|The End of the Old Order by Frederick W. Kagan No, I haven't been on vacation for the last couple of
weeks. I've been slogging through Mr. Kagan's dissection of the political undercurrents surrounding Napoleon's
Third Coalition War in 1801-1805. (Surely, you remember the Third Coalition War--it was the one that
culminated in the Battles of Ulm, in October of 1805.) Even if you love French history like I do, this is a tough
nut to crack. Essentially, he tells the same history from the differing points of view of the French, British,
Russians, Austrians and Prussians--and frankly, it's pretty tedious!
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Some time when
you've got a week on your hands, check out this epic history of the administration of Abraham Lincoln. It's a
long, long read, but I can guarantee that it will be well worth your time. As usual, Ms. Goodwin does a masterful
job of presenting her complex subject. The highest praise I can give the book is that I'm planning to read it
again at some point. (Historical Trivia: Did you know that during the Siege of Vicksburg, the anti-semetic
general and later president U. S. Grant signed an order compelling all Jews to leave the State of Mississippi?
Lincoln rescinded the order within a month. Somehow, that wasn't covered during my Mississippi History class in
the seventh grade.)
Thunderstruck by Erik Larson Did you like the way Mr. Larson's last book, The Devil in the White City,
intertwined the story of a famous personage of the early twentieth century with that of a notorious murderer? If
so, you might be pleased to know that he's done it again with Thunderstruck. It weaves together the stories of
inventor Guglielmo Marconi and Hawley Crippen, a sad of clown of a man who poisoned his wife, cut up her
body, buried the pieces underneath the coal bin in his basement, and tried to run off to America with his
secretary. Mr. Larson says that the Crippen case was, after Jack the Ripper, the most notorious murder
investigation in British history. I liked the book, but I think that, as in The Devil in the White City, Mr. Larson
does a better job with the story of the famous person than he does with the murderer. Having said that, I'm now
ready for Mr. Larson to find a new formula.
Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman If they say that the best humor is that which is just plausible enough
to be true, Mr. Hodgson is in big trouble. The combinations of words he commits to the page are so blatantly
incongruous that they seem to be almost random. After a few pages (and fewer smiles), you're exhausted by
the effort. Maybe this book is best read one page at a time over 228 days.
Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie Mr. Rusdie's prose is nothing if not elegant. It's practically baroque. I
think that the allegorical style of this book and its broad pastiche of South Asian names and customs will
challenge to most Western readers. Still, if you're willing to take the journey, it's an interesting discourse on the
causes of the terrorism our world faces today. You won't enjoy it very much (practically every character in the
book is some sort of skunk) , but you will be challenged, and at the end, you'll think that you've learned
Suite Francaise by I. Nemirovsky This could have been one of the greatest books of all time. I. (for Irene)
Nemirovsky was born a White Russian and a Jew at the beginning of the last century. During the Russian
Revolution, she fled Russia with her family and settled in France, where she converted to Catholicism, married,
gave birth to two children and became a well-received and popular novelist. When the Germans invaded
France in 1940, she set out to write a five-part book that she hoped would become the War and Peace of World
War II. (She said so herself.) We have the first two parts of that book in Suite Francaise. We will never see the
rest because she was taken from her family in the summer of 1942 and shipped to the Auschwitz concentration
camp, where she was immediately put to death. The first section of the book, Storm in June, is breathtaking in
its description of the evacuation of Paris and the early days of the war. I'm sure it's the finest writing I've been
exposed to this year. The second section, Dolce, is less interesting, but I'd like to think it would have been
refined and improved in the editing process. As it is, it's an impressive work. But one can't help lamenting what
might have been.
The Devil's Guide to Hollywood by Joe Esterhauz This book is a paean to the Hollywood screenwriter. It's
not so much about how to become a screenwriter (Mr. Esterhauz does not spare his scorn for those who claim
that they are able to teach such a thing.) as it is an homage to the great screenwriters of the past and
present--as defined by him. My favorite quote in the book-- which is mostly quotes, separated by the author's
opinions on the quotee--is from director Richard Quine, who said, "The definition of success is to be doing
better than your best friend."
Moscow 1941 by Rodric Braithwaite The Battle for Moscow was the greatest battle of the Second World War,
and therefore the greatest battle in history. (It) swirled over a territory the size of France, and lasted for six
months.... More than seven million officers and men took part. The Soviet Union suffered more casualties in this
one battle than the British and the Americans in the whole of the Second World War. An yet, due in large part to
Stalin's suppression of the news of the battle, most people outside of Russia don't even know it took place. Mr.
Braithwaite, a former British ambassador to Moscow, has not written the definitive book on the battle (for one
thing, he scarcely mentions what the German leaders were doing or thinking), but he has written an outstanding
introduction to "the greatest battle in history" for Western audiences who might want to learn more about it.
The Language of God by Francis Collins In the process of haunting bookstores this summer, I think I've seen
about a hundred different books that seek to reconcile God and science. I haven't actually read it, but my
favorite title is Can a Smart Person Believe in God by God? by Michael Guillen. All I can say is that Mr. Guillen
had damned well be better BE a smart person, or else he's opening himself up to a lot of abuse. Francis Collins
most definitely IS a smart person. Among other things during the course of his career, he's headed up the
Human Genome Project. Along the trajectory of his life , he has moved from indifference to religion to
agnosticism to belief. Philosophically, he's now somewhere in the realm of C. S. Lewis, and he believes strongly
that "the principles of faith are, in fact, complimentary with the principles of science." Whether this is a premise
you believe or would like to believe, this is a book that is worth your while.
Victorian London by Lisa Picard Ms. Picard also wrote The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton, the
First Domestic Goddess (see below), which explains the sense of deja vu I had while reading Victorian London.
It seemed as if whole paragraphs had been lifted from one and grafted to the other. This book moves along
nicely, and it provided all kinds of useful and arcane information about the City during the period of 1840-1870.
Ms. Picard has also written Elizabeth's London, Restoration London, and Dr. Johnson's London, so I suppose
we're standing by now for Churchill's London, Diana's London, and Victoria Beckham's London.
The Dissident by Nell Freudenberger As you may or may not know or care, a MacGuffin (or McGuffin) is
something in story that is irrelevant to the story but advances the story along its way. (It's Shakespeare, so
you're not allowed to question it.) In The Fourth Bear (see two paragraphs below), there's a character named
McGuffin who does not move the plot along, so he's technically not a "Shakespearean" McGuffin, I was
reminded of this while reading Ms. Freudenberger's book, which actually has a Shakespearean MacGuffin
whose real name is never mentioned. But I digress. This is the story of a young man who comes to Los
Angeles from China as part of a cultural exchange program. He lives with one of the city's more privileged
families and is exposed to the most wretched of American excess. That part of the book is fine --if a little
depressing, but the extended back story of his life in China seems contrived and false. There's a nice twist on
who "the Dissident" in the book really is, but, unfortunately, that person doesn't seem authentic, either..
Basilica: The Splendor and Scandal: Building St. Peter's by R. A. Scotti Generally, I would be wary of a title
that has two colons in it, but I will admit that even though I'm not Catholic and have never been to Rome, I liked
the book a lot. It is probably what people who are smarter than I would call pop history. She tells the story of
what is now Christendom's second largest church (the largest is in Ivory Coast) in a light, breezy way that is
delightful to casual readers, but probably poisonous to serious historians. Ms. Scotti asserts that the gargantuan
cost of the building is directly or indirectly responsible for the Protestant Reformation, so you don't have to be
Catholic to appreciate it.
Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala There's a big banner across the front of this book which claims that it
has been hailed as "a best book of the year" by Time, People, Slate, Entertainment Weekly and New York
Magazine. I can certainly see why they'd think so: the book is a first person account of an eleven-year-old boy
in an unspecified African hell-hole. His village is raided; his family leaves him for dead, he is impressed into an
army of rebels. Along the way, he gets to eat bugs, go to a whorehouse, and be raped repeatedly by his
commanding "officer". It is grisly and affecting in the extreme, and the story is told in what I suppose would be
the child's idiom--asuming that the child speaks English in the first place. My problem with the book is that the
author grew up in Woodley Park in Washington, DC, and has an English degree from Harvard. He claims to
have many friends and family members in Africa, but somehow, it doesn't seem to be the same.
The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde This is the second of a series of "nursery crime" novels, which are a clever
send-ups of police procedurals and children's literature. In the first book, The Big Over Easy, Detectives Jack
Spratt and Mary solved "the Dumpty case." Here, they're working to solve the murder of Goldilocks, theoretically
at the hands--er, paws of the Three Bears. It's the kind of book where the author would go to great pains to set
up the line, "Pippa Piper picked Peck over Pickle or Pepper? Which of the Peck pair did Pippa Piper pick?" and
then have another character say, "It seems a very laborious set-up for a pretty lame joke, doesn't it?"
Beautiful Lies by Lisa Unger I guess I should have known that I was venturing into the murky world of chick lit,
but after I got started, I decided to stick it out. Is it a requirement of the genre that the lead character have an
interesting and successful career that requires practically none of her time (like interviewing Uma Thurman for
Vanity Fair)? And do all subsidiary characters have no lives or careers of their own so that they can be
available to the lead character at whim? Just wondering.
Black Order by James Rollins The author's 2005 book Map of Bones is commented on further down this
page. The new book dabbles in genetic engineering, so I'm going to "genetically engineer" the earlier book's
comments and say that the new work also does not insult your intelligence and tells a gripping yarn--about
Nazis, this time. My biggest complaint about the new work is that it recycles characters from the first book who
should have been cut loose. I don't know how you read a book, but I like to form a mental image of the
characters that is based somewhat on people I've seen before. I'm sure it wasn't the author's intent, but the
mental image I drew of one of his main characters, Grayson, was that of Major Roger Healy, the sidekick from I
Dream of Jeannie. My mental image of the other main character, Painter, was that of Keith Carradine from Kung
Fu. That's not a good sign.
Louis XIV by Anthony Levi I don't know what the definitive biography of the Sun King is, but I'm pretty certain
this isn't it. Professor Levi tosses us a few tidbits, like the actual cost of the building of Versailles was actually
closer to 100 million livres than the 81 million livres that has been presented elsewhere. This would be much
more edifying if he had given us some idea of what a 1675 livre would be worth today. Nor does the author
waste any of his 310 pages chatting up the Western Hemisphere. It would have been nice to know how an
American state came to be named for Louis, but the two sentences in the book that Mr. Levi does devote to
North and South America have to do with one peace treaty in which France captured the slave trade from Spain,
and another treaty later on in which France ceded that trade, along with Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, to
Grand Traverse by Michael Beres So. There I was with nothing to read in Traverse City. (No, I was not there
for the Michael Moore Film Festival--although I must admit that some of the movies on the program looked pretty
good.) I went to the local book store and saw this opus prominently displayed. The author's bio on the jacket
included the line Michael lives with his wife in a cottage in the woods of West Michigan. He is a member of the
Sierra Club and gets fifty-miles-per-gallon in his gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle. In the spirit of "When in
Rome...." I bought the book, took it back to the local Super 8 Motel and started reading. Mr Beres practically
busts a gut trying to keep his political-environmental saga non-political and to keep from assigning blame for the
current state of the environment to anyone now living. His book covers about forty years in the life of a woman
who begins as a victim of a chemical spill and ends up as President of the United States--in 2037. Sadly, Mr.
Beres needs to get out of the woods a little more often and listen to how people actually talk. (Here's a hint:
They don't always make a speech every time they open their mouth.) Apparently, there's more where this came
from. We're promised that Mr. Beres's next work will be The President's Nemesis. Sorry, Bub, but you'll have to
get somebody else to comment on that one for you.
The Ruins by Scott Smith Well, I fell for the hype. I liked Mr. Smith's only other book, A Simple Plan, and I read
Stephen King's glowing reviews in Entertainment Weekly and Amazon.com, which promised that this would be
the best book ever. I guess that's the thing about hype--it's usually just hype. On the plus side, in his work here
and in A Simple Plan, Mr. Smith has proved that he can project a sense of impending doom better than almost
anyone since Ayn Rand. On the minus side--oh, where to begin? The characters are generic. There's really no
one to root for, which is just as well, since by the end of the book, they're all--well, you can guess. There's no
attempt at an explanation of the central mystery in the book. The theme of the book seems to be Life's a
biyotch...and then you die...painfully. It's certainly better than Beach Road, but it's nothing to build a day at the
Cross Country by Robert Sullivan This book could have been a contender. It's real name is Cross Country:
Fifteen Years and 90,000 Miles on the Roads and Interstates of America with Lewis and Clark, a Lot of Bad
Motels, a Moving Van, Emily Post, Jack Kerouac, My Wife, My Mother-in-Law, Two Kids, and Enough Coffee to
Kill an Elephant. I saved it for my own summer vacation, thinking it would be a fun read while I was on the road.
And it was, kinda--but only kinda. Mr. Sullivan tells great stories about the invention of the interstates, the origin
of See America First, and early cross-country travelers like Lewis and Clark and Emily Post, who, on the second
day of her trip decided she'd packed too much and sent the silver service home. If there had been more
information about people like Ms. Post and less about the author's caffeine addiction, the book would have been
To the Edge of the World by Harry Thompson Mr. Thompson passed away last year, but he left behind this
account of the life of Robert FitzRoy, the captain of the famous Beagle, which transported Charles Darwin on his
five-year trip around the world. I have to imagine that Mr. Thompson must have suspected that he would only
be writing one book because he certainly crams a lot into this one. Edge runs to 768 pages, and although
Captain FitzRoy is deserving of the star treatment he receives here, you lose interest after the Beagle returns to
England on page 553. Rather more puzzling is that the author chose to make this a novel, rather the obvious
history that it is. One is led to believe that the various members of the crew generated journals and writings that
ran to more than half a million pages. Surely, something that extensively documented could be better served
without the nebulousness of novelization.
One Mississippi by Mark Childress You can't imagine how much I wanted to love this book.
Mark Childress? Good writer! I liked Crazy in Alabama a lot.
Mississippi public high schools in the early 70's? This is my heritage!
First paragraph about riding bikes behind the mosquito truck to get high? This is why I sincerely believe that
most of the X-Men are from small towns in Mississippi.
Older brother who joined the service because he'd rather be in Viet Nam than Mississippi? Got one.
Making out in the parking lot at Jitney Jungle? Sounds right. Living each year for the State Band Contest? Of
Not knowing that a friend is gay until he tries to crawl into bed with you? That happened to me like five or six
times in the 70's.
But late in the book, a line was crossed. High school boys met Cher. There was gay sex at the Interstate rest
area. A car blew up There was a shooting at school. My initial reaction was that the author was padding the
book. Then I realized that--like every other book in the world--this wasn't a biography of me, and all was
forgiven. Check it out.
The Geographer's Library by Jon Fasman The average bear would probably say that the best time to go
back and re-read the short stories and essays of Somerset Maugham would be the middle of winter, when nights
are long, and one dreams of long slow cruises to tropical ports. Not me. For some reason, I like to pull his
books out in the summer, so as it happens, just last week I was reading The Decline and Fall of the Detective
Story. Using Willie's criteria for a good story, I can now tell you scientifically why I didn't like Mr. Fasman's first
novel: 1. Rather than a beginning, a middle and an end, this book has about fifteen different "middles", and
they're mostly irrelevant, in a DaVinci Code-ish kind of way. 2. Maugham says that the murderer should be
playing for high stakes, but this book makes it difficult to know what the stakes even are. 3. Maugham says that
the detective (reporter, in this case) should be working for justice, and that justice should, in the end, be done.
The notion of "justice" would have to be stood on its head an spun around repeatedly in order to think that think
that such is the case in this book. There are flashes of brilliance in Mr. Fasman's writing; here's hoping Mr.
Fasman's next book will be better.
The End of California by Steve Yarbrough If you've read any "Southern Fiction" at all in the last ten or fifteen
years, you can answer the following multiple choice question. A woman in a small town in Mississippi is
murdered. Who killed her? Was it:
1. Her husband, the local high school football hero who returned to town after 20 years to practice
medicine for poor people;
2. His best friend, a habitually drunk Ole Miss Law School graduate, who occasionally does
pro bono work for poor people;
3. The Christian fundamentalist manager of the local Piggly Wiggly, whose mother was the
husband's first sexual conquest; or
4. The old hermit who lives in a rusted out El Dorado behind the Wal-Mart.
Of course. I really wanted to "greenlight" this book for you because it's the first work I've seen that seems to
convey the tone of the Mississippi Delta in the 21st century. The book is lots of fun to read. It's just soooo
predictable. Too bad.
The Great Deluge by Douglas Brinkley Democrats have "friends"; Republicans have "cronies'". "Heroine"
Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco (and practically every member of her p.r. staff) were interviewed for this
"history" of Hurricane Katrina; Haley Barbour, Michael Chertoff and George Bush, who "was ultimately
responsible for the ineffective response," were not. If this is your idea of an objective history of the storm, this is
Breathing in Africa by Buck Niehoff A hundred and something Sundays ago, I went to the IMAX theater to see
a great movie called Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa by David Breashears. It was about a diverse group of
people who were among the 20,000 or so who attempt to scale the mountain each year. I left the movie thinking
that even as unathletic as I am, I could probably climb Kilimanjaro. Then I went home to work the Sunday
crossword in the Enquirer. My friend Buck Niehoff went to the movie and left thinking that as unathletic as he
was, he could also climb the mountain. He went home and started calling mountain guides. A year or so later,
he climbed the mountain in the company of the his teenage son, Peter, two of Peter's friends, two guides and
seventeen porters. Like the author, the book which recounts the adventure is much too polite. For example, if
someone told you that they had just hired two guides and seventeen porters for a ten-day trek up and down
Kilimanjaro, what would your first question be? Exactly. But Buck is much too well-mannered to discuss money,
so we don't know. For another example, although he never hesitates to discuss his own feelings along the trip,
Buck doesn't seem to want to pry into what the teenage boys are thinking. When Peter begins to show signs of
altitude sickness, we see the symptoms, but we never get a sense of what he thinks about being susceptible to
the sickness. However, my biggest complaint is that after teasing readers about the purchase of victory cigars in
the Detroit airport, he never tells us if and when the cigars got smoked!
The Bourne Legacy by Eric van Lustbaden I don't have much sympathy for Mr. van Lustbaden, if that is his
real name. I'm sure that St. Martin's Press paid him handsomely for this work, but I don't think he earned it. I
admit he was handed a Augean task--to write a novel based on a character who must be pushing 60 by now
who can be played in a movie by Matt Damon during breaks between Ocean's 22 and Ocean's 23. The
character Jason Bourne sired children in Phnom Penh in the early 70's--we know this because one of them
comes back in this book--so he's got to be way too old to have the snot kicked out of him in every chapter of this
book. This is just one of the issues I have with Mr. van Lustbaden's work. Another, admittedly minor one, is that
although it's fine with me to take literary license with minor locations, MILLIONS of people know that the name of
the airport in Arlington is Washington Reagan National Airport, and that except for the odd Air Canada flights, it
has neither international departures nor cargo facilities. It's just one more indication that the author took more
pleasure in endorsing the check than writing the novel.
Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire from Columbus to Magellan by Hugh Thomas A little
further down this list is an altogether commendable book called 1491, which deals with Indians in North and
South America prior to the arrival of the Spanish. Mr. Thomas certainly knows his stuff and tells it as
compellingly as he knows how. It's just that the Eurocentric version of the story just isn't as fashionable these
days as that of the Indians. Thomas's book is dogged in its exposition of who sailed where and when, but it
really wears you down unless you're really into it. Interesting tidbit: In 1519, Alvarez de Pineda was the first to
explore the Gulf Coast region between Florida and Mississippi. He called the region Amichel. Doesn't that
sound like the name of a casino waiting to happen? Historical Pet Peeve: Why are we still giving Magellan
credit for being the first to sail around the world? He died in the Philippines. He didn't even make it two-thirds of
the way through the trip. Just wondering. OK, you can go now.
Map of Bones by James Rollins During Easter 1985, Darryl Gissel and I wound up at midnight mass at the
great Catholic cathedral of Cologne. Our story had more to do with National Lampoon's European Vacation
than The DaVinci Code, but the coincidence really drew me into the story of yet another secret cult attached to
the Catholic Church. This book, I'm happy to say, is one of the better examples of DaVinciana. It insults neither
your intelligence nor your beliefs and tells a gripping yarn that spans the usual hot spots like the Vatican,
Avignon, and the tomb of Alexander the Great. (After eluding historians and looters for 2000 years, the good
guys in this story find it in about twenty minutes.)
Beach Road by James Patterson and Peter de Jonge I want back the three hours I lost in reading this book.
The plot is thin; the characters are anemic; and the big plot twist that you know is coming is more irritating than
The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton, the First Domestic Goddess OK, I admit it. I'm a
wannabe writer. For the last 20 years or so, I've been nursing what I think is a great idea for a mystery set in the
mid-19th century. To bone up on my knowledge of that period, I read a great book called What Jane Austen
Wore and What Charles Dickens Knew, which provided an outstanding description of everyday life in that
period. A few weeks ago, I got an email from Amazon.com, saying that if I liked What Jane Austen Wore..., I
would like Mrs. Beeton. So I ordered it. After slogging through it, I can say that unless you are either an
aspiring writer or a British homemaker (They don't visit the website as much as I'd like, but I do know a few),
there is no reason for you to bother. If you haven't heard of her, there's no reason for you to give any attention
to this book. If you're aware of the name, the book provides an exhaustive account of how the Epsom track
clerk's daughter from 1855 became a brand of frozen dinners in the 21st century. The first two-thirds of the
book dealing with Mrs. Beeton herself are fairly interesting, but the last part, outlining the series of business
decisions which became her "brand" is as dry as the baked poultry the woman loved so much.
Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea's Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and
Life by Tyler Perry "Why?" you ask. I had just seen Madea's Family Reunion, and I was buying something on
Amazon.com, when I saw an offer to buy the book for $3.88, or thereabouts. Don't make the same mistake.
Although there are chapters here you won't see in another other "Commentaries on Life and Love," like When
It's Okay to Have a Pistol, Buying Things from TV, and Staying Clean If You are Large Woman, Madea's advice
is nothing you haven't heard before--if you have any common sense at all. She does, however, suggest uses
for Vaseline that had never occurred to me--or probably any other Caucasian. If that's worth $3.88 to you, go
Paris: Biography of a City by Colin Jones At first, I thought this would be a Gallic reflection of Peter Ackroyd's
terrific London: A Biography, but if anything, it's better. It's better because Mr. Jones's book is the first I've seen
that gives the banlieux surrounding the city the attention they deserve. (2.1. million people live within the
Peripherique; the surrounding areas contain over 10 million. These include the more disaffected immigrants
who have done the most protesting and rioting in recent years.) It's nice to see a contemplation of the modern
City of Light that gives emphasis where it is deserved--Euro-Disney is given only passing recognition in a single
sentence, and the death of the Princess of Wales is mentioned not at all. Check it out.
A Death in Vienna by Frank Tallis The climax of this tasty little mystery occurs on the Riesenrad, a Vienna
landmark from the 19th century that looks like a ferris wheel made out of streetcars. The logic-defying reason
the scene is set there is lamely explained later, but as you're reading it, you're thinking that the reason is that it
would look great when it comes out as a movie. Which leads me to a more general observation that you can
take or leave--that mysteries in general seem to be becoming more "cinematic". As I've read most of the
mysteries listed on this page, I've thought at one point or another that the author was inserting a setting or plot
point for the purpose of making the book more "saleable" to filmmakers. Likewise, the books seem to be written
more as "scenes" than as "chapters". For instance, A Death in Vienna is 458 pages long, but has 87(!)
chapters. In their defense, I will say that these cinematic touches do make the books easier to conceptualize as
you're reading along, but somehow they seem less "literary"--if that makes sense. Anyway, I liked the book, and
I'm sure I'll like the movie.
The Templar Legacy by Steve Berry In the past, I've been fairly gushing in my praise for Mr. Berry's work (see
below). Sadly, all good things do indeed come to an end. If I accused Mr. Berry of "brand-building" with his last
work, The Templar Legacy represents the next step in that process (which will be complete when one of his
books gets made into a movie). In addition to jumping on the DaVinci-Illiuminati-Templar (DIT) canon of writing
and asserting that Christianity might just be a bunch of hoo-hah, he shamelessly allows his characters to sing
Kumbaya at the end and tell each other, essentially, that they'll see each other again in the next book. It's really
rather off-putting. Like other books in the DIT canon, there's more plot than character development, and
various ruins in Europe are exploited. Having said all that, I thought Mr. Berry might have been on to something
at the beginning of the book when he seemed to be satirizing the DIT mindset by suggesting that Dan Brown (or
someone very much like him) might have been something of a poseur and charlatan. (That would have been a
great book.) Instead, Mr. Berry became what he beheld.
The Method Actors by Carl Shuker is by no means a casual read. Mr. Shuker is a sure writer, but in this, his
very dense first novel, he seems to throw everything at the metaphorical wall to see what will stick. His topic is
ex-pats in Japan and the sex, drugs and rock and roll they consume. The moral seems to be best summed up:
To my mind, it is perhaps a hard lesson, but the guilty are scraped from the chopping block of time to fester and
mutate in the compost of myth and rumor and cautionary tale, to at last become the fetid, fecund mulch of
history, from whither it is might that flowers and is recognized, not from whence it came, but for what it is. If you
can deal with 492 pages of that, this is the book for you.
Ancient Mariner: The Arctic Adventures of Samuel Hearne, the Sailor Who Inspired Coleridge's
Masterpiece by Ken McCoogan. Yes, that's the real name of the book, and oddly enough, the only word I
have a problem with is "the". Mr. Hearne gained fame by walking 3000 miles across Northern Canada, where he
did encounter superstitious Indians, who told him of curses. As a mariner, his naval service was restricted to the
coast of France and the Mediterranean. Mr. Hearne might have been one of Coleridge's inspirations, but to
imagine that the masterpiece owes too much to Hearne requires quite a deal of belief suspension. It tells a
compelling tale. Sadly, however, it reflects the values of the current decade, in which adventures cannot be told
of without explaining who is being exploited. Too bad. Although I can't think of anything that might compel you
to read it, it's not a bad book.
The Third Secret by Steve Berry OK, let's be clear. This is NOT The DaVinci Code. It is, I think, as good as
Angels and Demons And the subject matter and pace are similar. This is a good, taut mystery that I liked even
better than The Romanov Prophesy (also by Mr. Berry) which was one of my favorite books from last year. Or
put it another way, I picked up this book at 7:00 on a Friday night and couldn't put it down until I finished it at
5:30 the next morning. (BTW, Mr. Berry seems to be "re-branding himself. The Romanov Prophesy was written
by Steven Berry. Whatever.)
1491 by Charles C. Mann I'm going out on a limb and saying that this might be the most important book I'll read
this year. If you didn't already know any of the following, maybe you should pick it up, too:
* In 1491, there were more people living in the Americas than in Europe.
* Smallpox brought by the Europeans really did kill 95 percent of the Indian population--
usually before they ever laid eyes on a European. (And as a sidebar, the bison population had been held
in check by the Indians. The massive bison herds that are such a staple of the "pristine" West did not come
into being until after the Indians who controlled their population died off.)
* Indians really do prefer to be called "Indians".
* There were cities in the Americas, such as Tenochtitlan, that were not only larger than any
contemporary European city, they also had running water, beautiful botanical gardens and
immaculately clean streets.
* Native Americans transformed their land so completely that Europeans arrived in a hemisphere already
massively "landscaped" by human beings.
Whatever your environmental or civil rights politics might be, you really should be aware of the incredible
advances in Native American scholarship that have taken place in recent years. Check it out
Night Fall by Nelson DeMille A fictional detective investigates the very real crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long
Island in 1996. In addition to being a pretty lame book, this is quite possibly the crassest commercial exploitation
in a long time.
The Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine by John D. Folse The next time someone says, "If you were
stranded on an island and could only have one book, what would it be?" say, "Next to The Bible, I want John
Folse's Encyclopedia..." Really. You can throw out every cookbook you own. Everything you need is here.
The darned thing is 842 pages, weighs nine pounds, and is much a coffee table book, history book and
Louisiana tour guide as a cookbook. The book came to my attention when I had black-eyed peas and cabbage
at Diane Merritt's on New Year's Day. Both were delicious, and she said she got the recipes from the book. (If
you're interested, they're on pages 729 and 757. If you're remotely into Louisiana cooking, get it.
The Earth is Flat by Thomas J. Friedman So like everyone else on the planet, I bought this book sometime in
the middle of last year. I put off reading it because I had read lots of Mr. Friedman's work in magazines, and I'd
heard so much about the book, that I thought I had it pegged. When I finally got around to reading it in January,
I wasn't too surprised. I agreed with everything he said until he started talking about George Bush. I guess that
no one is right all the time. If you haven't read it, you must--unless you're an aging baby boomer for whom
there's not much time left anyway.
Don't Get Too Comfortable by David Rakoff is a bitter little pill of a book that you're better off skipping. This
is a collection of essays by Mr. Rakoff, who is a commentator on public radio. On the Fran Leibowitz Scale
(which I've just invented) to gauge how funny liberal urban humor can be, Ms. Leibowitz herself is a 10, and Mr.
Rakoff is about a 1.5. Still, if you're interested in his impressions of Paris fashion shows, Martha Stewart, gay
Republicans and how bitchy the Today Show cast can be when they're not on camera, don't say you weren't
The Lost German Slave Girl by John Bailey I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Bailey at a writers conference
in New Orleans last year. His book is terrific. It recounts the famous legal case of Salome Muller, a German
immigrant who was presumably sold into slavery, shortly after arriving in New Orleans with her family in the early
19th century. The story has always served as a grand canvas for the moral viewpoint of whoever was telling the
story--slaveholders and abolitionists before the Civil War, civil rights activists in the 20th century, etc. Mr. Bailey
has now put a marvelous "post-modern" spin on the story with his view of the facts of the case. But before you
get to his conclusion in the last chapter, take a moment to consider the chilling last paragraph of the chapter
that precedes it: It was an event hardly noticed by the people of New Orleans. The fate of Miller's slave was no
longer of interest. The news of the day was the breach in the levee had been repaired. The city was safe.
During the following weeks, the water receded, leaving the streets covered in inches of mud. Check it out.
The Travel Book: A Journey Through Every Country in the World Edited by Lonely Planet Yes,,it's a
journey through every country, but it's a short one. Every country, whether it's Nauru, Reunion or the United
States of America, gets two pages. Not terribly useful for travel planning purposes, but I do plan to keep it
handy when they're announcing the nations at the Olympics next month. (Thanks, Sally!)
The Quiet Game by Greg Iles is the story of a former Miss Mississippi whose spirit returns from the dead
(actually her spirit leaps into the body of her murderer) to torment her old boyfriend, a rich, handsome Natchez
geologist. The book is much better than the last sentence sounds. The author does a nice job of keeping you
wondering whether this is really a case of possession, or just someone manipulating the unsuspecting geologist.
Henry Adams and the Making of America by Gary Wills If you've never heard of Henry Adams, stop here.
You're free to go. Even if you have heard of him, you may wonder at this relatively little book (404 pages) which
talks about how two much larger works, History of the United States During the Administration of Thomas
Jefferson (four volumes) and History of the United States Under the Administration of James Madison (five
volumes). Mr. Wills work is practically a Cliff's Notes version of the larger works. So the question becomes,
"Why?" All I can say is that Mr. Wills thinks that Mr. Adams has been misunderstood by the six people who have
read his work. He seeks to set the record straight and vindicate Adams--which he does. Obviously, it's not for
Rampart Street by David Fulmer A few years back, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with Ferdi
Pachecko, "The Fight Doctor". He shared with me that he had written a book about New Orleans at some point
in his career. I asked him how he did his research about the city, and he said that he came to town for a couple
of days, spent a morning in the Library looking at old newspapers, and then just walked around town for the rest
of the day. Compared to what David Fulmer knows about New Orleans, Ferdi's work is downright scholarly. On
the first page, Mr. Fulmer says that a murderer at the corner of Rampart and Orleans can hear a trumpet blast
"(from) down past Second Street." Must be a really loud trumpet as Second Street is two or three miles from
that intersection. On page 3, he alludes to "New Orleans Parish" and discusses a display of photography in the
rotunda of City Hall. It doesn't take much research to figure out that the City Hall at the time of the book is now
Gallier Hall, and there's not a rotunda in sight. The rest of the book is more of the same. The dust jacket says
that Mr. . Fulmer lives in Atlanta. He should write about that. This book should be kicked to the curb.
2/13/06 Apparently, Mr. Fulmer is not of the opinion that critics are ill-informed wannabes whose opinions
should be "kicked the curb." He has kindly written to me to point out some errors of my own. It would be unfair
of me not to share them. His comments are unedited: Mr. Isch: One of my readers has passed on to me your
interesting review of my novel "Rampart Street." The reader was concerned about your critiques of my research.
While you allude to many more, you bring up two alleged errors in particular. On is about the distance between
Rampart Street and Second Street. If you take the time to review any map from the period, you will note that
Rampart Street and Second Street intersect. I have such maps from the New Orleans Public Library on hand,
and you can access them online with a simple search. If these maps are wrong, I stand corrected.
On the other hand, you've got a point about the word "rotunda." It's likely that I wrote it with the intention of
going back and checking it later and it got missed on editing. It happens. If need be, we'll fix it when I (sic)
comes out in paperback.
Despite your snide dismissal of my book, I'm always interested in doing a better job and fixing mistakes. And on
the subject of factual errors, in addition to your misinformed comment about Rampart Street, the Fight Doctor's
name is spelled Pacheco. David Fulmer.
|2006 BOOK COMMENTS