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John's Picks

Book Cover for Beneath the Lion's Gaze Mengiste, Maaza
Beneath the Lion's Gaze

After enduring a horrifying drought-turned-famine during the 1970s, the country of Ethiopia is on the verge of civil war. Emperor and King of Kings Haile Selassie — through either incompetence, indifference, or both — is deposed, then executed. Of course (as with most violent revolutions), the new rulers, a military junta, are worse than the people they have replaced. Mengiste's story follows the family of a respected doctor as they attempt to survive this time of struggle and strife. Differing political views, and conflicting ideas on how to proceed, threaten to tear the family (and the country) apart. The familial bonds are strong, but are they strong enough? — Yes and No.
Beneath the Lion's Gaze is a terrifying tale that displays the best and worst of human behavior — with the arrow pointing mostly toward the worst.
Recommended August 2015

Book Cover for The Holy Thief Ryan, William
The Holy Thief

With the chain-smoking, acrophobic Captain Alexei Korolev of the Moscow Militia, author William Ryan has created the perfect cousin (and read-alike) for Martin Cruz Smith's tiger-like detective Arcady Renko. However, Ryan's detective has an even more difficult time functioning, as he walks the razor's edge through Stalinist Russia, a place of such murderous paranoia that either not solving a crime or solving a crime too well can each get you a bullet. Mr. Ryan's three books so far: 1) The Holy Thief (2010) The body of a tortured young woman leads Captain Korolev to a smuggling ring; 2) The Darkening Field (2011) Korolev takes his first plane ride to Odessa in order to determine if the death of a film actress was suicide or murder; 3) The Twelfth Department (2013) Two doctors in charge of an institute where horrible experiments are being performed get wasted. All three books are grand, although I felt the first two had just the right amount of gore, secrecy and betrayal, while the third had maybe a tad too much.
Recommended October 2014

Book Cover for The Sixth Extinction Kolbert, Elizabeth
The Sixth Extinction

A Top Ten List of the things I learned by reading Elizabeth Kolbert's Bestseller The Sixth Extinction
10) Ocean acidification is the extremely evil partner of global warming.
9) The mass extinction at the end of the Permian period that nearly emptied the earth of all life is known as "The Great Dying".
8) Frogs are "ribbet-ribbet" fabulous.
7) Tropical waters are very low in the nutrients necessary to most forms of life, that is why they are so beautifully clear.
6) Genetically speaking, all people (including Cameron Diaz) are between one and four per cent Neanderthal.
5) Rats may inherit the earth. 4) Coral reefs are part animal, vegetable and mineral.
3) Wood storks defecate on their own legs, sometimes up to once per minute, in order to stay cool.
2) Due to glaciation New England had no earthworms until the European settlers arrived. How's the grass?
1) Human beings can cause anything to become extinct—even themselves.
Recommended August 2014

Book Cover for On Such a Full Sea Lee, Chang-rae
On Such a Full Sea

Fan, the principal character of Chang-rae Lee's latest, is the descendent of a large group of labor workers brought to America from a devastated China sometime in the near or distant future. Fan lives in a secured compound formerly known as Baltimore (now "B-Mor") working along with everyone else growing vegetables and producing seafood. All to feed a group of walled-in citizens once known as the 1% (now the "Charters"). The only populated area outside of these two safety zones is known as "the counties", where law, order, rules, regulations, and any type of morality is difficult to find. One commonality the groups share is a fatal form of cancer (now "C" diseases) which touches nearly everyone. Fan leaves the friendly confines of B-Mor to search for her boyfriend once he is carried off to a Charter clinic, after tests reveal he may not be susceptible to C-disease. Fan's odyssey through the counties and into the Charter compound embodies most of the novel. On Such A Full Sea is a beautifully written book, and any resemblance it bears to our own society is strictly intentional. On the dystopian horror scale where 1984 and The Road rate a 10, I give this one a 7.
Recommended May 2014

Book Cover for We, The Drowned Jensen, Carsten
We, The Drowned

Hailed as a modern-day classic in Europe, We, The Drowned is the story of ships, the sea, and a Danish port town. Marstal is a place where the seven seas form, frame, and define the very essence of its citizens. Commerce by ship rules, and from an early age men are hardened to spend years away at sea, the women steeled for a life alone. The tale stretches from the 1850s to the 1940s, from the golden age of sail, to the advent of steam, to modern ships of the twentieth century. Three succeeding characters steer the action, Laurids Madsen, his son Albert, and Albert's protégé, Knud Eric. Laurids, after a near death experience, becomes rather eccentric and sails to the South Pacific never to return. After years of searching, Albert discovers him, drunk, naked, climbing up and down a coconut tree. Realizing that his father is not only eccentric but insane, Albert looks windward and rises from shipmate to ship captain to ship owner/builder. Knud Eric carries the Marstal town banner, as well as the story, into the Second World War. All the major characters have common as well as unique experiences, including shrunken heads, sea battles, hurricanes, exotic locales, bravery, treachery, lovers, cannibals, murderers, Nazis, but thank Neptune—no pirates! Also, a lot of people drown. We, The Drowned is a wonderful, memorable book that deserves a place alongside the splendid seafaring tales of yore.
Recommended August 2011

Book Cover for Man in the Dark Auster, Paul
Man in the Dark

A retired book critic, dealing with major physical problems as well as serious insomnia, creates a bedtime story or story-within-a-story to pass the time, all to great effect.
Recommended November 2010

Book Cover for The Infinities Banville, John
The Infinities

First of all, this is one of the most beautifully written novels ever to see the light of day. Breathtakingly so. Now for the story. The great mathematician Adam Godley lies dying in his country home recounting the pluses and minuses of his extraordinary life. Swirling about is his extremely eccentric family, doing a bit of soul searching themselves. Add to the mix the classical gods Zeus, Pan and Hermes (our narrator) and you have the makings for sophisticated mayhem.
Recommended October 2010

Book Cover for Flood Baxter, Stephen

Better bring an umbrella. It's going to be wet. Stephen Baxter creates an apocalyptic tale like no other. Endless rain, rising oceans and surging rivers put an end to dry land on earth between the years 2013-2055. As always, the human spirit survives, as a few characters escape waterworld aboard earth's last spaceship, headed for . . .
Recommended June 2010

Book Cover for Galileo's Dream Robinson, Kim Stanley
Galileo's Dream

Science Fiction
In 1609, an enigmatic stranger inspires Galileo to create a magnifying glass like no other. The telescope brings Galileo great notoriety & fame but little fortune. It also brings powerful enemies. The stranger soon whisks the great man far into the future, physically placing him on Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, where a battle is going on between various scientific factions, each one hoping to gain Galileo's wisdom, blessing and favor. Back on Earth Galileo is wanted as well, by the Inquisition! Seems his heliocentric views have upset the Pope so much that he's threatened with imprisonment and/or death. In essence, Galileo is fighting two battles, one in outer space and one in Italy. Which one is weirder is left up to the reader. Galileo's Dream serves not only as a wonderfully imaginative tale, but as a superb biography of Galileo. It is one of KSR's finest creations, which is really saying something.
May 2010

Book Cover for The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein Ackroyd, Peter
The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein

Peter Ackroyd's latest is a retelling of the unforgettable legend of Frankenstein. This time the story, which takes place mostly in England, offers a unique twist, and contains characters both fictional and actual. The Casebook opens with a still callow Victor Frankenstein (fictional) enrolling at Oxford University where he meets the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (actual), who helps Victor select his first class, "Anatomical Experimentation in order to Reanimate the Dead."* Shelley hopes his new pal will do for science what he hopes to do for politics and literature, i.e. "liberate it." While Shelley woos his first wife Harriet (actual), Victor builds a laboratory in an old pottery barn and begins to purchase corpses from a grave robbing band known as the "sack-em-up-men." He then stitches the cadavers together and jolts them with electricity, thus attempting to create a new kind of being. After much failure comes great success and The Monster (fictional) comes alive. However, he soon goes berserk, bumping off Londoners left & right, including Shelley's wife Harriet. An innocent man is executed for the crimes leaving Victor distraught and in need of a vacation. Young Frankenstein, along with a grieving Shelley, head for the Continent where they hook up with Lord Byron (actual) and the soon to be second Mrs. Shelley, Mary Godwin (whom readers will recall as the actual creator of both Victor and The Monster). Unfortunately, poor Victor can run but he can't hide. The Monster follows him and dead people begin to turn up in Austria as well. Victor heads back to England in order to devise a way to destroy what he has created. * see CMU Spring Schedule
Recommended December 2009

Book Cover for The Accidental Time Machine Haldeman, Joe
The Accidental Time Machine

One particular afternoon, unknowingly, unwittingly, lab assistant Matt Fuller invents a time machine. For Matt, this fortuitous event could not have been (forgive me) more timely. Our hero had no money, had just lost his girlfriend and was about to lose his job. In a word, Matt's present, like that of so many of his contemporaries----sucked! Matt's only dilemma was whether to go backward or forward in time. He knew how horrible the past was (although if he went back to the 2nd Tuesday of the month he would have $50.00 in his account). Certainly the future, any future, must be better. Well, maybe yes-maybe no. The Accidental Time Machine is such a cogent, rollicksome, and intelligent novel, that it inspired me to reread Professor Haldeman's The Forever War, (1974). In that classic tale, earthlings battle a species known as the Taurans across space and through time for so long that no one can remember the purpose of the war. Intended to parallel The Vietnam Conflict (in which Haldeman served), the novel resounds once again. Best of luck to time-travelers everywhere.
Recommended by John, October 2007

Book Cover for Years of Extermination Friedlander, Saul
Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945

In the continuation and conclusion to Volume #1, Years of Persecution, 1933-1939, Friedlander, Chair of Holocaust Studies at U.C.L.A., presents the definitive record of Nazi Germany's implacable malevolence against the Jews of Europe. Using the diaries of the dead and previously unreleased documents, the author paints a general as well as personal account of a historical blight that will forever defy human logic and civilization.
Recommended by John, August 2007

Book Cover for The Places in Between Stewart, Rory
The Places in Between

In January 2002, Scottish author/diplomat/historian/explorer Rory Stewart decided to walk across Afghanistan. Walking was the rational part of his decision, for he had already traversed India, Pakistan, Iraq, and Nepal. Afghanistan was the irrational part. Recently invaded by the United States, at war with internal and external foes for over twenty-five years, the place was considered unsafe even by the foolhardy. Rory (anything but a fool) persuaded the newly formed government (it had been in power less than two weeks) to give it a go and off he went, leaving Herat heading east for Kabul in the dead of winter. All our hero took with him were two knapsacks, some tribal garb, and a stout, steel-tipped walking stick that would later come in handy beating off wolves and wild dogs. As Stewart makes his way into the interior, it doesn't take long to discover that Afghanistan is not one, but many countries. Villages only a few miles apart differ in religion, ancestry, tribal loyalty, custom and even race. Afghanistan is also a very backward and incredibly remote country. Most of its rural inhabitants live in mud huts with only blankets to cover the floor. There is a scarcity of everything (most importantly food and medicine) and the only sort of education is religious in nature. There is little contact with the outside world. Yet there is no lack of hospitality. Almost every night, after a hard day of beating feet, the author would stagger into a new village and begin pounding on doors, seeking food and shelter. Only once or twice was he reluctantly asked to move on. One can only imagine, what would happen if he tried the same thing--in say, Cleveland. Stewart meets many memorable characters on his journey, none more noteworthy than Babur, a giant mastiff hound with a clipped off tail. Babur is given to Stewart halfway through his trek and walks with him the rest of the way to Kabul. By the way, Babur is a wild dog magnet and his favorite food is bread. Lots of bread. He really likes it. Babur also saves the author's life after being collapsed in a snowdrift. Stewart suffers other hardships as well during his expedition, altitude sickness, dysentery, and an injured leg to name a few. However, he is never attacked by a human being until he enters Kabul and a guard punches him in the face. Ah, Civilization! After reading The Places in Between, it is hard to determine which is more admirable, Rory Stewart or the book he has written. Together they make a helluva pair. Oh, and Babur too!
Recommended by John, April 2007

Book Cover for Dogs of Babel Polajnar, Gojmir
Don't Kill Anyone, I Love You

The novel's principals are Dot, a dolled up, middle aged night club singer and Jurij, a bisexual student, soon to be diplomat. Dot's vocation is singing, her avocation is the pursuit of every attractive young man in town. Jurij is engaged to Aga and there is talk of a baby. However, Jurij is also quite taken with Peter, a football playing ecstasy dealer. No wallflower, Jurij is also on and off again with Dot. More about Dot. Around chapter three, a bulb illuminated in my head, enabling me to realize that Dot was no lady. At least, in the anatomical sense. Dot is in fact two characters--he is somebody by day and she is someone else by night. Jurij, soon after his first foreign posting succumbs to AIDS, leaves in his wake a trio of broken hearts. Goymir Polajnar, has created a novel of vivid characters. His prose is at times poignant and poetic. Yet, Don't Kill Me... is for the discriminating reader because it's explicit Romance, is at times--stunning. By the way, all of the above action takes place in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Perhaps freedom is on the march.
Recommended by John, September 2006

Book Cover Mark Stevens and Analyn Swann
de Kooning: An American Master

Willem de Kooning (1903-1997) was born on the waterfront, in Rotterdam, Holland. An absent father, an abusive mother and a great deal of poverty, made for a less than ideal childhood. Chance provided a seat at one of Holland's most illustrious academy's of art. Soon after graduation, leaving his fellow Rotterdammers behind (had to work in Rotterdammers) de Kooning stowed away on an ocean liner and disembarked, circ 1926, in the U.S.A. Settling in New York City, the young Dutchman first found work as a carpenter and then as a commerical artist. However the 9-5 life was not for him (by a long shot) and he gave it up to become a serious painter. Paint he did. de Kooning became the prototypical "starving artist" ambling around town in his paint splattered coveralls searching for a bite to eat, a drink, or a helping hand, for nearly twenty years! His dedication paid off. In the late 1940's "abstract expressionism" became the rage of the art world and it's two brightest lights, de Kooning and the madcap drip-artist Jackson Pollack became famous. Fame would suit neither of them. de Kooning would seek seclusion on Long Island, ending thirty years in the big apple. The dripper would drunkenly drive into a tree, ending his life. Once on Long Island de Kooning fell in and out of favor. When the world wanted figures, he painted abstracts, when the world wanted abstracts, he painted figures (he has been called the greatest painter of the human figure since Picasso). Yet, in the 1970's one of his paintings sold for $ 1.2 million, at the time the highest fee ever paid for the work of a living artist. de kooning's personal life was just as fascinating as his work. He was extremely handsome, incredibly personable and everyone liked him (excepting the critic Clement Greenburg, whom he punched in the face).
He had one wife (Elaine, who taught at C.M.U. in the 70's) various loves and many, many, girlfriends. He also suffered from an alcoholism so acute and evil that it is difficult to comprehend. de Kooning was stricken with Alzheimer's in his mid seventies and lived in a near vegetative state until his death at 93. He outlived his friend/rival Jackson Pollack by over 40 years. He also seemed to outlive himself. Notwithstanding, de Kooning deserves to be remembered as the "genius in the garrett" standing and staring for hours at a blank, white canvas, fighting through blocks, starting a painting up, then tearing it down, over and over--seeking perfection. Yeah, thats him! Stevens and Swann's wonderful book should be the standard account of the artist's life for years to come.
Recommended by John, January 2006

Book Cover Charles Dickens
The Adventures of Oliver Twist

Classic Fiction
Excluding Shakespeare, Charles Dickens has given form and significance, to more characters that populate our imagination than any other writer. Oliver Twist, Fagin, the Artful Dodger, Bill Sykes and the exquisite Mr/Mrs Bumble are members of the honored club. Extremely entertaining characters make for an extremely entertaining novel. Yet, Oliver Twist is most important as the jumping off point for Mr. Dickens life long assault upon the hypocrisy and cold, cold, heartedness of Victorian England. An England where children of the poor were bought/sold and used, like, what the Romans referred to as "living tools." Oliver Twist is one of these children, as was the author himself. Charles Dicken's "social consciousness" his capacity to effect change and his gift to delight like no other are what make him one of the divinities of world literature. "Please, Sir, I want some more."
Recommended by John, January 2006

Book Cover Samura, Hiroaki
Blade of the Immortal: Blood of a Thousand, Vol. 1

Graphic Novel
Manji, a ronin warrior of feudal Japan has killed over 100 men in his role as Lord Horii's enforcer. Once he learns that many of his victims were innocent farmers--brave or naive enough to question Lord H's tax plan, he slays his master and becomes the most notorious outlaw in Japan. A chance (?) encounter with the witch Yaobikuni and Manji becomes immortal. In order to recover his mortality and his soul, Manji must use his sword to slay 1,000 evil doers. Blade is a classic tale of redemption through suffering and altruistic acts and of the futile cycle of revenge. Although Blade contains a significant amount of slicing and dicing, the violence never seems gratuitous and Samura's artwork is, in a word, fabulous. The Blade Series is more than worthy of the many awards it has received. Just checking in on Blade, On Silent Wings, Vol. 5. Manji has now clipped 11 of the worst of the worst. Rock on Manji.
Recommended by John, August 2005

Book Cover Posner, Gerald
Secrets of the Kingdom: The Inside Story of the Saudi-U.S. Connection

Posner, author of the acclaimed post-9/11 bestseller Why America Slept, here turns a critical eye towards the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its royal "House of Saud". He provides an excellent history of-- Ah Heck! I had a review in my head but I cannot put it to paper. Everyone in this book makes me sick! The Saudi Royals are amoral, immoral, dissolute, dishonest, vicious, umprincipled and greedy to an almost incredible degree, many still believe the earth to be flat. The Americans are exactly the same--they just dress differently and know the earth to be round, like Charlie Brown's head. Petro-dollars talk and the commonweal walks should be the sub-title of this book. Highly recommended.
Recommended by John, July 2005