May 29, 2008

Muslim Women in America ***

*** Muslim Women in America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Jane I. Smith, Kathleen M. Moore, 2006

With the exception of The Holland Suggestions, everything I've read so far this year has been a three star book. That's unusual, but nice for me. Maybe I'm getting better at picking a book by its cover.

When I co-wrote Hell in a Briefcase with Phil Little, I had to do a lot of research on the Middle East, the Palestinian conflict, Arab culture and terrorism. A couple of years ago I had an idea for a new project that would use a lot of that research, but go in a different direction. This lead me to begin researching the experience of American Muslim women.

Muslim Women in America is the fourth of fifth book I've read on the subject, and one of the best. It's only 164 pages, but it's dense. You won't just breeze through this one. If this subject is of interest to you, this book is worth reading.

May 22, 2008

River Rising ****

**** River Rising, Athol Dickson, 2005

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner. Literally and figuratively. Athol gets the first four-star review of the year, but more impressively, he won several awards with this book.

OK, let's get the annoying question out of the way right off the bat. Athol tells you how to pronounce his name. It's kinda like a person with a lisp saying basil, but without the 'B' on the front.

So, you're saying, what exactly does it take to get the coveted Four-Star Wunderfool review? I mean, if Russo didn't get it, who can? Here's what it takes:

Brilliant writing, a compelling story and unforgettable characters all mixed together into a book that is a must-read for anyone.

Russo came close. Really close. The only thing that kept him him out of the four-star level is the last four words: must-read for anyone. Straight Man is a little raw in spots for my tastes and I wouldn't recommend it to my mother. Still a great book, though.

But forget Russo. We're talking about Athol and River Rising. Up to now I've known Athol chiefly for his questionable movie recommendations. (I rented Ten Items or Less based on his recommend. My advice: miss it if you can.)

But fortunately for all of us, Athol is better at writing books than picking movies. Much better. River Rising has all the elements of a Four-Star Wunderfool pick in spades and passes the elliptical test with room to spare. Athol is a master. This is literature, pure and simple. I'm reading River Rising and thinking, "I want to write like this. It's time to take it to the next level."

The ending had just the right touch of reality and wistfulness. I was a perfect ending. I don't recall ever finishing a book and thinking, "Wow, that was exactly the best way to end this book." I have now.

Now I'll have to read the rest of his stuff. His newest one is up for the Christy. I haven't read anything by the other two finalists, although I did briefly meet Steven James at a film conference this year. If they asked, I'd tell them to not spend too much time working up an acceptance speech.

Fortunately, I doubt I'll ever have a book up against Athol in a competition. One of the advantages of learning how to write screenplays instead of cranking out more novels. Plus, I doubt we'd end up in the same category. Although why River Rising was in the suspense category for the Christy is a little puzzling to me. Great book, but not what I'd call a suspense novel.

Highly recommended.

May 15, 2008

Straight Man ***+

***+ Straight Man, Richard Russo, 1997

OK, I know, the plus is cheating, but this is better than three stars, but not quite the stop-everything hold-the-phone level. Pretty close, though.

Russo better watch out or he might replace Robertson Davies as my favorite author, just as Davies shoved Graham Greene to second place back a decade or so ago. Right now Davies maintains the lead because he's a dead white guy. Russo is merely a white guy.

As annoying as it may be to admit it, Snyderman introduced me to Russo. That guy has fairly unerring tastes so far. Like Davies, surely one day he'll fall off the pedestal.

This is the third Russo novel I've read, after Nobody's Fool and The Risk Pool. I haven't read the Pultizer Prize winning Empire Falls, yet, but I watched the Golden Globe winning HBO mini-series with Ed Harris and Helen Hunt, based on the book. I liked them all, but Straight Man is my favorite so far.

The incorrigible smartass William Henry Devereaux, Jr. is both infuriating and irresistable. This novel obliterated the elliptical test. More than once I checked the clock and realized I'd been exercising over an hour. Russo is a master at multi-layered stories buried in character. His recurring theme seems to be conflicted sons of dysfunctional fathers, explored from various angles in various books. He does it well.

Highly recommended.

May 8, 2008

The Shack *

* The Shack, William P. Young, 2007

It had to happen sometime. Our first one-star review of the year. I knew going in I wouldn't like this book, but I got it as a birthday present with the comment, "I'd like to hear what you think about it." So what choice did I have? I may be a jerk, but I'm not a complete cad. Yet. Give me time. I have a few years left in me. I might make curmudgeon of the year before it's over.

Lots of people love this book. Lots of people read People magazine. I'm not one of them, in either case. I'm not saying there's a correlation, here. Just mentioning some specifics.

Here's my problem with this book. It's a cheesy, schmaltz-laden story wrapped around a lecture on the nature of God.

If I want to read a good story, I want some really good writing. Life is too short to endure mediocre writing. Not everybody is as picky as I am. That's fine. Let them read what they like, and I'll do the same.

If I want to read a book on the nature of God, then I want a book that deals with the subject directly, not a 250-page third-rate parable with an angst-ridden character tossing softball questions to a sagacious character to hit out of the ballpark. Or three sagacious characters, either.

Actually, I got through the Foreword and thought, "Maybe I was wrong. Maybe this is a good book after all."

The Foreword was the best part.

I didn't subject The Shack to the dreaded elliptical test because I knew it wouldn't stand up and during a workout is no time to be playing around with an unworthy book.

When a book repeatedly refers to The Great Sadness, just like that, in caps and italic, you know you're in trouble. Like caps wasn't enough.

We really want you to get it, reader. It's not a sadness. It's not just the sadness. Or merely the great sadness. It's not even The Great Sadness. Dammit, we're talking about The Great Sadness here! Sit up and pay attention and have a hanky or three handy.

That's not to say that there aren't some good concepts in the book. There are. I truly believe that the world would be a better place if more people embraced the concept of God presented in The Shack. Most of it, anyway. But that's not why I read books.

Your mileage may vary.

May 1, 2008

Deadline ***

*** Deadline, John Dunning, 1981

The introduction indicates that Dunning wrote this in six weeks and, unlike his other books, sold it immediately without a single rejection. It's not hard to see why. It's a page turner, from start to finish, all 253 pages. Dunning mentions the coincidence of the similarity to the movie Witness, which came out four years later, but it is evidently just that, a coincidence.

Recommended for whodunit fans.