America: Our founders, ourselves

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

AMERICAN DIALOGUE: The Founders and Us. By Joseph J. Ellis. Random House Audio. Read by Arthur Morey. 8 ½ hours; 7 CDs. $40. Also available in print from Knopf. 283 pages. $27.95.

I started listening to this book before the recent mid-term election, hoping for some antidote to my growing pessimism amid the negative ads, outrageous tweets and depressing news. Sometimes, reading American history is comforting, in that it reminds me that our country has survived dark times and fallen short of our ideals in the past.

To that end, this new book from the noted historian Joseph Ellis did provide some comfort and hope that this great experiment we call the United States will manage to survive the present dark times with its best ideals intact. But Ellis does not sugarcoat reality, and it’s also clear that at this moment, rational dialogue like that among the Founding Fathers is sorely lacking.

What Ellis is doing in this book, in a way, is to encourage 21stcentury Americans to have a thoughtful dialogue with our past – on “ongoing conversation between past and present” in which we consider what the debates and decisions of the founding era mean for our time.

He looks at how four key founders dealt with key issues: Washington and foreign policy, Jefferson and racism, Madison and constitutional law, and John Adams and economic inequality. Then he considers how these issues inform our problems and politics today, as we struggle to fulfill our role as a superpower, deal with an increasingly diverse but still racist society, argue over “originalism” and live in what he calls a new Gilded Age with extreme economic inequality.

As he has in earlier books, Ellis makes clear the shortcomings of the founders as well as their astonishingly great achievements.

He recognizes the remarkable, trailblazing accomplishments such as the separation of church and state and the Constitution’s checks and balances that avoided too much centralization of power. But he also analyzes the great failures – the treatment of the Native Americans and the inability or unwillingness to deal with the institution of slavery.

One of Ellis’ themes is that the Founders were not some sort of gods or infallible wise men. They were humans, with human flaws and shortcomings, and they were also a mix of idealism and pragmatism as they dealt with lofty values and contemporary realities.

Perhaps the greatest – and most dangerous – difference Ellis sees between the age of the founders and the current climate is today’s apparent inability to have reasoned dialogue. Instead, we have polarization, extremes, exaggerations and lies, refusals to listen to the other side, tweets and “arguments” that go nowhere and change no minds or hearts.

Most of the book is about the “then,” but Ellis also deals with the now. He minces no words as he talks about the Koch brothers, Robert Bork and Justice Antonin Scalia, the National Rifle Association and the distortions in the New Right’s arguments about such issues as the Second Amendment and the proper role of the federal government.

Donald Trump, he writes, represents the danger that always lurks in “political frameworks based on popular opinion” – they are vulnerable to “charismatic charlatans with a knack for exploiting popular fears.”  The “controversial” Trump presidency represents “the demagogic downside of democracy,” he writes.

Ellis offers, perhaps, some hope as he notes that “Much like meteors streaking across the horizon, demagogues tend to enjoy only limited life-spans, so the Trump presidency is likely to resemble the proverbial blip on the historical radar screen.”

But he goes on to observe, soberingly, that “the very fact that a person with Trump’s obvious mental, emotional, and moral limitations could be chosen to lead the free world casts a dark shadow of doubt over the credibility and reliability of the United States as the first democratic superpower.”

Not for Ellis the kind of patriotism that romanticizes and idealizes our past or our leaders. But he offers a truer kind of love for country as he helps us think clearly about the remarkable humans, circumstances and ideals that gave us the United States we have today – and about what we can gain from informed debates about our shared history and what it means today. The founders’ “greatest legacy,” he ventures, “is the recognition that argument itself is the answer.”

I listened to the audio version of Ellis’ book, ably read by Arthur Morey, because I feared I would not take the time to sit down and read the book myself. For a book with so much history, insight and thought-provoking analysis, it was remarkably easy to follow. I am able to offer direct quotations because I was also fortunate enough to have a print version, and that includes a valuable index and Notes section.

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Crime, life and most of all, books

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE MAN WHO CAME UPTOWN. By George Pelecanos. Little, Brown. 263 pages. $27.

Have you read the collection of Appalachian short stories Kentucky Straight?  How about westerns by Elmore Leonard, or The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien?  Michael Hudson has. In fact, he has read everything Anna the prison librarian has suggested. Incarcerated while awaiting trial, he’s developed a bad reading habit. To him, a book becomes “… like a piece of art … It made him see what he was reading. It was how he dreamed.”  When Michael leaves jail, he takes his habit with him, into a new life free of crime.

Maybe. He’s free because a private detective named Phil Ornazian used a little extra-legal leverage to get Michael’s victim to drop the charges. He needs Michael’s skills as a “wheelman” for some over-the-legal-line activities he’s slipped into. He uses blackmail to get Michael behind the wheel of a car. Michael struggles, but picks up a job, and a lot of books. Tension builds between Phil and Michael.

Then Michael bumps into Anna in the bar where he’s settled in as a staff member. Their bond carries over, and they meet a few times. Michael keeps up his reading habit, and Phil keeps involving Michael in his habit.

Will Anna stay with her husband even though “Her heart wanted many different things”?  Will Phil’s frenzy catch up to him?  Will Michael be pulled into a life of crime he desperately wants to leave behind?

Although George Pelecanos applies all his skills here, with sharp dialogue, and the evocative D.C. setting he’s known for, this book is actually about — books. Throughout, Anna — Pelecanos, duh — recommends books to prisoners, Michael keeps reading books she recommends, books that resonate with life and crime, a life of crime, and a life in crime. We get insight into the writing that the author values and honors. The greatest honor is paid to the master pulp writer John D. MacDonald. In her comments about The Deep Blue Good-Byeto her prison reading group,  “Anna had argued that (the book) was … about the complex nature of masculinity and the cost of retribution.”

So is this  book. After you finish it, go back and read the MacDonald. Two great books. Two great writers.


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A North Carolina marvel

Bob Moyer has visited my territory, reviewing a new novel set in coastal North Carolina. I’m glad he did. I’m eager to read this one myself. Now if we could just get Bob to come visit these marshes in person…

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING. By Delia Owens. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 384 pages.

Delia Owens did not write a North Carolina novel; she created a North Carolina marvel. She has dovetailed into a single book a coming of age novel, superb nature writing, a love story, a survival tale, a murder mystery and a courtroom drama, all set in the coastal marsh of North Carolina.

Out yonder, where ships crash “like paper hats,” an abusive man, damaged by World War II, moves his family into a ramshackle cabin. One by one, the family escapes, leaving the youngest child, Kya, alone with him. She survives “…like a minnow. Just keep out of the way, don’t let him see you, dart from sunspots to shadows.”  When Kya is only 10, he disappears as well, leaving her where the crawdads sing, “…far in the bush where critters are wild, still behaving like critters.”  Avoiding authorities “like a minnow,” she learns “…wonders and real-life knowledge she would’ve never learned in school— “The marsh became her mother.”

Into this world enters a boy, Tate, who encounters her just as her body shows “…inklings and foothills of womanhood.”  He provides her companionship she has never known, and the ability to read. During the time they spend together, her reading articulates what she carries in her blood and bones — the forces behind the deceptive flicker of fireflies that devour their own, the disguises that inferior males take on to prey on females and how a mother can leave her children.

Tate leaves her as well, but she has more than knowledge from her reading as solace — she has poetry to manifest her solitude. Quotes from Emily Dickinson, Galway Kinnell, and a woman named Amanda Hamilton punctuate the text. “I didn’t know a sentence could be so full,” she gasps when she first reads a poem. Indeed, the same can be said of the author’s writing. She fills the pages with lyrical phrasing:  “Death’s crude pluck, as always, stealing the show; “He whispered his hands against her inner thighs;” “I know feathers,” Kya says to Tate.

At the center of the book lies a murder that colors the narrative as it moves back and forth from the investigation and Kya’s backstory. Colors, informs, but does not distract — it is only a piece of the questions Kya encounters in her exploration of how “Some parts of us will always be what we were, what we had to be to survive way back yonder.”  The culminating courtroom drama develops with exceptional tension, leading a character to burst out when the verdict arrives: “Would somebody read it to us!”

What happens in the conclusion may not surprise you, but how it happens will. Most likely, it will send you back to re-read sections of the book, to savor in a new light what already was remarkable. Where The Crawdads Sing is a fine place to visit, and then reflect.

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Hope for our times

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

ALMOST EVERYTHING: Notes on Hope. By Anne Lamott. Read by the author. Penguin Audio. 3½ hours; 3 CDs. $34.

This little book from Anne Lamott is great medicine when things seem bleak and life is getting you down.

I popped the audio version into my car’s CD player one day not long ago when the news was full of horrible, hate-inspired violence and the airwaves were bristling with alarmist political ads. OK, Anne Lamott, I thought: See if you can give me any reason to hope.

She did.

I had never read anything by Lamott, who is a novelist as well the author of books that might be called spiritual or inspirational. My sister had talked about liking her books, but I didn’t really know much about her.

I’m also wary of self-help, shallow popular religion and feel-good pep talks.

I need not have worried. For the many people who are already fans of Anne Lamott, I’ll just point out that this brief book, written for the era of Trump in America, is here, offering a much-needed dose of what Lamott has to offer.

For others who might have missed her, I’ll say this book will not only cheer you, it will also make you want to go find some of her earlier works.

Anne Lamott recorded the audio version herself, so listening to it is a lot like having an enjoyable conversation with a friend – a lively, irreverent, funny friend who seems to have many of the same anxieties, insecurities and doubts that I do, but who finds reasons to keep going – with a zest for life – nonetheless.

Like a lunchtime conversation, this book jumps from subject to subject and doesn’t deal with any of them in great depth. You leave the table feeling much better, but it’s hard to pinpoint any one, profound thing she said that made a difference.

Lamott says she set out to write down all that she’s learned that’s worth passing on to her grandson.

One thing she’s obviously learned is that “hurt, loss and disaster” are common in life.  Definitely no holier-than-thou Christian, she speaks frankly and often with wry humor about her own troubled past and shortcomings. But a believing, churchgoing Christian she is, even if a left-wing, latter-day hippie who recognizes that not everyone’s idea of God – or whatever supreme force there might be – is the same.

In her very personal, honest, peripatetic musings, she touches on all sorts of topics: body image and eating disorders; family dynamics, birth order and the ways we never outgrow our childhood selves; the futility of trying to “fix” other people…. The anxieties she was grappling with as she wrote included a devastating fire in California, where she lives, and her fear each morning that she would learn upon waking that the U.S. had bombed North Korea.

“All truth really is paradox,” she writes. Her stories show us that life is full of change, so when things seem bleak, that’s all the more reason to keep going. She also reminds us that there are nuggets of hope and happiness even when things are bad. Acknowledging  that much in life is  hard, she offers not the brand of faith that promises if you just pray enough, everything will go your way, but the faith that says life is worth living despite very real problems and disappointments. She finds joy in teaching the diverse children in her Sunday school class and in visiting the church garden with an elderly friend.

When I finished Almost Everything, I found myself not only more hopeful but also wishing I could visit with Lamott again in a week or so. I’ll have to look for some of her earlier books. Meanwhile, remembering her stories about how doing something nice for someone is good for the soul, I ordered a copy of this new book to be delivered to the sister who’s been telling me about Anne Lamott for years.

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Spenser: The magic continues

Bob Moyer takes a look at the latest Spenser novel and finds it worthy of the tradition.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

ROBERT B. PARKER’S OLD BLACK MAGIC (SPENSER). By Ace Atkins. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 336 pages. $27.

Spenser, the singularly named Boston P.I., shares both a name and a proclivity for poetic expression with the 16th century poet, first name Edmund.  Spenser’s been quoting and quipping ever since he replied to a beefy guy’s threats in The Godswulf Manuscript, “Be still my heart.”

In this latest book, when a gangster’s lawyer tells him he has to meet the boss in a particular place, Spenser replies, “I’m so excited.  I just don’t know what to wear.” The caustic comments have been consistent through 47 books.  What hasn’t been consistent is the author – Robert B. Parker wrote the first one, Ace Atkins the last one.  Atkins was anointed by the Parker estate to keep the franchise going upon Parker’s demise, and he’s done a remarkable job. Spenser still keeps in topnotch shape at his favorite gym, and stops just shy of being bulletproof.  He continues to prowl renowned Beantown dining spots, and he cooks the occasional gourmet meal for his main squeeze, Susan.  The two of them, as always, steam up the pages, but all the sex, keeping with tradition, happens between chapters.  Best of all, Atkins and Parker both belong to the Elmore Leonard Don’t-Write-the-Words-People-Don’t-Read School of Writing.  A Spenser novel sails right along.

In Old Black Magic, Parker is approached by a respected detective at death’s door.  Twenty years ago, an El Greco painting was stolen from the Winthrop Museum, a fictional museum modeled after Boston’s Gardiner Museum, where a similar heist took place.  It appears the painting has resurfaced.  As a favor, Spenser, who considers a Kane’s donut from nearby Saugus a work of art, takes the case.  He moves into the milieu of art world highlifes and underworld lowlifes searching for the painting.  Just when he thinks he’s located it, it disappears. Spenser spends the rest of the story playing a game of Mafia musical chairs, assisted by new crony Vinnie, a good bad guy.  With his help Spenser takes on the bad bad guys, cracking wise and skulls while quoting Shakespeare along the way.

It’s the Shakespeare quotes that mark Atkins’ mastery. They come with the same reflexive skill as the quips, throwing light from another time and temperament upon the mortal coil Spenser moves in.  No one, particularly Spenser, comments upon his penchant — except Susan.  And she nails it when she points out that no other detective quotes the Bard with such abandon.  It’s one of the things that appeal to her.

And to us, after all these years.  Cry havoc, and unleash the next book!


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Murders and miracles

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

HOLY GHOST. By John Sandford. Penguin Audio. 10 hours; 8 CDs. Read by Eric Conger. $40. Also available in print from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Virgil Flowers from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is back in one of his best novels yet.

The setting is Wheatfield, Minn., a tiny, middle-of-nowhere town that’s withering away. But then a precocious (in more ways than one) teenage boy and the town’s mayor (nobody else wants the job) come up with a plan to put Wheatfield on the map and turn it into a lucrative tourist mecca.

When an apparition of the Virgin Mary appears at the local Catholic church, with the apparition caught on more than one cellphone, guaranteeing instant fame on social media, things begin to look up.

The town folk, including the teenage genius and the mayor, are raking in money from the excited pilgrims who trek to Wheatfield. Things are great, right?

But then the shootings start… At first, people from out of town waiting for the evening church service are shot, but not fatally, apparently at random. Virgil is called in, but he’s having trouble even figuring out where the shots are coming from. Then the shooter gets more accurate, and a loved and respected local widow is killed.

As the situation worsens, Virgil faces a truly puzzling challenge. In a town with many hunters, where more people than not are pretty good with a gun, it’s hard to narrow down the suspects. And what could be the motive? Maybe it’s just a crazy person with no motive, but Virgil doesn’t really think so.

Sandford’s Virgil Flowers series is thoroughly enjoyable. The books are police procedurals that are heavy on the mystery and the thought processes. Sure, there’s danger at times – in this book, one of Virgil’s associates gets hit by a hunting arrow – but this is not the sort of crime novel with some violent every few pages.

Virgil is thoroughly likable, if a little quirky. He does what he needs to, but he’s no super hero. The settings, in Minnesota’s small towns, farms and wild areas, are interesting, and Wheatfield has a full complement of characters with eccentricities – and secrets that just might add up to a motive.

But  when Virgil thinks he might have things figured out, he begins to worry that the murderer might just get away with it.

The audio version, read by Eric Conger, who’s a veteran with Sanford’s books, is a delight. No doubt the print version is equally enjoyable.


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Richard Russo, times two

I don’t know when Bob Moyer finds time to read and  review books when he’s always traveling, playing pétanque and writing haiku, but I’m glad he does.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE DESTINY THIEF:  Essays on Writing, Writers and Life. By Richard Russo. Knopf. 194 pages.

Two for one.

That’s what you get in this collection of essays: two Richard Russos.

The first Richard Russo is the one most people know and love, the critically and commercially successful writer of Empire Falls and Nobody’s Fool. He’s an entertaining guy who openly professes “It’s life’s comedy I feel most compelled to share.”  His material this time is his own life, as he mines it for some smiles and a couple of guffaws. He was not the best writer in his MFA program, and he resisted as long as he could his material — small-town, upstate New York, where he came from.

While sharing some of the stuff he thinks is humorous, he even uses a line from a well-known movie to make his point, and make us laugh (no spoiler here!). He’s a parent, and he gives the commencement address at his daughter’s college, where he reads out RUSSO’S RULES OF LIFE. #3: “Have children. After what you’ve put your parents through, you deserve children of your own.”  He gives us a down-to-earth perspective on his career by explaining how, as he earned more money through his writing, he moved from writing in the basement to a room on the second floor, with a view.

It’s in this room where we meet the second Richard Russo, the astute commentator on art and writing. He moves us into this room, as he moves us into his past, to let us see what he sees. The window overlooks a tombstone leaning against a tree, an object that came with the house. One day, as the upstairs bathroom is being redone, a commode appears next to the tombstone. And he does what a writer should do —he pauses to look at it, and then shows us why that’s funny.

In another lengthy essay, he uses his grandfather’s involvement with the glove makers’ guild back in upstate New York, and then with the unions, to help him illustrate his own experience as a successful writer. Also a member of both a guild and a union, he illuminates the difference between art and craft, which he then extends to a contrast between print writers and e-writers who print only digitally. His arguments are at once well crafted — and artful.

He includes two essays calling our attention to the finer points of Dickens and Mark Twain, in case we missed them, and a lengthy piece extolling the virtues of “omniscience” in narration. This is the barefaced second Richard Russo, and if you came to the book expecting just the first one, you may find this a bit of a slog. But if you just like Richard Russo, period, you will enjoy every minute of this small volume.


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The American dream – or nightmare?

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

LAKE SUCCESS. By Gary Shteyngart. Random House Audio. 13 ½ hours; 11 CDs. Read by Arthur Morey and Soneela Nankani. $40. Also available in print from Random House.

Barry Cohen is a hedge-fund manager who oversees $2.4 billion in assets and lives the pampered, extravagant life of the .01 percent in a posh Manhattan apartment with his wife, Seema, and their young son.

He’s also a narcissistic, clueless social cripple who has to devise and rehearse “friend moves” to be able to interact with other people. Lately, things in what appears to be his charmed existence haven’t been going so well. He can’t deal with his son’s diagnosis of being on the severe end of the autism spectrum. “Troubled” is too mild a word for his relationship with his wife, Seema. His fund is bleeding money, and the SEC investigation he’s facing could land him in prison.

So, after a particularly confrontational scene with his son, wife and their nanny, Barry flees, on a Greyhound bus. He plans to see America and re-connect with his college sweetheart, despite the fact that he has not been in touch with her for years and really knows very little about her. But then, he knows little about anyone, including himself.

Seema is a first-generation American who, by all appearances, has it made: She has a law degree, even though she doesn’t use it because she’s a hedge-fund wife with millions of dollars at her fingertips. She’s also stressed about their son’s diagnosis and his prospects, but she deals with her worries in a very different way than Barry does. And she’s bored, lonely and wondering about what her life has become. When Barry vanishes, she doesn’t much care.

Gary Shteyngart, who immigrated with his Russian Jewish family to the United States as a child, is known for his satirical novels. Lake Success is largely satirical, and it’s funny, even comic, in places. But it’s also poignant and almost heartbreaking at times.

In writing about Barry’s Greyhound trek across the United States, Shteyngart has rich material for satirizing not only the life of a woefully out-of-touch billionaire mogul of finance but also the very idea of the road trip, which has become so iconic in American literature.

Barry’s “friend moves” tend not to work so well with the people he encounters on the bus, but he revels in the whole idea nonetheless. More often than not, the people he envisions himself helping do more to help him. And the ideas he dreams up for helping, say, poor inner-city kids, or the young black woman from Jackson, Miss., with whom he has a one-night stand, are absurd. Yet the  largely disastrous trip becomes his most cherished memory and oft-told tale.

Seema, meanwhile, is dealing with her own problems in a not particularly successful way. She’s done what she was supposed to do in life, but it hasn’t worked out as promised.

The backdrop to all this is the 2016 election, the perfect mirror for Barry’s excesses and moral confusion.

Barry, whose first step on the success ladder was to go to Princeton, loves the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald; he calls his hedge fund This Side of Capital. Part of Shteyngart’s genius is to make Barry self-consciously aware of parallels with literature as he sees himself having achieved the American Dream and embarking on a cross-country adventure to find his better self.

One of the ironies of the story is that in many ways, Barry’s autistic son becomes more empathetic and better able to deal with social interaction than Barry is.

This is a tale for our times, a sometimes funny, often sad, always insightful look at what America really is.

The audio version, read by Arthur Morey when told from Barry’s point of view and Soneela Nankani for Seema’s, works well. The narrators give us the story straight and let the satire do its job.



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Dancing to a different beat

I love most of Anne Tyler’s novels, but Bob Moyer thinks her books appeal to the bourgeoisie. He even singles me, his editor, out as part of that bourgeois fan club.

My response would be, so what? I like Anne Tyler’s writing because yes, she writes about ordinary people, and in the end, there may not be a huge surprise, but there are so many small surprises along the way. She shows us that ordinary people are not really so ordinary, or perhaps a better way to say it is that each ordinary person is full of his other own flaws, quirks and eccentricities. Tyler is particularly good at conveying those eccentricities, with humor and sometimes pathos.

Bob is right that most of the men in Tyler’s latest novel are not particularly sympathetic, but that’s certainly not the case in all her books.

At any rate, below is Bob’s review of Clock Dance.

And, for contrast, here’s a link to my review that ran in the Greensboro News & Record.

Read the book and see what you think.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

CLOCK DANCE. By Anne Tyler. Knopf. 292 pages. $26.95.

It’s not hard to understand why Anne Tyler’s books are so popular. Her writing reads effortlessly, which suggests she puts a lot of effort into making it that way. She also writes with great empathy and detail about ordinary people doing ordinary things, and that’s extraordinary

Clock Dance stands up as an excellent example of her work. Willa Drake leads a life common for women in the mid 20th century, quitting college to get married and have a family, giving up the possibility of being the linguist she showed talent for. She does finish the degree, but ends up teaching public school. She loses one husband but picks up another one much like the other one. Like a gifted child, she knows what everyone – except herself – wants, and she gives it to them.

Until the phone rings one day. It’s a desperate neighbor of her son’s ex-girlfriend, calling because the girlfriend has been shot, and the woman can’t care for the daughter, she found this number on the wall, could Willa come help?  On a whim, she does.

That puts Willa on a plane to Baltimore, familiar Tyler territory, and on a path to what the book jacket describes as “self-discovery.”  Tyler drops her into a familiar cast of characters, both vivid, endearing, and so recognizable—the gangly kid down the street in the stocking cap, the retired doctor who still sees patients at home but keeps losing his cat, the precocious daughter who mothers her mother more than her mother mothers her. There’s nothing not to appreciate, if not like, about the neighborhood. The only characters not sympathetic here are the males, who fit the definition of straw men if ever there were any in a novel. Not perversely patriarchal, they nevertheless represent the forces that have dominated Willa’s life. Therefore, it is no surprise when Willa’s “self-discovery” leads to a change in her life, as she decides to dance through the hours, not move quietly through them.

That lack of suspense brings up an argument sometimes put forth about Tyler’s work — it’s good, not great. The focus on the ordinary leaves her open to the pedestrian argument, and, indeed, she gives her bourgeois audience what they want. As Jean-Paul Sartre said about the French bourgeois theater, the bourgeoisie pays to see themselves on the stage. As described before, she does that well, and the bourgeoisie (including my editor) loves Tyler. Unfortunately, Sartre’s other lament about the bourgeois theater applies here—it’s like watching an arrow hit a target you know it was headed for all the while.

Although Willa changes, it’s not a surprise, or transformation. If that is not a requirement in your reading, Clock Dance should satisfy you. No one writes an Anne Tyler novel better than Anne Tyler. Only time will tell if her work endures.



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Saving the world, once again

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

SHADOW TYRANTS. By Clive Cussler and Boyd Morrison. Penguin Audio. Read by Scott Brick. 11 hours; 9 CDs. $45. Also available in print from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

This latest in the Oregon Files books by Clive Cussler and Boyd Morrison offers, in addition to the usual action and drama, food for thought: Are computers – and especially artificial intelligence – good or bad for humankind?

As fans of this Cussler series (one of many) know, Juan Cabrillo and the rest of his secret “Corporation” roam the seas on the Oregon, a high-tech research ship disguised as a decrepit tramp freighter, ready to help the U.S. government  when the government can’t officially get involved in some tricky situation.

Things get interesting and dangerous quickly when the Corporation gets in the middle of a struggle between two factions of the Nine Unknown Men, a powerful, secretive group dating back nearly 2,000 years to an emperor in India who came to see the error of his ruthless ways.

To keep any one person from becoming too powerful, the emperor divided essential knowledge among nine men.

Through the generations, these men and their chosen descendants have passed on those secrets, and they have gathered from time to time for meetings. The descendants of the nine have become wealthy and powerful, each using his special knowledge to build an empire in some related field.

Just as the majority of them are joining forces in a way that goes against all the intentions of the ancient emperor, at least one of them is bent on making sure their plans don’t come to fruition.

Unfortunately, both factions turn  out to have ideas that the Corporation believes could be devastating for the fate of the world. Would it be worse to have a supercomputer powerful enough to take over the world, or worse to have satellites that can wipe out technology as we know it?

With teams heading out in various directions, the Corporation’s members find themselves in a variety of perilous situations as they try to save the world.

Scott Brick does his usual outstanding job of reading the fast-paced book, keeping the suspense strong in a matter-of-fact sort of way.

And as usual, Clive Cussler and company deliver a well-crafted, imaginative, entertaining story.


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