Friday, January 30, 2009

The 50 Best Fiction Books of 2008

San Francisco Chronicle

No one will soon forget 2008, a year defined by an extraordinary groundswell of hope (yes, that unavoidable word) as well as lie-awake-at-night dread (nothing quite like bracing yourself for the Great Depression 2, or, if you prefer, the snappier GD2).

It will take a while, of course, for us to grasp the significance of the events of this year, but some of the best books of 2008 provide a clearer understanding of the serious issues that confront us, from wars to financial woes. Many of the books also remind us, in these challenging times, of what is most valuable in life: family, friends, community.

But there's plenty in these titles - 50 fiction and 50 nonfiction - that allows us to escape our troubles and those of this world, and sink into tales well told. Baby, it's cold outside. Grab a blanket, grab a book, and enjoy.

- John McMurtrie

Few the Entire List Here...

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Author John Updike Dies at 76

By Mark Feeney
Boston Globe

John Updike, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, whose jeweled prose and quicksilver intellect made him for decades one of America's foremost literary figures, died yesterday. He was 76.

Mr. Updike, a longtime resident of Beverly Farms, died of lung cancer at Hospice of the North Shore in Danvers, said his wife, Martha.

"He was obviously among the best writers in the world," said David Remnick, editor the New Yorker, Mr. Updike's literary home for more than half a century.

A master of many authorial trades, Mr. Updike was novelist, short story writer, critic, poet - and in each role as prolific as he was gifted. He aimed to produce a book a year. Easily meeting that goal, Mr. Updike published some 60 volumes. The first was a collection of poems, "The Carpentered Hen" (1958). "My Father's Tears and Other Stories" is to be published in June.

Mr. Updike combined diligence with brilliance. Few writers have staged such elegant lexical ballets on the page. "The scrape and snap of Keds" fill "the moist March air" in the opening of Mr. Updike's second novel, "Rabbit, Run" (1960). Thirty years later, in "Rabbit at Rest," something as mundane as angina becomes "that singeing sensation he gets as if a child inside him is playing with lighted matches."

Mr. Updike could be brilliant even about his own diligence, writing in his memoir "Self-Consciousness" (1989) of "my ponderously growing oeuvre, dragging behind me like an ever-heavier tail." Or there was the description of Fenway Park, "a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark," in Mr. Updike's classic account of Ted Williams's final game, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu."

It was Mr. Updike's boyhood attachment to Williams, as well as access to area beaches, that brought the Pennsylvania native to the North Shore, in 1957. He lived north of Boston the rest of life: first in Ipswich, later in Georgetown and, for the past three decades, Beverly Farms.

Mr. Updike long ago became a monument on the literary scene, so much so that in 1991 the novelist Nicholson Baker could devote an entire book to his fascination with him, "U and I." Yet what seemed monumental and effortless to readers didn't necessarily feel that way to Mr. Updike.

Continue here....

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

DIG YOUR JOB: Keep it or Find a New One

DIG YOUR JOB: Keep it or Find a New One
By GL Hoffman

Review By Lisa Hagendorf
Found At

I am fortunate enough to have been spared the chopping block given the current economy, but it seems everyone knows at least one person who hasn't been as lucky. For those still employed you may not feel completely secure, so when I found out about DIG YOUR JOB: Keep it or Find a New One I was amazed that it offered “more than 200 tips on keeping or finding a new job in today’s job market -- including over 50 RPT.” (As an enthusiast of gratuitous abbreviations I was amused to learn that RPT stands for “recession protector tips”).

Dig Your Job is that rare career-advice book that not only tells you how to get a new job but also offers advice to determine if keeping the one you have is the best option. Author G.L. Hoffman brings a quick-witted, SNL writing-style to otherwise traditional career topics, which engage, cajole, insult and advise us how to get along better at work…or find a new job. Think All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten on Red Bull.

To read the entire review please click here.

To visit GL Hoffman's personal blog please click here.

Monday, January 26, 2009

"The Vagrants" by Yiyun Li

"The Vagrants"
By Yiyun Li

Reviewed By Conan Putnam
Chicago Tribune

"The Vagrants," Yiyun Li's extraordinary debut novel, is set in China in spring 1979, two years after the death of Chairman Mao and the arrest of his wife, Madame Mao, and her gang in the central government. The Cultural Revolution has been declared a failure and the party has launched "a new Communist era full of love and progress" to lift up the masses. In the countryside, after years of the people's commune, peasants are being allowed to own their land. In the newly industrialized town of Muddy River, where 80,000 people live in blocks of shabby, one-story houses, young people are returning from rural re-education camps to work in factories and the shops along main street.

Among those returning is Gu Shan, 28, a former Red Guard, who, after serving a 10-year prison sentence for denouncing Chairman Mao, is about to be executed as an unrepentant counterrevolutionary. The novel opens on the morning of her execution, which is also the first day of spring. Gu Shan's mother is gathering a bag of clothes to burn at the crossroads in a Chinese burial ritual to ensure that her child will be kept warm on the journey to the next world. Her father, Teacher Gu, who is having troubles of his own finding someone to bury their daughter's body after she is executed, cautions his wife against a public display of grief: "It's superstitious, reactionary—it's all wrong."

To read more of Conan Putnam's review, please click here.

"Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age" by Steve Knopper

"Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age"
By Steve Knopper

Reviewed By Erik Himmelsbach
LA Times

Few industries inspire more enmity than the record business. It's been tainted since the birth of rock, with transgressions that include payola, greed, a reactionary aversion to technology and a plantation mentality toward its bread and butter -- the recording artists.

Thanks to the Internet and the MP3 revolution, karmic justice has finally been served: The record industry has toppled like a house of cards. To many, its collapse is less a crisis than a beautiful sunset.

Yet as Steve Knopper notes in "Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age," this was a business hellbent on destroying itself for at least 30 years. Digital music was merely the final dagger in its heart.

Knopper, a Rolling Stone music business writer, thoughtfully reports on the record racket's slow, painful march into financial ruin and irrelevance, starting with the near-catastrophic sales slump that began in 1979 after the demise of disco. Though the labels persevered, they finally lost control of their product when they chose to ignore the possibilities of the Internet.

Now, it's consumers and recording artists who have the power. Musicians can create, produce and distribute their work without the indentured servitude of record labels.

That's great news for younger artists, but even geezers like the Eagles and Paul McCartney have taken advantage of the new technology.

To read the entire review by Erik Himmelsbach, please click here.

"The Associate" by John Grisham

"The Associate"
By John Grisham

Reviewed by Janet Maslin
New York Times

John Grisham kick-starts his latest morality fable just as he has kick-started so many others: by introducing the warring forces of good and evil. On the side of the angels: Kyle McAvoy, idealistic editor in chief of The Yale Law Journal. As “The Associate” begins, Kyle is coaching a basketball team for underprivileged kids in New Haven as he waits to graduate and pursue his career of choice. He has accepted a $32,000-a-year legal aid job so he can help migrant workers in Virginia.

But there is a sinister stranger with a “slick head” and “calm hairy hands” in Kyle’s future. He shows up to broach a different career plan. This vaguely foreign-sounding man, calling himself Bennie Wright and aided by a team of fake F.B.I. agents, announces that he would like Kyle to become a $200,000-a-year associate for a high-powered New York law firm. Translated from the Grisham-ese, what that means is that Bennie — acting on the same kinds of murky but all-powerful motives that used to fuel Hitchcock plots as he sets up a corporate espionage scheme with Kyle as its patsy — would like Kyle to sell his soul to the devil.

Kyle is a brash, attractive good guy. (Think back to “The Firm.” Mr. Grisham has.) Why would he agree to an about-face like that? Because he has to. Quicker than you can say, “Duke lacrosse team,” Bennie brings up an ugly college episode that involved Kyle, his Duquesne University fraternity brothers and a woman named Elaine who now claims to have been raped by four of them at a party. Bennie has a cell-phone video record of the incident that is remarkably clear, even though all participants were too drunk to remember whether the sex was consensual.

To read the rest of the review by Janet Maslin, please click here.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The human brain: Not perfect, but good enough

The Haphazard Construction
of the Human Mind
By Gary Marcus

Reviewed by Steve Mirsky
Found at the Philadelphia Inquirer

Furniture, self-confident, corner, adventuresome, chair, table, independent, television. Early in Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, author Gary Marcus asks the reader to memorize that short list of words. He then notes, "What follows is more fun if you really do try to memorize the list." So go ahead; it'll take only a few seconds.

Marcus then tells a short story, the gist of which is: "Donald often sought excitement. He had climbed Mount McKinley, kayaked rapids, driven in a demolition derby, piloted a jet-powered boat. He had risked death numerous times, and was now seeking new thrills."

Now your assignment: Sum up Donald in a single word.

Chances are your word is adventuresome. But had the list substituted for adventuresome the word reckless, your word choice would probably be more pejorative. The snap judgment of Donald is swayed by information - the word list - that should be irrelevant. Unfortunately, your brain turns out to be alarmingly bad at evaluating individual situations truly objectively.

To read more of Steve Mirsky's review of Kluge, please click here.

'The Red Convertible: Selected and New Stories' by Louise Erdrich

By Beth Kephart
January 17, 2009
Found at the Chicago Tribune

It was Louise Erdrich's fault that I fell back in love with fiction. I speak of years ago and the opening pages of "The Beet Queen." I speak of "Love Medicine" and "Tracks." I could not get enough of the odd modifiers, the unglossed people, the immaculate tattling on about butchers and knives peddlers, weigh-shack employees and sink holes, Jell-O salads prettied up with sliced radishes, 24 fried fantail shrimp on a bed of coleslaw. It was all so quirky, also authentic. It was so tumbled down and awkwardly fine, and it didn't matter who was talking—male or female, child or adult, love bruised or love infatuated. Erdrich got it right. Laughing, I read her. Amazed, I couldn't set her down.

"The Red Convertible: Selected and New Stories" is Erdrich's compendium of greatest hits—30 familiar stories (many of which formed the backbones of her multi-narrator novels) and six not previously published ones. The short story, Erdrich tells us in her too-brief preface, is where her novels often begin, where ideas "gather force and weight and complexity." So Mary and Karl, the abandoned children of "The Blue Velvet Box," could not be left alone once they stowed away on a freight train in the spring of 1932. Karl would go west, and Mary east. Mary would stay right where she landed, in that place called Argus, in that life of sausage stuffing and butchering. Karl would return, years later, "fine boned, slick, agreeable, and dressed to kill in his sharp black suit, winy vest, knotted brown tie." They'd keep showing up in short stories—changed, familiar, irresistible—until a novel had been webbed together of the most immaculate parts.

Erdrich's stories don't grow old. They grow more astonishing for how fresh they still feel, packaged this way, wide, wrinkly, back-to-back. You only have to read the first story, which is also the title story, to get a whiff of authorial wizardry—to understand that Erdrich is, in the space of 10 pages, going to give you not just a whole family and the way they talk, but the way they hurt and the way they almost heal one another. She's going to give you one line, "My boots are filling," that is going to go and break your heart. She warns you. You follow. You fall.

To read the entire review by Beth Kephart, please click here.

A New National Scripture

Published: January 16, 2009
Found At New York Times

Barack Obama’s election as president had a thousand fathers in the long history of the struggle against American racism. But three events stand out as decisive in creating the possibility of an African-American president.

The first, in 1863, was Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which promised freedom but was followed by a century of harsh discrimination. The second was the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, signaling the end of legal tolerance for discrimination. The third was the speech the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave at the March on Washington in 1963, 100 years after Lincoln’s proclamation.

“I have a dream” is the refrain by which the speech is known — better known to Americans today than any other speech, even the Gettysburg Address. (In 2008, according to one study, 97 percent of American teenagers recognized the words as King’s.) But for all its familiarity and indisputable greatness, the origins and larger meaning of the speech are not generally understood.

The speech and all that surrounds it — background and consequences — are brought magnificently to life in Eric Sund­quist’s new book, “King’s Dream.” A professor of literature at the University of California, Los Angeles, Sundquist has written about race and ethnicity in American culture. In this book he gives us drama and emotion, a powerful sense of history combined with illuminating scholarship.

To read the entire review by Anthony Lewis, please click here.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Battling killers and cheats in Miami

Nick Stone gives us plenty of action and an authentic vision of South Florida in the days of cocaine cowboys and riots.

THE KING OF SWORDS. Nick Stone. Harper. 576 pages. $24.95

The Miami of the early 1980s has become an almost mythical place, an era steeped in the lore of Miami Vice and Scarface and seen as the epicenter for drugs and the glamour of a new South Beach. Nick Stone captures that reality in his gritty, brutal and expertly plotted The King of Swords, offering an authentic vision of South Florida along with plenty of hard-boiled action.

A few scenes of bizarre South Florida behavior crop up, but Stone uses them not for comic effect but to emphasize a society on the cusp of change. The King of Swords works equally as a police procedural, a thriller and an examination of multidimensional characters.

Stone's second novel is a prequel to the superb Mr. Clarinet,'' released in the United States last year after it had debuted in England. There Stone introduced Max Mingus, whose search for the son of a wealthy white Haitian family led him to his old nemesis -- Solomon Boukman, a drug baron with a far-reaching influence.

The King of Swords shows where the story began for Max, a detective sergeant on the elite Miami Task Force. The book is set in late 1980, wrapping up one of Miami's most tumultuous years that included the Mariel boatlift and the riots following the trial of the cops involved in the Arthur McDuffie beating. An influx of cocaine has given Miami an ``off-the-chart-and-still rising homicide epidemic.''

Max and his partner detective Joe Liston are called to the scene of a bizarre death in a primate park in Miami. But this isn't just one of those only-in-Florida crimes: The victim's entire family also has been killed, and the King of Swords tarot card is found in the man's body.

As 1980 folds into 1981, Max and Joe uncover a link to Boukman, a ruthless drug lord whose voudou practices that include human sacrifice have become legendary. Many fear him, but few people have seen his face, ``an ambiguous silhouette in the feeble light.''

Click here to read the entire review.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

'Street Gang' by Michael Davis

By Diana Wagman (LA TIMES)

Big Bird snorts cocaine. Mr. Hooper uses his store as a front for stolen goods. Oscar the Grouch keeps pornography in his trash can.

If these are the stories you are looking for, too bad. "Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street" is not a Hollywood tell-all. No puppeteer hung himself by his own strings; Cookie Monster was not discovered on a casting couch. It is not even set in Hollywood. "Sesame Street" was inspired, imagined, sold and created out of the civil rights movement in New York City. And seemingly everyone involved with it was as altruistic and munificent as the theme song:

On my way

to where the air is sweet.

Can you tell me how to get,

how to get to Sesame Street?

Yes, we get a little past-tense womanizing, a lot of drinking and a psychotic breakdown later in the book, but it all seems sad, not salacious, and not germane to the basic story. "Street Gang" is journalist Michael Davis' tale of a woman, Joan Ganz Cooney, who had an idea at a dinner party and, despite plenty of opposition, fought her way to creating a show for preschoolers that would change television as we know it.

To read the rest of Diana Wagman's review of "Street Gang" by Michael Davis please click here.

A Thrilling Ride In Castro Plot

By Chuck Leddy

In his 11th book, "Fidel's Last Days," local author Roland Merullo has penned a fast-paced and highly satisfying spy thriller about a conspiracy to assassinate Cuban president Fidel Castro. Merullo seamlessly switches the action from Miami, where a secret organization of Cuban expatriates is plotting to kill Castro, to Havana, where we see Castro's dictatorship in action and watch an internal assassination plot develop among Castro's own advisers. These two plots (and the separate narrative strains) come together at book's end in a dramatic climax that may turn out to be anti-climactic after all.

Merullo has created a number of strong, well-developed characters, including Cuban-born Carolina Perez, a former CIA agent who now works for a secret anti-Castro organization; Carlos Gutierrez, Cuba's minister of health who has become disillusioned with Castro's leadership and decides to kill him; and Castro himself, a suspicious, egomaniacal strongman who rightfully sees potential betrayal all around him (of Castro, Merullo writes, "Any tiny deviation from the posture of adoration was a personal insult"). Merullo has mastered and incorporated into his solid narrative structure the conventions of the spy thriller in order to build tension, create mystery, and move the story forward at an impressively breakneck pace.

The book's most memorable character, a cross between Hannibal Lecter and Vlad the Impaler, is the head of Cuba's vicious secret police, Felix Olochon. Olochon had built his blood-soaked career as the official torturer and executioner of Castro's Orwellian police state. "There was nothing [he] would not do, nothing," writes Merullo, "He was not bound by the thinnest filament of moral compunction." The scenes between Olochon and the plotter Gutierrez, as Olochon attempts to uncover the assassination plot and Gutierrez tries to hide it, are mesmerizing.

To Read more of Chuck Leddy's review of "Fidel's Last Days" please click here.

Cataloging the Insults (and Joys) of Old Age

One of the drawbacks of old age, the protagonist of Saul Bellow’s final novel, “Ravelstein” (2000), declares, is that gaps begin to open in your life, “and these gaps tend to fill up with your dead.”
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Jillian Edelstein

One of the many excellent things about Diana Athill’s previous memoir, “Stet” (2000), about her long and storied career as a book editor in London — she worked with V. S. Naipaul, John Updike and Norman Mailer, among others — was that she allowed the gaps in her story to fill, like frosting layered onto a cake, with fulsome memories of her own cherished dead.

Some of the writers she celebrated in her witty, cantankerous style are all but forgotten now. Does anyone read the Irish novelist Molly Keane or the Brooklyn-born experimental writer Alfred Chester any longer?

To read more of Dwight Garner's Review from the New York Times click here.