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.
Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya ** (of 4)
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.
The Finer Points of Weiner Dogs by Alexander McCall Smith *** (of 4)
A German professor of philology with a specialty in irregular Portuguese verbs is mistaken at an academic conference for a veterinarian with a similar name that happens to be the world’s expert on weiner dogs. It’s a madcap parody of academic pretentiousness. Reminiscent of Carl Hiassen, only without a plot. August 2006.
The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs **** (of 4)
Jacobs takes a year to live strictly adhering to the bible. He doesn’t know bubkes when he begins and figures he’ll start reading Genesis and do whatever the bible says he should as he moves from chapter to chapter. His book contains a series of short, humorous anecdotes whose collective weight provide profound insight into the value of religious observance and the dangers of fundamentalism.
Getting Stoned with Savages by J. Maarten Troost *** (of 4)
In the style of Bill Bryson, self-effacing and laugh aloud funny, Troost describes his adventures on the Pacific isles of Vanuatu and Fiji. He leaves you with no illusions. These islands may be paradise for the rich and famous that can afford secluded beaches, but for the natives, and those imported by British colonists, these are third world countries rife with poverty, corruption, inept government, and apalling colonial legacies. Still, it’s funny. November 2009.
To Hate Like This is to be Happy Forever by Will Blythe *** (of 4)
One of the great first chapters in literature. Blythe’s book is a rant about basketball, specifically Duke vs. North Carolina. At the book’s opening he draws upon Greek Myth, Shakespeare, the Civil War, class conflict in America, Democrats vs. Republicans, Uma Thurman, Ichabod Crane, Mr. Rogers, Brideshead Revisited, and most of all how much he hates Duke because he is a fan of North Carolina. Remarkably, Blythe keeps up his hatred and his seriously educated investigation of philosophy and religion for the whole book. All the while talking about college B-ball. A rant this long, however, grows shrill. Make the book seventy pages shorter and it could have been a masterpiece. January 2008.
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir by Bill Bryson **** (of 4)
Bryson recounts his Iowa childhood of the 1950s writing scenes so effectively that I could see every lincoln log (he peed on), smell the pages of each comic book he read (11 times), knew personally every one of his childhood friends (the fat one, the sneaky one, the moron, the best friend), and recalled the stickiness of a Rambler’s vinyl seats. In fact, he so perfectly recaptures childhood that his stories take on a universality that extends to readers who did not grow up in the 1950s. July 2007.
Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson **** (of 4)
This was my first Bryson. It’s his description of walking the Appalachian trail. I can think of no other book that made me laugh out loud. This book made me do it several times.
Foreskin’s Lament by Shalom Auslander **** (of 4)
Auslander carries all of Woody Allen’s neuroses into the 21st Century and does it with panache. This autobiography is a therapeutic disgorging of growing up under the thumb of an abusive father and overbearing God in an orthodox Jewish home in Monsey, five minutes from my boyhood town. While, in my opinion, he hasn’t yet distinguished his parents’ mishegas from his Yeshiva’s he acts out his youthful frustration by alternately worrying God is going to kill him for going to the Naunuet Mall on Shabbat and giving God the finger for messing with his life. I laughed aloud at scenes such as God’s testing the young Auslander by placing porn magazines behind a stone (not unlike Moses’ stone on Mount Sinai) in a test of faithfulness. My parents thought it was a whiny kvetch book. I loved it. You decide. November 2007
Double Whammy by Carl Hiassen *** (of 4)
Vintage Hiassen. The murderers and bad guys are Florida tele-evangelists and unscrupulous land developers, assisted by rednecks with brains the size of ‘possums. The good guys are a black cop, a cuban detective, an anti-development woodsman with a log cabin full of great books who lives on roasted roadkill animals, and a photographer with a bad temper, but a good heart. It’s like many of Hiassen’s other books. Wonderful parody of Florida’s hucksters. In the end bad things happen to bad people and the reader cares a little bit more about the environment and the victims of racism, sexism, or classism. He’ll make you laugh aloud. October 2006.