Half-Blood Blues

By the time I finally picked up a copy of Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan’s novel already had quite a reputation going for it, the result of having won Canada’s Giller prize and having been a short-listed candidate for Britain’s Booker Prize.  I am happy to report that this story of three black jazz musicians, who find themselves trapped in Paris when Hitler’s Nazis overrun the city, largely lives up to that reputation – except for maybe a quibble or two I will mention later.
Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones have known each other forever.  The two grew up together in Baltimore where they honed their musical talents to so a high level – Sid on base and Chip on drums – that they would become popular in Berlin as the core of a jazz band they called the Hot-Time Swingers.  But they really hit the big time when they add trumpeter Hieronymous Falk to the mix.  Hiero, a mixed-race German, is so special a talent that he catches the attention of one Louis Armstrong – who invites the band to join him in Paris to cut a record.
The tough decision to shut things down in Berlin is made easy for the band when Hitler labels jazz as “degenerate music” and bans public performances of it.  When the Hot Swingers, including its German members, realize that more than their mere livelihood is at stake, the scramble is on to find papers good enough to get them across the border and on their way to Paris.  Little do they know it, but Hitler’s army is not all that far behind them.
Sid Griffiths, the book’s narrator, tells this intriguing story from the perspective of just over fifty years in the future.  Sid and Chip are old men living in 1992 Baltimore with plans to attend the imminent Berlin debut of a documentary film honoring the now legendary jazz trumpeter Hiero Falk.  Hiero, caught in a Nazi roundup of “undesirables,” has not been heard from since the day of his arrest and is presumed to have died in a Nazi death camp.  The mystery surrounding his arrest, details of which only Sid knows, have turned Hiero into the kind of musical legend that only dying young can do for a musician. 
Esi Edugyan
But Sid knows the whole story, and even though the truth is still eating at his soul, he does not really expect, or want, to go public with it.  Surprise, surprise, Sid.
Esi Edugyan has Sid speak in the vernacular of jazz musicians of the thirties.  While this initially slows the reader down, once the speech pattern becomes familiar, this technique gives Half-Blood Blues a feeling of authenticity it otherwise would not have had.  This does, however, bring me to my first “quibble.”  When Sid is thinking out loud for the reader, he sounds nothing like he does in conversation with his friends – even in 1992 – and that is sometimes a little jarring to the reader’s ear.
 But more importantly, the book’s ending does not quite measure up to the hugely dramatic build-up leading to it.  Perhaps unrealistically, I was hoping for more.  I did, however, still very much enjoy this one, and I suspect that I will be thinking about it for a good while, so if you like WWII history from a civilian point-of-view, you will likely love Half-Blood Blues.  Esi Edugyan is most certainly a talent to be watched.

Book Finds: How to Find, Buy, and Sell Used and Rare Books

With one exception, Book Finds is an excellent reference for aspiring book collector/dealers and a good review for collectors who might be returning to the hobby after an absence of a few years.  The notable exception is the author’s limited handling of the multitude of online resources available to today’s serious collector.  (I am working with the book’s 2001 second edition, and there is a 2006 third edition that might be more complete in this area).  However, because of the rapid pace at which things change on the Internet, the author’s decision to present the information in summary fashion is probably as good as any.
But there is a lot more to Book Finds – and much of the information presented in the book is timeless.  Book Finds includes chapters covering “edition, condition, and scarcity;” the scouting of books; auctions and catalogs; collectible authors; collecting trends; signed vs. unsigned books; acceptable book repairs; safe ways to clean books; and dealing vs. collecting.  Depending on one’s previous experience, some of these chapters, particularly the ones regarding edition-identification and condition, have the potential of saving the reader a lot of money.
Five rules, according to Ellis, are the “glue that holds the process together,” and the new book collector or dealer will be wise to master each of them:
1.     “Specialization” – no one can know everything.
2.     “Condition” – when it comes to value, nothing is more important than condition
3.     “The Rule of Three” – “A book has to be worth three times what you just paid for it in order to make a profit on it.”
4.     “Keep Looking” – “Anything can be anywhere.” (attributed by the author to Larry McMurtry)
5.     “Trading” – “Never pay cash for a book when you can trade for it instead.”
Book Finds also includes an appendix, in alphabetical order, by publisher, showing how to recognize each publisher’s method of designating a book’s first edition.  While the appendix is far from being complete, the major publishers are included alongside some of the lesser-known publishing houses.  It is a good beginning reference that, for the more serious collector, can be supplemented by standalone volumes on the same subject.
Also interesting is the book’s final chapter, “1,001 (More or Less) Collectible – and Findable – Books.”  The list, more than a decade old now, is a fascinating look at which authors were hot at the turn of the new century, which others were expected to join them, and how easy it is to be wrong about collecting trends. 
These are interesting times for book lovers.  E-books threaten to replace tree-books, authors are self-publishing both in virtual and in print format, major publishers are struggling to find a business model that makes sense, and bookstores are disappearing as fast as record stores did in the early years of the century (and we all know how that saga ended).  Book Finds should help new book collector/dealers make sense of it all – and to make a little profit while they have a whole lot of fun.

This Is How You Lose Her

Junot Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, a nine-story collection, is the author’s follow-up to his 2008 Pulitzer-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  Seven of the stories were first published in The New Yorker between February 1998 and July 2012, one in Glimmer Train in 1998, and another in Story in 1999.
Reading these stories in the order in which they are presented here, one after the other, will be a greatly different experience than that had by those who read them over the fourteen-year period during which they first appeared in print.  This Is How You Lose Her, in fact, reads more like a novel than it does a short story collection.  This is because all of the stories, although they flip back and forth between segments of his life, feature the same central character already familiar to readers of Díaz’s two previous books.  Yunior, a young Dominican, along with his mother and older brother, came to the United States when he was just a boy, and these stories, in addition to telling how Yunior got here, detail what happened to him once he did.   
Be forewarned that these stories, insightful as they often are, are written in a raw, sometimes outrageous, style.  Díaz writes in a Hispanic street vernacular that sees him often mixing Spanish words into his sentences.  And, even though entire sentences are sometimes presented in Spanish, Díaz leaves it up to non-Spanish speaking readers to figure out what he is saying based on the context of the rest of the paragraph.  But that is the least of it.
Junot Diaz
Yunior is a womanizer, and he comes by it naturally.  His father, although not a constant in Yunior’s life, set the pattern for that lifestyle early on, leaving Yunior to learn all the moves by watching his older brother in action.  His is the kind of macho culture in which women are primarily objects to be sexually exploited, and Yunior describes in explicit terms what he gets from the women who briefly pass through his life. 
Some might find Yunior’s language offensive, but it is exactly this style and language that make Díaz’s stories as powerful and effective as they are.  However, one does begin to wonder how long such a distinctive style can be mined before it goes stale for the reader.  Even though this is my first experience with Junot Díaz’s work, I already wonder how much more of it I can read before the style becomes tiresome.  Díaz is definitely on my radar now, but I am more likely to wait for something new from him written in a different voice than I am to seek out either of his two earlier books.
This Is How You Lose Her is a book about heartbreak – and the very macho central character, surprisingly enough, suffers much of it himself.

Elsewhere

Elsewhere is not so much a Richard Russo memoir as it is the author’s frank recounting of life with his mother, a woman for whom he pretty much took responsibility while still in high school.  As Russo puts it in the book’s prologue, “What follows in this memoir – I don’t know what else to call it – is a story of intersections: of place and time, of private and public, of linked destinies and flawed devotion.  It’s more my mother’s story than mine, but it’s mine, too, because until just a few years ago she was seldom absent from my life.”  The key word in this explanation is “flawed,” because, as Elsewheremakes clear, the author allowed his mother’s undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder largely to define his own existence, even after he married and was raising a family of his own.
As he begins to describe his childhood in Gloversville, New York, readers of his fiction will recognize that the upper state tannery town provides the basic setting of much of Russo’s fiction.  But Gloversville, once a proud producer of high quality leather products, was already in decline by the time Russo’s 1950s childhood began.  By then, automation and cheap foreign labor – along with the negative environmental impact associated with the tanning of leather – was killing both the town and some of its citizens. 
Richard Russo
The anxiety condition that Russo’s mother lived with all her life went undiagnosed.  Everyone around her, including the husband who left her when Richard was just a boy, found her impossible to live with, but more often than not, they wrote off her behavior as just a bad case of “nerves.”  Russo, to his great credit, assumed primary responsibility for his mother from the moment she decided to follow him across the country to Arizona to begin his college career.  This would not be the last time Mrs. Russo changed addresses because her son did.  She would do so for the rest of her life.
One gets the sense from reading Elsewhere (some ideal spot only in his mother’s mind where she could finally live the life she deserved), that Russo still does not realize how great a personal sacrifice he made for her all those years.  He readily admits that, despite all he did for her, he feels that he failed his mother by accepting her condition as an untreatable one – a passive approach, he tells us, that he has taken with no other problem he has ever encountered. 
The bad news here is that Elsewhere is not the memoir most Richard Russo fans were expecting or hoping for; the good news is that this one leaves a lot for Russo to tell in a second memoir.  

Black Dahlia & White Rose

I have been reading Joyce Carol Oates for decades and I still do not know how she does it.  Now in her mid-seventies, Oates is producing some of the best, and darkest, fiction of her career – and she does it at a pace that would shame most writers half her age.  The quality and impact of her latest short story collection, Black Dahlia & White Rose, makes me believe that Ms. Oates will continue to write memorable fiction for a long time to come.  Thankfully.
Black Dahlia & White Rose is a collection of eleven short stories recently published in magazines such as Playboy, Harper’s, and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.  The book, comprised of four separate theme-related sections, opens with its tone-setting title story.  The story is based on the infamous 1947 Los Angeles murder-mutilation of Elizabeth Short (who was dubbed the “Black Dahlia”) that, to this day, remains unsolved.  It is especially striking because Oates allows the victim to speak retrospectively from beyond the grave and portrays her as having been the lone roommate of aspiring starlet Marilyn Monroe at the time of her murder. 
Real Life Murder Victim Elizabeth Short
Believe it or not, the stories get even darker from there.  Oates uses the remaining ten to expose the hidden inner lives of ordinary human beings simply trying to make their way from one day to the next without getting into any more trouble than they are in already.  Her characters, be they academics or befuddled middle-school students, San Quentin lifers or innocent young children, wives trapped in doomed marriages or abandoned husbands wondering what happened, all have something in common: they are miserable and they are looking for a way out.  But, because the choices they make often place these troubled souls into more precarious circumstances than the ones they yearn to escape, their moves usually just make things worse  
A poor college student learns the hard way that returning a found wallet does not always work out well for “The Good Samaritan.”  A respected college professor finds out how unprepared she is to do voluntary teaching inside the walls of a maximum-security prison.  A young middle-school student faces a life-changing trauma no child should ever be asked to confront alone.  A woman contacts a man to whom she was attracted when she was one of his graduate students – almost twenty years earlier.  These are just some of the sinister stories readers will experience in this collection.
Black Dahlia & White Rose is a collection via which the author reminds us again that we are all more vulnerable to evil and sudden loss than we dare admit to ourselves.  With approximately twenty short story collections already under her belt, Joyce Carol Oates has already accomplished more than most writers would dare dream of accomplishing in an entire career.  
And that is just her short fiction.  

Mortality


Christopher Hitchens was a remarkable and fearless man who remained true to himself and his beliefs right up until the moment that esophageal cancer claimed his life in December 2011.  Admittedly, Hitchens was a man of excesses, and his lifestyle largely contributed to his death at the relatively young age of sixty-two.  But it is unlikely that he gave much thought to the destructiveness of such a lifestyle until the 2010 book tour during which he was suddenly hospitalized because of the agonizing pain he experienced around his chest and thorax.  Eighteen months later, Hitchens would be dead, but he spent much of his remaining time writing about his personal journey through what he called “Tumorville.”   That work is captured in Mortality, the little 104-page memoir on dying he left behind.
Christopher Hitchens was, of course, not a man without enemies – thousands of them – and, early in his struggle to rid himself of the tumor that killed him, he became aware that “some who have long wished me ill” were rooting for the “blind, emotionless alien” of a tumor that was killing him.  If he had not been so outspoken about his atheism and disillusionment with liberal politics, it is likely that far fewer would have openly gloated about his illness.  But if the effectiveness of a man’s arguments can be measured by the number of his enemies, Christopher Hitchens was an extremely effective debater.  The man knew he had enemies – and he loved it.
I do suspect that admirers of Christopher Hitchens will have already read some of what is in Mortalitybecause portions of the book were published previously as Vanity Fair magazine essays.  Although this might disappoint some readers, keep in mind that the observations Hitchens makes about living with cancer, enduring months of chemotherapy, and the specific “etiquette” of the disease are so frankly presented that they remain as powerful on subsequent readings as they are on the first.  Note also, that capturing the essays in one volume this way makes it easier to keep them together for re-reading.
Christopher Hitchens
Hitchens was well aware that many people were wondering whether he would turn to religion before his death.  He even stumbled upon a “Place Bets” video inviting people to bet on whether he would “repudiate (his) atheism and embrace religion by a certain date or continue to affirm unbelief and take the hellish consequences.”  While he generally found this kind of thing to be more amusing than annoying, Hitchens offers a rather poignant thought about all those prayers supposedly being said on his behalf:
            “Suppose I ditch the principles I have held for a lifetime, in the hope of gaining favor at the last minute?  I hope and trust that no serious person would be at all impressed by such a hucksterish choice.  Meanwhile, the god who would reward cowardice and dishonesty and punish irreconcilable doubt is among the many gods in which (whom?) I do not believe.  I don’t mean to be churlish about any kind intentions, but when September 20 comes (the official “Everybody Pray for Hitchens” day), please do not trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries.  Unless, of course, it makes you feel better.”
Pure Hitchens…all the way to the end.

Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You

Joyce Carol Oates books generally focus on the vulnerability of women and what can happen to them when they least expect it, especially if they wander into situations or places they are physically or emotionally unprepared to handle.  Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You, the author’s latest Young Adult novel (said to be appropriate for readers 14 and up), is a cautionary reminder that women first enter this danger zone as girls – when peer pressure and a desire to “fit in” make them especially easy targets.
The novel is divided into three interconnected sections.  The first part focuses on Merissa, a Quaker Heights Day School senior who is on a roll.  She is, in fact, doing so well that her friends have taken to calling her “The Perfect One.”  Merissa seems to prove their point when, two weeks before Christmas, she learns that she is the only one of her classmates to have snagged an early admission to Brown University, one of the schools most prized by her peers and teachers.
The second section of the book is a flashback to the previous year when Tink, a former child actress, made her debut at Quaker Heights Day School.  Tink has a mind of her own – and no friends until the day Merissa and her group ask Tink to join them at their lunch table.  Soon, mostly because of her independence and seeming indifference to what others think of her, Tink earns the school’s respect and her new friends have taken to calling themselves Tink, Inc.  Then, almost as if to spite her soap opera actress mother, Tink kills herself.
Part three of Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You concerns Nadia, another member of Tink, Inc.  Nadia, during one night of drunken partying seems to have done some things she is probably lucky not to be able to remember.  Now, having been labeled a school slut for the remainder of her senior year, she is being cyber-bullied and harassed in the school hallways by friends of the boy she believed would keep their secret.
Tink may be gone, but her friends still call upon her for advice and claim to feel her presence when they most need her reassurance.  Because of their “what would Tink do” approach to life, Tink still “speaks” to them and helps them through their worst days.  Merissa, seeking relief from the intense pressure to excel, cuts herself and considers suicide.  The level of social isolation and ridicule Nadia experiences proves to be more than she can handle alone.  Thankfully, Tink is there to help.
Middle and High School girls will easily identify with the characters and situations of Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You.  If they have not lived through similar situations, they almost certainly know of someone who has.  The novel, perhaps because of the age of its target audience, does have a more optimistic ending than that of most Joyce Carol Oates novels.  The relative ease with which the girls seem to pull their lives back together might seem unrealistic to adult readers – but Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You was not written for us.  Its message of caution, hope and optimism is one that young women need to hear.

The Most Dangerous Thing

What is the most dangerous thing in the woods?  Well, you might just be surprised by the answer to that one.
For a while, Gwen, Mickey, and the three Halloran brothers are inseparable.  Together, the five youngsters explore the woods around their Baltimore suburb while remaining safely out of the sight and minds of their three sets of parents.  Surprisingly, even teens Sean and Tim Halloran are content to follow the lead of tomboy Mickey as she steers them deeper and deeper into the woods.  Their reckless younger brother, known to everyone as Go-Go, is just happy to be allowed to tag along with his big brothers and their friends.
Although the five of them, like children everywhere, cannot imagine anything bad ever happening to any of them, they understand that some secrets are best kept from worrying parents – and they almost get away with it.  Then, deep in the woods one day, they stumble upon the man they will come to call “Chicken George.”  What happens next will change all their lives forever – even the lives of their parents.
The friendships between the children – and between their parents -are effectively ended by what happens the day things go wrong in the woods.  None of them feel comfortable in the presence any of the others ever again because of the terrible secret they now share, the lies they tell to keep that secret hidden, and their suspicion that someone is hiding the real truth about what happened.
The last thirty-two years have not been particularly kind to the former friends, all of whom are now middle-aged and living rather troubled lives of their own.  None of the five are particularly happy, although they have managed, for the most part, to forget what happened in the woods all those years ago.  But when one of the five dies suddenly in a car crash, the others gather for his funeral where they will finally be forced to confront the past they share.
Laura Lippman
Lippman uses flashbacks to reveal the events of that fateful day and the emotional impact what happened had on the children and their parents.  Reluctantly sharing memories and feelings for the first time in decades, the four survivors soon begin to wonder if one of them plans to reveal their long hidden secret.  Is that what caused one of them to take his life?
Laura Lippman fans will probably be a little surprised by The Most Dangerous Thing because it is a change-of-pace of sorts and, although there is a “mystery” here for the reader to ponder, this one is as much a character-study as it is a mystery.  In order to illustrate the long-term impact that one spur-of-the-moment decision can have on a person’s life, the author recounts the lifetime of regrets, poor decisions, and uncontrollable weaknesses subsequently experienced by each of her main characters.
To do so, Lippman uses a literary device I have seldom encountered.  Sections of the book are written in the first person plural voice – which sometimes had me wondering which of the characters were actually speaking to me.  While this “group voice” does set an unusual tone for the novel, it tended, often as not, to distract me from the actual plot, and I never got comfortable with it.
 Lippman is definitely offering her longtime fans something a little different this time around.  

Defending Jacob

Parents will do whatever it takes to protect their children from physical harm or to defend them from anyone, or anything, that otherwise threatens their wellbeing.  That is a given; it is just what we do – even for our adult children.  But what if a parent suspects that a son or daughter might have committed a violent crime against someone else’s child?  And what if that parent is the District Attorney charged with prosecuting the very crime his son has been accused of committing?
First District Attorney Andy Barber, facing precisely that “what if” question, never hesitates.   Jacob is the most important thing in Andy’s life, and if Andy has to place his own future in jeopardy in order to save his son’s life, well, that is what he will do.  
One of Jacob Barber’s classmates, a 14-year-old boy, has been found stabbed to death along one of the walkways of the park that numerous students cross on their way to the middle school every morning.  Andy Barber, once he gets over the shock of such a thing happening so close to home, is determined to find and prosecute the murderer as quickly as possible.  He recognizes the fear and unease of his friends and neighbors and believes that moving quickly will help restore the community’s sense of security and normalcy. 
However, Andy and Laurie Barber receive an even bigger shock when their son is arrested for the murder and Andy is forced to take a leave of absence from the District Attorney’s office.  As the investigation evolves, the Barbers and the parents of the dead boy will learn things about their sons they never could have imagined.  They will also learn things about themselves and their neighbors that are almost as disturbing as what is revealed about the boys.
Defending Jacob is a classic courtroom thriller that will remind the reader of earlier novels like Presumed Innocent and A Time to Kill, two other books that caught the imaginations of readers and sold in huge numbers.  And like the best of his predecessors, William Landay focus on nicely developed characters, plot twists, and a major surprise or two near the end to create a memorable story.  But, even though there are recognizable similarities between Jacob Barber’s case and some recent real-world teen-murderers, Defending Jacob is as much a study of family dynamics as it is a legal thriller.
William Landay
The three members of the Barber family, ostracized and hated by their neighbors – every one of whom believe Jacob is the killer – have only each other for support and comfort.  But, as the pressure of the trial mounts, with more and more evidence pointing to Jacob’s guilt, Andy and Laurie begin to sense that their son’s emotional response to his arrest is odd.  The family’s survival is in doubt in more ways than one.
Surprisingly, the most memorable character in Defending Jacob is Jacob’s grandfather, a man who moves into and out of the picture as the plot develops.  The man’s pure evilness certainly makes a lasting impression; for me, one even more striking than that made by Andy Barber’s choice to place his son’s life above the very justice system he has spent a lifetime serving.
Defending Jacob is probably a little bit over-hyped but it has its moments and will certainly be enjoyed by courtroom drama fans.  Warner Brothers has already optioned the book, so read it before the movie spoils it for you.

All the Time in the World

E.L. Doctorow’s newest short story collection, All the Time in the World, is a collection of twelve stories that have been published previously in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Kenyon Review, and The New American Review.  Moreover, six of the stories have been included in previous short story collections,  meaning that only six of the twelve are appearing in book form for the first time.  Because, as the book jacket notes, the stories were written over a period of “many years,” the collection is an opportunity for first-time readers of Doctorow short stories to experience a representative selection of styles favored by the author.

And, stylistically, these stories are all over the map.  That means, of course, that the appeal of individual stories will vary from reader to reader.  I, for example, generally favor stories with relatively direct approaches to plot and theme, and I consider it a bonus if the stories also offer fully developed characters.  Stories with a less linear approach, particularly those that use a stream-of-consciousness style, work less successfully for me.  Several of the stories in All the Time in the World are of that type – and two or three of them, I confess, did leave me a bit mystified.
Several of these dozen stories are particularly notable, including the first in the collection, “Wakefield.”  This is the story of a businessman who, almost by accident, fails to return to his family one evening after the return leg of his work commute is disrupted by a massive power failure.  Instead, he hides out above the family garage, from where – over several months – he watches his wife and two daughters get on with the rest of their lives while he creates a strange new existence for himself.

Among other topics, are stories about a murderous mother and son, an inane religious cult, women hardened by life’s demands, a stranger who longs only to get inside his childhood home one more time, and a teenage boy obliged to write letters from his dead father to his senile grandmother.  One story happens in the small town America that existed shortly after the Civil War, others in America’s large modern cities and suburbs. 

Taken as a whole, the stories confirm that E.L. Doctorow is, despite his having produced so few short stories over his long career, a master of that craft.  Although the author will always be thought of first as a novelist, the stories selected for All the Time in the World prove he can write short stories with the best of his peers.

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London Under: The Secret History beneath the Streets

For several years during the nineties, I spent a minimum of two hours every workday using London’s Metro to make my way from Richmond to Uxbridge. Although there was almost no underground travel on that route, I did use the underground portions of the system on weekends to explore the city – and always found it hard to believe that the earliest portion of the Underground (the Metropolitan Line) opened in 1863, just as America’s Civil War reached its mid-point.  All those travel-hours left me passively curious about the history of the Underground and the visionaries who dared build it. 
Recently, that curiosity was reawakened by Peter Ackroyd’s London Under: The Secret History beneath the Streets.  Although the book is not entirely devoted to the underground train system, the two or three chapters dedicated to the Underground will serve as a good primer for anyone interested in its history.  Ackroyd also offers a three-page bibliography that will be helpful to those readers wanting a more detailed understanding of the underground rail system.
There is a hidden world, one with a long history, beneath the streets of London.  Amongst all the cables carrying gas, water, telephone, and electricity are natural springs and rivers that still flow as they always have.  Catacombs beneath cemeteries and church graveyards house the ancient, and not so ancient, remains of London citizens.  The remnants of Roman amphitheaters and gang hideouts are as out of sight down there as the massive sewer system that carries the waste products of London’s millions.  Most fascinating to me, the London Underground still includes a number of “dead stations” that have been closed down over the decades – many of which still display the same posters and signs that were current on the day the stations were first bypassed. 
The tunnels beneath London are home to a small animal kingdom, as well.  Most prominent, as regular Tube passengers can attest, are countless Russian brown rats and mice, but there are also large populations of frogs, eels, mosquitoes, and cockroaches in the wetter portions of this vast underworld.  I also remember seeing a stray dog or two and numerous pigeons that appeared to be hopping rides from one station to the next in search of their next meals.  
Peter Ackroyd
Because of the catastrophic damage that would result if the tunnels were sabotaged, the London underworld is a “forbidden zone” to which entrance is limited strictly to those with legitimate need of access.  As a result, it is almost impossible for any one individual to study the whole of what lies beneath London’s streets.  Ackroyd does, however, manage to explain in concise terms the magnitude of what is buried here beneath one of the world’s greatest cities. 
The book includes chapters on the London Underground, rivers beneath the surface, the sewer system, animals and insects, pipes and cables, and how the underworld can affect the psyche of people.  There is much of interest in this little book of 228 pages (a page count that includes the bibliography and index) but Ackroyd’s style can make for tedious reading at times.  This is particularly the case in those chapters devoted to the underground waterways, chapters in which the author traces, almost block by block, the paths of the rivers and streams.  Patient readers, however, will come away with a solid, if basic, understanding of just how amazing the London underworld is – and will be left wishing that someone would further explore it to learn what more it can tell us about the city’s past.

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The Shadow of the Wind

To say that Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind was an international success is an understatement.  The novel has been published in at least 20 countries and was a number one bestseller in Spain, the author’s home country.  Part gothic novel, part romance novel, it is an ambitious story of almost 500 pages that blends several genres in a way guaranteed (in theory) to appeal to a variety of readers.  Ruiz Zafón seems to be appealing to readers that enjoy mysteries, coming-of-age novels, fantasy, historical fiction, intensely atmospheric settings, books about books, or even (perhaps, especially) television soap operas.  A complete willingness to toss aside one’s sense of disbelief is mandatory with this one.  All of that is well and good, but it is also a bit risky because it only works if readers do not also dislike some of the elements in the blend. 

The book’s first person narrator, Daniel Sempere, is ten years old when the story begins in 1950s Barcelona.  When young Daniel panics that he is forgetting his deceased mother’s face, his bookstore-owning father decides to distract him by introducing Daniel to the “Cemetery of Forgotten Books,” an underground storage facility where single copies of such books are preserved.  Daniel is encouraged to remove one book from the vast library, a book for which he will be forever responsible from that moment onward.  He chooses a novel by Julián Carex called The Shadow of the Wind. 
Daniel takes his role seriously and decides to find copies of the other books Carex wrote before his violent death on the streets of Barcelona in 1936.  He is horrified to learn, however, that the books are impossible to locate because a horribly disfigured man supposedly has been buying them for years with the sole purpose of destroying them.  Determined to protect the Carex book in his possession, Daniel becomes obsessed with learning everything he can about Julián Carex.  When this mysterious book-burner learns that Daniel owns a copy of The Shadow of the Wind, Daniel’s life – along with that of his father and closest friends – is placed in jeopardy unless he agrees to sell his book to the fiend. 
Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Ruiz Zafón tells his tale via two timelines, one involving the personal history of Julián Carex and one describing Daniel’s present day effort to discover the truth about Carex’s death.  As the similarities between the two timelines become more and more evident, the mystery surrounding Daniel’s nemesis goes in and out of focus several times before the man’s identity and motive for destroying the Carex books are finally revealed.  It is a long and winding path – one that involves an assemblage of characters and villains in both timelines.

My problem with The Shadow of the Wind is a “technical” one.  I am always willing to suspend my sense of disbelief when I enjoy a story, allowing an author plenty of room to use coincidence and cliché to move a plot forward, as is certainly the case here.  What made reading The Shadow of the Wind a chore for me was the author’s insistence on slowing the pace to a near halt several times by inserting secondhand accounts of action that had taken place “off stage.”  When I realized the memories being recounted by the book’s characters contained a level of detail – and facts – that the immediate speaker had no way of knowing (either at the time of the actual events or in the present), I began to dread losing my reading momentum to them.  Not only does this literary device not work, it is distracting and lessens the impact of the rest of the book – and it is a lazy way to tell a story. 
That said, the book does contain one of my favorite passages of all time regarding books and readers:
            Every book, every volume you see here has a soul.  The soul of the person who wrote it and those who read it and lived and dreamed with it.  Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down it pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.
That thought makes me happy.

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The Amateur

Political books, especially those written in election years, have always been somewhat questionable when it comes to their handling of “the truth.”  Readers of these things generally come into them with their minds already made up about the subject – and seldom change them – tending to focus on the parts of the books they like and to ignore the parts with which they disagree.  That is, of course, exactly the reception that Edward Klein’s bestseller, The Amateur, is receiving.  And well that it should.
All of that said, a few things about The Amateur particularly strike me:
  • In the process of gathering information for the book, Klein interviewed almost 200 people, many of those having known Barack Obama back to his first days in Chicago.  Some of these people are officially on record (even on tape); others are not.  Some of the book’s direct quotes, because of their sources are a bit shocking, even if upon further thought, they are not surprising.  Caroline Kennedy, for instance, after having been snubbed along with the rest of the Kennedys by the Obama White House is quoted as saying, “I can’t stand to hear his voice anymore.  He’s a liar and worse.”  Initially, this is a rather shocking statement on Kennedy’s part – then, not so much. 
  • One of the most vocal interviewees, all of it on tape, seems to have been Jeremiah Wright who is understandably bitter about the way he was treated by the president in 2008.  If Wright is being honest in what he describes about his longtime relationship with Barack and Michelle Obama, it is understandable why the president’s advisors wanted to keep the details of that relationship hidden – even to the point of offering the preacher a cash pay-off (according to Wright) to go away quietly.
  • There seems to have been almost eagerness on the parts of those who are said to know Obama best to share negative facts and observations about the man. 
  • The personal revelations about Michelle Obama are particularly unflattering because of the petty vindictiveness and jealousy described.  For instance, according to Klein, Michelle’s jealousy directly led to her husband’s eventual snubs of ardent supporters Caroline Kennedy and Oprah Winfrey. 
  • Much of the book, as noted just above, can best be characterized as the spreading of gossip – truth or not, it still has the feel of gossip.
  • The president is characterized as an “inept” president “who doesn’t learn from his mistakes, as “a man who blames all his problems on those with whom he disagrees…who discards old friends and supporters when they are no longer useful…who is so think-skinned that he constantly complains about what people say and write about him.”   Distasteful as all of this might be, it is hardly the worst of what Klein has to say about him.
  • More disturbing is Klein’s contention that Obama naively overestimates his abilities, that he takes even constructive criticism personally, that he only listens to those who already believe exactly as he does, and that he truly believes himself to be a “child of destiny” meant to save America from itself.
Although Klein stresses that some of his sources had positive things to say about Obama, these things are so overwhelmed by the negative case he presents in The Amateur that I do not remember one of those positive things.  Perhaps I missed them – and perhaps that is Klein’s intention.
The Amateur is an easy read, a good recap of the current political environment.  It definitely has an agenda, however, and that should surprise no one.  It is, after all, a political book, and this is a critical election year.

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Wait Till Next Year

Wait Till Next Year, by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, is a book I have been meaning to read for years but never seemed to get to until now.  This has to be at least the third time I checked it out from the library, and I would not be surprised to stumble upon a copy buried somewhere among all the books around the house.  As it turns out, Wait Till Next Year is not exactly what I thought it would be – but that is not necessarily a bad thing.
This is Goodwin’s coming-of-age story and, while her love of the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers is at the core of that story, she does a remarkable job of recreating the Long Island neighborhood in which she grew up.  It was, to say the least, a different era – more innocent in some ways, and scarier in others.  It was when every parent on the street knew, and felt a bit responsible, for every kid that lived on the block.  Local merchants knew and appreciated their customers, fathers worked and mothers stayed home with their children, and watching television was a spectacle neighbors enjoyed together.  But it was also the age of air raid drills (duck and cover) in public schools, scary civil-defense films, bomb shelters, and polio epidemics.  Way too soon, children learned how fragile life really is.
Goodwin’s love for the game began the day her father taught her how to keep her own official baseball score sheet so that she could recount the details of the day’s Dodger game to him each evening when his workday was over.  Because, for a while, her father kept the existence of newspaper box scores a secret from her, Goodwin came to believe that she was his only link to all those workweek day games.  Her father’s eagerness to listen to her daily game-recaps impressed upon her just how integral a part of life baseball becomes for its most avid fans – and she became a lifetime fan.
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Goodwin does not neglect the Dodger stars of the day (Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, and Jackie Robinson, among them), nor her horror when the team was yanked from its fans and moved all the way to Los Angeles.  And, because New York is one of those cities lucky enough to have more than one major league team, she details the neighborhood rivalries that grew up between fans of the Dodgers, Yankees, and Giants.  On 1950s Long Island, baseball was more than a game; it was one of the most intensely felt passions of the day.
The book’s narration tends to be a little too straightforward and dry at times, but for those of us who grew up in the same era, and with a similar feel for the sport, it is a heartwarming reminder of how it all happened and why baseball is still such a large part of our lives and our childhood memories.  This one is for all the grown-up boys and girls who loved baseball before the game was a daily television event – when the arrival of the local paper and those magical box scores was a huge event.  I do remember when.

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Heading Out to Wonderful

 It does not happen as often for me anymore as I would wish, but every so often, I can completely lose myself in a book.  I live in a different place or time for two or three days and find myself wishing I could return to the book even when the real world is calling for my attention.  Robert Goolrick’s Heading Out to Wonderful is one of those special books for me.

Set in rural Virginia in the summer of 1948, Heading Out to Wonderful is the story of Charlie Beale, a World War II veteran who arrives in little Brownsburg carrying everything he needs to start a new life: one suitcase full of money, and another containing a complete set of high-quality German butcher knives.   Soon enough, Charlie decides that Brownsburg is exactly the “wonderful” place he is searching for and has talked the local butcher into giving him a job.  After he is taken under the wing of Alma, the butcher’s wife, and has demonstrated his superior meat-cutting skills, the locals accept him as a welcome addition to their community.
Life is good for Charlie Beale.  He is much admired by everyone for his skills in the shop and on the baseball diamond, and has formed a special bond with Sam, Alma and Will’s five-year-old son.  He even owns a house and has fully furnished it, with Alma’s help, via farm and estate auctions around the county.  But all is not as it seems, and that becomes obvious on the morning that the beautiful Sylvan walks into the butcher shop and eyes Charlie Beale for herself.
Robert Goolrick
Sylvan is married to “Boaty” Glass, the wealthiest man anywhere around Brownsburg.  The contrast between “Boaty” and his wife could not be greater.  On the one hand, Boaty is a middle-aged fat man with a reputation for ruthlessness and condescending ways towards everyone else in town.  On the other, Sylvan is a striking beauty still in her teens that “Boaty” treats more like a possession than a wife.  All Charlie knows is that he has to have Sylvan for his own – and that he is going to make that happen no matter what it might cost him or the town.
From the moment Charlie first sees Sylvan, the reader feels increased tension in the air, a sense of the impending doom Charlie decides to ignore.  Goolrick has perfectly recreated a world (that to a lesser degree probably still exists in deeply rural communities) in which everyone in town knows everything about everyone there.  These people have grown up together, as did their parents, and their children are friends.  Grudges and hard feelings exist, but they are kept hidden for the sake of getting along.  Preachers are filled with enough righteous indignation that their congregations are willing to take their marching orders from the men even when their sympathies are elsewhere.  No one is willing to rock the boat in little Brownsburg, Virginia – until Charlie Beale comes along.
Then, all bets are off.

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Canada

The first two sentences of Richard Ford’s Canada are, I suspect, destined to be among the most quoted of 2012.  Even so, I cannot resist using them here, too, because they are the perfect opening for the book:
            “First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed.  Then about the murders, which happened later.”
 
These words are spoken by 65-year-old Dell Parsons, the book’s narrator, as he considers the fifteen-year old boy he was in 1960 just before his parents made the stupid decision that would almost destroy him and Berner, his twin sister.  The Parsons had been transferred to Montana by the U.S. Air Force, but now Dell’s father is a civilian, and having decided that Great Falls is a good place to raise his family, Bev Parsons is struggling to find a job that will allow him to do that.  To young Dell, nothing is more important than the fast-approaching start of his freshman year in the town’s public high school.  Up to now, the twins have been encouraged not to develop ties to the places they pass through with the Air Force, so Dell is eager to transform Great Falls into the hometown he has never known.
But when Dell’s parents are arrested for a North Dakota bank robbery, his hopes of finally settling down and making long term friends are destroyed before he can even set foot in his new school.  Dell and Berner are surprised to find themselves, at least temporarily, forgotten by the legal system that has both their parents locked tight in the city jail.  After Berner, the worldly twin, strikes out on her own, his mother’s only friend agrees to deliver Dell to her brother in the remote prairies of Saskatchewan in order to keep him from falling into the hands of Montana juvenile authorities.
Richard Ford
There, still a very naïve child at fifteen, Dell falls under the control and influence of two men who will further destroy his sense of who he is.  Charlie Quarters, the Leonard Hotel’s strange, half-breed hunting guide into whose charge Dell is delivered, will use him as an extra pair of hands.  Arthur Remlinger, an American hiding out in Canada for reasons of his own, is the hotel’s owner.  Unfortunately for Dell, Remlinger, a sociopath of sorts, will never be the father figure he needs so badly, and will, instead, almost finish the job of destroying his life.
Canada is a character-driven novel with the plot of a crime thriller, a literary novel that will keep the reader turning pages.  Throughout his narrative, Dell Parsons gives intriguing little hints that all is not as it seems and that he should have figured things out sooner than he did.  Ford’s characters are so well developed that even their most bizarre actions are believable in the context of who the reader knows them to be.  With perhaps one exception (Charlie Quarters), there are no black and white characters in Canada.  Each has a distinct set of strengths, weaknesses, and motivations that allows them to be sucked into whatever happens around them.
Canada is about borders – literal ones and symbolic ones – and what they really mean.  The lesson for Dell Parsons is that once some borders are crossed, they are crossed forever.  There is no going back.

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Blue Nights

Despite the incredible odds against a writer needing to produce a memoir describing a second round of personal grief so soon after releasing one focused on the death of a spouse, Joan Didion has done exactly that.  In that sense, Blue Nights is almost a sequel to The Year of Magical Thinking in which Didion detailed the emotional trauma associated with the unexpected death of husband John Gregory Dunn, a loss from which she barely recovered.  But, as it always does, life goes on – even when it leads to the death of one’s only child, as it did for Joan Didion less than two years after she lost her husband.
Because Quintana Roo was already dangerously ill at the time of her father’s death, the two books overlap in ways that will be illuminating to readers already familiar with The Year of Magical Thinking.  Although the first book primarily focused on the relationship between Dunn and Didion, the couple’s adoption and assimilation into their lives of the baby they named Quintana Roo is an important part of their story.  With Blue Nights, the focus shifts more, but not entirely, to the life they shared with their new daughter. 
John Gregory Dunn and Joan Didion traveled in exclusive Hollywood circles for much of their lives.  They lived the good life, a lifestyle that sometimes placed them and their daughter on the sets of major motion pictures and in the after-hours company of the Hollywood elite of the day.  The two were good at what they did and they were rewarded well for their efforts.  Little Quintana (who would, as an adult, meet her biological family) held her own in that world despite some early signs that she might not be as stable as she appeared.
Joan Didion
For instance, the little girl was obsessed with the scary “Broken Man” who threatened her in her dreams, a man she was able to describe to her mother in colorful and complete detail.  At five, she would inform her parents that, while they were out, she had called a mental institution to ask what to do if she went crazy.  But in the context of their world, this behavior only seems unusual to Didion in retrospect – as she questions whether she might have done a better job raising her daughter.  Blue Nights is actually more about Didion’s reaction to the loss of the two people closest to her than it is about her daughter’s life, a focus that leads directly to what is perhaps the most brutally honest portion of the memoir. 
Joan Didion, in her late seventies when she wrote this memoir, is also grieving the loss of one life skill after another as she approaches eighty years of age.  She is horrified by an incident that left her dazed and bleeding from a fall she cannot recall to this day. She describes the devastating onset of shingles from which she still sometimes suffers.  She rages against her increasing frailty, especially the decreasing sense of balance that makes her so vulnerable to bone-breaking falls.  She is saddened by the realization that she will never wear her favorite dresses or high heel shoes again.  She fears that her writing skill, the very talent that defines who she is to herself, is deteriorating. 
Worst of all, she understands that she is on her own – and will have to experience old age without either of the two people she loved most in the world around to help her through it.

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The Chemistry of Tears

Already twice a winner of the prestigious Booker Prize, Peter Carey now offers his readers The Chemistry of Tears, a complexly constructed study of grief and self-identity set in contemporary London.  Despite its modern-day setting (2010), however, the novel can also legitimately be called historical fiction as much of its story is lifted directly from the pages of a nineteenth century Englishman’s personal diary.
Catherine Gehrig is a conservator at the Swinburne Museum whose thirteen-year affair with a married colleague is still a mostly well-kept secret.  As far as she knows, no one at the museum suspects that she and Matthew Tindall, one of the museum’s head curators, have a relationship of that sort.  Their secret is so successfully kept, in fact, that when Matthew dies suddenly, Catherine is among the last of the museum employees to get the news.  Now, her whole world in turmoil, she must pretend that she has not been emotionally crippled by her devastating grief.
Fortunately for Catherine, her boss – the one man who now seems to have been aware of the affair – places her on immediate sick leave before transferring her to a more isolated museum annex to work on the unusual project he has chosen for her.  There Catherine finds eight boxes filled with the diagrams and mechanical parts needed to restore and assemble what appears to be a160-year-old duck automation.  It is when she discovers a series of notebooks relating to the origin of the automation that Catherine becomes obsessed with her new assignment.
Carey will, from this point, alternate accounts of Catherine’s life with pages taken from the notebooks of Henry Brandling, the Englishman who originally commissioned the amazing automation she is working to reconstruct.  Brandling, a man completely devoted to his sickly young son, hopes that the boy will be so taken with the mechanical duck that he will somehow find the will to conquer the disease that is slowly killing him.  Brandling’s willingness to do whatever it takes to keep his son alive brings him to a tiny German village where he falls into the hands of a strange clockmaker who will drive him closer and closer to despair.
Peter Carey
The Chemistry of Tearstackles complex human emotions, emotions that probably have to be personally experienced for one to comprehend their full impact on the human psyche.  Catherine’s entire identity, the person she believed herself to be, was defined by her affair with Matthew Tindall.  When Matthew died, the old Catherine Gehrig died with him, and now she is working just as hard to reconstruct a self-identity for herself as she is on rebuilding the antique mechanical duck.  Whether or not she can succeed with either project is the question.
The Chemistry of Tearsis a moving novel, one that will especially speak to those readers who have suffered a level of grief similar to Catherine’s.  While it is not a long novel, it does suffer a bit from an overabundance of mysterious side plots pertaining to the tribulations suffered by the automation’s original owner.  Readers, however, should not be overly discouraged by this because The Chemistry of Tears is well worth the effort required – and each of the side plots contributes to the book’s atmosphere or depth of the Henry Brandling character.

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The Solitary House

This second of Lynn Shepherd’s “literary murders,” The Solitary House, makes good use of several characters readers will remember from Dickens’s Bleak House. Playing prominent roles here are the despicable lawyer, Edward Tulkinghorn, the reliable Inspector Bucket, and a character closely resembling Esther (called Hester this time around). That the novel is written in the style of classic English novels of the period is probably what first will attract most readers to it, but The Solitary House is also a very fine mystery – one with an ending reminiscent of Dennis Lehane’s Sutter Island.

The novel’s central character, Charles Maddox, was a Metropolitan police officer before he was dismissed for insubordination. Now he is determined to earn his living as a self-employed detective – or as he sometimes calls himself and his famous detective uncle, a “thief taker.” Maddox, a man of great curiosity and varied interests, is a natural at the business of detecting, but he is still struggling to build a reputation of his own. For that reason, he is both surprised and flattered when Mr. Tulkinghorn, one of the most powerful lawyers in London approaches him about a job.

Lynn Shepherd

Someone is sending threatening letters to a wealthy London banker, and Tulkinghorn wants Maddox to identify and stop the culprit before any harm comes to his client. Tulkinghorn’s request seems to be so straightforward that Maddox eagerly accepts the charge despite not having completed his current case, the search for a young woman being sought by the father she has never met. Maddox decides he will work the two cases simultaneously, and he does – until things take a nasty turn that begins him wondering if the two cases are somehow connected. When some of his sources begin to suffer horrible deaths at the hands of a psychotic killer, Maddox realizes that his life – and those of everyone closest to him – are in jeopardy.

Readers of Dickens will feel right at home in the London so meticulously recreated here by Shepherd. But the real core of her story is the relationship between young Charles Maddox and his great uncle, the man to whom Charles turns for advice and insight as his investigation progresses. The old man, one of the pioneering detectives of his day, seems to be suffering from some type of senile dementia and is confined to his home. It is painful (particularly for those readers who have watched their own loved ones go through a similar process, I suspect) to watch the old man struggle with the awareness of what is happening to him. He is still capable of moments of brilliant insight, but is just as likely to lapse into periods of rage and paranoia. Through it all, and despite his own battles, Charles is by his side as they solve the mystery of The Solitary House together. This one is fun.

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Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power

Steve Coll’s massive volume (28 chapters, 684 pages, plus an extensive list of footnotes) on the history of ExxonMobil focuses primarily on the company’s last two decades.  That the decades are bookended by two the worst oil spill disasters in the history of the oil industry is no accident.  Coll is likely trying to make the point that oil companies learned little from the horror that was the 1989 Alaskan spill by the Exxon Valdez tanker.  Perhaps inadvertently, he also highlights just how complicated and dangerous is the business of exploring and transporting the energy that world economies will depend upon for several decades to come.  The odds are that we have not seen the last of such spills.   
John D. Rockerfeller’s Standard Oil Company became so dominant that dedicated “trust busters” and the U.S. Supreme Court, split it into several individual oil companies in 1911.  But as happened when AT&T broke apart several decades later, some of the pieces would decide it was smarter to recombine into mini-versions of the original parent company.  ExxonMobil, a combination of two companies split from the original Standard Oil all those years ago, is now the largest oil company in the world.
What makes Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power so intriguing is the author’s focus on the political and economic influence ExxonMobil exerts around the world.  The company’s revenues are, in fact, large enough to rank it the twenty-first largest “nation state” on the planet.  ExxonMobil’s ability to come into remote areas and create revenue streams to whatever government they find there makes it more powerful and influential in parts of the world than the U.S. government (or any other government, for that matter) can claim to be.  Lee Raymond, the man in charge for most of the period detailed in Private Empire, knew that he and his company would be around for the long haul – long after many government leaders, especially American presidents, had come and gone.  As Raymond watched the rotation of American presidents  – and spent ExxonMobil’s money to help those he favored remain in office as long as possible – he knew he could safely put the interests of ExxonMobil first, and those of the United States a distant second.  And there was little anyone could do about it even if they wanted to.
Steve Coll
Critics of Big Oil, especially those who criticize the industry because of its unwillingness to embrace fully the concept of global warming, will read much in the book that will anger them.  Lee Raymond was a nonbeliever, and he did everything in his power to delay any environmental action that would negatively impact ExxonMobil’s ability to do business as usual (as Coll points out, the company stance has changed since Raymond was succeeded by Rex Tillerson).  Raymond, on the other hand, did build, and rigidly enforce, a culture of safety that made oil spills and other environmental accidents as unlikely as they could possibly be.  The man understood the power of public opinion and he tried to keep it on his side.
It is impossible even to touch on all the issues contained in Private Empire.  There are whole chapters on ExxonMobil’s struggles with security problems around the world and how the efforts to keep employees and company assets secure often required the company’s close cooperation with some of the most brutal dictators in world history.  Other chapters look at the ultimate impact of all the cash the company poured into third world countries, particularly in Africa and the Middle East – what has become known as the “resource curse.”  Strikingly, when poor countries suddenly strike it rich in natural resources they often move backward rather than ahead, something akin to what happens to so many unprepared lottery winners.  ExxonMobil has seen this happen, first hand, more than once.
Readers willing to tackle Private Empire will be rewarded for their efforts.  As a forty-year veteran of the industry (with some of those years spent in third world countries), I was skeptical that ExxonMobil would get a fair shake in a book like this one.  Having now read it, I believe Private Empire to be as evenhanded as one could hope – and worthy of the attention it is getting.

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