Imperial Life in the Emerald City

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Rajiv Chandrasekaran

The author, Iraq correspondent for the Washington Post, reports from the Green Zone during 2003 and 2004.  What he saw was a discouraging example of imperial hubris by the team of American sent by the Bush administration to help Iraq get back on its feet after the fall of Saddam and his Baathist henchmen.  L. Paul Bremmer and his team from the Coalition Provisional Authority tried to manage post-invasion Iraq from a bubble in walled enclave without regard to what was happening outside the walls.  It seems that many Iraqis were appreciative of American efforts to oust Saddam, but mismanagement of the post-war era has driven these friends into the arms of the insurgents.  This eye-witness report is enlightening and infuriating.  (12/06)


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William Boyd

Continuing in the spy mode, this novel by an English author virtually unknown in the U.S. is very well written and highly entertaining.  The plot develops along two parallel lines.  A young Englishwoman is handed an envelope by her mother.  The envelope contains the first chapter of her mother's life story.  In it she reveals that she started life as a Russian who was recruited to be a spy for the English.  No one, including her now deceased husband had any idea of her background.  Alternate chapters tell the young woman's story interspersed with further revelations from her mother.  The stories converge in the final few chapters.  It was a little difficult to sort out the characters for about the first quarter of the book, but after that it becomes a real page-turner. (12/06)

The Mission Song

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John Le Carré

Le Carré was the master of the Cold War spy vs. spy genre.  The fall of the Berlin Wall forced him to find new villains.  In his latest novel, white exploitation of black Africa is the theme.  The protagonist narrator is a love-child of an Irish missionary and the daughter of a Congolese chieftain.  Raised by the nuns, he becomes an expert interpreter, fluent in all the eastern Congo dialects.  As the story unfolds he receives an assignment from the British intelligence service and finds himself getting deeper into African politics than he cares to.  I have always felt that Le Carré is the best  craftsman of contemporary fiction and this book reinforces that opinion.  (12/06)

The Thunderbolt Kid

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Bill Bryson

In his latest opus, the prolific author of A Walk in the Woods looks back on his life as a kid growing up in Des Moines, Iowa.  Except for the corn and the tornadoes, it sounds a lot like growing up in Kingston, New York ten years earlier.  Living in small  town America was more interesting in  the pre Wal-Mart, pre- shopping mall days.  I found this to be a very entertaining book. (11/06)

Water for Elephants

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Sara Gruen

The premise of this novel sounds pretty boring.  It turns out to be anything but.  Jacob Jankowski is a ninety-three year old man in an assisted living center looking back on his life in the circus.  A senior in veterinary medicine, Jankowski's life is transformed by a tragic accident.  He joins a circus as a laborer, but when the owner finds out about his educational background he is given responsibility for the health of the animals thereby saving the owner a lot of money compared to hiring a licensed vet.  The characters Jacob encounters along the way are very well drawn.  Overall, this is a fine, breezy read.  (11/03)

State of Denial

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Robert Woodward

This the third in a series of  books about George Bush's Iraq misadventure.  Woodward was pretty much an impartial observer in the first two, but he finds little to commend the administration about this time.  The post-invasion base case was that our soldiers would be greeted with flowers and kisses.  And Plan B?  Woodward couldn't find one.  He does identify a few heroes like Jay Garner and some people in the CIA and State Department, but these folks are considered to be off-message and ignored.  There is a lot of culpability to go around, no one has a greater share than Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.  He claims credit for the few things that go well, and finds someone else to blame for everything that goes wrong.  Woodward's style makes this a fast though disturbing read.  (10/06)

The Accidental President of Brazil

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Fernando Henrique Cardoso

Tends to be a bit of an auto-hagiography, but the man has achieved a lot in his lifetime (he's still going strong).  Cardoso comes from a long line of Brazilian military officers so was destined for public service although he might have preferred to spend his life as an academic.  Suspected of being an agitator, he was exiled for many years during the military dictatorship of the 60's and 70's.  When he returned he somewhat reluctantly ran for office and wound up as the first democratically elected president to serve in the the post-dictatorship era (his predecessor got sick at his inauguration and never really took office - only in Brazil).  This is a fascinating read if you have any interest in recent Brazilian history. (09/06)

Bangkok Tattoo

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John Burdett

Here's a novel with an inside view  of Thailand's sex trade.  Our narrator, along with his mother (a former prostitute) manage the Old Man's Club, a brothel that caters to mature Westerners.  During the daylight hours he is a policeman.  His boss in the Police Department, owner of the brothel and many other similar enterprises, is locked in a power struggle with the head of the Army.  When an American murdered and mutilated in a hotel room turns out to be a CIA agent, attention is initially focused on Chanya.  She is one of the Club's star performers, and has signed a phony confession.  The CIA sends in a team to investigate, and they quickly conclude that the murder is the work of Al Qaeda.  Everyone trying to solve (or not solve) the case has a hidden agenda, often involving Chanya and her co-workers.  Very entertaining stuff. (09/06)

Lost and Found

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Carolyn Parkhurst

I'm not 100% sure what a "good summer read" is, but I think this is one.  Lost and Found is a fictitious reality show (why don't they call these fantasy shows?) where teams of two compete in an international scavenger hunt.  Each of the contestants has a skeleton in the closet which the producers hope will be revealed as the show progresses when the participants momentarily forget that they are always on camera.  This book will never make anyone's 100 greatest novels of all time list, but the characters are fun and the writing is not half bad.  Take it with you to the beach. (09/06)

Cross Country

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Robert Sullivan

This is like a long feature article in the New Yorker magazine.  Not surprising as the author is a frequent contributor.  Having driven across the country several times, Sullivan decided to chronicle a trip from Portland, Oregon to New York City, Trip-Tik in hand, with his wife and two teen age kids.  His descriptions of what he encounters along the route are always interesting and frequently very funny.  He is an expert on motels alongside the Interstates with their breakfast areas, and his stories about them will sound all too familiar to anyone who has done much driving in America.  Lewis and Clark encounters and a history of the Interstate Highway system are just two of the several worth-while  diversions along the way in this entertaining and informative book. (09/06)

Theft - A Love Story

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Peter Carey

I always find Peter Carey a little difficult to read but worth the effort. Theft was no exception.  Here is a peek into the art world through the eyes of two brothers, one. Butcher Bones, a formerly well-known painter whose fall from favor has been accelerated by drink and drugs; the other, Hugh,  a slow-witted giant entrusted to his care.  The story is told alternatively by the two.  Hugh, although incapable of working or taking care of himself, turns out to be an astute observer of the events unfolding around him.  If this book ever gets made as a movie, look for Hugh's portrayer to be in line for a Best Supporting Actor award. (08/06)

The Case for Goliath

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Michael Mandelbaum

The author suggests that in the post War era the U.S. has become  the de facto world government, providing services that parallel those normally provided within a nation's boundaries.  These services would include  policing (Somalia, North Korea, Bosnia, Iraq are examples), currency (faith in the dollar enables international trade), other central banking functions, and provision of a large market for goods and services.  This is an excellent thought-provoking book for anyone with an interest in foreign affairs and foreign policy.  The author is well-informed, intelligent, and apolitical with no axe to grind. (07/06)

A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies

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John Murray

A collection of eight stories, some short, others quite lengthy, all terrific.  Murray is a physician and his stories all deal with science or medicine in some way.  He doesn't try to dazzle his readers with his medical knowledge but the occasional bit of jargon drops in.  It is difficult to believe that Murray is a part-time writer, but he spends most of his time developing child health programs in the third world.  Some of the stories in this collection take place in Africa or Asia, and the have a ring of truth reflecting the authors personal experience.  A must-read. (06/06)

Game Time

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Roger Angell

No other sport is blessed with chronicler like Angell, the bard of baseball.  Many of the stories in this book appeared in The New Yorker so there is an orientation, towards the Yankees and the Mets, but Angell is a fan of the game rather than any team or player.  The stories are divided into three sections, Spring, Summer, and Autumn, and span twenty plus years, so all the stories about spring training, regular season and playoffs appear together.  The writing quality is truly remarkable. (05/06)

Broken Trust

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Samuel King / Randall Roth

This book is a must-read for anyone who lives, or has ever lived in Hawaii.  It is the incredible tale of greed and abuse of power by the trustees of the Bishop Estate, an eleemosynary  institution established in 1884 by the will of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop.  While the intent of the trust was to provide for the  education of Hawaiian children, it became in the second half of the twentieth century a vehicle for politicians to line their pockets to the detriment of the schools where the money should have been flowing.   The Kamehameha Schools, the sole beneficiary of the trust struggled with budget cuts while its endowment grew to exceed Harvard's and Yale's combined.  .  This is a story with lots of villains, and a few true heroes. (05/06)

Friends, Lovers, Chocolate

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Alexander McCall  Smith

Second in a new series by the author of The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency.  Substitute Scotland for Botswana, and a philosopher for a detective and you've got the picture.  Like all of Smith's other books this one is fun to read.  As usual, our protagonist gets involved in someone else's business and finds a way of bringing resolution to vexing problem or difficult situation.  Smith's books have no literary pretensions, and they are a delight to read. (05/06)

All Will Be Well

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John McGahern

Subtitled A Memoir,  McGahern, the author of By The Lake (see Books read in 2003),  remembers his early life in great detail.  He was the eldest of six children in an Irish Catholic family which endured many hardships.  The father, a police sergeant lived in the barracks and only visited on weekends.  As a result, the children, especially John became very attached to their mother.  When she dies at a young age, the children move to the barracks where they are  brutalized mentally and physically by their father.  Despite the abuse, McGahern has a complex relationship with his father, looking for approval until the very end.  This book is a bit of a difficult read but worth the effort.  It is is well written and offers insight into the powerful influence of the Catholic church on rural life in mid-twentieth century  Ireland   (04/06)


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Curtis Siddenfeld

Prep is a first person narrative from start to finish. Reading it is like finding the diary of a teenaged girl in which she lays bare her innermost thoughts and secrets.   I was tempted to put it down several times but there is a voyeuristic fascination in discovering what maturing young women really think about.  My sense is that the author got it right.  If I had only known when I was a teenager.  (03/06)

The Full Cupboard of Life

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Alexander McCall  Smith

I read this out of sequence as it was written before In the Company of Cheerful Ladies, reviewed last year.  Reading about Mma. Precious Ramotswe driving her tiny white van and Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni training his apprentice mechanics is always fun and relaxing, but I think it's time for Smith to put these characters aside and concentrate on the other series he has been publishing.  This one has gotten a little too repetitive and predictable. (3/06)

The Lighthouse

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P. D. James

James strikes again with another well-written who dunnit.  As usual, I was forced to the dictionary by her staggering vocabulary.  Lacuna, girt, minatory - where does she find these words.  The setting for this novel is a fictitious private island off the coast of southern England.  With a small population of residents and guests, the number of suspects is limited.  James drops enough clues that each and every character with the exception of the police officers is a possible perpetrator.  (2/06)

The Wisdom of Crowds

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James Surowiecki

The author's columns in the New Yorker magazine are always spot on.  It's not surprising that his book is fascinating and coherent.  The idea is that a large number of people acting independently frequently achieve better results than a panel of experts.  A logical basis for this phenomenon is described and the examples are always interesting.  If you liked Malcom Gladwell's books, you will like this one. (2/06)

On Beauty

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Zadie Smith

There is no question that Smith is a talented writer and a keen observer of the human condition.   Barely 30 years of age, she has three successful novels to her credit.  Unfortunately, neither this latest effort or her previous novel The Autograph Man live up to the potential on display when she produced White Teeth six years ago.  Beauty is the better of the two, but the pity is that it could have been a lot better.  She draws on her experience as a lecturer at Harvard to create a fictional university in a Boston suburb.  On display are issues one is likely to encounter in academia such as racial diversity, campus politics, tenure, sexual escapades, and free speech.   The story revolves around the interrelationship  of two  families led by college professors who are sworn enemies.  Their wives however become bosom buddies, which leads to a major plot turn that is quite contrived.  Worth a read if only to get an insight into life in the academic world (1/06)

Peace Kills

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P. J. O'Rourke

O'Rourke is our unofficial Cynic Laureate.  Although he purports to be a conservative, politicians on both sides of the aisle get equal treatment..  In this book he examines U.S. foreign policy and finds it equally incoherent under Republican and Democratic administrations.  There are chapters about Israel, Egypt, and Kosovo which contain a lot of interesting and funny comments about the impact of our foreign policy.  His best chapters are about the aftermath of 9/11 which he manages to put in a historical perspective.  (1/06)


Books read in 2005 

Books read in 2004

Books read in 2003

Books read in 2002

Books read in 2001