I accept that it is not possible to know what it is like to be in combat unless one has actually experienced it, but good literature is as close as one can get. The Yellow Birds, set in Iraq, tells the story of two young American soldiers from Virginia, their experiences and the aftermath. It is not a pretty picture. The genius of the book, a first work by Kevin Powers, is that it uses powerful and artful writing to not only tell a story, but to provide insight into the consciousness of other human beings who are caught in the madness of war and killing. This is not a story of hope or spiritual uplifting; rather, it is an exposition (not an explanation) of existence under this latest version of war. It is sad and unforgettable. Beautifully read.
Back to Blood is journalist-turned-novelist Tom Wolfe’s fourth novel, all best sellers, but it is still a very slight tale. It could be called “Miami Exposed,” as it seeks to paint a portrait of that city’s many warring classes and ethnic territorials, all, in their own way, pursuing the American dream. Most of the characters are so overblown that they are cartoons of real people, and the situations that Wolfe creates for them are so implausible, that the novel is sometimes more farce than drama. Still, Wolfe is such a good story-teller that the reader is nudged onward to find out how it all turns out, which will lead many readers to be disappointed because Wolfe frequently either abandons his characters or fails to resolve situations in which he has placed them. I have now read all of Wolfe’s four novels, and I would recommend that anyone interested in reading Back to Blood, do so only after they have read his earlier works in the order that they were written. Wolfe gets worse with each of his novels, but they’re still good enough to keep him and his readership going.
What saved this book for me, was the superb reader, who made this a better book than it would otherwise have been.
Some days all I really want is for someone to tell me a wicked-good story, and when that mood strikes me, there is no better author to turn to than Jeffrey Archer. His books are simple, fast-moving, thoughtless, and well-constructed, while his characters are either very good or very bad, and almost believable. Archer’s major ability is to grab the reader quickly and never let go, and to somehow make the reader care about what happens in the lives of the characters, in short, to make the reader want to know how it turns out. After quickly finishing Only Time Will tell, the first book in Archer’s projected series, The Clifton Chronicles, I immediately picked up and finished the second book, The Sins of the Father. No doubt about it: I’ll buy each succeeding book as it is published.
SS general Reinhard Heydrich is one of history’s cruelest and most depraved actors. He’s rotten to the core, but Hitler and Himmler like him, so his power and opportunities are unlimited and he rejoices in using them. He was assassinated by two Czech resistance heroes in 1942 in Prague, and HHhH tells the chilling story of the assassination. But the book is more than a narrative of an event that has been extensively researched and retold: It also tells the tale of the author researching and writing the book, sort of a “play within a play.” I found this technique, in the hands of French author, Laurent Binet, extremely effective and interesting, but because it does interrupt the exciting narrative of the assassination plot itself, it was disliked by some reviewers. To me, however, Binet’s literary journey and ideas about historical fiction, complemented the narrative in chief and raised the book from a adventure tale, to literary fiction. It is not clear whether Binet’s part in the book is real or imagined, but it doesn’t matter, this is a terrific book either way. The superb reader greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the book.
I’ve been listening to audio books for over 25 years, and I’ve come to know that there are some very good books, which do not work well for me in the audio book format. The Redbreast, by Jo Nesbo, is better read than listened to. According to an online site, it has 82 characters and all of them have unfamiliar Norwegian names. The plot is very intricate and takes place in 107 chapters, which switch back and forth between the years 1942 to 2,000, and within numerous cities of Europe. Quite frankly, I was confused during large parts of the book, a confusion that, if it existed at all, would have been cleared up by reference to the printed page. The omission of a map included in the print edition, didn’t help matters. As for the book itself, it is an excellent book, which is hard to characterize; part WWII history, psychology, existential angst, love, contemporary politics, hate crimes, and detective drama. The Redbreast is such a good book, that I regret my decision to select the audio version, even though the narrator is as excellent as the book.
I am well able to suspend disbelief and to read fantasy, but when a plot is rooted in the present and is so preposterous as to be ridiculous, it takes a writer better than Ann Patchett to make me abandon common knowledge and understanding of how the world operates. The protagonist, Dr. Annick Swenson, is an ethno-biologist doing research in an inaccessible Amazon village belonging to an isolated primitive tribe. Her research is being paid for by an American drug company which hopes to reap the benefits of its expenditures from the development of a drug that she is working on. The research enterprise is extremely expensive and the drug company has been footing the bill, no questions asked, for about ten years. Dr. Swenson considers it an intrusion into her science to have to report to her employer about what she is doing: no field notes, no test results, no peer review, no research plan, nothing. Still, the drug company goes along with it. In fact, Dr. Swanson purposefully does not keep adequate research or field notes, which she admits she omits so that her employer won’t become too nosy. There is no company in the world that would fund this project under these circumstances, nor would any foundation.
Dr. Swenson is a thoroughly unlikeable person. She’s arrogant, self-centered, rude and a monomaniac; in short, a ***** (sorry about that). She isolates herself in the remote village and refuses any telephone contact, mail contact, or the like with her employer or anyone else. One would think that this behavior might be worth an investment were Dr. Swenson a genius and had discovered something unique, something only she has knowledge of. However, that is not the case. Dr. Swenson is carrying on research on a discovery made by someone else and there are other teams of researchers working in the area nearby on related drugs. Dr. Swenson is a competent researcher, but hardly worth millions of dollars spent over a decade without one word to her employer about either her research or results. Quite frankly, the whole scene is stupid. Then, why did I finish the book?
Ann Patchett is a very good writer (see, e.g., Bel Canto) and her word pictures of the Amazon are excellent. There are subsidiary stories that are interesting and more credible than the plot in chief. Mostly, I became curious to find out how it would all end, how the author would resolve the many threads she created, and while there were some surprises and suspense, they were not rewarding enough to make reading this book worthwhile. While the plot does raise important ethical, moral, environmental and existential issues, it fails to illuminate any of them.
“Lost Memory of Skin” is a surprisingly good book; surprising because it deals with two repulsive characters: a predatory sex offender and a morbidly obese professor with lots to hide. But, it is the capacity of literature in the hands of good writers like Russell Banks, to illuminate the interiors of such outwardly offensive characters, so that understanding eventually generates sympathy. In “Lost Memory of Skin,” Banks does not indict (that is left to the reader) nor does he preach, although he comes close at times. Rather, this is a disturbing look at some important aspects of contemporary American life, which does not provide answers, but inexorably indicates that there must be a better way. The achievement of “Lost Memory of Skin” is that it blends an exciting and suspenseful plot with existential angst. I agree with Janet Maslin writing in the NYT: “’Lost Memory of Skin’ is a major new work by Russell Banks destined to be a canonical novel of its time.”
Having read and thoroughly liked the previous four novels in David Downing’s John Russell series, I eagerly awaited the fifth (and I would suggest to Downing, the last) installment for two reasons: Russell is a very interesting character and the lives of many of the population of the four novels were unresolved, and Downing is a very excellent writer. But, alas, even a writer as good as Downing needs to have a story to tell and the story told in “Lehrter Station” is boring. There are too many characters, too many set pieces, and too many threads to follow. Berlin in the aftermath of WWII is an intriguing place, but it doesn’t compare to Hitler’s Germany, and the numerous characters from the previous novels whose lives are brought forward in “Lehrter Station,” had their best days behind them. I, for one, have no further interest in John Russell and I wouldn’t have missed anything if Downing had never written this follow-up novel.
There were too many characters and too many scenes for this to be an effective audio book. The narrator, however, was very good.
Many years ago, I visited the Royal Observatory Greenwich and was fascinated by the exhibits of John Harrison's clocks and their importance to navigation. "Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time" tells the remarkable story of the clock's inventor, John Harrison. While the story is itself fascinating, Dava Sobel is a poor writer and the book reads something like a high school textbook. Fortunately, the book is short and the facts of Harrison's life carry the day. Unfortunately, the reader is so poor that she distracts from the book.
Alan Furst is one of very few authors whose books I automatically read as they are published, without waiting for either professional or readers’ reviews. I’ve yet to be disappointed, and his newest, Mission to Paris, is among his best works. 1938 Europe is a frightening place as the continent inexorably moves to war. It is scary for the participants, but darker for Furst’s readers because we already know what happens. Furst excels as a mood painter and as a chronicler of ordinary people caught in a history not of their choosing. Their reactions and the roles they chose to play, are as varied as human existence. One finds Furst’s novel interspersed with heroes, opportunists, venal and terrifying people, as well as the naïve. While Furst’s 1938 Paris is meticulously researched, he does not dwell on the historical, perhaps because we already well know the history (e.g., Hitler’s annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain’s appeasement at Munich, and Krisallnacht in Germany). But he skillfully melds events into the thread of his story. Mission to Paris, while having an exciting plot, is not a thriller or page-turner in the sense of, say, a Daniel Silva story, but it is intense and suspenseful enough. This is a most enjoyable book, easy to read, but worthwhile from a literary standpoint.
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