Saturday, January 26, 2013

Nasaw's The Patriarch -- more than you ever want to know about Joe Kennedy

Book 15 -- The Patriarch by David Nasaw

Let me begin by airing a perennial grievance -- fat, honking biographies. I don't like'em. So I am not altogether certain why I purchased David Nasaw's biography of Joe Kennedy late last year.

The Patriarch weighs in with 787 pages of text, plus an introduction, notes, bibliography and index.

And it is filled with far more details about Joe Kennedy's life than I could possibly care to know.

Carping aside, Nasaw's biography is balanced, spritely written and, despite its bulk, manages to keep the narrative moving swiftly, from Kennedy's birth in East Boston in 1888 to his death in 1969.

Kennedy was not an appealing man. He cheated on his wife, cut corners while building a personal fortune that placed him among the richest men in America and seemed incapable of governing his temper or his tongue.

Worse, his unfortunate appointment as the American ambassador to England, destroyed his reputation and led to his alienation from the halls of power in Washington.

While in London, Kennedy earned a reputation as a man willing to appease Hitler -- Nasaw suggests Kennedy wanted to protect both his fortune and his children -- and a defeatist.  There were even suggestions, some not so veiled, that he was pro-Nazi and an anti-Semite.

A bitter man, Kennedy ultimately emerged as a tragic figure.  Four of his children preceded him in death -- Joe killed in the war, Kick in a plane crash and JFK and Bobby were assassinated. For all practical purposes, he also lost daughter Rosemary to mental retardation and an ill-considered lobotomy.

Nasaw's The Patriarch is a fine work of biography limited only by the unappealing subject matter.

Book 14 -- Trophy Hunt by C.J. Box
Book 16 -- The World at Night by Alan Furst

I am reading through the entire oeuvre of both Box and Furst; Box in chronological fashion, Furst catch as catch can.

Both men are skillful writers. Box is building a respected series with his thrillers featuring game warden Joe Pickett.  Furst explores Eastern Europe, especially Paris, during the early stages of World War II.

In Trophy Hunt the mysterious mutilation of cattle and wildlife soon turns to murder.  Are the mutilations caused by birds? Aliens? A government experiment? Joe must uncover the secret to the mutilations to solve the murders.

The World at Night opens with German troops massed on the French border. Film producer Jean Casson wants to live life as he did before war threatened, but it is soon clear that is not possible.

Casson is called to war. His service in uniform is brief, but after returning to Paris he is embroiled in demands from both the British and Germans that he aid each side in its espionage.

Here's a passage from The World at Night that illustrates Furst's mastery of atmosphere:

"Perlemere ordered two dozen Belons, the strongest of the oysters, now at the very end of their season. He rubbed his hands and attacked with relish, making a thrup sound as he inhaled each oyster, closing his eyes with pleasure, then drinking the juice from the shell, a second thrup, followed by a brief grunt that meant arguments about the meaning of life were irrelevant once you could afford to eat oysters."
The World at Night is distinguished by a love story between Casson and a young actress. A love story all the more poignant because of a cruel war and the demands its places upon Casson's life.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Novels by Peter May and Daniel Woodrell deliver highly enjoyable reads

Book 11 -- Extraordinary People by Peter May

I don't merely collect books. I also collect authors.

Authors whose writings strike my fancy. Authors who can spin a story, create a character I'd like to have a beer with or strike a phrase in such an original manner it makes me chuckle in appreciation.

It is books by these authors that line my shelves.

And since stumbling across his superb The Blackhouse late last year, Peter May is among those authors I'm making room for.

Extraordinary People isn't quite as good as The Blackhouse, but it's a helluva enjoyable book.

A classic mystery in structure, Extraordinary People is the first of two novels by May featuring Enzo MacLeod, a Scottish forensic biologist living in France.  Enzo boasts that, using modern forensic techniques, he can solve the long-unsolved disappearance of a brilliant French teacher and film critic.

Enzo soon confirms that the missing man was murdered. He's also discovered that the missing man's body parts have been buried in various locations and each missing piece contains clues to the identity of one of the murderers.

Soon, the murder suspects start turning up dead and it isn't long before Enzo himself is attacked.

Enzo persists in his investigation, using the Internet to unravel the clues to the murderers' identities. Late in the novel there's a delicious scene where one of the accused tells Enzo he shouldn't think too highly of his crime solving skills:

"You were never in our league. You had the internet at your disposal. In 1996, we had no idea what the internet might become, or how it might unravel all our carefully considered clues. It took us five months to assemble them and put our plan together."

Enzo is a vivid character and the French setting is a fresh one for this American reader. May deftly keeps the reader guessing the identity of the mastermind behind the murder until the final pages. The final revelation comes as a satisfying jolt.

Book 12 -- Muscle For The Wing by Daniel Woodrell

Muscle For The Wing is the second book in what has been described as Woodrell's Bayou Trilogy.  As with the first book in the trilogy, Under the Bright Lights, the novel is set in the fictional Louisiana town of Saint Bruno and features detective Rene Slade.

In many respects, these novels remind me of the television show Justified, set in Kentucky and featuring Raylan Givens, a character created by Elmore Leonard.

Leonard and Woodrell are similar writers, offering the reader a lean narrative that moves along crisply. Each has a gift for describing the low-life that populate their books and their motivations, and each has a definite gift for the apt and delightful turn of phrase.

Written in 1988, Muscle For The Wing contains the promise Woodrell delivers in Give Us A Kiss, Winter's Bone, Tomato Red and The Death of Sweet Mister. Daniel Woodrell is simply the best writer of crime noir at work today.

Book 13 -- The Aliens of Earth by Nancy Kress

I am not going to spend much time on this short story collection by sci-fi writer Nancy Kress.  Kress has justifiably earned acclaim as a sci-fi novelist, especially for her "Beggars" series, but this short story collection falls short of her best work.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Furst's The Polish Officer lush with atmosphere

Book 8 -- The Polish Officer by Alan Furst

Written in 1995, The Polish Officer is the third book in what has been described as author Alan Furst's Night Soldier novels.

As with its predecessors, the novel is set in Eastern Europe between 1933 and 1944. In this particular novel, the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and the Russian front in 1941, bookend the Nazi occupation of Paris.

And, as with its predecessors, the book is lush with atmosphere -- smoky nightclubs, shadowy back alleys, trains laboring through the night to elude bombers trolling the skies -- all evoking the icy grip of Nazi oppression, the ever-present threat of betrayal and the cruel, random death war brings.

Late in the novel, our hero, Captain Alexander de Milja, the Polish officer of the title, observes: "I have to keep fighting . . .  the Germans, the Russians. Perhaps both. Perhaps for years and years. But I might live through it, you never know. Somebody always seems to survive, no matter what happens. Perhaps it will be me."

Fatalistic, but pragmatic, which we learn de Milja has reason to be.

The novel follows him as he smuggles the Polish National Gold Reserve out of the country ahead of the advancing German forces and then to Paris where he poses as a Russian poet and then a Slovakian coal merchant, while relaying information on German battle plans to England.

Furst's knowledge of European history and his skill at conveying the atmosphere of this fearful period, raise his novels far above standard espionage fare. This is fine literature lurking behind a cloak and dagger.

Book 9 -- Vietnamerica by G.B. Tran

An impressive book collection can be built on works about America's ill-fated experience in Vietnam.

It would include Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato, Dispatches by Michael Herr, Stanley Karnow's Vietnam A History and Page After Page by combat photographer Tim Page.

Among the newer additions would be G.B. Tran's graphic family history, Vietnamerica.

Sub-titled A Family's Journey, Vietnamerica is the story of Tran's family's last-minute escape from Saigon as South Vietnam fell and their return to the country years later to reunite with family and friends.

It is a story of regret and forgiveness and the resilience of the human spirit told eloquently through Tran's drawings.

Book 10 -- Bad Signs by R.J. Ellory

Ugh.  After reading this novel, I understand why Ellory found it necessary to anonymously post fake reviews on Amazon in praise of his books.

No one was going to write a glowing review for him.

His 2011 novel, Bad Signs, is a bad book, filled with gratuitous violence that serves no other purpose than to titillate readers who conflate sex and violence.

Ellory attempts to dress it up with pseudo-serious explanations for the social drivers behind his killers' actions, but it doesn't wash. His efforts at psychological profiling are just a lame attempt to elevate what's really no better than pornography.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Best American Short Stories 2012 and L.A. Outlaws are two fine reads

6. The Best American Short Stories 2012, edited by Tom Perrotta

To channel Forrest Gump, The Best American Short Stories 2012 is like a box of chocolates.

Except in this case, you know what you're going to get -- the finest chocolate, rich, creamy centers and . . . I've already exhausted this analogy.

But the point is that each of the 20 short stories in this annual collection deliver quality and delight in equal measure, but the pleasure is almost always unexpected because you do not know how the stories -- all so different -- will entertain you.

Alice Munro is here. Nathan Englander, Steven Millhauser, Kate Walbert.

My favorite stories were Anything Helps by Jess Walter, which forces you to look at those curbside pleas for funds by the homeless in a new way, and Tenth of December by George Saunders, a quirky tale in which a rescuer becomes the rescued.

7. L.A. Outlaws by T. Jefferson Parker

I need to read more T. Jefferson Parker.

He is a captivating writer.   I am always yammering about the importance of pace in thrillers.  Parker is a master of pacing, setting the hook early and then reeling the reader in page by page.

His characters are vivid, especially in L.A. Outlaws, which features a young Charlie Hood, and the writing is lively and engaging. Here's a passage from early in L.A. Outlaws:

"She showered and came out in a black slip and stood in front of him, and Hood lost most of what reason he had left. He carried her to bed. It was like two tornadoes competing for the same trailer park."

That's nice. Very nice.

Later, after Hood leaves his lover from the passage above observes: " . . . and by his expression I can see that I've shaved fifty points off his IQ."

The woman in the passage above is a school teacher pursued by a ghost-like killer, who believes she possess thousands of dollars in diamonds that he wants.

She is also a woman with a secret. She has an alter ego -- Allison Murietta, car thief and armed robber, who has captured the fancy of the L.A. press and public.

Charlie's dilemma is protecting a woman he has come to love, while bringing her to justice.

Finally, this doesn't rise to the level of a spoiler, but the manner in which our killer is dispatched is both inventive and fun. That single scene alone makes the books worth reading, but there's so much more.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Larson's adaptation a powerful and original work

4. A Wrinkle In Time, adapted and illustrated by Hope Larson

Larson's illustrated adaptation of Madeleine L'Engel's classic, A Wrinkle In Time, demonstrates the power of a graphic novel to clarify and to expand upon a written work.

I don't remember exactly when I first read L'Engel. It wasn't during high school, but later, I think, in my twenties.  My recollections of the book are limited, but I remember a difficult book and that I never entirely sorted out the complexities of the tesseract or how the characters moved through space and time.

Larson's graphic novel illuminates L'Engel writing in a way that the text alone did not, could not.

Readers can approach this book in two ways. Those who have read A Wrinkle In Time will find Larson's efforts a highly enjoyable read that provides new insight into L'Engel original.  Those approaching A Wrinkle In Time for the first time may well find that perusing the graphic novel first increases their appreciation later for the complexity of L'Engel's writing.

Larson's graphic novel is terrific; it is an adaptation that pays homage to the original work, but which stands alone as a work of great originality and power.

5. Winterkill by C.J. Box

Winterkill is the third book in Box's series on Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett.

It is a darker novel than its predecessors, but more powerful and compelling because of that.

Joe is embroiled in a murder investigation, a clash between government agencies and a motley collection of anti-government types, the loss of his foster daughter to her real mother and not one, but two, vicious snowstorms.

Box fashions these disparate elements into a gripping read that pits justice against the legal system and forces Joe to decide on which side of that line he stands.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Book 2 & 3: Hadley and Hillerman

2. Married Love, Tessa Hadley

An accomplished novelist, Hadley,a Brit, is one of those rare writers who is also a master of the short form.

Her second and most recent collection, Married Love, argues for her inclusion among such masters of the genre as Alice Munro, William Trevor and Edith Pearlman.

A novel's scope provides the novelists with the leisure to develop the narrative, the story's characters, themes and setting. Within vastly more narrow confines, the author of a short story must quickly capture the reader's interest and work with a laser-like focus.

The opening lines of several stories from Married Love shows how adept Hadley is at working in miniature:

"Their parents had fantastic parties; they were famous for it."

"Her sister changed her relationship status on Facebook to single."

"The winter after her brother killed himself, Ally got a job at a writers' centre near her parents' house, helping out with admin in the office."

"After the sex, he fell asleep."

"Albert Arno, the film director, dropped dead at his home in the middle of a sentence."

With only a few neatly crafted words, Hadley sets the stage for the exquisite stories that follow.  A marvelous writer, on any stage, long-form or short-, Hadley is worthy of more critical acclaim and a larger following than she has so far been accorded in the States.

3. Hunting Badger, Tony Hillerman

Tony Hillerman is a writer who makes reading fun.

His characters are memorable, the setting vivid and the swift-moving narrative feels like an invitation.

However, his respect for the Navajo culture and the ease with which he folds Navajo history and beliefs into his stories are what set his work apart.

Published in 1999, features the entertaining duo of Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee. A host of law enforcement agencies have descended on the Four Corners canyons in pursuit of a trio that robbed a casino and murdered a security guard.

The real story -- and it is delightful -- is in how Leaphorn and Chee work together to unravel the mystery behind the deadly heist.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Woodrell's first book is first book of 2013

1. Under the Bright Lights, Daniel Woodrell

My first book in 2013 is Daniel Woodrell's first book, Under the Bright Lights, published by Henry Holt in 1986.

Under the Bright Lights reads exactly like a first book. The author struggles with pacing and it's wordy. In his later books, the pacing is brisk as Woodrell seizes control of the narrative rhythm and smoothes the way for the reader by eliminating unneeded verbiage.

Yet the promise realized in Give Us A Kiss, The Death of Sweet Mister or Winter's Bone can be found here.

"She was a country girl with just one real talent, but it was one that travels well and is appreciated around the world."

That's a sentence worth reading again.

I am also delving into The Patriarch, David Nasaw's biography of Joe Kennedy;  Married Love, a story collection by Tessa Hadley; and The Best American Short Stories of 2012.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Thoughts on reading in 2012

“There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care.”
--Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

2012 was a great year -- for quantity and quality.

The 156 books I read this past year was my highest total in three years.

New books from favorite authors were exceptional, while several new authors (new to me) produced books of stunning insight.

So here are my thoughts on the books I thought were the best reads of the year. First, the top 10 -- an assortment of fiction and non-fiction that are listed in no particular order. If you only read a few books each year, these are the ones to take a look at first.

The Top 10 are followed by recommendations by genre.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. This account of slum dwellers in Mumbai reads like a novel. It is an exceptional work and a celebration of the human spirit. I think it was the best book of 2012.

Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson. Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl received all the attention, yet Watson's book was the single best thriller of 2012.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed. This book is two in one. A memoir of a girl gone bad finding her way back to wholeness and a rousing outdoor adventure of a solitary hike along the Pacific Crest Trail.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior of his generation, was gay. Who knew? This account of the Trojan War is told by Achilles' lover. This re-telling of the Iliad is a powerful and lyrical love story.

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel. The third book in Mantel's trilogy on Thomas Cromwell is an entertaining and insightful work.

Railsea by China Mieville. The only sci-fi book of note in 2012. Think Moby Dick, but instead of a ship and a white whale, there's a train and a large, white mole. Mieville is the most inventive sci-fi writer at work today.

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. Green put in an appearance this year at the National Book Festival.  The line stretched for blocks as hundreds of teen queued to have their books signed. This is a "young adult" book everyone should read.  The story of a young girl dying from cancer it is a painfully tender, honest book that will bring you to tears.

John Saturnall's Feast by Lawrence Norfolk.  Set during the English Civil War, this may be one of the most unusual books you will read. It's certainly one of the best.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich.  Winner of the National Book Award, The Round House is Erdrich's finest book in a long and distinguished career.

Building Stories by Chris Ware.  A graphic novel of impressive complexity and depth.

Here are other books I enjoyed grouped by genre:

Literary Fiction

Home by Toni Morrison
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
The Bartender's Tale by Ivan Doig
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
1356 by Bernard Cornwell
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared
     by Jonas Jonasson

Short Stories

Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander
Dear Life by Alice Munro


Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin
What It Was by George Pelecanos
Broken Harbor by Tana French
Give Us A Kiss by Daniel Woodrell
A Killing In The Hills by Julia Keller
The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny
The Double Game by Dan Fesperman
Live by Night by Dennis Lehane
The Blackhouse by Peter May


William Henry Harrison by Gail Collins
John F. Kennedy by Alan Brinkley
(The books by Harrison and Brinkley are part of the American Presidents Series from Times Books. A superb collection of brief biographies of our nation's leaders.)
Superman by Larry Tye
Bill Veeck, Baseball's Greatest Maverick by Paul Dickson

Non-Fiction That's Difficult to Categorize

The Wrecking Crew by Kent Hartman
Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson

My Cross To Bear by Gregg Allman
Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie

Graphic Works

Journalism by Joe Sacco
Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire
Joe the Barbarian by Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy