Friday, December 30, 2011

The Adventures Of Augie March

by Saul Below

The saga of a fatherless boy, brought up by his timid mother and overbearing grandmother, as he grows to a man, trying to make his way in Depression-era Chicago (and later, in other countries).  Augie believes that “a man’s character is his fate,” and thus that “this fate, or what he settles for, is also his character.”  Therefore, always searching for “a fate good enough” – somehow “fitting into other people’s schemes” but never coming up with any of his own – he feels buffeted by the vicissitudes of fate.  He holds menial or exciting but temporary jobs, beds and falls in love with a series of women, tries his hand at thievery and academics, and ruminates on man’s nature. Over its 585 pages, Augie seems to be a series of events which do not necessarily overlap or build upon each other to a particular climax.  While his stern-minded older brother Simon adapts himself to the world, marrying more or less for money and making swift, practical decisions about the family, Augie remains uncertain about his place, apparently ready “to dissolve in a bewilderment of choices.”

I found this quintessentially American existential epic a pleasure to read, despite its length, roller-coaster pace and crowd of characters.  At times it flags, especially near the last 100 or so pages, and there is no real resolution; this is a (very generous) slice of life novel.  But I loved it from start to finish anyway.  In addition to its subject – man’s often futile quest to find his place in a largely uncaring and deceptive world – being quite near and dear to my heart, I was captivated by Bellow’s rich prose.  Erudite, evocative and earthy, Bellow’s prose is the mark of a craftsman who has mastered the language, and it helps keep Augie’s story compelling even when otherwise nothing particularly noteworthy is happening.  A brilliant book, and candidate for Great American Novel.

five stars

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Drop Of the Hard Stuff

by Lawrence Block

Late one night, Scudder tells his old friend Mick Ballou a story.  About a year after he’d joined AA and was taking up with Jan, Scudder runs into Jack, a childhood pal who has become a minor crook, but who is now reformed and trying to make amends, AA-style.  Someone doesn’t like the way Jack is bringing up the past, and he is killed.  Jack’s sponsor hires Matt to look into who might want Jack silenced and why, and he falls uneasily into the late-night world of drinkers, druggies, and seedy contacts, as the threat gets closer to him personally.

This is an outstanding thriller, absolutely pitch-perfect.  The book is utterly steeped in noir mood; rough, witty dialogue crackles throughout, as in a fast-paced Sam Spade film.  But since this a Scudder tale, alcohol is a cast member, an ever-present character; Scudder is reminded of the smells of bourbon, of his old hangouts, with every step he takes in his investigation.  Scudder is here, as in some of the earlier books, somewhat of a fatalistic witness to his life rather than a prime mover.  With five people dead, the resolution he hits upon is hardly satisfactory, but, well, it’s simply the best he can do at that point in his life.  The final coda, where Mick and Matt discuss absent friends and their current loves, is beautiful, nearly worth the price of the book alone.

five stars

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory

by Peter Hessler

The author, a journalist and old China hand, describes life on the road in a rural China that is rapidly developing, with new roads and factories being built every year.  At 420 pages, the book’s scope is much wider than the simple comedy of renting a car in a heavily bureaucratic society that nevertheless has a vibrant under-the-table economy, or the perils of driving in a country where most people behind the wheel have had very little training and eschew wipers and lights.  Hessler rents a house in a village, and describes one family's gradual rise to political and financial success.  He follows the Great Wall, visits an artist community in Lishui, and follows the creation, rise, and struggles of a bra-ring factory, and the workers who live in it.

So the title is only partially descriptive of the book, but so what? Hessler’s breadth of knowledge, empathy, sense for the human side of the story, and clear, witty writing make all his subjects interesting.  He unfolds the drama of an ill village boy, and the disjunct between his own Western eyes and China’s traditional medicine coupled with xenophobic doctors.  He shows the great cultural divide between East and West (citing “group impulse” twice to explain some Chinese behavior), but also zeroes in on the emotions and frustrations that all humanity share.  He keeps encountering a sort of superficiality in Chinese economic life, where appearance is more important than content, and where bribes and lies are a part of life, but explores the deeper currents that motivate the players.  Hessler is a gifted reporter of cultures, and this is a thoroughly fascinating look at a modern but still changing China.  

four stars

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Farming of Bones

by Edwidge Danticat

In 1937, Amabelle, an orphaned Haitian woman working in the Dominican Republic, dreams of returning to Haiti with her lover Sebastien, a sugarcane cutter (the scar-inflicting “bones” of the title).  Instead, they are both caught up in the racist anti-immigrant furor stirred up Trujillo, and the killing, which will be latter be known as the Parsley Massacre, or El Corte, begins.  Amabelle flees, separated from Sebastien, and tries to forge a new life that is nothing like the one she dreamed of.

This is a deep and powerful novel.  The characters are fully realized, the prose not complex, but dreamlike and richly evocative.  The story is tragic, and important to tell (20,000 Haitians died in this massacre, though it is rarely remembered outside of Haiti), but the haunting message of the book is that “misery won’t touch you gentle.  It always leaves its thumbprints on you; sometimes it leaves them for others to see, sometimes for nobody but you to know of.”  Decades after the event, Amabelle cannot find closure; this is the tragedy of the survivor.

four stars

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Supreme Courtship

by Christopher Buckley

With his previous nominees destroyed by an egocentric Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, unpopular president "Don Veto" Vanderdamp nominates Pepper Cartwright, a tough-talking TV courtroom judge to the Supreme Court.  Bowing to her popularity, the chairman, Dexter Mitchell, cedes to her election, then quits to star as a president in a TV show before running for actual president himself.  Pepper, out of her depth, and her marriage floundering, has her loyalties tested when Vanderdamp wins re-election the same year that a Constitutional amendment limiting US presidents to one term is passed, and the case goes to the Supreme Court.

It's a somewhat amusing political satire, with a few jibes at easy targets such as Joe Biden, the debacle that was Bush v. Gore, and the polarization of politics in general. But while Buckley paints a humorously exaggerated picture of the continued merging of politics and popular culture, the gentle poking was hardly sidesplitting, and there’s no teeth to it.  It's the satire of a contented conservative.  Vanderdamp, for example, is presented as a sort of affable, if dull, hero for vetoing all spending bills his entire term, when of course that would be insanely destructive.  There’s no anger – the source for some of history’s sharpest satires – instead, Buckley chuckles wryly at the end that each crisis passes as the system just sort of fixes itself.  Worth a chuckle, but vaguely disappointing.

three stars

Monday, September 5, 2011

Call It Courage

by Armstrong Sperry

This Newbery winner tells of the trials of Mafatu, a fifteen-year-old Polynesian boy, the son of a chief.  Due to a tragedy that took his mother when he was a baby, Mafatu has a great distrust of the sea, so one day he takes a small boat and, accompanied by his dog, forces himself to face his fears.  After a storm, he washes up on an island of cannibals.  While building a shelter and another boat, he also faces predators and then the return of the cannibals.

This slim story is, unfortunately, rather simplistic, and is dramatic only in the way that, say, old Tarzan serials are.  First, the book validates the importance of conformity to existing social values; although Mafatu has made himself useful in the making of spears and nets, this is dismissed by his peers (and the tone of the narration) as “women’s work.”  Also, disappointingly, Mafatu’s victories are not a result of his being particularly clever or adept; bravery and brute force are the only attributes extolled here.  He kills a boar, a shark, and most ludicrously, a giant octopus capable of grabbing him by the waist, not through clever stratagems, but simply by standing his ground and stabbing them.  Admirable, perhaps, but not exactly thrilling plots.  Certainly, Sperry means well, and he’s good at describing this Adventure Story For Eager Lads, but I question the book’s underlying message, and its one-note hero, as a model for young minds. 

two stars

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

by Carol S. Dweck

The author, a social psychologist, divides people into two types.  One has a fixed mindset and so believes that intelligence and personality are fixed traits that cannot change.  It follows from this view that effort is to be avoided, because if you need to try you must not have talent; that setbacks reflect personally on you (transference of action to individual); that you blame others or yourself for setbacks; and esteem is garnered through the deprecation of others.  The second group is the growth mindset, which believes that intelligence and other traits can be improved on; that success comes through effort; that high standards are a challenge; that flaws should be admitted and faced; that praise should focus on effort, not ability; and that setbacks are not personal.  She then applies this mindset theory to show how to deal best with school, teaching, parenting, relationships, and business.

Dweck writes in a readable, conversational style with lots of real-world examples and citations from her personal research.  There’s nothing earth-shatteringly revelatory here, but it’s genuine; as someone who was praised ad nauseam for my intelligence as a child, I have seen many of these results first hand.  Overall it’s a well-reasoned and persuasive book.  Unlike a lot of self-help authors, Dweck writes honestly about the lack of quick fixes and the struggle it takes to change into a healthy growth mindset, and gives clear tips on how to do so.  This is no pie in the sky psycho-babble; it’s an easy read with powerful, practical advice.

four stars

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

by by John J. Ratey with Eric Hagerman

The author attempts to explain for the layman, but ends up using masses of neurological jargon and acronyms, about the role exercise plays in sharpening our mental processes. Boiling it down to the basics: moving our muscles produces proteins that play roles in neurogenesis and the repair of synapses.  It also helps the production of hormones such as serotonin and norepinephrine that regulate mood.  Therefore, Ratey argues, daily sustained aerobic exercise is a sure cure-all for depression, ADHD, the ravages of aging, raging hormones in menopausal women, addiction, phobias, etc.

He makes his point with study after study, but this certainly could have been a more readable book.  First, as noted, Ratey can’t help using baffling medical jargon like LTP (long-term potentiation, or the ability to attach synapses), BDNF (a protein that strengthens brain cells), cortisol, dendrite, VEGF (growth factor), all of which is overwhelming for the average reader.  Some of it could easily have been skipped to no detriment to the argument.  Second, he then becomes repetitive.  In each chapter, he explains how  studies show that movement elevates these receptors, factors, and proteins; but really, once is enough.  I think the book would have been improved had it had an introductory chapter that showed the hard science, then focused on case studies, for example, only making passing references to the science chapter as needed.  Instead, Ratey seems to think he must explain the biological processes each time. Third, he comes off as a zealot, and he has the unfortunate blinders of a zealot: he recommends, without fail, 45 minutes of sustained aerobic activity four days a week, two days of intensive aerobic activity, with focus on strength training, balance, new skill sets (so karate or yoga rather than just running), and social interaction.  Yes, I’m sure that would be fantastic, but it’s preposterously unrealistic for the average American, let alone one recovering from addiction or depression.  Certainly, Ratey notes often enough that people should start out slow, consult their doctor, and so on, but it’s clear he has no patience for anything but the highest level of activity, and devotes almost no space to developing a slow, reasonable build-up to fitness.  The information is good and the science interesting, and Ratey may be perfectly reliable, but the tone of his book is something like that of a cult member or a car salesman. 

two stars

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

by Bill Bryson

A memoir of the humor and travel writer’s childhood and adolescence in Des Moines, Iowa in the ‘50s, which he characterizes as an era of material comfort, production, consumption, happiness, endearing naïveté, embrace of changes the future would bring, and a general carefree attitude.  (The title comes from a super-hero fantasy he indulged in as a child.)  Lingering with affectionate nostalgia over the baseball parks, unique mom and pop shops and department stores, childhood games, and newspaper routes of his youth, he mostly takes the wistful tone of the man who thinks the world has been going downhill ever since he personally left school.  He does touch on some of the bleaker aspects of the decade, such as the lax attitude toward dangerous substances, the cold war, nuclear proliferation, a fascistic and pharisaical tendency toward censorship in the government, and some very ugly racism – but as a child in a nearly totally Methodist, white middle-class neighborhood, these did not touch him.  Indeed, he characterizes himself as a perspicacious child (though a very poor student) who, for example, saw immediately that the ludicrous duck-and-cover drill would not save him from nuclear explosions, so chose to ignore them.

Normally I am wary of memoirs by people who have not lived especially interesting lives (and everyone seems to think their own childhood, with its same cruel kids’ games and wide-eyed wonder as everyone else’s, deserves a book).  I would probably not have read this book, despite having read and enjoyed others by Bryson, if it weren’t part of a project in which others choose books for me to read.  As it is, Bryson more than justifies the innate arrogance of the memoir.  For one thing, he is supremely funny: some passages had me uncontrollably laughing, literally until tears streamed down my face.  While wit and an amusing turn of phrase are common enough, outside of Wodehouse and Adams it’s the rare writer who can cause actual bouts of laughter.  Second, underneath the bright nostalgia is a very real lesson: that what was arguably one of America’s happiest periods coincided with an open mind to scientific advancement, self-sustaining manufacturing and farming, and local entrepreneurship flourishing before the rise of faceless and flavorless monolithic corporations.  Truly an era that is gone. 

four stars

Monday, June 20, 2011

Sarum: The Novel Of England

by Edward Rutherfurd

The story of the small portion of humanity that settled in and developed Salisbury (“Sarum”: being an abbreviated rendering of the Roman name Sorbiodunum) from the stone age to the 1980s.  Following the struggles, fortunes, tribulations, and remade fortunes of five lineages, the novel details how waves of invaders (Cro-Magnons, Normans, Romans, Vikings) changed the landscape, economy, and culture, from Stonehenge to livestock breeding to Cathedral building, but then were in turn changed by it and became part of its fabric.

I had some mixed feelings while reading this book.  At 897 pages, it’s a hugely ambitious project – indeed sometimes Rutherfurd casts his net far wider than Sarum itself, following some of Salisbury’s sons in the American Revolution or at D-Day.  But high ambition alone does not ensure quality.  Certainly it is an achievement in itself simply to tell such an epic tale.  But the proof is in the telling itself.  And here the prose is, at times, purple at best and clunky and awkward at worst.  Some sentences are as in danger of toppling as Salisbury Cathedral’s spire, so packed are they with meandering clauses.  Further, the book is astonishingly riddled with comma misuse – I found one egregious comma error literally at least every four pages, which raises the question of whether the book was proofread at all.  Finally, there is Rutherfurd’s authorial style, which is preachy and intrusive, especially in the early chapters, where he feels the need to step into his fictional world and explain in sometimes lengthy paragraphs the science or geography behind what a character was doing, as if to assure the readers that he’d done his research before popping back behind the curtain again.  Or he might begin a section under the rubric with, for example, 1244, only to state a few paragraphs in that in order to really pick up at that point, “we must first go back a little.”  Then why did he begin in 1244?  Why not just tell the thread of the story from that earlier point, or have the characters refer to the slow changes that came before? These anachronistic authorial intrusions would have worked better, if he really had to have them, as endnotes to each chapter, rather than breaking the narrative so jarringly.  On the positive side, the way he charts the evolution of Sarum’s economy, for example, is astounding and commendable.  But what really makes the book work is the human adventure: each time he dips into a past era, there is a poignant or dramatic or thrilling vignette, a short story involving one of his five families, that underscores the vicissitudes of fate and the indomitable spark that keeps humanity going through the fortunes and failures that time brings.  With a heavy-handed, level-headed editor, this could have been a brilliant book.  As it is, it’s an impressive curiosity.  It was a chore to read at times, but I’m not sorry I read it all.

three stars

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Mauritius Command

by Patrick O'Brian

The fourth book in the Aubrey-Maturin series.  Languishing at home on half pay, Jack is unexpectedly given a commission to go as acting Commodore to the Cape of Good Hope, where he will direct a small squadron to take the French-held islands of Mauritius and Reunion.  The captains under Jack’s command are slightly jealous, but they are motivated primarily by their differing natures, whether harsh taskmasters or eager to please and ineffective.  After some easy victories, helped along by Stephen’s psych-op machinations, a particularly bloody battle ensues.  Defeat looms, but Jack’s pure bulldogged determination turns the tide, until the victory and glory is taken from his grasp by one of his own allies.

While I believe that this series really takes off in the next two books, this is a vibrant and thrilling historical novel.  Focusing heavily on the nautical warfare – and its specific, archaic jargon, such that several passages may as well have been in Greek to me – and the rigid manners of the era – a window to the psychology of the culture, as recorded by the ever-perspicacious Stephen, it makes for a rich historical excursion.  It also is a delight in rewarding the careful reader; plot points are made via inferences through a single line of dialogue, rather than tedious filler.  Another very enjoyable and erudite entry. 

four stars

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Gun Seller

by Hugh Laurie

Cynical, wry freelance soldier of fortune Thomas Lang is hired to kill a man, but being a nice chap, refuses the money and goes to warn the intended victim.  His discovery that the victim, an American industrialist, is also the man who hired him is only the beginning of a series of bizarre surprises and twists in store for Lang, as he is reluctantly involved in a plot to instigate a terrorist act so that a new attack helicopter can be tested out in actual combat.  He falls for the industrialist’s daughter, is captured, shot at, and goes undercover with a band of misguided extremists in an attempt to prevent the gun sellers from benefiting from a bloodbath.

This parody of the spy genre is about three parts P.G. Wodehouse, two parts Douglas Adams, and one part James Bond.  Laurie writes in a breezy, amusing style that draws in the reader at once, and while Lang is not 100% likeable, he’s a devil-may-care noir roué with a heart of gold.  His snarky narration, constantly puncturing the stuffiness of the genre, keeps the pages turning, so the few bits that are really too over the top can be overlooked.  It’s a very funny book in places, and the plot is wonderfully convoluted, with real drama near the end.  The book could use a heavier-handed editor – perhaps Laurie’s star power prevented anyone from suggesting reasonable cuts – and now and then Laurie makes unnecessary, disparaging comments about fat and short people, which will probably not lose him any fans: but come on, Hugh, we can’t all be multi-talented, tall, adorable stage and television stars.  Despite these flaws, it’s overall a delightfully funny novel, light and readable yet reasonably sophisticated.

[read twice: 12/23/06, 4/30/11]

four stars

Friday, March 25, 2011

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness

by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

The authors, both economists at University of Chicago, advocate what they call “paternal libertarianism” in order to improve an equal footing for all in the areas of health care, marriage, taxes, and so on, without impinging on freedom any more than absolutely necessary.  They argue, reasonably, that everyone with a stake in an issue or a semblance of power is, whether they like it or not, a change architect – that even not interfering and allowing totally laissez-faire markets to evolve is still doing something (“If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice,” as Neil Peart says) – so governments and free markets should do their nudging in a positive and helpful way.  For example, making a simple and high-returning investment the default option on a retirement package the default is a nudge that helps those who would be otherwise lost in a sea of legal and economic mumbo-jumbo if the default were “find your own damn retirement package.”

The authors write in a pleasing, non-preachy, conversational style, and make their points clearly, requiring no economic understanding to follow their ideas, many of which are more or less common sense (and thus will never be implemented by our government) while others are intriguing possibilities, such as Save More Tomorrow, which ties savings plan deposits to future raises. Although I enjoyed reading the book, for me it was basically preaching to the converted, without the necessary punch behind the ideas to ever convince any Republican big-government corporate-nanny-state lover.  Actually I was expecting it to be more focused on personal, psychological nudges of the kind the authors discuss at the beginning, the way perceptions can deceive, the way self-control strategies can be used to hack one’s own mind, and the values that humans give to losses and gains.  When the book hit its political and social manifesto stride, I was slightly disappointed, but the authors’ chummy style and practical ideas kept me interested. 

four stars

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Murder On the Links

by Agatha Christie

The second Hercule Poirot novel. To explain its plot accurately would take half an hour and a whiteboard, but briefly: the Belgian detective and his aide Hastings are summoned to the house of M. Renauld, a millionaire who fears for his life. They arrive too late, finding him already dead, half-buried in an unfinished golf bunker, supposedly at the hands of bearded foreign thugs, and possibly at the hands of a jilted lover. But Poirot soon unearths not one, but two of the principals are living under assumed names and have criminal pasts, while the jilted lover may not have belonged to M. Renauld at all, and then another corpse pops up.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit, as I did its predecessor; Christie puts so much charm and wit into her tortuous, labyrinthine plots filled with deception and red herrings that the joy they bring makes one forgot the craziness of the coincidences and cover-ups. I did roll my eyes at the depictions of the police other than Poirot; I don’t mind Hastings being a besotted fool (and he certainly is, from first page to last), but when the police dismiss what is obviously evidence such as discarded clothes or the woman who visited the crime scene; or when the doctor fails to realize the most basic of forensic points (that a man was stabbed after death), it makes Poirot’s cleverness merely the rationality of the not-stupid. Still, nit-picking leaches the fun out of the mystery, and it is indeed quite fun.

four stars

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Queen and Country: A Gentleman's Game

by Greg Rucka

The first Queen & Country novel, in which hard-drinking, tough-as-nails, dead-inside MI6 agent Tara Chace is ordered to assassinate an incendiary imam in Yemen after a disastrous attack by Islamic radicals on the London Tube.  It’s a clean hit, but a Saudi VIP is in the wrong place and wrong time, and because the service values political expedience over its agents’ lives, Chace is forced to go rogue and undertake a highly dangerous mission in order to put things right.

Rucka is the master of the taut, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it paced political thriller; this book is easily as entertaining, and a lot more cosmopolitan, than his best Atticus Kodiak books.  It’s thoroughly informed, smart, and all too realistic in its understanding of to what extent governments serve themselves, as well as chillingly realistic when it comes to depicting the confused, hate-filled mind of the zealot.  Masterful and engrossing entertainment.

five stars