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This Week's Hot Reads

This week: how one prisoner redeemed himself through writing, the latest from Nobel winner Orhan Pamuk, an in-depth look at the government elite, a hilarious new history of the Smothers Brothers, and a classic murder mystery from a master.

11.24.09 9:10 PM ET

Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars
by Kenneth E. Hartman

A prison reformist writes from behind bars about life without parole.

Kenneth Hartman has been serving a life sentence in prison, with no hope of parole, since murdering a homeless man in 1980 while high on drugs. In Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars, the once-violent offender chronicles his growth from an enraged young man to a meditative writer. His early years in prison were often spent in solitary confinement, after he lashed out at prison guards or fellow inmates. But when Hartman discovered his talent for writing, his world within the prison walls began to change. Hartman’s “descriptions are sharp and, remarkably, suffused with dry wit,” writes Bookforum.com. Hartman eventually met, via a chance phone call, a woman whom he married and had a child with. He also helped to establish the Honor Program at California State Prison-Los Angeles County, which incentivizes positive behavior among prisoners to create a safe and cooperative atmosphere.

The Museum of Innocence. By Orhan Pamuk. 560 pages. Knopf. $28.95.

The Museum of Innocence
by Orhan Pamuk

A man’s obsession with a woman he cannot have manifests as a museum chronicling their thwarted love.

When Kemal, a wealthy denizen of Istanbul, meets Fusun, a beautiful shop girl and distant cousin, the two begin a torrid affair. Kemal, set to marry within his class, eventually breaks off his engagement, but only after it is too late. For the next 30 years, Kemal wanders Istanbul in search of Fusun, with an obsessive and self-destructive fervor. He turns into a collector of objects, hoarding ordinary items that remind him of his relationship and creating a museum of their thwarted love. The Museum of Innocence is Pamuk’s first novel since winning the Nobel Prize in 2006, though the National Post writes that the novel is “not as accomplished” as his earlier work. The Associated Press disagrees, writing about Pamuk’s oeuvre, “Having seen three brilliant van Goghs shouldn’t make laying eyes on a fourth any less astonishing.”

Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market. By Janine R. Wedel. 304 pages. Basic Books. $27.50.

Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market
by Janine R. Wedel

The invisible corruption of democracy is propelled by a special class known as the “shadow elite.”

Who is really in charge of our country? That’s the question Janine R. Wedel sets out to answer in Shadow Elite, and she points a finger squarely at Larry Summers, Timothy Geithner, Richard Perle, and Paul Wolfowitz, among others. This “shadow elite” looks unnervingly similar from one administration to the next, she writes, and a close examination also reveals that the division between public and private work is hard to discern. These power brokers have been safeguarded from standard ethics and even an obligation to the public they supposedly serve. Wedel traces the shadow elite from the Reagan era to the present day and draws the family tree of influence as it has been handed down. “What makes Wedel’s book so valuable is that she doesn’t indulge in conspiracy theories that can’t be proven; she provides the facts and describes how this informal group of elitists is fluid in moving among the powerful institutions that control public policy, including government,” writes BuzzFlash.

Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. By David Bianculli. 400 pages. Touchstone. $24.99.

Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
by David Bianculli

An inside look at the Smothers Brothers’ cutting-edge comedy—and their messy downfall.

Before racy jokes and jabs at politicians became standard issue in comedy, there were the Smothers Brothers, whose short-lived but influential show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, is celebrating its 40th anniversary. With the celebration comes a new look at the brothers who changed comedy and the price they paid for their work. David Bianculli, a longtime television critic, gets the inside scoop on the behind-the-scenes controversy at the Comedy Hour and follows Tom and Dick Smothers from their childhood to the success and unceremonious cancellation of their show, which ran on CBS from 1967 to 1969. In its brief tenure, the Comedy Hour became known for its edgy, boundary-pushing comedy and vocal opposition to the Vietnam War, while serving as a breeding ground for up-and-coming comedy writers, including Steve Martin and Rob Reiner. The Smothers Brothers’ story also exemplifies the changing social landscape of the 1960s, what documentarian Ken Burns calls “a superb, at times moving, portrait of an entire age—seen through the dramatic careers of two endlessly interesting entertainers.”

Too Many Murders: A Carmine Delmonico Novel. By Colleen McCullough. 384 pages. Simon & Schuster. $26.

Too Many Murders: A Carmine Delmonico Novel
by Colleen McCullough

A classic murder mystery set in the days before DNA testing.

Whether in print, in movies, or on television, nothing is more satisfying than a good murder mystery. In Too Many Murders, Colleen McCullough delivers on her reputation as a master of mystery writing, returning to her beloved detective Carmine Delmonico. An old-school detective working in the 1960s, Delmonico first appeared in McCullough’s novel On, Off, which Publishers Weekly called “an intelligent shocker.” This time around, Delmonico is on the case after a small college town sees 12 murders over the course of one day, all of them seemingly unconnected. In a pre- CSI world without DNA testing and forensics, when sleuths had to rely on their wits, Delmonico keeps the reader hooked as he untangles a mystery that gets more complex all the time, with added curveballs from Cold War-era political wrangling, along with an interfering agent from the FBI.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.