Category: Books

by Jonathan Franzen Corrections


Confession: I’ve resisted this book for years, in part because its author, Jonathan Franzen, has a reputation (deserved or not) for being something of a jerk. He’s not exactly Mr. Warmth and Cheer on his talk-show appearances, and then there was that little issue with Oprah Winfrey.

Also, reviews informed me that The Corrections’ plot concerns a middle-class family of five in the late-twentieth-century Midwest, with Depression-era parents and grown kids who flew the coop. I happen to hail from a middle-class family of five in the late-twentieth-century Midwest, with Depression-era parents and grown kids who flew the coop. I thought the book might hit a little too close to home, and so I took a pass.

My mistake.

Franzen is a spectacularly gifted writer. His insights and prose are endlessly inventive. He deftly mixes elements of Shakespearean tragedy with humor straight out of Kurt Vonnegut. He chooses the perfect word, the perfect phrase to illustrate his scenes. The major theme, in which members of The Greatest Generation and The Me Generation collide with societal change and with each other, is important to many Americans. National Book Award voters honored The Corrections in 2001, and justifiably so.

However … this was a novel that I admired more than I enjoyed. The characters, although fully realized and recognizable, are not what I’d call endearing, and the reader is asked to spend 566 pages with them.  Unless you grew up in a family much like the Lamberts – (ahem)The Corrections might engage your mind but not so much your soul.


© 2010-2017 (text only)


by Gaston Leroux Yellow Room


In her 1963 book The Clocks, mystery queen Agatha Christie gives a shout-out to this classic “locked room” novel, published in 1908 by the Frenchman Gaston Leroux. This is interesting because Leroux and Yellow Room protagonist Joseph Rouletabille were clearly on Christie’s mind when she created her most indelible character: the great detective Hercule Poirot.

Other than age and occupation, Christie’s Poirot and Leroux’s young hero have a lot in common. (Rouletabille is an 18-year-old journalist.)  Like Poirot, Rouletabille is brilliant, underestimated by nearly everyone, and takes an almost malicious delight in withholding crucial information from his clueless associate, who also serves as the story’s narrator. At one point, the eccentric Rouletabille even refers to his little grey cells – although not in precisely those words.

As for the mystery itself, Yellow Room features other Christie-like qualities: suspects who harbor secrets, dark doings at an isolated estate, and disguise as an important plot point. Leroux, who also penned The Phantom of the Opera, was especially skilled at misdirection. 


© 2010-2017 (text only)


by Edvard Radzinsky Stalin


Stalin is a historical biography that I admired but … did I enjoy it? Let me put it this way: Reading this 600-page beast often felt like being banished to Siberia with nothing to do but page through the telephone directory. I do respect the blood, sweat and tears that must have gone into the research and writing of this massive tome about the 20th century’s greatest villain, Joseph Stalin (yes, I’m including Hitler), but the result is mostly a plodding bore.

In addition to presenting the usual agglomeration of unpronounceable and confusing Russian names, Radzinsky’s book demands a basic knowledge of Russian history and the major political players of the time. If you are unfamiliar with the historical relationship between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, the troubled history of Ukraine and Russia, etc., well, too bad for you. Radzinsky simply offers a chronological survey of what Stalin did and to whom he did it. Stalin himself remains an enigma. So many details, so little insight.

It’s a shame, because if we know one thing, it’s that history repeats itself, and if a genocidal despot like Stalin could place an entire country under his malevolent spell, then understanding the factors that created such a monster is something we all need to know.


© 2010-2017 (text only)


by John Dunning Booked to Die


I had modest expectations for Booked to Die, Dunning’s debut novel about Denver cop-turned-bookseller Cliff Janeway. From its synopsis, Booked appears to be like any of a thousand other detective stories you might have read – hard-boiled, hard-drinking, lady-loving, smack-talking shamus investigates a murder – and in many respects, it is.

But I was pleasantly surprised. Dunning’s asides about rare books and bibliophiles are diverting, the Bogart-and-Bacall banter between Janeway and a femme fatale is engaging, and Janeway’s wry, first-person narration wears well.

I have one quibble: It has to do with a Dunning punctuation quirk: The man is positively obsessed with the colon: It’s bizarre.


© 2010-2017 (text only)


by Bill Bryson Dribbling


Bryson’s latest book is half travelogue, half opportunity to dish on British history, pop culture, and modern denizens – which is a good thing, because that dishing is where Road mines its abundant humor and charm. The book is a follow-up to Bryson’s 1995 hit, Notes from a Small Island, in which the author crisscrossed the United Kingdom, taking notes and offering an American expatriate’s observations.


Pros:  Bryson’s encounters with locals, especially rural locals, are often laugh-out-loud funny, particularly the dialogue as he recalls it. And his enthusiasm for English landmarks and historical figures is contagious. I’ve never been to England, but this book makes me want to visit – and walk everywhere once I’m there. Man, does Bryson love to walk.

Cons:  Bryson occasionally succumbs to “Get Off My Lawn!” syndrome, in which the grumpy geezer believes everything and every place was better years ago, during his youth, and isn’t afraid to say so. In modern Britain, Bryson carps, litter is everywhere, youth are increasingly boorish, and government projects are misguided. All of that could be true, but I sometimes got the feeling that what Bryson misses more than the England of his youth is the Bill Bryson of his youth.


Inexplicably, toward the end of the book, Bryson feels compelled to vent about his country of origin, decrying the “stupidity” of Americans in general, and conservative Americans in particular. Out of the blue, the author also decides to share his feelings about hot-button political issues of the day.

Am I interested in Bryson’s take on gun control and immigration? Sure, why not. But in a book in which 99 percent of the grumbling is about irksome potholes and overpriced cups of coffee, switching gears to Bryson’s political convictions is out of sync and leaves a sour taste in an otherwise delightful read.


© 2010-2017 (text only)


by Agatha Christie Clocks


It’s an Agatha Christie mystery, so you know the drill: Someone gets murdered, the police are baffled, and so Hercule Poirot twirls his mustache and solves the crime.

There are a couple of unusual aspects to this Poirot outing, which was published in 1963, some 43 years after Christie introduced the persnickety detective. For one, I think the author might have been tiring of Poirot, because he’s barely in this novel. I think Christie might also have been impressed by a certain Alfred Hitchcock movie, because Clocks features a witness in an apartment across the street from the murder scene, a girl who is confined to her room by a broken leg and who spends much of the day spying on her neighbors with binoculars. Sound familiar?


© 2010-2017 (text only)


by Malcolm Gladwell Dog


How much you enjoy the essays in Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw could depend on how much you care about whichever subject he’s discussing. The New Yorker journalist gets praised for the clarity of his prose, but to me it doesn’t matter how accessible the writing is when the topic is ketchup.  I still fall asleep.

I am also unmoved by Gladwell’s stories about successfully marketing hair dye and vegetable slicers and the masterminds behind their advertising campaigns. Sorry, but a tag-team of Stephen King and J. K. Rowling would fail to hold my interest if the topic is peddling mustard.

On the other hand, when Gladwell turns his attention to the psychology of criminal profiling, or to the root cause of homelessness, his counterintuitive conclusions are often surprising and sometimes enlightening.


© 2010-2017 (text only)


by Wilkie Collins White


I do love me some Victorian literature. Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontes — masterful writers, all of them.  The Woman in White, published in 1859 by England’s Wilkie Collins, is not one of my favorites from that era, but it does have its charms.


The plot:  A pair of plucky Britons does battle with an evil Italian spy when the corpulent con artist attempts to swindle a young heiress by replacing her with a lookalike impostor.

What I liked:  The lengthy melodrama was initially published in serial form, and it’s easy to see how magazine readers of the day got hooked. Collins is a master at building slow-burn suspense: It can be a bit of a slog on the way to a chapter’s climax but, once you get there, the payoff is often rewarding. Collins also introduces a villain for the ages in the egotistical, silver-tongued Count Fosco.

What I didn’t like:  The youthful heroes aren’t nearly as interesting as the malevolent count. The beautiful heiress is typical of so many “damsels in distress” found in Victorian literature, a fragile specimen who faints at the slightest provocation and must be shielded from anything and everything remotely unpleasant. (She’s an apparent precursor to some of today’s college students, with their “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.”) Here is one passage describing the precious snowflake that is Lady Glyde:


“The effect of the good news on poor Lady Glyde was, I grieve to say, quite overpowering. She was too weak to bear the violent reaction, and in another day or two she sank into a state of debility and depression which obliged her to keep her room. Rest and quiet, and change of air afterwards, were the best remedies which Mr. Dawson could suggest for her benefit.”


And that’s how she reacts to the good news.


© 2010-2017 (text only)


by Umberto Eco Rose


I love this book, much as I love the movie it inspired, mostly for the world it so vividly recreates: a 14th-century monastery in the mountains of northern Italy, populated by monks, peasants – and an apparent serial killer. Although this medieval community is a great place to visit in a book, you probably wouldn’t want to live there. Not unless you enjoy fetching water from wells, laboring from dawn to dusk, and adhering to the strict lifestyle of a monk.

Eco, a scholar specializing in signs and symbols, depicts this world of bookish monks and warring religious factions with painstaking detail. (Alas, at times the reader might also experience pain; Eco’s lengthy philosophical and historical conversations can grow tiresome.)

The plot is driven a la Agatha Christie – someone is picking off abbey denizens, one by one – and the protagonist is courtesy of Arthur Conan Doyle – a brilliant Franciscan friar named William of Baskerville investigates the murders but above all it’s the atmospheric sense of time and place that makes this tale so absorbing.


© 2010-2017 (text only)


by Ted Koppel



As if this country doesn’t have enough to worry about, what with strained race relations, domestic terrorism, war in the Middle East, and income disparity, along comes doom-and-gloom Ted Koppel to issue a warning about what might be our biggest existential threat: a cyberattack on the nation’s power grids. In Lights Out, Koppel interviews security experts both in and out of government and makes a convincing case that should some rogue nation – or even a small band of hackers – choose to shut down our computer-reliant electrical system, the ensuing crisis could resemble … well, have you seen Mad Max?

A large chunk of America without power for weeks or even months is a frightening scenario, and probably another case of “when it happens,” not “if it happens.” And when it does, the United States is woefully unprepared. Much of our unpreparedness boils down to that old bugaboo, privacy vs. security. How much of the former are we willing to sacrifice in order to achieve the latter? The conundrum reminds me of the death penalty, another issue over which I’m an admitted hypocrite. I am against the death penalty – until someone I care about gets butchered by some remorseless jerk. I am also against government intrusion into my Internet life – until hackers black out the entire Midwest.

Koppel’s advice isn’t particularly helpful or practical: Government and individuals must be better prepared. Feel better now? Should the worst happen, I’m thinking your best course of action is to befriend a Mormon family, move in with them in Utah – and bring a gun.


© 2010-2017 (text only)