Compared to the raw arrogance of Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential," this followup book is a pillow fight. Has he mellowed with age? Seems like. Nonetheless, his sharp wit and humor make this a good and entertaining read.
I recently listened to “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” by Walter M. Miller. I read it as a teenager, but I’ve noticed I get a lot more out of everything I read now than I did when my system was awash with raging hormones. (For example, I discovered that Thomas Hardy, far from being an incredible drag, was a funny, vivid and poignant writer.)
“A Canticle for Leibowitz” has been called a classic of science fiction. It’s also a classic in post-apocalyptic fiction, equal to George Stewart’s “Earth Abides” (which has held up remarkably well), “The Death of Grass” by John Christopher or “Malevil” by French writer Robert Merle. It has all the elements I look for in a great read: well-delineated characters, drama, mystery, humor and sorrow.
“A Canticle for Leibowitz” was published in 1960, at the height of the terror of nuclear annihilation. I remember “duck and cover” quite well; while crouching under my desk in my middle-school classroom, I was fairly certain that a blackout curtain and a wooden desk were not going to preserve me from frying to a crisp if an atomic bomb landed on, say, Los Angeles. At the time, nuclear catastrophe was a chill breath on the back of everyone’s vulnerable neck.
Miller’s opus opens after a nuclear apocalypse has literally bombed all of mankind back to the Stone Age. There’s a backlash against science, knowledge, and everything associated with the catastrophe buy anti-intellectuals who proudly call themselves “Simpletons.” Those perceived as intellectuals or scientists are murdered. Books are burned. Mankind descends into another Dark Age. Mutated humans, called “Children of the Pope,” are more or less accepted, because there are so many of them.
But there is one beacon of intellectual light left in the world: the Catholic Church, which resumes its ancient tradition of preserving past knowledge. The story opens with Brother Francis, a young postulant in the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, somewhere in the Southwestern desert of the United States. Leibowitz was one of the scientists murdered by the Simpletons, and after his martyrdom, miracles are said to have happened under Leibowitz’s aegis. The monks of the monastery want to canonize Leibowitz as a saint, but there hasn’t been enough evidence of his sanctity to satisfy New Rome. Brother Francis stumbles upon a cache of ancient papers, some of which appear to be pre-apocalyptic shopping lists—but others are blueprints. It becomes obvious to the reader (but not to the monks) that Leibowitz was an engineer, a designer of electronic circuits.
Poor Brother Francis meets his end as the first section of the book closes, having delivered his copy of one of the blueprints (suitably adorned with fanciful illuminations) to the Pope in New Rome.
The second section of the book takes place a few centuries later. An esteemed scholar visits the abbey to study the Leibowitzian relics and is able to tease out some of the technology from the ancient manuscripts. Technology is clearly in a renaissance as one of the monks has succeeded in building a generator to power an arc light. The scholar departs to New Rome to share his new-found insights and to recommend the canonization of Leibowitz.
The third section takes us another six or seven centuries into the future. Technology—much of it based on the study of old documents like the Leibowitzian relics—has developed to the point where space flight is practical. But nuclear weapons have been reinvented, as well—in all likelihood directly due to the knowledge preserved by the Order of St. Leibowitz—and nuclear war is imminent. The last abbot of the order perishes after an atomic blast brings his church down in ruins as he tries to save the consecrated hosts. But a ship commissioned by the Order launches into space, looking for a new home for humanity.
Well, sure, we destroy ourselves all over again, but maybe that rocket ship full of devout Catholics will colonize a new world that will never see an atomic mushroom cloud. Yet the reader is left with the impression that the human race is ultimately doomed to repeat its worst mistakes.
Sadly, “A Canticle for Leibowitz” was the only novel published during Miller’s lifetime. His last work, a follow-up novel called “St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman,” was published after his suicide in 1996. He must have seen that his ability to continue was in doubt, because he asked author Terry Bisson to finish it for him if he were unable to do so. Bisson did finish the book after Miller’s suicide. It’s thought that Miller’s traumatic experiences in WWII—including the bombing of an ancient abbey at Monte Casino—contributed to his depression and eventual suicide. That may be the case, but it also contributed to the creation of a science fiction masterpiece. Some people write to exorcise their demons, but even St. Leibowitz couldn’t exorcise the dark demons of Walter M. Miller’s haunted spirit.
"The Bone Season" is the story of a dystopian future England, where psychics and similarly talented people are persecuted by the authorities. The psi people band together in underground criminal gangs. There were terms for everything, but as I listened to the book instead of reading it, I can't remember or spell the terms so I'll skip them.
It turns out that the authorities are, in turn, controlled by a powerful alien species that uses the psi people as slaves. Our heroine is taken in as a slave by the consort to the alien's female heir to the throne. What ensues is familiar from Regency romances: she hates him, but is attracted to him. He is attracted to his slave, but doesn't act on it because of his position. I guess it creates sexual tension, but I found it kind of tedious.
The tale is well-written and the author creates a detailed world (more like worlds, as the aliens live separately from humans in their own society.) I guess I just didn't see what the aliens wanted with Earth and its inhabitants if they were such hot stuff to begin with. As a group, they despise humans and want as little to do with them as possible--wouldn't it have been smarter to find a different world, one that is unpolluted by human presence? Where did they come from? What is their home world like and why did they feel compelled to come here and mess with us? What made it possible for an alien and a human to find each other sexually attractive?
OK, OK, it's a fantasy, not science fiction, but there was just too much missing for me to enjoy this book unreservedly--and as mentioned, the relationship between the protagonist and her master was a bit gagulous.
I have read reviews that criticize "Inferno" because it is a lot like his other books. Well, yeah. He wrote it.
"Inferno" is another puzzle piece, again played out against the background of Rome and the Renaissance, though our hero does get to go to some other interesting places, including Istanbul. Dante is the recurring theme throughout, and while I knew Dante had inspired many works of painting, music and other art, the extent of his influence surprised me. As a result of reading this book, the Boboli Gardens have become a must-see destination for me.
It was fun trying to figure out the many puzzles that the author sets forth. And there is a serious and scary message about over-population that I hope readers remember and act on.
Because Robert Langdon doesn't entirely succeed in his critical mission this time, the world he inhabits will diverge from our own world rather significantly. I wonder if future books about R.L. will wander into science fiction as Brown explores the ramifications?
Gaiman's narration is always amazing. I really could listen forever. The story is short, and it helps if you're familiar with Lovecraft. (The word "cthonic" tipped me off. Who else uses it but Lovecraft?) And the preview chapter for "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" hooked me immediately--I bought the audiobook just as intended.
I have tried to catch George MacDonald Fraser out in an historical error, but have yet to succeed. As always, the story is historically accurate (except where noted by the author). Flashie, poltroon and scalawag, lies and cheats his way through the American South 20 years or so prior to the Civil War. Along the way, he inadvertently rescues a slave woman from bondage, but it wasn't really his fault--he'd have left her there if he could have. While Flashman himself couldn't care less about the fate of the slaves, it is a chilling portrait of slavers, slave owners and the entire slave/plantation system. Like "Huckleberry Finn," the story indicts without preaching.
And the narration couldn't be more perfect. David Case IS Flashman.
I have to mention that I adore Agatha Raisin, so perhaps I am less critical than I should be. But there is something about this irascible, middle-aged, vain and silly character that won my heart from the beginning. I guess it's Agatha's extremely flawed character that makes her so lovable. That, and the fact that she really does mean well. Mostly.
Anyway, the "Haunted House" is a fun and typical Agatha mystery, and I loved it. The narration is excellent.
Interestingly, this is an adult book narrated mostly from child's point of view. Gaiman does his own narration, and as usual, his voice is hypnotic. It's a tale of a bookish boy with no friends. When he finally makes a friend, she turns out to be--well, not human, really.
There are elements of the horror that ensues when parents behave unlike themselves and grownups aren't who they appear to be--all themes Gaiman has used successfully in his wildly popular children's books. His protagonist sees with clear, if not totally comprehending eyes, and knows he will not be believed. While he gains powerful friends, it is his own actions that determine the outcome as he faces down unthinkable threats against him.
This is a smaller story than "American Gods" or "Anansi Boys," but I found it thoroughly satisfactory.
I like cozies, as opposed to hard-boiled mysteries, but Phryne is a bit too much for me. This book reminded me of the old "Motor Boys" series from the 1920's. The Motor Boys possessed an automobile, an aeroplane [sic], a boat and a balloon, and they had lovely adventures without inconvenient money worries or parental interference.
Phryne is a rich lady living in Australia in 1928 who adopts abused teenaged girls, rescues abused housemaids from evil masters, is beautiful, has a wealthy married lover whom she enjoys but does not wish to take any further, drinks fine champagne, eats wonderful food prepared by devoted servants, etc. She is always perfectly composed, competent and articulate, even in the face of danger.
It was just all a bit too unbelievable even for me, a known fantasist. The narration was excellent, however.
Kate Morton's novels are all about secrets, love, and the persistence of the past. Often, there's a complicated relationship between sisters as well. "The Secret Keeper" has these elements and more, involving a young woman's misadventure during WWII and the questions that persist after the woman's teenaged daughter witnesses her mother stabbing a man to death in 1961. Although I did guess the answer to the mystery before all was revealed, I nevertheless found this an engaging and satisfying read. The details of life during the London Blitz seemed convincing and well-researched. The characters were lovingly constructed and very believable. The narrator, whom I believe does all of Kate Morton's novels, does a great job.
"Shantaram" is an engrossing, puzzling, engaging, horrifying, funny, sad, frustrating and compelling story. I'll explain in a sec why I didn't give it five stars across the board. It's a dazzling accomplishment, but has its cons (pun intended) as well as its pros.
The story is told from the first-person POV of an escaped Australian convict, an armed robber and former heroin addict, who winds up in Mumbai (referred to as Bombay throughout). He lives in a huge slum for a while, acting as a poor man's medic, gets thrown in jail where the conditions are beyond ghastly, then goes to work for one of the city's biggest crime lords, an Afghan Muslim named Abdul Khader Bai (spellings guessed at as obviously, I cannot refer to the written word here). Our hero, who is known as Lin in Mumbai, gets beaten up, tortured, stabbed, shot, and generally mauled so many times I lost count. He goes to Afghanistan during the war with the Russians with Khader Bai and barely escapes alive. He falls in love with the enigmatic Carla, who cannot love him in return. Many of his best friends are murdered or die in other horrible ways. Toward the end of the story, he volunteers to go off to another nasty war in Sri Lanka.
And I couldn't put it down. It was five parts, which means I lived with this guy for quite a long time. I had to find out what happened, and why things happened the way they did.
The one thing I kept wondering was: Why did Lin continue to pursue a life of crime? When he acted as stand-in doctor for his neighbors in the slum, he was adored by the community. As a member of the Khader Bai gang, he makes a lot of money, but is constantly in peril, always at risk, and suffers innumerable injuries and attacks. Through it all, he waxes lyrical, expressing his feelings with a sensitivity and deep feeling that the character never expresses to the people around him. And I wondered if the slum people were really as cheerful, honest, kind and generally boy-scoutish as they were portrayed. And how was it possible that Khader Bai, who engineered not only great crimes, but the grisly murders of many people (including a close friend who was loyal to him), could pontificate at length on the ethical meaning of the universe and condemn murder as "wrong"?
In short, I was skeptical about the veracity of the story, probably because it didn't ring true in my world. So I looked up the author, Gregory David Roberts. It turns out he is a former heroine addict who was imprisoned for armed robbery. He escaped from an Australian prison in 1980. As a criminal, he wore three-piece suits and always said "Please" and Thank you," becoming known as the "Gentleman Bandit." He lived in India for 10 years, making his living as a hard-core criminal, and was arrested in 1990 for smuggling heroine. He escaped again from an Australian prison, but decided against it and smuggled himself back in again so that he could try to reconcile with his family. He was tortured by guards in prison, and the book was twice destroyed by the guards. (I thought Australia was a civilized country?) There's a great picture of him on his website. He's a fit man who looks a bit like Crocodile Dundee with very long, blond hair. He teaches and has set up charitable foundations in Mumbai to help the city's poor. One of the more colorful authors, to be sure.
So I had to back away from my creeping doubts about veracity. The man lived the life he wrote about. All I wonder about now is: How much of the story was actually FICTION?
From the point of view of a satisfying story, I would have like Lin to have moved in a character arc from a life of crime to redemption. He learns many things in his adventures, but never seems to seriously consider another way of life. I found his decision to go to a war in Sri Lanka as a final repayment to someone who has saved his life unsatisfying as well. If he lives through the war, there is no indication that he then pursues a more redeeming lifestyle. He doesn't seem to feel remorse about the crimes he commits; it's just a matter of which side of the war you happen to be fighting on.
Another aspect of the storytelling I objected to was Lin's philosophizing at length about life, love, loss, friendship, violence, jail--you name it. A little of this is OK, but I thought there was a great deal too much of it. And the prose wandered into the purple more than once-- saved from risability by Humphrey Bower's perfect narration.
A word about Mr. Bower, as I gave him five stars. His ability to give a distinct "voice" to every character is beyond astonishing. His handling of different accents seems effortless, from American to Marathi. His sure touch enabled the author to tell the story with the depth and feeling and sensitivity that he must have envisioned.
My overall advice: read this book, unless you are squeamish about things like violence, filth, killing people, rats, etc. You will not regret it, and you will learn a great deal about knife fighting and making fake passports.
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