Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underground and the American Dream by Patrick Radden Keefe

The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream

Truly fascinating. Keefe did an awesome amount of research, and organized the overlapping stories on different continents so that the pacing was right on this multi-decade tsunami of immigrants from China. Epic in scope and mouth-dropping in detail, these interlocked stories touch so many lives and so many parts of the world, it must have been difficult to know where to begin. The characterizations are rich, however, and Keefe gives us a human-scaled drama. What struck me at the end was how persons of every ethnicity, political stripe, and religious persuasion could find justification in these stories for holding a particular view about immmigration. Let it also be said that people who usually react one way on immigration turned 180 degrees when it came to a boatload of Fujian refugees dumped on Rockaway beach in a storm. Political arch enemies joined hands to save these folks, most of whom undoubtedly had absolutely no clue why anyone was trying to help them. Law-sy, I'd like to see a film made of this. Great reporting.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Growing Up Bin Laden by Najwa & Omar bin Laden

This book was interesting. I did not expect that it would be. I learned things I didn't know about Arab culture--hearing from Osama's first wife, Najwa, and Najwa's fourth son, Omar, gave two distinct points of view into an Arab household. More to the point, perhaps, we see into Osama bin Laden's household. At first I was perplexed that a son, an Arab son no less, would discuss internal family affairs so publicly. The more I read, however, the more I understood that Osama bin Laden sacrificed his privacy with his acts of war, and even his family members felt alienated from his peculiar view of the world. His son tells us that he hated his enemies more than he loved his family. It saddens us, for then destruction is his only goal. Osama has given up his life for...not his family, not his country, not his countrymen, but to ruin his enemies. Is there anything more impoverished than that sad fact?

When Osama married the first time, he was a wealthy young man with a bright future. His wife moved to Saudi Arabia from Syria to live in relative comfort with Osama and his extended family in Jeddah. By the end of the story told here, his wife was living in a cave in Afghanistan, suffering untold deprivations. Osama began as a serious young man who sought to raise the approbation Islam received in the world. But he was exceptionally humorless in his approach to life. He expected such seriousness from his growing family of sons that he would not allow them to smile enough to reveal their teeth. " father actually counted the exposed teeth, reprimanding his sons on the number their merriment revealed."

This is a fascinating memoir of unusual candor which deserves to be read widely.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Places In Between by Rory Stewart

Paperback, 299 pgs, Pub May 8th 2006 by Mariner Books (first published 2004), ISBN13: 9780156031561, Lit Awards: Guardian First Book Award Nominee (2004), John Llewellyn Rhys Prize Nominee (2004), The Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize (2005)

I had access to a hard copy of this book as I listened to Rory read it on CD. I am completely in awe of his heroic walk through the mountains from Herat to Kabul in war-torn Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban government in 2002. I learned more from his journey than from many other things I have read about Afghanistan, excepting perhaps Didier Lefèvre's book The Photographer, which is a excellent visual accompaniment to this volume.

Stewart managed to distill the thousands of interactions he experienced on his month-long walk into revealing vignettes that amuse, instruct, terrify, and sadden us. That he developed a deep and abiding respect for Afghanistan and it's people is obvious and infectious. I was pleased to learn of his return to Kabul, and of his role as Executive Director the Turquoise Mountain Foundation of Kabul. I'd give much to be there with him.

An NPR story in June 2010 gives us some information on the movements and present thoughts of Rory Stewart.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Opposite Field by Jesse Katz

Katz is so capable--of involving himself in so many things & keeping so many balls in the air--that one wishes he would take on something bigger. But one can hardly say that creating a baseball league and safe place for young people in a marginal town near a dangerous city is not an important thing in these times. Katz is passionate, and inspires a passionate response in the people with whom he has contact. His writing is good enough to keep one skimming the passages even when one has begun to question his choices. That may be the reason for his success: though we might not make the same choices as he does, we are willing to hear him out and allow him to lead--he is better than most, honest at least, and not a bad sort, at heart.

It was bittersweet to discover what the title, The Opposite Field, meant when I got an explanation, finally, in the Epilogue. Katz didn't appear to hold anything back in telling us of his life, his thoughts, his feelings. At times I wondered if indeed, he was telling us a little too much. Sometimes his choices did not seem fully considered, but whose are, in the moment. It is only with hindsight that we can say what we perhaps should have done with that opportunity. I suppose there wouldn't be much of a memoir if he didn't tell it all--after all, he didn't run a country, a state, or even a city. He was a father trying to grow a boy. In the process he grew up himself, along with a boy to be proud of, a solvent and hugely successful Little League, and a community. A world away from my life and very valuable to me for that.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner

Paperback, 345 pgs, Pub Jan 5th 2009 by Twelve (first published 2008), ISBN13: 9780446698894, Lit Awards: Borders Original Voices Award for Nonfiction (2008)

The subtitle of this book is One Man's Search for the Happiest Places in the World, and I am going to cut to the chase and discuss his conclusions. You're going to want to read the book anyway, to figure out how it can be true that a very unlikely country comes in first in the happiness lottery. But do get the audio of this book. The author reads it, and as an NPR commentator, talking is his trade. He is very good at it, and is as funny as David Sedaris in parts of this reading.

"Happiness is one hundred percent relational," is the conclusion of the author, who quotes Karma Ura, Bhutanese scholar and cancer survivor. We can only be happy with other people, because happiness does not exist in a vacuum. We knew this, but we need to be reminded, perhaps. And there may be basic ingredients that compose happiness, but the final composition will vary around the globe. The author compares happiness to the atom carbon: arrange it one way and it is coal. Arrange it another, and it is a diamond.

I think this (audio)book is a great gift. It makes one laugh and think. It's cheaper than a therapist, safer than drugs or alcohol, and a lot more fun, perhaps, than doing the trip oneself. Although I just might buy a ticket to that place I wouldn't have expected to find on top of the list...

Friday, November 20, 2009

Tokyo Vice by Jake Adelstein

Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan

Jake Adelstein is some kind of guy. This story is as much about him as it is about the sex industry in Tokyo. I mean, really, what kind of guy would have the hutzpah to study Japanese and then apply to be a newspaper journalist at the most prestigious newspaper in Japan? He downplays but admits to crushing difficulties, at least difficulties that would crush most of us. But perhaps you've met his kind--bold, bright, talkative, confident, curious, unimpressable. I have. I just never thought we'd get to see inside the head of one as much as we do in this revealing memoir about his work for the newspaper, working closely with the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department to uncover crimes in "vice." Not only do we learn how newspapers work in Japan, we learn a bit about how the police works, how the sex industry works, and finally, how the gangsters, or yakuza work. This is an Iron and Silk for grownups. Total immersion into an Asian culture and well-written enough to serve as an introduction to outsiders.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Blood River by Tim Butcher

What is it with me and muggy, hot, equatorial places and rivers? Like the book The Lost City of Z by David Grann, Blood River recounts the tale of Tim Butcher's crazy obsession to the trace the routes of a great explorer, Stanley in this case, through the Congo. While the rest of the world has become more accessible in the past half century, these two equatorial locales on different continents show that winning a battle (finding a route, establishing a forward post, or even building a city) is not winning a war (creating a functioning state). Vegetation has reclaimed much of the railway in the Congo, and once busy trading hubs have fallen into disrepair with no functioning services. Rule of law is unknown. Despair is endemic.

In a way, the Congo may be a perfect example of how bad things can get when a state goes so wrong that great wealth of a few is squandered in the face of the unbounded poverty of the majority. And the resources are there for everyone to share in the future. All I could think was to have millions and millions of people descend on the Congo at once--the equivalent of holding a thrashing baby to silence it--and rock it into silence, until it unclenched enough to learn and notice there might be a better way to get what one needs. It is a terrible waste. Mankind is not always to be admired. We need to find a way to bring out the best in the Congo.

Friday, October 16, 2009

It's Beginning to Hurt by James Lasdun

It's Beginning to Hurt: Stories

Lasdun is so revealing. Why is it that when one sees the innermost thoughts of a forty- or fifty-something man one feels slightly embarrassed, as though there were something pitiful about the conclusions they manage to align like a teetering stack of children's building blocks? Though writing from the United States, Lasdun always retains his essential Englishness, like, I might add, Netherland author Joseph O'Neill. These men, writing about the minds of men, bring out the voyeur in me.

But these men manipulate me, and I allow them to do so, because of their felicity with language. They can pull back a corner of the veil to reveal something true but which may not be wholly complete, and I will follow them there.

In this book, Lasdun reminds me of Cheever, talking as he does of cocktails among the monied working classes--not so wealthy as to be unafraid of losing it all--but sort of windmilling on the edge of losing their money, their house, their wives, their sanity. In Google's "Image Results for James Lasdun," the painting After Ovid: New Metamorphoses makes an appearance. It seems to show what I am trying to explain.

Lasdun's short stories are marvels of clarity and brevity. In one story, called "The Natural Order," Lasdun invites us to look in the mirror along with his main character:
"He looked in the mirror, felt the familiar jolt at the disparity between his persistently youthful idea of his physical appearance and the image that confronted him. His hair lay thinly over his temples; his torso looked shapeless in the useful lightweight beige anorak he had brought along for the cooler evenings. An hors de combat jacket, Stewart had jokingly called it when he first saw Abel sporting it...He smiled wanly at himself. He looked middle-aged."

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Elephant Keeper by Christopher Nicholson

The Elephant Keeper

Christopher Nicholson had not registered on my radar before this latest gentle, lumbering, big, and somehow soft narrative about two elephants who land at the docks in Bristol, England in the 1700's. The novel is not written like anything that came out of that era, thank goodness, but one gets a feeling of life stripped of its furious pace and all the unnecessary essentials we find so time consuming now. I laugh quietly to learn on the HarperCollins website that Nicholson is a Thomas Hardy fan because there are echoes. I expect the author also researched source materials to imagine what could have happened to the animals brought to England from Africa at the time, and the story lets us live closely with the animals for the first third of the book.

The book elicits a sad knowingness regarding the tragedy of ignorance about wild animals while celebrating the close bonds that can be formed by the animals with humans. We know so much more about wild animals now, it pains us to see the cruel mistreatments that were common fare then. This absolutely is a book valuable for all of us and teenagers, too, for it gently instructs in an interesting way. There is sex, but it is animal sex, for the most part, or is introduced that way. And anyway, I don't think we are trying to prevent teens from knowing about sex, are we? This book suggests when sex can be wrong and when it can be right, which is actually very helpful. Would be a good class reading selection, especially grades 10-12.

The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre, Fréderic Lemercier

Paperback, 288 pgs, Pub May 12th 2009 by First Second (first published 2003), Orig Title: Le Photographe, ISBN13: 9781596433755, Edition Language: English, Series: Le Photographe #1-3, Lit Awards: Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards for Best U.S. Edition of International Material (2010)

This was such a suprising book. I found myself completely rapt to see how well the execution of the book worked--the interleaving actual photographs with graphic drawings of the travel and work of Doctors Without Borders in the northeast corner of Afghanistan. Didier Lefèvre, the photographer of the title, and his collaborators on this book, had personality enough to keep the tone moving constantly through interesting, awestruck, serious, funny, fearful. The reader is drawn into the photographs until one feels one has visited that place, was in that hospital, with those people. While the beauty of Afghanistan was constantly remarked upon, it was only at the end that I could see beauty there, in that stony and stark environment. There is something about the quality of the light and the air that is absolutely unique, and unforgettable. This book gives us something very special. It is a great gift shared.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Illegal Action by Stella Rimington

Illegal Action (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)

When Stella Rimington first published a novel in 2004, I was pleased, surprised, and interested. It was kind of cool, watching the watchers, and seeing what she decided to share with us of her life and her work as the first female Director General of Britain's domestic security service, MI-5. Her earlier work, particularly her first novel, At Risk, was good. But the editor needed a sharper pen on this latest spy caper, which did not quite reach the mark. Perhaps writing is a stress-reliever for her and we should not ask for more than is offered. But all novelists must run the guantlet of reviewers.

The story here is has Russian actors, and it seems to be reminiscent, in the beginning at least, of the real-life murder of the Soviet citizen Alexander Litvinenko. The ripped-from-the-headlines quality Rimington can bring to her writing certainly adds cachet, but unfortunately her main character was an ice queen who inspired little confidence and no loyalty. I am not at all sure the reserve and secrecy so useful to the DG of MI-5 are particularly useful characteristics for novelists. One must reveal deep truths about characters if we would be willing to walk a distance with them in an alternate universe.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Little People in the City by Slinkachu

Little People in the City

This is a book of photographs of the street installations Slinkachu. I can't decide which set-piece I like the best, but fortunately there are lots to choose from. I think the cover art "They're not pets, Susan" might be best since it first drew me in. Though I could be convinced to vote for "Local amenities for children".

So, who is Slinkachu? Presumably Will Self, the London novelist, knows since he wrote the introduction to Little People.... Slinkachu is reputed to live in London, but his beat is all of Europe. The more relevant question may be where did he get that name? In any case, he makes city living interesting again, and forces us to see the world anew. See more of Slinkachu at

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes

Past Imperfect

Fellowes is amusing because he is keenly observant and advantageously placed. His tales have the flavor of truth. He writes of a class of society most of us will never know personally: the rich, the famous, the titled. While we may not aspire to the life these people endure, there is something intrinsically interesting about a life without the more usual set of boring constraints.

The narrator, very like our author as described above, says plainly at the beginning of Chapter Two; "I've never been a good judge of character. My impressions at first meeting are almost invariably wrong." Why we then place ourselves in this unreliable narrator's hands has everything to do with the ultimate success of the book. We are always a little off-balance and unsure whether we should trust the narrator's observations. We must put our own considerable experience to work deciding the ultimate value of a piece of information. We discover the rich, the famous, and the titled have similar motivations to our own, and constraints almost entirely of their own construction.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Britten and Brülightly by Hannah Berry

I love the idea of graphic novels. I love the idea that drawings can instantly tell us things about people and situations and language provides depth, gloss, and character. Persepolis by Satrapi gave us serious biography graphically, and The Photographer by Lefevre and Guibert gave us serious war reportage. Now Britten and Brülightly takes us part of the way to what I imagine is possible for a graphic literature. The art is superbly suitable for the noirish mystery. It is nuanced, and shows us slight variations in meanings. The choice of frames impells the story forward at a reasonable clip (could, perhaps, have used a few more frames as I had to flip back a couple times). The authorial voice for Britten is dour and dry and funny. Britten and his sidekick, Brülightly, manage to solve the mystery of a thwarted love affair which involves death, birth out of wedlock, and hidden family histories. I loved the characterizations, but hated the ending. The story line at the end was not all I would have wished, but overall the effort was exceptional. I look forward to the direction this book has moved us.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

City of Thieves by David Benioff

City of Thieves

This could very well be a new classic. When I finished it, I immediately started it again, to see how Benioff did it--how he created characters so rich one wanted to meet them. War tends to concentrate the mind wonderfully, and here it is no different. In this story, experience is so distilled it hits with the force of a burning shot of frozen vodka. A young boy of seventeen is taken under the wing of a world-wise twenty-year-old as they navigate Leningrad and environs in the final brutal winter months of WWII. The elder of the two young men is a raconteur par excellence who teaches us equanimity in the face of failure. I think I would make this one of the new high school required reading texts. It feels fresh, immediate, important. It has all of life in its pages.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder

Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgetting

Deogracias is the lens through which we view Burundi and Rwanda during the "events" of the 90's. Through his eyes we also have a reflected view of New York City and its inhabitants in that decade. By the end of the book I realized, without the slightest cynicism, that we must indeed thank god for this man, Deogracias, who shows us what humans can be, and what they can accomplish.

Kidder does an exceptional job of showing us the disorientation of Deo during and after the events in Africa, and after his arrival in NYC. Deo was a third-year medical student in Burundi when he came to the United States. He spoke no English, knew no one, and had two hundred dollars. We glimpse his fear, re-live his humiliations, laugh at his misunderstandings, and feel his anger. Somehow Kidder has made this one man's experience universal. We feel responsible.

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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Unequivocably fine. The authorial control over the number of carefully- drawn characters, the time span, the continental shift, the depth of medical knowledge, the sheer size of the story--all these inspire awe. The novel also inspired gratitude in me--that the author shared his story with us, taught us things about medicine we didn't, couldn't know, and for trusting us to rejoice in the differentness of his construction. And for the time. I hope he got as much out of the telling as we have gotten from the reading.

Simply from a technical point of view, I felt the elaborate storyline beginning to sway under its own weight near the end, threatening to spill us into the street. Certainly the tying of the knots is infinitely more difficult than it appears at first glance, and I think Verghese was successful. It was a close-run thing, however. I will eagerly seek out other writing by this author. In fact, his contribution to The regarding Obama's national health initiative is fascinating: Verghese's blog

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1)

Hmmm. This was a mixed bag. The set up to this mystery did not draw me in at all, and I had to struggle--tried to read it a couple of times, and finally resorted to audio. I do not usually bother but I did in this case because there was so much hype on this title. The problem is the writing, I'm afraid, though it did occur to me that perhaps it was the translation. The second book in the series, The Girl who Played with Fire, was so much more fluent that I still wonder how the first could have gotten past the editors.

Larsson develops some unusual and interesting characters, though [strike me dead if I lie] Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist and ostensibly the main character despite the "Girl" of the title, is way too good to live. He's the greatest lover who ever lived, can talk a snail out of her shell, and has no known faults.

The book only begins to pull its own weight after 150 pages, but the mystery itself still suffers from hydra-headedness. The first mystery, so dry and hard to understand in the set-up is dropped in favor of an even less plausible one. I am a generous sort, however, and am willing to suspend disbelief. It's undoubtedly a good thing not all of us are technowizards so we can take the author's word on computer theft and what is possible. So, okay, we've worked up a head of steam on this search for a missing person, and Lo! [again, beat me livid if I lie] we get pages of really despicable descriptions of violence against women. Very descriptive, very grotesque, very unnecessary.

So okay, after that has us wondering if we really needed to read this, Larsson goes back to his orginal mystery, which is financial reporting and economic theft. Hmmm. Don't let the this book stop you from enjoying the second in the series, however. There is violence in The Girl who Played with Fire, but mercifully, it is directed at a bad man, and doesn't seem nearly as horrid as what we were treated to in Dragon Tattoo.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ratio: The Simple Codes behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking by Michael Ruhlman

This is the coolest book for cooks. I've needed this so many times in my life. I simply find it oppressive to race out to the store every time I am missing something in a recipe, so I have often just wanted to know what the ratios are--what is absolutely necessary for something to be defined as "cake" as opposed to "bread" for instance--so that I can create. And here it is. I'm so glad.

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Friday, August 21, 2009

A Carrion Death by Michael Stanley

A Carrion Death

Michael Stanley is actually two authors. It must be a wonderful experience--wonderfully difficult, wonderfully rewarding--to work so closely with someone as on a work of fiction. A Carrion Death is the first of their attempts and they succeed, if not unequivocably.

The mysteries are set in Botswana, and I am infinitely grateful that listening to Lisette Lecat read Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series has allowed the unusual city names to roll off my tongue like a native. Molepolole, Mochudi, Gabarone seem familiar to me now, but I'm glad the authors included the map in the front of the book.

I adore mystery series where the deaths are not gruesome and the investigators are civilized. A little bit of moral ambiguity, a few philosophical dilemmas, a human fraility or two, and voila! I am entranced. But I did feel a formula at work here. It felt workmanlike. I look forward to the second in the series to see if the authors managed to set themselves free.

The Mochudi Radio interview done with the main character of A Carrion Death, Assistant Superintendant David "Kubu" Bengu, however, tells us what they think of Michael Stanley in Botswana, my faint criticisms aside. Detective Kubu

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Steig Larsson

The Girl Who Played with Fire (Millennium, #2)

What a roller-coaster ride this turned out to be. From the first pages of this second title in a 3-part series, I found myself insatiably curious about the motivations of these distinctive characters. If you met Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, you will know what I mean by distinctive. Come to think of it, if you have read anything by Natsuo Kirino (Out, Real World), you probably know edgy comes in many shades and many nationalities. This one is special.

The book may be less about the "girl" than about a man--the reporter, Mikael Blomkvist. The story is distinctly from a man's point of view, though point of view shifts several times in the telling. The girl of the title appears to be a deeply dysfunctional social misfit who manages to instill an awed respect and fierce loyalty in many who work (or sleep) with her. Larsson may strong-arm the reader into caring for Lisbeth through his characters' voices--she makes no attempt to charm us. In the end, we do care about her, somehow, our sensibilities bruised, manipulated, satisfied. A model for Lisbeth is suggested in the translator's blog: Possible model?

Blood Safari by Deon Meyer

Deon Meyer mysteries are a special treat. The women are strong, the men sexy, the land distinctive. Meyer's latest title, Blood Safari, is especially fascinating for defining at least two sides to the wildlife crisis in the parks areas of southern Africa up through Kenya. His website shows photos of some places he describes in the book, and they are truly magical, places like none others. Photo Gallery

There is always something untamed about a Meyer book...his characters are sometimes barely in control of themselves, their emotions, their physicality. They are real, immediate. I think we identify with their frustration at the evil in people, and wish we could be as edgy. While I have enjoyed all of Meyer's books, I especially enjoyed Heart of the Hunter, one of his first.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Sex, Death, and Fly-Fishing by John Gierach

Sex, Death and Fly Fishing

I can't decide whether this man is a better writer than he is fisherman. How can I know? Fisherman are known to lie--nay, say exaggerate--but it sounds as though his catch-and-release has allowed him years of fishing pleasure, pain, and travail as is only right for one who writes of it. I adore his crotchety voice, his clear descriptions of locales we outsiders will never see, had we the time and the hand-tyed flies.

The laconic tales of grown men who spend their time (and not just vacations and weekends!) catching fish, only to release them again, somehow makes the absurdity of our modern life more bearable. The effort lavished on the deceit by the artful tying of a fly that matches a molt that occurs only once a season must describe the craziest hobbyist or the most righteous artist at his task. This kind of passion enriches his life, and ours, too.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Print is Dead: Long Live the Digital Book by Jeff Gomez

Print Is Dead: Long Live the Digital Book

For almost a year now, I've made a big effort to understand the changes in the publishing industry. I must admit I was terrified to think that "news" would be left to fingernail blurbs on the Yahoo homepage. I was equally terrified to think that I would have to use my extensive education and valuable time to search a variety of sources for news, recent books, or publications that interest or inform me. I can do it, I know, but how many others will? And what does this mean for an informed electorate in a democracy? I was afraid, but I am much less so now. The changes are taking us to a new place.

Gomez plants us firmly in the debate about book publishing, articulating the pressures on those currently producing and selling the book as product. He discusses the electronic updates that are rocking the industry and the changing publicity and marketing avenues. Things are changing so fast, it is amazing his observations are not out of date already.

I found the book immensely useful for stimulating fruitful discussion and thought...and hope.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Fourth Man by K.O. Dahl

The Fourth Man

What long haul this was to read. For months I would pick it up and have to put it down simply because I could not get up a head of steam. The book jacket producers get full points for making me feel like I was really missing the hottest thing in Scandanavian mystery if I did not read this immediately. I suppose it was the conceit--that a woman comes out of nowhere and seduces a seasoned police detective by breaking into his house and sitting around in her underwear in the dark--that never really rang true to me. By page 200, when the author finally reveals just what the police detective likes so much about the object of his affection, I could not restrain a snort of disbelief and a sneer of derision. This is male fantasy run amok. Nothing wrong with a little fantasy, but please give us a something to hang our disbelief on.

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Go With Me by Castle Freeman

This slim volume is a timeless classic. It is almost entirely conversation, though occasionally the author slips in a descriptive phrase to focus our eye. We listen while several old men pass an afternoon with a case of beer in a ruined chair factory in rural Vermont. A couple of other people search for, and find, the town's local bad boy, providing the novel's only action scenes. There is nothing quite like this around, and if there were, this would still be one of the very best. Good any time of the year, this one bears rereading. While the setting is Vermont, it could just as easily have been Arkansas. The sentiments and the characters are as universal as the day is long.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Lost City of Z by David Grann

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

What a great read. For really the first time I understood the fascination with the phrase 'armchair traveller.' In other circumstances, I always thought it was somewhat absurd to think that reading about a thing was as fun as doing it. In this case, it was a lot more fun to read about it than to do it. Pit vipers, swarms of biting insects, interminable wet, death by maggots...and in all of it, a frustrating mystery. At its heart, this is a story of the search for a magnificent civilization in the heart of the Amazon, with vast earthworks paralleled only by great cities on the European continent. This is a book to make you think about what man is: his determination, his understanding, his folly, his ego, and how some of us have these things in greater measure than others.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

American Rust by Philipp Meyer

This is really a magnificent first novel. From the opening scenes, the lives Meyer has constructed hover on a knife's edge of disaster. Poor choices and bad decisions land his characters in nasty situations. Readers have a sense of the big picture only because of viewpoint shifts, but the author reveals his secrets slowly. It is with a sense of impending doom that we watch the story unfold to what we fully expect will be its dreadful conclusion.

This novel did not get nearly the attention it deserved when it was published in February this year. If I have any complaints at all it is merely that it contained more words than it needed. The characters are drawn with sensitivity and depth and the scenes have added details that crank the readers' sense of foreboding to high.

It is said that men don't read novels. If all novels were as good as this one, I think we'd see a lot more men among the converted. This should appeal to those lovers of the Palahniuk oeuvre, though I hate to limit his appeal. It is a man's novel like Black Flies (Shannon Burke, 2008) or The Dog Fighter (Bojanowski, 2005) are men's novels. They are firmly from a man's point of view, and internal, if not introspective.

You can buy these books here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Gamble by Thomas Ricks

The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008

Ricks has a thesis--you can guess it from the title--and he makes his point forcefully. It had always been my contention that the people of Iraq must be better served and the concept of sending troops out into small outposts in cities and towns to establish peaceful areas is intuitively convergent. The intent was to have peace for long enough that a political solution could arise.

In practice we have been arming former insurgents to keep them from fighting with us and Iraqi citizens. We have established an uneasy calm for a period, but the political process has not moved in the direction we had hoped. Instead, with more peaceful living conditions in the cities and towns, political positions appear to have regressed and entrenched rather than broadened and become more inclusive.

How it plays out is anybody's guess. What I liked about Ricks' work was obtaining a sense of the difficult choices facing commanders at the time Petraeus was writing the new counter-insurgency manual, the disconnect between Washington and Baghdad, a peek at what life must have been like for thinking beings, our soldiers, executing orders and living in Iraq. I think the editing on this work was magisterial, because the amount of information must have been overwhelming, yet the material is cut so that a clear narrative with a fresh perspective emerges. I appreciate the timeliness--I can't believe we are reading in such depth about events that occured so recently. Kudos to Ricks.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: A Plan That Will Work by Jimmy Carter

We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: A Plan That Will Work

Jimmy Carter is going to talk about peace in the Middle East until he dies. He is leaving books for us to use as a road map after he dies. But he'd rather we pay attention now because the situation for Palestinians is unbearable.

I am one who just didn't want to know about it. The conflict has gone on too long, and although on the face of it, it didn't seem fair that Palestinians had to move off land they'd lived on for generations, better minds than mine had made this solution. Or so I thought.

When I saw the television and newswire reporting showing Israeli retaliation for the the latest Palestinian "bombings" in late 2008, my fury was aroused. And I began to read. I realize now that I've always had a responsibility to be informed on this issue, and that better minds than mine had not been the only ones at work here, as usual.

The Collaborator of Bethlehem: An Omar Yussef Mystery by Matt Beynon Rees

The Collaborator of Bethlehem: An Omar Yussef Mystery

Omar Yussef, a crusty grandfather, refuses to mind his own business. Friends run into trouble in Dehaisha, a refugee camp outside of Bethlehem, and he looks into the void.

This book is overwhelming in its pathos, and terrifying in its implications. This old schoolmaster, Omar Yussef, almost goes out of his way to avoid finding evidence of murder in Dehaisha, perpetrated, he believes, by a leader of the resistance. Instead he finds clues just lying about, ignored by the very people meant to serve the people and protect them from harm. His anger and fury come into focus as his family is threatened and blameless friends and colleagues are murdered.

I had not realized that "the gunmen" of the Palestinian resistance were so reviled from within, but it makes eminent sense. This is a novel, of course, but I think Matt Beynon Rees may be speaking to a larger truth here that is difficult to convey to those, like myself, who have turned their face from a conflict that rages with no end in sight, that doesn't make economic or political or humanitarian sense, and is sickening in its reveal of the baseness of human nature.

The author has painted a grim picture of life in the settlements. He is not unkind to Israelis who, in the one appearance they make in this volume, appear rational, albeit destructive. His main character is difficult to like, he is so full of bile at a system that gives him no peace but plenty of pain. But if we walk with him a short way, we begin to see what he sees, and it is indescribably sad.

Related: Sound of Sleep or Invasion?

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Book Business by Jason Epstein

Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future

Epstein, former Random House editorial director among other things in his long and illustrious career, treats us to reminiscences about the past and ruminations about the future of book publishing. Especially delicious are recollections of Doubleday's suppression of Drieser's novel Sister Carrie, the first appearance of Nabokov's Lolita, and the genesis of The New York Review of Books.

For me though, Epstein's long experience in book publishing is most interesting when applied to how the industry changed, and continues to change, over the years. I am reassured by his insistence that bookstores, like cinemas, will not entirely disappear in this new world of digital access. Years ago Epstein did not recommend to his children nor their friends to enter the publishing industry because it was an industry in decline. Today he would have encouraged them because publishing is an industry in the middle of enormous changes. I agree. There are opportunities to be seized.

A further thought. The book was published in 2001. The book is dedicated to Judith Miller. Epstein tells a little anecdote about his involvement with the CIA in Africa. Somehow it gets the mind whirling...

Related: Autopsy of the Book Business by Epstein in the Daily Beast and E-Books--This Time It's Real by Osnos in The Platform

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Wrack and Ruin by Don Lee

Wrack and Ruin

I adored this book. It had me laughing in public places and snickering into my coffee. All the characters had real flaws but Lee was fair--everyone was flawed. And what's more, I liked them the better for it. Lyndon Song, ex-New York sculptor and brussel sprouts-farmer extraordinaire, and his failed financier brother Woody, make a madcap pair amongst the other odd personages of Rosarita Bay, California.

Lee was much more fluent in this work than in his earlier work, Country of Origin, and it seemed he was having a better time as well. The action and personalities seemed so very Californian to me, and since I live on the east coast, it felt like a trip away. A television series that gives me that same "quirky California" feel is Six Feet Under.

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

How We Decide

Fascinating. The introduction has this author in a flight simulator in Canada. The first chapter discusses Tom Brady of the Patriots making a Superbowl decision. Lehrer goes on to discuss the problems one man had making decisions after the "emotional" portion of his brain was impaired.

While some of the examples Lehrer chooses to illuminate his thesis are familiar from other books on psychology and neuroscience, many are new and absorbing. I came away with insights on how we make decisions under stress, and how psychology experiments are devised to test decision-making.

Lehrer discusses his work: Jonah Lehrer at Powell's.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer

The Tourist

Deceit is thick in the air in this modern spy novel. Shifting shapes, names, loyalties are as loosely moored as ever in the spy industry. While China's interest in Sudan's oil is mentioned, interpersonal human drama is the real center of this absorbing 6th novel from expatriate Olen Steinhauer. The clash of jurisdictions between the CIA and Homeland Security in the USA adds a touch of verisimilitude. Steinhauer does a very good job creating characters one cares about. He did the right thing by modelling his work on the great spy novelists of old.

Steinhauer discusses reaction to his book: Contemporary-Nomad.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Old Filth by Jane Gardam

Old Filth

One of the best uses of flashback that I can remember. Immensely wise, this is the bittersweet story of an old man's life. Gradually Gardam reveals the successes and failures of Eddie Feathers, his astonishing luck and balance amid life's rough seas. We come to respect his judgement, appreciate his wit, and thank him for his humanity. We love him for forgiving the infidelities of his wife, and for his embrace of his arch nemesis. We miss him at the end. One of the great characters of British literature today.

We first see eighty-year-old Feathers in retirement in Dorset, England after a long career at the bar in Hong Kong. Careful reasoning on illustrious cases earns him a reputation at home and abroad and he is known to all by the sobriquet "Old Filth" (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong), a term usually reserved for a group of people. His mind drifts back over chapters in his life that formed and directed him, and we see him reason, and change. A remarkable performance which should earn Jane Gardam well-deserved respect and a large audience.

Interview with Gardam: The Elegant Variation.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Cold Dish by Craig Johnson

Really enjoyed this colorful and amusing cast of characters introduced by western mystery writer Craig Johnson. Set in Absaroka County, Wyoming the story centers on Sheriff Longmire, his foul-mouthed deputy Vic Moretti from Philadelphia, and Cheyenne friend Henry Standing Bear, among others. Very strong characterizations, with hints at depths that a long series can tease out.

Listened to the Access Utah (public radio) interview with Johnson as he promoted his fourth book in the series and was fascinated to learn his background in playwriting helped him to craft dialogue that relies on action or 'voice' alone to distinguish speakers. Works particularly well here. Very auspicious beginning.

Enter Craig Johnson at the link and listen to his podcast: Utah Public Radio