Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

What Nora Knew

Monday, April 14th, 2014

By Linda Yellin

The Short Take:

This delightful romantic romp is like tasty glass of lemonade — sweet, tart, and totally refreshing. If you liked Nora Ephron’s movie, “When Harry Met Sally,” you’ll love this book for sure.

Why?

I admit to low expectations because I am not a big romcom fan, but this book is so witty and entertaining that — as the author herself points out — the journey is every bit as enjoyable as the destination.

Of course you pretty much know where the plot is going (just like Ephron’s famed movies). The fun is figuring out just how the heroine, Molly, is going to fumble her way there.

Multiple references to romantic movies (including my personal favorite: “The Thin Man”) and lots of sparkling dialogue make this a truly fun read. It is a book for the ages? Well, did people think Jane Austen’s books were going to be prized some 200 years? Who am I to say? But if you want a fun, diverting read set in modern times this book fills the bill. Even better, it should go down well whether you’re in a happy relationship or are still looking for “the one.”

A Little Plot:

On-line writer Molly is in a comfortable relationship with chiropractor Russell. However, when her boss asks Molly to write an article about romance, a la Nora Ephron, she realizes that this quality seems to be missing from her relationship, and maybe from her emotional make-up.

Then she encounters the wildly popular writer, Cameron Duncan. She considers him egotistical, a shameless ladies man, and totally insincere. So why is she thinking about him at all?

For more about Linda Yellin and her work, visit her (also) entertaining website here.

The Book of Jonah: A Novel

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

By Joshua Max Feldman

The Short Take:

This modern parable inspired by the Biblical Book of Jonah (sort of) was interesting but, ultimately, the two main characters were too hard to like for full enjoyment. It was hard to muster up the appropriate engagement.

Why?

Our two flawed protagonists are Jonah, an overly ambitious lawyer, and Judith,an intensly-driven student. Both live tightly circumscribed lives that separate them emotionally from others. Their perspectives on their existence are drastically changed by certain events — not necessarily changed for the better.

I had only a vague recollection of Jonah and the whale so I picked up the Bible and read the original Book of Jonah  – which is quite short. There’s a common theme of not being able to escape your fate (or what God wants) and some reflective symbolism. Other than that… I obviously was not enough of a Biblical scholar to grasp.

I did want to know what would happen as the story progressed but I never could work up much enthusiasm for either Jonah or Judith. They were both so self-centered that whether they were on top of the world or feeling its weight on their shoulders, it didn’t seem to make much difference. It was always all about themselves.

A Little Plot:

Jonah got handed a legal client that indicates he’ll be made a partner at his firm when a chance encounter with a Hasid turns his world upside-down. He starts having visions of Biblical proportions and his life fractures.

Judith is a gifted student and driven to always be the best at everything she does. She’s in college when tragedy strikes her parents. She decides that everything life seemed to promise her was a lie and begins to simply drift along.

It’s inevitable these two will meet. But, will it make a difference?

 

Empty Mansions

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

By Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

The Short Take:

A mesmerizing look at the making — and spending — of an American fortune. The Clarks were as rich as the Vanderbilt’s and Rockerfeller’s, but left virtually no lasting legacy. This is the story of the heiress Huguette Clark, who owned huge homes but elected to live in a plain hospital room even though healthy. Fascinating… and a bit weird.

Why?

Truth is so often stranger than fiction. That’s certainly the case with the life of Huguette Clark. The daughter of W. H. Clark, who became unbelievably wealthy through hard work, mining, and smart business decisions, she ultimately chose a life of exceptional seclusion. It all makes for a very interesting read, with no pat answers as to the “why” she was the way she was.

Newell is a cousin with an interest in his family history  who actually participated in telephone conversations with Huguette in her later years. Dedman is the man who ultimately violated her privacy by investigating the sale of her Connecticut mansion, which she bought but never moved into, though she owned it some 60 years.

It’s an incredible story of unbelievable wealth, eccentric behavior, and great personal generosity. It’s all simply amazing, yet ultimately — thankfully — Huguette retains a lot of her mystery.

A Little Plot:

The book traces the life of W. H. Clark, his climb to tremendous wealth, his brief and controversial political career, and his relationships in two families (Huguette was a daughter from his second marriage). It also encompasses the 105-years of Huguette’s secretive, artistic, and generous life. And, the battle for her millions after hear death.

Art, music, dolls and doll houses, support for artists and those who cared for her — it’s all here and all worth reading. Hers was a genuinely unique American life.

Hyperbole and a Half

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

By Allie Brosh

The Short Take:

I’ve followed Brosh’s blog for quite some time and much of the content of this book can be found there. Funny, thoughtful, and thoroughly modern, the crazy cartoons and accompanying text are worth perusing again and again. And, it’s certainly easier to enjoy in book form.

Why?

Brosh’s subtitle does a very succinct job of describing this collection of stories and observations: unfortunate situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened.

You’ll find much to laugh at — especial the adventures of her two dogs and her childhood exploits (or should I say childhood exploitations?). You’ll also find some very thoughtful insights, especially when Brosh describes her own battle with depression.

You can’t help but love this woman. And that goes double for her book.

A Little Plot:

There isn’t a plot, just a collection of observations, memories, and the like. Her unique cartooning style and straight-up way of writing are a perfect compliment to each other. According to the author, it’s all true — whether the problems of her “simple dog” or the night time attack of a wayward goose. It’s all sidesplittingly funny, and sometimes quite touching. You can get a sample at her website by clicking here, but I highly suggest you buy the book rather than just troll her website.

White Fire

Sunday, January 12th, 2014

By Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

The Short Take:

Hooray! Preston and Child have forsaken the continuing stories of their recent books for a thriller than stands alone. Agent Pendergast is as frustrating (to others) and fascinating (to readers) as ever. Plus this outing has connections to Sherlock Holmes, a string of mysterious deaths 150 years ago, and a modern arsonist. All that keeps those pages turning.

Why?

Preston and Child write excellent thrillers, but their last few outings have been built around rather complicated ongoing story lines that eventually bogged things down. Not so this time. Plus, Corrie Swanson, the rebellious young girl who made Still Life With Crows such a breakthrough hit, returns to center stage. Thankfully, there’s only one four-page reference to the old ongoing story. So, if you aren’t a regular reader, just skip Chapter 22.

Actually, this book is an excellent first introduction to the enigmatic, eccentric, and most excellent Agent Pendergast. Of course, this being a thriller, there are plenty of tense moments and life-threatening scares. You may think you know what’s going to happen next. And, you may be wrong.

But the icing on the cake is the inclusion of a Sherlock Holmes angle. I won’t divulge more except to say that it is completely audacious and great fun.

A Little Plot:

Corrie wants to write a prize winning thesis for her criminal studies course and decides to study the bones of  Colorado miners killed by a grizzly bear in 1876. She heads to what is now a exceedingly posh resort town in hopes of studying how grizzly bear claws and teeth left their marks. However, that’s not what she finds.

Instead, Corrie lands in a lot of trouble. Pendergast comes to her aid, but a terrifying case of arson grabs his attention.

If you want to know more about Preston and Child, click here. They also have a regular newsletter and are on Facebook.

David and Goliath

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

By Malcolm Gladwell

The Short Take:

This highly readable nonfiction book is a delight in every way. The premise — that misfits and underdogs can, and do, triumph — is exciting and inspiring. Gladwell’s storytelling is completely engaging. Plus, you’ll have interesting factoids and tales to share at cocktail parties and dinners for weeks to come. What more could you possibly want?

Why?

Simply put, Gladwell writes a great book. He brings together a wide range of real-life examples to make his points. In this case, he demonstrates that obstacles and misfortune can hold the seeds of success. However, thinking you know how things should be done can lead to unfortunate outcomes.

This is no weighty academic tome. It’s the work of a gifted journalist who has exceptional skill. If you’re looking for more scientific rigor, delve into the sources included in his extensive notes. However, if you are looking for inspiration — for stories of people who bucked the establishment and/or overcame odds clearly stacked against them, this one is for you.

It might even change the way you think about your own life.

A Little Plot:

Basically Gladwell has gathered stories and studies that show (among many other things) classrooms can be too small, colleges can be too good, too much money can be as bad as not enough, power is worth little without legitimacy, and trickery can triumph.

It all builds around the Biblical tale of David and Goliath, which Gladwell points out was really an unfair fight — for Goliath. Perceived underdogs have much more  to do with observers’ expectations than with the reality of their situations.

For more about Gladwell and his work, click here. And, read this book. It’s small, breezy, and so very enlightening.

The Humanity Project

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

By Jean Thompson

The Short Take:

This book has more than a half dozen main characters, all of who are interesting in both their circumstances and their responses to those circumstances. I enjoyed them so much it was ultimately frustrating not to get to understand them better. But then, isn’t that the way things go with us humans?

Why?

There’s really not much more to say about this book. It attempts to explore the human condition by bringing in quite a diverse cast of characters; from a wealthy widow to a teen who witnessed a shooting in her school to a carpenter damaged in body and spirit, plus several others. There are various interactions and connections, but none of them are particularly satisfying.

At first, the book feels the same way — unsatisfying. Then you realize that is probably the point the author is trying to make. The human instinct to connect, yet our ultimate aloneness within ourselves, are at odds with each other and our happiness.

However, despite that, each of us has the power to influence, and even dramatically change, those around us — just like several characters do in this novel, sometimes with no intention of doing so.

A Little Plot:

After witnessing  a shooting that killed her stepsister, teenage Linnea becomes unmanageable and is sent to live with her unambitious father across the country. She meets a hard-striving young man who is trying to support his ailing dad, which means letting go of college dreams.

Then there’s the nurse, who is enlisted by a wealthy widow to start a foundation that will encourage people to be better, kinder to each other. Plus sundry others.

For more about Jean Thompson and her work, click here. By the way, it turns out “The Humanity Project” really exists. It has no connection with this book that I can tell, but sounds interesting, with a similar goal as the fictional foundation. If you want to know about that, click here.

 

Mrs. Poe

Friday, November 8th, 2013

By Lynn Cullen

The Short Take:

I felt like this historical novel was moving quite slowly, then realized I’d actually finished most of it. Obviously I was mesmerized. It’s a mood,y psychological-suspense-romance mash up that works surprisingly well. Of course, any book that features Edgar AllenPoe already has a special place on my bookshelves.

Why?

Anytime Poe is involved there will be controversy about his action,s his character, even his mental well-being. This book is set towards the latter part of his life — in 1945, New York City — when his poem, The Raven, is dazzling everyone.

However, Poe is not the central character. Instead, that is Frances Osgood, another actual historic woman who was a successful poet and author. Edgar’s young wife, Virginia, who is already suffering from tuberculosis, plays a major role as the title character.

Part of the fun in this book is the constant name dropping. Osgood and Mr. Poe regularly attend gatherings of New York’s creative stars: Mathew Brady, Walt Whitman, Horace Greeley, and Louis May Alcott (a NYC visitor) to name but a few.

However, at its core this is the love story of Poe and Osgood, something which most Poe experts insist was only a platonic flirtation carried on through published love poems but which Cullen takes several steps further.

The suspense aura come from the romantic triangle and its resulting interactions between the ailing but vindictive Mrs. Poe, the tortured genius E. A. Poe, and our heroine. Frances Osgood is struggling to find her own way through her writing. Now she has an irresistible attraction to Poe to deal with, as well.

There are also some interesting plot twists.

A Little Plot:

Frances Osgood’s artist husband is away, carrying on with some wealthy heiress, while she struggles to support her young family with her writing. Frances is already a fairly well-known poet when her star-crossed meeting with the Poe’s take place at a literary salon.

From the very first she feels a deep connection with him that he seems to reciprocate. However, with Mrs. Poe things are more complex — she seeks out Frances’ company yet also shows herself to be quite spiteful… and possibly much more.

For more about Lynn Cullen and her books, click here.

 

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

Friday, October 18th, 2013

By Reza Aslan

The Short Take:

This is a fascinating exploration of the cultural, social, and political pressures impacting then-Palestine during the decades preceding, during, and after the life of Jesus. There’s been a lot of controversy because Aslan is Muslim, but I found little to disturb any but the most literal of New Testament readers — and a lot of intriguing insights.

Why?

I admit that the favorite sermons of my youth were when historical context was given to different Bible verses. Basically, that’s what Aslan’s book does with the New Testament and, to a lessor degree, the Old Testament as well.

This context enriches the New Testament experience. You can take from it what you will, bring your own interpretation to certain points, or reject some observations out of hand. That’s the reader’s — and the believer’s — prerogative. However, I found much that made me see things in a more informed light and brought new understanding of history, Judaism, and early Christianity.

Aslan’s book includes a ten-page bibliography and 53 pages of notes. It is deeply researched by a scholar who has spent his life studying religion ever since his days as a youthful Evangelical Christian.

A Little Plot:

Interestingly, while Jesus is the subject matter, it is all the forces that surround him, and his followers, that forms the majority of this book.

Pretty much everyone knows the story of Jesus to some extent. What we often do not understand is the degree to which Roman occupation infuriated the Jews and inspired rebellions and numerous would-be-saviors. It’s a fascinating story in itself. Well worth learning about.

Paris

Monday, September 9th, 2013

By Edward Rutherfurd

The Short Take:

Rutherfurd has departed somewhat from his typical James Michener style. This novel still traces fictional families in Paris from 1261 to 1968. However, the bulk of the book focuses on the period from 1875 through 1940. This provides a much more cohesive story line, but I was a bit disappointed not to have anything from Paris’ first millennial CE.

Why?

Rutherford certainly focused on an amazing time for France, with the building of the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Impressionist artists, both World Wars, vast social changes, and more.  There’s also certainly a lot to be said for having multiple chapters about just three generations of the various key families instead of continually skipping several generations ahead. My disappointment is purely personal, as the father back in time my historical fiction goes the better I like it.

In addition to the fictional families,  genuine historical figures make their appearance, from Claude Monet to Gustave Eiffel to Charles de Gaulle, along with various French kings. The conflict between the aristocracy and everyone else, and the recurring attempts at revolution — successful and otherwise — were recurring themes. It appears that the tendency to march for change is something that runs deep in the Parisian spirit.

Rutherford’s exploration of the attempts over time to create a more equitable, worker-run government was exceptionally interesting, particularly regarding the influence of Russia’s own Communist government (which often had a totally different agenda).

It was a good read. I just wanted it to go way back to the Romans, too.

A Little Plot:

The book is built around generations of several families: the aristocratic de Cygne’s, the rich merchant Blanchard’s, the hard-working Gascon’s, the socialist Le Sourd’s, the Jewish Jacob’s, and the Protestant Renard’s.

The usual inter-relations take place, fortunes rise and fall — or just keep rising. And Paris stays Paris — the actual star of this novel.

For more about Edward Rutherfurd and his books, click here.