Sunday, December 30, 2012

Martha Speaks: Shelter Dog Blues

"by" Jamie White

I suppose it should be noted that this book is not by Susan Meddaugh, but "based on the characters created by" her, an "adaptation" by Jamie White, based on a TV script by Matt Steinglass.  A book written by a committee in pieces, for the purposes of extending a brand – not to tell a story.

Martha is a talking dog who loses her collar and gets snatched up by the dogcatcher.  Once at the pound, she leads an escape, gets caught again, and then organizes the other dogs to help showcase their plight and get them adopted.  I read this to my class.  It was received with interest, but none of the fervor that they have for, say, Stink, Flat Stanley, or the incomparable Mercy Watson books (which I read religiously but don't list here because in my mind they are too short to count).  This lack of fervor is understandable, as the Martha books seem not to have any of the kind of madcap humor aimed at adults as well as children or truly memorable eccentric characters that those series have.  As you might think about a book written to promote a show, it's simply too careful for such things; in other words, it's rather boring.

two stars

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Stink and the Incredible Super-Galactic Jawbreaker

by Megan McDonald, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds

Stink writes a letter to a candy company and receives ten pounds of free samples, which sets him off on a letter-writing spree in search of more freebies.  His parents disapprove, but Stink has more on his mind, such as which pajamas to wear on pajama day at school, why his friend Webster is acting grumpy with him, and what exactly an idiom is.  It’s more goofy fun – the second-grade version of madcap – enhanced by Stink’s hilariously silly cartoons courtesy of fine illustrator Peter Reynolds.  I enjoyed this one more than the first, as all the plot points come together in the end to let Stink show everyone he can change his spots by being generous with what he has.

four stars

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Stink: The Incredible Shrinking Kid

by Megan McDonald, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds

Stink, Judy Moody’s short second-grade brother, worries that he is shrinking when he is appears shorter at night than he had the previous morning.  With this on his brain, he deals with his hair being dyed orange by his sister, losing the school pet, and starting a campaign to get James Madison (the shortest president) on a state quarter.  Stink is a delightful character – geeky, silly, totally earnest about his obscure interests; and McDonald’s zippy, silly, funny prose is fun.  I read this to my class, and while I’m not totally sold on some parts (as with Junie B. Jones, there don’t seem to be any consequences for outrageous behavior), they and I found it quite entertaining.

four stars

Saturday, December 15, 2012

It Feels So Good When I Stop

by Joe Pernice

The nameless narrator, having walked out on his rocky and three-days-old marriage in New York, stays at his brother-in-law James’ Cape Cod house that stands empty following James’ own impending divorce from the narrator’s sister.   Looking after his baby nephew to make ends meet, tooling around Cape Cod on a rusty, undersize bicycle his sister rode as child, he thinks back to how he and his wife met and the course their relationship took, while in the present he meets a fragile young woman who wants him to help her make a home movie about her dead son.

The narrator was in a band that went nowhere, and Pernice, a hip indie singer-songwriter himself, seeps the book in media cool: earnest appreciation of good music in all its forms, from Doris Day and Mel Tormé to the Chills and the Frogs; name-dropping Tom T. Hall, Teenage Fanclub, Todd Rundgren, Ross McElwee, Mudhoney, Errol Morris, Nick Drake.  Lou Barlow even appears briefly to meet the protagonist after a show.  The narrator’s internal monologue is a peppered with self-deprecating one-liners (“Everything I knew about how fucked up the music business was came from a story about Fugazi I’d skimmed in ‘Magnet’”) and cynical observations (“I poked at the food like I was examining a pet’s stool for an ingested coin”).  I’m probably the exact target audience for this sort of prose, and I found it to be an engaging, if ultimately lightweight, novel.  The narrator’s meandering musings on how little he’s done with his life and whether he’s permanently damaged his relationship with his wife are bittersweet and amusing.  It’s not exactly the final word on the human condition, but moving in its way.

three stars

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Dangerous Animals Club

by Stephen Tobolowsky

A collection of essays and autobiographical pieces by the veteran character actor, amounting a book that is both memoir and pop philosophy.  He’s a witty and self-deprecating story-teller who seems to have an inexhaustible cache of bizarre anecdotes, from his childhood escapades hunting poisonous animals in Texas fields to the surreal experience of working under eccentric director David Milch on “Deadwood,”  from the inexplicable and nasty vendetta an acting professor maintained against Tobolowsky when he was at SMU’s drama school to being thrown out of a hotel in France for punching a toilet, from his rocky relationship with his first love who became a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright to being held at gunpoint while shopping and trying to talk the crazed gunman down before police jumped him.

The writing is polished and Tobolowsky can make you chuckle as well as tug your heartstrings, but what I think makes this book stand out as something beyond a collection of actor’s stories is the heart behind it.  Whether talking about his reluctant attachment to an abandoned dog that bounds back from the brink of death or relaying his gentle argument with an atheist in a hotel bar, Tobolowsky comes across as a gentle soul who realizes how lucky he’s been, and appreciates the ride.  It makes his book a pleasant and affecting experience, not just an interesting or amusing one. 

four stars

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Cook's Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines

by Anthony Bourdain

The star chef, given a TV show after his book becomes a hit, goes on a globe-trotting tour in search of the best local cuisines have to offer, attending feasts (and getting quite drunk) in Basque country, off the beaten track on Vietnam, Cambodia, coastal France, Spain, Portugal, Japan, Scotland and at fine restaurants in San Francisco.  Like his previous book, it’s a very well-written, wry, intelligent, witty look at food and culture.  The chapters on Vietnam, veering from hedonistic overdose to near shock at the squalor there, are particularly compelling reading, as is the account of having a whole lamb cooked by Tuaregs, with a “sensational, delicious, delightful” testicle as the crown jewel, as it were, in Morocco.

From a decadent and orgiastic taster’s menu at the French Laundry in San Francisco to the infamous “evil”-tasting cobra bile he manfully swallows in Vietnam (“this will make you the strongest”), Bordain savors all he can get out of life.  Brash and opinionated, he shares his iconoclastic views with relish, whether praising “bad boy” Gordon Ramsay (whom Bordain admires as a chef and a hard worker) or deprecating a vegan meal in the harshest terms (“the knife work was clumsy and inept… the vegetables were uniformly overcooked, under-seasoned, colorless, and abused”).   Bourdain is more than a food writer; he’s got the travel writer’s deft touch, bringing the essentials of a culture and people to the surface without a lot of purple prose or soul-searching.  A very enjoyable, terrific armchair journey.  

four stars

[read twice: 6/25/02, 12/5/12]

Friday, November 30, 2012

American Pastoral

by Philip Roth

Blue-eyed, blond student athlete Swede Levov, son of a Jewish glove maker in Newark, has built his life around the virtues of hard work and assimilation.  Without expressly repudiating his father’s culture (he inherits and excels at the elder Levov’s trade), he marries a Catholic former Miss New Jersey who raises cows, moves to a grand home in the countryside, and lives in a manner that upsets the natural order of things as little as possible; he placates Catholic and Jewish fears alike; he gives off-putting people the benefit of the doubt; he relies on the quiet strength acquired by not using one’s physical strength.  He and his wife Dawn have a stuttering daughter, Merry, who is doted upon and who at adolescence becomes enraged at America’s involvement in Vietnam and falls into the grossest ignorant, maniacal anti-Capitalist vitriol at every turn.  She throws the Swede’s life into bitter, recriminating chaos when she bombs a post office in town and becomes a fugitive; he spends most of the book wondering how such a thing could have happened, poring over minor incidents in Merry’s childhood and how much he is to blame.  His wife takes refuge in a sanitarium; he is tortured, psychically, by a vicious young woman who may or may not be an ally of Merry’s; he wonders about the health of his marriage and what his father thinks.

Over 423 pages, this overly verbose novel alternates between flashes of genius – musings on how we can ever really know another human, or what the consequences may be of the actions we take, to which we ascribe no particular importance but which may redound heavily on others’ lives and psyches – and numbing, indulgent repetition – the Swede scours the shards of his life, over and over, asking the same unanswerable questions, to no effect.  The book begins with a first-person narrator who knew the Swede as a child, and who attends his forty-fifth high school reunion, meets up with some old crushes, and fades utterly from the narrative shortly afterwards; his existence, I suppose, was merely so Roth could tackle the subject of going home again, and to exorcise some thoughts on his Boomer cohorts.  Who knows.  There is some very high drama in a dinner party at the end of the book, in which emotions run high – the guilt, the resentments of spouses and neighbors, the accusations and confessions of adultery, jealously, class and culture resentment, panic, and secrets all roil in the Swede as he considers some new information about his daughter – and it would have made a very powerful novella, but this tome is just too much.  It’s exhausting, not galvanizing.

three stars

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Book Of Lost Books

by Stuart Kelly

A chronological survey of lost books and books that never were, from ideas for novels that never materialized on paper to valuable manuscripts burnt or censored or mislaid, from the anonymous ancients who assembled Gilgamesh and possible attributions to Homer to Sylvia Plath’s never-completed novel of adultery and the hecatomb of her manuscripts by Ted Hughes.  Each chapter is a page or two, five at most, of musings on what this or that author might have accomplished, or how his or her reputation would have changed, if the work in question had survived or been born in the first place.  At times there is so little of a “work” to have been “lost” that Kelly merely gives a précis of the author’s most-known work and its importance, as in the Dante or Pound chapters (the Cantos were never lost so much as never unified into Pound’s ambitious, later crazed, vision).

As with any book with so wide a scope, especially one that stops so briefly at each way station through history, this book is heavy on anecdotes, but fails to take the time to convey any deep understanding to the reader.  That’s not to say that Kelly doesn’t know the material; he appears to have read everything, indeed he comes off as a bit too clever and writes with a sometimes off-putting erudition: he uses even obscurer forms of already archaic words (exegete, euclionism, daundering, fallalery, etiolated, versifex), sometimes to rather poor effect (“he scurried like an inverted smolt” – what?!); he doesn’t translate French titles (although he translated the other languages); at one point he abruptly writes a paragraph as a logogram without the letter e, and without explanation either.  There’s a good bit of intriguing information, of course, such as Kelly’s suggestion that the lack of a trial in The Trial might be “due to textual fragmentation” rather than a philosophical point; but the choppy format and frenetic pace ensured that little stuck with me, I’m afraid.

two stars

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

China Wakes: The Struggle For The Soul Of A Rising Power

by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

The authors, married Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalists, write about the emergence of capitalist China in the mid-1990s.  Alternating authorship of the chapters, they analyze China in terms of its progress in the areas of civil rights and business in the face of government repression. The authors argue that the communist government is remarkably similar to those of past dynasties but that, given their entrepreneurial energy, Chinese people are living better now than ever before. At the time of the writing, the authors seemed unsure whether the communist government would last much longer, but their observations lead them to conclude that rotten as the whole system is, with its routine bribery and brutality, the slow change of Chinese culture indicates that the “dynasty” was not yet moribund.  On a positive note, they see China as a nation that is beginning to appreciate the benefits of law, as well as material wealth, over imperial rule.

A well written, perspicacious, trenchant series of observations, the book is an easy, accessible read that covers several issues of major interest to Western observers (human rights, pollution, energy production, women’s rights, modernization), relying heavily on "human interest" type stories; in this case, these are vignettes such as a retarded man who is beaten to death by police to clean up the streets of Beijing before the Olympics, a girl who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, a journalist friend who is jailed for criticizing the government, a political refugee turned smuggler, and so on. Their emphasis on the rotten aspects of the communist dynasty has drawn criticism from other reviewers, who say that a particular brand of corruption and specific scandals are hardly representative of any country, especially one as large and heterogeneous as China.  However, the authors themselves note the limitations of their “human interest” approach; in one memorable passage they imagine that the tables are turned, and a Chinese journalist who covered an American beat strictly in terms of its horrifyingly violent street crime would be scandalized that despite the high murder rate, most Americans simply go about their everyday lives not thinking much about it, and the journalist would go away with a very skewed understanding of America.  The book is also, inevitably, outdated, but remains a fascinating time capsule of the state of China watching post-Tiananmen Square. 

four stars

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Double Whammy

by Carl Hiaasen

Hot-headed private detective R. J. Decker is hired to prove that TV host Dickie Lockhart cheats to win fortunes in Florida bass-fishing tournaments. Decker soon finds out that the stakes are so high people are willing to kill to keep secrets, but he finds an ally in an apparently deranged, roadkill-eating hermit who calls himself Skink, as well as a couple of honest cops.  Adding to the cast are a trio of moron hillbillies, an amoral hottie who seduces Decker and helps frame him for murder, and the good Reverend Weeb, Lockhart's sponsor on the Outdoor Christian Network, whose hobbies include prostitutes, fake faith healing, and land-grabbing.

It’s just as madcap as the summary sounds, with colorful heroes and villains (such as the killer who spends the final scenes of the novel with a decapitated, rotting bulldog’s head clamped on his gangrenous arm). This is the second Hiaasen novel I’ve read, and it’s seems much of a piece with Tourist Season: the same crazed pace and surreal satire, as well as the same dubious plot points (I’m not sure how the gruesome death of Decker’s client, after the death of Lockhart, helps Decker fight the charge of blackmail and murder).  It’s not worth dissecting, of course; it’s just manic zany fun.

three stars

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Lost on Planet China

by J. Maarten Troost

[subtitle: The Strange and True Story of One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation, or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid]

Troost, in no way a China expert but a veteran traveler, spends several months in China, from Beijing to Hong Kong, from small villages to Ferrari dealerships in Shanghai.  Troost does his homework and gives a good account of some of the history behind the places he visits, such as how the Yongle emperor, Zhu Di, exterminated his enemies’ families “to the tenth degree.”  His own personal observations, such as just how pestilential the polluted air of China’s cities is, are of more value than statistics about China’s carbon footprint.  Troost is a highly amusing and empathetic writer and has produced a very good resource for someone’s first book on Western travel in China.

If, however, if it is one’s tenth or twentieth travel book on China, this book offers mostly the same old same old: the language uses ideograms instead of an alphabet; Chinese people have no sense of personal space; they hack big nasty loogies on the street; they eat dogs and cats and live octopus; they drive at unsafe speeds and never stop laying on the horn; they don’t form orderly lines.  And so on.  Troost has no understanding of the Chinese language and at one point gives misinformation on how dictionaries are used.  It’s hard to imagine that anyone would go to, say, Poland knowing nothing about it and come back confident enough to write an entire book, starting with such wide-eyed ignorance as “their language has a lot of k’s and j’s and l’s!”  Yet this is exactly what every new Western traveler to China does.  This is a well-written and often funny book, but a non-essential addition to the endless parade of “China sure is foreign” books. 

three stars

Monday, November 5, 2012

Time's Witness

by Michael Malone

The sequel to Uncivil Seasons.  This time, it is Cuddy Mangum, now police chief in Hillston, who is the narrator, and the eccentric scion of North Carolina aristocracy Justin Savile, now married and an expectant father, is relegated to a minor role.  In this novel, George Hall, a black man on Death Row for the murder seven years previously of an off-duty white cop in a bar in the black side of town, is given an unexpected reprieve by the governor.  The governor is running for reelection against war hero Andrew Brookside, whose heiress wife, Lee, just happens to be an old flame of Cuddy’s and whom he still loves desperately.  When Hall’s brother, a vocal activist, is shot and killed, Cuddy starts to uncover a vast web of conspiracy and crime, from gun smuggling out of a rich paper magnate’s factory, to political intrigues by white power militia yahoos, to attempted blackmail of the philandering Brookside, to underhanded brinksmanship by the governor.  After Cuddy’s friend, larger-than-life attorney Isaac Rosethorn, gets George Hall a new trial, some of these secrets threaten to come into the light, and Cuddy is targeted by the now-fugitive rogue cops.

Over 535 pages with a cast of dozens, this opus evokes not just the south, or the American justice system, but all of life’s rich pageant: the tattered glory of very old, very rich families who believe their money grants them superiority; the casual racism of the populace; the institutionalized racism of the death penalty, especially in the south; the dizzying highs and crushing lows of love won and lost.  There are no “good guys,” and characters who come into conflict with Cuddy are not straw men but fully realized characters who have their own ideals and morals.  Characters get married, have children, die; Cuddy tries to maintain his equilibrium as he walks a fine line between his affair with Lee, providing protection to Brookside, who has been getting death threats, and uncovering possible malfeasance in his lover’s husband’s campaign.  Malone is a fine writer, capable of pathos, Wodehousian wit (“Fattie’s whole body, of which there was an unbridled glut, relaxed with a shiver…”), action, suspense, romance, and deep perspicacity.  Malone doesn’t shy away from any issues; the novel culminates in a searing courtroom speech at Hall’s retrial, then quietly notes that about a month after this sensationalist event, another black man was executed without fanfare.  This may not be the Great American Novel, but it’s a contender for the Great American Novel About Justice.

five stars

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

One, Two, Three: Absolutely Elementary Mathematics

by David Berlinski

The author, a mathematics and philosophy professor, writes about the basic concepts of simple arithmetic (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division), starting with the premise that numbers exist outside of human endeavor, then on to the definition of addition (which is just adding by one), lingering at the problem of zero, then through some rather convoluted proofs of various theorems, to stop at the abstract algebraic concepts of rings (structures which include sets of integers and provide the definition of addition and multiplication) and fields (which define division through multiplicative inverses).

If the summary above makes it seem as though this is a jaunt through the math you learned in elementary school, think again: “The recursion theorem justifies definitional descent by drawing a connection between the recipe or algorithm embodied in definitional descent and the existence of a unique function, the one that definitional descent has presumably defined.”  Berlinski is often this recursive; I often found myself wondering what was being proved or defined, and what was being simply assumed.   But aside from tortuous mathematical definitions, the book is written in an airy, conversational, sometimes jocular (sometimes smug) tone, with many sentences given their own paragraphs in order to give them Weight.  Berlinski is even quite funny, as when he discusses Guiseppe Peano (whose axioms provide the groundwork for what Berlinksi attempts to show) and his bizarre simplified Latin that no one used or understood, or when he imagines early mathematicians’ dialogue when encountering the apparent absurdity that is negative numbers (“Can I do that?” “Why not?” “I’m just asking.” “What next?  I mean besides giving up.  That always works”).  As a philosophical treatise on the concept of mathematics itself, the book makes some trenchant points (“across the vast range of arguments [in psychology, logic, physics, etc.]… it is only within mathematics that arguments achieve the power to compel allegiance because they are seen to command assent”).  But as a tour of elementary abstract principles, it’s a bit abstruse for the layman.  I enjoyed his insights on sets and some of the simpler chapters, but finished the book feeling as though Berlinski was a bit too clever for his own good, and yet not quite clever enough to make it all clear.

two stars

Thursday, October 25, 2012


by John Scalzi

In a galaxy far, far away, a group of ensigns and other junior officers aboard the “Intrepid” (flagship of the Universal Union, their mission to boldly go…) notice that strange things are afoot on this ship.  Everything seems off, from the bizarre over-dramatic way their captain and commander act, to the ridiculously high fatality rate of junior officers on away missions, to the flat-out illogical events that seem to occur on a weekly basis (why do they always send the navigator out on away missions?  Why do only decks six through twelve sustain damage during fights?  Why do electrical components on the bridge sustain visible damage when the ship’s hull is hit with a torpedo?).  With the help of an eremitic engineer who has spent his entire career hidden in the cargo tunnels to escape the captain’s notice, the crew realizes to their horror that, as real as their pasts and their experiences are to themselves, they are actually figures on a weekly television show (“and not a very good one”) produced in Hollywood, 2012.  The crew concocts a ludicrous plot to go back in time and across the galaxy to confront their writer, and the actors that play them, to stop the show, and thus the carnage that impacts their own very real lives.

This is a pretty fun, but flawed, book that doesn’t take itself too seriously – though that might be a point against it, really.  I felt that Scalzi used the meta-Narrative trope a bit too liberally, serving to excuse rather clunky chunks of exposition at times, especially at the beginning.  Though the idea and the execution is quite good, Scalzi’s prose is unimpressive; he seems firmly in the camp of “tell don’t show” when it comes to character interaction.  He constantly uses shorthand for emotion rather than description, using bland phrases such as “Duvall sat down, pissed,” or “’Thanks,’ Dahl said, irritated” or “he gave her a ‘what?’ look.”  Scalzi also seems to think he has to explain jokes that would better off remaining subtle, as when an officer and the actor that plays him do a “freckle check” to ensure their exact match; this seems to me to be obvious, with no explanation needed, but Scalzi explains it anyway.  He does this a lot: “’You met Lou at Pomona,’ Samantha says, mentioning her sister’s alma mater.”  That last phrase is so unnecessary it’s distracting: clearly if one says you met your spouse at college, it’s understood that you attended that college with him, not that, say, you drove by one day and picked him up there.  Finally, I felt that Scalzi didn’t think through the finer points of his universe.  For example, the writer makes a decision to not televise the final show, hoping that it will affect the Universal Union universe “anyway;” since an enormous amount of life and happiness depends on this final show, it seems absurd that he would so recklessly gamble that such a change (never tested, unrepeatable, and unobservable) wouldn’t scuttle everything.  I did enjoy the four final endings, which wrapped up a lot of the minor plot points.  I felt that Scalzi was at his best here, putting a human face on the tragedies, loves, and challenges of the various people (once unnamed characters who became real people with entire lives and dreams) who were affected by the show’s universe-altering properties.  So, nitpicking aside, this was a good read, and quite clever overall.

four stars

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Whipping Boy

by Sid Fleischman

The 1987 Newbery Winner, this fanciful tale is set in a quasi-medieval kingdom, and tells of the arrogant Prince Brat (as everyone calls him; his real name is Horace) and the titular Whipping Boy who has been impressed into service as the stand-in for all the punishments the Prince would get for his behavior, were he not of royal blood.  When the clever whipping boy, Jemmy, decides to run away, the sullen, lonely prince insists on accompanying him.  They are immediately captured and held for ransom by two doltish outlaws, then manage to escape, but remain only a few steps ahead of the pair.

This is a fun, lightweight adventure, full of memorable period characters such as the illiterate outlaw Hold-Your-Nose Billy (so named for his garlicky breath), Captain Nips the hot-potato seller, and Betsy who displays a trained bear for cash.  It’s a good mixture of silliness and suspense in tone.  Fleischman skillfully shows not only a gradual change in the prince, as he is shamed by being mistaken for the whipping boy, since he is lazy and illiterate himself, then saddened to learn what people think of him; but he also manipulates the readers’ expectations by showing that the prince’s life, in its own way, has been oppressive and unfair to him.  When Jemmy learns that he is wanted for “abducting” the prince, he hopes that he and Horace have actually become friends during their adventure.  A very enjoyably, witty tale.

four stars

Monday, October 15, 2012

What the Dog Saw And Other Adventures

by Malcolm Gladwell

A collection of Gladwell’s articles from “The New Yorker” – musings on what makes people tick, why some ideas fail, and how well we can predict a person’s success in a particular field, profiles of leaders, “obsessives,” and quirky geniuses.  As with all of Gladwell’s books, he turns every story into a human-interest story, every idea into a lesson about what humans believe in their innermost souls.  So the tireless Ron Popeil (of Ronco fame) and Cesar Milan and the female copy writers behind hair dye ad campaigns have in common not just “obsessiveness” and passion, but also a knowledge about what makes the world tick that makes their success seem inevitable.  He investigates the unusual approach to the stock market of Nassim Taleb (of Black Swan fame, although the profile predates that best-seller), the Enron collapse, the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster, not by rehashing old stories but by looking at them through the eyes of his subjects.

This is the main point shared by the various stories: can we learn from those who see things differently?  What is Cesar Milan thinking when he trains a dog?  (He seems to be thinking you’re not a very intelligent person if you fawn over a dog after it misbehaves.)  More to the point, what is the dog thinking?  (Here is someone who will tell me what to do, at last.)  What were the Enron executives thinking?  (As it turns out, they were victims of what Carol Dweck called the “fixed” mindset in her very good book Mindset).   Why don’t we manage hopeless cases of alcoholism and homelessness better, by setting them up to succeed rather than picking them up and hospitalizing them every time they fall?  (Because we don’t find the idea fair, although it would be cheaper.)  Not everything in the book is pure genius.  The section on what it takes to be a good teacher, while well-intentioned, is so ignorant of the subject (he swallows what the “experts” tell him without question) that I wondered what else he might have missed that I don’t know enough about to catch.  But even when Gladwell’s conclusions are a bit off, the book still beguiles.  Gladwell’s moody, affable, warm prose is a huge help, but his real skill is in social psychology, of making even the most discussed events (such as Enron and Challenger) fresh by looking at them as a human story: not populated by villains and victims but by flawed people who fall into patterns and make mistakes and start getting lax about the future because things have worked out in the past.  By turning dry news stories into compelling tales of everyday life that can teach us about what we like and don’t like (why doesn’t ketchup come in varieties?), Gladwell makes us think about cause and effect, and may just make us think about why we do the things we do.

four stars

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Maniac Magee

by Jerry Spinelli

This 1991 Newbery winner tells of Jeffrey Magee, an orphan boy who runs from his unloving aunt and uncle’s house and keeps on running.  Possessed of a preternatural athletic talent, he passes, throws and catches his way across the playgrounds and fields of working-class and racially divided town Two Mills, dubbed “Maniac” for his skill.  Eschewing school but loving books, he sleeps in a band shell, someone’s shed, even a zoo, when he isn’t being adopted by any family that will take him in.  Magee is unusual in not just his athleticism, fearlessness and nomadic life, but also in his ignorance of race relations and his near-inability to see why anyone should care about skin color.  So he trots from the east end of the town to the west, making friends equally, but also making enemies because of his blithe acceptance of everyone, and their acceptance of him.

Despite such heady themes, this is a fun, rollicking story, equal parts modern legend (told as if looking back long after the facts have become lost, in the language of legend, starting with “They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump…”) and morality tale.  Over a series of vignettes, Spinelli shows how Maniac becomes known, then respected, until finally… Well, the climax is a bit of an anti-climax, in that Magee inspires change rather than trailblazing it himself, but perhaps that’s a point in its favor.  Maniac is a hero, certainly, but he’s a product of his fears and the losses in his life as well as his persistence and friendliness; his speed and physical skill may be fictional, but his character is real.

four stars

Friday, October 5, 2012

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance

by Atul Gawande

The author, a general surgeon, discusses some challenges and discoveries of the medical field, and what qualities it takes to improve performance.  Drawing on the history of medicine and his own experiences, he investigates not only what makes improvement, but how it is implemented.  For example, the simple act of hand-washing nearly removed the risk of “childbed fever,” an infection which killed newborns; but the successful implementation of hand-washing in an institution comes not by diktat but through spreading positive deviance – seeing where it has become acceptable and trumpeting those practices – hoping to turn the deviance into the norm by giving a voice to those already successful at it. He also writes of watching doctors in India campaign to eradicate polio, a gargantuan endeavor which works not through some miracle pill but through diligence, the simple but exhausting legwork of knocking on doors and spreading the word.  He looks at innovation, such as Virginia Apgar’s eponymous test, which is so simple and so obvious, yet drastically improved infant survival rates simply by quantifying results and giving surgeons a number to beat.  Or Watson Bowes, a doctor of obstetrics who also improved infant survival rates simply by treating premature babies as though he expected them to thrive.  Gawande also discusses some other facets of medical culture, such as malpractice, wages, and lethal injection, but these – while interesting – are vaguer musings compared to the book’s overall arguments about the application of improvement.

It’s a compelling book, written in clear, assured, intelligent prose.  Gawande posits that success comes not through science but mainly through performance (as with Indian doctors whom he witnessed perform surgeries in impoverished hospitals with very few instruments, make do with what they had and improvise where they could, but in no event just give up).  This conclusion is both heartening and demoralizing, the former because it is so simple – merely expanding current know-how and following basic guidelines can improve survival rates dramatically – but it is also demoralizing because it raises the question of why these simple steps are not already being taken, and it makes us realize that our doctors are fallible, sometimes arrogant and stubborn, humans like the rest of us.

four stars

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Barrel Fever

by David Sedaris

A collection of short fiction pieces – parodies, flights of fancy bordering on the absurd, and the blackest of black-humor riffs on dysfunctional families – followed by Sedaris’ debut and best-known memoir, “SantaLand Diaries,” and a few other humorous essays.

As a great fan of Sedaris, I’ve read all of his work, and enjoyed this book the least.  As a fiction writer, Sedaris makes a damn fine essayist; I found his stories to be either too fantastic to be meaningful (“Don’s Story,” in which an obnoxious unemployed man is fawned over by Hollywood, and everyone else, for no reason at all; “Parade,” in which an obnoxious man has a series of unlikely lovers, from Charleton Heston to Mike Tyson), or simply too grim to be funny (“The Last You’ll Hear From Me,” in which a woman plans to incite violence at her funeral, “Season’s Greetings,” a truly repulsive story in which a psychotic woman kills a baby by putting it in the dryer and tries to blame it on her husband’s Vietnamese war child; “Barrel Fever,” in which a man recalls his mother’s passive-aggressive nastiness, and defends his own obnoxious behavior when drinking).

Of course there’s humor to be found in dysfunction – it’s what Sedaris made his career out of – but in fiction, Sedaris treats his demons not as things to be deflated through observation, but as therapy.  “SantaLand Diaries,” which I’ve heard before, was fantastic, and the other essays, about smoking, being an apartment cleaner in New York, and writing for a kink magazine, were good as well, but they did not make up for the sour taste the stories left.  

two stars

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Dharma Bums

by Jack Kerouac

Ray Smith (a stand-in for Kerouac himself), an itinerant poet, and his friend Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder) search for an affirmative way of life in the mindless bustle of the modern era.  Preferring cabins and hiking to cities and desk jobs, the two live a Bohemian existence, getting drunk, bedding willing girls, and reciting haikus when inspiration strikes.  Parties that last days and involve casual nudity and sex (though Ray seems to be eschewing sex, or simply can’t get lucky), hitch-hiking, poetry readings, and hikes to Desolation Peak are funded by the occasional job as a fire watcher up in the mountains.  Along with other poets who live similar lives (every character is a pastiche of one of the figures in the Beat movement), they try to live a western version of Buddhism; they have differing ideas on how to live the dharma way, but call themselves equally bhikkhus (monks) and have good intentions. What they have in common is an inability to abide, or intense distaste for, the middle-class way of life in 1950s America.  Ray stays on his mother’s property and spends his nights meditating, derided as a bum by his brother-in-law; Japhy sets out for a lengthy retreat in Japan.

Primary to this soulful novel is an honest, exuberant search for a life full of meaning – not necessarily a stoic life or even one beyond material concerns, but a meaningful one.  Reading this novel at past forty, with my own insignificant flirtations with Buddhism, Zen, hitch-hiking and so on behind me, I’m not sure it has the power to move me.  It probably retains the power to inspire even this modern generation of starry-eyed college students, however, if they could get past the sometimes primitive attitudes toward women Kerouac seems to have had.  The novel is a little goofy and a bit slipshod in places (he accidentally calls Zaphy “Gary” once), but Ray is a charming, guileless character, and maintains a quiet assurance in the ability for a clear-eyed person to make his own truth.

three stars

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Known To Evil

by Walter Mosley

The second Leonid McGill crime novel.  Leonid McGill, still haunted by the guilt of the  bad things he used to do (or so he says, but the examples given of his supposed misdeeds seem very mild), is asked to track down a woman for “the most powerful man in New York.”  He is also consumed with helping out a former victim who has just been arrested on baseless terrorism charges, rescuing his son’s girlfriend from her violent pimp, and managing the tightrope between his loveless marriage and the women he beds.  As he puts himself in more and more danger for his son, his victim, and the missing girl, he unravels a strange story of corporate corruption.

I called the first McGill novel, The Long Fall, a mixed bag; this one is even less impressive, sadly (as I have enjoyed Mosley’s books before).  The plotlines are barren of drama, because the supporting characters aren’t fully developed, because McGill is too introspective and fearless for the reader to feel any tension when he is captured and worked over, and because finally the reasoning behind the various plots is so outlandish.  McGill moves in lush, wealthy circles as well as shady, underground ones, but the tone of the novel is so closed in by McGill’s constant ruminations, there’s little difference between the two.  The ending is awkward and poorly explained (the villain of the piece is, simply, “insane,” lacking any real motive), but even if it weren’t, the book would still be uninteresting.  Mosley writes good terse prose, but the world of McGill is rendered sadly cartoonish in its absolutes: McGill knows no fear, but constructs spy-worthy escape plots.  He has a target on his back painted by everyone from police captains to hired thugs, yet he snarls insults at everyone who threatens him, and never gets comeuppance, no matter how over-powered.  He is retired from the crime game, but keeps up with an extensive network of criminals and stone-cold killers who apparently owe him unwavering loyalty. He’s short and ugly, but women throw themselves at him.  And Mosley’s portrayal of the world of power is simply so cartoonish it’s absurd.  One crowning unintentionally funny moment comes when McGill gives a friend a “special 911 line” that is used by the ultra-rich, that brings a squad of SWAT agents coming double-time; I was reminded of Homer in “The Simpsons,” being told to use the “real” emergency number – 912 – when he is admitted to the world of the Stonecutters.

two stars

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Stieg Larsson
translated by Reg Keeland

Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist for a progressive magazine who has just been convicted for libel, is hired by a wealthy businessman to find out what happened to his niece, Harriet Vanger, forty years ago.  Assumed long since to have been murdered, Harriet vanished from the town where her dysfunctional, eccentric family lived and worked; her uncle Henrik is convinced one of his family members did it.  Blomkvist takes the job reluctantly, seeing few options elsewhere; he is joined by tattooed, withdrawn hacker genius Lisbeth Salander, a freelance investigator who clearly is facing demons from her own past.  Together they uncover an evil that not only lurks within the family, as Henrik feared, but is still very much active.

This is an addictive page turner, with well-drawn, flawed characters who elicit sympathy by virtue of a stubborn desire to see justice done, as well as the sheer quality of being the underdog.  With a dozen or so suspects and a crime so long cold, the mystery gets a bit raveled, but Larsson shows Blomkvist’s careful reconstruction step by step, and it feels fairly natural that he should have uncovered something new after so much time.  On the other hand, Lisbeth’s hacker skills are treated a bit like magic – she gets everything they need, without any trouble; especially near the end when she helps wrap up the libel case, this is hard to swallow (a hunted man who deals in electronic funds would surely grow a bit more circumspect regarding his computer security?).  As for the main plot, it comes to a very satisfying (if easily guessed) conclusion – though this, too, has its flaws: the victim’s continued total silence on her tormentors seems improbable, given that Henrik might have been alerted with a single quick untraceable call assuring him all was well.  But despite these nitpicks, the book is engrossing and generally well-plotted.  Besides, as with most stories of this type, it’s the characters who matter, not so much the minutiae of the plot.  Worrying, womanizing Blomkvist, and sullent, taciturn, uncompromising Lisbeth, are the real draws of the book.

four stars

Monday, September 10, 2012

Trauma: My Life as an Emergency Surgeon

by James Cole

The author trained to be a surgeon in the Navy and worked with Special Operations and attached to a SEAL team, as well as working as a trauma surgeon in El Paso.  He describes his medical training, which took place in the days when interns were on call for mind-numbingly long hours, for days on end, or saw patients for an entire shift without a food or restroom breaks.  He discusses the details of operations to address gun shots, stabbings, motorcycle wrecks, attempted suicide by crossbow, and brutal beatings.  He also relates the grueling conditions under which he served as a surgeon in Iraq after 9/11.  Through it all, Cole muses on the human capacity for evil and for recovery; he also expounds on how the military and medicine have blessed him with the opportunities to do good, an expanded world view, and a sense of empathy.

It’s an interesting book to the layman; Cole does an admirable job of explaining the steps of various surgeries, though he can’t help but deluge the reader with medical jargon.  The book could have used a surer hand at the editorial wheel: Cole is prone to overblown phrases such as “sanguineous fluid” for “blood,” uses “so” as “very,” makes minor mistakes such as saying “no more painful than” when he means “no less painful than,” and litters commas without much thought as to their relations to clauses.   Absentee editorship aside, this is a very interesting book, a look into two worlds – that of intense life-saving surgery and that of the military – that the layman rarely sees so up close and personal.  Cole comes across as proud of his extensive and admirable accomplishments, as he should be, but his authorial voice is reined in, expansive, and empathetic as he provides candid insight into these worlds.  

four stars

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans: The Best of McSweeney's Humor Category

edited by Dave Eggers

A collection of brief humor pieces from the literary magazine and website, written mostly by unknowns and showcasing its erudite, absurdist slant.  As with any florilegium such as this, it’s a hit and miss collection.  The relatively lengthy piece explaining that the Supreme Court’s decisions are actually arrived at through basketball games played by the justices is far too overblown and tedious; I found Neal Pollack’s nonsensical “Trinity” to be the least funny thing that ever attempted to be funny.  Mostly the value in this collection is in the ultra-short, dry pieces that approach pop culture straight-faced, as if it were academia, such as “Pop Quiz,” in which the narrator cluelessly answers song titles that are questions (“Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” – “they have lower standards”), or the interviews with Goofus and Gallant’s friends and co-workers to explain what “pushed Gallant over the edge.”  Fun, quick reading, non-essential but worth dipping into.

three stars

Thursday, August 30, 2012

One Of Ours

by Willa Cather

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this is the story of Claude Wheeler, an American farm boy who grows to manhood convinced that there is something more “splendid about life” than the quotidian existence he sees around him, that will be his future.  Frustrated at his inability to attend anything but a small religious college, and entranced by glimpses of a more daring family who engage in intellectual debate and love the arts, he gets married but finds that his wife, too, lives only for Christian missionary work; sex and making a family mean nothing to her.  He volunteers when World War I breaks out, and finds what he is looking for overseas.  He becomes convinced he has found his true place in the world when he reaches the French countryside, despite the fierce fighting and disease that he faces.

It’s a slow-moving, lyrical novel, a portrait of a rural, agricultural, unsophisticated, isolationist, labor-intensive America, an America on the cusp of modernity, with no more wilderness to tame but without the worldliness and comforts of the post-WWII boom.  I believe the book has been criticized for its third-hand scenes of war, but I found nothing particularly jarring or awkward about them as a reader; indeed, I was impressed with Cather’s ability to write so easily about this very male world.  In all it’s a good book, perhaps a bit dated now and so not apt to change the reader’s life; but this very American tale of redemption and risk, of a man making his own way in a stifling world, is enhanced by Cather’s strong, romantic prose.

three stars

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Soul Circus

by George Pelecanos

The third Derek Strange novel.  Because of some guilt over the long-buried past, Strange feels obligated to get to the bottom of charges against a drug dealer (Granville Oliver, the same one arrested at the end of Hell To Pay, now facing the death penalty).  One brave young woman with a small child is willing to speak up, simply because she doesn’t appreciate being threatened, and Strange tries his best to keep her safe while balancing his new-found happy family life and work.  Meanwhile his hot-tempered white partner, Terry Quinn, is happy with his relationship and helping his girlfriend out with a missing girl case, unwilling to do anything that might exonerate Oliver, who is certainly a bad guy.

As usual, Pelecanos creates a grim tableau of the modern city and its culture of poverty, crime, and drugs: hard-eyed, armed young men who kill each other over a slight, and mock anyone and anything that doesn’t fit in their narrow understanding.  Much of this book’s tone and background are of a piece with his earlier writing: big-breasted women who never need foreplay, men who are fixated on said breasts, big muscle cars, tape decks, gun culture, the streets of Washington, ethnic eateries. At times, again, Pelecanos’ ultra-macho writing slips into defensiveness, as when he has Strange watch a woman’s ass as she walks off “without guilt,” even though she was a friend, because “he had to,” because he “was a man,” even a happily married one.  Or, in a debate about guns, he has a character who is for banning handguns in DC qualify his position with, “I’m a man.  I like the way guns feel in my hand” – as if, in either of these passages, he needed to assure his readers that these characters were totally manly hetero men, man.  There’s no problem with having Strange watch a woman’s ass, but I question Pelecanos’ apparent need to justify the scene, or justify a character’s political stance, without beating the reader upside the head with their manliness.  But that’s just a distracting aside; Pelecanos’ gritty city streets are compelling, and he certainly knows how to throw the reader a curveball – no one is bulletproof.

four stars

Monday, August 20, 2012

An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies

by Tyler Cowen

The author, a professor of economics, writes about everything food-related, from “how American food got bad” (answer: Prohibition, watered-down immigrant food, the modern mania for catering to kids’ tastes) to eating great barbecue, from the delusion of the locavore movement to how to shop astutely at small groceries, from tips on finding a great restaurant (answer: find a hole in the wall with low overhead and loyal customers) to why Mexican food tastes better in Mexico (answer: America’s ingredients are fresher and safer but perforce blander due to transport, regulations and freezing; Mexico’s cheeses are richer and unpasteurized so banned in the USA).

I enjoyed this book, some sections more than others.  His long chapter on barbecue covered some very old ground gone over years ago by Calvin Trillin; his “finding great food anywhere” section is disappointingly vague (London is expensive if you’re not eating fish and chips; you can get good ingredients in Germany thanks to the EU).  The chapter on Mexican food, with its discussion of Mexican traditions of dry aging (again, largely considered unsafe in the USA) and fresh though limited ingredients, was highly informative.   And although I’m not sure his claim that Prohibition hit American dining so hard is still valid today, he makes a thought-provoking case about American blandness.  Despite the title, much of this book might have been written by anyone who enjoys food and travels a lot.  That’s too bad, because Cowen is most interesting when he uses economic arguments.  For example, he makes a case for GMOs (which lower overall food prices); attacks the locavore movement by noting that food transport costs are very low and what would really help the planet would be eating less meat, not fewer French cheeses; suggests that eating sardines has ecological value because they are at the bottom of the food chain; and advocates the spread of modern agribusiness giants to combat starvation.  I don’t agree with it all, but it’s always interesting to see things from a new angle.  I would have liked to have read less of Cowen’s salivating over barbecue and more economic analysis of the politics of food. 

three stars

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics

by Steven E. Landsburg

Windbaggery follows.

The author, an economist and columnist, uses cost-benefit analysis to tackle some thorny social issues, from the polygamy of the title to such varied topics as giving to charity, overpopulation, euthanasia, the global preference for baby boys vs. girls, disaster relief, the benefits of being tall and/or beautiful, the American propensity for self-denial, flaws in the justice system, and outsourcing jobs.  Not only does he apply the principle of costs vs. benefits to these issues, he argues that this is the only rational way to approach them, dismissing in most cases such flimsy notions as patriotism or religion or human compassion.  (In fact, he would say that cost-benefit analysis is the only compassionate route in the case of, say, taking a comatose woman off a respirator, since that respirator is then freed for someone who will presumably gain more benefit from it).   He’s an intelligent writer who argues deftly, and his writing has the cocksure tone of the experienced professor, mixed with the somewhat defensive attitude of one who has heard many counter-arguments and gotten a lot of mail about his opinions before.  The crux of his political thought is that if you’re not “footing the bill” (in various ways, not always with actual dollars), what others do is none of your business; this free-market libertarianism allows him to argue that, for instance, companies are doing the right thing by outsourcing jobs, as the jobs in India are just as “valuable” in an economic sense as an American one.  That this should not be true to an American is lost on him.

Reading this book, which of course I found much to disagree with about, I was reminded of Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge, which makes a distinction between Humans, who do not always act rationally and have preferences for things that sometimes are not valuable, and Econs, who think everyone always knows what their neighbor is doing and include all available data in their calculations before acting.  Landsburg is the consummate Econ – absolutely uncompromising, equating rationality with validity in every case, and nearly pod-like in his refusal to understand why his solutions would not work in the real world of irrational, patriotic, religious, humans, who cry over a picture of one hurt puppy but don’t blink at news reports of human massacres.  This leads Landsburg to some bizarre conclusions, such as his argument that the world needs more people or that the world’s oil will not be over-used: since over-population and oil use must, according to Econ-style analysis, be voluntary, it will always serve our needs.  (This is, of course, total nonsense; even if there was one person in the world and one can of oil, he could burn all his oil in one day and then be cold for the rest of his life, thus over-using it; and in the real world no one knows what others are doing with their oil use.)  Landsburg’s Econ analysis also leads him to appear creepy and off-putting, as when he describes his daughter as a “cost.”

At times he is being jocular, as when he suggests that firefighters should be paid in the loot they save from fires; at other times he seems to be serious when he suggests the President of the USA be paid in land grants across the country, as if anyone becomes president for the big cash salary.  All the time, his insistence of every action being a “cost” makes him appear downright obtuse, as when he claims that while a polluter might be costing a swimmer the ability to swim, the swimmer is costing the polluter the chance to dump gunk in the water!  He really goes off the rails when he equates conservation with robbing the poor (people today) to give to the super-rich (our grand-children, who will surely be more prosperous than us!) – he seems truly unable to understand that a conservationist is not interested in transferring income but slowing consumption.  Finally, although he’s clearly a very smart guy, he cheats on some of his own arguments, as when he claims that a husband who wants to bury his brain-dead wife is “preventing” the woman’s parents from feeding her and thus the parents have the greater claim – but he never classifies the parents as the “preventers,” who are stopping the husband from enjoying his right to bury.  He also ignores his own respirator argument from earlier in the book: in feeding the daughter, the parents are selfishly “preventing” others from benefiting from the respirator, but he never mentions this.  In short, some of Landburg’s arguments made me consider my assumptions.  Some made me want to be in his class so I could ask follow-up questions.  Some made me want to punch him in his stupid face.  This must be, then, a very successful book: it captivated me and made me think about some things from an angle I’d never considered.  I was engaged and enraged, and isn’t that a good thing? 

four stars

Friday, August 10, 2012

Daniel Boone

by Jame Daugherty

The 1940 Newbery winner, this biography of the Kentucky frontiersman is a mixture of fact and probable legend.  It tells of Boone’s life in bits and pieces, from his birth in Pennsylvania to his trapping and trading and Indian-fighting in the wilderness of Kentucky.  The picture Daugherty paints is of a bluff, honest, uncompromising but friendly figure.  The Boone this book gives us is a family man, patriot, and resourceful hunter, and little else.  He fights against the British and the Indians, is captured by Chief Blackfish and is adopted into the Shawnee tribe, but escapes and returns to his countrymen, of course.  He founds a frontier town in Kentucky, Boonesborough, and works as a pathfinder in the wilderness.  A simple man who can read and write, but not nearly as well as he can shoot and hunt and track, Boone tries his hand at farming, public office, soldiering, even land speculation (though he is far too kindhearted and naïve to make money at it, and loses all the land he fought so hard to claim).  Poor for much of his life, hunting skins to make a living, stoic about the death of his son Israel, he is portrayed here as the consummate early American: tough, proud, self-sufficient, uncomplaining.

Daugherty has a way with words and there are some quite lyrical passages.  It also can be bombastic, reveling in what Daughtery considers natural glory but what the modern reader might consider land-grabbing colonialism. At times the book tries so hard to be home-spun and aw-shucks and evocative of frontier spirit (“they waddled west as soon as they could stagger… they wrassled the wild cats and they romped with wolves”) that it comes of as totally charmless.  But it also has some charm, as when, for example, Daughtery quotes Boone as saying he was never lost, “but I was right bewildered once for three days.”  

three stars

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome

by Steven Saylor

An epic biography of the city, spanning a thousand years from the first meeting of traders across the as-yet unnamed hills to the rise of Augustus Caesar.  Legendary figures such as Romulus and Remus are made historical, and Saylor even gives one possible source for the birth of the legends of Hercules and his vanquishing of the monster Cacus.  Obviously, with a tome this vast, the narrative skips staccato-like over decades and centuries, but Saylor makes stops at all the high and low points: the rise and fall of the hero-turned traitor Coriolanus; the sack of Rome by the Gauls; the invasion of Hannibal; the attempt of the Gracchi to reform the class system and their subsequent assassination; the rise and death of Julius Caesar.

I was mostly disappointed in this book.  In many ways it reminded me of Edward Rutherfurd’s Sarum, also the epic biography of a city that follows the rise and fall in fortunes of very old families in the city.  This book has some of Sarum’s flaws, as well, especially its didactic, lecturing tone.  I’m a fan of Saylor’s Sub Rosa series, and sadly, I didn’t get that feel of being totally immersed in a  time and culture that I do in the Gordianus books.  For the most part, these characters don’t visit the baths or watch gladiators or visit slave markets or play ancient dice games or walk dusty streets shoulder to shoulder with slaves, soldiers, and philosophers; they sit around and explain their surroundings.  It’s understandable that Saylor wants to keep the readers abreast of the years of history he must perforce glide over, but the result is a book that is often dry and extremely exposition-heavy, particularly between eras.  I found myself wondering how it would sound if in a novel set during, say, World War II, a character were to say to another, “You know, of course, how Germany’s dictator, Hitler, has invaded Poland, and that our current leader, Churchill, advocates nothing but total war, in stark contrast to his predecessor Chamberlain, who is popularly regarded as an appeaser.”  It would sound forced and wholly artificial, just as Saylor’s quite similar explanations do.  Even worse, his exposition is not limited to historical forces.  Saylor has characters saying such things as “My son, Gaius, and my two daughters…” to people who are their close friends.  Given the length of the book and the number of personages in it, this is understandable and perhaps the most efficient way to introduce new concepts and characters, but, again, it has an artificial ring.  For these reasons, I enjoyed the book best when Saylor was sticking to history that was educated guesses (the very early days shrouded in legend), or the later, Augustian, years when everything had been established.

three stars

Monday, July 30, 2012

When You Are Engulfed In Flames

by David Sedaris

Another collection of humorous essays and ruminations by NPR’s most beloved gay expatriate memoirist.  He talks about his travels to Japan (covering previously beaten ground by taking language classes, as he did in France); his visit to a medical examiner’s office (at this point in his career, it’s understandable that Sedaris has to create his own material rather than relying on reminisces or the unexpected); some first fumbling sexual explorations; his irritable, nosy, elderly New York neighbor Helen; and domestic life in Normandy.

As always, Sedaris’ writing veers from startlingly hilarious to almost poignant, then back to the absurd again.  I loved “That’s Amore,” about Helen’s near-psychotic quirks, and some of the brief pieces like “Crybaby,” in which Sedaris muses on the man next to him in first class on a plane trip, who weeps the entire time for his dead mother.  His writing skewers both the off-kilter, irrational people he meets and what he presents as his own selfish, solipsistic view of them.  The two pieces I felt were the most powerful, “All the Beauty You Will Ever Need” and “Old Faithful,” are self-deprecating, adorable, and hilarious scenes of living and growing older with his partner, Hugh.  Sedaris is a masterful essayist, and can wring more pathos out of a simple boil on his ass than most novelists can out of any number of dramatic crises. 

[read twice: 9/4/10, 7/30/12]

four stars

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children

by Wendy Mogel

The author, a psychologist who came to believe that the power of spiritual assurance and community had more of a healing power than therapy, explains how the Talmud can help parents raise children sensibly.  She asserts that the three pillars of Jewish teaching – moderation, celebration, and sanctification – can be applied to areas such as chores, eating, self-control, and stress.  She starts with the premise that children do not belong to their parents, but are a gift on loan from God, born to leave their parents.  If you accept this, is logically follows that it is a parental duty to allow their children to be a little cold or a little hungry at times, to develop their ability to handle misfortune.  She also makes use of the principle “deed over creed” – that is, good works inform good thoughts.  It’s perfectly all right for children to feel irritated, or less than compassionate, but they should discipline themselves to act appropriately.

I was astounded at how similar this book is to Simplicity Parenting: subtract the admonition that God is commanding you to do these things, and Mogel’s book is an echo of Kim Payne’s: kids need to have good role models; kids need room to explore and fall and get up on their own; kids need less material goods so they learn to feel gratitude for what they do have; families need a day a week or an hour a day to have quiet reflection  and connection; kids should get less media overload; kids need to eat what their parents eat.  Mogel’s book does have quite a few nuggets of wisdom of her own beyond the basics, though, such as her advice to reframe children’s “bad” behavior as a strength (bossiness as assurance, complaining as discerning), her sensible tips on rebuking a child so the child keeps his dignity, or her precept that it is the certainty of a consequence, not the severity, that counts when teaching children.  Still, what this all boils down to, whether cloaked in the language of family counseling or rabbinical teaching, is the most common-sense, simplistic truths.  Be a parent, not a lawyer.  Say no and mean it.  Set boundaries.  Don’t bend over backwards for your child.  Let children see the consequences of their wrong actions.  Model good behavior yourself, obviously.  Take time to be together as a family.  It’s bizarre that so many parents don’t understand these things without needing an “expert” to tell them, but there it is. 

four stars

Friday, July 20, 2012

Hell To Pay

by George Pelecanos

The second Derek Strange novel.  While his hot-headed white partner, Terry Quinn, is hired to rescue a runaway girl from a pimp, Strange gets involved in a high-profile murder case after one of the young boys on his peewee football team is shot.  With the police closing in fast, Strange must decide whether he wants the arrogant gang bangers who did the shooting to be arrested, or suffer the rough justice of a vicious drug dealer who has a personal interest in the case.

It’s another solid crime story from Pelecanos, who delivers the seedy underbelly of DC without rose-colored glasses or glorification.  He knows that every person, even the most cruel and unthinking, is a product of his culture and upbringing, so imbues even the minor villains of his story with motivation, rationalizations, and dreams, which makes their condition all the more tragic.  Derek Strange continues to be a fascinating character, a man who is weak in the ways of the flesh but with a noble spirit, a tough guy who doesn’t carry a gun, a man who’s seen a lot of violence and doesn’t want to be the cause of more.  There’s the usual man-out-of-time idiosyncrasies from Pelecanos – both protagonist and antagonist independently muse that CDs don’t have that rich “bottom sound” that vinyl does – but this is a compelling, smart noir that examines hard questions of crime, culture, and consequences without flinching.

four stars

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Lifeboat

by Charlotte Rogan

On a transatlantic cruise to America in the summer of 1914, the Empress Alexandra sinks (under somewhat vague circumstances).  Grace Winter, an attractive young woman who has just escaped her fate as a governess by seducing an already-betrothed, very wealthy man, takes to a lifeboat that is already crowded, and even less capacious than it is meant to be, due to cost-cutting by the ship's owners.  With 38 others, mostly women, Grace drifts as storms rage and water supplies dwindle.  The passengers would have perished early on if it weren’t for the single seaman among them, Mr. Hardie, who takes control of the supplies and makes God-like decisions to keep them alive: he steers the boat away from a young boy clinging to wreckage and knocks swimmers trying to climb aboard back into the water.  There is evidence that Hardie is not exactly a saint, but Grace is grateful for his ability to keep them afloat and comes to admire him deeply.  Eventually, the passengers realize that some of them must die that others may live.  However, an older woman named Mrs. Grant resents Hardie’s callous manner and unpopular decisions, and leads a mutiny against him – which Grace also goes along with.  (She presents herself, alternately, as hypnotized by the charisma of Hardie and Grant, and then as someone quite determined to survive and willing to make hard decisions on her own.)  After their rescue, Grace and Mrs. Grant are charged with murder.

It’s a fascinating book that works as a thrilling adventure at sea, an examination of the staid Edwardian mores of the era and how they crumble under the unyielding reality of nature, and it also serves as a deeper rumination on the ethics of group survival.  This is Rogan’s first novel, but she writes with a very assured tone and rich imagery (on a storm: “the boat… climbed the foamy heights of the waves and then descended into hellish troughs so that we were surrounded on four sides by walls of black water;” on thirst: “my tongue sat in my mouth like a dead animal, no longer supple and quick, but parched and cracking, like a dried and hairless mouse”).  The rickety boat, the bailing, and tensions that run increasingly fraught all come to life.  I’m not sure that Rogan adequately conveys what would have been the deplorable over-crowded conditions on the boat (although demure, not altogether reliable Grace Winter, with her Edwardian proprieties, may be the one doing the skipping over in this area).  In any case, this is a terrific book, especially for a first novel, and its ambiguity allows the reader to make his own conclusions about Grace’s culpability, or what might have been the “moral” thing to do in such a situation.

four stars

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Hunter

by Richard Stark

Parker, a brutish, gorilla of a man and a small-time crook, reluctantly takes on a job with an ex-syndicate man named Mal, who betrays Parker by convincing his wife to shoot him and leave him for dead.  A year later, out of prison and penniless, Parker tracks his wife and Mal down, then goes after the syndicate itself to get his share of the money back.

I found this book thoroughly unpleasant, with no sympathetic characters and only laughably stupid straw men for Parker to prove his toughness against.  The book’s been praised to the skies by everyone from Elmore Leonard to the New York Times, but I just don’t understand the appeal, unless the reader just enjoys the adolescent fantasy that he’s the moronic Parker.  The prose is sparse and at times ridiculous: “women in passing cars looked at him and felt vibrations in their nylons.”  The juvenile slyness of this phrase aside, it assumes all intelligent, professional women are entranced by a wife-beating idiot in grubby clothes and shoes with holes in them.  And Parker is indeed an idiot.  I found the description of his making of a fake driver’s license (he just kind of draws one and crumples it up) to be unintentionally hilarious; he starts hitting a woman who gave him perfectly good information without stopping to think about why the information isn’t useful at that specific moment; his enemies are, to a man, brainless straw men who allow him (hulking, brutal, unsmiling Parker, remember) to approach them and ask them for change before taking a gun out of his lunchbox to get the drop on them!  Yes, this really happens.  Several times.  To tough syndicate gun men who are in fact prepared and waiting for him.  The entire second half of the book, Parker vs. syndicate, is utterly absurd, from the way Parker deals with the men to his ridiculous threats against them (“pay me or I’ll start telling my friends to start robbing your shipments!” – a non-problem, surely, that they’d have encountered many times before and dealt with).  Really, the whole thing is just ludicrous, and Parker is utterly unappealing.   Did I mention that he was planning to cross Mal before he himself got crossed?  Yeah.  Uh, go, Parker?

one star

[movie note: It's worth noting that the movie, Payback, starring Mel Gibson, is orders of magnitude better than the book. The film dispenses with the unintentionally hilarious, out of touch scenes; turns Porter/Parker into less of a stupid woman-beating thug and into a guy just as tough, but who can at least feel desire, sadness, and regret; makes Mal's betrayal of Parker a true outrage rather than what Parker was going to do to him first if he didn't; gives his wife a real motive for betraying him rather than, uh, just because she's dumb I guess?; and keeps Stark's good noir dialogue. Really, watching the movie just made me realize how stupid and unappealing the book is.]

Thursday, July 5, 2012

What It Was

by George Pelecanos

The fifth Derek Strange novel.  In this, he relates a tale from 1972, when the 1968 riots were still fresh in everyone’s minds.  Strange, just starting out in his PI business, is hired to find a stolen ring.  This puts him on the trail of a notorious killer known as “Red Fury” Jones and his madam girlfriend.  Strange works alongside a tenacious white detective, Vaughn (a relic of the old days of cop work, but hiding a heart of gold under that un-PC exterior), to track down Jones as he grows ever bolder; meanwhile two vicious Italian syndicate boys follow the same trail to get the money back that Jones stole.

I’m not quite as taken with this book as I was with the previous two Pelecanos crime books I’ve read.  It’s a decent police procedural, with a cast of cold killers, scared junkies, small-time hoods, and informers that add color to crime stories.  And I enjoyed the complexities of Vaughn’s character.  But the “masculine” tone of the prose chafed me a bit – like Pelecanos was trying a bit too hard to emulate Hemingway’s ‘simple declarative sentences.”  Someone would take out a pack of cigarettes, take out a cigarette, and light it.  Or get out a record, place it on the turntable, and drop the stylus in the groove.  That step-by-step narration grows thin easily.  Also, while Pelecanos is highly skilled in depicting the practicalities and realities of seedy underworlds, his main deficiency as a writer – the sameness of his heroes’ tastes – is on full display here.  Everything is mother worship, big tits and ass, manly “needs” and muscular, sexy funk music.  A preference for slender women is likened to pedophilia, a preference for non-spicy food is dismissed as sissy.  There’s nothing wrong with having a hero or two with specific tastes and habits, but not everyone worth knowing in the book should share them.   At bottom, an author’s true calling is to find empathy in all that is human: humani nil a me alienum puto. 

three stars

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs

by Ellen Galinsky

The author, a long-time author and researcher on parenting and child development, outlines seven skills that are necessary for children (and adults) to be engaged learners and critical thinkers.  They are: (1) focus and self-control; (2) perspective taking – being flexible and reflecting about others’ feelings; (3) communicating; (4) making connections between things learned; (5) critical thinking – learning what sources of information to trust; (6) taking on challenges – overcoming stress factors; and (7) self-directed learning.  With a plethora of interesting studies on infant attention, language development, memory, parent connections, object sense, and so on, Galinsky shows how the developing brain has the potential to grasp these complex concepts.  Each chapter also has a list of suggestions parents and teachers can apply to help their children along: be the guide, not the arbiter of pretend play; teach deep ideas and explore them, not a shallow overview of a subject; give kids a degree of control over the things that scare them; let kids’ passions guide them through stress and challenges; let children remember by teaching what they’ve learned; make a point of talking about others’ feelings aloud; focus on quality and attitude and open questions rather than the quantity of books or ideas; etc.

It’s written in an easy, approachable style, with not too much of the repetition that this kind of book often has.  I enjoyed reading about the studies, though many of them (such as those that deal with language acquisition or object sense in infants) are not really applicable to my work.  There’s definitely value in these pages, but I have the same complaint (it’s not even a criticism, really, since this is an inherent quality of the genre) about this that I do with nearly every other parenting or self-help book I read: the great majority of the advice given is so basic, so common-sense and obvious, that I wonder who exactly needs it.  Obviously, there are low-income, low-education families out there who might need to be told such nuggets as, “Create an environment at home where reading is important,” or “Create a bond of trust with your child,” or “Select computer games that promote paying attention” – but are those families really reading this book?  Who is it that selects this book and reads it with purpose, and yet also needs to be told to “Talk about shapes, numbers, and quantities with your kids”?  Perhaps many people do; I find that depressing.

three stars

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Children Of Green Knowe

by L.M. Boston

Toseland, called Tolly, goes to stay with his great-great-grandmother for his holiday from boarding school.  Mrs. Oldknow lives at Green Noah, a grand old manor with beguiling decorations and strange visual effects made by mirrors and shadows.  But there are forces beyond the ordinary there, as well.  It soon becomes apparent that there are unusual presences in the house – three children, whom Tolly at first cannot see, until they get used to him and show themselves.  They are ghosts of siblings who died in the Plague centuries ago, and they take a liking to Tolly.  He explores the house and the grounds, with its magic living topiary, and finds items the children loved most in life.

I found this to be a quaint, light children’s fantasy.  It’s somewhat dreamlike in tone, with several scenes, such as Tolly’s first sight of the house and its flooded grounds, approaching by boat, that are especially otherworldly.  It’s heavy on mood, but not on plot.  Mrs. Oldknow tells a few vignettes about the children’s deeds when they were alive, but other than these, there is no conflict to speak of.  An ancient curse on one tree on the grounds provides a sort of boogeyman, but the most suspenseful, dangerous scene concerning this is an actual dream of Tolly’s.  It’s an evocative, just slightly spooky atmosphere, but without a mystery or conflict or obstacle, this is a setting in search of a plot.

three stars

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Right As Rain

by George Pelecanos

The first Derek Strange novel.  Strange, an ex-MPD cop getting into the PI business, is approached by the mother of a fellow black police officer who was shot during an arrest by a white cop, now off the force also.  The shooting was cleared, but the mother wants to clear her own son’s name, to counteract the popular image of him raving and pointing a gun at police officers.  Strange questions the shooter, a wiry bundle of rage named Terry Quinn, now working at a bookstore.  They get along, despite Quinn’s reputation and the very real racial divide.  Convinced that there is more to the shooting than appears, Strange and Quinn track the original perp in the incident and discover a connection to drug dealers both white and black, crooked cops, and maybe the dead officer’s estranged, drug-addled sister.

This is a powerful, exciting, and visceral novel.  Pelecanos knows DC streets, restaurant culture, the way criminals move and talk, types of weapons, and all the other little details that bring characters and plots to life.  He gives motivations and dreams to minor characters, dwells on the kinds of cars that a man likes only to have him killed a page later, and so on.  And of course, as with his other work, he doesn’t shy away from race.  Quinn is a good guy, but he did shoot the officer because a black man – not simply a man – was screaming at him with a gun; and everyone around him knows this.  Sure, Pelecanos writes his own interests into his characters as well – this is a world where all the women are hot and sensual and always interested and there is no foreplay; everyone worth knowing likes Western music or college rock; everyone eats oysters and spicy food and reads quality fiction.  (And also I wonder whether he meant to set this in the past, with the answering machines and tape decks – in 2001?)  But those are minor authorial quirks.  Strange and Quinn are memorable characters and serve as interesting foils; and the snappy, taut dialogue, along with a fascinating plot, kept me avidly turning the pages and rooting for the good guys, whoever they are.

four stars

Friday, June 15, 2012

Buck Fever

by Ben Rehder

Texas game warden John Marlin is called in about a strange-acting deer.  It legally belongs to crooked mogul Roy Swank, but it’s his friend’s old pet deer, so he takes it for the night.  When the deer is stolen back and his friend sent to the hospital, Marlin knows Swank is hiding something out in his ranch.  With the first day of hunting season and a big hunting party approaching, Marlin tries to find out what Swank is up to, but runs up against two greedy hillbillies and a handful of Colombian assassins and is himself held prisoner.  Swank is using the deer as drug mules, with a crooked drug-addled vet to get the cocaine out of the deer.  But the Colombians are growing impatient, and with only one honest deputy in Blanco County, Marlin has to figure a way out on his own.

This is a fun read, an almost surreal thrill ride in the style of Tim Dorsey and Carl Hiaasen, more interested in humor and mayhem than logic.  The idiot hillbilly mercenaries (whose hilarious backstory is given in a late chapter) are shot and bitten by a rattlesnake; corpses are put in trunks and forgotten; an insane ex-husband stalks the Colombian drug lord, sure he is Antonio Banderas; and so on.  This is another series worth continuing.

four stars

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Think Of a Number

by John Verson

Recently retired NYPD detective Dave Gurney, known for his serial killer collars, is approached by Mark, a college friend, now running a behavioral modification institute for the wealthy.  Mark, a Joel Osteen-type, has gotten some bizarre threatening notes, in one of which the writer has apparently guessed what number he was thinking of and written it down.  Gurney, chafing at retirement and the quietly judgmental presence of his wife, applies his obsessively analytical mind to the puzzle.  He’s inclined to dismiss the letters as the work of a crank, but then Mark is murdered in the most baffling manner, with the only clues being the careful, cunning killer’s own mocking obfuscations, such as backward footprints and wordplay.  Then, other bodies are found, killed in the same trademark fashion; and the killer leaves notice that he’s going to go after the police as well.

Overall, I enjoyed this book.  Gurney, burdened with guilt, living to work, and analytical in the extreme, is a great character, and Verdon does a terrific job showing his skills through early conversations with Mark and his wife.  The mystery is, of course, beguiling and baffling, and Verdon misdirects the reader in a lot of clever ways, with red herrings and the old “Psycho” trick of dwelling a long time on the motives and life of a character who ends up just being one of several deaths.  Indeed, I suspected Mark himself at first, and then a cop who seemed not to have proper credentials.  But the mystery is too great in scope, and Verdon drops a few balls at the end.  With the climax yet to come, it becomes very clear that a certain relatively unnoticed character is the killer, and it doesn’t jibe with Verdon’s crack team of Gurney, another dogged detective, and a forensic psychologist who are so very clever, but don’t stop to ask about what might happen to all those letters the killer sent that didn’t lead to victims.  That is to say that (1) if the killer sent out hundreds of letters, someone, probably many people, would have called the police about it, and this person would be investigated; and (2) or at the very least, they’d be indignant and contact the person at the return address.  So logically and practically, it all falls apart.  Still, though, I admire Verdon’s ambition for a first novel (and why are so many first novels about fathers with son issues or vice-versa?), and I would read a second Gurney novel.

three stars

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Long Fall

by Walter Mosley

Leonid McGill is a P.I. with a shady past, a lot of guilt, a wife he doesn’t love whom he stands by anyway, a lot of powerful friends in low places, a devastating punch, and a need for money.  So when he’s asked to track down some kids who got in trouble years ago, he reluctantly agrees, even though he knows all isn’t what it appears to be.  The same is true of hunting down a mob accountant – he wants no more death on his hands, but he’s hardly in a position to refuse powerful gangsters.  A short, overweight black man with education and a funny name, McGill is looked down on and underestimated a lot, but he often uses that to his advantage.

This book is a mixed bag, but its pros outweigh its weak points.  I’ve read three previous Mosley books, and while McGill doesn’t have the straight-shooting approachability of Socrates Fortlow, he’s a great character.  Unfortunately, though this is the first McGill novel, he’s appeared in earlier stories that are referenced here, which gave me the feeling of being lost at first, or that Mosley was trying to artificially inflate his character’s past.  There are a few scenes that don’t quite work, either – the police are presented as stupid straw men for the most part; hit men are glorified in rather juvenile fashion; and at one point McGill’s lawyer is present at his being picked up by the police for attempted murder, but he is not present at the questioning, which is utterly absurd.  Still, though, this adventure – which is heavily redolent of Hammett’s Continental Op, from the short portly strong protagonist to the baffling array of characters, motives and family secrets – has gravitas and suspense.  First, the mystery is complex and rewarding.  Secondly, McGill is a man wrestling with guilt, love, and lust.  He’s a man with few options and a lot of pressure.  In that way, it’s a very relatable, human story, not an action adventure.

four stars

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids

by Kim John Payne with Lisa M. Ross

A how-to book on relieving stress from families, kids and parents alike. The key to Payne’s approach is simplifying, or filtering: less stuff, fewer toys, limited electronics, limited or no television, less news and adult drama in children’s lives, a greatly reduced schedule (one competitive sport, or one musical instrument, not everything at once). Payne argues that open, unstructured time is best for kids – time for them to be in charge of creative projects, time for them to discover themselves, or time for calm family connections. He posits that when kids have fewer options, they are freed from the stress of always wanting the next big thing, and come to appreciate the connections with the things they do have. He advocates ritual and routine to remove stress: a family dinner plan, for example, so kids know what to expect about food and parents don’t have to prepare at the last minute. Finally, regarding discipline, he advocates less speech – don’t drown your kids in endless narrative, choices, or questions, but offer simple instructions, and be there as a listener in return.

This is a pretty good book for its type. It’s written in a conversational, approachable style that occasionally borders on the meandering. He’s a zealot, but he doesn’t have a hectoring tone. His advice, of course, is good, though it doubtlessly comes as a shock to many parents in our consumerist, competitive culture. I’m reminded of a Buddhist precept: accept what can’t be changed; don’t chase happiness, because once you’ve attained it you’ll just want something else to make you happy. At times, Payne’s zealotry makes him claim some rather implausible things (kids today have PTSD because of their hectic schedules? Just start going to the park, and neighborhood kids will drop their PS3s and follow you as “word gets through the neighborhood grapevine”? Really?), but it is well-intentioned. Sure, as with most of these parenting books, the advice really just boils down to “Stop trying to please your kid, and be a parent!” Stop pleading with your child, and direct him. Why anyone would want to spend an hour every evening arguing with a four year old about eating or going to sleep is beyond me, but a lot of people seem to need to be told not to. So good for Payne for that. 

three stars

Friday, May 25, 2012

Service With a Smile

by P.G. Wodehouse

Not all is well at Blandings Castle, where Clarence, ninth Earl of Emsworth, is plagued by an officious secretary, Lavender Biggs, who plots for bigger things; his quarrelsome sister, Constance; and the windbag Duke of Dunstable, a self-invited guest who wants to steal Emsworth’s prize pig to sell to a rival (or back to Emsworth himself, if he must).  Add to this that a curate is staying at the castle under false pretenses to be with his beloved, a millionaire’s daughter whom Constance has no intention of letting marry a curate; and the Duke’s nephew, a nice fellow who just needs a thousand pounds to settle down with his girl, and not Myra, whom he has inadvertently gotten engaged to as well.  It takes a bit of dissimulation and plotting from the always affable, unflappable Frederick, Earl of Ickenham, to get everyone, or nearly everyone, a happy ending (“there is always apt to be trouble when you start spreading sweetness and light,” he muses.  “You find there isn’t enough to go around and someone has to be left out of the distribution”).

This is a fine Emerson and Uncle Fred story, a little light entertainment with the typical madcap scenarios and whirlwind semi-solutions.  I never think that these stories approach the polished genius of Bertie and Jeeves (and this one doesn’t even have the Efficient Baxter, whose presence as a foil to Emsworth helps greatly).  Still, it’s a fun romp in typical Wodehouse style.

four stars

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Cut

by George Pelecanos

Iraq vet Spero Lucas, living in DC, makes money doing jobs for a defense attorney.  He also runs a side business recovering stolen property.  When a weed dealer asks him to recover some stolen packages worth a hundred grand each, Lucas gets on the case.  Two dead hustlers later, Lucas realizes that this case involves dirty cops and some bad guys willing to murder to keep the money flowing, and they know who he is.  Relying on his training, some vet buddies, and a deep-seated, barely-formulated rage at injustice, Lucas makes sure someone pays, and he gets his cut.

This was a terrific, suspenseful page-turner.  Pelecanos is a writer on the ultra-realistic street series “The Wire” and “Treme,” and there’s a lot of street cred in these pages.  Pelecanos doesn’t shy away from race issues, and he knows the gritty details of seemingly everything: every street in DC and all the little details of street life, from ammunition to the clothes kids covet, and music, from the Stones to the Hold Steady down to some very obscure bands.  I made a rather smarmy remark about Christianity precluding gritty realism when I reviewed the appallingly bad Midnight Rambler, but Pelecanos makes his anti-hero Lucas a man of quiet faith, if loose morals, raised in the Greek Orthodox church, so… that showed me, I guess.  I did find one scene in the book, in which Lucas is attacked with a knife (instead of a gun) by a professional killer who has absolutely no reason to give Lucas this chance to win, to be a jarring misstep compared to the rest, in which Pelecanos plays the danger straight.  And the endings, that is, the separate resolutions of three or four loose ends, are supremely satisfying.

four stars

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk, and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50

by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot

The author, a professor of sociology at Harvard, uses forty detailed oral case studies of people – all educated, successful, and financially secure – between the ages 50 and 75 to delineate the new ways of learning such people develop.  She argues that people in this age range (which she calls the “Third Chapter”) is undergoing a slow cultural reorientation, from being thought of as a time of quiet retirement and seclusion to an active, giving, creative reengagement.  It is also characterized by a painful process of reexamining priorities and experiencing the tension of contradictory impulses: the need to confront old ghosts vs. the need to “give forward” to the next generation; the lettering go of formal school skills vs. the embrace of a new, collaborative, public way of learning; the desire to accomplish something with the few years left vs. the realistic acceptance that success come slowly, through failure; etc.

It’s an interesting assessment; though I’m not a Third Chapter denizen yet, I found some degree of inspiration and optimism from the case studies (retirees going to work in war zones, public gardens, throwing themselves into new fields like piano and acting).  I have some minor cavils, such as repeated misspellings (“peak” for “peek” – not a huge deal, but in an academic work like this, these errors erode the author’s credibility).  And although Lawrence-Lightfoot’s authorial voice is warm and sincere, the prose is rather turgid and prolix the way such academic essays tend to be: the introduction which repeats main points given in the chapter, the conclusion which re-repeats those points; the tendency to paraphrase and quote someone (“he feels fortunate (‘truly blessed’)”… - why both?).  My major objections to the argument, however, are that (a) it uses a small sample of privileged people to make generalizations about reengagement at this stage of life – which the author acknowledges; (b) it ends by advocating a massive overhaul of our cultural mores and assumptions about the elderly, our education system, and inter-generational collaboration – which is not helpful for those wishing a practical guide to reengagement; and (c) I wonder if this “new way of learning” isn’t particular to the Third Chapter, or any age group, but anyone going through any transition, really.

three stars

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury

by Sigrid Nunez

The fictionalized biography of Mitz, a marmoset owned by Leonard Woolf, from about the end of the Bloomsbury era to the outbreak of WWII.  Mitz is a mischievous, chattering observer to the Woolfs’ devoted, if a bit Victorian, relationship; their sometimes haughty relationship with their servants and printing press staff; Virginia’s odd adoration of her sister and Vita Sackville-West (who was certainly her literary inferior); their 1935 tour of Europe, including a rather misguided drive through Nazi Germany; Virginia’s breakdown over writing The Years; conversations with T.S. Eliot and others on every topic under the sun; Virginia’s ruminations on war in the face of her nephew volunteering, and dying, in Spain.

It’s a well-crafted novella, certainly informative about certain aspects of the Woolfs’ lives and attitudes.  There are a few awkward narrative choices, as when Nunez flashes to the present day to no particular purpose (“In our own day the eminent critic Harold Blood would find a place for her…”), which are  misplaced and confusing.  And Nunez assumes a great deal of Woolfian knowledge in the reader, mentioning “Vita” and “Tom Eliot” without much in the way of explanation; I know she’s writing as if from within the circle, but it’s doesn’t fully capture the atmosphere if we aren’t clued in to who this “Tom” fellow might be (some sort of Catholic playwright, one might assume).  I also found the penultimate flashback chapter, in which nothing particularly surprising is added to Mitz’s fictional past, quite unnecessary.  But as noted, it is a well-crafted book on the whole, and a light, fun read.  Most importantly, in showing them as pet lovers, friends, spouses, talking and laughing and worrying about war and work, it helps bring human faces to the often crudely-sketched (lesbian, haughty, bipolar) Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

four stars