April 28, 2012

Book review: “The Berlin Ending: A Novel of Discovery” by E. Howard Hunt

As spy novels go, “The Berlin Ending” by E. Howard Hunt, published 38 years ago, is okay. For readers looking for an addictive page-turner, it will probably be on the slow side. Hunt, who died in 2007, had actually been in the CIA and knew what he was talking about. But the verisimilitude that this brings to his story seems to make the book a bit clunky. For readers looking for literature along the lines of John LeCarre, this novel will be unsatisfying. Characters are flat. Motivations, weak. Descriptions, clichéd. “The Berlin Ending” is a competent work, even so. Yet, I didn’t read it so much for itself — although I enjoy a good spy yarn — but because Hunt was a key figure in the June 17, 1972 burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office building. It was the attempts of the Richard Nixon White House to cover up the administration’s connection to Hunt and the burglars that led to the ruination of Nixon and so many of the men around him. That amazing fall from national grace, a fit subject for a Shakespeare, was treated well if superficially in the recently published novel “Watergate” […]
April 8, 2012

Book review: Stories We Keep, edited by Dawn Curtis and Robin Bourjaily

“Stories We Keep” is a small book, only 64 pages. And it’s even shorter if you’re a reader like me who isn’t very hip to yoga or interested in recipes involving yams. Nonetheless, its five short stories are startlingly vivid evocations of the sharp shards of life. Let me explain. These stories are from five female writers who use a particular trademarked approach to yoga — Yoga as Muse — to expand their creative horizons. Hence, the Q&A at the end of each writer’s story concerning the interaction of the disciplines of yoga and writing. They call themselves the YAM Tribe. Hence, the recipes for yams that most of them add as well. All of which may set up expectations for New Age-ish narratives about crystals and Gaia. Not to worry. Jeffrey Davis, the originator of Yoga as Muse, writes in an introduction: This anthology contains no epiphanies. No ecstatic moments of the writer or a character becoming one with green leaves and mountain streams. No Rumi-esque songs of the Divine. What a relief. Moving toward truth Yoga, according to Davis, isn’t about ecstasy or epiphany. And neither is writing. Practicing yoga does not remove all maladies. Nor does writing […]
April 8, 2012

Book review: “Watergate” by Thomas Mallon

Well, Thomas Mallon’s “Watergate” is certainly a readable novel. It’s an amazement, really, that he’s been able to take the tottering heap of jagged historical events, involving scores of politicians and suchlike, and weave them into a narrative about the fall of Richard Nixon that flows smoothly, steadily, inexorably. That flow continues even as the end approaches. When I’d pick up the book, I’d find myself right back into the middle of the story. The thing is, as the conclusion neared, I wasn’t in a rush to pick it up. I knew — as any reader would know — where Nixon’s story was heading. It sort of sapped the suspense. Mallon works to keep the reader reading through the use of a couple subplots: What will happen between Pat Nixon and her fictional lover Tom Garahan? And what will Fred LaRue and his fictional lover Clarine “Larrie” Lander do about a missing envelope, marked with the handwritten word “MOOT” and containing an investigative report about the deepest question in LaRue’s life? Only three of the book’s 100-plus characters aren’t from the historical record — Garahan, Lander and Billy Pope, a senatorial aide who has a minor walk-on. Yet, in the […]
April 5, 2012

Book review: “Fatherland” by Robert Harris

Historical fiction is dangerous territory for a writer. It’s all too easy to make actual people, say, Abraham Lincoln or John Wilkes Booth, into stick figures, and actual events, say, Booth’s assassination of Lincoln, into just another thriller or romance novel. Consider “Killing Lincoln” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. A related genre is based on alternate history, the field of what-if. What if the South had won the Civil War? MacKinlay Kantor came up with a plausible and interesting take on that in 1960. This can be pushed to silly extremes. What if Nazi-like South Africans from this era had travelled back in time to supply Robert E. Lee’s troops with AK-47s? Too silly to find a publisher, you say? Not at all. In 1992, Ballantine published “The Guns of the South” by Harry Turtledove, telling just that story. “Fatherland,” published in the same year, provides a much more nuanced look at how history might have evolved if a few events had gone differently. Indeed, in Robert Harris’s hands, it’s a crackerjack of a novel that meets the needs of genre fiction, yet also teaches a lesson from the past, perhaps the most important lesson of the last century. […]
April 4, 2012

Who’s not on first?

The new baseball season is upon us, and hope springs eternal across the major leagues as 30 teams and more than 700 players vie for a chance at the World Series. But I have one question: How come all of those players are men? I mean, I don’t get it. A woman today can be a mayor, or a cop, or a firefighter, or a doctor, or a U.S. Supreme Court justice, or a construction worker, or a bus driver, or an astronaut, or an oil tanker captain. But she can’t play baseball in the Show. Back in 2008, Hillary Clinton ran so well for the Democratic nomination for president that she nearly nabbed it. But no woman is permitted to run the bases at Wrigley Field or Yankee Stadium. A woman takes the battlefield today to defend this nation as a soldier. But she can’t take the field at Fenway Park to defend against the bunt. Sixty-five years ago, on April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson played first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African-American major leaguer in baseball’s modern era and shattering a color barrier that had been a stain upon the sport since the late 19th […]