Saturday, December 31, 2011

One Year, One Hundred Books

Sometime around January 1, 2011, I stumbled upon one of those sites where readers had challenged each other to read a hundred books throughout the year. It seemed ridiculously easy at the time, but in fact I almost didn't make it. This has everything to do with my penchant for picking up fat biographies and even fatter books on American History. Early on, I knew I'd have to set some arbitrary ground rules: graphic novels would be acceptable but cookbooks were a sin. So while I can report it wasn't all heavy tomes whose weight broke my Kindle's back, I have to admit I only finished the last book on December 30 at around four o'clock. You can see the full list here.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Sense of an Ending
Julian Barnes. Random House, 150pp.

Even if I hadn't enjoyed this book as much as I did, I still would have been thrilled that Julian Barnes had claimed the 2011 Man Booker Prize. An author with an eclectic body of work, I view the success more as a nod towards his career then any singular work. This isn't to say The Sense of An Ending isn't a good read, merely that Mr. Barnes' ouevre has been so impressive that it's pretty scandalous he hasn't won already. Here, he gives us a  book so subtle that it doesn't immediately scream "award". It's not a sprawling fictional biography of Thomas More (see Wolf Hall) or as structurally ambitious as, say, The Blind Assassin (which won in 2000). Don't come to this book looking for smoke and mirrors. There are few obvious tricks to dazzle you; it is, to quote one reviewer, "a work of art, in a minor key".

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Emma Goldman: An Intimate Life (Pantheon Books)
Emma Goldman In Exile (Beacon Press)
by Alice Wexler.

Not officially a two volume set, both Emma Goldman: An Intimate Life and Emma Goldman In Exile are well-researched biographies of the two halves of the famed anarchist's life: B.E. (Before Exile) and A.E. (I'll leave you guess what this stands for). Sent packing from the U.S. after years of anti-government rhetoric, Emma Goldman spent the last twenty years of her life yearning for what she did during the first forty. Or at least, this is the inherent implication in Ms. Wexler's books, which cut a definitive line down the middle of Emma Goldman's life. Ms. Wexler is not in love with Emma Goldman, which makes her an ideal author to conduct this study: there are no rose tinted glasses here, and both books are thoroug, sometimes critical examination of Emma, her politics and the world in which she tried to implement them.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Benjamin Harrison 
by Charles W Calhoun. Times Books, 206 pages.

The latest in my ongoing effort to study America through the lens of presidential biographies, Charles W. Calhoun's Benjamin Harrison manages the amazing act of being as informative as a Wikipedia article without actually revealing all that much about its subject. This may be a result of the scope of the book - it's part of The American President's Series, edited by Arthur M. Schlessinger Jr, and it's probable that the author was working towards a specific word count. But whatever the reason, this is hardly the most comprehensive look at the life of the 23rd President (that honor resides with the 3 volume opus by Harry J. Sievers). This isn't necessarily a bad thing; but the book succeeds in revealing very little about Benjamin Harrison himself. This is a political biography, focused entirely on Harrison's professional actions, rather then his personal life. This sadly contradicts the aim of the American President series which, according to Mr. Schlessinger is to remind us of the humanity behind America's leaders.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
by Michael Lewis. W.W. Norton and Co. 286 pages.
directed by Michael Bennett. Columbia Pictures. 133 min.

Comparing a book to its filmed version is a dangerous pastime: cinema and print are two different mediums and require different storytelling skills. One is visual, the other cerebral. Those that realize this invariably make good films - they steal the book's plot and maybe some of the dialogue, but otherwise they're wise enough to leave the book on the shelf. Moneyball is one such film. Written by Steven Zallian and Aaron Sorkin, Moneyball the movie is a taut character drama of a man against the world. Michael Lewis' book, on the other hand, is a far more complex expose of baseball's underworld and the personas behind both the players and those who put them on the film. Book and film are two different entities that have sprung from the same tree: the closest analogy one could give is that they are a pair of successful fraternal twins.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Saturday by Ian McEwan.
Jonathan Cape, 279 pages.   

Ian McEwan has made a career putting the literary in literary fiction, but with Saturday he outdoes even himself. A novel that manages to be both dense and quiet, Saturday takes us slowly - very slowly - through a day in the life neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, allowing Mr. McEwan to revel in the mundane. Even the act of urinating deserves a paragraph of its own, which may be all you need to know in order to decide if Saturday is for you. Make no mistake: this is an exquisite book that reveals both the poetry and the disquiet in he most mundane of things. But Mr. McEwan is in no hurry to get to his point. Like The Comfort of Strangers, a much earlier novel, this is a book which almost imperceptibly pushes its characters towards an unforseen and startling climax.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Mark of Zorro by Johnston McCulley 
(Audiobook) Read by B.J. Harrison. approx. 8 hours.

They definitely don't write them like this anymore. The Mark of Zorro may very well be the king of the popcorn novels, succeeding in being a witty, adventurous delight despite having absolutely no nutritional value. This isn't an insult: Johnston McCulley's original 1919 novel is as delicious as a well-made dessert, overflowing with chases on horesback, sword play, evil tyrants, noble theives and of course the requisite lovely senorita who manages to not always be the damsel in distress. It's given a spirited reading by B.J. Harrison, the chief cook and bottle washer over at Mr. Harrison, who has narrated over three dozen novels and short stories for his Classic Tales podcast, has outdone himself this time around: he gives both voice and character to McCulley's calvacade of characters, moving from lisping generals to languid nobles with impressive ease.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character
by Alyn Brodsky. St. Martin's Press, 485 pages.

When it comes to studying American presidents, there's nothing sexy about Grover Cleveland. Study Lincoln, you get the Civil War; study Nixon, you get Watergate. Study Grover Cleveland and you get tarriff battles and the repeal of the Sherman Silver Act. Not quite the stuff they make Hollywood movies about. Yet Alyn Brodsky's charming pro-Cleveland biography is out to argue that we should all be giving America'as 22nd / 24th President a lot more credit. To Mr. Brodsky, there is something sexy about Cleveland's presidency. "He insisted on doing what was morally expedient," writes Mr. Brodsky. "Even if by doing meant placing his political career in jeopardy." This, according to Mr. Brodsky, made Cleveland a "political freak." Cleveland, in other words, is the epitome of the Hollywood president - moral, idealistic, incorruptible - the sort found in blockbusters and rarely in the White House.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Paris Was Yesterday
by Janet Flanner. Harvest / HBJ. 232 pages.

It's tempting to want to write about Janet Flanner the way she wrote about Paris, but I hope I'm wise enough to know that I'd die from the effort. Ms. Flanner's exquisite prose was a staple of the New Yorker for almost fifty years, writing dispatches from Paris that provided a glimpse into France's artistic, social and political scene. Paris Was Yesterday is a collection of these letters spanning most of the interwar years, from 1925 - 1939, and it's a work almost without peer. As a stylist, Janet Flanner is a marvel while her perceptive and wry take on all subjects, be it Ulysses or Hitler, makes for an engaging read.

Monday, September 26, 2011

State of Fear
by Michael Crichton, Harper Collins. 602 pages.

Is it possible that Michael Crichton, of all people, is this generation's George Bernard Shaw? It's not the most common comparison, but hear me out. Shaw was a social critic whose plays were written to discuss a particular social ill: prostitution (Mrs. Warren's Profession) or the exploitation of the underprivileged (Widower's House). At the same time, he wrote entertainments (he called them "Pleasent Plays"), some of which proved to be his most enduring work (see Pygmalion, the basis for My Fair Lady). Cut to Mr. Crichton who, like Shaw, isn't afraid to put his opinion in a preface or afterword. His canon is also a mixture of popular entertainments (Jurassic Park, The Great Train Robbery) mixed with books which have a more political purpose - abortion (A Case of Need), genetic engineering (Next) and, as is the case with State of Fear, global warming. To Mr. Crichton, global warming is a social ill that needs to be addressed: he is, at best, skeptical of the science behind climate change, a fact which made this book controversial after it's release in 2004 and continues to be touted by those who believe climate change to be a hoax.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

George Gershwin: His Life and Work
by Howard Pollack. University of California Press, 884 Pages (!!!)

Howard Pollack's enormous biography of American composer George Gershwin and his work might be better termed an encyclopedia: it not only dives into the composer's life, but also lists the history of his numerous songs, compositions and shows, complete with synopses, cast lists and four whole chapters (nearly 100 pages) devoted to the monumental Porgy and Bess. Having read almost every Gershwin biography to date, I can attest that Mr. Pollack's is both the most exhaustive and the least readable. It's a work of great significance and yet I would hardly recommend it to anyone but the most devoted Gershwin fan. Someone with a smattering of musicology would also be a plus, since Mr. Pollack isn't afraid to dive into the technical aspects of Gershwin's music, comparing individual pieces to other works in the Gershwin canon and Gershwin's contemporaries.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

I Am Mary Dunne 
by Brian Moore. Penguin, 187 pages.

All literary affairs - like all love in general, I suppose - happen at different speeds. Sarah Vowell hit me like a ton of bricks, but Brian Moore came up quietly beside me, gently poking me in the ribs each time I walked into a book store. "Remember Brian Moore?" he says. "Remember how much you liked the last book?" And so I buy another of his books and then another. I Am Mary Dunne, written in 1968, is the sixth novel by Mr. Moore that I've read and I'm sorry to say that it's taken this long for me to realize that he and I are definitely having a literary affair. That Mary Dunne has cemented this realization is probably a testament to the book itself, which seems as quiet and unassuming as its title character. The book, like its heroine, is something easily passed by on your way to flashier things. But this would be a mistake, for both are filled with tragedy as heartbreaking as it is quiet.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Gentleman Boss: the Life of Chester A. Arthur
by Thomas Reeves. Knopf, 500 pages.

More an exhaustive overview of Gilded-Age U.S. politics then an actual biography, Gentleman Boss remains one of the few books to focus on America's forgotten 21rst president (he's so forgotten that he didn't even make it into the Simpson's classic "Mediocre Presidents" song). Chester "Chet" Arthur should have been an even more forgettable Vice-President, but Charles Guiteau changed that in 1881, killing President Garfield and altering Arthur's fate forever. Thomas Reeves makes a valiant effort to rehabilitate Arthur and for the most part he succeeds, although even he admits that Arthur might have achieved immortality if he had only been the bad President everyone expected him to me. Instead, he truly fulfilled the title of "caretaker President".

Monday, August 29, 2011

2030 by Albert Brooks
St Martin's Press, 375 pages.

It's too bad that the late Michael Crichton never got to write 2030, because in his hands it might have been a great book. Crichton was a genius at marrying an epic cast of characters with complicated exposition, all wrapped into a tense dramatic scenario - look at The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park or more recently, Next. Next (reviewed elsewhere) is perhaps the closest ancestor to 2030, as both take on clinical tones to discuss the not-so-distant future. But Next ends up being far more sinister in its implications. In the hands of filmmaker Albert Brooks, 2030 actually comes across as rather benign. Perhaps it's because the author's cinematic instincts are so much more honed then his literary ones: 2030 is dialogue heavy and the narration is short, brief and always to the point. Major events - earthquakes, deaths, China buying Los Angeles - all happen in the blink of an eye without any real attention paid to the drama of the moment. The entire novel reads like a treatment for a film that never got written.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Various Positions
by Martha Schabas, Doubleday. 361 pages.

Being a former theatre school brat, I couldn't help but be drawn to Various Positions, an affecting first novel by Martha Schabas that deals with adolescence, broken homes and the fact that when you're dealing with the artistic world, the "rules do not apply". This, at least, is the conclusion reached by Georgia Slade, Ms. Schabas' engrossing main character, who is accepted to the Royal Toronto Ballet Academy and promptly begins both an artistic and sexual awakening. A bit of Black Swan meets Fame, Various Positions took me back to my own days in dance school and successfully captured the tense student rivalry and unfortunate eating disorders that are the undercurrent of any artistic training. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

by Tina Fey, Reagan Arthur Books. 275 pages.

Like Kristi Koruna, the object of a ten year crush that lasted until I was 18, Tina Fey always manages to prompt a series of sweaty palms, giddiness and a complete inability to articulate my own thoughts. In Ms. Fey's case, however, this is a purely artistic crush. I usually respond to an episode of 30 Rock with the same sweaty-palmed uncertainty that happened whenever Kristi Koruna walked into the room: in other words, if my life was a summer camp social (and sometimes I think it is) Tina Fey's work is the girl I want to dance with to Stairway to Heaven. I probably won't ever get asked to write an episode of 30 Rock (mostly because I'd just screw it up), so I suspect that writing about Bossypants is as close as I'll ever come to dancing with Ms. Fey's talent.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Robert Todd Lincoln: A Man in His Own Right
by John S. Goff
University of Oklahoma Press, 286 Pages. 

You know you're a history geek when you're reading a book about Robert Todd Lincoln - especially one written by John S. Goff. Written in 1968, this is a polite  look at a statesman who most people know nothing about, a fact as true now as it was forty years ago. A millionaire businessman of the Progressive era, Lincoln also did his duty in American politics, serving first as Secretary of War and then as Minister to England. He was associated with three assassinated Presidents at the time they were shot, a distinction that led him to say of his many White House invitations: "If only they knew, they wouldn't want me there." His name was bandied about in several Presidential races and, as Special Counsel for the Pullman Palace Car Company, he may or may not have been influential in putting down the famed Pullman strike of 1894. Oh, and he was the son of Abraham Lincoln. Can't forget that - especially since no one else did.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Memory of All That:
George Gershwin, Kay Swift and my Family's Legacy of Infidelities
by Katharine Weber
Crown Publishers, 270 pages.

An unusual memoir penned by novelist Katharine Weber, The Memory of All That is essentially two books in one: the first concerns Mrs. Weber's relationship with her enigmatic father, the inimitible Sydney Kaufman who disappeared from the house for months at a time, worked in the movies, was either loved or reviled by his contemporaries and has a FBI file that corresponds with the career of J. Edgar Hoover. The other is largely an anecdotal biography of Mrs. Weber's grandmother, Kay Swift, who is remembered either as the first woman to have a musical on Broadway or George Gershwin's longtime paramour (sadly few people, I've found, seem to remember her as both). Despite my own Gershwin-mania, it's the novel's first half that made for a much more invigorating read; although of academic interest, the second half was less focused. For a hundred pages, Mrs. Weber fights an intriguing battle to understand her peculiar father; but she was so close to her grandmother and much of the second half is, to use Kay Swift's own word, mumpsy.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of James A. Garfield
by Kenneth Ackerman
Carroll & Graf, 551 pages.

A book that should be required reading for anyone aspiring to a life in politics, Dark Horse is a surprisingly engaging historical epic that reads like a novel even as it delves into an under-appreciated turning point in 19th century Americana. Set in the stormy political years of 1880 - 1881, the book charts the rise of President James Garfield and sets about proving the thesis that his death by an assassin's bullet was as much a result of the era's political atmosphere as it was the assassin's own shattered ideals. If this idea sounds familiar, it should; it was the same one put forth this year after Jared Loughner's shooting spree in Arizona and it's just started again in the wake of Anders Behring Breivik's shootings in Norway: in both cases, a charged political atmosphere prompted disturbed people to take disturbing action. And this is just one of the eerie points of relevance between Dark Horse and the modern day: as we gear up for the 2012 Presidential election and the Republican National Convention, Mr. Ackerman's detailed portrayal of the 1880 convention - and the backroom deals that went along with it - will be of special interest.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Father of Frankenstein
by Christopher Baum. Plume, 276 pages.

Like author Peter Straub, I read most of this book in one sitting, a true compliment considering how restless one can get on a hot summer day. Reading this book so soon after Doctorow's Homer and Langley, I couldn't help but draw parallels, not because of the subject matter, but because both books create fictional versions of history that are true to the spirit of people involved if not the actual facts. Here, Mr. Baum's focus is the final days of James Whale, best remembered as the director of Frankenstien, who drowned himself in his Hollywood swimming pool in 1957. History is unapologetically subverted as Mr. Baum creates a tryptych of characters that are both wildly comical and deeply profound: Whale himself, his loyal maid Maria and Clayton Boone, an aimless yardman who shares Whale's final days.

The Cabin: Reminiscence and Diversions
by David Mamet. Vintage Press, 157 pages.

It is, I think, a glorious thing to read any essay by David Mamet, especially in a moment of disillusion. He has the ability to cut through the great chafe of life and, in a prose that is lean but never anorexic, reveal wisdom in all areas: art, lust, guns, even campaign buttons. I will probably forever remain undecided whether he is better served to be known for his plays and films or his essays: the former are more popular  and something has to be said for that. Then I read "The Cabin" for the twentieth time and I think "Hmmm...."

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Dancing with Master D: Notes on Life and Death
by Bert Keizer

One of the great pleasures of book sales is the fact that everything's cheap, which for some reason always seems more interesting then when everything's free. I'm never half as excited at the library as I am at a book sale, probably because the library expects their books back. But at the book sale, I can own something for life - and all for only a dollar. The cheap price often means I'm more willing to take a chance on something strange or unusual and is almost always how I've discovered some hidden gem, some author I might otherwise never have read. It's how I came to meet Graham Greene; and now it's how I had the supreme pleasure of reading Dancing with Mister D which, aside from it's terrible title, is a moving, funny and thought-provoking mediation on mortality, aging, medicine, assisted suicide and, most of all, the fact that doctors are just as uncomfortable with death as everyone else.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Assassination Vacation
by Sarah Vowell. Simon & Schuster, 254 pages.

My literary crush on Sarah Vowell went from mild to obsessive after the introductory paragraphs of Assassination Vacation, in which Ms. Vowell manages to reference Stephen Sondheim (my favorite dramatist), Assassins (my favorite musical), 1776 (my favorite musical about the Declaration of Independence)  and more then a dozen references to obscure points of Americana, my favorite topic of conversation, especially when I want to either amaze people or bore them (usually I managed to do both). Given that Ms. Vowell is equally enamored with both American history and America's history of political murders, I suspect if we met at a cocktail party, we'd have a great deal of fun amazing / boring all the other guests. All of which is to say Assassination Vacation feels very much like it was written just for me. Thanks Sarah!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Family Sins
by William Trevor. Key Porter Books, 251 pages.

Any writer who has been declared "the greatest writer in the English language" by an army of prestigious critics - the New Yorker, the London Free Press etc. - demands a closer examination then most. Like Shakespeare, William Trevor might forever be a victim of his own praise: lauded by so many, the expectations for his work can be so high that one risks a book-ful of disappointment. This fear is not realized in the case of Family Sins, a collection of stories published in 1999 which more or less exists as a good testament to what the literarti have long been so excited about.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Year of the Flood
by Margaret Atwood, McLelland and Stewart, 434 pages

The most interesting thing about The Year of the Flood is - sadly - not the book itself but rather the story behind it. The second book in what is presumably a sci-fi trilogy (?) by a Canadian icon known more for highbrow literary fiction, The Year of the Flood is a nice example of an author challenging herself and her readers by offering material that is not easily classified. This has no doubt provided consternation for the people who work at bookstore chains: do you shelf Year of the Flood in "literary fiction"? Or do you put it in science fiction? Who do you market this book to - the highbrow literary folk or readers who like nothing more than to curl up with Issac Asimov? All interesting questions that would make for a much more intriguing  book club discussion then any you might have about Year of the Flood, which is an admirable but utlimately messy book that (dare I say it) drowns in the waters of its own ambition.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes
by Sarah Vowell, Riverhead Books. 292 pages.

A remarkable and completely original book that I picked up for all the wrong reasons, Unfamiliar Fishes is one of the most unique takes on America's propensity for manifest destiny that I've encountered. After seeing Ms. Vowell on the Daily Show, I thought this book was about the Spanish-American War, the one that resulted in the annexation of the South Pacific and introduced America to the joys of world domination. In fact, the Span-Am War only enters the book just after the 200th page; before that, Ms. Vowell gives a sharply written course on Hawaiian-American relations, beginning with the arrival of New England missionaries and ending eighty years later when Hawaii's annexation is railroaded through Congress while everyone else is distracted by war.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Homer and Langley
by E.L. Doctorow. Random House, 208 pp.

It's always a joy to be reminded why one of your favorite writers is one of your favorite writers. I pretty much whipped through all of E.L. Doctorow's work in a two year period about a decade ago, returning to him only for The March in 2005. Mr. Doctorow is obsessed with history and is always mining it for his inspiration: but with Homer and Langley he gleefully abuses the facts of history to create a work that is at once both historical and mythic. In doing so he has written a heartbreaking and evocative work that has officially become one of my new favorite books.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Manticore
by Robertson Davies, 254 Pages. Penguin Books

It's probably blasphemy to be Canadian and attack anything written by Robertson Davies, but I'm going to do it anyway. (I've done it before; back in university, I argued that Tempest-Tost was a great failure of literature). The Manitcore is not a lousy book but it is massively underwhelming, especially given that it won the Governor's General Award back in 1972. Rumor has it this was an apologetic award, as in the Governor General was apologizing for not giving Davies the award for the far superior Fifth Business in 1970.  One can only hope the rumor is true; either that or 1972 was a (really) bad year for Canadian fiction.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Patriotic Fire
by Winston Groom, Vintage Books, 292 Pages

Most of the scholarship on Andrew Jackson concentrates on his political life, so it's a great treat to dive into any book that focuses entirely on a pre-presidential Jackson, specifically his generalship during the War of 1812. For those who, like me, can't ever seem to get enough of Andrew Jackson, this is a great book that fits neatly on the shelf next to such titles as Robert V. Remini's exhaustive biography and Jon Meacham's American Lion (a single volume account of Jackson's White House years).

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Hidden Reality
by Brian Greene, Knopf. 370 pages.

A heady, intellectual adventure from start to finish, Brain Greene's The Hidden Reality boldly goes where only Star Trek and The Matrix have gone before: the topic of parallel universes. Tackling nine different theories of parallel realities, Mr. Greene carefully explains the science that supports them and in the process manages to prove that for all the goofy pseudo-science found in Star Trek (and I mean that affectionately), the underlying concept of an evil Spock is actually grounded in the deepest laws of the cosmos.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
Aimee Bender, Doubleday, 292 Pages

A whimsical coming-of-age story, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake attempts to do in novel form what Aimee Bender has almost perfected in her short stories: marry our reality with another as a means of exploring the human tragicomedy. She is mostly successful, although I can't say Lemon Cake has the same sharpness of her shorter works. For all its cleverness and beauty, the novel is not nearly as focused in its narrative scope.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

For Whom the Bell Tolls
by Ernest Hemingway, Scribner, 471 pages

Is there anything that can be sad about this book or its author that has not already been said? One of the classic novels of the modern age, For Whom the Bell Tolls is definitely quintessential Hemingway, one of his last major works (not counting the work published posthumously, it would be followed only by Across the River and Into the Trees and The Old Man and the Sea.) By now, Papa Hemingway had clearly perfected his own inimitable style, that magnificent simplicity that so many have either envied or loathed.  And thematically, Papa Hemingway is in his usual territory of large ideas: the fine lines between courage and cowardice, between loyalty and betrayal.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Pat Hobby Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Penguin Books, 1967. 167 pages.

A surprisingly engaging collection of 17 short stories, F. Scott Fitzgerald's collection proves an engaging homage to the old adage about brevity and wit. Set entirely in the Hollywood of 1940, the collection revolves around Pat Hobby, the eternally down-on-his-luck screenwriter, a has been who's always a dime away from bankruptcy and a good idea away from eternal happiness. Not a story in this collection can be more then 2000 words and yet each manages to build the sort of comic-tragic world that Fitzgerald always adored.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Lucky Man by Michael J. Fox
Audio Book, 5 1/2 hours (approx.) Read by the Author

If there is such a thing as the quintessential memoir, then it's Lucky Man. Putting aside Mr. Fox's great celebrity, Lucky Man is the story of a man's rise to greatness, his risk of destruction from hubris and his salvation through a newfound devotion to family and to the larger community. It is essentially a story of redemption, told by a man I did not think needed to be redeemed. For this reason, Lucky Man came as a pleasent surprise and ranks with the best celebrity memoirs, along with Katharine Hepburn's Me and Moss Hart's Act One.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Irony of Manifest Destiny
by William Pfaff. Walker and Company, 222 pages.

William Pfaff's dissection of American foreign policy is a compact examination that focuses on both the political and religious motivations behind America's involvement in International conflicts. One is tempted to say that it's a timely read, but with America now involved in a pseudo-war with Libya, it feels as if Mr. Pfaff's book will also have some modern relevance. It's unfortunate, then, that Mr. Pfaff's style is not always as succinct as his ideas. Although his ideas are sound, there are times when he becomes so verbose that his thoughts are lost within the density of his own prose.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
W.W. Norton and Co. 254 pages.

A novel that puts the literary into literary fiction, "The History of Love" assaults you with its originality. Author Nicole Krauss toyed with chronology, structure and standard page formatting in crafting this post-modern book about a book (called, naturally, "The History of Love"). In doing so, she succeeded in getting everyone's attention (it was nominated for an Orange Prize, among others). There is definitely much to admire in Krauss' book and it almost demands a second reading. Yet at times, it feels like she was trying just a little too hard to be quirky and daring. Put another way, there were plenty of moments when it was a little too obvious that the artist was in the room.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

O Henry Awards: Prize Stories 1962
Doubleday and Company, 250 pages

Reading short stories that are almost fifty years old is a nice form of literary time travel: as a genre, the short story tends to favor the modern era and so this collection of fifteen stories gives a pretty good glimpse into a lost world, one that not even the best season of Mad Men has quite been able to touch. The politics and social concerns of the entire era run as an undercurrent to these stories, whether its racism in John Updike's The Doctor's Wife or Cold War relations in Tom Cole's Familiar Usage in Leningrad.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Fosca by Igino Ugo Tarchetti
Translated by Lawrence Venuti
Classic Books, 154 Pages

As a fan of the Sondheim musical Passion, it has long been a desire to read the book that inspired the show. A classic of Italian literature, Tarchetti's Fosca was originally a satirical novel written as a form of scapigliatura, a19th century Italian artistic movement which rebelled against convention. In chronicling the amorous affairs between the soldier Giorgio, the married Clara and the ugly Fosca, Tarchetti presented several passions which would have been considered gravely immoral at the time of writing. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Fine and Dandy: The Life and Works of Kay Swift
by Vicki Ohl, Yale University Press, 294 Pages

A rich melancholy pervades the pages of Ohl's extensive biography of Broadway's first female composer. For those fans of George Gershwin, Kay Swift's name is a popular one - she was his personal secretary / paramour and it's likely they might have married if he hadn't died of a brain tumor in 1937. But Kay Swift was also a multi-talented composer, lyricist and author who has the distinction of being the first female composer to have a musical comedy ("Fine and Dandy") on the Great White Way. 

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Sons and Lovers
by D.H. Lawrence (Woodsworth Editions, 369 pages)

D.H. Lawrence's third novel clearly sets the page for the themes he would explore in later work, most obviously the controversial Lady Chatterley's Lover. A novel that resounds with melancholy, Sons and Lovers is written in the epic mode and largely concerns the struggles of the Morel family in early 20th century England. The central figure is Paul, a stand-in for Lawrence himself, and the novel's focus on Paul's early love affairs apparently also have echos of the author's own early adventures.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Next by Michael Crichton
Harper Collins, 431 pages

It would be a monumental task to give an adequate synopsis of Next, the last of Mr. Crichton's works published within his lifetime. Like the human genome, the subject of the book, this book is a labyrinth, with an elaborate list of character and plot threads. It exists in a world where various individuals and corporations fight to interpret, patent and exploit our genes. Their attempts lead to both comic and frightening results, from creating parrots who can hold down conversations to pursuing patients whose cells have been legally declared someone else's property.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Brief History of the Dead
by Kevin Brockmeier, Pantheon Books, 252 pages

I first encountered "Brief History" as an O. Henry Prize winning short story (in 2005). It was a mesmerizing piece, elegent and eerie and easily the best in the collection. Both the short story and the novel use the same premise as a starting point, namely the belief of several African societies concerning the dead. Simply put, this belief states that the dead exist in a ghostly state of limbo only so long as there are people who remember them. Only when they are forgotten do they pass into the great beyond.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Coke Machine by Michael Blanding
Penguin, 375 pages

Early on in The Coke Machine, Michael Blanding's scathing expose about the ubiquitous soft drink, we learn that the book was written without the Coca-Cola Corporation's co-operation. In an email to the author, Coke spokeswoman Kerry Kerr wrote that the company had decided Blanding's questions for the corporation had a "decidedly subjective slant". It's impressive that Mr. Blanding chose to include this remark on Page 21, as it immediately sets off an alarm in the reader's head: is the book subjective? Will the other 354 pages of this book be the result of some personal vendetta against an innocent soft drink that only wanted to teach the world to sing?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Let's Applaud New South Books for their Honesty!

With the media whirlwind surrounding New South Books and their bowdlerized edition of Huckleberry Finn, censorship has been a hot topic for bloggers and tweeters. It’s an important debate, of course, but in this case, the debaters have entirely missed the point. The true surprise about the controversy is not that the publishers altered Mark Twain’s work  - it’s that they told us they had done it.

Read the full article at

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
HarperCollins, 650 pages

Reading books that have won the Booker Prize always leaves one to decide if they have entered the tale of the Emperor's New Clothes. There, as fairy tale devotees will recall, con men trick an Emperor into thinking he has a glorious new outfit made of invisible thread. When he strolls down the street naked, his subjects all pretend they can see the glorious clothes. Only a child has the bravery to admit the truth. When reading a Booker Prize winning novel, then, each reader must decide if they are dealing with a book made of invisible thread. If so, what then? Do you react as the child? Or as the subjects who stood on the street?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Fred Astaire by Michael Freedland
W.H. Allen, 1976,  270 pages.

It can be easily said that in the life of Fred Astaire one can chart the evolution of entertainment in the 20th century. Mr. Astaire, one of the century's greatest entertainers, was born in May, 1899 and his career went from vaudeville to Broadway to Hollywood, with several memorable stops in radio and television. In every way he came to epitomize the transitory nature of the industry of entertainment: it changes in accordance with the times and woe to the entertainer who does not try to change with it. This was not Fred Astaire, as Michael Freedland easily demonstrates in his informative, if slightly pedantic, biography.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Statement by Brian Moore
Flamingo, 1995. 217 pages

Mark Porter, writing for the Sunday Express, remarked that "The Statement" is reminiscent of Graham Greene, a remark which I would attribute to Brian Moore as a whole. Much like Mr. Greene, each of Mr. Moore's books are different, yet each maintain a distinct concern with themes of redemption and a focus on Catholic characters in conflict with either the Church or its teachings. "The Statement" is an accomplished thriller that contains all the necessary trademarks of the genre: the man on the run, a mysterious conspiracy, the determined policeman. Usually in these books, the man on the run is an innocent accused of a crime (ala "The Fugitive"), but in "the Statement" Moore has inverted these characteristics: the man on the run is a Nazi war criminal and capture by the police is actually the only way Brossard will ever be safe.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

An Object of Beauty
by Steve Martin
Grand Central Publishing, 2010. 295 pages.

It's rarely a good thing when a novel's strongest feature is it's opening line: "I am tired, so very tired of thinking about Lacey Yaeger" writes narrator Daniel Franks and he goes on to confess that until he writes down Lacey's story he will be "unable to write about anything else." It's a good hook with tremendous promise but Mr. Martin fails to meet his own expectations.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes 
by Stephen Sondheim
Knopf, 2010. 408 pages

The perfect gift for the rabid musical theatre fan in your life, "Finishing the Hat" is exactly what its title purports it to be: a collection of lyrics annotated by Mr. Sondheim's opinions and observations from a lifetime in the American theatre. It is these observations that give the book its value - the true aficionado, after all, will already know most of the lyrics by heart.