Sunday, March 29, 2009

Another Book Review Blog Carnival

Stop by at book:thirty and take a gander at the fourteenth Book Review Blog Carnival. There is something for everyone, as Zero would say.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Charm City

Laura Lippman

This is the second book in Lippman's Tess Monaghan series. It was originally published in a mass market paperback. My eyes don't do well with mass market paperbacks anymore, so I'm happy to see that Lippman's early efforts are swimming against the tide and coming out in hardcover, years after their mass market releases. I have become a big fan of charm city's own murder mystery writer.

Writing a review of a mystery novel without spoiling the plot is always difficult. I will attempt to be very vague on the details and leave you with no idea what is going on.

Charm City features the first appearance of Esskay, the hungry greyhound. The dog's sudden appearance in Tess' life begins one thread in the story, a thread that involves greyhound racing, oddly enough, since there is no dog racing in Baltimore. The other thread involves the famous Beacon Light, the fictional newspaper, which Lippman points out in a disclaimer bears no resemblance to the Baltimore Sun, where she still worked in 1997, when the book was first published.

Crow, the younger hipper, musician boyfriend is already present. I am going to need to track down Tess story #1, Baltimore Blues to see where he actually comes from. There is a bit of difficulty between Tess and Crow which is unresolved at the end of the book, a great teaser for book #3, Butcher's Hill. From reading later Tess stories I know that Tess and Crow resolve their differences. A sign of a good mystery series is that the reader gets sucked in and starts to care about the lives and relationships of the stock characters. Lippman's Tess Monaghan books qualify on this count, big time, Hon.

Lippman's books meet the other two criteria, which I just made up, for a better than average mystery series. Local color: Lippman uses Baltimore and the rest of Maryland in a totally authentic, charming and attractive way. She makes gentle fun of the way Bawlmurruns speak. Real locations, real local food and real sounding local situations are all through the book(s). Most importantly, for mysteries, as opposed to mere crime novels, you won't figure out who did it until the very end. I'm not even going to tell you what they did, but of course, people are killed.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Lucky Thirteen: The Book Review Blog Carnival

The thirteenth edition of the Book Review Blog Carnival can now be found at Bookish Ruth. Don't miss this big collection of well written reviews of books of every kind.

The photo above, of Basil Rathbone appearing as the Evil Duke in Jame's Thurber's Thirteen Clocks, appears courtesy of the LIFE Magazine photo archive at Google.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Wordy Shipmates

Sarah Vowell
Let me start by saying that is is not true that, if her great grandfather had not been processed through Ellis Island by a wiseacre, Sarah Vowell would be know today as Sara Aeiou. Sarah Vowell is a contributing editor the NPR weekend magazine show "This American Life," which is best known for bringing us such fine pieces of journalism as The Santaland Diaries. Her book does not disappoint.

The Wordy Shipmates is a short, concise, not at all wordy history of some of the Puritan founders of Massachusetts Bay colony. Starting with John Winthrop, who wrote and preached the sermon about "a city on a hill" that has been used and abused by John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan to such good effect. We also have John Cotton, ancestor of the more well known Cotton Mather, Roger Williams, psychotically enthusiastic proponent of religious freedom and theological purity, who helped found Rhode Island, Anne Hutchinson, the voice of God on earth and co-founder of Providence and even Mary Dyer, follower of Hutchinson until she becomes a Quaker and martyr to religious freedom at the hand of Winthrop and his fellow Boston magistrates. It is quite a merry crew of brawling Calvinists which Vowell gives us with tongue firmly implanted in cheek.

The gist of the book is that these people are responsible for giving us the great city of Boston. They are the ones who let a cow loose to lay out the city's streets. I'm sure that the blame for the Big Dig can be laid at their feet as well. I can't find my way around Boston with a GPS. Thanks a lot, guys.

They are also responsible in large part for our tradition of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. That concept is one of Roger Williams' crazy ideas, which got him banished from Massachusetts and is written into the charter of Rhode Island. It eventually found itself written into the First Amendment. Way to go Roger!

I can't tell you (actually I am trying to do that) how much I enjoyed reading Sarah Vowell's tale of trial and error, murder, war, bigotry, more murder, mass murder and other fun stuff, which became the foundation of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, and the fine precedent they set for the founding of the United States. The Wordy Shipmates should be required reading for all American middle school students. It should be included in the lovingly crafted high stakes testing that will determine their future lives. It belongs right up there with the Thanksgiving episode of Happy Days.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Supreme Courtship

Christopher Buckley

Christopher Buckley turns out novels even faster than William F. did. In fact, since I read what I thought was his latest, Little Green Men, he has published five more. Perhaps I wasn't paying as much attention as I should have.

Generally Buckley's books revolve around the sordid side of life in Washington, DC. Usually they are funny. Mostly they hang together pretty well. This book, published in 2008, revolves around an unpopular President, (not that one) an ambitious Senator and a TV judge, appointed to the Supreme Court.

The TV judge is a wise cracking, colorful lady from Texas. She is highly entertaining until the President's handlers get a hold of her and manage to get her through the confirmation hearings. As a confirmation candidate and a Supreme Court justice she becomes a boor, not to mention a poor judge. I was hoping to hear her speak up and use some of those borrowed Ratherisms in the Senate and during oral arguments. No, she is as polite and as quiet as a church mouse.

The plot takes a bunch of twists and turns, there is (shocking!) sex, alcohol consumption and a bit of intrigue. The Senator gets his own TV show. The President wins reelection, mostly because he tells the country that he doesn't want it. Naturally the election goes all the way to the Supreme Court and our TV judge must cast the deciding vote. Everything comes out right in the end.

Buckley's use of language is superb. He fills the book with clever plays on words. Don't worry, ecxept for some Latin, thrown in (with bogus translations) for legal color, he does not go in for his dad's polysyllables.

I was a bit disappointed. I liked the idea of a Judge Judy stirring things up among the Supremes. Still, although no Thank You For Smoking, it was an entertaining quick read. Give it about a 73.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The War Within

A Secret White House History 2006-2008
Bob Woodward

This is the forth book about the Bush White House by the Washington Post's most famous reporter. I think by now the secret is out. His 2002 book Bush At War was very complimentary toward the President and his white house team, dealing with the events of 9/11/01, the invasion of Afghanistan and the preparations to invade Iraq. Woodward was convinced, as most of us were that weapons of mass destruction would be found and destroyed. When no WMDs were discovered Woodward's coverage toward the Bush team turned increasingly negative.

In The War Within Woodward portrays the Bush administration as a dysfunctional family. Each of his senior advisers is shown to be playing a separate game, the enemy is found in the other branches of government and not on the battlefield of Iraq. There is little mention of Afghanistan at all in the book.

Woodward portrays Bush as a man who is unable to grasp the implications of his own decisions, going with "his gut" and ignoring contradictory facts, having unshakable faith in his generals, until they are replaced, then having unshakable faith in his new generals. Donald Rumsfeld is shown to be so wedded to his small lean military concept that he is unable to concede the value of increasing troop strength in Iraq even as the sectarian violence grows exponentially. Condoleeza Rice is portrayed as being excluded from the decision making process.

How the "surge" came about is the central focus of the book. Woodward shows that this was an amorphous concept, basically just "lets throw a bunch more soldiers and Marines into Iraq and see what happens." It was not until after the "surge" was decided upon, when it was decided that a new commander and a new Secretary of Defense would be needed, or it wouldn't happen, that David Petraeus was chosen to lead in Iraq. Petraeus' tactic of moving US troops, with their Iraqi counterparts, into the neighborhoods of Baghdad and his willingness to accept the assistance of both Sunni and Shia militias into the defense structure were key to the success of the "surge" in reducing the level of violence in Iraq.

One has to wonder how President Obama will fare in Iraq. Can he successfully reduce the numbers of US troops to 35,000 by August 2010? The political situation in Iraq remains unsettled. The Maliki government is laughably weak. There has been no reconciliation between Sunni and Shia factions. The Kurds remain a part but apart. Iran continues to stir up trouble. Will the violence return or will the Iraqi's begin to build a civil coalition to address their own governance?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

I'm Pedaling as Fast As I Can

Really, I know it's a long time between books on here, but I only have so much time for reading and then my poor eyesight gets in the way and the next thing you know I'm asleep. Well, in the meantime, why not peruse the twelfth Book Review Blog Carnival which is being hosted by Age 30+_A Lifetime With Books. Heather has organized the carnival very well and written a short original blurb for each of about 47 submissions.

Something for everyone, a carnival tonight!