In reviewing this wonderful 1969 book by German-American war veteran Kurt Vonnegut, one may hardly do better than quote the author himself, who, in tr...moreIn reviewing this wonderful 1969 book by German-American war veteran Kurt Vonnegut, one may hardly do better than quote the author himself, who, in true post-modernist fashion, explains thoroughly in the book itself what the book is about.
"There are no characters in this story and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters."
Vonnegut was captured by Germany during the Battle of the Bulge and, as an impressed POW worker, witnessed the destruction of Dresden ("the Florence of the Elbe") by Allied air power in early 1945. The book is a fictionalized account of Vonnegut's war experience, from the point of view of Billy Pilgrim, who has lost his grip on time after being abducted by aliens. Like Vonnegut, Pilgrim is captured by the Germans, taken to Dresden, with which he falls in love, works in a factory making food supplements for pregnant women, survives its devastation and emerges into the ruins after sheltering in the cellars of an abattoir (the "Slaughterhouse-Five" of the title).
It is a powerful and moving indictment of war, well outside the traditional canon of war literature, by one who saw war at first hand. It takes a moral stance on war without being simplistic. In its depth and range, it is among the finest of American fiction, and it should be reread constantly by those who need to be reminded of the human consequences of warfare. To quote again from the book:
"The nicest veterans in Schenectady, I thought, the kindest and funniest ones, the ones who hated war the most, were the ones who'd really fought."(less)
This book is an astounding piece of work. Beevor does not have the moral resonance of a Martin Gilbert or the sparkling language of a Dan Van Der Vat,...moreThis book is an astounding piece of work. Beevor does not have the moral resonance of a Martin Gilbert or the sparkling language of a Dan Van Der Vat, but in his own stolid way he tells a damn good story. Painstakingly researched and grippingly told, the book begins with Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's ill-conceived and treacherous plan to invade the Soviet Union. As we all know, this attempt foundered after the Soviet counter-attacks around Stalingrad in the Northern winter of 1942-43. Beevor attains a nice balance between telling the stories of the top leaders with their cigars, brandy and strategy maps, and what life was like for the ordinary soldiers who died in their hundreds of thousands in the snow. He also has a nice balanced approach to the two sides; we are spared neither Hitler's stupidity and vacillation, nor Stalin's arrogance and carelessness. Ultimately, the book's thesis is that both leaders were pretty careless of their own people's lives, but that Stalin was the more pragmatic; Hitler's amour propre and fey mysticism cost him and his country dear in the end. A fitting lesson for our times.(less)
Amis almost defines what is good about post-modernism in literature for me. Here he examines London in the late 20th century, touching upon themes lik...moreAmis almost defines what is good about post-modernism in literature for me. Here he examines London in the late 20th century, touching upon themes like class, sex, money and Anglo-American cultural differences. Memorable to me are the descriptions of Marmaduke (the baby from hell) and Keith Talent (the yobbish darts player). As in all Amis's work, the language never disappoints; he is a worthy successor to Nabokov in this regard. A dark and sometimes highly cynical book, this is not for everyone, but if you have the intelligence to "get" what Amis is talking about I think you will enjoy this book very much.(less)
This is one of the best, perhaps the best ever, drug books ever written. If you saw the film (which is decent), please read the book. It is as fresh a...moreThis is one of the best, perhaps the best ever, drug books ever written. If you saw the film (which is decent), please read the book. It is as fresh and as good as if it was written yesterday. A splendid antidote to both anti-drug and pro-drug propaganda, Dick was there and lived the life and wrote beautifully about it. I wish there were writers like this alive and writing today in the US.(less)
Catch-22 is a difficult book to review. By bringing absurdism into the area of war (and particularly the Second World War, the last "good war" America...moreCatch-22 is a difficult book to review. By bringing absurdism into the area of war (and particularly the Second World War, the last "good war" America fought in), Heller knowingly risks offending people's sensitivities. So be it. Heller justifies all in the name of art and morality, and I embrace that justification. This book is definitely "worth its salt", to quote one of the many running gags within.
Yossarian is a Bombardier in a USAAF bomber squadron in the Mediterranean. He fears death and wishes to survive the war. In trying to escape combat duty on a medical exemption he encounters the paradoxical "catch" embodied in the title, which has since entered the language:
"There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle." "That's some catch, that catch-22," he observed. "It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed."
This is a clever and well-written book which demands rereading in these gung-ho times. One may disagree with Heller's cynicism on war ("Open your eyes, Clevinger. It doesn't make a damned bit of difference who wins the war to someone who's dead.") but anyone has to acknowledge Heller's talent with words. As a dead war veteran himself, Heller, like Vonnegut (whose wonderful "Slaughterhouse-5" should be read alongside this book), is impregnably immune to the carping of war-loving critics who, like George W Bush, had something better to do when the opportunity to fight arose.(less)
"Darkness at Noon" is an intelligent and moving treatment of the Soviet system at the time of Stalin's purges of the 1930s which killed anywhere betwe...more"Darkness at Noon" is an intelligent and moving treatment of the Soviet system at the time of Stalin's purges of the 1930s which killed anywhere between 1 and 2 million people, the vast majority of whom had done absolutely nothing wrong.
Rubashov, the book's protagonist, is a Bolshevik 1917 revolutionary who is first cast out and then imprisoned and tried for treason by the Soviet government he once helped create. George Orwell reviewed this book and tried to better it in writing "Animal Farm" - unsuccessfully in my view. Koestler's work is fresher, better and a more honest work of art.(less)
Salinger's genius as a writer is matched only by his inactivity. A most unpromising idea for a novel (the teen angst of an American adolescent) is reh...moreSalinger's genius as a writer is matched only by his inactivity. A most unpromising idea for a novel (the teen angst of an American adolescent) is rehabilitated by the elan and zest with which Salinger writes. The themes of repressed sexuality and disaffection are handled so sensitively and well that one feels a real connection with Holden Caulfield by the end of the book. Salinger avoids easy answers and trite commentary here, and this is a difficult but rewarding read. All teenagers should read it.(less)
This is a gripping World War 2 thriller written by a former merchant seaman. I last read it when I was 11 in 1976 and recently reread it. It stands up...moreThis is a gripping World War 2 thriller written by a former merchant seaman. I last read it when I was 11 in 1976 and recently reread it. It stands up well; the story-line moves along briskly, the characters are believable (if somewhat interchangeable) and the ending is satisfying and slightly poignant. On rereading it with more knowledge of WW2 naval history the whole premise of the story is unconvincing but it is a good, slightly slim, naval warfare thriller.(less)
Golding's thesis in this book is that, given the opportunity, people revert to savagery, or at least adolescent boys do. Having been a teacher for som...moreGolding's thesis in this book is that, given the opportunity, people revert to savagery, or at least adolescent boys do. Having been a teacher for some years, I can at least sympathize with this. However the book he writes to purvey this notion is an unsatisfying one. Golding huffs and puffs and works very hard to produce a page-turner with shocking notions, a page-turning plot and a cliff-hanger at every chapter's end. Unfortunately, he is not a good enough writer to carry it off and you can see the strings holding the scenery up, so to speak. Characterization is so lacking that I felt nothing at all when one of the boys was killed, for example. The plot progresses with a slowness verging on tedium.
I reviewed what I wrote here and realized that I haven't read this since high school; I should reread it before writing too harshly critical a review. I had compared Golding with Dan Brown in a previous draft of the review; I now recognize that was very unfair. Golding was a far better writer than Brown can ever be. Perhaps this book suffers from having been so much studied at school.(less)
Dan Brown is an American writer with an interest in puzzles and code-breaking. His dad was a Mathematics teacher. Brown uses gravity boots to beat his...moreDan Brown is an American writer with an interest in puzzles and code-breaking. His dad was a Mathematics teacher. Brown uses gravity boots to beat his writer's block. His best-known work, The Da Vinci Code, was commercially successful but was widely derided for the dishonesty of the promise in the front of the book: "all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in (the) novel are accurate". On checking, more than half of the items described in the book are false. He has also been accused of plagiarism and of having a very bland and formulaic writing style.
His new book, The Lost Symbol, uses the same main character as The Da Vinci Code, and has a similar claim on the inside front cover. "All rituals, science, artwork and monuments in this novel are real". How my heart sank when a friend asked me to read it; surely, it was bound to be another ponderous, badly-written piece of airport fiction larded with misconceptions and sloppy research worthy of a child?
Well, yes and no. Brown has visibly put a lot of work into developing his writing style, and it shows. Characterization, while basic, has moved beyond non-existent here. The plot is well-thought-out and makes this a page-turner, far more than any of his other works. There are some genuinely clever twists.
I loved the tiny Japanese CIA internal security operative, and the trick with drowning someone in oxygenated fluorocarbons was effective and sounded plausible, though I admit I haven't researched it.
This book shows real growth from his really low points like Deception Point, hence my three stars.
Unfortunately, we still have the same problems which have dogged Brown's artistic development from the beginning, and for which there is little hope of a cure. The prose is clunky; although better than before, there are long stretches that read like Wikipedia articles - dry and ponderous. (Wikipedia is mentioned several times in the book and I kept wondering if Brown has ever read the article there called Inaccuracies in The Da Vinci Code?)
While the plot is genuinely clever, it relies too heavily on tricks and code-breaking. The motivation of several key characters is tricky to fathom, and the ending seems highly implausible, although strangely satisfying. This is the closest we get to art in this book.
Worst of all, Brown fails to even try to live up to the commitment he voluntarily makes at the start of the book. Far from being "real", key plot devices like the one-dimensional lady scientist's "holographic disk drives", "enriched plutonium", and her field of research ("noetic science") are fictional. Bunsen burner fuel is normally a gas like natural gas, not a liquid. Pulling back on the stick (actually called the "cyclic") of a helicopter won't arrest a descent but instead make it fly backwards. And so on, and so on.
There's nothing wrong with speculative fiction, of course - but I question why he would make such a statement and then not live up to it. And these inaccuracies in areas I know about, call into question my suspension of disbelief in the other areas of the novel.
Brown said in one of his plagiarism cases (which, to be fair, he won) that his wife does all his research for him. Maybe he should consider doing some himself or hiring someone to do a better job. Of course, other than personal integrity (clearly not a priority for Brown), why should he, when his books are such a commercial success under the current formula?(less)
I've read all of Sedaris's books and I think this is among his best so far. An amusing if slightly insubstantial writer, his intelligence and facility...moreI've read all of Sedaris's books and I think this is among his best so far. An amusing if slightly insubstantial writer, his intelligence and facility with words make him ideal reading to while away the summer days. Start-to-finish this book took me a shade over four hours to complete and I don't know if I would read it again. It's made up of Sedaris's usual riffs on family, growing up gay in America of yesteryear, travel tales, amusing anecdotes and observations, etc. He also deals with the trials of giving up smoking in Japan. There are some great moments here. Truly he is the Oscar Wilde of the 21st century, with all the good and bad that that implies.(less)
A book on quite a "difficult" subject, this deals with life from the point of view of someone diagnosed with the affluent West's psychological illness...moreA book on quite a "difficult" subject, this deals with life from the point of view of someone diagnosed with the affluent West's psychological illness du jour, autism. It is rather well done, with a sensitivity that stops short of mawkishness. A little reminiscent of "Flowers for Algernon", this is a good book with some genuine insights about how it feels to be classified this way. I recommend it especially for adults who work with children.(less)