Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers: An Unconventional Memoir

This is another Book Giveaway on Goodreads.com that I entered on a whim. It turned out to be much funnier than I had anticipated. The author had me midway through the prologue where he describes transporting five baby goats from his farm in upstate New York to Manhattan, a trip that takes several hours, during which time the goats develop diarrhea and he is forced to drive with his head out the window to get away from the smell.

I practically fell out of my chair laughing. I knew exactly how he felt. I once transported a kitten from a breeder two hours distant from my house, a kitten that was so nervous he began pooping forcing me to drive two hours with the car windows wide open in January. Unlike the author, whose passengers were confined in a cage in the backseat of his vehicle, in my case the kitten was loose in my car and being a typical feline, sought the highest elevation on which to perch. That elevation being the top of my head, with his claws firmly implanted in my scalp for balance.

I found this book both entertaining and disappointing. Mr. Kilmer-Purcell makes frequent references to his former career as a drag queen and to his partner’s career on Martha Stewart’s show. Too many references. I understand that being a drag queen and within the orbit of Martha Stewart were two defining experiences for him and his partner, but there is whole other world outside of that small universe that he seems almost unaware of.

After a lengthy set-up in which the author and his partner, find, fall in love with and purchase a “mansion” in upstate New York as a weekend house that eventually becomes a goat farm, I felt let down with the rest of the book. There is almost no discussion of their friends and activities in Manhattan, where they lived five days a week. He manages somehow to devote most of the book to the mansion cum goat farm while revealing almost nothing about the surrounding area or the inhabitants.

I would like to have learned more about his rural neighbors and his urban friends. How did those two worlds compare and contrast? What was their life like before they bought the weekend house? They had been a couple for almost a decade. What did they do during that decade? How did their lives in Manhattan change after buying the weekend house? Did they attempt to mingle the two worlds by inviting friends to visit them at their upstate retreat?

This is a great human interest story, but I feel that a big part of it is missing. It is a quick, entertaining read that is more sequins and boas than compost and canning.

Review copy courtesy of Harper Collins

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Promise: President Obama, Year One

Barack Obama is not a saint. What a relief. The Promise: President Obama, Year One, written by Jonathan Alter, a Newsweek reporter, is a refreshing change from the worshipful treatment of President Obama in Game Change. Mr. Alter provides an even-handed treatment of the first year of the Obama presidency. He shows us a president who is all too human, making mistakes in both personnel and policies but mostly getting it right.

The reader is provided with thorough background information on all of the major players in President Obama’s administration. I was especially fascinated by the description of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s agonizing decision whether to take the job as Chief of Staff or remain in the House, eventually succeeding Nancy Pelosi to become the first Jewish Speaker of the House. First Jewish Speaker? I had no idea that anyone thought that way in the 21st century. I thought that we had put silly religious issues behind us. I’m old enough to remember when (Catholic) JFK was running for the presidency and voters (including my Goldwater Republican parents) were terrified that if he were elected, the Pope would be running the country. As history reminds us, JFK was elected and governed the country without the Pope.

First Lady Michelle Obama is treated respectfully. I was surprised to learn that despite her husband never having been subject to rumors of infidelity, she is described as "a tiger when it came to Barack and other women", the example of Halle Berry’s enthusiasm in campaigning for Obama prompting the future First Lady to forbid her husband to appear with her.

Mr. Alter’s previous book, The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope, dealt with FDR and the New Deal. Not surprisingly, he frequently draws parallels between President Obama’s first year in office and FDR’s first year in office. Both entered office faced with a collapsing economy. Both were forced to clean up the messes left by the previous administrations. And both passed landmark legislation in their first year, Social Security by FDR and health care reform by Obama.

It’s often difficult to end a book of this length and breadth, especially with the protagonist still early in his administration and still likely to continue making history, but I found the ending to this book very satisfying. The long, drawn-out battle for health care reform takes up most of the book, but in the end the reader is reminded of President Obama’s other first year accomplishments such as banning pay discrimination against women (always close to my heart), health insurance for millions of children, tightened rules governing credit cards and the crackdown on predatory lending, achievements that have become lost in the noise and confusion of the battle over health care, but which are huge victories in their own right.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Red November: Inside the Secret U.S.-Soviet Submarine War

When you encounter a sentence like: "Despite the thickness of his wet suit, the cold still launched his testicles into his throat", you know that you are reading a Guy Book. Written for Guys by a Guy. W. Craig Reed has been reading too much Tom Clancy and too many Soldier of Fortune magazines. His macho posturing spoils an otherwise fascinating book on submarines and submarine warfare in the modern era.

Red November contains stories that are begging to be told by a professional historian. In Mr. Reed’s hands, they read like a poorly written thriller. The chapters are full of B movie dialogue. His foreshadowing is crude and heavy-handed. And I had to ask myself, did every story have to be foreshadowed? After the fifth or sixth "Little did he know…", I found myself muttering "Enough already! I got the idea." If this is the result after an editor went over it, I shudder to think what the original manuscript was like.

Despite the poor writing, the tales he tells are gripping. The unknown story of the four submarines that almost launched nuclear weapons ("Little did he know…" for each sub) during the Cuban missile crisis. The stories behind the sinking of various subs, both Russian and American. The possible raising of a sunken Russian sub. The diving feats at incredible depths of both subs and divers. The near misses. The collisions. This is great stuff.

If the intended audience for this book is armchair warriors, then Mr. Reed has succeeded admirably. I can’t, however, in good conscience recommend this book for the general reader. The history of submarine warfare in the latter half of the 20th century will be written again and better by military historians.

Review copy courtesy of William Morrow