What We're Reading, March 9-15
Is the biblically inspired Angelology the next Da Vinci Code? James Hynes' Next causes us to inaugurate the genre "Mick lit" (think middle-aged men and the Rolling Stones). A prominent advocate of No Child Left Behind reverses course. And ace spy John Wells is back, undercover and in deep.
By Danielle Trussoni
The young author of an acclaimed memoir (Falling Through the Earth), Danielle Trussoni tries her hand at fiction with the ambitious goal of writing a second Da Vinci Code. The story revolves around Sister Evangeline, a young and beautiful nun whose discovery of a 1943 letter from the famous philanthropist Abigail Rockefeller plunges her into the world of "angelology," the study of angels. Like Dan Brown before her, Trussoni builds her supernatural thriller around puzzling lines in the Bible: specifically, the verse in Genesis that details how "the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bore children to them." In an eventful 48 hours, Sister Evangeline discovers that the descendents of those angel-human unions — the monstrously beautiful Nephilim — have been at war with mankind ever since. Evangeline's mission is to find a hidden artifact before the Nephilim do. Naturally, the fate of humanity rests on the outcome.
Americans, in particular, seem to have a vast appetite for stories of the supernatural that are connected to biblical mysteries, and I'm no exception. Trussoni takes scraps of biblical language and apocryphal writings, and weaves them into a compelling mythology. The fast-paced and well-written novel is already generating a lot of buzz, though it succeeds in spite of problems with the characters and plot. Sister Evangeline has no life experience or depth, and a very long narrative flashback made me anxious to get back to the present. Some have criticized the ending as a transparent bid for a multimillion-dollar sequel, but for me, it's the best part of the book. Many Christians found The Da Vinci Code fascinating but protested what they saw as a message that undermines church doctrine. Those same readers will find Angelology far less objectionable — and almost as fascinating. — Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR religion correspondent
Hardcover, 464 pages; Viking; list price, $27.95; publication date, March 9
By James Hynes
James Hynes' Next traces a few hours — critical hours, to be sure — in the life of Kevin Quinn, an academic publications editor on a trip to Austin, Texas, for a job interview — an interview that happens to be taking place in the middle of a terrorism scare. His early arrival and his preoccupation with a young woman seated next to him on the plane lead him on an amble around Austin and an in-depth consideration of his life and history with women. Hynes writes anecdote after anecdote, slowly constructing Quinn's past and fleshing out what initially seems to be simply an unseemly preoccupation with a stranger. Quinn's obsessive self-examination is cut with the tension that comes from a few brushes against the terrorism angle, until the pieces of the story start to meet up in the final act.
If there's such a thing as "chick lit," then there also may be such a thing as "Mick lit," defined as a book in which the middle-aged male protagonist, during an endless interior monologue, orients himself in cultural space in part by referencing the Rolling Stones. Hynes (Kings of Infinite Space) writes with marvelously specific and memorable detail as Kevin Quinn ponders his life, but I couldn't help feeling like I'd heard this story many times before. His memories consist largely of a long list of grievances against women he's known — he remembers their hair, the way they walked, their often indifferent treatment of him, and of course, in every case, what the sex was like. After a while, Quinn's muck of self-pity (which is a plot element and entirely intentional on Hynes' part) wore out its welcome for me just as it would in a real person. The stakes are raised by the looming threat of terrorism, but the book remains much stronger at the sentence-by-sentence level than as a narrative. — Linda Holmes, NPR "Monkey See" entertainment blogger
Hardcover, 320 pages; Reagan Arthur; list price, $23.99; publication date, March 9
The Death and Life of the Great American School System
How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education
By Diane Ravitch
Diane Ravitch is a prominent education historian, and her new book is a thorough critique of some recent history that's partly of her own making — the No Child Left Behind law. Ravitch's personal history with the Department of Education is bipartisan; she served under Presidents Bush (the elder) and Clinton. But she's best known as a conservative critic of the nation's public schools, and she was one of the most influential proponents of No Child Left Behind. NCLB requires states to test and improve students' math and reading skills as a condition of receiving federal education funding. Schools that fall short must give students the option of transferring to better public schools or charter schools. Ravitch's new book describes how she came to completely reverse her position on NCLB. Some of Ravitch's former opponents are clearly delighted by her change of heart — the American Federation of Teachers scheduled a book party for her — and the response to Ravitch's book seems to be taking the form of a which-side-are-you-on debate about President George W. Bush's education policies. But as Ravitch points out, the No Child Left Behind Act was a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Sen. Ted Kennedy. And President Obama is at least as fervent an advocate as President Bush of charter schools.
The Death and Life of the Great American School System can be a dense read. It's jammed with facts and figures, and Ravitch's anecdotes are as likely to come from education conferences as classrooms. But Ravitch doesn't pull her punches. She says school districts cheat to keep test scores up. She says "school choice" has its roots in segregationism and that most charter schools are no better than regular public schools. She's very critical of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's decision to take over the New York school system and run it like a business — a move she also once supported. She's even more critical of foundations that fund the implementation of their own pet educational theories in public schools. The least satisfactory part of the book contains Ravitch's prescriptions for improving schools, which seem inadequate for the problems she has just spent a whole book describing. Now that Ravitch has dissected the ways in which No Child Left Behind has fallen short, maybe she'll turn her formidable analytic skills to formulating some new suggestions to improve public education. — Maeve McGoran, senior editor, "Morning Edition"
Hardcover, 296 pages; Basic Books; list price, $26.95; publication date, March 2
The Midnight House
By Alex Berenson
The Midnight House is the fourth spy novel by Alex Berenson, a talented prodigy who somehow manages a day job as a reporter at The New York Times . The star of Berenson's thrillers is John Wells, a former Dartmouth football player and the only spook ever to infiltrate al-Qaida. Wells' handler is the morally ambiguous Ellis Shafer — "George Smiley as played by Larry David," as Berenson describes him. In this latest installment, Wells is called out of hibernation by Shafer to unravel a trail of murder and mystery emanating from the closed-up Midnight House, a rendition prison somewhere in Poland. The book ends with the mysteries solved and Wells poised for action in Berenson's next novel.
If the minimum requirement for a spy novel is that the pages must be turned addictively, then The Midnight House is almost a terrific spy novel. Berenson paints an interesting picture of what rendition might look like, but the formulaic plot overpowers the detail and the painting. The characters are almost interesting, but end up as caricatures. Berenson's first novel, The Faithful Spy, demonstrated that he is capable of writing a terrific spy book. And the ending of The Midnight House is better than The Faithful Spy's, avoiding the pyrotechnics now demanded by most popular writing and film. The Midnight House is more plausible and cleaner than much of its competition, but Berenson will do better in the future. — Dick Meyer, NPR executive editor
Hardcover, 400 pages; Putnam; list price, $25.95; publication date, Feb. 9
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