Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Best Books of 2014

Just in time for the holiday season, here are some of our bloggers' picks for the best fiction and non-fiction books of 2014. Rest assured, we agonized over these choices. Please tell us why you agree or disagree in the comments. And if you think there's a book we overlooked, let us know!


Silea's picks:

Fiction: Red Rising, by Pierce Brown
This book starts with a gut-punch and never lets go. While relying on many of the tropes now common in YA fiction (member of a suppressed class trying to bring the system down, etc), it manages to be entirely unique.

Non-fiction: The Vinedresser's Notebook, by Judith Sutera
This book is simple, meditative, and contemplative, based primarily on grape vine metaphors to teach patience and humility. Though short, it's powerful. I don't believe it's possible to read this book and not become a better person in the process.


Suzanne's Picks

Fiction: An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine:
Aaliya isn't the most likable fictional character: she shuns her neighbors, preferring books to reality. But then her reality is Beirut, through civil war, chaos and lots of family upheaval. Aaliya, however, is an astute, wry observer of those realities, and Alameddine is a lyrical writer: the combination has made the novel, one of the first I read this year, one of the most memorable and my favorite.

Non-fiction: A Spy Among Friends, by Ben Macintyre
Focusing on Kim Philby, one of the British spies whose betrayals rocked the British establishment in the 1950s and 1960s, this takes a different approach to the story, telling the tale through the eyes of Nicholas Elliottt, Philby's closest friend in MI6. For Elliott, Philby's betrayal was more than just treason: it was a personal violation of the most profound kind. The book is both a fast-paced spy yarn and a heartbreaking tale of betrayal and misery.


JWP's Picks

Fiction: Crossover, by Kwame Alexander
Josh Bell thinks his school year is going to be all about basketball and how amazing he and his twin brother can be on the court, but life has something else in store.  His words zing off the page showing how great poetry can be to illustrate life's good and bad moments. 

Non-fiction: Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss, and the Battle to Control the Skies, by Lawrence Goldstone
A title with a little bit of everything, Goldstone makes the history of heavier than air flight available to even the least scientific of minds.  Thrills, chills, spills and daredevils from the golden age of early aviation all highlight the battle to get airplanes and their inventors off the ground. 


Dunyazad's Picks

Fiction: The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber
I judge the quality of a novel by how much I wish I could be reading it when I'm doing other things. In this case, those other things included visiting friends for the weekend and attending the National Book Festival, but I still found myself sneaking out this book to read a few pages whenever I could. The story of a missionary witnessing to aliens on another planet while his wife experiences apocalyptic conditions back on earth was unlike anything I've read before.

Non-Fiction: How We Learn, by Benedict Carey
This is probably the non-fiction book that's had the most real impact on my life this year. It's a fascinating synthesis of recent and not-so-recent findings in learning science, or in practical terms, a book full of evidence-based suggestions for how to learn more effectively and efficiently. Besides the helpful ideas themselves, I found it extremely encouraging just to read that forgetting is not the enemy of learning, that there are specific techniques that make it easier to remember foreign vocabulary within a reasonable time frame, and so on. This book gives me reason to hope that I'm nowhere near the limits of my abilities yet.


TakingaDayOff's Picks

Fiction: My Wish List, by Gregoire Delacourt
This book asks an unoriginal question (What if you won the lottery?) and answers it in a completely original way. A compact story that felt simultaneously surprising and inevitable.

Non-Fiction:  The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading, by Phyllis Rose
A book in which reading a random shelf of library books becomes a discussion about book covers, undiscovered authors, blurbs, how libraries decide which books to discard, dog training, and occasionally, literature. The Shelf combined two of my favorite topics, books about books and harebrained schemes, brilliantly.


Sandy Kay's picks

 Fiction: Red Rising, by Pierce Brown
If you mixed together a dash each of Lord of the Flies, Hunger Games, Hogwarts Academy, and Roman history and set it hundreds of years in the future you might come up with this book. But it is fresh and exciting even with all those familiar elements. I could barely put it down and can't wait for the next book in this trilogy due in January 2015.

Nonfiction: Dear Luke, We Need to Talk, Darth: And Other Pop Culture Correspondences, by John Moe
I read mostly for entertainment so don't do much nonfiction. This collection of John Moe's imagined letters, e-mails, text messages, and other correspondence behind some favorite pop culture references made me laugh. 


CK's picks

Front Cover: THE SECRET OF MAGIC by Deborah Johnson. Courtesy Penguin PutnamFiction: The Secret of Magic, by Deborah Johnson
Deborah Johnson stole my heart back in January with The Secret of Magic, a masterful interweaving of tradition, resilience, injustice, idealism, and respect. In impeccably measured prose that is all the more beautiful for being unassuming, Johnson introduces us to an idealistic young lawyer, a gentle and righteous father, and the author whose words have impacted both their lives. Even as she evokes the tensions of the post-WWII South, she also layers in such talismans as ladybugs, mistletoe, and a mailbox full of bluebirds. These and many other moments sing of simplicity while they hint at deeper meaning. 

Non-fiction: The Nazis Next Door, by Eric Lichtblau
Front Cover; THE NAZIS NEXT DOOR by ERIC LICHTBLAU. Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Coincidentally, my other selection also centers on events in the U.S. just after WWII. Eric Lichtblau's The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler's Men is a thorough, professional, and incredibly frustrating exploration of the warm welcome the U.S. government extended to a number of people involved in the German war effort. This book is an implicit indictment of the choices some members of our government made that ran counter to the tenets on which we like to think the social contract of our country exists. When you tackle this worthwhile book, give yourself permission to partake of it in 50- to 60-page increments. 


Note: Most, if not all, of these were received as ARCs through the Amazon Vine program. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Woman as Object in Sergei Lukyanenko's The Genome

Title: The Genome
Author: Sergei Lukyanenko
Publication Date: 12 December 2014

Note: ARC received via Amazon Vine program

*Warning: Contains potential spoilers throughout*

Sergei Lukyanenko’s The Genome is classified as science fiction and probably best considered under the speculative fiction label.  The story of Alex, who finds himself the captain of a spaceship that takes non-human species on tours and on which everyone seems to have a secret, is told largely through dialogue.  This type of writing should provide the author the ability to make each character unique and make them sound like rounded people.  Instead, the dialogue often reinforces the one dimensionality of the characters by not allowing us, the readers, to observe their actions.  The lack of dimensionality may be due, at least in part, to the fact that the majority of the characters are speshes.  That is, people who have been genetically altered for certain tasks.  Alex, the main character, is a pilot spesh whose main abilities are described as piloting space craft and keeping the occupants of the craft safe.  He is, we are told, incapable of love as a result of these specializations.

Lukyanenko’s book has a problem with all the characters, but women in particular.  Of the two females that play the largest part in the narrative, neither manages to rise above the need for a man or escape Alex’s need for occasional sexual gratification.  To be fair, even the male characters in the book are fairly one-dimensional and no one outside of Alex seems present other than to help Alex’s emotional journey get from point A to point B.  However, portrayal of two of the women is particularly problematic considering they have the most specializations of anyone in the novel.

First, let us consider the doctor and stereotypical large black woman, Janet.  Yes, that is how the book describes her when her physical appearance actually comes up.  Despite her various specializations (she is part of Alex’s crew for her capabilities as a doctor but lists four others), Janet’s main problem is that she apparently needs a man by the end of the book.  When we first meet her she is a bit opinionated and may be trouble in the event of non-human species coming aboard the ship because of her past role as an executioner-spesh.  She even assists Alex with a dilemma in her role as doctor early on, but sometime after having sex with Alex that role is no longer of consequence. 

The penultimate sequence in which we learn anything about Janet illustrates the dilemma of her going from being a doctor and having opinions and struggling with her ingrained dislike of non-humans to her apparent need for male affection.  Alex, as peeping tom, watches her attempt to seduce the now confused homosexual character Puck.  The author makes a point that she is completely naked while Puck is only half so.  The scene is meant to show that Alex’s emotional abilities have changed from the beginning of the book and that he moving beyond just having sex for gratification.  However, even he thinks of her as a sexual object, something to be observed and desired for her body instead of her spesh abilities.  If her early role was to be a co-conspirator, her later role is that of satisfying a man’s desires even if he does not know what those are.

This brings us to Kim, a fourteen-year-old nymphet.  While the opening chapter is one of the best and introduces Alex to Kim and both to us readers, it, too, is not without challenges when taken in context of the whole book.  Age withstanding, Alex is thrown immediately into caring for her when he realizes she has yet to undergo the spesh equivalent of puberty (which is described in terms of a caterpillar’s changing into a butterfly in one night) to the point that she is naked and he is clothed in a non-erotic sense.  It is intriguing to note that the author makes a point of Kim’s changes being internal and mental compared to physical so that her outward appearance to Alex is basically the same before and after the metamorphosis.  However, with those mental shifts comes the problem of her imprinting on him.  Kim not only wants Alex’s love but needs it and not just in the mental sense.

Muddling the waters, of course, is the fact Kim is only fourteen.  Even if she were four years older, thus making the pairing more appropriate, Kim’s role is still to push Alex into a situation where he wants to be capable of loving another regardless of physical attraction.  He wants to see her as more than something to have sex with.  As soon as he sleeps with her (and the same holds true with Janet to a degree), Kim’s initial defining characteristics take a back seat to her pre-described function in Alex’s life.  Kim’s dialogue in relation to her need for Alex is uncomfortably misogynistic.  Kim seems to look to him for love and acceptance in order to be a person herself.  To make matters worse, we find out that she’s essentially been programmed this way by another character who claims he can help Alex find that feeling he longs for.  The argument then becomes something akin to woman not only needing a man to survive but that they have no purpose in life without men filling a void and telling them they need to be a certain way.

If you’re looking at The Genome and thinking it’s going to be thought provoking and speculative from the item description, I’m telling you it’s not.  The writing never sits on an idea and explores it instead opting for a musical chairs approach and hope you win the cake in the end.  The book reads like a morality tale more than science fiction.  In fact, the science part is mostly connected to the genetic alteration that makes speshes and the very brief space travel that occurs.  This is truly more the speculative variety, but not good.

Thematically, Sergei Lukyanenko inserts some talking points, but the lack of exploration and explanation are obvious the further in you go.  Things just are the way they are more often than not.  Characters, too. If there is anything to be gained from the book it’s the talk of how genetic alteration is not without risk.  However, even that theme gets mired in the muck of people being treated solely as.  Were the men treated more equally in tone, I might not feel so negatively toward the book.  There is an obvious difference, too, when you look at Puck in particular.  Alex mostly ignores the fact that Puck is not only homosexual but a natural (i.e. not genetically enhanced).  Yet Alex actively pursues sexual encounters with women he knows he cannot possibly have a mental romantic attachment to.  That the detachment is chalked up to genetics just cheapens the relationships and encourages the male dominant narrative of men treating women as objects rather than fellow humans, which is odd because the book seems to be saying something about acceptance of all sorts of people and their beliefs.

I cannot, in good conscience, recommend this book.  It’s sad to think that, even in the future, women would just be objects for male gratification.  Genetically altered but still just objects.  This type of thinking does not good storytelling (scientific, fantastical or otherwise) make.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Tudor Mysteries! The Newest, the Best, and the Ones to Watch For...

The Queen is dead; long live the Queen! So begins The Tudor Vendetta by C.W. Gortner, the third in a trilogy of mystery novels revolving around a young man whose life is interwoven with that of the young Elizabeth Tudor

When Brendan Prescott hears the news, he is ready to hop on his horse and head off to London in a second. After all, he has been in exile in one of Switzerland's Protestant enclaves for years, having had to flee the Catholic court of Mary Tudor to protect both himself and the young heir to the throne, her half sister, Elizabeth. But now the bitter middle-aged queen is dead, and with her, her reign of religious terror, and Elizabeth has ascended to the throne. Before long, Brendan and his mentor, spymaster Francis Walsingham, who has spent the last several years trying to teach him everything from how to detect poisons to the intricacies of secret codes, will indeed be back in London. But all is not well at court. Elizabeth may be on the throne, but that doesn't mean that her enemies have been vanquished. Nor have Brendan's own foes all disappeared: his old enmity with Robert Dudley, now the queen's favorite, burns as hot as ever, and he keeps having uneasy dreams about a villain who should be -- who almost certainly is -- dead. And yet... And meanwhile, he can't find a way back to the love of his life, Kat, whom he had to abandon without a word when he fled to the Continent to escape the old queen's wrath and vengeance.

So when Elizabeth calls on Brendan to solve a puzzle, warning him that it involves a dark secret of her own, he is all too eager to help. At the very least, it will extricate him from his woes at court and give him a way to demonstrate his loyalty. But when he heads north to investigate the disappearance of Elizabeth's loyal lady, Blanche Parry, he finds enmeshed in even more secrets than he had imagined. It's bad enough to discover that he has been asked to conduct his investigations in a household of devout Catholics who have little reason to love the new queen; far worse to discover that the secrets they are keeping threaten not only his life but the safety of the realm.

This is more of a rollicking adventure yarn than the kind of mystery yarn that relies as much on rich character studies and detailed, slowly developed plots. They are fun and lively entertainment -- puzzles are solved, sure, but the next event is just as likely to be a swashbuckling sword fight, a desperate race on horseback to save a life, or rescue someone from poisoning, as it is anything that reveals something about Brendan's personality beyond the basics established at the outset. He's an adventure hero of a certain type, and that's pretty much all you need to know. Which is fine, because this is entertainment fiction, pure and simple.

Two caveats, one large and one small. If you're a historical purist, you may want to approach with caution. Gortner takes some liberties with the known facts -- and even the probabilities -- of history in his stories, including the parentage of Brendan himself, and one of the biggest is the key revelation of the novel. I confess my eyes rolled and I groaned to myself: it was simply such a challenge to my credulity. But it's not literally impossible, as are the most bizarre inventions of Carolly Erickson, so I tried to ignore it and soldier on, and soon got back into the flow of things. But if you're really a stickler for this kind of stuff (I'm struggling to avoid spoilers) you may want to beware. The second caveat is much smaller. Read the first two books first: you'll understand why Brendan feels his fate is so tied to Elizabeth's, why he loathes the Dudleys, understand just why Kat is important to him and why even dreaming of the assassin from book two terrifies him so much. The brief explanations provided are adequate, but you won't feel you've just walked into a movie half an hour after it has started. And you'll have so much more fun: while the novels aren't as thoughtful or well-constructed as are Gortner's biographical historical novels (The Last Queen, etc.), they are still fun. 

A copy of the book was made available to me by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Tudor England, and especially Elizabeth England, seems to be increasingly fertile ground for authors writing historical mysteries. I can think of several other fabulous mystery series that you might want to hunt down, the grandaddy of them all being one set in the era of Henry VIII, Elizabeth's father.

Dissolution by C.J. Sansom: This is the first in a series of books; the latest, Lamentation, will be making its U.S. debut early in 2015 and I can say (having read it) that it may be the best of them all. Sansom's hero is an unlikely figure: Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer and a hunchback who, in spite of himself, keeps getting embroiled in the doings of the great and the good at court. Sansom does a simply amazing job of combining the lives of ordinary Londoners (and their court cases) with the high stakes political battles -- the dissolution of the monasteries, war with France and in the upcoming book, the battle over which court faction will be in pole position when the king dies, to hold power for the young Edward VI. Just, wow.

To Shield the Queen by Fiona Buckley: First published in the late 1990s, this series is being reissued and continued -- hurrah! Young widow Ursula Blanchard is asked by Elizabeth Tudor to help quash rumors about the ill health of Amy Robsart, the wife of Robert Dudley, her favorite. Then Amy dies -- of a broken neck. Murder, suicide, or...? Ursula sleuths for the queen and juggles her own divided loyalties, as she is wooed by an attractive man who may not be a supporter of Elizabeth. First of a great series.

Martyr by Rory Clements: You didn't know that William Shakespeare had a big brother, John, who was in Walsingham's employ as an "intelligencer"? For shame! *Grin* These novels are lots of fun, set in the final decade or so of Elizabeth's reign, a period that we tend to think of as calm (Mary Queen of Scots now headless; the Armada sunk). Not in Clements's eyes! Great plots; richly-developed characters and lots of shades of grey. His evil characters are those incapable of seeing the world except through rigid and violent eyes of zealots, whether Protestant or Catholic. I'm now reading the latest book, The Queen's Man, which is a prequel. 

Heresy by S.J. Parris: The first in another Elizabethan series, this one revolving around an unusual real life character: renegade monk Gioradano Bruno, who fled to England to escape the Inquisition. It worked, albeit briefly, and the author has imagined a role for him here as spook: a philosopher of whom the authorities can take advantage, with entrée to places those authorities can't go (like the French embassy). Parris sets her stories in the 1580s, and real life characters range from the likes of Sir Philip Sidney to Walsingham -- and she tosses in some great stuff about the philosophical debates of the age, to boot. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How We Remember

MUSEday Tuesday

Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery

I visited Arlington National Cemetery as a teenager, and still remember how awestruck I was by its solemn beauty and its vastness. Heroes slept there, I knew, but they reposed at a remove. My visits since then to other veterans' cemeteries have been similar, except when I'm at the graves of loved ones whose lives overlapped mine. Then, my visits are quiet, largely solitary experiences, confined to the draping of a hand-sewn lei or the positioning of flowers, and accompanied by memories and tears.  

Front Cover: SECTION 60: ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY, courtesy Bloomsbury PublishingThese moments all have their place, but they are so very different from what Robert M. Poole describes as the everyday events at Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where a number of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are laid to rest, intermingled with veterans of earlier conflicts. 

With eloquence and grace, Poole invites us to meet some of the many pulsing hearts that make Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery live on.

Family members and friends visit the graves of these veterans, leaving flowers, keepsakes, and mementoes, and drawing comfort in the bittersweet process of revisiting everyday memories as well as the ache of recalling how their loved ones died.

Somehow, those left behind -- whether civilians or veterans, whatever the year their loved ones passed -- have built a community. Poole touches on this by showing interrelationships, such as Vietnam veterans "being there" for those mourning more recent losses.

With compassion and respect, he also explores the toll of such combat-related issues as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other challenges that active-duty servicepeople and veterans both confront. Notably, neither he nor his military and civilian sources shies from such painful subjects, including suicide.

Reading stories like those shared here can be extremely emotional, but it is necessary.... Necessary for understanding fear and bravery, necessary for understanding what makes a person willing to die for a comrade or a principle, and necessary for working through grief, whether immediate or at a distance.

"No man is an island," philosopher John Donne wrote four centuries ago, "every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." Those at rest in Section 60 and those who keep their memories alive live this philosophy. Daily.

As one whose relatives sleep at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific and other veterans' cemeteries, I admire the people who have worked to keep the memories of their loved ones so tangible and visible. I hope their grace and generosity in sharing their stories starts a groundswell of everyday remembrance that spreads nationwide.

ARC courtesy Amazon Vine; cover image courtesy Bloomsbury Publishing


by Robert M. Poole
Bloomsbury Publishing
Released Oct. 21, 2014

Saturday, November 15, 2014

"Woman With a Gun" by Phillip Margolin kept me up all night!

I am tired today and it is all Phillip Margolin's fault.  I started reading this book last night and expected to be able to put it aside to sleep, but I kept waking up and reading a little more until I finally gave up, stayed awake, and finished it.

This stand-alone novel is a very different style of mystery so if you are a fan of the author's series be prepared for a change.  Rather than one main character who the plot follows through the entire book, there are a couple of them and the plot is not linear.  In fact, it is not just one story but three interrelated stories that take place in 2015, 2005 and 2000, respectively. And the style is a little bit of legal thriller and a little bit of amateur sleuthing mystery.

The book starts in 2015 with Stacey Kim, an aspiring novelist in NYC who gets inspiration from a photograph at a museum and decides to get the facts about it as background research for her book. The 2005 storyline is about the murder investigation in which the photographer is a witness and the subject of the photo is a suspect.  The main character in that section is Jack Booth, an Oregon prosecutor brought to Palisades Heights to help the local DA with a high-profile murder investigation.  Jack has history with the photographer, which leads to the 2000 story when Jack was a young prosecutor.  Eventually the book returns to the present and all the story lines come together.

That all sounds more complicated than it is and the interrelated stories both keep the plot moving and give the reader insight into the characters' personalities and backgrounds.  (Interestingly, Stacey was the least interesting character to me because her story is all in the present and she lacked the depth of the other characters.)

I had an idea who the killer might be, but for most of the book it could have been almost any of the characters except Stacey.  The confession was a little abrupt and it seemed to me that the evidence that prompted it could have been explained away, but those are minor quibbles with a book that not only kept my interest but kept me awake and reading.  If you like smart mysteries, this one is for you.

In a case of art imitates life, the author got the inspiration for the book from a photograph -- and that photo is on the cover of the book.

I received a free ARC of this book from the Amazon Vine program in exchange for a review.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Story Behind It's a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life -- that's the movie where we learn that being a librarian is a fate worse than death, isn't it? I have to confess, I've never seen the movie all the way through, so I may have it wrong.

Browsing the new fiction table at the bookstore yesterday, I saw one of those slender, bright red books that seem to proliferate at the holidays. Normally, I barely notice these books that appear to exist solely as desperation gifts. This one was The Greatest Gift: A Christmas Tale. But it was the author's name that caught my eye. Philip Van Doren Stern was a major figure in the book I'd recently finished. In When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II, a terrific book about the program that sent millions of pocket-sized paperbacks to Americans fighting overseas,  Philip Van Doren Stern was a major character.  As the general manager of The Armed Services Editions, he helped select which titles would be reformatted for military use, edited and anthologized some editions, and oversaw the entire project.

The Greatest Gift is only 64 pages long, and half of
those 64 pages are an afterword by Stern's daughter, Marguerite Stern Robinson. She describes how her father wrote the story in 1939. His agent tried to place it in one of the many magazines that published fiction at the time, but was not successful. She told Stern that no one was buying fantasy stories these days. Finally in 1945, Stern self published 200 copies of the story and sent them to his friends and family, along with that year's Christmas cards. Frank Capra saw it and immediately wanted to make a movie of it.

Capra, who had interrupted his successful career as a Hollywood director to join the Army, had spent the war making propaganda films. He was at loose ends on his return to civilian life, as so many returning soldiers were, and making a film that recalled the pre-war days seemed just the ticket. But it was not a hit with audiences, who overwhelmingly preferred William Wyler's movie, The Best Years of Our Lives, which was released at the same time as It's a Wonderful Life. Wyler, also a returning war veteran, tapped into what audiences wanted, with a story of three men who were having difficulty transitioning to civilian life.

Capra and Wyler are among the five directors that Mark Harris has written about in his book, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. Five Came Back is a detailed and often dramatic look at how five civilians, from different backgrounds and generations, adjusted to war, and then adjusted to peace when they came back to a very different America. Either Five Came Back or When Books Went to War would be a great gift for history fans.

As for that scene in It's a Wonderful Life at the library, it turns out that in the original short story, George's wife, Mary, was not destined to become an old maid librarian (horrors) if George had never been born -- she simply married someone else.

The Christmas Gift: A Christmas Tale
by Philip Van Doren Stern
Simon & Schuster, 2014

When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II
by Molly Guptill Manning
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
on sale December 2, 2014

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War
by Mark Harris
Penguin Press, 2014 


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

America in Decline: A very readable but bleak portrait

Author: Bob Herbert
Publisher: Doubleday, 10/7/14

Note: I received a free review copy of this book from Amazon Vine.

I started this book eagerly and tore through the first half. Herbert paints a powerful picture of various ways in which America has gotten off course, and he makes his account very readable by including the stories of individuals to support each chapter. So we don’t just hear about how infrastructure is crumbling and needs a huge injection of cash to get up to an acceptable standard, we also hear about the personal experience of a woman who survived the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis. This makes for a very compelling narrative.

Everything was going well until just over halfway. I really enjoyed Herbert’s first chapter on education, where he vividly describes the devastation wrought by draconian budget cuts. So it came as a surprise to me when he started the following chapter with the claim that American education is actually perfectly fine. Test results showing that American students lag behind others have nothing to do with the quality American public education, he says, but are instead just a result of the fact that America has more poor students than other countries. Poor students tend to do poorly in school too. It follows that there’s no point in trying to improve the quality of education; we have to address poverty first.

I understand why he’s saying this. He’s basically repeating the position of Diane Ravitch, an education advocate who deeply opposes the current focus on charter schools and standardized testing. I’m actually very sympathetic to this position, at least in part: I do think that excessive high-stakes testing is destructive and results in teaching to the test without actually improving learning outcomes, and I do think that charter school policies, which somehow allow charter schools to get rid of disadvantaged students so that their overall scores look higher, are extremely problematic. I believe that reducing poverty is important too. But I have no idea how this critique of certain aspects of educational reform leads to the conclusion that there’s no room for improving education at all, so we shouldn’t even try. Surely Herbert’s previous chapter, about the problems with funding cuts, implies that education would be improved by restoring funding, for one thing. This seemed to be a case where Herbert’s position was established beforehand, and he was just going to stick to it, without actually providing careful argumentation to support his case.

The situation got even worse in a later chapter, when he turned to a critique of online schooling. I’m sure most people would agree that online schooling isn’t an ideal learning environment for most children, since there’s a lot of value in face-to-face interaction, even beyond the educational. But I thought Herbert’s arguments against it were terrible: he cites test scores showing that students don’t do as well at online schools, and then mentions the defense given by an executive of one of these online schools: the students who choose online schooling are generally not the best and brightest; they tend to be lagging behind even before they start, etc. In other words, it’s an issue of adverse selection bias.

Somehow, Herbert misses the fact that this is the exact same argument that he himself gave in support of American public schools: he said that poor test results don’t reflect on the quality of teaching, but are just the result of a comparatively disadvantaged student body. When the argument supports his position (American schools are okay), then it’s valid; when the argument supports another position (online schools are okay), then it’s invalid. This is extremely shoddy reasoning. Herbert doesn’t even bother to refute the argument made by the proponent of online schools, instead trying to attack his credibility by pointing out that he earns $5 million per year as the CEO of this online schooling company. (This is another theme running through his book: successful money-makers are generally bad. Again, I agree that the distribution of wealth needs to be drastically reformed, but I don’t think highlighting the wealth of an individual serves as a refutation of that person’s ideas.)

The strange thing is that I tend to fall on the same side as Herbert on most issues. I’d like to see a more equal society, with more spending on infrastructure and less on war; I’d like to see students receiving a good public education, in an atmosphere free from antagonism and high-stakes testing, rather than studying at for-profit online schools. But I’d also like to read a book with solid argumentation, not one that relies on the assumption of a sympathetic reader.

This is a book about black and white, right and wrong. There’s no room for nuance in Herbert’s bleak portrait of America in decline. This is all well and good, up to a point. You can easily find yourself reading along in agreement, nodding at Herbert’s arguments and lamenting with him the decline of the nation. But it only takes one area of disagreement to start questioning the whole edifice. In my case, it was his blithe argument that America’s schools are just fine, and the only way to improve their results is to pull more students out of poverty.

I’m sorry, but I’ve been the smart kid in a public education system that caters to the lowest common denominator. I’ve graduated high school with an A+ average and found that I wasn’t prepared for my university math classes, where the top students had attended private schools or came from other countries. I fully believe in fighting poverty, but poverty isn’t the only problem with the American education system. Real-life issues just aren’t that simple. There isn’t one “solution” that will fix American education once and for all, and by promoting that perspective (“my way or the highway”), Herbert is just adding to the toxic atmosphere surrounding educational reform. I’d much rather see support for multiple evidence-based improvements.

After reading this book, I still believe that money should be spent on infrastructure rather than war, that cuts to education funding are bad and out-of-control corporate lobbying is worse. Basically, this book has reinforced the ideas that I had going in. It did also make me much more aware about issues involving the military, like the use of more powerful explosives that result in multiple amputations and astronomically higher costs for veteran health care. But for the most part, this isn’t a book that you read to be informed or challenged. It’s a book that you read to reaffirm your existing perspective, and it does that pretty well, up to a point.

But even if you do agree with everything that Herbert says, you may occasionally find that you need to put the book down just because it’s so bleak. I could only spend so much time reading about how horrible everything is before I needed to take a break. I was particularly struck by the contrast to Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s recent book A Path Appears, which I also read recently and which takes a very optimistic evidence-based approach to making a difference in the world. Herbert does end on a note that’s not quite despair, though I wouldn’t really call it optimism: he says that if citizens as a whole decide that the status quo is unacceptable, then change can eventually come about, as it did with emancipation, the suffrage movement, and civil rights. But the details of how to get there aren’t quite clear. Unlike Kristof and WuDunn’s encouraging presentation of multiple paths to a better world, Herbert’s book lives up to its title in conveying a sense of an America that’s hopelessly lost.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

1914: A Rapidfire Tour of Some of the Best World War I Fiction (So Far...)

There's no way to escape it. This has been the big centenary year, in which the world marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, the Great War that shaped the world that we live in. The war and its end helped ensure that women got the vote; it introduced cake to Japan. It made passports ubiquitous, along with machine guns. The word "genocide" became part of the vocabulary, thanks to the Turkish genocidal attacks on their Armenian population in 1915. (Yes, another anniversary looms.) The way was made clear for fascism and for the conflicts that still divide the Middle East today. It reshaped popular culture, and catapulted modernism into the mainstream. Cartoons, barbed wire, sunlamps and wristwatches were born.

Another season of Downton Abbey on television this fall will remind us of some of this again, as its characters grapple to live in a post-World War 1 universe. Then, too, there have been today's Remembrance Day/Veteran's Day services, marking the anniversary of the hour and the day that the guns finally fell silent, at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918.

So, you'd like to read more about this, but are averse to the required texts (All Quiet on the Western Front was great in high school, but really...) and don't want to delve into military histories or other dense non-fiction tomes? Here are some suggestions. Not all of them are new. Indeed, in some places, I've deliberately avoided books that already get a lot of attention (like the two mysteries series penned by the mother/son writing duo, 'Charles Todd') in favor of others that might be slightly more off the radar. All of them are worth seeking out, for one reason or another.

Pat Barker
Sure, it's literary fiction -- but it's also one of the finest antiwar novels ever penned. What is real madness, the willful waste of millions of lives in the trenches, accomplishing nothing, or attempts to restore to sanity the shell-shocked men at institutions like Craiglockhart, so that they can be returned to the carnage? Those are some of the themes; readers will meet poets Wilfred Owen and Siefried Sassoon here as characters in one of the most elegantly-written novels I've ever encountered.

The Passing Bells
Phillip Rock
This will appeal to anyone who loves/d Downton Abbey. Like the television series, it's an upstairs/downstairs family saga, revolving around an English earl and his American-born countess. Originally published in the late 1970s (I first read it in the 1980s), the tale of Abingdon Pryory and the Greville family precedes that of the Downton clan, however. Main characters include the son and heir, Charles Greville, infatuated with a glamorous and unsuitable woman and soon to face shellshock, and the countess's American nephew, who will become a journalist and fall in love with the Greville housemaid, Ivy. Barriers between the classes crumble as Ivy and the daughter of the house, Alexandra, find themselves nursing side by side. And if you like this, it's the first in a series of three books.

Night Shall Overtake Us
Kate Saunders
A conventional chick lit format -- four close friends set to tackle the world and help each other realize their hearts' desires. Of course, it's 1914, not 2014, and this novel follows the four young women as they struggle not only with love but death. It's predictable enough, but engaging and well-written for its genre. Solid romantic fiction.

Three Day Road
Joseph Boyden
The Canadian Army trained two young Cree men, Xavier and Elijah, to be deadly sharpshooters, but not how to live with the consequences of their actions. The aftermath of war's brutality is brought to life in this brilliant novel, told through the eyes of a clan elder as she takes one of the young men, grievously wounded and addicted to morphine, slowly homeward, perhaps to die -- the journey of the title. We learn his life story in an almost hallucinatory series of morphine-fueled flashbacks as she paddles the canoe steadily onward. Not to be missed.

Anna Hope
Perhaps the newest book on the list, more to be praised for what it tries to do than for what it ends up achieving. It's set in the aftermath of the war, as the city of London readies itself for the burial of the unknown soldier and the Remembrance Day services. Three different women face questions about the fate of loved ones and about the need to build some kind of future in a strange new postwar world without them. It does feel somewhat disjointed at times, but it is a reminder that this postwar world was largely devoid of young men -- or at least, of physically and mentally intact young men.

Dead Man's Land
Robert Ryan
If you live in the United States, you may have to go to or to in search of this book, but you may also be glad that you did. It's the first in a planned trilogy set in World War I and featuring Dr. Watson, of Holmes-and-Watson fame. This time, it's up to Watson to figure out who is committing grisly murders in the Ypres Salient -- and does anyone really care, when so much state-sanctioned murder is taking place? Well, Watson does. It's very suspenseful, even if you may have to suspend your critical faculties in one or two places. I couldn't put it down, and I'm looking forward eagerly to book #2. Holmes is a presence in the background, and there's a plot element involving early blood transfusion techniques, too.

The Flowers of the Field
Sarah Harrison
Another trilogy, and another upstairs/downstairs book with themes revolving around the ways that war shakes up society. The Tennant sisters -- Dulcie and Thea -- and their former housemaid, Primmy, find the war forces them to reevaluate relationships and priorities. It's a "chunkster", weighing in at 750 odd pages, but if you're fond of epics and sagas (think, Ken Follett), you'll love it.

Gossip from the Forest

Thomas Keneally
Back to the literary fiction front. Keneally grabbed the spotlight last year with Daughters of Mars (which I loved), but prior to that he had written this heartbreaking novel about the days and hours leading up to the November 11 Armistice, showing how the Germans had collapsed into chaos and how the idea of 'negotiations' was simply laughable. The portrayal of the principal German player -- all too aware of the seeds being sown for a future war -- was unbelievably poignant. Stylistically different, perhaps, but only a smidgen, and well worth it.

A Very Long Engagement
Sebastien Japrisot
You may have caught the movie; now you can read the book (which is much better). Mathilde is stubbornly determined to understand exactly what happened to her fiancé in the war, and the series of investigations and discoveries is spread over many years, unfolding slowly, just as the war's consequences have done.

I'm sure there are many more -- this is only a small cross-section of what is out there. The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth? The Wars by Timothy Findley? Ernest Hemingway's novels? Mark Helprin's writing? Novels by Anita Shreve, Michael Morpurgo or John Boyne? John Buchan's thrillers featuring Richard Hannay, or Anne Perry's short series of World War I mysteries? My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young, that everyone has been telling me I need to read? What's your favorite tale about the Great War?

Not Just One Man's Ode to his Penis

Author:  Saskia Goldschmidt   
Publisher:  Other Press, 11/11/14

One could be forgiven for thinking, at first blush, that The Hormone Factory by Saskia Goldschmidt is about a man's love affair with his most important appendage.

The book opens with Mordechai de Paauw, co-founder of one of the world's most important Pharmaceutical companies, as he lies on his death bed pondering the turns his life has taken and, most importantly, exactly what he might have done to his sweet young caregiver - had his penis still been working effectively.

As he lies in bed, wasting away, Mordechai shares a fascinating tale of his creation of a pharmaceutical empire during a time when Europe was being slowly, but surely, overtaken by Hitler and his Nazis.  As Mordechai, who is Jewish, becomes more and more powerful, everything he's ever worked for becomes threatened.  However, the true threat isn't the Nazis…It's Mordechai himself.

This can be a challenging book to read because the narrator is one of the most loathsome characters I've read in ages.  This is a man who is utterly selfish, egotistical, and power mad.  Although there are flashes when he shows that maybe, just maybe, he has some capacity to love, those flashes are brief and soon overtaken by his ego.

While there's a lot of sex in the book, and Mordechai himself is obsessed with it, the book isn't really about sex at all.  It's about abuse.  Rape.  Brutality.  And a man who has the ability to lie to himself around every turn.  Even as he abuses woman after woman, Mordechai has the ability to tell himself that his partners are willing - and truly believe it.  He's truly a sickening character.

The atrocities of Hitler and the camps do come into play later in the book.  While not a graphic representation at all, what happens later is truly heartbreaking - and further shows our narrator in a very unflattering light.

This book is not for everyone.  It's a very long character study of a man with no saving grace.  But it is exceedingly well written and leaves you - not with any hope or feeling of redemption - but with the absolute intention that you will not live your life the way that this man did.

Highly recommended for those who don't mind stepping into the muck for a bit.  You'll need to read something simple and sweet after finishing this, but it's worth the read.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Pendergast Is Back!

Title:  Blue Labyrinth 
Authors:  Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
Publisher:  Grand Central Publishing 11/11/14

Every year, I have a 'must read' on my list.  The new Pendergast by Preston & Child.   Now this year, they did something a little sneaky.  They gave away a free preview of 11 chapters on Amazon - guaranteed to whet any reader's appetite for the whole thing.

I was lucky.  I got a review copy of the entire book from Netgalley and I simply devoured it.  And fair warning, I'm a hardcore Pendergast fan, so this review might get a little…embarrassingly gushy!

The opening is both simple and shocking.  Pendergast opens his front door to find someone from his past murdered on his doorstep.  He knows this is a message to him…but what's the message?  And from whom?  Thus begins a chase around the world, from sunny California to the slums of Brazil.  And the chase has a timeline - a timeline that could result in the life (or death) of someone the readers know and love.

Blue Labyrinth pulls no punches.  There are shocks around every turn.   While not every old character is back, D'Agosta, Margo and, of course, Constance play pivotal roles in this drama - oddly, perhaps more than Pendergast himself at times.

And, of course, history plays its role as well, as we learn the tale of a mysterious and dangerous elixir and the lives it destroyed.

To be honest, I felt a bit like the last two Pendergast books were a tiney bit lightweight - as though they were setting the reader up for something.  This book is that something.  It's a fast read.  It's dark, tense, and Constance gets righteously awesome.  She's been showing her strength more and more in the past books and in this one, she finally comes into her own - and she is glorious.

And of course Pendergast is still brilliant, quirky, and believe it or not he'll do a couple of things that show he's more human than he likes to be.  There are a couple of surprises here!

The simple fact is that Preston and Child, yet again, deliver.  An absolute five star read and highly recommended!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Three for the Road? A Catastrophic Grand Tour of Europe in "Us", by David Nicholls

I confess I'm still at a loss as to how this novel ended up in the company of books by Siri Hustvedt and Richard Flanagan on the longlist for this year's Man Booker Prize. On the other hand, it wasn't as bad a novel to read as some of the more ambitious books that shared that privilege and even moved on to the shortlist. It's perfectly a pleasant and entertaining novel dealing with themes that most of us can understand and relate to: its narrator, Douglas Petersen is a bumbling scientist who may be brilliant at what he does but can't put a foot right on the home front any more. Now his teenage son is about head off to college and his wakes him up in the middle of the night to inform him that "I think our marriage has run its course. His reaction? He's still fixated on the idea that the reason he's awake is that someone might be breaking in. "Well, at least it's not burglars," he replies.

The last ditch effort to rebuild his relationship with his son and save his marriage to Connie, Douglas calculates, may be a carefully planned "Grand Tour" to Europe, a final family vacation to the artistic capitals before Albie leaves for college. Even as the Petersens close up their home in Reading and head off to the Eurostar train, there are clues that Douglas has got it wrong, yet again: the minute-by-minute itinerary that, while it isn't laminated, might as well be, arouses the mirth and ridicule of his wife and son. But is Douglas as hapless a victim as he seems? To what extent is he complicit in his own plight, even if it's only because he's in denial? We learn the truth (a bit less dramatic than the book's publicity materials suggest, but still poignant and moving enough, as any human relationship failures are prone to be) through a series of flashbacks, since Nicholls alternates the "present day" chapters of the Petersen family's catastrophic Grand Tour with the evolution of Connie and Douglas's relationship and marriage, as Douglas tries to pinpoint just how it all went so wrong.

This structure, and the fact that it's set against the backdrop of a road trip, reminded me very strongly of Two for the Road, the 1967 film featuring Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn as a long-married couple on a road trip to southern France. It's a non-linear movie -- at various points along the road they literally drive past earlier versions of themselves at (happier) stages of their lives making the same trip. That's somewhat the same narrative device that David Nicholls is using in this novel, only as the Finney and Hepburn characters realize what they had and lost, Douglas tries to understand whether something was always missing. Perhaps what he could bring to the marriage was never enough for Connie; but is it too late to be a father to Albie? When Albie abandons his parents after a scene in Amsterdam, setting off to go busking with a New Zealander called Cat, Douglas resolves to scour Europe for him to at least try. A series of dramatic twists and turns in the final pages make for some amusing role reversals, even if they aren't always convincing.

Ultimately, I ended up pegging this as "bloke lit", the male equivalent of chick lit. Yes, it's well-written, but had it been written by a woman about a similar kind of domestic/relationship drama, I question whether it would have made the longlist of the Man Booker prize, as Nicholls' novel did. Yes, Douglas is insecure and has an over-developed propensity for doing or saying precisely the wrong thing at precisely the wrong time, but Nicholls belabors the point to where I began to cringe every time I spotted him preparing to do it yet again. And no, I didn't feel the kind of empathy I think that Nicholls intended I should for Douglas because he was just too predictable, and ultimately, not that interesting. He's a self-pitying sad sack, and it became boring. Too many of the revelations, betrayals and epiphanies alike, ended up feeling banal even when the events themselves weren't. Sure, Nicholls is a writer whose writing, at its best, is far, far better than average, and who juggled a complex structure with aplomb. But the plot and the characters never really grabbed me. Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney are characters I've remembered for decades; in a few weeks, I'll be saying "Douglas and Connie who?"


I received an Advance Review Copy of this book from the publisher via the Amazon Vine program, in exchange for my honest opinion.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Christmas Joy and Christmas Justice: Anne Perry's "A New York Christmas"

Call it a lucky dozen for mystery novelist Anne Perry, who, in addition to churning out a novel each year or so in both of her two main series of Victorian historical mysteries (the long-established William Pitt books, and the only slightly newer William Monk novels) now also writes a slim novella for publication each November, around a Christmas theme. 

Some of these, quite frankly, probably never should have seen the light of day. They are sweet and saccharine little tales with moral little messages that sound like something a second-rate novelist in Perry's favorite era might have penned. They might be high on emotional content, but the writing -- never her strongest suit -- fell below acceptable standards and the plots were tissue thin. 

And then came this excellent twelfth addition to the series. Perry has knocked it out of the park -- Central Park this time. Within the confines of the novella form (this adds up only to about 170 pages, and took me little more than 90 minutes to read), she has delivered a crisp, well written and very suspenseful yarn revolving around Jemima Pitt's trip to New York in late 1904. Jemima, daughter of William and Charlotte Pitt, the main protagonists of the novels that Perry has been writing for 30 years or so, is now 23, and has been asked to accompany the young Delphinia (Phinnie) Cardew, about to make a very eligible marriage indeed to a young American man, the heir to a family of great wealth and standing and the son of her father's long-time business partner. It might sound like an arranged match, but Phinnie is, in fact, head-over-heels in love with young Brent Albright, and prone to patronize Jemima for her lack of standing, wealth and husband (in spite of her essentially good heart -- this is, after all a Christmas novella...)

But there's a mystery in Phinnie's background. Years ago, her mother, Maria Cardew, an American, vanished, and now Brent's older brother enlists Jemima's help to ensure that Maria doesn't return to spoil the happy occasion. Jemima leaps at the opportunity to develop her own sleuthing skills -- only to come crashing into some ugly realities when murder spoils the outlook for both the Christmas holiday and the wedding... 

How Jemima extricates herself from her plight as prime suspect and brings justice to all (another preoccupation of these novellas) is handled deftly and with a great deal of suspense, too often lacking in other "Christmas" books.  Sure, it's predictable, and the final pages include a few too-pat and implausible plot twists -- you don't pick up an Anne Perry novel looking for something radically innovative, after all, much less a downer -- but it's also compulsively readable. I literally walked into a wall with my e-book reader in front of my nose while finishing the final pages. 

This will be a favorite with anyone looking for a historical mystery set in New York, too. Perry captures the flavor of the city circa 1904, and if she decides to make Jemima Pitt the heroine of her own series, authors like Victoria Thompson, author of the Gaslight Mysteries, may want to look to their laurels.

Highly recommended, although given the price point, this may be a book you may want to seek out at a library. Although diminutive in size, the publishers continue to price this as if it were close to being a full-length book, when it's only about a third the length, if that -- closer to a long Kindle single, if anything. 


I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a review containing my honest opinion.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Beyond the Takeout Carton

Beyond the Takeout Carton - A Review of Chop Suey, USA

 by TakingaDayOff


Chop Suey, USA is a personal and sometimes impassioned look at the conditions of Chinese immigrants in 19th and 20th century America, the conditions they faced from other Americans, and how Chinese food was enthusiastically accepted by all Americans. Author Yong Chen gre up in China and came to the States in the 1990s as a graduate student, intending to return to China when he had earned his doctorate in American History. Instead he made America his home and has been here ever since, first on the East Coast, and now on the West Coast.

The first half of the book documents the difficult times the immigrants and even their children and grandchildren had. Racism was the norm and it left the Chinese community with only a few career options –- domestic work as cook, or opening their own laundries or restaurants. When white and black Americans discovered that the food in the Chinese restaurants was plentiful, inexpensive, and tasty, they took to it enthusiastically. Professor Chen explores the rapid rise of Chinese restaurants through the country and compares it to the rapid acceptance of American fast food in China over the past few decades.

Later in the book we learn more about the evolution of the Chinese restaurant and Chinese cuisine in America. Chop Suey, USA covers a lot of ground, about race relations, social trends, assimilation, cookbooks, and social classes in America.

Although Chop Suey, USA has a similar title to another book from recent years on the topic, Chop Suey by Andrew Coe, it is a very different book. Coe's book is also well-researched and entertaining, but Chen's book is more personal and focuses more on the immigrants themselves. If you are expecting a book about why America likes chow mein or who invented the fortune cookie, look elsewhere –- this is a deeper, multi-layered look at the people behind the food.


(Thanks to NetGalley for a digital review copy.)