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WHAT WE READ IN 2005

 

TITLE

AUTHOR

COMMENTS

At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig

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John Gimlette

Paraguay is an unlucky country.  It has no access to either the Atlantic or Pacific ocean, and has had a succession of dictators that have been either brutal, incompetent, corrupt or all three.  If you've never visited the country, this book will save you the trouble.  Part travelogue, part history book, this is a well-written treatise on why tourism has never been a factor in Paraguay's economy.  The first third of the book is lively, but after that the author gets bogged down in the details of a series of bloody wars against Argentina and Brazil.  (12/05)

Ballad of the Whiskey Robber

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Julian Rubinstein

Newly capitalist Hungary is the setting for the true story of Atilla Ambrus, a hockey goalie who created a sensation by pulling off 29 bank robberies in six years without ever being caught.  His nickname came from his habit of fortifying himself with Johnnie Walker Red before attempting a heist.  This is a very entertaining read. (12/05)

Small Island

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Andrea Levy

This is the story of two couples living in London in the late 1940's, whose lives become intertwined. One couple is white, the other recently arrived blacks from Jamaica.  The entire book is a first person narrative, with each of the four principal characters having several turns as storyteller.  Not an easy read because of the various dialects, but well worth the effort. (11/05)

Shadow Divers

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Robert Kurson

Wreck divers are a sub-set of the scuba crowd who risk their lives every time they pursue their avocation.  Crawling around in a sunken ship in two hundred feet of  cold water doesn't appeal to me but some people, like the protagonists of this excellent book, can't live without it.  The story begins in 1991 when a dive boat captain discovers what turns out to be an undocumented German U-boat that sunk off New Jersey near the end of World War II.  Two intrepid divers become obsessed with identifying the wreck and notifying the families of of the lost seamen.  Frustrated at every turn, they labor away for seven years risking everything in pursuit of their goal.  Highly readable true story.  (10/05)

The World is Flat

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Thomas Friedman

Friedman's thesis is that the advent of the internet and high speed search engines have leveled the world's economic playing fields and have altered forever the way successful businesses and societies in general are organized.  Those who fail to recognize these changes are doomed to fall behind, but those who grasp the significance of the new world order will have unlimited upside potential.   The dark side of the flat new world is that organizations such as Al Queda have learned how to harness the power of the internet for their own purposes.  The challenge going forward is to make sure that the plusses exceed the minuses.  .  This is a thought provoking and important book.  (10/05)

Ghost Wars

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Steve Coll

This book won a Pulitzer Prize this year.  It describes in crystal clear detail how policy failures and bureaucratic bungling with regard to Afghanistan in every administration from Reagan to Clinton to George W. Bush contributed to the events of 9/11/2001.  The CIA was on the right track but could not overcome resistance from the State Department and the military.  This should be required reading for any American interested in ho we got to where we are with respect to militant Islamic terrorism. (10/05)

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies

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Alexander McCall Smith

At long last Precious Ramotswe and J.B.L. Matekoni are married and working side-by-side in the combination auto garage and detective agency.  Assistant Detective Makutsi plays a prominent role in this episode, taking work from Precious who has to deal with a personal crisis.  These stories continue to entertain.  (09/05)

Varieties of Exile

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Mavis Gallant

In a recent article, The New York Times asked a group of successful young writers by whom were they most influenced.  Almost all listed Mavis Gallant and William Trevor.  I had never heard of either one so ordered a book by each.  The Trevor book exceeds 1200 pages so it will take a while to make it through to the end.  Varieties of Exile is a group of short stories, many of which are linked, about growing up in Montreal during the 40's and 50's,  followed by a few stories that deal with the Canadian expat life in France in the post-war era. I found the book a little too slow-paced, but there is no question that Gallant is a very, very good writer. (08/05)

Freakonomics

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Steven Levitt

The title of this book is misleading.  There is noting freaky about the book and it isn't really about economics.  Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago, uses regression analysis to address some issues not generally tackled by economists.  He is best known for his conclusion that the primary reason for the dramatic drop in violent crime experienced during the 90's was the drop in birth rate among the poor as a result of legalizing abortion.  This conclusion made him equally unpopular with right-to-life advocates  and liberals.  The book is entertaining, but its only conclusion seems to be that conventional wisdom is often wrong. (8/05)

The Dancing Girls of Lahore

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Louise Brown

The author, a British academic who specializes in the Asian sex trafficking, moves into the red light district of Lahore, Pakistan to chronicle the cycle of prostitution that passes from mothers to daughters and from which it is difficult if not impossible to escape.  Although she intends to be nothing more than an observer, she becomes involved with one particular family and suffers as they do when a 14 year old daughter enters the trade.  Somewhat surprisingly, the women are all deeply devout Shia Muslims.  A highlight of the book is a pilgrimage to a ceremony at a sacred shrine which requires a 24 hour train ride to reach.  The ceremony is a commemoration of a 13th century slaughter of Shiites by the Sunnis.  This is a world we know very little about.  (08/05)

Disney War

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James B. Stewart

As a shareholder, I found this book to be very depressing.  The number and magnitude of senior management blunders at the company is probably without precedent.  Literally billions of dollars of shareholder value were squandered during the second half of Michael Eisner's reign at the company.  The only ray of hope in this book is there are few people around like Roy Disney and Stanley Gold who are willing to stand up for the shareholders at significant personal expense.  At 500+ pages, the book is a little long, but the writing is good so the story moves right along.  Eisner won't be going to the slammer for anything he did at Disney, but there should be a placed reserved for him in the Management Hall of Shame. (8/05)

Last Night

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James Salter

This is a collection of ten short stories with a common theme.  At the core of each of the stories is a relationship gone wrong for one reason or another.  Two stories, Platinum and Last Night, are a cut above the rest.  The writing quality and plot lines are as good as anything you are likely to encounter any time soon.  My only complaint is that the book is only 132 pages long and retails for $20.00.  Wait for the paperback (7/05)

The Hot Kid

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Elmore Leonard

A slight change of pace for Leonard.  The action takes place in Oklahoma and Missouri during the early years of the 20th century.  The central story is the pursuit of a cold-blooded renegade named Jack Belmont by a sharp-shooting U.S. Marshal named Carlos Webster.  Legendary characters from the era such as Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde, and J. Edgar Hoover are frequently referenced.  The style is breezy and the dialogue is typically Leonard - entertaining. (07/05)

Courtroom 302

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Steve Bogira

The author closely observes one year's activities in a criminal courtroom in Chicago.  The court is presided over by Judge Don Locallo.  The judge is conscientious and a pretty decent guy but the system he works in is badly flawed.  He shines in the few interesting cases he has to deal with, but the only thing that moves quickly in the court is the disposition of the large number of minor drug cases that clog the calendar.  Unfortunately this is also true of the book which could have used some judicious editing.  (07/05)

Assassination Vacation

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Sarah Vowell

Who says history has to be dull? On the trail of our first three presidents to be assassinated, Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, Vowell finds some fascinating tales and even some humor.  She drags reluctant but bemused family members and friends with her to cemeteries and museums in Washington, D.C., Ohio, and New Jersey where they encounter a series of rather strange curators and volunteer guides.  Nothing earth-shattering here, but still a good read.  (06/05) 

Three Nights in August

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Buzz Bissinger

Did you ever wonder what goes through the mind of a major league baseball manager during the game?  If not, this book isn't for you.  However, if you have anything more than a passing interest in the game, you will love it.  The author of Friday Night Lights gets inside the head of Cardinals manager Tony La Russa for a three game series against the Cubs in 2003.  Baseball is a series of one-on-one encounters between pitcher and catcher, and La Russa is guided more than anything by how these match-ups have gone in the past.  (06/05)

The Tipping Point

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Malcolm Gladwell

The author sets out to discover why trends occur and finds that word-of-mouth communications, essential in spreading the word about a new book or new product, works in a very similar way to the spread of an epidemic.   He studies a wide range of subject matter, from the spread of Aids to the comeback of Hush Puppies.  His ideas are thought-provoking and his examples are alway lively. (05/05)

The King of Torts

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John Grisham

Learn all about the dirtbags who are today's ambulance chasers.  Grisham is a very good storyteller and he has an interesting story to tell here.  Unfortunately he runs out of steam after about 250 pages.  I solved this problem by skipping from around page 300 to the last chapter to confirm the predictable ending.  To remove any doubts I may have had about the factual basis for this tale, the day after finishing the book I received a packet from a class action law firm announcing that I had been part of a successful negotiated settlement with AT&T Wireless.  I and the other successful plaintiffs are entitled to an AT&T calling card with credit for 50 minutes (approximate value = 50 cents) while the lawyers collected a fee of $1,200,000.00.  Anyone for tort reform? (05/05)

A Land of Ghosts

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David Campbell

The author is a botanist who has been studying the Amazon jungle for more than thirty years.  He endures unbelievable hardships to gather the data he needs to understand the ecology of plant life in a forty acre plot to which he returns every year.  In one episode, he is attacked by hundreds of ticks which burrow into his skin.  He gets rid of the ticks by standing in the river and letting little fish dig them out with their razor like teeth.  Ouch.  Absolutely first-rate writing and a story that is fascinating story from beginning to end. (05/05)

The Kalahari Typing School For Men

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Alexander McCall Smith

The further adventures of Precious Ramotswe, manager of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.  It's easy to see why these books have a cult following. (04/05)

Conspiracy of Fools

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Kurt Eichenwald

The definitive Enron chronicle.  The book is nearly 700 pages long, but it moves along rapidly.  The style is very conversational, which leads one to question the accuracy.  If you can accept that these conversations may not be 100% verbatim, you will find this to be a worthwhile read.  Greed, hubris, and incompetence combined to bring the company down.  (04/05)

The Big Year

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Mark Obmascik

It seems that birdwatchers (or birders as they prefer) can be an obsessive lot.  In 1998, three men, unbeknownst to the other two set out to break the record for the most birds identified in North America.  This highly entertaining account of their adventures will leave you shaking your head at the depth of their obsessions. (4/05)

Saturday

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Ian McEwen

Highly acclaimed, but one of the few books that lives up to its hype.  All of the events in this novel take place on one Saturday in London on the eve of the invasion of Iraq.  A large anti-war demonstration is the backdrop for the events of the day.  A minor auto accident near the demonstration starts a chain reaction of events that builds to an exciting finish.  McEwen has mastered the psychological thriller genre. (3/05)

Bel Canto

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Ann Patchett

An interesting novel about a hostage crisis in a fictitious South American country's Vice Presidential residence.  As the months roll by, relationships develop between the hostages and their captors. (3/05)

The Kite Runner

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Khaled Hosseini

Many Afghanis who fled their homeland, first from the Russians, and then later, from the Taliban, ended up in the U.S. doing menial jobs.  Many of these people were doctors, lawyers, and military officers in their home country.  This excellent novel is their story.  Some of the atrocities perpetrated by the talibs are so horrible, the book is at times hard to read, but it the end the story is hopeful.   Well worth the effort.(3/05)

Elizabeth Costello

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J. M. Coetzee

Although billed as a novel, this book is a series of seven lectures given by the author.  In the book he is transmogrified into Elizabeth, an aging Australian women (J.M. is a South African man).  The first chapter is actually quite entertaining, but the pace slows soon after that.  I soldiered on waiting for enlightenment which never came.  The epilogue, a letter from Elizabeth written four hundred years ago lost me completely.  (02/05) 

Blink

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Malcolm Gladwell

Hard to put down after you've read the first paragraph.  Gladwell explores the phenomenon that first impressions are often better than the results obtained by careful study.  The writing is first class, the anecdotes always interesting, and he introduces the reader to some fascinating characters. (2/05)

Portuguese Irregular Verbs

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Alexander McCall Smith

A new series for Smith, this time featuring a pedantic German linguist named Professor Doctor Moritz-Maria Von Igelfeld, who has written the definitive treatise about conjugating Portuguese verbs.  Our hero is frustrated  that his book has not become a best seller.  Smith may have the same experience when people think this book is about grammar.  Not quite as good as the Ladies Detective agency series, but still worth a read.  (2/05)

The Polish Officer

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Alan Furst

I had never heard of this author, but I read this book on a recommendation of a friend.  I'm very glad that I did.  The author has done his homework in this tale of a Polish officer in World War Two, who goes underground as his homeland is caught in a squeeze between Germany and Russia.  The writing style sets a mood on the first page and continues throughout.  A first-rate effort (2/05)

The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited

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Benny Morris

Morris is an Israeli who angers many of his countrymen by writing impartially about this volatile issue.  The book is important but reading it is a bit of a slog.  After a couple of hundred pages I started to skim.  Illustrative of the academic dryness of this book, Chapter 5 alone has 812 footnotes. (1/05)

The Sunday Philosophy Club

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Alexander McCall Smith

The scene shifts from Botswana to Edinburgh, and the lead character is a middle-aged amateur philosopher instead of a middle-aged lady detective, but Smith's style remains constant.  The story moves along smartly, and he shares some insightful observations about life along the way.  Smith may be the Empire's answer to John Grisham. (1/05)

 

Books read in 2004

Books read in 2003

Books read in 2002

Books read in 2001