Matt's rating system:

  GO!   I liked the book a lot and recommend it to you without reservation.
  CAUTION   I liked it, but your tastes may be different.
  STOP!   I really didn't like this book at all.
Click here to read
Snarky Comments
About Books in 2006
Click here to read
Snarky Comments
About Books in 2007
The Charlemagne Pursuit by Steve "I Am Not James Rollins" Berry   Generally speaking, I'm a big fan of Mr. Berry's books, but I might
have expressed some disappointment that the last one was starting to sound like a rehash of those that preceded it.  The good news is that  
Mr. Berry has benched most of his stock players and provided us with a story about Cotton Malone that is fresh and compelling.  Ol'
Cotton tools around Germany, France and Antarctica (!) looking for clues about what really happened to his father who, according to the
Navy, perished in a submarine accident in 1971.  As always, Mr. Berry knows how to keep the plot moving and the pages turning.  In short
, he can boil a pot with the best of them.  Check it out.  (11/15/2008)

And that is the last of the comments for 2008.  Thank you , indulgent readers for who have happened on this page either by accident
or--God forbid--on purpose this year.  It's been a great year for reading books, and I look forward to seeing what 2009 will bring.

Dummy Line by Bobby Cole offers further proof that everybody in Mississippi has written a book except me--and in the case, a really
good one.   Mr. Cole is an executive with the Mossy Oak hunting supply firm in West Point.  This book is about--surprise!--a  guy in West
Point who goes turkey hunting with his ten-year-old daughter at a deer camp somewhere in the wilds of West Alabama.  Before they had a
chance to pop a cap on some gobbler's ass, they found trouble in the persons of practically every redneck ex-convict between Tuscaloosa
and Livingston.  The book is a well-written page-turner that kept me awake and reading until dawn.  That's about the highest praise I can
offer any book.  (11/14/08)

State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey  "So many mirrors and yet we know
ourselves so poorly!" laments one of the editors of this compendium of mostly entertaining and enlightening essays by writers from the
fifty states.  Naturally, I was particularly interested in the states where I've "served time."  Barry Hannah did Mississippi proud with his
brief overview of life in Oxford.  Joshua Clark wrote of ghosts in the abandoned houses of the Ninth Ward.  Susan Orlean's description of
Ohio was, I think, on target.  For sheer moxie, Alexandra "Bo" Fuller's essay about gas drilling in Wyoming takes the cake.  She laments
that the state is being ruined by well digging and pipeline laying, and then comments without irony that she loves where she lives because
it's so beautiful--but she has to drive two hours to get to the store.  Further, it's so cold in the winter that she has to pack up the family and
move them to someplace warmer. (11/12/08)

No Simple Victory by Norman Davies  For anyone who has been waiting for an author to establish a moral equivalence between Steven
Spielberg and George W. Bush, this is the book.  The author accuses both men of taking a "Anglo-Americanistic" view of World War II.  
Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List, like W.'s keeping a bust of Churchill in his office both reflect a limited view of the
war, which was fought and won--almost in its totality by the Red Army.  (Mr. Davies also takes a potshot at the D-Day Museum in New
Orleans by sniffing that it honors a battle that wasn't even one of the ten largest in the war.)  The author presents convincing evidence that
the Russians accounted for the lion's share of the fighting, the losses, the suffering and dying--and that they conducted most of the random
acts of slaughter and had the largest concentration camps.  Africa, Western Europe and the entire Pacific war against Japan were all
sideshows to the real war that raged across Eastern Europe. In addition to a perfunctory review of the military actions in the European war,
Mr. Davies sheds a little light on how the war was presented to "the folks back home" by movie makers, newsmen, historians and
others--even artists and poets.  He would probably be disappointed to hear it, but this was actually the most interesting part of the book.  

Loss of Innocence by Anne Newton Walther  Yes, I know it's fiction, but please don't ask me to believe that in the week after the fall of
Bastille, the legendarily happily married governor of Paris (the Marquis de Lafayette, maybe you've heard of him) took four days off from
his job to make a two-day horse ride to have dinner with a thirty-something unmarried woman at her estate   And that's just the first
chapter.  Later, the story comes to a screeching halt as the same woman takes a couple of weeks off from running said estate to nurse a
wounded horse.  When the horse eventually croaks, he is said to have "inspired the Old World with the spirit of the New World."  The
characters are preposterous, especially the horse and a loud, vulgar woman who's visiting from Virginia--both of whom seem to have
played some larger role in one of the author's earlier books.  You don't believe a word of this book, yet it wafts along in its own little
universe, and you're not entirely disgruntled about having to be there. (10/22/08)

Death of the Wehrmacht by Robert M. Citino  The cover blurb about this book would have you believe that the Wehrmacht "died" in
1942.  That must certainly be news to those who were fighting
somebody in Italy, Normandy and across Europe in 1943, 1944 and 1945.  
What should have been said --and the point that Mr. Citino makes very well in his book--is that the German way of fighting wars,
characterized by speed, encircling the enemy and letting lower level officers judge themselves how operational orders are to be carried out,
died in 1942 at Stalingrad and El Alamein. Mr. Citino's analysis is, I think, brilliant.  The only thing that keeps this book from achieving
greatness is sloppy editing and maps that should have been much better.  (10/15/08)

South of Shiloh by Chuck Logan is about a Civil War reenactor from Minnesota who gets himself killed while "reenacting" a minor
skirmish near Corinth, Mississippi.  Mr. Logan has crafted a rather confounding book.  The basic rules of murder mysteries are followed.  
However, they are followed  in such an unsatisfying way that you find yourself feeling sorry for the perp, hating the victim an his unctuous
family, and wanting the two guys who solve the crime to go away.  On the other hand, Mr. Logan certainly knows a thing or two about
Civil War reenactments.  He goes into mind-numbing detail on topics like black powder and Civil War uniforms.  It's not an unpleasant ride,
but it's not particularly satisfying, either.  (10/12/08)

Supreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley  A brash, outspoken, politically- unknown woman from a large state is selected to  be a
candidate for one of the highest positions in the federal government.  Never happen, you say?  Ha!  It already has --in Mr. Buckley's latest
take on life in The Most Important City on Earth.  In this installment, an overbearing chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee (with
ideas of his own about who should be on the Supreme Court) has sunk the last two nominees sent to the committee for confirmation.  In
frustration, the President turns to a nominee that the senators don't dare reject--a good ole gal from Texas who's also a t.v. trial judge.  
Hilarity ensues.  Happily, this work is much better than Mr. Buckley's last epistle,  
Boomsday, and recalls his very best work--Thank You
for Smoking
and The White House Mess. (10/9/08)

American Lightening: Terror, Mystery, The Birth of Hollywood, and the Crime of the Century by Howard Blum   If I didn't know
better, I'd say that Mr. Blum went to a literary dinner party, where the host issued the following challenge:
On a spring evening in 1912,
William J. Burns (first director of the FBI), Clarence Darrow and D. W. Griffith ("The Man Who Invented Hollywood", by his own
admission) met by chance in the lobby of the Alexandria Hotel in Los Angeles.  Write a book about it.
And so he did.  Not a great book,
but he wrote a book.  The book is mostly about the bombing of the
Los Angeles Times by pro-labor October 1, 1910, and the search to find
the culprits.  As such it's a snappy little story.  Mr. Blum doesn't get into trouble until he drags in D. W. Griffith and tries to weave the
detective story together with Griffith's and make some kind of judgment about how these three men defined the 20th century.  It's a stretch
that doesn't' need to be made.   On second thought, maybe the original challenge was from an editor who challenged Mr. Blum to turn his
magazine article about the bombing case into a book about something bigger. (10/5/08)

i never metaphor i didn't like  by Dr. Mardy Grothe  Hats off to Dr. Grothe.  What he lacks in capitalization skills, he more than makes
up for with his ability to compile a delightful little book of pithy metaphors, similes and analogies.  Without them, he says, prose is just
prosaic.  In fact, I feel somewhat ashamed that I haven't done worked harder to make these pages more interesting.  But what do you
expect?  As Dr. Grothe quotes Kenneth Tynan,
a critic is a man who knows the way but can't drive the car.  OK, one more.  I would be
remiss if I didn't share with you my favorite simile from Rodney Dangerfield,
Sex is like playing bridge.  If you don't have a good partner,
you'd better have a good hand.  

Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey  Remember the guy at the beginning and end of Pretty Woman who was sauntering along
Hollywood Boulevard, shouting, "Everybody comes to Hollywood.  Everybody's got a dream.   What's your dream?"  That could have been
Mr. Frey, the author of this book, who tells four stories of people who come to Los Angeles to seek freedom from: 1) abusive parents in
Ohio; 2) poverty in Sonora; 3) sobriety; and 4) people who don't think that a guy who happens to be a movie superstar should be having
sex with four teenage boys at a time.  The four stories themselves really aren't all that compelling, but they are  interlaced with pages and
pages of factoids about the city.  For example, "There are more than 60,000 people (in Los Angeles) working in pornography,"  followed
by "There are 7,500 working in agriculture."  Mr. Frey is not much interested in punctuation.   He has a way of writing dialogue...

...Casey speaks.

What did you think of the movie?

Kevin speaks.

It was great.  Gonna be a huge hit.

Gordon speaks.

Kevin  actually represents one of the aliens.

...that gets in the way of what's being said more than it moves it along.  But it does represent a new way of looking at things, and after all,
isn't that what Los Angeles is all about?  (9/22/08)

City of Refuge by Tom Piazza  For longer than anyone alive remembered, New Orleanians had danced at funerals.  It was an obligation
to those who were still alive to restate the resilience of the human spirit with wit and style, to be present, to answer when called, even with
tears running down your face.  
Ugh.  Katrina literature--the complaint rock of the new millennium.  (9/20/08)

Arkansas by John Brandon  This is Mr. Brandon's first novel.  I'm sure that his work in the future will be better.  This one is about
drug-running low-lifes who live in a state park somewhere in the southern part of the state--and the even lower-lifes  that they meet during
the course of their travels.  Some of Mr. Brandon's prose is laugh-out-loud funny; unfortunately, not nearly eough of it is.  (9/17/08)

Guernica by Dave Boling  Guernica  (for reasons that escape me at the moment) is the spiritual center of the Basque people of Spain.
During the Spanish Civil War, the Nazis (so far, George W. Bush has not been blamed) expended more aerial firepower than was used in all
of World War I to bomb the village into the dust.  Dave Boling has written a powerful novel that tells the story of one family that was
caught up in the raid and torn apart by it.  Although the bombing occurred in April 1937, the family's story begins in 1893.  This is the
book's greatest weakness because what occurs before the Civil War is much less interesting that what happens later.  Despite the slow
start, Mr. Boling's book builds momentum as it goes along, and by the end you are completely invested emotionally in the people of
Guernica--and the people of Guernica.  (9/15/08)

The Last Oracle by James Rollins  This is either the third or fourth installment I've read of the men and women of Sigma Force, whose
mission is to--well, who knows.  From their bunker underneath  the Smithsonian Castle on The Mall in Washington (which has apparently
been vacated by Maxwell Smart and the staff of CONTROL), they travel the world, seeking out ancient treasures and mysteries and
thwarting those who seek to use them for their own power.  Points of interest they've visited in the past include the Vatican and the Great
Library of Alexandria (Don't ask.)  This time, they dash to India to seek the descendants of the Oracle of Delphi.  It seems that a corrupt
Russian politician is trying to--well, you can guess.  Mr. Rollins' characters in this series are starting to get tiresome.  While I appreciate
that they're getting the crap beat out of them to save America and the Free World, they 're not exactly executing their missions with a lot of
pizazz. (9/13/08)

Moscow Rules by Daniel Silva is a competent spy story, but it's kind of thin.  The "good guys" have appeared in Mr. Silva's earlier works,
but frankly, they're so bland that they could have been chosen randomly from the fiction character section at your local big box retailer.   
The evil-doers (and their spouses) are more interesting, but they're not
that interesting.  Three buts in one paragraph is probably damning
with faint praise,
but at least it's praise.

The Rise of the Fourth Reich by Jim Harris  Think it's hard being a Neo-Nazi? Well, you'd be wrong.  Apparently , we're all Neo-Nazis.  
The Fourth Reich in question is, of course, the good old USA--or as Barak Obama's pastor would say, AmeriKKKa.  I may have this
wrong, but I think the author is saying that the world is divided into two kinds of people (it would pretty much have to be for Nazis,
wouldn't it?): fascists and globalists--and they're both the ideological heirs of National Socialism.  Every conspiracy theory you've ever
heard of is trotted out--the Masons, the Kennedy Assassination, space aliens, aspartame (seriously)--even the Jews are part of the
Nazification of America.  Frankly, it's exhausting--to say nothing of the fact that you feel like an idiot at the end.  Trust me--you're time is
better spent elsewhere--anywhere.  (8/29/08)

The Official Filthy Rich Handbook:  How the Other .0001% Lives by Christopher Tennant  Remember The Official Preppy Handbook
from the 1980's?  Its creators are back with what they consider to be the next logical progression of  Preppy evolution.  The Preppy
handbook had a quirky pink and green charm that hasn't translated to the current project.  The most useful feature of the book is a page
that provides the correct pronunciation of the names of John Kluge (Klewg-EE), Charles Koch (Coke) , Diane (DEE-on) von Furstenburg
and others, but that's about all of the useful knowledge to be found.  (8/26/08)

Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba...and Then Lost It to the Revolution by T. J. English  Although I've never found the
Cuban Revolution to be particularly compelling  (I blame myself), I have to admit that I¿¿I was quite taken by Mr. English's account of
what was happening in Cuba in the 1950's. In addition to a very thorough and readable narrative of Cuban Mafia's exploitation of the
island-- and its people and the equal and opposite reaction that their actions inspired, i.e., Fidel, Mr. English takes time every now and again
to stop and look around at some of the people and things that could have made Havana what Las Vegas is today.  We spend a few
paragraphs with the gay leper who produced legendary floor shows at famous clubs like the Tropicana.  We learn that the prosperity  that
trickled down from the gangsters to the lower class musicians in the city laid the foundation for what would eventually become known as
Latin Jazz.  We are even informed that when singing
Babalu, Desi Arnaz was really summoning Santerian (voodoo) gods.  It's a very well
told story of a singular place and time. (8/26/08)

Waiter Rant:  Confessions of a Cynical Waiter by The Waiter  The anonymous author (only Russell Crowe knows who he is) has
written one of the most compelling books of the year on the subject of sitting in a restaurant.  He (we do know that much) says that 70
percent of us are mere sheep, tipping 15-20  percent, whether the service was exceptionally good or bad.  This book is about other 30
percent.  As you've probably suspected, waiters really only remember you if you tip more than 25 percent or less than ten.  The Waiter (he
also runs a blog called waiterrant.com) has a great breezy style and knows how to tell stories.  Check it out--and please, be sure to give
your attention to the 40 Rules for Eating in a Restaurant--especially No. 27, which is
Turn off your cell phone.  People around you are
trying to eat.  
Thank you for your attention.  (8/25/08)

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale  (This is the 50th book--you can count them--I've shared my snarky comments
with you about this year, and it's only August.  I've enjoyed the reading, but it occurs to me that I've GOT to meet some new people.)  I'm
not sure where Ms Summerscale was going with this book. The Mr. Whicher in the title is one of the original detectives at Scotland Yard in
the mid-1800's, but he's little more than a peripheral character in this book.  This is not a mystery.  The perp makes a written confession
about halfway through the book.  By that time, Mr. Whicher has journeyed from London to the country house where the murder was done,
conducted his investigation, made his report, gone home and disappeared from the story. The "story" itself is really isn't all that interesting,
either.  The author tells us that
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is loosely based on this case.  If you have a choice, read that
instead.  (8/23/08)

Rome 1960 by David Maraniss  Are you looking forward to the Olympics in Beijing next month?  Not so much?  Me, neither.  I wonder
why that is?  Do you supposed it could be that unlike past Olympiads, the USA has nothing to prove to the rest of the world?  In an era of
the lone superpower, have the Games become just games? And is that good or bad?  None of these questions are addressed in this excellent
book by David Maraniss, but they are the kinds of questions that the book makes you think about.  The Games of the XVII Olympiad in
Rome were held at a time when the old orders of world diplomacy and athletics were falling and new ones were arising.  In the month
before the Games began, Francis Gary Powers was convicted in the U2 spying case; and during the Games themselves, the initial steps
were being taken that would result in the construction of the  Berlin Wall.  The Games of Rome introduced the world to Rafer Johnson,
Wilma Rudolph and Cassius Clay--and the U.S. State Department sought to exploit their achievements to counter the nations' dreadful
reputation for race relations.  It's a terrific book--and it might just rekindle your hopes for what the Games of Beijing could be. (7/21/08)

Valfierno: The Man Who Stole the Mona Lisa  by Martin Caparros is a new translation of the novel that won the prestigious Premio
Planeta book award in Argentina in 2004.  I don't know how well Senor Caparros has been served by his translator.  The book (in English,
anyway) is tedious in the extreme; it may be more compelling
en Espanol--but I doubt it.  As it happens, the title character was NOT the
man who stole
La Goconde. As written, neither the theft (an act that comprises a couple of paragraphs) nor the events that lead up to it or
follow it are particularly compelling.  If you're going to make up a story about a guy who steals the
Mona Lisa, you should at least have a
little fun with it. (8/18/08)

This Republic of Suffering:Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust  Perhaps the most cheerful thing that can be said
for this book is that it is
useful. With chapter names like "Dying", "Killing" and "Burying" (and those are just the first three), It's a pretty
grim business. After reading the opening chapters, I went to the Acknowledgments to try to get a sense of what prompted Ms Faust
(whose day job is being president of Harvard) to write the book.  She says that the "idea for this book grew out of my earlier work on
women of the slaveholding South and crystallized as I recognized that their perceptions of the war were rooted in this terrible harvest of
death." And so from those roots came this book, which largely succeeds in describing the "terrible harvest" in blood-curdling and
mind-numbing detail.  If you ever find yourself in need of a primer on the terrible cost of war, here's your book.  (8/11/08)

Habits of Empire by Walter Nugent  Mom always said that if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything.  That advice is particularly
frustrating in this instance because I was sent a review copy of Mr. Nugent's  book and asked to send the publisher a copy of my review.  
I decided to decline their generous offer after I read it and found it to be a rather jaundiced view of American history.  As you can guess
from the title, the author reads the story of America through empire-colored glasses.  Everything from the Louisiana and Alaska Purchases
to the "Canadian-American " war that you might remember as the War of 1812 is grist for the imperial mill.  I grew weary of Mr. Nugent's
analysis rather quickly.   If you want to ignore my advice and give the book a shot, I'm sure the folks at Alfred A. Knopf would  love to see
positive comments.  Send your review to Kim Thornton at kthornton@randomhouse.com (8/5/08)

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith  Like City of Thieves (see below) this is a tale of young people in Russia's Great Patriotic War (WWII).  This
is almost all that  the two books have in common.  You find out  early on who's been killing and mutilating children in small towns and large
cities around Russia.  What you don't find out-- ever--is how one  becomes such a monster.  (To be fair, the author does offer a clue, but's
pretty weak.)  Although the characters are somewhat generic (which is too bad because one of the hero's police rivals seems to have had
the capacity to be much more intriguingly evil), it is compellingly plotted and written.  The picture of the author on the jacket makes him
look like he's about twelve, and this is his first book.  I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.  (8/3/08)

City of Thieves by David Benioff is a fine novel about life in the Leningrad during the siege.  Lev, a teenaged Jew  who is alone in the city,
finds himself locked up after a curfew violation.  To save himself from come combination of starvation and being shot, he must find a
dozen eggs for a corrupt major whose daughter is getting married in a week and needs the eggs for a wedding cake.  Also condemned to
this task is Kolya, a slightly older and more worldly boy who takes Lev under his wing.  The book is the story of their quest to find eggs,
but along the way, they encounter sex, the brutality of war, and life in general.  It's a great read.

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie  What can I say?  Rushdie Akbar (read the book) keeps setting them up, and I keep
knocking them down.  I liked this book, but I just can't praise it as rapturously as practically every critic this side of Tehran has done.  At
its most basic level,
The Enchantress of Florence tells the story of a man on the run from the authorities.  Is Mr. Rushdie comparing this
man to himself?  I don't know, but I doubt it.  In a twist on 1001
Nights, he finds that  he has to amuse or impress the emperor for years
and years with the story of a beautiful woman who might have been the emperor's aunt--or no one at all.  (Additionally, she may have been
some relation to the man on the run.  The story is dense, and Mr. Rushdie doesn't let facts stand in his way in telling it. The book is not
long, but it is a challenging read.

From Dead to Worse by Charlaine Harris  With all due apologies to Ms. Harris's fans (dead and undead), I have to confess that I had
never heard of her or the "Southern Vampire Mysteries" series of which this is the eighth installment.  The only reason I picked up this
book in the bookstore is that the blurb on the dust jacket said something to the effect that the small town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, was
coping with the "twin tragedies of Hurrican Katrina and the explosion at the Vampire Summit."  Thinking that the book would provide
evidence that the people (or at least the vampires) of Louisiana had moved on to a place where they could laugh about the storm, I checked
it out.  Such was not the case, but that's not really the point.  The (small) universe of this book contains practically every kind of
supernatural being--vampires, fairies,  shape-shifters and were-everythings.  At the center of their world is Sookie Stackhouse a telepathic
barmaid.  I did enjoy the book, and I may check some of the others in the series, but I'm not sure I'd call it "literature".  PS: Has there ever
been a vampire who
wasn't sexy?  With the obvious exception of Nosferatu, I think that every other vampire I've ever seen or read
anything about was a man or woman who everybody wanted.  (6/30/08)

Pelican Road by Howard Bahr  The weird symbiosis that Mississippi and Louisiana share is fascinating and has been plumbed by artists as
diverse as Tennessee Williams, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, Eli Manning and Hurricane Katrina.  I can't think of any other two states that
share such an intense love-hate relationship--for better or worse.  The latest entry in the bi-state canon comes from Howard Bahr, a truly
gifted writer whose way with a sentence cannot be denied.  
Between the rails, just ahead of the engine's pilot, lay a sheet of newsprint--in
fact, the opened front page of yesterday's Baton Rouge
Advocate, shrill with recent outrages of the Japanese army and the Louisiana
But 297 pages of these characters who fairly drip off the page might be too much of a good thing.  From the beginning, you
know that this story of trains and the down-and-out men who keep them moving will end badly.  The lavish number of pages given to
mistresses in New Orleans and dead gay brothers in France feel like filler because you know they're not going to be on the train when the
inevitable happens.  (6/13/08).

The Training Ground: Grant, Lee, Sherman and Davis in the Mexican War, 1846-1848 by Martin Dugard  Mr. Dugard says that his
agent gave him the idea for a book that would be something like "
Young Guns Meets the Heroes of the Civil War".  I think I want to arrange
an "accident" for Mr. Dugard's agent, but in any event, that is essentially what we have.  Lines like, "...Colonel William Whistler, the
commander of the Fourth, was arrested for repeatedly stumbling through the ranks shit-faced drunk..." and "...the people of Mississippi
were even more gung-ho about the war than he (Davis) was."  So the writing is--er, non-traditional, but still informative and entertaining.  I
just hope it doesn't become a trend.  (PS: My favorite passage:
Bugs were everywhere.  The Mississippians had never seen such swarms of
flies and mosquitoes.  This was particularly remarkable because they came from a stone
known for its swarms of flies and mosquitoes.

Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles is a charming little book that fits nicely inside a beach bag and provides the exact depth of
emotion necessary for a rewarding day on the sand--which is to say, not much at all.  Mr. Miles describes himself as the "wine
correspondent for the
New York Times and a former long-time resident of Oxford, Mississippi."  In four years of living in Oxford, all I
learned about wine was that the green bottle of Lancer's was the white wine, and the brown bottle was the red--but I digress.  Mr. Miles
has published essays on various things in lots of magazines, but this is his first novel.  I didn't begrudge the very little time I spent reading
this book--but I can't say that it made me look forward to whatever's next. (6/5/2008)

Highway 61: Heart of the Delta edited by Randall Norris  Saying anything bad about this book would be like kicking a puppy.  From the
book's jacket: "This book brings together essays by noted Delta writers and scholars, interviews with Delta residents from all walks of life;
and vivid photographs that document the region, as well as an original poem by famed poet Nikki Giovanni."  The essays are not
provocative (I swear I think everyone of them starts with the old saw about the Delta beginning in the lobby of the Peabody and ending on
Catfish Row in Vicksburg); the photographs may "document", but they don't enlighten; and let's just say that Ms. Giovanni has done better
work elsewhere.  If I didn't know better, I'd think that a writer, a photographer and a poet  went to a publisher and said they wanted to do
separate books about the Mississippi Delta, and the publisher said, "You know, let's just make just one big one!"  (6/5/2008)

A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz  Mr. Horwitz, the product of some public school system in New England, says that it was
news to him that Europeans had visited North America between Columbus's discovery in 1492 and the Pilgrims' landing in 1620.  (So
you're probably wondering to yourself, "Matt, why would you purchase and read a book by someone who obviously knows nothing about
the history of America?"  Good question.  I'll have to get back to you.)  To prove to himself that Vikings, Spanish conquistadors, and
settlers of places like St. Augustine, Roanoke and Jamestown were actually here, Mr. Horwitz sets off on what the book promises to be "an
irresistible blend of history, myth and misadventures."   My only advice is: Resist.   My basis for saying that you won't have a good time
with this book is because the author didn't appear to have a very good time himself.  Mr. Horwitz writes travelogues like Michael Myers
makes documentaries--by blending history, myth and misadventures.  The results are equally painful.  (6/5/2008)

The Greatest Battle by Andrew Nagorsky  The WWII Battle of Moscow was the largest battle ever fought.  Seven million soldiers
(roughly the population of Virginia) participated, and 2.5 million (the population of Nevada) died or were wounded in a battle that ranged
over an area roughly the size of France.   The epic battle has not received the attention it deserves because neither Hitler nor Stalin had
much interest in permitting their many blunders to be scrutinized either at the time of the battle or afterward. This book isn't bad, but it's
not the best in its very small category.   A much better book is
Moscow 1941, published in 2006.  If you're interested in knowing more
about this turning point in world history that has been swept under the rug to a shocking degree, check it out instead.  (6/5/2008)

Endgame, 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II by David Stafford  (OK, I've just got one more book about WWII to
share with you after this one, and then I'm done for a while.  I promise.)  I really don't think that other historians have been horribly remiss
in regard to the end of the war, but indeed they don't provide the level of detail about those events that is presented here.  Mr. Stafford
shares a lot of anecdotal information about some of the things that happened to wide range of individuals between Hitler's birthday in late
April and the Potsdam Conference in July.  Stories are told of American, British and  Canadian soldiers, BBC correspondents and their
families, refugees of all nationalities and refugee workers.  Mr. Stafford's contention is that VE Day was a great day for a celebration--as
long as you had food to eat, a bed to sleep in that night, and you knew where your family was.  Otherwise, it was one more day of misery
and doing without.  (5/26/2008)

The Fire (Der Brand) by Jorg Friedrich demonstrates that what one man (let's call him Winston Churchill) may call "morale bombing",
another man (the author of this book) would call the pointless destruction of human lives and centuries of European civilization.  Herr
Friedrich's contention is that throughout World War II, the Allies (mainly the British) were convinced that if enough German cities were
destroyed from the air, their civilian populations would rise up against Hitler and end of the war.  (For those of you who forgot, World War
I had ended in 1918 when German civilians turned against the war and the Kaiser.)  The author says that not only did that not happen in
WWII, the war was not shortened by even one day because of the bombings.  Further, he says that the Allies were fully aware that several
of the 60 German cities that were targeted during the course of the war had no military value whatsoever.  Bombing those cities, he says,
was tantamount to cold blooded killing and war atrocity.  Mr. Friedrich is fond of taking a page or two to tell you how many centuries it
took to build one of those 60 cities before explaining how many minutes it took to wipe it off the face of the earth.  The device  is more
than a little numbing--but effective.  It will definitely make you think about military tactics directed toward civilians--and that's a good
thing.  (5/22/2008)

Retribution by Max Hastings is a well researched and beautifully written account of the last eighteen months of World War II in the
Pacific theater.  Mr. Hastings is either THE editor or AN editor of the
Financial Times newspaper in the UK.  If I were  a more cynical
person, I might suspect that he wrote this book to share with American audiences the frequently overlooked British contributions in the
Pacific. Much attention is given here to British campaigns in India and Burma, as well as an ill-fated naval expedition late in the war.   But
most of the book--like most of the war itself--is focused on the Americans and Japanese who fought it out in the Philippines, on Iwo Jima
and Okinawa and in the skies over the cities of Japan..  The biggest surprise for me in the book was the "shameful" (author's word) record
of the Australian government, which could not even rouse its own people to fight against the Japanese who had sought to conquer them at
the outset of the war.  Furthermore, labor unions would frequently refuse to unload the cargo ships of the Americans who were doing their
fighting for them.  Shameful indeed.  (5/10/08)

Wicked City by Ace Atkins  Mr. Atkins is one of my very favorite writers.  Last year's book, White Shadow, about Ybor City in the bad
old days, was one of the best things I read all year.  I was delighted to learn that he had a new book coming out, and that it was an account
of the shenanigans (i.e., prostitution, gambling, etc.) going on in Phenix City, Alabama, in the late 40's and early 50's that prompted a
national magazine to call it "the most wicked city in America."  Since Mr. Atkins is a native of that part of the world, I was expecting
something quite remarkable--which was a mistake.  I think Mr. Atkins knows his characters SO well and he was so eager to jump into the
story that he really didn't take the time he needed to provide enough back story for the characters for the reader to be able to identify (with)
them.  As a result, it's difficult to identify the rednecks without a program.  The good guys, bad guys and innocent bystanders are all so
similarly rough and sweaty that you have to keep looking back to see who's who.  Eventually, you draw a bead on who they all are and the
story carries you along.  But until that time, it (unlike the various honky tonks in Phenix City) is hard to get into.  (4/29/08)

River of Heaven by Lee Martin  Actions have consequences--both physical and metaphysical.  That's the message of this lovely book
about a 65-year-old "closet auntie" in a small town in southern Illinois who just seemed to be rolling along and waiting to die, until an
unusual series of events brought into closer contact with his neighbors, his community, his long-lost brother, and ultimately, himself.  Mr.
Martin writes in a languid manner about a life that just seemed to be slipping away.  It's a very moving account of loneliness and the
surprises (nice and otherwise) that are waiting to be found, if you'll only look for them.  (4/27/08)

1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See by Bruce Chadwick  
Say what you want about any US President of your lifetime, they all look George Washington compared to James Buchanan.  What a dolt.  
He vigorously denied that slavery was an issue in the country at a time when people seldom spoke of anything else.  In 1858, the year of
the Lincoln-Douglas Debates and John Brown's Raid, he was dabbling in international intrigues in Paraguay (of all places), Mexico and
Cuba.  This slim book doesn't really provide a comprehensive look at the country during the title year, but it does provide insightful
glimpses of people like Jefferson Davis, who was suffering from  a severe case of herpes simplex, and Stephen Douglas, who was being
attacked by President Buchanan of his own party as he was waging his Senatorial campaign against the Republican Lincoln.  (4/21/08)

Panama Fever by Matthew Parker  Mr. Parker is a Brit who has written in the past about the Battles of Britain and Monte Casino.  He
doesn't say what originally piqued his curiosity about the Panama Canal, but I suspect that somewhere along the way, he heard that most of
the laborers on the canal were British subjects from Jamaica, Barbados and elsewhere in the Caribbean.  I had never seen that bit of
information elsewhere, so I think it's a legitimate point of entry to the story of the building of the canal.  Naturally, these people suffered at
the hands of evil Americans, to wit: "It has often been noted that U. S. imperialist expansion went hand in hand with rising racism." Sadly,
the irony of a British subject making such a comment doesn't make it any less true. To his credit, Mr. Parker also acknowledges the scope
of the accomplishment, quoting an early visitor to the canal:  "These locks are more than just tons of concrete, they are the gate to the
pathway of which Columbus dreamed and for which Hudson died. They are the answer of courage and faith to doubt and unbelief.  In
them are the blood and sinew of a great and hopeful nation, the fulfillment of ancient ideals and the promise of a larger growth to come...."  
It's an interesting read.  Check it out.  (4/14/08)

The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, The Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction by Charles Lane  When I
was working for the first Republican Governor of Louisiana since Reconstruction in the early 1980's, the head of the State Police took me
aside and told me that whenever I planned to be traveling through Grant Parish (on the main drag between Shreveport and Alexandria), I
was to be careful, never speed, never stop, and call the State Police  immediately if I ever got stopped.  At the time, I thought he was just
telling me to watch out for speed traps, but as I learned more about Colfax and its surrounding parish, the more I began to suspect that the
dangers were potentially worse than a speeding ticket.  Reading Mr. Lane's book twenty-five years later made me realize that outsiders
never were particularly welcome there.  The premise of this book is that "reconstruction began with a glorious promise--that America could
emerge from the Civil War as the world's first true interracial society.  But it ended amid blood shed and crass political bargaining.  The
Colfax Massacre was a pivotal moment in this tragic saga."  Mr. Lane does a wonderful job of communicating and interpreting the obscure
and often contradictory facts of this sad tale.  (4/3/08)

Storming Las Vegas: How a Cuban-Born, Soviet-Trained Commando Took Down the Strip to the Tune of Five World-Class
Hotels, Three Armored Cars, and Millions of Dollars
by John Huddy  With a title like this, do you really need to read the book?  As in
Lush Life (below), reality is a lot more mundane and less cinematic than Ocean's 11.  However, if you've seen Ocean's 11 and are under the
impression that
anyone can take out a Vegas casino, you probably do need to read this book.  (3/31/08)

Lush Life by Richard Price  may well be the most realistic police procedural I've ever read.  That is not a compliment; it's the way I
suspect most real murders get investigated.  Lots of frustration, bureaucracy, misinformation and downright spite.  No cool detectives who
live on houseboats, or are really world-class chefs or wine connoisseurs.  The criminals and victims are as mundane as can be imagined.  
Unfortunately, what makes for great realism also makes for grinding, unpleasant fiction.  Mr. Price gets all kind of respect from me for
telling a story that sounds all too real.  However, when I'm reading fiction I kind of feel like Blanche Dubois:
I don't want reality!  I want

Jumbo: This Being the Story of the Greatest Elephant in the World by Paul Chambers  When he was performing, he was electric.  
The crowds loved him.  In his private life he was abusive--and abused. After a 30-year career in show business, he died in a tragic accident
and left a good looking corpse.  Yes, we're talking about an elephant.  At the height of his popularity, he was perhaps the most famous
quadruped in the world. In time, his name came to be synonymous with any large thing.  He was both captured and enslaved, pampered
and spoiled. This  wee little book is informative and engaging, and it will actually make you think about the nature of fame and what
constitutes a good life.  (3/22/08)

Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris  Mr. Harris would have us believe that
1967, the year of the Summer of Love, was
The Year That Changed Everything in Hollywood.  The five nominees for Best Picture for
1967 were
Dr. Dolittle, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate and In the Heat of the Night.  The first two films
were products of Old Hollywood, which defined success as the ability to clone the popularity of such recent hits as
The Sound of Music,
Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady.   Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate were the vanguard of the New Hollywood, where violence and sex
would no longer be taboo.
In the Heat of the Night, the ultimate winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, had one foot in each
camp.   Mr. Harris tells the interesting stories of how each of these movies came to be made, and how each of them embodies the spirit of
either Old or New Hollywood.   (3/24/08)

Welcome to Holly Springs by Jan Karon  Unbeknownst to me, there's been a "Mitford Series" of novels that are apparently about lovable
coots in a place called Mitford--which seems to be in North Carolina.  Among the more lovable coots is Father Tim Kavanaugh, a 70-ish,
boring, balding coot who goes around blessing people and calling his dog "the old gentleman."  Apparently, Ms. Karon has decided to "spin
off" Father Tim from whatever role he was playing in the Mitford Series and give him his own series of adventures.  (I know this because
the cover of this book says that it is "The First of the Father Tim Novels.")  Yikes.  This book gives Father Tim a "back story" in Holly
Springs and prepares the reader for what are bound to be more interesting exploits in the future.  The author shares with us that before
starting this book, she chose Mississippi as Father Tim's place of origin because she had never been to the state.  She pulled out a map,
decided that Holly Springs sounded like a nice name and started her research from there.  I'm sorry but I just could not find a way to
connect with this work, which is too bad.  I like coots.

Johnny One-Eye by Jerome Charyn is the most fun I've had reading fiction in a long time.  I'm not familiar with his past works, but I may
now investigate some of them.  This book is set in New York during the American Revolution and speaks intimately of such figures as
George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Richard and William Howe--and by intimately, I mean
really intimately.  It's the first novel in a
long time that's compelled me to go to the dictionary to look up words--like bastinado, jerkin, amanuensis and hommonculus.  (To save you
a trip, they are respectively, a form of torture, a male falcon, a manual laborer, and an agent.)  It's a ripping tale that would have you believe
that George Washington might not have been as sterile as historians would have you believe.  Check it out. (3/05/08)

Condi: Life of a Steel Magnolia by Mary Beth Brown  If you're a Democrat or someone equally likely not to admire the Secretary of
State, this is not the book for you.  Ms. Brown is not at all interested in whether or not Ms. Rice went to see
Spamalot on Broadway in the
week following Hurricane Katrina--thereby proving her callousness toward the victims.  (As if.)  This book is an unauthorized biography,
but there is not a sentence in it that does not reflect to Ms. Rice's credit. It's most definitely a valentine, but that's okay with me because I
like Condi.  You may not.  Unfortunately (for the book), the most informative bit of information we get from the author is that Ms. Rice's
mother wanted to name her daughter,
Condolcezza, an Italian musical term instructing the musician to play "with sweetness", but changed
it to Condoleeza, thinking it would be easier to pronounce.  Not that she needs one, but she doesn't have a middle name. (3/2/08)

In Search of Another Country by Joseph Crespino  I'm not sure what Mr. Crespino is getting at in this book.  The subtitle is "Mississippi
and the Conservative Counterrevolution."  What does that mean?  I know about the Conservative Revolution, led by St. Ronald of
Hollywood, but what is the "Conservative Counterrevoluion?"  What revolution were those wacky Mississippians countering?  
Unfortunately, Mr. Crespino doesn't see fit to clue us in.  Generally speaking, he discusses racial politics in Mississippi in the twenty years
following the enrollment of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi.  In a shrewd marketing move, Mr. Crespino put a photo of
President Reagan on the cover of the book--although he is scarcely mentioned in its pages.  Mr. Crespino is an assistant professor of
history at Emory.  I suspect that if one of his students turned this work in, the teacher in him would give the work an "incomplete".  

911 From an Inside Line by Denise Stephenson is a missed opportunity.  At the Mississippi Rising concert that was held in Oxford three
weeks after Katrina in 2005, actors from the television soap opera
Days of Our Lives told the story of the Waveland Police Department and
how its entire 22-person stayed at their posts during the storm.  As the tidal surge overtook their building,  police men and women were
compelled to save themselves by scrambling to the roof or holding on to a flagpole or bush in the front of the building.  It was the most
inspiring part of the concert, and I was looking forward to this book by a police dispatcher who, I hoped, would speak of it in more detail.  
Ms. Stephenson is to be commended for her heroism and her faith, but sadly, she's no reporter.  Some of the participants in her story are
"the police chief", "a state trooper", "a friend" and "the mayor", but she doesn't give us their names. Nor does she give us much information
about what she saw, stating, "I feel as though it is disrespectful to speak of the many things I saw that day and in the few days that
followed."  I respect her discretion, but if that's the case, she shouldn't have written a book about it.  (2/28/2008)

Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier  Tyger tyger burning bright / In the forest of the night / What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy
fearful symmetry.  
And that, esteemed reader, is the theme of this novel.  So, you're thinking That makes no sense; to which I reply And
your point is?  
I give Ms. Chevalier props for higher artistic aspirations than just telling the story of William Kellaway and his family who
left their rural home in Dorset to make their way in London in 1792-1793.  They met a whole host of colorful characters who served as
their guides to London and life.  Chief among them were a street urchin named Maggie and the author William Blake.  It's  an interesting
read.  A murder in the past is relived, and there's a little romance, a little statutory rape, and a couple of trips to the circus.  The book is less
than the sum of its parts, but the parts are not without their attractions. (2/26/2008)

Resistance by Owen Sheers is everything you could want in a work of fiction--except a story.  It's compelling, imaginative in its concept,
elegantly written, engaging in its characterizations--it's got it all.   Almost.  The author tells the story of a valley on the border of England
and Wales after the Normandy invasion of 1944 was repulsed by the Germans, followed by the invasion of the UK by the Nazis who
overran the country in short order.  Shortly after the invasion, the men of the Olchon Valley left their women in the middle of the night to
do who-knows-what.  The women were left to cope with the farming and sheep-tending chores-and they are left at the mercy of a German
patrol which comes into the valley and stays for the winter.  You're frustrated because there's a lot of information the author chooses not to
share with you (for good reasons), but you can't be too displeased because what is there is quite good indeed.  (2/24/08

Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe by Robert Gellately continues the commendable recent trend of providing
context to historical writing.  Mr. Gellately is quite good and reconstituting this miserable era of human history.   He says that he has taken
some heat from his fellow historians who balk at  lumping Lenin in with the other two monsters; however, he makes it quite clear that the
other two would not have been possible without Lenin--Stalin as heir, and Hitler as the equal and opposite reaction one hears so much
about.  I believe this book is the perfect introduction to the age of social catastrophe in which 36.5 million Europeans died violently. If you
have an interest in the era--and you should--this is a great place to start.  (2/23/2008

On Secret Service
by Mitch Silver  So what do Wallis Simpson, Rudolf Hess, James Bond creator Ian Fleming and Princess Diana have in
common?  Plenty, if you're willing to go along with the premise of Mr. Silver's first novel.  It's a ripping little tale that makes for enjoyable
reading on a cold winter night.  Having said that, I feel obligated to report that the book also reflects a couple of disturbing trends I've
noticed in American fiction.  The first trend is that Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, is generally considered to be a 'ho.  This is the
second novel I've read in the last year that trashes her for real or imagined peccadillos and sexcapades.  Some day, I'm going to have read a
real biography to see if she was really the tramp that current writers believe.  The second trend is that lots of novels are endeavoring to tell
two stories at once.   One story is set somewhere else in history, and the other take place at the present time.  (I blame
The French
Lieutenant's Woma
n.)  I can't think of one instance in which the present-day story is nearly as compelling as the one from another time.  
And so it is here.  (2/14/2008)

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb Mr. Taleb would like for us to think of black swans
as the new
Lexus and Olive Tree, flat Earth, or moved Cheese of the business literature world.  A black swan "is a highly improbable event
with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that
makes it appear less random and more predictable."  The Internet is a good black swan; 9/11 is a bad black swan.  More to the point, in the
words of the 20th century American philosopher Donald Rumsfeld, "There are things we know, things we know we don't know, and
things we don't know we don't know."  Black swans are the last-although it would probably kill Mr. Taleb to admit as much.  This is a very
complex book, full of math--the last refuge of economists.  I'm sorry to say I didn't have the time, patience or ability to critique Mr. Taleb's
theory, but it sounds to me like he's pretty much saying that "stuff happens."  (2/13/2008)  

Visibility by Boris Starling putters along like a reasonably good British police procedural for the first 325 of its 375 pages.  But then it
drops the big one on the unsuspecting reader--a plot twist so perverse and, well, outlandish that everything that went before and came after
is suspect.  OK, OK.  I'll tell you.  The author alleges that Josef Mengele--yeah, him--came to the US after WWII and worked for our
government to decode the secrets of DNA.  Although the frontispiece of the book states that it is a work of fiction, the author clearly
asserts in his Afterword that this actually happened, and that Mengele's alleged life in South America is a sham.  Frankly, I don't want to
believe that, so I won't.  I'm just sorry that it cast a pall over the rest of the experience of reading this book.  (2/9/2008

The Appeal
by John Grisham   If you've been paying attention to this page (don't worry--I know you haven't), you might have observed
that this is the first notice of a Grisham book ever to appear here.  After an intense infatuation in the early 90's, Mr. Grisham and I parted
company amicably after
The Runaway Jury, his sixth book.  Now that he's up to Number 21 (where does the time go?) and has returned
from his literary forays to places like the Amazon jungle, death row, and high school football games, I thought I'd drop in on him to see
how he's been getting along without me.  Also, I'd heard that this new book has something to do with the election of Mississippi supreme
court justices.  It does, and since I actually know one of those people reasonably well, I thought I'd check it out to see how it jibes with
what I think I know about Mississippi politics.  In short, the Grisham standards from the glory days are all there:  Mississippi millieu;
breakneck plot--check; broad brush strokes of characters and the lack of development in same--check; lack of interesting women--check.  
What is new is that Mr. Grisham is no longer shy about sharing his politics with us--which is fine, but his beliefs would have been better
served if he had written fewer caricatures and more characters.  (2/3/08)

The Art Thief by Noah Charney is too clever by half--actually it's too clever by about 75 percent.  It's all about the red herrings.  They're
positively scarlet--even the title of the book is a red herring.  Mr. Charney is very good at sharing interesting vignettes about art thefts
through the centuries, and they're the best part of this book.  Unfortunately, however, they are held together by a highly contrived plot
about three sets of thieves and the vain, plodding coppers who pursue them.  Because of reasons that become clear as the plot unfolds, Mr.
Charney doesn't share a lot of information with us about many of the
dramatis personae.  He does this with so many of the characters that
it gets frustrating and more than a little irritating.   When the several strands of the plot do begin to unravel near the end of the book, you
find yourself having to re-read some passages two or three times to convince yourself that the connections that Mr. Charney is making are
remotely plausible.  It is not what you would call a satisfying thriller.  (2/2/08)

Forge of Empires 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made by Michael Knox Beran is a well-meaning
mess, but still a mess.  The statesmen in question are Lincoln, Otto von Bismarck of Germany (nee Prussia) and Tsar Alexander II of
Russia.  Lincoln freed the slaves; Alexander freed the serfs; and Bismarck freed the German military class to be horses' asses for the next
75 years. Mr. Beran focuses on the middle decade of the 19th century and tries to make connections between what was going on in the
three countries, e.g.,  freeing the slaves and freeing the serfs.  Some of his connections are more forced, e.g., Tolstoy writing
War and
e while Lincoln was writing the Gettysburg Address.  Mr. Beran is all about context.  In addition to the statesmen, such diverse types
as Wagner, Nietzsche, Napoleon III and Eugenie, Robert E. Lee and Emperor Maximillian of Mexico roam his pages.  I don't think
everything was as connected as the author would like to believe, but the comparisons--however strained--are interesting.  (2/1/2008

The Discovery of France
by Graham Robb  The Tour de France wasn't always a bicycle race.  The term dates from the early 18th
century, though it describes a practice that is much older.  In a time when travel beyond one's
pays was dangerous, routes around the
country formed by migrant workers provided a relatively safe passage.  The typical tour (by men on foot, of course) lasted four or five
years, covered more than 1400 miles, and included 151 different towns.  While the men were off, the women were left in the village to do
not only the "women's work" but the men's as well.  This is but one insight from a fascinating book about how very little anyone (especially
other French people) knew about the Europe's largest country before the advent of mass communication.  Mr. Robb, who did his research
around the country by bicycle, is a wonderful storyteller.  If you have any interest in visiting France (even by armchair), this book is a
treasure.    (1/21/08)

Weimar Germany by Eric D. Weitz  This is an estimable book about a fascinating time in history--Germany between the end of the War
to End All Wars and the ascent of the Nazis.  Mr. Weitz's says that the era's "sparkling creativity and emancipatory experiments, politically
and culturally, are still capable of inspiring thoughts that a better, more humane, more interesting condition of life is possible.  It reminds us
that democracy is a fragile thing, society an unstable construction, each threatening to spin wildly out of control."  Undoubtedly.  In an
effort to thoroughly outline the political, economic, social, cultural (and even sexual) factors that made the era what it was, Mr. Weitz
covers a lot of ground--sometimes three or four times.  This repetitiveness is, unfortunately, the only flaw that stands between me and
complete approval.  (PS:  This book did answer one question that has always confounded me, which is, "how can something called the
Socialist Democratic Party get to be considered to be "right wing"?   Without getting into too much detail, that author points out
that the Nazis were able to disassociate the idea of socialism from communism, Russia, etc. and align it more with the
nation.) (1/20/08)

Can't Buy Me Love This book has been sitting on my night table for the past two months, silently reproaching me for not picking it up
sooner.  Back in November, Darryl, Sally and I went to Liverpool, where the highlight of the trip was a drive around town with a very
enthusiastic tour guide named Kevin, who kept urging us to get out of the car (and into the rain) to take pictures of the house where Ringo
lived between the ages of three and eight--or something.  I've shied away from histories of the Beatles (Mr. Gould says that there are over
500 of them) because the Beatles' history is
my history.  One of my earliest memories is going to a store in Memphis and talking my parents
into buying a Beatles wig.  (I was ten.)  Their concert in Memphis (which was less than two weeks before the last concert they'd ever
give) was the first rock concert I ever attended.  (Don't get me started on that.) I was always a Beatles fan--which is, despite the fact that
Mr. Gould does a good job of covering the territory, why I couldn't drum up too much enthusiasm for this book.  In many ways, he's
writing the history of my teenage years--and it's not the way I want to remember it.  (1/19/08)

A Poisoned Season by Tasha Alexander  (Men, keep moving--the next book is about football; women, read on if you must.)  In Weimar,
(see above), the author describes the German tradition of bildung, the belief in self-cultivation that would come through
engagement with great works of culture.  He goes on to say that by the early 20th century, this fashionable ideology had made the upper
classes of Germany snobbish and self-satisfied.  Some of that self-satisfaction must have seeped across the North Sea to London to infect
Lady Emily Ashton, a beautiful widow of twenty-five, who is "possibly the richest woman in England"--and a thumping bore.  Everyone
adores her (including all of the most eligible bachelors, or course), but all she wants to do is stay home and translate Homer.   As Ms.
Alexander has written of Lady Ashton in an earlier book and has plans for yet another later this year, people obviously go for this kind of
thing.  But in the words of silent film star Lina Lamont in
Singin in the Rain, "I ain't people!" (1/19/08)

Meat Market by Bruce Feldman  Talk about a book with no shelf life.  This is the story of the college football recruiting prowess of Ed
Orgeron.  I bought it when it came out just before the 2007 football season.  When I got around to reading it four months later, Ole Miss
had gone winless in the Southeastern Conference, fired Orgeron and scattered his assistants to the four winds.  Reading a book about those
people is like reading a book about the Mayans--except this crowd didn't build pyramids or invent the calendar.  Bruce Feldman is a good
writer.  I enjoy his stuff on the ESPN website.  He work doesn't have a lot of depth, and in this particular situation, he picked the wrong
subjects. (1/13/08

Points of Origin
by Darden North.   I have to admit that I wasn't dazzled by Dr. North's first effort, House Call, so I picked up the new
book with a little trepidation.  My complaint about the earlier book was that the author didn't seem to grasp that although people do like
reading about doctors, they're not so interested in getting  doses of health care policy in their works of fiction  (se
e Crawfish Mountain,
below.)  But I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised.  It is--mercifully--only tangentially related to the practice of medicine, and Dr.
North also gives the reader a lot of interesting info about the art and science of arson.  I would almost call the characters "Grishamesque",
and they are more interesting and three-dimensional than the last time around.  If I have any complaint at all, it's that I don't think the author
has quite nailed the pacing required for a novel which tells multiple stories.  For example, as the action builds near the end of the book, he
sends the lead character off to another town to interact--to no apparent end--with characters from
House Call.  It looks: a) like he's
padding the book; and b) very much as if he's setting us up for his next book.  Neither of those motives serve the this book very well.  But
overall, I'd definitely say that Dr. North has beaten the sophomore slump. (1/12/08)

Crawfish Mountain by Ken Wells  Mr. Wells is a Pulitzer Prize finalist (not for this book) and former features editor for the Wall Street
Journal, so after reading the blurb about him on the flap, I put aside my fear that I was about to launch into yet another well-meant
"save-the-wetlands" screed.  My bad.  Had I bothered to read the Acknowledgements, I would have seen the following sentence: "Not all
books have goals, but I did have one here: to attempt to tell a fun story about a serious subject, the decimation of Louisiana's wetlands...."  
I guess I have to say that one man's "fun" is another man's screed.  The book starts slowly.  There are lots of "colorful characters (read
"stereotypes"), and it takes a while to sort them out.  After a while, you pick up the author's rhythm and begin to hope that it won't be so
bad.  But as you near the end (when a Louisiana governor whom the author insists on calling "Guv" is abducted by a desperate woman in
an RV and held against his will in a fishing camp), your already suspended belief drops away.