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

Our Kind of Traitor

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John Le Carré

Le Carré continues to churn out beautifully written stories about the British intelligence services where he was employed for many years. His early books had clearly identified villains, intelligence agents from behind the Iron Curtain. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Le Carré has had to find new targets. Here it is the Russian mafia. But the real enemies may be the senior officers of the British intelligence services, with their infighting and bureaucracy. Agents in the field are the heroes but they don't always get the support they need. Hard to put down. (12/10)

A Life Like Other People's

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Alan Bennett

This is a rather  morose memoir by one of England's great dramatists.  Bennett explores his working class upbringing in the English midlands, focusing on his mother and her sisters.  Mam, as he called his mother ,suffered from depression and spent her adult life in and out mental hospitals.  She evidently inherited this condition from her father who committed suicide at a relatively young age.  This event was never discussed in the family, so Bennett had to discover the facts on his own.  The other major strain in the book is the case of his aunt Kathryn.  She was a major influence on Bennett who, sadly, tracks her decline into dementia.  This book is well written, but is for the most part a real downer.  (12/10)

Obama's Wars

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Bob Woodward

Woodward continues to amaze with his access to senior government officials including sitting presidents.  His latest is a fly-on-the-wall account of how the Obama administration developed what they believed was a comprehensive strategy for dealing with U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Only time will tell if they got it right.  As in all of Woodward's recent books the most interesting aspect is the interaction of the major players, both in and out of uniform.  Some of the individuals are seen to be quite different than their public personas.  Obama is seen to be very hands-on, personally writing the first strategy draft after listening to many hours of discussion of the options available, often with conflicting views.  (12/10)

Dethroning the King

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Julie Macintosh

Its hard to believe that Budweiser, the king of beers, is no longer an American company.  The company was the most successful beer marketer in the world and had achieved a market share in the U.S. of more than 50%.  This well-researched and well-written book explains how an iconic American corporation could be taken over in a few months by a relatively unknown Brazilian brewer named InBev.  Although the Anheuser company had been in the Busch family for generations, in reality they owned a very small percentage of the outstanding shares.  The Busch family and the senior managers they had installed were living the good life at the expense of the majority of the shareholders.  The independent members of A-B's board of directors were loyal to the Busch family, but they all reaized that the first obligation was to protect the shareholders.  A cautionary tale. (11/10)

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

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David Sedaris

David Sedaris has written a book of short allegorical stories whose characters are all animals.  But these are not ordinary animals.  They have, to a certain extent, human characteristics.  But just when you suspect a human response to the central issue of each of the stories, the animals revert to form.  All of the stories are good.  My favorite is the last, in which an owl and a gerbil combine to help a hippopotamus deal with a personal hygiene issue.   This collection is at once poignant  and funny.  I think it is destined to be a classic.  (11/10)

The Surrendered 

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Chang-rae Lee

Lee writes about the experience of Koreans living in the United States.  An earlier novel, A Gesture Life, is one of my favorite books of recent vintage.  This latest release, while carefully researched and skillfully written, may be too bleak for most readers  The story, told in flash backs, chronicles the life of June, a Korean-born woman of 47 who is dying of stomach cancer in New York.  Her only son has gone missing in Europe.  She chases down an ex-GI named Hector, whom she encountered during the Korean war, to help her locate her son in Europe.  Hector had found June more than 30 years earlier trying to walk to a refugee camp after her family had been decimated.  They both wind up in an orphanage run by a Reverend Tanner and his wife Sylvie (Hector working there as a handyman).  Sylvie is an object of desire for both June and Hector.  All of the characters are flawed but June is the most complex and interesting. (10/10)   

Three Stations

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Martin Cruz Smith

Detective Arkady Renko returns in this fast-paced novel that paints a pretty bleak picture of present day Moscow.  Three major train lines terminate in a sector of Moscow populated by street criminals, hookers and runaway kids.  When Renko finds a young female murder victim, his superiors in the police department want to write it off as nothing more serious than getting another prostitute off the streets.  Renko thinks there is more to it than that and takes off on a rogue investigation, which. to the surprise of no one, proves that he was right.  But  make no mistake - this is  class writing by a master of his craft. (09/10)

Star Island

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Carl Hiaasen

Guaranteed to improve your mood, Hiaasen's books are very funny.  This one features a blonde rock star who is totally devoid of talent, and her team's efforts to keep that fact from her teen-aged fans.  She can't sing a note. but that isn't a real problem because she has had extensive training in lip-syncing. Her bodyguard is a seven foot ex-con who lost an arm and has a weed-whacker in place of a prosthesis. You get the idea.  Hiaasen has no interest in being an auteur - he sets out to entertain and always succeeds. (08/10)

The Fourth Star

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David Cloud / Greg Jaffe

The authors track the lives and careers of four outstanding twenty-first century leaders of the U.S. Army - John Abizaid, George Casey, Peter Chiarelli, and David Petraeus.  All are different, but each found a way to make the best of an unfortunate situation in Iraq.  If the end result of U.S. involvement there is positive, these four brave generals deserve the credit.  The authors have done a great job of  making this contemporary history very readable readable from start to finish.  This book is hard to put down. (08/10)

The Game From Where I Stand

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Doug Glanville

For hard-core baseball fans only.  Glanville was a journeyman center-fielder for the Cubs,  Phillies and Rangers.  What set him apart was that he was the first African-American with an Ivy League education to play in major league baseball.  He got an engineering degree from Penn.   His book is anecdotal and doesn't  seem to have an over-riding theme, but if you are a fan you will enjoy the stories and Glanville's thoughts on, inter alia, the steroid era. (07/10)

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

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Stieg Larsson

The third and presumably final book in the Millenium series by the late Swedish author Larsson.  A recent press report to the effect that someone has discovered an incomplete manuscript of a fourth book means that we will have to wait and see.  Like its two predecessors, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and the Girl Who Played With Fire, this is a real page-turner.  Make no mistake, this is not great literature, but the story is good enough to let you overlook the writing shortcomings.  The girl is the same Lisbeth Salander that appeared in the other two books.  She is a computer hacker who lives on the fringe of society and seems to attract trouble.  Mikael Blomkvist is a journalist about whom she is ambivalent, but who always seems to bail her out.  All of the loose ends from the prior books, and the new ones generated here are all resolved so I for one hope that no one bothers to finish the incomplete manuscript. (07/10)

The Big Short

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Michael Lewis

Lewis has parlayed a very short stint as an investment banker into a brilliant career as a writer.  No one explains the arcane world of high finance more clearly than he does.  This book looks in depth at the recent financial crisis triggered by the blow-up of the sub-prime mortgage market.  a deadly combination of greed, inattentive management and old-fashioned stupidity came very close to sinking the world's financial system.  My immediate reaction after finishing the book was an urge to cash out all may stocks and bonds and put the money under the mattress.  Lewis is angry because the very people who caused the crisis walked away with huge stacks of money.  You will be too.  (06/10)

Solar

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Ian McEwan

There are flashes of brilliance in this book, but overall it is hard to recommend.  McEwan stakes out a position in the Global Warming wars by creating a character named Michael Beard, a reluctant leader in the Global Warming camp who has no apparent ethical code.  Beard is a Nobel Laureate who is coasting on his reputation.  In an interview that I heard McEwan recalled being at a function with a number of Nobel Laureates and found them to be a sorry lot.  all of the things he found objectionable in them are distilled into Beard.  the protagonist evokes no sympathy from the reader as the walls of his world close in. (05/10)

Too Big To Fail

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Andrew Ross Sorkin

The near-death experience of the U.S. economy is documented in this page-turner that seems like fiction.  The oft-maligned Hank Paulson gets credit for decisive action which may have saved our economic system.  Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke were heroes as well.  It remains to be seen how this will all play out but we're still going, which was not a sure thing in late 2008.  There were many characters who brought the world to the brink who could have been portrayed as evil, but Sorkin avoids this trap.  Credit President Bush for having the good sense not to meddle and letting the experts do what they had to do.  (05/10)

The Girl Who Played With Fire

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Stieg Larsson

The second in Larsson's posthumously published trilogy finds Lizbeth Satander in trouble again.  Fans of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (I am one) will find this even more exciting.  It begins slowly enough with Blomkvist returning to his magazine job and Lisbeth enjoying life in the Caribbean.  When three dead bodies are found, the pace picks up and never stops until the final paragraph.  Maybe this isn't great literature, but it is fun and will keep you turning pages well into the night. (04/10)

The Forever War

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Dexter Filkins

New York Times war correspondent Dexter Filkins spent about three years embedded with several Marines unites in Iraq,  What sets this book apart and above all other books about the Iraq war is that Filkins does not step back to get a Big Picture or try to place the events he sees in a historical context.  He merely sees what the soldiers see and reports.  The pictures he paints are not pretty.  He lets the reader form his own opinion of what it all means.  My conclusion is that the troops are doing their best, but an occupying force is always going to be resented no matter how good the intentions.  In any event, this is a riveting read. (04/10)

The Long Fall

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Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley is best know for his Easy Rawlins novels, but here he introduces a new and very interesting character, a private detective named Leonid McGill.  McGill's father was an ardent communist, naming his son after former Russian leader Brezhnev.  Perhaps rebelling against his name, Leonid becomes a formidable amateur boxer, a skill that comes in handy in his chosen line of work.  The plot is a little complicated, and there are too many characters to keep track of, but on the whole this is an entertaining book.  Not a candidate for the Nobel prize in literature, it is however better written than most works in this genre. (04/10)

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

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Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux is our generation's finest travel writer.  He is adventurous, observant, and his writing style is lucid and intelligent.  In this book he retraces a trip he took almost thirty years earlier.  Some of the things he saw earlier have changed and some have stayed the same. The places that have changed the most, India and China have not changed for the better as Theroux sees it.  They may be economic miracles, but they seem to be soulless. While reading most travel books, the reaction is that the reader would like to duplicate the trip.  In this one, no such desire ever arises.  None of his destinations are very inviting, but least inviting of all are the former Soviet republics.  Minister of Tourism in Turkmenistan would be a very challenging job. (03/10)

Game Change

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John Heilemann  & Mark Halperin

There have been many books written about presidential campaigns, but this one stands out on information and entertainment value.  There are F-bombs galore as the contenders, including Hillary, attempt to demonstrate their toughness.  Most of the candidates are shown to have positive and negative qualities except John Edwards who is seen the egotistical lame-brain he turned out to be.  The campaign stories are so well told that the writing skills of the authors can be overlooked.  This is journalism at its best. (02/10)

A Gate at the Stairs

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Lorrie Moore

Moore is one of America's great story tellers.  She is best known for her short stories but here she shows she can sustain a story line over a lot of pages.  Tassie is a first year student at a thinly disguised University of Wisconsin.  She is totally aimless, taking a set of classes that lead to nowhere.  Needing money, she answers an ad for a part time nanny.  She is introduced to a very strange husband and wife who are on the verge of adopting a baby.  They both work so the need for help.  The family has a secret which is revealed late in the book.  In the meantime, Tassie meets an unusual boy in one of her classes.  He claims to be Brazilian but it is questionable.  After a rather bucolic beginning, this novel sucks you in.(01/10)

 

 

Books read in 2009

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Books read in 2001