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

Zeitoun

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Dave Eggers

This is the story of a Syrian immigrant named Zeitoun who becomes a successful businessman in New Orleans.  He marries an American woman and has a nice family.  He owns his own painting contracting business and has invested in several real estate properties for rental income.  When Hurricane Katrina is about to hit he sends his family to Baton Rouge but decides to stay and watch over his assets.  He spends the first few days after the levee breaks rescuing neighbors with  his canoe.  One day, he is sitting around talking to one of his renters and a friend when they are suddenly arrested and put n a makeshift jail at the train station.  What happens next is unsettling.  This is a true story that raises some very difficult questions about justice in America.  Highly recommended. (12/09)

Cutting for Stone

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Abraham Verghese

Here is a remarkable novel that unfolds in Ethiopia and the U.S. with a few exotic stops in between.  The narrator is Marion Stone, one of twin sons born to a nursing sister in a small hospital located Addis Ababa.  The sister had kept her pregnancy a secret, but when she went into labor, all signs pointed to Dr. Stone, the hospitals head surgeon as the father.  When Stone goes missing, the hospital's other surgeon, a female OB/GYN named Hema adopts the boys.  Marion wants to be a surgeon and things go well until an attempted coup makes life difficult for the family.  My only complaint about the book is heavy dose of medical terminology .  The lay reader will have to either read with a dictionary close at hand, or not be bothered by skipping a lot of large words.  Well worth reading despite its heft (560 pages).  (12/09)

A Gesture Life

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Chang-rae Lee

Chang-rei Lee has written a remarkable book that starts with a languorous  pace, but rapidly picks up  speed and draws you in.  The narrator is Franklin Hata, a Japanese-American businessman who has recently sold his medical supply business and is looking back and assessing his life.  He appears to be a stereotype quiet, polite to the point of obsequiousness, and a solid citizen.  The events that shaped his character are revealed in layers like the peeling of an onion.  He is a man who never can quite pull the trigger when confronted with situations which called for decisive action.   There is one exception which is not revealed until the end of the book.  The one time he should have waffled he didn't, with far-reaching consequences. (11/09)

Methland

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Nick Reding

Reding started writing about about methamphetamine addiction but ended up finding a story that was much more interesting.  Where heroin and cocaine addiction and abuse are urban problems, meth abuse is primarily an issue in rural America.  It appears that meth use mirrors the large problems plaguing the American heartland.  Small farmers can't compete with the likes of ConAgra and ADM, Food and meat processing plants are increasingly staffed with illegal immigrants, and shrinking populations have left local governments strapped.  As a temporary relief from a depressing economy, young people in the mid-west turn increasingly to meth.  The author spent three years traveling, mostly in Iowa, interviewing a full range of residents, from users to law enforcement officials.  He uses the saml town of Olwein Iowa as a proxy for the region.  There he befriends the mayor, the chief of police, the doctor in charge of the hospital and a prosecuting attorney.  The situation is generally bleak, but the book ends on a hopeful note as these four do their part to facing and addressing the town's problems.  Well written and informative, this book is worthy of attention. (11/09)

This is Where I Leave You

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Jonathon Tropper

This is a funny book about a family with "issues" that is brought together to sit shiva (seven days of morning" for their recently deceased father.  Three brothers and a sister, all but one married return to Westchester County to be with their mother, a well-known family therapist.  She is an expert on every family but her own.  Judd, the book's narrator, has split with his wife after finding her in bed with his boss.  Paul, the eldest son, is still angry with Judd over a twenty year old incident, Wendy, the only daughter is married to an investment banker who is more interested in business than his family, and Phillip, the youngest son doesn't want to grow up.  The writing is good, the situations funny, making this a good choice as a summer read. (10/09)

A Small Death in Lisbon

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Robert Wilson

After reading this book I had to wonder why the author is not more well-known.  The writing is first class, the story is good and it is a real page-turner.  There are two stories actually, One is a first person narrative by a Lisbon homicide detective in the late 1990's, and the other a seemingly unrelated story about a German businessman who gets recruited by the Nazis in the early 1940's.  Both stories move forward nicely until about three fourths of the way through the book they crash together in the explanation of the murder that is being investigated by the detective.  Just when it appears that everything has been resolved, the author has one last surprise.  (10/09).

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

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Stieg Larsson

Make no mistake this is not a great literary work, or even particularly well-written, but it is a great story. When a translated book contains some shaky English it isn't clear whether the guilty party is the author or the translator.   The Girl is the first part of a trilogy published after Larsson's untimely death.  Only the author of The Kite Runner sold more books world-wide that Larsson did in 2008.  The story's main characters are a middle-aged journalist and the eponymous Girl, an investigator with a photographic memory and great computer skills.  Together they work on solving a forty year old mysterious disappearance.   Hard to put down. (09/09)

Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places

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Bill Streever

Streever is a Ph.D biologist who has written a very entertaining book about man's relationship with cold weather.  He writes about the polar explorers and about scientists  trying to achieve absolute zero.  When he writes abouth is own experiences, like jumping into the ocean at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, he uses first person singular which produces a you-are-there effect.  The last third of the book is pretty much a warning about climate change, but overall the book is interesting and informative.  The author has the gift of writing about science in a way that a lay reader can understand. (09/09)

Half of a Yellow Sun

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is an eye-opening novel by an extremely talented Nigerian writer who produced this work while she was in her twenties. .  The title refers to the flag of the breakaway region of Nigeria briefly known as Biafra.  We are introduced to the book's main characters at the university in Nsukka, now the University of Nigeria.  All are tied in one way or another to a math professor who, with his circle of friends, is pushing for Biafran independence.  As the Nigerian army moves south to quash the revolution,  the characters are drawn in to the struggle which in retrospect had no chance of success.  (08/09)

When You Are Engulfed in Flames

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David Sedaris

I rarely laugh out loud, but couldn't help myself reading this collection of short essays.  The title is from a story about funny translations found when visiting Japan, this one from a hotel's instructions on what to do in case of fire.  The stories are unconnected except they all deal with Sedaris' random thoughts that, as opposed to most of the rest of us, he is able to remember and write down.  A formerly heavy user and abuser of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco, Sedaris has settled into a more conventional life in which he and his partner Hugh act like a conservative middle-aged couple.   His writing is as clear as anything you are likely to ever read. (08/09)

Road Dogs

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Elmore Leonard

No one is more adept than Leonard in finding the humorous edge of the underworld.  Somehow he keeps coming up with fresh characters that we care about in the world of ex-cons, hipsters tough guys and wise-guys.  This one features a Cuban mobster and an Anglo bank robber who hook up while in prison and try to find mutually interesting projects after they are released, although the the glue that binds them is a mutual interest in the Cuban's common law wife.  Lots of fun here. (07/09)

The Post-American World

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Fareed Zakaria

Don't let the title fool you.  The author, who came to the U.S. as a student and stayed to become a respected political commentator, is very pro-American.  He sees America continuing to be the most important country in the world, but feels that the economic domination we have become accustomed to will be challenged by India and China.  How America copes with this new paradigm will determine the country's success as we move forward in the 21st century.  This book was written during the early stages of our most recent presidential campaign.  Events have made many of the suggestions in Zakaria's conclusions and recommendations somewhat moot.  The book is still worth reading - he is a very clear thinker.  (07/09)

Climate of Extremes

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Michaels and Balling

These two climatologists look at historical data and conclude that although global warming is real, and to an extent caused by human activity, there is no need to panic.  Sky is Falling alarmists like Al Gore take selected data and extrapolate worst case scenarios provoking emotional responses which in many cases are self-defeating.  A good example is the mandating of ethanol usage as a gasoline substitute.  Every credible study concludes that ethanol usage causes a net increase in carbon emissions as well as causing food shortages and economic dislocations.  This is a story that needs to be told, but this book, although targeted for the general public, is really written for the authors' colleagues in academia. (06/09)

Cold Eye, Warm Heart

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Gerald Rosen

Rosen has a great eye for detail and a memory for events that transpired fifty years ago.  In this autobiography he looks back with warmth at his days in Phi Sigma Delta at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  Having spent all of his life in the Bronx, he viewed Troy, New York as an exotic local in which to matriculate.  That is a unique view of one of America's most tired cities.  He knew that engineering wasn't for him so he pursued an MBA and eventually a Ph. D. in American Lit.  and now lives and writes in northern California.  (06/09)

Olive Kitteridge

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Elizabeth Strout

Each of the twelve stories in this outstanding collection is connected by the presence of the eponymous schoolteacher from rural Maine.  The stories cover a period of approximately thirty years of Olive's life and they reveal the innermost thoughts of this most interesting woman.  Regarded as somewhat standoffish by friends and family, few would guess what was going on inside her head.  This book won the Pulitzer prize for literature in 2008 and I imagine it was a very easy choice.  (06/09)

As They See 'Em

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Bruce Weber

This is a well-written and well-researched treatise on umpiring baseball games.  Weber is a fiftyish staff writer for the N. Y. Times who enrolled in umpire school and then went on to umpire a few games at low level and one inning in a major league spring training game.  Its not as easy as it looks, and at the highest level quite dangerous.  A major league fastball is a guided missile heading in the direction of the home plate umpire and a line drive is a real threat to a base umpire who  in not fully concentrating on the action.   Very few umpires ever make it to the major leagues where the pay is good and the travel comfortable.  The pressure is intense as baseball umpires  don't have the benefit of instant replay on close calls as the officials do in other major league sports.  If you are a real fan you probably never noticed where the umpires stand during a game (they move depending on the situation) and how they rotate when a ball is put in play.  If you read this book, you will notice. (06/15)

The Yankee Years

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Bob Verducci

Joe Torre is listed as co-author, but that is misleading.  Clearly Torre is often quoted verbatim but the writing is all Verducci.  Fortunately Verducci is very good, as his frequent contributions in Sports Illustrated demonstrate.  The book chronicles the rise and fall of the Yankee dynasty under Torre.  It doesn't reveal anything earth-shattering, but is a pleasant read for sports fans.  The major conclusion is that teams that play well together get better results than those made up of a collection stars worrying about their stats.  I Bet you knew that. (05/09)

The Outliers

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Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell has become the leading observer and explainer of trends.  His phrase "tipping point" has become part of the lexicon of almost every human activity.  In this his latest opus, he explains why certain people succeed and others, seemingly smarter or better prepared don't do as well.  One of hi observations is that for a person to get really, really good at something requires about 10,000 hours of practice.  It will be interesting to see if this becomes an accepted benchmark. (05/09)

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death

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Charlie Huston

The protagonist of this macabre novel is a down-and-outer named Web who takes a job with a company that cleans up the scenes of violent death.  The detailed descriptions of their work can be a little off-putting, but if you can get through that it's kind of a fun fast paced read.  Don't look for literary achievement but expect to have some fun reading this book.  (05/09)

House of Cards

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William D. Cohan

Had this been written two years ago as a work of fiction, it would have been mocked as totally unrealistic.  Unfortunately this recounting of the fall of Bear, Stearns, and its impact on world financial markets is all true.   There is a lot of detail in this 450 page tome, but plowing through gives one a greater appreciation of what went wrong and whom to blame.  It's not over yet. (04/09)

When Will There Be Good News

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Kate Atkinson

A somewhat difficult read but well worth the effort.  There are about five or six major plot lines which coalesce about three quarters of the way through.  There are train wrecks, car wrecks, marital wrecks, lots of blood and gore, and mysteries to be resolved, all presented in first class prose.  Quite a bit of poetry is thrown in as well.  One of the best books of the year. (04/09)

The Big Rich

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Bryan Burroughs

As a non-native Texan, this book was an excellent primer on who's who and who was who in the state's oil business.  The characters who made their fortunes here are larger than life and their exploits are very entertaining.  The focus is on the Cullen's, The Hunts, the Murchisons, and Sid Richardson,  Richardson never marries but he got his nephews, the Bass brothers, off to a good start.  The author did some good research and he has a gift for story-telling. (03/09)

Alphabet Juice

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Roy Blount Jr.

Word lovers should put this on their wish lists.  Blount has accumulated words and phrases that have caught his fancy over the years, and assembled them in dictionary style. There are a lot more hits than misses in the collection.  In addition to being fun, this book will save you from making errors in English.  For example, do you know if this sentence is correct?  It isn't. If you have a bookstand in your bathroom, adding this book to your library collection will keep you entertained for a long time. (03/09)

Breath

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Tim Winton

In 1992 I read a very good book named Cloud Street by a young Australian novelist named Tim Winton.  Not well known outside of his native country, Winton has produced a steady stream of books but this is the first I've read since his promising first novel. Set in rural Western Australia, this coming of age tale is beautifully drawn.  Two teenagers come under the wing of a formerly famous surfer now approaching middle age.  That doesn't sound like a promising storyline, but the writing is so good that you don't mind at all.  Highly recommended. (03/09)

Motion to Suppress

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Perri O'Shaugnessy

If you feel like giving your brain a rest here is the perfect book.  The author, a pseudonym for two sisters, will never win a Pulitzer Prize for literature, but they know how to spin a story.  As you can tell from the title, the centerpiece of the book is a trial.  One of the authors is a law school grad, so the legal scenes have a ring of authenticity.  Most of the action takes place near Lake Tahoe which adds to the fun.  This whodunit will keep you guessing until the end.  (02/09)

The Dark Side

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Jane Mayer

When Barack Obama said in his inauguration speech that "we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals", this  book details what he was referring to.  Abu Ghraib was just the tip f the iceberg.  Even if you give the previous administration the benefit of the doubt and assume that they believed that bending the rules on interrogation of prisoners was justified on a national security basis, the majority opinion seems to be that coerced confessions have very little intelligence value.  What is particularly galling is that the only Americans likely to be prosecuted for following orders relayed from the administration have been and most likely continue to be soldiers at the bottom of the food chain. (01/09)

Wasted Vigil

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Nadeem Aslam

This is not an easy book - I had to reread many passages - but it is well worth the effort to plow through it.  Forty years ago Marcus, an English medical student met and fell in love with Qatarina, a fellow student form Afghanistan.  They married, Marcus converted to Islam and they moved to her home country and started a practice.  Over the years Marcus has suffered many hardships including the loss of his wife and daughter, as well as his left hand to either the war lords or the Taliban.  Enter David, an American who had been in love with Marcus's daughter before her capture, and Lara, a Russian widow looking for information about her brother who disappeared during the Afghan-Russian war.  If the picture of modern-day Afghanistan is anywhere near accurate, we are heading for a bigger mess than we  have in Iraq.  A cautionary tale. (01/09)

 

Books read in 2008

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