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.