There have been many outstanding narratives and histories about the tragic destiny of the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, including his wife's first-rate memoir, Hope Abandoned. Stalin Epigram is not one of them. Robert Littell is singularly untalented when it comes to portraying real people and events, and tends to compensate by loading his fictionalized histories (such as The Company) with gossipy sex stories and empty bravado--call it the men's locker room version of Cold War history. Plus, Littell has a maddening tendency to introduce characters and plot lines that go nowhere at all--it's as if his imagination runs out in the middle of each chapter. The research is equally shabby--the secret police were not called the KGB in 1934, and St. Petersburg was called Leningrad. This audiobook was a complete waste of a audible credit.
THANK YOU JEREMY SCAHILL for bringing us Dirty Wars -- this is a book that had to be written, and in my view it should be read by everyone who is concerned about where our country is headed in its relations with the rest of the world. Succeeds brilliantly in describing how, and why, our most secretive, clandestine defense and national security assets (JSCO, drones) have evolved into the weapons of choice of our political and military leaders, and the shattering implications of this trend. Throughout Dirty Wars we follow the saga of US citizen Anwar Awlaki, targeted for "elimination" by the Oval Office without a shred of due process. Scahill very skillfully puts his story into its global context, but at the same time brings us back again and again to the heart-breakening, human story behind the so-called "signature strike" -- assassination by any other name -- that ultimately killed Awlaki, Samir Khan (another young American), and, soon thereafter, Awlaki's teenaged son and other family members.
Dirty Wars is not a hatchet job against Obama or Bush or any political group in particular. It's about how we as a nation have ceded basic constitutional rights and responsibilities in the name of fighting terrorism, even as, unwittingly, more terrorists and America-haters are created in consequence of our actions.
Scahill's book appears amid a flood of recent stories about NSA etc. harvesting all of our email and phone calls. But one question I haven't heard the media ask is: what the heck are they doing with all that information, what is its practical purpose? But having read Dirty Wars, the answer is pretty clear: they're using it to detect patterns of behavior and build out profiles and "signatures" for the list of kill targets that goes to the president's desk. All of this is going on extra-judicially, beyond any attempt at oversight, much less within legal structures. It is frightening.
There are a lot of legal thrillers out there. Many of them are good, gripping reads. Case of Redemption is not one of them. There is not a single intriguing character; the main character, Dan Sorenson, is so devoid of personality that the author is reduced to ascribing a personal tragedy to him in order to try to wring sympathy for him on the part of the reader. His professional partner, Nina, is equally blank and uninteresting; we find out more about the cut of her suits than what goes on inside her head. The lesser characters constitute a parade of annoying stereotypes that each seem to scream out, "I'm sorry for being so unoriginal, but the person who created me has no imagination."
The dialogue is banal in the extreme. Adam Mitzner seems quite taken with his creation in the form of Judge Perlmeyer (who's narrated with a Southern accent--why? this is New York), and gives her way too much real estate in the book to harangue Dan over his behavior in court. This, too, is an artificial way to generate sympathy for the thoroughly unremarkable main character, and does nothing to advance the plot.
The portrayal of the relationship between Dan and Nina is shockingly inept and cheesy. And as for the story itself -- there is not a single element of suspense or surprise, and the whole thing smacks of implausibility. Just two examples: this is a high-profile case involving a celebrity, there is no murder weapon, and the judge gives the defense only two weeks to prepare for trial? During their meetings with the defendant, L.D., in jail, our two legal eagles, Dan & Nina, never get round to asking him about his alibi on the night of the murder. I'm no lawyer, but isn't that pretty fundamental to a murder case? Yeah, I know, this is fiction, but to my mind, a story loses luster if it becomes too unmoored from reality and it's impossible to relate to anyone or anything in the book.
I didn't enjoy T & H nearly as much as I did the Potato Factory. Too much gratuitous violence for my taste (were the whale ship lashings really necessary?) and a number of characters from volume 1 of the series either drop out of sight for no reason or else get recycled. Found myself irritated and somewhat offended that with few exceptions, the women in this series are all prostitutes, either current or former. Maybe that was the reality of this time and place, I don't know. Even so, there was no need to pepper the dialogue with comments like "she is only a whore," "all women are whores" etc. Ugh.
A tremendous story with unique and interesting characters, especially in Ikie Solomon. Humphrey Bower does an exceptional job of narration. I can't imagine who would not like this audiobook.
The Light Between Oceans is the story of how two good people can make a wrong decision, and the consequences of their error in judgment. The narrative is simple, uncomplicated, and gently flowing (somewhat in the tradition of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth), but underneath the surface it explores in forceful terms some basic flaws of the human condition: how easily we seek to rationalize what we know to be wrong; the temptations of selfishness; our overwhelming dependence on others for happiness; the fickleness of destiny. Tom, the light-keeper who survived WW1, confronts the core moral dilemma much differently from his wife Isabelle, a survivor of a string of still births and miscarriages, and the contrast between their mentalities is, in my view, extremely compelling. Due to an ipod fumble, I unwittingly skipped over 10 or 12 chapters in Part 2 and ended up listening to the last chapter of the book. If that had happened with most other audiobooks, I likely would have said, nah, I won't bother to listen to what I missed since now I know how it ends. In this case, however, I went back to listen to the skipped chapters, and enjoyed them none the less for knowing how it would all end -- which I think is a testament to M.L. Stedman's beautiful writing and a great story. A book, after all, shouldn't be just about getting to the denouement on the last page, but about enjoying an entire experience, page by page (or digital bit by bit). And Light Between Oceans more than measures up to that basic standard. The only reason I didn't give the audiobook 5 stars is that narrator Noah Taylor has a habit of whispering/mumbling the ends of his sentences, which hinders comprehension.
I'm a huge Steven King fan, but this just did not do "It" for me. What you have is a mature story with well-developed, likable characters that--much to the story's detriment--has been contorted into a thoroughly pointless and (to me) unentertaining and waaaay-too-long saga of an evil presence that lives in the drains of the small town of Derry, Maine. Steven King, at his best, can do "creepy" like no one else (The Stand still sends shivers down my back) but with It, he totally fails to fascinate with this manifestation of evil in the form of a shape-changing clown. There's a veritable orgy of the ghoulish and grotesque over 20+ hours of audiobook but none if it's in the least bit scary or original. Including 20 different instances of children having their limbs pulled off does not make a horror story any more horrific, it simply makes it dreary. The book would have been so much better if King had left out all the supernatural elements and told a simpler story of Derry and its inhabitants, past and present.
A challenge for anyone writing a story based on historical facts and events is that the reader essentially knows how it will end; the key to success, in my humble opinion, is to illuminate some unknown, intriguing, or original aspect of that history that will add to our appreciation. Winds of War begins by raising two interesting (although hardly original) questions: how could a civilized country like Germany descend into such madness? and, how did Hitler get away with it for so long? (in Wouk's telling, the Allies didn't get their act together until the Nazi invasion of Norway). Unfortunately,once raised, the story doesn't explore these questions in any depth, which is a shame. Winds of War unfolds as a kind of Greatest Hits of WWII narrative (the Holocaust! the Blitzkrieg! Pearl Harbor! the A-bomb!) from the perspective of Navy Captain Victor Henry and his family. I had trouble working up any interest in the Henrys and their entourage; the characters are shallow and one-dimensional. "That Churchill fellow gave a pretty good speech last night" is about as deep as it gets. One thing that troubled me no end: neither Henry nor his annoying wife, Rhoda, ever question the morality of their living in the SS-appropriated home of a Jewish family that is clearly destined for Auschwitz.
About mid-way through Winds of War, it occurred to me that plunging into a good, general history of WWII would be considerably more interesting than Wouk's fictionalized version--not to mention the many great works of fiction set during that time period (two of my favorites are Erich Maria Remarque and Irene Nemirovsky) that plunge the reader into a Europe turned upside down and force us to confront that most disturbing of moral dilemmas: what would YOU do in this situation? would you act any differently? And there are so many fascinating, real-life stories from WWII that can't be topped by any fiction (read Studs Terkel, The Good War). Winds of War just doesn't measure up, I'm sorry to have wasted an audible credit on it.
There's a reason why GWTH is considered one of the greatest of American novels, and Scarlett and Rhett two of the most fascinating characters ever invented on the page. This book has it all: story, history, romance, family, personalities, glamour, and tragedy. Even the secondary characters, like Mr and Mrs O'Hara, are dazzling. If, like most people, you are familiar with the film version only, you'll find that the film followed the book quite closely, right down to the final "I don't give a damn." There are a couple of notable exceptions: in the book, Scarlett has two children by her previous marriages, not just the ill-fated Bonnie. (It doesn't much matter, as she is not a terribly attentive mother.) Another surprise is the presence of the Ku Klux Klan throughout the narrative, which Margaret Mitchell treats as a force for good -- but which, of course, was eliminated from the film version.
And on that note, before you undertake reading GWTH, be aware that it is a *masterful* piece of Confederate propaganda. In Mitchell's telling, the slaves were never ill-treated; they did not seek their freedom but had it forced upon them by the evil Yankees; they did not know what to do with themselves when freed, thus many took to crime, indigence, and government handouts (a refrain which echoes even today in US politics, especially on the right). The mission of the KKK was to protect white women from being raped by freed black men. Curiously, despite the wealth of historical detail that Mitchell provides, she never mentions the assassination of President Lincoln--I can only speculate that she was at a loss to spin it in a way that cast the South in a positive light.
But if you can overlook all that, and bear in mind that the mentality of the period during which the book was written (1930s) is, itself, gone with the wind, you'll be rewarded with one hell of a read. Linda Stephens is a superb narrator, too. Her rendition of Scarlett deserves an award; it captures all her complexities, effortlessly moving from coquette to loving daughter to savior of Tara and its inhabitants. Bravo!
This is the second book in the Outlander series that I've picked up, and it will be my last. Gabaldon writes pretty prose, but I find the story lines relentlessly linear and lacking in all suspense. You can literally fast forward/skip through chapters and not miss any crucial plot details along the way. There's no incentive to keep reading and see how things are resolved in the end. In my opinion, too, the time travel aspect makes no sense. The best time travel books are ones that create dilemmas between present and past (or future, as the case may be) and raise interesting moral or historical questions (for example, what Stephen King, in his masterful 11-23-63, calls the 'butterfly effect'). Gabaldon does not venture there, which causes me to wonder why she didn't just set her story in the eighteenth century and dispense completely with the twentieth. Her main character, Claire, is a physician; could she not have brought at least some penicillin with her in her journeys to the past, saved some lives, and potentially changed the course of history? But Claire is too pre-occupied with her longing for Jamie Fraser to make space for intriguing questions about the impacts of changing the past. Bottom line, it's all one long perambulation through an 18-century theme park. The moderator, Davina Porter, is very professional but the faux Scottish accent quickly becomes annoying. When someone imitates an accent, it ends up sounding unnatural and exaggerated if sustained over a long period of time. In a 20+ hours audiobook, it is too much.
I'm an avid Follett fan but Fall of Giants was disappointing. The core problem is the extremely shallow characters who move through the vast panorama of events of 1914-18 with nary a physical or emotional scar to show for it. Hence, we have lovers on opposite sides of the War who are completely unconficted about their patriotic loyalties; a German diplomat who shuttles between the trenches of France and revolutionary Russia without so much as muddying his boots; and a wealthy Woodrow Wilson aide who falls in love with 3 utterly disparate women within the space of a few years, all for the sake of moving the plot along chronologically. Another troubling aspect is Follett's penchant for retroactive social commentary that seems aimed at teenagers, or at audience that is clueless about 20th century history. At times I felt like I was reading a social history for middle schoolers. Women's rights, gay rights, ethnic rights--it's all packed in here, tied with a neat little bow. Finally, I fear that some of the more memorable moments in Fall of Giants were ripped off from other people's work. If you've ever seen the wonderful French film Merry Christmas, about the 1914 Christmas truce, you will recognize the source of Follett's treatment of Billy William's first winter in the trenches. It's very close to being a violation of intellectual property.
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