Short Takes: Book reviews, in brief



The Laughing Monsters

Denis Johnson, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 241 pages

“The Laughing Monsters” plunges protagonist Roland Nair into Sierra Leone, years after its savage civil war ended and before the recent arrival of the Ebola virus. Nair, who works for some NATO intelligence outfit, has been here before and is no easy picking. He is looking to connect with Michael Adriko, a Ugandan friend and soldier-of-fortune type who has shared some adventures with Nair and who holds out the prospect of making money on some scheme.

This is territory sometimes plumbed by John le Carre, whose protagonists are often slightly flawed but who often want to do good. But Nair is not just slightly flawed; he seems pretty rotten. He is a committed boozer and uses prostitutes. He is also willing to sell access to a nation’s secrets in the war against terror. Nevertheless, Johnson does a neat trick in developing reader empathy for Nair as he gets together with Adriko and his girlfriend, the daughter of a U.S. special forces commander.

The trio heads across the continent to Uganda and then to Congo, the voyage described in vividly sketched scenes and with dialogue that jumps off the page. Their luck goes from bad to worse as they go deeper into the bush and leave the amenities of civilization behind.

“The Laughing Monsters” is a masterfully written tale that describes a descent into one of the darkest corners of Africa and into the dark corners of the mind of man.

Associated Press


Shake Puppies

Carli Davidson, Harper Design, 144 pages

Photographer Carli Davidson – also an animal rights activist, pet foster parent and trainer – has a followup to her best-seller, “Shake,” her picture book of dogs shaking themselves silly. It’s “Shake Puppies,” which takes her original idea and scales it down to puppies. Davidson gives readers more than 130 amazing shots of pups shaking, capturing all the ear-flapping and zany expressions the 60-some featured dogs could muster. Her photos are wonderful.

She also makes a case for adopting from shelters and rescuing older animals. She did the latter while working on the book. Davidson says she “got baby fever” and decided she needed another dog. She found one in Saul, a Schnauzer whose owner was ill and had to give him up. “He’s 8 years old,” she writes in the book, “but I had to include him since to me he’s only 12 weeks.”

Her account of his joining her family is sweet: “Here I was surrounded by puppies and I opted for the grey, bearded old dude,” she said. “Old dogs lay it all out on the table. They may have some trauma to recover from, and some training to work on, but you have a much better sense of just who you’re gonna be sharing your life with from day one.” Between Davidson’s wisdom and photos, “Shake Puppies” is a keeper.

Chicago Tribune