Imagine, if you will, picking up Tolstoy's "War and Peace" and being confronted with passages like, "And so Napoleon decided to invade Russia. Or at least, that's what I think he decided. I wasn't there, so I can't exactly read his mind. All I can do is tell you that he did invade Russia, which is the story I'm going to write about. But it's hard to concentrate on that story just now, because I'm equally fascinated with the lovely, blonde, 20 year-old stenographer I just hired, and she's a tremendous distraction."
That is more or less what one really finds upon commencing this story of how two expatriates parachuted into Nazi-held Czechoslovakia and managed to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, one of the most vital -- and evil -- men in the Reich. It's a worthwhile story, but sadly Laurent Binet's history -- or novel about someone trying to write this history -- or very long diary entry about himself (it's a little hard to say which) only occasionally wanders over to tell that tale.
Binet begins by giving an account of why he decided to tell the story -- he was, he says, captivated by the notion of Jozef Gabcik, one of the two men, lying on his bed and listening to the trolleys outside, as the moment approached when he and his partner would strike at the man known as "the Hangman," "the Butcher of Prague," and "the Blond Beast." And it seems like this is a forward, giving the author's motivations for writing this book before it begins.
Unfortunately, the ENTIRE BOOK reads like this, and it becomes hard to tell after a while if this is supposed to be a serious history of the Heydrich assassination or a first-person account of an author struggling with his muse. In a strange way, it's vaguely reminiscent of a 1976 documentary, "All This and World War II," possibly the only "historical" account stranger than Binet's, which presented World War II newsreels, one after another, set to Beatles music!
Binet's approach is hardly less bizarre, though, than that "battles and Beatles" account. And were that not strange enough, consider annoyances like this: at one point, we're told that the head of British Intelligence was referred to as "M," "just like in the James Bond novels." And that, somewhat in homage to that, Heydrich liked to be referred to as "H." But then a little later, Binet admits that he's been "talking rubbish," and that the head of British Intelligence was actually referred to as "C." And that Heydrich actually liked to refer to himself as "C," too, not "H." How does an author (let alone his editor) justify wasting his reader's time with nonsense like that? And after a time, how can the reader trust anything that Binet says?
It really is unfortunate, because the story of Gabcik, his compatriot Jan Kubis, and the rest of the people who bravely stood up to the Nazi state to help rid the world of a truly evil man is fascinating, and worthy of a serious examination. But Binet's endless asides trivialize these heroes and the many martyrs he supposedly wants to honor, as his narrative gives them more or less the same prominence as his tempestuous relationship with his girlfriend, or his fretting over whether to spend the money to buy the book written by Heydrich's widow.
What a shame to waste the talents of John Lee, one of the best narrators in the business, on this endless series of distractions. Rubbish, indeed.
Jon Meacham has penned an enjoyable biography of the third president, who also (save, possibly, for Benjamin Franklin) was the most talented man of his day -- and perhaps who ever lived. It starts with Jefferson's birth in Shadwell, Virginia, and ends 83 years later not far away at Monticello, which among all of the homes of the Founders most completely reflects its occupant. Of course, Jefferson also designed the structure, and as Meacham notes, spent most of the years until his retirement tinkering with it -- at one point demolishing much of the original building to (eventually) more than double its size.
In between, we have Jefferson the young student; the young lawyer; the delegate to the Continental Congress where he became the primary author of the Declaration of Independence; the Governor of Virginia during the Revolutionary War (one of his least noteworthy roles); a representative to the Confederation Congress; minister to France in the 1780s; Secretary of State during Washington's first term; then leader of the opposition to the Federalists, including his old friend John Adams; and, finally, President. And then he became the Sage of Monticello for his last two decades, managing to found (and design many of the buildings for) the University of Virginia.
Just listing those posts that Jefferson held is itself somewhat exhausting . . . and in addition to his vibrant political contributions to his country, Jefferson was a lawyer, surveyor, naturalist, author, inventor, and architect. Yet his reputation has diminished somewhat in recent years, as popular biographies have exalted his rival John Adams at Jefferson's expense -- and as revelations about his relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, have become newsworthy, with DNA tests confirming that he indeed fathered many of her children. Meacham does not gloss over this relationship, and instead presents a kind of warts-and-all portrait: a man who thought slavery should be abolished, yet owned as many as 600 slaves himself; who thought there was nothing wrong with evicting Native tribes to make way for white settlement; who served one Federalist president yet came to resist him and his successor; and who opposed the concentration of power in the national government, yet was sanguine about its use when he became chief executive himself.
The Jefferson that emerges here, then, is a complex and contradictory figure -- very much a man of his time, with prejudices that would make him politically incorrect today. Yet he was also one of the most pivotal of the Founders, probably their most eloquent writer, and a man who learned how to use power to achieve what he thought best for his nation -- perpetuating his views through four of the next five presidential administrations.
He is also perhaps the most accessible of the Founders. As Meacham says, while it's hard to imagine having a glass of wine and dinner conversation at Mount Vernon with George Washington, it's easy to imagine doing so at Monticello with Jefferson. Meacham's biography reminds us that, for all his flaws, Jefferson's extraordinary talents, his political contributions to the young republic, and his unceasing opposition to monarchy, lift Jefferson far above his human failings. The book is brought enjoyably to life by Edward Herrmann, who though nearly 70 has a voice that is still strong and clear, and one of the best narrators working today.
This looked like it would be an intriguing story with some scientific and thriller elements, but it was mostly a disappointment. The story unevenly moves back and forth between events in France and Southeast Asia -- usually just as the story is getting interesting in one place or the other. But over time, it seems harder and harder to care about the main characters, and the narrative moves so s-l-o-w-l-y for what is supposed to be a thriller that it eventually becomes more boring than anything else. It became harder and harder to care about the characters, and the "startling revelations" at the end are practically telegraphed almost from page one . . . kind of a thrill-less thriller, really.
The story also used some contrived means of getting the characters to go from place to place, usually because it appeared that the author needed to move them around in service of the plot -- the "deus ex machina" quotient was fairly high. The author likewise had an unfortunate tendency to repeat certain passages and references over and over and over . . . if I'd heard the term "smoke baby" one more time, I was ready to scream. The novel also has a fairly high "ick" factor, with several characters having to consume disgusting food from time to time, which, along with some gruesome passages, don't exactly make you want to keep listening.
The one bright spot was narrator Christopher Evan Welch -- despite apparently being an American himself (at least, that was the accent used for most of the book), he moved effortlessly between American and British accents and made the latter (the nationality of one of the main characters) sound authentic. He was also able to make each character sound different from one another, including the females, so that it was easy to tell them apart. It's a shame that these efforts were in service of a story that wasn't particularly worth the journey.
The description that most encapsulates this book is "kaleidoscopic" -- a breezy stroll through the first decade and-a-half of American life in the 20th century, focusing on one significant event of just about each year, and taking the reader to the brink of the Great War. Lord has an easy, accessible style, made most famous in his "A Night to Remember" about the sinking of the Titanic. That event makes an appearance here, too, although just in passing -- the focus is on other events and personalities.
Those events have been done elsewhere in far greater detail, of course -- whether it's McKinley's assassination, the trust-busting of Theodore Roosevelt, the Wright Brothers' first tentative success flight, or the San Francisco earthquake. (Early in his presidency, for instance, Roosevelt was nearly killed in a train crash; "Theodore Rex," a detailed biography of Roosevelt, spent pages on it; Lord disposes of that event here in a couple of sentences.)
Lord clearly didn't intend this to be a mural that captured all the events of those years -- it's more like a series of miniature portraits of the events depicted. Because he was writing while people from those years were still alive, however, he was able to interview many of them, relying on their recollections along with diaries, newspaper entries, and letters to create this account. But despite the book's title, it isn't just a nostalgic look back -- alongside some accounts of the glittering lives of the wealthy, the book recounts child labor, the lack of women's rights, and the nearly open warfare that grew out of the awful working conditions in many industries, especially mining.
As enjoyable as this book is, however, this edition is sadly wanting. The narrator will periodically repeat a line verbatim -- obviously a cue to the editor where to overlap two pieces of tape. Why those lines weren't subsequently edited out is a mystery, and the audio quality changes dramatically at some of these junctures, too. Mr. Waterman, moreover, has his limitations as a narrator -- the book is punctuated throughout by the loudest, most rattling inhalations this side of Raymond Burr. Most narrators learn enough breath control to avoid this, but it's quite noticeable -- and hence distracting -- here. So what should have been a 5-star book gets (at least) a one-star demotion as a result.
Thor displays embarrassing prejudices against Muslims, and gives the book an annoying political slant (especially the female senator from the northeast with initials HRC -- gee, who could that be? -- subtlety certainly isn't his style). He also has some serious limits as a writer -- many of the characters' thoughts and decisions are rendered not through their actions or dialogue (even inner dialogue), but by the reader just being told what a character has done, and thinks, and believes, and why. Even though this is the unabridged version, a lot of these passages read like the "bridge" narration in the shorter versions to fill in the stuff that's been left out. A lot of the dialogue, sadly, also reads like narrative -- long passages that will engender a lot of eye-rolling. Conversely, he lovingly describes every gun with more detail than he describes the characters, and he has an annoying habit of repeating the full names of each firearm, down to the caliber, over and over and over . . . .
Moreover, despite Thor's political biases, a lot of the political narrative ironically reads as if it were taken from a "how to" manual read by someone with no first-hand knowledge of American politics. For instance, no one -- no one -- "runs" for the vice-presidency. At least for the past century or so, the vice-president has always been a personal choice made by the presidential candidate, often from among the runners-up for the presidential nomination. (It's how we ended up with dark horses like Dan Quayle or Sarah Palin.) Yet here we're supposed to believe the V.P. can be "awarded" by the party chair, in an off-election year -- before there's even a nominee!
It's too bad, because the plot has some promise -- the tie-in to Hannibal's cross-Alpine expedition and the ancient toxins-text is kind of an interesting notion. In the hands of a better writer, those elements could have formed part of a worthwhile narrative. But based on this experience, I've read my last Thor novel.
This is my second David Liss novel -- the first was the equally impressive "The Coffee Trader," whose main character is also a Jew living among Gentiles -- in that case, a former Portuguese commodities broker living among the Dutch, while the protagonist here is Benjamin Weaver, a "thief taker" (someone who hires himself out to retrieve stolen property from the thief -- shades of Travis McGee in the John D. MacDonald series!) living in 1620s London, who finds himself first wrongfully accused and then wrongfully convicted of murder. (Weaver may be a distant relative of the protagonist in "The Coffee Trader," as Liss drops a hint that they both share the same family name from their Portuguese roots.)
Liss does an excellent job recreating the historical period in which this story is set, and weaves an engrossing story despite the somewhat obscure political hijinks that give rise to the main character's difficulties. Despite choosing such unfamiliar terrain -- a scheme involving "Whigs," "Jacobites," and "Tories" -- the book's introduction gives a helpful "road map" to the main historical intrigues, so that they become part of the background of the story, which can thereafter be followed with relative ease. Weaver himself is not the most admirable of main characters, but it's in keeping with the fairly rough profession he's in.
Still, the real prize here is the extraordinary talent of Michael Page, who's as good as having a full cast performance. Page is like the Mel Blanc of narrators, effortlessly sliding between patrician, plebian, Londoner, Irishman, Scotsman, and a host of other voices. Each character's voice is distinctive and memorable, which also helps you to keep your place in the complicated narrative. It's a shame this is the only one of Liss' novels that's he's read, because Page could make the phone book sound interesting. If you like historical fiction, this is a good bet, and you can never go wrong with this narrator.
"Sworn to Silence" has a passable mystery with somewhat of a surprise in its resolution, but the author uses a bizarre narration style that shifts from first person present tense when the main character is speaking to third person past tense when someone else is the focus of the action. Because most novels are written in the past tense, there's something unsettling in those passages written in the present tense to begin with, but this book compounds that sense of oddness with these arbitrary shifts depending upon which character is involved; in fact, occasionally, the same scene is told twice from the point of view of different characters (in different tenses, of course). It may have worked for William Faulkner, but this isn't experimental fiction, and when the plot is the main thing carrying a story like this along, these shifts are nothing but a jarring distraction.
The author's narration style is also little overblown -- though perhaps that's not surprising from someone who started her career writing romance novels. Almost every description of a scene or a feeling has to involve some kind of flowery metaphor, when for this kind of story -- essentially a police procedural -- a straight description would often be more appropriate. It's too bad, because she isn't bad at plotting or weaving a story. While I'd rate the story as passable therefore, I grew tired of being jolted back and forth between the past and the present (occasionally for the same scene) -- and I won't be exploring any of the author's other works involving this character.
Because 2011 marks the beginning of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, Foote's marvelous narrative is a great introduction to the history of the conflict, and to the people and personalities who lived and fought it. This first volume covers from shortly before the start of the war in 1861 until just after the battles of Antietam and Perryville in the late summer-early autumn of 1862.
As some others have noted, this is a highly readable (and listenable) account, but the absence of maps does detract from the experience a bit because the original version was well-supplemented with them, and Foote wrote the story assuming that the reader would have their aid in the original version. Still, even in audio-only, it's a thorough, entertaining account of the era, written with a deft hand by a man who was, first and foremost a novelist; he thus brings a storyteller's gift to this work, stopping every so often in the chronological account of the events to spend some time recounting the personal history and idiosyncrasies of the men (and occasional women) who populate the story.
Those new to the story will perhaps be surprised to discover that the war was fought not only in Virginia and Tennessee, but also in Arkansas, along most of the Mississippi River, and even in the mountains of New Mexico. For a Southerner, Foote managed to get deeply into the psyche of Abraham Lincoln, and despite his regional origins, tells the story fairly, giving each side its due and each major participant the praise or scorn he deserves.
The 37+ hours went far more quickly than I would have thought possible, and left me wanting to delve immediately into volume 2. The only drawback was the narrator, whom many people seem to like, but whose voice I have always found a tad grating. He does a competent job with the pace and the pronunciation, though, and if you don't find the sound of his voice displeasing (it grows on you after a while -- sort of), it doesn't detract from a wonderful book.
Since I subscribe at one of the higher levels of membership, and hence don't pay as much per audiobook, I'm glad it only cost me one credit and that I didn't lay out bigger money for the book. The web tie-ins were hokey, unnecessary, and not worth the time to log in after about the third try. Really -- if the story can't stand on its own without these annoying interludes, why bother? And since the book had to be written so that someone who couldn't log on didn't really miss anything, isn't that an admission that these scenes were nothing but a gimmick all along?
This book also "featured" the use of sound effects and music that were completely out of place. As with the web tie-ins -- if the story is so flimsy that it can't stand on its own without music and sound effects, then it has no business being made into an audiobook. John Glover has relatively good talents as a narrator, but he, too, descended into gimmickry with the annoying voices he did for the killer whenever it was time for the narrator to stroll through the killer's head.
I did find the story mildly engaging, but as other reviewers have noted, this book has some *huge* plot holes. Information about the killer is deliberately held back at the end -- presumably to be revealed in a sequel. On top of that, the killer's apparently unlimited resources, especially financial, and his motivation are never explained -- perhaps that's being held back for a sequel, too.
One other point about that sequel tie-in: this book has a cliffhanger ending that descends to the level of something out of the 1960s television series, "Lost in Space." But it's just another gimmick -- like the web tie-ins, distracting sound effects, and information that's hinted at but held back. I, for one, won't be buying the sequel(s).
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