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Never Go Back: A Jack Reacher Novel
Never Go Back: A Jack Reacher Novel
by Lee Child
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.78
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Civil Blood Makes Civil Hands Unclean, August 4, 2013
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Lee Child gives the recipe for suspense in a brief but enlightening piece in the New York Times. It's not really a recipe--in the sense that there are no specific ingredients. He explains, it's more like a relationship with the reader. The question isn't what food your readers want, it's how to make them hungry: "As novelists, we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer."

In "Never Go Back," we get very hungry. The book is structured as a series of highly suspenseful puzzles from the very first page. What is Jack Reacher doing in a seedy motel? Who "put him in a car and drove him" there? No sooner has Car #1 departed than Car #2 arrives. Who is this? "Visitors. Purpose unknown, but the news would be either good or bad." The reader doesn't have to know or care about Reacher to want to find out the answer, and so Child tantalizes us throughout the entire unputdownable book.

That binary question (either good or bad) becomes a wonderful leit motif of the novel, where Reacher repeatedly describes every cliffhanging outcome as entailing the probability of a flip of the coin. And we the readers want to be around to watch each coin fall. "But Reacher's coin was imaginary. . . The chances of flipping four heads in a row were about ninety-four to six against. . . . And Reacher needed four heads in a row."

But if we are hooked by the suspense, there are plenty of other reasons to want to hang around. A Lee Child thriller is like a very well made and expensive watch. Every part, no matter how tiny and invisible to the eye, is cunning, gorgeous, and held perfectly in its place; the tools to make it and keep it running are small and precise, and the thing works perfectly and goes exactly where it is supposed to. Some wonderful descriptions of plane flights here that hit the experience just right and could also be applied to Child's style, where never a word is wasted and it is always the right word: "The glide path was long and gentle, and the landing was smooth, and the inward taxi felt fast and nimble. Then a tiny bell sounded and a light went out and about ninety-seven people leapt to their feet."

Amazingly, this is not only a literate book; it is a literary one. In the end, at least part of solving the mystery comes from knowing one's Shakespeare ("He probably thinks people like us never heard of William Shakespeare") and improbably the Lake Poets of the Romantic era.

Like Child himself, Jack Reacher is also a humorist--cool and dry. In this respect the dialogue is a pure delight. Reacher loves the ironic twist of the knife, like using the credit cards of his tormentors against them, or stealing and then answering their cell phones. Never flustered, refreshingly honest, and unlike the reader who is always trying to catch up, always one step ahead of his opponent. He knows just where the next blow will fall and gets himself there in front of it. It's hard to overstate how satisfying this fantasy of power (harnessed to the cause of right as it is) can be.

But like every good hard-boiled hero, Reacher also has his soft spots, and they are greatly in evidence in this wonderful book. Lovers of romance will not be disappointed (there is even some family romance). But (and please don't look), the last word of the book tells you which side of the coin lands there. The pleasure is in the waiting.


L'Oreal Paris Age Perfect Hydra-Nutrition Moisturizer, 1.7-Fluid Ounce
L'Oreal Paris Age Perfect Hydra-Nutrition Moisturizer, 1.7-Fluid Ounce
Price: $13.27
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5.0 out of 5 stars The equal of higher priced skin products, August 4, 2013
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
This is a very rich golden skin cream, with a light pleasing fragrance, suitable for use during the day under make up and also as a regenerating cream at night. It goes on smoothly, and a difference can almost instantly be felt. I have been using it about a week, and the results are noticeable. No cream will undo all the harm caused by the years, but if this is not a miraculous product, it is clearly a very fine one. I have purchased skin creams at all price points--from Avon to Chanel. Usually one can tell the difference between lower priced brands and the expensive products (on which I splurge occasionally). But this reasonably priced skin cream is the equal of products five times the price.


Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error
Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error
by Kathryn Schulz
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.50
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Penny Wise, Pound Foolish, August 1, 2013
In what must be one of the only notable quotations on "being wrong" not cited by Kathryn Schulz, Oliver Cromwell famously said, "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken." Schulz repeatedly and forcefully echoes Cromwell's rule. Error, rather than a form of deviance to be avoided or shamed by, is a normal and inevitable part of human life. Indeed, aspects of civilization that we most treasure--art, laughter, optimism, happiness itself--depend on our appreciation of error.

The further into this long book (about 350 pages of text plus another 50 pages of apparatus) one proceeds, the more it becomes clear that virtually everything can be subsumed into the science of "Wrongology," as Schulz dubs it. Error, and our tolerance of it, forms the basis of the scientific method, modern art, evolution, democracy and political wisdom, literary creativity, perception and interpretation, existential alienation (and its antidote love), psychological growth, sound management principles, and most if not all forms of humor. It seems indeed that practically everyone has had something to say about error--from Plato to Shakespeare to Gandhi, from Descartes to Foucault to Abbot and Costello. The world seems to sort itself out into those who erroneously prosecute a one dimensional truth (and suffer their comeuppance) and those who embrace the transformative properties of error. If a specific aphorism or example won't fit in the text, well then Schulz will put it in a long discursive footnote of which most chapters have at least a half dozen.

The "paradox of error" that Schulz describes is this--that in order to make progress toward knowledge, one must admit and profit from one's mistakes. Owning up to error, accepting it as a normal part of growth, is essential to progress--not toward certainty (which is impossible) but toward a fuller and more accurate picture of how things are. There is another paradox here, however. In order to talk about error, one must adopt the language of certainty, as Schulz does; one must present one's case, one must argue for the truth, and so on. The encyclopedic comprehensiveness of this book and the author's faith in the rightness of some of her views are also necessary prerequisites for grasping just how provisional those very arguments are in the end. It takes an immodest writer to tackle the topic of intellectual modesty.

The sweep of this book is exciting, and one can only wish that many people will read it and take its challenge to heart. The world would be a better place if more people could be convinced to question their convictions. And yet at the same time, not even "error" is the key to all mythologies, and the unfortunate neologism "Wrongology" gives a lumpen quality to the quicksilver of human creativity.


The Marriage Plot: A Novel
The Marriage Plot: A Novel
Offered by Macmillan
Price: $7.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "Just" Married, July 28, 2013
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Jeffrey Eugenides' "The Marriage Plot" was a disappointment after his other writing. While the novel is certainly readable, it is too long and mines the details of the lives of its precious and finally unsympathetic characters far too closely. The narcissism of the book would be hard to bear if the characters turned out to have the original lives that they imagine for themselves, but their epiphanies and insights turn out to be as tedious as their adolescent struggles, with the possible exception of Leonard, whose manic depression is at least a real problem unlike the manufactured crises experienced by the rest of the cast. It actually would have felt more genuinely original if the book had followed its titled "marriage plot."

I can only think that this was some kind of autobiographical exorcism for Eugenides, who like his male protagonist is a Detroit native who attended Brown and then spent several months after graduation traveling and doing good works in India. Who knows: Maybe there was a "real" Madeleine (with her natural beauty she certainly bears the signs of a typical adolescent fantasy) and this book is the author's farewell. Sadly, I see from his Wikipedia page that Eugenides is work on a TV screenplay. Spare us please. In any case, I hope he gets "the marriage plot" all out of his system soon and returns to the quirky and strange aspects of human nature that he is so deft at bringing to life. There are sequences here that remind us of his ability to inhabit the other with such sympathy and give hope for his next book.


Taxing Women
Taxing Women
Price: $12.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A Thought Experiment, July 24, 2013
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This review is from: Taxing Women (Kindle Edition)
Here is a thought experiment that McCaffery's well researched and prescient study puts me in mind of. (I wish I could give this book a five plus plus plus.)

Imagine that you are playing a game of "Civilization." In your imaginary civilization, you are asked to create a tax code, and in your utopian society you decide that you prefer one that will privilege the single-earner home. This is your bias. You don't think two working parents is a good idea. Kids deserve at least one parent at home.

First, in your tax code, you decide that the second earner's paycheck will be aggregated with and then taxed on top of the first earner's, meaning that the spouse's salary owes a higher, sometimes much higher, marginal rate on each dollar he or she earns than did the first earner.

Then to meet your objective of luring the second earner out of the labor market, you ensure that this person will pay her (or his) full social security payroll tax (in 2013 up to $113,700; meanwhile stay-at-home spouses get to piggy back on half of their partner's social security contribution). When you add these income and payroll taxes onto the expenses that the second earner may incur by joining the work force, your imaginary second earner will face a marginal tax rate of over 50% on every dollar earned, not to mention childcare and other expenses required by employment. As one of my own friends put it, she (and indeed most of these second earners are women) decided to stop working as a lawyer when she realized that she was paying someone else to "live [her] life." But this was your goal, right, to slow down the migration of second earners out of the family and into the work force and thus to protect families.

But, over time, what else do you suppose that you would get in your hypothetical "Civilization"? Predictably, your civilization would have not only fewer spouses working but fewer spouses period. At the lower income levels, as the Earned Income Credit phases out, the financial incentives not to marry become strong. A married worker nets less than a single worker as her entitlements phase out. At the higher income levels, especially as economic pressure increases on families during hard times, you might see the primary earner in a household works longer hours to try to keep his (and yes, this is usually a "his") family afloat. In addition, wage rates for second earners stay low because employers rationally fear these spousal workers will not persist as employees in the labor market.

This imaginary tax code was the code that Edward McCaffery described in 1997, when he published "Taxing Women," and it is still the American tax code in 2013 (even with enhancements due to the Affordable Health Care Act). Is it any surprise that the conditions desired in this utopian experiment are exactly the conditions we face today: a troubling decline in marriage rates for lower income couples on the margin; a persistent wage gap for second earners across the income spectrum; a persistent lack of options for working families hoping for more flexible options for both fathers and mothers; a glass ceiling for highly trained second earner (mostly women) workers? Can we doubt that we have exactly the society we have purchased through our tax code?

Is this the society we want? Apparently it is. As long as we have this tax structure--one that penalizes marriage for working families, one that crushes second earners (usually women) with numbingly high marginal tax rates, and one that encourages primary earners (usually men) to put in punishingly long hours, it is the family we will continue to have.

Read MacCaffery's book and become radicalized to change this situation. It is the women's issue (the men's issue, the family issue really) that both Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree on.


The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.: A Novel
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.: A Novel
Offered by Macmillan
Price: $8.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Anatomy of a CAD, July 21, 2013
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Adelle Waldman sets herself two difficult tasks in this accomplished novel. First, can she, a woman writer, fully inhabit the perspective and create a convincing voice for her (very) male protagonist? Second, can she make an ultimately narcissistic and shallow narrator likeable and engaging enough to keep the reader around for the 250+ pages of this novel? The good news is that she succeeds splendidly at both these tasks--though I'd still be interested in knowing how a male reader would view the narrator.

Taken at his own valuation, Nathaniel Piven is a sensitive, highly intelligent, intellectually ambitious Harvard grad in his early 30s, about to publish his first novel. He is dimly aware that he is also in the process of establishing a reputation as a cad among the datable Brooklyn females in his refined publishing circle ("Nate had a long and intimate relationship with guilt"). He nonetheless rationalizes his fickle and self-serving treatment of the several pretty young women in his life ("He had learned all about male privilege. Moreover he was in possession of a functional and frankly rather clamorous conscience") because he is more or less "honest" with them and doesn't treat them with out-and-out sexist disdain.

The loving detail Waldman lavishes on her characters' romantic aspirations and entanglements, on their picnics, coffee dates, and dinner parties--and on every veer and turn of their inner lives puts one in mind of Jane Austen. But for Austen (and her followers) there was always a moment of recognition and reversal. Not so for Mr. P. Nate sadly does not grow much in the course of the novel, and so ultimately the narrative, while it is wonderfully naturalistic in charting the rise and fall of a relationship, begins to feel a bit like a room that has grown stuffy. The dialogue too can feel a little tired; what passes as witty repartee is less sparkling than the characters seem to realize.

Still, this is a successful book. Despite his flaws, one does come to care about Nate--and Waldman's rigorous and imaginative animation of his viewpoint is indeed a tour de force.


Cassandra at the Wedding (New York Review Books Classics)
Cassandra at the Wedding (New York Review Books Classics)
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The lure of endogamy, July 18, 2013
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The first and last sections of this magnificent book are narrated by the redoubtably ironic Cassandra. These describe her role in the marriage of her twin sister, Judith, who narrates the novel's center section. The great achievement of the novel is Cassandra's theatrical and mesmerizing voice, and her childish, inebriated, overdramatic attempts to prevent her sister from abandoning her. We come to love Cassandra so much that we are almost persuaded that Jude should not marry the kind, strong, prepossessing MD, Jack. Jude's voice, ironic but less theatrical, is also a convincing tour de force. But marriage, of course, is the traditional climax of the romantic marriage plot--and so it goes.

But "Cassandra at the Wedding" is not so simple. Cassandra, the reader will remember, is the famous figure from Greek mythology whose prophetic warnings of the fall of Troy went unheeded. And Judith is the biblical heroine who liberated her tribe by beheading the drunken lecher Holofernes. Taken together these two stories, lurking in the background of the names, would actually support Cassie's position at the wedding that her fragile family should not be invaded by the outsider and cast her as the protector of the clan. And indeed the vision she spins for Judith of the unconventional life they could live together as two sisters is compelling. Whether or not we are twins, the forsaking of our families of origin can feel like a betrayal and a loss.

As Deborah Eisenberg notes, in her wonderful afterword, the novel also draws upon Plato's fable that explains love as each individual's search for her lost double, who in primeval times had made one spherical whole. Twins, it might be said, participate in this wholeness, and so Cassandra's threatened loss of Judith repeats the primal sundering that lies at the heart of all longing. Her desire to prevent Judith's desertion genuinely expresses this love.

Blah, blah, blah. Such over-intellectualizing can give a kind of deepening context to "Cassandra at the Wedding," but it comes nowhere close to capturing the quicksilver shifts of tone, the tremendous humor and self-awareness that animate these two sisters and other members of their small wounded family. There is no way around it: just read the book.


Stoner (New York Review Books Classics)
Stoner (New York Review Books Classics)
by John Edward Williams
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.45
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Willy Loman of the Academy, July 13, 2013
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Academe is such a fertile breeding ground for the full range of human foibles that it is difficult to craft a novel about it without irony. Thus, most academic novels follow in the tradition of Mary McCarthy's pungent and corrosive wit, as revealed for example in "The Groves of Academe." In "Stoner," John Williams (an author roughly of McCarthy's generation) takes an entirely different approach. This is a book whose hero cares and cares deeply about the principles that lie behind the scholarly and pedagogical profession. According to John Williams, who opens the book with a quick retrospective of Stoner's life, "He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses." But this unlikely hero--a kind of Willy Loman of the academy--will be remembered well by all who read this book.

The novel's strength derives from two things: first, that respect for the academic enterprise does not blind Williams to all the many ways that it fails to live up to those ideals. What might turn to irony in the hands of another writer becomes in this book the source of complexity and finally tragedy. It has been said that irony is a sign of "bad faith"; that makes sense since our laughter signals our complicity in and our submission to compromise. This is not a book that compromises.

The book's second great strength lies in its style, sensitivity to language, and lyricism. (If you have not yet read it, please skip the next two paragraphs as I must give away a little of the plot.) The example I want to describe comes from the point in the center of the novel where William Stoner, son of hardscrabble Missouri farmers, beleaguered by destructive colleagues and departmental plots, and coming to terms with the fact that he will never achieve his most treasured ambitions as a scholar, suddenly and unexpectedly finds joy.

The joy comes from his falling in love. The timing and build-up to this event, monumental in his small life, is superb. It begins when he glimpses that a young female colleague, whose work he respects enormously, may actually have some warmth and friendship in her feelings for him. After this realization, he makes his way home: "The smell of smoke from trash burning in the back yards was held by the mist; and as he walked slowly through the evening, breathing the fragrance and tasting upon his tongue the sharp night-time air, it seemed to him that the moment he walked in was enough and that he might not need a great deal more. And so he had his love affair." The burst of joy in that final sentence gives way to a long section of the book which gradually conveys the revelation that his feelings are completely returned and a sustained description of fully experienced happiness: "In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another."

Of course that wise observation contains within it the foreshadowing of the relationship's end, which comes--as all ends in this patient and comprehensive novel do--in its own good time. Just as William Stoner's great virtue lies in his commitment to his principles, John Williams never toys with his readers. Another amazon reader praises this book for its "rectitude," a wonderful word to characterize it. But don't let the severity of that word put you off. Who knew that "rectitude" could be so marvelous and absorbing?

There is, however, a little "bad faith" in this book, which emerges in the character of Stoner's wife Edith. In my judgment she is far too much the mad housewife, mumbling to herself (which she does). This alternately silent and shrill woman becomes the bane of Stoner's existence: She endures his love-making only as a means to an end; at first indifferent to their child, she later uses her as a weapon in their marriage; she takes over the only little refuge Stoner has made in his study (in their house that she forced him to buy) and appropriates it as her own studio--forcing him to work and sleep in a tiny porch where she casts off their old furniture; she loudly bangs on the piano to distract him from his work; she feigns a biting indifference to his affair ("your little coed . . . I never can remember her name"); she manically and selfishly changes course again and again. And yet at the end of the novel, the two characters make a kind of peace with each other ("They had forgiven themselves for the harm they had done each other, and they were rapt in a regard of what their life together might have been"). This slow reversal shows that Williams in a sense recognizes that such a damaging marriage is entered into by two people, both of whom really are at fault for its failures.

I wish he had revealed that complexity in Edith earlier in the novel. But this is truly not a fatal flaw but more of a lapse. Other characters--Hollis Lomax, Gordon Finch, Katherine Driscoll, Charles Walker, and many more--are presented with great integrity as individuals with both flaws and virtues in this fine and moving book.


The Book of Ralph: A Novel
The Book of Ralph: A Novel
by John McNally
Edition: Paperback
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5.0 out of 5 stars You Can Go Home Again (or rather you never leave), June 16, 2013
In 1940 Thomas Wolfe wrote a 20th-century masterpiece called "You Can't Go Home Again." It was a moving, but self-important book. In 2004, John McNally wrote "The Book of Ralph," a comic novel whose motto might be "You Will Go Home Again." Hank Boyd thought he had left his childhood and Chicago neighborhood far behind, but it turns out that childhood is not only a time but also a place, and it is always there both in memory and in real life in the form of his old pal Ralph, whose slightly dangerous glamor and thuggish extended family had fascinated Hank when they formed an unlikely boyhood friendship. As the many brilliantly comic reversals in this modest and picaresque novel demonstrate, the ultimate joke is the pratfall that lands a person right where he started. None of us can escape.

First, though, there is the long intro to Ralph through Hank's unerring memory. We get to know Ralph through extended flashbacks that capture the "cheap tricks" and "grand illusions" that pass for wisdom in junior high. Then toward the book's end, we slip into the present. Ralph has finally graduated from the 8th grade; he is a man, so to speak, but his quirky way of regarding the world and his shady cousins Kenny and Norm are still around. Hank and Ralph join forces working for Kenny and Norm's successful crime-scene clean-up business. The late 70s, with lots of historically appropriate details like CB radios, has given way to the early 00's, with their .coms and ebays. Times change, people stay the same.

The book is hilarious, but as at the bottom of all really profound irony there lies a nihilistic message. This becomes all too clear by the novel's final scene, where the remaining characters attempt to gussy up and make a profit from the dust in the corners of the final crime scene. There is no limit to what fancy story can be told to some new believing sap, a truth that is both crazy and funny and also pretty darn devastating. McNally keeps the balance until the end.

The same cannot be said about the questions in the "reading group guide" at the back of the book. Who writes this stuff? And why do I read it? The portentous questions here ("Is Ralph a good influence on Hank"? "Does the setting give us a better understanding of Hank and Ralph?"). The point isn't to understand features of the plot in order to appreciate the depth of character more fully. Indeed, the point is that character, setting, relationship--these things dissolve into the joke that is life. Each of us, we just have to try to keep up, though that's an endeavor that's pretty much doomed to failure. Ralph at least, a trickster and a conman, knows this. And that's the message of "The Book of Ralph."


Fight for Your Long Day
Fight for Your Long Day
by Alex Kudera
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.97
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Grim Comedy, May 28, 2013
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Alex Kudera's grimly comic novel about the academic underclass has already, in the three years since its publication, become a cult classic. Deservedly so. Its peripatetic anti-hero, Cyrus Duffleman, puts on display the bleak grind that the army of adjuncts that populate our revered institutions of higher education must endure. Duffy is not one of those "freeway flyers" that have been described in some exposés of the plight of the adjunct. He rides the Philadelphia trans system from one school to another--allowing for a glimpse into the full range of urban and academic culture (he teaches at four different schools spanning the gap between elite private and for-profit high rise). We also meet the homeless and truly hopeless during Duffy's subway commutes.

For sure this is a funny book. But it is also heartbreaking. Two especially heartbreaking things: how much the students, thirsty for education, admire Duffy and how little they grasp how oppressed and unappreciated their teacher is--the title "professor" bandied about to describe "Adjunct Duffleman" tells quite a tale about how clueless are the students about what their tuition is buying. Also heartbreaking, the way that Duffy constantly compares himself to everyone in his life, just to reassure himself of where he stands in the pecking order--to remind himself that there is still some way to fall and that he is worthy of respect. One of his higher ed gigs is supplementing his adjunct paycheck with work as a college security guard, and he cannot help but feel slightly superior to his co-workers, who live truly from paycheck to paycheck, while Duffy "could deposit it all if he wanted to, and he feels a pang of guilt and embarrassment when he dwells too long on this difference."

The reader actually suspects that Duffy may be wrong and that he truly does stand on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder. As he himself acknowledges toward the end of the novel, after his final humiliation, "He certainly feels close to his final outsourcing although he is counting on a couple more monthly paychecks." But most heartbreaking is that in the final comic scene he actually finds meaning in his experience. This book will stay with you for a while. It should.


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