The twentieth book in the series on detective Marcus Didius Falco, this one in Rome and Latium in the year 77 AD. In this mystery, Marcus, having just inherited an unexpected fortune from his father heads to the pestilential Pontine Marshes to hunt for a missing person and the reason one of his father’s payments was never collected. The marshes harbor malarial insects and the kind of marsh people, and their rabid dogs, you might expect in the remotest hollers of Kentucky. The mystery is typical of Davis’ previous Falco books. The emergence of Falco’s daughter, Flavius Alba, as a burgeoning detective in her own right is downright joyful. The real pleasure of the book, however, is the degree to which once again Davis brings to life ordinary Romans. Their family squabbles, frustrations with intransigent authorities and truculent neighbors, and the hassles of finding reliable childcare are concurrently hilarious, modern, and part of ancient Rome.
In the first half of the book, Pasha, an intentionally depressive poet, because without depression there can be no decent poetry, arrives from Odessa to spend a summer month in Coney Island with his Russian Jewish family. Pasha trips on the sand at the beach, gets lost on the subway, but doesn’t seem to mind, argues with his sister, and is babied by his Mama. Every character is funny and wonderful and this young author’s style is reminiscent of her Russian forebears, Chekhov and Tolstoy, in that there is infinite amount of talking and pondering while almost nothing of consequence happens. There are even several laugh aloud moments, but by the time Part II rolls around, and the story turns to Frida, Pasha’s niece, the desire for a plot, or even anything resembling a plot, overrides lovely sentences and exquisitely rendered scenes of Russian immigrants lost between two worlds. If you are the kind that loved War and Peace this will be a delicious little morsel. On the other hand, if Russian novels feel a wee bit tedious, Panic might not be worth the effort.
It’s a standard genre. Expat, in this case British, lives in France long enough to write an irreverent, comic, snarky account of French mannerisms. He describes how the French eschew rules, scrum instead of queue, adore denying service to anyone and everyone, are hopeless romantics (at least with their mistresses), work fewer hours on job than any employees in the world, and insist that nothing — not war nor peace — interrupt their daily break for a two hour lunch. Unfortunately, Clarke is neither sufficiently funny or nasty enough to be completely compelling. On the other hand, my French cousins say his accounting of French behavior is spot on making it a worthwhile book for anyone who has been to France.
A series of slightly augmented columns from Barry’s newspaper gig smashed together in a very funny book. Barry muses on grammar, sex, grammar and sex, Justin Bieber, air travel, what women think about (see grammar), and what men think about (see sex). Interestingly, there is one long piece in the book. Barry describes his 10-day synagogue tour to the Holy Land. Turns out visiting Israel was sufficiently moving that there wasn’t much to laugh about. I forgive him and so do God and the Israelis.
Billy Crystal is turning 65 years old and writing his memoir. It’s one-third stand-up (far and away the best part), one-third autobiography, and one-third Hollywood hokum. Really, every famous name he drops is his best friend and a wonderful human being. His life is interesting enough. He’s a hard worker and a nice guy. You can’t help but think he would be a really pleasant dinner guest. It is his comedy, however, that makes the book worth reading, or better still, worth listening to. Several chapters are read aloud before a live audience and his take on the trials of getting old, at least for us oldsters, is painfully accurate. We have hands that look like chicken feet, balls that hang to our knees, and urinate in morse code, and more if only we could remember what it was we were talking about. Also, if you are listening, his impersonations of Muhammad Ali, Johnny Carson, Howard Cosell and other legends of the air that our children never heard of are delicious.
Proulx spins a tall Texas tale about a loner named Bob Dollar sent to the mythical panhandle town of Wooly Bucket. His objective is to scout sites for an environmentally devastating pig farm for an international conglomerate called Global Pork Rind. Proulx has done her research leading readers rather forcefully to despise corporate agriculture and lament the loss of the good old days. She is at her best when she is pushing her farce as far as it will stretch, loosening up enough to become laugh aloud funny by the book’s end. Her descriptions of land, history, people of the earth, climate, even the buzz of insects before a thunderstorm are spot on and make the book worth reading. A few of her polemics drag. She lets oil drillers and the farmers who ran the regional aquifer get off the hook, too, in her single minded focus to give hell to businesses that raise pork units in deadly tight quarters. Read Proulx for her sense of place and character rather than for politics and plot.
A tall tale of the Old West. A pair of brothers, Charlie and Eli Sisters, with the self-importance of Keillor’s Dusty and Lefty and the banter of Tom and Ray (Car Talk) work as hired guns. Traveling on a pair of “found” horses, Tub and Nimble, from Oregon to the 1851 Gold Rush town of San Francisco they encounter a crying man and a lone Indian. They shoot people that bother them, ponder the nature of love, cope with crippled horses, endure back-country dentists, drink to excess, and sleep in the woods even when they are coping with painful hangovers. These are the kind of guys that use extra large words unnecessarily and refuse to engage in the use of verbal contractions. One of them misses his mother. I listen to many recorded books and I found John Pruden’s reading of The Sisters Brothers to perfectly capture the personalities, era, and farce of this story.
Nobody quite does a comedy of manners like the British and Graham Greene’s paean to the superiority of living life on the edge is a masterpiece with its tongue firmly placed in its cheek. Henry, an aging, retired, 50-something bank manager finds himself entangled in the adventures of his 75-year-old Aunt who leads anything but a normal life. Extracted from his dotage tending dahlias, Henry is whisked away into his Aunt’s smuggling underworld of Turkey, South America, and Paris. I smiled all the way through.
The Queen of England, nearing the age of 80, and bored with the routine of the Royal Wave, Royal Art opening, and Royal Ship inauguration discovers reading when a gay scullery employee delivers a book from the traveling library cart. As the queen devours one book after another, she learns about a world outside the Royal Bubble, about feelings and compassion, and her tolerance for Royal Drivel diminishes much to the chagrin of those that depend on the Queen for their authority. Alan Bennett, a British dramatist, captures British upper crust society with piercing accuracy in this short novella that made me laugh aloud.
The second in the series of Tarquin Hall mysteries taking place in contemporary New Delhi. In this one our food-loving detective, Vish Puri, whose assistants he has nicknamed Tubelight, Handbrake, and Facepaint, go after the murderer of Dr. Jha, an Indian Guru-buster. Jha, fed up with India’s surplus of money-hoarding Gurus and Swamis makes his living unmasking fraudulent healers until he dies mysteriously while attending a meeting of an Indian laughing club. He perishes during a particularly hysterical knock-knock joke and Puri suspects foul play. Good, bad, funny, pathetic, wild, contradictory, modern, and ancient India are all lovingly displayed in a mystery that seems rather secondary to the main character: India at the crossroads from the 18th to 21st century.