that’s the making of a fine work of fiction. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Anything Is Possible from amazon.com.

The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For

Inspiration. Readers looking for some hopeful and optimistic messages from a wise historian should consider reading David McCullough’s book titled, The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For. This volume gathers speeches that McCullough has given over the past quarter-century, many of them commencement addresses at colleges and universities. I found his spirit contagious and each of the speeches provides heavy doses of inspiration. Whether you’ve attended a commencement this year or not, as participant or observer, and no matter how much concern you have about the current divisions in American life, there’s a positive message that will match or exceed whatever has inspired you lately. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The American Spirit from amazon.com.

The Stars Are Fire

Resilience. Readers who enjoy those novels that can immerse one into a particular place and time alongside an interesting cast of characters with complicated relationships should consider reading Anita Shreve’s novel titled, The Stars Are Fire. Set on the coast of Maine in 1947, Shreve focuses on protagonist Grace Holland, a young mother of two with a third on the way. Grace’s Husband, Gene, has withdrawn from intimacy in their relationship, to Grace’s chagrin. A huge fire destroys the town, and Shreve presents the variety of ways in which the characters are resilient, and provide support for each other. Shreve multiplies the ways in which Grace’s resilience is tested, and how Grace finds ways to thrive. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Stars Are Fire from amazon.com.

Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society

Dethroned. Any debater will be thrilled to have Cordelia Fine as a member of the team. In her book titled, Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society, Fine debunks many false theories about differences between the sexes. Fine dethrones testosterone as the defining factor in behavior and in delineating gender differences. I’m no expert in the science Fine uses for her arguments, but I found her prose entertaining and interesting. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Testosterone Rex from amazon.com.

Dead Man Switch

Vulnerable. Fans of action thrillers will be pleased that Matthew Quirk has reprised protagonist John Hayes for a second novel titled, Dead Man Switch. Hayes and three dozen friends are part of Cold Harvest, a covert paramilitary group. Hayes has allowed his reputation to be tarnished to reduce the vulnerability of his family to retaliation. The plot momentum involves the execution of a step by step plan to liquidate the members of Cold Harvest, and Quirk keeps the action constant, and the twists exciting. Fans will be pleased that even after this exciting installment, John Hayes’ work is not yet done. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Dead Man Switch from amazon.com.

Number 11

Elevenses. I stopped counting how many times the number eleven appeared in Jonathan Coe’s eleventh novel which is aptly titled, Number 11. There are a lot of them. Fans of Coe will be delighted that this is a sort-of sequel to The Winshaw Legacy. New readers will find fine writing, confusing or absent transitions, interesting characters, especially Allison and Rachel, and comedy and satire about our contemporary society. I enjoyed Coe’s wit, his sharp social observations, and his well-written prose. Readers who enjoy literary fiction and can tolerate abrupt transitions are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Number 11 from amazon.com.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Books for Living

Reflective. I read Will Schwalbe’s book titled, Books for Living, because I was curious to explore the reflections of someone about their reading life. I know why I read, and I wondered how much resonance there might be between my reflections about my reading life and Schwalbe’s. On many pages of this well-written book, I found the insights, reasons, and perspective well-aligned with my own experience. I was delighted when I found similarities, and pleased when I saw differences. Any reader interested in taking some time away from reading to reflect about reading, can use this book as a guide, and come away from it with a few more books to add to one’s reading queue. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Books for Living from amazon.com.

Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was

Influenza. I admired Sjón’s efficiency in drawing readers into an unfamiliar world in his novel titled, Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was. Using fewer than two hundred pages, Sjón presents the alienation of being a gay man in 1918 in Reykjavik, Iceland. He adds the tension relating to the war and to the influenza epidemic both about to arrive in that city. He then combines the two elements and shows the ways in which the flu creates in the city the same feelings that preoccupy the protagonist: alienation and fear. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Moonstone from amazon.com.

The Killing Kind

Gruesome. Readers who love action thrillers are those most likely to enjoy the fast pace of Chris Holm’s novel titled, The Killing Kind. Protagonist Michael Hendricks was trained as an assassin. Presumed dead after a false flag mission, he decides to leave his old life behind and find redemption of sorts by becoming a killer of killers. He’d charge clients ten times the price a hitman was being offered to kill the client and for that price would kill the hitman. Holm takes readers through the paces on what that looks like in gruesome detail, then fills in the backstory about Hendricks while keeping plot momentum rolling. If this sounds like your idea of fun reading, go for it. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase The Killing Kind from amazon.com.

Six Scary Stories

Quick. Master storyteller Stephen King judged a writing competition to coincide with the release of one of his books. He found so many of the stories to be pleasurable that he convinced his publisher to put six of them together in a collection titled, Six Scary Stories. Readers who enjoy scary stories are those most likely to enjoy this selection that is quick to read and packed with chills. I parceled out one story a night for a week, and while I slept soundly, my mind did race a bit more than usual during that week. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Six Scary Stories from amazon.com.

Mary Russell's War and Other Stories of Suspense

Fillers. The nine stories in the collection by Laurie R. King titled, Mary Russell’s War and Other Stories of Suspense, fill in gaps in what readers know about the world of Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell. From Mary’s youth to her old age, King connects pieces of stories in ways that will delight fans of this series. I especially enjoyed the stories set during World War I. King has done a wonderful job creating the character Mary Russell and updates Sherlock in ways that will delight many readers. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Mary Russell’s War from amazon.com.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Cork Dork

Taste. Thanks to Bianca Bosker’s lively writing, I was thoroughly entertained while reading her book titled, Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste. This book could have gone wrong at any turn. It might have been so geeked up with wine terminology that it would appeal only to wine snobs. Bosker avoids that trap but still takes wine outsiders behind the curtain. She could have made the book so much about herself that hers would be the only lens through which we would understand the life of a sommelier. Instead, she uses her experience as the bait to lead us into the passion and obsession of a large cast of interesting characters. Whether you know a lot about wine, a little, or nothing at all, you will learn something about taste from reading this interesting book. And as you already know, there’s no accounting for taste. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Cork Dork from amazon.com.

American War

Uncivil. Readers who love a thick and hearty dystopian soup are those most likely to enjoy Omar El Akkad’s debut novel titled, American War. Set in the last quarter of the 21st century, the novel presents a depressing picture: a second American civil war; the damage from climate change; life in an internment camp; foreign powers exploiting American weakness; and huge loss of life from a plague. Akkad uses protagonist Sarat Chestnut as the instrument through which we learn about life in this uncivil society, and Akkad portrays the ability of one individual to make a huge difference in the world. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase American War from amazon.com.

Earthly Remains

Consequences. Donna Leon continues to develop her beloved and recurring protagonist Commissario Guido Brunetti in a novel titled, Earthly Remains, the twenty-sixth installment in this mystery series. A kind, but rash act sets the stage for a break from work for Guido. His wife, Paola, finds the perfect spot for his break: a villa on Sant’Erasmo, owned by one of her relatives. As Guido recuperates, he rows in the lagoon with a villa’s caretaker, Davide Casati, who had once rowed competitively with Guido’s father. With great plotting skill, Leon draws us into the depths of the story, revealing gradually the long term consequences of choices made over time. Readers who love this series are those most likely to be pleased with this addition. New readers can start here or anywhere and be delighted with interesting characters and the joy of a mystery solved. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Earthly Remains from amazon.com.

The Stranger in the Woods

Solitude. Had I been reading a novel featuring the character Chris Knight, I would have set it aside concluding that no person could be as odd as Chris. Having read about the life of Chris Knight in Michael Finkel’s non-fiction book titled, The Stranger in the Woods, I have a new understanding about solitude and how strong the desire for solitude can be in a person’s life. Knight spent twenty seven years living alone in the Maine woods without contact with other humans. Any reader longing for a bit more solitude will come away from this book with the insight that one can get too much of any good thing. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Stranger in the Woods from amazon.com.

My Italian Bulldozer

Change. Frequent readers of any books by Alexander McCall Smith will find some common elements in his stand alone novel titled, My Italian Bulldozer. There’s great optimism, a philosophy rooted in goodness and kindness, and joy in living. Protagonist Paul Stewart is a food writer whose girlfriend dumped him for a relationship with her personal trainer. Bummed by this change, he accepts his editor’s advice that he should finish his Tuscany book onsite. After his rental car experience becomes entangled in Italian bureaucracy, he accepts the kindness of a new acquaintance who secures him the last available vehicle to rent: a bulldozer. Paul accepts the change with a spirit of adventure, and the novel continues to riff on the ways in which change transforms us. A dose of Smith’s philosophy appears in a reflection on p.229: “Sometimes, you know, good things have to be done – they just have to be done. And most of us – myself included – are too timid to do them. Fortunately, there are brave people who are prepared to take the risk, who do those things, often in such a way that nobody can see them. They say, The world doesn’t have to be the way it is, we can change it. That’s what they say – and then they do it.” As always, I finished a Smith novel feeling wonderful about human nature and all that is good in the world. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase My Italian Bulldozer from amazon.com.

For Time and All Eternities

Bound. The third Linda Wallheim mystery by Mette Ivie Harrison is titled, For Time and All Eternities. This time out Harrison is presenting her thoughts on marriage, religion and gender through the lens of Linda, a Mormon bishop’s wife and mother of five living boys and a daughter who did not survive birth. Linda’s son, Kenneth, is engaged to be married to a woman named Naomi who grew up in a polygamous family. Linda and her husband, Kurt, visit the family compound to meet the future in-laws. Before long, a murder follows, and Linda is in the thick of things. I think I am tiring of this protagonist, as I found this novel plodded long more heavily than the previous ones. There’s a mystery here for those readers who enjoy that genre, along with views about Mormonism that will appeal to readers curious and interested in that religion. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase For Time and All Eternities from amazon.com.

Banana Cream Pie Murder

Cliffhanger. The twenty-first novel in the Hannah Swensen mystery series by Joanne Fluke is titled, Banana Cream Pie Murder. Hannah returns to Lake Eden from her honeymoon to solve a murder. Fans of the series will enjoy the return of a familiar cast of characters, the usual compilation of recipes, and a heavy dose of Minnesota-nice. While the case plodded along a lot until the dramatic climax, Fluke also leaves readers with a cliffhanger, causing fans to anxiously await the next installment. I read these novels for the vicarious eating of sweet deserts on every page. Shame on me for not baking any of these treats. Rating: Three-star (It’s ok) Click here to purchase Banana Cream Pie Murder from amazon.com.

Huck Out West

Pards. When I was a teenager reading Huck Finn, the dialect conflicted so much with my Brooklyn patois that I struggled with understanding lots of sentences in the novel. The dialect in Robert Coover’s novel titled, Huck Out West, rang true to the original as Coover presents to readers an adventure set up by Twain: to escape civilization and head West. I re-read the original Twain before opening this sequel, and the refresher prepared me for the dialogue and the potential next steps for the renowned cast of characters. Both novels are stories about friendship, pards, as they would say in Coover’s version. The original is a great novel, and Coover’s sequel will entertain many readers who love these characters, that time period, and the sheer adventure. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Huck Out West from amazon.com.

Strange Tide

Water. Water and the Thames play important roles in the latest mystery in the Bryant & May Peculiar Crimes Unit series by Christopher Fowler. Titled, Strange Tide, this novel requires all the skills of the PCU at a time when they are under scrutiny, and their reliance on Arthur Bryant is diminished because he seems to be losing his mind. The crime is bizarre, Bryant’s hallucinations are delightful, and the ultimate solution is satisfying. Fans of the series will be delighted with this installment. New readers can start here or anywhere in the series and find great character-based crime fiction. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase Strange Tide from amazon.com.

The Universe in Your Hand

Teacher. On the rare occasions when physics comes up in conversation, my wife remarks that during our lifetime the study of physics and theology have come closer together. I always nod when she says that, but I don’t know what she means, and since she’s the theologian, I’m confident that she knows of what she speaks. Every now and then I want to read some science books written for a general audience, and I was thrilled with the ways in which Christophe Galfard taught me physics in his book titled, The Universe in Your Hand. Instead of explaining, Galfard asks us to imagine ourselves in different parts of the universe. I was enchanted by this book, and encourage those readers interested in things like black holes, string theory and dark matter to consider this book. It will amp up your conversations, but probably not with my wife, nor with my neighbor who chairs a university’s physics department. Readers who attended a Physics for Poets class are those most likely to enjoy reading this book. Rating: Four-star (I like it) Click here to purchase The Universe in Your Hand from amazon.com.