WHAT WE ARE READING

Click here to see Time Magazine's list of the 100 best novels of all time.

(3 of the books are reviewed here)

 

TITLE

AUTHOR

COMMENTS

Legacy of Ashes

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Tim Weiner

Every American should read this book.  The future of our country will be strongly affected by how the problems identified here are addressed by future administrations.  Tim Weiner has written a compelling history of the CIA from its inception at the end of  World War II to its present sorry state.  Democrat and Republican presidents are equally to blame.  The original idea was that the Agency would provide the president with reliable assessments of threats to our national security with the primary data source being recruited foreign nationals.  The additional role of actively promoting the foreign policy of the U.S. by actively helping anti-communist governments and perpetrating dirty tricks on the Soviets, their allies and potential allies  was added early in the piece.  A succession of directors found the second function more exciting and as a result the information gathering and analysis took a back seat.  Assuring President Bush that Iraq had a cache of MWD's was the not the CIA's first serious mistake.  This book is highly readable and well-documented. This is the best non-fiction book I've read in a long time. (12/07)

Tomorrow

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Graham Swift

This is a very interesting novel.  It is in essence, a monologue by a woman lying in bed, imagining that she was having a discussion with her 16 year old twins.  She is wide awake thinking about their reaction to the revelation of a well-kept family secret which will be revealed the following morning.  As the book unfolds other secrets are revealed which will not be shared.  Writing this book would have been a great achievement for an author, but to realize that the most intimate thoughts of the principal character, a 50 year old woman, had been  written by a man is nothing short of remarkable. (11/07)

Dragon Man

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Garry Disher

The action in this whodunnit takes place in the suburbs on Melbourne, Australia.  Young women are being raped and murdered with some regularity on the Mornington peninsula, a popular wine -growing and holiday region east of the city.  When detective Hal Challis is assigned to the case, it's only a matter of time before the killer is apprehended.  Lots of interesting sub-plots make this fun, even for those who would not be classified as fans of the genre.  A very good page-turner. (11/07)

Beyond a Boundry

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CLR James

A few weeks ago an article in Sports Illustrated called this the best sports book ever written.  It went on to say that most Americans would never read it because the subject was cricket, a game that is a total mystery to anyone not living in the former British Empire.  Fortunately, I know enough about the game to be able to follow the book.  "Best" may be a stretch, but it would have to rank near the top of the list.  James, a Trinidadian of modest cricket talent, was an erudite chronicler of the game.  This book, written in 1963, traces the self-governing aspirations of the West Indian people and the parallel development of native participation in the region's world-class cricket squad.  At first, the team is all white, but little by little, home grown black players earn their spots on the team, until finally the islands were represented by a team of ten black players and a white captain.  James could see that selection of an all black team would foreshadow the end of colonial rule.  (11/07)

The Good Husband of Zebra Drive

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Alexander McCall Smith

By now reading the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series books is like eating comfort food.  You know what to expect, you enjoy the experience, but you feel like maybe you should have tried something a little more adventurous.  I said in April that I was done with this series but I couldn't stay away.  All the characters are here - Mma Ramotswe, Mma Makutsi, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and the apprentices.  Clients with vexing ethical issues come in the door, and Mma Ramotswe and crew find ways to bring all the cases to a more or less satisfactory satisfactory conclusion.  If you are a fan and have a couple of hours to spare, this is a good serving of verbal meatloaf.  (10/07)

Away

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Amy Bloom

Lillian Leyb gets separated from her daughter Sophie when her family is attacked by gentile neighbors in post-revolution Russia.  Her family massacred, Lillian ends up in New York.  She hears that her daughter was rescued by a family friend who took her to Siberia.  Lillian hatches a plan to cross the US, sail to Alaska, and cross over to Russia and reunite with Sophie.  This beautifully written novel is the story of her odyssey.  Bloom uses an interesting device I've never seen before - as each character leaves Lillian's sphere, she summarizes in a paragraph or two the major events in the remainder of the character's life.  A rudimentary knowledge of Yiddish expressions is helpful but not required. (10/07)

A Thousand Splendid Suns

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Khaled Hosseini

I thought there might be a drop off in writing quality after The Kite Runner, but I worried in vain.  This is a first class novel of gripping intensity worthy of the accolades heaped on Hosseini after his first novel.  This is a personal chronicle of the agony that was Afghanistan following the repulsion of the Soviets.  After years of misery under the Mujahideen followed by the Taliban, the American invasion was a welcome relief.  Sometimes unintended consequences are good.  The present situation in Afghanistan is not good, but it is much better than it has been for years.  Thisw book is very hard to put down.  Some passages are a bit disturbing, but don't give up.  (09/07)

Einstein

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Walter Isaacson

Isaacson has written a readable biography of one of the most interesting men of the 20th century.  That being said, I must confess to running out of gas about three quarters of the way through this 675 page tome.  Einstein worked in an era that produced some of the greatest scientific minds of all time.  What set him apart was his ability to conceptualize the nature of the universe that none of the other geniuses of his time could even imagine.  A hundred years later most of us still can't understand his concepts about space and time.  Isaacson does a pretty good job of describing the theories in layman's terms but it is a pretty big ask.  Thankfully he doesn't use a lot of mathematical jargon.  There is a lot of material in the book about Einstein's private life.  This is fairly interesting, but not interesting enough in my view to justify the investment of another two hundred pages. (09/07)

On Chesil Beach

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Ian McEwan

McEwan has published a chapter of each of his last two books in the New Yorker.  If the ploy was to entice readers to buy the book it has succeeded brilliantly with me.  However I am  such a fan that I probably would have sprung for the books on blind faith.  His latest effort is shorter than a novel but longer than a short story so I'm not sure what to call it other than a book.  If you buy it and feel like you were ripped off don't blame me.  The story revolves around a young English couple on their honeymoon at a beach resort.  in the early 60's.  Suffice to say that their wedding night plans were not entirely in sync.  This is fiction writing at its very best.  The reason it isn't any longer than 200 pages in an undersized book is because McEwan didn't have anything more to say on the subject.  Quality wins out over quantity here. (08/07)

Bangkok Haunts

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John Burdett

This sequel to Bangkok Tattoo is even more interesting than it's predecessor.  Burdett has a real feel for the seamy side of life in Thailand.  The narrator, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, is a Bangkok policeman who works in his mother's brothel on his off-hours.  His boss in the police force is more interested in lining his pockets than with fighting crime.  His assistant, Lek,  is a transsexual who performs in a gay cabaret.  One of the other interesting characters in this episode is a thirty-something female FBI agent who is assisting Sonchai in a murder case which has international implications.  This book has everything from production of x-rated movies to an internet-addicted Buddhist monk.  (08/07)

Let Me Finish

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Roger Angell

For as long as I can remember I have been reading Angell's baseball stories, either in book form or in his lengthy articles in the New Yorker magazine.  No one has ever written more eloquently about sport.   Now, well into his eighties Angell turns his talent to a summing up of his life outside of writing.  As I would have expected, this is storytelling of the highest quality.  The stories focus on his relationships with his parents, two strong characters who divorced when Angell was in his early teens.  Although he lived in upper Manhattan with his father and sister, Angell spent a lot of time in New England with his mother and her second husband, author E. B. White (Charlotte's Web).  Reading this book is like having a long chat with a very good fiend.  (07/07)

Ant Farm

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Simon Rich

One of the book critics at the NY Times recommended this as a good summer read.  The book is a collection of one and two page comic bits, some of which are pretty funny.  I particularly liked one about a Swiss Army officer talking to his troops before sending them in to battle armed only with their Swiss Army knives.  The stories were assembled by the editor of the Harvard Lampoon while he was still an undergraduate, which would explain some of the sophomoric humor.   (07/07)

The Big Girls

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Susanna Moore

Here is a fine book although some readers may find the descriptions of child molestation disturbing.  The story revolves around Helen, a young woman, abused as a child by her stepfather, who murders her two children to save them from the evils of the world.  Most of the action takes  inside Sloatsburg women's prison in upstate New York.  The entire novel is a first person narrative by Helen, her psychiatrist Doctor Forest, a prison guard named Ike, and Angie, the current girlfriend of Dr. Forest's ex-husband.  The dialogue has a ring of authenticity and moves along very quickly.  This is unlike any book I've ever read.  I found it fascinating.   (06/07)

  How Doctors Think

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Jerome Groopman

This is an important book for anyone who ever has the need to address a serious medical problem with a doctor. Having an insight about the way your physician thinks about your problem could turn out to be very important.  Goopman is a hematologist who has written many good articles for The New Yorker magazine.  This is his first attempt to write a full length book and it is a success.  The theme of the book is that because doctors are taught to assess symptoms  quickly, they frequently miss clues and jump to incorrect conclusions.  The good news is that by asking the right questions, patients can often lead their doctor to a better diagnosis.  The cases that are presented are interesting and serve to illustrate the book's central theme.  One of the chapters has Goopman as the patient.  He had a serious hand problem and had to go to five different specialists before a plausible diagnosis was made.  This experience gave him an opportunity to discover the importance of the patient side of the equation is addressing medical issues. (06/07) 

The Dead Fish Museum

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Charles D'Ambrosio

Families, real or surrogate, are the unifying factor in this outstanding collection of short stories.  The author infuses his tales with a visceral chill from the wind and rain or snow in western Washington or northern Michigan.  A chill also exists between the husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, and other family members who populate the stories.  Don't look for any O'Henry style surprise endings here.  The stories are beautifully crafted slices of life that lead the reader to make his or her own conclusion. The challenge of a short story author is to get your attention on the first page.  D'Ambrosio succeeds here. (06/07)

Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert

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Georgina Howell

With the breakup of the Ottoman Empire at the end on World War I, what we now refer to as the Middle East was freed from 500 years of Turkish rule.  Great Britain had a mandate to bring peace and stability to Iraq.  The Sunni minority, anointed by the Turks to run the government and business were held in low esteem by the majority Shiites who saw this as an opportunity to run things.  There was some dispute as to whether the Brits were to be advisors to a democratically elected Arab government or whether they should run things while the Arabs were trained.  The Kurds in the north wanted autonomy but the Turks would have none of it.  Does any of this sound familiar?   Gertrude Bell, a remarkable Englishwoman, understood all of this and was able to influence the implementation of the mandate in a successful  fashion.  She was fluent in many Arabic dialects and had close personal relationships with all the major players on all sides.  This well-written biography is entertaining and enlightening.  Highly recommended. (06/07)

Christine Falls

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Benjamin Black

Black is the nom de plume of John Banville, the Irish writer who recently won the Man Booker prize.  The book's central character is a Dublin pathologist named Mr. Quirke who drinks and smokes too much but is a decent sort of guy.  One night he returns to his ofice in the morgue after drinking a lot at an going away party and finds his brother-in-law, an ObGyn, writing in a file.  The next day  he  tries to piece together what transpired the previous evening he realizes something very wrong has taken place.  The story moves along at a fast pace, propelled by first class writing.  This is very high class escapism.  In the end everything is revealed except Quirke's first name.  Maybe there will be a sequel.  (05/07)

The Long Exile

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Melanie McGrath

In the early 1950's, the Canadian government decided to relocate a number of Eskimo families to some remote islands near the North Pole.  The theory was that if these islands were occupied by Canadian citizens, they could repel any territorial claims by Greenland or even the U.S.  None of the families wanted to go, but the government coerced quite a few to move.  They were told that if they didn't like their new home they would be allowed to return.  That, and all their other inducements were lies.  This book documents their fight for survival.  Conditions were horrible, including an annual period of three months with no light, but many survived.  The Canadian government has yet to apologize.     (05/07)

Blue Shoes and Happiness

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Alexander McCall  Smith

This is the seventh, and for me, final episode of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series.  There is nothing new here as Smith appears to have gone to his word processor and reshuffled some stock phrases from his earlier books.  The format and characters are the same, and the new cases do not have the wisdom of Solomon solutions that were part of the charm of this book's predecessors.  The author has recently released the eighth in the series but I plan to give it a miss. (04/07)

The Places In Between

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Rory Stewart

Scottish historian Stewart had been walking in Pakistan, India, and Nepal in 2001 when he got inspired to walk across Afghanistan.  He followed the route of Babur, an Indian emperor in the 15th century from Herat to Kabul, a distance of around 500 miles.  When he began walking, the Americans had invaded the country but the Taliban still controlled the southern route so Stewart took the northern route through the mountains.  Although he made it all the way on foot, he had many adventures along the way, some with people and some with snow and cold in the mountains.  This trip was not recommended in the book "1000 Places To See Before You Die." (04/07)

The Toughest Show on Earth

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Joseph Volpe

This is pretty much a rehash of a book called Molto Agitato (see books read in 2001).  Volpe's story is pretty compelling nonetheless.  His autobiography tells the story of his climb from carpenter to general manager of the New York Metropolitan Opera Company.  The first half of the book is an interesting from a management standpoint as Volpe negotiates the Met's unique management structure.  The remainder is a show and tell about the idiosyncrasies of the  artists who do their thing at the Met.  Volpe holds nothing back.  (03/07)

Just a Range Ball in a Box of Titleists

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Gary McCord

McCord is the CBS golf announcer who was banned from the Masters for commenting that the greens sere so fast they must have bikini-waxed them instead of mowing.  Never a great player on the tour, he became very popular for his irreverence and quick wit.  The book has been around for a while, but is still pretty funny.  I read this book while on a cruise in the South Pacific and the ship's library was pretty well depleted. (03/07)

Absurdistan

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Gary Shteyngart

Absurdistan is a fictitious former Soviet republic which sounds a lot like Azerbaijan. The narrator is Mischa Vainberg, an overweight son of a Russian oligarch who went to college in the U.S. Midwest and longs to return.  Because his father had run afoul of the Americans, he was denied a visa to the U.S., setting him off on an adventure to Absurdistan, where he was told he could obtain a Belgian passport, and from there passage to America.  The story is absurd, but very funny, pricipally because a lot of the characters and situations are not that far from reality. (03/07)

Arthur & George

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Julian Barnes

This is an impressive re-telling of an incident from early 20th century England in which a young lawyer named George Edalji  is falsely accused of a crime he did not commit.  To the rescue comes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes and champion of underdogs.  The book begins with alternating chapters describing the early years of George and Arthur.  As the story develops the two men are drawn together in common cause.  The basic story is true, but the dialogue created by Barnes has a ring of truth about it.  Barnes' vocabulary and command of the English language are impressive, but not off-putting.  The two main characters are really well-developed.  They are heroic, but their flaws are fully exposed.  A good read. (02/07)

Fiasco

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Thomas Ricks

If you read one book about the Iraq war this should be it.  Ricks is a long-tenured Pentagon correspondent for the Washington Post.  Prior to joining the post he covered the same beat for the conservative Wall Street Journal  so he could hardly be accused of bias against the military.  There are many individuals, civilian and military, singled out for criticism, but Ricks is particularly harsh in his depiction of the post-invasion era in-country leaders CPA chief J. Paul Bremer, and US Army leader  General Ricardo Sanchez.  Their inability to work together to establish a secure post-Saddam Iraq was key in reaching today's disastrous state of affairs.  The book concludes with some possible ways forward, none of which are particularly attractive.    (01/07)

Nature Girl

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Carl Hiaasen

Hiaasen says his biggest challenge is to invent characters and situations that are as outrageous as real life in south Florida.  Nature Girl is a trailer park mom living in Everglades City who decides to take revenge on an obnoxious telemarketer by luring him to an eco-tour of the ten thousand islands.  As usual Hiaasen's dialogue is laugh out loud funny.  Not great literature, but guaranteed to get you out of a funk.  (01/07)

The View From Castle Rock

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Alice Munro

There is no question that Alice Munro is one of North America's great storytellers.  This book is a departure from her usual genre, short stories, in that it is part history, part memoir, and part fiction.  She is such a master that it sometimes hard to tell which is which.  Munro traces her ancestors back to the 18th century in Scotland and tells their stories as they cross the Atlantic to America and then to Canada.  The last portion of the book deals with her recollections of her early years on the farm in Ontario and her relationship with her mother and father.  Her ability to take ordinary people and situations and make the reader care what happens to them is a rare gift.  (01/07)

 

Books read in 2006

Books read in 2005 

Books read in 2004

Books read in 2003

Books read in 2002

Books read in 2001