BOOKS
06/26/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Book Review Roundup

Did you miss any of the big book reviews this weekend? Catch up on them with the highlights below.

"The Lake Shore Limited," Sue Miller
The New York Times

...[H]er most nuanced and unsentimental novel to date. This is a book that does not depend on big, noisy plot developments, topical issues or deliberately withheld secrets to create suspense. Rather, its power grows from Ms. Miller's intimate understanding of her characters (for once, the men are as keenly and sympathetically portrayed as the women) and from her Chekhovian understanding of missed connections, lost opportunities, and closely held memories that mutate slowly over time.

"13 Bankers," Simon Johnson and James Kwak
The New York Times

"13 Bankers" is persuasive penance -- a well-documented appeal to embrace once again Thomas Jefferson's skepticism of concentrated banking power. Or, as Johnson and Kwak conclude: "The financial crisis of 2007-2009 has made Jefferson a little less out of fashion."

"Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison," Piper Kerman
The Los Angeles Times

So much of this book is funny and warm, but the most striking thing is the hopelessness of it. This is not a book about redemption in the penal system. Kerman worries about every inmate who "packs out" and goes home. Will she make it? She notes that "about eighty percent of the women in U.S. prisons have children," but when they leave, some after many years, with only the clothes they're wearing and a few dollars, without jobs or places to live, what kind of parents will they be? The pre-release classes are a joke. No one tells these women how to survive, much less thrive on the outs. No wonder "two-thirds of all released prisoners are locked up again." Before they leave, rather than celebrating, many prisoners get depressed.

"Pearl of China," Anchee Min
The Los Angeles Times

The sentiment behind "Pearl of China" is admirable, but it doesn't succeed on a storytelling level or in treating Pearl Buck as anything but a familiar historical figure. Too often the author moves through history in an oddly perfunctory way, and because Pearl's life is recounted solely from Willow's perspective, it's a dry and distant account: "In 1932, [Pearl] had won the Pulitzer Prize for 'The Good Earth' while still among us. In 1938, she won the Nobel Prize for literature."

"Island Beneath the Sea," Isabel Allende
The San Francisco Chronicle

The narrative sprawls and leaps, reaching ambitiously at its own horizon, tracing social upheavals from the distant French Revolution to the Haitian slave rebellion in all its brutality and chaos, to a New Orleans fomenting with cultural change. In the end, it is the next generation - those born into the tangled web - who will define and culminate the story with their lives and loves, their unprecedented attempts to transcend societal limitations.

"Murder City," Charles Bowden
The San Francisco Chronicle

Charles Bowden, in his highly personal, highly stylized book, "Murder City," locks in on Juárez's stock-in-trade - killing - during 2008, and tries to figure out what, if anything, these numbers mean, and what's behind the statistics. He employs some traditional journalism tactics to get there, relating the lives of people he believes represent the city's new soul.

"The Great Oom," Robert Love
The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Love has the gift of the good biographer: He has sympathy for his subject's "flamboyant weirdness" but the rigor to present him for what he was. Although yoga was an import, Pierre Bernard was an example of a fascinating American type: the spiritual entrepreneur. His life reminds us that the appeal of spiritual cures that promise practical results is not a new phenomenon; it is an enduring part of our country's history. If our current pursuit of "wellness" is any guide, it will remain so for the foreseeable future.

"My Queer War," James Lord
The New Republic

If the generals really plan to spend a year reviewing the policy of "don't ask, don't tell," before its anticipated repeal by Congress, they should have plenty of time to read James Lord's My Queer War. What they will learn, among other things, is that the American warriors who fought in World War II, trumpeted as our "Greatest Generation," were the usual mix of gay and straight, humane and sadistic, cowardly and brave. They will also learn that the United States Army has been as much a refuge for gay men as a system for identifying and expelling them from its ranks.

"Mirror Mirror," Marilyn Singer
Asheville Citizen-Times

There is something new under the literary sun, and it is worth celebrating. It is reversible verse, or reverso.

Veteran children's author Marilyn Singer developed this poetic form to tell two sides of a story. She explains, "When you read a reverso down, it is one poem. When you read it up, with changes allowed only in punctuation and capitalization, it is a different poem."

While reversos can be about anything, in Singer's first golden foray, "Mirror Mirror," she tweaks and teases traditional fairy tale standards. The timeless appeal of the familiar stories is here still, only now they are made fresh with new, even surprising perspectives.