Wednesday, April 29, 2009

'Secret Son: A Novel' by Laila Lalami

'Secret Son: A Novel' by Laila Lalami

Reviewed By Bernadette Murphy
LA Times

Laila Lalami's new novel, "Secret Son," brings readers into the down-and-out sections of Casablanca, Morocco, to follow the travails of Youssef El Mekki, a young man trying to rise above the abject poverty into which he was born. Youssef knows certain things about himself: He knows his father, whom he doesn't remember, was a respected fourth-grade teacher who died while hanging lights for a religious feast, falling three floors and breaking his neck. He knows his mother is an orphan and thus the two of them must make their hardscrabble way together with no extended family to help.

He knows he is poor with few opportunities, but he's working hard to make the best of whatever chances he has by studying hard. Though not religious, he knows that the government is never going to help him and his fellow slum-dwellers in Hay An Najat, the poverty-steeped neighborhood where he resides in a shack of a home, but that Al Hizb ("The Party" that rallies for Muslim fundamentalism) is there with food and tents after devastating floods, promising "Power to the people through God, with God, and by God."

All the truths of Youssef's life will be challenged as the narrative winds its way, delivering both blows and windfalls from mektub (fate), that element that can't help but "split someone's life in a Before and After." The biggest revelation is that Youssef's father is not dead, but is actually Nabil Amrani, a respected, powerful and wealthy man. Youssef wonders what his life would be like if his father were to claim him, the secret product of an encounter with a household servant. "His existence until that moment had been nothing more than a role. . . . If he could be Youssef Amrani, he would not have to play any part at all. He could be, at long last, himself."

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

'The Age of the Unthinkable' By Joshua Cooper Ramo

'The Age of the Unthinkable' By Joshua Cooper Ramo


The philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously divided thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs (like Plato, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen and Proust), who know one big thing and tend to view the world through the lens of a single organizing principle, and foxes (like Herodotus, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Goethe, Balzac and Joyce), who know many things and who pursue various unrelated, even contradictory ends.

According to Joshua Cooper Ramo’s provocative new book, “The Age of the Unthinkable,” one study — in which hundreds of experts in subjects like economics, foreign policy and politics were asked to make predictions about the short-term future and whose predictions were evaluated five years later — showed that foxes, with their wide-ranging curiosity and willingness to embrace change, tended to be far more accurate in their forecasts than hedgehogs, eager for closure and keen on applying a few big ideas to an array of situations.

It’s a finding enthusiastically embraced by Mr. Ramo, who argues in these pages that today’s complex, interconnected, globalized world requires policy makers willing to toss out old assumptions (about cause and effect, deterrence and defense, nation states and balances of power) and embrace creative new approaches. Today’s world, he suggests, requires resilient pragmatists who, like the most talented Silicon Valley venture capitalists on the one hand or the survival-minded leadership of Hezbollah on the other, possess both an intuitive ability to see problems in a larger context and a willingness to rejigger their organizations continually to grapple with ever-shifting challenges and circumstances.

With this volume, Mr. Ramo, managing director at the geostrategic advisory firm Kissinger Associates and a former editor at Time magazine, seems to have set out to write a Malcolm Gladwellesque book: a book that popularizes complicated scientific theories while illustrating its arguments with colorful case studies and friendly how-to exhortations.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

'Not Becoming My Mother' by Ruth Reichl

'Not Becoming My Mother' by Ruth Reichl

Reviewed By Jonathan Kirsch
LA Times

Ruth Reichl is a commanding and daunting figure in American culture. Beginning in the 1970s, she played a key role in revolutionizing food and restaurant journalism, wielded make-or-break influence as a restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times and later the New York Times, and continues to loom large as editor in chief of Gourmet magazine.

With her fourth book, "Not Becoming My Mother: And Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way," however, Reichl looks backward and inward in an attempt to understand and explain her mother, both to herself and to us.

At barely 100 pages, "Not Becoming My Mother" is a meditation rather than a memoir but is no less affecting for its brevity. Reichl is performing in public what is, after all, a rite of passage: the contemplation of a deceased parent. In that sense, her little book is an exploration of one of life's biggest mysteries.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

'It All Began With Wilt' By Cecil Mosenson

It All Began With Wilt
By Cecil Mosenson

Reviewed By David Cohen
Philadelphia Inquirer

The ghost of Wilt Chamberlain still towers over Philadelphia-area basketball.

Except for suburbanite Kobe Bryant, no local player has ever come close to matching Chamberlain's accomplishments. So many other phenoms - from Clarence Tillman and Billy Thompson to Eddie Griffin and Dallas Comegys to Milt and Dajuan Wagner - simply fizzled out in his shadow.

Beyond that, the magnitude of Chamberlain's feats is still staggering. His 100-point game for the Philadelphia Warriors on March 2, 1962, was like a moment when the heavens aligned - unprecedented, unreal, and unlikely ever to be matched.

Cecil Mosenson knows these things, and he knows them better than most. Having guided Chamberlain at Overbrook High, Mosenson has lived the last half-century known as "the guy who coached Wilt" - a tag that stuck with him even as he spent decades helping other youngsters as a coach, teacher, and principal. Chamberlain's ghost presumably is never far from his side.

Of course, that is why this book exists - so Mosenson can tell the stories about Chamberlain that everyone asks him to tell, as well as remind the world he's accomplished other things. The result is an autobiographical collection of anecdotes.

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'Conversations With Frank Gehry' by Barbara Isenberg

'Conversations With Frank Gehry' by Barbara Isenberg

Reviewed By Christopher Hawthorne
LA Times

My hopes, I'll admit, were not especially high for "Conversations With Frank Gehry," Barbara Isenberg's collection of recent interviews with the architect. Particularly in public, Gehry can be reticent, even uncomfortable, when discussing the ideas behind his buildings. Though there are certainly architects -- Rem Koolhaas, Robert Venturi, Elizabeth Diller and Peter Eisenman among them -- who use the process of talking and writing as a kind of design software, shaping concepts that show up later in their work, Gehry is not one of them.

But a couple of things make "Conversations With Frank Gehry" surprisingly rich and even, at times, revelatory. One is that Gehry, who turned 80 earlier this year, is growing more reflective, even wistful, about his past. (My sense is that this wistfulness is neither involuntary nor perfectly organic: Gehry has always been an artful packager of his legend.) The second is that Gehry's long relationship with Isenberg, a journalist who has worked for The Times and the Wall Street Journal and who has been interviewing Gehry since the 1980s, has produced a level of trust and familiarity that allows him to open up in ways he has rarely done publicly.

In certain respects the book, which was born when Gehry asked Isenberg to work with him on an oral history, operates as a lo-fi, casual biography of the architect. It includes extensive material on the architect's childhood in Toronto; his move to Los Angeles as a teenager; his studies at USC and Harvard; the decision, in 1954, to change his last name from Goldberg to Gehry; his time in the U.S. Army; and the architects whose work he has studied most closely, including Alvar Aalto and the French Modernist Le Corbusier ("number one on my hit parade").

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

'The Missing' By Tim Gautreaux

'The Missing' By Tim Gautreaux

Reviewed By Chuck Leddy
Boston Globe

Tim Gautreaux's absorbing novel is a reflection on how loss can haunt and possibly destroy us. The novel's main character, Sam Simoneaux, was a baby in the backwoods of Louisiana when a group of outlaws killed his entire family. Sam survived because he was hidden away. Gautreaux's narrative explores what this loss has done to Sam's soul: Can the adult Sam accept what happened or will he seek revenge?

The author paints the novel's various settings with great skill, as he follows Sam from the battlefields of World War I, to 1920s New Orleans, to a riverboat navigating the Mississippi River. Throughout, Sam is followed by loss. Landing in France with the US Army on the last day of World War I, Sam imagines the wartime carnage: "He looked out and saw half a million soldiers going at each other in a freezing rain, their bodies shredded by artillery, their faces torn off, their knees disintegrated into snowy red pulp, their lungs boiled out by poison gas."

Sam returns to his hometown, New Orleans, and works as a department store floorwalker. One day, a girl goes missing in the store, and Sam, searching for her, gets knocked unconscious by one of her kidnappers. The frantic parents, as well as the store's owner, blame Sam for not doing enough to find the child. After being fired, Sam is awash in guilt.

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"She Always Knew How" by Charlotte Chandler

"She Always Knew How" by Charlotte Chandler

Reviewed By Kevin Thomas
LA Times

Charlotte Chandler's gift at getting legendary show business figures to open up about themselves is unique. For "She Always Knew How," Chandler not only got the last major interview with Mae West -- not long before her death in 1980 at 87 -- but also what is almost certainly the most extensive interview West ever gave.

It's not that "She Always Knew How" is full of surprises, but that its depth and breadth brings West to life as thoughtful, caring and reflective, a woman of resilient character, self-knowledge and shrewdness in regard to human nature and in sustaining a career over eight decades.

As is well known, West had an extraordinarily close and loving relationship with her Bavarian-born mother Matilda, whose parents forbade her to go on the stage. As a result, she encouraged her daughter. Here, West talks at length about her mother's unstinting confidence in her; Matilda saw her daughter triumph on Broadway with the iconic "Diamond Lil" in 1928, but she died before West went on to conquer Hollywood.

West is candid about how her mother's focus on her exacted a price on both her younger sister, Beverly, who also had theatrical dreams, and, to a lesser extent, on her younger brother, John. Born in 1893, West began performing in lodge halls in her native Brooklyn at the age of 5 and in time became the key support for her entire family, which she remained for the rest of her life.

She made no bones about being less close to her father John West, who acquired some renown as the prizefighter Battlin' Jack. Yet in talking to Chandler, West discovers that she had more feelings for him than she realized, crediting him for being a loving and attentive father. Surely, it's significant that West was always attracted to rugged men like her father -- especially boxers and wrestlers. She emphasizes the comfort in which she and her siblings were raised; apparently, Matilda got some financial assistance from relatives because John West was no great shakes as a breadwinner.

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Monday, April 13, 2009


'How It Ended'

Reviewed By Janet Maslin
NY Times

Jay McInerney’s writing career has lasted nearly three decades, and what has Mr. McInerney got to show for it? Seven novels, but the world at large can name only his first (“Bright Lights, Big City”). Two essay collections devoted to wine. Prizes (from the James Beard Foundation and the Deauville Film Festival), but not the ones to which literary lights usually aspire. A party-guy reputation borne out by the elements (drugs, infidelity, name dropping and social climbing) that loom large in his fiction. And an etiquette that dictates that when a woman is about to snort cocaine, a gentleman helps by holding back her hair.

Now comes the game changer: “How It Ended,” a collection that comprises 26 short stories spanning 26 years. From afar this concept does not seem promising. The stories’ consistent length (an average of 12 pages) suggests an author who can hack them out as magazine filler.

The contention that seven of them belong in this collection because they were published in hardcover but not in paperback sounds feeble. And Mr. McInerney’s introductory comment that the short story is like a one-night stand also has the ring of an excuse. On the frequent occasions when his characters enjoy one-night stands, they’re guilty about it in the morning.

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

'The Glister' by John Burnside

'The Glister' by John Burnside

Reviewed By Michael Harris
LA Times

A moral fable in the guise of a murder mystery, John Burnside's "The Glister" has an unusual protagonist: its own prose style. Burnside, a Scot, has published 11 collections of poetry as well as a memoir, "A Lie About My Father," and fiction, including the novel "The Devil's Footprints." Here, the language in which it's told is crucial to how we read this darkly beautiful meditation on death, guilt and redemption.

Not that there isn't a hero of the regular, human sort: Leonard Wilson, a precociously bookish 15-year-old boy in a derelict Scottish industrial town. At intervals of a year or two, five of Leonard's schoolmates, all boys, have vanished. The authorities debunk widespread fears of foul play by claiming the boys have run off to the big city. Leonard knows better: "People from the Innertown don't leave, not even to go on holiday or visit relatives. They talk about leaving all the time, of course, but they never actually get out."

Why? In part, because the huge chemical plant that once gave work to the town's residents poisoned everything before it was closed down: soil, vegetation, animals, people. The older generation has died off or, like Leonard's father, languishes on the dole, prey to exotic illnesses. But the malaise is more than physical. It's a sin: "the sin of omission, the sin of averting our gaze and not seeing what was going on in front of our eyes. The sin of not wanting to know; the sin of knowing everything and not doing anything about it. The sin of knowing things on paper but not knowing them in our hearts. Everybody knows that sin."

The local constable, John Morrison, finds the first missing boy one night, ritualistically slain, hanging from a tree, but rather than publicize the crime or investigate it himself he phones Brian Smith, the home-grown magnate to whom he owes his job. Smith orders a coverup. Morrison, an insecure man with an alcoholic wife, obeys, at soul-destroying cost. As the years pass, and more boys disappear, he loses all self-respect. His only rebellious gesture, a secret one, is to tend a little garden in the woods as a shrine to the boys.

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

'Yogi Berra - Eternal Yankee' By Allen Barra

Reviewed by Bill Lyon

Philadelphia Inquirer

With his stocky, runty torso and his boardinghouse-reach arms and his stubby, ungainly legs, he looked like he had been assembled from leftover parts, or as one writer of the day put it: "A body only an anthropologist could love."

But Lawrence Peter Berra played the most difficult and demanding position in all of sports, and played it so uncommonly well that there are people who consider him the greatest at his position of all time, and make a compelling, statistic-buttressed argument in his behalf.

One of those people is Allen Barra - one vowel removed from, and no relation to, his subject - a prolific and decorated writer of books, columns, and magazine articles, a baseball maven, and an unabashed champion of Berra, who is one of those people instantly recognized by one name. In this case:


The Grand Master of the Malaprop.

Surely the most quoted athlete of all time, cited so frequently that it requires some diligent digging to unearth exactly what he said and what he might have said. Or as Yogi himself might observe: "If I didn't say it, I should have."

Barra on Berra, neatly timed for Opening Day, makes for an impressive tome. It is an exhaustively researched, meticulously prepared, and lovingly presented biography of a man whom the author proclaims to be "America's most popular former athlete." (I would counter with Muhammad Ali, but that's a matter of opinion.)

It will require more willpower than I possess not to sneak ahead and turn immediately to Appendix B, Page 396, for a sampling of Yogiisms. Herewith, indulge:

When you come to the fork in the road, take it.

You know, a nickel isn't worth a dime any more. (To the economist Milton Friedman.)

What paper do you write for? (Upon being introduced to Ernest Hemingway.)

Thank you for making this day necessary. (To the fans, on Yogi Berra Day.)

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Monday, April 6, 2009

'Columbine,' by Dave Cullen

Reviewed By David L. Ulin
LA Times

Forget everything you thought you knew. The girl who professed her faith in God before being gunned down in the library. The Trenchcoat Mafia and the feud between the goths and jocks. The idea that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold -- the two Columbine High School seniors who, on April 20, 1999, killed 12 of their fellow students and one teacher in what was, at the time, the worst school shooting in the history of the United States -- were disaffected, unpopular, motivated by resentment or revenge. Even the fact that the killings took place on Adolf Hitler's birthday was a coincidence: The boys had planned to do it a day earlier but hadn't been able to get the ammunition in time.

All of this, Dave Cullen notes in "Columbine," his comprehensive account of the tragedy and its aftermath, is the story we've been given, the mythic version, the one that (if anything can) aspires to make a kind of sense. It's a rendering in which the pieces fit together and the terror of the day is mitigated by small moments of redemption, whispers of epiphany and grace.

The problem, however, is that none of it happened -- or more accurately, none of it happened exactly like that. Instead, Cullen points out, the Columbine story was obscured from the outset: first, by the misperceptions of the witnesses, and then, almost immediately, by the misreporting of the media, which at its worst resembled nothing so much as an enormous game of telephone. "The Columbine situation played out slowly," Cullen writes, "with the cameras rolling. Or at least it appeared that way: the cameras offered the illusion we were witnessing the event. But the cameras arrived too late. . . . We saw fragments. What the cameras showed us was misleading. . . . The data was correct; the conclusions were wrong."

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Posthumous Crichton Novels on the Way

By Motoko Rich
NY Times

Michael Crichton, the best-selling author of technological thrillers like “The Andromeda Strain” and “Jurassic Park” who died of cancer in November, left behind at least one finished novel and about one-third of a second. Both will be released over the next year and a half, his publisher said.

HarperCollins, Mr. Crichton’s publisher for his previous three books, will release “Pirate Latitudes,” an adventure story set in Jamaica in the 17th century, on Nov. 24. The company also plans to publish a technological thriller in the fall of 2010, a novel that Mr. Crichton was working on when he died.

Jonathan Burnham, publisher of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, said Mr. Crichton evidently wrote “Pirate Latitudes” at the same time that he wrote “Next,” his last published novel.

The new novel, discovered by Mr. Crichton’s assistant in the writer’s computer files after his death, features a pirate named Hunter and the governor of Jamaica, and their plan to raid a Spanish treasure galleon.

“It’s eminently and deeply and thoroughly researched,” Mr. Burnham said. “It’s packed through with great detail about navigation and how pirates operated, and links between the New World and the Caribbean and Spain.”

The novel represents a departure from Mr. Crichton’s longtime fictional preoccupation with the moral and social ramifications of science and technology. But Mr. Burnham pointed out that “Pirate Latitudes” also harks back to the kind of historical yarn that Mr. Crichton wrote in the “The Great Train Robbery,” first published in 1975. Mr. Burnham said that the book needed little editing and that Harper planned a first printing of 1 million copies.

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