Friday, February 22, 2008

From the Bookshelf

As you can see, it's a good day here in New Jersey for curling up with a book. I'm clearing books away and then will return to Atonement. Here's what I've been reading lately:

1. The Innocent Man, by John Grisham. First a confession: I love true crime, not mysteries, but stories about real crimes. So I recently picked up Grisham's first foray into the genre. This is a well-written and intriguing story. And it gave me a deep respect for the work Barry Scheck does with his Innocence Project. Following the murder of a young girl, a man is arrested and charged with the crime. Although the evidence is weak, he is convicted and sentenced to death. He spends eleven years in prison before DNA absolves him of the crime. Already broken by drugs and drinking and a failed baseball career, he is shattered by prison and is never able to regain even the semblance of a life.

2. The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer, by Philip Carlo. The story of Richard Kuklinski, a paid killer, but also someone who from an early age enjoyed inflicting pain on people who did him wrong. Parts of the book are exceedingly brutal, yet the character is grotesquely fascinating. His story was the subject of an HBO series. Shows how damaged a human being can be by early abuse in the home. You need a strong stomach for this one.

3. Never Enough, by Joe McGinnis. True crime at its best, written by a superb writer. I already knew the story and the outcome as it was widely televised, but I was fascinated by the close-up view McGinnis provides into the world of investment banking and his insights into the way greed grows and distorts the human psyche.

4. When Madeline Was Young, by Jane Hamilton. I like Jane Hamilton, but this novel didn't work for me. I found it quite preposterous in its premise. Madeline, shortly after marriage, has a bicycle accident and ends up brain damaged. Her young husband brings her back home and later remarries. He and the new bride, soon the mother of his children, one of whom narrates the story, care for Madeline as if she were one of the children, even allowing her into bed with them. Nonsense. Wouldn't happen. Then Madeline gets a boyfriend who is intellectually limited and they plan a wedding. Need I say more?

5. No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy. I'm giving up on this author. I can't make sense out of his novels and they bore me silly. Worse, everybody else seems to think he's amazing and he wins all kinds of awards. So maybe it's just me. Here, the protagonist happens across some guys doing some kind of bad deed—I never could figure out just what, but I think it was a dope deal gone wrong. He then goes on the run with some really bad guy in pursuit. That guy seems to represent pure evil. Everyone who goes up against him gets shot in the face. So there's a lot of running around and a lot of shooting. There are also a number of annoying stylistic affectations, such as dialect, sections of italics, and a paucity of apostrophes. By the end of the novel, everyone's been shot in the face.

6. Rise and Shine, by Anna Quindlen. I hate to complain again, but I didn't buy the plot of this one either. A top-rated woman newscaster (a la Katie Couric) says the f word into the mike when she thinks it's off. Such chaos ensues! She disappears, leaving her teenage son, and just gives up the life she has known. Her sister steps in, bonds more than ever with the kid, and sort of rescues her sister. Well written but not a terribly credible plot or characterizations. I like Quindlen better when she's writing non-fiction, though I admire her for branching out.

7. Slash, by Slash and Anthony Bozza. Memoir by the former guitarist with Guns 'n' Roses. He clearly has an ax to grind with Axel Rose. Also a penchant for taking off his clothes in public. Goes for girls, alcohol, and drugs. Occasionally cleans up his act. I wish he'd worked harder on his prose. Needlessly long and repetitious. Not many insights into his creativity which is what I was interested in. What rhymes with Slash?

8. Clapton, by Eric Clapton. Much better than #7. Many of the same issues, but also some insights into the creative side of Clapton, his passion for the music, his demons. I felt his struggle with alcoholism and drug addiction. He made me care and I cheered him on when he finally got sober and learned to like himself.

9. Just Breathe Normally, by Peggy Shumaker. And the best shall be last. Shumaker is a poet and it shows in her lyrical style in this memoir. There are two strands braiding their way throughout the book. The first is about the awful accident that occurred when Shumaker and her husband went biking one day and were plowed down by a kid on a 4-wheel ATV. What he was doing was illegal. He shouldn't have been where he was. Shumaker almost didn't survive her injuries which took several surgeries, many months, and lots of therapy to come back from. So that's one story. The other takes us back into the past and recounts Shumaker's life with her broken family. Although it might seem that the two strands aren't related, metaphorically they are. This is a memoir about brokenness and repair. It's poetic and tender and I loved it.


  1. I'm with you on Cormac McCarthy; I just do not understand why people are so taken with his work.

    I recommend this review of the movie at The Human Flower Project. And now that's won Best Picture. Sigh.

  2. Just read the review. I thought I might see the movie (if only to make clear what I'd missed in the book), but now I think I'll avoid it. The violence sounds way overboard. Reading about it was enough; I don't care to see all those people getting shot in the face.


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