Monthly Book Review by Ajarn Scott

October 2008
Short takes (book reviews in brief) …

How many books can you read this month since you are on semester break? 
Probably more than one and, that being the case, here are some brief reviews of some current, interesting books to help you along in your choices.


Fiction:

Lush Life by Richard Price, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 455 pages.
This book is simply excellent.  If you have time for only one book this month, then this is the one.  Lush Life is not a mystery or crime thriller per se, though there is a bit of both in the book.  The story centers on a murder – a young man is killed during a botched robbery attempt while two friends with him escape unharmed.  Well, not entirely unharmed.  One friend becomes a suspect and is harshly held and interrogated.  Will he be cleared?  Will the real killer be caught?  Those are the conflicts that drive the plot, but the book is really about the characters, even the two police officers involved in the investigation.  What’s special about the book is the realness, especially the realistic dialog.  As another reviewer has said, it’s as if Richard Price has taped conversations he’s heard on the street and then typed them up later at home.  He catches the Lower East Side of New York City completely.  Highly, highly, supremely recommended.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, Riverhead, 352 pages.
This book is simply … not excellent.  It’s merely good.  I expected it to be excellent since it’s been praised by many reviewers and since it won the National Book Critics Circle Award.  But I suspect it won that award because Junot Diaz wrote a great book of short stories about 10 years ago, then disappeared for a decade thus assuring high interest when he turned up again.  Also, he’s Dominican and there seems to be a new trend in America to reward ethnic writers, no matter how great or banal, since they had previously been ignored for so many years.  Oscar Wao is a fat nerd who has fat nerd problems.  We see him through the eyes of another young Domincian, who tells us about him using Spanlish and Dominican slang and who also, in the form of annoying footnotes and asides, tells us about the troubled history of the Dominican Republic as it relates to Oscar and his screwed up family.  The book is humorous, but it tries too hard to be so thus diverting attention from the story to the writer’s technique.  I also found the author’s voice, especially in the case of the historic footnotes, to be annoying.  A great writer could keep the “voice” in character, but Diaz’ own voice seems to take over at times and what that voice seems to be saying is “doncha think I write well, doncha think I’m cool?”  Actually, no I don’t.  I also felt excluded since I don’t know Spanish or Spanglish, nor am I Dominican, nor am I a nerd.  I’d say this book has limited appeal.  Highly recommended if you know Spanish or if you’re a nerd.


Non-fiction:

Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein, (Scribner, 881 pages) is an ambitious book.  Not only does Perlstein wish to point out to the reader that the current split in American politics between conservatives and liberals has been around since, and perfected by, Richard Nixon during his years of power, but he also wants to include the entire, turbulent history of the 1960s while doing so. No wonder a chapter about Ronald Reagan as governor of California ends up talking about George Wallace as the governor of Alabama!  The assassinations of John F. and Bobby Kennedy as well as Martin Luther King Jr. also played a major role in this decade’s history – as did the Viet Nam war.  Perlstein covers it all and sometimes it feels like too much, like the book begins to careen out of control like a car speeding too fast on a wet, curvy road.  But, while squealing the tires a bit, the car never loses complete control or veers completely off the road.  This book will be most interesting to those interested in American history or politics or to someone, like myself, who lived through that time and wants to know more about the details he or she missed by being so young and innocent.  881 pages may seem like a lot, but the last 100 pages are notes and footnotes.  The book has the pull of a crime thriller (Nixon was, after all, a criminal) and is a fast, addictive read.

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, Thomas Dunne Books, 324 pages.
What would happen to the planet if humans ceased to exist?  Would it heal from our excesses or would it be wrapped in plastic bags and toxic nuclear waste for the next million years?  This slightly scientific yet surprisingly readable book seeks to answer those questions and is also fascinating in its description of some of the current man-made conditions present in our environment, especially the “Pacific dump,” which is a large, accidental collection of trash – mostly plastics – about the size of Africa swirling about in the center of the Pacific Ocean like a moving “island.” 

The First World War by Hew Strachan, Penguin Group, 384 pp.
If you’ve been baffled or confused by the history of WWI yet still interested to find out how the causes of the conflict basically defined the modern day borders of Europe while at the same time planting the seeds for many of the political problems still facing the Middle East and Africa today, then this book is for you.  Especially if you’re not a serious history student and have found most of the books on the subject dry or convoluted, you’ll be happy to know that this short, easily readable history will answer most of your questions about the Great War without putting you to sleep.  There are a lot of names and numbers, which can be a bit tedious at times, but these are easily skimmed over. 


Series:

I see the 15th installment in Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley Series Careless In Red (Harper Hardcover, 640 pp.) is out.  I’ll wait for the paperback, but will certainly read this since I’ve read the other 14 books in the series and have found not only the who-dun-it plots to be well crafted but the ongoing stories of the central characters to be enthralling as well.  Reading a series in comparison to a single book is a very different reading experience, deepened often by the ongoing relationship one ends up having with the main characters, in this case Inspector Thomas Lynley, whose arrogance is tempered by his humanity and his funny, fickle wife Helen as well his dumpy, frumpy assistant Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers.  A suggestion for this series, though: Begin with the first book (A Great Deliverance) and continue in order with the others (for a list of the entire series google “Elizabeth George”.)  And a criticism: Though George grips you with her plots (and her ability as an American to write in a English setting with perfect British slang), she tends to turn what could be tight 500 page books into 6-700 page opuses.  The fast-paced plots and the suspense in wanting to find out who did it make up for this, but there are moments when you just want to shake her and say “get to the point, Liz.”


Literature/Poetry/Literary Biography (one for the Ajarns):

Her Husband: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, a Marriage by Diane Middlebrook (Penguin Group, 361 pp.) gives more insight into what was a very complex working and personal relationship.  What I find most interesting in the ongoing Plath/Hughes saga is the fact that earlier, carefully selected and released biographical work (Letters Home, edited by Sylvia’s mother, for example) present a very one-sided portrait of an incredibly complex woman.  I also find it interesting that Ted Hughes never sought to defend himself against accusations of “causing” Plath’s suicide or living off her estate while he was alive.  This book presents a pretty balanced look at both good and not-so-good characteristics of both partners.  But what makes the book especially useful and scholarly is the focus on the working relationship Plath and Hughes had with each other – how they influenced and encouraged each other’s work.  We’ll be seeing quotes from this one in Plath thesis papers in the future.  A must for Plathophiles!