Friday, December 31, 2010

Ship Breaker the most fun outside a comic book

Book 114: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

And so, the final book of 2010: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Bacigalupi's award-winning The Windup Girl was a wonder. Ship Breaker, shortlisted for the 2010 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, is another dazzling effort by this talented young writer, who is rapidly becoming one of my favorites.


Ship Breaker is set in a not too-distance future; perhaps the world a few years removed from The Windup Girl. Nailer, a teenage boy, is part of a salvage crew, breaking up the massive ships that dot the Louisiana coast and selling the copper wiring and other remnants for salvage.

After a massive storm strikes the coast, Nailer finds a clipper ship destroyed by the storm. Salvage the remains and his fortune can be made. On board, everyone is dead, except a girl Nailer's age. She is the heir to a shipping fortune and a pawn in a struggle for control of the shipping business.

That quickly we're off on a breakneck adventure that takes Nailer and the girl, now dubbed Lucky Girl, to crumbling remains of Orleans and then to the high seas, where a climatic battle takes place between two clippers while a fierce storm rages.

Anyone not picking up the occasional work written for young adults is missing the most fun since comic books. This is good stuff.

My Reading Life a celebration of books and reading

Book 113: My Reading Life by Pat Conroy

Pat Conroy and Larry McMurtry have this in common: I have never read a work of fiction by either of these notable novelists.

I have read, and greatly enjoyed, their non-fiction. McMurtry's biography of Crazy Horse is superb -- biography as narrative -- as is Conroy's My Losing Season.

I now add Conroy's My Reading Life to that list. Books on books, books about reading, are a special pleasure for any reader. Our need to read -- and it is a need -- is foreign to most people, they cannot come close to comprehending how reading is like oxygen, but Conroy knows.

My Reading Life is a celebration of reading, a joyous work in which Conroy pays tribute to his mother, another vociferous reader who believed that her son would one day be a Southern writer of note, and to a high school English teacher who played a deeply significant role in his development as a man and a writer.

Conroy celebrates those books and writers who were and are meaningful to him: War and Peace, James Dickey and Thomas Wolfe. He sometimes overwrites -- Conroy knows he is guilty of this authorial sin -- but his fellow readers forgive him this sin because we know that it is only an expression of joy that cannot, will not, be contained.

Conroy writes about how reading has shaped and influenced his work. And he shares, eloquently, what he seeks in a book:

"Now, when I pick up a book, the prayer that rises out of me is that it changes me utterly and that I am not the man who first selected that book from a well-stocked shelf. Here's what I love: when a great writer turns me into a Jew from Chicago, a lesbian out of South Carolina, or a black woman moving into a subway entrance in Harlem. Turn me into something else, writers of the world. Make me Muslim, heretic, hermaphrodite. Put me into a crusader's armor, a cardinal's vestments. Let me feel the pygmy's heartbeat, the queen's breast, the torturer's pleasure, the Nile's taste, or the nomad's thirst. Tell me everything I must know. Hold nothing back."

Above all, Conroy embraces the power of a story. He knows there are critics, even authors, who scorn of the emphasis on narrative. But for Conroy, and for me, "tell me a story" are among the most powerful words in the English language. They are words to conjure with, to fuel a dream, offer escape, to fill the lungs with fresh and vital air and the heart with hope.

"Reading and prayer are both acts of worship to me," Conroy writes. "Amen," Mr. Conroy. "Amen."

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Colonel Roosevelt a splendid conclusion to Morris's trilogy

Book 110: Parrot & Olivier in America by Peter Carey

I never know what I will find when I open a Peter Carey novel. It may be something fine, on the order of True History of the Kelly Gang. Or something I find inexplicable such as The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith.

Carey is at peak form in Parrot & Olivier in America, which was shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and the National Book Award. It is a sprawling, comic, picaresque novel loosely inspired by the life of Alexis de Tocqueville.

De Tocqueville, the Olivier of the novel, comes to America to write about its prison system for a French audience. Ultimately, he expands his book into a comprehensive study of America and Americans of the early 19th Century. Olivier is accompanied to America by an English servant, Parrot.

Sent to report on Olivier's actions in America, Parrot becomes his friend and confidant.

Carey alternates points of view, first a chapter told by Olivier and then by Parrot. And, it is here, that the book's central weakness is most apparent. Parrot, who journeys from England to Australia as a child, and later finds his way to France, is the novel's most interesting character than Olivier and those passages in his voice are more compelling than the story told by Olivier.

All in all, a worthy read. Not Carey's best, perhaps, but approaching it. If for no other reason, Parrot & Olivier in America is worth reading because it is a so-called comic novel that produces genuine laughs.

Book 111: Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

Colonel Roosevelt is the final book in Edmund Morris's trilogy on the life of Teddy Roosevelt. It is a fine and fitting conclusion to a body of work that has absorbed much of Morris's working life.

I think of few individuals who have led such a fascinating life -- cradle to grave -- as Roosevelt and Morris has done a splendid job in drawing a rich portrait of this complex and driven man.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
is the story of Teddy's pre-presidential life from his efforts to throw off debilitating childhood illnesses to become a hunter, cowboy, soldier, vice president and, unexpectedly, president. Theodore Rex, the second book in the trilogy, is the account of his presidency.

Colonel Roosevelt opens with Teddy and his son, Kermit, on an ambitious hunting expedition in Africa. There's also a lengthy passage on Roosevelt's journey to South America to explore an unknown tributary of the Amazon known as the River of Doubt. Roosevelt almost died in South America and, by all reports, never fully recovered from the rigors of that expedition. (Anyone wanting to read more about that trip should investigate the gripping The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard.)

In between those two expeditions, of course, Roosevelt was the Progressive Party candidate for President. Unhappy with the Taft Administration, Roosevelt led a bolt from the Republican Party. He finished second to the Democrat candidate, Woodrow Wilson. Taft, once a Roosevelt confidant and member of the Roosevelt Administration, finished a distant third.

As World War I began, Roosevelt was a critic of Wilson's refusal to lead America in to war. Roosevelt, always the warrior, was less attuned to the will of the America people who were adamantly isolationist. Nor was there great clarity around who the U.S. should support -- Germany or the Allies -- until Germany's policy of unrestricted submarine warfare left America's political leaders with no choice but to enter the war on the side of England, France and Russia.

All four of Roosevelt's sons enlisted. All were injured in the fighting and, Quentin, a pilot was shot down and killed in a fierce aerial battle. Roosevelt did not recover from that grievious loss and died soon after the war's end.

Roosevelt was a complex man, whose opinions and actions may not have always been correct, but were always certain. Colonel Roosevelt is required reading as are the first two books in this fine series.

Book 112: I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita

There are flashes of brilliance in Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel, a sprawling story of the Asian American civil rights movement of the late '60s and '70s, but it takes a patient reader to find them.

There are two signficiant problems with this novel that was shortlisted for the National Book Award. The first is that it encompasses ten years of stories sprawled across 600 pages. There is very little continuity from story to story, challenging the reader to remain engaged with the story line.

The second pitfall is that this is largely an experimental work. Mostly prose, but dipping into poetry, drama and the graphic novel, I Hotel tests the limits of a reader's good will.

I Hotel is like an extended jazz solo in which the performer goes on too long.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Bryant's bio of Henry Aaron a HOF entry

Book 105: Rogue Island by Bruce DeSilva

The mystery behind a series of arsons in a poor neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island, takes a back seat to author Bruce DeSilva's insider's portrayal of the newspaper business. DeSilva is a retired journalist and Associated Press writing coach and Rogue Island provides a vehicle for him to take some fond parting shots at his erstwhile profession.

Rogue Island is an entertaining first book, although it doesn't rise to the level of more established writers in the genre. We do learn that Rogue Island is an early name for Rhode Island. After completing the book, my only question is, "Is Rhode Island really that corrupt?" Anyone know?

Book 106: The Last Hero, A Life of Henry Aaron by Howard Bryant

Howard Bryant's biography of Braves slugger Henry Aaron transcends the sports genre. Yes, there's plenty of baseball here and Bryant demonstrates the validity of the truism that "baseball writes." And, yes, it's a well-researched, impeccably told life of the Alabama man who rose to the greatest heights attainable within the sport of baseball.

The book is a huge success solely on those levels -- baseball and biography. But is does author and subject, Bryant and Aaron, a mighty disservice not to embrace the book on one final level; one rarely achieved in sports biography -- sociological perspective.

Bryant's gift is that he sets Aaron's contributions and career -- as athlete and man -- against the social and cultural changes that enveloped Aaron, and America, from the time he left Mobile, determined to become a professional baseball player, to his surpassing Babe Ruth's all-time home run record.

Aaron is a man of great pride and dignity. Bryant's book is a fitting tribute to those qualities as well as to one of the finest players the game of baseball has ever seen. Aaron no longer holds the all-time home run record, giving way to Barry Bonds, but as one observer, quoted by Bryant, notes, he remains "the standard-bearer."

Book 107: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

The Finkler Question, 2010 winner of the prestigious Booker Prize, is a dreary comic novel on what it means to be a Jew.

I guess. Honestly, I didn't take much away from this novel, but I do have a recommendation: read something else.



Book 108: So Much For That by Lionel Shriver

It's Freedom without Franzen.

So Much For That -- short-listed for the National Book Award for fiction -- is an extended rant on all that's wrong with America's health care system. Characters are confronted with an especialy virulent form of cancer, a rare disease that inflicts only Jews, a drug resistant infection raging through a nursing home and an ill-chosen vanity surgery that goes terribly wrong.

Somehow author Lionel Shriver wrests a happy, yet depressingly bogus, ending from this unrelentingly bleak portrait of modern America.

Book 109: Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear

Hull Zero Three, the newest novel from the prolific Greg Bear, goes far to establishing Bear as a Science Fiction Grandmaster in the classic mold of Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke.

As with many books in the genre, when the novel opens both narrator and reader are confronted with more questions than answers. It takes almost the entire novel to answer most of those questions and that's fine because it's an intriguing, thrilling journey.

Without serving up a spoiler, the narrator, who we come to know as Teacher, is on a massive spaceship. The destination is unknown, but it's clear that something has gone horribly wrong and that war has broken out on board. The reader is step-for-step with Bear's curious cast of characters as they manage to stay alive along enough to unravel the puzzle and set things right.

Ultimately, Bear makes it clear that in whatever shape it takes, humanity -- in the fullest meaning of the word -- can survive amid the cold depths of the stars.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

On Great House by Nicole Krauss

Book 104: Great House by Nicole Krauss

Great House by Nicole Krauss is like a savory bouillabaisse prepared by a promising, yet clumsy chef. You may first spoon up an exquisite text, but dip in a second time and you come away with a mystifying narrative that befuddles even the most attentive reader.

There are four narrators in Great House, three of the four have links to an imposing desk that carries the burden of a large, but elusive symbolic meaning. The fourth narrator, a Jewish man writing about his strained relationship with his son, seems to have no apparent connection with the other stories that comprise this novel.

Only seems to have no apparent connection. It's there, but it is all to easy to overlook. I owe Slate Magazine a debt of gratitude. Only after listening to a podcast on the novel did the connection become apparent to me.

That lack of clarity ruptures the pact between writer and reader, and is a serious flaw in such a serious work.

And Great House is flawed.

Many critics would not agree. In the New York Times, Rebecca Newberger Goldenstein found much to praise in Great House, and the book was shortlisted for the 2010 National Book Awards.

But the Slate podcast alone describes the book as: Fragmentary, mystifying, confusing and bleak, its characters imported from a European art house film and the writing, so distant and removed, that it feels as if it were "from behind a glass."

I list the criticism above because I find the observations valid and because it captures, accurately, much of my thinking on this book.

I also agree with Carlo Strenger, who wrote in his blog on Haaretz.com, "While it is, no doubt a masterpiece of novelistic writing, it leaves the reader with a sense of emptiness."

It is difficult to understand what Krauss is trying to say, to parse the deeper meaning buried in her characters and the narrative. As a reader, I am impatient with writers who force us to gut a novel like a chicken and spill out the entrails in search of meaning.

Far from compelling, the Great House characters emerge as dark, brooding figures, unlikable, and bowed by the weight of the symbolic tonnage vested in them by the author.

Krauss is a gifted writer and she is poised to emerge as an important literary voice. There are glimpses of her genius in Great House, but the promise is not fully realized.

Great House is not too my taste.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

On Djibouti, Unbroken, Room, Lord of Misrule and Moonlight Mile

Book 99: Djibouti by Elmore Leonard

Detroit, Vegas, Miami, even Oklahoma, but Djibouti?

The setting is off in Elmore Leonard's newest novel. Way off.

And as a result, nothing really works. Not the snappy dialogue. Or the oh-so cool characters. This one wrong note -- a really loud note -- reverberates throughout the entire symphony.

We find ourselves in Djibouti following an Oscar-winning filmmaker and her assistant who have arrived to do a documentary on pirates. But at some point the novel becomes a story about an American-born al qaeda sympathizer who plans to blown up a freighter. Soon after the clinker becomes a clunker.

Sorry, Dutch, but Oklahoma should remain your most exotic setting.

Book 100: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Critics everywhere should thank Laura Hillenbrand. She just made the job of assembling our list of The Best Books of 2010 easier.

Unbroken has secured a place on my list without breaking a sweat.

Unbroken is the story of Louie Zamperini. A California native, Zamperini was the highest American finisher in the 5,000 meter run at the Berlin Olympics. His Olympic dreams are ended when, with the outbreak of World War II, he finds himself on the crew of a bomber in the Pacific.

Zamperini's plane is shot down. He and the pilot survive harrowing weeks on a disintegrating raft only to become prisoners of the Japanese. His life as a prisoner of war is marked by brutality, terror and humiliation.

Even when the war ends, and Zamperini is freed, his struggles are not over. Plagued by nightmares and a deep-rooted anger, Zamperini finds consolation in alcohol. He drifts from job to job and his marriage is falling apart.

Enter a young Billy Graham. Strong-armed into attending Graham's tent revival by his wife, Zamperini remembers a promise he made to God were he to survive the war. The sub-title captures the essence of Zamperini's experience -- survival, resilience and redemption.

Were it a movie of the week, it would seem too hackneyed, too earnest, too predictable to be true. But in Hillenbrand's hands Zamperini's story is none of these things. Instead, it soars. Hillenbrand is easily one of the finest storytellers, working in non-fiction, today and Unbroken is easily among the best books of this or any other year.

Book 101: Room by Emma Donoghue

I was skeptical. There were too many glowing reviews, too many bookstore clerks telling me "I loved this book," too many friends asking, "Have you read it?"

The answer is an enthusiastic yes, I have read it. And I love this book, too.

Here's what I admire most about it -- Donoghue has created a work of singular invention. There aren't a hand full of writers who could pull off this high wire act. The wise wouldn't try.

Room is a powerful work of the imagination and a tribute to the power of a mother's love to nurture a child amid a daunting and horrific situation.

Book 102: Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

Lord of Misrule is a horse. One of many that appears in this award-winning novel about a down-at-its-heels West Virginia racetrack. It is no mistake that Gordon's novel draws its title from a horse named after the individual selected to rule over the annual Christmas Feast of Fools.

With each section, framed by a horse race, we are introduced to new characters and to new horses, who are also important characters in this novel of greed and ambition and hope. Lord of Misrule is a finely layered novel of nuance and observation (of people and horses). It manages to be both elegant and coarse in the way of horses and horse people.

I greatly enjoy, and value, novels that take me into a unexplored world. I have watched horse races at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky. Bet on their outcome. Taken my lunch -- slumming, really -- in the track kitchen. And I have always known that immediately at hand, and yet light years distant, was another world.

Gordon shares that world with the reader in Lord of Misrule.

I have yet to read the other four books that made the shortlist for the National Book Award. Even once I have read those books I may not have a clear idea of which book, among the five, was the best.

I do know that Lord of Misrule is a deserving winner for its authenticity and the quality of its writing.

Book 103: Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane

Thank you, Dennis Lehane. For years I have requested that you write a sequel to your novels featuring Kenzie and Gennaro. I liked Mystic River, but Shutter (Shudder?) Island and The Given Day felt flat.

Now, in Moonlight Mile, not only are Kenzie and Gennaro back, but they revisit their most famous case -- the disappearance of Amanda McCready from Gone Baby Gone.

It is more than I dared ask for, and the book does not disappoint. It is a terrific read because of your sense of setting and the characters that populate this novel. Kenzie and Gennaro (now Kenzie, herself) are intriguing characters filled with doubt and imperfections and moral certainties they find troubling.

Moonlight Mile can be read as a finale for these two characters. I hope that is not the case, but if it is, you have left me satisfied as a reader and a fan.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Is The Reversal Connelly's best book?

Book 98: The Reversal by Michael Connelly

Is The Reversal Michael Connelly's best book?

If it is -- and it may well be -- that's saying something. Connelly has been at the top of his game a long time. Most writers lost their snap this many books into their career, but Connelly keeps it fresh.

The Reversal features Connelly's two leading characters -- Harry Bosch, the tough-as-nails L.A. homicide detective, and Mickey Haller, the defense attorney whose is office is the backseat of his Lincoln.

The novel is part courtroom drama, part police procedural. An appeals court has kicked the conviction of Jason Jessup, who has been in prison for 24 years for the murder of a 12-year-old girl. A DNA sample on the victim's dress doesn't belong to Jessup.

Soon Jessup is headed back to L.A. to face a new trial. Haller is enlisted to serve as a special prosecutor in the case. In turn, he recruits Bosch to serve as special investigator.

On its surface, there isn't anything to the story you haven't read before or seen in the movies or on a bad TV show. But Connelly, with great pacing, vivid scenes and characters who jump off the page, transcends the genre. This is a book, a story, that compels you to read it and it's a damn gripping read.

The question remains: Is The Reversal Connelly's best book? At least, until his next book is released the answer is yes.
.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Leavy reveals the man behind the myth in The Last Boy

Book 96: The Last Boy, Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood by Jane Leavy

Bed wetter. Womanizer. Alcoholic.

Mickey Mantle was all these things. He was also -- for all too brief a time -- the finest baseball player in the game. No one could hit the ball farther or harder than the kid from Commerce. He ran the bases faster than anyone and, if he was a so-so fielder, he ran down balls that others could only dream of reaching.

His radiant smile, chiseled body, tousled blonde hair and an easy, unforced modesty that led him to keep his head down as he rounded the bases after another home run, made him one of the most popular men in the game, among both players and the fans. Mickey was an icon.

Jane Leavy explores the reality behind the icon in her book, The Last Boy. This is a much different biography than the one she wrote on Sandy Koufax in 2002. That was an elegant book, but Koufax was an elegant man. The Last Boy is a coarser work, because Mantle could be, was, a coarse man.

Leavy's biography of the Oklahoma great invokes laughter in one passage and sadness in the next. She is unsparing in serving up details that strip away the facade created by Yankee publicists and an uncritical press, allowing us to see Mantle as man rather than myth. Fragile. Vulnerable. Crude.

If The Last Boy is not as fine a work as Sandy Koufax, it is a necessary one. Leavy allows us to see all of Mantle's greatness and all his faults. In doing so, she leaves us with the portrait of a man that we can continue to admire, yet also pity.

Book 97: Worth Dying For by Lee Child


Bad guys. Really bad guys. A cowed Nebraska farming community. A half-dozen hoods from Las Vegas. And Jack Reacher.

This isn't a spoiler, but Reacher walks away in the end. The bad guys aren't so lucky.

That's all you need to know about Worth Dying For. That and it's a quick, fun read.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl is a sensation

My recent reading encompasses three books that range from disappointing to the sensational with something squarely in the middle.

Book 93: Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carre

The middle ground is occupied by John le Carre, who is still writing about Russians. But these days, the Russians are international criminals rather than espionage agents. That distinction alone means that Our Kind of Traitor will emerge as a disappointment to some readers.

One wonders why le Carre, in these recent books, has not returned to the past. Surely there are more stories to tell of Smiley and Karla or, at least, men and women similar to these two adversaries that lived among le Carre's best work.

One wonders, but one knows the answer. Le Carre's conscience leads him to write about the times we inhabit now. Times that he finds so lacking in moral fiber or integrity. He has, for example, explored the baseness and greed that motivate the pharmaceutical giants. In Our Kind of Traitor he casts an angry eye upon governments and politicians who have grown cozy with international criminals.

Our Kind of Traitor
is an entertaining work. Le Carre's skills as a storyteller have been finely honed through years of writing. It is amazing to observe how much of this novel is confined to dialogue amid ill lit rooms inside safe houses and yet le Carre creates a skein of tension that slowly builds to a conclusion that, if not entirely satisfying, is entirely true to its tale.

Book 94: Bloody Crimes, The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln's Corpse by James Swanson

Sadly, because I so enjoyed Swanson's Manhunt about the 12-day search for Lincoln's killer, I find Bloody Crimes a bloody disappointment.

The two stories, Lincoln's death pageant and the search for Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, do not work well in parallel.

The story of Lincoln's death pageant is a dry recitation of logistics that could have been summarized in a magazine article. The search for Davis is a compelling story that warranted its own book.

Book 95: The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Windup Girl is a sensation. Co-winner of the 2010 Hugo Award, it it one of the best science fiction stories I have read in years and certainly ranks among the best first novels -- of any genre -- that I have read.

Comparisons have been made to the early work of William Gibson. Those comparisons are apt. Like Gibson, Bacigalupi takes the stuff of today and envisions a future so close to hand that the reader can almost touch it. And in creating this future, Bacigalupi fashions a story that is visionary and immediate and frightening.

We can smell the stink of tomorrow.

The stink from over-ripe durians rotting on a vendor's cart. And the stink from greedy men unleashing genetic havoc upon an unsuspecting earth.

The Windup Girl is set in Krung Thep (Bangkok). The earth's rising seas are held at bay by makeshift dikes. Chesires, a breed of genetically manipulated cats that wink in and out of one's vision, prowl the dark alleys. Men and women fear blister rust and genehacked weevils. Seed banks are guarded as we once guarded the gold of Fort Knox.

Bacigalupi weaves a wondrous tale of competing interests. Virtually everyone is corrupt and everyone is scrabbling just to remain a live. The narrative is gripping, but it is the future -- gene ripped and gene hacked and a little mad --which Bacigalupi envisions that is so compelling.

That and the windup girl of the title. Emiko is a creche grown member of the New People. Not human, better in most ways. She's fighting for her life and dignity against overwhelming odds. The windup girls makes for an unlikely hero in this gripping story of a future that's feels all to near.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Lacuna, The 5th Inning and Fledgling

Book 90: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

"Who be ye?" asks a voice at the conclusion of Barbara Kingsolver's novel, The Lacuna.

"People . . . might want to look back on those who labored and birthed the times they have inherited. But maybe that's wrong, and already we'll be a graveyard of weeds they won't want to visit. You, I mean to say. The times you have inherited. I wonder that: Who be ye?”

The voice belongs to Violet Brown, the conscience of The Lacuna and the stenographer of Harrison Shepherd, whose life story is at the heart of this sweeping novel.

Violet's question is posed to those men responsible for the Red Scare, the destruction of Shepherd's reputation and livelihood and, ultimately, his death through an apparent suicide. But Kingsolver is working on more than one level and Mrs. Brown's question is also aimed at those of us who inhabit today's fractious political landscape. A landscape marred by stridency and polarization and where half-truths and fabrications are presented by intelligent men and women as truths in order to gain political advantage.

The politics of fear reign today just as they did in the time period in which Kingsolver's novel is set.

Shepherd's life story, told largely through his dairies, which Mrs. Brown has saved from destruction, is all the more compelling because of the parallels with today. Shepherd is tainted by affiliations -- the painter Diego Rivera and Russian revolutionary Lev Trotsky -- that for him are about love and loyalty, rather than ideology.

It makes no difference. None of those guilty of Shepherd's destruction care about his guilt or innocence or his motives. He is an all to easy means to advance their shabby political ambitions. No more.

And today? People would do well to take Kingsolver's question to heart. Who be ye?


Book 91: The 5th Inning by E. Ethelbert Miller

The 5th Inning by E. Ethelbert Miller is a surprisingly powerful memoir for such a slender work. A few quiet hours on a Sunday afternoon is all is takes to dispatch this book. Yet, Miller's wisdom and insight linger longer.

The 5th Inning takes its title, and much of its essence, from baseball's fifth inning. After five, the game becomes official. Miller is saying his life is now in the books. It could end now. Or run the full nine innings. Or -- although Miller doesn't believe so -- go into extra innings.

Whatever the outcome, Miller, a D.C.-based poet, seems content with the outcome. Whether it's a game shortened by the vicissitudes of life or allowed to run its full course, Miller has played it well and is satisfied with the final score.

He writes about fatherhood, his lovers and wives. He is aware of how difficult it is simply to be a good father, a good husband, a good man. In a few brief pages, we read of a man, and poet, coming to terms with his life, and death.

What's rare about this book is that Miller approaches his mortality with satisfaction and a sense that he has does his best and can go to his rest with contentment and a measure of satisfaction.

Book 92: Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

One of the authors that Miller mentions in passing in The Fifth Inning is Butler, who, like Miller, is African American.

Fledgling is Butler's final book. She died, in a fall, soon after this novel was completed. Fledgling was clearly intended to be the first in a series of novels. It is just as clearly the work of an author at the top of her game.

It is an exquisite novel -- well-told and provocative. Butler has always skillfully used the science fiction genre to probe the human condition. Here she elevates the vampire novel to a level that is profound, yet filled with horror and mystery, too.

Shori, the young vampire of the novel's title, is a compelling, complex and sympathetic character who carries the novel with extraordinary vigor.

Butler's untimely death is sad, not only because we have lost an engaging and thoughtful presence, but because we have also lost her stories and the insights they provoked.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

On Bob Dylan in America and Think of a Number

Book 88: Think of a Number by John Verdon

Think of a Number by John Verdon begins with a puzzle that could test the deductive skills of the great Sherlock Holmes and ends with the movie equivalent of a car chase.

Whether Verdon got lazy or is simply making a naked pitch to the Hollywood rainmakers, the disappointing finale to his debut novel derails a promising and intriguing beginning. It's as if Alfred Hitchcock directed three quarters of a film only to let Wes Craven finish it.

The puzzle is presented to Dave Gurney, a retired NYPD homicide detective, by a frightened college chum he hasn't seen in decades. Gurney's erstwhile pal has received a mysterious letter that invites him to "think of any number . . . and see how well I know your secret."

He thinks of a number, and when he opens a second envelope tucked inside the first, it appears the letter writer does know him well, because the number that came to mind also appears on the printed page.

The letter writer pulls off this bit of conjuration again and that mysterious ability, combined with some decidedly threatening poems, ratchets up the suspense.

Which only heightens when Gurney's college friend is brutally murdered. Gurney's investigation uncovers a series of murders that appear connected, yet no visible tie exists.

It's a creepy and altogether satisfying mystery -- how did the letter writer know that number? -- until Verdon brings the reader and Gurney and the letter writer together for a conclusion that does not do justice to the thriller he has fashioned so expertly to this point.

Book 89: Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz

Sean Wilentz's book on Bob Dylan caught me by surprise, pleasantly so. I was familiar with Wilentz's work as a historian, including his biography of Andrew Jackson that is part of the American Presidents series.

But I hesitated to buy this book. I wondered what Wilentz knew about Dylan and his music, or music at all for that matter. I was like a school child who doesn't realize that his teacher has a life outside the classroom.

My hesitation was unfounded. Wilentz has been a Dylan fan for decades. He has an impressive knowledge of Dylan's work based on many hours of listening and his understanding of music approaches that of a performer. Yet, ultimately, it is Wilentz's grounding in history that makes this book so special.

Bob Dylan in America explores the antecedents and influences upon Dylan, the performer and songwriter. He charts a journey that takes us from Aaron Copland to the murder behind the song Delia, from the shape note movement in 19th Century America to the life story of Blind Willie McTell.

Chock with footnotes and rich in research, Bob Dylan in America's greatest strength lies in Wilentz's gifts as a storyteller. Part biography, part musical criticism, part history, Bob Dylan in America is ultimately a perceptive and powerful argument of Bob Dylan as an gifted musician who defined America even as America defined the musician.



Monday, October 11, 2010

Fan Boy on Kate Akinson's newest opus

Book 87: Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

Hey, Kate. Hope you are well. It’s me – fan boy #1.

About that. I’d like to give myself a promotion. I want to be Fan Boy #1².

Yeah, that it . . . Fan Boy to the Second Power!

You rock. I rock. We rock!

Where is this excess of enthusiasm coming from?, you ask. And I answer, Kate, I just finished your most recent opus, Started Early, Took My Dog.

How do you do it? Seriously, that’s not a rhetorical question.

How do you do it?

I am so, like, gob smacked. A nice little mystery, all these interwoven story lines, a riveting narrative and vivid characters. (That’s apparently not a sentence, but I will let it stand.)

About your characters: I liked Courtney the best in this novel. The four-year-old. She reminded me a little of Regina from When Will There Be Good News.

Seriously, Time Magazine is putting Jonathan Franzen on its cover and, well, Jonathan is an OK guy, but they should give out a pair of scissors with each book. (Because his characters are cardboard cut-outs. Ha Ha, just a little literary humor. LOL.)

A little exposition, a pinch of description, a run of dialogue and your characters pop – POP – off the page.

Great title, too.

And, Kate, one more thing. Keep this between us. Our little secret. Your books make me laugh (that’s not the secret), but they make me cry too. I know it’s all paper and ink and fairy dust, but there are times I’m crying and laughing at the same time. Compelling is what I'd call it.

So . . . loved the book. Love you. (I kept flipping to the back of the book to look at your picture on the dust jacket. Even I find that a little creepy.)

OK, Fan Boy #1² needs to close. If you’re reading this, you’re not writing and I want you writing. I'm giddy just thinking about your next book.

Politics & Prose co-founder dies

Carla Cohen, a co-owner of Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., died today. You can read her obituary in the Washington Post.

The Post describes Carla as "an exuberant force behind the evolution of Politics and Prose from a simple storefront into an institution that defined Washington's literary scene."

My condolences and my prayers to her many friends. Carla's passing is a great loss.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

What If . . . Jimmy Carter won his second term?

Book 86: Jimmy Carter by Julian E. Zelizer

What if . . . ?

I've always been a fan of that open-ended question, especially as it relates to my decades-long infatuation with Marvel Comics. What if Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four? What if the Fantastic Four had different powers? What if Doctor Doom had become a hero?

The possibilities are endless. Not simply as they relate to the Marvel Universe, but to the more mundane and superhero-free universe that we inhabit.

Consider, What if, in 1980, Jimmy Carter had won election to his second term as president? Ronald Reagan would never have been president. By the time, Reagan's next opportunity came around, in 1984, he Reagan would have been 72 and it seems reasonable to believe voters would have turned elsewhere.

If Reagan had not been President, George Bush would not have been Vice President and, again, it seems reasonable to believe that Bush would have never been elected President. If we did not have Bush I, we would not have had W.

And if we had not had W. . . . well, so it goes. America's political landscape would have been transformed.

But Carter did not win. As Julian Zelizer documents in his biography of Carter -- another fine entry in the American Presidents series -- the peanut farmer from Georgia ran afoul of a combination of his own shortcomings and a series of national and world events crippling to any political ambitions.

Some of Carter's shortcomings were born in his first campaign for President. He ran as the consummate Washington outsider alienating members of Congress, including members of his own party. Carter disliked legislative politics and the infighting and ass-kissing it entailed, again alienating members of his own party; members he would need to secure not only passage of his legislative programs, but to pull together the disparate segments of the Democratic Party in support of his campaign for re-election.

Carter had the misfortune to want to save the world -- notably in his efforts to bring peace to the Middle East -- at a time that his own country was drowning in unemployment, high energy prices and the shock of the Iranian hostage crisis. He was never able to successfully cope with those domestic and foreign challenges, driving Independents and many traditional supporters of the Democratic Party into the arms of a nascent Conservative movement.

Zelizer provides a balanced appraisal of Carter as President. He notes, rightly, I think, that Carter was more successful on the world stage in the years following his presidency than he was during his ill-fated four-year term.

The general view of Carter is that he was a good man ill-suited and overwhelmed by the duties of the presidency. Zelizer corrects that view. Carter was an intelligent man and his presidency was largely successful in its first two years. "The president pushed for some of the most comprehensive energy programs that had ever been attempted and won support for a few of those policies, such as solar energy, that are today considered essential," Zelizer writes.

The institutionalization of human rights within American foreign policy and brokering a durable peace agreement between Israel and Egypt rank among his most significant and lasting accomplishments.

Ultimately, Carter was overwhelmed by his own shortcomings, the press of national and world events and a movement that's time had clearly come. Zelizer's analysis of Carter's one term as president opens the door to another question:

What if Jimmy Carter had never been elected president?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Pooping in space and other topics you wanted to know about, but didn't want to ask

These two most recent books -- one a mystery, the other a work of non-fiction -- satisfy my number one criteria: they are entertaining reads.

Book 84: Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Entertaining isn't something you necessarily expect, or look for, in a work of non-fiction, but that's an apt description of Mary Roach's treatise on man's efforts "to boldly go where no man has gone before."

Roach writes in a effortless manner that equates to a dinner-time chat across the kitchen table with a knowledgeable friend, a friend who is seeking to entertain as well as to inform. Her sense of humor infuses the entire book and, again, brings an unexpected, but welcome quality to a work of non-fiction.

Another apt description of Packing for Mars is gross. Roach dishes out gross, but also engrossing information on all those things we've wondered about life in space, but never asked. She discourses on vomiting, farting, body odor and peeing while among the stars, but her most notable chapter is on pooping in zero gravity.

One might conclude (and I will) that Roach takes the line "to boldly go where no man has gone before" literally in this charmingly informative book.

Book 85: The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny

Charm oozes from the work of Louise Penny. The Cruelest Month is her third novel to feature Inspector Gamache and the villagers of Three Pines.

Give Penny credit, she is willing to embrace all the conventions of the cozy novel. In The Cruelest Month she goes so far as to summon all the murder suspects at the scene of the crime, a haunted house overlooking the village, for the grand denouement by Gamache. It's an ancient convention that Penny manages to make freshingly new.

All her strengths are on display: a genuine mystery to unravel, a brisk and riveting narrative and vividly drawn characters. One particularly nice aspect of The Cruelest Month is the conclusion of a shadow upon Gamache's career.

I have not dwelt on this plot line in talking about Penny's first two books, and I won't here either, expect to say Penny weaves the various threads together into a most satisfying conclusion.

It will be interesting to see where she takes this series in future novels. We have so much more we want to know about Gamache, the members of his team and the village of Three Pines.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

On Freedom and Super Sad True Love Story

Book 82: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Book 83:
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

There are many similarities to these two much-heralded books. Both are savage commentaries on the state of American society. Both authors employ love stories as the framing device in which to unroll their commentary.

And I didn’t like either book much.

Franzen’s Freedom has enjoyed all the accolades that the American media can generate: the author made the cover of Time magazine, Freedom was tabbed as the final Oprah Book Club selection (with all the concomitant prestige and increased sales) and The New York Times proclaims the book “a masterpiece of American fiction.”

Publicity for Shteyngart’s dystopian look at a dying America, set in the immediate future (“oh, let’s say next Tuesday,” proclaims the dust jacket), may be more muted, but is no less enthusiastic.

Yet in the face of this gale of critical acclamation, I have problems with these two novels? Damn, betcha.

Franzen's characters are neither fully formed nor appealing. Four characters share the stage -- Walter and Patty Berglund; their son, Joey; and Walter's college roommate, Richard Katz. (A fourth member of the Berglund family, a daughter, Jessica, is limited to a cameo role.)

For much of the novel they are mere cardboard cut-outs, vessels for Franzenian rants on a range of topics from the current generation’s penchant for wearing flip-flops everywhere to the ecological devastation of coal mining in West Virginia to the dangers of world over-population to the predations of house cats on the American songbird population.

We know from the Time magazine article that Franzen is a bird-watcher. Perhaps he should have limited his concerns to the world’s dwindling bird population. Because the trouble with the rant-a-page approach is that the reader does not where to place our limited supply of outrage. Should I be pissed about house cats on the prowl for songbirds? Environmental devastation in neighboring West Virginia? Or those damn flip-flops?

Franzen is clearly more interested in his extended rants on the state of America than in character development. Unfortunately, his characters are not only stock characters, but unappealing stock characters.

Joey is the prodigal son, who wants to make lots of money and be a member in good standing of the Republican Party. Ignored by her parents, Patty over-compensates with her own children. She's a stay-at-home-mom and that's clearly a poor career choice in Franzen's mind. Patty also desires Richard Katz more than her own husband. Katz is some sort of alt-rocker who can't handle success. And Walter . . . Walter is the rational, do-gooding liberal whose dirty little secret is that he has nothing but contempt for the people he's trying to help. He’s the intellectual who successfully overcame a impoverished background, including an underachieving alcoholic father, and now secretly wonders why others can't do the same.

Two themes run through the book. The first is that people aren't what they seem to be. They're neither as good nor as bad as we might believe them to be. Much of Patty's frustration with Walter, and their marriage, is that Walter believes she's better, nicer, than she knows she really is. Walter doesn't realize that Patty, like Jimmy Carter, has lust in her heart. Patty wants Walter to love her, not Walter’s idealized version of her.

The second theme has to do with freedom -- hence the title. Essentially, Franzen suggests, Americans have too much of it and don't know what to do with what we have. All that freedom has gone to waste.

A lot of reviews describe Freedom as darkly comedic. It is dark, but there's not a lot of humor here -- the satire is laid on too heavily and with too much certainty on the author's part that he knows what's best for us to be even slyly comedic. Comedy depends on the comedian laughing with us, not at us. Franzen, like Walter, doesn't seem to like people much.

Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (hereafter referred to as SSTLS) presents a more sophisticated and prescient satire than Franzen. (Less rant, more thought.) SSTLS recalls some of the early work of William Gibson.

Shteyngart, for example, takes the Blackberry prayer -- our modern tendency to dip the head forward, peering intently toward our lap as we feverishly connect via our increasingly sophisticated mobile phones -- to a logical and scary place where people are always connected to a tiny and ever-present “apparat.” Late in the novel when Americans suddenly find themselves severed from a connection to their “apparat” there are those who find suicide the only acceptable response.

In SSTLS, America is socially, culturally and financially bankrupt. The great American empire has given way to a third world country divided between the haves and have-nots and soon to be divided among the Chinese and the Middle East and other wealthy nations.

Lenny, the protagonist of SSTLS, works for a company that sells life extensions. In this brave new world no one has to die. Actually, no one who is a high net worth individual (HNWI) has to grow old and die. Lenny can’t afford the treatments that will keep him forever young, but does find his own fountain of youth when he falls in love with a Korean woman half his age.

And it’s this love story where Shteyngart goes astray. If his satire is sharper and richer than Franzen’s, his characters are just as wooden. Granted, they’re more appealing – Lenny’s a Jewish schmuck who loves his parents and clings to a collection of real honest-to-God books – but we still don’t care much.

Personally, I think Lenny is better off without his love interest, the boyish Eunice Park, whose betrayal is filled with self-interest. Trust Shteyngart to write an unconventional love story, but conventional love stories work because the reader is rooting for the lovers to get together or to get back together once they've been separated. The idea is that love, not self-interest, prevails.

Franzen and Shteyngart have written interesting books, which is to damn them both with faint praise. It’s the best I can do.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

2010 National Book Festival

The 10th annual National Book Festival was today on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Bibliophiles were in line for author Ken Follett 3 hours before his signing was scheduled to begin.

Author Ken Franzen also attracted a line of fans hours before his scheduled appearance.


Jonathan Franzen signing a copy of Freedom, his newest book.

And a smile for a fan from Franzen.


My wife, Beth, waiting for Jonathan Franzen to appear. We were first in line for Franzen as well as Jane Smiley. It was a great day, with thousands on hand, despite the heat.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

RIP: David Thompson

David Thompson died unexpectedly this week. He was 38.

I had never met David, but I felt that I knew him. And I felt that he knew me.

David was the publicity manager of Murder by the Book in Houston. He was also married to store owner McKenna Jordan. Five years ago, David founded Busted Flush Press, a small publishing company issuing both original material and reprints of neglected mysteries and thrillers.

But he was something more than the publicity manager or the husband of the store's owner or a small-press publisher. Quite a bit more, in fact.

David loved books and the bookstore where he'd worked more than than two decades and he loved the customers who shopped at Murder by the Book. His wife, McKenna, said, "He really prided himself on customer service, on knowing his customers and knowing which books they would love."

And I know that's true because of the time and interest that David invested in me. I've been buying from Murder by the Book for the five or six years. In that time David began to know what I liked and he would make recommendations, recommendations that were almost always spot on. And when they weren't -- although it was certainly something he didn't needed to do -- David would apologize. He took it personally when a recommendation fell flat.

There weren't many times like that, however. David has an uncanny sense for the books and authors that appealed to me. No, I take that back. It wasn't uncanny. David simply cared enough to pay attention and to listen and to ask questions; all that in a relationship forged over email.

I have experienced a profound sense of sadness and loss since I learned of David's death. I'm going to miss him.

And there's not much more I can do expect tell McKenna and David's family and friends how deeply I regret his passing and pray for them to find courage and strength and some measure of comfort at a time when life seems so unfair.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

On the inventiveness of Stross and Diaz

Book 80: The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross

Let's call it a guilty pleasure and be done with it. Charles Stross is among the more inventive writers working in the science fiction genre today. He's also among the most entertaining, deftly ranging from hard sci fi to space opera.

The books in two of his series -- the Laundry novels and the Merchant Princes -- make an unusual claim to inventiveness by re-inventing works created by others.

The Merchant Princes series recalls the work of Roger Zelazny. The Laundry novels tap directly into the writing of H.P. Lovecraft. There is magic in the world, but it's mathematically based and the rise of the personal computer -- among other things -- opens doorways into our world to things that go-bump-in-the-night and serves to hasten the end of the world.

It's the job of Stross hero (or anti-hero) Bob Howard to keep the gibbering, soul-eating horrors at bay. Howard does so again in The Fuller Memorandum, calling upon a horde of zombies to defeat a cult, the Brotherhood of the Black Pharaoh, that's attempting to bring about the end of the world.

I know how it sounds, but the novels are hugely entertaining and after Guillermo del Toro bring's Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness to the big screen, well, the Laundry novels are going to find a whole new audience.

Book 81: Drown by Junot Diaz

Talking about wildly inventive authors is the perfect time to segue to Junot Diaz, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Diaz explores much the same territory in the short stories in Drown that he later expanded into a novel with Oscar Wao. Shall we call these stories gems? Works for me. They're wonderful. It's impressive that someone has young as Diaz has such command of his craft.

Read these stories out of sequence. Start with the first story, Ysrael, but then jump to No Face and then simply absorb the astonishing fact of Diaz's powers of observation, his empathy and his penetrating insight into the lives of these struggling Dominicans.

Diaz is among the most authentic and commanding writers of his generation. I eagerly await his next book.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Tinkers, It's A Book, Bad Boy and more

Book 74: Tinkers by Paul Harding

It's unfortunate for Paul Harding that his first book, Tinkers, won the Pulitzer Prize. Unfortunate because this is a deeply flawed book and the acclaim that Harding now enjoys is likely to obscure that fact.

Tinkers is one of those books where the writing -- or over-writing in this instance -- gets in the way of a terrific story. The writing is certain to have impressed the Pulitzer judges, but not a reader seeking a pure and uncluttered narrative.

It is difficult, at times, to understand what Harding is writing about or to reconcile the narrative voice with the characters he has fashioned and whose stories seems compelling if we could only get at it.

Book 75: Composed by Rosanne Cash

I've been a fan of Johnny Cash for as long as I can remember, but I never paid any attention to the recordings of his daughter Rosanne. Then a friend recommend The List, her superb album that's built around a list of songs her father said every singer-songwriter should know.

The List led me to Composed, the newly released memoir by Cash. The memoir is a pleasant surprise. It's as readable and compelling as her recordings.

One caution: Johnny Cash, musical icon, is here in these pages, but he is generally superseded by Johnny Cash, Rosanne's Daddy, and that's as it should be. Part of the reason this book succeeds is that it is Rosanne's story, not "Johnny Cash as I knew him."

Rosanne Cash will never enjoy the musical stature obtained by her father -- few will -- but her journey through life, and her efforts to define herself as an artist, make Composed something far better, more rich and rewarding, than the standard celebrity bio.

Book 76: Lyndon B. Johnson by Charles Peters

I've long been an admirer of the long-running American Presidents Series by Times Books. This entry, by Charles Peters, is among the best.

Peters has a writing style that is inviting and he offers a incisive portrait of LBJ as a flawed man who is likely to rank in the second tier of Presidents. Below Lincoln, Washington and FDR, but alongside Jefferson, Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt.

It's a fair assessment. Johnson could be petty and cruel. His insecurities helped mire this nation in an unnecessary war in Vietnam. Yet, as Peters notes, LBJ's legislative record is one only FDR can match. Peter's cites two examples and they will serve here as well: Medicare and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Johnson is the subject of fine, multi-book biographies by Robert Caro and Robert Dallek. If you're looking for something shorter, that nicely captures life and presidency of Johnson, this is the book.

Book 77: Bad Boy by Peter Robinson

A former neighbor, needing advice, comes looking for Chief Inspector Alan Banks. But Banks is on vacation, thus setting off a comedy of errors by the police that quickly turns deadly.

Banks' daughter Tracy and DI Annie Cabbot are caught up in the aftermath of a police operation gone wrong. Banks returns from his holiday to the states to find his daughter missing and Cabbot in the hospital fighting for her life.

The merits of a long-running series with well-established characters are apparent in this gripping and delightful thriller. I can't say that Robinson's outdone himself with Bad Boy. I can say that he's done it again.

Book 78: It's a Book by Lane Smith

I like children's books and I especially like the work of author/illustrator Lane Smith.

For readers and book lovers, Smith's newest book is an absolute delight. It features a mouse, a jackass and a gorilla. Gorilla is reading a book and jackass simply can't understand how it works.

Can it text? Tweet? Wi-fi? Nope. Nada. And no.

The final page . . . well, it contains a line I'll be using for a long, long time.

Book 79: Cardboard Gods by Josh Wilker

This is not, as I originally thought, a book about collecting baseball cards. It is a memoir with an interesting conceit. Wilker selects a single baseball card, writes about what he sees in that card or what it meant to him and what was going on in his life when he obtained the card.

Eddie Murray represents not merely promise, but promise realized. Ron Guidry, who pitched so well for the hated (by Wilker) New York Yankees, is the sum of the fears that runs through Wilker's adolescent life, and so on.

It works, mostly. Better than I had initially thought. Still, its an odd book. Not quite baseball, not fully memoir, but some odd blend of the two. Wilker drifts through life and his embrace of loserdom is so complete and unquestioning that his attitude becomes a drag on the book as it was on his life.

Yet the fact that we have this book and that Wilker marries in its final pages demonstrates that, like Eddie Murray, he has realized his early promise.