David & Lee Roy: A Vietnam Story

As they approached the end of high school in Lubbock, Texas, David Nelson and Lee Roy Herron would find themselves having to make the same decision thousands of other young men their age were making all around the country.  The Vietnam War was raging and their peers were dying there by the dozens every week.  Would David and Lee Roy enlist; wait to be drafted; find a way to avoid the conflict as long as possible, gambling that the war would end before their draft deferments did; or would they run?  The boys, best friends as long as either could remember, took the honorable road of signing up for Marine Corps officer training with active duty to follow their graduation from Lubbock’s Texas Tech University.
Fateful decisions were made at Texas Tech.  David opted, with the blessing of the Marines, to delay active duty while he attended law school at Southern Methodist University.  Lee Roy, to the surprise of no one who knew him, decided to live his boyhood dream of fighting for his country, and was assigned the role of combat infantry leader upon completion of a Vietnamese language school.  David, from the moment he decided on law school, worried that he had let his old friend down and began to withdraw from contact with Lee Roy.  He tried to convince himself that he skipped Lee Roy’s wedding because of law school demands, but he still felt guilty about missing the opportunity to see his old friend one last time before Lee Roy left for combat.
David Nelson
Just two months into his tour of duty in Vietnam, Lee Roy Herron died a hero, killed in battle against overwhelming odds, and David Nelson would feel guilty for the rest of his life about the different paths he and Lee Roy had taken.  A chance meeting at a Houston bookstore book-signing in 1997, during which David met Lee Roy’s old commanding officer, would finally provide the opportunity for David to meet his grief and guilt head-on.  He decided to honor Lee Roy Herron’s memory by writing a book of his own about their friendship and Lee Roy’s amazing patriotism and heroism.  The book he co-authored with Randolph Schiffer all these many years later, David & Leroy: A Vietnam Story, is a heartfelt tribute from one soldier to another – written after decades during which David Nelson, both consciously and subconsciously, continued to battle the guilt he probably still feels some of today.
It is certain that the story of David Nelson and Lee Roy Herron is not a unique one.  Similar decisions were made by hundreds of thousands of young men during the Vietnam War era and it was not uncommon for best friends to take opposite paths.  David Nelson and his co-author have written a book that will likely offer comfort, of a sort, to many who came of age in the 1960s.  What confusing times those were for all of us.
Rated at: 4.0

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We the Animals

I first became aware of We the Animals, Justin Torres’s debut novel, late last October when I attended a session presented at the 2011 Texas Book Festival by Torres and two other first-time novelists, Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding) and Amy Waldman (The Submission).  I was impressed enough with each of them to walk away from the session wanting to read all three of the books presented that day.  We the Animals completes that reading cycle for me.  Different as they are, all three novels turned out to be interesting, worthwhile reads that I would probably have otherwise missed, so I am grateful for having had the opportunity to hear their authors speak about them that day.
If I remember correctly, Torres stated in Austin that We the Animals began as a group of individual short pieces, and that it was only later that he realized that he had the makings of a novel on his hands.  By stringing the stories together in chronological order, he has produced that novel (although its brevity makes it as much akin to a novella as to a novel, I think). 
Justin Torres
We the Animals is the story of three brothers who grow up in upstate New York alongside their white mother and Puerto Rican father, two people who have plenty of growing up of their own to do.  The boys’ Brooklyn-born mother became pregnant for the first time at age 14 and her baby’s father was not much older.  As the novel unfolds, it can be difficult to remember that Ma and Paps are still in their twenties as they try to cope with poverty and the challenge of raising three young boys together.  The couple’s passionate relationship creates a family dynamic that will severely test the strength and character of their children.  Fortunately for the boys, they bond in a way that forges a unit stronger than the sum of its individual parts.  
The stories told in We the Animals vary from laugh-out-loud funny ones to tear-jerking sad ones, but taken as a whole, they paint the picture of three boys who somehow thrive despite the hands-off approach by which they are mostly being raised.  They have each other.  They adore their mother and, despite often fearing him, they love their father.  One feels good about their chances – and then comes the book’s jarring last chapter, a piece of the story that changes everything before it.
Rated at: 4.0  

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American Pickers Guide to Picking

I am willing to bet that a substantial majority of readers of the American Pickers Guide to Pickingwill be comprised of people who already avidly follow the American Pickers television show on the History Channel.  The size and loyalty of that group certainly bodes well for Hyperion, the book’s publisher.  Those same readers are, however, likely to be disappointed by the book when they figure out that it offers very little new material to devoted fans like them.  For instance, about the only new thing that I, as one of those fans, learned from the book is the exact nature of the business relationship between Mike and Frank, an arrangement never made clear in the television series.
As a group, pickers seem to be born with super-exaggerated “collecting genes” that usually become obvious at an early age.  We all remember, or might have even been, the kid who amassed a huge collection of comic books, baseball cards, marbles, or dolls and became, by default, the neighborhood expert in his specialty.  Not surprisingly, that kid usually grows into an adult collector of equally impressive, but much more expensive, adult toys: antiques, bicycles, motorcycles, cars, advertising signs, and most anything between.
Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, friends for more than thirty years now, were two of those kids.  As a small boy, Mike scavenged anything he could turn into a buck or use in trade for something better.  At the same time, Frank was putting together what sounds like an impressive collection of the beer cans of his childhood era.  The boys, who never would have dared dream they could someday make their livings as “pickers,” do exactly that today – and have become television stars in the process. 
Mike and Frank use Mike’s Antique Archaeology store (in Iowa) as the home base from which they travel across the country by van in search of those oddball items they can double or triple their money on by reselling to serious collectors.   American Pickers Guide to Picking is filled with tips that include everything from how to recognize promising road stops, to how to deal with the eccentrics who have spent a lifetime accumulating outbuildings filled with piles of “farm fresh” goodies they often have to be talked into finally letting go. 
Longtime fans of the show will be most intrigued by the personal philosophies offered by Mike, Frank, and their Girl Friday, Danielle Colby.  Danielle, the heart and soul of the Antique Archaeology store, mans the home front and is instrumental in doing the research that makes it possible for Mike and Frank to stay on the road as long as they do.  These three are the dream team of picking and they make it all seem like so much fun that the rest of us long to join them in the profession.  Writer Libby Callaway has worked with them to produce an interesting book that will appeal both to their television fans and to those who might seriously be considering a move into the field of American picking.  Just be aware that American Pickers Guide to Picking is not so much an actual guide to picking as it is a tribute to what is perhaps the finest “reality” show on American television.
Rated at: 3.0

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Lost Memory of Skin

With Lost Memory of Skin, Russell Banks has accomplished something I would not have believed possible.  Not only has he used a convicted sex offender as the lead character of his new novel, he has managed to make the young man both likable and someone readers can respect and root for as the novel progresses.

This twenty-something, young sex offender, known only as “The Kid,” finds himself living under a Miami Beach bridge as the novel opens.  Like all the rest who share this horrible living space with him, the Kid is caught up in an irony of his conviction.  His probation terms require that he not leave the county, but he is not allowed to live anywhere within 2500 feet of where children are likely to congregate.  Living under the causeway is the only way he and his fellow offenders can meet this term of their probations.
For all his lack of experience, the Kid is a complex character.  He knows nothing about his father except for the man’s name, and he was raised by one of the most indifferent mothers imaginable.  The Kid, in fact, can be said to have raised himself.  His addiction to Internet porn, an addiction he acquired as a young boy, was probably the defining event of his life.  That his mother only got upset about her son’s addiction to pornography because he maxed out her credit card, is indicative of the moral guidance he received at home.
When “The Professor,” a hugely obese college professor from a local school, appears on the scene, the Kid’s life begins to change.  Suddenly, someone wants to hear what the Kid has to say about his situation and wants to organize things under the causeway in a way that will make life a little easier for those who live there.  At first suspicious of the Professor’s motives (even to suspecting the Professor of wanting to molest him), the Kid gradually comes to trust the man.  When the Professor is revealed to have problems and peculiarities of his own, things will take an even darker, unexpected twist but the Kid, true to his own moral code, will somehow manage to persevere. 
Russell Banks (right)

Lost Memory of Skin does not overtly argue that the rest of us should try harder to “understand” what drives sex offenders to commit the horrible crimes they commit.    Banks is much subtler than that.  His message is more about the “big net” approach to punishment that treats all degrees of sex crime as being pretty much the same.  Readers will have to judge for themselves whether or not Banks’s argument is a sound one.

It was only after I heard Banks speak about Lost Memory of Skin at the 2011 Texas Book Festival that I became curious enough to want to read it.  Frankly, prior to that event, the idea of reading a rather long novel about convicted sex offenders was not an appealing one.  Thankfully, my curiosity won out over my natural aversion to the topic, and I did not miss out on one of the year’s best novels.  It was a close call.
Rated at: 5.0

The Sisters Brothers

It is hard to know where to start with this one.  If I had to describe Patrick deWitt’s western novel, The Sisters Brothers, in one word, for instance, I would probably choose “irreverent.”  But that word has too many connotations to capture the essence of the book cleanly.  Perhaps, it will help to say that if you are a fan of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Quentin Tarantino movies like Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs, or Coen brothers movies like True Grit or O Brother, Where Art Thou?, you will probably love this book. 
Eli and Charlie Sisters have been working for the Commodore for a long time, and have established a formidable reputation of their own by killing, over a number of years, many of the man’s enemies.  As The Sisters Brothers opens, the pair is preparing to make their way from Oregon City to Sacramento where they are to kill the Commodore’s latest nemesis, one Herman Kermit Warm.  Mr. Warm, it seems, has something he refuses to share with the Commodore, a secret formula that will make its owner a very rich man.
It was a long trip from Oregon City to Sacramento in the 1850s frontier, even for two men like the Sisters Brothers, leaving plenty of time and opportunity for things to go wrong along the way. As importantly, there was enough time for Eli Sisters to look back on his life and begin to begin to doubt the validity of the way he and Charlie made their living.  And that is precisely why, and when, the fun starts.  Between Oregon City and Sacramento, the boys encounter a long list of wild women, ruthless businessmen, incompetent gold prospectors, rough cowboys, unfortunate horses, and hustling townspeople guaranteed to keep the reader entertained from the first page to the last.
Patrick deWitt
Eli Sisters might just be my favorite fictional character of 2011.  Ever loyal to Charlie, his older brother, Eli is struggling with the conflict between that keen sense of family loyalty and the guilt he feels about the violent manner in which he and Charlie have lived their lives.  Newly self-aware, Eli concludes that Charlie, to his own advantage, has manipulated him since they were small boys – and that he has allowed Charlie to get away with it.  Despite their frequent bickering, and Charlie’s dominance, however, the relationship between the brothers is a close one.  But, now, Eli is looking for a way out of the life, and watching him ease Charlie toward that frame of mind is a treat.
Bottom line: if you come to The Sisters Brothers with the right mindset, this one is great fun.
Rated at: 5.0

The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness

I have just about sorted through all my misgivings about Brianna Karp’s memoir, The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness, but I am still not entirely sure how I feel about the book.  So, perhaps, it is best to start at the beginning – with the book’s title.  While it is true that the author may have met the “technical” definition of homelessness for a good portion of the book, I am not convinced that she ever met the “spirit” of that definition.
According to Karp, she lost her job and could no longer afford to lease the “tiny cottage near the beach” in which she had been living.  Consequently, on February 26, 2009, she found herself living in a travel trailer on a California Walmart parking lot (as part of a tiny community of trailers parked there with the tacit blessing of the company).  She did have to rely on retail businesses for bathroom facilities until she found a cheap gym membership that gave her access to the gym’s showers, but Karp had a private shelter all her own to sleep in each night.  Too, it appears that Karp was unsure enough about calling herself “homeless” that she decided to include a rather definitive definition of the word at the beginning of the book.  Two portions of that definition can probably be stretched far enough to qualify her (italics are mine).
            “an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequatenighttime residence”
            “a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings”
Wisely, Karp held on to her laptop and her cell phone and turned the closest Starbucks into her daytime home until she found work again.  Unfortunately for her, whatever work she found was either of the distasteful variety or never paid enough for her to make much headway in saving the amount of money needed to move to permanent housing.  She was faced with some hard choices – and she did not always choose wisely.  To Karp’s credit, she did reluctantly find a new home for her large dog after realizing that leaving him cooped up in a small, hot trailer all day while she was out was both cruel and dangerous.  
That was smart.  Not so smart, was the way she handled her relationship with a British homeless advocate she met on the internet.  After the two grew close, Karp used most of her precious savings to fly him to California to make sure that they were as compatible in person as they were virtually.  She even paid for a second round trip after the man had to return to Scotland to deal with the birth of his illegitimate child there.  She bought him a netbook – and she bought herself a roundtrip ticket to Scotland to surprise him at Christmas.  But she was still “homeless.”
Much of The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness covers the dysfunctional, fourth generation Jehovah’s Witnesses family in which Karp grew up; the suicide of her abusive father; and her continuing, poor relationship with her mother and sister.  And the longest section of the book deals with her romance with her British lover and its unsurprising culmination, so, despite its title, this is hardly a book about homelessness.
Brianna Karp
I include the following quote because it makes me question the overall accuracy of Karp’s presentation of her life.  It is something she supposedly said to her British boyfriend when he complained about the quality of television news programming in the United States:
            “Baby, you can’t watch this.  This is Fox News.  It’s not realnews.  No wonder.”  Duh.  I grabbed the remote from his hand before he could hurl it at Nancy Grace’s monologuing face.  “How about we try a little CNN?  That should be more to your taste.”
Since Nancy Grace has long been a mainstay of CNN’s Headline News channel, I have to wonder if Karp was as careless with the rest of the “truth” in her book as she was with this gratuitous attack on Fox.  She and her Harlequin editors, in their apparent zeal to take their shot at Fox News, twist the real picture to suit their purposes (or could they really be that clueless?) – making me wonder what else in the book may have been distorted.
I’m rating the The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness at three stars because it makes for interesting reading.  I only wish I were more confident that it all really happened this way.
Rated at: 3.0

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The Marriage Plot

Considering what author Jeffrey Eugenides has accomplished (including a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel) in his relatively brief career, it is sometimes difficult to remember that he has written only three novels. The Marriage Plot is, in fact, the author’s first novel in roughly ten years.  Much like both of his previous novels, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex(the prizewinner), this one is a rather dark look at characters struggling to find their place in life before it is too late.  And, as in those previous novels, none of the main characters in The Marriage Plot have an easy time of it.
The novel begins in the early 1980s, just as Madeleine Hanna, a Brown University student who is besotted by the works of writers like Jane Austen, George Eliot and Henry James, makes a decision that will set the course of her life for at least the rest of the decade.  It is graduation day, and Madeleine is about to meet her parents for the ceremony marking her achievement. Then she learns that her former lover, the ultra-charismatic Leonard Bankhead, is being held for treatment in the psychiatric ward of a local hospital.  Madeleine, though she does not spend much time thinking about it, stands at a crossroad.  Does she abandon Leonard, graduate with the rest of her class, and move on with the rest of her life – or does she rush to his side and rededicate herself to their strange relationship? 
Her decision to rush to the hospital will prove to be critical not only to the futures of Madeline and Leonard, but also to the third leg of their almost four-year-old “love” triangle, Mitchell Grammaticus, the religious studies major who has convinced himself that Madeleine is destined to be his wife, not Leonard’s.  Despite the fact that Leonard is largely oblivious of his existence, and that Madeleine treats him almost as an afterthought, Mitchell is impressively persistent in believing that she will eventually choose him over Leonard.
The Marriage Plotis Jeffrey Eugenides’s exploration of the plotline used in all those Victorian novels that began with “the suitors, the proposals, the misunderstandings – but after the wedding ceremony they kept on going.  These novels followed their spirited, intelligent heroines…into their disappointing married lives, and it was here that the marriage plot reached its greatest artistic expression” (pages 22-23).  While Eugenides does follow the form, some readers will wonder how effectively he does so.
Jeffrey Eugenides
Eugenides presents the evolving relationships between Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell by allowing each of his characters to speak, even to occasionally retelling events originally witnessed from one character’s point-of-view from the perspective of another character involved in the incident.  This technique, combined with long, alternating chapters told from the first person perspective of each of the three, allows the author to develop his protagonists fully. Surprisingly, even with all of that, the characters, especially Mitchell, do not impress as being particularly believable ones. 
The Marriage Plot, as are both of the author’s previous works, is interesting, but readers should decide for themselves whether this one measures up to the hype it has received.  The novel is worth a look, if just to be able to understand what others are saying about it – and why.
Rated at: 4.0

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The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb

Melanie Benjamin’s The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb completes my reading of the three P.T. Barnum/American Museum novels published between June 2010 and August 2011.  Mrs. Tom Thumb (July 2011), while being the least focused of the three on day-to-day life in Barnum’s American Museum, is, in many ways, the most intriguing of the three because of its focus on two of Barnum’s real life main attractions: Mr. and Mrs. General Tom Thumb.  For the record, the other two Barnum novels are: The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno by Ellen Bryson (June 2010) and Stacy Carlson’s Among the Wonderful (August 2011).
When she was born in 1841, no one expected that Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump would mature into a world famous young woman who would never reach three feet in height – nor that her younger sister was destined to be even smaller than Vinnie.  But, as much as the Bump sisters resembled each other physically, they could not have been any more temperamentally different.  Vinnie demanded to go to school with her everyone else; her sister was content to stay home with her mother.  Vinnie dreamed of seeing the world; her sister could barely imagine a world other than the one she knew within the confines of the Bump family farm.
Told in her own words, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, is a chronology of the life of one of the bravest young women of her day.  Lavinia Warren, as she came to be known under P.T. Barnum’s guidance, fought the odds associated with her size and with her gender to become one of the biggest celebrities of the century.  Hers was a life of the highest triumph and the lowest personal grief imaginable, but what a life it was.
Lavinia Warren
As portrayed in the novel, General Tom Thumb, dubbed so by Barnum, is a rather child-like man barely taller than his 32-inch wife who learns to mimic the ways of those around him.  Because Barnum put him in show business when he was only five years old, and he had to pretend to be a young adult even then, Charles Stratton never had a childhood.  He learned his ways from Barnum and others with whom he worked and toured – even to mimicking Barnum’s physical mannerisms.  Whether or not Lavinia ever learned to love the little man is open to speculation.  What is not subject to question is that she saw marriage to Stratton as the key to the bank vault – and she was right.  The wedding of Charles Stratton to Lavinia Warren has, in fact, been called the nineteenth century’s equivalent of Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles.  It certainly made the pair wealthy, even by modern standards.
The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb is quite a tale, and Melanie Benjamin tells it well.  Readers cannot help but be intrigued by the unique relationships between Lavinia Warren and the two most important men in her life, General Tom Thumb and the boldest American “humbugger” of all time, Mr. P.T. Barnum.
I highly recommend all three of the Barnum novels but, if you only have time for one of them, this is probably your best choice.
Rated at: 5.0

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Run

The opening segment of Ann Patchett’s 2007 novel, Run, is so beautifully written that it made me wish for a whole novel focused on that period of Bernadette Doyle’s family history. That segment recounts the origin of an old statue that has been handed down through several generations of one family to the daughter who most closely resembles the face of the statue – only to finally land in a section of the family having only three sons whose father refuses to pass it on to a family branch that actually includes a daughter.  This little statue, so prominent in the book’s opening pages, will play a key role in its final ones, as well.
Bernadette and Bernard Doyle want to fill their Boston home with children but they are able to produce only one son, Sullivan, before they turn to adoption to add to their family.  The couple ends up adopting two black brothers, one barely a toddler, the other a newborn, whom they rename Teddy and Tip in homage to the state’s political heritage.  After Bernadette’s tragic death, Doyle will raise the boys on his on, all the while seriously hoping that at least one of them will become President of the United States someday.
All goes to plan until the snowy evening that Tip’s life is saved by the woman who pushes him from the path of a car about to crush him.  Sadly, this woman (called Tennessee, “like the state”) takes the full impact of the vehicle and, when she is rushed to the hospital for emergency treatment, her eleven-year-old daughter, Kenya, is left behind.  What Kenya gradually reveals to the Doyles when they take her home with them that night, will change all of their lives forever.
Ann Patchett
Runcovers a lot of ground.  Its major themes involve family (particularly interracial ones), class, poverty, social responsibility, religion, and politics.  It is filled with memorable characters, but I suspect that most readers will choose young Kenya as their favorite of the lot.  If the book has a real weakness, it is that several of the characters seem too good to be true – even Sullivan, the black sheep of the family, who wanders back to Boston on the very night that Kenya enters the household.  It should be noted also that, while Patchett makes a valiant effort to contrast Kenya’s home life to that of the Doyle boys, her version of Kenya’s life in the ghetto of government housing fails to give a clear sense of the very real horrors and dangers of such an environment.
That said, Run is an enjoyable novel, one that probably generated much discussion in 2007 book club meetings.  Despite its subject, it is a relatively light read that can be enjoyed by adults and YA readers alike.
Rated at: 4.0

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The Submission

The Submission, Amy Waldman’s debut novel, is a straight forward look at the raw emotion and political scheming generated by the mass murder that rocked this country on September 11, 2001.  The novel, set two years after that event, begins just as a jury is to vote on the design of a national memorial for the victims of the terrorist attack that claimed their lives.  Each of the designs has its backers, and the vote is a close one, but the jury unites behind its choice until the winner of their “blind vote” turns out to be an architect by the name of Mohammed Kahn.

Outrage, skepticism, and confusion quickly surface even within this jury composed of artists, prominent business people, a relative of one of the victims, and several politically influential citizens.  It helps little that Mohammed Kahn prefers to be called “Mo” or that he drifted away from his religion years earlier – his motivation for entering the contest and the influences on his winning design are going to be questioned.  Members of the jury hope to find a solution before the winner’s identity becomes public, but when Kahn’s name is leaked to the press, public outrage at the jury’s choice is immediate and loud.
The plot of The Submission is more concerned with how individuals respond to, and are impacted by, a situation like this one than with what the jury will ultimately decide to do about their Muslim winner.  Waldman tells the story primarily through the eyes of two main characters: Mohammed Kahn and Claire Burwell, a 9/11 widow with two small children to raise.  Burwell, who was the chief advocate for Kahn’s winning design before the jury members knew his identity, is initially his strongest and most vocal defender.  But when Kahn stubbornly refuses to answer the frank questions asked by the jury, she begins to doubt his avowed reason for having entered the competition.
Amy Waldman at Texas Book Festival 2011

Readers who have kept up with recent controversies such as the building of a “World Trade Center mosque” will not be much surprised by what Waldman has to say in The Submission.  They will have already heard from people in the real world like Kahn, Burwell, and Waldman’s cast of less developed characters that includes a ruthless newspaper reporter, wild-eyed talk show hosts, apologists who hold America responsible for the 9/11 slaughter of its citizens, and politicians milking America’s new found patriotism for personal gain.  Importantly, however, the book tells a good story that makes it easy for its readers to consider points of view they may otherwise have never taken into account.

My one disappointment with The Submission involves its rather contrived (and convenient) ending.  Because I do not want to spoil that ending for others, I will only say that, for me, the story’s resolution detracts from its realistic tone and lessens its emotional impact.  That said, I do recommend The Submission – particularly for discussion by book clubs- because it requires its readers to examine their own prejudices and thinking a little.
Rated at: 4.0

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Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate

In a moment of candor during a 2010 appearance on Fox News, political commentator and columnist Juan Williams revealed the nervousness he feels when flying commercially alongside passengers dressed in what he calls “traditional Muslim garb.”  NPR executives recognized that his words, if they were cleanly sliced from the context in which they were spoken, could be used to portray him as a bigot – a firing offense in the eyes of those who already wanted to rid the liberal-dominated network of an employee who did not automatically follow the company line there.  So, in one of the most poorly handled dismissals of a public figure in recent memory, they fired him.
This is the jumping off point for Muzzled: The Assault on Honest Debate, in which Williams challenges the tendency of both those on the right and on the left to stifle an honest exchange of ideas with those on the other side of any given issue.  He contends that this “you’re either with us or against us” attitude makes it near impossible for anyone to solve the problems America faces today.  Williams gets his side of the NPR story out of the way in the book’s first chapter, “I Said What I Meant,” before broadening his argument against the political correctness and partisan politics that now so completely dominate the American political system.
There are also chapters in Muzzled on the aftermath of 9/11, tax cuts vs. entitlements, immigration, abortion, political provocateurs, and free speech, in which Williams tackles in detail each of these hot button issues.  The broad message of the book is that Americans are being very poorly served by news outlets that are as partisan and biased as the politicians they cover on our behalf – that there is no place for “the honest middle” to turn for honest discussion. 
Juan Williams at Texas Book Festival, October 2011
There is little doubt that all the shouting and slanted news presentations available to the viewing public on a 24-hour basis, seven days a week, do little but reinforce already existing biases on both sides while increasing the overall anxiety and gloom felt by the average American – including the shrinking “honest middle.”  As Williams puts it:
            To my mind, the only way to confront these fears is to face them head-on.  That means talking to one another.  It means telling one another how we feel, including those we don’t see eye to eye with.  We have to acknowledge that none of us knows everything.  We have to accommodate ourselves to new circumstances and facts and seek peace, compromise, and progress.  I am not saying that any of us should throw principle out the window.  But my career as a professional reporter, columnist, and commentator has taught me that no one has a monopoly on the answers.
Let’s hope it happens before it is too late.  Or, as Williams contends, do we already have the media and political class we “deserve” because of how we continue to reward the media with high viewer ratings, and insist on returning the same failed politicians to office election after election?
Rated at: 4.0

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Remember Ben Clayton

Stephen Harrigan’s Remember Ben Clayton is a brilliant piece of writing.  I use five consistent characteristics of good fiction to measure my reaction to a novel: fully developed characters, intriguing plot, pacing that matches plot, compelling prose, and realistic setting.  If Remember Ben Clayton were a baseball player, it would, in fact, be one of those rare “five tool” players (based there on average, power, speed, throwing, and defense) because it delivers on all five of the qualities I most admire in a work of fiction. 
The book is filled with interesting characters.  Ben Clayton, the title character, grew up on a remote Texas ranch under the care of a demanding father and a longtime housekeeper.  Lamar Clayton, Ben’s grieving father, is a man filled with secrets and regrets, the worst of which directly impacted his relationship with Ben.  Francis “Gil” Gilheaney is a respected sculptor whose stubborn pride has forced him to accept new commissions outside of New York City because he has offended that city’s artistic power structure, effectively burning his bridges there.  Maureen is Gil’s adult daughter, a never-married woman who has devoted her own life to helping her father in his work.  In addition, there is a young soldier, horribly scarred and deformed from battle, who has chosen to stay in France at the end of the war rather than face his friends and family as he is now.  He, too, plays a key role in Stephen Harrigan’s story.
Stephen Harrigan
Lamar Clayton wants to place a memorial to his son on a remote plateau to which the boy would often ride when he wanted to be alone with his thoughts.  Ben’s body is still buried in France near the World War I battlefield on which he died, and Lamar hopes to find comfort in seeing a likeness of Ben and his horse where the boy spent so much time.  Gil, who now lives in San Antonio, accepts the commission and soon comes to believe that the piece has the potential to be the best, and most genuinely artistic, work he has ever done – something that will be admired long after his own death even though very few people will ever actually see it.  Maureen is there to help in the research and construction of the piece’s several stages (a fascinating process in itself that Harrigan walks the reader through in some detail).
Things get complicated when Gil and Maureen, as part of their research into the character of young Ben Clayton, come to sense that there is much more to Ben’s relationship with his father than Lamar is willing to share.  Gil and Maureen, believing that they need to solve the mystery surrounding that relationship if Gil is truly to capture the essence of his subject, begin to pick at the scabs of Lamar’s guilt.  They will be shocked by the heartrending truth they discover about the Claytons – and about themselves.
Rated at: 5.0

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The Forgotten Waltz

Almost exactly four years ago, Ireland’s Anne Enright was the “surprise winner” of the Man Booker Prize for what is said to be a rather bleak novel called The Gathering.  Despite my good intentions, I have yet to read that one, but after reading her latest work, The Forgotten Waltz, I have to wonder if Enright does not specialize in “bleak.”
Set in a Dublin suburb, The Forgotten Waltz recounts Gina Moynihan’s reflections on a love affair she seems almost destined to have had, an affair in which she is the one wearing the tarnished label of “The Other Woman.”  Herself married at the time, Gina was immediately attracted to Sean Vallely when she first encountered him at a family function.  The two would be thrown together numerous additional times before the more oblivious Sean would finally succumb to the affair that would ultimately break up both marriages.
Complicating the affair for both Sean and Gina, is Sean’s young daughter Evie.  Evie is said to be a “special” child, one with fragile health – she suffers seizures – who, at least to Gina, seems to be uncannily observant of her father’s moods and whereabouts.  Almost despite herself, Gina is drawn to Evie in some inexplicable way and comes to believe that, without Evie, the affair with Sean would never have happened.  Gina’s life, of which the reader will share in the most intimate of details, is further complicated by a deteriorating relationship with her sister, the breakup of her marriage, the death of her mother, and the challenge of competing with Evie for Sean’s love and attention. 
Anne Enright
Frankly, nothing out of the ordinary happens in The Forgotten Waltz.  Enright’s story is one of commonplace adultery, the kind of love triangle that happens all around us, whether we notice or stop to think about it, every day.  What makes the book memorable is Enright’s ability to get so deeply inside the head of a narrator like Gina, someone honest enough with herself not to try to rationalize her involvement with a man like Sean.   Before she takes up with him, Gina knows that Sean has a loving wife – and, perhaps even more importantly, a daughter who needs him – but she gives little thought to their needs.  She wants Sean for herself, and when she gets him, guilt is not much  of an issue for her.
None of the characters in The Forgotten Waltz are particularly likeable but, thanks to Anne Enright’s way with words, they are real.  These are just ordinary people making do with what life throws their way.  They do not always make the best decisions or choices, but tomorrow always comes – and they get to try again.  Isn’t that just the way it is?
Rated at: 3.5

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The Leftovers

Imagine that something very much like the traditional Christian concept of The Rapture has suddenly occurred and that millions of people have disappeared.  This is the jumping off point for Tom Perrotta’s rather cleverly titled new novel, The Leftovers.
Much to the surprise of some of the true believers (many of whom are already a little ticked about being delegated to Leftover status), the chosen ones include Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Christians, and members of every other imaginable religion – even a considerable number of hedonistic non-believers known to have thoroughly enjoyed their time in this world.  That it all seems to have been so random is, in fact, the most difficult part of the experience for some to understand.
Some disappeared from elevators as they moved between floors, some from living room couches while in the middle of conversations with friends, and others from their chairs as they consumed what would be their final meals.  Some families lost fathers, some lost mothers, and some lost a child or two.  Others were shocked to become the only Leftover in their immediate family.  Amazingly enough, however, life would soon resume its normal rhythms while the Leftovers sought their own ways to cope with their losses. 
The Leftovers, which begins three years after the big event, centers itself on the Garvey family: Kevin, who becomes Mapleton’s new mayor; his wife, Laura, who joins the Guilty Remnant cult; Tom, their son who becomes part of Holy Wayne’s Healing Hug movement; and teenaged Jill who still lives at home with her father.  The Guilty Remnant bunch and the Healing Hug movement, though they are very different types of cults, are two of the mechanisms through which people try to cope with what has happened. That even a family like the Garveys, one of the lucky ones to remain whole after the supposed Rapture experience, is tested beyond its breaking point illustrates the emotional severity of what has happened around the world.
Tom Perrotta
This is a book about coping and healing.  Some turn inward, some to cults, some to family and friends; others ignore it all or become suicidal.  As Tom Perrotta mentioned at the Texas Book Festival in October, 2011, his book is set during the “seven-year period of Tribulation after the Rapture” and he wonders if “anyone would even remember the rapture three years later.”  This is the question that, with the help of his fictional Garvey family, he explores in The Leftovers.
However, for reasons difficult to explain, The Leftovers is a surprisingly flat reading experience.  None of the book’s main characters, other than perhaps Kevin Garvey, are particularly appealing and the book, by spending so much time with its two weird cults, seems to gloss over the magnitude of the loss so many ordinary people would have experienced.  One cannot help but feel that The Leftovers could have packed a more profound emotional clout than it does – meaning that the book, for many readers, will be a disappointing near miss.
Rated at: 3.0 

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The Art of Fielding

The Art of Fieldingis a difficult novel to categorize.  Most obviously, as can be judged by its title, it is a baseball novel.  But it is also Chad Harbach’s debut novel.  And it is a gay novel…a literary novel…a coming-of-age novel. Logically, the next question about the book becomes: is it good at any of these things?  Well, considering that the novel is also one of 2011’s most-hyped books, I have to give a qualified yes as answer to the question of whether the novel is any good – qualified because, despite what it accomplishes, I do not believe that it lives up to all of the hype.
The novel focuses on several characters associated with Westish College, a tiny liberal arts school located in northern Wisconsin. Mike Schwartz is the baseball team’s catcher and acknowledged leader who stumbles upon a high school shortstop with great fielding skills and an uncanny work ethic.  Schwartz decides that this young man, one Henry Skrimshander, would be a perfect fit for Westish and manages to recruit him for the school.  Already on the team is Owen Dunne, a light-skinned black player who just happens to be Henry’s gay roommate. 
Westish is a strange little school, but many of those who pass through it form strong emotional bonds to the place.  Its president, Guert Affenlight, for instance, has given up a position at Harvard University in order to come back to Wisconsin to head his alma mater, and his daughter Pella will seek shelter there upon the breakup of her marriage. 
Chad Harbach
At the heart of the story is Henry’s run at a record setting number of errorless games at shortstop – a record currently owned by his boyhood idol Aparicio Rodriguez.  As the record setting game approaches, Henry begins to think too much about the streak and very suddenly develops a case of Steve Blass disease.  (Avid baseball fans will remember Blass as the Pittsburg Pirate pitcher that inexplicably lost his ability to throw a baseball accurately and, as a consequence, was forced to retire from the game.)  Henry’s personal unraveling coincides, and perhaps influences, a similar unraveling of the lives of those closest to him: Guert, Mike, Owen, and Pella.
Chad Harbach’s writing often reminds of the novels of John Irving.  Harbach’s love, and knowledge, of baseball is reminiscent of Irving’s relationship to college wrestling.  Both writers delight in strangely-named oddball characters, and both are willing to use whatever number of pages it takes to explore fully the story they want to tell (517 pages, in this case). Although The Art of Fielding works well, it does not manage to live up to the huge amount of pre-publication hype it generated.  Building the expectations of readers to an unreasonable level is a dangerous game – and The Art of Fielding suffers the consequences.
Rated at: 3.5

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This Book Will Save Your Life

The audio book version of This Book Will Save Your Life (by A.M. Homes) benefits from the fine reading given it by Scott Brick.  That Brick manages to give so many eccentric characters a distinctly recognizable tone of voice is, in fact, remarkable.  And, because these characters are the best thing the novel has going for it, Brick’s contribution is particularly important to one’s overall perception of the novel.
The book opens just as Richard Novak is suffering through a life-changing experience.  He is on the phone with a rather blasé 911 operator who insists on methodically interviewing him about the pain he his experiencing rather than taking his word that he needs immediate help.  The pain, so bad that Richard is even unsure precisely where he hurts, does ultimately land him in a Los Angeles emergency room.  The Richard Novak that emerges from that emergency room will not be the same man who entered it.
Prior to his painful reawakening, Richard was content with his life of relative ease and isolation.  He lived alone, working the stock market from his expensive home, totally dependent upon the services of a daily housekeeper/cook and personal trainer to keep him going.  The problem, as he sees it now, is that he is close to no one, including the teenage son he barely knows. 
A.M. Homes

Richard’s need to reconnect with humanity will lead him to a series of bizarre experiences involving those he encounters over the next few days.  Among Richard’s new intimates are: a Hollywood star who seems to need a new friend as badly as Richard; a young mother whose family completely takes her for granted; a cheerful donut-shop owner/philosopher; and the J.D. Salinger-type writer who happens to live next door to Richard’s Malibu beach house rental.  As he reaches out to help whatever strays he encounters along the way, Richard suffers through the turbulence of trying to reclaim a relationship with his son just when his house begins to slide into a hillside sinkhole.

This Book Will Save Your Life works well as a tongue-in-cheek satire of the modern California lifestyle.  Richard’s sincere attempt to change his life for the better makes him an easily likable character, as are many of the characters to whom he attaches himself.  My one quarrel with the book’s plot is the ambiguous ending that comes before the book resolves its most climactic scene.  I am not one who is amused by the task of creating his own ending for a novel, instead believing that to be the author’s job.  This Book Will Save Your Life had me right up to the book’s last page – where it lost my affection and caused me to lower its rating.
Rated at: 3.0

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The Ballad of Tom Dooley

The Ballad of Tom Dooley, the latest tale in Sharyn McCrumb’s Ballad Series, retells a story that most people only know through the old Kingston Trio song of the same name, if  they know even that much.  There is, however, a huge difference between the details of the song and what McCrumb’s research indicates really got young Mr. Tom Dula hanged for murder on May 1, 1868.  While the song paints Dooley as a man more upset that his escape has been foiled than by the murder he has committed, the novel’s Tom Dula is even colder.  The biggest difference between the song and the book, however, is that McCrumb does not believe that Dula actually killed anyone.

 McCrumb’s detailed study of the Tom Dula trial transcript led her to believe that there was a fourth person intimately involved in the “love triangle” that ended with the deaths of two of those involved in it.  McCrumb noticed the mention of a third Foster woman, Pauline, in the transcript and further research led her to believe that thisis the real villain in this story.  Surprisingly, according to McCrumb’s version, Tom Dula was having his way with all three of the Foster cousins: Laura, the woman he was accused of stabbing to death; Ann Foster Melton, his longtime lover who was also implicated in the murder; and Pauline, a woman so spiteful and angry at the world that she meticulously and callously manipulated the ultimate fates of the other three.
McCrumb tells her story through the alternating voices of Pauline Foster and a lawyer for the defense, Zeb Vance.  Vance (twice governor of North Carolina, a Confederate officer, and a U.S. Senator) in his portions of the book admits more than once that he is working the case pro bono for career and political reasons of his own.  McCrumb has him repeat that he was out of practice when he took the case, and she portrays him as a man with a big ego and high expectations of great personal success, not a man who cares much about his client or the fate Dula is likely to suffer.
Sharyn McCrumb

Pauline Foster is portrayed in a similarly frank manner.  She carries the bulk of the narration and, in her own words, she exposes herself as an egocentric maniac with a great desire to punish anyone who even inadvertently slights her.  Pauline comes to the Happy Valley settlement seeking treatment for syphilis and, although her cousins barely remember who she is, she soon manages to worm herself into the most intimate parts of their lives.  Resentful of the way Anne and Tom treat her, Pauline thoroughly enjoys plotting their downfall – and if anyone else gets caught in the crossfire, so be it.

The Ballad of Tom Dooley is an interesting recasting of an old legend into a story that might well be closer to the truth than the original legend, or than even what has been commonly accepted as fact about the real case.  McCrumb, though, takes a leap of faith or two that, although they move the story along, are impossible to prove.  It all makes for an interesting, if dryly told, story that combines with the repetitiousness of some of the narration to make The Ballad of Tom Dooley into a bit of a slog to get through.
Rated at: 3.0

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The Man from Beijing

Henning Mankell is best known for having created fictional detective Kurt Wallander, a character I am familiar with via a couple of BBC adaptations of Mankell’s work.  Wallander is typical of the genre, I suppose.  He is another of those broken down, older detectives whose personal life is in ruins but who gamely carries on with catching the local bad guys.  It is all very dark and moody, but I almost always take to that type of atmosphere and character and that is what I expected to get from The Man from Beijing.
And, at first, that iswhat I got.  The story opens at the scene of a spectacular mass murder in one of Sweden’s most isolated little villages.  All but three of the village’s twenty-two inhabitants have been brutally slaughtered in just a few hours and police are struggling to identify either a motive for the murders or a suspect.  When Judge Birgitta Roslin, who is on a two-week medical leave from the bench, realizes that this is the same village her mother was raised in, she decides to go there for a personal look.  Once there, and sensing that the police investigation is headed in the wrong direction, Roslin begins her own – an investigation that leads her to believe that a Chinese assassin is responsible for the deaths.
Butting heads with the local police, however, proves to be rather fruitless, so Roslin continues to nose around on her own.  Her amateur investigation brings her all the way to China where her efforts attract the attention of the wrong people.  Just happy to escape Beijing in one piece, Roslin returns to Sweden only to find that her Chinese troubles have followed her home.
Henning Mankell

Henning Mankell had the makings of a snappy crime thriller on his hands if he had only stuck with this basic plot and characters.  Even the long flashback dealing with San, a Chinaman kidnapped to work on America’s transcontinental railroad was interesting (and directly pertained to the plot), although, for the most part, very dryly narrated.  By the time Mankell got back to present day Sweden, I was beginning to get a little hazy on some of the murder details and the Swedish characters.  I managed to get myself back on track only to find that Mankell had a long, boring harangue in store for his readers.  The author managed to move the side plot along eventually, but along the way he had one of his main characters read segments of political speeches that in real time were said to last four or five hours.  As I listened to Mankell defend the likes of Chairman Mao and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, I began to understand how the character’s captive audience must have felt.

This is a good book gone very, very bad.  It reads more as an excuse for Mankell to preach his own leftist political views than as a book to be enjoyed by mystery/thriller fans.  Had The Man from Beijing been properly edited, it could have been a gripping police procedural about a stunning crime.  As is, it is a tremendous bore about a stunning crime.
Rated at: 1.5

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Doc

I am willing to bet that a substantial portion of adults recognize the name Doc Holliday when they hear it.  But I am morewilling to bet that most of them know nothing of Doc’s life other than that he was skinny, had a bad cough, was a cardsharp, and participated in Tombstone’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  After all, that’s about all Hollywood has much bothered to tell us. 
Mary Doria Russell is here to help remedy that; Doc, her 2011 western novel, admirably fills in the blanks, turning Doc Holliday into a living, breathing human being in the process.  The very first paragraph of the book places readers on notice that they are beginning a tragic novel, not some Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show version of the Old West: 
            “He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle.  The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could no longer keep him alive.  In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness.”  (Page 3)
Holliday found his way to Tombstone, Arizona, only after being convinced it was time to close up shop in Dodge City, Kansas, where he and the Earp brothers had managed to carve out a living for themselves.  Russell’s description of Dodge and what life was like there during the town’s peak years is relatively close to the portrait most often painted by television and movies.
            “The facts were these.  Dodge City did not invent or manufacture goods.  Dodge did not raise or educate children.  It did not nurture or appreciate the arts.  Dodge City had a single purpose: to extract wealth from Texas.  Drovers brought cattle north and got paid in cash; Dodge sent them home in possession of neither.”  (Page 28)
But from Russell’s account of Dodge City, it is evident that the everyday existence of men like the Earp brothers was a good bit tamer than one has commonly been led to believe.  Gunfights occurred, of course, but they were far from being a daily or even a weekly affair.
Doc with Kate Elder
From the Armand de Gregoris Collection
No, Doc is a book about real people living real life, and Russell does her best to distinguish between myth and reality.  She explores personality, motivation, character, background, and chance as it impacts her novel’s main characters: Doc Holliday, Kate Elder (as Hungarian Maria Katarina Harony came to be known), Wyatt Earp, Morgan Earp, and Virgil Earp.  Even prone to violence, gambling, drinking, and whoring as these people were, Russell succeeds in making sympathetic (and human) characters out of each of them.  Take, for instance, this passage describing Morgan Earp as seen through the eyes of his mother:
            “Even when he was little and just listened, Morg loved the feel of a book in his hands, loved the pictures books drew inside his head, loved even the smell of paper, and leather binding, and glue.  Lord, but it did Virginia’s heart good to watch that child with a book, his solid little body almost motionless while his mind traveled.  And she admired the way Morgan helped Wyatt with his lessons instead of making fun of him, like the older boys did.”  (Page 129)
Russell makes this love of books and reading a key characteristic of several characters, in fact, as Morgan, Doc, and Kate talk books and literature, and even read the great Russian novelists.  I think it is safe to say that this is an aspect of their personalities seldom exploited by Hollywood.
Doc, then, is a novel for those who want to learn the truth about Doc Holliday, the Earps, Kate Elder, Dodge City, and Tombstone.  If that describes you, this is a book you will not want to miss.
Rated at: 5.0

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Freedom

By the time Freedomwas published in August 2010, it had been nine years since Jonathan Franzen’s immensely popular (and National Book Award winning) novel, The Corrections, made its own debut.  Everyone, of course, wondered whether Freedom would compare favorably to The Corrections.  It turns out that this 576-page (or 19-CD audio book) soap opera, while it does exhibit flashes of brilliance, does not match up well to its predecessor.
Freedom is the story of Patty and Walter Berglund and their two children.  The Berglunds consider themselves leaders and trendsetters in their St. Paul community, a neighborhood of mostly like-minded people determined to leave the planet in better shape than they found it.  They eat right, recycle madly, take a hands-on approach to raising their children, and practice what they preach.  Walter and Patty are, in fact, particularly proud that Walter earns the family income as an environmental lawyer. 
But all is not as it seems and, when family members begin to make one bad choice after the other, the Berglunds fall apart so quickly that everything they believe about themselves suddenly seems to be a bad joke on them.   Suddenly, Walter is working for a nasty coal company in its efforts to scrape the top off a scenic West Virginia mountaintop, their son is living next door with his high school girlfriend, and Patty is waging a ludicrous war on the evil Republican right-wing redneck family sheltering him.  It is little wonder then that Patty and Walter begin to look elsewhere for what they no longer have at home.
Freedom works well when Franzen first circles back to explain who Patty and Walter Berglund are and how they became the naively idealistic couple we see at the beginning of the book.  Each is the product of a less-than-ideal upbringing in which they were the least favored child in the family.  Patty, a superb, scholarship-earning basketball player, was largely ignored by her mother and scarred by her father’s conscious failure to protect her from harm.  Walter, from a much poorer family, faced similar problems when his mother failed to protect him from an abusive father who seemed to care only for Walter’s brothers.  Patty and Walter are determined to do a better job with their own children.  Throw Walter’s best friend (the man Patty still wishes she had married), rock star wannabe Richard Katz, into the mix, and anything might happen to this seemingly perfect family.
The problem is that Franzen does not know when to quit.  He creates interesting characters and situations, but spends as many pages detailing side issues such as strip-mining, overpopulation concerns, and the procurement of war materials in South America as he does on the book’s central storyline.  And it backfires because the more he reveals about these subplots, the less believable they become.  Too, David LeDoux, reader of the audio version of the book, does not help things by failing to differentiate between the voices and cadences of the various characters.  They all speak with the same voice and tone, even down to having the same irritating laugh.  This may, of course, be more a product of the writing than the reading, but it does become annoying – although I do believe that an audio version of the book is the only format I would have finished.
I am going to split the difference on this one and rate it a three because its good and bad points tend to offset each other.
Rated at: 3.0

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