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

The Private Patient

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P. D. James

There are a couple of things you can count on when reading a James mystery - the first murder will not be the last, and you will need to dust off you dictionary.  James' vocabulary is impressive.  Commander Adam Dalgliesh returns to take on the Scotland Yard's most difficult and sensitive cases.  He is a senior police officer and amateur poet, an unusual combination.  In this case, a woman undergoes cosmetic surgery in a clinic located in the English countryside at Dorset, near the English Channel. There aren't many clues but trust Dalgliesh and his able assistants to work it out.  With James now in her 89th year there can't be many more of these wonderful novels on the way. (12/08)

What's Your Poo Telling You?

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Josh Richmond

Here is a book you can read in one sitting, if you get my drift.  Not only is it extremely funny, this little gem can actually give you some useful hints on how to get back on track when your performance is not optimal.  If you can read the names for the various movements and not laugh out loud you need to loosen up.  (12/08)

A Most Wanted Man

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John Le Carré 

John Le Carré may be the best writer of our generation.  There was some question about what he was going to write about when the Cold War ended, but he has had no problem adapting to the changed world situation.  This book is about the War on Terror at the operational level.  The Man in the title is Issa, the illegitimate son of a Russian officer father and teen-aged Chechen rape victim mother.  The father was a master of using his position to accumulate wealth that he laundered through a branch of a small British bank in Germany.  The German intelligence identifies Issa as a potential terrorist and notifies their British and American counterparts.  As always with Le Carré the characters are well developed and make you care what happens to them.  Even if you disagree with Le Carré’s politics you can’t help but admire his style.  (11/08)

Unaccustomed Earth

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Jhumpa Lahiri

Lahiri's exploration of the Indian community in America continues with this fine set of short stories.  Part One consists of five unconnected stories, each one at least as good as the previous.  Part Two could be viewed as a short novel.  It comprises three short stories that each have the same two well-developed characters and a time span of around thirty years.  Their story is compelling. )11/08)

The War Within

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Robert Woodward

In this his  fourth book about Bush and the Iraq war, Woodward allows a sliver of optimism to creep in.  Gen. Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy seems to be working and the Iraqi government has shown some signs of stability.  While the president views the Iraq war continuing until "victory" is achieved, the people on the ground have a more nuanced and pragmatic definition of success.  Although he has bashed Bush now in four straight books, Woodward somehow still has access to the Oval Office.  That access is really the only thing that sets this book apart from the others covering the same subject. (10/08)

The House at Sugar Beach

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Helene Cooper

In the early 1800's, the American Colonization Society sent boatloads of free blacks to West Africa with the goal of starting an American colony named  Liberia.  The settlers established themselves as an elite group which held sway over the natives for more than 150 years.  When the revolution came many of the descendants of the original settlers escaped to the U.S.  Helene Cooper was one of the lucky ones came here as a teenager and lived the American dream.  Today she is a foreign correspondent for the New York Times.  Her story is fascinating and inspiring. (09/08)

The Miracle at Speedy Motors

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Alexander McCall Smith

I swore I wouldn't read any more of these, but I caved.  I missed Princess Ramotswe and the other characters from Botswana.  As always there are personal and professional problems at the Ladies Detective Agency which for the most part have satisfactory resolutions.  Nothing intellectually challenging here but sometimes it's good to just visit with old friends and make small talk (08/08)

A Few  Seconds of Panic

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Stefan Fatsis

This is the guy who took a year off from his WSJ reporter duties to enter the world of championship scrabble and write a book about it.  In this caper, the former high school soccer player talks the Denver Broncos into letting him try out as a place kicker.  With the help of a good coach and a tough conditioning program he becomes a reasonable kicker.  He soon learns that kicking and kicking under pressure are a lot different.  Fatsis is a skilled writer and the story is fascinating, fate of many of the players who treated him well is a bit depressing. (08/08)

The Downhill Lie

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Carl Hiaasen

Hiassen, quite possibly the funniest man in America, returns to the game of golf after a thirty-two year hiatus.  The format of the book is a log of his experiences over a two year period.  As might be expected there are more tragedies than triumphs.  Had the book been a telling of how Hiassen started badly and earned a single digit handicap it wouldn't have been very funny.  As I read the stories I was temped to break out the clubs and try to emulate the authors experience.  Maybe one of these days.... (07/08)

Plato and a Philosopher Walk Into a Bar...

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Thomas Cathcart /

Daniel Klein

If you missed or slept through Philosophy 101, here's your chance to catch up.  The ideas of philosophers from ancient Greece to the modern era are explained with illustrative jokes.  Even the ones you've heard before are funny when viewed in this context.  The authors are Harvard grads who majored in philosophy, which itself is pretty funny.  (07/08)

Netherland

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Joseph O'Neill

This is a remarkably well-written novel.  The storyline is straightforward.  Hans, a Dutch born investment banker wrangles a transfer to New York to be with his wife, an English lawyer who has gotten a job with an American law firm.  In his youth, Hans was a cricketer in Holland.  He meet a West Indian taxi driver who gets Hans involved with a cricket team in Brooklyn.  This leads him to befriend one Chuck Ramkissoom, a larger than life Trinidadian referee.  Meanwhile, his wife gets spooked by the 9/11 attack and wants to return to England.   All of the characters in this book are so well-drawn that you really care what happens to them.  Some knowledge of cricket is helpful but not required.  (06/08)

The Silver Swan

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Benjamin Black

AKA John Banfield, author Black has written a sequel to the very fine Christine Falls.  Many of the characters return with pathologist Quirke (no first name ever given) at the center of a mysterious death of a young woman.  This time he is off drink, but as things start to unravel he has to fight hard to resist the pull of the bottle.   As before a member of Quirke's family is involved in the case, but this time the involvement seems contrived.  Not quite up to the level of Christine Falls, but still worth reading, this one will keep you turning the pages.  (06/08)

Gusher of Lies

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Robert Bryce

This is the most cogent explanation of the energy issues confronting our country that I have ever read.  The author points out that even at today's high prices, gasoline is less expensive than bottled water and a lot harder to make.  There is a lengthy section on ethanol which Bryce describes as the greatest scam ever perpetrated in the U.S.  In addition to describing the problems, Bryce ends with a chapter on how to realistically address our energy future.  Unfortunately, this book won't be on the reading list of many of our elected officials in Washington who seem to think that holding hearings and harassing oil company execs is the answer. (05/08)

Dark Roots

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Cate Kennedy

This is a fine collection of short stories, linked only by the author's style and their setting in the Melbourne, Australia area.  The stories can be enjoyed by American readers despite the occasional use of "Strine" such as chook for chicken or footy for Australian rules football.  Universal themes such as coping with the aging process, one-on-one relationship, and just getting through the day make these stories easy to relate to.  The first story in the collection is a real downer - I recommend skipping it and then going back if your depression quota still has some room.  (05/08)

Tales From Q School

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John Feinstein

Every year the PGA holds a tournament to determine which payers are going to be on the tour the following season.  Roughly 1,000 golfers start at the first stage, about a third of those go to the second stage and about 150 make it to the finals, a grueling six day affair.  Only thirty or so make the grade, the rest going back to be assistant pros at country clubs, playing in minor events or go on to some other line of work.  Those who miss by one or two strokes go on suicide watch.  There are some funny stories, but mostly this is a boulevard of broken dreams.  Feinstein continues to be a very good story teller.  (04/08)

The Good Rat

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Jimmy Breslin

Breslin has made a nice living by getting mobsters to talk to him and reporting what they say in the newspaper.  He uses the same technique to get material for this book.  He started out to write about two New York cops who went over to the other side and became paid hit men.  They turned out to be so despicable that Breslin felt a book about them would be a waste of time.  He was sitting in a N.Y. courtroom getting ready to ditch the project when the prosecution called a relatively unknown witness named Burt Kaplan.  When Kaplan, a long time Mafia go to guy, started to speak Breslin knew he had found his book.  A combination of trial transcripts and personal interviews are woven throughout the book.  The story is very revealing about life in and near the Mafia.  The stories are fascinating and the writing is very lucid.  In the end, the tough guys are reduced to a bunch of old men who Breslin says look like seniors on a bench in a south Florida pharmacy waiting for their prescriptions to be filled.  A good fast read. (04/08)

Lush Life

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Richard Price

This novel tells the story of a murder on the Lower East Side of New York, and the police work that was needed to solve the case.  Never mind that the reader knows from the get-go who dunnit.  The essence of the book is in the dialogue of both police and the low-life characters who were the perps.  It did not come as a surprise when I found out that Price was one of the writers of HBO's The Wire.  Like watching that excellent show about crime in Baltimore, this story about crime in New York will expand your knowledge about some lesser know applications of the F-word.  Highly recommended. (04/06)

Born Standing Up

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Steve Martin

I didn't get Steve Martin at first, but when he started making movies I became a big fan.  The Jerk, The Lonely Guy, and L.A. Story are among my all time favorites.  Unfortunately this autobiography hardly mentions the movies, focusing instead on his early years and the development of his stand-up routine.  Martin's routine was very visual, which he describes quite well, but for the most part I still don't get it.  Maybe he'll put out a sequel and reveal where he got the inspiration for the Man With Two Brains (03/08)

The Uncommon Reader

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Alan Bennett

Too bad that Bennett isn't more well known in the U.S.  He made a bit of a splash with The History Boys, but other than that his plays and other writings are not often encountered.  This, his latest work, is called a novella and that's about right.  It's a small book that can be consumed in one or two sittings.  The premise of the book is that Queen Elizabeth while out walking her corgis wanders into a mobile library and is embarrassed into borrowing a book which starts her on a reading binge which is very upsetting to her staff.  Having had a late start as a reader the Queen consumes books like an addict, intent on making up for last time.  The result is laugh-out-loud funny.  Highly recommended. (03/08)

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

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Junot Diaz

This an impressive first novel.  The story is about Oscar, a kind of nerdy young guy in New Jersey with roots in the Dominican Republic.  The narrator is Yunior, the boyfriend of Oscar's sister Lola.  After a few chapters, the story goes back to Oscar's great-grandfather, a respected physician who runs afoul of the Trujillo dictatorship with dire consequences for the family.  When the history catches up with the early chapters, Oscar is adrift in the world with no friends and little direction to his life.  Everything changes when Oscar takes a trip to the DR to visit his grandmother.  Diaz is a great storyteller, but be forewarned - without a rudimentary understanding of Spanish this will be a tough read. (03/08)

The Nine

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Jeffery Toobin

Toobin came to prominence during the OJ fiasco as a CNN commentator.  Over the ensuing years he has proven himself as an accurate reporter and great storyteller on legal matters both on CNN and in the New Yorker.  Here he explores the secret world of the U.S. Supreme Court.  He finds each of the justices likeable and bright, but he is concerned by the Court's lurch to the right when Samuel Alito replaced Sandra Day O'Connor.  Reading the story of some of the more well-known episodes of recent vintage like the Harriet Meirs affair benefit from the passage of time and careful study.  It would appear that Toobin got all his information through public sources or third party interviews.  If he did conduct any interviews with the justices it is not apparent.  Nonetheless, this is well written and worth the time to  read. (02/08)

Cheating at Canasta

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William Trevor

Irishman William Trevor is the master of the short story.  The short story is a challenging format because the mood has to be established and characters introduced on the first page.  Nobody does it better than Trevor.   His characters come from middle class English or Irish society whose lives have been shaped by some significant  event which is revealed as the story progresses.  There is usually an element of sexual tension, but the sex is only hinted at, never described.  The title of the collection is from one of the stories in which a loving husband finds the only way he can lose to his wife at cards as she is heading in to dementia.  Some may find this book depressing as happy endings are not in abundance. (02/08)

The Stuff of Thought

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Steven Pinker

Pinker continues his exploration of the links between words language and thought.  If you find it interesting that the expletives for sexual intercourse are transitive verbs while the euphemisms and clinical descriptions are intransitive, this book is for you.  Be prepared to plow through a lot of linguistic jargon, but if you find grammar and words interesting it will be worth the work.  Pinker is a clear thinker and has a good idea of the practical application of his esoteric field of specialization.  (01/08)

 

Books read in 2007

Books read in 2006

Books read in 2005 

Books read in 2004

Books read in 2003

Books read in 2002

Books read in 2001