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December 2010 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction
 

 

Colonel Roosevelt


by Edmund Morris

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

The best part of any hero saga is the origin story. Morris began his three-volume examination of the action-packed life of our 26th president with the biographical masterpiece The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. The second volume, Theodore Rex, covered TR's presidency, and, despite all that occurred during those eight years, the story wasn't as interesting. But now Morris completes the saga with his chronicles of Roosevelt from 1909 – 1919, years in which TR tried to give himself a series of second origin stories. Filled with the same detail and vividness of the earlier books, we see Roosevelt's attempts to reinvent himself. It wasn't easy for him to go from being the most famous man in the world to just a private citizen—so he didn't. As a politician, TR made another run for the presidency, this time leading the Progressive (or “Bull Moose”) Party, which espoused women's suffrage and continued TR's life-long fight against corrupt political bosses and the worst exploitations of capitalists. As an explorer, TR nearly died during an expedition down Brazil's River of Doubt, an Amazonian tributary that Roosevelt, when he first heard of it, immediately declared his intention to be the fist man to explore. Despite his Nobel Peace Prize for ending the Russian-Japanese conflict of 1905, Roosevelt was always chomping at the bit for a good war. When World War I began, he wrote to the Secretary of War asking “to raise a Division of Infantry, with a divisional brigade of cavalry” to fight in Europe. The rejection stung.  As a man who had once given a political speech of 90 minutes, all the while bleeding from a shot by a would-be assassin, Roosevelt never gave up living, nor being part of, what for him was the highest possible goal:  “the strenuous life.”

 


 

 
         
 

Going Home to Glory: A Memoir of Life with Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961 - 1969


by David Eisenhower with Julie Nixon Eisenhower

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

In 1961 President Dwight D. Eisenhower turned over the White House to John F. Kennedy and retired to his farm in Gettysburg. This book, by his grandson, covers “Ike's” last eight years, and, as might be expected from World War II's Supreme Allied Commander, he did not spend them in a rocking chair on his porch. What may surprise the reader is how frequently he was consulted by every administration that followed his. Ike died soon after fellow Republican Nixon took office, but the two were close, and General Eisenhower (the title he preferred to President) was consulted throughout the election. But it was the two Democratic presidents who preceded Nixon, Kennedy and Johnson, with whom Ike worked most closely—despite the fact that he disagreed with some of their policies. He had refused to put U.S. troops in Vietnam a decade earlier and disliked the Space Race mentality, dismissing putting a man on the moon as an expensive “stunt.” Though a solider, Ike was a confirmed “middle of the roader.” He warned against using atomic weapons in Vietnam, and, during the riot-filled summer of 1967, the White House tapped Ike's experiences with crowd suppression in Georgia almost fifty years earlier. Although he suggested declaring martial law in Detroit, Ike also consistently counseled the Johnson administration not to overreact to street violence. For all his dynamism, this book paints a supremely human, not superhuman, portrait of the man. He loved to watch TV, and he and wife Mamie argued over which shows to watch when he commandeered the remote. Since the author was usually away at school during these years, he is absent from the scene much more than the subtitle suggests. Nonetheless, we get the flavor of their relationship with excerpts from letters like the one that Ike wrote to his grandson marked “Personal-Confidential-Top Secret-Eyes Only” warning the younger Eisenhower to pick his companions “with greater care” when news reached Ike that David had mono, the “kissing disease.”

 

 

 

 
         
         
 Fiction

 

 
 

An Object of Beauty


by Steve Martin

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

Comedian Martin has proven himself quite skilled at drama as well, and, with this short novel, he continues to demonstrate his ability to create characters that, even if they aren’t exactly sympathetic, remain nonetheless fascinating. In a sort of postmodern Breakfast at Tiffany's, Martin uses the voice of Daniel Chester French Franks, a young freelance writer, to tell the story of Lacey Yeager, as she works her way up from the bottom of the art world, partly through drive and the slow accumulation of knowledge, and partly by sleeping with a few well-chosen men. Lacey comes in and out of Daniel’s life, and Martin brings his own lifetime of interest in, and a wealth of person knowledge of, art to this novel set the in and around the New York gallery scene of the 1990s. The writing is not comic, but wry (Martin likens art collectors' emotions running from covetousness to buyer's remorse like “the extremes of nervousness associated with first dates and executions.”). Through Lacey, we tour actual museums and art spots around the world, complete with running commentary.  Real artists and critics mix with the imaginary. The characters discuss Picasso and Andy Warhol, and we live the kaleidoscope of those heady New York days when you might see an installation at a gallery comprised of a fake art show complete with its own fake gallery-goers. But this novel is more than a historical travelogue. There are mysteries. Lacey has some somehow acquired a great deal of money—probably illicitly and with the assistance of Daniel. And in the storage room of the gallery where she works there just might be a stolen painting. With cameo appearances by a multitude of classical and contemporary masterpieces, you'll be on the Internet checking out the images from the first chapter.

 


 

 
         
 

Dead Zero


by Steven Hunter

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

Steven Hunter’s brilliantly realized action tale Dead Zero reimagines the old catch phrase, Set a thief to catch a thief.  In this case it’s set a sniper to catch a sniper and it will come as no surprise to Hunter aficionados that the sniper doing the catching is none other than Bob Lee Swagger. 

Old Bob the Nailer just wants to enjoy his horses, guns and family on his Idaho ranch until old pal Nick Memphis from the FBI comes calling with a desperate request that Swagger head out on the trail of his modern-day counterpart Ray Cruz, aka “the Cruise Missile.”  And Bob can no more hang up his laser sights than a gunfighter can hang up his Colt.   

Indeed, at sixty-four Swagger’s body is much the worse for wear but his mind and trigger finger are as sharp as ever.  And he takes to Ray Cruz’s trail like a right-wing reinvention of Sherlock Holmes.  Cruz managed to survive the same kind of betrayal in Afghanistan that has nearly felled Swagger on numerous occasions.  Now he’s apparently hot in pursuit of the newly converted friendly target he was precluded from killing in the first place. 

Even though you know Dead Zero isn’t going to go where you think, where it ends up is impossible to foresee for even the most rabid Hunter fans, of which there are plenty and with good reason.  He is the master of the modern gunfighter tale.  Not just the best action writer of this generation but the best of any.

 

 
         
 

The Sherlockian


by Graham Moore

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

This mystery novel is a celebration of two things:  the life and cleverness of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and those who are devotes of his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes. Told in alternate chapters, we encounter two mysteries. The first, based on reality, takes place in 1900. Conan Doyle, who is still accosted by strangers for disposing of Holmes a few years earlier, receives a package bomb, apparently retribution from an unbalanced reader for the Great Detective's “murder.” But it also contains a newspaper clipping about an unidentified young bride found drowned in the bathroom of ramshackle hotel. Accompanied by his friend Bram Stoker (of Dracula fame), Conan Doyle begins his own investigation. With Stoker as a very reluctant Watson, the two make their way from manor houses to seaside tattoo parlors. Meanwhile, in 2010, Harold White, newest member of the Baker Street Irregulars, the scholarly body devoted to the study of Holmes, is caught up in the murder of a fellow member. The dead man had claimed to have unearthed the missing volume of Conan Doyle’s journals:  the volume that covers the period of drowned bride investigation. Now he’s been murdered and the book taken. Harold—confident as only an Irregular can be that he knows better than the police—sets out to solve the crimes. Both men struggle against the reality and perceptions of death, with Conan Doyle, who has recently lost his father and wife, angered by people who are angry at him for “killing” Holmes, and Harold realizing that deaths are not mere plot points in a story. Here, the dead body has left behind a grieving sister. Moore displays a real ability to get into his characters' minds and, through them, to provide enough information so that those who are both devotees of the Canon and those with only a passing knowledge will thoroughly enjoy the mysteries.

 

 

 
         
 

Trolls in the Hamptons


by Celia Jerome

reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

 

 

Trolls in the Hamptons is the first book of an urban fantasy series about Willow Tate, a graphic novelist who starts seeing a troll in real life that she has just drawn on her sketchpad—and no one sees him but her. Willy thinks she might be going a little crazy, but soon meets Grant, an agent of the Department of Unexplained Events, and learns what is really going on around her and her connection to it. 

The early chapters have a lot of exposition that isn’t very smoothly integrated into the narrative, and the book, like its lead character, teeters between being likable and being annoying. Willy is a complainer . . . about her boyfriend, her family, her neighbors, the rich, the country. It’s supposed to be of the “I can relate to that, isn’t she funny” sort, but it often veers off into “What a whiner” territory. Willy also tends to swing between moods depending on what the plot needs; she’s a skeptic, she believes, she loves Grant, she hates Grant.  

The same problem affects other elements of the story; after setting up how important it is that Willy be under constant guard, a flimsy reason is given for all the agents to leave her alone . . . and of course something happens in their absence. Trolls’ by-the-numbers approach—snarky heroine, hunky guy, hot sex, a bit of magic and monsters—didn’t quite jell in this debut. Perhaps the second book will not be so muddled.

 

 

 

         
 

Dead Like You


by Peter James

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

 

Peter James’s wonderfully stylish mind game of a thriller, Dead Like You, is the kind of book Alfred Hitchcock would have adapted and Christopher Nolan should.  This shape-shifting genius of a tale is a structural masterpiece of misdirection. 

Start with world-weary British Detective Superintendent Roy Grace who hasn’t been the same since tragedy derailed his life and ambition.  That tragedy may or may not have had something to do with his pursuit of a serial rapist known as the Shoe Man.  Now fifteen years later a similar series of sexual assaults make Grace conclude the Shoe Man has returned with a vengeance, certain to kill his sixth victim now just as he did back then.  With the clock ticking, Grace finds own misplaced sense of redemption in the morally ambiguous pursuit of a foe who is his polar opposite, the Joker to his Batman. 

It would be easy to compare Dead Like You to PBS’s brilliant Prime Suspect series featuring Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison or even to Roderick Thorpe’s seminal classic The Detective (made into one of the best cop movies ever with Frank Sinatra in the title role).  But Peter James need follow in no one’s footsteps since plenty in the crime genre will be seeking to follow in his.

 

 

 
         
         
         
Young Adult

 

 
         
 

Real Live Boyfriends: Yes. Boyfriends, plural. If my life weren't complicated, I wouldn't be Ruby Oliver.


by E. Lockhart

reviewed by Hayden Bass

 

 

Ruby Oliver’s many fans will not be disappointed by the latest installment in this fun, quirky series.  Once again, vintage-wearing, list-making, panic attack-prone Ruby finds herself navigating a complicated web of relationships, both platonic and romantic.  Just when she thought she had finally found a real live boyfriend in Noel, he has suddenly stopped returning her calls.  Her former best friend Nora is still angry with her for dating Noel when Nora had a crush on him.  Her father is falling into a depression after the death of his mother.  And to complicate matters, Nora’s handsome older brother Gideon suddenly seems to be showing an interest in Ruby.  Ruby handles all of her relationships, if not with grace, then certainly with humor.  Teen girls looking for a smart, funny heroine coming into her own will be delighted with the Ruby Oliver series, and this apparently final book brings the series to a satisfying close.

 

 

 


 

 
         
     
My Reading Log
  by Jeff Ayers, Associate Editor 

 

 

 
 

I will admit to being a pop culture junkie, so when I discovered Doug Bratton’s collection of his web comic, Deranged Stalker’s Book of Pop Culture Shock Therapy (Andrews McMeel, $14.99), I was intrigued.  I can take or leave the format of the book, which appears as a diary from a deranged person.  But the comics are hysterical and I promise you will never look at Sesame Street and other cultural icons the same way again.  And that’s a good thing.

 

 

 

 

  
 

I miss Bill Amend’s comic Foxtrot on a daily basis, though thank goodness he still does new ones on Sundays.  His collection The Best of Foxtrot (Andrews McMeel, $39.99) is a daunting box of two large paperback books.  Inside is comedy gold.  With insight from Amend throughout, this book is essential for any fan or someone interested in discovering why this strip is a classic.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

I admit I was a bit dubious when I heard about The Vault of Walt by Jim Korkis. (Ayefour Publishing, $19.95).  It claims to be Disney stories never told.  Being a Disneyholic, I was stunned to learn a ton of new information about Walt himself, the films, and the parks.  Korkis wrote history articles under the name Wade Sampson and is an established Disney historian.  The articles are refreshing and fascinating.  Buy this for the Disney fan in your life.

 

 

 

 

 
 

Another Disney history looks just at the beginning of Walt’s desire to create a Disneyland East in Project Future by Chad Emerson. (Ayefour Publishing, $14.95).  Emerson is like the fly on the wall, taking the reader into private conversations and dealings to showcase the steps Disney and his team undertook to purchase all of the land necessary to fulfill Walt’s vision.  Well researched and a surprisingly interesting read. 

 

 

 

 

 
  I’m not on Team Coco or Team Leno, but I was fascinated by the debacle that NBC created when Jay Leno took over 10:00 every weeknight and never gave Conan O’Brian a chance to fully create his own version of the Tonight Show.  Bill Carter gets everyone to talk frankly about the whole disaster in The War for Late Night.  (Viking, $26.95).  It’s an amazing look at the players in a complicated game that does an admirable job not laying blame or creating heroes and villains.  A wonderful overview and a great example of professional journalism at its best.

 

 

 

 

 
     
 

Have a Happy New Year!

 
     
     
     
     
 

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