Member Since 2010
In another time and place Cornelius "Buddy" Suttree might have been a fisher of men, but in 1951 Knoxville he's a fisher of carp and catfish caught in the cloacal Tennessee River, into which the city dwellers dump sewage, condoms, corpses, and garbage. Suttree, living alone on a ramshackle houseboat, has attended university and is intelligent, generous, and loyal, and yet he wants nothing to do with his mainstream family and especially with his elite father and prefers to live among social outcasts--alcoholic derelicts, homeless old timers, blind beggars, colorful catamites, profane prostitutes, smiling brawlers, crazed prophets, and even a moonlight melonmounter--all without any regard to skin color, being on good terms with everyone from "white trash" to African and Native Americans, all of whom possess an appeal, integrity, and savor missing from "normal" white society. Apart from his family, the only people who repulse him are policemen. Suttree often passively accompanies his rowdy friends on drunken binges that end with vomit and blackout if not with violence and robbery. More than once he thinks something like, "My life is ghastly," but he seems unable to do anything constructive with it.
Despite that character sketch, Cormac McCarthy's novel Suttree (1979) is not only bleak and unpleasant; it is also beautiful, vibrant, and meaningful. It is also very funny, unlike The Road. Suttree's friends say and do hilarious (off-color) things, and McCarthy's writing is often wickedly playful. More, his writing pulses with a terse, knotty, sensual, and biblical poetry. His diction ranges from the scientific to the scatological and from the slangy to the apocalyptic, his similes and metaphors are striking and original, his ear for dialogue is acute and comical, and his grotesque characters are compelling. The story, three years of Suttree's life on or near the river, mostly in Knoxville, is episodic, unlike No Country for Old Men. While the majority of the narrative is told from Suttree's point of view, an amusing minority is told from that of his foil, the 18-year-old Gene Harrogate, the "pervert of a botanical bent," "the moonlight melonfancier," the Country Mouse who becomes the City Rat, the amoral and innocent creator of cracked get-rich-quick schemes whom Suttree meets in the prison workhouse.
Suttree resembles Huckleberry Finn, in its southern river setting and outsider protagonist. It also resembles Faulkner, in its American gothic, decayed south and fallen family themes and rich language. And it resembles Ulysses, in celebrating and lamenting a city in all its sordid and vibrant qualities in a style intoxicated with language. But Suttree is very McCarthy in its vernacular poetry, its range in focus from insect to universe, and its themes about identity, place, love, life, and death. I chuckled in appreciation at his "unaccountable" phrases and scenes and reveled in the foul and sublime pleasure of it all. Blood Meridian affected me similarly, but the tone in that novel is bleaker and darker, the violence more graphic and ubiquitous, the similes more unrelievedly apocalyptic and portentous.
Richard Poe's gravelly and compassionate voice is perfectly suited to reading McCarthy's prose, especially during those intense moments when he sounds nearly stunned by the uncanny scenes or extreme similes or biblical-epical-poetic prose he's reading. And without straining for women's voices or white or black southern voices of the various characters, Poe highlights the their different personalities.
The novel is long. By the end I had begun to experience difficulty in digesting such rich prose, and to suspect that not all of Suttree's near-death hallucinatory episodes are necessary. But I enjoyed most of the novel, and fans of McCarthy or of sordid, epic, and male Americana that shoves the soul into the gutter one moment and sends it out beyond the stars the next should read Suttree.
Great scenes in Suttree: Harrogate violating shapely watermelons, going drunk to dinner in the workhouse, and diabolically plotting to dig into the banks of Knoxville from the caves underlying the city; Suttree attending a sad funeral, visiting the Catholic church of his youth, looking at his aunt's family photos, winnowing himself in green mountains, getting an earful from the "viperous evangelist," and saying "Gene, you're crazy" to Harrogate; the goat man arriving in town in just spring; the Red Reverend preaching in the gutter.
And here is a collage of choice lines:
Suttree went out through the kitchen, and through the ruined garden to the old road.
Reprobate scion of doomed Saxon clans, out of a rainy day, dream surmised.
A thousand hours or more he's spent in this sad chapel he. Spurious acolyte, dreamer impenitent. Before this tabernacle where the wise high God himself lies sleeping in his golden cup.
He fell to studying the variety of moths pressed to the glass…. Supplicants of light. Here one tinted easter pink along the edges of his white fur belly and wings. Eyes black, triangular, a robber's mask. Furred and wizened face not unlike a monkey's and wearing a windswept ermine shako. Suttree bent to see him better. What do you want?
And what could a child know of the darkness of God's plan? Or how flesh is so frail it is hardly more than a dream?
He found pale newts with enormous eyes and held them cold and quailing in his palm and watched their tiny hearts hammer under the blue and visible bones of their thimblesized briskets. They gripped his finger childlike with their tiny spatulate palps.
On these nights he'd see stars come adrift and rifle hot and dying across the face of the firmament. The enormity of the universe filled him with a strange sweet woe.
The sun don't shine on the same dog's ass everyday.
I hope not.
But there are no absolutes in human misery and things can always get worse...
The color of this life is water.
Ever since their parents vanished a year and a half ago, eleven-year-old Sabrina Grimm and her seven-year old sister Daphne have been escaping from bad foster homes. And in the opening scene of Michael Buckley's The Fairy-Tale Detectives (2005), the first novel in his popular Sisters Grimm series, the girls are taken by their pinch-faced case worker Ms. Smirt to Ferryport Landing, NY, a quaint town without movie theaters, malls, or museums, to live with a dead woman. It develops that the woman, their grandmother Relda Grimm, is alive and well, and among the things the girls will soon discover is why their father lied to them that she was dead and what happened to the girls' mother and him.
They will also learn that nearly every fantastic being and artifact that ever appeared in any fairy tale, legend, or myth really existed and did the things that have been written about them, so that, for instance, a collection of Grimm's Fairy Tales is a history book and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow a true story. We don't encounter such things in real life today because when the age of fairy tales was ending around the start of the 19th century and fantasy beings--Everafters--were being persecuted, they moved to America, where with the help of Wilhelm Grimm they settled in the mostly unsettled woods and fields of Ferryport, thinking to find there an unmolested haven. As time passed and more normal Americans began moving to Ferryport, however, persecution loomed again, so some Everafters tried to wage a pre-emptive war on humanity, but were prevented by a Baba Yaga spell limiting all Everafters to the five square miles of the town for as long as at least one Grimm descendent remains alive. So for 200 years the Everafters have kept a low profile, mostly hiding their magical natures and items, and the Grimms have been playing detective troubleshooters to defuse any problems arising between fairy folk and humans.
That premise permits Buckley to use any fantasy character (including Snow White, Little Bo Peep, Glinda the Good Witch, the Three Little Pigs, the Queen of Hearts, Gepetto, Ichabod Crane, and Mowgli) or item (including Excalibur, Cinderella's fairy godmother's wand, magic beans, and "the" magic mirror) he chooses. It's part of the trend in movies like Shrek (2001), books like Neil Gaiman's American Gods (2001) and TV shows like Once Upon a Time (2011-) to combine figures from various fairy tales, myths, and legends (often in our own world, often revised so that, for example, traditional villains become heroes and vice versa) to revivify such stories and their characters and to make them more relevant to today's readers. And it's fun to meet fantasy characters from beloved childhood tales rubbing shoulders in a new story.
But such stories may turn into inconsistent anything goes affairs, as when Relda Grimm tells her granddaughters that not all fairy tales are true, saying "For instance, a dish never ran away with a spoon," but why or where Buckley draws the line is fuzzy. Similarly, if fantasy stories are true histories of real events, how could characters who got killed in them appear alive now, like the Hansel and Gretel witch and Grendel? Worse, a diminishing of magic, a numbing of wonder, and a mundaning of fantasy may kick in the more disparate familiar characters are tossed together in a story, especially when, instead of fantastic effect, an author pushes page-turning action (as when the sisters ride on Aladdin's flying carpet--complete with a "kamikaze" dive, a car chase, and a moment when the rug "screeched to a halt"), and gives fantasy characters banal personalities and relationships (as when Beauty and the Beast bicker over being late for a ball), all of which is too much the case in The Fairy-Tale Detectives. The mystery genre itself is about solving rather than evoking mystery, and if fantasy characters are real, what happens to fantasy?
Kvetching aside, The Fairy-Tale Detectives is enjoyable. Although Buckley's writing mostly lacks poetry, magic, and wonder, it is exciting, funny, and vivid, and has some heightened moments, like when the sisters walk through the mirror, and some great lines, like "You would hug the devil if he gave you cookies," or "Who could tell what a woman who had swords hanging over her bed was capable of?" The sisters are spunky (if a little too snappy), loyal, vulnerable, and strong, and their growing realization that they may finally have found family and home is moving. Other characters like Relda Grimm and Mr. Canis (her lupine border, bodyguard, and friend) and Elvis (her 200-pound, slobber-tongued Great Dane) are appealing. I liked Puck, the 4,000 year-old self-proclaimed Fairy Prince and Trickster King who has decided to stay in the form of a twelve-year-old boy till the sun burns out. And Prince Charming makes a fine mayor: arrogant, snide, and power-hungry.
The reader L. J. Ganser's appealing voice and energetic manner are fine (especially for Sabrina and Daphne), with one exception: he's unconvincing and inconsistent with foreign accents like Relda Grimm's slight German one and Prince Charming and Jack the Giant Killer's thick English ones (especially when Jack says things like, "You can't keep a bloke like me down, can you? Nosiree-bob!").
Finally, although Catherynne Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland on a Ship of Her Own Making (2011) is more magical, being written with rich, poetic, and wonder-filled prose and peopled with characters of the author's own devising rather than with ones plucked from classic fantasy stories, kids must love The Fairy-Tale Detectives, and adults who like (sub)urban fantasy, everything-fairy-and-the-kitchen-sink stories, and exciting, funny, page-turning kids' books should like it too.
The Prince of Darkness, posing as Professor Woland, specialist in black magic, has come to USSR-era Moscow to people watch and to host his annual ball. And if the Satanic entourage--consisting of Behemoth, a snarky, black cat jester, Azazello, a red-haired buffoonish assassin, Koroviev, a tall, cracked pince-nez wearing interpreter con man, and Hella, a semi-nude succubus--raises a little hell in the city, most of the victims deserve their fates. The satiric mayhem in Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita (1928-1940; 1967), smoothly translated by Michael Karpelson, targets the literary world, the mental health profession, the communal apartment system, the police, popular entertainment, greed and pride, and, perhaps, atheistic rationality.
Among those caught up in it all are Berlioz (an editor who believes that Jesus never existed), Ivan "Homeless" (a bad poet who becomes upset by the editor's fate), the managers of the Variety Theater, and, saving the novel, the Master and Margarita. The Master (who has renounced his real name along with the world) has written a novel about the Procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate, and his brief but eternal relationship with Yeshua Ha-Nozri (Jesus) in Yershalayim (Jerusalem). Through the main story of the devil's visit to modern Moscow, Bulgakov interweaves chapters from the Master's historical novel which feel more vivid, interesting, affecting, strange, and real than most of the surreal contemporary events. The writer's lover, Margarita, has encouraged him and called him the Master because of her esteem for his genius and work, but in a Moscow dominated by atheist literati, to try to publish a novel featuring a real Jesus is to invite public scorn and condemnation, which has driven the Master into an insane asylum.
Part One of Bulgakov's novel was difficult to enjoy, bearing too many too lengthy supposedly funny but actually boring burlesque satiric fantasy sequences, like the nightmare of the chairman of the tenant's association in which he appears on stage before an audience of bearded economists and is commanded by an actor to turn over all his hidden foreign currency. I found that I didn't care for or about most of the Moscow characters and was asking myself, "This is supposed to be one of the greatest novels in the twentieth century?" In fact, if it weren't for two chapters featuring Pilate and Yeshua and one introducing the Master, I might have lost the will to soldier on.
Fortunately, Part Two incorporates more of the Master's novel and begins with Margarita, and because I cared about her and the Master, I began enjoying the surreal fantasy sequences, which became so imaginative, scary, humorous, and moving that I ended up liking Satan and his buffoonish entourage and the novel as a whole. For example, Margarita's application of infernal ointment over her entire body and subsequent witchly joy ("invisible and free!") and flight and ball hostessing are all magically and darkly alive, the marksman contest between Behemoth and Azazello is great fun, Pilate's walk with his dog and Yeshua along a lunar staircase is beautiful, and the ride of the infernal band on black horses into moonlit storm clouds is sublime.
The reader Julian Rhind-Tutt gives a virtuoso performance fluidly switching between a variety of voices for the many different characters in their different moods and modes, among them Behemoth nasally sarcastic and mocking, the devil scary, urbane, and humane, and Yeshua calmly kind and reasonably insane (or unreasonably sane). Although during the first part of the novel's interminable surreal satiric sequences, Rhind-Tutt's frenetic and high-pitched voice got on my nerves, his Pilate, Aphrenius (Pilate's hooded chief of secret police), Yeshua, Devil, and Margarita are all full of wonderful gravitas, and I did enjoy his satanic minions' voices in Part Two of the book, and overall he brought the novel even more to life than only reading it would have done.
You gotta love good advice from the Devil like "Never ask anything of anyone, especially if they are more powerful than you," and "Everyone receives what they believe in," and when you add to them wisdom from Jesus by way of Pilate like "Cowardice is the greatest sin," and then think that Bulgakov was writing during the most oppressive era of the USSR and had his books and plays banned because he would not toe the party line, and that he devastatingly satirizes Moscow and Soviet Union life, and that he sympathetically portrays villains like the Devil and Pilate, when you keep all those things in mind, you sense that Bulgakov must have wished he could make a deal with the devil like the Master's.
Can you resist a novel by Robert Graves, the author of I, Claudius (1934), about Belisarius (500-565 AD), arguably the greatest general in history, a man who used his intelligence, courage, creativity, and leadership to preserve and expand the troubled Byzantine Empire in campaigns against the Persians in the East, the Vandals in North Africa, the Goths in Italy, and the Bulgarian Huns right around Constantinople, a man who (according to Edward Gibbon but not Graves) loved his wife too much, a man who reacted with either superhuman or sub-human patience to the increasingly hateful treatment of his Emperor Justinian?
The first person narrator of Count Belisarius (1938) is the eunuch Eugenius: "I, the author of this Greek work, am a person of little importance, a mere domestic; but I spent nearly my whole life in the service of Antonina, wife to this same Belisarius, and what I write you must credit." Eugenius is writing this biography "in extreme old age at Constantinople in the year of our Lord 571." He is a witty, sympathetic, and usually but not always reliable narrator.
Like I, Claudius, Count Belisarius is a vividly realized historical novel in which the past comes fully alive, for Graves expresses historically accurate world views of the people in the eras about which he writes, and he incorporates so many interesting and authentic seeming details of their past lives. We learn, for example, about the rival sects of early Christianity that fought over things like the mortal and or divine nature of Jesus. At the same time, the old pagan gods were still lurking behind the newly dominant Christian religion, and Eugenius is accepts some witchcraft and debunks ersatz "holy" relics. He also explains things like why there are so many Johns in the world and how it felt to be a eunuch and about the entertainment of the hippodrome, divided between green and blue charioteer factions whose rivalries spilled into every sphere of public and private life and threatened the very Empire. As Eugenius ranges from Belisarius' boyhood through his 65th year, each chapter has at least one great set piece, among them the clever rescue of a tax collector from a band of thugs, a feast hosted by a pompous and nostalgic Roman, and the comical hunt for a killer whale. And of course, pacifist though he is, Eugenius, who served his mistress as she accompanied Belisarius on most of his campaigns, recounts suspenseful ambushes, sieges, ruses, rescues, full-scale battles, and so on, each one set in a different martial, political, and social context, including practical information like training, discipline, morale, transport, supply, communication, and luck.
Belisarius seems to have been both a consummate general and a good man. His great innovation was in training up a new cavalry that combined the heavy shock lancers of the Goths with the light skirmishing archers of the Huns. Interestingly, the more military success he achieved, the more suspicious and jealous his Emperor Justinian became. Theirs was an intriguing relationship! Justinian would send Belisarius out to do something impossible without anywhere near enough troops or money, tell him to succeed, sabotage him with inferior and disobedient generals or with corrupt suppliers, hope for him to fail, refuse to appropriately acknowledge his unexpected success, suspect of him of disloyalty in proportion to that success, recall him to Constantinople to chastise him before he could solidify the Empire's hold on the newly re-acquired territory, blame him for any subsequent problems stemming from his premature withdrawal, and so on. Eugenius acknowledges the difficulty in understanding Belisarius' extraordinary patience and submission, conjecturing that he may have pitied Justinian for not knowing how to live like a Christian, and that he lived his life by a strict belief in obedience, a key to military success, while Justinian lived without knowing what to make of a truly good person, living as he did among sinful people. Despite Belisarius coming off as a virtuous hero, Eugenius admits that his amazing military successes led to destruction, poverty, suffering, and death in North Africa and Italy, partly because of his submission to the increasingly insecure, impractical, and greedy Justinian. Perhaps Belisarius' greatest flaw was not, as Gibbon puts it, uxoriousness, but rather his constant loyalty to a bad emperor.
Another great relationship in the novel is between Belisarius and his wife Antonina. They first met as teenagers when he was an innocent aristocrat, and she was a charioteer entertainer (i.e., a gymnast-dancer-prostitute). Years later she would join him on his campaigns, exchanging bawdy jests with the soldiers, managing catapults, and generally being a solid and yet often refreshingly independent support for the general. While Gibbon morbidly revels in Antonina's amoral, scheming, and manipulative nature, (eagerly relying on Procopius' Secret History, which, according to Eugenius, is a vindictive mix of twisted truths and lies), Graves follows his own inclination, though Eugenius does wax coy a few times when touching fraught matters like Antonina's relationship with Belisarius and their adopted son Theodisius.
The reader Laurence Kennedy is a perfect Eugenius, sounding like an educated, refined, and humane (British) man, with just the right slight hint of effeminacy without camping it up. And all of his other characters sound spot on, from his devious, eunuch chamberlain-general Narses (recalling a cross-dressing Elmer Fudd) to his increasingly snide and abhorrent Justinian. And he renders the Empress Theodora and her bosom buddy Antonina suitably shrewd, funny, and formidable.
Anyone interested in the Byzantine Empire, Robert Graves, military history, and literary historical fiction peopled with compelling, complex, and believable characters should find much pleasure in Count Belisarius.
The Constant Gardener (2001) by John le Carre begins as an appalling murder mystery, develops into a harrowing investigation of big pharmaceutical companies and their seemingly humanitarian but actually pernicious activities in third world countries like Africa (aided and abetted by similarly superficially altruistic but fundamentally greedy countries and people), and ends up a contemporary Heart of Darkness complete with its own Kurtz figure. Throughout all that, the novel explores marital and other kinds of love and the question of whether it's "Better to be inside the system fighting it than outside the system, howling at it." And this politically and socially engaged, literate mystery and espionage novel is set in a vividly realized Africa, "heat ripping off the city pavements."
The story begins when the British High Commission in Nairobi is informed of the death of Tessa Quayle, a beautiful twenty-five year old lawyer married to Justin Quayle, a gentlemanly, unambitious diplomat in the Foreign Service stationed there. Tessa and her African driver have been found brutally murdered near Lake Turkana, while the handsome black Belgian aid worker Dr. Arnold Bluhm, who'd been accompanying Tessa on some unknown mission (and with whom she'd shared a hotel room the night before), has gone missing. Soon enough the media is portraying Tessa as an unstable interracial nymphomaniac and Arnold as a vengeful lover, impressions that the powers that be in the Foreign Service are subtly fostering. Enter two young police agents sent from Scotland Yard to investigate the murders. As they question Sandy Woodrow (the Head of Chancery in the Nairobi High Commission) and Justin, we realize that there is more to Tessa's death than some love triangle gone bad. As the novel progresses, Justin researches Tessa's "mission" until it becomes his own and, questioning his pre-loss persona as detached gardening aficionado and constant spouse, he is retracing her steps like a thinking man's middle-aged, non-violent James Bond into the heart of darkness that lies in the pharmaceutical industry, Africa, and humanity, all the while coming to love his dead wife more and more.
The novel does not paint the western "pharmagiants" as completely evil entities and Africans as completely innocent victims. As one character puts it, the "pharmaceutical industry has achieved human and social miracles, but its collective conscience is not developed." le Carre doesn't ignore local corruption, brutality, ignorance, intolerance, and civil war. But indeed much of the responsibility for those evils does, in his depiction, stem from the profit driven interference of western companies, countries, and even organizations like the UN and WHO, that, despite the best efforts of some people who genuinely want to help the Third World, too often end up botching and exacerbating complex and problematic situations. Lest readers think le Carre is exaggerating for dramatic effect, he says in his Author's Note (not included in the audiobook), "As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realize that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard."
le Carre is quite good at getting in the heads of middle-aged men, like Justin, to be sure, but also like his foil, Sandy Woodrow, who is also a diplomat but one whose raison d'etre is to keep a steady boat so he can be promoted up through the Foreign Service until he can become a Sir. Sandy fantasizes divorcing his wife and marrying attractive female subordinates and can't understand why they treat like sexual harassment his "natural" comments and contacts. He is a conflicted man subject to waves of nausea at the glib, obedient lies he finds himself telling his staff, wondering self-pityingly, "Who did this to me?" "Who made me what I am? England? My father? My schools? My pathetic, terrified mother? Or seventeen years of lying for my country?"
The reader Michael Jayston reads clearly and passionately with his rich and warm voice, so that the feelings of le Carre's characters are perfectly pitched. He is adept at doing English spoken by Africans, British (upper crust and working class), Italians, Germans, and so on, and his women sound like real people rather than like a man trying to sound female.
Just one part of the novel disappointed me, and to explain it requires a SPOILER (so if you haven't read the novel, do not read this paragraph). I think that le Carre unfairly and nearly perversely raises the reader's hopes at a couple points towards the end when a complaining villain and a persuasive spy say things that seem to indicate that justice will be done.
There are no easy answers in The Constant Gardener. The "God profit" is seemingly almighty, with the few un-tainted people tending to be vulnerable and limited in the amount of change they can force in the multinational corporations and compliant governments running the world. The novel is not, however, a total downer. It is sometimes quite funny. It makes you want to make Tessa and Justin's mission your own. It is suspenseful, sad, angry, illuminating, beautiful, and terrible, with just enough hope.
War in Barchester. The army invading the quiet cathedral town is spearheaded by the low church, hen-pecked, gormless new Bishop Proudie, his evangelical, despotic wife ("the she-bishop," the "Medea of Barchester"), and their odious, duplicitous, ambitious, bad-beef complexioned and clammy-handed chaplain Mr. Slope, who, fancying himself the true new Bishop of Barchester, plans to promote Sabbath-day schools and to throw the music and ceremony of the Anglican service out with the rubbish. The outraged local defending forces are comprised of the modest, mild, weak, but stubborn ex-Warden of Hiram's Hospital Mr. Harding, his arrogant, righteous, and hot-tempered Archdeacon son-in-law Dr. Grantly, and the high church "champion," the thoughtful former Oxford professor of poetry and new vicar of St. Ewold, Mr. Arabin. Amid the warfare run rumors of courtship: Eleanor Bold, the younger daughter of Mr. Harding, with a beloved baby son and 1200 pounds per year, is a very eligible widow for suitors calculating, feckless, or inexperienced. Also mixed in the conflict is the Stanhope family, back in Barchester after a twelve-year sojourn in Italy, during which the father, a prebendary of the cathedral, was catching butterflies while supposedly caring for his sore throat. The Stanhope son Bertie is a lazy, good-natured, and unprejudiced parasite, his sister Madeline (AKA La Signora Neroni) is a crippled, beautiful, arachnoid man-catcher with eyes bright as Lucifer's and compelling as a basilisk's, and the first-born daughter Charlotte does her best to enable the predilections of her younger siblings.
In his second Barchester Chronicles novel, Barchester Towers (1857), then, Anthony Trollope sets these colorful characters in play with and against each other in a largely unpredictable and wholly entertaining comedy of manners with much to say about mid-nineteenth-century gender, class, age, reform, religion, love, family, and novels, all in a way that is particularly Victorian British and universally human.
Trollope's writing is witty, elegant, suspenseful, knowing, allusive, and quotable. I enjoy, for example, his epic similes using classical literature, Elizabethan drama, or the Bible, as when he hilariously compares Mrs. Proudie to Achilles or Mr. Slope to Lady Macbeth. Trollope's narrator and characters say pithy things like:
"If honest men did not squabble for money in this wicked world of ours, the wicked men would get it all."
"A man must be an idiot or else an angel, who, after the age of forty shall attempt to be just to his neighbours."
"Gentlemen do not write to women about their tresses, unless they are on intimate terms."
"There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel."
And Trollope relishes sympathetically mocking his characters, as when with heroic formality he encourages the Bishop to stand up to his wife:
"Now, bishop, look well to thyself, and call up all the manhood that is in thee. Think how much is at stake. If now thou art not true to thy guns, no Slope can hereafter aid thee. How can he who deserts his own colours at the final smell of gunpowder expect faith in any ally. Thou thyself hast sought the battlefield; fight out the battle manfully now thou art there. Courage, bishop, courage! Frowns cannot kill, nor can sharp words break any bones. After all the apron is thine own. She can appoint no wardens, give away no benefices, nominate no chaplains, an' thou art but true to thyself. Up, man, and at her with a constant heart."
The novel is not without a disappointment or two. Eleanor's sister-in-law Mary Bold has devolved from an intelligent and independent woman who writes reform-minded newspaper pieces in The Warden (1855), the first novel in his Chronicles, to a bland live-in nanny in Barchester Towers. And some things, naturally enough, feel dated, like the ideas that the ideal condition of wife and husband is for the woman to be a beautiful parasitic plant like ivy decorating a wall (the man) and that independence is a "heavy burden" for women.
But mostly I listened to Barchester Towers chuckling, grinning, and generally reveling in Trollope's characters, story, and prose and in Timothy West's virtuoso reading of them. As Juliet Stevenson was born to read Virgina Woolf, West was born to read Anthony Trollope. He's perfect with people young and old, high and low, male and female, and unlike Simon Vance reading The Warden, West's Eleanor has no irritating falsetto. His Mr. Slope (nasally unctuous), Mr. Harding (mild, good, and weak) and Signora Neroni (provocative ersatz Italian charm) are all wonderful.
Charles Dickens had crowded Trollope out of my life until I read The Warden, the first novel in his Chronicles, and was so delighted by it. Both authors write colorful and comical characters we care about, but while Dickens leans towards caricature, Trollope leans towards realism. Dickens' characters are often wholly good or wholly evil, while Trollope's are often very mixed indeed. (Compare Dickens' villain Uriah Heep with Trollope's Obadiah Slope.). Trollope feels less sentimental and melodramatic than Dickens, but after all they both wrote entertaining and page-turning, socially-conscious, humorous, and dramatic novels. I warmly urge fans of 19th century novels, especially readers familiar with Dickens but unfamiliar with Trollope, to read Barchester Towers. (Though both The Warden and Barchester Towers tell self-contained stories, reading the first book first would increase one's pleasure in the sequel.)
If that is a genre, Steven Brust's first Vlad Taltos novel, Jhereg (1983), is a progenitor. Vlad Taltos, the hardboiled but sensitive first person narrator, is a 21-year-old assassin-spy security-chief crime-boss skilled with blades, conversant with poisons, expert with witchcraft, and bonded with a telepathically impudent but faithful familiar, a dragon-like scavenger jhereg named Loiosh. Humans like Vlad are a second-class minority in the City of Adrilankha among the dominant Dragaerans who possess life spans lasting thousands of years, tall bodies (7-foot average), and elvish features. The Dragaeran empire is at least 250,000 years old and is divided among 17 Houses named after and sharing the traits of dragons, hawks, jheregs and other animal species of their world. Despite being a human, Vlad is successful in the "business" wing of House Jhereg, and he has powerful friends in House Dragon. He has killed 41 people, but most of them deserved it and were revivified (as he himself has been), and there's always reincarnation, so we don't feel TOO uncomfortable about his profession.
In the first chapter, Vlad is hired by a high-ranking House Jhereg Council member to find an ex-Council member who just embezzled and absconded with nine million imperials. If he isn't killed within a few days, House Jhereg, founded on projecting a tough criminal image throughout the Empire, will become permanently and devastatingly known as a soft robbery target. Where is the culprit hiding? What is his background? What is he really up to? To have any chance at solving the mystery, Vlad will need to call on his friends and minions, experts in thievery, psionics, spying, magic, assassination, and the like.
It seems at times as if Vlad is writing a history/handbook for young would-be members of his profession, because he says things like, "And so, my fledgling assassins, you are asking me how you make sure that a corpse remains a corpse, eh?" and he begins each chapter with a pithy line of advice:
"There is no substitute for good manners, except fast reflexes."
"Always speak politely to an enraged dragon."
"No matter how subtle the wizard, a knife between the shoulder blades will seriously cramp his style."
As we read this novel, we learn about the history of Vlad, the Empire, and a few of the Houses, the nature of human witchcraft and fencing versus Dragaeran sorcery and heavy blade work, the assassin profession, and so on. The short book packs an impressive number of concepts, like the "Morganti," semi-sentient soul-eating blades a bit like Elric's Stormbringer but divided up into a host of daggers and swords of varying degrees and types of power, sentience, and ability, the greatest of which bond with the souls of their wielders and decide whether or not to eat their victims' souls. Although Jhereg is a self-contained story, Brust leaves plenty of room for future and past developments in succeeding novels with the different Houses, magic, religion, Vlad's friends, familiar, and identity, and (I hope) the difference in human and Dragaeran life spans. Vlad mentions things like a Dragaeran "girl" being "only" between 100 and 800 years old, but never how he feels to be short lived relative to the Dragaerans. None of his Dragaeran friends and colleagues ever mentions how young and soon to die Vlad is compared to them. Aren't they already missing him? Aren't they bored with their long lives? Why doesn't anyone talk about this kind of thing?
Brust's people speak much contemporary American English: "What's up?" "Let's get out of here." And "Take it easy." That makes the strange world feel familiar, but often the writing sounds corny or flat, as when Vlad says, "Crap. Double crap. Dragon dung." Or "The question at that point wasn't should I press, or even how much I should press. It was rather how should I press. I decided to continue the game I'd started." There are some funny lines, though, as when Vlad's familiar Loiosh disparages cat petting: "Hey boss, isn't it disgusting how some people cater to the whims of dumb animals?" Vlad's self-directed irony is often funny, too, as when he gives "general pointers on assassination" like "Do not have yourself teleported so that when you arrive at the scene, you are feeling sick to your stomach."
Reader Bernard Setaro Clark's Dragaerans all speak a soft pseudo-British accent, his humans straightforward American English, though his Vlad has a nearly irritating tendency to elongate his long vowels: "Seven inches of blaaaade." I do like Clark's Peter Lorrie-like Loiosh: "Can I eat him, boss?"
In its genre fusing, humorous dark fantasy, Jhereg points the way towards series like the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher and The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson. It is an entertaining novel, with exciting action and a world of great potential, but this first book in the series is not SO funny, stimulating, or stylistically rich.
Imagine going on a five-month package tour of Europe and the Holy Land in 1867 with a pre-Tom Sawyer Mark Twain--his acerbic wit aimed at tourists, countries, peoples, artifacts, and monuments. One of the most interesting features of Twain's The Innocents Abroad or The New Pilgrim's Progress (1869) is seeing what the world was like back in the 1860s through his eyes: Italy lurching into unification; a prince from Denmark ruling Greece; Napoleon III remodeling France; America completing the transcontinental railroad; Russia being friendly with the USA; and cholera threatening Europe. At the same time, many things are eerily similar to today's world: packaged tours, "asinine" tourists, passport and quarantine problems, beggars and peddlers, guides in cahoots with shops, etc. And some things transcend time: the pyramids and ancient art.
Twain and his fellow American "elect pilgrims" on the steamship Quaker City are only ironically "innocents"; through popular literature and guidebooks they have imbibed romantic images of the places they visit, and they are guilty, like all tourists, of becoming "asses" abroad. At the outset Twain states that one of his purposes is "to suggest to the reader how he would be likely to see Europe and the East if he looked at them with his own eyes instead of the eyes of those who traveled in those countries before him." To do this, with an angry glee he debunks various "frauds" about Europe and the Holy Land perpetrated by idealizing writers and avaricious guides, shop owners, and government officials. Any conventional wisdom about culture or religion or travel is fair game.
Twain is bracingly--abrasively--politically incorrect. He scorns Europeans for never bathing with soap and says things like "Italy is one vast museum of magnificence and misery" peopled by "fumigating, maccaroni-stuffing organ-grinders" and beggars who should exercise some self-reliance and rob the rich churches in their poor neighborhoods. The farther East he travels, the more hideous and importunate he finds the beggars and peddlers. He lumps Arabs with Native Americans as dirty savages whose habit of silent watching makes the white man want to exterminate them. He longs for Russia to go to war with Turkey to clean the world of the blot of the Ottoman Empire ("a people by nature and training filthy, brutish, ignorant, unprogressive, superstitious--and a government whose three graces are Tyranny, Rapacity, Blood."). He and his friends take to calling any guide from any country "Ferguson." He often compares the exotic things he sees with familiar things in America (like the Sea of Galilee with Lake Tahoe). As he moves through the Islamic world, he feels the pain of being disliked as a Christian by "heathens."
All that said, Twain also skewers Americans and the USA. Some of his fellow pilgrims are "reptiles" in need of squashing, people who paint their names on monuments and hack away souvenirs from them wherever they go. And he excoriates both the ugly American noisily carrying on in English in foreign restaurants and the pretentious "hermaphrodite" American showing off by mangling foreign languages. His account of trigger-happy pilgrims firing pistols at imaginary Bedouins is disturbing and hilarious.
Twain boldly reveals his ignorance about or lack of taste for sacred cows. The Old Masters are overrated, because they painted the same subjects (martyrs, saints, Mary, etc.) ad nauseam while bowing and scraping to their patrons. He mocks tourists for Oohing and Aahing over da Vinci's Last Supper when they are really unable to see the figures in the time-worn and dirt-caked painting. He tears the romantic veil from famous lovers like Abelard and Heloise and highlights the bloodthirsty nature of medieval knights and Old Testament war heroes. He even "discovers" humorous "apocryphal" accounts of Jesus' miracles as boy wonder.
Twain does not only mockingly debunk. He is moved and impressed by places and things like Versailles, Milan's cathedral, and Lebanon's Baalbec temple complex. He is open to sublime phenomena and skilled at evoking awe and pleasure in them, as with the Sphinx, "grand in its loneliness; it is imposing in its magnitude; it is impressive in the mystery that hangs over its story. And there is that in the overshadowing majesty of this eternal figure of stone, with its accusing memory of the deeds of all ages, which reveals to one something of what he shall feel when he shall stand at last in the awful presence of God." He generally finds magic and beauty in the moonlight (e.g. the Acropolis) or at a distance (e.g. Damascus)--until the sun rises or he gets too close, when squalor and noise assert themselves.
Even early in his career, Twain is a great writer, describing things so vividly you can easily imagine them, as with Nazareth "clinging like a whitewashed wasp's nest to the hill-side." And he writes funny riffs on things like Constantinople's dogs (ubiquitous and unambitious), true cross relics (ubiquitous and suspicious), Joshua's wars (comprehensive and bloody), and Holy Landscapes (sun-blasted and rocky).
I wish he were less biased against Islam and Moslems. His antipathy makes him exaggerate their people as "savages," their music as "infernal," their language as "ugly," and their cities as squalid and ignore the appeal of things like St. Sophia ("the rustiest old barn in heathendom"). He takes travel writers and tourists and art lovers to task for romantically exaggerating the merits of Oriental exotica, and then cynically exaggerates their demerits, as when he says, "Of all the unchristian beverages that ever passed my lips, Turkish coffee is the worst," producing "a tickling aggravation that keeps you barking and coughing for an hour." At times his humor tires.
Grover Gardener gives his usual smooth, clear, and appealing reading of the book. He sounds like Twain uttering his own frequent irony and occasional awe.
Finally, this is a big, biased, funny, embarrassing, and enriching book. It is a little like reading the Twain of "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" (1895) anatomizing Cooper's "bad" writing with comically gross exaggeration: entertaining, but perhaps not wholly fair or accurate. Twain fans and travel fans should read it.
"Come with me and I'll tell you a story," says Death in the prologue of Markus Zusak's The Book Thief (2006). Death then tells about the first time he encountered Liesel Meminger, destined to become the Book Thief, on a train in Nazi Germany when the nine-year-old girl's mother was taking her and her little brother to the small town of Molching to their new foster parents (being the wife of a persecuted and disappeared communist husband, she was unable to support her children). Death visited the train then to get Liesel's brother. The remainder of the novel is based on Death's reading of Liesel's eponymous autobiography, as well as on his own perception of humanity and philosophy of life, focusing on a few years during Hitler's Third Reich.
The Book Thief (Zusak's novel) has a suspenseful, funny, and moving story, a vivid historical setting, and great characters: Rosa Hubermann (dispenser of insults like "saumensch" and "saukerl" like hugs) and her husband Hans (possessor of kind silver eyes and an accordion), Rudy Steiner (free spirited emulator of Jesse Owens), Max Vanderberg (amateur boxer and picture book creator), and, of course, Liesel (brave, loving, empathetic, and intelligent girl). The book interestingly depicts WWII and Nazi Germany and the Holocaust from the point of view of Germans; in addition to being actively or passively responsible for supporting Hitler and the Holocaust, they were also victims (however guilty) of horrific bombing raids, and there were some brave and humane people among them. The Book Thief explores the mixed nature of humanity and life and embraces tolerance, courage, love, and the power of words and books.
Death is quite a storyteller, using much suspenseful foreshadowing and many original metaphors. Needing distractions in his line of work, he occasionally becomes interested in someone like Liesel, "One of those perpetual survivors, an expert at being left behind." He is everywhere at the right time, anywhere someone is dying, to carry their souls away. And he is regularly impressed by how beautiful and brutal, ugly and glorious, brilliant and damning humanity is. Needless to say, Death is not a supporter of the Fuhrer or of war in general, because they cause too much human death. (Apparently animals have no souls...) I began feeling, however, that Death is TOO sympathetic and poetic. When he says, "Even Death has a heart," I began thinking that maybe he has too much of one.
Zusak writes a rich style, replete with fresh, vivid descriptions and phrases: "Before she could answer, the wooden spoon came down on Liesel Meminger's body like the gait of God. Red marks like footprints, and they burned." And "She settled into the long arms of grass." And "The sky was the color of Jews." But I began feeling that Zusak strives too hard too often to charm too much via striking metaphors, especially when evoking the magical power of words. Although at first phrases like "When he spoke, it was the taste of a whisper" were neat, after a while they started drawing too much provocative and precious attention to themselves:
"His words manipulated Tommy's face."
"The words were flung at her, landing somewhere on the concrete step."
"The words landed on the table and positioned themselves in the middle."
"Rudy's voice reached over and handed Liesel the truth. For a while, it sat on her shoulder, but a few thoughts later, it made its way to her ear."
"Somewhere, inside her were the souls of words. They climbed out and stood beside her."
As a result, other striking descriptions also began cloyingly showing off: "His eyes staggered." And "The taste of Christmas needles chimed inside her lungs."
Another stylistic feature that Zusak uses too much (though this is true of much current children's and YA literature), I felt, are short, punchy sentences and one-sentence paragraphs, as in this series:
"Their mother was asleep.
I entered the train.
My feet stepped through the cluttered aisle and my palm was over his mouth in an instant.
No one noticed.
The train galloped on.
Except the girl."
The reader Allan Corduner is skilled and engaged, bringing Zusak's vivid characters to even greater life, but his manner also at times became too much, striving too hard for emotion and impact when combined with the author's striving too hard for effect. (I didn't get that feeling at all when listening to Corduner's reading of Magyk.)
Finally, although the novel is funny, moving, terrible, and beautiful--and I do recommend it--I think that because it verges on being over-written by Zusak and over-read by Corduner, its power is lessened.
Swords Against Death (1970), the second book in Fritz Leiber's classic sword and sorcery series featuring Fafhrd (the pale giant barbarian) and the Gray Mouser (the dusky, compact ex-slum boy), is a collection of ten entertaining short stories assembled by Leiber into a fix-up that, with some strain, is almost a composite novel dealing with the attempts of the duo to come to terms with the violent deaths of their beloved lovers at the end of the first book, Swords Against Deviltry (1970).
In the first story, "The Circle Curse" (1970), the friends are so sick of grief, guilt, and loss in Lankhmar that they leave the city forever, they believe, wandering the world of Nehwon and living by "thievery, robbery, bodyguarding, brief commissions as couriers and agents… and by showmanship," gaining "new scars and skills."
In "The Jewels in the Forest" (1939), Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser go on an amusing and suspenseful treasure hunt involving an architectural guardian, a quirky peasant family, and some rival rogues.
Multiple sets of characters compete for the possibly animated ruby-eyed skull and jeweled hands of an ancient Master Thief in the madcap "Thieves' House" (1943).
In "The Bleak Shore" (1940) a mysterious stranger puts a geas on the Mouser and Fafhrd to see if they can cheat Death, who commands sword-armed dinosaurs.
After their geas-quest, "The Howling Tower" (1941) finds the friends on their way back to Lankhmar, encountering belling ghost hounds, spooky bandages, and a cracked wizard.
In "The Sunken Land" (1942), Fafhrd catches a fish and finds an old ring its stomach: is he as lucky as he thinks or should he obey the Mouser's advice to throw the thing overboard?
In the loopy "The Seven Black Priests," still Lankhmar-bound, Fafhrd and the Mouser stir up a cult of black-skinned priests protecting a hill bearing an ominous stone face in the snowy Cold Wastes.
Back in Lankhmar, the friends are caught up in an avian crime wave that has left ladies of rank wearing protective gilded bird cages on their heads in "Claws from the Night" (1951).
"The Price of Pain-Ease" (1970) is an oddly moving story, in which the Mouser and Fafhrd take up housekeeping in a purloined ducal garden house set on the ashes of their former lovers. Although at first they enjoy their new digs (in which they find books of erotica and death), soon they are being visited by the ghosts of their loves, until they are compelled by impending madness to strike bad bargains with some mysterious wizards.
The collection closes with "Bazaar of the Bizarre" (1963), a satiric critique of mercantilism and consumerism. Are the inter-universal super-merchants who've set up shop in Lankhmar's Plaza of Dark Delights selling what the Mouser sees, lenses revealing "the blue heaven-pinnacle of the universe where angels flew shimmeringly like dragonflies and where a few choice heroes rested from their great mountain-climb and spied down critically on the ant-like labors of the gods many levels below"? Or what Fafhrd sees, "old bones, dead fish, butcher's offal, moldering gravecloths folded in uneven squares like badly bound uncut books, broken glass and potsherds, splintered boxes, large stinking dead leaves orange-spotted with blight, bloody rags, tattered discarded loincloths, large worms nosing about, centipedes a-scuttle, cockroaches a-stagger, maggots a-crawl"?
Despite ranging over roughly five decades (from the late 1930s till 1970), and despite Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser forgetting their dead lovers for entire stories, the tales in Swords Against Death mostly cohere in tone, plot, theme, and setting, unified by the rogue-adventure friends' relationship and by Leiber's baroque prose and sardonic vision. Leiber writes fresh and witty dialogue, as when the friends discuss a man who wrote poems daring adventurers to pilfer his jewels: "'The man's mind runs to skulls,' muttered the Mouser. 'He must have been a gravedigger or a necromancer,'" while Fafhrd chips in, "'Or an architect'" And he writes great descriptions, as in this one redolent with mood: "She stood breathless and poised, one hand touching a treetrunk, the other pressing some leaves, ready to fly away at the first sudden move. Fafhrd and the Mouser stood as stock-still as if she were doe or a dryad."
I enjoyed Jonathan Davis reading the third person narration of the stories in an American voice flavored by British and or Australian English and rare rolled Rs, and the Gray Mouser's lines in a quasi Australian-British accent and Fafhrd's in a straightforward American one, making it easy to distinguish between the two friends. His deeply intimidating Sheelba and purringly epicine Ningauble are spot on. Best of all, Davis revels in Leiber's rich and quirky prose, which percolates with alliteration and rhyme and archaic or obscure words.
Unlike Robert E. Howard's laconic loner Conan, Fafhrd and the Mouser are often a garrulous comedy duo, bantering about their different predilections and stratagems. Fans of the contemporary realistic fantasy of Martin, Erikson, Cook, and the like may not enjoy Leiber's old sword and sorcery, but I found that the dry wit, baroque style, anti-heroism, imaginative adventures, satires on religion and civilization, vividness of Nehwon and Lankhmar, and humor and horror, all make most of his stories (apart from their dated sexism, by which women--"girls"--are untrustworthy or "for dessert") entertaining.
The Things They Carried (1990) is a powerful audiobook, perfectly read by Bryan Cranston, and written with searing and sensitive honesty by Tim O'Brien. The book contains twenty-two Vietnam war stories based on O'Brien's experiences and those of his fellow soldiers during his one-year tour of duty in 1969. The pieces combine to vividly evoke what it was like before, during, and after the Vietnam War. And it's not only a Vietnam War book; it also explores universal questions of memory, imagination, language, reality, story, war, and love. For O'Brien, Vietnam becomes at times a metaphor for the world, and a state of mind as much as a physical place.
The title story introduces the war and the American men who fought in it by listing and explaining what they carried: war gear (helmets, boots, bandages, weaponry, etc.), practical things (canteens, c-rations, toilet paper, bug repellent, etc.), personal things (comic books, condoms, dope, photos, letters, basketballs, etc.), unpleasant things (infections, diseases, lice, molds, etc.), intangible things (fear, guilt, longing, grief, memories, etc.), and Vietnam itself (soil, sky, monsoons, etc.). They carried it all without any "sense of strategy or mission" or hope, moving by inertia. Through the lists O'Brien weaves the desperate fantasy love of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross for Martha, an unresponsive girl he dated once in college.
"Love" depicts Jimmy Cross' visit to O'Brien some years after the war, when the subject of his love, Martha, came up in conversation.
The third story, "Spin," concerns how memory makes the war now, while story makes it forever.
"The Rainy River" examines what to O'Brien was a colossal failure of conscience and nerve, his choice not to flee to Canada to avoid Vietnam: "I was a coward. I went to the war."
"Enemies" shows how the enemy is not always the guy fighting for the other country.
"Friends" ironically develops the situation between two enemies in the previous story.
"How to Tell a True War Story" anatomizes war, memory, fiction, and reality. "If you feel uplifted in the end [of a war story], if there is any rectitude, you've been made a victim of a years old and terrible lie."
"The Dentist" is a vignette about a bully's fear of dentists.
"Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" depicts the seductive call of nighttime jungle patrols to the soul of a 17-year-old girl visiting her boyfriend soldier: "I feel close to my own body. I'm glowing in the dark. I know exactly who I am. I couldn't feel that anywhere else."
"Stockings" proves the talismanic protective power of pantyhose.
"Church" is a quiet story in which the platoon occupies a pagoda, monks cleaning machine guns and soldiers talking about religion.
In "The Man I Killed" O'Brien describes a young VC soldier he killed, delicate body and smooth complexion, black pajama pants, blown out of his rubber sandals, one eye staring open, the other a star-shaped wound, his jaw knocked into his throat, his hopes and fears and goals and wife.
In "Ambush" O'Brien tells how he killed the man, and when his daughter asks him, "Have you have killed a man?" he says "No," but is still seeing "the young man step out of the fog."
In "Style" O'Brien depicts a callous soldier mocking the graceful dance of a Vietnamese girl before her burnt house and killed family.
After the war in "Speaking of Courage," Norman Bowker is at a loss at home, driving round and round his small town's prairie lake, houses, and 4th of July park, imagining telling the story of how he failed to get the silver medal for uncommon bravery.
"Notes" explains the "true" story behind "Speaking of Courage," revealing in a "slip" that it was O'Brien who failed to win that medal by failing to prevent his buddy from sinking into a field of excrement and mud during an appalling mortar barrage.
In "In the Field," the platoon searches that muck for the corpse of their fellow-soldier as O'Brien (?) tries to come to terms with his role in his friend's death.
In "Good Form" O'Brien says that apart from his having done a tour of duty in Vietnam, everything is invented. He didn't kill that young man but, having been present, he might as well have killed him. Story vs. truth. Or the truth of story.
20 years later in "Field Trip," visiting that same muck field with his 10-year-old daughter, he goes for a cleansing swim in it.
In "Ghost Soldiers" O'Brien deals with his second wounding injury and his vengeful hatred for the rookie medic who nearly killed him by mistreating him.
In "Night Life" a fellow soldier bugs out from the stress of high alert nights.
In the last story, "The Lives of the Dead," O'Brien interweaves his sad memories of Linda, a girl he loved as a boy ("Why do you think I'm dead?") with his memories of death during his tour of duty.
After The Things They Carried, an hour-long "bonus featurette" written and read by O'Brien, "The Vietnam in Me," (1994), closes the audiobook. This non-fiction piece depicts his return in 1994 to Vietnam with his lover, Kate, revisiting places of terrible carnage from his tour of duty and speaking with local people and trying to deal with his nightmarish memories, vivid nightmares, and love for Kate. I found this non-fiction piece more moving than The Things They Carried. I had felt that occasionally in his stories he is at times too consciously telling stories, both in his comments about the nature of memory, story, and truth, and in his talent for crafting perfect tales. That coupled with Bryan Cranston's stellar professional reading made for a moving and harrowing experience that at times felt crafted, acted, and story-like. By contrast, O'Brien's craggy, tenor voice is the voice of a plain, sensitive, and damaged person reading his failures, survivals, and losses, along with the self-delusional nature of America's mythology of righteous innocence. The burning truth of "The Vietnam in Me" as read by O'Brien scorches the stories.
Finally, O'Brien, who may feel like a coward to have gone to war, exercises intense bravery in his honest fictional autobiographies.
Report Inappropriate Content
If you find this review inappropriate and think it should be removed from our site, let us know. This report will be reviewed by Audible and we will take appropriate action.