This blog is dedicated to the amazing staff at the New Canaan Public Library in New Canaan, Connecticut.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Room by Emma Donaghue, 2010, * * * * *

At the start of Donoghue's powerful new novel, Jack and his mother, who was kidnapped seven years earlier as a 19-year old college student, celebrate his fifth birthday.  They live in a tiny, 11-foot-square soundproofed cell in a converted shed in the kidnapper's yard - the "Room" of the title.  To Jack, "Room" is his entire world.  It is where he was born and grew up and it's where he lives with his "Ma" as they learn, read, eat, sleep and play.  At night, his Ma shuts hims safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when the kidnapper , dubbed "Old Nick" by Jack,  visits. Seen entirely through Jack's eyes and childlike perceptions, the developments in this novel are astonishing.  Ma proves to very resourceful, creating exercise games, makeshift toys, and reading and math lessons to fill their days.  However,  she knows that this is not enough - not for her or her son.  She devises a bold escape plan that relies on her young son's bravery and a lot of luck.  What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.  Although Donoghue brilliantly protrays the psyche of a child raised in captivity, the story's intensity cranks up dramatically when Jack is introdced to the outside world.  While there have been several true-life stories of women and children held captive, little has been written about the pain of re-entry.  Room is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between a parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, 2010, * * * *

Freedom is a close cousin to Franzen's previous novel - The Corrections -  a social-realist epic about a depressive, entropic midwestern family being swallowed and digested by the insatiable anaconda of modernity. The Corrections told the story of the Lamberts—Arthur and Enid and their three children. Freedom tells the story of the Berglunds—Walter and Patty and their two children. Instead of St. Jude (a proxy for St. Louis) we have St. Paul. Instead of a dubious get-rich-quick scheme exploiting the post-Soviet chaos in Lithuania, we have a dubious get-rich-quick scheme exploiting the war in Iraq. Like its predecessor, Freedom is heavy on psychology and extramarital affairs and earnest speechifying (capitalism, overpopulation, Israel). Freedom tells a lot of stories, and it spreads them over many decades and several continents. It tracks the rise of a rock star, the gentrification of a city neighborhood, the tragic death of a basketball career, the suburbanization of a nameless country pond, and the dirty birth of an international bird sanctuary. The book’s central drama, however, is an old-fashioned love story: the tumultuous lifelong relationship between Walter and Patty Berglund. Walter is a nature lover who works hard to suppress his anger and provide for everyone around him. Patty is a college basketball star who blows out her knee and becomes a housewife. Each fills certain gaping spiritual holes for the other until eventually, over the years, their relationship becomes hellaciously complex.  As the novel progresses, you see this relationship from many different perspectives—Walter’s, Patty’s, their son Joey’s, their friend Richard’s—and each view subtly tweaks the story, swinging blame, exposing motives, recasting villains as heroes and heroes as villains.  It made me think, many times, of one of David Foster Wallace’s favorite edicts about fiction: that the good stuff can make readers feel less lonely.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ape House by Sara Gruen, 2010, * * *

Sara Gruen's last novel, the enchating circus-set Water for Elephants in 2006, became a bestseller primarily through word of mouth, and I expect that most book clubs in America have read it.  As this book opens, a family of bonobos is happily ensconced at the fictional Great Ape Language Lab at the University of Kansas.  They are adoringly cared for and studied by Dr. Isabel Duncan, who calls them her family.  Gruen delicately and profoundly brings life to that oft-quoted statistic -- Bonobos and humans share 98.7% of their DNA.  In this book, when it comes to the bst human qualities -- empathy, good humor, the ability to adapt, loyalty -- the apes win easily.  Gruen gives each of her apes a distinct personality, and just as with people, it gets to the point where all she has to do is to described a behavior, and we know which member of the pack she is talking about.  She exquisitely depicts their gentleness, humor and curiosity, as well as their tendency to pettiness.  The plot, however, doesn't really matter.  It involves a misguided animal rights group, a nasty explosion, a reality TV show, a journalist and a would-be author. Yet it is truly about the aples, the humans and their interactions and similarities -- sometimes mouth-gapingly shastly, sometimes hold-your-sides hilarious.  Gruen must have picked up a thing or t wo about the circus from Water for Elephants as she navigates the tightrope above the minefield topics of animal rights, evolution, and seriouis vs. tabloid journalism and more.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Still Life by Louise Penny, 2005, * * * *

The residents of a tiny Canadian village named Three Pines are shocked when the body of Miss Jane Neal is found in the woods on Thanksgiving. Miss Neal, the village’s retired school teacher and a talented amateur artist, has been a good friend to most of the townsfolk, so her loss is keenly felt,  At first, her death appears to be a tragic accident … it is after all, deer hunting season and it appears that a stray hunter’s arrow killed her.  Some folks, however, are suspicious and Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, of the Montreal Surete is called in to investigate.  His team soon finds that the seemingly peaceful and friendly village hides some dark secrets.  This is the first is yet another series that I was late to the game on and I can’t wait to read the second in the series A Fatal Grace.  The characters are delightful and Louise Penny makes mayhem seem delightful.  Still Life introduces readers to an engaging series hero in Inspector Gamache, who commands his forces - and this series - with integrity and quiet courage, but produces a new writer of traditional mysteries in the person of Louise Penny.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Good Night, Mr. Tom by Michelle Magorian, 1981, * * * * *

Not everybody had a good time as an evacuee during the Second World War, but for eight-year-old Willie Beech, suddenly transferred from a deprived London background into the heart of the country, it is literally a lifeline. Willie is dumped on grumpy old Tom Oakley, the sharp-tongued widower, but he soon finds that Mister Tom is fair and friendly. Tom had heard of “ungrateful” and “wild” but Willie is different. He is so malnourished he can’t keeper a proper meal down, he wets the bed, he can’t read or write and he shivers and trembles a lot. Willie's needs are clear. And, to the intense interest of the entire village of Little Weirwold, Tom Oakley's stern manner melts slowly away as he takes on the task of raising Willie Beech. It's a voyage of discovery for both of them. Willie learns how it feels to have a proper home and friends, and Tom confronts the grief of bereavement which caused him to withdraw from village life all those years ago, when his young wife and baby son died.  The whole project nearly founders when Willie's mother recalls him to London. Returning reluctantly, Willie faces unspeakable horrors before he is rescued by Tom,  who travels through an air-raid in London to search for him.  This book is a gentle and moving story about the developing relationship of trust and love between Willie and Tom and is an engrossing and poignant story with sunlight to balance the darkness. I was amazed that I had never heard of the book before but would highly recommend it for adults as well as young readers.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, 2005, * * * *

From the acclaimed author of "The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans, a moving new novel that subtly reimagines our world and time in a haunting story of friendship and love. As a child, Kathy, now thirty-one years old, lived at Hailsham, a private school in the scenic English countryside where the children were sheltered from the outside world, brought up to believe that they were special and that their well-being was crucial not only for themselves but for the society they would eventually enter. Kathy had long ago put this idyllic past behind her, but when two of her Hailsham friends come back into her life, she stops resisting the pull of memory. She describes happy scenes of boys and girls growing up together, unperturbe, even comforted-by their isolation, but also describes scenes  of discord and misunderstanding that hint at a dark secret behind Hailsham's nurturing facade.   A tale of deceptive simplicity, Never Let Me Go slowly reveals an extraordinary emotional depth and resonance and takes its place among Kazuo Ishiguro's finest work. Whether you consider this a love story, mystery, or science fiction, this poignant novel will hit you where you live. Ishiguro once again shows himself to be the master of the emotional epic. His spare but evocative prose draws you in, word by word, sentence by sentence,  and by the time the ending is revealed, it's like losing hold of a beloved balloon and watching it float away. We can naively believe that once out of sight, it will continue on its journey, but the grimness of reality tells us otherwise.

Still Missing by Chevy Stevens, 2010, * * *

In psychiatric sessions, Annie O'Sullivan, a 32-year-old realtor with a nice boyfriend and a demanding mother, describes her year-long ordeal as the captive of a rapist. Annie was about to close up an open house for a property when an affable guy who introduced himself as David showed up. In short order, David kidnapped her and held her hostage in a remote mountain cabin. There, he raped her daily, regulated every moment, and forced her to 'play house.' The intense plot alternates between Annie's creepy confinement, her escape, and her attempts to readjust to real life. Still, Annie knows that a large part of her soul is 'still missing.'   Every day since her escape she feels closer to the edge, completely ready to snap from the fear, grief, guilt, and horror that she lives with.  .Chevy Stevens weaves a story of utter horror as we follow Annie through her year of captivity, and through the days that follow her escape as she tries to pick up the pieces of her shattered life.  Annie makes a good protagonist as most people will be able to  identify with her,  having seen enough episodes of "CSI" and "Law and Order SVU".  Annie intellectually knows all the things an abducted woman "should" do, and yet faced with the impossibility of her situation, she finds that all she really *can* do is just hold on and survive. The story is set on Vancouver Island and pulsates with suspense that gets a power boost from the jaw-dropping but credible closing twist.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman, 2010, * * *

When I read the description for The Cookbook Collector, I was interested in reading about two sisters and their relationship with each other.  Part of what made these two sisters interesting was how different they were - Jess is the free-spirited, tree loving, vegan sister, the perpetual student who flits aimlessly through life with a generous heart and a luminescent beauty that attracts people to her. Emily, the older sister, is the total opposite who at 26 is the CEO of Veritech, a  promising  When the Publishers Weekly folks start tossing Jane Austen's name around, I expect a well-written, gentle comedy/satire. When a cover looks like an oil painting, I expect depth and quality. When the title includes the word COOKBOOK, I expect a soothing read. This is not that book.  Ultimately, this is a book about a bunch of yuppie techies working 24/7 during the dot com bubble from 1999 through 2002.   Given the present economy, I simply don't think readers are going to relate to that period today. The novel weaves back and forth between the various story arcs Emily and her business; her boyfriend Jonathan and his high-tech company; their relationship with each other; Jess and her environmental activism;  Jess and her job at Yorick's, a bookstore run by a wealthy older man named George who is sort of commitment-phobic. In addition,  there are numerous other  threads which touch on themes such as Jewish mysticism, family secrets, cooking, and house restsoration.   Overall, the quality of writing is above average but the multiple story arcs are uneven and insufficiently explored.  It is an easy read, but ultimately unsatisfying.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Good Son by Michael Gruber, 2010, * * *

Bestseller Gruber (Forgery of Venus) explores America's political involvement in South Asia and the bloody religious and ethnic fanaticism associated with the region in his seventh novel. Sonia Laghari, a Pakistani-American writer and psychologist, sets up a conference on peace in Kashmir, 'the most terrorist-infested place on earth,' only to have her and her small group of pacifists abducted and held captive by terrorists, who may or may not be manufacturing nuclear weapons. All but doomed to a public beheading, Sonia uses her familiarity with Islamic doctrine as well as her knowledge of Jungian psychology to get into the heads of the captors. An additional story thread deals with her son, Theo, who is planning to rescue his mother. Once a member of the Afghan forces that fought the Russians, he is now doing black ops for the United. States Army. Although very competent in what he does, Theo seems less realistic than other characters in the story.  The story is well told, but still lacks sympathetic characters. In fact, the overall story at times appear convoluted, almost as if Gruber isn't sure what should come next and the bombshells at the end strain credulity. However, the characters and labyrinthine plot line, not to mention the absorbing history of modern jihadism and the U.S. war on terrorism, make for an interesting thriller.

Falling Leaves: The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter by Adeline Yen Mah, 1999. * * * * *

Born in 1937 in a port city a thousand miles north of Shanghai, Adeline Yen Mah was the youngest child of an affluent Chinese family who enjoyed rare privileges during a time of political and cultural upheaval. But wealth and position could not shield Adeline from a childhood of appalling emotional abuse at the hands of a cruel and manipulative Eurasian stepmother who makes Snow White's stepmother looks like a pussycat. Chinese proverbs scattered throughout the text pithily convey the traditional world view that prompted Adeline's subservience.  Determined to survive through her enduring faith in family unity, Adeline struggled for independence as she moved from Hong Kong to England and eventually to the United States. A compelling, painful, and ultimately triumphant story of a girl's journey into adulthood, Adeline's story is a testament to the most basic of human needs: acceptance, love, and understanding. With a powerful voice that speaks of the harsh realities of growing up female in a family and society that kept girls in emotional chains, Falling Leaves is a work of heartfelt intimacy and a rare authentic portrait of twentieth-century China.  Had she not escaped to America, where she experienced a fulfilling medical career and a happy marriage, her story would be unbearable – like an Asian version of Mommy Dearest.

Intuition by Allegra Goodman, 2006, * * * *

Sandy Glass, a charismatic publicity-seeking oncologist, and Marion Mendelssohn, a pure, exacting scientist, are codirectors of a lab at the Philpott Institute dedicated to cancer research and desperately in need of a grant. Both mentors and supervisors of their young postdoctoral protégés, Glass and Mendelssohn demand dedication and obedience in a competitive environment where funding is scarce and results elusive. When the experiments of Cliff Bannaker, a young postdoc in a rut, begin to work, the entire lab becomes giddy with newfound expectations. But Cliff’s rigorous colleague — and girlfriend — Robin Decker suspects the unthinkable: that his findings are fraudulent. As Robin makes her private doubts public and Cliff maintains his innocence, a life-changing controversy engulfs the lab and everyone in it.   With extraordinary insight, Allegra Goodman brilliantly explores the intricate mixture of workplace intrigue, scientific ardor, and the moral consequences of a rush to judgment. She has written an unforgettable novel.  If you’ve read about Intuition in the media, don’t be fooled. Yes, there are parallels between its plot and high-profile scientific scandals, but at heart it’s not about fraud. It’s about blurred lines: What is scientific genius, and what is leaping far beyond the data into the universe of imagination? Which mini-deviations from protocol are troubling and which are not? How can we tell if someone has crossed the line from embracing intuition for scientific good or departed the world of science altogether?  A novel that sparks questions like these would make good fare for students in Ph.D.-granting science programs but Intuition is for everyone.

The Savage Garden by Mark Mills, 2007, * * *

Two murders committed 400 years apart form the core of British author Mills's second novel (after Amagansett, which won a CWA Dagger Award). In 1958, Cambridge undergraduate Adam Strickland, who's studying a curious Tuscan Renaissance garden for his art history thesis, is equally intrigued by both the garden of the Villa Docci estate and its elderly owner, Signora Francesca Docci. Built by the villa's first owner, Federico Docci, in 1577, the garden was intended as a memorial to his wife, Flora, who died when she was only 25. In the course of his research, Adam begins to sense that events, both past and present, are not as clear-cut as they appear. In particular, he discovers that there are several versions of the death of Signora Docci's oldest son, Emilio, who was shot by the villa's German occupiers at the end of WWII. In Mills' hands this becomes a grandly written literary thriller that I found alternately fascinating and frustrating. It was frustrating because the opening sections move much too slowly and although each description of a statue or a landscape or a painting is lovely, there are far too many of them. My other objection is that much of Mills' plot is simply far-fetched where too many connections in The Savage Garden, like those in Sherlock Holmes stories, are more clever than plausible.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl, 1998, * * * *

At an early age, Ruth Reichl discovered that "food could be a way of making sense of the world....If you watched people as they ate, you could find out who they were." Her deliciously crafted memoir, Tender at the Bone, is the story of a life determined, enhanced, and defined in equal measure by a passion for food, unforgettable people, and the love of tales well told. The memoir recalls childhood time spent with her mom, who was "taste blind" but "could make a trip to the supermarket sound like an adventure"; teenage fun with friends, including a non-Jewish boyfriend, who referred to her scrumptious matzoh brei as "fried cardboard"; dinner parties and a growing dedication to civil rights activism during college. Reichl introduces us to the fascinating characters that shaped her world and her tastes, from the gourmand Monsieur du Croix, who served Reichl her first soufflé, to those at her politically correct table in Berkeley who championed the organic food revolution in the 1970s, including famed chef Alice Waters. Spiced with Reichl's infectious humor and sprinkled with her favorite recipes, Tender at the Bone is a witty and compelling chronicle of a culinary sensualist's coming-of-age

Atonement by Ian McEwan, 2002, * * * * *

On the hottest day of the summer of 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis sees her older sister Cecilia strip off her clothes and plunge into the fountain in the garden of their country house. Watching Cecilia is their housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner, a childhood friend who, along with Briony’s sister, has recently graduated from Cambridge. By the end of that day the lives of all three will have been changed forever. Robbie and Cecilia will have crossed a boundary they had never before dared to approach and will have become victims of the younger girl’s scheming imagination.  Briony committs a dreadful crime, the guilt of which will color her entire life.  In each of his novels Ian McEwan has brilliantly drawn his reader into the intimate lives and situations of his characters. However, never before has he worked with so large a canvas: In Atonement he takes the reader from a manor house in England in 1935 to the retreat from Dunkirk in 1941; from the London’s World War II military hospitals to a reunion of the Tallis clan in 1999. Brilliant and utterly enthralling in its depiction of childhood, love and war, England and class, the novel is at its center a profound, and profoundly moving exploration,  of shame and forgiveness and the difficulty of absolution.

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin, 1976, * * * *

Maupin's tale of a newcomer to San Francisco, the naive and reserved Mary Ann Singleton, and her misadventures with the residents of Barbary Lane (Mrs. Madrigal, the gay and proud Michael, the liberated Mona, etc.) is the stuff of Dickens' serials, brought to the 1970s in a flash of humor, adventure and out-and-out 1970s wackiness. First appearing as a serial in the San Francisco Chronicle in the late 1970s, this six-volume collection provides a vivid flashback to that city and that time. Indeed, the series was written at a time when San Francisco's sense of itself and its community had not yet been swallowed by the consumerism of the 80s and 90s, and into the Dot-com economic revolution that eventually evaporated. Maupin, instead, takes you into an intensely tight-knit circle of friends and neighbors at Barbary Lane (the real Macondray Lane) on the slope of Russian Hill. There is a glimpse into gay life in the city in the pre-AIDS era. Maupin's writing is light and funny, self-referential and self-deprecating. I have read and re-read and re-re-read the entire series over and over again and have never failed to be entertained by the characters or the situations they find themselves in.   Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City has blazed a singular trail through popular culture  - from a groundbreaking newspaper serial to a classic novel to a television miniseries on both PBS and Showtime that entranced millions.  Tales of the City is both a wry comedy of manners and a deeply moving portrait of a vanished era.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed by Michael Kodas, 2008, * * *

Michael Kodas, a journalist for the Hartford Courant and several other Connecticut people collaborate with a successful climber of Everest to make an attempt at the summit of the one mountain every mountaineer hungers to put on their resume.  The book chronicles two parallel climbs,on opposite sides of the mountain -  Mr Kodas's party, and a party fully funded by a wealthy transplanted Bolivian doctor from the Washington, D.C. area. There is pure tragedy in the doctor's party as he hired a guide whose credentials he trusts but who turns out to be the lowest sort of glory hound. Mr Kodas's party, not even starting out with all members on level footing, descends into a bickering, acrimonious mess, with sabotage, missing equipment, and cruelty thrown into the mix. Most of the book seesaws between the tale of the doctor, left to die by an unscrupulous guide, the doctor's daughter's subsequent and dogged efforts to find the truth, and Mr Kodas's trials with the fractious and foreboding leader of his expedition.  High Crimes is a gripping and fascinating story proving that little has changed on Everest since Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into Thin Air was published over a decade ago.   It is often difficult to comprehend what drives people to want to crawl up the face of a mountain, literally hanging in space, aware that they are courting frostbite, storms, failure, and death, from the capricious mountain they yearn to conquer. As it turns out, the mountain is almost the least of their worries!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, 1997, * * * * *

On May 10, 1996, writer Jon Krakauer found himself quite literally on top of the world  when Outside Magazine sent him to Nepal to climb Mount Everest on a guided expedition and write about it.  Krakauer thought he had a good angle.  In the 43 years since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had become the first men to reach the 29,028-foot summit, Everest had become perceived as so routinely surmountable that a trip to the top was available to any fit climber with some mountaineering ability and the $65,000 cost of an expedition ticket. ''Hey, experience is overrated,'' guide Scott Fischer told him. ''We've got the Big E figured out....I'm telling you, we've built a yellow brick road to the summit.''   As Into Thin Air makes painfully clear, getting to the top is only half the battle, and overconfidence may be a good climber's most lethal enemy. Hours after Krakauer summited Everest  a storm led to the deaths of two of his teammates as well as their guides, Rob Hall and Andy Harris, plus Fischer himself, who was leading a separate group up the mountain.  Krakauer explores camaraderie of climbers, the commercialization of Everest, and the all-too-exploitable culture of the Sherpas, who are hired to haul equipment, supplies, and sometimes climbers as well. You are with him every step by debilitating step. 

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer, 2010, * * * * *

Orringer's stunning first novel far exceeds the expectations generated by her much-lauded debut collection, How to Breath Underwater. In this WWII saga, Orringer illuminates the life of Andras Levi, a Hungarian Jew of meager means whose world is upended by a scholarship to the Ecole Speciale d'Architecture in Paris. There, he makes an unlikely liaison with ballet teacher Claire Morgenstern (ne Klara Hasz), a woman nine years his senior whose past links her to a wealthy Hungarian family.  Against the backdrop of grueling school assignments, work at a theater, budding romance, and the developing kinship between Andras and his fellow Jewish students, Orringer ingeniously depicts the insidious reach of the growing tide of anti-Semitism that eventually lands him back in Hungary and into forced labor camps and beyond, shedding light on how Hungary treated its Jewish citizens.  Throughout the hardships and injustices, Andras's love for Klara acts as a beacon through the unimaginable devastation and the dark hours of hunger, thirst, and deprivation . Orringer's triumphant novel is as much a lucid reminder of a time not so far away as it is a luminous story about the redemptive power of love." As Michael Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay stated on the back cover, “To bring an entire lost world — its sights, its smells, its heartaches, raptures and terrors — to vivid life between the covers of a novel is an accomplishment; to invest that world, and everyone who inhabits it, with a soul, as Julie Orringer does in The Invisible Bridge, takes something more like genius."  Orringer has a gift for re-creating distant times and places from a Paris suffused with the scents of  food and sounds of American jazz, to the camraderies and cruelties of the Hungarian work camps. The ticking clock of history keeps the story urgent and moving forward, and the result is, against all odds, a Holocaust page-turner. I could not put it down.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

My Life In France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme, 2006, * * * * *

Most Americans know of Julia Child via the parodies of her cooking show --- a frowsy, big-boned matron with a trill in her voice, hacking up a chicken with more zest than is called for, most likely because she's been chugging the cooking sherry. Well, that was, on occasion, a fair take on Julia Child, the jolly chef who taught her fellow citizens the joy of French cooking on public television. But Julia Child was much more than a precursor of Martha Stewart. She was a revolutionary who had the great good fortune to find herself living in Paris with no job and nothing more compelling than a tentative interest in cooking. She signed up for classes at Cordon Bleu, got hooked, and soon found herself, with two friends, working on a book we now take for granted but was then unimagined --- an authoritative guide to French cooking for Americans. Published 40 years ago, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One has never gone out of print and it never will. Julia Child died in 2004. Of her 11 books, none was a memoir but she kept scribbles and letters, and at the end of her life, she began to shape this book with her grandnephew. Like almost everything she touched, My Life in France is a triumph --- insightful, poetic, deadly accurate about people, and, above all, tasty.  But this is not a celebrity memoir. This book is called My Life in France for a reason --- the passages at Julia and Paul Child's home in the South of France lift off the page and surround you with laughter, wit and joy.  This is a book about life - a wise life, a life of beauty, art, invention, and love. You can learn a lot from a life like that.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Loving Frank: A Novel by Nancy Horan, 2007, * * * * *

Horan's ambitious first novel is a fictionalization of the life of Mamah Borthwick Cheney, best known as the woman who wrecked Frank Lloyd Wright's first marriage. Despite the title, this is not a romance, but a portrayal of an independent, educated woman at odds with the restrictions of the early 20th century. Frank and Mamah, both married and with children, met when Mamah's husband, Edwin, commissioned Frank to design a house. Their affair became the stuff of headlines when they left their families to live and travel together, going first to Germany, where Mamah found rewarding work doing scholarly translations of Swedish feminist Ellen Key's books. The novel is an intricate analysis of Mamah's emotional torments as an intellectual in her own right, wife, mother, friend, and member of society. It also touches on the human aspects of Wright in addition to his artistic talent and eccentricities. Throughout the novel, Mamah explains the artistic or philosophical underpinnings of Wright's extravagant views. Frank and Mamah eventually settled in Wisconsin, where they were hounded by a scandal-hungry press, with tragic repercussions. The novel also explores the development of the feminist movement in the United States and Europe and Horan puts considerable effort into recreating Frank's vibrant, overwhelming personality, but her primary interest is in Mamah, who pursued her intellectual interests and love for Frank at great personal cost. Drawing on years of research, Horan weaves little-known facts into a compelling narrative, vividly portraying the conflicts and struggles of a woman forced to choose between the roles of mother, wife, lover, and intellectual. Elegantly written and remarkably rich in detail, Loving Frank is a fitting tribute to a courageous woman, a national icon, and their timeless love story.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes, 2010, * * *

Intense, powerful, and compelling, Matterhorn is the timeless story of a young Marine lieutenant, Waino Mellas, and his comrades in Bravo Company, who are dropped into the mountain jungle of Vietnam as boys and forced to fight their way into manhood. Standing in their way are not merely the North Vietnamese but also jungle rot, leeches dropping from tree branches, malnourishment, drenching monsoons, mudslides, exposure to Agent Orange, and wild animals. Brigade members not only face punishing combat but grapple with racial tensions, competing ambitions, duplicitous superior officers, bitterness, rage, disease, alcoholism, and hubris. When the company finds itself surrounded and outnumbered by a massive enemy regiment, the Marines are thrust into the raw and all consuming terror of combat and it is visceral. However, while the story is well written and compelling, it feels false in the end, more like a screenplay for Platoon or Full Metal Jacket than a novel that would rank alongside Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead or Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Marlantes is a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, who clearly understands his playing field (including military jargon that can get lost in translation).  By examining both the internal and external struggles of the battalion, he brings a long, torturous war back to life with realistic characters and authentic, thrilling combat sequences but too much happens too quickly, and often with too much foreshadowing.  There is a lot to like in this book but a better editor could have slimmed it down and made it more focused.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World by Rita Gelman, 2001, * * * *

In a small cemetery deep in the jungle of Borneo, two men climb into a freshly dug hole and retrieve the bones of a long-dead grandmother. An American guest joins the procession from the cemetery to the elaborately decorated village square for a traditional ceremony that will properly send Grandma off on her journey to the next world.  A few years earlier the American guest, Rita Golden Gelman, a children's book author and the mother of two grown children, was living in a comfortable suburban home, dining in elegant restaurants, and attending glamorous parties and only dreamed of traveling to exotic places and experiencing other cultures. When her marriage failed, she decided to live her dream, sold all her possessions and, at  forty-eight, took off to see the world.   Although she's not athletically gifted or independently wealthy, Rita has climbed mountains, paddled up rivers, and subsisted for a year on what many people spend in a few months.  In Tales of a Female Nomad, Rita shares how she has created a spectacular life, filled with interesting people, enlightening experiences, and fascinating adventures.  She's observed orangutans in the rain forests of Borneo, served as an unofficial tour guide in the Galapagos, taught herself the Indonesian language, and forged many lasting cross-cultural friendships.  Dynamic, vivacious, and a marvelous weaver of tales, Rita celebrates her glorious transformation from an unfulfilled suburbanite to a liberated and incredibly self-assured woman of the world. More than a travel memoir, Tales of a Female Nomad is the story of a woman's rebirth which proves beyond a doubt that anyone can cast away the burdens of conventional life at any age and continue — or begin — to thrive.  I know most people rave about Eat, Pray, Love but for those, like me, who never gravitated to that book,  this is a truly remarkable read that deserves recognition.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall, 2010, * * *

A family drama with stinging turns of dark comedy, the latest from Udall (The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint) is as comic as it is sublimely catastrophic. Golden Richards is a polygamist Mormon with four wives, 28 children, a struggling construction business, and a few secrets. He tells his wives that the brothel he's building in Nevada is actually a senior center, and, more importantly, keeps hidden his burning infatuation with a woman he sees near the job site. Golden, perpetually on edge, has become increasingly isolated from his massive family — given the size of his brood, his solitude is heartbreaking . Since the death of one of his children,  Golden is not only lonesome but also many other things that, ideally, he would not be: indecisive, feckless, withdrawn and hesitant. Though it takes more than 200 pages to notice, the novel is set not in current times but in the 1970s. Golden’s children do not wrestle with technology, cable TV or the Internet; nor are they caught up in the culture wars nor are they cut off from modernity. This is a novel about family and modern America with a protagonist trying to balance home life, work, the demands of society, and the wayward tugs of the heart – he just happens to have four nuclear families, which makes his midlife crisis and potential affair a little more complicated than most. Udall is willing to tackle big issues and write a broad tale, and it is a good read. However, there is an edge that is missing – everything is a touch too neat and tidy, and maybe there's a little extra sugar on the bitter pills.

The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story by Richard Preston,1994, * * * * *

The Ebola virus kills nine out of ten of its victims so quickly and gruesomely that even biohazard experts are terrified. It is airborne, it is extremely contagious, and in the winter of 1989, it seemed about to burn through the suburbs of Washington D.C. At Fort Detrick's USAMRIID, an Army research facility outside the nation's capital, a SWAT team of soldiers and scientists wearing biohazard space suits was organized to stop the outbreak of the exotic "hot" virus. The grim operation went on in secret for eighteen days, under unprecedented, dangerous conditions. The Hot Zone tells this dramatic story in depth, giving a hair-raising account of the appearance of rare and lethal viruses and their outbreaks in the human race. From a remote African cave hot with Ebola virus, an airplane over Africa that is carrying a sick passenger who dissolves into a human virus bomb, and the confines of a Biosafety Level 4 military lab where scientists risk their lives studying lethal substances that could kill them quickly and horribly, The Hot Zone describes situations that used to be taken as science fiction. As the tropical wildernesses of the world are destroyed, previously unknown viruses that have lived undetected in the rain forest for eons are entering human populations. The appearance of AIDS is part of a larger pattern, and the implications for the future of the human species are terrifying.  Although this book was written in 1994 this book brings up an all-important point -- we are only an airplane ride away from the outbreak of a pandemic. It is very possible that a highly contagious disease may break out and cover the earth in a matter of days leaving a large portion of the population dead, making the premise behind Stephen King's novel "The Stand" not so far fetched after all.  Given the recent outbreaks of SARS, avian flu, and Swine flu, this book is extremely relevant for out times.  I need to thank my daughter, the scientist and future virologist,  for reminding me about this book.

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi Durrow, 2010, * * *

Durrow's debut novel draws from her own upbringing as the brown-skinned, blue-eyed daughter of a Danish woman and a black G.I. to create Rachel Morse, a young girl with an identical heritage growing up in the early 1980s. After a devastating family tragedy in Chicago. Subsequent to the event, she goes to live with the paternal grandmother she's never met, in a decidedly black neighborhood in Portland, Ore. Suddenly, at 11, Rachel is in a world that demands her to be either white or black. As she struggles with her grief and the haunting, yet-to-be-revealed truth of the tragedy, her appearance and intelligence place her under constant scrutiny.  Although I have heard people say that this is a "social consciousness" novel about being mixed-race, that is not what I felt. It seemed more to be a novel about a lonely, confused, girl seeking an identity--as an individual even more than as a mixed-race person--through idolizing the mother she lost before she was old enough to really know her. It's difficult to tell, or maybe to believe, what identity Rachel finally finds and the first part of the novel felt very slow and distant. The second half of the novel touchingly covers the nuances of Rachel's development: her feelings, her conflicts with her judgmental but well-meaning grandmother, and her relationship with a liberal white college boy. The novel explores the complexities of racial identity and relationships in general but still appeared to be more of a “young readers” book.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Run by Ann Patchett, 2007, * * * *

Bernadette and Bernard Doyle were a Boston couple who wanted to have a big lively family. They had one boy, Sullivan, and then adopted two black boys, Teddy and Tip. Mr. Doyle is a former mayor of Boston and he continues his interest in politics, hoping his boys will shape up one day for elected office, though none of them seems especially keen. Bernadette dies when the adopted kids are just four, and much of the book offers a requiem to her memory in particular and to the force of motherhood in lives generally. One night, during a heavy snowfall, Teddy and Tip accompany their father to a lecture given by Jesse Jackson and after the lecture, Tip gets into an argument with his father and walks backwards into an oncoming car. The car appears out of nowhere and so does a woman called Tennessee, who pushes Tip out of the car's path and is herself struck in the process of saving Tip.  When Tennessee is taken to hospital, her daughter, Kenya, is left in the company of the Doyles. Relationships begin both to emerge and unravel, disclosing secrets, hopes, fears.  Run shows us how worlds of privilege and poverty can coexist only blocks apart from each other, and how family can include people you've never even met. As in her bestselling novel Bel Canto, Ann Patchett illustrates the humanity that connects disparate lives, weaving several stories into one surprising and endlessly moving narrative. Suspenseful and stunningly executed, Run is ultimately a novel about secrets, duty, responsibility, and the lengths we will go to protect our children.

The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin, 2007, * * * *

It's not laws or constitutional theory that rules the High Court, argues this absorbing group profile, but quirky men and women guided by political intuition. New Yorker legal writer Toobin (The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson) surveys the Court from the Reagan administration onward, as the justices wrestled with abortion, affirmative action, the death penalty, gay rights and church-state separation. Despite a Court dominated by Republican appointees, Toobin paints not a conservative revolution but a period of intractable moderation. The real power, he argues, belonged to supreme swing-voter Sandra Day O'Connor, who decided important cases with what Toobin sees as an almost primal attunement to a middle-of-the-road public consensus. By contrast, he contends, conservative justices Rehnquist and Scalia have constitutional doctrines made irrelevant by the moderates' compromises. Toobin distills the issues and enlivens his narrative of the Court's internal wranglings with sharp thumbnail sketches (Anthony Kennedy the vain bloviator, David Souter the Thoreauvian ascetic) and editorials (inept and unsavory is his verdict on the Court's intervention in the 2000 election). His savvy account puts the supposedly cloistered Court right in the thick of American life. In 1979, Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong published The Brethren, an eye-popping look into the closed world of the Supreme Court under then-Chief Justice Warren Burger. Toobin captures the personalities, rivalries, politics and principles that drive the court's decisions.  With the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, this book should be required reading.

Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson, 2004, * * * * *

This superlative journalistic narrative tells of John Chatterton and Rich Kohler, two deep-sea wreck divers who in 1991 dove to a mysterious wreck lying at the perilous depth of 230 feet, off the coast of New Jersey. Both had a philosophy of excelling and pushing themselves to the limit; both needed all their philosophy and fitness to proceed once they had identified the wreck as a WWII U-boat. As Kurson, a writer for Esquire, narrates in his debut work, the two divers next undertook a seven-year search for the U-boat's identity inside the wreck, in a multitude of archives and in a host of human memories. Along the way, Chatterton's diving cost him a marriage, and Kohler's love for his German heritage helped turn him into a serious U-boat scholar. The two lost three of their diving companions on the wreck and their mentor, Bill Nagle, to alcoholism. (Chowdhury's The Last Dive, from HarperPerennial in 2002, covers two of the divers' deaths.) The successful completion of their quest fills in a gap in WWII history — the fate of the Type IX U-boat U-869. Chatterton and Kohler's success satisfied them and a diminishing handful of U-boat survivors. While Kurson doesn't stint on technical detail, lovers of any sort of adventure tale will certainly absorb the author's excellent characterizations, and particularly his balance in describing the combat arm of the Third Reich. Felicitous cooperation between author and subject rings through every page of this rare insightful action narrative. Readers energized by the suspense and adventure of The Perfect Storm and Into Thin Air will be captivated by this remarkable account of wreck diving and discovery.  Kurson narrates a compelling story in which lives are lost and history is rewritten.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Let the Great World Spin by Colm McCann, 2009, * * * * *

Let the Great World Spin is a dazzlingly rich vision of the pain, loveliness, mystery, and promise of New York City in the 1970s. There are dozens of intimate tales and threads at the core of Let the Great World Spin. On one level there’s the funambulist, Philippe Petit, making his way on a high wire across the World Trade Center towers. However, as the story in the novel moves forward, the “walker” becomes less and less of a focal point and you begin to care more about the people down below, on the pavement, in the ordinary throes of their existence. There’s an Irish monk living in the Bronx projects; a Park Avenue mother in mourning for her dead son blown up in Saigon; computer hackers who "visit" New York in an early echo of the Internet;  an artist who has to learn to return to the simplicity of love; and a Bronx hooker who has brought up her children in “the house that horse built”--“horse” of course being the heroin that was ubiquitous in the '70s.  The stories are interwoven so that it is one story..on one day.. in one city.. and yet it is also a history of the time. In Let the Great World Spin, you can’t ignore the overtones for today.  Suffice it to say that the novel is held together by an act of redemption and beauty.  I didn’t want to stop turning the pages.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson, 2010, * * *

It is always cause for celebration when a debut author bursts on the scene with an original and whimsical novel that is bound to capture attention. And this novel -- Major Pettigrew's Last Stand -- has much to recommend it. Major Pettigrew is a very proper and delightfully droll widower of 68 who resides in the quaint village of Edgecombe St. Mary in Sussex, England. He is also the father of Roger, a posturing and preening young man who has incorporated none of the values of his father.  The Major leads a quiet life valuing the proper things that Englishmen have lived by for generations: honor, duty, decorum, and a properly brewed cup of tea. But then his brother's death sparks an unexpected friendship with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper from the village. Drawn together by their shared love of literature and the loss of their respective spouses, the Major and Mrs. Ali soon find their friendship blossoming into something more.  The two of them must navigate the gossip and outright prejudice of their stilted society. It is also a charming English comedy of manners and, in places, a laugh-out-loud read. A scene, for example, where the atrocities of "Pakistani Partition" are reduced to a bad-taste dinner show or where the favored ducks of schoolchildren are chosen as prey for a duck hunt are spot-on. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand touches on many big issues: the clash of culture and religions, the greed of unbridaled globalization, the tension between fathers and sons, and family dynamics in general. At its heart, though, it is an old-fashioned love story and an ode for anyone who refuses to give up on life or love at any stage of life.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson, 2010, * * *

As the final installment of Stieg Larsson's trilogoy, I wish I could say that this book was of the same caliber as that of the prior two books, but in my opinion, it was not. The book picked up right where the last, The Girl Who Played With Fire,  left off, with Lisbeth Salander in the hospital being treated for her injuries. Mikael Blomkvist continues to sleuth on her behalf in order to expose those who have made her life hellish and attempted to frame her for all manner of crimes. All of the other familiar characters from the prior books return but the overall feel of the book is that it was the least edited and least considered of the three. This would make sense if Larsson had intended to go back and do some more tweaking and editing before publication, but he was obviously unable to do so following his death. There are entire sections of the book that meander on and on with no apparent purpose with regard to moving the story forward – these sections would have benefited greatly from some serious editorial paring.  There are also way too many characters who have not appeared before, and like a Russian novel, you needed 3x5 cards to keep track of them and how they fit into the plot line. I simply could not put down the previous books, but I was nowhere near as riveted by this one. For the ending alone, this story is worth reading and I wavered between a 3-and 4- star review for this reason. Ultimately, I considered whether the book, standing alone without the previous two, would be a 4-star book, and I don't believe that would be the case. Anyone who has read the first two books simply will not be able to deny themselves the final installment, nor should they. It is a great loss that Mr. Larsson passed away before he could really fine-tune the final book, and before he could write another.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, 2006, * * * *

Though he may not speak of them, the memories still dwell inside Jacob Jankowski's ninety-something-year-old mind. Memories of himself as a young man, tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Memories of a world filled with freaks and clowns, with wonder and pain and anger and passion; a world with its own narrow, irrational rules, its own way of life, and its ownway of death. The world of the circus: to Jacob it was both salvation and a living hell.  Jacob was there because his luck had run out, orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on this locomotive ;ship of fools. It was the early part of the Great Depression, and everyone in this third-rate circus was lucky to have any job at all. Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, was there because she fell in love with the wrong man, a handsome circus boss with a wide mean streak. And Rosie the elephant was there because she was the great gray hope, the new act that was going to be the salvation of the circus; the only problem was, Rosie didn't have an act and, in fact, she couldn't even follow instructions. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.  Surprising, poignant, and funny, Water for Elephants is that rare novel with a story so engrossing, one is reluctant to put it down; with characters so engaging, they continue to live long after the last page has been turned; with a world built of wonder, a world so real, one starts to breathe its air.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Little Bee by Chris Cleave, 2009, * * *

Some 50 years ago, the region near Nigeria’s Atlantic coast provided the setting for Chinua Achebe’s haunting novel of a world torn asunder by the vicissitudes of Anglo-imperial expansion. To capture the tragedy of colonialism in that account, “Things Fall Apart,” Achebe looked to Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” for inspiration: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity. Chris Cleave, a columnist for The Guardian, puts a modern-day spin on Achebe’s concerns with his immensely readable and moving novel. While the pretext of “Little Bee” initially seems contrived — two strangers, a British woman and a Nigerian girl, meet on a lonely African beach and become inextricably bound through the horror imprinted on their encounter — its impact is hardly shallow. Rather than focusing on postcolonial guilt or African angst, Cleave uses his emotionally charged narrative to challenge his readers’ conceptions of civility, of ethical choice. Sarah O’Rourke might appear to be an insipid character, with her career at a British magazine, her Batman-costumed young son, her uninspiring lover and her gentrified Surrey lifestyle. When juxtaposed with the Nigerian refugee called Little Bee — whom we first meet behind the razor wire of a British immigration center — Sarah is unsympathetic, even tiresome. But that impression changes partway through the novel when a flashback to Africa reveals her fortitude.  London, with its dizzying abundance and multiculturalism, looks like a parallel universe when compared with the impoverished Nigerian village where Little Bee grew up. Yet it’s this same village that instilled in Little Bee the skills and values needed to help her navigate toward her own scarred survival. Like Little Bee, Sarah is a survivor. But the lessons of the past are not enough to steer either woman to safety. Instead, in a world full of turpitude and injustice, it is their bold, impulsive choices that challenge the inevitability of despair, transforming a political novel into an affecting story of human triumph.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point by David Lipsky, 2003, * * * * *

David Lipsky, a Rolling Stone writer and an award-winning novelist, chronicles daily life at the U.S. Military Academy during the most tumultuous period in its history. In 1998, West Point made David Lipsky an unprecedented offer: stay at the Academy as long as you like, go wherever you wish, talk to whomever you want, to discover why some of America's most promising young people sacrifice so much to become cadets. Lipsky followed one cadet class into mess halls, barracks, classrooms, bars, and training exercises, from arrival through graduation. By telling their stories, he also examines the Academy as a reflection of our society: Are its principles of equality, patriotism, and honor quaint anachronisms or is it still, as Theodore Roosevelt called it, the most "absolutely American" institution?  During arguably the most eventful four years in West Point's history, Lipsky witnesses the arrival of TVs and phones in dorm rooms, the end of hazing, and innumerable other shifts in policy and practice known collectively as The Changes. He uncovers previously unreported scandals and poignantly evokes the aftermath of September 11, when cadets must prepare to become officers in wartime. Absolutely American spotlights a remarkable ensemble of characters: a former Eagle Scout who struggles with every facet of the program, from classwork to marching; a foul-mouthed party animal who hates the military and came to West Point to play football; a farm-raised kid who seems to be the perfect soldier, despite his affection for the early work of Georgia O’Keeffe.  Many of them thrive under the rigorous regimen; others battle endlessly just to survive it.  This was a  fascinating, funny and tremendously well written account of life on the Long Gray Line -- a superb description of modern military culture, and one of the most gripping accounts of university life I have ever read.  As the cadets finally graduate and launch their careers, you may feel like a proud parent or friend standing in the crowd and cheering their accomplishments

Monday, May 24, 2010

Every Patient Tells a Story by Lisa Sanders, 2009, * * * *

A riveting exploration of the most difficult and important part of what doctors do, by Yale School of Medicine physician Dr. Lisa Sanders, author of the monthly New York Times Magazine column "Diagnosis," and the inspiration for the hit Fox TV series House, M.D.  for which she currently serves as a consultant  The experience of being ill can be like waking up in a foreign country. Life, as you formerly knew it, is on hold while you travel through another world as unknown as it is unexpected. Patients want a road map that will help them manage their new surroundings. "When I see patients in the hospital or in my office who are suddenly, surprisingly ill, what they really want to know is, ‘What is wrong with me?’" The ability to give this unfamiliar place a name, restores a measure of control, independent of whether or not that diagnosis comes attached to a cure. In Every Patient Tells a Story,  Never in human history have doctors had the knowledge, the tools, and the skills that they have today to diagnose illness and disease. Yet mistakes are still made, diagnoses missed, and symptoms or tests are misunderstood.  Through dramatic stories of patients with baffling symptoms, Sanders portrays the absolute necessity and surprising difficulties of understanding the patient’s story, the challenges of  a good history & physical;  the pitfalls of doctor-to-doctor communication, the vagaries of tests, and the near calamity of diagnostic errors. Dr. Sanders chronicles the real-life drama of doctors solving these difficult medical mysteries while illustratating the art and the science of diagnosis.

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande, 2010, * * * *

We live in a world of great and increasing complexity, where even the most expert professionals struggle to master the tasks they face. Longer training, ever more advanced technologies--neither seems to prevent grievous errors. But in a hopeful turn, acclaimed surgeon and writer Atul Gawande finds a remedy in the humblest and simplest of techniques: the checklist. First introduced decades ago by the U.S. Air Force, checklists have enabled pilots to fly aircraft of mind-boggling sophistication. Now innovative checklists are being adopted in hospitals around the world, helping doctors and nurses respond to everything from flu epidemics to avalanches. Even in the immensely complex world of surgery, a simple ninety-second variant has cut the rate of fatalities by more than a third. In riveting stories, Gawande takes us from Austria, where an emergency checklist saved a drowning victim who had spent half an hour underwater, to Michigan, where a cleanliness checklist in intensive care units virtually eliminated a type of deadly hospital infection.  Harvard Medical School prof and New Yorker scribe Gawande (Complications) notes that the high-pressure complexities of modern professional occupations overwhelm even their best-trained practitioners; he argues that a disciplined adherence to essential procedures — by ticking them off a list — can prevent potentially fatal mistakes and corner cutting. He examines checklists in aviation, construction, and investing, but focuses on medicine, where checklists mandating simple measures have dramatically reduced hospital-caused infections and other complications.  He's at his best delivering his usual rich, insightful reportage on medical practice, where checklists have the subversive effect of puncturing the cult of physician infallibility and fostering communication and teamwork.  Gawande gives a vivid, punchy exposition of an intriguing idea: that by-the-book routine trumps individual prowess. Gawande is a gorgeous writer and storyteller, and the aims of this book are ambitious. Gawande thinks that the modern world requires us to revisit what we mean by expertise: that experts need help, and that progress depends on experts having the humility to concede that they need help.

Friday, May 14, 2010

White Tiger by Aravind Adiger, 2008, * * * *

In his debut novel, Aravind Adiga takes on some hefty issues: the unhappy division of social classes into haves and have-nots, the cultural imperialism of the First World, the powder-kegged anger that seethes among the world's dispossessed, and entrapment.  The plot centers on Balram Halwai, a laborer born and raised in a small village utterly controlled by crooked and feudally powerful landlords. The village is located in 'the Darkness,' a particularly backward region of India. Balram is eventually taken to Delhi as a driver for one of the landlord's westernized sons, Ashok. It's in Delhi that Balram comes to the realization that there's a new caste system at work in both India and the world, and it has only two groups: those who are eaten, and those who eat.  Balram decides he wants to be an eater, someone with a big belly, and the novel tracks the way in which his ambition plays out. A key metaphor in the novel is the "rooster coop". Balram recognizes that those who are eaten are trapped inside a small and closed cage--the rooster coop--that limits their opportunities. Even worse, they begin to internalize the limitations and indignities of the coop, so that after awhile they're unable to imagine they deserve any other world than the cramped one in which they exist. Balram's dream is to break free of his coop, to shed his feathers and become what for him is a symbol of individualism, power, and freedom: a white tiger. But as he discovers, white tigers have their own cages, too. Of course, it's not simply the Balram's of the world caught in the rooster coop. Adiga's point seems to be that even the world's most privileged suffer from a cultural and class myopia that limits perspective and distorts self-understanding. The White Tiger is a good tonic with which to clear one's vision and spread one's wings.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Big Short by Michael Lewis, 2010, * * * *

When the crash of the U. S. stock market became public knowledge in the fall of 2008, it was already old news. The real crash, the silent crash, had taken place over the previous year, in bizarre feeder markets where the sun doesn't shine, and the SEC doesn't dare, or bother, to tread.  That area belongs to the bond and real estate derivative markets where geeks invent impenetrable securities to profit from the misery of lower- and middle-class Americans who can't pay their debts. The smart people who understood what was or might be happening were paralyzed by hope and fear; in any case, they weren't talking. The crucial question is this: Who understood the risk inherent in the assumption of ever-rising real estate prices, a risk compounded daily by the creation of those arcane, artificial securities loosely based on piles of doubtful mortgages? Michael Lewis turns the inquiry on its head to create a fresh, character-driven narrative brimming with indignation and dark humor, a fitting sequel to his #1 best-selling book Liar's Poker. Who got it right? He asks. Who saw the real estate market for the black hole it would become, and eventually made billions of dollars from that perception? What qualities of character made those few persist when their peers and colleagues dismissed them as Chicken Littles? In this trenchant, raucous, irresistible narrative, Lewis writes of the goats and of the few who saw what the emperor was wearing, and gives them, most memorably, what they deserve.

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson, 2004, * * *

In this fourth novel from Whitbread winner Atkinson (Behind the Scenes at the Museum), private detective Jackson Brodie — ex-cop, ex-husband and weekend dad — takes on three cases involving past crimes that occurred in and around London. The first case introduces two middle-aged sisters who, after the death of their vile, distant father, look again into the disappearance of their beloved sister Olivia, last seen at three years old.  A retired lawyer,  who lives only on the fumes of possible justice,  next enlists Jackson's aid in solving the brutal killing of his grown daughter 10 years earlier. In the third "cold" case, the sibling of an infamous ax-bludgeoner seeks a reunion with her niece, who as a baby was a witness to murder.  Jackson's reluctant persistence heats up these cold cases and by happenstance leads him to reassess his own painful history.  The cases are all quite dark, and Atkinson does a good job of conveying the sense of sorrow and loss that surrounds each.  Jackson pursues them without a lot of hope but with due diligence and as in so many procedurals, discovers threads to each that went unexplored. The chapters hopscotch between the different storylines, and the plot unravels in the manner of a good airplane or beach read but it's pretty easy to pick up the clues Atkinson drops, and thus, figure out the conclusion well before the ending and the conclusion to the book wasn't as satisfying as it could have been.  It was good but not great.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks, 2009, * * *

In London, three weeks before Christmas 2007, the lives of several characters intersect and intercut each other. With savage accuracy, the story skewers the banking industry and the subprime mortgage crisis while also touching on the evils of Islamic fundamentalism, the British school system, reality TV, role-playing computer games, and critics who delight in giving bad book reviews. The financial explanations are well researched and accurate,  but they slow down the plot.   The main characters are a hedge fund manager trying to pull off the biggest trade of his career and a Scottish-born student led astray by Islamist theory but the other characters, among them a Tube driver, a soccer player, a  book reviewer and a barrister get short shrifted in the novel. I found this book to be unfailingly depressing where all of the characters are either unpleasant or totally obnoxious and it represents a sad commentary on the author's apparent opinion of the greedy, shallow, and class conscious inhabitants of today's United Kingdom. All of this might have been good anti-bourgeois fun, along the lines of recent novels by Jonathan Dee (The Privileges) and Adam Haslett (Union Atlantic) that also feature criminal financiers, if Faulks hadn’t confused the moral calculus by introducing terrorism into the story   In the end, most of the characters and story lines felt like they were added to fatten the book as if a student was trying to satisfy a teacher’s requirement for a 10-page term paper and ultimately the book ends with a thud.  Perhaps, however, there is something to be said for not giving a formulaic ending  - everything continues "as is" despite upheavals in the world and with the characters.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Mother, a Daughter, and the Town That Raised Them by Amy Dickinson, 2009, * * *

I am one of Amy Dickinson;s biggest fans – having become familiar with her from reading her nationally syndicated advice column "Ask Amy" and from hearing her wit and wisdom as a featured guest on NPR's weekly news quiz “Wait.Wait…Don’t Tell Me.” Her motto is "I make the mistakes so you don't have to" and in The Mighty Queens of Freeville Amy Dickinson shares those mistakes and her remarkable story. Dickinson traces her own personal history, as well as the history of her mother's family whose members make up the 'Mighty Queens' of Freeville, N.Y., the small town where Dickinson was raised, and where she raised her own daughter, following stints in New York, London, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. After she found herself a reluctant single parent,  her mother, aunts and sisters helped her to pick up the pieces when her life fell apart,  and to reassemble them into something new. It is a story of frequent failures and surprising successes, as Amy starts and loses careers, bumbles through blind dates, teaches Sunday school, and moves across the country with her daughter and their giant tabby cat. A tale of promise postponed and scrappy survival, Amy Dickinson's glorious triumphs are like rabbits pulled out of a hat, one after another after another. Full of hope and humor and big simple truths, it is a story told with grace and without a trace of cynicism. This is a book you will love and one you will be truly sad to finish. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by R.Skloot, 2010, * * * * *

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the tale of a 31-year old black mother of five in Baltimore, who died of cervical cancer in 1951.  Without her knowledge, doctors treating her at Johns Hopkins took tissue sample from her cervix to research and they spawned the first viable, indeed immortal, cell lines ever grown in a laboratory. These cell lines have since spawned a multibillion dollar industry - yet her descendents have received no financial compensation and cannot even afford health care. Until Rebecca Skloot, a science reporter,  began her 10-year quest to learn about the woman whose cell line had saved millions of lives, the woman behind the HeLa cells was virtually unknown.  HeLa cells (named for the first two initials of Henrietta Lacks's first and last names)  have been responsible for unlocking the secrets of cancer and various viruses and have been essential to the development of in vitro fertilization, the polio vaccine, cloning and gene mapping.   The interactions between Skloot, a white woman, and the initially wary Lacks family contribute to this fascinating story and what emerges is a sweeping account of race, gender, ethics, class, economics, science and medical treatment and how they intersect in an unequal health care system.  In her summary Ms. Skloot discusses Myriad Genetics, a company that holds patents on several genes, including two genetic markers for breast cancer, BRCA1 and BRCA2.  In a wide reaching ruling by a federal judge delivered on March 29, 2010, those patents were struck down in an argument stating that genes are products of nature and thus occur naturally. This book could not be more relevant.