Philip Roth's double, also named Philip Roth, is traveling the world touting diasporism -- the ideology that Ashkenazic Jews should escape an inevitable holocaust in Israel and return to Europe where he is conviced they will be welcomed. As he pursues and then encounters his alter ego, Roth the writer becomes or pretends to become Roth the diasporist. As with everything Roth writes, this book is skillful, witty, and elegantly written, but I found it tiring, as each character--Jewish, Palestinian, Zionist, or Diasporist--seems to embody an idee fixe and ranted on about his obsession.
Do you remember how World War I started? Something about a Grand Duke assassinated in Sarajevo and the Triple Alliance and Triple Entente, but how did shooting an Austrian grand duke lead to Prussia going to war with England and France, for Pete's sake? And why the US? Something about a Zimmerman note, whatever that was. Ken Follett makes this all live. Even though I knew that (spoiler alert) WWI was going to happen and that the US was going to join, and that it was going to be ghastly, horrible trench warfare, I still found it fascinating to watch history unfold. The various characters discussed the possible outcomes but events followed their own dreadful logic.
Most of the scenes in this book are 1. battles (street battles, trench warfare, whatever), 2. bodice-ripping love/sex, or 3. political discussions in which each of the (wooden) characters represents the ideas that would be expected of him or her. For example, we have the liberal young German diplomat and his traditionalist father; the conservative young British Earl and his bluestocking, suffagist sister; the liberal, young American presidential aide; and the Russian proletarian revolutionary and his ne'er-do-well brother. BUT, at the very beginning of the book, we meet the 13-year-old Welsh miner Billy Williams and live with him through his first day in the mine. We learn about Billy, his family, the mine, and his fellow miners and townsmen. I wish the rest of the book had been this vivid.
Yeah, right. After that first scene everything fades into types and cliches: liberal vs conservative; working class vs aristocrat; English, German Welsh, Russian, or American, male or female. Follet is, however, a skillful story teller and provides us with enough background on each character so that we can understand something about why they feel the way they do. The brutality of the Russia under the czars and the thinking that gave rise to this brutality is particularly well evoked.
Ken Follett took on a very ambitious project -- to tell the story of the 20th century in Europe and North America by telling the history of 5 families. So it's not War and Peace. It's still a fun listen. John Lee does a marvelous job of characterizing the speech pattern of each individual and that helps to individualize the characters. He is capable of switching accents from line to line. I particularly love his Welsh lilt.
Here is Charles Dickens in all his glory: countless interlinked and concatenated plots; a wealth of characters, each one a unique individual; and the panorama of London society in the 1800's, from the lowly scavengers who dredge up bodies from the Thames to the superficial socialites with nothing to do but exchange gossip at dinners and breakfasts. David Timson helps to make sense of this complex work, gives each character his or her individual voice, and adds color and life to the prose.
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