This seems to be a clever, funny, tongue-in-cheek story that pokes fun at the conventions of fairy tales. But the performance by Words Take Wing was just horrible. All the actors seem to feel that anything worth doing is worth overdoing, squared. Every line is pronounced with exaggerated voice and over-the-top emotion. There is probably a good book hidden behind the performance, but I guess I'm going to have to read this in paperback to find it.
If you have read Mark Helprin before, you know what to expect: flights of fantasy inhabiting and enlightening the everyday world, flashes of humor, and, now and again, startling luminous prose of a beauty to rival Shakespeare or Thomas Wolfe. I enjoyed Freddy and Frederika, but it is not Helprin's best. The plot is weak -- it is more a series of amusing incidents than one coherent story. Much of the humor is in the form of "Who's on first" dialogs, but because of the hybrid format (a work originally written and now being read) these don't work as well as they ought. Too much was explained, diluting the laughs. And the narrator was not great -- it is particularly irritating that everyone has an English accent, even though most of the story takes place in the USA.
Still, sub-par Helprin is head and shoulders above the best that most authors produce.
This is the best book I've listened to in a long time. It traces the history of the CIA from its creation after World War II through the fall of the Soviet Union, through the experiences of a small number of characters who the listener comes to know well and esteem. It will be a surprising book for those who have come to think of the CIA as peopled by invulnerable super-spies, for the over-riding theme of the book is the errors and failures of the organization. Yet the people of the CIA presented are almost wholly admirable: dedicated, principled, and able. (My review title, "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly" is a quote from one of them.) In the beginning it seems that the KGB is always two steps ahead of the fumbling CIA, but in the end we find that the KGB has structural problems of its own.
This is not, however, a history book, but a story, an epic almost, and a very well-told one. There is a central mystery. We learn very early that there is a Soviet mole in the CIA. Who is it? This question overlies the first three quarters of the book, from post-World-War Berlin through the Bay of Pigs. Eventually the mole is unmasked. The book ends with the former mole's role in the fall of the Soviet Union.
Scott Brick does an excellent job as narrator. Each character has a distinct but believable voice, from the Russian accents of the many KGB characters to light New Yawkese of one of the Americans. At various points the narrator is called on to produce Russian, Spanish, German, and probably one or two other languages that I've forgotten, which he does with almost perfect accent. (Well, I did catch one Russian mispronuncitation, but...) I was particularly impressed at a short exchange in Spanish between a Cuban and an American, in which the distinct accents were clearly audible.
I really enjoyed this book. Niffenegger has borrowed and enriched a concept from Science Fiction, time travel, to tell her story. But don't expect science fiction: at its heart, this is a simple love story. I'm giving nothing away by saying that the hero, Henry, travels in time. This device, as used by Niffenegger, does wonderful things: it creates and enlivens her story, it places difficulties in the characters' ways, it allows her to hint at the future with just the desired intriguing degree of uncertainty. But the story is mainly about ordinary things: people meet and fall in love, overcome difficulties to have a child... Henry and Claire are sympathetic characters. Claire is almost too good to believe. (In fact, it is an accomplishment to create a character this saintly and still make her interesting.) Henry can be a jerk at times, but there's good reason to excuse him, and he helps keep the story interesting.
Atlas Shrugged is a book that everyone who reads should read, if only because it has influenced so many. That was why I started it. I was pleasantly surprised through the first two volumes to find that it was also entertaining. The characters are strong and interesting, and you can really come to like Dagney Taggert, the heroine. (The villains, I have to say, are one-dimensional, and there are far too many of them. In fact, Rand seems to feel that at least 99% of humanity are contemptible parasites. This can become tiresome.) Rand's ideas actually support and enliven the story.
Until volume 3, that is. Other reviewers have complained that there's too much speechifying in the last volume. But it's not just a question of quantity -- the quality goes down. Like many philosophers, Rand is very good at pointing out flaws in the ideas of others. But when she finally got around to expounding her own system of the universe, her own utopian vision of the way the world ought to be, the book completely fell apart for me. It was so wildly implausible!
I enjoyed it, but... Two things. First, it's very much like other fantasy epics you've read, especially Jordan's Wheel of Time Series, and of course the Lord of the Rings. There is very little that's truly original here. Second, the description doesn't tell you that this is the first book of a series, and the remaining books are not yet available. You're left hanging...
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