GO! I liked the book a lot and recommend it to you without reservation.
CAUTION I liked it, but your tastes maybe be different.
STOP! I really didn't like this book at all.
I'm always pleased (and surprised) when an author contacts me to let me know that he has read my comments about
his book. When that happens, whether the responses are positive or negative, I feel compelled to share the
communications with you. To that end, you might be interested in Ben Wynne's response to my comments about
Mississippi's Civil War, below.
True Evil by Greg Iles Not his best work in my humble opinion, but still a compelling page-turner. Mr. Iles tells the
story of a woman whose marriage crumbled around her long before her husband tied her up with duct tape one
afternoon and demanded to know who the father of the child she's expecting in six months or so. Despite creating a
fictional Mississippi town for the first time in his fiction (In the past, his work has been set in real places lie Natchez,
McComb and Jackson), I feel as if I've been down this road before with Mr. Iles. (And that is my last book note for
2007. Thanks to all the authors who made this year interesting and fun. See you in 2008!)
The Venetian Betrayal by Steve Berry This year needs to end soon. Rather than tax myself to come up with
something new and interesting and to say about this book, I'm just going to cut and paste my comments about the last
Steve Berry book, The Alexandria Link, which is somewhere near the bottom of this page.: Well, Steve "Don't Call Me
Steven Anymore" Berry is at it again--cartoon characters with names like Cotton, Sabre and Cassiopeia and a
relentless jackhammer plot. If you liked the DaVinci Code motif, you'll probably like this book--although you may get
somewhat worn out by cliffhangers at the end of every chapter. Please don't misunderstand: I really did like The
Alexandria Link. It's just that I couldn't shake the notion that I'd read it before.
Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu by Laurence Bergreen At a time when interest in China is intense and the
13th century is selling like--well, The DaVinci Code, you'd have to say that this is indeed the time for a compelling
biography--or at least a reasonable dramatization--of the life of Marco Polo. And you'd be right. Unfortunately, this is
not that book. I admire the scholarship that Mr. Bergreen, who has written biographies of such diverse types as
Magellan and Irving Berlin has put into this effort. Sadly, he just has not captured the "shock and awe" that Marco must
have felt during his travels. I don't really know how he could have stuck to the facts and still captured the magic, but I'll
bet there's someone out there who does. I'm looking forward to a really fascinating book from whoever that is.
The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis by Michael Pritchett I keep thinking that at some point, someone is going to
ask me, "In your travels, what are the most beautiful and loneliest places you've been?" I'll leave the answer about the
most beautiful place for another time, but I've always thought that the loneliest place in America must be the inn on the
Natchez Trace about 45 miles southwest of Nashville, where on a dark night in October, 1809, Meriwether Lewis felt so
desolate that he killed himself. Apparently, Mr. Pritchett thinks along similar lines, for he has penned a book that
ponders why a man who was a living legend at the ripe old age of 35 would contemplate such a thing. Some of the
reasons the author puts forward are the usual suspects--depression, debts, loneliness, a sense of betrayal; others are
rather novel, like not being able to find a wife. I think that because he was an explorer who cut a dashing figure and
died young, people who think of their own lives as adventures seem to identify with him. The author taps into this vibe
by using half the book to tell a parallel modern story of a St. Louis schoolteacher who is a distant relative of Lewis and
experiences present-day equivalents of the kinds of challenges faced by his famous great-great-great-great uncle. As
far as the book is concerned, this is a huge mistake. It's not terribly engaging, and the manner in which it distracts from
the "main" story, is just kind of irritating. I admire the effort; I just wish I admired the book.
True Evil by Greg Iles
I urge all Mississippians, and all Americans concerned with providing althcare some of our nation's most disadvantaged
citizens, to support the UMMC Cancer Institute with their dollars. You could not find a worthier
cause.--Acknowledgements, True Evil
If you know me at all, you know that my real job is raising funds for the University of Mississippi Medical Center, which
includes the aforementioned UMC Cancer Institute. Therefore, on the basis of the Acknowledgements alone, I have to
say that this is the greatest book ever written. As noble as the sentiments are, they come after a couple hundred pages
in which practically every evildoer is either an employee of the University of Mississippi or a graduate. Happily, some of
the "good guys" are ours as well. As a new resident of Jackson, I'm also pleased that this is the first book I've noticed
that is set in our fair burg. Mr. Iles does not present us as any better or worse than we are, and I suppose that's about
as much as one can hope for in the world. As he has in the past, he tells a tale about sex, drugs and money as well as
practically anyone writing today. Check it out.
For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette and Their Revolutions by James R. Gaines Mr. Gaines asserts
that there are two kinds of people in the world, foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes are flexible and consider all the angles;
hedgehogs find one big idea and stick to it. George Washington and "Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier
do la Fayette, baron de Vissac, lord of Saint Romain, Fix and others places" (his friends called him Gilbert) were
definitely hedgehogs, and the big ideas they found and clung to were liberty and glory. This is a great book, and while
it may not tell you much about the Father of His Country that you didn't already know, it tells you plenty that you
probably didn't know about the indomitable French teenager who came to America during the Revolution and
probably did as much as anyone to help secure our liberty and glory.
Spook Country by William Gibson Sometimes, I feel as if I'm reading the same books over and over. Further down
this list, you'll hear me whining about a book called The Last Summer in the World. My chief complaint about that
book is that it (unsuccessfully) tries to weave two stories together, when one story told more compellingly would have
been much more satisfying. Which leads us to Spook Country. Mr. Gibson ups the ante by trying to tell three stories at
the same time. The most interesting thread is about a young woman who used to be a singer for a
so-hip-you've-never-heard-of-them rock band, who is now wondering what to do with the rest of her life and dabbling
in journalism. It is by far the most intriguing of the three; however, it mainly wins by default.
Magic City by James W. Hall I can't remember when I've been as involved with a book as little as I have this one. I'm
sure it's my fault, but I just didn't care what happened to any of the characters. At the beginning, a young boy and his
brother watch as their parents and sister are brutally murdered (apparently) for no reason. The boys are taken under
the wing of a dynamic young politician who is destined to become mayor of Miami and his wife. Decades later, they are
all put in the way of a young policewoman, her father, and her boyfriend. But none of the characters stir much
empathy, and when several of them die violent deaths over a secret that really didn't seem to be worth keeping, you
find yourself wishing that the author had provided at least one character that you cared about. I suspect that Mr. Hall
would say that he wanted his characters to be presented with flaws that prove they are human. OK, but personally, I'd
prefer fewer flaws and more information that would make me care whether they live or die.
Los Angeles Noir edited by Denise Hamilton Further down this list, you'll find snarky comments about New Orleans
Noir, which has a few good stories, but many more ordinary ones. As the book claimed to be the first collection book of
short stories to emerge from New Orleans after the Katrina, I was probably less judgmental that I might have been
about another collection--another collection like say, Los Angeles Noir. In case you're wondering, Noir offerings are
also currently available for Baltimore, Brooklyn, Chicago, DC, Dublin, London, Manhattan, Miami, San Francisco, the
Twin Cities and Wall Street; but nobody does noir like the City of the Angels. Almost all of the stories are excellent, and
they actually fit into the noir genre much more easily than do their New Orleans counterparts. And in a way, these
kinds of stories about people in the entertainment industry just seem to seem to be more authentic.
The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800 by Jay Winik. There have been
some outstanding books in the past few years about George Washington, John Adams, Catherine the Great and the
American and French Revolutions. Now, Jay Winik has produced a very readable story of how all of these amazing
people (and others) and the upheavals in America, France and Russia related to each other during this tumultuous
period. It's quite a story. Mr. Winik is a professor of history at Princeton, and in reading his book, it occurred to me
more than a couple of times that the privilege of hearing him teach might actually be worth the price of tuition at
Princeton. For example, in describing the incomparable Catherine the Great, he says, "If foolish consistency was the
hobgoblin of little minds, she was eminently disqualified." Practically all of the historical figures and events in this book
have been covered more thoroughly elsewhere, but nowhere have they been juxtaposed and put in context to each
other as they have here. Check it out.
The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy by Adam Tooze Wow. My hat is
certainly off to Mr. Tooze, who has written an exhaustive and exhausting economic history of Nazi Germany. You
should check it out some time when you've got a couple of weeks freed up on your calendar. More textbook than
expose, this book really makes you question much of what you've read in the past about the prosecution of World War
II. The central message of the book is that Germany never had the resources to attempt what the Nazis tried to
accomplish on the world stage, and that Hitler 's core belief from the beginning was that for Germany to continue to be
a dominant culture, it needed additional resources to compete with the United States--and to a lesser extent, the United
Kingdom. Thus the unprecedented carnage the Nazis wreaked on the people of the world was one of the first attempts
to join the US as a global superpower.
(Not That You Asked) by Steve Almond Further down this list, you'll find some comments about The Evil B. B. Chow,
a collection of short stories that I found to be "kind of disgusting," but "oddly fascinating." Now, Mr. Almond has turned
his attention to essays. I wish I had not. The running conceit of the title is that the author is sharing with you what he
thinks about a number of topics--not that you asked. Those topics are as varied as George Bush, the Boston Red Sox,
George Bush, reality television, George Bush and George Bush. Based on the evidence presented here, I think that
Dubya could take him in a test of wits. Mr. Almond also provides an essay on Internet literary critics. Generally
speaking, he seems to think that they want to have sex with him and are just trying to get his attention with their
criticisms. Therefore, in the interest of full disclosure, I wold like to admit that I have no interest in having sex with Mr.
Almond. However, to use his own pretzel-like logic, I do wonder if he's just trying to get Dubya's attention. Hmmm.
The Scandal of the Season by Sophie Gee I really didn't like this book very much, but as and I was about to write
something much harsher, I realized that my primary reason for disliking it really sort of defies logic. But I'll tell you
anyway. My chief complaint is that even though everyone in this book was a real person, Ms. Gee calls her work a
novel and takes incredible liberties with the lives of long-dead and therefore non-litigious people. This is nothing new.
Further down this list, you'll see Norman Mailer's Castle in the Forest, which I liked a lot. So why is it okay to monkey
around with the lives of the family of Adolf Hitler, and not okay for the life of eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope? I
don't know, but it just isn't. Ms. Gee purports to share with us the real story behind Mr. Pope's The Rape of the Lock.
That 1714 poem described the disgrace of a woman by her lover who wished to expose her to society as his mistress.
When the poem was published, everyone in London society knew who "Belinda" and "Sir Plume" were. Ironically, Mr.
Pope used a real story and made up the names. Four hundred years later, Ms. Gee has kept the names and made up
Down in New Orleans: Reflections from a Drowned City by Billy Sothern
The details of my exploits are only a pretext for a far more
expansive consideration of general truths--Henry Fool
Either before or after I left New Orleans in 2002, I think I recall meeting Nikki Page at some artistic hoedown or another,
but I do not remember meeting her husband, the author of this book. Not that it matters--I doubt that we'd have much
to discuss, other than the story of how he and his family fared during the hurricane. Those exploits comprise the first
half of the book. A better subtitle for this book would have been How I Hope a Category Five Hurricane Can Be
Parlayed Into a Social Movement. Mr. Sothern's theory is that the response to Hurricane Katrina (the largest rescue,
rebuilding and philanthropic efforts in the history of the world to date) can help to regenerate the moribund left in
American politics. Specifically, he compares the storm to the deaths of abused garment workers in New York in the
early 20th century, and expresses the wish that it could be a call-to-arms to the "progressive" movement. I doubt that it
will, if for no other reason than the hurricane didn't happen in New York. But time will tell. The answers in the book are
all related to more government. Mr. Sothern's work is not as thoughtful as City Adrift (see blow), nor is it as shrill and
self-serving as Douglas Brinkley's miserable The Great Deluge from 2006.
The Judgment of Paris: the Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism by Ross King With a
title like that, you scarcely need to read the book-- which would be a shame because it's a pretty good book. The
decade in question is the years between 1863-1873, when French art--like France itself--was being reinvented. The
key players were Edouard Manet, whom you've probably heard of, and Ernest Meissonier, whom you've probably
haven't--although he was quite good and generally considered to be the finest artist of his day. You don't have to be a
former Art History major to enjoy this book, although it would probably help. What I remember most is that Manet, who
was established and "known" in the art community before Claude Monet, initially refused to meet Monet because he
thought the younger man was trying to take advantage of the similarity of their names. They later became great
friends, but I always wondered what they thought about the coincidence.
Stalin's Ghost: An Arkady Renko Novel by Martin Cruz Smith. The fact that this book advertises itself as an "Arkady
Renko Novel" suggests that there have been other Arkady Renko Novels in the past and that if this one makes any
money, there will be more in the future. This is potentially good news for everyone--except Arkady Renko. Mr. Renko
(since I don't know him that well) is a Moscow police inspector in Putin's New Russia. I don't know what kinds of
adventures he's had in the past, but in this book, he gets shot in the head and spends a month in a hospital; he has
amnesia; and he gets fired. The only "good " thing that happens to him is that his mysterious, cheating,
motorcycle-riding, Chernobyl survivor of a girlfriend decides not to dump him. What happens in this novel is never
anything you think you'd hate to miss, and when you find out near the end that there is actually a motive for what's
happened in the preceding 300 pages, you're kind of surprised because it's just seemed to be kind of random.
Happily, Mr. Smith turns just enough clever phrases for you to wish that no further harm comes to Mr. Renko.
The Last Summer of the World by Emily Mitchell This book is certainly original--but that's not necessarily a good
thing. Essentially, it's the story (well, a story, anyway, but I digress) of photographer Edward Streicher during the
eponymous summer of 1914 and later, near the end of the War to End All Wars. I didn't really like the way the story
was told. Each chapter began with a thread of story that carries through to the end of the war; later in the chapter,
there is a segue to the story of the dissolution of Streicher's marriage at the outbreak of the war. I have to admit that I
cheated. I read the first parts of all the chapters and then went back and filled in the earlier plot details. I don't think
I've ever read a book in some other order than the way it was presented. I can't say that it improved the experience,
but it did help me to keep better track of the characters. Speaking of which, I knew that some of the characters were
real people, but it wasn't until I got to the end of the book that I discovered that everyone in the book actually existed.
The author took a lot of liberties with the details of these people's lives--liberties that I would be willing to argue she was
not entitled to take.
The Judas Strain by James Rollins Hmm, let's see. Cannibals-check. Mutant viruses-check. Hijacked ocean
liners-check. Mysterious but exotic agents of an international cabal-check. Shooting up and bombing international
shrines (the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, in this particular instance)-check. Billionaire Australian thrill-seekers in funny
hats-check. Americans with "memorable" names like Painter, Gray and Monk-check. Yep, what we've got here is an
honest-to-goodness twenty-first century mystery novel. I have to admit that I enjoyed Dr. Rollins' most recent effort, but
not as much as Map of Bones a couple of years back. The plot is compelling, but the characters are not. Frankly, it's
fine with me if the dead ones stay dead.
The Tin Roof Blowdown: A Dave Robicheaux Novel by James Lee Burke To be honest, I haven't been much of a
fan of this series since the second or third of them came out long ago. Even then, they were starting to get stale. I
thought that the Hurricane Katrina hook of this installment would perk up the proceedings, but I was wrong. It's even
more stale and repetitive than I remember.
Rites of Peace: the Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna by Adam Zamoyski Every year, somebody
writes a new book about the Congress of Vienna, and I always end up reading it. Sometimes, I think I AM the market
for these books. Anyway, Mr. Zamoyski, who also wrote Moscow 1812 ( a better book) a couple of years back, has
done an impressive job of sifting through the personal correspondence of the dozens of statesmen and parvenus who
made up the Congress of Vienna, the largest assembly of royalty the world has ever beheld. The author makes a good
point about the previous literature on the subject and how it focused more on the social shenanigans that surrounded
the proceedings than on the working of the Congress itself. He has done of good job of combining the work and play
to provide a reasonable explanation of why things turned out the way they did. If this subject holds any interest for you
at all, this is about as "reader-friendly" as you're ever going to see it presented.
Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee On July 21, 1999, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ernest Hemingway, the city
fathers of Ketchum, Idaho, expecting a crush of curious tourists at the cemetery where the author is buried, dispatched
a city cop to manage the traffic in and out of the cemetery. Around five o'clock that afternoon, the first curious tourist
showed up--me. There must have been others (some of his descendants still live in the area), but the cop said I was
the first. I spent a few minutes at his unremarkable grave, but his spirit did not seem to be in a communicative mood,
so I went back to the lodge in Sun Valley. I thought of this episode when I was reading about Ms. Lee's visit to Edith
Wharton's lonely weed-ridden gravesite near Versailles. The message seems to be that regardless of how much of a
fuss people make over you when you're still "in circulation", when you're gone, you're gone--and so today, the only
"author" in Key West that anyone knows anything about is Jimmy Buffett. Ms. Lee has produced an exhaustive and
thorough biography of the author of The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. This book is so good that it
makes me want to check out some of Wharton's lesser known works.
The Lumiere Affair by Sara Voorhees Headed to the beach this summer? Don't forget the sunscreen and The
Lumiere Affair. Like the Holy Roman Empire, The Lumiere Affair is about neither the Lumiere Brothers or an affair. If
you want to broaden the scope of the inquiry, there is actually some mention of light (lumiere) in the book. The mise
en scene of the Cannes Film Festival is lots of fun, but the plot is thinner than celluloid, and you'll see the denouement
coming as soon as the California heroine sets foot in Cannes. But it's an enjoyable read with lots of pop cultural
references to spice it up. Have fun--and watch out for the jellyfish.
Acacia by David Anthony Durham So there I was, reading along and thinking that although sword and sorcery tales
really aren't my favorite literary treat, I kind of liked this particular book. Then I happened to take a closer look at the
book's dust jacket, where I noticed its subtitle printed in very small letters an average person (like me) would miss if he
or she happened upon it in a bookstore: Book One: The War With the Mein. Damn. It wants to be one of those
never-ending series of books about hobbits or wizards or Matt Damon characters. So despite the fact that it's not the
worst book you've ever read about young people discovering their destinies by using the magic powers they were
given in a long-ago time, pay no attention to this book. Make it stop, NOW!
Inferno: The Fiery Destruction of Hamburg by Keith Lowe When the scum of the earth have turned on civilians as
legitimate military targets, there is a tendency to look back to earlier "conventional wars" (sounds charming, doesn't
it?) for the seeds of how we came to such a miserable pass. Mr. Lowe says that we came to this particular miserable
pass when Hitler decided that civilians in London should be considered a legitimate military targets during the Blitz, and
the British (helped by Americans) upped the ante by bombing most of the ancient city of Hamburg off the map in July
and August of 1943. This is an interesting and often overlooked story of the Second World War, and Mr. Lowe tells it
even-handedly and compellingly. If you have any interest in one of the many ways that WWII sowed the seeds for
decades of misery, check it out.
Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg I certainly agree with the author that Aaron Burr was
probably our most misunderstood Founding Father and that in many ways, he was vilified by his enemies (chief among
them being Alexander Hamilton) and betrayed by his friends--led by Thomas Jefferson. I'm sure that on the whole, he
was an admirable gentleman. However, unlike the author, I'm really not willing to give Burr the benefit of the doubt in
every instance in which he was accused of malfeasance, misfeasance and general hanky-panky. If you're interested
in the "case for the defense" for Burr, Ms. Isenburg has the book for you.
The Five Forty-Five to Cannes by Tess Uriza Holthe So there I was; moping around the bookstore in early May
because my invitation to the Cannes Film Festival was lost in the mail for the 53rd consecutive year. I spied this book
and thought it might provide a Cannes-like experience for a States-bound wannabe. Well, not so much. This might
as well be a collection of short stories about the non-glamorous side of town. They are sort of woven together, but the
characters in the various stories don't really interact all that much. There's nothing here that would actually make you
want to visit Cannes, and I would have thought that would be hard to accomplish.
Lisbon Crossing by Tom Gabbay In reality, this book is quite readable. However, I found it to be quite offensive
because of the way it treats the late Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The former George VII and Wallis Simpson might
not have been model citizens, but there's no evidence to suggest that the former king sold out France, Belgium, The
Netherlands and his former realm in order to forge a way back to Buckingham Palace under the aegis of Adolf Hitler,
nor that his wife was the leather-clad dominatrix presented here. I understand that if someone is dead, you can say
anything you want about them, but this book really goes too far.
The Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936 by David Clay Large Mr. Large's book is indispensable to anyone who
might have an interest in how the Olympic Games came to be what they are today. Adolf Hitler, Leni Reifenstahl, and
Jesse Owens have left a more significant legacy to the games that you might imagine.
Leni by Steven Bach I really never have known what to conclude about Leni Reifenstahl. Despite her protests that
she was just an artist doing her job of finding beauty and expressing it, some part of me thinks that she should have
been punished somehow for finding beauty in Adolf Hitler. And in reality, she was. Although free to go wherever she
chose in the sixty years of her life after World War II, she really was a prisoner of her own notoriety, and she paid a stiff
emotional price for creating Triumph of the Will. Steven Bach, who wrote Final Cut, one of my favorite books about
Hollywood, has spent some time thinking about Leni as well. Although he does a very good job of relating her rise, fall,
rebirth and ultimate frustration, he really doesn't know what to do with her, either.
Speaking of which...
The Castle in the Forest by Norman Mailer To Mr. Mailer's credit, he has written a confounding book that compels
you to take it seriously. I knew that it was the story of Hitler's childhood narrated by a minor demon before I picked it
up. I was prepared to say that regardless of whether I liked the book or not, I don't think it served a useful purpose to
use the supernatural to explain the very real evil that became Adolf Hitler. However, as I read along, I came around to
the point of view that since I do believe in the existence of Satan and if he's doing anything, he's guiding people like
Hitler, maybe this scenario isn't so far-fetched. This is no frivolous piece of work. It may be a novel, but it has a
seven-page bibliography for further reading. There's way too much information about beekeeping, the coronation of
Tsar Nicholas II, the sexual antics of Hitler's father and brother, but somehow it works. Much of what Mailer asserts has
been refuted (although not conclusively) by scientists, but if even a fraction of the mayhem asserted in the book is true,
it sheds light on the nature of evil.
The Hitler Book edited by Hinrik Eberle and Matthais Uhl, was never meant to be published. In fact, it was written for
an audience of one--Josef Stalin. In the immediate aftermath of WWII, it was not certain that the charred bodies found
in the garden were really Hitler and Eva. Hitler's staff who were available to them (i.e. prisoners) to assemble for Stalin
a personal view of Hitler's personal life during the war. Their report was titled The Hitler Book. This book is not terribly
insightful--mainly because those who were interrogated were staring at some combination of torture, death and years
in the gulag. They weren't about to tell their captors something they didn't want to hear. Likewise, the editors weren't
about to tell Stalin something HE didn't want to hear. The most interesting tidbit I picked up in this book is that early in
WWII, some socialite gave Hitler the nickname "Wolf", and he liked it so much that he gave his headquarters names
like Wolfschanze (wolf's lair) and Wehrwolf (armor-plated wolf).
The Jedburghs by Will Irwin (Lt. Col. Ret.) A couple of weeks ago, I went to see Army of Shadows, an outstanding film
about the French Resistance in World War II. Since the movie was so good, I was interested in learning more about the
maquis (resistance fighters) and the American/British/French special forces units which
parachuted into France before and after D-Day. Those forces were called the Jedburghs, and Mr. Irwin has told some
of their stories in a dogged, straightforward manner. Unfortunately, his manner is a tad too dogged and straightforward
for my tastes. The Jedburghs' stories are exciting--but not the way Mr. Irwin tells them.
1942 by Winston Groom I guess I'm just a sucker for books named after years. 1491, 1759, 1776--I liked them all.
Even so, I approached this book with more than a little trepidation. I think that Mr. Groom, best known for Forrest
Gump, would probably describe himself as a storyteller, rather than a historian. Here, he tells a great story of how the
featured year began in the despair of the aftermath of Pearl Harbor and ended in triumph in the run-up to the
Casablanca Conference. In between, he tells great stories of Midway and Guadalcanal, but gives short shrift to the
campaign against Rommel and the Afrika Corps, Hitler's botched invasion of the Soviet Union--and well, almost
everything in which the United States was not a direct participant. Those stories--indeed those histories--are better
City Adrift: New Orleans Before and After Katrina an Investigation of the Center for Public Integrity. The jacket of
this book claims that the book "provides an assessment of what went wrong in the Big Easy during and after Hurrican
Katrina, but also, more importantly,a road map of what must be done to ensure that such a devastating tragedy is
never repeated." Fair enough, but if that's the case, it's also fair to ask a few questions about the Center for Public
Integrity. The group's website states that it is a "nonprofit, nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based organization that does
investigative reporting and research on public policy issues." Its board of directors includes people like former Carter
Administration spokesman Hodding Carter and former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Bill Kovach--there's no one
you'd really suspect of being a conservative. With those qualifications, the book--although short--is indeed a
thoughtful reflection of Katrina and why its aftermath in New Orleans has been so botched. (There is no discussion of
what happened in Mississippi.) The best and worst thing about the book is that it doesn't play the blame game. This
quality automatically elevates it above The Great Deluge, Douglas Brinkley's partisan rant from 2006. For example,
the book begins with an explanation of how Louisiana has been sinking since the European settlers showed up and
began building levees and canals in 1699. There are discussions of why levees aren't as reliable as they used to be
and why Louisiana politics came to be the way it is. If you are looking for a justification for blaming Ray Nagin, Kathleen
Blanco or Dubya, you will look in vain. The book really doesn't offer the "road map" it promises (unless you choose to
subscribe to somewhat draconian notions like the idea that people and wetlands can't inhabit the same space), but it
does provide a thoughtful introduction to the issues.
Patriot Battles: How the War of Independence Was Fought by Michael Stephenson Revolutionary War Lite.
There's nothing here that hasn't been presented better elsewhere.
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano Susan Sontag reviewed this book for the New York Times and called
Senor Bolano the "most influential and admired novelist of his generation in the Spanish-speaking world." Really. I find
that hard to believe. This is the kind of stream-of-consciousness writing that somehow makes me think that something
must have been lost in translation. It's about young poets in Mexico who become even more irrelevant as they get
older. It's definitely not for everyone.
Crosley: Two Brothers and a Business Empire That Transformed the Nation by Rusty McClure with David Stern
and Michael A. Banks. With a title like that, there's not much more to say--except that I had an opportunity to visit with
Mr. McClure at a book-signing where I asked him to sign a copy of the book for Steven Spielberg's father (long story).
During the course of our conversation, he paused to take a call on his cell. It was his agent, calling to say that this
book was going to make the New York Times Best Seller list the following week. That was kind of cool.
Judgment Day by Joe Lee (I'm sorry, Mr. Lee, but if you're really from Mississippi, Joe Lee is just your first name.)
This book tells the story of--well, lots of people. Which is my primary reason for not being too enthusiastic about it.
During the course of its 264 pages, the author takes up-and drops-the stories of a legendary but flawed high school
football coach (we hear that he dies second-hand, so he's not the central character), a rogue cop with a whole trailer
park full of axes to grind (no rooting interest there), and an assortment of Alcoholics Anonymous participants whose
stories aren't all that interesting. Mr. Lee, if that is his real name, has talent. Next time, hope he'll focus his story. (If
you're still intrigued, buy a copy on amazon.com for 45 cents, like I did.)
House Call by Darden North, MD The dust cover of the book is as interesting as the book itself. From it, we learn that
Dr. North, among other things, has a 15-year-old cat, loves Ole Miss football (he's obviously insane), and is a
participant in his local Southern Writers Group. Dr. North and his Group seem to have turned out the world's first
mystery thriller/health policy primer. The author interrupts complicated surgeries, meals and assorted personal
emergencies to explain the nuances of drug trials, physician payer plans and other minutiae that we really don't care
about. The dust jacket says this book is Dr. North's "first mystery thriller, so presumably, more are on the way. On
behalf of the reading public, I encourage him to give us better characters and lighten up on the medical issues.
Proud to Call Mississippi Home by Morgan Freeman and some other people. This book--I guess it's a book--was
published by the Mississippi Pride Committee and proceeds will benefit the Mississippi Governor's Mansion renovation.
Projects like this make my skin creep. While not paranoid or xenophobic, Mississippi's self-esteem issues lead it too
often to try to explain itself and give a reason why it's the way it is--when it's really not necessary. Because I think the
real beneficiary is the marketing firm that put it together, I can't really recommend it with much enthusiasm, but it's
The South is Round by David Magee Mr. Magee now lives in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, but he grew up in
Mississippi and went to Ole Miss, so we'll include him in this round-up. Mr. Magee acknowledges Thomas Friedman's
assertion that the world is flat, but that small part of it we'll just call The South is round--as in obese This collection of
essays, among other things, introduces us to the "redneckosexual", a "contemporary hip-billy (who) is part Jethro and
John Wayne mixed with equal parts of Paris Hilton and Madonna." I thought that observation was inspired, as are
several others, but it's a small book, and such pithiness is scant.
New Orleans Noir edited by Julie Smith This book of short stories claims to be the first work of fiction to emerge from
post-Katrina New Orleans. It is on this list because, as is usually the case, some of the best writers about New Orleans
are from Mississippi. I was immediately delighted to see that the book is dedicated to my friends Janet and Steve
Haedicke. (Well done!) Then I was then almost immediately irritated to read in
the editor's introduction about the "indifference on the part of the rest of the country" to the plight of New Orleans. If
that's what she's got to say about the largest rescue operation in the history of the country, the largest volunteer effort
in the history of the country, and the largest philanthropic outpouring in the history of the country, I don't know what it
would take to impress her--but I digress. When I got around to reading the stories themselves, I found a mixed bag,
categorized into either the pre-K or post-K era. Generally speaking, I found the post-K stories more interesting,
especially those by Christine Wiltz and Greg Herren. There wasn't anything that really knocked my socks off, but the
collection did represent, as the editor claimed, a first "toe in the water" for the fiction writers of New Orleans.
The Measure of Our Days by William Winter The first political campaign I ever worked on was that of William Winter,
who ran for Governor of Mississippi in 1967. He was--and is--the personification of a "progressive Democrat" should
be. He lost that election, but was eventually elected in 1979--which caused other problems for me. By that time, I was
living in Baton Rouge and working as a speechwriter for Louisiana's governor, Dave Treen. Governor Treen had some
great qualities, but public speaking wasn't one of them. As a speechwriter, it was kind of irritating to have my boss be
compared with the eloquent governor next door, but as a native Mississippian, I was so proud that the people of
Mississippi had finally elected him. This collection of Governor Winter's speeches, essays, and television
commentaries ranging on topics from "Race and
Reconciliation" and "Living and Dying" to why fraternities are good for Ole Miss, reflect a character that is intelligent,
warm and thoughtful. I can safely say that his is a book I will treasure for a long, long time.
The Rossetti Letter by Cristi Phillips I'm guessing that if you asked Ms. Phillips about her favorite books, The French
Lieutenant's Woman would be near the top of her list. This book also features a woman from the distant European
past, as imagined by woman from the present who has her own issues. So it's two stories. I began the book being
interested in the story set in 17th-century Venice, and ended the book being bored by the past and more interested in
the present--as did the author, I suspect. Frankly, both of the stories are maybe one notch up from the "heaving
bosom-engourged manhood" genre, but heck, if Ms. Phillips sells her book to the movies, there's even a role for Fabio.
Boomsday by Christopher Buckley The man who gave us Thank You for Smoking brings us another Nightmare on K
Street. In this tale, a young Generation W (as in "Whatever") lobbyist gets fed up with the notion that Baby Boomers
("The Un-Greatest Generation") are mortgaging their children's and grandchildren's future to pay for their
self-indulgence. To call attention to the situation, she proposes that everyone should do the country a favor and kill
themselves when they turn 70. Hilarity ensues when this idea is processed by the various components of the
Washington establishment. Some part of me resents this book because I just know that it will inevitably inspire some
aspiring politician to drop an "f-bomb" at an entirely inappropriate time. For the most part, though, I thought it was
The Sweet Enemy by Robert and Isabelle Tombs Given the parameters of the rating system I've listed at the top of
this page, the title of this book should really be listed in yellow typeface. Although I did like the book a lot, it really
isn't for everyone. This is the story of the relationship between France and the UK (specifically England) in the years
between 1700 and 2006. Weighing in at just over 700 pages, it's an exhaustive study of two nations which seem not to
be able to live either with or without each other. Mr. Tombs is British, and Mrs. Tombs is French--and they both have
dual citizenship. Together they examine the big picture of the relationship between the countries over big things like
politics and war--and little things like the career of Maurice Chevalier. You may not be interested in the whole story,
but I promise that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
Memory by Bennett Davlin So there I was at a fancy black-tie dinner in Washington last month (Oh, I get around),
seated between my great friend Sally Nungesser and the ever-glamorous Phyllis Taylor from New Orleans. Mrs. Taylor
introduced us to her escort, "Josh" Davlin, and shared with us that he has written a book, converted it to a screenplay,
directed AND produced the movie, starring Billy Zane and Ann Margret. At this point, Sally and I were thinking different
things. Unbeknownst to anyone, Sally is a Bye Birdie freak, and wanted the scoop on Ann Margret. (Apparently, she's
very nice, and in every movie contract she's signed, she gets to wear some shade of pink she wore in BBB. Who
knew.) For my part, I was really irritated that a guy who looks like a 30-year-old underwear model can write books and
screenplays, as well as direct and produce. He makes the rest of us look like we're not trying hard enough. But I
digress. Memory would be an impressive first effort for any writer. At the beginning, you're thinking that the rookie
writer is trying to get by with too many exclamation points and sentence fragments, and later on, action and sex scenes
seem to be part of some cinematic formula. However, as he rolls along, Davlin gains confidence and draws you into
the story. The characters feel real, and their story is interesting. At dinner, Josh wouldn't tell us what the story was
about. Now I know why. For one thing, it's pretty complicated; for another, it's not polite dinner table conversation.
Suffice to say that somewhere in our DNA strand, we are implanted with the memories of our parents and the story of
their lives prior to our birth. When one of our parents turns out to be a serial killer, our memories get screwed up
considerably. It's a terrific book. Check it out.
White Shadow by Ace Atkins This was a surprise. I knew I was going to be spending a few days in Tampa, specifically
in the Ybor City area, so I picked up this book at the bookstore in Oxford and saved it for the trip. It's the tale of
criminals (high-life and low-life), cops and reporters in the Tampa of the 1950's that was almost as much a part of Cuba
as Havana. (Even Castro puts in an appearance.) If I have a tiny complaint, it's that a jarringly modern turn-of-phrase
like "go-to guy" makes its way into the story every now and again. But it is a complaint that is tiny indeed, and the book
is a jarringly noir-esque vision of a unique time and place. PS: If you don't think that Ybor City could have been the way
Mr. Atkins describes, I'd like to point out that even in April 2007, there are chickens roaming the streets of the
neighborhood. PPS: As I was reading along, I pictured the author as one of those crusty old guys who could have
been working on a newspaper in Tampa in the 60's and 70's. In reality, he looks like he's about 35 and says he lives
on a farm near Oxford. Go figure.
Napoleon's Pyramids by William Dietrich, is a nice little mystery that ends ominously. SPOILER ALERT: Since you
don't really know what the central mystery of the book even is until the last fifteen pages or so, it's not giving much
away to be able to say--probably for the first time ever--Moses did it! This is the story of an American in Paris in 1798,
who wins a bauble in a poker game and ends up accompanying Napoleon's invasion force to Egypt and unlocking the
secret of the pyramids. It's no more far-fetched than The DaVinci Code, and unlike TDaVC, you find yourself liking the
characters. Unfortunately, you realize at the end that the author has fallen in love with his characters and no doubt
plans to bring them all back for a sequel loosely based on the story of the Ark of the Covenant. I'm guessing that the
plot contortions that will have to be performed in order to make the next book remotely plausible will be painful to
Mississippi Sissy by Kevin Sessums is yet another case of everybody having a more interesting life than mine. I
thought I'd be able to relate to the story of a sensitive boy growing up in Mississippi in the 60's and 70's, but in
comparison, I've got nothing. I did not lust after my high school classmates (Mike Lovelace was--and probably still
is--our class's "Most Handsome", but the general consensus was that his awesome Buick Riviera put him over the top);
I didn't hang out at gay bars when I was 16 (I think the raciest thing I did when I was 16 was sneak into a drive-in
theater to see Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice with Rush O'Keefe); and I didn't have sex with my college fraternity brothers
(although I had a handsome stoner for a roommate one semester who bartered his body for pot. Oddly enough, it's
only now that I think that I could have done something to help him at the time). And when I was 19, I'm sure I would
have remembered if I had discovered the dead body of my much older gay roommate who had just had his head
bashed in. But then again, I was never an editor at Vanity Fair either. So there you go. To make a long story
marginally shorter, if you're interested in the life of Kevin Sessums, read the book. If you want a more accessible
experience of the time and place, read last year's One Mississippi.
Bambi vs. Godzilla by David Mamet is only slightly less snarky and self-aggrandizing than Joe Esterhauz's The Devil's
Guide to Hollywood from last year, and I guess for those same reasons, it's less entertaining. Like Esterhauz, Mamet's
screenplay-wrting advice is "Less is more," and "Just tell the damn story." You won't learn much from either one, but
you'll like Esterhauz better.
The American Plague by Molly Caldwell Crosby Have you ever wondered why Memphis is so different from
Cincinnati, St. Louis, New Orleans and other major cities along the Mississippi River and its tributaries? It has no
German, Irish or Italian communities, it's surprisingly insular; and until recently, it just didn't have the diversity that some
of those other places had. As it turns out, that hasn't always been the case. In the mid-nineteenth century, Memphis
had much more in common with St. Louis than it did with Selma, Alabama. However, as Ms. Crosby points out in this
book, Memphis was visited by a yellow fever epidemic in 1878 that took a greater toll in lives than the San Francisco
Earthquake, the Chicago Fire, and the Johnstown Flood combined. Immigrants (particularly those with fair skin) were
the first to die in the epidemic, and their numbers were the most heavily devastated. This is just one of the fascinating
conclusions drawn from this book. It never occurred to me that I would enjoy it, but I have to admit that I did. Ms.
Crosby deserves much credit for making this subject interesting and approachable.
Hurricane Punch by Tim Dorsey That greatest of all Bond villains, Auric Goldfinger, once said, "Once is
happenstance; twice is coincidence; three times is enemy action." So it is in literature. One humorous observer of
Florida life (Dave Barry) is a bolt out of the blue; two (Carl Hiassen) is his disciple; three (Tim Dorsey) is a genre. And
since no one else seems to have stepped up to the plate to give the genre a name, I will, and I'll call it Floridada, an
homage to the arts movement of the 1920's which was predicated on the notion of rejecting the prevailing standards of
art through anti-art cultural works. It seems highly appropriate. Mr. Dorsey's book is hilarious. It gloriously chronicles
the adventures of a Sunshine State malcontent named Serge A. Storms, who loves every single thing about the State
of Florida--except the people who live there. As much as I want to praise the freshness of Mr. Dorsey's characters and
their antics, I want to caution him in equal measure not to let them get stale. I've almost stopped reading Carl Hiassen
because he seems to be repeating the same characters and plotlines. I wouldn't want Mr. Dorsey to fall into that trap.
Mississippi's Civil War by Ben Wynne I can't remember the last time I read a new book about the Civil War. Not
that's anything's changed. As Mr. Wynne says, No matter how many monuments are built, no matter how many
buildings are named, no matter how many "Southern" histories are written, no matter how many parades are held or
graves decorated in the South, it is impossible to change the outcome of the Civil War. But the way the history has told
certainly has. Mr. Wynne's book is definitely not one of the "Southern histories" he mentions. To quote the author
again, If white Southerners of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries could not rationalize positive reasons
that their fathers and grandfathers had gone to war in 1861, as well as a positive version of the war's outcome, they
would be forced to face two grim realities. First , their ancestors had taken up arms against the land of their birth, an
act that meets most definitions of treason. In addition, because the Confederacy failed to accomplish its military
objectives..., the soldiers who fought for the South had indeed died in vain. These are strong words for a native
Mississippian to be saying about "The Wa-uhr", and thank God, Mr. Wynne has the guts to say them. It is the book's
strength, and an outstanding reason to give it some of your attention.
6/19/2007 Response from author Ben Wynne:
Dear Mr. Isch, I came across the link to your book review page and just wanted to drop
you a quick note and thank you for the positive remarks about Mississippi's Civil War.
Had I been asked to pick a couple of quotes to sum up what I was trying to get across in
the book, I would have chosen the exact same ones you put in your review. I'd say we
have gotten 95% positive feedback on the book so far, although I've caught a little
flack from members of the "heritage crowd. I also read your review of William Winter's
book and agree wholeheartedly. I went to high school with one of his daughters, and
Andy Mullins, who did the editing, was one of my high school teachers as well.
They are all great people. Hope all is well in Mississippi. Best Wishes, Ben.
Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart is an aggressively unpleasant tale, masquerading as comedy, in which a young
Russian man feels deprived of American hip-hop and snack foods because he can not get a visa to enter the United
States. (Snaps to the INS for keeping this creep out.) I can't quarrel with Mr. Shteyngart writing, but his characters--all
of them--are creeps, and they don't really do anything interesting plot-wise..
Alexander II: The Last Great Tsar by Edvard Radzinsky Further up this list, I point out that in 1942, Winston Groom
is more a storyteller than a historian. The same is certainly true of Edvard Radzinsky, in his biography of the tsar best
known for freeing the serfs in 1861. Mr. Radzinsky not only covers the highlights of the tsar's life, but he meanders
around the edges of the lives of the dozens of terrorists who plotted to end his life. If you're interested in Russian
history, you'll like this book. If you couldn't care less, you won't. PS: Mr. Radzinksky quotes a nineteenth century
revolutionary named Bakunin, who said the following of the role of the anarchist: Engulfing Russia, the fire will spread
to the whole world. Everything will be destroyed that is deemed holy from the heights of modern European civilization.
because it is the source of inequality, the source of all of man's misery. Bringing into motion a destructive force is the
only goal worthy of a rational man. Reading this, it occurred to me that even at this late date in the 21st century, the
Russian Revolution is still ongoing.
The Evil B. B. Chow by Steve Almond As the irreplaceable Johnny Carson would have said, this collection of short
stories is wild, wacky stuff. A blurb on the cover of the book that Mr. Almond's writing has enough sex, wit, and brutal
honesty to revive interest in the short story. I don't know about brutal honesty, but the sex and wit are there in
abundance. Mr. Almond's stories contemplate, among other things, an affair between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick
Douglass; and a modern-day relationship in which sex partners contemplate new uses for the eye socket. My favorite
story is of a young man who is asked by a friend to read his autobiographical novel. Suffice to say that several lives
are ruined in the process. Mr. Almond's work is the literary equivalent of a train wreck. You know it's kind of disgusting,
but you're oddly fascinated.
Song for My Fathers by Tom Sancton Are you interested in what life might have been like as a teenager in New
Orleans in the late 50's and early 60's? That's the premise of this book, but Tom Sancton was no ordinary teenager.
As the son of a Mississippi woman and a Louisiana man (who were definitely NOT Faith Hill and Tim McGraw), Mr.
Sancton was/is a gifted musician who learned to play traditional jazz from the old black "mens" of the Preservation Hall
Jazz Band. Mr. Sancton had an amazing childhood, and his story is well-told. However, unless you have a particular
interest in the amazing musicians of Preservation Hall, you might find this book rough sledding. I loved the story of the
"mens", but my only complaint is that although the book was written prior to Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Sancton has tacked
on an awkward post-Katrina introduction that does little to set the stage for what follows and a lot to distract the reader
from the story he wants to tell.
The Alexandria Link by Steve Berry Well, Steve "Don't Call Me Steven Anymore" Berry is at it again--cartoon
characters with names like Cotton, Sabre and Cassiopeia and a relentless jackhammer plot. If you liked the DaVinci
Code motif, you'll probably like this book--although you may get somewhat worn out by cliffhangers at the end of every
chapter. Please don't misunderstand: I really did like The Alexandria Link. It's just that I couldn't shake the notion that
I'd read it before.
A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger So. I was walking through the bookstore in Oxford, Mississippi, with a gift
reward coupon for $18 burning a hole in my pocket. I stopped to wonder why such a store would have copies of a
book about the Boston Strangler, personally autographed by an author who is relatively famous for sticking to the
Northeastern corner of the country. As it turns out, there is a connection. In 1963, a black man from Oxford was
accused of one of the slayings that the author thinks might have been the work of the Strangler. Surprisingly, Mr.
Junger actually has quite a bit to say about Oxford. He speaks at length about Tad Smith (of all people), the old Jitney
Jungle grocery store on North Lamar Avenue (one of my favorite haunts as a child), and the Lafayette County
Courthouse. Regrettably, Mr. Junger is not a fan. Here is how he describes driving from Memphis to Oxford: We were
driving through Clay Hills of central Mississippi, an empty stretch of poor pine forests and tangled bayous and eroded
earth. Hmm. Well, to my knowledge, he's the first person to call that part of the state "Central" Mississippi; and even
though the section of Interstate 55 he was traveling also passed Taco Bells, outlet malls, and a vast expanse of
warehouses whose developers charmingly call a "foreign trade zone", his description does sound more atmospheric..
But, back to the Boston Strangler. If you think you know something about the Strangler, don't read Mr. Junger's book.
He raises many more questions than he answers. For example, he suggests that there might have been more than
one Strangler, that Albert DeSalvo might not have killed anyone; that an innocent black man from Oxford might have
been wrongly convicted of one of the Boston Stranglings....I could go on. In each of these questions, the key word is
might. Mr. Junger is a gifted writer and a compelling storyteller--but he might not know anything about the Boston
Rough Crossings: Britain and the Slaves of the American Revolution by Simon Schama
[This book] turns on a single huge question: if you were black in America at the start
of the Revolutionary War,whom would you want to win? In response to a declaration
by the last royal governor of Virginia that any rebel-owned slave who escaped and
served the king would be emancipated, tens of thousands of slaves--Americans
who clung to a sentimental notion of British freedom--escaped from farms, plantations
and cities to try to reach the British camp. From the dust jacket of Rough Crossings
This book, from the author of Citizens, a wonderful history of the French Revolution, tells the story of those escaped
slaves and their long journey from the American colonies to Nova Scotia, and eventually to Sierra Leone. It may not be
the masterwork that Citizens is, but it does tell a fascinating tale that you're not likely to hear elsewhere.
Awake in the Dark by Roger Ebert Oddly, this compilation of reviews and thinkpieces about the movies includes an
essay from Richard Corliss that bemoans the rise of movie reviewers on television, and how their rise ushered in the
decline of serious film criticism in print. I don't know why Mr. Ebert chose to include a piece that he didn't write (fair
play?), but it did open my eyes somewhat about Roger Ebert. Yes, he can write, but his reviews don't rise to the level
of Pauline Kael and the other great reviewers of the past. Why? He's a television guy!
2007 BOOK COMMENTS