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The Churchill Factor   by Boris Johnson (2014)  For the past few months, I've been wondering what I thought my favorite book of the
year would be.  (If you're wondering, the book covers you see down the left side of this page represent my favorite books of recent
years.) It never occurred to me that this book would be a contender for the title.  I'm not what you'd call an aficionado of Winston
Churchill, and I've generally considered Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, to be something of a flake.  I still think he's a flake, but I
have to admit he's written the most user-friendly biography of Winston Churchill ever produced.  That's not to say that it's the most
encyclopedic: the honor of producing the most comprehensive biography of Churchill belongs to one Winston Spenser Churchill.  Rather
than the details of his life, Johnson is more interested in what made him tick, why he always seemed to be the most dynamic person in
any room, in addition to being the smartest.  Generally speaking, he puts it down to Churchill's intelligence and energy, and he doesn't
back off from his claims.  
Of all the politicians of his generation, Churchill was not just the best speaker, the best writer, the best
joke-maker, the bravest, the boldest and the most original. It was crucial to the Churchill factor that he was the biggest policy wonk you
ever saw.
 See what I mean? This book is immensely readable, and if you one of the couple hundred million or so people in the United
States who doesn't know much about Winston Churchill, this is book I can't recommend highly enough.
Churchill matters today because
he saved our civilization. And the important part is that only he could have done it.
(12/26/2014)

The Collapse:  The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall  by Mary Elise Sarotte (2014)  The Duke of Wellington famously said that
Waterloo was "the most narrowly run thing you've ever seen."  Maybe, but I'd suspect that the opening of the Berlin Wall in November
1989 would give Waterloo a run for its money. I knew that there was a lot of confusion in what used to be called East Germany around
the announcement to allow East Berliners to travel west without a passport, but I had no idea how really broken down the process was
until I read Ms. Sarotte's excellent book about it.  Not only was there confusion at the very top of the GDR food chain (the country was
facing bankruptcy, and it's biggest creditor by far was West Germany), but much of the story revolves around a government spokesman
who was so bad at his job that he never questioned anything given to him (probably a good way to stay alive at the time, but still), so
when he was given a draft of a government position paper stating travel would commence "immediately," it didn't occur to him to call
somebody and question what was obviously contradictory to what he knew to be the government's policy.  Even more spectacularly, a
low level functionary who was running one of the main checkpoints that night was disgusted by how he'd been treated by his superiors
that day, that he decided to stand aside and let people cross the dead zone. If anyone in the East German food chain had exhibited a
thimble-full of critical thinking, the wall might still be in place today.  It's all very remarkable, and Ms. Sarotte tells the story compellingly.
(12/23/2014)

1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed   by Eric H. Cline (2014)  The great screenwriter William Goldman once said of "Hollywood
wisdom" that "nobody knows anything."  Much the same can be said about why the civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean collapsed at
the end of the Late Bronze Age. Unfortunately, that includes Mr. Cline. He cheerfully admits that nobody knows who the "sea people"
were who invaded those civilizations in the twelth century or what caused the collapse. The two most interesting events of this era were
the Trojan War and the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, but Mr. Cline says there's not much evidence that either of those events even
happened. So why do we need this book? It's swell that he concisely presents the questions, but an answer or two might have been nice
as well.

PS: The most interesting thing about the book is the dust jacket, where a blurb from Norman Yoffee, whom I presume is a professor of
something at the University of Michigan, who says
...There followed an 'age of opportunity' for new kinds of political systems and
ideologies  that remade the world of the eastern Mediterranean in the first millennium B.C. Onward and upward with collapse!  
While it's
true that one of the 'new ideologies' was capitalism, it's interesting to me that a government employee like Mr. Yoffee would be celebrating
the collapse of a civilization.  (12/17/2014)

Havana Storm   by Clive Cussler and Dirk Cussler  (2014)  I suspect that if you read all of Mr. Cussler's books, you could solve all the
world's mysteries.  What happened to Monteczuma's gold?  What happened to the Maine?  What's the deal with Guantanamo Bay?  Where
is North Korea getting its uranium?  Those four questions alone are answered in Clive Cussler's gazillionth novel, this one co-written with
his son Dirk, who's either named for Cussler's lead character or vice versa.  The plot is--well, you know the plot.  Adventurer and
oceanaut Dirk Pitt travels the world (to the Caribbean this time,  if you haven't figured that out), righting wrongs and cheating death.  In
typical Cussler style, it travels way down the road toward improbable and stops just short of unbelievable.  It's readable as all get-out, but
having read two of Mr. Cussler's books in the past two months, I can say that it wears you down pretty quick.  All I'm prepared to say is
that the Dirk Pitt books aren't my favorite Cussler books.  (12/16/14)

Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured   by Kathryn Harrison (2014)  Certainly, Joan of Arc has had no shortage of biographers--from Mark
Twain to George Bernard Shaw, authors have found her compelling, if not fascinating. But she never much interested me.  A careful
review of this page will show that I'll read almost anything that's related in any small way to the history of France. Do I not comprehend
the nature of a faith such as Joan's that put absolute faith in the voices that spoke to her?  Do I just not care about anything before the
Bourbons came to power?  Or do virgins who advertise their status just bore me?  Hard to say. Nevertheless, Mrs. Harrison has written
an interesting book about Joan that suggests that maybe Joan bored her a little bit as well. On every page, there's a diversion that
compares Joan's life to Jesus, to Mary, to some icon of practically every major world religion. She inserts quotes from books, plays and
movies written about Joan that tell you plenty about Bertolt Brecht (for example), but not so much about La Pucelle. Perhaps what I'm
saying is that Mrs. Harrison's book is not so much about Joan of Arc, but her image and her legacy.  Which is fine--but it's not
necessarily what the book says it's about.  (12/12/2014)

The Devil's Alliance: Hitler's Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941   by Roger Moorhouse (2014)  The author says the world hasn't given
enough attention to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.  Most historians, he says, give only passing notice to the pact, acknowledging only that
it gave Hitler the security on his Eastern Front that he needed to invade France and other countries in western Europe.  He says that most
historians do not recognize that the Pact also gave the USSR a free hand to influence the countries of Eastern Europe that found
themselves behind the Iron Curtain when the war ended. He says that he also had access to documents in Germany and the USSR that
were unavailable to earlier historians. The author has written a number of good histories of the war, and his book contains sixty pages of
notes that embellish the text. In addition to providing information about how the pact was negotiated, he also shows us how it was carried
out. He debunks long-held notions that the Wehrmacht rolled into France in vehicles powered by Russian oil, but he does say that when
those same armies marched in the USSR in 1941, they used weapons and ammunition made from Russian iron, magnesium, chromium
and other metals. (12/2/2014)

Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France  by Caroline Moorehead (2014)  In the past, I've been a fan of Ms. Moorehead's
work. I liked her biography of Lucy de la Tour du Pin a lot, and her
Train in Winter about Jewish women who'd been rounded up by the
Nazis in Paris was memorable. I didn't like this book as much as the first two (but two out of three ain't bad, right?) because I'm not
really sure what she was trying to accomplish.  The Plateau Vivarais-Lignon is located in the Haute Loire (look it up) and is sort of the
Montana of France. Because it his isolated and the air is clean, it developed a reputation before WWII as a safe, healthy place that was
way out of the way, and probably one of the last places in France where Nazis would search for Jews. So naturally, the Jews flocked
there in the thousands during the war, and the good-hearted local folk took them in, fed them and hid them from Klaus Barbie et Cie. Ms.
Moorehead provides anecdotal information about hundreds of locals and the Jews who lived among them--so much information, in fact,
that your head starts spinning and you find yourself having to go back and remember who everybody is. While helpful to historians, it can
be off-putting for schmoes like me who want more story and fewer details. One of the most interesting aspects of what happened on the
plateau was that after the war, none of the locals wanted to be recognized for what they'd done.  To them, they'd just done their Christian
duty. Until somebody did start writing the history, and people who'd been overlooked or omitted before suddenly wanted credit for their
heroism.  To hear it from Ms. Moorehead, even to this day, some of the locals on the plateau are at odds with one another about the
correct interpretation of their history. The author's recounting of the post-war feud is more compelling than the story of the refugees and
their saviors. I think she wanted to contribute something that would set the record straight, but if anything, I think she gave them even
more to fight about.  (11/19/2014)

Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero (2014) makes you think about how hard it is these these days to scare people today and
maintain your credibility.  In other words, How can you provide a good creep and make it believable. Pretty hard, but I guess Mr.
Cantero--an excellent writer--does about as well as could be expected.  I can't really tell you much about the book or the people in it
because no one and nothing is really what they seem.  Suffice to say that it involves a couple of Brits who arrive in Virginia to claim a
house (possibly haunted) inherited from a distant relative.  The cover and jacket blurb are much scarier than the book itself, but that was
okay with me because I really don't like to be scared that much. We don't ever learn much about the characters (even their names), so it's
hard to feel much empathy for anybody. The main attraction is how the author uses diary entries, letters to a suspicious aunt in England,
video cameras, audio recordings and even store receipts to tell a story. (11/8/2014)

The Secret Place (2014) by Tana French  First, I'd like to say that I'd love to write as well as Tana French.  Second, I should say that
she has chosen to write about what I consider to be one of God's more enigmatic creations--the teenage girl.  Eight students at a posh
private school in Dublin are suspects in the murder of a popular boy from a neighboring school. For better or worse, these are the
children of the twenty-first century. Not only are they the irritating combination hyper-sensitivity about themselves and infuriating
callousness about everybody else in the world, now they're enabled by technology to wreak their mayhem with nothing more than a phone
and a wi-fi connection. Ms French does a good job of differentiating among the girls--not so much for the adult detectives in the piece.  
The progress of the procedural is confusing--in a good way, but consistently compelling. If you're looking for some insight into minds of
teenage girls--or if you just want to be consoled that maybe your own kids aren't quite so weird after all, check it out.  (11/3/2014)

The Thief-Taker Hangings: How Daniel Dafoe, Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard Captivated London and Created the Celebrity
Criminal
(2014)  by Aaron Skirboll  The title of the book is the plot.  I have to admit that while I did glean some useful information from
the book, I didn't really enjoy reading it all that much.  Mr. Skirboll is, shall we say, an idiomatic writer. In the last paragraph of the book,
he says that Daniel Dafoe influenced the work of Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe and
more.  By "and more" he meant "and Aaron Skirboll."  Despite extensive sourcing and footnoting his work, Mr. Skirboll sees himself as
the Hunter S. Thompson of the new millennium--which is fine.  He's not, which makes his hip reportage so difficult to read, and although
I don't appreciate it, I really don't blame him for it.  Further, he asserts that Jonathan Wild--sort of an Elizabethan crime godfather--and
Jack Sheppard, a thief with a knack for breaking out of prison, are the inspirations of such diverse figures as Jesse James and Mack the
Knife. Maybe they are. If their story interests you, get the book.  Otherwise, you might find it a tough slog.  (11/1/2014)

The Marco Effect   by Jussi Adler-Olsen (2014)  Another Scandinavian police procedural. (Try to imagine my saying it with the exact
measure of weary ennui that someone in Sweden or Denmark would say, "Another American police procedural."  This book advertises
itself on the cover as "A Department Q Novel," so apparently we're meant to recognize some of the characters from a previous encounter
(which I didn't read--sorry.) So there are pages and pages of pleasant and unpleasant encounters between people I haven't been
introduced to and therefore don't care about.  (Again--sorry.) And then there's Marco, a twelve-year-old boy who could be American,
could be a Gypsy, could be Portuguese, who's the Oliver Twist in a gang of street urchins/con-children run by a decidedly Fagin-esque
toad named Zola.  In addition to managing his flourishing street urchin business, Zola also takes the occasional contract to act as hit man
on people like a mid-level official in the Danish agency which doles out aid to our less fortunate brethren in Africa.  So Department Q is
on the case.  The usual stuff happens.  People die.  Big chunks of downtown Copenhagen are trashed.  A sick child in comforted.  I
gather we're supposed to be reminded of
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  But it's Oliver Twist.  (9/30/2014)

California   by Edan Lepucki  (Who am I to make fun of someone's name, but it sounds like an anagram for something, doesn't it?  2014)
Rather than make fun of the author's name, I'm here to trash her book.  (Although Ms. Lepucki, keep in mind that I did pay for it. So
laugh all the way to the bank.)  And in reality, I'm not even going to trash it.  Ms. Lepucki is a competent writer.  I just have two big
problems with her book.  The first is my fault: Maybe there was a time in my life when I could identify with a young pregnant woman
trapped in post-apocalypse California who loves to bake. But this is not that time.  (Hey, I said it was my fault.)  The second big problem
I have is the author's determination to be way too coy about who any of these people are; where they came from; how they happened to
get where they are now; how the apocalypse happened (Disease? War? Unstable political situation? Climate change? Something else? All
of the above? The author hints at all of them, but doesn't commit to any of them. George Bush's name doesn't come up, but who
knows?); or what the secret plan for moving forward might be.  I kind of felt jacked around by lots of questions and not nearly enough
answers. I didn't care for it, but if you're willing to proceed into the void, Godspeed.  (9/27/2014)

The Fortune Hunter   by Daisy Goodwin (2014)   I'm always interested in historical novels that incorporate real people from the 19th
century into the narrative.   
The Fortune Hunter fictionalizes a chapter of the life of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria (Sisi to her friends
and paramours). Sisi was considerably younger than her husband, Franz Joseph, and considerably less devoted to the idea of serving the
people of her empire.  Throughout her life, she traveled from one end of Europe to the other seeking diversions including younger men
who found her desirable. And if they were dashing horsemen, well that was even better. In England for the famous Pytchley hunt in 1875,
she encountered a young British calvary officer who found her irresistible,despite the fact that he'd recently proposed to another young
lady.  Ms. Goodwin is a fine writer, but she's dug a hole with her characters that makes her book vaguely unsatisfying.  Sisi is so much
more compelling than the young lady who's meant to be the heroine of the piece that we're somewhat disappointed when the calvary
officer decides not to dump the boring young lady for the opportunity to be the empress's boy toy.  He is, after all, a fortune hunter.  He
would have been much better off with the empress.  The destination is something of a letdown, the journey is kind of fun.  (9/15/2014)

Under Magnolia   by Frances Mayes  (2014)   When last heard from, Frances Mayes (Under the Tuscan Sun) was lolling about in her
courtyard at the Villa Bramasole.  She'd completed her renovation of the ruined villa, come to terms with their neighbors and met a young
man whom we were led to believe would become a significant other.  99.99% of the known universe was so jealous that we just wanted
to stab her to death.  So what did she do after that?  Well, naturally, she went on a book tour to Oxford, Mississippi, spent a night at the
Ole Miss Motel*, had a revelation and called her husband to say that she wanted to move back to the South.  
WHAT THE HELL?  Is she
insane?  
No, as it turns out, she's just a child of the South who like, hundreds of thousands before her, decided she had to come back to
the scene of the crime of her childhood after making something of herself somewhere else in the world.  
Under Magnolia is a memoir of
her early years in the 50's and early 60's in the postage stamp of Fitzgerald, Georgia, and later at Randolph-Macon College and the
University of Florida.   Naturally, her grandfather and grandmother are Big Daddy and Big Mama; naturally, her parents are mutually
destructive alcoholics; and of course, there's a saintly maid without whom she would have been lost as a child.  But I oversimplify.  The
book isn't at all cliché.  This is mainly because Mayes in an astounding writer.  
I wanted Southern words I'd missed in California.  
Teeniny, cussed out, pray tell, cut the light, mash the bug, hired out, greased lightning, yo-ho, dogtrot, snake boots, done did,
doodly-squat, bellehood, fixing to, take ahold, chirrun, barking mad, young 'uns, hie, I swan.
 How can you top that?  If you're a
Southern man or woman of a certain age, i.e., mine, this book will knock you over like a ton of bricks.  If you're not, you'll be certain that
it has to be science fiction and continue to wait patiently for
Under the Tuscan Sun II.  (9/10/2014)
*  The Ole Miss Motel is a cinder block roach trap on University Avenue in Oxford that dates at least back to the 50's.  The owners would rent rooms by the
hour if they thought the civic leadership would let them get away with it.  Your humble correspondent once spent a night there just to say he'd done it.

Robert B. Parker's Cheap Shot and The Forsaken   by Ace Atkins  2014)   Some women will tell you that Ginger Rogers was a much
better dancer than Fred Astaire.  Not only did she do everything Fred did, she said, but she did it backwards and in high heels.  In the
past, I've called Ace Atkins the best writer in Mississippi, but now I think I can add that he is the Ginger Rogers of American Fiction.  
Within the span of a month, he published two mysteries that could not have been more different.  In
Cheap Shot, the book that will garner
more publicity and readers, Atkins breathes life into the corpse of Robert B. Parker's most famous creation, the Boston detective who
became Spenser for Hire on television.  Note to the Family of Robert B. Parker:  
KNOCK IT OFF!   Please let poor old Robert rest in
peace.  Spenser was never that interesting, and although Atkins has done a yeoman's job of toning him down to fit the tastes of modern
readers, he's just not compelling anymore.   Much more compelling is
The Forsaken, where Atkins channels an even bigger literary
presence, William Faulkner.  He's created his own postage stamp of Mississippi soil and populated it with a cast of characters that would
have made the former postmaster of University, Mississippi, proud.  Where Atkins has toned down Robert B. Parker, he's goosed
Faulkner's world into the new millennium.  Imagine what Atkins' cast of Army Rangers, whores and Mexican gangsters could have done
for
Absalom, Absalom.  These books aren't for everyone, but if you like the genre(s), Ace Atkins will never disappoint you.  (9/9/2014)

The Heist   by Daniel Silva  (2014)  If you follow these things, you know that Mr. Silva's characters are just about the most sophisticated
spies anywhere.   Gabriel Allon, heir apparent to the directorship of Mossad likes to restore Renaissance Italian art in his spare time.  
During an interlude in which he's restoring an altarpiece at a Venice church, the head of the Italian stolen art unit turns up and demands
his help in recovering a stolen painting by Caravaggio that's been missing for decades.  The process of looking for the Caravaggio
somehow turns into a plan to separate the Syrian ruling family from about $8 billion that they've embezzled from the government over the
course of the decades.  The plan is elegant.   Too elegant.  So elegant in fact that's something of a "jump the shark" moment for this series
of books.   As you read along, you start to suspect that the author-who writes beautifully, by the way--is starting to get bored with his
cast of characters and wants to see if anyone will notice if they start doing things that don't really make a whole lot of sense in the bigger
scheme of things.   It's not an unpleasant read, but for the first time, Gabriel and the gang don't really leave you wanting more of them.  
(9/1/2014)

When Paris Went Dark   by Ronald C. Rosbottom  (2014)   There have been dozens of good books about the Occupation of Paris
during World War II over the last couple of years (scroll through this list if you doubt me), but none is better than this one.   Mr.
Rosbottom, a professor at Amherst College, has tackled one of the most complicated moments in the long history of the city with
clear-headed analysis and a deft touch.  The stories of the heroes and villains of the Occupation have always been told in stark relief, but
Mr. Rosbottom adds much appreciated shades of
feldgray.  More  interestingly, he speaks of aspects of the Occupation that have been
downplayed or overlooked altogether by other historians.   He is particularly interested in the German soldiers and civilians who flocked to
the city during the course of the Occupation to ogle the den of culture and corruption and says that for the most part, they were as
intimidated by the Parisians as the Parisians were with them.  Chief among the Germans in this category is one Adolf Hitler who made his
one-and-only one-day tour of the city shortly after the Occupation began and saw a city that was mostly deserted and devoid of the bustle
that had always defined it.  I loved the way Mr. Rosbottom concludes his story:  
If reading this book has made you more curious about
Paris and its violent mid-century history, and if you can admire her almost unreal self-confidence, them I am pleased.  If, on the other
hand, the information in these pages has made you more suspicious of her charms, more critical of her adaptation to the "plague," then
that, too, would please me.  For either way, or both ways, you would have thickened your knowledge so that the next time you confront
Paris, either in person or imaginatively, you will have more respect for her resiliency as well as for the hope that she still offers those
seeking to escape the deprivations of ignorance and cultural violence.  
(8/28/2014)

How Paris Became Paris   by Joan DeJean  (2014)   I think you're supposed to read the title of this book as How Paris Became
"PARIS", that is to say "how the city of Paris became the idea of Paris as the world's center of art, literature and luxury"--which of
course would have made the title of the book much longer.  Ms. DeJean states a number of instances in the history of the city that
changed how people (including Parisians themselves) think of the city.  Specifically, those instances include:

1.  Completion of the Pont Neuf, the first modern bridge across the Seine
2.  Completion of the Place des Vosges, which provided a new paradigm for urban living
3.  Construction of the Ile St. Louis
4.  The Fronde, which permanently affected the way Parisians interacted with their rulers.
5.  Construction of the first modern  boulevards and avenues during the reign of Napoleon I
6.  Lighting the city at night
7.  Evolution of the fashion industry
8.  Evolution of New Wealth in the 19th century
9.  Creation of the myth of romance in the city

I wouldn't say that the book is brilliant, but Ms. DeJean is a fine writer and makes some interesting points.   It's not something that would
help you plan a trip, but it is a pleasant diversion.  (8/22/2014)


Midnight in Europe   by Allen Furst  (2014)  Back in 2012, I damned Mr. Furst's Mission to Paris with faint praise, saying that it
"wasn't bad or boring, but it just wasn't very compelling."  In the earlier book, an American actor found himself in Paris for the premiere
of his new film on the eve of World War II and fell into an opportunity to strike a blow against the Nazis.  In the new book, an American
lawyer is in Paris on the eve of World War II with an opportunity to strike a blow against the Nazis.  The earlier book had a better
premise, but I think this one has better execution.  The supporting characters in the new book are a little better, despite subplots about a
Hungarian heir and a minor Spanish noblewoman that don't seem to go anywhere.  I said about the earlier book that I think that Mr. Furst
is a good writer, but that he missed the mark in
Mission to Paris.  I think the same could be said for Midnight in Europe.  Come on,
Allen, I believe in you.  Knock it out of the park next time.  (8/20/2014)

Famous Writers I Have Known   by James Magnuson  (2014)  So.  I asked the local book merchant who's world-famous in this part of
the country for a recommendation, and this is what he gave me.  It's important to note that Mr. Magnuson directs the James A. Michener
Center for Writers at the University of Texas in Austin because the book presumes a rivalry between famous writers loosely based on
Michener and J. D. Salinger, who wrote
Catcher in the Rye and a few other things.  I don't think I've ever used roman a clef in a
sentence before (look it up), but I suppose that's what this novel loosely based on truth is.  Frankly, the book is a lot better than it was
described to me (ahem!), and it turned out to be an agreeable way to pass a rainy Sunday afternoon.  The plot, in a nutshell, is that a
small-time New York hood on the lam is in line to get on a plane to Austin at the same time that a famous but reclusive writer from Maine
has decided that he can't go through with a writer-in-residence commitment in Austin and decides not to board.  When the hood gets to
Austin, he's mistaken for the famous writer and ends up teaching a writers workshop for a semester.   It's only a matter of time before
he's found out, and the pleasure in the book is what happens in the interim.  It's not riveting, but it is, as I said, agreeable.  (8/10/2014)

Hothouse:  The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America's Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus &
Giroux
  by Boris Kachka  (2014)   Forty years ago this fall, I was enrolled in a class at the University of Mississippi entitled History of
Journalism
.  (This was the summer after Watergate.  Journalists were still vertebrates, and disgraced presidents who used the power of
the government to suppress his enemies had the decency to resign.  But I digress.)  I enjoyed the class, and my term paper for the end of
the year was about the role that
Esquire Magazine had played in developing new writers over its history.  Esquire itself had just turned
forty and had published a ginormous issue which covered most of this material, so research was relatively easy.  Not that I did much.  
My paper was a big ole wet kiss celebrating the magazine that Arnold Gingrich himself would have appreciated.  (Shockingly, I got an A.  
Doctor Farrar [no relation] must not have seen the anniversary issue.)  Now, Mr. Boris Kachke, a fine writer has done something similar
for the publishing firm of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.  If you're not aware, they published everybody from T. S. Eliot to Jack Kerouac.  
Over the years, twenty-five of their writers won Nobel prizes for literature.   Naturally, with all those talented writers and editors came
insecurity and great stories by the truckload.  Lots of them are presented here. But I have to say that overall, this book reads a lot like my
sop to
Esquire--too fawning, too celebratory and just really too much.   I think that a student of writing will appreciate it, but I'm not sure
that a casual reader who's not familiar with many of the names would care much for it.   (8/8/2014)

The Book of Duels   by Michael Garriga  (2014)   Usually, I blueline books because I find out too late that they're written for romantics,
14-year-old white girls (not necessarily the same thing), or in the case of
Tesla below, engineering geeks who understand a lot more about
the principles upon which the inventor's works rest than I do.  I'm punting on
The Book of Duels because I've got no freaking clue who
might enjoy this book.  It's a series of fictionalized first hand accounts of a number of encounters through the course of time. (Don't be
fooled by the use of the word "Duel".  Very few of the vignettes are duels in the classical sense.  We have Cain v. Abel, Hamilton v. Burr,
St. George v. Dragon, Don Quixote v. Windmill,  Michelangelo v. Donatello, David v. Goliath, Mr. Garriga's wife v. her child in the hour
of his birth, and lots of others.  I'm guessing that others found this book to much more clever than I did.  A blurb on the front cover says
that Mr. Garriga's prose has "biblical force and rhythms."  Of course, this quote is from the guy who wrote "Winter's Bone", so I'll let you
judge the validity of the remark for yourself.  All I can tell you is that I found this book to be more of a chore to read than a pleasure.  
(8/5/2014)

Not to Be Missed:  Fifty-Four Favorites From a Lifetime of Film   by Kenneth Turan  (2014)   So if someone asked you to sit down
and make a list of your twenty-five favorite movies, could you do it?  Really?  It's harder than it sounds.  Are we talking about the best
films you've seen, or ones that touched you in some way?  If a movie touched you, was it because it taught you something you didn't
know or a way to think about something that you hadn't considered before?  Or did it touch you because it was so darned funny, and it
just made you laugh?  Would you (like me) be afraid to put such a list together and exclude
Citizen Kane and Gone With the Wind because
you just really didn't like them that much?  Likewise, would you (also like me) be afraid to include
The Exorcist because the damned thing
got so far under your skin that you almost fainted and had to be escorted out of the theater, or
Blazing Saddles because you laughed so
hard that you blew soda out your nose?  To say nothing of guilty pleasures--sorry to say that mine is
Looney Tunes Back in Action.  I do
have some experience in this regard because each year, I compile a list of my ten favorite movies, without regard to whether that movie
has a claim to being a "best" film.  Over the years, I've tended to like things like
Dogma, Lilo and Stitch and Hairspray better than
whatever took home the Oscar that year.  Long-time
Los Angeles Times movie reviewer Kenneth Turan now jumps into the fray and gives
us his fifty-four favorites.  His list is longer because he's seen a lot more movies than either you or I, and if it makes you feel any better,
he doesn't include
Citizen Kane or Gone With the Wind from his list either.  It's all subjective.  In the year when he might have listed
Citizen Kane, he opted instead for The Lady Eve with Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda (but mostly Barbara Stanwyck).  He gives his
reasons--some are more persuasive than others, but it's all fine.  If you're interested in one unique point of view, check it out.  But I think
you'd learn more and have a better appreciation for the movies, if you spent the time making your own list.  (7/27/2014)

The Quick   by Lauren Owen  (2014)  Ever wonder why some vampires are poor?  You'd think that the ability to control a human's mind
(it's called 'mazement' in this book) would give them the means to escape poverty; and if eternal life isn't a motivation to do so, I don't
know what is.  This is just one of the irrelevant thoughts I had while reading first-time novelist Owen's outstanding new novel of the
vampires of Victorian London.  All is not well in the city's vampire community.  The rich, stuck-up vampires of the Aegolius Club are
scheming to rid the city of the lower class Alia.  Confusing the issue for them are five puny humans, who are referred to generally as
"The Quick".  One is a doctor whom the vampires of the Aegolius Club employ to learn more about the vampire species.  This he
accomplishes by conducting ghoulish experiments on the Alia, who refer to him as Doctor Knife.  We also have two vampire hunters,
Shadwell and Miss Swift, about whom we knew much more than the author gives us, and finally a brother and sister from Kent who
accidentally fall into this world and sets the plot of
The Quick in motion.   If I had one complaint about Ms. Owen's astonishingly polished
writing, it would be that she tells her story from the point of view of the least interesting people (or vampires) in the story.  We're pretty
sure we know where those lives are headed; we want to know more about the vampires--like why would someone willingly choose to
become one.  To this point, the book offers one explanation I'd never heard before--civic improvement.  Who wouldn't want to know
more about what that guy's thinking.   But it's a small complaint indeed.  If you haven't yet chosen the book you're planning to take to the
beach, the pool or wherever you're going this summer, take along
The Quick.  (7/24/2014)

The Month That Changed the World:  July 1914   by Gordon Martel  (2014)  In this centennial of the month that changed the world,
I've actually given some thought to that the world might be a better place today if Germany had one.  If the Kaiser's armies had been
victorious, Germany's borders would probably be about what they are today, but the Reich would be the undoubted economic master of
Europe.  Is that so different what we have today?  Twenty million people who died in the war might have changed the world in all sorts of
ways.  The punitive terms of the Versailles Treaty would not have been established and a second world war might have been prevented,
saving an additional sixty million lives.  Would there have been a Russian Revolution and the ensuing nightmare of communism?  None of
these questions have anything to do with Mr. Martel's book, but I do think it's an interesting question.  As professional and amateur
historians have done for the past hundred years, the question naturally arises that somebody had to be responsible for starting something
as monstrous as World War I.   Depending on the nationality and social convictions of the person offering the opinion, the answers range
from Kaiser Wilhelm to the over-reaching Austrian monarchy to the dithering British cabinet to capitalism to all of the above and others.  
The most interesting chapter in Mr. Martel's book is the last which recounts the history of the revision of the war's history.  The rest of
the book covers familiar territory by laying out the story in a chronological format--as opposed to the traditional method of telling the
story by taking a chapter to say what was going on in Vienna and other chapters for London, Paris, Berlin and St. Petersburg.  Mr.
Martel's format has the advantage of showing how confused the lines of communication were throughout the month--a monarch and a
prime minister of one country would be saying different things to the monarch and prime minister of another country--and how
everybody was optimistic that the war could be contained until well after the bullets started flying.  (7/22/2014)

The Bully Pulpit:  Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism   by Doris Kearns Goodwin  
(2013)  Well, who am I to criticize Doris Kearns Goodwin.  This book sat in my reading pile for about six months before I summoned the
courage (and strength) to pick it up.    At 750 pages and about nine pounds, it's a mental and physical challenge for the casual reader.  It's
a good book.  In fact, it's more than a good book; it's two good books.  The more interesting story is about the relationship between
Roosevelt and Taft, and while TR's story is well told, it's familiar.  The revelation is rediscovering William Howard Taft.  (Taft Trivia:  
There are two outdoor statues on the campus of the University of Cincinnati:  one is Taft, a UC graduate who was the only person to
serve both as President and the Chief Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court;  the other is Oscar Robertson.  But I digress.)   Taft was
fascinating in his own right, and it's gratifying that he gets the attention he deserves here.  Ms. Goodwin's second story is more or less
about the "muckraker" journalists who rose to fame during the Roosevelt era.  The rise to fame of Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, etc. are
well chronicled, but frankly their stories aren't as interesting as TR's and Taft's.  One curiously unanswered question about the
muckrakers that is left unanswered in the book, "what happened to them?"  Goodwin says that as the Taft Administration progressed, the
"mood of the country" drifted way from muckraking journalism.  I wonder why?  Anyway,
The Bully Pulpit is a case of two good books
that don't add up to one great book.  As the relationship between Roosevelt and Taft really didn't play itself out in the press, I don't
understand the rationale of combining their stories with those of the reporters. If I had to guess, I'd say that Ms. Goodwin is fondly
recalling a bygone era when politicians sought advice from journalists.  Or maybe she just wanted to write a ginormous book.  (7/15/2014)

The Devil's Workshop:  A Novel of Scotland Yard's Murder Squad   by Alex Grecian  (2014)   When last heard from (in 2013), Mr.
Grecian was blessing us with his first novel about the Scotland Yard Murder Squad.  It was called
The Dark Country, and I said at the
time that I rather liked the story, but the insertion of a rather unpleasant and questionably relevant backstory threatened to sink the whole
enterprise.  I closed my comments with a somewhat rueful suggestion that I wished he'd asked me about it.  Surprise.  He didn't.  In
actuality--and almost as if he wants to rub my nose in it--he ups the ante this time around with an even bigger backstory.  He reintroduces
us to Jack the Ripper.  Don't get excited.  This is still a novel, and Mr. Grecian doesn't offer any speculations regarding who Jack is or
what happened to him--except to say that he continued in his evil work long after Scotland Yard stopped attributing murders to him.   I
won't deny Mr. Grecian's ability to tell a compelling--if bloody--tale, but the rewards are diminishing.  I'm sure there will be more
Scotland Yard Murder Squad mysteries in our future (the last chapter all but promises them), but I'm not sure we're going to enjoy them.  
(7/12/2014)

A Serial Killer in Nazi Berlin   by Scott Andrew Selby  (2014) Brief pause while you make your own snarky joke about the title of the
book along the lines of, "What?  Just the one?"
   The publishers of this book must have been drooling when they agreed to put it out.  I
can hear them now:   "Serial killers AND Nazis?  It's got it all!"  Paul Ogorzow, a 25-year-old worker on the S-Bahn trains in Berlin killed
eight women during the early days of WW2.  I really can't recommend this book to you because it is haphazardly researched (we're told
practically nothing of interest about the victims or the investigators); awkwardly written  (at first I thought this book might have originally
been written in German and poorly translated into English, but that's not the case); and barely edited  (if I had read one more time that the
trains and streets were dark because of the blackout during the war, I was going to punch somebody).  In the book's epilogue, the author
tells us what happened to the characters in the book after--SPOILER ALERT--Mr. Ogorzow was arrested, tried and beheaded.  I mention
this because more information about these people is presented about what they did later than what the did during the course of the rest of
the book.  (7/9/2014)

Verdun:  The Lost History of the Most Important Battle of World War I, 1914-1918  by John Mosier  (2013)  
As an avid consumer of every ten-pound door-stop any Oxford don has taken the trouble to write about this history of the Great War, I
was surprised to come across this almost modest volume from Mr. Mosier, who's on the faculty at Loyola in New Orleans. But pound for
pound, it may be the best history of the war I've read since I found
The Arms of Krupp and Dreadnought all those years ago. Mr. Mosier
would have you believe that he's a revisionist historian (it says so right there on the jacket), and he's got some serious bones to pick about
the way the way the fighting around Verdun was reported during the war, and the way that historians have been writing about it ever
since. In a nutshell, the French military lied to the people and the politicians during the fighting, and when it was over, historians (mostly
British), using the only data available to them, continued to propagate the same lies they'd been told so often that it became accepted fact.
In other words, quoting Max Beerbohm (and probably some other people): History repeats itself: historians repeat each other.  That's the
good news about
Verdun, but despite the several excellent points he makes, Mr. Mosier himself lacks the same consistency that he fails to
find in others. In his book, the battlefield expands and shrinks to prove whatever point he's making about manpower, firepower or
casualties. And having stated that the Allied, i.e., French generals (with the possible exception of Petain) were incompetent liars, he can't
quite seem to bring himself to admit that they got anything right. Ever.  I might have forgiven some or all of this if Mr. Mosier himself
didn't seem to suffer from the same malady that he ascribes to the French generals: he doesn't seem to know what to do with a map.
Maps are few and far between in
Verdun, and the ones that are included are confusing, to say the least. The photos in the hardback
addition add nothing, and replacing them with more and better maps would have improved the book exponentially.  But overall, it's an
interesting read, and it will challenge the way you think about the Great War. (7/6/2014)

Midnight Crossing   by Charlaine Harris  (2014)  After writing something like thirteen books about the nekkid vampires of Northwest
Louisiana and making a boatload of money, Ms. Harris has left Sookie Stackhouse and the other supernatural creatures behind in Bon
Temps and moved on to--the supernatural creatures of West Texas.  
Midnight, Texas.  Population 14 (plus a dog and a cat).  Or in Ms.
Harris's world, one ancient vampire, one witch, one internet psychic, one pet cemetery owner, one mysterious Amazon, two
homosexuals, a family of three with something to hide, another family who lives in a trailer and has nothing to hide, and the handsome,
affable pawn shop owner from Arkansas around whom all of his neighbors seem to revolve.  Simply put, I didn't connect with this book
because I didn't connect with Bobo the "golden" pawn shop owner the way I (and millions of others) connected with Sookie.  Despite all
the goofiness around her, you were always kind of interested in what she was doing,  Over in Midnight, Bobo is never doing much
beyond resenting the legacy of his grandfather and moping about why his girlfriend might have left him.  Boo hoo.  I'm sure Ms.. Harris
and her publishers will see to it that we hear lots more from these characters in the future.  Too bad they're not more interesting.
(7/6/2014)

But Enough About You   by Christopher Buckley  (2014)  I was taking one of those Facebook quizzes the other night to find the ONE
WORD that describes my personality.  (Naturally, I don't think that one word describes
anybody's personality, but I was bored so I gave
it a shot.)  The word that was eventually assigned to me as "quirky".  I thought about going back and changing some of my responses so
that I'd get a more respectable result, but in the end, I decided that would be just the thing a quirky person would be, so I let it go.  
Christopher Buckley is no stranger to quirky.  
But Enough About You is a collection of his essays over the past twenty years or so,
collected mostly from
Forbes and various in-flight magazines.  Mr. Buckley is a better writer than I could ever hope to be.  While few
people have keener insights than Mr. Buckley, it's also true that few people can torture a pun the way he can.  When he's not telling a
story in a novel, his wit can be somewhat exhausting.  After the first five or ten essays, you just want to put the book down and come
back to it later.  Which is what I did.  I figured out that reading one or two essays every other day or so was really the best way to digest
But Enough About You.  Oddly enough, this is also the way I read The Bible.  You might even say it's quirky.  (6/28/2014)

Hell Before Breakfast:  America's First War Correspondents Making History and Headlines from the Battlefields of the Civil
War to the Far Reaches of the Ottoman Empire
  by Robert H. Patton   (2014)  I think we have a new winner for longest book title.  
More to the point, I think I owe Mr. Patton an apology.   I couldn't connect with his book at all.  You'd think that the twenty-six words in
the title would give you an idea of what the book's about, but you might be mistaken.  Before I sat down to write this blurb, I went back
and read the dust jacket to try to get an idea of what the publishers were thinking.  (For the record, the jacket expands upon the already
expansive title.)  Mr. Patton gives lip service to those who reported the American Civil War, but he's more interested in the
Franco-Prussian War on 1870 and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877.  In those two wars, "America's first war correspondents" aren't
Americans--which is fine, but that doesn't really help the book's cohesion.  They're also not particularly interesting, which hurts the book
in all kinds of ways.  The two best drawn characters in the book aren't even reporters at all.  One is James Gordon Bennett, Jr., who
inherited the
New York Herald from his father, and the other is Mikhail Skobelev, who--like his father--was a general in the Russian Army
in the Russo-Turkish War.  Mr. Patton is right to have given these fascinating men the attention they deserve.  Pity they're not the people
his book claims to celebrate.  (6/22/2014)  

The Long Shadow   by David Reynolds  (2014)   Mr. Reynolds is a professor of international history at Cambridge, so you have to figure
that he knows what he's talking about.   (Don't you?)  The central thesis of this book (I think) is that World War I had a more lasting
effect on the United Kingdom than the United States, Germany, France, Russia or anywhere else.  In most of Europe, WWI was just a
part of an ongoing Thirty Years War that did not end until the end of WW2 in 1945, and in the United States, WWI was almost a
drive-thru war that had almost no lasting impact on the nation.   Only in the UK did the war have a significant impact that was unique unto
itself.   Much of the book deals with how subsequent events reshaped how the war was perceived by later generations, and how it's only
now that WWI is being viewed as a thing unto itself.   I suppose this is a fit subject for scholarly examination, but that doesn't mean it's
particularly interesting to read.  Mr. Reynolds has divided his observations into "Legacies" and "Refractions", but sometimes it's kind of
difficult to tell which is which, and which might just be somebody's hare-brained idea that Mr. Reynolds is sharing with us.  The best
writing in the book is on the dust jacket, where phrases like "stunningly broad" and "magisterial reinterpretation" are thrown around like
nickels.   I'm not sure the book is either of those things, and at times the book reads as if he's throwing things at the refrigerator and
hoping that something will stick.  There are a lot of interesting facts floating around in this book, and it does make you want to look into
some of the ideas he brings up.  But overall, it makes you wonder if there's a there there.  (6/10/2014)

One Night in Winter   by Simon Sebag Montefiore  (2014)   Like everybody else on the planet, Mr. Montefiore is a better writer than I
am, but I really don't get this book.  It's loosely based on an incident in WWII in which some high school kids create something like the
Dead Poets Society, a couple of them get killed trying to prove how romantic they are (or something), and the
Staliniki investigators
looking into the crime find a way to exploit the tragedy for political ends.  If that had been all that happens in this book, I would have liked
it a lot better.  But after spending the first two-thirds of the book trying to get us emotionally invested in the children in the story,t Mr.
Montefiore jumps in the way back machine and starts telling us about the sexual indiscretions of some the peripheral adult characters that
don't have much at all to do with what's happening to the kids who are languishing in jail.  This bit of business, combined with several
chapters that tacked on at the end that do nothing to make you better appreciate the story, and it's kind of a mess.  Mr. Montefiore's
description of the lives of the privileged class in Moscow just after the war don't quite ring true, but I'd like to think that he knows more
about it than I do, so I give him the benefit of the doubt.  And as long as he's concentrating on what started out as a fairly compelling
story, I'm with him.  But when he leaves the children in the Lubianka to go off and talk about some general's sex life when he's in Berlin
and away from his wife, he leaves me in prison with the kids.  (6/3/2014)

Natchez Burning by Greg Iles  (2014) and The Lincoln Myth   by Steve Berry (2014)   I used to get Penn Cage and Cotton Malone
confused.  They're both devilishly handsome Southern boys in their late 40's who left the South, went to elite law schools, took interesting
jobs elsewhere (Cage was an Assistant DA in Houston; Malone was a JAG), came back to the South, have teenagers who are great kids,
despite the losses of their mothers; have brilliant and saucy girlfriends with great names (Caitlin and Cassiopeia) long dark hair, blazing
eyes and great jobs (Caitlin is a newspaper publisher, and Cassiopeia runs a couple of multi-billion dollar corporations).  Cage and
Malone's stories diverge when Malone becomes a spy and Cage gets elected mayor of Natchez, Mississippi.  While the characters may be
similar, these books are not.  Greg Iles, along with Ace Atkins, is one of the two best writers in Mississippi.  (This would also be true if a
certain legal thriller writer decided to close up the house in Charlottesville and come home.)  Iles is always readable, whether he's writing
about Nazis or rednecks in Adams County.  Steve Berry is also a good writer.  He knows how to make you keep turning the pages.   In
their most recent works, Mayor Penn Cage is avenge the murder of a black man in the 1960's and the more recent murder of a beloved
family friend by taking on an evil millionaire in Ferriday, Louisiana.  Cotton Malone is trying to prevent Utah from seceding from the
union.  (I am not making this up.)  Neither of these books represent the best work of these two gifted writers.  In fact, the both seem
somewhat perfunctory.   I want to forgive Iles more because his book is less of a "jump the shark" effort than Berry's, which was
particularly disappointing.  Berry is getting tired of his own characters, and it shows.  I'm sure I'll continue to be a fan of both of these
writers, but they're going to need to step up their games.  (6/1/2014)

FRENCH FRENZY!
IN PAST YEARS, WE'VE DEVOTED MONTHS TO BOOKS ABOUT FRANCE.
IT WAS FUN, SO WE'RE DOING IT AGAIN IN MAY.  
VIVE LA FRANCE!

The Shadow Queen   by Sandra Gulland (2014)  Ms.Gulland might be annoyed that I refer to her book as "chick lit"--but that's too bad.  
It is.  As a matter of fact, this book provides a good practical definition of the term.  Here goes: If a king (Louis XIV) leaves his lover and
goes off to war and comes back
without even mentioning who won the war--that's chick lit.  This happens twice in The Shadow Queen,
which i peripherally about Athenais de  Tonnay-Charente, known to history as Madame de Montespan, one of the Sun King's mistresses.  
The story is really about one of her ladies-in-waiting, Claudette, who is from a theatrical family and is quite good about securing love
potions and lining up Satanic sacrifices (yes, you read that correctly) on behalf of her mistress.   Ms. Gulland is a good writing, but don't
plan to use this book as a source for a term paper you're writing about French history.  (5/28/2014)

The Hotel on Place Vendome: Life, Death and Betrayal at the Hotel Ritz in Paris   by Tilar J. Mazzeo   When I was rounding up
books for French Frenzy, I thought this might be the book I liked best out of all of them.  It's a whole book about the Hotel Ritz--how bad
could it be?  A snarkier person than I would say "about as bad as it could be" at this point, but I'm going to try to rise above the obvious
and just say that it's disappointing.  It reads like something the hotel itself might have commissioned someone who's not particularly
talented to write so that it would have something to sell in the gift shop.  And while I won't say that Ms. Mazzeo isn't talented, she has
also written books about Veuve Clicquot and Chanel.  A couple of the things that stuck out to me were that Ernest Hemingway didn't kill
himself in Key West as she writes, and the fall of Paris didn't happen quite the way she describes it.  Like Hotel Florida (below), this book
relies on the glamor of Ernest Hemingway to sell its point-which is too bad.  A lot of weird, wild stuff happened at the Ritz.  Someday I'd
like to read something other than the
People Magazine version of it.  (5/22/2014)

All the Light We Cannot See   by Anthony Doerr (2014)   If you read just one of my French Frenzy books, make it this one.  All the
Light We Cannot See
may not be a masterpiece, but it is a classic.  Two children come of age at the outset of World War II.   
Marie-Laure (great name!) is a motherless blind girl whose father is the Master of the Keys at the Museum of Natural History in Paris.  
She and her father flee to his uncle's house in the seaside town of Saint-Malo when the Nazis enter the city.  Her father is entrusted with a
stone that may or may not be a mythical 133-carat diamond called the Sea of Flames that is part of the museum's collection.  He is taken
away to a camp during the war, and Marie-Laure and her great uncle are left with the only functioning radio transmitter in Saint-Malo,
which they use on behalf the Resistance.  Meanwhile in Germany, Werner is a painfully small boy with a mania for mechanics who finds
himself packed off to a Nazi-run school for boys where he pretty much has his soul sucked out of him.  As the war progresses, he finds
himself attached to a unit whose job it is to track down illegal radio operators.  We know from the beginning that their paths will cross in
Saint-Malo, and the story is told in a non-chronological way that builds suspense as it goes along.  This device has been misused so ofter
recently, that when it become apparent early on in the book, you start to cringe at the thought of how the author might use the time/space
continuum to manipulate you,  However, Mr. Doerr is an outstanding writer, and you are safe in his hands.  I can't recommend this book
highly enough.  (5/24/2014)

The Age of Unreason, France 1914-1940   by Frederick Brown (2014) explores how France came to embrace Fascism and
anti-Semitism between the world wars.  Mr. Brown certainly knows his history, but I don't think this book is as successful as it might be
because of the way in which he presents the information.  Generally speaking, he presents a number of short biographies of the
personalities who were at the center of the various movements.  As a result, there's really not a chronological flow of the acceptance that
leads up to the Nazis marching down the Champs-Elysees.  In regard to the Antisemitism, it was already in full flower at the time of the
Dreyfus Affair, which occurred fifteen years before the time line of this book.   In that sense, it feels like walking into a movie when it's
already half over.  I almost wish that this book had been divided into two parts--or even two books.  The story that Mr. Brown wants to
tell really can't be told as seamlessly as anyone would like to see.   But like I said, he knows his stuff.  The facts are here.  If you have the
patience to sort them out, you'll be rewarded   (5/18/2014)

Little Demon in the City of Light:  A True Story of Murder  and Mesmerism in Belle Epoque Paris   by Steven Levingston  
(2014)   The Little Demon on the title is a beautiful 20-year-old girl named Gabrielle Bompard who came to Paris in 1889, the year of the
Universal Exposition, and fell in with a bad crowd.  Hypnotism (I'm not sure why the author felt compelled to call it mesmerism in the
title) was all the rage, and it didn't help Gabrielle at all that she was readily susceptible to it.  Even people who professed to know "nothing"
about hypnotism could put her into a trance with ease.  So when Gabrielle and her lover Michel Eyraud are eventually tried for the grisly
murder of a bon vivant with the exotic name of Toussaint-Augustin Gouffe, her lawyer tries to make the case that she acted under
Eyraud's hypnotic influence.  Hypnotic influence had never been used as a defence in a murder case before, and now it became the central
component of a trial that distracted Parisians the way that O.J. and Casey Anthony would in the United States.   In the course of putting
his book together, Mr. Levingston apparently had to make a tough choice between being titillating and being comprehensive in laying out
the medical history of hypnotism.  No doubt, scholars in the future will be grateful for his diligence, but in the course of doing so, he's
taken a lot of sizzle out of the filet mignon.  (5/5/2014)          

An Officer and a Spy: A Novel   by Robert Harris  (2014)  As much as I'd like to think that France is the only place in the world where
something like the Dreyfus Affair could have happened, I can easily something like it happening in Los Angeles this week.  Mr. Harris has
taken one of the peripheral characters of the drama and built a compelling tale around him.  Georges Picquart was the youngest colonel in
the French Army when he was put in charge of military intelligence of the wake of Dreyfus's trial.  In the course of his responsibilities, he
uncovers evidence that would exonerate the disgraced soldier if it had come to light.  Needless to say, this did not much impress his
superior officers who had gone to so much trouble to frame Dreyfus for the crime in the first place.   This is certainly one of the more
interesting tales of the Belle Epoque, and there's enough "atmosphere" to keep most readers interested.  
(5/1/2014)

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932   by Francine Prose  (Pause for you to insert your own "if that is her real name" comment.)
(2014) Ms. Prose would have you believe that the title of the book is also the title of a famous photograph taken by a
then-unknown-but-soon-to-be-famous Hungarian photographer named Gabor Tsenyi.  Mr. Tsenyi is one of the seven or so characters in
the book from whose point of view the story is told.  Others include his lover, a French baroness who patronizes him, an American writer
who befriends him, a lesbian athlete who's in the photo--and some other people.   Each chapter is told from a different point of view,
which is both the strength and weakness of the book.  On the plus side, Ms. Prose is a heck of a writer.  Anybody who can toss off,
"More poisonous that venom, tears are the mustard gas in the trenches of the war of women against men," is OK with me.   On the other
hand, having the same action told from seven different points of view is kind of exhausting.   After we hear it once, we can kind of guess
how someone else will react to it.   Most of the time, we don't need to hear it over and over.  We get it.  Let's move on.  For me, reading
this book was more of a chore than a pleasure, but most of the writing is so good that you might think differently.  (5/11/2014)


A Mad Catastrophe:  The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire   by Geoffrey Wawro  (2014)

"Of the many errors and miscalculations in this uniquely catastrophic war, Austro-Hungarian decision making
in 1914 was arguably the most senseless--and the most reprehensible.  The Great War has justly carried a dark
place on our historical map, and Vienna, no less than Berlin, was the heart of darkness."

Sorry for the spoiler, but these sentences are the last of Mr. Wawro's book.  They also provide a concise summary of the excellent points
that he makes in the preceding 385 pages.  Of the three dynasties that fell during the course of WWI, the Habsburgs, the Hohenzollerns
and the Romanovscard table's Habsburgs best exemplified the adage that the fish rots from the head down.  A better question than why
they collapsed might be to ask how they lasted as long as they did.  While it wasn't a foregone conclusion that the assassination of
Archduke Franz Ferdinand would result in a world war, it was clear that Austria would use the event as an excuse to put its pesky
neighbors the Serbs in their place.  So what did Austria's political and military leaders do in the month between the assassination and the
mobilization?  They headed off to the beaches, lakes and mountains for a month-long vacation while the troops went home to harvest the
crops.  When they finally got around to invading Serbia, their troops were woefully unprepared and folded like a card table.  Their
opponents were aware of their weaknesses, as were their German allies.   (By the end of the war, Austrian troops would be fighting under
the direction of German officers.)  Mr. Wawro is a compelling writer, and he's made an admirable study of a relatively unknown aspect of
The Great War.  (4/30/2014)

Hotel Florida: Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War   by Amanda Vaill  (2014)   If you think that dealing with the history
of our (American) Civil War is problematic, try dealing with the one in Spain.  On one side, you had Hitler and the Fascists; on the other,
Stalin and the Communists.  The eighty percent or so in the middle were so much cannon fodder, and they died in the hundreds of
thousands in what came to be a dress rehearsal for WWII.  Americans tended to view the war in the way they thought of politics at
home:  folks on the right supported the rebels (fascists); folks on the left supported the loyalists (communists).  This being America, of
course the folks on the left had the better propaganda, and it was provided to us by writers like Ernest Hemingway and Martha Bullhorn,
and photojournalists like Robert Capo and Gerda Taro.  And when they were in Madrid, they stayed in the Hotel Florida, which Ms. Vaill,
like lots of writers before her, describe as something of a frat house for the creative class.  Creative as they might have been, their work
still needed to pass through loyalist censors before anyone outside of Spain was allowed to read it, and the sad stories of those people are
told here as well.  Very little of what happens in this book takes place in the eponymous hotel--I'm sure that people more clever than I
would tell you that the author is using the hotel as a metaphor for the experience of being outsiders in the war--and that's fine.  The stories
of the photographers and censors are interesting and deserve to be told, and Ms. Vaill tells them well.  But let's face it, nobody would be
buying the book if Hemingway and Gellhorn weren't on the cover.  Ms. Vaill tells their story in a workmanlike way, but it's been told
better elsewhere.  Still, this is a good book that tries to shine a new light on a very ugly war.  (4/28/2014)

The Parthenon Enigma   by Joan Breton Connelly  (2014) When I first saw this book in the store, my first reaction was, "Hey look!  
Steve Berry has a new book,"  But no.  This is not a book from the author of
The Alexandria Link or The Emperor's Tomb.  It's about the
real temple that's stood on the Acropolis in Athens since sometime around the fifth century BC.  This is a profoundly scholarly book,
which is both its strength and its weakness.  Ms. Connelly provides exhaustive detail about the architecture and the symbolic meaning of
every square inch of the building.  That's great, but it can be--well, exhausting.  By the end of the last chapter, all I really wanted to know
is why hasn't there been more outrage in Greece about Lord Elgin ripping off the priceless tiles that tell so much of the temple's story and
carting them off the British Museum?  (A feat that apparently earned him a knighthood.)  Ms. Connelly does address these issues in the
book's epilogue, but enquiring minds want to know more about that.  Ms. Connelly seems to think that the big news in her book is her
interpretation of the frieze on the Parthenon's east side.  Historians over the centuries seem to think that tells a story related to the goddess
Athena, and Ms. Connelly's theory is that it illustrates the sacrifice of Erechtheus, the founder of Athens.  If you think this is a big wow
bombshell, this is your book.  Otherwise, it's a tough read.  (4/19/2014)

Well, I'm back.  For the past couple of months, I've been absorbed in reading books from a Reading List of books about
German history that was provided by a brilliant young man named Mike Stack, who was my guide in Berlin when I was there in
January.  Mike's list is substantive and exhaustive.  (It also includes movies.)  If you're at all interested in German
history--horrible as it is in most respects--drop me an email and I'll forward it to you.

Maximilian and Carlota: Europe's Last Empire in America   by M. M. McAllen  (2014)   I can only surmise that Americans in the
19th century--and now, for that matter, were and are oblivious to the tale of Maximilian and Carlota because it was happening at the same
time as the Civil War and its brutal aftermath.  Napoleon III and Eugenie, sensing that America was distracted by its own problems, took
advantage of a failed republic in Mexico and a feeling among the country's elite that the time was ripe for the establishment of a
monarchy.  After looking around Europe for suitable candidates, they settled on Maximilian, the brother of the Austrian emperor, and
Carlota, the daughter of the king of Belgium.  They were young and attractive, and anxious to make good in their new realm.  In
retrospect, they might have lived longer had they paid more attention to the country around them when their ship landed in Veracruz.  
Their journey from the coast to the capital in Mexico City was beset by guerrilla attacks from republicans.  In the course of their
three-year reign, they (the imperialistas) never controlled more than 70 percent of the country, and Maximilian never really controlled his
own military commanders who owed their allegiance to Napoleon.  In the end, the French army went home to prepare for the 1870
invasion of the Germans; Carlota returned to Europe and went insane; and Maximilian was shot by a firing squad.  The author does a fine
job of laying out the tale of the misbegotten monarchs.  You never really feel very sorry for the pair because it was clear from the
beginning that they never should have put themselves in the position to be a certain failure.  Maximilian was already a failed king (of
Tuscany) when he accepted to invitation to rule Mexico.  He should have known better.  When he got to the New World, he squandered
the highly leveraged loans he received from France on projects like renovating the national theatre instead of securing his empire.  Like
Maximilian's empire, the book begins with hope and promise, but peters out at the end.  It's not really the author's fault--greater
expectations are always more interesting than getting shot down like a dog in the dirt.  (3/12/2014)

The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pies XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe  by David I. Kertzer  (2014)  Pius XI
may have been the Vicar of Christ, but he was also kind of jerk.  That he'd been the Vatican librarian before his election suggests that
maybe he wasn't a people person.  However, his term of service during the advent of fascism in Germany and especially in Italy makes
him perhaps the most influential pontiff in the one hundred years prior to the election of John XXIII, who perpetrated Vatican II in the
1960's.  Under his leadership, the Lateran Accords were signed in 1929, which solidified the power of the church's rights, schools and
institutions in Mussolini's Italy.  The accords also established The Vatican as the independent nation-state that it is to this day.  In return,
Mussolini got the church's support for his leadership, which led the nation to ruin. The history of Nazism is rife with the questions, "How
could this have happened?  How could the people have chosen to go down this road?"   Those questions aren't asked about Italy because
the answers lie in plain sight for anyone to see--they followed the fascists because their priests (most of them, anyway) told them to do
it.  This is an outstanding book and indispensable to anyone who's interested in the rise of Fascism.  (3/7/2014)

Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power   by Philip Dwyer  (2013)   The author's main point, I think, is that Napoleon skillfully used the
press to create and manage his image as an invincible commander and a competent administrator in a way that politicians have been
copying for the past two hundred years.  If you're one of those folks like me who'll read anything about Napoleon, or if this concept
interests you, you won't find it explained any better than it is here.  (Over 200 of the books 800 pages are devoted to notes and a
bibliography.)  If you really don't care, you'll find this book deadly dull.  I actually was interested in both the subject and the concept, but
even I got worn down in the end.  (3/2/2014)

Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age   by W. Bernard Carlson  (2013)   I am not an engineer.  Nor do I have enough patience to try to
comprehend complicated principles of physics and engineering that I take for granted, but otherwise don't interest me.  As a result,
reading Mr. Carlson's book was almost like trying to read a book in another language.  Mr. Carlson is a professor of science, technology
and society at the University of Virginia--and good for him.  As far as I can tell, he's got the science and technology components of
Nikola Tesla's life down cold; the "society" part--not so much.  For the sake of transparency, I have to admit that I skipped over the many
pages of this book that dealt with engineering principles.  I'm sure those principles were important to the Tesla's story (somehow)--but
not to me.  Sorry.  (2/26/2014)

I Always Loved You   by Robin Oliveira  (2014)  is the story of the artists Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas.  The author says they loved
and respected each other for their talents, but otherwise kind of hated each other.  Or as I think the author would say, both of them put all
their love into their art.  While I've always been a fan of the history of the
Belle Epoque, I've also found the private lives of the
Impressionists among the least
belle stories of the epoque.  (Moon for the Misbegotten is also my least favorite Somerset Maugham
novel.)  Almost to a man--or woman, they were vain, selfish and treated others terribly.  Is that a fair description of artists in any era?
Maybe, but somehow I blame this bunch more for their bad behavior.  (Maybe they were just French.)  For my own selfish reasons, I've
been giving a lot of thought lately to the liberties one cane take with real people in writing fiction.  Is it ethical to give them experiences,
feelings, thoughts and relationships that they might not have had in real life?  Under the current rules of engagement in literature, the
answer is "yes," but I don't think it's fair to appropriate entire lives for the author's own purposes.  (I'm talking about you,
Abraham
Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
.)  Ms. Oliveira has commandeered the lives of the entire Impressionist school, and while she treats them as
respectfully as they seem to deserve, does she really have the right to give them a lifetime of thoughts that might never have occurred to
them in reality?  Like I said, today's culture says yes.  I'm just not so sure.  (2/26/2014)

Dark Invasion: 1915: Germany's Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America   (2014)  I think the title of this
book says a lot about it--or maybe it just says a lot.  I'm sometimes distrustful that include the book's marketing plan in the title.  Yes, the
Germans were indeed doing a comprehensive job of making themselves unpleasant in the early years of the Great War, when America
was doing a poor job of pretending to be neutral.  Ships carrying food and war material to Europe were blown up; shipping--especially
from the Port of New York--was harassed before the ships even left port; and in one spectacularly egregious incident, a bomb was
exploded in the U.S. Capitol in Washington.  Although the mayhem began the year the war started, it took American authorities to figure
out that it was being directed by the Kaiser's Washington embassy.  There were no federal authorities at the time to investigate the crimes
(hard to believe, right?), so the job of the job of tracking down the miscreants fell to the bomb squad of the New York Police
Department.  The head of the squad, a conscientious, upright and uninteresting fellow named Tom Tunney is the hero of the piece, and
therein lies the rub.  Like many an understaffed and isolated police department, Tunney worked doggedly to solve the crimes.  And as
interesting as the crimes were, Tunney's work to solve them really wasn't.  And while lots of books make police procedurals tense and
exciting, this one doesn't.  And maybe it wasn't, and the author was just telling the story, so as a result, the title of the book had to sound
as much like a Robert Ludlum novel as possible.  (3/10/2014)

July 1914: Countdown to War  by Sean McMeekin  (2013)   At the risk of either giving Mr. McMeekin too much credit or sounding
more negative than I'd like, this book feels like what history books will be in the 21st century.  Where I've gotten the sense in the past that
most British writers about the run-up to the Great War seemed to be all about either trying to rationalize or even justify the actions of the
British government while explaining what was going on in Sarajevo, Vienna, St. Petersburg, Berlin and Paris, Mr. McMeekin takes a rather
refreshing "curse on all your houses" approach.  McMeekin names names of the alleged leaders in the various capitals who all thought that
they could use the tragic events in Sarajevo to further some political end, while at the same time avoiding a world war.   As events
unfolded, clearly none of them succeeded and disaster ensued.  As I'm writing this, Russia is sending troops into Ukraine, and
governments from Moscow to Washington who think they have something marginal to gain and nothing to lose are posturing and making
foolish threats about borders and red lines that they have no intention of honoring.  It's the kind of talk that has in the past always led to
war because everyone involved thought they were too smart to let their games go too far.  Apparently, we've learned nothing in the past
hundred years.  (3/4/2014)

Five Days at Memorial  by Sheri Fink (2013)  This was widely regarded as the best book of 2013, and it's not hard to see why.  For
five horrible days during and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of patients and staff members of the Memorial Medical
Center on Napoleon Avenue were trapped in the hospital, surrounded by 4-12 feet of water in the middle of the drowned city.  (Personal
Note: My dentist's office was next door to the hospital, and all of my dental records were destroyed in the flood.  I could fake my own
death
like that.)  During the flood, the doctors, nurses and staff of the hospital acted heroically to evacuate and/or save the lives of dozens
of patients.  But shortly before all patients any staff were finally evacuated on that terrible Thursday, the number of deceased patients
parked in the hospital's chapel increased from about a dozen that witnesses saw that morning to the 45 that were evacuated the following
week when emergency personnel returned to the hospital.  Most of the corpses were immobile elderly patients who had been brought to
the hospital for safety before the storm, and most of them had been seen alive on the morning of the evacuation.  So what happened?  
Sheri Fink has a theory that dozens of patients were euthanized by one of the hospital's staff doctors.  Five Days at Memorial is the story
of those five terrible days and the aftermath, during which the doctor was tried for murder and acquitted.  It's a fascinating book, and by
far the cream of the Katrina non-fiction crop.  I can't recommend it highly enough.  I do have one bone to pick with the author: She
describes Greg Beuerman as "tall and perpetually tan."  When I read stuff like that, I wonder what else she's lying about.  (1/10/2014)

A Cruel and Shocking Act:  The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination by Philip Shenon  (2013)  The worst thing about this
book is its title.  It's an excellent book that is really the "secret history of politics of the Warren Commission."  The secrets in question are
the thousands of pages of commission notes that have recently be declassified and available for public consumption.  Mr. Shenon does a
wonderful job of blending them with interviews of the young lawyers who made up the staff of the commission who are now getting old
and want to have their stories told while they're still around to tell them.  Chief among them are Arlen Specter and David Slawson.  To my
knowledge, this is the first major work that actually examines the manner in which the Warren Commission went about its business.  For
that reason alone, the book deserves to be read.  In case you're wondering, the author puts forward a compelling case for a Cuban role in
the assassination that was covered up by the CIA and others who wanted to avert a war with Cuba and its Soviet friends so soon after the
Cuban missile crisis.  The chief culprits for the woefully incomplete report that the Commission eventually published were Earl Warren,
who was willing to suppress any evidence that might reflect badly on the John F. Kennedy; and Robert Kennedy, who had other motives
for wanting not to tarnish his brother's reputation.   If you're at all interested in the assassination, this is a "must read."  (1/9/2014)

The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914    by Margaret McMillan (2013)   Welcome to 2014!  Not only do I wish for you all the
best for the new year, I encourage you to look into some of the great new books that are being published in connection with the
centennial of the beginning of World War I.  One of those books is
The Daughters of Mars (left), which I recognized as my favorite book
of 2013.  Another is
The War That Ended Peace by Warden Margaret McMillan of St. Antony's College at Oxford.  The title is awkward,
but the book is one of the best examinations of the questions, "How could such a thing happened in the enlightened societies of Europe in
the early 20th century.  Turns out they weren't as enlightened and some might have supposed.  While others like  Barbara Tuchman and
Alexander Solzhenitsyn have written astounding books about the events leading up to the war, Ms. McMillan focuses on the mindsets of
the people who ultimately made the decisions to go to war.  It's an immensely readable book, and I can't recommend it to you too
strongly.  (1/7/2014)
2014 BOOK COMMENTS
Matt's rating system:

       GO!   I liked the book a lot and recommend it to you without reservation.  (Comments in this category are also posted at
                amazon.com.)
CAUTION  I liked it, but your tastes may be different.
   STOP!   I really didn't like the book at all.
  YIELD   I recognize that there is merit here, but as I'm not a member of the target audience, I'm not sure my comments
                would be useful to you at all.
Click here for
2014 BOOK COMMENTS