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Best beach reads

Robert Downes - June 9th, 2008
Back when I was a kid, our library used to have a summer reading club for those of us who enjoyed the escapism of a good book. I’m not sure that many kids actually made it through an ambitious summer reading project, but the idea of enjoying a big summer novel or nonfiction potboiler retains its allure.
So, here are a few tomes to chew on while you’re down at the beach, looking for something to do besides counting seagulls:

What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception
By Scott McClellan
Publisher: PublicAffairs

The political bombshell of the year from a member of George W. Bush’s inner circle of Texans. Scott McClellan served as White House press secretary from July 2003 to April 2006 and was in the thick of defending the war in Iraq and trying to tap dance around the disastrous handling of the destruction of New Orleans.
The book claims that President Bush “convinces himself to believe what suits his needs at the moment,” to the point of straight-arming those who tried to warn him against the “serious strategic blunder” of invading Iraq. The 341-page book also charges that the Bush administration waged a propaganda campaign to bamboozle the American people into thinking that Iraq was behind the 9/11 disaster as a pretense for war.
In McClellan’s view, Bush surrounded himself with “yes” men and was also easily manipulated by White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove and Vice President Bill Cheney. In one incident, he recounts how Karl Rove convinced Bush to have his photo taken during a flyover of New Orleans -- prompting public outrage and an indictment of how far out of touch the administration was from anything but its own political agenda.
“One of the worst disasters in our nation’s history became one of the biggest disasters in Bush’s presidency,” he writes. “Katrina and the botched federal response to it would largely come to define Bush’s second term.”
Ultimately, McClellan couldn’t avoid seeing the administration’s underlying dishonesty, and the book is his attempt to come clean. “I fell far short of living up to the kind of public servant I wanted to be,” he writes.
Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that McClellan is an able communicator, blessed with an inside look at a troubled, and troubling, administration.

Devil May Care
By Sebastian Faulks
Publisher: Doubleday

“Devil May Care” is a new James Bond novel, written on the 100th anniversary of the birth of 007 creator Ian Fleming.
The original Bond novels, many of which were published in paperback in the ‘50s and ‘60s, were rousing thrillers that could be digested in the space of a few hours -- perfect for reading at the beach. Fleming wrote 14 of the books, based in part on his own experiences as an intelligence officer with the British during World War II. Combined with his globetrotting work in the navy and as a journalist, the 007 novels had a worldly exoticism blended with the spice of sex, mystery and suspense.
Author Faulks is no slouch when it comes to accepting the challenge of reviving Bond: He wrote the World War I novel, “Birdsong,” and also “Charlotte Gray,” a thriller about the French resistance during World War II. He claims he tried to capture Fleming’s style by copying his habits, writing 2,000 words per day for six weeks to complete the book.
Other authors have taken a crack at continuing the Bond legacy without much notice. In the latest, Faulks places Bond back in the 1960s in the company of “M” and Miss Moneypenny, engaged in a Cold War battle in Europe and the Mideast against a diabolical villain named Dr. Gorner who has a monkey’s paw for a hand. Will Faulks pass muster as Fleming’s replacement? Only the devil may care... but you can bet there will be a film version at some point.

The Road
By Cormac McCarthy
Publisher: Random House

“The Road” came out two years ago, but has renewed interest generated by the forthcoming film starring Viggo Mortensen. That, and the fact that McCarthy’s other widely-hailed book, “No Country for Old Men,” recently scored at the Oscars.
Unrelentingly bleak, the book takes place 10 years after the end of the world, when most survivors are cannibals or live on mushrooms and whatever canned goods can be scrounged. A father and his son push a broken shopping cart through a world of ashes to the sea, dodging bad guys. And since this is a “literary” book, it’s easy to predict that bad things will happen to good people.
More interesting than the “The Road,” perhaps, is the controversy over whether the punctuation-free book is a work of genius or totally sucks: In the 1,407 reader reviews listed on, it is variously praised as a masterpiece on par with Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea,” or a complete “waste of time and money,” with many readers saying they wished they never bothered.
But if the sun at the beach is a bit too bright, “The Road” is sure to dim it.

Three Cups of Tea
By Greg Mortenson as told to David Oliver Relin
Publisher: Penguin Books

Subtitled “One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time,” this book hit the paperback racks in January and has since become a book club staple.
“Three Cups of Tea” is the story of adventurer Greg Mortenson, a mountain climber who established 23 schools in the rugged, remote country of northern Pakistan. It offers a transcendent vision of the good that one person can accomplish with little or no money.
Its other great message is that of an American reaching out to Muslim tribesmen and finding that they are likable folks who are eager to learn. At a time when America seems inclined to shoot first and ask questions later with its military might, Mortenson becomes an citizen ambassador of goodwill, demonstrating the power of a helping hand.
An army veteran and rock-climber, Mortenson is living a hand-to-mouth existence when he decides to climb K-2 in the Himalayas to honor the memory of his sister, who died of a debilitating disease. In the process of rescuing another climber, Mortenson is too exhausted to make it to the top of the mountain. On the way home he gets lost in the wilds of northern Pakistan and stumbles across a remote village where he receives help from the locals.
Anxious to help the tribesmen, he asks what they want most. A school, they answer -- their classes were basically held outdoors, sitting on the ground. It’s a tall order for Mortenson, who can barely afford to take care of himself, but he returns home, raises the funds and returns to the village to build the first of 23 schools in a dangerous but beautiful land.

Nineteen Minutes
By Jodi Picoult
Washington Square Press

Another recent arrival in paperback, “Nineteen Minutes” is Jodi Picoult’s latest take on an issue ripped from the headlines.
The novel focuses on a school shooting in a small town in New Hampshire that is the end result of a life of torment and bullying. Teenage Peter Houghton spends 19 minutes gunning down the kids who’ve been giving him hard time since kindergarten (ie. tossing his sandwich out the bus window, sharing his private email love note with the whole school, and de-pantsing him in the cafeteria). When the ridicule and bullying become too much to bear, Peter guns down 29 of his classmates, killing 10 of him.
The balance of the book is about Peter’s trial, during which he is unable to comprehend why anyone would regret the loss of the kids who made his life hell.
Picoult’s books cover big issues such as date rape and the obligation of one sister to another. Some may criticize this pageturner for stereotyping kids and high school cliques (the jocks are invariably mean bullies, for instance), but there’s no denying that she leaves the reader with plenty to chew on -- and wondering what issue she’ll tackle next.

Black Flies
By Shannon Burke
Soft Skull Press, $14.95

A former EMT and paramedic, author Shannon Burke draws on his horrific experiences in Harlem to write a novel that verges on being a roman à clef.
“Black Flies” is about a med-school drop-out, Ollie Cross, who becomes a paramedic only to find his psyche becoming debased by the brutality of the runs out of Station 18 in the ghetto. Ollie tries to take on the persona of a tough guy like the other EMTs at the station, but finds himself on a downward spiral into something resembling post-traumatic syndrome.

Standard Operating Procedure
By Philip Gourevich and Errol Morris
Penguin Press, $25.95

Were the torture, beatings and brutality at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq just the work of a few out-of-control soldiers? Not in the view of this book, which says that guards were guided by the “implied consent” of their officers.
The authors describe how prisoners were beaten to death, stripped, humiliated, held in solitary confinement, and held suspended in excruciating pain.
Officers who condoned these actions or looked the other way, such as First Lt. Carolyn Wood (who had three prisoners beaten to death on her watch in Afghanistan), were rewarded with medals and promotions. Flunkies such as Pfc. Lynndie England took the fall for the torture scandal. The book doesn’t excuse their barbaric behavior, but it does point out that the blame for the scandal goes far higher up the chain of military command than Americans have been led to believe.

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