George Pelecanos is a terrific writer, and this novel is an outstanding example of his work. Readers like me who live in the D.C. area may have extra reasons to enjoy his fiction, because it offers an intensely personal peek into a variety of Washington-area locales. Only a few of these are likely to be well known, even to long-time residents. Heck, I also enjoy closely observed fiction about cities I know much less well, such as L.A. and New York. My suspicion is that readers who like close-up and realistic introductions to city jails, law offices, neighborhoods on the upswing, and obscure neighborhoods on the road to abandonment will be fascinated by Pelecanos's presentation of D.C.
The story is an interesting one. Much of its interest flows out of the compelling and believable characters Pelecanos creates. Many of the characters occupy a grey area between lawlessness and loyalty to a kind of basically moral code. A principal character is drawn, through his lawful but somewhat shady profession, into D.C.'s drug trade. A fairly straightforward recovery job turns complicated when murder intrudes. If other readers are like me they will care about the sometimes unlikeable characters who get killed or threatened as a result of the main character's persistence.
The narrator, Dion Graham, does a terrific job with the range of voices in Pelecanos's Washington. As is usual in Pelecanos stories, we meet all kinds of folks, both African-American and white, who will be recognizable to long-time D.C. residents. The narrator speaks easily and without condescension all of the voices in this wonderful novel.
Jhumpa Lahiri is a writer whom I have encountered before, in a good but not outstandingly memorable novel ("The Namesake"). With the exception of Chekhov and Conan Doyle, I ordinarily read rather than listen to short stories, so I was not tempted to purchase "Interpreter of Maladies" until Audible made the irresistible offer of this volume in exchange for three or four dollars. In my opinion, this book of Lahiri short fiction is a wonderful contribution ... terrific as a technically accomplished set of short stories and fascinating as an interpretation of the Indian / Bengali immigrant experience. I warmly recommend it to fans of good writing, good short stories, and interesting excursions into the life experiences of people on every stage of the journey from stranger in a strange land to long-time resident (and stranger to the old home country).
I expect to re-listen to these tales someday. They are expertly narrated by Ms. Novak.
While I'm certain Mr. Stillwell is a perfectly acceptable reader for many books--specifically, ones requiring an American accent--he was a poor choice as narrator of this volume. "1913" describes the mood, highlights, lowlights, popular longings, political and intellectual atmosphere, and foreign and defense policy outlooks of Big Power and Lesser Power capital cities immediately before World War I. It is reasonably interesting, though a bit shallow as intellectual history.
The fact that the book surveys so many national capitals--Berlin, Paris, Vienna, Rome, St. Petersburg, among others--means that it would be a real advantage if the reader knew how to pronounce words and names in the languages of those cities. It is unreasonable to expect perfect pronunciation, but a game attempt based on some coaching from a trained linguist certainly would help. Instead, Mr. Stillwell thought plowing ahead with an unaided American accent would work just fine. It doesn't. People with a smattering of French or German will cringe every time the narrator attempts to render straightforward words in those languages. The author of the book is trying to strike a sophisticated pose with his wide learning and cultured asides. The effect is completely ruined when the narrator mispronounces the name of a well-known writer, politician, intellectual, or the best-known street in a world-famous city.
I suppose the word "sweeping" was first applied to fiction to cover novels of this kind--ones that tell a single family's history over a period of roughly 170 years. The author tells the story through the consciousness of three characters. The periods covered are of uneven interest, and the narrative alternates between the stories of the three main characters. The advantage of this strategy from the point of view of readers is that we only have to listen to the less interesting stories for 10 - 30 minutes at a time. We know that a more interesting character and more interesting story will be along soon.
The most arresting story is certainly the one covering the earliest years. The character is interesting, and his story is both horrifying and at times lyrical. He has fascinating reactions to the major events of 19th century Texas history, including ones in which he plays a minor--though often shocking--role. The early 20th century history is less interesting, though told from the perspective of a somewhat interesting, guilt-ridden protagonist, one who is not well suited to his tumultuous times or the manly role that he is expected to fill.
I suspect the author got bored telling the story of his last main character, a wealthy woman who is not persuasively characterized and whose life story is sketchily rendered. That's o.k. Most of the characters whose lives intersect with hers are not all that interesting anyway (except the 19th century founder of her family's fortune, i.e., the first main character in the book). Unfortunately, that character dies when she's a child.
Will Patton is a first-rate narrator; the other three are less distinctive. Will Patton has the advantage that he is presenting the most interesting story in the book--that of the first, 19th-century character. My feeling is that his story is compelling enough to see most readers through the entire novel. On the whole this is a satisfying and in some ways memorable read. From what I have read of Comanche folkways and history, the part of the story touching on Indians and Indian-Anglo interactions is accurate and unusually sympathetic to the perspective of Comanches.
A better written, more plausible novel.
"The Guns at Last Light," by Rick Atkinson
The prose was dreadful. Brick's reading merely made the awful seem annoyingly portentous.
The conceit fueling the action (top-notch spy loses his memory) is an ingenious one.
"The Bourne Identity" (the 1980 novel) is a mess. "The Bourne Identity" (the 2002 movie) is a minor masterpiece. Equally astonishing is that the two follow-up "Bourne" movies (in 2004 and 2007) were just as sparkling and inventive as the first. For sustained high quality, the 2002-2007 "Bourne" trilogy is one of the marvels of modern Hollywood movie-making. Too bad the inaugural novel of the "Bourne" trilogy does not remotely approach the fluid style, conciseness, and inventiveness of the movie of the same name.
Of course, thoughtful and attentive readers will find both the novel and movies far-fetched. This is scarcely a problem in the movies, because the speed of their action and the mystery of the protagonist's situation give watchers little opportunity to dwell on the improbabilities of the plot. By stripping out some of the more roccoco plot elements, the movie's screenwriters also make the action somewhat more plausible.Implausibility is not the greatest sin in fiction.
Great novels can have great implausibility (think "Huckleberry Finn"). But skilled writers will make you suspend disbelief, something Ludlum (at least in this novel) seems incapable of doing. The prose is overwrought and the hero singularly unappealing. In this the novel contrasts strongly with the Bourne character memorably played by Matt Damon in the movie. In addition, Bourne's love interest, though certainly the most appealing character in the novel, is much less distinctive and plausible than the quite different character winningly played by the great German actress Franka Potente.
People who have seen the movies need not be worried that the movies take away the suspense of the novel. The plot differences and even the differences in major characters are big enough so that readers will encounter plenty of surprises along the way. Unfortunately, one of the biggest surprises is that an overlong, badly written, and confusingly narrated novel could be turned into such an entertaining and memorable film. I kept doggedly reading to the end mainly to see how the movie screenwriters performed such a neat trick: What did they jettison? What did they keep? What did they ignore altogether? After reading the novel and seeing the film, most readers / moviegoers may agree with me that the screenwriters deserve A+ for their efforts. Alas, the author deserves a gentleman's C, even from a generous grader. Almost all that grade is earned for the ingenious conceit that fuels the action: A spy who loses his memory. Among the worst features of the writing is the truly horrendous dialog. If you have friends or business acquaintances who speak like this, you would run for the exits.
I managed to listen to volume 1 of Ludlum's famous trilogy. There's no chance I'll be listening to installments 2 or 3.
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