Friday, June 1, 2007

May 2007 Book Reviews

Both traveling and staying home sick leave a lot of time for reading. I did a lot of both in May, when I read eight books, seven novels and one memoir. Clicking the underlined title will take you to the page for each book.

Forever by Pete Hamill, a New York City newspaper editor and columnist is a historical look (with some serious magic thrown in) at Manhattan (18th to 21st centuries) from the perspective of an unusual protagonist and narrator, an 18th century Irish immigrant who strikes a deal with some people with unusual powers. He gets eternal life and in return he can't leave the island. Hamill's somewhat choppy writing style (born of newspaper writing, I suppose) takes some getting used to, but Cormac's story is fascinating, from his childhood days as an authentic Irishman (neither Protestant nor Catholic) to surviving as a young immigrant in the slave-trading days of the 1740s, fighting in the American Revolution, befriending Boss Tweed in 19th century and finally to falling in love at the age of 260 or so (after becoming an adult he somehow maintains his vague 40ish look throughout) in the days surrounding 9/11. Recommended to fans of both New York City history and of magical realism.

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby is a modern-day story of the fun side of suicide. Got your attention? The core event takes place in the very first chapter as four widely varied people (a scandalized TV host, a lonely single mother of an brain-damaged adult child, a spoiled teenage daughter of a British government official, and a guitar player whose band and life have just broken up) find themselves on the roof of a London apartment building (a "tower block" in Brit-speak) on New Year's Eve all planning to do the same thing--throw themselves off. Could you commit suicide with other potential victims watching? I didn't think so, and neither could these folks. The rest of the book chronicles their mostly humorous efforts to keep living from day-to-day and month-to-month. Hornby has a way with character that he displays by having the four protagonists alternate as narrator. An enjoyable read recommended for adults--though who knows, it might help convince some suicidal teenager to give life another chance.

After Hornby's book, reading The Pact: A Love Story by Jodi Picoult put me on a suicide roll of sorts (not personally, of course--readingwise). A brilliant, beautiful and talented teenage girl dies violently in an apparent botched double suicide with the steady boyfriend she's know since almost birth. Ms. Picoult has a good ear for the voices and issues of young people. Her female adults (the mothers) are more sharply drawn than the males (maybe from personal experience). She'll keep you guessing about what really happened that night, though I more or less figured it out before the end. I liked the other book I read by her (she's written many) The Tenth Circle, probably because of the literary angle (the title refers to Dante's circles of hell). Picoult fans, based on Amazon ratings, seem to like The Pact better. Still I'd recommend this book to those who enjoy stories about contemporary American families with children (Joyce Carol Oates' We Are the Mulvaneys being my favorite of this genre).

The Knuckleball from Hell by Michael Wayne came to me via my reviewing efforts at The book is in pre-release, but the author saw my review of Jim Bouton's Ball Four on Amazon and thought I might enjoy his humorous fictional take on the rebirth of the New York Mets, so he sent me a free copy. His idea was that I would post a favorable review on Amazon and boost sales once the book came out. Sad to say, I disliked this book, despite the subject being my favorite sport of baseball. The colorless writing style clashed with the wacky events that Wayne was trying to relate. I told him as much and more in an e-mail. Not wanting to abort his baby, we agreed to hold my Amazon review until well after release to see how others like the book. I suggested he read Philip Roth's The Great American Novel, a similarly themed book about the resurgence of a hapless baseball team, that while "over the top" in a way, got it right for me and still makes me laugh just to think about it, let along read it.

'Tis: A Memoir by Frank McCourt is the middle book in McCourt's series of memoirs--Angela's Ashes about his childhood in Ireland and New York City; this book about his education and early teaching days in New York, and Teacher Man, about his 30-year career as a high school teacher. All along the way, people told McCourt that he could tell a good story, and his own story is as entertaining as most fiction. 'Tis is light, effortless and entertaining reading; still there are some telling stories about how Americans treat people with accents and about the expectations we have for our children.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen I bought for myself along with some other books for my wife as Mother's Day gifts. This wonderful book shot through the family like water through an elephant's trunk, as my father, my wife and I all read it in the space of two weeks. Gruen writes the best kind of historical fiction, focused on a fascinating time and setting that the reader probably knew next to nothing about before starting the book. In this case, the scene is the American travelling circus of the early 1930's, just after the start of the Depression. The protagonist operates in two time periods, as a nonagenarian in a current name "assisted living facility" and flashing back to his days as a young veterinary student who due to circumstances beyond his control ends up serving as a traveling circus vet. Gruen intended to imagine various vignettes for the book, but in her research and interviews with circus veterans discovered better stories from real life. The book is enhanced by photographs from various circus archives. Not an especially profound book, still Water For Elephants gets a five-star rating for all readers for readability and Gruen's ability to evoke an interesting place and time so well.

The Company by Robert Littell came to us as a gift (an autographed hardback copy no less). It is the author's historically-based account of nothing less than the history of the CIA, from its birth just after World War II to recent involvements at the end of the Cold War. A daunting 900-page tome, The Company kept me going by focusing on the CIA and KGB's role in historical events--the Hungarian revolt against Soviet domination in 1956; the outing of Soviet agent Kim Philby in the British MI6 spy organization; the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961; the death of Pope John Paul I; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; and the breakup of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Historical characters also pepper the book--William Casey, the Kennedys, Allen Dulles, G. Gordon Liddy, and others, though some stories might be written off as conspiratorial speculation (i.e. a 1961 attempt to assassinate Castro, and the "unnatural" death of the Pope after his 40-day reign in 1978). Littell carries the story from event to event by following the careers of three young officers who all join the CIA out of Yale in 1951--each with his own style and motivation. Some of the other fictional characters (the Sorcerer from the U.S. and the shadowy "Starik" from the Soviet Union) are deliciously drawn. (I thought U.S. counterespionage ace James Jesus "Mother" Angleton was one of these, but it turns out that he's a real figure--no one is exactly who they seem to be). This is the best spy book I've ever read, though I'm not much a fan of the genre. I might try some more, particularly of Littell's books after reading The Company.

Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan, I finished just today. I wasn't a great fan of Ms. Tan's most famous novel, The Joy Luck Club, mother/daughter angst not being among my favorite themes. A Hundred Secret Senses followed this theme--I only got through about 50 pages. As historical fiction, The Bonesetter's Daughter suited me better and I enjoyed it. But of what I've read of Ami Tan, I enjoyed this book about a jinxed tourist expedition to Myanmar (nee Burma) most of all. Tan's major theme, as evidenced by the title, is the ironic and often unintended consequences of well-meaning actions, the well-meaningness of which we sometime ascribe by way of euphemisms. Along the way, she works in The Canterbury Tales, Survivor, Fox News Network, and half dozen National Geographic specials. The oppression of indigenous peoples by military governments, and the well-meaning but futile efforts to combat it by outsiders, could have made for very morose reading, but Tan intentionally takes an almost farcical approach to create a dreamlike quality for her story. This edition features a fascinating interview with the author about her creative process, and the obligatory "reader's guide" set of questions.

Other reviewers have taken Tan to task for venturing from her strength, but I enjoyed the trip. Four stars--one star off for the difficulty I had keeping the backgrounds of the 12 tourists straight. She introduced them all, but I still had trouble remembering how they all related to one another and what some of their motivations were in making the trip--maybe there was something lacking there.

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