This is a really good book.
When thinking about what I wanted to say in this review, Elizabeth Barrett Browning came to mind: "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways."
Here are three:
1. Attention to detail
Like an painter from the Realist School, Joseph Kanon's writing is detailed, accurate, and objective. His greatness is in the details.
This isn't a history lesson (like, say, Michener would write); rather, the book is a work of art. The detail of the setting (Istanbul just after the conclusion of the second World War) serves as the vase for the bouquet of flowers that is the story.
(Humorous aside: As I was listening to this book, I thought to myself that Istanbul Passage had the feel of another book I loved -- Los Alamos. I couldn't recall who wrote Los Alamos, so I went in search of the author. Surprise! Los Alamos is by Joseph Kanon.)
Every once in a while, I come across a newspaper article about someone who, on a glorious day, sets out on a creek or river in a raft or kayak expecting to float along aimlessly to some unspecified destination. Along the way, invisible currents present themselves and turn the innocent outing into a situation of great peril.
Here's an example from one such newspaper article: "Before I realized it, the water was pushing me to the right, and I hear my dad yelling me to the left,” Amber recalled, “and it’s like, ‘I can’t. It’s too late at this point.’ ”
Amber could have been describing this book. She has perfectly summed up the story line of Istanbul Passage. What begins as a gentle current of self-inflicted events gradually overtakes American expatriate Leon Bauer. He thinks he's in control until, too late, he realizes that he's not.
I challenge you to find better story telling.
A great reader creates atmosphere and brings characters to life. Jefferson Mays gets an A+ in this regard. Istanbul Passage is a terrific listen.
I've now listened to everything available from Mary Roach.
"Stiff" was her best, and truly will be hard to beat. I consistently found myself thinking, "I can't believe I'm reading this given the subject matter, but it is perhaps the most interesting book I've encountered in a very long time."
"Bonk" and "Packing for Mars" were interesting, but didn't rise to the same level as "Stiff." Stiff makes you uncomfortable in a Mary Roach kinda way. Bonk and Packing for Mars included some stuff that would make an 8th grader blush, but Ms. Roach didn't roll it out in a way that induced the same "squirm factor" as Stiff.
"Spook" ripped apart the paranormal, which was rather fun; however, if the standard for Mary Roach is to deliver insight into that which really exists, the subject matter ("matter" being used liberally here) was, well, ephemeral.
So along comes "Gulp." Nicely researched. Cleverly written. Some splendid segments.
But, therein lies the problem. Gulp felt as if it was written quickly. The several splendid segments make it clear that this could have been as good as, if not better than, "Stiff."
Instead, the text felt a little formulaic, with tons of research and personal experience simply linked together with witty/clever transitional language. Thoughtful editing could have made this book extraordinary.
That said, this may well be Ms. Roach's second best book. The research is really, really good - moving into (and sometimes out of) some deep dark corners, making this a really fun read.
For a very long time, The Serialist was the ultimate "bridesmaid" book for me -- always next in line to be read, only to be left at the altar when the time came to make a selection.
Happily, when I finally made the commitment to this novel, I found something I really loved.
This book is terrific on a host of different levels:
-- Reader. Bronson Pinchot is great, great, great. It's one of those rare books where character development is spectacularly advanced by the reader's talent. In my mind's eye, I could visualize even the facial expressions and body language of the characters.
-- Intelligence. This is a smart book. It begins in a manic manner, bouncing off the walls like Robin Williams in his "Mork and Mindy" days. I initially thought that this would be similar to Josh Bazell's "Wild Thing," and, I suppose, in some ways it is. Only better.
Actually, once "The Serialist" settles down, a better comparison is probably Steve Hamilton's "The Lock Artist," not so much for its style (although both are told in the first person) as for its originality. The Serialist works because there is really nothing else like it.
-- Complexity. The book feels like a set of Russian matryoshka dolls, with one story line nesting inside another, which surrounds another. Each is unique, but each fits perfectly around or inside the others.
-- Pushing boundaries. There are a number of uncomfortable spots in this book that will make you squirm. Some authors approach challenging material by conveying momentum toward a very uncomfortable spot, then veering away at the last moment -- the goal being to leave the reader relieved that we didn't go where it looked like we might go.
Other writers tromp into uncomfortable areas like a "Friday the 13th" movie, delighting in what is awful as an end unto itself.
Gordon takes a third approach, edging up to the line, pausing for dramatic effect, then crossing it briefly before heading in a different direction. The effect is actually quite powerful. He made me very, very uncomfortable in a few spots. Yet, each such moment served an important purpose.
Which brings me to the best part ...
-- This is a book about writing a book. I'm not an English teacher, but this book is an English teacher's dream. The Serialist speaks of the power of words and then demonstrates the power of words. How cool is that?!?
The Serialist isn't literature, but it's not pulp fiction either. It's simply a great read. And maybe my favorite book of the year. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
For anyone who has followed -- even casually -- the Penn State debacle, this book is a must read.
There is something extraordinary about Posnanski's book. He captures far more than fact; he captures raw emotion. The final section covering Paterno's fall, informed by all that precedes it in this text, was so painful I had trouble listening to it.
If "tragedy" is "a serious play in which the chief character, by some peculiarity of psychology, passes through a series of misfortunes leading to a final, devastating catastrophe," then Paterno is a tragedy of the first order.
Stardust is both brilliant and challenging. It takes "stick-with-it-ness" to get through, but the persistence is well worth the investment of time.
The book is, in some respects, like watching water come to a boil. You can see and feel the heat of the flame being applied to the pot, but there is no immediate obvious effect on the liquid inside. The heat, however, is relentless and, after a while, visible currents begin to emerge. Bubbles form, creating light turbulence. And then, suddenly, an inflection point is reached and there is chaos, as things become wildly agitated, unpredictable, and violent.
Stardust is certainly not for the impatient. Half way through, I thought I might abandon and move on to something else. The quality of the writing kept me, but I was wavering. Two-thirds of the way through, I thought the book to be an interesting character study, but rather uneventful.
Then, suddenly, with about 5 hours left, the book exploded in a spasm of activity. The rest of the book was gone in the blink of an eye.
Interestingly, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, every early word was necessary. Looking back, nothing could or should have been cut out. Brilliant.
A couple other thoughts on this novel: I was entranced by Joseph Kanon's Istanbul Passage and chose to read Stardust with only one book in-between. Though clearly penned by the same hand, the two books are very different.
Istanbul Passage is chock-full of rich details that transport the reader to a a bygone era in an exotic location filled with larger-than-life personalities. In its pages, the reader can touch, feel, smell, and taste Istanbul. You are there.
Stardust is the polar opposite. Hollywood as the ordinary place it is. A mirage of sorts.
Studio magnates, glamorous movie stars, high profile gossip reporters, and big time politicians are all rendered human in this story. Their imperfections, foibles, insecurities, and secrets are on full display. Yet, in the telling of this story, we experience in some of the characters nobility, selflessness, and honor. (We are also exposed to and repulsed by actions and attitudes of others.)
My advice to those who choose to read this book: stay with it. Pay attention when it's slow and keep on going. You'll be glad you did.
For those skimming the reader reviews, here's the bottom line: This is a terrific read.
Very few books motivate me to buy multiple copies for friends / colleagues. Fewer still cause me to insist that they actually read and subsequently discuss the book. This is one of them.
Though I keep telling myself that this was "only" fiction, my perception of Watergate has been forever changed. (Others upon whom I have imposed the book express the same sentiment.)
Yet, this is NOT a political book.
It is a character study. The events of Watergate are there in the same way that the walls of a room define a certain space. The book's hallmark is its singular focus on people -- their thoughts and emotions, their ambitions, their petty rivalries, their fears. Every character becomes human.
The known events of Watergate suddenly make sense -- almost inevitable, really -- because we come to understand the people behind those events.
And, therein, lies Watergate's brilliance. You have to keep telling yourself, "Wait a second, this is a novel." The book is not judgmental, it is not an apology, it is simply a fictional character study.
And it is remarkable.
When coaching high school athletes, it is generally helpful to advise them "not to get too cute" because they tend to screw up when they do.
The same advice, I'm afraid, is appropriate for Josh Bazell.
I liked "Beat the Reaper" a lot. It featured bold, in-your-face writing that was brilliantly read, creating a hip, cutting edge, memorable listening experience. The back story was engaging. The end was, well, it was very intense in a variety of ways, all of them good.
"Wild Thing" had the same great reader, but none of the energy. The story was a LOT too contrived (hence the "too cute" advice). The character development was a C- to Beat the Reapers solid A.
Wild Thing proved to be mild thing. The book simply fell flat.
With athletes, sometimes the extensive use of eye black results in a tough look of invincibility. Sometimes, it makes the athlete look silly.
Wild Thing brought to mind the latter.
A rule of thumb about attending conferences is that if you come back with at least one good idea, it was probably worthwhile to invest your time.
I feel the same way about this book. Divide the number of pages by three and you probably have the ideal length for the material presented. However, the core premise is sound and the supporting stories are generally interesting. (Exception: The Tampa Bay Bucs example just didn't fit, no matter how hard the author tried to pound that square peg into a round hole.)
Bottom line: It's a so-so read, but worth slogging through.
This book had a shot at being terrific. Interesting concept, seedy initial location (US/Mexico border), exotic secondary location (middle of nowhere South America), money and drugs, power and its evil use, drug lords from every corner of the globe, honor and dishonor. Quite the concoction.
What was produced, however, was the literary equivalent of creating the Mona Lisa from a "paint by numbers" kit. The end result is okay, but the artistry necessary to lift the piece to the next level was completely absent.
This is a quick "read," a good story, is well narrated, and worth a listen. It certainly did not waste my time.
In the end, however, given the book's possibilities, I was left with the sense of underachievement. I really wanted it to find its legs and wow me. It just didn't.
I bought this book based on a generally favorable New York Times review and the quirky concept upon which the story is based. I expected something a little better than ordinary; something quick and entertaining.
Yes, it met those expectations.
What I didn't expect was writing of extraordinary quality. The book moved from laugh-out-loud funny to painfully sad then back again. Meg Wolitzer fearlessly delves into the most intimate aspects of relationships that, at first, generates a (blushing) "wow," then evolves into an enthralled "wow."
The book is read beautifully.
All in all, this is one of my favorite reads of the year so far. I cannot recommend the book highly enough.
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