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The Dog Stars and Other Good Books


Oh, my.  I've just finished reading a truly excellent book: Peter Heller's The Dog Stars.  It's set in a postapocalyptic future, after most of the human race has been wiped out by a virulent flu epidemic.  The protagonist, Hig, is a bush pilot, who still has access to his old Cessna.  The story focuses on his efforts, along with a few other people, to survive in the area of the country that used to be Colorado.  They have to fight off hostile outsiders who show up periodically.  It might sound a little like Cormac McCarthy's The Road, but it's really not.  It's a lot more like Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It: it's full of lyrical, poetic beauty and strong connections to nature.  And if you're lucky enough to be a pilot of small planes, I suspect this wonderful book provides special thrills, both visceral and cerebral.


 As long as I'm at it, I might as well take note of some other good novels I've read lately.

15 Seconds by Andrew Gross

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes

On the Island by Tracey Garvis Graves

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton

Alys, Always by Harriet Lane

Where We Belong  by Emily Giffin

Falling Under by Danielle Younge-Ullman


Two Good Books

Looking for an engaging summer read?  Here are two books I’ve recently read that I can recommend without any hesitation.


Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  Oh, what a fine book.  I’ve read Flynn’s other two books, each of which was very good; this is the best of the three.  This is a clever, ingenious suspense novel about a marriage gone bad.  I don’t want to say too much about the plot because the joy in this book is in the pleasure of uncovering for yourself what’s going on.  It’s a dazzling, richly layered story.  If you want to read more about it, here’s Janet Maslin’s review from the New York Times.  You also can click on the book title to go to the Amazon reviews of it.


I also recommend Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead.  It’s a character study, playing out over a weekend at a wedding set at a Nantucket-like locale. Exceptionally well done.   See the review today in the NYT Book Review.

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Books, Books, Books

Stack-of-booksIf you click on “Books” in the pull-down category list over in the right column, you’ll see that for about 18 months — from early 2010 until early September of 2011 — I regularly posted short notes about books when I finished reading them. During that time, I heard from a few friends, who said that they found these short book notices interesting and helpful, useful guides for their own reading choices.  But after a while, it simply became too burdensome, given the number of books I read, to keep up with the chore.  So, I stopped.

But with the arrival of summer — and the approach of more free time — I’m ready to resume the book notes, if there seems to be any interest in having them.  So, if you’re a regular reader and liked having those short notes, please comment here or send me an email (click on the email link at the bottom of the left column) to let me know that.  Thanks.

Meanwhile, here’s a list of all the books I’ve read since my post on September 5, 2011, about Rules of Civility, the wonderful book by Amor Towles.  They’re listed here in reverse chronological order, with the most recently read listed first. Yes, it’s a lot of reading.  Eighty-five books between Labor Day and Memorial Day — an average of a little more than two a week.

Almost all of these books are fiction. Regular readers here know that my tastes are eclectic.  So, this list contains the usual broad mix.

Meredith Maran, A Theory of Small Earthquakes

Donald Ray Pollock, The Devil All the Time

Karin Slaughter, Triptych

Kristan Higgins, My One and Only

Karin Slaughter, Snatched

Frank Roberts, Jackass on a Camel

John Irving, One Person

Elin Hilderbrand, The Love Season

Vanessa Diffenbaugh, The Language of Flowers

Jennifer Probst, The Marriage Bargain

Mark Allen Smith, The Inquisitor

Liz Moore, Heft

Adam Wilson, Flatscreen

Joshilyn Jackson, A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty

Anne Korkeakivi, An Unexpected Guest

Deborah Copaken Kogan, The Red Book

Meredith Goldstein, The Singles

Carol Anshaw, Carry the One

Charlotte Rogan, The Lifeboat

Pete Dexter, Spooner

Anne Tyler, The Beginner’s Goodbye

Susan Wilson, The Dog Who Danced

Carmine Gallo, The Apple Experience

Thomas Mallon, Watergate

William Landay, Defending Jacob

Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay

Suzanne Collins, Catching Fire

Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

E L James, Fifty Shades of Grey

Amber Dermont, The Starboard Sea

Chris Pavone, The Expats

Caroline Leavitt, Pictures of You

Lauren Fox, Friends Like Us

Lauren Fox, Still Life with Husband

Hilma Wolitzer, The Doctor’s Daughter

Hilma Wolitzer, Hearts

Hilma Wolitzer, An Available Man

Stewart O’Nan, Last Night at the Lobster

Stewart O’Nan, Emily, Alone

Stewart O’Nan, The Odds

Penelope Lively, How It All Began

Penelope Lively, Consequences

Alan Lightman, Mr g: A Novel About the Creation

Ruta Sepetys, Between Shades of Gray

Rosamund Lupton, Sister

Ali Smith, There But For The

Susan Fales-Hill, One Flight Up

Bridget Asher, The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted

Sarah Rayner, One Moment, One Morning

Deborah Kay Davies, True Things About Me

Leah Hager Cohen, House Lights

Leah Hager Cohen, The Grief of Others

Evan Thomas and Mike Allen, Playbook 2012: The Right Fights Back

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

Justin Torres, We the Animals

Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus

David Bell, Cemetery Girl

Alison Espach, The Adults

Therese Fowler, Reunion

Alan Bennett, Smut

Deborah Reed, Carry Yourself Back to Me

John Rector, Already Gone

Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods

Jose Saramago, Cain

David Bergen, The Matter with Morris

Elissa Schappell, Blueprints for Building Better Girls

Anne Enright, The Forgotten Waltz

Louise Penny, A Trick of Light

Denis Johnson, Train Dreams

Tom Franklin, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

Bonnie Nadzam, Lamb

Samantha Sotto, Before Ever After

Nicholas Sparks, The Best of Me

Jonathan Franzen, Freedom

Alexander Maksik, You Deserve Nothing

Lily Tuck, I Married you for Happiness

T. R. Ragan, Abducted

Charles Frazier, Nightwoods

Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding

Mary Mcgarry Morris, Light from a Distant Star

Joan Didion, Blue Nights

Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot

David Whitehouse, Bed

Patti Callahan Henry, Coming Up for Air

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“Rules of Civility,” by Amor Towles

Images-1Ah, my summer reading ended with a bang.  Here's a new book that I'd gladly put up with the best books I read this year: Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles.

This debut novel captures life in New York City in the late 1930s.  Everything is right on the mark — perfect settings, witty repartee, sharp lingo.  

Here's Amazon's commentary as it put this book among its best for August, 2011: "Set during the hazy, enchanting, and martini-filled world of New York City circa 1938, Rules of Civility follows three friends–Katey, Eve, and Tinker–from their chance meeting at a jazz club on New Year's Eve through a year of enlightening and occasionally tragic adventures. Tinker orbits in the world of the wealthy; Katey and Eve stretch their few dollars out each evening on the town. While all three are complex characters, Katey is the story's shining star. She is a fully realized heroine, unique in her strong sense of self amidst her life's continual fluctuations. Towles' writing also paints an inviting picture of New York City, without forgetting its sharp edges. Reminiscent of Fitzgerald, Rules of Civility is full of delicious sentences you can sit back and savor (most appropriately with a martini or two)."    ★★★★★

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Books, Books, Books!

ImagesIt's been three weeks since I've posted about any books.  Big mistake.  Now, there are too many books to report on.  So, no reports.  Just a list.  Make of it what you will.


Bed, by David Whitehouse.   A humorous, dark novel about a morbidly obese young man, so fat a crane is needed to lift him from his bed.   ★★★☆☆

Easily Amused, by Karen McQuestion.  Poorly written fluff; light as a feather.  Skip.   ★☆☆☆☆

The Girl with the Sturgeon Tatoo, by Lars Arffssen.  A clever parody of the Stig Larssen trilogy. Funny for a while, but the joke fades quickly.    ★★☆☆☆

Coming Up for Air, by Patti Callahan Henry.  A woman solves a mystery about her recently deceased mother, and in the process finds her own heart. ★★★☆☆

Q: A Novel, by Evan Mandery.  A man encounters himself, time-traveling from the future.  The future self comes with warnings.  A swell idea, poorly executed.  ★☆☆☆☆

Iron House, by John Hart.  A bloody thriller by a masterful writer.  A man sets out to find his brother, from whom he was a separated as a boy when both lived in an orphanage.  Wow.  ★★★★★

Solar, by Ian McEwan.  A novel about a Nobel Prize-winning scientist whose career and private life are a mess.  It's not worth going into more detail than that because the book, too, is a total mess — a surprisingly poor piece of work by the estimable British author.  ★☆☆☆☆

Close Your Eyes, by Amanda Eyre Ward.  A woman confronts the truth about the murder of her mother years earlier, supposedly at the hands of her father.  ★★★☆☆

The Violets of March, by Sarah Jio.  A divorcee visiting her aunt on Bainbridge Island, Washington, finds a diary dating to 1943 that reveals potentially life-changing secrets.  ★★★★☆

Safe Haven, by Nicholas Sparks.  A mysterious young woman appears in a small North Carolina town and gradually gets drawn into a relationship with a widowed store owner and his two young children.  It turns out that her life is in danger from a figure in her past.  ★★★★☆

House of Holes, by Nicholson Baker. Funny, fanciful porn.  A wild literary ride into a land of erotic fantasies.  Totally strange.  See the New York TImes review.  ★★☆☆☆

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Scourge of the Deanlets

ImagesThis morning’s Wall Street Journal carries a review of a new book about the problem of administrative bloat in American colleges and universities. The author of The Fall of the Faculty is Benjamin Ginsberg, a distinguished political scientist at Johns Hopkins University.  

From the review:

In his lacerating “The Fall of the Faculty,” Mr. Ginsberg argues that universities have degenerated into poorly managed pseudo-corporations controlled by bureaucrats so far removed from research and teaching that they have barely any idea what these activities involve. He attacks virtually everyone—from overpaid presidents and provosts down through development officers, communications specialists and human-resource staffers—but he reserves his most bitter scorn for the midlevel “associate deans” and “assistant deans” who often have the most direct control over the faculty. Mr. Ginsberg refers to them as “deanlets,” but at my institution they are often called “ass. deans.”

From 1975 to 2005, the costs of attending an American university tripled. During that period, faculty-to-student ratios stayed relatively constant, but administrator-to-student ratios ballooned. The number of administrators increased by 85%, and the number of staffers rose by 240%. Administrative salaries shot up as well. Today, 81 university presidents are paid more than half a million dollars a year, and 12 earn more than a million.

Ginsberg has put his finger on a serious problem in American colleges and universities. 

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“So Brave, Young, and Handsome,” by Leif Enger

ImagesSome months ago, I read Leif Enger's prize-winning 2001 novel Peace Like a River, which I liked very much.  I wanted to read more by him.  I recently finished his 2008 book, So Brave, Young, and Handsome and heartily recommend it.  Set in the early 20th-Century West, this is the story of a likable outlaw, Glendon Hale, who is fleeing the relentless pursuit of a wily and determined Pinkerton detective, Charles Seringo. Accompanying Glendon on his meandering journey throughout the western U.S. is the narrator, Monte Becket, a Minnesota writer of a successful western novel. Becket decides to take off with Glendon when he experiences severe writer's block while at work on his next novel.  Becket tells us the fascinating tale of the cat-and-mouse game that Hale and Seringo have been playing for years, with more than the usual amount of collateral damage.  This is an epic western story, and Leif Enger tells it with astonishing skill.  His writing is extraordinary, his command of tone and vernacular admirable.  ★★★★★

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Three Novels by John Burnham Schwartz

John Burnham Schwartz's newest novel, Northwest Corner, was published on July 26.  After learning a bit about it, I decided I wanted to read it.  The novel picks up the lives of one of the author's earlier novels, Reservation Road, so I decided to read that first.  After finishing both of them, I was drawn to yet another of Schwartz's novels, Claire Marvel.  Each of these is a fine book; I recommend all three of them.


Images-3Reservation Road came out in 1999 and later (in 2007) was made into a major motion picture with Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Connelly, and Elle Fanning. It's the compelling story of a hit-and-run accident in which a young boy is killed — and the fallout of that event on two families, the victim's and the driver's. Not surprisingly, we see grief and loss tearing away at the parents of the young boy, as guilt and remorse corrode the man who ran into him on a dark road and then fled.  This is an elegiac book, decidedly downbeat (how could it be otherwise?).  No wonder Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Ruffalo ended up being cast in the movie version; they're about as gloomy and depressing as any male actors in contemporary cinema.  One has to admire the great skill with which Schwartz draws out the plaintive, honest emotions that pervade this book. He's really a fine writer. ★★★★★



Images-4 I'm glad that I took time to read Reservation Road before picking up Schwartz's new book, Northwest Corner.  Although Northwest Corner certainly works as a stand-alone book and one doesn't have to have read Reservation Road to understand what's going on in its sequel, having read the earlier book makes the experience of the newer one more meaningful.  This novel also opens with a tragic event.  Sam, the now college-age son of the hit-and-run driver in the earlier book, severely injures another young man in a barroom fight. Just as his father did years earlier, Sam flees in panic and spends the rest of the book dealing with the emotional fallout of his actions.  He's accompanied on his psychological journey by his parents, both of whom are also emotionally dysfunctional. 

This novel does not work as well as its predecessor, but it's still a good book, far better than the recent review of it by Julie Myerson in the New York Times would suggest.  (Methinks Myerson is envious of Schwartz's success.)  ★★★☆☆


Images-5One of the things I like about the Kindle is that it enables my reading habits. On vacation at Lake Tahoe last week, I had finished reading both of the Schwartz novels noted above and decided to see if there was anything else by him that looked interesting. At Amazon, I came across his 2003 novel, Claire Marvel.  I was able to start reading it less than a minute later. The story line grabbed me. The male protagonist, Julian, is working toward his PhD in Harvard's Government Department. Julian manages to win the attention of Carl Davis, the star of the department's faculty, who makes Julian his research assistant and agrees to be Julian's dissertation advisor. But the relationship between these two sours when Davis wins the heart of Julian's girlfriend, Claire Marvel, a beautiful young woman studying for her PhD in art history.  As the years go by, Julian marries someone else and Claire gradually realizes her mistake in spurning Julian for Davis.  The rest of the novel deals with the emotional, push-pull relationship between Julian and Claire as years unfold. It's a schmaltzy but likeable novel. And who doesn't want to read about the private life of a Harvard-trained political scientist?!  ★★★★☆

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“This Beautiful Life,” by Helen Schulman

Images-2Helen Schulman's new novel This Beautiful Life was released last week. The pre-publication blurbs from eminent writers were glowing (see them for yourself at Amazon).  And I see that the book received a glowing review by Meredith Maran in this morning's Boston Sunday Globe.  Schulman's book is fine, but I don't think it's as good as Maran and the publisher's flacks say it is. 

The story is wrenching and timely: an affluent New York family copes with the social fallout after the 15-year-old son opens his email, finds a pornographic video made for him by a 13-year-old girl at his school, and forwards it unthinkingly to a friend.  The video quickly goes viral, with unfortunate consequences all around.

This ripped-from-the-headlines storyline is not new; in fact, it's been so heavily used recently that it risks triteness.  Somewhat similar narratives fueled Anita Shreve's Testimony and Theresa Fowler's recent novel, Exposure.  Schulman had a good idea here, but in my view her characters are too flat and the story sort of fizzles out about half way through. Moreover, Schulman's story is less persausive than it needs to be about why the boy's behavior, though certainly regrettable, receives such an excoriating response from the community.  ★★★☆☆