I read Pat Barker's Regeneration, part of a minor World War I kick I'm currently in. It is historical fiction, focusing on Dr. Rivers, a British officers who treats cases of what we would generally now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Siegfried Sassoon, a published poet who has proclaimed himself a pacifist, is one of his patients at a hospital in Edinburgh. Both of them are real people (and you can download Sassoon's book of poems, Counter-Attack, for free because by now it is in the public domain).
It is the first book in a trilogy, and the end of the novel hints at what is to come, namely an examination of the brutal methods many doctors employed in soldiers with neurological problems. They often amounted to torture, as with electric shocks. Rivers is the exception, and he reminds me so much of Major Sidney Freedman in the TV show MASH, who empathizes with his patients yet also understands sometimes to his own dismay that he is "curing" them so that they can go back to the front and face more of the same horrors.
There isn't a plot, really, but it is beautifully written and as with the best of historical fiction Barker makes you not only feel the characters, but learn more about them. It is all so sad. World War I involved unbelievable slaughter but there was too little understanding of how it affected those who lived. Unfortunately, a century later we've definitely advanced but not as much as we should....more
Nothing starts off a new year like profanity-laden insults. I read David Mamet's play Glengarry Glen Ross, which obviously also became a movie. It was a spontaneous pick-up from a recent trip to my local used bookstore.
Anger, fear, and frustration pulsate from the dialogue. Everyone is constantly and publicly aware of their standing within the real estate office, with the board reminding them of their status. Status improvement essentially means the ability to sell plots of junky Florida land to unsuspecting people. Reading it might actually make you feel a little better about yourself.
In the movie, Mamet added a character, Blake, played with Alec Baldwin. An inspired choice:...more
The premise of the book is very shaky, but Fuentes' writing makes you forgot that quickly. The letters reveal all sorts of twists and turns as the chaThe premise of the book is very shaky, but Fuentes' writing makes you forgot that quickly. The letters reveal all sorts of twists and turns as the characters scheme for the Mexican presidency. Ultimately a sad book, and the last chapter particularly so....more
Fascinating fictional look at the inner workings of the North Korean government, written by an intelligence officer. It highlights the corruption withFascinating fictional look at the inner workings of the North Korean government, written by an intelligence officer. It highlights the corruption without becoming polemical (the author shows considerable affection for the country and people). Only 4 stars because it can be hard to follow the plot in some parts....more
I would recommend this as the best book to read if you want a well-written, accessible and broad introduction to Latin American history. The passion hI would recommend this as the best book to read if you want a well-written, accessible and broad introduction to Latin American history. The passion he has for the topic makes it stand out....more
This is by far the worst book I've ever read with an academic setting. I found it unrealistic and annoying. In retrospect, I should have stopped readiThis is by far the worst book I've ever read with an academic setting. I found it unrealistic and annoying. In retrospect, I should have stopped reading rather than keep thinking it might improve....more
Ironically, despite the fact that Mexico City is the reference for Paco Ignacio Taibo II's Return to the Same City, there is less description of it than in many of his other novels, and more action takes place outside it. The story revolves around a woman who hires Belascoarán Shayne to investigate her sister's murder (with the implication that he should kill the murderer). Because of a recent attack on him, however, Shayne lives in a sometimes surreal state of paranoia that leaves him, among other things, suddenly finding himself on airplanes when he doesn't remember buying the ticket or boarding.
Then into this compact book we find crammed weapons sales to the Nicaraguan Contras, the guy who cut off Che Guevara's hands, a large band of mariachis, a CIA agent and some baby ducks. He just manages to pull it back from the brink of unbelievability. It is an entertaining story, and takes you all over Mexico.
Taibo makes a point at the beginning of the book to explain that the historical setting includes the rise of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas's presidential campaign, though subsequently there were only scattered reference to him. That is unfortunate, because he has such a keen sense of politics....more
This book started with an interesting premise--Kinsey being framed--but then there are too many characters that at least for me blended together in suThis book started with an interesting premise--Kinsey being framed--but then there are too many characters that at least for me blended together in such a way as to make the narration confusing in parts. Also an odd number of coincidences. ...more
I have an odd attachment to Arturo Pérez-Reverte's Captain Alatriste series of novels. Some of them, including Pirates of the Levant, lack much of a plot. What they do, though, is to take pains to explain the exaggerated pride and twisted sense of honor that characterized Imperial Spain (the story takes place in 1627). The books focus on the common soldier, murderous types who feel a strong allegiance to a monarchy that they openly admit does nothing for them.
The king does so little for them that soldiers feel the need to resort to piracy to augment their meager incomes (and the king gets a cut of that booty as well). All they do is fight--any other work, even rowing a galley to save themselves, is dishonorable. It is an image of empire built almost entirely on violence, without even a pretense of doing good for those being colonized and exploited. Captain Alatriste and the others are cogs in this machine, trying to create a sense of meaning for themselves....more
I read this book very quickly--it is a gripping true story of a family condemned to a concentration camp in North Korea. I highly recommend it. It goeI read this book very quickly--it is a gripping true story of a family condemned to a concentration camp in North Korea. I highly recommend it. It goes together very well with Bradley Martin's Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader....more
I hadn't read Jim Bouton's Ball Four since I was a teenager in the 1980s, when a lot of the cultural references from 1969 went over my head but I had found it really funny. Reading it years later, it's even funnier. Bouton was once a Yankees ace, but arm trouble led him to take up the knuckle ball and by 1969 he ended up on the original Seattle Pilots team, and then the Astros after a trade. The book is his account of that season, by turns thoughtful and vulgar.
The key to Ball Four, as with Dirk Hayhurst's two excellent books, is the high level of honesty. He does not pull punches at himself, which makes the book real without being vindictive. He does not view himself or anyone else as exalted because they're major league baseball players, and always notes how what people are supposed to say (e.g. "I'm doing this for the team") often contradicts the truth ("I'm doing this to stay in the majors"). He skewers hypocrisy, but he's not a malcontent as he wants to stay on the team so swallows his pride when he feels it's necessary.
And it's so funny because he questions everything, especially things that aren't supposed to be questioned, like the eternal wisdom of managers and pitching coaches, who demand total control even if their decisions are illogical and/or contradictory. As he writes about his constant fight to be allowed to pitch more on the side, "What the hell was he talking about? Except that I knew. I was asking to do something unorthodox, and unorthodoxy does in baseball what heresy does in the priesthood."
It has a very well-deserved label as the classic book on baseball.
Trivia: Jim Bouton also invented Big League Chew, a staple of my little league days....more
Santiago Roncagliolo's Red April: A Novel is a creepy yet engrossing mystery set in Peru in March-April 2000. It focuses on the fight against Sendero Luminoso in Ayacucho.
Félix Chacaltana Saldívar is a prosecutor put in charge of investigating a particularly grisly murder he thinks should be attributed to Sendero, and he starts to unravel a series of killings for which he ultimately starts to feel responsible, because all the people he talks to end up dead. Chacaltana himself is really odd, a combination of Norman Bates and Inspector Clouseau, fastidious but often clueless and with skeletons in his own closet.
The narrative takes place just before and during Holy Week, obviously a time of death and resurrection (and there are interesting points made about the intersection of Catholicism and indigenous beliefs). Within that, Sendero and the military's fight against it engulfed everyone in death, even while the presence of violence is denied:
"You think too much Chacaltana. Get one thing into your head: in this country there is no terrorism, by orders from the top. Is that clear?
Everyone is focused on trying to make sure that as few people as possible know that any violence is occurring at all, or that Sendero still exists. That gets more difficult--though not impossible--as the number of dead increases. From the perspective of plot, the book keeps you guessing until the end....more
It is a doorstop of a book, but I found I couldn't put it down. Martin has traveled numerous times to North Korea, and can provide the sorts of detailIt is a doorstop of a book, but I found I couldn't put it down. Martin has traveled numerous times to North Korea, and can provide the sorts of details that other analyses lack. I highly recommend it....more
First rate mystery with great characters and a complex but fast moving plot. The combination of current (well, late 1980s as "present") and flashbackFirst rate mystery with great characters and a complex but fast moving plot. The combination of current (well, late 1980s as "present") and flashback into 1953 worked really well....more
Very well written account of the effect Latin American immigration has been having on the United States in recent years, with the author's own personaVery well written account of the effect Latin American immigration has been having on the United States in recent years, with the author's own personal story as a backdrop. Tobar is an LA Times reporter, and has a good ear for interesting stories....more
I read David Fromkin's Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? which was an impulse buy in a Washington DC used bookstore some months ago.
World War I is mindblowing. You can draw causal lines to such disparate things as women's suffrage, Adolf Hitler, the Cold War, class consciousness, the Soviet Union, and more. Yet it started in such a small way, a minor aristocrat--not even widely known--murdered by a young radical. It was a seemingly isolated incident that did not immediately alarm diplomats.
This book is a nice general history that looks at every country and major players, often coming back to General Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the General Staff. Like a number of other German elites, he wanted war because he thought Germany would fade in influence without a pre-emptive strike against Russia in particular. He fought as hard as he could against dialogue.
Fromkin says the key to understanding war's outbreak is to see it as two wars. Everyone wonders how a little dispute between Austria and Serbia could suck in the world, but it was only the pretext. Germany wanted to declare war on Russia but needed to make it seem that Russia was attacking first. The archduke's assassination served that purpose. Austria wanted to wipe Serbia off the map, and Germany (especiallu Moltke) wagered that Russia would step in to protect Serbia.
Basically, the Germans wanted a European war and they got it. Be careful what you wish for....more
Martha Raddatz's The Long Road Home (2008) is a heartbreaking and anger-inducing book. It is about the attack on U.S. troops in Sadr City on April 4, 2004 as well as its effects on the families involved back in the United States. The overall story is familiar to anyone who followed the worst parts of what we might call the denial period (or perhaps "Mission Accomplished" period) of the invasion. The troops viewed Iraq largely as a humanitarian mission, and their civilian superiors were careful to cultivate that. But suddenly they were massively fired upon, and the results were tragic.
Probably the most egregious example is the lack of tanks or armored Humvees. General Peter Chiarelli is confronted by a wounded soldier wanting to know why they didn't have tanks--Chiarelli knew that he had begged for them (and had been rebuked for publicly saying hundreds of thousands of troops would be necessary), but that the Pentagon "had thought the war was winding down; sending all the First Cavalry Division's tanks, they reasoned, would give the wrong message to the Iraqis--the message that the Americans were there as occupiers" (p. 287). Of course, we were there as occupiers even if we wanted to pretend otherwise. But that denial meant many soldiers went out to fight in the equivalent of pickup trucks, and were easy targets for snipers. They also had no idea of the Mahdi Army's tactics, which included marching with children in the front as shields--they did not know how to effectively respond.
That denial also meant the aid station was overwhelmed: "The aid station wasn't set up for surgery--it lacked the equipment and had no blood supply, which made even removing a bullet a perilous procedure" (p. 162). The scenes of carnage and death are moving, and frustrating.
The book really focuses on the people, leaving judgment to the reader, though I think it is very hard to write about this and not feel indignation. As it happens, Cindy Sheehan's son was killed that day, and so you can see how this sort of event could radically transform someone. Casey Sheehan was in the back of one of those unarmored trucks and had been in battle only a few minutes when he was shot and killed instantly. It is no pleasant thing to read about exactly how families are notified.
It is bad enough to have an invasion and occupation, yet even worse when it's done ineptly, which just means more people die. The road home is indeed long....more
If you like Paco Ignacio Taibo II, then you may well like Luis Sepúlveda's The Name of a Bullfighter. In fact, Sepúlveda thanks his friend Taibo. The book is so similar in style: hardboiled crime fiction that is much more intent on evoking images, even very political ones, than on creating intricate plots. What makes Sepúlveda intriguing is that his theme is Chile as it moved from dictatorship to democracy, and that makes the book darker than Taibo's. The author was exiled in 1975 and still lives in Germany.
The story centers on World War II-era treasure that is hidden in Tierra del Fuego, and how various unscrupulous people are after it. The disillusionment of radical leftists permeates the entire novel--they see the disaster of Marxism (as well as the violent battles between different Marxist models) and in Chile also see a democracy without justice. The only soft spot of the main character is his former girlfriend, now mute and vacant due to brutal torture by the Chilean military. Everything else is, as he puts it, "the bitterness I camouflage as toughness" (p. 197).
The guy was right. It was a democracy. He didn't even bother to say that they had restored democracy, or that democracy had been restored. No. Chile "was" a democracy, which was the equivalent of saying the country was on the right track and anyone asking awkward questions could dislodge it from the correct.
Maybe this same guy had made his career, in part, in prisons that never existed, with addresses no one can remember, interrogating women, old people, adults, and children who were never arrested, with faces no one can remember, because when democracy spread her legs to let Chile inside, she named her price beforehand, and demanded payment in a currency called forgetting (p. 148).
I've used this book in class because within a fast-paced plot it shows how Cuban exiles feel connected to the island. It is clearly anti-Castro but noI've used this book in class because within a fast-paced plot it shows how Cuban exiles feel connected to the island. It is clearly anti-Castro but not polemical. It often generates a good discussion....more
I read Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza's The Silence of the Rain. It is a crime/mystery novel set in Rio, with Inspector Espinosa the protagonist. I had an unusual reaction to it--I thought the plot was cool, with plenty of turns and smooth changes of narrator voice. You get into all different parts of Rio, from the working class to the very rich. And Espinosa is an interesting character.
But. The ending sucks. The plot moves moves you right along to...what the hell was that? Are you serious? Also, in mysteries I don't generally expend much brainpower trying to figure out the killer--I just let the story take me there. In this one, I felt like the answer was really obvious, and I was actually going to be surprised if I was wrong. I wasn't.
Nonetheless, I will read more of these novels (this was the first of a trilogy) because that first 99% of it was really good. There is so much commentary as well. Espinosa is always lamenting the fact that forensic tools so common in the United States are simply absent in Brazil or just too expensive, so it is much harder for police to do their work. I also kept thinking that the entire plot would be different if Espinosa just had a cell phone, which I suppose he could not afford. Meanwhile, police corruption hangs over everything. Espinosa is careful about what information he gives fellow officers, who may well not be on his side....more