Posts Tagged ‘Book’

Book Review: The Boston Irish by Thomas H. O’Connor

Author: Thomas H. O’Connor
Title: The Boston Irish
Publication Info: 9780316626613
ISBN: Back Bay Books (1997)

Previously Read by the Same Author: Eminent Bostonians

Summary/Review: Subtitled “A Political History” this is the Dean of Boston History’s story of the rise of Irish from subjugated minority to political power in Boston.  While there is a lot more that could be said of Boston Irish history this book focuses on the Irish mayors and a few other political leaders as well as Irish-American Catholic bishops attempts to help lead their flock into the Boston mainstream.  O’Connor follows to trends – the business-like, accommodationist attempts to work with the traditional Yankee power elite and the more confrontational, neighborhood-focused style emphasized by John Fitzgerald and James Michael Curley.  This was an interesting summary of politics in Boston history and especially informative of the big figures in recent history of Boston.

Recommended booksHow the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev, All Souls: A Family Story from Southie by Michael Patrick MacDonald, and Ethnics and Enclaves by William Michael Demarco.

Rating: ***

Book Reviews: The Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle

Author: Roddy Doyle
Title: The Dead Republic
Publication Info: New York : Viking, c2010.
ISBN: 9780670021772

By the same author:

  • Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
  • A Star Called Henry
  • The Woman Who Walked into Doors
  • The Commitments
  • The Snapper
  • The Van
  • Oh, Play That Thing
  • Paula Spencer
  • The Deportees: and Other Stories

Summary/Review: Doyle completes The Last Roundup trilogy, a story of Ireland and the Irish in the 20th century through the lens of one everyman – Henry Smart.    The first book in this series A Star Called Henry is one of my favorite novels of all time.  The sequel which follows Henry to America in the Roaring Twenties – Oh, Play That Thing -  starts of brilliantly but then collapses due to some poor narrative choices.  The final installment brings Henry back to Ireland and is a return to form albeit still failing to approach the brilliance of the first novel.

Henry accompanies John Ford to make a film based on his own life which Ford turns into The Quiet Man.  Escaping Ford’s green-tinted lens view of Ireland, Henry settles into working as a janitor at a school in a modern Dublin suburb where he may or may not be reacquainted with his long-lost wife.  Henry gets caught in the 17 May 1974 terrorist bombings in Dublin (coincidentally the second book this month I’ve read where these bombings play a crucial role after Let the Great World Spin) and his true identity is revealed.  He’s hailed as a hero of the rebellion and called back into action by the modern IRA.  Yet, Henry soon comes to realize that the IRA’s vision of Ireland is as false and idealistic as Fords.

Overall, Doyle does a great job in this series at taking on modern Irish history – warts and all – through the lens of this fascinating (if not always likable) character.  I highly recommend reading all three books even if you have to slog through the second half of Oh, Play That Thing.

Rating: ****

Book Review: I’jaam by Sinan Antoon

Author: Sinan Antoon
Title: I’jaam : an Iraqi rhapsody
Publication Info: San Francisco : City Lights, c2007.
ISBN: 9780872864573

Summary/Review: This short book is set in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and purports to be the memoir of a student who ends up as a political prisoner.  The conceit of the novel is that the i’jaam – dots added to Arabic script – have been left off leading to ambiguous (and presumably comical) meanings to some of the words, but even the author gets tired of this after a while.  I wasn’t too impressed by this book as it seemed to be trying to be too avant guarde without really delivering.

Recommended books: A Sky So Close: A Novel by Betool Khedairi
Rating: **

Book Review: The Gardner Heist by Ulrish Boser

Author: Ulrich Boser
Title: The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft
Publication Info: Smithsonian (2009)
ISBN: 0061451835

Summary/Review:

For the 20th anniversary of the theft of 13 priceless art works from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, I read this book detailing the heist. The first chapter gives a blow-by-blow of all the known details of the heist itself in the early-morning hours of March 17, 1990.  Next, Boser introduces Harold Smith, an art detective who dedicates many of the remaining years of his life gathering clues and following leads about the heist.  After Smith dies in 2005, Boser himself picks up Smith’s casebook and begins immersing himself in the case to the point of obsession.  The trail of the crime leads Boser to look into various Boston underworld characters such as a noted art thief, Whitey Bulger and his mob cronies, and even the Irish Republican Army.  At one point the obsession gets ridiculous as Boser visits a town in Ireland thinking he’ll be able to pick Bulger off the street.  In the end, there’s no solution yet for the mystery of missing art, but Boser gives some interesting insights into how art theft is perpetrated and how that art may hopefully be returned.

Recommended booksDead Certainties : Unwarranted Speculations by Simon Schama, Legends of Winter Hill: Cops, Con Men, and Joe McCain, the Last Real Detective by Jay Atkinson, and  Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob by Dick Lehr

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Happiest Toddler on the Block by Harvey Karp, M.D.

Author: Harvey Karp, M.D.
Title: The Happiest Toddler on the Block
Publication Info: New York, N.Y. : Bantam Books, 2008.
ISBN: 9780553805215

Summary/Review:

Karp’s follow-up to The Happiest Baby on the Block offers very practical advice to parents for dealing with the toddler years of 1 to 4 years old.  I think it’s an even better book partly because it avoids the “infomercial style” of writing and is a more practical manual.  The basic gist of the book is that when a child starts to throw a tantrum the parent should acknowledge what is upsetting by repeating back it back (“the fast food rule”) and to use a simple vocabulary of words called “toddlerese” that toddlers will understand most when they are upset.  This book doesn’t have all the answers, for example, what to say to your son when you have no idea what is making him upset.  Overall though I found it a book with useful advice and practically organized.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Protest Singer by Alec Wilkinson

Author: Alec Wilkinson
Title: The Protest Singer : an intimate portrait of Pete Seeger
Publication Info:  New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
ISBN: 9780307269959

Summary/Review:

This is a short and easy read that summarizes Seeger’s life & career succinctly but still captures why he’s in important.  Seeger himself who never wants much attention focused on him wanted a book that someone could read in one sitting.  Much of the book is based on interviews between Wilkinson and Seeger and takes on a conversational tone.  The book jumps around between events in Seeger’s life similar to the way that one memory can prompt another only tangentially related.  It’s also good for seeing what Seeger finds memorable and important from his own past.  While are more thorough books on Seeger out there, I recommend that anyone interested in learning about this remarkable man start with this book and then check out his albums and a concert if possible.  Then start to make your own music.

Favorite Passages:

After consulting with his lawyer, Seeger said, “I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known.  I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American.  I will tell you about my songs, but I am not interested in telling you who wrote them, and I will tell you about my songs, and I am  not interested in who listened to them.” – p. 81

Recommended books: Where Have All The Flowers Gone by Pete Seeger, How Can I Keep From Singing? by David King Dunaway, and Bound For Glory by Woody Guthrie.
Rating: ****

Book Review: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Author: Rohinton Mistry
Title: A Fine Balance
Publication Info: Books on Tape, Inc. (2001)
ISBN: 0736684425

Summary/Review:

This novel – epic in length – tells the story of four people in Mumbai, India who come together during The Emergency of the mid-1970′s.  They are:

  • Dina Dalal – a young widow who takes up clothing manufacture to maintain her independence from her controlling brother.
  • Ishvar Darji – a kindly tailor from a low caste background who comes to Mumbai to work for Dina.
  • Omprakash – Ishvar’s more unruly nephew who works with him as a tailor.
  • Maneck – a young man from a mountain village studying at the university and staying with Dina as a paying guest.

In the first part of A Fine Balance, Mistry tells the life stories of each of these characters which actually could be four gripping novellas in their own right.  Then the story is told of how they all come together under one roof and after a rocky start forming a friendship.

This novel is marked by stark descriptions of poverty and injustice in India which Mistry none-too-subtly lays at feet of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s corrupt regime.  This novel does not have a happy ending, but there is joy and love in the brief time of friendship of the principal characters that shows that their is some hope in the most dire of circumstances.

Favorite Passages:

She envisioned two leaky faucets: one said Money, the other, Sanity. And both were dripping away simultaneously.

Recommended books: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini and Salt and Saffron by Kamila Shamsie.
Rating: ****

Book Review: Faith and Fear in Flushing by Greg Prince

Author: Greg Prince
Title: Faith and Fear in Flushing
Publication Info: Skyhorse Publishing (2009)
ISBN: 1602396817

Summary/Review:

Greg Prince, one of the co-authors of the Mets blog Faith and Fear in Flushing – the most intelligent and literate Mets blog there is – writes about his 40 years as the guy everyone knows as the big Mets fan.  Part memoir, part baseball history this book explores the ups & downs of fandom in parallel with the events of his life.  If this sounds familiar it’s because it is very similar in concept and execution to Fever Pitch.  That is Fever Pitch the autobiographical book by Nick Hornby about his love for the Arsenal Football club, not the wholly fictional romantic comedy film about the Red Sox.

Prince’s ruminations on the Mets are a pleasure to read for the most part although he does have a tendency for repetition especially in the more navel-gazing portions of the book.  As a fellow Mets fan, I enjoyed reliving the Mets good years and many fallow years from the perspective of another fan.  I think this book could be enjoyable as well to someone unfamiliar with the Mets or with baseball, especially since it gives a literary perspective on the game that breaks from the mold of Yankees/Red Sox/Dodgers.

If there’s one thing I quibble with in this book is Prince’s characterization of Mets fans loving the Mets but hating the players.  While I think that negative attitude has become prominent in the past five years or so, historically that “win or your a bum” kind of thinking has been more of a Yankee fan ideology.  Mets fans used to be opposite, the cult of the underdog, a humanistic approach to accepting the players despite their flaws and celebrating their accomplishments and commiserating with their failures.  The Mets were a team the ordinary guy could identify with and thus players like Marv Throneberry, Lee Mazzili, Mookie Wilson, Butch Huskey, and Tsuyoshi Shinjo became local heroes despite never leading the league in anything.

At any rate, I find it harder to be a Mets fan these days not because of the Mets but because of the hostile and vulgar attitude of my fellow “fans.”  This book gives me hope because it shows that there are still thoughtful and literate fans among our numbers.

Favorite Passages:

Blogging revealed itself to me as Banner Day’s logical and technological successor.  Mets fans are always dying to tell you about being Mets fans.  We each fancy ourselves Mr. Met, except Mr. Met is mute and never stops smiling, whereas we never shut up and expend loads of bandwidth contemplating, complaining, and, only on infrequent occasion, complimenting.  -p. 255

I don’t love the Mets because it gives me license to behave as a “crazy fan.”  I don’t know whether it’s crazy to give one’s mental well-being over to the fickle physical fortunes of a batch of youthful millionaires.  I don’t know whether it’s crazy to risk vast quantities of disappointment in the longshot search for a modicum of solace.  I don’t know whether it’s crazy to think the angst I incur as a preoccupational hazard is, in fact, maybe its own reward.  But I’m a big fan.  I’m not a crazy fan. – p. 270.

Recommended books: Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby, Mets by the Numbers: A Complete Team History of the Amazin’ Mets by Uniform Number by Jon Springer, and Playing Hard Ball: A Kent Crickter’s Journey into Big League Baseball by Ed Smith.
Rating:

Book Review: All the Shah’s Men by Stephen Kinzer

Author: Stephen Kinzer
Title: All the Shah’s Men
Publication Info: [San Clemente, Calif.] : Tantor Media, 2003.
ISBN: 9781400151066

Summary/Review:

A gripping history of the first covert operation by the CIA to overthrow the popularly elected government of another nation in 1953.  That nation is Iran and the deposed leader is Mohammad Mosaddeq, the Iranian prime minister who dared stand up against Western imperialism.  The fascinating thing about this book is that for much of Mosaddeq’s reign many US leaders supported Iran’s self-determination and attempts at democracy.  Iran’s squabble was with Great Britain, especially regarding the exploitative nature of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.  When Mosaddeq nationalized Iranian oil, British leaders wanted him removed, but needed US approval which was eventually gained by the specter of Communism.  A number of familiar names play a role in the plot: Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, CIA director Allan Dulles, CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt, Jr.  (grandson of Theodore), and Norman Schwarzkopf, Sr. (father of the Desert Storm commander).  Kinzer tells the story in great detail with the ultimate outcome balanced on the coming together of some very unlikely events

Kinzer concludes that the immediate result – a stable and anti-communist Iran under the Shah – was beneficial to the United States but the long-term results were disastrous.  The Shah’s tyrannical rule in Iran, and the knowledge that the US supported him, turned most Iranians virulently against the United States.  When revolutionary Iranians took hostages at the US embassy in 1979 it was because the embassy had been a base of covert activity in 1953.  Finally, it set a pattern of CIA-sponsored activities in other parts of the world that have contributed to the loss of the USA’s image as a standard-bearer of freedom.

Recommended books: The Devil We Know by Robert Baer
Rating: ***1/2

Book Reviews: Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

Author: Karen Maitland
Title: Company of Liars
Publication Info: Delacorte Press (2008)
ISBN: 978-0385341691

Summary/Review:

Set in Medieval England just as the deadly pestilence is landing on the shores of that island nation, Company of Liars follows the travels of a group of nine who band together for safety as the first hope to find profit and then simply find safety with the plague – and maybe a wolf – licking at their heals. The characters are all archetypes of some sort but are fully developed as the novel progresses: the narrator and relic seller Camelot, the courtly musician Rodrigo of Venice and his moody apprentice Geoffrey, the cranky magician Zophiel, a young  painter Osmond and his pregnant wife Adela, Cygnus the storyteller who has a wing in place of one arm, Pleasance the healer, and the creepy albino child Narigorm who foretells the future by reading runes.

Maitland creates an overwhelming sense of menace as the company has to escape the pestilence and other external threats while not even knowing if they can trust their fellow travelers.  For each of the nine has a secret, some quite obvious, some less so but all compelling.  The conclusion of the novel is quite abrupt and leaves a lot of questions unanswered, which I’m okay with.  I was disappointed that after creating uncertainty between supernatural and rational explanations for the incidents that befall the company that Maitland comes down clearly on the side of supernatural in the concluding chapters.  That is, of course, if Camelot is a reliable narrator.

This is an excellent book full of suspense, intriguing characters, and a well-researched slice of life of the medieval world during the plague.  Many reviews compare it to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but apart from being a band of travelers who tell stories the similarities end there.   I think the Doomsday Book by Connie Willis and The Plague Tales by Ann Benson are more complementary books to Company of Liars.

Recommended books: The Black Death by Philip Ziegler, Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, and The Plague Tales by Ann Benson
Rating: ****

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 985 other followers

%d bloggers like this: