Monday, October 31, 2011

"In the Garden of Beasts" by Erik Larson is a Fascinating Account of Both the U.S. and Germany in the 1930s.

Instead of being stretched out on the couch reading, with a restorative beverage near at hand, I've recently spent many hours driving the highways and byways, attending to matters in far flung places that require attending.  Fortunately, at the start of this intense travel period I snagged an audio copy of In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson.

In the Garden of Beasts is a non-fiction account of the experiences of U.S. Ambassador to Germany William E. Dodd and his family while living in Berlin in 1933-37.  Dodd, born in North Carolina just eight years after the conclusion of the Civil War, was appointed Ambassador by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  At the time of his appointment Dodd was 63-years old and a professor of American history at the University of Chicago.  He moved from Chicago to Berlin with his wife and two adult children, Bill and Martha.

Three points make this book an exceptional read. First, and if you've read the excellent Devil in the White City you know this, Erik Larson is very good writer.  In this book he again pulls together historical facts and events and assembles a bright, compelling, and engrossing story.

Second, although much has already been written and said about World War II, Larson's book brings sharp perspective to ideas that don't typically get play.  For example, Larson describes the politics behind Dodd's appointment as ambassador and in the workings of the foreign service.  Dodd was an outsider to this community and at odds with with it, which became an added burden to him.  In addition to the infighting on the U.S. side of the equation, Larson tells us about the infighting, often deadly and violent infighting, among organizations in Hitler's Germany, including the Sturmabteilung (SA) and the Schutzstaffel (SS), and the old guard loyal to President Hindenburg and the new fanatical Nazi Party.  These are but two examples of interesting elements in a book rich with information.

Third, there is the perspective on events in Germany offered by 25-year old Martha Dodd, the Ambassador's daughter.  Oh, that Martha.  She is enthralled with the Nazi regime, forging friendships with Party leaders and insiders.  Martha has a very . . . active romantic life.  Many times throughout the course of the book I thought, 'Martha, you foolish twit.'  Nonetheless, her story is engaging and adds another layer to the picture of what is happening in Berlin.

In the Garden of Beasts is loaded with compelling facts, stories, and analysis as well as drama.  It is a pleasure to read, or listen to while on the road traveling.

Friday, October 21, 2011

What to do if your e-reader is lost or stolen.

Check out this nice post at Mashable Tech discussing what to do if - god forbid! - your Kindle, Nook or Sony Reader is lost or stolen.

Something missing?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Good Work Through Good Editing.

Have you ever had the experience of reading a book with a compelling story, but nonetheless find that you are skimming through large chunks of it?  When that happens I often think, 'this book needed more editing.'  Good writing, be it a book, a legal brief, or a song, requires good editing.  Recent interviews with two successful writers illustrates the importance of editing in the creative process.

First, the Wall Street Journal interviewed musician and composer Paul Simon, who is now touring to promote his new disc, So Beautiful or So What.  Mr. Simon was asked "[w]hat's your success rate with songwriting?  How often do you hit a dead end?"  His answer:

There are not too many. . . Songs evolve over a period of time and I have the chance to edit and fix them, so I don't have to wait to the end to say no.  But occasionally, I'll be in the middle of a song and drop it if it doesn't feel true.  It's not a fun thing to do.  You tend to fool yourself as you go along, because you're working hard at it.  In a sense it's good, or competent, but it doesn't pass the test.

Mr. Simon's comments remind me of what I think of as "the second book phenomena":  An author spends years writing a first novel and it's a huge success.  A year or so later, seeking to capitalize on the recent success, a second book by the same author is rushed out and it is terrible, or as Mr. Simon might put it, "it's good, or competent, but it doesn't pass the test."  It's in those situations where it seems like the author hasn't had sufficient time, or perhaps the experience, to really edit the work.        

Allowing sufficient time to edit is illustrated by a second interview, one that I heard on NPR with Jeffery Eugenides, author of The Marriage Plot and Middlesex:

Eugenides tells NPR's Guy Raz that when he first started work on The Marriage Plot in the '90s, he had a very different story in mind — a story about a rich family preparing to throw a debutante party.  "One of the daughters in that family was Madeleine," Eugenides says. "And as I began to write her section, which I had envisaged would only be three or four pages, I kept going with her and started writing about semiotics, her boyfriend trouble, and little by little I realized I had another novel on my hands."

Note that Mr. Eugenides started work on what would become The Marriage Plot in the 1990s.  The book was published this year.

It's interesting to learn how Jeffery Eugenides and Paul Simon build their creative works, and to see the value they place on good editing.  As the world of book publishing continues to change, let's hope that editing doesn't get lost.  It is no fun to buy a book only to find yourself skimming through it.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Repo Man Cometh: "Ranchero" by Rick Gavin.

Up-date 11/24:  Read my review of Ranchero here.


Ranchero by Rick Gavin is being released next week.  From its description, the book looks like it might be entertaining :  Mississippi repo man Nick Reid attempts to get a flat screen t.v. back from Percy Dwayne Dubois, but instead Reid gets hit over the head, tied-up, and has his car stolen (along with the t.v. he is suppose to collect).  A road trip to track down the perp ensues.

Check out the full description of Ranchero at the link to the book, below.  And if you are looking for more stories from the world of repo, revisit the classic 1984 movie Repo Man staring Harry Dean Stanton.  It is a great, great movie.  In fact, I think I'll re-watch it this week myself!   

Repo Man - the movie.

Friday, October 14, 2011

NYT: New Book from P.D. James.

Move over Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:  The NYT reports that mystery-master P.D. James has written a sequel of her own to the Jane Austin classic.  Check out the story here.  The mystery book is called Death Comes to Pemberley.  Reportedly it will be available in December, conveniently in time for holiday shopping.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"The Informant" by Thomas Perry: A nice thriller with an old school vibe.

In The Informant, a hit man is forced out of retirement after his location is discovered by Mafia figures who want to kill him in revenge for past deeds.  The hit man, known in the criminal underworld as the Butcher's Boy, needs to make sure that those seeking to exterminate him will pay a steep price:  their own lives.  This sets up the first of two story lines for The Informant.  The Butcher's Boy tears around America, from Washington D.C. to California and points in between, attempting to take care of his growing problem with his former employers, the various factions of the Mafia.

As the Butcher's Boy tangles with the mob, an agent at the United States Department of Justice attempts to convert him into being her informant.  This provides the book's second story line.  The Butcher's Boy uses this collaboration with the agent to further his own agenda.  However, the relationship turns tricky:  Will the agent continue to attempt to recruit the Butcher's Boy, or will she seek to have him arrested?  Will he need her to completely resolve his problems with the Mob?  What happens when she gets caught in the gunfire?

The main character in The Informant first appeared in a 1982 book by Perry, The Butcher's Boy.  The style and ambiance created in The Informant continues to feel a bit like a book from the 1980s:  The protagonist is a man alone against a hostile world, someone who easily jets around the globe while killing lots of people.  Robert Ludlum wrote in this style as well (The Bourne Identity, for example).  This old school vibe doesn't provide any new reading thrills, but it does provide a solid book to enjoy on a rainy autumn weekend.   If you want something more contemporary, try Beat the Reaper.  

Saturday, October 8, 2011

"The Language of Flowers" Disappoints. On to "The Informant" by Thomas Perry.

Although I haven't had much reading time recently, I did attempt to work my way through The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh.  While I initially enjoyed this novel about a young woman starting life after a childhood spent in foster care and group homes, the story lost its charm for me about halfway through.  This was quite disappointing as author Diffenbaugh had a neat idea for what might have been a very special book: a young woman overcoming adversity with her knowledge of flowers and her special talent for matching flowers with people's needs.  I hoped I'd be reading something magical like The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and When God was a Rabbit, but the author went in a different direction.  Although I was ultimately disappointed with it, I suspect many other readers will likely rave about The Language of Flowers.

Now it's on to The Informant by Thomas Perry.  The book is the third in Perry's series about a professional hit-man who's real name is unknown, but who those in the criminal underworld call "the Butcher's Boy".