I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of these books or recommendations on other books I might want to take a look at. Happy reading.
Finally, a note about my rating system.
Key by Tatiana de Rosnay ***
one I would not have chosen if not for it being a book club selection--
I did really enjoy it, though. There are two pararallel
the first and far more compelling is told by a 10 year-old Jewish girl,
Sarah, who's family was round-up and killed by French police and
citizens collaboratint with the Nazis in 1942 Paris. The second
narrative is told by Julia, a 45 year-old ex-patriate American working
as a journalist in Paris. Turns out Julia's family is moving into
old apartment of Sarah's family and Julia becomes obsessed with finding
out what happened to Sarah and her family while going through some
strife with her boorish French husband. The first half of the
alternated these two narratives and I kept racing through Julia's to
get back to Sarah's riveting story. Like many, I had no idea of
round-up of Parisan Jews in 1942. Once Sarah's story ended and it
all Julia the book really lost some momentum for me. That said,
all-in-all, it was quite an entertaining tale of a very dark period in
history and the ongoing repercussions decades later.
Flashforward by Robert
Sawyer *** 1/2 Though
a Sawyer fan, I was not aware of this book until the ABC TV show based
upon it came around in Fall 2009. I loved the premise-- all
of humanity suffers a loss of consciousness where they seen visions
from their future six months hence. Alas, the show proved to be a
big disappointment (very weak writing), so after a few episodes I
decided my time would be much better spent reading Sawyer's book.
Definitely the right call. Like the best of Sawyer's work, the
novel was riveting and very thought-provoking at the same time, i.e.,
how would it change things if you knew your future in 21 years (the 6
months was a change for the TV show)? I'd strongly recommend this
for any science fiction fan, or, honestly, anybody intrigued by the
Columbine by Dave Cullen **** Chances are, what you think you know about Columbine is wrong. Eric Harris was not a disturbed, Goth loner, but rather almost a classic psychopath. Harris and Klebold never intended to go around picking off kids one-by-one, but rather planted bombs in the cafeteria at lunch time that they thought would do most of the damage. Cullen provides a very detailed account of what actually happened and the wider context to help you understand the happenings, insofar as they are understandable. I found this an absolutely riveting book that I was reading at every spare moment (Kim to me, "what are you reading that's so good, anyway?). This book is surely not for everybody, but if you have any interest in the matter, it's a terrific read. (Also, here's my blog post on it from back when I read the book).
for the Storm by Norman
Ollestad **** An amazing memoir/account of the 11-year
old Ollestad's harrowing escape from a small plane crash-- that killed
his father and father's girlfriend-- on a stormy mountain.
Obviously, the scenes of the 11- year old facing the death of his
father and descending the treacherous mountain in a blizzard are
riveting, but Ollestad intersperses this with stories about growing up
with his fathter, especially learning how to surf. During these
parts, which were actually quite good, I couldn't help but want to get
back to the excitement on the mountain, but it is definitely a better
book for them. In the end, it all comes together
beautifully. I think it's an especially moving story for anyone
who's ever been a father or son (father's day gift?).
Serena by Ron
Rash ** 1/2 After reading a number of really
positive reviews, I recommended this for my book club.
Unfortunately, I think most all of us were disappointed. Serena
is the titular anti-hero, an incredibly ambitious, Lady MacBeth-like
character who runs a depression-era timber empire with her
husband. Serena and her henchmen in this book are just too evil and it takes away from the
disturbingly realistic portrait of the brutal life in1930's logging
camps that is the book's strength. Clearly, Rash was not aiming
for pure realism, but the combination did not work particularly well
with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg
Larsson *** 1/2 I'm not quite sure this book is so
great as to be the international publishinging phenomen it has become
(I suppose few international publishing phenomenon are worthy,
though). It was, however, a much better than average thriller
thanks in large part to the indelible title character, Lisbeth
Salander. Though at times there were too many thriller cliches, I
really appreciated that Larsson took a slow build with a variety of
inter-locking pieces so that the payoff was all the more
rewarding. I certainly plan on reading the remaining works of his
Things that Don't Make Sense by Michael Brooks *** 1/2 Science writer
Brooks examines 13 enduring mysteries of science of which we still have
not quite been able to figure out. E.g., cold fusion really does
seem to work in some laboratory experiments; sexual reproduction does
not really fit well with evolutionary theory; was the "wow" signal a
sign of extraterrestrial intelligence. I was especially intrigued
that some areas of science I thought were quite resolved are actually
enduring mysteries that don't quite make sense even to the scientists
who study them.
Forty Tales from the Afterlife by David Eagleman **** Not
the type of book, I typically read, I was inspired by the reading of
one of these "tales" on Radiolab.
Basically, Eagleman, a neuroscientist and writer, writes forty brief
essays on alternative possibilities of life after death. Of
course some are better than others, but most are incredibly imaginative
and thought-provoking. My favorite: one where you wait in a sort
of holding area until everybody on earth has forgotten you and you can
move on (tough for famous people). I really enjoyed reading and
savoring a few of these per day while reading another book.
Where Men win Glory by Jon
Krakauer *** 1/2 This is basically a biography of Pat
Tillman, the NFL all-pro player who gave up his career after 9/11 to
enlist in the Army and was killed in Afghanistan in 2004 in an
eminently avoidable (and then covered-up) friendly fire
incident. Tillman really was a rather incredible and unique
individual and I enjoyed learning of his life, but I'm not the biggest
fan of the biography genre (inevitably, too many little details I don't
care about it). What I really enjoyed about the book was the
story of how Tillman came to be basically an anti-war soldier, how we
was killed in a stupid and utterly preventable incident, and the
lenghts the Army went to in order to paint Tillman's death as heroic,
rather than stupid and tragic.
Whiskey Rebels by David
Liss ** 1/2 When it comes to historical fiction, Liss
does a terrific job with putting you in a unique time and place and
developing interesting and realistic characters. Unfortunately,
compared to his earlier works, most notably Conspiracy of Paper-- an all-time
favorite, this one was simply lacking in plot. Whereas those
works started with a central mystery that was gradually uncovered and
led to an ever-increasing momentum, this tale of financial corruption
in the brand new American Republic (early 1790's) just never had quite
the plot hook to make you really care what was going to happen
next. The actual plot about financial corruption and speculation
in early American banks was also a little too intricate for me to fully
keep up with. I'll keep reading Liss, but for an American, he
seems to be on surer footing in 18th century England.
by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman **** I loved this book. I spent
weeks regaling family and friends with interesting research and
anecdotes that I had read here. Basically, it summarizes recent
social science findings in child development and child rearing in a very readable manner. If
you've got kids, you'll definitely want
to read this. If you've ever been a kid, actually, should
definitely want to read it. If you want to know more, check outmy
blog post from back when I read it.
the Pack Leader by Cesar Millan ** 1/2 Upon owning
a new dog not nearly as naturally obedient as our last one, I thought I
might as well turn to the Dog Whisperer for advice. The book was
interesting and readable enough, but, could have been more concrete on
workable strategies. I'm not one of those crazy people who thinks
their dog is a baby and lets him run the household (I've got Evan for
that), and that seemed to be 90% of the problem for most people.
If you are one of those people (and no, I'm not in denial), this book
would probably be helpful, but I found little actual utility in
of the North by
Bernard Cornwell *** The third in Cornwell's Saxon Chronicles
tales of a 9th Century Saxon warrior and dispossessed lord, Uhtred of
Bebbanburg. Uhtred is a fun and engaging narrator and there's
plenty of 9th century battles, viking ships, and sword-fighting.
This is very much literary candy for me, but I love the immersion in
this 9th century world.
Humans by Robert Sawyer ***
The second volume in Sawyer's Neanderthal Parallax trilogy is set
largely in the alternative earth where Neanderthal phyicist, Ponter
Boddit, has crossed over from in Hominids.
The narrative is centered on Boddit's fish-out-of water observations of
life on our earth contrasted with our Earth's scientist, Mary Vaughan's
encounters with the Neanderthal world. While some plot elements
seemed a little far-fetched, I loved Sawyer's central conceit of
spinning out a different way in which an advanced human soceity,
especially one based on mor physically robust forms, might have
Joker One by Donovan
Campbell *** While still at Princeton, Donovan Cambpell decided
he was going to test himself and become a Marine officer. He
eventually ended up commanding a platoon in Ramadi Iraq during the
Spring of 2004-- some of the worst fighting of the Iraq War. In
many ways, this book is a nice complement to the remarkably similar One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine
Officer by Nathaniel Fick. While Fick spends a lot more
time discussing training and preparation and his unit saw very little
actual combat, Cambpell puts you right into the heat of the heaviest
fighting of the war. I found his observations on what makes a
good leader to be especially interesting. In terms of putting you
right into the battle of modern warfare, I imagine not many books do a
Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber [unfinished] I
had high hopes for this tale of an expert forger of Velazquez who seems
to be confusing his own life with that of the great Master.
Unfortunately, I found the writing rather uninspiring and was pretty
much just bored trying to read this. I gave it to Kim to read,
and she, however, enjoyed it very much.
Fresh Kills by Bill
Loehfelm [unfinished] The winner of Amazon's first
"breakthrough novel" award. Amazon should stick with selling
books, not giving it awards to them. The basic plot is that
of an annoying, cretinous, tough-guy narrator out to find out the truth
behind his father's murder. I certainly appreciate negative and
fully-realized characters, but I cannot think of many narrators I have
more annoying. I definitely did not need to spend a whole book
with this loser.
The Parents we Mean to be
by Richard Weissbourd *** After hearing an interview with
the author on NPR, I was intrigued enough to want to read this.
The author is a child Psychologist who writes based on years of
experience in practice as well as his own experiences as a
father. His main focus is on raising emotionally mature and moral
children. The truth is, after reading this I felt like 1) I was
already on top of this pretty well, and 2) I was amazed by the number
of awful parents out there. It's really not that
complicated. Weissbourd, of course, sees a lot of upper-income
parents who are always pushing their children for academic success and
not particularly interested in what type of person they turn out to
be. Fair to say, I recognized a lot of these from my own
Tender Morsels by Margo
Lanagan [unfinished] This very dark, young adult fantasy
tells the story of a traumatized (i.e., gang rape and incest) teenage
mother in her own personal heaven. Apparently, it is loosely
based on the Grimm brothers version of Snow White. I like dark,
but this was unremittingly dark without much redemption. More
importantly, I could not make an emotional connection with any of the
characters nor did I really care for the writing style, so I gave up
after about 100 pages.
The Alchemist by Paulo
Coehlo *1/2 I would have never finished this poorly, yet
pretentiously written bit of new-age drivel were it not the selection
of my book club (unofficial title: "5 middle-aged women and
Steve"). A shepherd boy goes on a quest to learn the secret of
alchemy and instead learns the secret of life: "stay true to your
dreams." Perhaps this is inspiring for the middle school set, but
myself and the adults I read it with were not impressed.
Misquoting Jesus by Bart
Ehrman *** Renowned UNC-Chapel Hill biblical scholar
Ehrman explains how we can basically have very little confidence in the
words of the bible as they exist today. He marshals compelling
evidence for the fact that scribes throughout history have wrought
considerable changes, both unintentional and intended, on the text of
the bible. It is pretty hard to make the case that the bible is
the inerrant word of God, when we can only guess at what those words
were when first written down in the 1st and 2nd century AD. He
also nicely explains the analytic techniques by which modern biblical
scholars do their best to discover the original text. I found the
basic premises quite interesting, and though this is a relatively short
book, like many other works of non-fiction, I would have been sated
with the long magazine article version.
The Hour I First Believed
by Wally Lamb *** I came to this novel with great anticipation
as I absolutely loved Wally Lamb's previous novel, I Know this Much is True. I
do think this book is first-rate, but it does pale in comparison to its
predecessor. It tells the tale of a married couple, a teacher,
Caelum, and his wife, Maureen, a school nurse, who both work at
Columbine high school. While Caelum is out of town, Maureen is in
the school library on that fateful day. Over the subsequent 700+
pages we seee the ripple effect of the violence at Columbine reach out
to destroy more lives in unexpected ways. The story was
emotionally engaging and thought-provoking, but too bloated. It
would have made a much more powerful 400-500 page novel.
The Hunger Games by Suzanna
Clark *** Young adult novel set in a dystopian
future in which the central government of a reconstituted America
forces teenagers from the remaining "districts" to compete in a
multi-day reality television show to the death. How can you
resist that premise? The tale is narrated by one of the
competitors, a teenage girl from Appalachia and is well-paced and
plotted without being condescending to a younger audience.
Clearly not a true "adult" book, but a damn fun read.
The Paradox of Choice: Why More is
Less by Barry Schwarz ***
Like much of the good books that take interesting social
science, especially social psychology, this book was full of
fascinating experiments that show how irrational human decision making
can be. In this case, give us too many choices, and our
likelihood of making a poor choice or simply refusing to choose goes
way up. However, unlike books by, say, Gladwell, this one seems
pitched at a less educated audience and suffers for it. At times,
took on too much of a self-help air, "you can make better
choices!" Glad I read it-- interesting and fun to read-- but I
cannot help thinking it would have been better in the hands of a more
How Fiction Works by James
Wood ** 1/2 As someone who
clearly really enjoys good fiction but has never had a class on it
beyond 12th grade, I thought that this book would really increase my
understanding (and hopefully, enjoyment) of good literature. It
did, but only a bit. I was definitely looking forward to reading
the book after this really interesting review in Slate, but I
felt like that article, plus another review or two I read really got me
80% of the value of the book. I really enjoyed learning about the
"free indirect" narrative style and I also really enjoyed Wood's take
on realism, but I would have been much happier just reading a New Yorker article on the subject,
or something of similar length.
A Spectacle of Corruption by David Liss *** 1/2 Liss returns to the wonderfully fully-realized 18th century England that was the setting of his terrific A Conspiracy of Paper. Here again, Jewish former boxer turned "thieftaker" (bounty hunter/private investigator), Benjamin Weaver provides an engrossing first-person narration. This time, the story is political as Weaver struggles to understand why he was set-up to be executed for a murder and how all this fits into an attempted restoration of the Catholic King, James II. What Liss did to bring the burgeoning stock market alive in Conspiracy of Paper he does here with the complexities of 18th Century English politics. And, as always there is a densely-plotted mystery that gradually comes together. A worthy follow-up to A Conspiracy of Paper, and a terrific book in its own right.
by Malcolm Gladwell **** This book, in which Malcolm
Gladwell argues for the importance of context and external factors in
explaining individual success may be my favorite Gladwell book yet--
which is saying something. In a society which overvalues the
heroic individual, Gladwell's work serves as a necessary
corrective. I think Bill Gates is my favorite individual.
Of course he is a brilliant, talented, and highly-motivated individual,
that's a given, but that doesn't mean that fate didn't conspire for him
to take advantage of unique opportunities. Gates was born at just
the right time to take advantage of the emerging computer world and was
lucky enough to go to one of the few high schools in the country where
he would have the opportunity to practice computer programming.
Of course, stories like this are very interesting, but ultimately
predictable in a book about success. What makes Gladwell unique
is how he sees the connections in how switching from Korean to English
in the cockpit was able to dramatically increase the safety of Korean
commercial airliners and weave this into the overall story. As
always, Gladwell's books are as riveting as the latest thriller on the
best-seller list and change the way you see the world while you are
flying through the pages.
Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
**** This is historical fiction at its best, completely
transporting the reader to the early1950's Stalinist Soviet
Union. A serial killer is on the loose, but the government
refuses to recognize that such a thing could be happening in the
Utopian Socialist worker's paradise. Thus, when MGB (precursor of
the KGB) agent Leo Demidov decides to pursue this as a serial killer
case, he himself becomes an enemy of the state. What Smith does
so wonderfully is recreate an all-encompassing paranoia where even
husband and wives or parents and children don't know who will rat them
out to the MGB and who they can trust. The serial killer narrative was
generally taut and well-told, if a little conventional at times, but
this book is both a page-turner and a work of fiction that lets you
really learn about another time and place by completely immersing you
Why We Drive the Way We Do by Tom Vanderbilt **** I
absolutely loved this book. Vanderbilt basically takes all sorts
of interesting findings from the science of traffic and presents them
in an engaging an highly readable manner. Examples include: why
it is actually bad for everyone to merge early; why flat, straight
roads can actually be dangerous; the real reason talking on the cell
phone is dangerous (it has nothing to do with your hands) and
many more. I really liked that this book is just as much
sociology and psychology as it traffic engineering. Our cars
become a psychological extension of us and there is a unique psychology
and sociology to driving that I had never really thought about but
makes so much sense (e.g., you lose the ability for eye contact over 20
mph). Anyway, if you drive, chances are you will find this a
compelling and fascinating read.
Pale Horseman by Bernard
Cornwell *** I loved The Last Kingdom that I only
read two intervening books before heading back for book 2 of Cornwell's
Saxon Chronicles. Here, protagonist and narrator, Uhtred fights
with King Alfred (not yet "the Great") of Wessex against the Danes he
had earlier allied himself to. As before, a fast-paced exciting
narrative with plenty of period detail. Now though, a lot of what
was so fresh and exciting seems somewhat formulaic and redundant.
I enjoyed this book and will definitely continue the series, but this
did seem a sophmore slump in the series after the great
City of Thieves by David
Benioff *** An
engaging buddy story set amidst the hardships of the WWII siege of
Leningrad. 17-year old Lev and Russian army deserter, Kolya, are
sent on what seems to be a utterly hopeless mission to obtain a dozen
eggs for the cake of a Russian colonel's daughter or face
execution. The shy and timid Lev and the brash and boastful Kolya
form a stereotypical, but highly entertaining, odd couple thatavoid
horrors such as cannibalism and Nazi's on their quest. In one
sense, pretty standard fare, but the vivid historical setting and
breezy narrative make this well worth reading.
The House on Fortune Street
by Margot Livesy *** 1/2 I loved The Missing World by Livesy which I
read many years ago and this book shares many of the same
characteristics: separate narratives from the vastly differing
perspectives of main characters which, when put together, reveal a full
picture more complete and dramatically different from each narrative on
its own. Because I'm so behind on my reviews, I'm going to quote
from the review at Amazon:
"Livesey encourages readers to do just that by dividing the book into
four sections, each with a distinct point of view. First is Sean, a
Keats scholar in his early 30s; followed by Cameron, a middle-aged
amateur photographer; Dara, Cameron's daughter, who works as a
therapist in a women's center; and Abigail, an actress, who is Sean's
girlfriend as well as Dara's best friend from college. Although
these four sections include overlapping plot points and details, their
purpose is not to provide a "Rashomon"-like retelling of the same
events from different perspectives. Instead, through the divided
narrative Livesey intends to show us how separate these characters are
-- how little, despite their proximity, they actually share -- for this
is a novel that is above all about loneliness." Not always the
most fast-paced narrative, the book was hugely rewarding in gradually
revealing how these disparate lives fit together and the ways in which
we fundamentally fail to misunderstand each other.
Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell **** I cannot even
remember what inspired me to pick up this tale of Danish invaders in
9th century England (i.e., Vikings), but man did I love it.
Narrated by North Umbrian noble turned Dane (upon his capture), this is
a terrific, fast-paced narrative filled with all sorts of period
details of life among the pious, Christian Saxons and the ruthless
Danish invaders. This is one of those great works of historical
fiction that totally transport you to another time and place. It
was also a great history lesson about how close England came to being
The Appeal by John Grisham *** I don't read a lot of Grisham, but I invariably enjoy him when I do. After listening to an interview with him about this book, I realized it would be right up my alley, despite the fact that I don't generally read political novels. After a $41 million judgement against a chemical company by a Mississippi jury, the company's ruthless CEO decides the best way to overturn this lawsuit is to change the make-up of the Mississippi Supreme court, which, like many state Supreme Courts is elected. Though, as always, Grisham's characters are a little too much from central-casting, I love the bright light he shines on how easy it is to corrupt the process in low-information elections and just how much can be at stake. There's a clear and important political lesson in a typically fun to read Grisham thriller.
Raw Shark Texts by Stephen Hall *** 1/2 This novel, in which the main character tries to protect himself from a Ludovician, "a purely conceptual fish" is much more self-consciously literary and post-modern than most books I read, but I loved it. The first-person voice of Eric Sanderson is irresistable as he tells his bizarre narrative involving letters written to his present self from his past self before his memory was devoured by a metaphysical shark. Definitely weirder than most books I've read, but like any great novel, it always kept me wondering what happens next.
How to Read the Bible by James Kugel*** 1/2 My third straight book with God (at least implicitly) in the title. I already wrote a long blog post on this one, so I'll borrow from that... Kugel summarizes modern biblical scholarship on the entire Old Testament. Kugel explains the books of the bible within the original contexts in which they were created, and most importantly, explicitly lays out the very different assumptions upon which the Bible has been understood through most of its history (e.g., God does not contradict himself, The Bible is full of hidden meanings that belie the stated meaning, etc.). We learn that modern scholars have found that the language of the Covenant between God and Israel is remarkably similar to pre-existing covenants between early Middle-Eastern rulers and their vassal states. Likewise, we find how the odd story of Jacob and Esau can be explained by relations between the tribes thought to have descended from these brothers. What was most interesting to me was the aspects of the Old Testament already staring me in the face that I-- like most people-- had simply been oblivious to. The God of Genesis, the God who gives the Ten Commandments is quite clearly conceived of as fixed in a particular time and place. He moves around. He is neither omniscient of omnipresent. Yet, later conceptions within the Bible and our current Jewish and Christian conceptions certainly hold God to be omni-present and all-knowing. Among the other aspects of the bible that believers are used to overlooking is the fact that the Old Testament is simply rife with contradictions that really cannot be logically explained (not that many have not tried). The Bible says the Passover meal should be roasted, only to say that it should be boiled a few sentences later. All sorts of biblical stories are told in multiple versions (including the creation of the world, and the Ten Commandments), that are simply not reconcilable. The book can get a little redundant at times once you are on to Kugel's main themes. He clearly means to be quite comprehensive. I found it quite skimmable at parts without at all diminishing my enjoyment. I think this is a great book for any person, believer or not, who wants to understand the modern Judeo-Christian tradition.
The God or Animals by Aryn Kyle *** 1/2 Not my typical reading material, I was intrigued by the reviews of this coming-of-age novel of a 12-year old girl, Alice Winston, living on a run-down horse farm. This is a beautifully-written exploration of about a year in the life of one troubled family through the eyes of Alice. Plenty of stuff happens, but mostly you just want to keep reading because Kyle paints such fully-realized, interesting characters.
Calculating God by Robert Sawyer **** I just really loved the premise of this, the 2nd Sawyer book I've read. Basically, an alien from another world comes down to visit earth (the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, to be precise) and provides incontrovertible evidence for the existence of God. Turns out the alien world had mass extinctions at the exact same time Earth did and their life is based on DNA as well. The story is told by an engaging first-person narrator, Thomas Jericho, a paleontologist at the museum working with the visiting alien. Sawyer does a near flawless job mixing thought-provoking ideas, solig characterization, and a page-turning plot.
Bonk: the Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach ** 1/2 I absolutely loved Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Roach, so I was very much looking forward to this effort. Roach completely puts herself into her research (in this case, she and her husband actually were observed having sex for one of the studies she writes about) and writes with sly humor throughout. The truth is, though, despite the obviously provocative subject matter, the book proved to be neither nearly as humorous nor memorable as Stiff. I think it is good for a fun, light read, but given my earlier experience with Roach, I was left a bit disappointed.
Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis *** 1/2 After watching HBO's terrific John Adams miniseries, I realized I really need to know more about Revolutionary U.S. history and a friend recommended this as a highly readable place to start. He was right. Rather than approach history by chronology or historical figure, Ellis takes a look at a series of fascinating episodes that helped shape our new nation, e.g., the Burr-Hamilton duel, Adams and Jeffersons correspondence, the failed attempt to deal with slavery in the 1790's. The end result is a book that leaves you feeling much more educated about the American founding, but also wanting to learn more.
Ghost Map by Steven Johnson ** 1/2 I really enjoyed Mind Wide Open by Steven Johnson, so I was a bit disappointed in this much less entertaining effort. The basic premise is interesting enough, Johnson weaves together how the history of the modern city, modern sanitation, and the burgeoning field of public health face the deadly London cholera epidemic of 1854. Sadly, too, too many people died because most physicians still thought disease was caused by miasma-- bad air-- rather than microorganisms. It really is a pretty interesting story of how a few intrepid souls proved what was really going on and helped to get modern sanitation under way. However, this struck me as one of those books that would have made a much better long-form magazine article in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, etc. At about 300 pages, it was just too much and ended up feeling tedious.
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely **** This is a fun, highly readable, popularization of social science in the tradition of Malcolm Gladwell. Ariely writes about all sorts of absolutely fascinating experiments in behavioral economics (i.e., using psychology, which actually works to explain economic decision-making, rather than traditional economic theory, which doesn't). I've been telling everybody I know about the fascinating experiments in this book and suspect that I will for years to come. A couple examples, offer a cheap chocolate for $.01 and better chocolate for $.31 and people strongly choose the better chocolate for only $.30 more. Now, just change 1 cent, and offer the two chocolate for free and $.30 and all of a sudden everybody wants the cheap chocolate. The power of "free." I also really love the experiment where people actually prefer the taste of beer with balsamic vinegar in it in a blind tasting, but hate it when they know vinegar is in there. Not only is the book full of all these great experiments, Ariely writes in a highly personal and very engaging style. I honestly would have to wonder about the person who did not like this book.
The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman *** After the tour-de-force that was The Subtle Knife, I could not help but be disappointed by the conclusion to the His Dark Materials trilogy. The book was equally as entertaining as the Golden Compass and certainly provided a rich and satisfying conclusion to the series, but it lacked the amazing, thought-provoking ideas that made me love the second book in this series so much. On the whole, though, I would strongly recommend the trilogy to any fan of science fiction or fantasy.
Overtreated by Shannon Brownlee *** 1/2 In this fascinating book, journalist Shannon Brownlee makes a compelling case that a major problem with American medicine is not too little treatment, but too much treatment. As I've definitely learned from all my children's medical issues, medicine is just as much an art as a science. Doctors perform treatments and prescribe medications all the time without any science to actually back it up. This costs a lot of wasted money, and actually hurts health comes when it comes at the expense of a proven treatment. (One thing I really love about Alex's neurologist is that he readily admits the lack of science and evidence behind various medical treatments). Brownleee expertly details how hosptials, pharmaceutical companies, medical device manufacturers, and others all place emphasis not on making patients healthier, but on providing more treatment for more profit. You can read a nice summary of her core arguments in this Washington Monthly article.
Without End by Ken Follett **** This book was
nearly as enjoyable as it was immense (almost 1000 pages). Follet
wonderfully recreates life in 14th century England in a hugely
compelling melodrama. The plot lays it on a little thick at
times, but the historical detail is fascinating, most of the characters
are interesting and have depth, and the story costantly has you
wondering and caring about what happens next. Long as this book
was, I was quite sad for it to be over, as it is a rare treat to be
able to enter a different world and be so entertained night after night.
Germs, Bad Germs by Jessica Snyder Sachs **** I
absolutely loved this book about the role that bacteria-- both the good
and bad-- play in human lives. I actually stayed up late, several
nights in a row reading a book about bacteria. My favorite
factoid from the book is that for every one cell of your body with your
own DNA, you also have 10 cells that are bacteria. For me, the
great insight from this book is that human beings are essentially an
complex ecosystem. Your proper health and good functioning
depends not just upon you, yourself, but also upon the myriad forms of
bacteria we have co-evolved with over thousands of years that have
become essential to how we live. In addition, Sachs
examines all the bad bacteria, why the problem of resistance just keeps
getting worse, and then when you are ready to give up hope, explores
the amazing new strategies scientists are coming up with to fight the
worst diseases. A terrific book.
Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman **** As I mentioned
earlier, I enjoyed, but was underwhelmed by Pullman's The Golden Compass, the first novel
in the "His Dark Materials" trilogy. I had wondered what all the
fuss was about. In short, this. I was just blown away by The Subtle Knife. Like all
three books in the trilogy, the story was intriguing and fast-paced,
what sets this book apart was the amazing power of the ideas, from both
religion and quantum physcis, that Pullman brings to bear on his
multi-universe hopping characters. Several times, I stopped
reading and just stared open-mouthed thinking about certain ideas and
plot twists in the novel. I would place this among the best
sci-fi fantasy books I have ever read.
by Randomness by Nassim Taleb *** Taleb tackles one of my
favorite non-fiction topics, the amazing fallibility of human reasoning
in a fresh and interesting way. As you may know, humans are
wonderfully-skilled pattern-finders. The downside of this is that
we see patterns all over the place, even when what we are really seeing
is just random noise. Though, focusing mostly on the financial
trading markets he knows best, Taleb gives examples from many areas of
life to show the many ways in which we make mistakes because we are
"fooled by randomness." More than most books in this genre,
Taleb injects his personal experiences and unique voice into the text,
which I think really enhances the readability. It's no
Freakonomics, but it is an interesting and thought-provoking
by Robert Sawyer *** In this near-future science fiction
novel, technology has created the ability for a "rollback," the ability
to turn back the aging process and turn an elderly person into a
biological 25-year old. When an alien civilization send a second
contact to earth, a philanthropist pays for the super-expensive
rollback treatment for Sarah Halifax, the 87 year-old scientist who
figured out the message of the first contact to try and figure out this
new message. Her husband Don gets the treatment as well upon
Sarah's insistence, but in a great bit of irony, only Don's rollback
"takes." More than anything, the book is a thoughtful examination
of what it might be like to essentially get a second chance at
adulthood after already living a full life. Combine that with an
intiguing story on contact with alien civilization, and it makes for a
thought-provoking and entertaining read.
Road by Cormac McCarthy **** I was absolutely blown away
by this book. Easily this most affecting book I have read this
year, and probably one of my favorite novels ever. I'd been long
hesitant to read McCarthy after an aborted attempt to read Blood
Meridian many years ago. I found McCarthy's minimalistic style
off-putting. However, married to this story of a father and son
simply trying to survive on the road in a post-apocalyptic United
States, McCarthy's style was perfect and absolutely beautiful. I
marveled at the poetry of the prose while I relentlessly turned the
pages to find out what happened next. The central portrait of the
father-son relationship struck me as dead-on and a truly amazing
portrait of father-son love. I could so imagine so many of the
things the boy said coming straight out of David's mouth (the father
was much braver and more industrious than I could ever be). I
suspect this book is especially resonant for parents, but I really
could not recommend it more highly for anyone.
for Everyone by David
Sloan Wilson *** Wilson delivers a reasonably engaging attempt
to popularize evolutionary theory and document just how widespread and
useful evolutionary principles are in our daily lives. This was
an interesting book, but for someone used to reading science books for
the intelligent lay person, I was a little disappointed. Wilson
really does mean evolution for everyone,
and resultantly, this book was a little more dumbed down and pedantic
than science books I'm used to reading. It is a good explanation
of evolutionary theory and its value, but for somebody who has already
read a lot of such things elsewhere, it was of limited value.
Golden Compass by Philip
Pullman *** With all the hype surrounding the end of Harry
Potter, I read a lot of reviews that suggested that Pullman's "His Dark
Materials" trilogy was the superior and more sophisticated modern
classic of children's literature. At least based on the first
entry, I beg to differ. Pullman has a great central conceit--
humans have daemons, animals which exist outside their body, but are
essentially one with them. These daemons essentially represent
the soul. The story of our pre-teen heroine, Lyra Belaqua, and
the mystery of just what the evil Catholic Church is up with children
and their daemons is quite engaging, but I was actually a little
disappointed based on all the great things I had read about this
Terror by Dan Simmons ***
In this fantastical historical fiction, Simmons recreates an imagined
fate of an 1840's British expedition to find a Northwest Passage
through the Arctic. All we know for sure, is that Sir Francis
Crozier and two ships departed on their arctic mission and that they
spent at least some time trapped in the ice over succeeding years, and
that other than a few found remnants, they were never heard from
again. Simmons wonderfully recreates what it must be like to be
trapped in the frozen Artic for years at a time and then ups the ante
by throwing in an element of supernatural terror that somehow does not
detract from the terrific historical realism. The book is long,
coming in at near 800 pages, and though in some ways I might have
preferred it to be shorter, the very length of the book contributes to
the reader becoming completely enveloped in the never-ending winter and
ongoing trials that face the characters. This book is certainly
not for everybody, but as someone who has always enjoyed non-fiction
tales of frozen adventure, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan **** Pollan deconstructs our modern food-industrial complex and all that is wrong with it in this tour-de-force or reporting/personal food memoir. Pollan looks at the "big organic" food industry, modern sustainable farming, do it yourself (i.e., hunting and gathering), and most memorably, an an amazing section about how corn is truly at the heart of all processed food. Pollan weaves together smart journalism, science, and personal anecdote in a terrific and thought-provoking narrative.
Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and
Corruption in a Smal Texas Town by Nate Blakeslee ***
Not necessarily an amazing book, but certainly an amazing (and
amazingly disturbing) story. Basically, one incredibly corrupt
(and obviously unqualified to anybody who bothered to look) undercover
cop, Tom Coleman, sent dozens of Tulia's Black citizens to jail for
dozens of years on cocaine charges that created out of whole
cloth. This being small town Texas (not too far from more former
home of Lubbock, actually) all the white citizens of the town were all
too ready to believe the absolutely ridiculous tales that Coleman told
and send their law-abiding Black neighbors to jail for decades.
An amazing story of all that is wrong with the drug war, the abuse of
police and prosecutorial power, and people's inane willingness to
believe that the police and prosecutors are always right, no matter how
outrageous their claims.
End of Story by Peter
Abrahams *** I liked Oblivion
(next review) so much that I took the highly unusual step and
went out and jumped right into another Peter Abrahams book. End of Story is an entertaining
mystery/thriller about a young woman who falls for one of the highly
unusual convicts she teaches creative writing to at a NY state prison,
and the trouble that ensues. It was hard to live up to Oblivion-- and it didn't-- but it
was certainly plenty entertaining and confirmed my intention to read
more Abrahams in the future.
Oblivion by Peter Abrahams
**** Oblivion tells
the story of a detective, Nick Petrov, who suffers a brain hemorrhage
and retrograde amnesia just as he is on the verge of solving a
confusing case. So, basically he needs to go back and figure out
what he had already figured out as he continues to learn new
information about the case. Far from being a conventional
mystery/thriller, Abrahams paints wonderfully vivid characters and the
novel has an immensely humorous (very dark humor, mind you) streak as
Nick tries to deal with the aftermath of his brain injury.
Certainly the best mystery/thriller I have read in years.
Harry Potter and the Deathly
Hallows by JK Rowling *** 1/2 What can I say about
Harry Potter that hasn't been said. How about this-- Deathly
Hallows is a worthy and satisfying conclusion to the amazing series,
but now Rowling's best (okay, that's probably been said). The
book does, however, provide further evidence for my theory that once
certain authors really strike it big, editors, etc., are afraid to tell
them when their books are too long. I think some of the preceding
works legitimately needed their 600+ page length, but I think this
would have actually been a better work of fiction at about 150 pages
shorter. Without giving too much away, I'll also say that I think
the book lost something in not following the basic and familiar
structure of the previous six.
Better: A Surgeon's Notes on
Performance by Atul Gawande *** Gawande, like
Groopman (two reviews below) writes for the New Yorker as well as practicing
medicine. He's not quite the writer Groopman is, but this was
still an enjoyable and thought-provoking book about the practice of
modern medicine. It was not quite as coherent as could be,
reading largely like the accumulation of New Yorker essays that it
essentially is, but, they're really good essays.
Mundi by Justina Robson
** 1/2 When I first read this book, I might have been
inclined to give it 3 full stars, but given that sixth months later
when I'm writing this, there's just nothing about it that sticks, I'm
thinking 2 1/2. I think this is a pretty good example of science
fiction where the ideas are better than the story. It really is a
pretty cool idea about experimental software that can alter the human
mind. Obviously, various governments and other entities would
like to unlock its potential for no good. It was an enjoyable
enough book, but although not a struggle to finish, I really wanted to
like it more than I did.
Doctors Think by Jerome
Groopman *** 1/2 This was a terrific book that details all
the psychological biases that doctors are especially prone to that lead
then to deliver very suboptimal medical care. As someone with a
great interest in psychological biases, I found it especially
interesting to see how all these play out in the field of
medicine. Likewise, given my greater experience than I would like
with medical professionals (largely due to Alex's condition), it was
quite thought-provoking to think about his care. Besides being a
practicing physician, Groopman
writes for the New Yorker, so
he really knows what he's doing. His own personal tale with a
dysfunctional medical system was particularly compelling.
Honestly, anybody who ever has to visit their doctor for more than just
a routine physical should read this book.
Next by Michael Crichton
** I'm normally a pretty
big Michael Crichton fan because I love the way he weaves science into
his page-turner plots. Alas, Crichton was really mailing it on this
one. Basically, it seems that he was intrigued by the most
cutting-edge biological science and rather than creating a compelling
narrative, there are a series of very loosely connected subplots that
border on the ridiculous, i.e., the humanzee boy raised with a family
that goes to school. I don't doubt that there might be some
intriguing and scary trans-genic science, but to suggest that a
humanzee would be as smart as a human and as strong as a chimp, etc.,
is just silly.
Blind Side by Michael Lewis *** This book is ostensibly about the evolution of the game of football and how there has come to be such a premium on the gigantic, yet incredibly quick and athletic modern Left Tackle. With this as the basic frame, the considerable majority of the book is actually the story of a singe left tackle, Michael Oher (pronounced "oar"), a high school kid with superhuman size and gifts, but about the worst family situation imaginable. Oher is basically adopted by a rich, white, family on the other side of Memphis where he attends a small private Christian school that is completely worlds apart from his home in West Memphis. Given his amazing physical gifts, Oher is afforded opportunities most Black kids from the wrong side of the tracks in Memphis would never get, but it a great story to see how, with the help of caring and dedicated people, he truly makes the most of these opportunities. For now, Oher seems to be on track to be a successful and rich left tackle in the NFL someday, but this book cannot help make you wonder about all those other Michael Oher's left behind because they did not have athletic gifts.
The Innocent Man by John Grisham **** As depressing as Courtroom 302 was about our justice system, Grisham's foray into non-fiction was much, much more so. Grisham tells the tale of how a down-and-out, mentally-ill, alcoholic, former local baseball hero (successful middle-class working people generally don't get falsely accused of murder), Ron Williamson, was completely railroaded into a murder conviction and spent a decade on death row before finally being vindicated by DNA evidence. The justice system completely failed Ron Williamson over and over as people bent on his conviction somehow managed to amazingly look over the compelling evidence pointing to the actual killer. Not at all a typical Grisham novel, but I found this real-life story of injustice to be can't-put-it-down reading and a scathing critique of our justice system. I've long opposed the death penalty because it is so painfully obvious that it just does not work right and we are constantly putting innocent people on death row. This book actually made me want to do something about it.
Courtroom 302 by Steve Borgida **** Borgida had a great idea to understand our justice system: spend an entire year chronicling every aspect of our justice system from the confines of a single courtroom in Cook County (Chicago) Illinois, from the judge, to the juries, to the prosecutors, to the defense lawyers, to the defendants. The end result is a wonderfully readable book that lays bare the many flaws in our justice system. Sure it is a cliche that justice is for the rich, but the actual stories contained herein show exactly how and why this is the case. Likewise, we see firsthand the failure of the war on drugs. What was most depressing was how generally good people would take actions which would lead to an unjust outcome. My favorite example was the judge who accepted the expert psychological testimony that the defendant was competent to stand trial, but quite cavalierly tossed aside expert psychological testimony that would suggest the defendant was not responsible for the crime. As engaging and readable a study of justice (and injustice) and America that I have ever come across.
Self Made Man by Norah Vincent *** 1/2 Vincent, a lesbian journalist, spent about 18 months undercover as a man in various guises to try and come to a greater understanding of the role of gender in modern American society. As a man, "Ned," she joins a bowling league, spends time at a monastery, hangs out at strip clubs, and even goes on a series of dates with women. Though her insights could be a little cliche and stereotpyed at times, i.e., men need to emote more, on the whole I was quite intrigued by her observations on the state of gender and gender relations in our society. What I found most interesting was how much of gender is conveyed simply in how one carries oneself. Though Vincent had an elaborate disguise including fake stubble, padded shoulders, wrapped breasts, etc., after a while she discovered that simply assuming a masculine attitude in gender neutral clothes was all it really took to pass as a man. It was also fascinating to read what this constant lying to people about the very essence of her being ended up doing to Vincent's psyche. Finally, Vincent's engaging and confessional style make this quite an enjoyable reading experience.
Night fall by Nelson Demille *** Here Demille revives John Corey, his wise-cracking, smart ass NYPD detective from Plum Island and The Lion's Game. Now working on an FBI task force in Summer 2001, Corey reopens his own investigation into TWA 800, the flight that crashed just off Long Island with 230 people aboard in 1996. Though some 200 witnesses are sure they say a missile hit the jet, the official explanation remains that an electrical problem in the fuel tanks caused the explosion and crash that doomed the plane.
Old Man's War by John Scalzi ** 1/2 This science fiction tale has a pretty intriguing premise: in humanity's interstellar wars to protect its colonies the soldiers are all old people. They volunteer at age 75 to join the Colonial Defense Force and face a likely death in exchange for a new and improved body. The story is engagingly told in the first person by John Perry as he adjusts to his new body, goes through training, and a variety of battles that make him question just what humanity is up to. I did enjoy this book as I read it, but it did strike me as pretty derivative and did not leave much of an impression when it was over.
Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick *** Though Philbrick starts with the Mayflower voyage, this is really the story of the founding of the New England colonies. The first part of the book is really Philbrick at his best, telling the tale of a perilous and troubled voyage that was not that much better when they found land. This was most like the earlier Philbrick book that I read and loved-- In the Heart of the Sea. The story then goes on to trace the relationship up and down relationship between the struggling colonies and the Indians, that ultimately erupted in some pretty nasty violence in King Philip's War in the 1670's. I really enjoyed Philbrick's co-equal focus on the Indian side of things and I was definitely rooting for their doomed efforts. Though an enjoyable and interesting book, I felt like it covered too much time and too many people and places to make the emotional connection with the historical ficugres that made In the Heart of the Sea so compelling. That said, my dad, who only reads a few books a year, read this is a couple days, so that's saying a lot for it.
Spin by Robert Charles Wilson **** This is the best Science Fiction novel I have read in quite some time. At heart, I really loved the basic premise: some completely non-understood alien entity has placed a time discontinuity (referred to as "The Spin") around the earth which causes time on the earth to move at a rate millions times slower than the rest of the Universe. I loved the unfolding mystery of exactly how humans figured out just what was going on with the Spin and its implications for human life (most prominently, the Sun is, of course, supposed to basically swallow up the earth within a few billion years). Though, it was the ideas that really appealed to me, that's never enough for a truly engaging novel, and though the characters may not have quite been as well-realized as the basic premise, they were plenty good enough to make this one of my favorite novels within the past couples years.
King of Lies by John Hart *** 1/2 Set in present day Salisbury, North Carolina, Hart's novel tells the story of lawywer, Jackson Workman "Work" Pickens, who struggles mightily with the legacy his domineering lawyer father has left upon him-- not least of which is the fact that Work is the chief suspect in his murder. I really loved Work's first-person narrative voice as his life seemed to slide out of control and found the setting and characters to be quite realistically portrayed. I thought it did not have quite the depth as the best Scott Turow, to which it has been compared, but it certainly was a very enjoyable and highly worthwhile read.
Saturday by Ian McEwan *** Saturday presents a single day in the life of a middle-aged neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne, in contemporary London. The events of Perowne's day are not so important in themselves, but rather for how they allow McEwan to explore themes of science vs. art, the meaning of the Iraq war, the potentially life-change consequences of chance occurrences, etc. This book was far from perfect, and at times became far too much a typical suspense thriller for me, but I really enjoyed seeing the world through Perowne's perspective. And when it comes to writing flat out great prose, McEwan has few peers.
Manhunt: the 12 Chase for Lincoln's Killer by James Swanson*** 1/2 Pretty much what the title says. A great historical drama, told in great detail with an essentially novel-like narrative style. I had some vague recollection that John Wilkes Booth was part of some larger plot to assassinate several government officials and had evaded capture for some time, but this vivid recounting of the planning, execution, and escape made for riveting reading.
Beasts of No Nation by Udozinma Uwealla ** 1/2 This was a pretty amazing book, that I'm glad I read, but did not exactly enjoy reading. It is the first person account (an amazing effort for the 23-year old Nigerian-born, American-educated author) of a child soldier forced to take up arms in one of the many nameless and horrific struggles in modern Africa. Over the course of time, our narrator changes from a confused and frightened child into a cold and hardened, but still child-like killer. Not exactly fun reading, but it was an amazing portrait of what this life must be like.
Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov ** 1/2 I am a huge fan of Lolita, which I read many years ago, and after a little poking around on the internet decided that this would be the next Nabokov I would read. Nabokov's masterful writing (in this much earlier work) is on display here as well, but I struggled to have an emotional connection to this novel fully populated by unlikable characters (not that Humbert Humbert was likable, but he was a hugely entertaining first person narrator). Set in the 1930's Berlin film world, it tells the story of a middle-aged critic, Albinus, who leaves his family for Margot, a cold-hearted, ambitious, and untalented starlet half his age. The joke is on Albinus (and the book is most entertaining) when Margot and her lover, whom Albinus believes to be gay, spend the latter part of the book enjoying themselves at Albinus' expense.
Pigtopia by Kitty Fitzgerald *** 1/2 A realistic fable/fairy tale in which a disfigured man/boy, Jack Plum, find his only happiness shared with his beloved pigs in his secret underground "pig palace." Jack brings a sweet, good-natured fourteen year-old girl, Holly Lock, to share in the joy of his pigs. The two develop a wonderful friendship and Jack knows meaningful human companionship for the first time in many years. Alas, once Jack has let the outside world into his sealed off Pigtopia, difficulties naturally ensue. A beautiful and poignant story told in a unique prose style.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy **** The best novel I have ever read. To me, Tolstoy is a genius in a class by himself. Tolstoy has an amazing ability to tell us about his extraordinarily realistic characters in ways that illuminate not just the character, but the human condition in general. This tale of adultery, society, humanity, in late 19th century Russia is highly readable and completely engrossing. Unlike a lot of great authors, Tolstoy is thoroughly accessible, which I think really adds to his greatness.
The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford *** I was inspired to read this after enjoying Freakonomics so much. This book was less intriguing, but ultimately more memorable, as it showed the way in which fundamental economic concepts exist throughout every day life in an interesting and engaging manner. If you were not an economics major but are at all interested in the economic workings of the modern world, this is well worth reading.
The Ha-Ha by Dave King *** 1/2 Due to a severe head injury suffered in the Vietnam war, the narrator in this story is entirely unable to express himself except through rudimentary gestures (and, the narration of this novel). Treated as an imbecile, Howard is an essentially normal man trapped almost entirely in his own world both because of his injury and his unwillingness to face the difficulties of most human interaction. When Howard ends up unexpectedly taking care of his long-ago ex-girlfriends nine-year old for a summer, it opens up his world to both joy and sorrow he had long ago given up on. A very enjoyable, very emotionally engaging novel.
The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood by Jay Epstein *** A great explanation of the business side of modern Hollywood. Wonder why so many bad movies get made or why studios spend so much on marketing or how the financial relationship between studios and movie theaters works? Its all here. A bit too in-depth at times, but lots of great information that has really shaped the way I look at mass entertainment since I read the book. Cliff-Notes version: It's all about the DVD.
Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner **** A terrifically interesting book. The adjective that best describes it to me is Glad-wellian (as in Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink and The Tipping Point). Levitt asks very intriguing and off-beat social science questions (not necessarily economics, as the name implies) that nobody else has thought to ask and brings his prodigious analytical powers to bear in finding the answers to these questions. Levitt addresses everything from why so many drug dealers live with their moms, to how to prove cheating on standardized tests in school, to what you name your children says about your socio-economic status. Dubner helps Levitt present his research in a thoroughly engaging and readable manner.
Collapse by Jared Diamond *** 1/2 Following his Pullitzer-prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond presents another tour-de-force of big ideas presented through fascinating case studies. Here Diamond traces the social and economic collapse of a number of human societies (e.g., Easter Island, Maya) and traces these collapses to the society's overexploitation of environmental resources. This is very much a cautionary tale for a modern Western society, but Diamond also presents positive examples where societies have seen the self-destruction in their ways and formed sustainable relationships with the environment. Diamond's gift is to take such complex and far-reaching subject matter and weave a readable and compelling narrative.
Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince by J.K Rowling **** JK Rowling is simply a master story-teller. The way in which she just turns out one amazing book after another is a wonder. As always, she does a spot-on job of portraying wonderfully realistic characters in this fantastical magical world. I found the portrayal of the now 16-year old Harry and friends and their surging hormones and emotions as they try and deal with the ever-increasing danger around them to be first rate. Everyone has noted how the series has become more mature and darker over time, but I was still surprised by just how adult this novel struck me. Children's literature, this is not. If you are not on the Harry Potter bandwagon, you are simply missing out on one of the great reading pleasures, period.
In Harm's Way by Doug Stanton *** 1/2 This book sat on my "to be read" list for four years--it's been a while since I've been into the harrowing tale at sea genre--until I saw the amazing story of the USS Indianapolis recounted in "Jaws" over the 4th of July weekend and I realized that I really need to read this book. My only regret is that I waited so long. The USS Indianapolis was the last American ship sunk during WW II in July 1945. Due to an amazing series of Naval bureaucratic screw-ups, nobody realized that the ship had been sunk. Of the original 900 or so men tossed alive into the sea, only 321 managed to survive four days of the elements and relentless shark attacks. An amazing tale of courage and survival.
Skinny Dip by Carl Hiaasen ** Other than an abridged book-on-tape of Sick Puppy, this was by first experience with Hiaasen. While there were certainly clever elements of satire and humor in this story of a woman's vendetta against her loser husband after he thinks her dead from tossing her off a cruise ship, I just really thought it should be funnier. I enjoyed it as I read it, but I strongly suspect Hiaasen has done better.
Death of an Ordinary Man by Glen Duncan ** 1/2 This book is narrated from beyond the grave by the title character, Nathan Clark. Unlike some superficially similar novels (i.e., The Lovely Bones) the whole narration takes place within a day (not counting generous flashbacks). Nathan awakes to his funeral not sure why he died and not sure why one of his children isn't there. Duncan does some wonderfully realistic portrayals of a sad and broken family, but unfortunately, too many plot points were either cliche or forced.
Monsters of God by David Quammen *** In this work, fabulous nature writer David Quammen (Song of the Dodo, one of my favorites read before I started compiling a list of favorites) focuses on four remaining man-eating, desperately-endangered, alpha predators left in the wild: the lions of India, crocodiles of Australia, Carpathian Bears of Romania, and the Siberian Tiger of Russia. Quammen explores the complex relationship between these fearsome predators and the human societies that live among them and sometimes still killed by them. As with all his books, this is filled with fascinating facts about the natural and human world, but it did lack the narrative momentum and engagement of the other Quammen books I have read.
Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon *** 1/2 This engaging and unusual novel is narrated by a 15-year old boy with autism. What starts out as Christopher's Boone's quest to solve the mystery of the murdered poodle across the street turns into a journey of discovery about his own troubled family. Haddon does a brilliant job of realistically presenting the tale from this highly unique point of view. Christopher's voice sucked me in from the first page and didn't let go.
Dress your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris *** Like Sedaris' other books, this presents snippets of his life in short, funny, and heart-felt vignettes. Though I did not laugh out loud, like I did several times when reading Naked, I still really enjoyed Sedaris' humor and the great little stories and character studies from his life. I can see how Sedaris is not for everybody, but I found this to be a quick and enjoyable read.
Overdosed America by John Abramson **** I loved this book. It is an incredibly damning account of how doctors and the entire institution of medical research have essentially sold their soul to the pharmaceutical industry. The result: lower quality, more expensive health care for Americans. Did you know that cholesterol-lowering drugs (statins) have never proven effective in reducing mortality among persons who have not had a heart attack? Did you know that drugs for osteoporosis have never shown to be effective at reducing hip fractures? Did you know that the drug companies knew for years about the problems with Cox-2 inhibitors, but essentially withheld the key data? Do you have allergies and wonder why Claritin is a joke? I truly believe that any American who has interactions with the health care system in this country (i.e., everyone) would greatly benefit from reading this book.
State of Fear by Michael Crichton ** 1/2 I always enjoy the way Crichton mixes science in with the action in his novels, but this entirely implausible screed against global warming science goes too far. Crichton makes some important points about being skeptical of accepted wisdom and I think he makes a nice argument that both the media and government benefit by keeping citizens in a "state of fear," but to suggest that environmentalists and corporations are equally responsible for environmental problems, is pretty much ludicrous on its face. Oh, yeah, the plot. A shadowy group of eco-extremists (seemingly modeled on the Earth Liberation Front) stage a serious of cataclysmic events to shock the world into paying attention to global warming, since deep down, they know it is contradicted by the science. Our intrepid heroes jet all across the world to try and prevent these catastrophes while learning that global warming is a myth. In terms of plot and pacing, this is as good as any Crichton, and it did make a great read for an flight, but Crichton can, and has done, a lot better. [And if you don't think that global warming is real, check out http://www.realclimate.org/index.php?p=74 or http://www.brookings.edu/crichtoncritique]
Human Capital by Stephen Amidon *** 1/2 An engaging novel of suburban family drama in which a fading real estate broker, Drew Hagel, gets caught over his head in a hedge fund run by the father of his teenage daughter's ex-boyfriend. Things complicate further when his daughter's new boyfriend is involved in a tragic accident. In addition to a well-paced plot that keeps building towards the conclusion, Amidon provides a variety of fully-fleshed characters that provide new and interesting perspectives on the story. Amidon juggles a lot in this novel, but he makes it all come together in a very satisfying way.
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
**** Gladwell's The Tipping
Point remains one of my favorite works of non-fiction in recent
years and here Gladwell does it again. Having benefited from a New Yorker subscription for the
past year it is clear to me that Gladwell has a talent for making just
about anything interesting. Here Gladwell focuses on the power of
our intuitive thinking-- rapid snap judgments-- as an incredibly
useful, and all-too-often overlooked guide for our behavior. What
Gladwell does so masterfully and brilliantly is weave research and
anecdotes from amazingly disparate areas-- e.g., psychology, consumer
research, autism, car sales, indie-recording artists, military
simulations, you get the picture-- into a fascinating and coherent
framework. This is one of those great books that is both hard to
put down and changes the way you look at the world. It's going
right to the all-time favorite list along with The Tipping Point.
am Charlotte Simmons by
Tom Wolfe *** Even though by all accounts this work
is far from Wolfe's best (my only point of comparison is A Man in Full, one of my all-time
favorites), a sub-par Wolfe still makes for a highly entertaining
read. The titular Charlotte Simmons is basically a little country
bumpkin from the mountains of North Carolina who goes off to the
prestigious, private Dupont Univeristy (a fictional creation that seems
to be an amalgam of much of the best and worst of the Ivies, Stanford,
and Duke). Rather than finding the rich intellectual life she was
expecting, Charlotte is shocked (!) to discover the drunken,
sex-obsessed debauchery that we all know is rampant on college
campuses. Having graduated from Duke not all that long ago (at
least to me) many of Wolfe's observations and insights struck me as
dead-on. There are some misses in his attempts to portray college
life, but more often than not, Wolfe is accurate and funny.
Nonetheless, the plot (largely focusing on Charlotte's developing
social life) is entertaining, but just not all that compelling. I
really did enjoy reading this book, but with A Man in Full being my only other
experience with Wolfe, I just expected a lot more.
Whiteout by Ken Follett *** 1/2 Ken Follet's latest thriller about terrorists stealing an ebola-like virus grabs you from the first page and does not let go. Sure, some of the characters are stock bad guys and the plotting is a little contrived at times, but Follett manages to keep you on the edge of your seat for 400 pages.
The Dream of Scipio by Iain
Pears ** 1/2 This book has a rather interesting premise--
three interwoven historical novellas set in the same part of Provence
during three periods of tribulation-- the fifth century fall of the
Roman Empire, the 14th century Black Death, and the 20th century
occupation by the Nazis. The book was interesting on an
intellectual level for its rich historical detail and thought-provoking
way for dealing with issues of action and inaction in times of societal
and moral crisis, but it never really engaged me in the characters on
an emotional level.
Semiautomatic by Robert Reuland ** A
sort-of legal thriller that wants to be oh-so-much more by focusing
more on the troubled lives and troubled relationship of the prosecutors
and the not by-the-numbers crime. I really wanted to like this
book, but ultimately it struck me as less than the sum of its
parts. Sure, it had its good moments, but writing this review
about six weeks after reading it, I have found it eminently
Light on Snow by Anita Shreve **** A widower, Robert Dillon, and his 12-year old daughter, Nicky, find a newborn baby abandoned in the snow near their remote New Hampshire farm house. A few days later, the mother of the baby (since delivered to the hospital) ends up at their home and her story slowly unfolds, along with the backstory of how Robert and Nicky came to be in this place. This book just flew by for me like I was reading Michael Crichton, yet it was full of rich characters and emotional depth-- quite a combination. Highly recommended.
Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection by Deborah Blum *** Do you know about the wire monkey experiments, in which psychologist Harlow separated infant rhesus macaques were separated from their mothers and left to be "raised" by either a wire "mother" or a cloth "mother" covered in soft cloth? Conducted in the 1950's these experiments helped to teach the world about the importance of touch, affection, and love. I had learned about these fascinating and disturbing experiments (here's a nice summary) in undergraduate psychology classes, but had never fully appreciate how groundbreaking and revolutionary these experiments were at the time. One of the best features of the book is how Blum sets the historical context and explains that before these experiments, the consensus of both the medical and psychological communities was that humans simply needed food and shelter and that was it. The importance of love, affection, affiliation for human health was almost completely unappreciated. This book is a biography of Harlow-- I could have used a little less of his life and a little more on the powerful ideas, but nonetheless, this was a fascinating and eye-opening book.
Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon **** Set in 1950's Spain, our young protagonist, Daniel Sempere, finds a wonderful and mysterious novel, The Shadow of the Wind, in Barcelona's Cemetery of Forgotten book. Daniel becomes obsessed with learning all he can about the author, Julian Carax, whose remaining books are mysteriously being burned across Europe. Along the way, Daniel runs across some pretty interesting and some pretty unsavory characters, finds forbidden love, and oddly finds that his experiences are oddly parallel to those of Carax. This book may be a little too melodramatic for some, but I loved its rich, intricate plotting, the drama, the memorable characters, and the many twists and turns. Just a wonderfully entertaining tale.
Shopgirl: A Novella by Steve Martin *** 1/2 Not only can Steve Martin act, he's quite a good writer, too. This is a rather simple and brief story in which the titular shopgirl, Mirabelle, a young glove saleswoman at Nieman Marcus in LA, faces up to the failing dreams that her life has become and experiences romance with a young slacker and a wealthy older man just looking for a good time. The plot is not particularly unique or compelling, but what is, is Martin's psychological portraits of his characters, which are rich and full of humor. His writing style actually reminded me a lot of Jonathan Franzen's Corrections (a very good thing in my book). If you are looking for something short and entertaining, but with some psychological depth, this is a fine book.
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton *** 1/2 Wharton's classic paints a portrait of a sad, decaying marriage. Ethan Frome is trapped in a hopeless, loveless marriage to his hypochondriac wife, Zeena, when his spirits are lifted by the arrival of his wife's sweet young cousin, Mattie. Of course, in rural 19th century New England, the choices that Ethan, a subsistence farmer, and Mattie can make are rather circumscribed. Personally, I was not entirely satisfied with the somewhat credibility-straining resolution to the dilemma, but this book stuck with me for its brilliant character portrayals and the way Wharton deals with themes of marriage and the individual's responsibility to self versus society.
The Man in my Basement by Walter Moseley *** 1/2 This is the first book I have read by Moseley, well known for his Easy Rawlins series. This short, unusual, provocative novel tells the tale of a successful white NYC businessman, Anniston Bennett, who pays Black perennial loser, Charles Blakely to be a prisoner in his basement for a summer. Just what Bennett is up to remains a mystery to be discovered by both Blakely and the reader. The dialogues between the two, the racial undercurrents, and the changing power dynamics make for great reading.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach **** This fascinating, extremely readable work of non-fiction, tells us the unknown stories behind human cadavers. Roach examines things such as gross anatomy lab, body farms, human composting, organ donation, crash tests, ammunitions tests-- anything that can be and is done with a dead body. The details themselves are fascinating and Roach's irreverent style lent an enjoyable lightness to what could have been a dark and disturbing subject. One of the most unusual and one of the best books I have read in the past year.
Angels and Demons by Dan Brown *** 1/2 Wow. That Dan Brown sure knows how to write a book you cannot put down. Perhaps not quite as intellectually intriguing, but for sheer thrills, this is certainly the equal of The Da Vinci Code. Of course, I've also got a soft spot for any book where a college professor is the hero. Here, Harvard Religion professor Robert Langdon races against the clock to save Vatican City from destruction by an evil cult of the past. I found the last part of the book a little over the top and Brown could use a little work on character development, but this book was a great pleasure to read.
Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky *** It somehow feels wrong to give Dostoevsky only 3 stars, but this book was a tough, hard slog (to paraphrase Donald Rumseld). I would not have finished it were it not only 125 pages. The first part of the book is the misanthropic rant of a middle-aged underground man. It was thought-provoking at times, but at others just plain hard to read. The second part of the book, is an autobiographic narrative of same underground man as a young man focusing on two extended episodes. This portion redeemed the book for me as it showcased Dostoevsky's masterful ability to create a character utterly realistic and wicked, pathetic, and sympathetic all at the same time. As searing and memorable a portrait of a character as I have read, but still a book I am somewhat ambivalent about.
Servants of the Map: Stories by Andrea Barrett *** Andrea Barrett is an excellent writer. She draws incredibly realistic, lifelike, interesting characters in each of the six stories in this collection. The stories themselves, however, at times left something to be desired. I just don't think I'm much for short story collections, but I suspect that those who are would really enjoy this book.
Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand *** 1/2 By now, presumably everybody knows the story of Seabiscuit, the great racehorse of the 1930's. Hillenbrand expertly weaves the tales of Seabiscuit, his trainer Tom Smith, and his owner Charles Howard, and how the three of them worked together to overcome the odds and create an American legend. I was not particularly enthusiastic about reading this book as I felt I already knew enough about the story, but Hillenbrand does a great job of creating a compelling narrative that sucks you write in.
Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane *** 1/2 A bit of a departure for Lehane, as this book is set in the 1950's at an island facility where the criminally insane, where two U.S. Marshalls, Tedyy Daniels and Chuck Aule, try to discern the whereabouts of a missing patient. Their investigations increasingly reveal that nothing, not even our protagonists, is as it seems. Lehane does a terrific job of keeping you guessing at every turn and wanting to turn pages right to the shocking ending that makes you reconsider the whole book. Truly masterfully written.
Footprints of God by
Greg Iles ***1/2 Wow, talk about a can't put it down
book. This thriller about a super-secret government project to
create artificial intelligence had me hooked from the very first page.
I found myself wishing I did not have to go to work so that I
could just read this book. In addition to an unrelenting plot,
the book dealt in an engaging manner with ideas such as the nature of
God and the nature of a potentially omnipotent artificial intelligence.
It does not quite get four stars, though, as too many of the
villains just came straight from central casting.
Mind Wide Open by Stephen
Johnson *** 1/2 Johnson takes us on a fascinating first-person ride
of the latest in neuroscience and how we can use it to better
understand ourselves. Johnson submits himself to neurofeedback,
functional MRIs, etc., and uses these experiences to both educate the
reader about the fascinating developments in cutting edge neuroscience
as well as to extrapolate for their meaning to our 21st century lives.
Unlike some other things I have read about neurosciences, this
was very, very accessible, yet did not feel dumbed down.
Eye of the Albatross
by Carl Safina *** 1/2 Safina is the author of one of my
all-time favorite non-fiction works, Song for the Blue Ocean
. Here, Safina uses an ostensibly smaller canvas, focusing
on the magnificent Laysan Albatross as a symbol for the amazing
interconnectedness among all the globe's environment. The
albatross is really a jumping off point from which Safina tells
fascinating tales of sharks, seals, other migratory birds, and
commercial fishermen. Safina writes beautifully about the natural
world and makes a compelling case that we need to do much, much more to
protect it without being preachy. I do not think I shall ever
forget the image he describes of a mother albatross, on one of the
remotest islands in the entire world, unable to regurgitate food to
feed its hungry chick, due to a plastic toothbrush stuck in its
throat. We are all connected.
Havana Room by Colin Harrison *** 1/2 After his life crumbles around him from an incredibly unfortunate accident involving a young child, real estate attorney Bill Wyeth becomes involved in a mysterious and possibly shady Long Island land deal. What follows is a rather engaging thriller as Wyeth tries to solve a number of mysteries surrounding the deal and extricate himself from the difficult situations that ensue. What sets this far above standard thrillers is richly and fully realized characters at the heart of the story.
Opening Skinner's Box: Great
Psychological Experiments in the 20th Century by Laura Slater ****
I have always been fascinating by many of the great experiments
in modern psychology: from Milgram's obedience to authority Harry
Harlow's wire monkeys. Slater tells the stories behind these and
other famous and not so famous experiments that have profoundly shaped
our understanding of the human condition. At first, I was a
little taken aback by the way Slater interjected herself in the
narratives, but I came to really appreciate her unique first-person
perspective. Great reading for anyone at all interested in
The Lovely Bones by
Alice Sebold **** Well, I guess I am just on the bandwagon on
this one. I found tale of a murdered girl who watches her
family's subsequent struggles from Heaven to be very engaging,
beautifully told, and an altogether a terrific book.
Girls: A Novel by Frederick
Busch *** This book is a well-written literary detective
story in which campus security guard, Jack, tries to deal with the
untimely death of his infant daughter and the crumbling of his marriage
by throwing himself into an investigation of a missing 14-year old
girl. The search for the missing girl keeps the plot moving
forward, but what really makes this book good reading is the compelling
and touching portrait of Jack and his wife, Franny, as they try to deal
with the grief of their deceased child and try and find some way to
keep their marriage together.
Atonement by Ian McEwan ***
1/2 Set in Great Britain in 1935, 1940 (and Northern
France), and 1999, McEwan tells a haunting tale of a single powerful
lie and its haunting consequences for all involved, especially the
thirteen-year old girl, Briony Tallis, whose lie puts the novel's
events in motion. McEwan writes masterfully about the emotional
impact on Briony and the victims of her lie. The narrative was at
times a little slow, but McEwan's extraordinary command of the English
language and insight into the human heart make this a book well-worth
Souls in the Great Machine
by Sean McMullen ** 1/2 I was really disappointed in
this book set in a post-Apocalyptic Australia almost 2000 years hence.
McMullen works with some great ideas of a society that creates a
computer out of humans and combines twentieth century with medieval
technology. Unfortunately, the lack of narrative coherence and
the fact that you feel like you really don't know the main characters
after spending nearly 500 pages with them, make this book a
Fast Food Nation by Eric
Schlosser **** This is great non-fiction that keeps
you as engrossed as a thrilling novel. Schlosser explores the rise of
fast-food in America over the past half decade and the many ways it has
both remade and reflects our culture. At first, I thought this basic
premise was a bit of stretch, but after reading portraits of the beef
industry, slaughterhouses, french-fry factories, behind-the-scenes at
McDonalds and Little Caesar's, etc., I really came to appreciate the
enormous impact of fast food in America's (and increasingly, global)
culture. In light of the recent Mad Cow Disease scare, Schlosser's
indictment of the meat-packing industry is especially timely and
damning. I'm not about to become a vegetarian, but I do not think I'll
ever look at a McDonald's or an ordinary hamburger quite the same again.
The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin ** 1/2 This book by contemporary Russian, Akunin, has received a lot of critical praise, but I was ultimately a bit disappointed. Akunin weaves a relatively intriguing mystery and does a great job re-creating late 19th century Russia, but the utterly implausible resolution and unnecessarily sensationalistic final ending left me quite disappointed.
Absolutely American by David Lipsky **** Rolling Stone reporter Lipsky set out to profile the contemporary West Point student and ended up spending four-years with unprecedented access to the USMA class of 2002. The students and faculty (that is, Army officers) that Lipsky profiles are some of the most memorable figures I've ever read about-- all the more impressive as these are real human beings whose job it is to defend our country. Lipsky's portrait of a classic American institution undergoing great changes, especially post 9-11, and how it effects all involved is utterly compelling. Just a great book.
The Fall by Simon Mawer *** Mawer's Mendel's Dwarf (see my favorite's list ) remains one of my favorite novels of recent years, so I am always a little disappointed when his other efforts don't quite measure up. Nonetheless, like all Mawer's fiction, this is a beautifully written. Here, Mawer traces the friendship and rivalry, in love and climbing, of two mountain-climbing companions over the course of their youth, from the perspective of the survivor when his more adept friend suffers the tragedy to which the title refers. Not the most fast-paced narrative, but Mawer writes beautifully and wonderfully realistically about events and characters.
Passage by Connie Willis
*** Great premise, so-so execution. The great premise, Dr.
Richard Wright comes up with a way to simulate Near Death Experiences
(NDE's) in the lab, and is aided in his study by psychologist Joanna
Lander, who has spent her career trying to find out the truth about the
mysterious NDE's. Joanna herself repeatedly participates as a
subject and much of the book is really kind of a mystery into trying to
solve what Joanna's familiar, but surprising, NDE must mean. As I
think back, it really is an interesting and emotionally powerful story.
Unfortunately, Willis is in desperate need of an editor as the
book really bogs down with irrelevant (and poorly drawn) characters and
subplots. This was a good 600 page book-- it could have been a
great 350-400 page book.
Behind Bars: Surviving Prison by Jeffrey Ross and Stephen Richards ** What purports to be an insider's guide (from an ex-con turned criminology professor), unfortunately ends up being a mundane and not particularly enlightening read. It did not seem to really educate me all that much about life in prison and if I were to be sentenced to jail, I'm not even sure much of the advice would be all that helpful.
Lies and the Lying Liars who tell them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right by Al Franken *** 1/2 Though obviously a partisan book with a clear ideological bent, for those who pay attention to such things, it is really not that big a surprise that the likes of Ann Coulter, Bill o'Reilly, and Sean Hannity lie extensively in their efforts at ideological victory, and more notably, self promotion. I must admit to being surprised by the sheer boldness of their baldfaced lies. Easy targets on the right aside, what I found most compelling about the book is the devastating critique of mainstream media for distorting news out of what essentially amounts to laziness. Why search for facts yourself and check sources when you can just repeat what Sean Hannity said? Its also worth mentioning that this book is really quite funny. Though I'm no big fan of Stuart Smalley, it is worth noting that Franken was a writer for Saturday Night Live back when the show was actually funny.
The Coffee Traderby David
Liss *** I absolutely loved Liss' debut novel, A
Conspiracy of Paper (see my
favorites list ), but here Liss uses a similar formula with
interesting, but clearly inferior results. The story is set in
17th century Amsterdam amongst the new and growing commodities markets.
As you might have guessed by the title, the intrigue in this tale
focuses around a scheme to control the brand new coffee market.
As with Conspiracy of Paper, Liss does a great job
evoking a unique time and place, explaining developing features of
capitalism, and intertwining the struggles of Judaism in western
Europe. On its own, this is an interesting and well-told tale of
religious and economic deception and conspiracy, it is just a little
hard not to compare it to its far-superior predecessor.
Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev *** 1/2 In this engaging novel, Turgenev distinguishes himself from the other 19th century Russian greats, Tolstoy and Dostoevesky, be being succint. The story focuses on Bazarov, a young medical student the prototypical nihilist, and his wannabe protege, Arkaday. The story examines the conflict between generations as Bazarov whole-heartedly rejects everything the previous generation (and of course, his father) values. Arkady, meanwhile does his best to match his mentor in nihilism, but the strong bonds between he and his father and uncle would ultimately make his own nihilism more of a posture than a true conviction. Though many accuse the book of being plotless, the point of the book is the characters, their relationships, and the unique social context of 19th century Russia. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. One word of caution, if you have the Penguin Classics edition, do not read the translator's note before the book-- it ruins a major plot point.
Samaritan by Richard Price **** On the surface, Price presents a highly engaging crime drama told in interwoven chronologies about the brutal beating of former Hollywood screen-writer, now volunteer HS writing teacher, Ray Mitchell. Below the surface, Price paints a compelling psychological portrait of Ray, the compulsively "Good Samaritan" of the title and the efforts of childhood acquaintance and now retiring cop, Nerese Ammons, who is attempting to discover, without Ray's cooperation, why he was beaten to within inches of his life. Price also evokes a brilliant sense of place in the run-down, working-class NY suburb of Dempsey, NJ. The characters, the narrative, and the building drama are all first-rate. Highly recommended.
Meet John Trow by Thomas Dyja *** 1/2 A thoroughly original and engaging novel about a man, Stephen Armour, suffering a mid-life crisis in both job and family who turns to an alternate life as a Civil War re-enactor. Stephen completely embraces the identity of his Civil War alter-ego, John Trow, and finds that this gives him a new sense of duty and responsibility that brings about dramatic improvements in his life at home and at work. Unfortunately, there may be more to John Trow than initially meets the eye, and Stephen finds himself unable to separate his own identity from Trow's-- leading to potentially dangerous confrontations. Dyja paints a disturbingly real and darkly comic vision of one man's identity crisis and recovery.
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown **** This has to be one of the single most can't-put-it-down books I've ever read. The story of a religious history professor trying to solve a bizarre murder with dramatic implications for the understanding the past and future of Christianity was fascinating, highly educational, and extremely entertaining. The characterizations could have been a little better, but otherwise an absolutely great book.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling **** The best Harry Potter yet. Rowling does a wonderful job of portraying the angst-filled, hormone-ridden existence of now 15-year old Harry Potter. The plot is, as always, nearly impossible to put down for its nearly 900 pages. Although I think this is the best-written Harry Potter book, I still think that book 4 remains the most enjoyable. Nonetheless, Rowling keeps finding a way to get even better. I just hope it is not three years before the next one.
Dawn by Octavia Butler *** I realized that this is somewhat different from most science fiction I read, as the focus was substantially upon an alien race, as opposed to humans. In the rather inventive story, the Oankali have taken the last of human survivors after nuclear war into their ship. There, they prepare them for a return to Earth, which they will re-populate as a new hybrid species, combined with Oankali DNA. The book is quite an interesting discourse on what makes us human and how humans might react in such an extreme situation.
Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift *** Most everyone is familiar with Gulliver's visit to the infamous and tiny Lilluputians, but Gulliver's travels is a four-part work in which Gulliver also visits lands of Giants, flying islands, and horses. Swift's satire of the foibles of human nature and human government can be dead-on, but the story can also really drag at times. One of the most interesting features of the book, is that Gulliver becomes an increasingly unreliable and unlikable narrator as his adventures progress, and at the end is an extreme misanthrope. Though not always fun, I'm glad I read it, and I'll never look at Yahoo.com quite the same again.
Darwin's Blade by Dan Simmons ** 1/2 I am a big fan of Dan Simmons' science fiction Hyperion series (see below), so I was curious and hopeful as I approached his work in a pure thriller. Alas, whereas Simmon's other work captivated me with their originality and vision, Darwin's Blade struck me as strictly thriller-by-numbers. It was well-plotted, fast-paced, and at times hard to put down, but also at times amazingly lacking in originality and horribly cliched. I do think this would make a good airplane book, but I was quite disappointed as Simmons is capable of so much more.
Last Breath: Tales from the
Limits of Human Endurance by Peter Stark *** An
intriguing series of 11 short stories, in which Stark desribes the
psychological and physical responses of the human body to extreme
stress. Rather than just a clinical/medical excursion, however,
Stark presents somewhat compelling strories in which fictional
characters face situations such as the bends, burial in an avalanche,
heat stroke, drowning, and hypothermia. I found the physiological
descriptions of what happens to the human body in these situations to
be fascinating. Unfortunately, fiction is not Stark's strong
suit, and the book suffers for it. Worth reading for the terrific
insight into the human body, but I could have done with a shorter
version minus very forgettable fictional characters.
Going up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation by Joseph Hallinan *** 1/2 A fascinating account of the modern big business of incarceration in America. Hallinan visits prisons the nation over and tells the stories of inmates, guards, wardens, local politicians, and businessmen, all of whom make our prison system what it is today. Turns out that modern prisons are largely public works projects to provide jobs in poor rural areas, e.g., upstate NY, rural Texas, to house big city criminals. We've reached the point where we have the perverse economic incentive to place more persons in prison. Hallinan is no apologist for criminals, but rather indicts a system in which check forgers are placed in supermax prisons because someone needs to fill the cells. Like the best non-fiction, Hallinan presents a series of compelling and highly readable stories, which grab the reader and place a human face on complex issues. An excellent book.
Base Instincts: What Makes Killers Kill by Jonathan Pincus, M.D. *** 1/2 What is it about certain people that leads them to kill others, from serial murderers like Ted Bundy, to seemingly everyday convenience store robbers, to Adolph Hitler? In this intriguing work, Pincus, a neurobiologist sets out a general theory to explain this most violent and destructive of human actions. In short, it comes down to a combination of being abused as a child, mental illness, and damage to the frontal lobe of the brain (controls inhibitions). Pincus presents a variety of case studies of very different murderers to demonstrate how this theory can apply across the board. The most disturbing aspects of this book are the amazingly evil and brutal forms of child abuse the eventual killers are subjected to. The most compelling lesson from this book-- if you want to stop murder, stop child abuse.
Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons **** This book is the amazing conclusion to what has to be one of the great science fiction sagas ever-written (Hyperion, Fall of Hyperion, Endymion--see reviews below). Simmons spends much of the first three books raising questions about religion, humanity, artificial intelligence, art, and more in the utterly compelling and fascinating universe he has created and finally reveals the satisfying answers in this rewarding conclusion. Even the answers he does not quite reveal leave you thinking. This book follows our protagonist, Raul Endymion, as he tries to help the sort-of messiah Aenea in her quest to overthrow the increasingly corrupt rule of the future Catholic church. Great characters, great plot, big ideas, fascinating science-- it has it all.
Prey by Michael Crichton ***1/2 This is Crichton's best effort since Jurassic Park , almost a decade ago. The cutting-edge science at the center of this novel is nanotechnology in combination with computer programming of emergent intelligence based on animal predator models. In an usual, but very effective, move for Crichton, the novel is told in the first person by an out-of-work computer programmer, Jack Forman, whose wife keeps acting stranger and stranger while working on a nanotech project at a mysterious biotechnology company. The gradually unfolding mystery and the dramatic action set at the biotech laboratory make for a page-turner of the first order. For me, the first person narrative style also put a little bit more of the human touch into this book than in many Crichton novels. Great reading.
The Good German by Joseph Kanon *** A great example of historical fiction in which Kanon expertly takes the reader into the world of immediate Post-WWII Berlin. The plot focuses on an American reporter, Jake, trying to find his pre-war lover, Lena, in the rubble, physical and personal, and geopolitical chaos of post-war Berlin. There is also a bit of mystery involving the mysterious death of an American soldier, which appears to be somehow related to Lena's missing husband. Throughout, the novel raises troubling questions about the nature of moral choices in uncertain and inhumane times. I loved the way that this book really made me think about complex moral issues. It falls a start short, though, as the plot moved a bit slow at times.
Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden *** The author of Blackhawk Down tells the story of how the U.S. special forces worked with the Colombian government to bring down the most powerful and ruthless druglord the world has ever known, Pablo Escobar. In the thorough and compelling detail familiar to readers of Blackhawk Down , Bowden describes how Escobar managed to terrorize an entire nation and the multi-year manhunt which eventually ended in his death.
Violence, Nudity, Adult Content: A Novel by Vince Passaro *** 1/2 A young lawyer , Will Riordan, faces two difficult cases-- an angry rape victim and a millionaire accused of murdering his wife and molesting his kids, meanwhile his marriage is falling apart and he's struggling to make partner. This book contains some legal thrills, but it is more a work of literary fiction in a legal context. Will's struggle to make sense of the relationships with his clients, his colleagues, his children, and his wife are what make this story very compelling reading.
Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold **** Set in the "Golden Age" of magic in the 1910's and 1920's, Carter Beats the Devil tells the highly entertaining tale of magician Charles Carter, who may or may not be involved in the death of President Warren Harding at his stage show. The book features great period detail of early 20th century San Francisco, mystery, magic, intrigue, adventure, and the invention of television to boot. A highly entertaining book on many levels.
We Wish to Inform you that
Tomorrow we will be Killed with our Families by Philip Gourevitch
*** 1/2 This book tells the story of the genocide in Rwanda
in 1994 as the world looked on and not only did nothing, but actively
helped the bad guys. One of the most powerful, depressing, and
disturbing books I have read. Though it was not exactly fun
reading, it is important reading to understand man's virtually
unlimited capacity for inhumanity towards his fellow man on the dawn of
the 21st century. After the Holocaust, the great powers of the
world said "never again," but when the inhabitants of a small, poor
African nation began systematically slaughtering a rival ethnic group,
the U.S. and Europe stood by-- stepping in only to provide
"humanitarian" aid to the perpetrators of the crime who fled the
country fearing retribution. Gourevitch expertly explores the
historical context of the genocide, the brutal events, the lack of a
world response, and the aftermath. This book is journalism at its
Nine Minutes Twenty Seconds by Gary Pomerantz *** In painstaking and dramatic detail, this book tells the story of the crash of Atlantic Southeast Airways flight 529 in August 1995. The title refer to the amount of time between the catastrophic engine failure and the crash landing in a field in Georgia. Pomerantz explores how the 29 passengers responded in that terrifying 9 minutes and how the survivors lives were forever impacted. What makes the book particularly interesting is the nagging question the reader faces throughout: "what would I do?"
Endymion by Dan Simmons *** 1/2 This is the third of four books in Simmon's Hyperion Cantos . This has to rank as one of the all-time great series in science fiction. Though I did not find this quite as good as the first two Hyperion books, that still places it ahead of 95% of all other science fiction. Simmons writes expertly plotted books with interesting, realistic characters. This book was a little less good than its Hyperion counterparts because it did not deal as much with the big ideas of the nature of humanity and intelligence in the absorbing way the earlier books did.
Mean Genes by Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan *** 1/2 This is a great idea for a book. It takes all the recent scientific study of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary biology and places it in a very reader-friendly practical context. Look at questions, such as why are certain people attractive? why do we use drugs? why do we crave foods that are bad for us? why do we cheat on our spouses? etc., and place them in the context of our evolutionary history. The authors argue that once we better understand these things, we can use this newfound knowledge to tame our animal instincts. A fascinating and useful book written in a very engaging style.
Mystic River by Dennis Lehane *** The first of Lehane's mystery/thriller novels not based on the detective combo of Kenzie and Gennaro. This novel traces the story of grown-up childhood friends all party to a tragic event which seems to tie back into the murder of one of the men's daughter. Although this book had a somewhat different setting and characters than Lehane's other novels, it all seemed too familiar to me. Nonetheless, the last 100 pages unreels in spectacular fashion as only Lehane can create.
The Jazz Bird by Craig Holden ** 1/2 This novel is actually based on real-life events in prohibition-era Cincinnati. The book centers around the murder of Imogene Remus (The Jazz Bird), by her prominent bootlegger husband, George Remus. The story moves back and forth through time to explore the history of Imogene and George and the events that led to the murder. In the present tense, Charlie Taft, son of the former president and prosecutor of the case against Remus runs up against Remus' cagey legal strategy the insanity plea. This is one of those books that should have been better than it is. It was an interesting story with a very interesting setting, but it lacked narrative momentum and depth of characterization.
Nekropolis by Maureen McHugh *** Set in Morocco in a not-to-distant future, Nekropolis focuses on the story of two unusal lovers. Hariba is a poor servant who essentially sells herself into slavery by becoming jessed-- a process where by she is neurologically altered to feel permanent loyalty to her owner. After her initial revulsion, she falls in love with another member of the household, Akhmim, a genenetically-engineered sort of human. The two run off together, but their troubles are not limited to evading the authorities. Hariba becomes ever sicker as a side effect of leaving the owner to whom she is jessed. Written in spare, elegant prose, McHugh raises questions about slavery, love, and the nature of humanity. Although definitely an enjoyable book, it somehow proved to be less than the sum of its parts for me.
The Second World War by John Keegan *** 1/2 Most everything you might want to know about WWII concisely presented in less than 600 well-written pages. I think that the book could have benefitted from a bit more of the political perspective and a little less of the sometimes obsessive details of particular battles. On the whole, though, a very readable and thorough overview of major aspects of the war.
Lying Awake by Mark Salzman *** This book has quite an interesting premise-- a contemplative nun who writes poetry while experiencing ecstatic visions discovers that her seeming closeness to God may be a result of epilepsy. It is an interesting story told in spare language an detail, yet I felt that it connected only on an intellectual level and not an emotional one.
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen **** Wow! Believe the hype. This is simply one of the best novels I have ever read. Though at its most basic level, it is just a family drama about two parents and their three children trying to make a variety of "corrections" in their lives, Franzen creates among the most vividly-realized characters I have ever read. Franzen captures human nature in all its greatness, frailty, cruelty, and most especially humor. Franzen's prose is brilliant and an utter joy to read, yet he never lets it get in the way of the story. I cannot say enough good things about this book.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte **** I was really not all that sure how much I would like this book and I got off to a slow start, but Jane Eyre (the person and the novel) totally won me over by the end. Evocatively told in the first person, Jane Eyre is raised in a loveless home and is sent off to a boarding school before becoming a governess in the employ of Edward Rochester. The relationship between Jane and Rochester forms the powerful center of the tale. A classis that truly deserves the name.
The Gospel of Judas by Simon Mawer **** This novel begins with a great premise-- biblical scholar Father Leo Newman is invited to study the newly found scroll of the Gospel of Judas, perhaps the earliest ever discovered Christian writing. Alas, what Leo discovers in this scroll shakes his faith in all he has ever believed in. Mawer deftly weaves in a tales of love and loss both for present (and future)-day Leo as well as an historical aside as to Leo's mother in WWII fascist Italy. Mawer writes as beautifully as an contemporary author of whom I am aware. One warning, the Gospel of Judas does play an important role in the novel, but it is not truly central, so be consider carefully if this is solely where your interest lies.
The Last Samurai by Helen Dewitt *** 1/2 Dewitt tells the tale of a single mom and her amazingly precocious son, Ludo, set in modern London. Both mother and son share an obsession with the classic film, "The Seven Samurai" and young Ludo essentially auditions seven disparate men to take upon the role of his (samurai) father. The first half of the novel, told from the point of view of the mother, focuses on the difficulties in trying to raise a six-year old who wants you to teach him Japanese and advanced mathematics. In the second half, a pre-teen Ludo details his quest to find an appropriate father figure. The book had a very interesting premise and was engaging reading, but was a bit too self-consciously literary in its style at times.
Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides **** This is the amazing true story of the rescue of 500 American POW's from a Japanese prison camp in the Philipines in 1945. Sides masterfully interweaves two parallel tales: the heart-rending, tragic story of the prisoners, the survivors of the Bataan death march, and the dramatic rescue at the hands of elite army rangers. An incredibly powerful story that shows both the depths of human evil and the heights of human triumph over adversity. Great reading.
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller *** 1/2 This science fiction classic begins 600 years after modern society has utterly destroyed itself through a global nuclear war and subsequent disintegration of society. A small group of monks of the Order of St. Leibowitz in the desert southwest attempt to save humanity's last precious tidbits of knowledge through their collection of "memorabilia." The efforts of these monks to preserve and restore knowledge serve as the centerpoint for what are essentially three novellas, each set 600 years ahead. Miller deftly weaves in themes of faith, knowledge, and most poignantly, a cynical and powerful view of human nature. A book that really leaves one thinking.
Camp Concentration by Thomas Disch *** This novel is presented as the diary of Louis Sacchetti, a poet and conscientious objector to a global nuclear war. Transferred to a top-secret government prison, Sacchetti is a human guinea pig for an experimental drug that results in extraordinary intelligence as well as death within months. It is an interesting and though-provoking tale, but it never quite rose to the level of page-turner for me. There is a rather dramatic surprise ending that in a sense seems absurd, but also forces the reader to reconsider much of the work
Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss *** 1/2 This novel is the fictional autobiography of Eng, one-half of the world-famous Siamese twins. The story takes the basic outlines of the twins' lives-- childhood in Siam, touring the nation as a circus act, settling in Wilkesboro, NC with sisters for wives and raising 21 children-- and presents a complex psychological portrait of what such a life might be like perpetually attached to another person. The narrative is entertaining, but Strauss' captivating prose and deft touch on issues of identity and unrequited love make it truly special.
Making the Terrible Twos Teffific by John Rosemond *** 1/2 As useful and interesting a book on parenting as I have read. Rosemond, author of a widely-synicated parenting column is often characterized as old-fashioned, but his common-sense approach struck me as combining the best of old-fashioned virtue with modern understanding of early childhood development. Chock full of helpful advice for parents of young children.
The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons **** A continuation, moreso than a sequel, to Simmon's Hyperion . Considerably different in character from his earlier book, the backdrop of this tale is an interstellar battle centered upon the planet Hyperion in which the ultimate fate of humanity hangs in the balance. This book was very edifying for it answered in fascinating ways many of the questions left lingering in Hyperion. As before, Simmons explores themes of artificical intelligence, poetry, and religion. The two novels together are as good a science fiction work as you'll find.
As Nature Made Him: the Boy who was Raised as a Girl by John Colapinto *** 1/2 For years scientists and feminists provided us with the story of a boy who was raised as a perfectly happy girl after an incredibly unfortunate and bizarre circumcision accident as an infant. Based on this single case, many argued that gender was an almost purely social construct with little biological basis. This book traces the story of that child and details the long-lost truth: at the age of 14, David Reimer rejected his medically-assigned female identity and chose to live as a man. This book portrays both David's incredible psychological struggle as well as the hubris of the medical profession that tried to use him as a guiniea pig. Fascinating reading.
Being Dead by Jim Crace *** 1/2 This highly unusual novel begins with the murder on the beach of a middle-aged couple and then proceeds both forward in time, as their bodies decay over several days before being discovered, and backward in time as we learn the history of how they came to be murdered on a forgotten beach. Crace's incredibly poetic prose complements wonderfully his meditations on love and death.
Fair Ball by Bob Costas*** In this book, sportcaster without peer, Bob Costas lays out his solutions for how to improve the game of baseball. His fundamental points deal with revenue sharing and a revised playoff system. Costas managed to convince me on all of his points. Enjoyable and thought-provoking reading for any baseball fan concerned about the state of the game.
Boilerplate Rhino by David Quammen *** 1/2 This is a collection of essays about the natural world, originally appearing in Outside magazine. I am not usually a fan of collected works, be the essays or short stories, but Quammen is such an engaging author that I heartily enjoyed this book. Quammen writes about themes as diverse as snake round-ups, the physics of falling cats, and Americans' unhealthy obsession with their lawns in a light-hearted, engaging, and always informative manner.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy **** Here it is, the reason I've posted so few book reviews over the past several months. It took me a long time to read this massive novel, but it was well worth the effort. Set in the first decade of 19th century Russia, this novel tells the story of several prominent Russian familieis against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. The central stories of these mailies are quite compelling and showcase Tolstoy's ability to describe characters as real and believable as any I have ever read. The war parts can be interesting as well, but too often bog down and take us away from the much more interesting stories. Though far from being a perfect novel, Tolstoy's frequent flahses of brilliance and insight into the human condition kept me happily reading.
Prayers for Rain by Dennis Lehane *** Like all 5 Lehane books I have now read, Prayers for Rain had a can't-put-it-down plot, interesting characters, and great dialogue, however it does not live up the standards of some earlier Lehane books. I found the plot to be a bit too implausible at times and I really am growing tired of the omniscient serial killer who is always one step ahead of eveyone else. Perhaps most disappointing, there was not nearly as much character development of our protoganists, Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, as in earlier works. This book was still far superioir to most other detective thiillers I've read, just not quite up to what I've come to expect from Dennis Lehane.
A Painted House by John Grisham *** 1/2 In this charming novel, Grisham seps away from his fast-paced legal thrillers to tell the story of a 7 year old growing up in 1950's rual Arkansas. The story gently unfolds from the perspective of 7-year old Luke Chandler. While there are dramtic events such as murders, affiars, and secredt births, the joys of this story lie in the well-drawn characterizations and evocative descriptions of another way of life. This book will likely be a disappointment to many Grisham fans, but I found its simple pleasures to be highly enjoyable.
Rock, Paper, Scissors by Steve Samuels *** I chose to read this political thriller after seeing virtually all positive reviews at Amazon. Although an entertaining and fast-paced thriller which was great for keeping me occupied on flights to Chicago and back, I really did not think this book was all that special. The story centers on Sarah Peterson, a Secret Service Agent who uncovers a kidnapping conspiracy at the highest level of government that may relate to the death of her CIA agent father nearly 40 years ago. Sarah Peterson is a well-drawn and interesting character, but most of the other figures in the novel were rather two-dimensional and not paricularly interesting. This was a perfectly entertaining thriller, but I was really hoping for something a little more.
Newjack by Ted Conover **** Conover wanted to write an in-depth report on the New York State prison system. When he was refused access for the story, he decided to become a prison guard for a year to get the story. The book begins with his experiences in correctional officer boot camp and then details his many months within the infamous Sing-Sing prison. Conover covers many aspects of prison life and shows us that in many ways the guards are as much prisoners as the inmates. Conover shows us the humanity of the inmates he befriends without letting us forget the brutality of their crimes. This was an incredibly enjoyable, insightful, and eye-opening book.
Burden of Proof by Scott Turow ** 1/2 Simply not up to the standards of other Turow novels I have read. Here Turow focuses on Sandy Stern, the brilliant defense attorney from Presumed Innocent . The novel begins with the suicide of Stern's wife and follows Sandy as he uncovers an intricate web of familial and legal deceit which ultimately explain the death of his wife. The book was well-plotted, but I thought it got too bogged down trying to flesh out Stern. It could have used a good editing job.
Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson *** Tells the tale of a devastating hurricane which destroyed much of Galveston, Texas in1900. Larson personalizes the tale by focusing on the nascent technology of weather prediction, and the National Weather Bureau's man in Galveston, Isaac Cline. The details of the storm and the destruction it wrought were simply amazing. Though it was nice to have a personal face on events, I felt that Larson tried to hard to make this Isaac's storm-- he was but one man against a hurricane. Nonethless, well worth reading.
The Brethren by John Grisham *** I thought this story of three former judges (the "brethren") running an extortion scam from a federal prison really started out great. Grisham did an excellent job of interweaving this plot with a secondary tale of the CIA's eerily plausible efforts to choose the next president. Alas, when all comes together towards the end, the story really loses its narrative momentum. It was an enjoyable book, but I wished tha last part had lived up to the great promise of the first 3/4's of the book.
Code to Zero by Ken Follett *** This book starts out with a great premise-- a man wakes up in a train station in Washington, DC, in 1958, with no idea of who he is. The story is quite compelling as Luke slowly uncovers the mystery of his identity and finds that it is somehow tied to an important satellite launch in Florida scheduled to happen within a day. The ending was a bit formulaic at times, but I cared about the characters and Follet left me always wondering what would happen next. A fine thriller.
Saint Augustine by Gary Wills *** 1/2 In this slim volume, Wills takes a fresh and revisionist look at Saint Augustine, one of the most influential and misunderstood Christian thinkers in history. I had learned of Augustine as a former hedonist who upon his conversion completely condemned human sexuality and took a number of other harsh positions. This book showed a much more compassionate, human, side of Augustine. Given the power of Augustine's ideas, the reading is not always easy, and Wills clearly assumes at least a rudimentary familiarity with Augustine.
Hyperion by Dan Simmons *** 1/2 An excellent science fiction drama in which seven "pilgrims" tell their tales as they head out on a desperate pilgrimage to fulfill personal goals as well as to hopefully prevent an impending interstellar war. Each of these tales is a first-rate, emotionally compelling short story. Simmons weaves in themes of religion, poetry, and identity in masterful ways. Well worth reading, but be warned, this book does not really have a conventional ending or resolution. It is best considered as half of a two part work, the second being The Fall of Hyperion. Of course, I which I had known this before I got to the end and was quite disappointed.
Diamond Dogs by Alan Watt *** 1/2 This complelling and well-written novel tells the story of a high school football star who accidentally kills another student, only to have the act covered up by his father, the town sheriff. As the web of their lies slowly closes around both son and father, the story becomes a fascinating psychological exploration of the relationship between these two men. Watt's first person narration seems to wonderfully capture the inner life of a high school jock who heretofore had never thought of others and was always getting away with things due to popularity and athletic prowess. A fine book on many levels.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling **** First, it may seem superfluous for me to review a Harry Potter book, but too many adults I've talked to are skeptical and in need of convincing. Secondly, you may be wondering why no previous Harry Potter reviews. I listened to the first two on tape (for which I do not provide reviews-- I think a proper evaluation requires the actual reading) and I didn't want to start with the review of the third. This book was just so good, however, that I felt compelled to place it on my recommended reading list. Though much of the writing is intended to appeal to children, I have to borrow the best quotation I've read on the book from Salon.Com's Charles Taylor , "if you read books to be swept into a story, to make an emotional investment in its characters and to leave something of yourself behind in it, then the distinction made by calling it children's literature may be a meaningless one." That said, give Harry Potter a try.
I'm a Stranger Here Myself by Bill Bryson *** Bryson grew up in America, spent his adulthood in England, and then returned to America as a middle-aged family man. This book is a collection of his columns on American life written for an British newspaper. Bryson's unique perspective and engaging wit make for many funny and eye-opening tales on life in America.
Papal Sin by Gary Wills *** 1/2 No, not murder, aldultery, and intrigue, rather Wills writes about how the modern papacy is guilty of hubris and arrogance. Through examining contemporary doctrines on priestly celibacy, female priesthood, contraception, etc., Wills shows how popes have been ignoring bishops, theologians, and the laity in unilateral attempts to make church doctrine. In the vain attempt to show their infallibility, the modern popes have ignored logic, reason, and their ecclesiastical advisors. Though a harsh criticism, Wills presents a vision for how the church should be that builds on centuries of tradition of bishops and laity coming together.
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell **** I was originally only planning on giving this book 3 1/2 stars, but after finding a way too work this book into virtually every conversation I've had over the past week, I decided it surely deserves the maximum rating. Gladwell describes how small changes how seemingly small changes can make huge differences in creating a variety of social epidemics-- from smoking, to Hush Puppies shoes, to Blues Clues. He also describes the unique types of persons necessary to create social epidemics. This was a simply fascinating book-- full of interesting anecdotes to amuse, entertain, (and in my case, annoy), your friends.
Blue Angel by Francine Prose ** 1/2 I found this story of a English professor at a small liberal arts college facing a midlife crisis to be all too familiar. The tale focuses on Ted Swenson, a creative writing professor living off the fame of his long-ago first novel who can no longer seem to write. He's inspired in the form of Angela Argo, a talented, troubled sophomore in his creative writing class who is writing a novel about a student having an affair with her teacher. It's not long before Swenson's love of Angela's writing and her unchecked ambition have the two of them into bed togehter, ultimately sending Swenson's life into a somewhat predictable talespin. I suppose for someone into the literary world, Prose's satirical take on creative writing courses and the literary world may be quite entertaining. I found her skewering of small liberal arts college and their politically correct sexual harrassment policies to be a bit dated and derivative. For a truly hilarious campus novel, you cannot be Richard Russo's The Straight Man.
The Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick *** 1/2 Philbrick tells the amazing tale of a whaleship sunk by a whale, which inspired Melville's Moby Dick. The whaleship Essex was rammed by a massive sperm whale in the middle of the Pacific ocean, forcing the crew onto three small whale boats as their ship went down. What followed was nearly three harrowing months of dehydration, starvation, and ultimately cannabilism on the open ocean before a handful of the crew were miraculously rescued. Philbrick tells the tale quite well, with great realism and suspense. He also expertly provides the context of the Nantucket whaling industry in the 19th century. A fascinating, inspiring, and disturbing tale.
A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe *** 1/2 Wolfe's bestseller from a couple years back is an enormously entertaining satirical, yet all too real take on America at the close of the 20th century. Set in Atlanta, the paths of bankrupt real estate entrpreneur, Charlie Croker, and escaped felon, Conrad Hensley, are inexorably drawn together to the book's climax. Along the way, their stories hilariously touch upon themes of capitalism run amok, race relations, sex relations, crime and punishment, aging, trophy wives, and ancient Stoic philosphy. I'm not a great fan of satire, but Wolfe does it so adroitly with such well-drawn and entertaining characters that I found this book hard to put down.
A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss **** Liss presents a fascinating tale of murder, religion, and crime and punishment set amidst the nascent financial markets of 18th century England. The narrator, Benjamin Weaver, is a former boxer and a Jew in very Christian London, who tries to solve the murder of his father, a stock-trader. Weaver's story is an intricate tale of murder and shady financial dealings where little is as it seems. From his writing style, to the characters, to the many descriptive details, Liss does a masterful job transporting the reader back to this unique time and place. This is an excellent book on many levels.
Mr. White's Confession by Robert Clark *** 1/2 This book is a very different kind of mystery. The protoganist, Herbert White, suffers from a memory disorder and keeps meticulous journals of his daily life so as not to lose his past. Through the pages of Mr. White's "confession" Clark provides a fascinating account into White's internal life and makes the reader question the meanings of past and memory. Interpersed is an account of the down-on-his-luck detective, Wesley Horner, who imprisons White for murder, yet remains unsure as to whether White is the true killer. The real mystery here is not about a murder, but about the nature of past, memory, truth, and freedom. A very thought-provoking, well-written novel.
Amsterdam by Ian McEwan ** Although I greatly enjoyed Enduring Love by McEwan, I found this novel to be quite disappointing. Amersterdam tells the tale of how the death of a woman sends three friends of the deceased, a politician, a journalist, and a composer, into a bizarre spiral of changing relationships. The ending of the book struck me as so absurd as to be laughable. This book has received high praise elsewhere, so maybe it's just me, but I will not be recommending this book to anyone.
The Lion's Game by Nelson DeMille *** A sort-of sequel to DeMille's extremely entertaining Plum Island , the Lion's Game likewise follows retired NYPD detective John Corey on the trail of a killer. Here, the relentlessly smart-ass Corey and his FBI partner and love-interest, Kate Mayfield, are on the trail of a brilliant Libyan assassin, Assad Khalil. Corey's efforts to track down the killer are alternated with chapters describing how Khalil ruthlessly hunts down his American victims. I had been great looking forward to this book as Corey's narration had me laughing out loud every few pages in Plum Island, yet this time Corey's smart-ass schtick grew a little old. Additionally, the narration of Khalil's killing spree was in need of a good editing job. At almost 700 pages, this book was a very entertaining novel. At 400 pages, it would have been a riveting, can't-put-it-down thirller.
Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee*** 1/2 In this engaging short novel, winner of Great Britain's Booker Prize, a disgraced college professor goes to live with his adult daughter in rural South Africa. The rape of his daughter by the relative of a family friend leaves both of them to deal with issues of disgrace, guilt, and the past, in a dramatically changing country. Coetzee's elegant prose manages to say more in a sentence than most authors can do with a paragraph. Although the book was short, Coetzee still provided a genuine sense of character and place. The story proves to be both narratively compelling and thought-provoking.
Blackhawk Down by Mark Bowden **** Wow. I can't say enough great things about this book: riveting, fasciniating, compelling, horrifiying. This is the true story of 99 American soldiers pinned down overnight in an October 1993 battle in Mogadishu, Somalia, facing thousands of angry, well-armed Somalis. It is just a tremendous tale of modern combat and the variety of human response to such difficult and inhuman conditions.
Defending the Cavewoman by Harold Klawans *** 1/2 A fascinating collection of vignettes of Klawan's neuorology patients and what their unusual diseases can tell us about the human brain. I've been reading books about both the brain and evolution for years, and Klawans has some truly fascinating insights into how human brains may have evolved that I've never read elsewhere. Most of the case studies he presents illustrate his points well and are interesting stories of the bizarre maladies that can befall us.
The Missing World by Margot Livesy *** 1/2 This book has a great premise. Hazel, a young London woman awakens from a stroke missing the last three years of memory, including the fact that she had recently broken-up with, Jonathan, her longtime boyfriend. Jonathan, naturally, sees himself presented with a miraculous second chance of which he plans to take full advantage by returning her to their former home and keeping her a virtual hostage. Meanwhile, an expatriate American roofer and an out-of-work actress become gradually entangled in Hazel's plight. Livesey, masterfully switches point of view between characters to slowly reveal more of the true nature of the characters and the secrets of their past. Excellent reading.
Darkness Take My Hand by Dennis Lehane *** Dark is right. I had very mixed feelings about this book. Lehane is a great mystery/detective writer who gives all his books a can't-put-it-down plot, strong characterizations, and a real sense of moral ambiguity. This was the exceptionally dark and grisly tale of a serial killer attempting to seek revenge for mysterious happening twenty years prior. While having all the positive features of Lehane's books mentioned above, I felt that this one too often fell prey to fairly standard serial killer movie/book conventions. Nonetheless, I did have a hard time putting it down and would certainly recommend it.
Chaos Theory by Gary Krist *** A very entertaining thriller in which Washington DC high school kids find themselves mixed up in a complicated criminal plot when there attempt to buy drugs on a street corner goes bad. In addition to a compulsively readable plot and above average characterizations, the book presents a very interesting portrait of the city of Washington in decay and turmoil.
Headlong by Michael Frayn *** A rathern unusual and entertaining novel in which a British philosophy professor discovers what he believes to be a missing masterwork of Bruegel in the home of his boorish country neighbor. The tale traces the professor's comic attempts to swindle the painting away from the owner without him ever realizing the true value. The story also features many (mostly) interesting digressions into art and life in the 16th century Netherlands. Certainly worth reading for any art lover.
A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane *** The first in Lehane's highly entertaining series about blue-collar Boston detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro. Here the detectives try and make their way through a tangled web of state politics and urban gang warfare. Not as good as Gone Baby Gone , which I read out of order, but an entertaining page-turner well worth reading.
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem **** One of the best books I have read in a long time. On the surface this is a fairly simple detective story, but it is narrated by the unforgettable Lionel Essrog, a orphan and sufferer of Tourrete's syndrome. Lionel's Tourette's allows Lethem to show-off his brilliant writing style and command of language. An extremely enjoyable book on many levels.
Personal Injuries by Scott Turow **** An extremely entertaining and thought-provoking legal drama as personal-injury lawyer, Robbie Feaver, is forced by the FBI to help catch corrupt county judges. What sets this apart from most legal fiction, is extremely interesting and realistic characters that one really cares about. The difficult choices and circumstances these individuals face, rather than courtroom theatrics, are the heart of this excellent novel.
Timeline by Michael Crichton *** Scholars of medieval Europe are sent back to 14th century France using a quantum physics time machine in order to help return one of their own to the present day. Most of the tale is a series of fairly adventures set among a skirmish in the 100 years war. As always, Crichton educates his reader, in this case about quantum physics as well as about life in 14th century Europe. Not quite as plausible or quite as entertaining as other Crichton novels, yet he's such a good storyteller, I still had a hard time putting it down.
I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb **** A compelling and captivating tale of two identical twins, one of whom is schizophrenic, the other not. The story traces the impact of this highly unusual fraternal relationship on the "normal" twin, Dominic, who must come to grips with his similarities and differences with his brother and how they have been shaped by a dark family history. A wonderful book.
The Defense by D. W. Buffa ** This is supposed to be a "deep" legal thriller that due to all sorts of philosophy within. Rather than truly engaging the ideas of Socrates and others, however, they are almost thrown in at random to provide the illusion of an intellectual depth which is really not there. Otherwise a pretty standard, and admittedly enjoyable legal thriller, but I was expecting a lot more. Furthermore, the rather important plot twist at the end was a little too predictable and utterly implausible.
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink *** 1/2 This short novel starts out as the tale of an interesting romance between a 15 year-old boy and an older woman in post-war Germany. She suddenly disappears from his life, only to reemerge years later on trial for crimes as a concentration camp guard. Now a young law student observing the trial, the young man must come to terms with her past, their relationship, and the secret she will not share. Although perhaps a bit too spare, the book was a very thought-provoking reflection on the nature of morality and forgiveness.
Plum Island by Nelson Demille *** 1/2 A smart-ass NYPD detective recuperating on the North Fork of Long Island tries to solve the mysterious deaths of his friends who worked at a top-secret U.S. government animal disease laboratory. John Corey's first person narrative is compelling and often laugh out loud funny. The last part of the book is a little too much like a summer Hollywood blockbuster, but all in all the story is very entertaining reading.
Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear ** 1/2 This book has a really intriguing plot-- an ancient virus encoded in our DNA may either spell the end of humankind or result in a new kind of human. Unfortunately, the story just didn't live up to its potential. The characters were never quite compelling and this book never quite became a page-turner, though it clearly aimed to be. The science aspects, although fascinating, are not well incorporated into the plot. Often times it seems that Bear is just throwing around jargon to impress the reader. Despite these criticisms, a worthwhile read for anyone interested in an interesting take on human evolution and disease.
Gone Baby Gone by Dennis Lehane **** A wonderfully written and completely engrossing mystery set in a blue-collar Boston suburb. This was truly a can't-put-it-down book, but Lehane's well drawn characters, moral complexity, and first-rate writing make the book transcend the genre. Not just a great detective story, a great book.
Bucking the Sun by Ivan Doig ** 1/2 This book is a character-driven tale about the Duffs, a family of Scottish immigrants and their complex interrelationships, set against the building of the Fort Peck Dam in Montana during the 1930's. Doig writes beautifully and paints interesting and real characters, they are just not given enough to do. Despite a mysterious death looming over the entire novel, there is very little narrative drive.
Forever War by Joe Haldeman *** 1/2 Award winning science fiction, anti-war tale by Vietman veteran Haldeman about a war between Humans and Taurans that lasts over a millennia. The story follows William Mandella as he travels to distant battles and constantly deals with the absurdity of the war he is fighting. The situation is complicated by near light-speed interstellar travel and the resultant effect on the war and personal relationships as those travelling age at a fraction of the rate of their 'relatively' stationary counterparts. A very thoughtful work on both war and the toll of relativity on human relationships.
East of the Mountains by David Guterson *** Ben Givens, an elderly, widowed doctor afflicted with terminal colon cancer, heads on a journey east of the mountains in an attempt to take his own life. Ben's journey does not unfold as he intends and the book is the story of his encounters and adventures as he reflects on life, death and his experiences in WW II along the way. The plot really rambles about at times without direction, but what makes this worth reading are Guterson's vivid characterizations and remarkable prose. Combine these with a fascinating plot and you have Snow Falling on Cedars, Guterson's stellar previous novel (which I just discovered I forgot to write a review of-- it's a good 4 stars).
First You Build a Cloud: Reflections on Physics as a Way of Life by K. C. Cole ** 1/2 This book tries to explain the wonders of modern physics, from relativity to quarks, for average readers interested in science. Cole has a very lively writing style for a science write, yet somehow the physics in this book never really came alive or intrigued me, as it has in other science writing.
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson *** 1/2 This near-future "cyberpunk" classic tells the story of how hacker extraordinaire, Hiro Protagonist, and his 15 year-old skateboarding partner take on evil forces. Mixing virtual reality, linguistics, and ancient Sumerian mythology/history, Stephenson weaves a fascinating and compelling tale. His satirical take on early 21st century American is at times hilarious and eerily plausible.
Midwives by Chris Bohjalian *** 1/2 This marks my first Oprah book and a fine choice by Oprah it is. Bohjalian tells the story of a lay midwife and her family in rural Vermont and the consequences, both legal and personal, when a delivery goes terribly wrong. The book makes for great legal and ethical drama, but goes far beyond most such works thanks to the depth and realism of the characters.
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden **** Compelling pseudo-autobiographical account of the life of a geisha in pre-war Japan. The plot is interesting, the characters are well-drawn, the language is evocative, and Golden does a masterful job of enveloping the reader in the atmosphere of another time and place
The Secret Family by David Bodanis *** Fun and fascinating book about the world around us, both large and small. Full of interesting trivia on things such as the microscopic life on our bodies, in our mouths, and on our pillows; the pathetic ventilation in shopping malls; and the common use of Elmer's glue as a food additive. You'll never look at the world the same way.
The Houdini Girl by Martyn Bedford **** Early in the story, Rosa, the lover of the magician protagonist, Red, is found mysteriously dead. The rest of the novel tells the story of Rosa and Red in flashbacks as Red slowly uncovers Rosa's enigmatic past for clues to her death. The story is masterfully written and comes together like a jigsaw puzzle with increasing speed. Red's profession as a magician allows for allegory on the nature of illusion and reality. An all-around great book.
Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce by Douglas Starr *** Starr traces the important influence of blood throughout human history-- from the power symbol it remains today to its central role in modern medicine. This is the story of the many things which blood has meant to humans and how we have used it. The story begins with bizarre tales of transfusions from animals to humans and continues into the 20th century where the ingenuity of some great physicians and researchers has allowed blood to give new life to millions. After a bit too much detail on the business side of modern blood-banking, Starr concludes with the fateful tale of thousands of people needlessly infected with AIDS from a contaminated blood supply.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov **** This book is a classic for good reason--Nabokov can flat-out write. He is a true master of the English language (his fourth). The book tells the often disturbing, often hilarious tale of Humbert Humbert's ill-fated obsession with his "nymphet" step-daughter, Dolores Haze, better know as Lolita.
A Scientific Romance by Ronald Wright *** A very interesting work of literary science fiction in which a terminally ill narrator travels to the year 2500 to find a dramatically changed world of human desolation and isolation. Interwoven is a sort of love triangle as the story is told to a former lover and best friend. Very imaginative plot, well written, and a plot that becomes more compelling as the story moves along.
How We Die by Sherwin Nuland *** A complete portrait of the physiology as well as sociology involved in death. Nuland, an accomplished physician, presents death and dying in the cold stark reality in which they exist, rather than a romanticized view in which death is so often presented. By better understanding the emotional and physical trauma and chaos that often accompany death, Nuland hopes to teach us that death with dignity comes not in how we die, but in how we live.
The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman ** 1/2 Nominally the biography of Paul Erdos, the 20th century's most prolific mathematician, this book is also a brief tour of the world of higher mathematics. Erdos is a strange, curious little man who publishes dozens of mathematical papers a year. The book centers on Erdos, but does a fairly good job explaining what most modern mathematicians do. Though fairly interesting reading for the most part, I did not find Erdos that compelling a figure and I was dumbfounded at what often seemed utterly pointless mathematical research.
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan **** This is as well-written a book as I have ever read. McEwan has a masterful and poetic command of the English language. Fortunately, he combines it with a great sense of plot and character in a fascinating tale of love and obsession.
Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barret *** 1/2 A fictional tale of artic exploration in the mid-18th century. The tale of arctic adventure is fascinating and compelling, but what sets this book apart is the vividly-drawn characters and their psychological turmoil.
Song for the Blue Ocean by Carl Safina **** Safina tells the tale of how we are not so slowly destroying the wildlife in our oceans and the people and communities that depend on them. Far from a meaningless recitation of facts, Safina tells stories of fish and of people and beautifully interweaves the two. What sets this book apart from many about our environmental calamaties is that Safina so clearly demonstrates the often hidden human cost. Incredibly education and just plain interesting reading as well.
Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge * 1/2 Though critically acclaimed, I found this odd tale of a British surgeon in the Crimean War unaffecting and uninteresting. I would have never finished reading it, but it was very short and I kept thinking it had to get better. It didn't.
Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder *** 1/2 Off the coast of North Carolina in 1857, a steamship, full or passengers returning from the California gold rush, sunk in a violent hurricane with hundreds of passengers and tons of gold on board. In the 1980's an intrepid engineer/inventor from Ohio, Tommy Thompson, revolutionized deep-sea salvage technology and recovered billions of dollars from the sunken ship. This is the fascinating tale of how it all happened.
Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers *** A very literary, somewhat science-fiction account of an author engaged in an artificial intelligence experiment which results in a conscious computer. It was kind of hard for me to decide what to make of this book, as the plot is at heart very interesting and Powers is a true master of language, yet the story often seemed to lack any narrative momentum. Nonetheless, this book was worthwhile reading if for no other reason than Powers' tremendous poetic display.
Endurance by Alfred Lansing *** 1/2 A harrowing and fascinating true story of 29 men trapped in the Antarctic for over a year and a half in 1915-16. Just an amazing story of courage and survival--and they didn't even have to eat anybody!
Foundation by Isaac Asimov ** 1/2 This is a "classic" work of science fiction detailing the story of scientific foundation which is responsible for trying to reduce the period of barbarism from 30,000 years to 1,000 years following the fall of the galactic empire. The book is actually a collection of short stories, and reads like it-- minimal continuity between characters and stories. Asimov's powers of foresight (this book was written during the 1950's) weren't particulary prescient, either. The book is an interesting allegory for the fall of the Roman Empire on a galactic scale far into the future, but I was really expecting more.
About a Boy by Nick Hornby *** This is the engaging tale of two "boys"-- a 12 year-old outsider struggling with adolescence and a 36 year old coasting through life while trying to avoid any human entanglements. These two misfits come together and help each other to grow up in the way each one needs. Very readable and filled with with and ironic humor.
Empire of the Ants by Bernard Werber *** 1/2 This interesting little book tells the story of the mysterious goings-on in a Russet Ant colony from the perspective of the ants. Meanwhile, the disappearance of over a dozen people down a seemingly-bottomless cellar is somehow related to the unusual happenings in the ant colony. The narrative is really quite compelling and also provides fascinating details on the amazingly complex societies of ants. A unique book, well worth reading.
Stealing Jesus: How the Fundamentalists Stole Christianity by Bruce Bawer *** Bawer traces the story of the development of modern fundamentalist in America, especially the recent growth in power of the religious right. Coming from a very liberal Christian perspective, Bawer argues that an irrational insistence on a literal interpretation of the bible extreme doctrinal rigidity have create a modern religious movement antithetical to what Jesus preached in the gospels. Bawer also cogently details the duplicitous Orwellian doublespeak of the religious right-- as Pat Robertson tells his follower that everyone but them is damned, Ralph Reed covers up Robertson's hateful message for mainstream America. Bawer gets on his soapbox a bit too much and is at times guilty of the same dichotomous thinking for which he criticizes fundamentalism, but all in all, this is a well-argued, though-provoking book.
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward O. Wilson *** 1/2 In this intellectual tour-de-force, Wilson attempt to create a single scientific framework for the unity of all knowledge--consilience. Wilson harkens back to the glory days of the Enlightenment when the goal was to systematize and interrelate fields of knowledge and contrasts this to modern academia, where academic specialities become ever more provincial. Wilson tackles natural science, social sciences, and humanities in turn and attempts to plot a course for each leading toward consilience. This power of Wilson's ideas means that this book is no easy read, but a thoughtful engagement is certainly rewarded.
Mendel's Dwarf by Simon Mawer **** This novel tells the story of Dr. Benedict Lambert, molecular geneticist, distant relation of Gregor Mendel, the founder of modern genetics, and a dwarf. It is a love story, a science education, and a sobering reflection on the nature versus nurture debate. The first person voice of Ben Lambert is unforgettable and Mawer's style is original, inventive, and engaging. An all-around great book.
Eden by Stanislaw Lem ** This book is based on a great science-fiction premise, but the execution just does not nearly live up to the potential. A spaceship of six humans crash-lands on an alien world and tries to make contact with the intelligent species that dwells there. Nothing is as it seems, however, and applying earth's standards of reasoning to the bizarre landscapes and inhabitants get them nowhere. I really liked the idea of finding another inhabited world, but it being so truly alien that efforts at figuring things out and communicating with the inhabitants seemed doomed to failure. Alas, Lem wastes far too much time describing this made-up world in a thoroughly irrelevant fashion. To top it off, his science is utterly unimaginative. The video camera records on film reels that need to be developed. Their exploratory vehicle, impregnable to nuclear explosions, loses its headlights in ordinary collisions. Good idea, but I suspect someone else has probably done it much better.
Mohawk by Richard Russo ** 1/2 Set in the fictional upstate New York town of Mohawk, Russo tells a tale of many characters coping with life's hardships and the dreams of a better life that got away. This is Russo's first novel, and I am happy to say he's improved a lot since he wrote it. The characters are interesting and real, but they never jump off the page and come to life as do the characters in Russo's later books (see Straight Man and Risk Pool below). It's never really clear where Russo is taking the story, either. This book was worth reading, but not up to the standards of Russo's more recent works.
Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson *** 1/2 This book traces the roots of male human violence to evolutionary patterns developed millions of years ago, when humans were freshly diverged from our close primate cousins, chimpanzees. Wrangham and Peterson describe amazing parallels between chimp and human societies. Contrary to what many believe, humans are in no way unique when it comes to unleashing incredible cruelty on their own kind, often for little more than the thrill of it. By placing humans firmly in their evolutionary place we can clearly see the roots of male human violence. Wrangham and Peterson also show how the example of peaceful bonobos (pygmy chimps-- our closest genetic relative) means that humans need not be destined to violence. The book is well written, highly readable, and deals with a variety of interesting subjects of human and primate evolution.
All Over but the Shoutin' by Rick Bragg ** 1/2 Pullitzer-prize winning New York Times reporter tells the story of how, with the help of his revered mother, he made it out of crushing North Alabama poverty to the highest pinnacle of journalism. The first half of the book focuses on Bragg's essentially father-less youth and the many sacrifices his mother made for her three boys. The second-half is the interesting story of how Bragg worked his way up through the newspaper ranks and some of the amazing stories he covered on the way. Bragg only spent a semester in college; his success is a testament to his pure talent as a writer. The book was certainly well written and it tells interesting tales of growing up poor and making it in the newspaper business, but I never really felt compelled to keep reading.
Eureka Street by Robert McCliam Wilson **** A thought-provoking, enjoyable, and very funny tale of how a couple of apolitical Catholic and Protestant friends deal with "the troubles" in Northern Ireland. I learned a lot about the politics of Northern Ireland while being greatly entertained by the story of the two good-hearted losers. The story does a wonderful job of demonstrating the complete irrationality of the violence and politics of Northern Ireland. This is a great book on many levels.
How the Mind Works by Stephen Pinker *** 1/2 This book takes an extremely broad and comprehensive look at how the brain functions from the most "basic" functions, such as sight and language, up to complex social interactions. Pinker argues persuasively that our brain has evolved as a network of computational models designed to solve problems in our evolutionary environment. Through much of this book, I often stopped to marvel at the amazing complexity of seemingly ordinary activities, such as making sense of the words on the page or the objects in the room. The book was at times too detailed and towards the end Pinker strayed a bit far and interpreted his title fairly liberally. On the whole, an extremely instructive and for the most part engaging book.
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card *** An extremely enjoyable, thought-provoking, and fun science fiction book about a child prodigy who is trained to save the world from alien invaders. A real can't put down book which leaves you thinking when you're done.
The Horse Whisperer by Robert Evans ** 1/2 The story of a woman, her physically and psychologically wounded daughter, and their similarly wounded horse and how they are all emotionally healed by the title character, a man with a mystical impact on horses and the people around him. I was not sure what to expect after all the hype (soon to be a major motion picture, directed by and starring Robert Redford as you know who), but I found the book quite entertaining and readable for the most part. It was certainly worth the time to read, but after all the rave reviews, I was hoping for something a little less cliched. At times I felt like I was reading "The Horse Whisperer of Madison County." Nonetheless, it was a fairly original plot (romance aside) well told.
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier *** Current bestseller and recent national book award winner. This is the story of a Confederate deserter making a long tortuous journey back to his beloved, while she struggles to make a life for herself deep in the North Carolina mountains. The plot was interesting, though not overly so. I did not feel like this was a can't-put-it-down book. Frazier seems to have a way with words, but at times I just wanted to know what was going to happen next and felt like I had to wade through superfluous description. Pat Conroy has a great way with words, but in his case I feel like it adds to rather than detracts from the narrative, as sometimes happens in this novel. Certainly well worth reading, but I'm not so sure its worth the many laurels it has received.
The Partner by John Grisham ** 1/2 Grisham's Latest. The story of a law partner who pretended to be dead and disappeared into Brazil with 90 million of his firms money. After he's captured near the beginning of the story, the book weaves a fairly intricate and interesting tale of how he pulled it all off and still remained a likable human being. I thought the plot was quite interesting and compelling, but the characters were paper-thin and cliche-ridden. The end of the book features a draw-dropping surprise, though the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was totally out of character for the person Grisham had created. I've never finished a Grisham book before, so I cannot compare, but I can say that I won't be going out of my way to read any in the future. There are too many authors who write great plots and still create plausible and real, if not always complex, characters. For a great legal book, read A Civil Action instead.
Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War by Barbara Ehrenreich **** Drawing on a variety of fields from biological and cultural anthropology to history and sociology, Ehrenreich presents a compelling thesis that humans' tendency towards war and ritualized violence developed from early humans, biological and cultural evolutionary responses to predation. Ehrenreich firmly rejects the now discounted "man the hunter" hypothesis and finds that much of human culture is apparently explained by humans difficult transition from prey animal to predator. War and its sacralization is the ultimate consequence of this transformation. This highly readable book changed the way I look at humans' relations with nature, nationalism, and war.
A Planet Called Treason by Orson Scott Card ** 1/2 An interesting little tale of a planet where each nation has taken the unique abilities of its founder and evolved them to the extreme possibilities over 3000 generations. One man is forced into a journey across much of the planet and learns the unique features of each people. Consequently he is the only person who has the knowledge and ability to save the planet when he is called upon to do so. I enjoyed the protagonist’s first person account of his struggles and the inventive evolutionary paths that Card came up with. The downside was that even for science fiction, many of the genetic advancements greatly strained credulity. Nonetheless, a fast-paced, sometimes thought-provoking, and enjoyable read.
The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger *** 1/2 The best seller of men (and women) against the sea in the worst storm off the east coast in over 100 years. Junger makes the 100 foot waves and 100 knot winds come vividly to life as swordfishermen struggle for survival. Junger sticks only to known facts and can only speculate what happens to the crew of the swordfish boat, the Andrea Gail, whose fate he follows through the storm. Very compelling and informative reading.
Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner **** Read this book!! This is one of the best books I have ever read. Cadillac Desert is the story of how, through corruption and lunacy we have transformed the American West, once upon a time a vast natural desert, into home to tens of millions people and vast agricultural areas. Amazingly, our government keeps betraying ordinary citizens to subsidize millionaire corporate farmers to grow crops in deserts that eastern farmers, with plenty of natural water, are paid not to grow. Throughout our history, the government has aided the already advantaged few to despoil the environment by taking away ever more water to enrich themselves even further. Westerners and their ethic of independence are based on vast water and agricultural subsidies which make welfare look like a drop in the bucket. This was the most eye-opening (and depressing) book I have ever read.
The Straight Man by Richard Russo *** 1/2 A wonderfully entertaining and hillarious story of a man dealing with his own mid-life crisis and a crisis in the English department he chairs at a small Pennsylvania college. I frequently found myself laughing out loud. Russo's characters and dialogue are dead-on real. A great read, especially for anyone in academia.
Sex on the Brain by Deborah Blum *** No, not some work of perversion, but rather a report on the latest scientific research showing that the differences between men and women are rooted in the ways our brains work. Blum takes a very even-handed approach and advocates a sensible, moderate position in which are personalities behavior are rooted in the interaction of biology and the environment. A little technical at times, but pretty interesting reading for the most part.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas *** The classic story of revenge in 19th Century France. Edmond Dantes is wrongly imprisoned by his enemies in an Island prison. After a dramatic escape he uses a hidden fortune to transform himself into the Count of Monte Cristo. Using his wealth and power he meticulously seeks his revenge on those who wronged him. This book is one of those classics which are actually a lot of fun to read. I read the abridged version, and though the unabridged version is 1100 pages or so, I think it may be worthwhile as I felt I was really missing some key character development.
The Risk Pool by Richard Russo *** Great story of a kid in a run-down, blue-collar upstate New York town and how his relationship with his no-good father shapes his life. Though not nearly as funny as the Straight Man, Russo's characters and the fictional town of Mohawk, NY are a pleasure to read about.
Longitude by Dava Sobel ** The story an obscure British clockmaker's lifelong quest to solve the problem of how to accurately measure longitude on the high seas and thereby revolutionize sea travel. The telling did not live up to the potential of the story. There were huge gaps in the story and not a single technical illustration despite the fact that this was basically a story of technological innovation.
The Whole Shebang: A State of the Universe(s) Report by Timothy Ferris *** Just what do modern physicists and cosmologists have to tell us about the nature of our universe? Learn all about it in here. Ferris explains the current conceptions and competing theories about what are universe is actually like. Did the universe expand at greater than the speed of light in its first 10E-34 second? Is the visible universe, but a microscopic portion of the whole universe? Is are universe but one of many? What exactly are black holes? How does quantum physics fit into all of this. Theses are some of the many unresolved issues currently under debate that Ferris expertly explains such that readers with minimal scientific background can understand and gain a new appreciation for the wonders of our universe.
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood *** 1/2 This is a fictionalized account of a notorious murderess, Grace Marks, in mid-19th Century Canada. Grace Marks was sentenced to life in prison at the age of 16 for the murder of her employer and his mistress. During her 30 years in jail, controversy reined over whether she had indeed comitted the murder, was insane at the time, or an unwilling accomplice of another servant executed for the crime. Atwood takes the few bare bones facts actually known about the case, and weaves an extremely compelling tale of murder, class differences, and crime and punishment in a Victorian Society.
The Giant's House by
Elizabeth McCracken **
A quirky little book about a young librarian who falls in love with an 11 year old boy who just happens to grow into the tallest man in the world. I read it because it made Entertainment Weekly's top 10 books of 1996, but I was disappointed. According to the back cover, the book is quite literary and poetic, but I didn't find it to be much of either and neither the story of characters ever really grabbed me.
Into the Wild by John Krakauer *** 1/2 The true story about a idealistic young man's fatal journey into the Alaskan wilderness. This very well-written book tries gain insight into the complex individual who gave up his college-educated, middle-class background to hitchhike through the American West and eventually journey to Alaska in an existential quest. Entertainment Weekly's #1 book of 1996.
Full House by Stephen Jay
Gould ** 1/2
Gould explains that humans, rather than being the obvious culmination of evolution, are simply a random and unlikely evolutionary occurrence. He makes his point with a really nice analogy about the disappearance of 400 hitters in baseball ( a chapter which should make interesting reading for baseball fans). A rather convincing argument, but the book bogs down a little in Gould's ode to bacteria as clearly the most successful life form.
Airframe by Michael Crichton
This is Crichton in top form-- one of the few books I've read in a day ( I was on vacation, however). The story of a dramatic airline near-disaster and corporate intrigue in the aircraft industry.
Civil Action by Jonathan Harr ****
An absolutely terrific story based on a real-life legal battle. A gripping, can't-put-it-down legal drama that really makes you think. Probably the best book I've read all year.
The Third Twin by Ken Follet
An fun tale of university politics, genetic engineering, justice, and corporate intrigue. No great themes, but like all Follet's books, a real page-turner.
The Sparrow by Mary Doria
A great story about a Jesuit mission to meet newly discovered life on another planet in the mid 21st century. Told in gripping flashbacks, the book also has a thought-provoking spiritual dimension. Russell's training is in anthropology and it really shows in the fascinating, yet realistic life she invents on another world. It lost the last 1/2 * because a couple of the characters lacked the depth and realism that drove the main character. Nonetheless, a great read all-around. Entertainment Weekly's #3 book of 1996.
Reading list last updatedAugust 2, 2018
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If you've read any of these books, I'd love your comments.