Sunday, December 31, 2006

Lippman mystery the final book of 2006

My final book of 2006.

Laura Lippman’s To the Power of Three is a pleasant diversion. The book is a one-off by the creator of the Tess Monaghan series. It’s the story of three girls, friends since grade school. As high school graduation approaches, one of them is dead, another dying and one, who has a bullet wound in her foot, has a secret she isn’t telling.

As with Lippman’s 2003 novel, Every Secret Thing, To the Power of Three is absorbed with the insular culture of Baltimore schoolgirls. There’s a mystery at the heart of this novel, but what happened isn’t nearly as why it happened.

Lippman’s Tess Monaghan series are superior to her one-offs, in part, because she is so skillful in bringing Tess and her friends and family to life. In To the Power of Three the characters are less fully realized.

Tomorrow – my entire book list for ’06.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Most recent reads range from poetry to sci fi

109. Late Wife, Claudia Emerson. Poetry, 12-16, pp. 54
110. The Lay of the Land, Richard Ford. Fiction, 12-21, pp. 485
111. Muhammad, Karen Armstrong. Biography, 12-22, pp. 214
112. Camouflage, Joe Haldeman. Speculative Fiction, 12-23, pp. 296
113. Ambition & Love, Ward Just. Fiction, 12-28, pp. 277

A few years ago, shortly after I had distributed my annual book list, a co-worker asked, “Where the poetry?” Good question. I think there was one book of poetry that year amid about 140 books. It’s the norm for me. I like some poems, but I don’t much like poetry. I’m an impatient man and that carries over ino my reading. I’ve never liked to parse lines of verse and obscure words for meaning.

But when Claudia Emerson won the Pulitzer Prize for her small volume of poetry, Late Wife, I knew it would make its way onto my reading list. Emerson is a professor at Mary Washington College here in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where I live.

Much to my surprise, and pleasure, Emerson is not one of those poets whose verse is cryptic or obscure. Instead, it is as crisp and refreshing as a bright Virginia morning. Her strength is in how she links images to introduce clarity and in her ability to bringing great importance and meaning to the quotidian. Here’s a sample of her work entitled Metaphor:

We didn’t know what woke us – just
cold moving, lighter than our breathing.

The world bound by an icy ligature,
our house was to the bat a warmer

hollowness that now it could not
leave. I screamed for you to do something.

So you killed it with the broom,
cursing, sweeping the air. I wanted

you to do it – until you did.

The Lay of the Land is Richard Ford’s third book featuring Frank Bascombe. The second book in that series, Independence Day, won Ford the Pulitzer Prize. This novel won’t bring him such accolades. It’s a slog, tiresome and over-written.

The Lay of the Land focuses on three consecutive days in Bascombe’s life in which not much happens and when something finally does happen the events are so preposterous that you can only wonder what Ford was thinking and can only conclude he was desperate to end this ungainly novel.

Most of the book entails Bascombe talking to us; his woes with wives, present and past; woes with his children; his philosophy of life and real estate sales. Given another character it might have added up to something greater, but Frank Bascombe is not someone we want to spend three hours with let alone three days.

Under the theory that there are too many books, too little time, give this one a pass.

I don’t know of another author that writes of faith and religion with the honesty of Karen Armstrong. Her newest, Muhammad, A Prophet for Our Time, is a timely addition to her exemplary body of work. Muhammad is part of the Eminent Lives series – “brief biographies by distinguished authors on canonical figures.”

Armstrong presents a balanced portrait of Muhammad. It is her even-handedness that is her great strength. Although, she does not hesitate to strongly emphasize those points where she believes Islam is most misunderstood – it represented a great advancement for Arab women, who were regarded as property; Muhammad saw a kinship with Jews and Christians and believed that the three faiths should peacefully co-exist in a spirit of brotherhood and mutual respect.

As we struggle today to understand 9-11 and the misguided war in Iraq, Armstrong’s lucid biography of Muhammad provides us with a valuable primer, offering insight into the life of the prophet and the faith thats very name means “surrender.”

I don’t read much science fiction these days, a few books each year. Joe Haldeman’s Camouflage is one of those books that serves to remind me of my teen-age fascination with this genre and why I continue to read the occasional sci-fi novel now.

It begins with the discovery of an artifact in the ocean depths. We soon learn that there is, not one, but two aliens at large on the Earth. One is connected with the artifact, the other is not. As the artifact is recovered and subjected to test after test, we know that inevitably the two aliens will meet. And they do, although the actual meeting is a matter of only pages.

It’s the journey that is important here. Not the journey that leads to a meeting of two aliens, but the journey of one alien to something approaching humanity. As with most science fiction, Camouflage is a hopeful book. It’s also a fun read.

Ward Just’s Ambition & Love might be better titled Ambition or Love for Just seems to suggest that you can’t have both. This is the story of an American artist who flees Chicago for California and California for Paris. She is a dedicated artist who achieves a small level of recognition, but who lives a life greatly circumscribed by her passion for her art; all that begins to change when love blooms between her and a pianist who lives in the same apartment building.

This is a minor novel by Just. Still interesting, because he is an interesting writer, but lacking the power of his “political” novels such as Echo House and A Dangerous Friend.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Shocking, violent L.A. Rex is a tour de force first novel

108. L.A. Rex, Will Beall. Crime, 12-12, p. 353

In his debut novel, L.A. Rex, Will Beall writes likes Joseph Wambaugh channeling Cormac McCarthy. Like Wambaugh, Beall is an L.A. cop, who knows intimately the streets that he writes about in this disturbing, but gripping novel of avarice and ambition.

The violence so prevalent throughout this novel may not reach the almost lyrical qualities found in a McCarthy novel, but it is as prevalent and, like McCarthy, as shocking, not in its quantity, but in the sheer, matter-of-fact savagery on display. Many of the characters who inhabit this novel seem to relish, to need, the pain they inflict so casually on others. It is a tribute to Beall’s skill as a writer that he taps some primordial desire in the reader; at one point in the novel we’re introduced to a safe, which has a particularly nasty guardian. We can’t wait until that guardian steps on stage again. The moment does come with great satisfaction and a horrifying shudder of pleasure.

There's another scene, that Beall executes with great skill, in which a dog is casually, but violently destroyed. One of Beall's characters tells the dog's owner: I loved that dog and I don't even like you. It gives me shivers even now.

Beall writes well for a first-time author. This appears to be the work of a much more experienced writer. Perhaps the L.A. cop has been refining these lines, this dialogue, these situations for many years as he’s patrolled L.A.’s mean streets. He adroitly manages the novel’s complexity, skipping back and forth in time as he leads us to the violent denouement.

I’ll forgo the plot, except to say there are intricate levels of loyalty and obligation at play. This novels seems Shakespearean in its scope and scale, reminding me of the off the charts violence of King Lear or Macbeth. And it’s that very scope and scale that are the only hesitations I have about this novel. Is it really that bad in parts of L.A.? Hell, if it’s one-quarter that grim, that violent, then the President is putting that dammed wall up in the wrong place. Violence this deeply imbued in man’s heart and soul will inevitably spill from the neighborhoods, where it is largely contained, into society at large. But I guess it’s done that. I’m going back to Kansas.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Burns' Infamous Scribblers traces the entertaining roots of American journalism

107. Infamous Scribblers, Eric Burns. 12-12, pp. 412

Use of the term “infamous scribblers” to describe American journalists is first found in a letter from George Washington to fellow Virginian Henry Lee. Washington wrote that the attacks on him by the republican press were “outrages on common decency” and “arrows of malevolence.”

Surely political figures today, from George W. Bush to Hillary Clinton, from Donald Rumsfeld to Mark Foley, would concur with the father of our country in his pained tolerance – and near intolerance – of the press.

That link, from our nation’s founding to today, is part of what makes Eric Burns’ book such an enjoyable and interesting read. It may feel, at times, like American History Lite, but it’s packed with information and fascinating anecdotes that resonate with even the casual consumer of print or broadcast journalism today and which revives all those names and newspapers that I had to memorize in Calder Pickett’s History of American Journalism at the University of Kansas.

Here you will read about Samuel Adams, the brewer turned printer; John Peter Zenger; Ben Franklin’s irascible grandson Benjamin Franklin Bache, William Duane, John Fenno and Philip Freneau, the venomous James Thomson Callender, the Alien and Sedition Acts and Harry Croswell, editor of The Wasp, a federalist newspaper based in Hudson, New York, which bore the motto, “To lash the rascals naked through the world.”

Burns traces American journalism from its beginnings with Publick Occurrences both Foreign and Domestic, first published by Benjamin Harris in 1690, to 1801 and the founding of the New-York Evening Post, the second and final newspaper to be financed by Alexander Hamilton. That's a time span that ranges from colonial American, almost 100 years after the first settlement at Jamestown, through the American Revolution, to the creation of the two-party system of government and, finally, Thomas Jefferson’s presidency.

The journalism of the Revolutionary era was characterized by sensationalism and scandal, vicious personal attacks, the practice of placing ideology before accuracy and, in fact, a general willingness to publish outright fabrications. It may not always seem so, particularly if you are a viewer of Fox TV, but Burns contends that while we have held on to much that our Founding Fathers left us – the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights – we have not adopted their style of journalism.

“We do not, in most of our print and broadcast news sources, impugn character as they did. We do not, except in extraordinary cases, use the kind of language they did. We do not, except on well-publicized and well-published occasions, make up the news to suit our ideology. It is a rare example of turning our backs on the Founding Fathers, finding them unworthy, rejecting their legacy,” Burns writes. “We are to be commended.”

Burns is to be commended, as well, for this thoroughly delightful history.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

103. 50+ Igniting a Revolution to Reinvent America, Bill Novelli. Non-Fiction, 11-26, pp. 239
104. The Echo Maker, Richard Powers. Fiction, 12-1, pp. 451
105. Nature Girl, Carl Hiaasen. Fiction, 12-3, pp. 306
106. Fear of the Dark, Walter Mosley. Mystery, 12-8, pp. 308

Four books to post today. Yes, I’m behind. I apologize, but when you’re as busy as I’ve been, and have to choose between writing or reading, reading wins.

So, enough with the excuses. Let’s go to the books.

Bill Novelli is my boss. He’s also the author of 50+ Igniting a Revolution to Reinvent America. The book provides insight into who we are at AARP, especially for those people who think we’re only about discounts for the elderly or a magazine. Health care reform, long-term care, livable communities and older workers are among the major issues we’re wrestling with.

Novelli sets forth both our body work and his vision for the future. Take a look – it’s your future too.

The Echo Maker by Richard Powers won the National Book Award for fiction. It’s well earned. Powers’ novel won’t make my shortlist of the best books of ’06, but its close. Set in Kearney, Nebraska, this is an intriguing tale of a slaughterhouse worker who suffers brain damage in a late-night traffic accident. The worker doesn’t recognize his sister, his dog or his mobile home. The woman claiming to be his sister looks remarkably like his sister, knows things only his sister would know, but she’s not his sister. Instead, he suspects some kind of government cover.

There isn’t, of course. One of the scarier aspects of brain damage is that the brain-damaged person doesn’t recognize his own impairments. Powers tells the story of the worker, his sister and a neurologist-turned-author who is drawn to the siblings’ story.

The Echo Maker almost works. It is an intriguing exploration of who we are and how fragile our identities are – held together by an amazingly adaptable, but fragile neural network – but Powers’ writing can be opaque, which makes the reader feel brain damaged too.

Nature Girl is not Carl Hiaasen’s best work. You may want to take a pass.

Walter Mosley’s Fear of the Dark is passable. It’s an enjoyable read, but doesn’t break new ground.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Munro's rich new book a pure reading experience

102. The View from Castle Rock, Alice Munro. Stories, 11-25, pp. 349

It’s difficult to describe The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro. Unlike most of Munro’s prior works this is not a collection of short stories. Nor it is a memoir, although there are elements of both in this strong and altogether pleasing new book. What is certain is that all of the elements that make Munro such a delightful writer, and reading her such a delightful pastime, are present – her sly understanding of social manners and mores, the strong sense of time and place and the close observation of human behavior, including her own.

In the book’s foreword, Munro indicates that there are two sources for the “stories” that appear here. The first is material she assembled about her family history, which . . . “almost without my noticing what was happening, it began to shape itself, here and there, into something like stories. Some of the characters gave themselves to me in their own words, other rose out of their situations. Their words and my words, a curious re-creating of lives, in a given setting that was as truthful as our notion of the past can ever be.”

The second source was “a special set of stories” that Munro had withheld from her previous works of fiction. “I felt they didn’t belong. They were not memoirs but they were closer to my own life than the other stories I had written . . . I was doing something closer to what a memoir does – exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way.”

Ultimately, Munro says, “these are stories.”

And they are rich, evocative stories that totally immerse the reader in the experience of reading and in the fabric of these lives. It is difficult to proclaim this Munro’s finest work because she has written so much so well for so long. Let us say then that it is a fine book, elegantly written and observed, and a pure reading experience.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Three novels and one short story collection among recent reading.

  • 98. The Mission Song, John Le Carre. Thriller, 11-12, p. 337
  • 99. I Sailed With Magellan, Stuart Dybek. Short Stories, 11-16, p. 307
  • 100. Paco’s Story, Larry Heinemann. Fiction, 11-18, p. 210
  • 101. Kidnapped, Jan Burke. Mystery, 11-20, p. 366

Le Carre’s most recent novel, The Mission Song, did not receive good reviews. This is a mystery to me. Le Carre is still capable of spinning a strong, compelling narrative – as he does here – and of giving the reader a brief, but instructive peek, into the unsavory world of covert action.

The Mission Song is told by Bruno Salvador, the child of a Catholic missionary and a Congolese headman’s daughter. A skilled interpreter of several obscure African languages, Salvador is recruited to participate in a top-secret meeting between English financiers and Congolese warlords. Salvador, naturally, learns that the coup planned by these two unlikely groups is not in the best interests of the Congolese people and sets out to stop it.

By necessity, Salvador is a naïve young man. The lessons he learns are also the reader’s lessons learned. It’s not giving anything away to say Salvador’s plans to stop the coup are unsuccessful. Thirty years ago, in an earlier book, Salvador and his African girlfriend would have been summarily executed, here Britain’s new anti-terrorism laws are brought to bear. The end results are less grisly, but no less insidious and disturbing.

I Sailed With Magellan, Stuart Dybek’s collection of short stories set in Chicago, are especially meaningful to me because I am currently in the midst of a four-month work assignment in Chicago and because the book was a gift from a couple who wanted to recognize that assignment.

Dybek brings Chicago alive in his stories. He is especially effective in conveying a sense of time and place. This is a delightful collection of stories.

Paco’s Story by Larry Heinemann is a haunting novel of a young man who is the sole survivor of a firefight. It is difficult to determine – and surely Heinemann’s point – what is most devastating: the injuries Paco suffers in the war or his treatment upon his return to America.

This book was the 1987 winner of the National Book Award for fiction.

Jan Burke’s Kidnapped is enjoyable – it is always a pleasure to invite Irene Kelly into your home – but it is far from her best work. The motivation behind the heinous crime in this novel seems flimsy at best and several of the characters are either cardboard constructs or just a little too clever to be entirely believable. If you can suspend your most critical faculties – say in the way you might enjoy a Bond film – then you will enjoy a few hours with this book.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Smithsonian articles features three books that altered election coverage

The November issue of the Smithsonian features a fascinating article on three “books that permanently altered the way we understand elections, the people who run them and those who report them.” The article is by the Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley.

The books are:

  • The Making of the President 1960 by Theodore H. White
  • The Selling of the President 1968 by Joe McGinniss
  • The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse

Yardley says that White’s book is the most important of the three and that, while no longer in print, “its pervasive influence remains undiminished.” White’s prose is muddy, he was guilty of worshipping JFK and he overlooked or minimized shortcomings in the political system, but, Yardley writes, the book “took readers inside politics as they’d never been before. It both demystified the process and romanticized it.”

McGinniss pulls back the curtain on Nixon’s media campaign. “White understood that television was changing everything . . . but he only dimly perceived what Joe McGinniss came along eight years later to make plain: that television now ran the show.”

Yardley finds that McGinniss’ book “doesn’t hold up very well . . . it’s surprisingly thin . . . and shallow as well. With its shock value long since dissipated, The Selling of the President turns out to be less thoughtful than I had recalled. McGinniss learned a lot of interesting things, but he really did not have much to say about them.”

Yardley reserves his greatest praise for Crouse’s The Boys on the Bus. It “stands the test of time for two reasons: Crouse’s tart, witty prose and his sharp insights into journalism, a business that takes itself far too seriously and is deeply hostile to criticism or change.”

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Current reading includes the 13th Tale and Obama's The Audacity of Hope

96. The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield. Fiction, 11-6, pp. 406
97. The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama. Non-Fiction, 11-9, pp. 362

Two surprise bestsellers comprise my recently completed books.

The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield’s debut novel, is enjoyable, but trivial. It celebrates story (see the book’s back cover), appropriately so, since the novel contains multiple story lines; all neatly resolved by the novel’s completion.

The central story is the mystery of exactly who is Vida Winter. We quickly learn that Miss Winter is a prolific and popular novelist, who also sketches a different personal history for every interview she gives. Now, Miss Winter, who is dying, has decided to reveal her “real” story.

There’s also the story of the mysterious thirteenth tale from which the novel draws its title. Miss Winter’s first book, a collection of short stories, was originally named Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, yet there are only a dozen stories. Although the book is recalled, renamed and reissued, Miss Winter’s fans, and they are legion, are curious about the fate of the missing thirteenth tale.

There is also the story of Miss Winter’s accidental biographer and the novel’s narrator, Margaret Lea, who has a secret of her own.

The Thirteenth Tale is a pleasant diversion. It has garnered a position on the bestseller, thanks in part, I think, to an aggressive marketing campaign. It might have had even stronger sales had it’s publisher issued the book this past summer. It is the ideal beach read.

Senator Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope is no beach read. It is a serious, although not overly complex book, that is as much about Obama’s personality and character as it is about ideas.

In its review, The New York Times hailed Obama as the rare politician who can write. And he can. One can’t help but wonder if there was a ghost writer or, at the least, a very, very good editor behind this book. Nevertheless, the ideas and opinions expressed here do belong to Obama, who was thrust onto the national stage at the Democrat National Convention two years and who is now on everyone’s shortlist as a potential candidate for president in 2008.

Obama, the son of a black man and a white woman, seems to be equal parts pragmatist and idealist. He is also, and this is part of his appeal, a reasonable man, firm in his own convictions, who can also see – clearly – the other side to almost every argument.

Obama lays out his thoughts on such issues as health care reform and immigration, spins a few anecdotes of life on the campaign trail and in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Capitol and allows us to meet his wife and daughters.

The Audacity of Hope is an intriguing book. I don’t recall anything quite like it by another American politician and that may explain the better part of its appeal – ultimately, the book, like the man, is unique.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

McDermott's After This is the best book of the year

95. After This, Alice McDermott. Fiction. 10-30, pp. 288

94. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson. Humor. 10-27, pp. 320

93. Echo Park, Michael Connelly. Mystery. 10-25, pp. 416

I was hasty. I admit it. A week ago I proclaimed Claire Messud’s fine novel, The Emperor’s Children, the best book of 2006. It’s not. It the next best.

The best book is Alice McDermott’s After This. Trust me on this one.

McDermott, winner of the National Book Award, has never been better than in this tale of an Irish Catholic family from Long Island. The narrative arc of this compact, beautifully written book begins when Mary meets John at the Schrafft’s lunch counter in the mid 1940s and ends decades later as the Keanes approach retirement. In between that first meeting, the Keanes marry, have four children – two boys, two girls – and experience the sweet agony of life.

Under the hands of other novelists this book would have stretched to a thousand pages. But McDermott is especially skillful in what she chooses not to write. With a minimum of words – a bit of misdirection (a telephone call in the night), a glimpse of a passing car and a telephone call to school – and a maximum of skill, McDermott vividly brings to life a scene of great pain and tragedy. We’re expecting it, yet when it happens in this novel we’re caught by surprise. What might have been banal becomes powerful, charged with an emotional resonance few writers can match.

McDermott allows the reader to bring his own intelligence, imagination and experience to these pages, yet in leaving some things unsaid she never leaves the reader wondering exactly what has taken place. The story of these lives unfolds with clarity; it is only that McDermott understands that we understand. She recognizes that the reader is a partner in the process; that writing is completed through reading.

It’s a masterful book that cements McDermott’s well-earned reputation as one of our generations finest novelist.


Bill Bryson’s a funny guy. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid is a funny book. It’s a good read and I recommend it, but it’s not Bryson’s best.


Michael Connelly. Harry Bosch. Los Angeles. What more do you need to say? Echo Park is as good as it gets.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Messud's The Emperor's Children the best of '06

92. The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud. Fiction , 10-22, pp. 431

The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud’s closely observed novel on the struggle for independence and identity, is the best book to emerge so far in 2006.

The Emperor is Murray Thwaite, a Maileresque journalist and author, of outsized ego and reputation. The children are Thwaite’s daughter, Marina, a some-time model and would-be author who has languished in her father’s shadow; Bootie, Thwaite’s brilliant, but misdirected nephew; and Danielle, a television producer and Marina’s closest friend.

The novel is seen through the eyes of all four characters as well as Marina and Danielle’s gay friend, Julius, who seems to be equally unsuccessful in relationships as he is in jump-starting his career as a critic. Each of the characters is wrestling with issues of ambition and identity – Murray with the gap between who he is and who he is perceived to be, the four younger characters with efforts to define who they are and what their place in the world is. To varying degrees, each of the four younger characters, is also seeking to establish their independence from home, from parents, from lovers and to assert their standing, their gravitas, in relationship to other people and their professions.

Messud is a muscular writers who commands a reader’s attention. Her style of writing can quickly lead to confusion for any reader who allows his attention to wander. There can be a great deal of text between the opening and the closing of a dash. Yet this very demand for focus ultimately serves the reader well. It is on the second, or even third, pass that the depth of Messud’s observation is seen most clearly.

The climax of Messud’s novel comes with the events of 9/11. The introduction of 9/11 into the novel is unexpected, but appropriate and Messud – like Julia Glass in The Whole World Over – is satisfyingly successful in capturing the raw emotions of that day in which the perceptions of entire nation were shaken and altered, perhaps forever.

Late in the novel, after the towers have fallen, Danielle confronts the enormity of the tragedy in the most personal terms, because of the events of 9/11 have robbed her of her lover:

“She had seen the second plane, like a gleaming arrow, and the burst of it, oddly beautiful against the blue, and the smoke, everywhere, and she had seen the people jumping, from afar, specks in the sky, and she knew that’s what they were only from the TV, from the great reality check of the screen, and she had seen the buildings crumble to dust; . . . she had seen these things and had been left, forever, because in light of these things she did not matter, you had to make the right choice, you had to stay on the ground . . . you had to stay on the ground and there was no call to feel anything, there was nothing to feel because you weren’t worth anything to anyone, you’d had your heart, or was it your guts, or both, taken out, you’d been eviscerated . . . and now there was nothing but sorrow and this was how it was going to be, now, always.”

The Emperor’s Children is a splendid, powerful novel.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Dylan's Chronicles accessible, but unconventional

91. Chronicles, Bob Dylan. Biography, 10-16, pp. 293

Volume One of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles is like an extended conversation with the iconic singer and songwriter. It is as non-linear, obscure and insightful as conversations can be. Chronicles opens in New York City where Dylan, sleeping on friends’ sofas, is seeking to break into the folk music scene. We leap to New Orleans where he struggles to record an album that is one of his least known and then, back in time, to his home state of Minnesota where he is living in Dinky Town on the edge of the University of Minnesota and, finally, jetting forward in time, to New York, where he ultimately signs a contract with Columbia.

Although we know the outcome of this story – unparalleled fame is looming around the corner for this skinny, blue-jeaned disciple of Woody Guthrie – we don’t know what he was thinking or feeling or experiencing during this heady time. In Chronicles Dylan attempts to share all that and that is where Chronicles is both unique and exactly what we would expect of Dylan – it is a biography of the internal, far, far more than the external. It isn’t so much about what happened as what he felt and thought and experienced.

It is also intriguing because Dylan shares his influences; the art and books and music that shaped him, who was, in turn, to shape so many. Those influences include Guthrie, of course, but also Robert Johnson, Joan Baez and numerous obscure blues and folk musicians.

It’s a terrific work; accessible, but unconventional – pure Dylan.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Not much to say about The Inheritance of Loss

90. The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai. Fiction, 10-12, pp. 324

I should have something to say about this book, which won the Booker Prize, but I don’t. I finished it Thursday. It’s Sunday and I still don’t have anything to say. I haven’t thought about the book since I put it down, except to fret about not posting to the blog and not having anything to say.

It’s written well enough, although the author indulges in the occasional obscure riff that I find annoying. It is set in both New York and in India at the foot of the Himalayas near the Nepal border. The Indian immigrant to New York has a tough time, is mistreated by both Americans and fellow Indians alike, is engaged in demeaning work and never fits in.

The characters in India are caught up in an insurgency by Nepalis who want their own country. Since they apparently can’t have their own country, they content themselves with taking what others have. The insurgency comes between two young lovers, who seem to have been less in love with one another than in love with the idea of being in love.

Nothing in this novel resonated with me. It did not haunt me. It did not move me. I guess it was OK. Others might find something to say about the bitter residue of colonialism or the immigrant experience or the global conflicts of nationalism, religion or race, but I don’t have anything to say about that.

I liked the title more than the book itself. I like the title a lot.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Tender Bar all a memoir should be

89. The Tender Bar, J.R. Moehringer. Memoir, 10-7, pp. 368

A book recommendation from a friend or co-worker can be a perilous thing. Perhaps you do not like the book. Perhaps you are revolted by it. And what can you say? It was OK. I didn’t like it. It was . . . interesting. I didn’t share your enthusiasm.

But there are other times when the recommender has carefully considered the book and the reader and the match is, well, one made in book heaven. That was the case with J.R. Moehringer’s The Tender Bar. It is all you hope a memoir to be – warm, insightful and instructive with passages that are laugh-out-loud funny.

The book was recommended to me by a Beth Finkel, a colleague of many years. The first time I met Beth we talked books. I’m not sure what started the discussion but I was reading something by Frederick Busch at the time and Beth was familiar with his novel, Girls. That impressed me. Beth knew (knows) her stuff. Since that time we’ve traded lots of book recommendations.

None have been better, by either party, than Beth’s recommendation of The Tender Bar. Set in Manhasset, New Jersey, it is Moehringer’s account of how one neighborhood bar, which loomed large in his imagination as a child, and the men who inhabited it became an important part of his life. Moehringer’s father was absent from his life—a distant voice on the radio—and men in the bar, including his uncle who was a bartender there, filled a role as surrogate fathers and masculine role models.

The one disturbing aspect to the book is the quantity of alcohol the men, including Moehringer, consume. It’s clear that alcohol is used as an escape for just about everyone who inhabits the bar, again, including the author. It’s reassuring, then, to learn that Moehringer no longer drinks.

That concern aside, The Tender Bar is a captivating memoir. Moehringer is a talented writer (a journalist, he won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writer) who brings the characters to life and vividly recaptures his childhood, adolescence and angst-ridden early twenties.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

National Book Award '06 shortlist


  • Mark Z. Danielewski, Only Revolutions (Pantheon)
  • Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (Ecco/HarperCollins)
  • Richard Powers, The Echo Maker (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
  • Dana Spiotta, Eat the Document (Scribner/Simon & Schuster)
  • Jess Walter, The Zero (Judith Regan Books/HarperCollins)


  • Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68 (Simon & Schuster)
  • Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone (Alfred A. Knopf)
  • Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (Houghton Mifflin)
  • Peter Hessler, Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present (HarperCollins)
  • Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Alfred A. Knopf)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

McCarthy's The Road a tale of horror and hopelessness

88. The Road, Cormac McCarthy. Fiction, 10-4, pp 241

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is spare and unsparing and starkly poetic.

The world has ended. All is grayness and cold and ashes. And through this bleak terrain of hopelessness and unrelenting horror walk a man and a boy, suitably nameless. They are journeying south in the wasted hope of something better – warmth, food, a welcome.

Each of McCarthy’s previous novels was preparation for this book. The casual violence and rage that erupted against individuals in previous novels has here been unleashed against an entire world, against not merely mankind, but the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. The humans that survive are clearly divided into two camps –those that eat and those who are eaten.

In the starkness of the narrative, of the dialogue and the plot, McCarthy lays bare the foolishness of hope and the impossible optimism of every post-apocalyptic novel that preceded The Road. Think of those novels: Tales of mankind overcoming vast odds, banding together, husbanding knowledge and resources, tinkering to create clever devices, finding life, love, hope.

But there is no hope. Even those who survive only do so in the full knowledge that the world is dead and that all life is a loan:

“He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.” (p. 110)

The world we knew is a shadow, a memory – now fleeting and faint:

“He could not construct for the child’s pleasure the world he’d lost without constructing the loss as well and he thought perhaps the child had known this better than he. He tried to remember the dream but he could not. All that was left was the feeling of it. He thought perhaps they’d come to warn him. Of what? That he could not enkindle in the heart of the child what was ashes in his own. Even now some part of him wished they’d never found this refuge. Some part of him always wished it to be over.” (pp. 129-130)
The Road is a grim reminder of how precarious life is. Few of us today live with the fear of the nuclear holocaust as so many did in the 50s and 60s. Perhaps we should. But, then again, as McCarthy shows us there is nothing we can do, but live for a time and then die.

And yet. Love not only survives between the father and his son, but is strengthened by their misery and loss, their shared need one for the other. In his weakest moments, the father ponders whether he can take the son’s life in order to save him. He knows that he cannot.

In the final pages, too, there is some suggestion that kindness and love have not gone cold, have not entirely vanished from the icy cinder that is man’s heart.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Lederer's Poker Face a winning hand

87. Poker Face, Katy Lederer. Poker, 10-2, pp. 209

Katy Lederer is the sister of Howard Lederer and Annie Duke. Anyone who watches one of the ubiquitous poker programs on TV knows that Howard and Annie are two of the more talented and charismatic of the new wave of poker players that have taken Vegas and popular culture by storm.

Poker Face is the story of the Lederer clan, who are both dysfunctional and brilliant, as well as Katy’s efforts to imitate her siblings and join her brother and sister around the rail of the high stakes tables in Vegas. Katy doesn’t succeed in her mission – she understands the game well enough, but is too soft hearted to make a great gambler.

Instead, Katy becomes a writer and poet and that’s all too the good. The result is the lyrical Poker Face and its insights into the heart and mind of the gambler. Poker Face makes it imminently clear that Katy made the correct decision. Although the denizens of Vegas might disagree, we need good writers more than we need another bad gambler.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Child's My Life in France: Bon Appétit

86. My Life In France, Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme. Biography, 10-1, pp. 302

Until reading this book most of what I knew about Julia Child was limited to Dan Aykroyd’s classic Saturday Night Live portrayal of the PBS’ chef and author. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that one of the photographs in this biography is of Child and her husband, Paul, in the tub together, soap bubbles artfully arranged. It is, to coin a phrase, a paradigm shift. The photo, one of many in the book, is a Valentine that the Childs sent annually to friends and family.

In an enchanting 302 pages, My Life in France explains how Child developed her passion for French cooking, wrote THE American cookbook on French cooking, became a TV star via her PBS-based cooking show and, in the process, transformed the landscape of American cookery and became an American icon whose TV kitchen is now faithfully exhibited in the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History.

Child’s prose (and that of her grandnephew, Alex Prud’homme) is as delightfully digestible as her cooking. The photographs, most taken by her husband, Paul, serve to illuminate the text, and add greatly to the book and the reading experience.

What can I say but . . . Bon Appétit.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Special Topics is something of a calamity

85. Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl. Fiction, 9-29, p. 514

There was a bit of a stir about first-time author Marisha Pessl’s age, advance and appearance after she signed her contract for Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Her age: 27. Her advance: hefty. Her appearance: attractive. There was some suggestion that the size of the advance was directly linked to her youth and attractiveness, rather than any qualities inherent in Special Topics.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first 12 to 20 pages of Special Topics. It seemed funny, quirky, inventive and refreshing. But it got old, quickly, and – unfortunately – there were another 500 pages to go. Special Topics is the strange story of Blue van Meer a brilliant high school senior who annotates her every thought with references from books and movies, well, really, literature and cinema.

Late in the novel a group of erstwhile friends who are unhappy with Blue discuss her fate.

“Or we could stone her like they do in that short story. When all the townspeople descent and she starts to scream.”

“’The Lottery,’” I said, because I couldn’t help myself (Jackson, 1948).

She can’t, she really can’t help herself and it’s a conceit by author and character that grows increasingly tedious as the book progresses. The mystery at the heart of Special Topics is intriguing, but not enough to sustain the novel that utlimately is more cute than clever.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Scenes from the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. -- Part I

D.C.'s own George Pelecanos, the U.S. Capitol in the background.

Michael Connelly, creator of the Harry Bosch series.

Scenes from the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. -- Part II

Doris Kearns Goodwin (above) is the author of the unrivaled Team of Rivals.

Geraldine Brooks (below) wrote the Pulitzer-Prize winning

Julia Glass, author of The Whole World Over and Three Junes.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Just, Wills, Chabon and Munro: Pick Three

81. Forgetfulness, Ward Just. Fiction , 9-9, p. 258

How to describe the novels of Ward Just? Think of LeCarre, Furst and Greene, but there is also something here of Pete Dexter and Edith Wharton. Just writes of the manners and mores of the covert world of espionage. There is a certain way things are done, a protocol, as is unveiled in the French interrogation scene in this novel – in its violence, both tangible and latent, it is almost difficult to read.

Forgetfulness is a superb novel, exploring both forgetfulness – and the ways it may come, such as death and senility – and memory's opposite, remembering, and how its persists, taking root like a pernicious weed.

Forgetfulness is the story of Thomas Railles, an expatriate American painter, who has performed a few jobs for the CIA because two of its agents are old high school friends. When Railles' French wife, Florette, dies a violent and unexpected death it appears to be a random incident, but then, one cannot be certain that it was not driven by revenge for ancient acts. Railles' old friends promise that the murderers will be found and brought to justice. Railles is haunted by Florette’s death and by his work on behalf of the agency.

Just deserves a broad and enthusiastic audience of readers. He is one of America’s finest novelists of the past four decades.

82. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon. Fiction, 9-13, p. 297

Boy meets boy. Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Boy falls in love with boy. Boy is confused.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon’s first novel, is the story of a young man confused about his sexual identity. One assumes it is Chabon’s own effort at working out his sexual identify, although a reader must be careful about assigning such autobiographical leanings to a novelist’s work.

There are many, many books to read. In How to Read a Novel, John Sutherland says that today more novels are published in one week than Samuel Johnson had to deal with in a decade. As he calculates it, “it would take approximately 163 lifetimes to read the fiction currently available.” Given Sutherland’s sobering statistic give this book a pass and move directing to Chabon’s later works.

83. Open Secrets, Alice Munro. Short Stories, 9-19, p. 294

Alice Munro is the best writer of short stories today. Not one of the best – the best. I have read many of these stories before. I suspect I will read them again and again. Many current novelists would be well served to closely read Munro. She can capture a world in a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph that would take others pages.

84. Henry Adams and the Making of America, Garry Wills. History, 9-24, p. 404

This book is not for the casual reader of history, but it will greatly reward the diligent student of history. It is a fascinating look at the legacy of Jefferson and Madison as seen through Henry Adams’ ambitious multi-volume history of America.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Bowden's Guests of the Ayatollah a powerful, engaging narrative

80. Guests of the Ayatollah, Mark Bowden. History, 9-6, p. 637

Mark Bowden is the author most likely to wear the crown abdicated, due to age and time, by David Halberstam. Bowden, like Halberstam, is one of the few writers today who is capable of taking multiple interviews, secondary accounts and voluminous personal research and constructing a coherent and engaging narrative.

This is the feat Bowden has accomplished in his extraordinarily readable Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis that toppled the Carter Administration, launched Ted Koppel’s Nightline and permanently transformed America’s relationship with the Middle East. Bowden demonstrated in his fine Black Hawk Down that he was exceedingly capable of weaving various accounts into a riveting and readable whole. Guests of the Ayatollah is a better, thoughtful, more complex book.

Bowden’s goal, in part, is to show how the hostage’s lived and survived during their 444 days of captivity. He does so vividly in an empathetic and powerful narrative. Bowden also demonstrates the impact of the crisis on both the Carter Administration and the Irianian leaders and students as well as leading us, step-by-step, through the misadventures of the failed rescue mission.

The hostages emerge as real people. Not so much heroesalthough there is a heroic element to their suffering, strength and courageas ordinary people making the best of extraordinary circumstances. President Carter warrants our sympathy perhaps as much as the hostages. He is a hopeful man whose Christian conviction leads him to believe that a resolution is possible – where none exists. Carter strives to do his best for the hostages and their families, and for America, but events conspire to undermine his Administration and, ultimately, his political career.

The hapless Iranians – the students, the secular leaders and iron-hearted mullahs – come off for the worst, as one might expect. No one in Iran ever anticipated so much of the fall-out that resulted from the seizure of the embassy – branded an outlaw nation for flouting the laws of diplomacy, a war with Iraq and a backlash against the Islamic faith in view of the students' failure to convince the American people of the righteousness of their cause.

Guests of the Ayatollah's 600-plus pages slip by with impressive speed; the book reads like an espionage thriller by LeCarre or Furst. It is skillfully told and impeccably researched. Let us hope Bowden wears his crown for many years to come.

(Bowden appeared at Washington, D.C.’s Politics & Prose this summer as part of the book tour to promote Guests of the Ayatollah. Also in attendance were former hostages Bruce Laingen, acting U.S. ambassador to Iran, and John Limbert, second secretary in the political section. Each testified to the accuracy of Bowden’s account. That, it seems to me, is the best and most powerful endorsement an author can receive.)

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Perhaps he doth protest to much: but I'm a collector not a book dealer, really

Richard Ford was at the Folger Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C. Friday evening. He was part of a trio of authors participating in a William Faulkner Birthday Reading: New Orleans Night.

There was no question I would attend. The PEN/Faulkner Reading Series is a great event—readings by notable authors, followed by a book signing, wine and hors d’oeuvres.

Besides, six of the seven books that I have by Ford are unsigned, including a first edition of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day. I purchased a half-price ticket (more money for books), packed up the books and headed to the Folger.

Ford read from Percy Walker’s The Moviegoer. The reading, in Ford’s honeyed southern drawl, was the most entertaining and engaging of the evening.

At the reading’s conclusion, I darted into the reception room, heading for the author’s tables and a place at the front of the line. Ford grabbed a drink and visited with admirers before making his way to the table, where an impressive line of fans had formed.

“Are you ready to sign some books?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “You’re just going to sell these on eBay.”

I protested. I’m a collector. 2,500 books. My wife wishes I’d them on eBay, but no, these are destined for my shelves.

“You probably haven’t read any of these.” I protested once more. I had read them. All of them. Well, not Rock Springs, but it’s on the pile of books to be read some day.

Ford did sign the books. We chatted about his new book, sequel to Independence Day and The Sportswriter, and the tour that will bring him to back to Washington next month.

I was pleased he signed the books, but I fixated on the idea that he thought I was a book dealer. This has been happening a lot lately.

This summer Ivan Doig, one of my favorite authors, appeared at Politics & Prose, the premiere independent bookstore in Washington, if not the nation. I had a lot of books for Doig to sign. I waited, through the reading, the questions, the line of admirers waiting to have their books signed.

“I just made that fellow a lot of money,” he growled as I approached. He looked at me and my stack of books with an accusatory glare. “I’m not a dealer,” I assured him. “I’m a collector. These aren’t going to be sold.”

Doig signed, as Ford had, but I thought he eyed me doubtfully from time to time as he made his way through the stack of books I’d placed before him.

I’m not entirely certain why an author cares if a dealer waits in line, gets a book signed and then sells it on eBay or some other Internet site. Perhaps it’s just the idea that someone – not the author – is making a great deal of money on a single copy of a book. But that’s been going on long before eBay came onto the scene. As for me, some of the books were purchased used, from dealers, but others were bought at full retail.

No matter, I don’t want authors thinking I’m a book dealer, selling the fruits of their labor on eBay. What can I do?

I know – I’ll start dressing better.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Burke's Irene Kelly series makes nice light reading

79. Remember Me, Irene, Jan Burke. Mystery, 9-2, p. 303

I’ve been a fan of Jan Burke’s Irene Kelly series since reading Bones in 2000. Kelly is a reporter, married to a cop. She has a sister, two dogs and a cat. Invariably her work as a reporter leads her into mystery and intrigue. In the dozen years I was a reporter and editor I never solved a single murder and I’ve never known a colleague to do so either. Nor was I ever stalked by mad man (or woman for that matter), kidnapped or held hostage.

So Irene’s fictional career is far most interesting than the work-a-day world of most journalists. That’s OK because Burke’s novels are wonderfully entertaining. Kelly is a vibrant, spunky character and Burke does a fine job in bringing her and her cast of supporting characters to life.

The mysteries are not extraordinarily complex. Most often it’s not about whodunit or why (that’s usually clear early on), but how Irene will extricate herself from danger. This reader is grateful that Irene’s been successful through nine novels.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

10 Essential Michigan Books

In its August 30 edition, City Pulse, which is printed in Lansing, Michigan, published an article on the “Ten Essential Michigan Books.” Here they are:

  1. The Hiawatha Legends by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft
  1. The Nick Adams Stories by Ernest Hemingway
  1. The Dollmaker by Hariette Arnow
  1. Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver
  1. Dopefiend by Donald Goines
  1. Farmer by Jim Harrison
  1. Braided Lives by Marge Piercy
  1. Letters from the Leelanau by Kathleen Stocking
  1. Rivethead by Ben Hamper
  1. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

A Michigan friend, who sent me the article, asked why Richard Ford and Joyce Carol Oates were missing. Good question. The list was compiled by Chicago writer and Lansing native Theodore McClellan. There was no criteria given for the selections. It appears all the books on McClellan’s list are set in Michigan.

A second list, by City Pulse contributor Bill Castanier, included Ford’s The Sportswriter and Oates’ Them. It also included The Sporting Club by Tom McGuane and Waiting for the Morning Train by Bruce Catton.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Fforde's The Fourth Bear is all in good fun

78. The Fourth Bear, Jasper Fforde. Fiction, 8-29, p. 383

When Goldilocks carried out her home invasion of the Bear family’s domicile, there was a fourth bear present which led to tragic consequences for the self-absorbed young woman. The identity of that fourth bear, the reason behind Goldilocks’ brutal demise and much, much more are answered in The Fourth Bear, Jasper Fforde’s hugely entertaining second Jack Spratt novel.

Other questions that are answered include why there is a campaign for the right to arm bears, the dangers of the “cuclear” bomb and whether the psychotic Gingerbreadman is a cake or a biscuit.

The pleasures of Fforde’s novel are the same as those found in the Broadway production, Wicked. The witches of Oz are so much more interesting with a back-story than in the virtual cameo appearance they’re granted in the movie, The Wizard of Oz. Just so with Jack Spratt, Punch and Judy, the Gingerbreadman and various other Persons of Dubious Reality (PDR) who appear in Fforde’s two novels featuring Spratt’s Nursery Crimes Division.

It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Fforde goes to incredible lengths to set up a lame joke, only to have the characters comment on his efforts and the lameness of the joke itself. But it’s all good fun and when he’s on, as he is much of the time, Fforde is one of the few authors capable of eliciting a true laugh out loud from his reader.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Man Booker Prize Longlist

The judging panel for the 2006 Man Booker Prize for Fiction announced on August 14 the longlist of books for this year. The longlist of 19 books was chosen from 112 entries; 95 were submitted for the prize and 17 were called in by the panel of judges.

Chair of judges, Hermione Lee said: "Judging the Man Booker Prize puts you through almost as many emotions as there are in the novels. We’ve tried to be careful and critical judges as well as being passionately involved. We have many regrets about some of the novels we’ve left off, and we could easily have had a longlist of about 30 books, but we’re delighted with the variety, the originality, the drama and craft, the human interest and the strong voices in this longlist. It’s a list in which famous established novelists rub shoulders with little known newcomers. We hope that people will leap at it for their late summer reading and make up their own shortlist.”

The judging panel for the 2006 Man Booker Prize for Fiction is: Hermione Lee (Chair); Simon Armitage, poet and novelist; Candia McWilliam, award winning novelist; critic Anthony Quinn and actor Fiona Shaw.

The 2006 shortlist will be announced on Thursday 14th September at a press conference at Man Group’s London office. The winner will be announced on Tuesday 10th October at an awards ceremony at Guildhall, London.

The longlist for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2006 is as follows:

  • Carey, Peter Theft: A Love Story (Faber & Faber)
  • Desai, Kiran The Inheritance of Loss (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Edric, Robert Gathering the Water (Doubleday)
  • Gordimer, Nadine Get a Life (Bloomsbury)
  • Grenville, Kate The Secret River (Canongate)
  • Hyland, M.J. Carry Me Down (Canongate)
  • Jacobson, Howard Kalooki Nights (Jonathan Cape)
  • Lasdun, James Seven Lies (Jonathan Cape)
  • Lawson, Mary The Other Side of the Bridge (Chatto & Windus)
  • McGregor, Jon So Many Ways to Begin (Bloomsbury)
  • Matar, Hisham In the Country of Men (Viking)
  • Messud, Claire The Emperor’s Children (Picador)
  • Mitchell, David Black Swan Green (Sceptre)
  • Murr, Naeem The Perfect Man (William Heinemann)
  • O’Hagan, Andrew Be Near Me (Faber & Faber)
  • Robertson, James The Testament of Gideon Mack (Hamish Hamilton)
  • St Aubyn, Edward Mother’s Milk (Picador)
  • Unsworth, Barry The Ruby in her Navel (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Waters, Sarah The Night Watch (Virago)

And, no, I haven't read a single one of the books on this list.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Whole World Over a terrific second book

77. The Whole World Over, Julia Glass. Fiction, 8-24, p. 509

Second books are not supposed to be this good.

Julia Glass emerged as something of a literary phenomena in 2002 when her first book, Three Junes, came out of nowhere to win the National Book Award. It was a very good book. The Whole World Over is better.

Cinematic in its construction, The Whole World Over focuses on the intersecting lives of four characters: Greenie, a talented baker and chef who leaves New York and her husband for New Mexico; Alan, Greenie’s unhappy husband; Walter, a gay restaurant owner looking for love and stability; and Saga a physically and mentally broken young women.

There’s nothing ground-breaking in the themes Glass explores – loss, love, the consequences of the choices we make and have made for us. The power of The Whole World Over is in the fondness we develop for Glass’ vivid characters, both major and minor. We’d like to sit in Walter’s restaurant, eat a slice of Greenie’s cake or sit in her kitchen in the cool morning as she bakes. Glass' success, and it is considerable, is that her characters inhabit a larger world than the pages of her book. They also inhabit our imagination.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Three blurbs on three books

I should feel bad, I know. I haven't posted to this site in weeks. And I would feel bad if I weren’t so far behind in my reading that I can’t seriously considering blogging. Vacation (three baseball games in three days in three states), a temporary re-location (from Washington to Chicago) and new work responsibilities have taken its toll. I normally read a minimum of 100 pages a day, yet when I look at my book list I finished James Lee Burke’s Pegasus Descending on August 3rd and its taken until the 24th to finish another novel. I’ll address that novel soon, but until then I have three blurbs for three books.

74. Pegasus Descending, James Lee Burke. Fiction, 8-3, p. 356

This won’t be well received, but I’m going to write it any way. I’m giving up on James Lee Burke. I think his novels have become derivative . . . of James Lee Burke. Reading his newest novel I have the distinct sense that I’ve read it all before. It seems lately that Burke takes the same characters, scenes, settings, even phrases, tosses them into the blender of his word processor and a new novel emerges. I think I’m even more disappointed that his main character, Dave Robicheaux, never changes. Dave is supposed to be a smart guy, but he keeps repeating the same mistakes from book to book to book. Dave and the novels he appears in have become tiresome, formulaic and disappointing.

75. Francis Crick Discoverer of the Genetic Code, Matt Ridley. Biography, 8-3, p. 210

HarperColllins’ Eminent Lives series – a collection of brief biographies of a diverse group of notables – is a worthy successor to the Penguin Lives series. Matt Ridley’s biography of Francis Crick is an entertaining and informative read. Crick is an interesting figure, notable, if for no other reason, in that he was brilliant without being eccentric. As with any book about science or math (at least for me), the particulars challenge my comprehension, yet it is amazing how much of DNA and its components – the double helix, the sequence of the amino acid residues in proteins, the four types of nucleotides (adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine) – are remotely familiar.

76. Positively Fifth Street, James McManus. Poker, 8-16, p. 385

James McManus’ highly entertaining Positively Fifth Street is a minor classic in the small, but fascinating genre of books devoted to poker. McManus wrote his book just before the sport(?) became a cultural phenomenon due to ESPN’s broadcast of the World Series of Poker. McManus went to Vegas to write an article for Harper’s magazine on the Ted Binion murder trial (of Binion's Horseshoe Casino fame) and the recent success of women in what had been an exclusive all-male club. A gambler at heart (“the heart of a cliff diver”), McManus blows part of his advance from Harper’s on a qualifying tournament for the WSOP. He not only qualifies for the WSOP, but reaches the final table; a stunning accomplishment for an amateur player. In addition to his coverage of the murder trial and a riveting account of his tournament play, McManus ponders his justification for a lap dance (research) and the psychological and emotional motivations of the gambler. Let’s just you can equate risk with sexual excitement, losing with sexual excitement, winning with sexual excitement and sexual excitement with, well, cards, chips and nubile, young lap dancers. Masturbation plays a role in there somewhere, too. Just read the book – it’s the nuts.