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Friday, February 26, 2010

Best of 2010, Update 11


I've read four books since the last Top 10 update and the fourth one, Lies My Mother Never Told Me deserves to crack the list - and I suspect it will be there for a long time. Lies My Mother Never Told Me is the new Kaylie Jones memoir in which she tells what it was like to grow up as the daughter of James and Gloria Jones. James Jones, as most of you know, is the author of three classic WWII novels: From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line and Whistle. This is a fascinating read on several different levels.


Top 10 after 22 possibilities:


1. Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese (novel)
2. Lies My Mother Never Told Me - Kaylie Jones (memoir)
3. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley and Eddie Dean (biography)
4. The Opposite Field - Jesse Katz (memoir)

5. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim (novel)

6. A Fair Maiden - Joyce Carol Oates - (novel)
7. Game Change - John Heilemann and Mark Halperin (political nonfiction)
8. Homer & Langley - E.L. Doctorow - 4.0 (novel)
9. Blind Submission - Debra Ginsberg (2006 novel)
10. T Is for Trespass - Sue Grafton (novel)





Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Little Known

The Little Known, a coming of age novel set in the period just after the assassination of President John Kennedy, was written for the young adult market but there is something here for readers of all ages. On the one hand, the novel’s deeply personal portrayal of the harsh nature of race relations of the time is sure to move younger readers who may have only heard about those days in more general terms. On the other, older readers will be reminded that a great deal of progress has been achieved in the last 50 years.

Things are changing very slowly for the black citizens of little Statenville, Georgia. “Knot” Crews does go to school with white kids now, but he seldom, if ever, dares to speak to one of them, and he lives with his hard-drinking mother in the same segregated part of town in which every Statenville black lives. Blacks and whites do not, by choice of both sides, mix in Statenville.

Near the end of the summer, Knot happens upon a bag of cash tossed aside by a bank robber who is trying to escape the policemen closing in on him. When Knot sees the stacks of $100-dollar bills in the sack ($100,000 worth), he carries the money home knowing full well that his conscious will never allow him to spend it - that he will almost certainly be caught if he ever tries to pass one of the hundreds. Little does Knot know, however, that this money will change his life in ways he could never imagine.

Knot is a soft hearted kid despite the fact that his mother spends more money on booze for herself than she spends on food for him. He is often hungry, and he dresses in the castoff clothing of older relatives, but so does pretty much every other kid in his neighborhood so Knot fits right in. He looks forward to Sunday church services because the old church ladies provide him with a community meal there that beats anything else he will eat during the rest of the week. Some of Knot’s neighbors, though, are unluckier than others, and he decides to use some of his found money to make their lives a little easier. That is when he begins to anonymously mail single hundred dollar bills to those he believes are hurting most.

Thus begin Knot’s valuable, but terribly disappointing, lessons about human nature. Seldom is his money spent for the purpose he gives it. Most of the money he gives away is spent on new television sets, bicycles, toys and liquor rather than on the clothing, food, diapers and home improvements his neighbors so desperately need. Knot is, however, happy to learn that a few hundred dollars can be enough money to give some abused women, white and black alike, the courage to leave their husbands behind for fresh starts with their children someplace else.

The Little Known follows Knot and his neighbors for most of a school year during which the little changes he initiates begin to have a big, cumulative impact on the neighborhood. He learns that money is not the most important thing in the world, that it cannot buy happiness or morality, and that the exact opposite is more often the case than not. Knot might never spend a dime of the bank’s money on himself but the money still manages to teach him most of life’s most important lessons.

Some of the sexual innuendos and implied language in the book are, I think, a little too much for middle school readers, making the book more suitable for high school age readers.

Rated at: 4.0

(E-Book review copy provided by publisher)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Pat Conroy on South of Broad

This afternoon I found myself wondering what Pat Conroy might be up to now that several months have passed since the publication of South of Broad. Mr. Conroy writes big books and it takes him a long, long time to write them. His fans learn the real meaning of patience as the years pass between new Pat Conroy novels. I am not a patient person, but Pat remains one of my very favorite writers. More suitable to my lack of patience, I am also a huge fan of a woman who is perhaps the most prolific serious writer in America, Joyce Carol Oates. On the one hand, it drives me crazy how long I have to wait for a new Pat Conroy book. On the other, I can barely afford to keep up with all the new books pouring from the pen of Joyce Carol Oates every year. Go figure.

A search of YouTube turned up one or two Pat Conroy videos I hadn't seen yet - and anything "new" from Pat Conroy deserves to be shared, so I'm embedding an interesting one here. It even highlights one of the reasons it takes the man so long to finish a book (hint: think yellow legal pads and Mont Blanc pens):

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

13 1/2

Nevada Barr’s 13 ½ has a lot going for it. Right from the beginning of the book, Barr forces her readers to look through wide open eyes at the horrors happening behind the closed doors of two very different families. In a 1970 Mississippi trailer-park, a young girl suffers a horrific rape at the hands of one of her alcoholic mother’s lowlife boyfriends. Meanwhile, up in Minnesota, a small eleven-year-old boy uses his father’s axe to wipe out the rest of his family. An older brother, heavily bleeding from what will prove to be a near fatal wound, manages to survive only by knocking his little brother unconscious with a blow to the head. Barr pulls no punches, choosing instead to describe the rape and murders in unflinching detail - and readers making it this far will feel compelled to learn what else the author has in store for the rape victim and the “butcher boy.”

Unfortunately, the set-up of 13 ½ proves to be much better than the rest of the book. Barr has written a mystery/thriller but seasoned readers will find there is very little mystery to her mystery, and they will be reduced to reading the rest of the book mostly to verify their early suspicions. What happens decades later when Polly Farmer, the rape victim, and the Butcher Boy cross paths in post-Katrina New Orleans becomes more and more predictable and less and less believable as the story races toward its climax.

Barr uses flashbacks for one of the more interesting episodes of the novel, the period during which the eleven-year-old murderer is placed inside a facility for young offenders. He is to be held there until, at age 18, he will be transferred to a men’s prison to serve the rest of his sentence. Because the boy is three or four years younger than everyone else in the center, authorities are reduced to locking him inside a hospital room for his own protection for the first several days they have him. Dylan Raines, though is a perceptive boy, and he easily adapts to the mores and requirements of living among the petty criminals and bullies surrounding him (including some of the guards). He uses his infamy as a mass murderer to good advantage but, as is often the case, jail changes him in ways that make him more a criminal now than he was when he went in.

Flash forward to 2007 New Orleans where Polly is now a respected English professor, divorced with two daughters, and Dylan is a wealthy architect. The two meet in a small city park where Polly sometimes comes to read and they feel an immediate attraction to one another. Will it be a fatal attraction for Polly?

13 ½ has the makings of an exceptional thriller but several of its main characters are so over-the-top that it is difficult to identify with the ones that are intended to be sympathetic. The exaggerated characters often border on cliché and give the book such a strong feeling of unreality, almost parody, that it is difficult to take seriously the dangers faced by Polly and her daughters. That is not a good thing in a thriller that could have been so much better than it is.

Rated at: 2.5

Monday, February 22, 2010

Monday Musing


Do you keep all the books you ever buy? Just the ones you love? Just collectibles? What do you do with the ones you don’t want to keep?


I wish. I really do.

I actually remember when I did keep every book I could get my hands on, but those days are long gone. Still, despite long ago running out of room to properly house all my books, I continue to invite at least ten new ones through my front door each and every month. The problem is that only two or three leave by that same door during any given month.

We have been in this home for ten years now and this is the first place I was able to add some built-in bookshelves to the floor plan before we moved in. I am able to keep about 800 books on the shelves and I have space to hide another 350 or 400 books on shelves I've added to a few spare closets. That's a lot of books, I admit. But I'm to the breaking point again and I really need to cull about 200 books via hospital donations, sales to used book stores, and the like so that I can buy myself a few more months' worth of new book space.

My "keepers" are a combination of the modern first editions I collect, a few sentimental favorites I have had for decades, books on Civil War and country music history, several complete runs of my favorite detective series (James Lee Burke, Elizabeth George, John Harvey, etc.), almost 100 books from the pen of Joyce Carol Oates, a bunch of Dickens published in the 1800s, a small collection of Modern Library editions from the 1940s and 1950s, over 100 uncorrected proofs, plus a lot of miscellaneous "stuff."

This is going to be a challenge - but all that potential free space is big enough a payoff to keep me motivated. I hope.

Thanks to Musing Mondays for the question.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sleepless

An ultimately fatal disease, one that steals the ability of its victims to sleep, has infected approximately 10% of the world’s population. Not only is there no known cure for the disease, even how it claims its victims is still a mystery. Those infected by the disease generally survive for a year before succumbing to the disease’s final stage, one causing such a painful death that it has come to be known simply as “the suffering.” Long before death, however, victims have lost much of their memory and their ability to focus on the present.

It is the summer of 2010 and Los Angeles is a city under siege. Armed, gated and barricaded communities have sprung up in the wealthier parts of southern California to protect residents from the drug gangs and domestic terrorists that prey on those unable to protect themselves. The sleepless, in their quest for something to give meaning to their lives, dominate the city’s night life, and wander the streets by the hundreds in search of amusement. The only thing that offers physical relief from the disease, even if only for a while, is a new drug officially labeled as DR33M3R, but which has, of course, become known on the street as Dreamer. Unfortunately, the company manufacturing Dreamer is unable to produce it at a pace anything near the demand for the drug.

Into this world comes Parker Haas, an undercover policeman determined to learn the truth about Dreamer and the company that produces it to such great profit. Haas knows, first hand, how desperate the sleepless are to get their hands on Dreamer - his wife suffers from the disease and he fears that his baby daughter may have become infected, as well - and he suspects that the pharmaceutical giant producing it may be up to no good . Parker Haas is determined to bring as much justice back into the world as he can despite the odds against him and the increasing likelihood he will not survive his efforts.

Sleepless is a depressing and complicated story. It is combination science fiction and detective thriller and it is filled with subplots that are not always easy for the reader to follow. Charlie Huston is well known as a literary stylist but his approach to prose in Sleepless is as often confusing as it is effective. For example, he uses two first person narrators to tell his story, something I suspect that most readers will only come to realize after reading a substantial portion of the book in confusion. Huston does distinguish, from the beginning, between the two voices by indenting paragraphs dealing with one and not indenting those of the other. By the time most readers figure this out, however, events will be jumbled enough in their mind that much will have been missed in the reading process.

Perhaps Huston wants to give his readers a taste of the frustration, irritability and difficulty in focusing the victims of the sleeplessness disease feel. If so, he succeeds in spades.

Rated at: 2.5

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Fair Maiden

In A Fair Maiden, Joyce Carol Oates returns to the theme for which she is perhaps best known: a very young woman is being preyed upon by an older man interested only in using her for his own, less than honorable, purposes. Female characters created by Oates live in a world in which they can never afford to let their guards slip because, just when they begin to feel comfortable about their surroundings, a man will step from the shadows to yank them back into the brutal nature of the real world they inhabit.

Sixteen-year-old Katya Spivak is not exactly an innocent. Even before her father disappeared from her life, the Spivak family struggled to make it from one payday to the next. These days, her mother is much more interested in partying in Atlantic City than in holding a job. Katya may have come up the hard way but she resents those who look down on people like her and her family. Despite her feelings, she is spending the summer in an exclusive Jersey shore community as nanny to the children of a wealthy couple who seem determined to put as little cash in her pocket as possible.

Marcus Kidder, 68, is pretty much the last of the Kidder family to spend time in the community but he, and his surname, are well known there. Kidder was born into wealth but built a minor reputation for himself over the years as an artist and writer/illustrator of several children’s books. He begins a gentle courtship of Katya after spotting her on the street one morning with the two young children in her charge. Despite her suspicions about the old man, Katya is flattered enough by the attention of someone of his class and wealth that she visits his mansion for tea one afternoon.

The horror of A Fair Maiden comes from the cunning approach Marcus Kidder uses to gain Katya’s trust. Ever patient, never pushing too hard or too obviously, Kidder finally succeeds in getting Katya to pose for a portrait like the ones already hanging in the mansion. That, though, is just the beginning of what Kidder has in mind for his young friend and, almost despite herself, Katya at last finds herself posing nude. She tells herself, after all, that the cash Mr. Kidder pays her after each visit means that she is a professional model and this is what professional models do. But she is no match for a man like Marcus Kidder.

As the book reaches its conclusion, it becomes clear that Katya’s understanding of how someone like her is seen by a man as wealthy and spoiled as Marcus Kidder is not far from the mark. Kidder is used to buying what he wants with no regard for the cost or the consequences. The question is what, exactly, does he want from Katya Spivak – and what it will cost both of them. A Fair Maiden comes in at only 165 pages but, because of its subject matter and the intensity of Oates’ prose, it is not an easy book to read. It is, however, vintage Joyce Carol Oates and few readers will see the ending coming before Ms. Oates is ready to reveal it to them.

Rated at: 4.5

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Best of 2010, Update 10




It's time for a quick update - three more books read and two of them make the current list: A Fair Maiden and T Is for Trespass.



Top 10 after 18 entrants:

1. Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese (novel)
2. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley and Eddie Dean (biography)
3. The Opposite Field - Jesse Katz (memoir)

4. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim (novel)

5. A Fair Maiden - Joyce Carol Oates - (novel)
6. Game Change - John Heilemann and Mark Halperin (political nonfiction)
7. Homer & Langley - E.L. Doctorow - 4.0 (novel)
8. Blind Submission - Debra Ginsberg (2006 novel)
9. T Is for Trespass - Sue Grafton (novel)
10. Goosetown: Reconstructing an Akron Neighborhood - Joyce Dyer (memoir)





The Things That Keep Us Here

Considering all the media time devoted during the last year to the possibility, if not probability, of H1N1 or bird flu pandemics, it is surprising that so few novels have yet been written about the societal breakdown that might accompany either event. Catastrophe of that magnitude offers fertile ground to those writing in several genres: horror, science fiction, romance, literary novel, etc. - so it is only a matter of time, I suspect, before such novels appear in large numbers. The Things That Keep Us Here, Carla Buckley’s debut novel, is one of those books. Buckley’s novel combines elements of more than one genre to show what might happen if the world were suddenly forced to deal with a highly contagious flu virus capable of killing half of the people it infects.

Peter, a veterinary science researcher, and Ann Brooks have been separated for a year. The two seem headed for divorce but, for now, Ann has gone back to work as an elementary school art teacher and she is helping her thirteen and eight-year-old daughters cope with the change in their lives. Part of Peter’s job is to monitor the bird activity on a nearby Ohio lake for any signs of illness in the thousands of ducks and geese making it their temporary home. When, early one morning, he finds a massive bird kill on the lake, Peter suspects that the ducks have been killed by avian flu and he can only hope that the virus has not mutated to a form capable of infecting human victims.

Almost before Peter can confirm his worst fears about the virus strain, the country finds itself bracing for an invasion of a flu virus even more deadly than the one that killed millions during World War I. Columbus, Ohio, shuts down its schools and tells its citizens to prepare to isolate themselves until the worst is over. The resulting mad scramble for food, water and medical supplies brings out the absolute worst in some but is only a mild preview of what is to come.

Peter, along with his exotically beautiful graduate student, a young Egyptian woman with no other place to go, moves in with Ann and the girls for the duration. Within days, the city loses power during a massive snow storm and all communication with the outside world is cut off. Grocery stores open only upon receipt of random deliveries and, when the city water supply is contaminated, running out of food and bottled water becomes a distinct possibility. On the one hand, sheer boredom becomes a problem for everyone inside the Brooks home. On the other, life boils down to a struggle to stay warm and to survive on a rapidly diminishing supply of food and water. Nothing else matters.

Buckley’s focus on what the Brooks family sees with its own eyes comes at the expense of the bigger picture. What happens in one Columbus neighborhood is interesting – and horrifying – but it is only one neighborhood. Rather than giving some hint as to what might be happening to the national and state governments, the military, and government emergency agencies, Buckley concentrates on things like family loyalty, individual courage, core values, guilt and forgiveness as she delves deeply into the Brooks family history. Despite the detailed back story and interesting conflicts provided, however, the main characters tend to fall surprisingly flat and their ultimate fates are not hard to predict. Some readers will be satisfied with the romance novel elements of the book; others will wish Buckley had explored more of what this kind of pandemic would mean to the country, and the world, as a whole. As it is, what Buckley describes about human nature under these circumstances is not far different from the behavior shown in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Rated at: 2.5

(review copy provided by publisher)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Loan It or Give It Away?

Jennifer Thomas, over at PioneerLocal.com, declares that whenever she loans a book or DVD to someone she assumes she is "never going to see it again." And that she is too much of a wimp to either say no, in the first place, or to ask for her stuff back.
I hate asking for my stuff back. I hate making it sound like all I've been thinking about is that book, CD, movie, etc... that I loaned to someone months ago. I shouldn't feel bad -- it's really the bad borrowers who owe the mia culpa -- but I do. But at the same time, I hate losing those books, TV shows on DVD and movies. (Nobody asks to borrow CDs anymore.)
[...]
My unscientific guess is that 90 percent of people who borrow something, unless it's again, your car, are not going to return it unless prodded. And it won't always be in the condition you last saw it in. Three months seems a pretty reasonable borrowing time. If you haven't gotten back whatever you loaned out by then, then you're never going to, and if the person hasn't watched, listened to or read it by then, same deal.
[...]
There are people, though, who do say no. A close friend is in that group. She just tells people she doesn't let loan things. And if she does have a moment of weakness, she has no problem asking for her stuff back. She knows that people not only are bad at returning things, but that they're not always concerned about the condition they return it in.
Over the years, I find myself less and less willing to loan things like books and DVDs out unless they go to someone who knows me well enough to understand that I value the items and expect to get them back in the same condition they were in when I handed them over. That is particularly true with books because of something that happened to me a long time ago: a family member from out of town took six books off my bookshelf one day when he stopped by to see my wife while I was at work. Now you have to understand that the books on display were the ones I was proudest to own - only those earned a spot on the shelf. I was shocked when I got home to find that my wife just couldn't say know and had let the books be carted off. Well, they were returned about six weeks later reeking of the cigarette smoke in which they had been saturated for the entire time. I finally just gave up on trying to get the stink out of them and repurchased all six.

That was the last time I loancd out a book (20+ years ago) until last week. I was caught a bit off guard and loaned out a new hardcover I haven't yet read myself. I don't expect to ever see it again - unless I push the issue.

Do you guys loan out books - or do you prefer to give them away (as I prefer doing)?

Monday, February 15, 2010

T Is for Trespass

T Is for Trespass is the 20th of 21 Kinsey Millhone novels written by Sue Grafton since 1982 when she published the first of what is to be a 26-book series, one for each letter of the alphabet. The books are coming a little bit farther apart these days but Grafton is on the downhill stretch now with only five books still to go. The Kinsey Millhone books are not written in real time - the last two are set in the late 1980s - and the 26th book (supposedly to be titled Z Is for Zero) will be set in 1990 when Kinsey turns 40 years old. At Grafton’s current pace, readers will have to wait most of another decade to celebrate Kinsey’s fortieth.

Kinsey runs a one-woman shop, a small time detective agency that depends on word-of-mouth, repeat business and walk-ins for its survival. As is usual for her, T Is for Trespass finds her juggling several small cases at once, going from one to another as time and opportunity allow. She is either trying to serve papers on those who do not want them, digging into what seems to be a shady injury claim against the insurance company she regularly does work for, or trying to help a friend evict non-paying residents from his apartment building.

Everything is very routine until her grouchy neighbor suffers a fall bad enough to require home care during what promises to be a long and rather painful recovery. Kinsey manages to talk the man’s niece into flying across the country to make the arrangements and is asked to investigate the credentials of the lone nurse who applies for the job, one Solana Rojas. Solana seems perfect for the job - on paper. But what if she is not really the Solana Rojas?

T Is for Trespass is a reminder that identify theft did not begin when the internet placed everyone’s privacy at risk. In her own low-tech way, this duplicate Solana Rojas has been stealing identities and worming her way into the trust of elderly patients for a long time. Sadly, though, that is not all she has been stealing - and when she has it all, her “patients” might just be asked to pay the ultimate price for her services.

Solana Rojas does not appear to be a threat to someone like Kinsey Millhone, a much younger woman who has had to fight for her life more than once but, when Kinsey starts nosing around the old man’s house to see how he is progressing , Solana’s own street smarts are triggered. Before long, Kinsey is under a restraining order to stay clear of Solana Rojas, her guns are locked up at police headquarters, and Solana is actively looting the old man’s estate. And while Kinsey is kept at bay, the old man is coming closer and closer to the day he draws his final breath.

The 10-disc, 13-hour, T Is for Trespass audio book is read by Judy Kaye, an award-winning stage actress who perfectly captures the Kinsey Millhone spirit that longtime fans of the series know so well. Grafton’s novels are heavy on dialogue and Kaye does particularly well in capturing Kinsey’s sassy sense of irony and self-awareness. During the portions of the book related from Solana’s point-of-view, Kay’s reading gives a haunting sense of that woman’s lack of humanity. The rousing, action-filed climax that ends this cautionary tale will not disappoint Sue Grafton fans.

Rated at: 4.0

Friday, February 12, 2010

Tell Me It's Not True, U.K. Readers

From guardian.co.uk comes detail regarding the most popular books and most "borrowed" authors from U.K. libraries during the period July 2008 - July 2009. I'm not picking on U.K. readers -because I suspect that the results would be similar (or worse, if that's possible) here in the U.S. - but this is sad:
The top three adult authors for July 2008-June 2009 were all Americans: the thriller writer James ­Patterson, followed by the romantic novelists Nora Roberts and Danielle Steele.
You read that correctly: 1. James Patterson, 2. Nora Roberts, 3. Danielle Steele

I don't begrudge those folks their sales and popularity (well, yes, I am repelled by Patterson's business model through which he slaps his name on dozens of books a year that are largely written by other writers) but it is a bit disheartening to see them atop a list of ALL writers whose works are housed in U.K. libraries.

On the other hand, read on, U.K., because I suppose that reading these guys is better than reading nothing at all.

Follow the link at the beginning of this post to see a list of the Top 250 books borrowed from U.K. libraries. You will find that three of the top four are Patterson titles and that he even wrote one of them all by himself. What a guy.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Best of 2010, Update 9




I have finished, and reviewed, two more books since the last update but only one of the two enters the list (Game Change at number 5).



Top 10 after 15 entrants:

1. Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese (novel)
2. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley and Eddie Dean (biography)
3. The Opposite Field - Jesse Katz (memoir)

4. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim (novel)

5. Game Change - John Heilemann and Mark Halperin (political nonfiction)
6. Homer & Langley - E.L. Doctorow - 4.0 (novel)
7. Blind Submission - Debra Ginsberg (2006 novel)
8. Goosetown: Reconstructing an Akron Neighborhood - Joyce Dyer (memoir)
9. Get Out of the Way - Daniel Dinges (novel)
10. Transfer of Power - Vince Flynn (novel)



Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime

Game Change is an “inside baseball” look at the 2008 presidential election. If what the book reveals about the politicians running this country does not depress you (or scare you to death), you are more an optimist than I will ever be. No one is exactly covered in glory by Game Change – not even the election’s eventual winner, although President Obama is treated rather kindly by the authors compared to how they handle the other contenders from both parties.

At the risk of sounding biased myself, I want to mention my misgivings about the book, misgivings that grew stronger as I read the book. I do not begrudge the authors their preference for the left side of the political spectrum but I did expect them, in fairness, to be as tough on the “Obamans” as they were on the “McCaniacs,” the Clintons and the Edwards family. By choosing what incidents to reveal about each candidate and, more importantly, what personality traits of theirs to stress, the authors subtly built their case that the election was won by the best person running. That may very well prove to be the case but this approach does give the book an uneven feel.

Heilemann and Halperin are far less subtle when contrasting the conservative media to the liberal media, however, and this is where they expose their bias to the degree that I began to question the “truth” in the rest of the book. For instance, there is a reference on page 334 to the “flying monkeys of conservative talk radio” and another on page 375 to the “right-wing freak show” of cable news shows. Left wing commentators, on the other hand, are rarely mentioned other than to call Chris Matthews a “cable talking head.” I point this out only because this kind of thing causes me, as a reader, to wonder what other, more subtle, tricks I may be missing when judging the content of the book.

I do believe that what the authors reveal about each of the candidates and their spouses is substantially true – perhaps because so many of the revelations reinforce what I suspected at the time about John and Elizabeth Edwards, Sarah Palin, John McCain, the Clintons and a few of the other bit players. President Obama was more of a clean slate to me in 2008 than he is today and that leads me to believe that he is treated very gently in Game Change.

Heilemann and Halperin have written a must-read book for political junkies, one that is surprisingly easy to read and absorb. Although much of what is discussed will be old news to those who followed the 2008 election closely, even the most astute follower of American politics will be surprised and saddened by some of what the authors present here. This is a depressing book, not one to give much hope that America is in good hands today, nor that she has been in good hands for the past two decades. Perhaps that is the real value offered by Game Change – exposing a state primary system that allows a handful of voters to determine the candidates from which the rest of the country will be allowed to choose. We have to do better than this.


Rated at: 4.0

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters

The first time I saw a replay of Flight 1549’s landing in the Hudson River I was struck by the combination of skill and good luck that it must have taken to keep the plane from breaking apart on impact or cartwheeling itself into pieces a few seconds later. If one wing had tipped into the water, Flight 1549 would be remembered today for entirely different reasons than those for which it has become so famous. And, now, after reading Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, written by the man who brought the plane down safely, I am certain there was much more skill involved in the landing than there was good luck.

Chesley B. Sullenberger and his crew became heroes to the world on January 15, 2009 – although Sullenberger, the man who became known to the world as “Sully,” takes great pains in Highest Duty to explain why he believes that the word “hero” does not really apply to him. Sullenberger believes that a “hero” must choose to do something heroic, not be thrust into a situation, as he was, that leaves him no choice but to participate in its outcome. This distinction reveals much about Chesley B. Sullenberger.

Sullenberger knew he wanted to fly by the time he was five years old. By sixteen, he had learned basic flying skills from a crop duster neighbor and was logging as many solo hours in the air as he could afford. A few years later, Sullenberger would distinguish himself at the United States Air Force Academy where he would be recognized as the Outstanding Cadet in Airmanship in his graduating class. The man loves to fly and he does it well – as he proved on the day he glided US Airways Flight 1549 to safety on the Hudson.

Highest Duty, though, is about more than Flight 1549. It is about a man who prides himself on doing the right thing when nobody else is looking even more than when he has witnesses. Sullenberger was raised in the little North Texas town of Denison in a home he helped build, and expand, over the years alongside his sister, mother and father. Sullenberger’s father expected everyone in the family to wield a hammer or use a saw competently and he made sure they got plenty of practice. The home might not have looked like the ones Sully’s friends grew up in, but it was “home,” and he could see the pride his father took in having designed and built it with only his family’s help. In the process, the elder Sullenberger taught his son to be his own man and instilled in him an understanding of what is truly important in a man’s life: family, friends, and contentment with one’s place in the world.

The book does not shortchange readers wanting to know exactly what happened after Flight 1549’s harrowing encounter with the flock of large birds that killed both the plane’s engines. Sullenberger makes good use of flight transcripts, recordings, and conversations with crew members and investigators to recreate what happened during the 208 seconds he was able to fly the plane after the bird strike. What he tells about those three minutes is remarkable but, by this point in the book, the reader will know exactly how Chesley B. Sullenberger III ended up in that cockpit, and they will not be surprised that he and his crew were able to pull off this “miracle landing.”

Highest Duty is an interesting and rewarding book, the story of an ordinary man who dedicated his life to becoming so skilled at what he does that he could pull a “miracle” from his hat when he needed it most. He deserves our respect and admiration but I have to believe that he is ready, by now, to return to the level of anonymity he enjoyed on January 14, 2009.

Rated at: 4.0

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Just Another eBay Scam

Does anyone even use eBay these days? My love affair with eBay ended on the day that someone in the U.K. managed to hack into eBay's database long enough to hijack my account and password. That thief then proceeded to make offers (above the amounts being asked by sellers) on more than a dozen computers with the request that they be sent immediately to an address in England. I was very lucky to notice what was happening early on that Labor Day morning and I quickly locked my PayPal account before funds could be stolen to pay for the computers. I contacted the sellers, some of whom had already posted their suspicions to my "feedback" account, and explained the problem. It was a long process - and I have been soured on the eBay/PayPal experience since then, refusing to participate in either ever again.

I was naive enough to believe that a site as popular and prominent as eBay could not possibly let something like this happen. I was wrong. I was naive enough to believe that eBay had some liability when something like this happens. I was wrong. I was naive enough to believe that eBay cared about its members and their personal security. I was most definitely wrong.

Now, Philly.com has news about another huge problem on the site, dishonest sellers getting away with murder (not that this is unusual at all other than maybe in the amount of money stolen):
For more than six years, Forrest R. Smith III forged the signatures of many famous authors in books and then sold those books at inflated prices on eBay.

Smith's scam victimized hundreds of book collectors who thought that they were buying works signed by such literary luminaries as Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut and Toni Morrison.

In reality, the books had only been stamped with forged signatures created by Smith.

Smith, 48, of Reading, was sentenced yesterday to 33 months behind bars and ordered to make restitution of $120,000 to his victims.
[...]
Authorities said that Smith carried out his scheme from March 2002 until at least September 2008.

The feds said that Smith used two accounts on eBay - one registered in his name with the screen name "bigdaddy_books" and one registered in his wife's name.

Smith used the "bigdaddy_books" account to purchase unsigned books, then forged authors' signatures in them and resold them as "signed" from his wife's account.

Authorities said that by representing that the books with the forged signatures had been signed by their authors, Smith could sell them at a much higher price than he would have been able to sell unsigned copies.

Smith and the government stipulated that there had been more than 250 victims and that he had netted $120,000 to $200,000 in the scam.
I do hope that eBay is more cooperative in helping this group of victims than it was with me when I needed someone to help me out of a fix. Good luck, folks. I hope you get your money back.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Transfer of Power

Transfer of Power, Vince Flynn’s second novel, introduces Mitch Rapp, the CIA counterterrorist who has since been the main character in another nine Flynn thrillers. Those just discovering the Mitch Rapp series are likely to find the earliest novels in the series (this one was published in 1999) to be even more poignant than those who read them prior to the murders of September 11, 2001. New readers will also notice how Flynn’s style has changed over the years as he, thankfully, lost most of his “Tom Clancy style” and streamlined his novels into even better thrillers.

The White House is under the control of a small band of Arab terrorists led by the notorious Rafique Aziz. Although President Robert Hayes makes it to the relative safety of his basement security bunker, he is, in effect, trapped inside the building along with at least 80 other hostages. The country can only watch in horror as Aziz executes a man and a woman on live television and promises to kill one additional hostage each hour until his demands are met by the United States government.

Rafique Aziz is no ordinary terrorist. He has specific goals in mind and he does not intend to blow himself up along with his hostages unless the U.S. military attempts to retake the White House by force. Aziz understands that most ordinary Americans, and some inside the government, have no stomach for witnessing the systematic slaughter of another 80 hostages, and he counts on the media to apply so much pressure on the government to negotiate that all of his demands will be met. And in the person of Vice President Sherman Baxter, now acting President, Aziz has just the man in place to make it all work out just as he planned it.

Sherman Baxter is the worst kind of politician, a weak-willed, almost cowardly man with an intense desire to be President of the United States. He wants to appear strong but he is afraid to make any kind of mistake because he realizes that his handling of the hostage standoff will very likely make or break his political career. Much to the disgust of the Pentagon, FBI and CIA, Baxter is more willing to listen to advice from his amoral chief-of-staff than he is to what his counterterrorist experts tell him. If the President and other hostages are to be rescued, it will have to happen without the knowledge or cooperation of the Vice President.

Vice President Baxter agrees to allow Mitch Rapp, an “off the books” CIA counterterrorism operative, to sneak into the White House but, when Rapp reports that the White House will have to be taken back by force, and soon, the Vice President refuses to give the order to do so. Rapp, along with a civilian volunteer and a female hostage he manages to snatch from her captors, negotiates his way through secret passages, tunnels and hidden rooms inside the White House gathering the intelligence needed by those planning the President’s rescue.

Transfer of Power is a good political thriller and Vince Flynn successfully increases the reader’s tension as the book draws nearer and nearer its exciting conclusion. The action does stall on occasion, however, because of the excessive amount of technical detail Flynn includes about weaponry and the like, detail that, though it may add authenticity to the storyline, will be meaningless (or even boring) to most readers. Despite this handicap, something the later Mitch Rapp books do not suffer as much from, Transfer of Power is a satisfying thriller that clearly displays the promise of a decade-younger Vince Flynn.

Rated at: 3.5

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Best of 2010, Update 8


I have finished two books since my last update: The Bronx Kill, a graphic novel by Peter Milligan, and Transfer of Power, a Mitch Rapp novel by Vince Flynn. Neither of the two books is likely to be anywhere near my Top 10 list by the end of the year but I'm placing Transfer of Power at number nine for the moment.



Top 10 after 13 entrants:

1. Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese (novel)
2. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley and Eddie Dean (biography)
3. The Opposite Field - Jesse Katz (memoir)

4. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim (novel)

5. Homer & Langley - E.L. Doctorow - 4.0 (novel)
6. Blind Submission - Debra Ginsberg (2006 novel)
7. Goosetown: Reconstructing an Akron Neighborhood - Joyce Dyer (memoir)
8. Get Out of the Way - Daniel Dinges (novel)
9. Transfer of Power - Vince Flynn (novel)
10. Boston Noir - Dennis Lehane, Editor (short story collection)



Friday, February 05, 2010

The Bronx Kill

The Bronx Kill is my first experience with a graphic novel and, frankly, I had no idea it was presented in that format when I ordered it. However, despite the surprise (I was unfamiliar with the Vertigo Crime imprint) about the book’s format, I found it to be an interesting reading experience and do not regret my mistake. After all, most boys of my generation honed their reading skills on the comic books of the day, and The Bronx Kill is pretty much a dark comic book for adults, a nostalgic reminder of those hundreds of comics I read as a kid.

Martin Keane, an insecure novelist, is battling the sophomore jinx. His second novel has been universally trashed by the critics and he is taking it personally. Even Erin, his wife, finally admits that she found the book to be slow and that while reading it she kept wishing he would just “get to the point.” Keane men, since the time of Martin’s great-grandfather have been cops, and Martin’s decision to be a writer instead of a cop has already ruined his relationship with his father. The last thing he needs now is to fail at the job by which he defines his whole world.

Martin, knowing that his third book has to be something completely different from his last, decides that his family’s tragic history has the makings of a good historical thriller. What he learns while researching his family history in Ireland for four months convinces him that he is right. But when his wife disappears one night after reading a few pages of the new manuscript, Martin finds himself eerily reliving the details of his own family history – and the pages of his new novel.

I suspect that most readers of The Bronx Kill will figure out where the book is heading long before Martin solves the mystery of his wife’s disappearance but that is not a big problem. The book’s strong suit is the dark, other worldly, mood it creates, a combination of the noir fiction of the 1940s and the best pulp fiction of earlier decades. James Romberger contributes much of that mood through his black and white illustrations, especially those set in the Bronx Kill area, a nasty, isolated patch of the inner city key to Keane family history.

Overall, The Bronx Kill succeeds in telling its complicated story with a minimum of words, but graphic novels leave little space for character development, and I found this to be a hard-to-overcome handicap. As I said earlier, since this is my first graphic novel, I am unable to compare The Bronx Kill to other novels of its type. However, I can say that, because of reading this one, I am more likely to pick up other graphic novels in the future – and that surprises me.

Rated at: 3.0

(review copy provided by publisher)

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Man Gave Names to All the Animals

There are a handful of record albums that I find myself coming back to year after year. Two of those are Bob Dylan albums, but probably not the ones most would think of first when listing Dylan's recordings: Nashville Skyline and Slow Train Coming.

With Nashville Skyline, Dylan went country, even going to Nashville to record the album and inviting Johnny Cash to record a song with him (beginning a long friendship between the two men). Slow Train Coming is Dylan's first Christian album, one of three he recorded after announcing that he had become a born-again Christian. I find the combination of simplicity and heartfelt emotion in these two albums to be particularly appealing for some reason.

Now comes word from Rolling Stone that a new children's book based on one of the Slow Train Coming songs, "Man Gave Names to All the Animals," is to be published in September:
“From the first time I heard it, the lyrics created pictures in my mind of a land of primeval beauty,” Arnosky (artist) said in a press release. “I thought this vision would make a dream of a book, and I asked for Bob Dylan’s permission to make this dream come true. Happily, he said yes.”
[...]
“[Arnosly] has outdone himself with the lush, detailed illustrations, and we couldn’t be more delighted to have this opportunity to work with Bob Dylan,” said Sterling Children’s Book Senior Editor Meredith Mundy in a press release. Sterling previously released a children’s book dedicated to “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and its success persuaded them to publish another book by a folk legend.
Those unfamiliar with the song lyrics might want to watch the YouTube video I've attached, below. Do keep in mind that the illustrations shown in this video have absolutely nothing to do with the new picture book, however. (In fact, I'm not at all sure I understand what these pictures are all about- if anyone gets their point, please do enlighten me.)


Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Lost Man Booker Prize


Peter Straus, honorary archivist to the Booker Prize Foundation, has come up with a neat twist on the Booker Prize for best novel this next time around. It seems a rule change made in 1971 had the effect of eliminating from consideration every single novel published in 1970.

Booksellers (New Zealand) explains it this way:

In 1971, just two years after it began, the Booker Prize ceased to be awarded retrospectively and became a prize for the best novel in the year of publication. At the same time, the award moved from April to November, creating a whole year's gap when fiction published in1970 fell through the net.

So now, some 29 years later, a group of 1970 finalists has been released. From this group of finalists, a short list will be announced in March and, from that short list, the "international reading public" will choose the winner (to be announced in May 2010).

These are the 22 finalists:
The Hand Reared Boy - Brian Aldiss
A Little Of What You Fancy? - H.E.Bates
The Birds On The Trees - Nina Bawden
A Place In England - Melvyn Bragg
Down All The Days - Christy Brown
Bomber - Len Deighton
Troubles - J.G.Farrell
The Circle Elaine - Feinstein
The Bay Of Noon - Shirley Hazzard
A Clubbable Woman - Reginald Hill
I'm The King Of The Castle - Susan Hill
A Domestic Anima -l Francis King
The Fire Dwellers - Margaret Laurence
Out Of The Shelter - David Lodge
A Fairly Honourable Defeat - Iris Murdoch
Fireflies - Shiva Naipaul
Master and Commander - Patrick O'Brian
Head To Toe - Joe Orton
Fire From Heaven - Mary Renault
A Guilty Thing Surprised - Ruth Rendell
The Driver's Seat - Muriel Spark
The Vivisector - Patrick White
If you like this kind of thing, keep your eyes and ears open so that you don't miss your chance to vote. I'm sorry to say that I've only read two of these twenty-two finalists (embarrassed is probably a better word for how I feel about that) so I hope to do a little catching up before the voting period. I know, I know...good intentions get you nowhere by themselves.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Cutting for Stone

Cutting for Stone is one of those novels whose size and reputation could easily intimidate its prospective readers. It comes in at almost 550 pages, after all, and most of the story takes place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, of all places. Its main characters are Ethiopian, Eritrean, Indian, British, or some mix of those nationalities and, even when the action moves to New York City, it is to a part of the city few Americans know anything about. The novel is part history lesson, part love story; it is both a modern novel and a reminder of the kind of thing Charles Dickens wrote on his best days; it is a science lesson and a travelogue. Bottom line: This is a very special novel, a reading experience everyone should at least consider having. Pick up this book; flip through it; read a few pages to see if it is something for you. If not, put it aside and try it again in a few months. Maybe you will get lucky the second time around.

When Sister Mary Joseph Praise gives birth to twin boys, no one is more surprised than the people trying to save her life – even Dr. Thomas Stone, the man suspected of being the father of the babies cannot believe what he is seeing. Stone feels such shock and dismay at his failure to save the nun that he walks out of the lives of his sons even as they are struggling to draw their first breaths.

Right up to the moment of her tragic death, Sister Mary Joseph Praise and Dr. Stone have been integral parts of the Missing Hospital community (called Missing only because native speakers have difficulty pronouncing the word Mission). Now, Hema, the mission’s obstetrician, decides that she needs to devote herself to raising the twins, and Ghosh, the only other doctor, has to transform himself into a confident surgeon. Marion and Shiva Stone will grow into young men surrounded by loving and supportive people but, to say the least, they live in interesting times.

The boys will prove to be good students and, with the encouragement of Hema and Ghosh, both develop the interest in medicine that will define their lives. What better place can there be than Missing Hospital for would-be medical doctors to gain countless hours of hands-on experience other medical students can only dream about.? Unfortunately, politics, in the form of military coups and Eritrean separatist rebels, will have tragic consequences for some of those closest to Marion and Shiva, even to the point that Marion is forced to leave Missing Hospital for work in a New York ghetto hospital. But that is far from the end of Marion and Shiva Stone’s story.

Readers will be totally immersed in the world and characters Abraham Verghese has created in Cutting for Stone, and will find that Marion and Shiva Stone soon become believable characters despite their rather mythical entry into the world. Their relationship suffers over the years but, despite everything that happens between them, the pair shares the kind of bond only experienced by identical twins. They are so close, in fact, that Marion often feels they should be called MarionShiva rather than by their individual names. The reader will also come to love most of the supporting cast, despite the fatal flaws exhibited by a few of them, with which Verghese surrounds the Stone brothers.

I do have one warning about Cutting for Stone (and I say this with a smile): Keep in mind that Abraham Verghese is a doctor and that he uses surgical detail and medical condition descriptions to add authenticity and passion to his prose. This is not a book to be read during lunch or dinner by anyone with a “weak stomach.” Those who have read the book will know what I mean; those who have not should consider themselves warned.

Rated at: 5.0

Best of 2010, Update 7


I finished Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone Sunday night and I'll be posting my thoughts about the book in a few minutes. Simply stated: I love the book and the time I spent in mid-20th century Ethiopia with Marion and Shiva Stone. This one goes to number 1 and it might be there for a while.



So, after 11 books, I have dropped the first book off the list and I'm left with this Top 10:

1. Cutting for Stone - Abraham Verghese (novel)
2. Man of Constant Sorrow - Ralph Stanley and Eddie Dean (biography)
3. The Opposite Field - Jesse Katz (memoir)

4. The Calligrapher's Daughter - Eugenia Kim (novel)

5. Homer & Langley - E.L. Doctorow - 4.0 (novel)
6. Blind Submission - Debra Ginsberg (2006 novel)
7. Goosetown: Reconstructing an Akron Neighborhood - Joyce Dyer (memoir)
8. Get Out of the Way - Daniel Dinges (novel)
9. Boston Noir - Dennis Lehane, Editor (short story collection)

10. The Unnamed - Joshua Ferris (novel)


Monday, February 01, 2010

Amazon vs. Macmillan

There seems to be a temporary truce in the new war between Amazon.com and book publisher Macmillan over the publisher's demand that Amazon sell Macmillan's bestselling e-books at prices ranging from $12.99 to $14.99 rather than at Amazon's standard price of $9.99 per e-book. It will be interesting to see how other publishers react. Will they join Macmillan by raising their own prices or will they try to grab a bigger piece of the e-book pie by undercutting the new Macmillan pricing scheme?

I do find Amazon's spin amusing. The giant retailer is crying foul and is tremendously upset, it claims, about how this price increase affects its customers.

From the San Francisco Chronicle:
Amazon said it briefly halted sales of e-books from Macmillan for its Kindle e-reader device after learning that Macmillan wanted to charge between US$12.99 to $14.99 for e-book versions of bestsellers and most hardcover releases.
[...]
In a pointed notice to customers posted Sunday night, Amazon said it expressed its "strong disagreement" with Macmillan and temporarily cut off the sale of all Macmillan titles.

That decision, however, was soon overturned.

"We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan's terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books," the company said. "Amazon customers will at that point decide for themselves whether they believe it's reasonable to pay $14.99 for a bestselling e-book."

Amazon said it doesn't expect any of the other five big publishers to make the same decision. Amazon suggested the price increase will create opportunities for other authors and publishing companies to supply "attractively priced e-books as an alternative."
Not mentioned by Amazon is the impact that higher e-book prices will have on the sale of the Kindle reader itself. Having this happen just when the new Apple iPad is set to enter the market has to have Amazon wondering if its Kindle sales numbers have peaked and its e-book reader market share is about to shrink. Time will tell.

Goosetown: Reconstructing an Akron Neighborhood

Joyce Dyer is searching for what she considers her “missing years,” those first four or five years of life of which few people can salvage many reliable memories. Dyer does remember a few things about when she lived in Goosetown, an Akron neighborhood, but she wonders if her memories are more akin to the product of someone else’s stories or of the few old photographs of herself in Goosetown settings she has studied. Now, along with her elderly uncle, Dyer is traveling the streets of her old neighborhood in search of buildings and street corners that might help her recover memories of a time and place she barely recalls.

Goosetown: Reconstructing an Akron Neighborhood is as much about Dyer’s reconstruction of what she knows about her family as it is about reconstructing the old neighborhood. She finds, despite how little Goosetown now resembles the area she remembers, that the buildings, homes and other physical markers from her youth point her toward truths about herself and her family she never expected to learn. Goosetown may no longer exist, but what it can teach her about her family will change her forever.

Joyce Dyer, in effect, had two sets of parents. Joyce’s mother reacted badly to her birth and was never able to fully accept, or fill, her role as mother to the little girl, and her father dealt with the problem largely by ignoring it and getting on with his own life. Luckily, Joyce’s Aunt Ruth (her mother’s sister) and Uncle Paul were there to give her the love and guidance she did not always get at home. Joyce spent as much time with Ruth and Paul as she spent with her own parents, and she became as much a sister to their son Paul as she was his cousin. She was also close to her young cousins Carol and Eddie, although Eddie was struck and killed on a Goosetown street when he was just five years old.

Now, all these years later, it is her 89-year-old Uncle Paul, a man who has outlived two wives and jokingly calls himself the “Mayor of Goosetown,” who accompanies Dyer on her quest. Paul is there to answer her questions and to put what she learns about her Haberkost grandparents into its proper perspective. Some revelations are triggered by the neighborhood’s geography; others come from her study of public records, family letters and diaries; and still others are mined from the memories of relatives. What she learns about her family’s history of alcoholism, depression and its tendency to suffer from Early-Onset Alzheimer’s explains to her much about the family skeletons she had never really understood.

Near the end of Goosetown, Dyer hints about the skeletons still in her own closet and what remains to be said if she is ever to tell the whole truth - all the things she keeps inside at the risk of her own well-being. Perhaps what she has learned about Goosetown and her family will make it easier for her to reveal the rest of her story. I hope so.

(Look at the book's cover and you'll spot the author in the center of the picture - there's something going on there for sure.)

Rated at: 4.0

(Review copy provided by publisher)