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Saturday, July 31, 2010

"Circle of Greed" and "Lies Like Loaded Guns"

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Washington Post Book Reviews
For You
Saturday July 31, 2010
CIRCLE OF GREED: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Lawyer Who Brought Corporate America to Its Knees
Patrick Dillon and Carl M. Cannon
ISBN 978 0 7679 2994 3
532 pages

Reviewed by Bryan Burrough
"Circle of Greed" is a fat, ambitious book that tells the story of William Lerach, a disgraced San Diego lawyer who before running afoul of the law earned millions of dollars and almost as many headlines by suing companies on behalf of shareholders. Journalists Patrick Dillon and Carl M. Cannon, who met Lerach early in their careers, do a professional job tracing the arc of their subject's story and are especially good at providing the legal context for the rise of shareholder lawsuits during the 1970s and '80s. The New York firm that spearheaded this new breed of corporate ambulance chasers was Milberg, Weiss, Bershad, Hynes & Lerach; Lerach headed the West Coast operation. Just about any time a big American company got in any imaginable kind of trouble, Lerach or one of his partners rushed to a courthouse and sued. Tenacious and combative, they usually managed to arm-twist their targets into big settlements. It was Lerach and his firm who brought shareholder suits against Enron, winning a $7-billion settlement.
In doing so, however, Lerach and company cut their share of corners, especially by repeatedly, and illegally, paying a handful of sleazy businessmen who served as their token plaintiffs. Lerach's type of work was, and remains, controversial. To those who look askance at Big Business, he was a crusader against fraud and an ardent defender of stockholders everywhere. To the Fortune 500 and those who love them, he was a greenmailing wolf always on the prowl to pick off its weakest members.
Dillon and Cannon view Lerach as an historic figure, the man who, in the words of the book's subtitle, "brought corporate America to its knees." He didn't, of course, and that's part of the problem. Lerach forged massive legal settlements against the likes of Charles Keating and Enron, but he was less a company-chomping shark than a nettlesome pest who sucked the blood from the sick and wounded. The Fortune 500, especially the high-tech giants of Silicon Valley, where Lerach hunted often, rallied against his ilk, floating any number of California ballot initiatives to curb such litigation, and eventually persuaded Congress to pass a law effectively ending such lawsuits. But it's hard to argue that Lerach alone provoked any of this, or that in his absence any number of other plaintiff's lawyers wouldn't have been just as successful at doing what he did.
The deeper problem with the book, however, is that despite its 500-plus pages, Lerach himself never really comes to life. We get hundreds of pages devoted to his lawsuits, but his private life by and large remains offstage; every hundred pages or so he seems to pick up a new wife and a new mansion, but that's about it. Which is a shame, because while Lerach's rise isn't all that fascinating -- it's basically a numbing parade of lawsuits filed against one stupid company or another -- his fall is truly Shakespearean. Once Dillon and Cannon get to it about halfway through the book, the narrative momentum increases exponentially. "Circle of Greed" is never a true page-turner, but in its second half it becomes a far more entertaining book.
Lerach's downfall comes courtesy of two memorable characters, the first a University of Chicago professor named Daniel Fischel, who jousted with Lerach as a witness-for-hire in several lawsuits and then sued him for abusing the legal process. Dillon and Cannon wring this revenge plot for all the drama they can, as they should. Just as compelling is a side-plot involving one of Lerach's token plaintiffs, a Los Angeles attorney named Steven Cooperman, who resorts to having his own Picassos and Monets stolen for the insurance money. Once the paintings turn up, oddly, in a Cleveland-area self-storage unit, it's only a matter of time before Cooperman turns on Lerach, giving prosecutors all they need to send them both to prison.
"Circle of Greed" is a fine story, one many a lawyer will enjoy reading, but its lack of narrative drive and a compelling central character ultimately renders it a cut below the best business books.
Bryan Burrough is a special correspondent at Vanity Fair and the author of "The Big Rich."

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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LIVES LIKE LOADED GUNS: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds
Lyndall Gordon
ISBN 978 0 670 02193 2
491 pages

Reviewed by Jerome Charyn
"Lives Like Loaded Guns," Lyndall Gordon's book about Emily Dickinson and the fury that surrounded the publication of her poems, reads like a fabulous detective story, replete with hidden treasure, diabolical adversaries and a curse from one generation to the next. Very few of Dickinson's poems were published during her lifetime, and they might have remained closeted forever had it not been for the fevered devotion of her sister and Mabel Loomis Todd, her brother's mistress. There were others involved, too: Her volcanic sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson; Susan's daughter; Mabel's daughter; and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, one of Dickinson's mentors.
Gordon is fair to all these players, revealing their strengths and liabilities, and she corrects some of the inconsistencies of earlier biographies. But she, too, has her biases. Emily's sister-in-law is much more of a victim here and much less of a voluptuous witch who could overpower women and men with one of her stares. And Gordon provides her own speculative key to Emily's self-imposed seclusion: She believes the old maid of Amherst was epileptic, and, as with a female Philoctetes, her "wound" was the real source of her poetic power. She could not have sung to us with so much fervor, Gordon suggests, without her own dark night of epilepsy. I wouldn't want to argue with Gordon. I just don't believe her.
But this is a small price to pay for the profounder truths of "Lives Like Loaded Guns." Gordon is the first critic I know of to understand the strange "twinning" of the poet and Mabel Todd, who was almost like a phantom sister in her attachment to Emily's persona. Mabel was fetching while Emily was plain as a mouse, but that didn't stop either of them from being operatic and great showoffs. As Gordon tell us: "Both were founts of eloquence; both felt like queens; both were strong-willed, controlling; and, above all, both were workers with terrific application. Both amassed vast archives with an eye to the future."
Mabel became the first real decipherer of Emily's poems, almost by accident. After Emily died in 1886, her sister, Lavinia, known as Vinnie, discovered a vast treasure of poems locked away in one of Emily's drawers, some sewn into booklets, some scratched at the bottom of recipes or on narrow strips of paper. This was Emily's secret "Snow." Vinnie was delirious, but she didn't know quite what to do. It seems that none of the Dickinsons -- mother, father, Vinnie or brother Austin -- understood the "Loaded Gun" of Emily's arrhythmic life and lines: her fierce privacy and the heartbreaking ellipses of her poems. Her father had likened Austin's college compositions to Shakespeare and wanted to have them published, but he didn't have a clue that his minuscule daughter in her velvet snood was one of the great "singers" of the 19th century. In fact, none of the men in her life had the least idea of what her poetry was about.
Emily may have "half-found, half-invented" Susan as a reader of her poems, as Gordon suggests, but Susan was still perceptive enough to understand their worth. And yet she stalled when Vinnie asked her to help see the poems into print. She may have had good reasons: her inconsolable grief over the death of her son, Gib, and the anger she felt at the Dickinson sisters for having succored Austin in his adulterous affair with Mabel. In any case, Vinnie turned to Mabel, who worked like a demon transcribing some of the treasure. And when Emily's editor-friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson felt that her work was much too chaotic and unsmooth, Mabel sang the poems out loud so that Higginson could comprehend their melody. She was being "operatic" in the very best sense.
This first batch of poems that Mabel deciphered sold 11,000 copies within a year of its publication in 1890. But it opened up a hornet's nest within the town of Amherst. Susan felt betrayed and declared war against Vinnie and Mabel. Vinnie herself wavered, but soon she was also at war with Mabel, who seemed much too proprietary about the poems. It was a very destructive conflict because Susan, Vinnie and Mabel each had her own stash of Emily's poems that sat and sat, like secretive children, hidden from scholars and readers.
Soon Mabel's daughter, Millicent, with her sad eyes, and Susan's daughter, Martha, the smoldering belle of Amherst, joined the fray. This war between the two daughters is the most compelling portion of Gordon's book. Martha married a European swindler and confidence man named Count Bianchi, who brought her to ruin, while Millicent had a brutal love affair with another woman and later entered into a rather sexless marriage. Through all this, Martha and Millicent fired shots at each other while publishing new editions of Emily's letters and poems and mythologizing the poet as a pathetic creature who pined for love.
Alas, this is the image that remains with us, despite the fact that Emily's letters to Judge Otis Lord, a widower who had once been her father's best friend, reveal him as a man hot to marry his "Jumbo," as he liked to call Emily. Her letters spill over with a kind of teasing sexuality. But we also understand why the poet could never marry him. "In the haunted house of her imagination, a bridegroom would mount her stair at midnight," as Gordon reminds us. Judge Lord could never be this midnight man; he couldn't live within the voluptuous dream of her poetry. No one could.
"Abyss has no biographer," Dickinson warned all future readers. But Gordon is not frightened of the pits and traps and the thousand masks that Emily wears. She takes us into that undiscovered territory of the poet's favorite motif -- the dash. "Dickinson's dashes push the language apart to open up the space where we live without language." And it's into this void that Dickinson's very best readers have to go.
Jerome Charyn's most recent novel is "The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson."

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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Friday, July 30, 2010

"Storm Prey," "Captive Queen," more

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Washington Post Book Reviews
For You
Friday July 30, 2010
Howard Norman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN 978 0 618 73543 3
243 pages

Reviewed by Ron Charles, the fiction editor of The Washington Post Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at He can be reached at charlesr(at symbol)
Nobody screams in Howard Norman's new novel, although they should. This Washington writer maintains such a measured tone that his story seems shocking only in retrospect. At the time, you lean in, trying to catch every word, lulled by his voice as he describes the most ordinary lives that just happen to be punctuated by macabre accidents and bizarre acts of violence.
Everything in "What Is Left the Daughter" sounds smothered in regret, worn smooth in the closet of a man's guilty conscience. It's a World War II tale that reminds us, again, of the innumerable tragedies spawned by war but born thousands of miles away from battle. The story opens, like his most famous book, "The Bird Artist," with a confession: "I've waited until now to relate the terrible incident that I took part in on October 16, 1942, when I was nineteen."
The narrator is 43-year-old Wyatt Hillyer, who will spend the next 26 nights writing this long letter to his estranged daughter. It's a petition for her understanding and forgiveness, which Wyatt knows he can't expect. "I have no way of knowing," he writes, "if, after you've read a paragraph or two, any curiosity you might've had will abruptly sour to disgust, or worse." We never learn how his daughter reacts to this strange testimony, but you'll find it hard to resist his earnest appeal.
An award-winning translator who teaches creative writing at the University of Maryland, College Park, Norman offers a kind of rough-hewn poetry throughout, starting with that Yoda-like title, "What Is Left the Daughter." Wyatt is not a pretentious narrator -- he dropped out of high school and works as a maritime garbage collector -- but he's a determined student of language, who prizes the frayed "Webster's" he bought from a pawnshop for a dollar. There's an antique patina to his diction, although it's not pronounced: passing allusions to "mute angels," a stillborn birth as a "ghost child" or a blacksmith "taut of build." In the opening pages of his confession, he refers to John Keats and Emily Dickinson, an indication of the ardor that simmers just below the surface of his carefully chosen words.
The odd disconnect between the novel's sober tone and its outrageous plot is on display as soon as Wyatt begins: "Let me say it directly ..." Twenty-six years ago, on the day his parents discovered they were both having an affair with the same switchboard operator, they leapt from separate bridges in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Orphaned but almost a man, Wyatt moves in with his aunt and uncle and begins making mail-order toboggans. He also falls in love with their adopted daughter, Tilda, who works as a professional mourner at funerals. (Yes, the story is marked by distinctly unusual jobs; Howard Norman and Anne Tyler should open a Weird Employment Agency.)
Wyatt's unrequited love for Tilda remains the foundation of his entire life -- "She was too much beauty," he recalls -- but the story is propelled by his uncle's growing anxiety about the war. Like the father in Philip Roth's "Plot Against America," Wyatt's uncle senses the danger of Hitler early but then lets it unhinge him. Hypnotized by static-laced radio reports of the U-boats prowling Canada's eastern shore, he can think and talk of nothing else. "Your aunt complains that I'm becoming more and more agitated by the day," he tells Wyatt. "Truth is, she only knows the half of just how agitated I am." Soon, the walls of his workshop are plastered with newspaper headlines of U-boat attacks, a reflection of the obsession colonizing his mind. It's a sad portrait of justified alarm and corrosive rage that ruins those he most wants to protect. (It's also a disturbing lesson on a bit of obscure history about what our northern neighbors suffered during World War II.)
All of this develops with a muted but insistent sense of menace, which Norman signals by a series of surreal images, such as a bed covered in broken bits of Beethoven records. "This war," a neighbor tells Wyatt, " -- all of us are coming apart at the seams." When the "terrible incident" of Oct. 16, 1942, arrives, it's somehow shocking and inevitable, and Wyatt's culpability is brilliantly complicated. With just a few ordinary characters -- all strict, upstanding people, in a remote town that should feel safe and tranquil -- Norman catches a stray spark of war that incinerates several lives.
The structure of the novel, though, puts considerable pressure on Norman's ability to maintain momentum. The act that alters the rest of Wyatt's life comes just halfway through the book, and even though it's a short novel, that leaves the whole second half for the narrator's stunned reflection on that tragedy. "I've sometimes raced over the years like an ice skater fleeing the devil on a frozen river," he says, and that rushing survey of the years causes the story to flag as it sinks into the dark waters of his despair.
But trust him. More strange revelations await in Wyatt's plea to his daughter. The novel gains traction again as he nears the conclusion, vowing that "the truth is the truth, and in the end it can't be lost to excuses, cowardice or lies." It's a convincing demonstration of the truism he throws off so casually on the first page: "Life is unpredictable."

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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John Sandford
ISBN 978 0 399 15649 6
408 pages

Reviewed by Richard Lipez, who writes the Don Strachey private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson
John Sandford is one of the busiest and most popular practitioners of the airport potboiler. "Storm Prey" is the 20th Lucas Davenport thriller, a series that has produced so much fictional grisly mayhem in the upper Midwest that there must be people who think Vlad the Impaler spoke with a Minnesota accent. Putnam is doing a 500,000-copy first printing of "Storm Prey," and the company's shareholders are unlikely to be disappointed. Sandford sells.
Like Robert B. Parker in his last sad years, however, Sandford seems to be operating on automatic pilot in this one. All of Sandford's writing habits -- good or bad, depending on how you look at them -- get a workout here. Scenes are short and punchy, keeping the narrative moving at full gallop. At times, though, Sandford seems to be producing these bursts of typing for people with severe ADD.
He has done his usual crackerjack job of research. In "Storm Prey," we learn all about twins conjoined at birth and the complexities of surgically separating them. Who knew that 1 percent of conjoined twins required "craniopagus separation," which involves complex brain surgery? A lot of this data, however, feels as if it was transferred directly from a Google source into the mouths of Sandford's characters.
Sandford also serves up his customary graphic, hideous murders, for which some of his hundreds of thousands of fans probably shell out the hardcover big bucks while others could maybe do without them. The ghastliest murder is of a mom carjacked on the way to pick up her kids at day care. As she's strangled by a psychopath, we get to see her bug-eyed and spasming.
Front and center, at least in the early chapters of this "Prey" episode (others include "Shadow Prey," "Wicked Prey" etc.) is Weather Karkinnen, the surgeon wife of the Porsche-driving, hockey-playing, "hawkish"-nosed Minnesota State Police investigator Davenport. (What kind of name is Weather Karkinnen? Sandford loves implausibly weird names, and I had to reread a paragraph where it seemed that Sandford had named the couple's children Shrake and Jenkins. Shrake and Jenkins turned out to be a couple of cops.)
Karkinnen is brilliant, cute as a button, and makes paddlewheel-boat whistle sounds during sex. On her way into work one dark winter morning, she catches sight of a goon who's part of a gang that has just robbed the hospital pharmacy and killed an attendant. So Karkinnen is a witness the robbers think they need to rub out. She is also an essential component of the surgery team for the twins. They are fading fast, so she can't leave town or hide. Will there be a noisy climactic scene near the operating theater involving gunfire and grenades? (Yes, grenades.) Don't let me ruin anything.
Sandford's good guys and gals are a bit blurry -- I think we are supposed to know them from earlier books -- but his thugs are plenty believable enough. The most frightening is Caprice Marlon "Cappy" Garner, named after his father's Chevy. He's a skinhead psycho who was beaten as a child and has devoted his adult life to hurting people. There are the dumb Mack brothers, Lyle and Joe, who believe that "if God had meant people to ride horses, He wouldn't have invented the Fat Bob (motorcycle)." A Lebanese surgeon named Barakat is a cokehead who finds "the whole concept of crime ... interesting: the strong taking from the weak, the smart from the stupid."
While part of Davenport's appeal is his fallibility, in "Storm Prey" he sometimes just seems dense. It's skinny little Garner who makes the first attempt on Karkinnen's life -- firing a gun at her from a motorcycle -- but for another 100 or so pages Davenport and everybody else keep looking only for the taller, bulkier men who pulled off the drug heist. After an earlier inexplicable blunder, he tells a fellow cop, "I'm so dumb." This and other lapses in "Storm Prey" made me wonder if it isn't Sandford who is being held hostage, not by criminals but by a publishing contract that calls for a book a year. As publishers' profitability dwindles, best-selling authors like Sandford have turned into cash machines publishers depend on to survive. They seem unable or unwilling to recognize when a writer may need to take a break.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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CAPTIVE QUEEN: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine
Alison Weir
ISBN 978 0 345 51187 4
478 pages

Reviewed by Carolyn See, who reviews book regularly for The Washington Post
The historical novel is a strange genre: very demanding on its author, filled with pitfalls and traps. Beautifully done, it can tell us about a slice of history; we can't be sure if what we read is actually true (unless we check the fictional events against historical sources), but still, such a novel can exercise our minds, something like an intelligent crossword puzzle. If we're lucky, we're visited by a vision of what it may have been like in 15th-century Spain or 19th-century Africa or -- in this case -- the 12th century in what is now England and the South of France.
If you're the author, you can pick an obscure person to pin your story on and thereby exhibit your expertise in leather tanning or falconry or the brewing of beer. ("Kristin Lavransdatter" is the gold standard for this kind of book. By the time Nobel Prize-winner Sigrid Undset got through with that woman, readers felt they had put in a year or so living in a medieval Scandinavian household.) Or the author can pick an important person, dig into the scholarship and come out the other side of this intellectual quest with mountains of history to put to use. The disadvantage is that reality is apt to constrain imagination or leave the novelist with a lot of dull mechanics. I once had a heartfelt conversation with the man who wrote the miniseries of "The Scarlet Pimpernel." It became the curse of his life, he said, to be stuck writing scenes with a coach riding up the gravel path to the manor house and then turning around and driving back from the manor house.
And so we have "Captive Queen," a novel by best-selling biographer Alison Weir. Many of us know something about Eleanor of Aquitaine already. She was active in fostering troubadour poetry, which was a literary side effect of the Crusades and the tradition of courtly love. Her vile-tempered husband, Henry II, threw her in prison on and off for years because she may have aided and abetted rebellion by two of her sons, Henry the Younger and Richard, who grew up to be Lionheart. After Henry II finally died -- and not a moment too soon; he seems to have been mean as a snake -- Eleanor was accorded much love and respect. She seems, even from the highly stylized portraits of the day, to have been a strikingly beautiful woman. But that's pretty much it. According to this novel, she wanted to rule on an equal footing with Henry, to be a liberated woman, to be equal to her man, although I frankly doubt many women of those days declared their wishes to be liberated and equal, or if they did, it meant something other than it does now.
When the novel opens, Eleanor is married to King Louis of France, who is a wuss. She'd rather be married to Henry, 11 years her junior, who has ambitions to be king of England and put the Plantagenet dynasty on the map. Eleanor has some "tumultuous thoughts" and remembers "coupling gloriously between silken sheets" with Henry's father, Geoffrey. Even though Louis "fumes," when Eleanor sees Henry she feels "the lust rising again in her. God, he was beddable!" She makes a few remarks "lightly," and then, "framed with a cascade of coppery tresses," she, "the greatest heiress in Christendom," finds herself in bed with Henry by page 17, and, for another 460 pages, we're off to the races.
The trouble is, as a rule, even if they're Eleanor of Aquitaine, women in history don't do much. Eleanor does plenty of embroidery and gets lost in a labyrinth toward the end of the book, but most of the time she bickers unceasingly with Henry, who won't let her rule Aquitaine, even though she wants to. "You and I are meant to be a partnership," she hectors him. "We agreed. I am no milksop farmwife to be cast aside: I am the sovereign Duchess of Aquitaine, and I will be deferred to as such! Do you heed me?" She's pretty tenacious about it, actually. She reminds him again, "I am the Duchess of Aquitaine, and I am fit for higher things than the company of women and babies." They spend years disagreeing, with Henry taking only an occasional breather to say things like, "I will write to the Pope, and to Frederick Barbarossa. ... I will demand that the excommunications be revoked."
Henry philanders, of course, remarking to a prospective mistress that "the only Hell is the one we make for ourselves on this earth. The rest is just a myth put about by the Church to frighten us into being good." (That's pretty hellbent, isn't it, for someone who lives in the 12th century? Did he ever say anything like that, really?) Thomas Becket gets murdered, but that happens offstage, and Eleanor's sons try to overthrow their father, but we never see how that works exactly. We do read a huge amount about what she is wearing on different occasions, because so many portraits of her remain, but 12th-century France could be the dark side of the moon for all we learn about it by the end of this book. (The citizens of Limoges are made to pull down the city walls because they get on the king's nerves, but that promising scene is over in a page or two.)
The author is frugal to a fault with her use of language. She recycles "lightly" and "tartly" as adverbs; she's crazy about "thunderous" and "glorious" as adjectives. She reuses "fumes" as a verb and "lust" as a noun. Her English is modern, and she must like it that way.
Who's at fault here? (Because this isn't a very wonderful book.) I think we have to pin the blame on Eleanor. She's a historic figure, so she can't be jolted too far out of that position. We don't know all that much about what she actually did. And who knows what the woman thought? She seems to have preferred her sons to her husband, but it's hard to make a book about that. She spent a lot of her life within prison walls. It's a good thing she had an extensive wardrobe! It's not that the author doesn't know everything about her subject, but that what she knows isn't enough.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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Thursday, July 29, 2010

"97 Orchard," "Kings of the Earth," more

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Washington Post Book Reviews
For You
Thursday July 29, 2010
97 ORCHARD: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement
Jane Ziegelman
ISBN 978-0061288500
253 pages

Reviewed by Timothy R. Smith
Modern American cuisine was born in 19th-century New York when immigrants forked over their varied gastronomic habits. So says Jane Ziegelman in her delightful book "97 Orchard." The subtitle, however, is a bit misleading. Ziegelman does check in with five immigrant families in one Lower East Side apartment house, but they are only bit players in a broader exploration of New York's culinary evolution.
Throughout we see the rudiments of modern American cuisine. Here's the sphere of ground beef that will one day become hamburger, and over there a vendor selling 15-cent pails of cabbage and corned beef -- early takeout. Immigrants also contributed wursts, matzoh balls and spaghetti, among other staples. As Ziegelman writes, "Native-born Americans, wary of foreigners and their strange eating habits, pushed aside their culinary (and other) prejudices to sample these novel foods and eventually to claim them as their own."
Timothy R. Smith can be reached at smitht(at symbol)

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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Jon Clinch
Random House
ISBN 978 1 4000 6901 9
393 pages

Reviewed by Robert Goolrick, whose most recent novel is "The Reliable Wife"
In the acknowledgments at the end of his fine new novel, "Kings of the Earth," Jon Clinch says, "In literature as in life, we have a duty to see that nothing important should ever be lost." This is the kind of fiction we should be reading. "Kings of the Earth" is eloquent and moving, written with precision and clarity to stave off loss -- the loss of history, of art, of humanity. True feeling seems to be out of fashion in contemporary fiction, and fiction is the poorer for it. Disaffection and irony may be the tenor of the times, but too much of it can leave you feeling estranged and lonely. Then along comes Clinch, and we feel that we are once again safe at home, in the hands of a master.
As he did in his wildly acclaimed first novel, "Finn," a reinvention of Huck's story from the point of view of his bigoted, drunken father, Clinch here takes on a familiar story -- in this case, a real one. But he turns it inside out and gives it new life and meaning.
In 1990, outside a small town in Upstate New York, William Ward, one of four reclusive brothers who lived an antiquarian life on a rundown farm, died in the bed he shared with his brothers in their filthy one-room farmhouse. His brother Delbert was eventually accused of strangling him in his sleep and put on trial for murder. The case pitted big-city lawyers and high-tech criminal pathology against small-town pride and privacy in a riveting way. Delbert was eventually acquitted because his confession had been coerced after hours of intense interrogation without the presence of a lawyer.
The case became the subject of an award-winning 1992 documentary, "Brother's Keeper," which showed how squalid life can become and still miraculously be sustainable. Clinch tells this tale from the shifting viewpoints of all the major characters. These are honest, unsophisticated, uniquely American voices, from the three Proctor brothers -- innocent, feral and shy -- to their neighbors, the arresting officer and the brothers' drug-dealing nephew. Their speech is not lyrical, but it has an honesty that becomes poetic, even Whitmanesque:
"The work Audie loves best, come to life. The clouds clear and he switches off the flashlight and keeps going. The creaking grows louder the nearer he gets. A half a hundred voices raised in the night and crying out. The earth turns and the sun shines somewhere and the temperatures shift and the wind comes up and these things -- these creatures, for what else are they but created -- these creatures cry out in their half a hundred voices."
But it is in the slow accumulation of details that the novel dazzles. Nothing goes unnoticed; nothing is lost. From the whirligig carvings of an illiterate man to a string of frozen fish flopping back to life on a farmhouse floor, to the unexpectedly literate ramblings of a mother dying of cancer, to the glow of a cigarette smoked at night in a hayloft, or the sly observation that part of the price to be paid for being a successful drug dealer is that you always have to drive one mile per hour below the speed limit, Clinch catches it all. Perceptibility is a kind of attentiveness, Baudelaire said, and few writers have paid attention the way Clinch does.
In using the real-life story of these brothers, Clinch is not appropriating; he is using the skeletal structure of the known to build the body of the complex and yearning American character. It is a lonely character, formed by bleak surroundings and poverty and loss and drunkenness. But it is also filled with a kind of decency that is almost holy in its simplicity, its striving to keep what is from ever being lost. In Clinch country, no grave goes unattended, no honor to the living or dead is ever abandoned.
To say that this novel brings others to mind is not to denigrate it. It recalls the finest work of John Gardner, and Bruce Chatwin's "On the Black Hill," another exploration of the bonds between brothers that go unspoken but never unexamined. "Kings of the Earth" becomes a story that is not told but lived, a cry from the heart of the heart of the country, in William Gass' phrase, unsentimental but deeply felt, unschooled but never less than lucid. Never mawkish, Clinch's voice never fails to elucidate and, finally, to forgive, even as it mourns.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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Sally Gunning
ISBN 978 0 06 178214 5
273 pages

Reviewed by Clare Clark, the author, most recently, of "Savage Lands"
Like her previous two novels, Sally Gunning's third book, "The Rebellion of Jane Clarke," is inspired in part by the history of Gunning's own family, who have lived for generations in Massachusetts. The book begins in the whaling village of Satucket, but the story soon moves to Boston, a town of rising tensions on the eve of the Revolutionary War.
Jane Clarke is a thoughtful country girl, the oldest of many siblings who, as assistant to the local midwife, is accustomed to taking care of others. Her life in Satucket is peaceful, troubled only by the bad blood between her father and his neighbor over the rights to the local mill stream, a long-running feud in which Jane is unwilling to involve herself. However, when she refuses to marry the man chosen for her, her hot-tempered father dispatches her in disgrace to Boston to care for an infirm spinster aunt.
In Boston, Jane finds it more difficult to remain aloof from the hostilities that burgeon around her. From her first day, the tension between the townspeople and the British soldiers stationed there is all too evident. Jane's aunt lives close to the barracks, and the old woman's fear of the soldiers causes her to jump in terror at the slightest noise. Meanwhile, Jane's brother, clerking in town for the notorious lawyer John Adams, is a fervent rebel, determined to throw off the shackles of British rule.
Jane has more ambivalent feelings about the occupation, although she soon makes friends with the bookseller Henry Knox, himself an affirmed rebel. All the same, she cannot help but observe how the British soldiers are taunted and harassed by the townspeople. Soon after she accidentally falls and is assisted to her feet by a British sentry, she is shocked to see the rebel newspapers report the incident as a brutish attack on an innocent woman. As the political situation deteriorates, her uneasiness is exacerbated by the strange comings and goings of the slaves in her aunt's household. And when she finds herself caught on the fringes of the Boston Massacre, she realizes that she can no longer play the bystander but must bear witness to what she has seen.
Gunning has chosen a turbulent and fascinating period in American history as the background to her story, and one that suggests interesting philosophical arguments. The British occupation of Boston was frequently heavy-handed, and British taxes were severe and unpopular. Anyone expressing opposition to the Crown was threatened with charges of treason, to be tried in England where a verdict was more likely to be favorable to the British interest. On the other hand, the Boston rebels employed every trick in their armory to implicate the soldiers in illegal acts of brutality. The subject raises profound questions, particularly given America's current occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. In a state of war, do the ends justify the means, and, if they do, what happens then to truth and justice? "The Rebellion of Jane Clarke" sets out to explore how bonds of love and loyalty pull against those principles, and how difficult it is in such times, not only to do the right thing but to know what the right thing is. In Jane Clarke, we have a sensitive heroine, insightful enough to tussle with these difficulties.
However, casting Jane as narrator undermines the novel's effectiveness. By telling her story from the perspective of a woman in a male-dominated conflict, Gunning is obliged to relate much of the central drama at secondhand. The opening, for instance, sets the tone for what will follow: Going to the port of Satucket for letters, Jane hears of a horrific attack on their neighbor's horse. Its ears have been cut off, and her father is accused of having committed the offense. This grisly crime presages the central themes of the novel: the bloody violence in Boston and the peripheral role that, for the most part, Jane will play in those events. There is a frustrating sense that while Jane attends play-readings or tends to her aunt, the real story is unfolding offstage and out of sight.
Until Jane is finally caught up in the action in the latter part of the book, her own narrative is thin. She is constrained by her aunt's ill health, lukewarm in her affections to her suitor and often confused by the events taking place around her. The result is a novel that, while interesting, lacks heat and vigor.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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THRILLERS: 100 Must-Reads
David Morrell and Hank Wagner
ISBN 978 1 933515 56 4
378 pages

Reviewed by Michael Dirda. Visit Dirda's online book discussion at
With his very first novel, David Morrell created an iconic character, now as famous as Tarzan or James Bond: "His name was Rambo, and he was just some nothing kid for all anybody knew, standing there by the pump of a gas station on the outskirts of Madison, Kentucky." So begins Morrell's electrifying and morally unsettling "First Blood." Some of his other books include the horror classic "The Totem" and one of the most exciting Ludlumesque thrillers I've ever read, "The Brotherhood of the Rose."
Hank Wagner may not write novels, but he certainly knows modern horror, fantasy, mystery and science fiction. He's the co-author of "The Complete Stephen King Universe" and of "Prince of Stories: The Many Worlds of Neil Gaiman." His articles have appeared in publications ranging from Cemetery Dance to Mystery Scene to the New York Review of Science Fiction.
Both novelist and critic are members of the six-year-old International Thriller Writers organization. Its goals "include educating readers about thrillers and encouraging ITW members to explore the creative possibilities of the form." To this end, the group decided to compile this annotated guide to essential thrillers. Enjoyable in itself, the book also offers 100 possible answers to that perennial summertime conundrum: What book shall I pack for the beach?
"Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads" opens with the Greek legend of Theseus and the Minotaur and, by fudging the supposed cutoff date of 2000, closes with Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code." Each of the chosen titles -- one book per author -- is accompanied by a brief biographical note, followed by a two- or three-page essay of reminiscence, analysis and appreciation by a member of ITW. Among the essayists are Lee Child, Sandra Brown, James Grady, R.L. Stine, David Baldacci, Katherine Neville and F. Paul Wilson.
No one could seriously argue with the recommendations up to the mid-1970s. Here are Wilkie Collins'"The Woman in White" (1860), Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (1901), John Buchan's "The Thirty-Nine Steps" (1915), Eric Ambler's "A Coffin for Dimitrios" (1939), and even what is, arguably, the single most famous adventure short story of all time, Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game" (1924). Moreover, the editors' definition of the thriller is a capacious one that embraces horror (Bram Stoker's "Dracula," 1897), science fiction (H.G. Wells'"The War of the Worlds," 1898) and romantic suspense (Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca," 1938).
At their best, the accompanying essays illuminate a book's distinctive artistry or magic. Many are highly personal, almost love letters. Because he reveres P.G. Wodehouse's comic fiction, Stine works hard to demonstrate how much the roller-coaster plot of "Summer Lightning" (1929) resembles that of a crime thriller. Of Evelyn Anthony's books, the fannishly enthusiastic Sandra Brown notes: "I've reread them for pleasure and for study." In a charming bit of autobiography, Morrell himself underscores how much "First Blood" was influenced by Geoffrey Household's "Rogue Male" (1939), the great masterpiece of hunter and hunted.
Many of the essayists comment on craftsmanship. Writing about Brian Garfield's "Death Wish" (1972), John Lescroart quotes the novel's brilliant first sentence -- "Later he worked out where he had been at the time of the attack on Esther and Carol" -- and then details how Garfield immediately shifts to describing scenes from Paul Benjamin's ordinary working day. But "because of the pulled-pin character" of that opening sentence, "these scenes become excruciatingly, almost unbearably, suspenseful." What precisely has happened to Esther and Carol? How and when will Paul learn about them? What will he do?
Editor Hank Wagner's infectious enthusiasm for William Goldman's "Marathon Man" (1974) made me want to read the novel (as well as re-see the movie), an astonishing mix of Nazi-hunting, espionage and brotherly love. "Literally nothing is wasted," he writes of its plotting. "Seemingly disparate pieces of information ultimately tie together, just waiting for the right piece of exposition, or revelation, to explain it all coherently." To define this kind of artistic elegance, Wagner cites the fantasy and science fiction giant Gene Wolfe: Literature, Wolfe reminds us, "is that which can be read with pleasure by an educated reader and reread with increased pleasure."
Certainly, many of these books are either literature or close to it. Of the more modern titles, I was pleased to see some personal favorites: Richard Stark's lean, cold novel of revenge, "The Hunter" (1962), and its younger cousin Thomas Perry's "The Butcher's Boy" (1982), Ross Thomas' urbane "Chinaman's Chance" (1978), and Charles McCarry's masterpiece about the Kennedy assassination, "The Tears of Autumn" (1974). Each is perfectly controlled.
That said, I felt that the later pages of "Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads" came to seem disturbingly incestuous. Fourteen of the ITW essayists have their own books listed here. While they are doubtless excellent pieces of work, Justin Scott's "The Shipkiller" (1979), Gayle Lynd's "Masquerade" (1996) and Lee Child's "Killing Floor" (1997) are too recent to be in the same company as Graham Greene's "The Third Man" (1950) and Patricia Highsmith's "Strangers on a Train" (1950). Indeed, this might be said of all too many of the later titles, such as Nelson DeMille's "The Charm School" (1988) and Dean Koontz's "Watchers" (1988). Only time will tell.
Three final observations: First, the accompanying essays sometimes contain spoilers revealing key plot turns and outcomes: Be warned. Second, in looking through the biographical notes about the contributing essayists, I realized that these writers -- many of whom were new to me -- have already won important awards, produced bestsellers, been translated into multiple languages. In this respect, Morrell and Wagner's guide can lead the thriller fan to many more than just the 100 main selections. And third: How could the editors have left out George MacDonald Fraser, creator of Flashman, and Ruth Rendell and Dick Francis and ...

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"Pearl Buck in China" and "The French Revolution"

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Wednesday July 28, 2010
PEARL BUCK IN CHINA: Journey to "The Good Earth"
Hilary Spurling
Simon & Schuster
ISBN 978-1416540427
304 pages

Reviewed by Leslie T. Chang
In the winter of 1930, an American missionary's wife wrote a novel about a Chinese peasant family. Showing the manuscript to no one, she sent it to a small New York publisher. The book was selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club, became a best-seller and won a Pulitzer Prize. So obscure was the author that until she lectured at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel, some people wondered if she existed at all.
Pearl S. Buck's extraordinary journey from obscure missionary to global celebrity is the subject of Hilary Spurling's new book. This elegant, richly researched work is at once a portrait of a remarkable woman ahead of her time, an evocation of China between the wars, and a meditation on how the secrets and griefs of childhood can shape a writer. At a time of heightened interest in China, Spurling's biography is a compelling tribute to the woman who first focused American attention on the country.
The daughter of Presbyterian missionaries stationed in the port city of Zhenjiang, Pearl grew up wearing loose Chinese trousers and cloth shoes, attending Chinese plays and funerals, and speaking a street slang her parents did not understand. "When I was in the Chinese world," she later wrote, "I was Chinese, I spoke Chinese and behaved as a Chinese. ... When I was in the American world, I shut the door between." Spurling perceptively explores the influences on young Pearl's imagination: Chinese folktales, the novels of Dickens, her mother's stories of an America Pearl had never seen. Before the girl was 10, she knew she wanted to be a writer.
After attending Randolph-Macon, the women's college in Lynchburg, Va., Pearl returned to China and married John Lossing Buck, an agricultural economist. She proved an indispensable partner in his rural surveys, interviewing farmers and developing a deep sympathy for them. When she wrote "The Good Earth," she claimed that the story was fully formed in her mind and poured out in a rush. "Its energy was the anger I felt for the sake of the peasants and the common folk of China," she said. "My material was ... close at hand, and the people I knew as I knew myself."
Reading "The Good Earth" today, one is struck by how little it has aged. The story of the farmer Wang Lung's struggles in an unforgiving world is as lean and finely wrought as a fable. Details linger in the mind -- the preciousness of a handful of tea leaves, the absolute quiet of a village when starvation comes. Spurling makes clear how revolutionary Buck's achievement was. Most Chinese intellectuals and writers were embarrassed by their country's poverty; that a foreigner was exposing it distressed them all the more. "It is always better for the Chinese to write about Chinese subject matter, as that is the only way to get near the truth," said the famous writer Lu Xun, expressing what became the standard Chinese judgment on Buck's work. When she won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1938, China's delegation withdrew from the ceremony in protest.
In contrast, Buck became enormously influential in the United States. Long before most observers, she warned of disaffection with Chiang Kai-shek's regime. "Unless something happens to change it," Buck wrote in 1928, "we are in for a real revolution here in comparison to which all this so far will be a mere game of ball on a summer's afternoon." She set up a foundation to promote East-West exchange and organized wartime relief for China. She attacked discrimination against women, blacks and the disabled long before such views became mainstream.
Spurling makes clear that the boundless energy Buck brought to public causes hurt her as a writer. For decades, she turned out one or two books a year but did little to develop her craft; her working method was to produce a first draft at phenomenal speed and leave all revision to her editors. Her best books, including "The Good Earth" and biographies of her parents, came early. After 1934, she never lived in China again -- and as her distance from her subjects grew, her novels turned didactic and stale. A final attempt to revisit China in 1972, the year before she died, was turned down; long after her death, Spurling notes, it came out that Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai had personally signed the order banning her return.
In our age of intensive China-watching, what does Buck have to teach us? She eschewed ideology; she avoided taking sides; she steered clear of experts and officials. Her understanding of the country was built on years of patient observation, living in backwater cities and befriending students, housewives, servants and farmers. She did not let her affection for the country cloud her judgment. But in her best work, she insisted on seeing the Chinese as individuals, and she made us see them, too.
Leslie T. Chang is a longtime China correspondent and the author of "Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China."

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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Matt Stewart
Soft Skull
ISBN 978-1593762834
306 pages

Reviewed by Mameve Medwed
You've got to admire a guy who, unable to sell his book, breaks it down into 140-character bits, releases them one by one on Twitter, garners publicity, turns the tweets back into novelese and then -- voila! -- gets a publisher. It's harder, though, to admire the novel itself, which arrives just in time for Bastille Day.
While this story of a family in contemporary San Francisco mirrors the French Revolution, you don't have to be a student of guillotines, peasants and aristocrats to follow its broad references. No subtlety here challenges the reader. Esmerelda Van Twinkle, once a pastry chef awarded a planetarium's worth of culinary stars, is now so obese that she needs hydraulic lifts to get to her job as the cashier at a copy store. She also requires an extra wide and triply reinforced chair, the Gargantuan. "The attachment of a bedpan to the Gargantuan's seat had been nixed after a day of use; not only was the smell rancid and inescapable, the sound of Esmerelda's urine dribbling against the tin bedpan, followed by a string of stomach gurgles and a pronounced flushing of the face never failed to bring commerce to a halt," reports the author in a typically sophomoric passage. Soon enough, Jasper, a coupon salesman, seduces her with cake (take that, Marie Antoinette!) in a repulsive sex scene involving a swimming pool and a winch. Nine months later, on Bastille Day, the twins Marat and Robespierre are born, joining a family dysfunctional in a multitude of ways: alcoholism, abandonment, drugs, handicaps, orgies, scandal and incest, for starters.
Blame the cake: It's responsible not only for the twins' birth but also for Esmerelda's girth. She regards the recipe as "the culinary equivalent of finding Christ under her pillow." Food, in fact, is the best part of this novel. "The cakes dwarfed everything else, towering leviathans, slice after slice liquefying in Esmerelda's mouth, alighting the dim portions of her brain and helping her see across continents, into the future, through the webbing of souls."
In due course, Robespierre heads for Stanford, Marat for the army instead of jail. And Esmerelda, "a cigarette of beef jerky hanging from (her) cud," decides "this eating's got to stop," exchanging the Gargantuan for an apron she can tie around her waist. Jasper reappears. Robespierre runs for office. Marat makes a pot of money not just from pot. Has the old regime collapsed? All revolutions and revelations lead to Waterloo -- a mayoral race cast as a Keystone Kops farce. Perhaps only a hipster can appreciate the slapstick and the excess. But to this reviewer, it's liberte, egalite, gimmickry.
Mameve Medwed is the author of five novels.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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