In the years immediately following the Revolutionary War, our American ancestors went forth as a collection of independent state governments loosely jIn the years immediately following the Revolutionary War, our American ancestors went forth as a collection of independent state governments loosely joined together by the Articles of Confederation. These Articles were a useful in getting the national ball rolling, but fell short in critical areas that would be required for the States to ever coalesce into a union. There was no enforceable requirement for the funding of a national army, no workable mechanism to ensure meaningful representation, and no national executive. With the war behind them, most of the State government representatives and the majority of the populace apparently were content to leave things this way: a quasi-formal collection of territories with no singular voice. Enter the Quartet: Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, James Madison and John Jay (“a brain, a beauty, a jock, a rebel...”). Author Ellis gives much credit to these four for steering the States towards a forming “a more perfect union”, and meticulously supports his argument. Their efforts culminated in the creation and passage of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Given all the weight that’s invested in the ‘original intent’ of the Quartet and of the other founding fathers, I was most interested to learn that they considered the Constitution to be disposable, or at least only a jumping-off point, to change just as they knew society and technology would. ...more
Stephen King recommended this in his annual “best of the year” column for Entertainment Weekly back in 2011, and it finally made it to the top of theStephen King recommended this in his annual “best of the year” column for Entertainment Weekly back in 2011, and it finally made it to the top of the pile on my nightstand. All I can say is: what a weird book. On one hand, it sucked me in and kept me turning the pages. It was engaging, I liked the main character Glen and his daughter Kelly, and was curious about how the story would turn out for them. On the other hand, the number of characters who were dirty-dealing was just preposterous, and that led to a lot of eye-rolling as things became clearer over the last quarter of the book. Finally, yes, the clues were there, but the out-of-left-field ending just left me flat....more
This collection was compiled in 1968 by the late Sam Moskowitz (1920 – 1997), a writer and critic who was regarded by many as one of the preeminent historians of classic science fiction. SFBG's conceit is that many of the stories collected herein had, as of 1968, not seen print since their original magazine publication, and even those that had are uncommon. Moskowitz says he chose to emphasize the writings of certain "builders and pivotal figures who shaped the contour and general direction" of early science fiction. No author is represented more than once (Jules Verne and H. G. Wells were the only ones I had even heard of), and Moskowitz chose to arrange the stories by theme, rather than chronologically. As a result, there are sections on Catastrophes, Marvelous Inventions, Future War and etc.
I didn't come at this as a historian or even as a student of science fiction. I started reading just out of curiosity, but then continued because I found it hilarious to see how these folks back then, without the benefit of today's technology or scientific knowledge, thought things would be or could be. For instance:
* There’s the guy who’s reporting on a volcanic eruption that’s spreading lava across the English countryside, by riding continually ahead of the lava flow – on his bicycle.
* Or the pioneering aviator who first reached the stratosphere, only to be attacked by the half-bat, half-snake creatures that are apparently flying around up there.
* Or the doctor who performs the first-ever successful brain transplant – in the jungle, no less – using nothing but a machete and some medical dressings. Just scoop, scoop go the brains, and everyone’s all good.
* Or the murder victim who identifies her killer by manipulating the sequence of red and white corpuscles in her blood to spell out her killer’s name – in Morse code!
* Or the businessman who builds factories at the north and south poles allowing him to corner the market on all ‘electrical fluid’, which as we all know is the underlying source of all electricity, everywhere.
I imagine this would be a good scholarly reference if you were interested in either the authors who are anthologized here, or in the publications of the day. Moskowitz gives thorough background on each, with one or two rare exceptions where he couldn't dig anything up. The magazines are especially well covered, as Moskowitz explains when they were founded and where they wound up.
Author and comics creator David Malki made mention of this book in his blog, and I’m glad I checked it out. I'm also indebted to the Cincinnati Public Library for having a copy of this in their archives, otherwise I don’t know that I would have been able to track it down.
Set in the time of the Napoleonic Wars between England and France, Master and Commander is the first in a series of fictional books recounting the advSet in the time of the Napoleonic Wars between England and France, Master and Commander is the first in a series of fictional books recounting the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and his friend, doctor and naturalist Stephen Maturin.
I enjoyed the 2003 movie, and the series was also recommended by readers of Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, in the fashion of, "if you liked these books, then you really need to check out Patrick O Brian!" Both are nautical adventures at their core, but the Temeraire books are historical fiction with an underpinning of fantasy, while Master and Commander and its sequels are straight-up historical fiction.
We start with Aubrey at the very outset of his naval career, chafing at his "shipless state", and bemoaning the "whole and half-promises made to him and broken", as he waits not-so-patiently for his first command. When his commission finally arrives, he is not only put in charge of the slow, big-bottomed sloop the HMS Sophie, but the ship has no cannon (cannons?), and his orders have seemingly arrived too late from him to assemble a proper crew. But Aubrey is in love with the Sophie immediately, and is not daunted in the least. As he will demonstrate repeatedly, often enough even to earn himself the nickname "lucky Jack", Aubrey manages to turn adversity to his advantage. The HMS Sophie winds up not only fully-staffed and outfitted in time to set sail as ordered, but Aubrey’s last-ditch choice to fill the role of ship's physician is naturalist and doctor Stephen Maturin, who eventually becomes Aubrey’s good friend and confidante.
I've read that author Patrick O'Brian strove for historical and nautical accuracy, and it fully shows in Master and Commander. There are nautical terms aplenty (and a handy ship's diagram in my paperback edition), but the story is fast-paced, and does not get bogged down by these details. The sea battles in particular come across as vividly real, and O'Brian reportedly patterned most of the naval maneuvers and action after actual events.
If the rest of the series lives up to the high standard set by this first entry, I’m on board for more. ...more
I could make a terrific reading list that consisted only of books that I grab off my wife’s nightstand when she’s done reading them. DoD/DoR would beI could make a terrific reading list that consisted only of books that I grab off my wife’s nightstand when she’s done reading them. DoD/DoR would be a great addition to such a list.
According to the notes on the dust jacket, it's an exploration of "areas [of the U.S.] that have been offered up for exploitation in the name of profit, progress, and technological advancement". Author Chris Hedges supplies much of the prose, while author/cartoonist Joe Sacco (Palestine Vol. 1 A Nation Occupied and its sequel) both illustrates and contributes narrative pieces to each chapter in graphic (comic) form.
The various sections are only loosely connected, yet they shine a bright light on different segments of the seedy underbelly of modern progress: the despair of present-day Native Americans, urban squalor, strip- and shale-mining, and the plight of migrant workers in the South. The work reminded me throughout of Rolling Stone magazine; RS occasionally breaks out some serious, in-depth reporting on societal ills, and DoD/DoR reads like a collection of their long-form investigative articles: left-leaning to be sure, but meticulously researched, unflinching, and provocative.
I thought the work overall was terrific, but I’m not sure I'm on the same page as the authors by the end. They conclude that events like the Occupy Movement are a sign that the people collectively are starting to 'wake up', and that the tables are beginning to turn, but that doesn't seem as evident now as it may have when this book was published a year ago. ...more
Jacob is a spoiled teenaged American boy who grows up idolizing his grandfather. What young boy could not relate to the fantastical tales Grandpa AbeJacob is a spoiled teenaged American boy who grows up idolizing his grandfather. What young boy could not relate to the fantastical tales Grandpa Abe would spin? Tales of the peculiar children Grandpa grew up with, as a Jewish refugee who was sent away to Wales to escape the Nazis, “a girl who could fly, a boy who had bees living inside him, a brother and a sister who could lift boulders…”. As Jacob gets older, he began to realize that Grandpa Abe’s tall tales were just that, and this belief is only exacerbated when Grandpa begins showing signs of senility. But then Grandpa dies, and Jacob sets off on a quest to Wales to learn more about his Grandpa and the peculiar children.
The book is peppered with photos, mostly shots of the peculiar children. A neat effect, as author Ransom Riggs has cobbled together vintage-looking photos to fit the narrative. Except, when more photos appeared again and again (and again) throughout the book, the gimmick started to get old. The photos were usually shoe-horned in, in the most inorganic way I can imagine. “Here’s a picture of a guy lifting a boulder,” followed by an old photo depicting that very thing. That’s what made me start to wonder if this book came together the other way around: if the author started with ‘found’ photos, and then crafted a story, high-school composition-class style, based on the images he had to work with. Of course, Riggs confirms in the afterword that this is exactly what happened. This explains much, but doesn’t really forgive; these photos were supposedly culled from hundreds of vintage images. The book is beautifully packaged, and many of the published photos were exceedingly creepy. I can’t help but wonder: why didn’t he just publish a coffee-table book of the best of these?
The characters were pretty one-note, and the story wasn’t the best. Jacob solves, or has solved for him, the ‘mystery’ of the peculiars pretty quickly and all at once, after which the rest of the book just seems to plod along towards the final chapter. I felt myself dreading the end, not because I couldn’t get enough of MPHFPC, but because as it drew nearer, I just knew there weren’t enough pages left to adequately resolve the various storylines. And of course, there weren’t- cue the sequel.
Ultimately, I was disappointed, even though MPHFPC kept me reading until the end. I felt it had promise, but didn’t deliver much in the way of payoff. ...more
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a mostly-just-OK coming of age story/exploration of teen angst. Author Stephen Chbosky gives us the story of CharliThe Perks of Being a Wallflower is a mostly-just-OK coming of age story/exploration of teen angst. Author Stephen Chbosky gives us the story of Charlie, a young man (high school freshman) with issues. Or maybe it’s actually more than just issues? I assumed early on that Charlie had some type of autism spectrum disorder, but this never comes up, despite Charlie’s many encounters with teachers and mental health professionals. It seems to me it would have been mentioned if it were a possibility. On the other hand, the book is set in the early 90s: maybe ASD was not diagnosed as readily then?
The story is written in the epistolary style, so the entire narrative flows through Charlie’s letters to an unnamed recipient. This recipient may not even know Charlie, but was recommended as someone who would “listen and understand”. Here, Charlie’s social awkwardness is on display from the very first chapter; he’s writing what comes across as absurdly-detailed journal entries to a complete stranger.
I had a hard time generating a lot of sympathy for Charlie. I gave him some slack because of the ASD-affectation as mentioned above, but it bothered me that his social awkwardness and naïveté seemed to come and go; he was saying and doing annoying things even when it was clear that he really knew better.
The writing style was good, and the dialogue believable for the most part. My problem with the story overall was that it came across as having been churned out by the Teen Angst Novel Generator. Teen suicide? Check. Closeted gay best friend? Check. Crush on senior girl who only wants to be friends? Check. Teacher who somehow ‘gets him’ despite his irritating tics? Check. Teen sex? Teen drugs? Teen rock and roll? Check, check, check. The secondary characters largely conformed to these clichés, and this took me out of the story for the most part.
I don’t like to know too much about a book before I read it, but it was hard to miss the four-star average rating (as of late 2011). Clearly, many people like it! Rating-wise, I was on the fence between two and three stars. Goodreads doesn’t allow two-and-a-half, and I didn’t feel this book warranted the extra nudge. ...more
I had been on a self-imposed exile from Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder novels for some time, for reasons I can’t recall. After reading the first fivI had been on a self-imposed exile from Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder novels for some time, for reasons I can’t recall. After reading the first five books in the series, culminating with the excellent Eight Million Ways To Die, I decided to give both Block and Sue Grafton a break, turning to John D. MacDonald and Jonathan Kellerman for my mystery/thriller fix, while also checking out Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries.
Boy, I had forgotten what I was missing. The character’s back-story is that he’s a mostly-high-functioning alcoholic who has never quite recovered from having shot and killed an innocent bystander when he was a policeman, even though it only happened as the result of a ricocheted bullet in what was an otherwise-justified shooting. He’s now prematurely retired from the force and unhappily divorced, and he spends most of his time dulling the pain with his regular drink of coffee and bourbon- often leaving out the coffee part. Scudder supports himself by sporadically working as an unlicensed PI, taking leads or cases from his ‘friends’, many of whom travel in the same gin-joint social circle.
The author uses a different approach this time than he used in the earlier books. Here Scudder is telling the story as a reminiscence of a typical period from his drunken days, some time before the events of Eight Million Ways, and recounted from the perspective of a future self who is completely sober. Just like an AA confessional designed to help put his past right, Scudder pulls no punches in retelling the sordid details, including those times that are fuzzy or indistinct to his now-sober self: he often drank to the point of blacking out, and there are some things he just can’t remember.
The mysteries here are mostly grounded in the mundane. Scudder is hired to investigate a robbery which he also happened to witness. The owners of another of Scudder’s hangouts are being blackmailed over stolen ledgers that show they’ve been cooking the books. A buddy’s lawyer hires Scudder to make sure the buddy isn’t indicted for killing his wife, by investigating the small-time burglars who are ultimately charged with the crime. Scudder’s efforts – or lack thereof – for each case are given in detail, or at least as great a detail as can be given when filtered through the haze of alcoholic recollection. The cases by themselves aren’t necessarily all that compelling, but Matthew Scudder is an engrossing character, and Lawrence Block captures his narrative voice perfectly.
The previous book felt like a series-ender, and I've read that that is exactly what Block intended, setting the character aside for six years before picking up the pen for Sacred Ginmill. This book also reads like a second epilogue to everything that’s come before, but Block instead used it as a spring-board to reinvigorate the series. ...more
I was supposed to just return this book to the library for The Mrs., but I made the mistake of cracking it open when I was sitting at the car wash. "MI was supposed to just return this book to the library for The Mrs., but I made the mistake of cracking it open when I was sitting at the car wash. "Mistake", only because my nightstand was already piled high with books in progress and books to read. Once I started, I couldn't put it down.
Jeannette Walls grew up in a family that put the "funk" in "dysfunctional." Her Dad was a class-A nutjob, unable to hold down a job for any length of time, while working on the next hare-brained scheme, wacky invention or outright con-job that was going to make them rich- or at least get them their next meal. His idea of teaching self-reliance was to throw a kid into a swimming hole repeatedly, until they were able to swim out on their own. So it was especially jarring (and poignant, and amusing...) when he'd do or say something that showed real insight, like distracting his daughter after a tumble from a moving car by referring to her nose as her "snot locker." Or giving his kids stars or a planet for Christmas when tangible presents couldn't be had.
Walls' mother wasn't much better, both enabling her husband and neglecting her children. She is both an artist and a teacher, but never seemed to be able to contribute to the family in any meaningful way with either talent.
The adaptability of Walls and her siblings was amazing, as were their rationalizations. They had to skip town so frequently, they just referred to it as 'doing the skedaddle', as if loading up all of your possessions in the middle of the night was as normal as going to the grocery store.
Walls proves to be an excellent memoirist, as she doesn't shy away from the darker corners of her childhood, and even winds up with a pretty good idea of what skeletons in her father's closet helped make him like he was. She saves a revelation until the very end that was enough to make me laugh out loud. It's the rare book that makes me want to immediately read it a second time, but The Glass Castle is just such a book. ...more
This happened to be the first book I grabbed at random off a Facebook meme that was circulating late last year; supposedly the "100 Books the BBC thinThis happened to be the first book I grabbed at random off a Facebook meme that was circulating late last year; supposedly the "100 Books the BBC thinks you’ve only read six of". I was intrigued because I had never heard of this book or its author, but the title grabbed me, and it had a cover blurb from one of my favorites, Michael Chabon, who said “I’ve never read anything quite like it”.
When I can, I will often start reading a book without knowing much about it, and I was able to do that with Cloud Atlas, and it definitely paid off. The structure of this novel was as entertaining as the writing itself, and I liked it more for not ever knowing what was around the next corner. If you’re the same way, stop reading this now and just go grab yourself a copy. Not that I’m going to spoil anything, but David Mitchell employs a pretty nifty gimmick that could have been, well, gimmicky if not executed well.
Cloud Atlas is actually a collection of six novellas that seem to be only tenuously connected. Each has a distinct style (historical fiction, epistolary, thriller, comic farce, sci-fi and, I suppose, “amalgam of post-apocalyptic sci-fi by way of oral history”), and each has a radically different setting. The story progresses chronologically from chapter to chapter. The gimmick is that what on the surface seems to be the tenuous connection between the stories, gradually reveals itself to be a lot more than just that. There are common themes throughout, and recurring images. The plot lines are deftly interwoven.
I don’t know that everyone will love this. Sections sometimes end suddenly and seemingly without clean resolutions. There are different narrative voices for each part, both men and women, and at least one of them is pretty challenging to follow. By the end, I came to the conclusion that deep reading is both required, and rewarded. I tend to overuse the saying, "I can’t wait to read it again," but that's true in this case because I just know there are things I missed. I’d catch myself thinking, "oh yeah, this thing is just like that other thing," and realizing that there’s probably even more to it that I would have caught had I been able to sit down and read it over a weekend, instead of over a month-and-a-half (my reading tends to suffer during football season).
Seriously, do yourself a favor and go read Cloud Atlas. ...more
This is a breezy collection of short stories, and was a nice breather (for me) from a recent stream of 'doorstop' books. I like Michael Chabon based oThis is a breezy collection of short stories, and was a nice breather (for me) from a recent stream of 'doorstop' books. I like Michael Chabon based on the two novels of his I have read so far, Mysteries of Pittsburgh and The Wonder Boys, but also for his rep. He contributes to McSweeney’s from time to time, and he and I share a love of certain types of guy-friendly genre fiction (horror, sci-fi).
Despite the title, this is not a collection of werewolf tales, or even horror stories. There’s only one entry that I would even describe that way, the Lovecraftian "In the Black Mill" which closes the book. There isn’t even much of a recurring theme throughout, unless you count the fact that most of the stories revolve around, or at least feature prominently, troubled or failed marriages. The lack of commonality could be the result of most (or all? The copyright info isn’t clear) of these stories having first seen print in various magazines.
I thought that each of the nine stories had something to recommend them, but I’d have to say that "House Hunting" was one of my favorites. The primary characters here are Daniel and Christy Diamond, a couple who are practically newlyweds, yet are looking for a new house as a change of scenery to help gloss over some of their marital problems. But these two can’t hold a candle to Bob Hogue, the seemingly-addled realtor who steals the show with his increasingly bizarre behavior.
Chabon gets a little writerly at times ("the creeping pachysandra of failure", really??), but overall, I think he develops relatable characters and puts them into interesting, and sometimes even uncomfortable, situations. ...more
This is a terrific true account of man vs. nature, telling the epic saga from the 1920s and 1930s of the taming of the mighty Colorado River, and theThis is a terrific true account of man vs. nature, telling the epic saga from the 1920s and 1930s of the taming of the mighty Colorado River, and the building of Hoover Dam. Author and L.A. Times writer Michael Hiltzik has a Pulitzer Prize under his belt for investigative reporting, and his talent is definitely on display in this exhaustively researched book.
Colossus reads like a political thriller, and Hiltzik's cast of characters, both famous (Teddy Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, FDR) and obscure (master dam builder Frank Crowe) come to life on its pages. Starting with the earliest attempts to dam or divert the Colorado in the 1800s, Hiltzik takes us through every phase of the project's development; from the complex negotiations required for seven different state governments to cooperate on a Colorado River treaty, to the search for a private contractor large enough to tackle the building of what would be the largest man-made concrete structure ever. He does all this without glossing over the human toll which resulted from death-defying construction work in an era where worker safety was not yet at the forefront of anyone's minds.
The book is loaded with interesting digressions, anecdotes and trivia. For instance, what is now Boulder City, NV began its life as a workers' camp, first for just the workers, and later, as construction dragged on, for the workers’ families as well. Then there was the war of words and politics over what to call the project: in 1930, a toady of then-President Herbert Hoover pulled an end-run and announced, without counsel or forewarning, that the structure was to be christened 'Hoover Dam' (better to ask for forgiveness than permission!), even though no such edifice had ever been named after a sitting President. Hoover's detractors felt this new name was especially insulting, since Hoover was originally opposed to the project, so they continued referring to it by its original name, Boulder Dam. The disconnect between these factions was so profound that when Hoover’s successor, FDR, dedicated the mostly-completed dam in 1935, he did without referring to the former President or the name 'Hoover Dam' at all. The dam remained in this state of limbo until Harry Truman finally signed its present name into law in 1945.
Colossus is weighty and thorough, yet also easy-to-read. Hiltzik is probably correct in suggesting that the American West as we know it today would be much different had the dam never been built, while wondering if a project of such magnitude would ever even get off the ground today. He acknowledges the Dam as an engineering marvel, while shining a bright light on some of the more unsavory methods used to ensure its timely completion. ...more
This is the fourth book in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. I read the first three a while ago (pre-GoodReads) over a sThis is the fourth book in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. I read the first three a while ago (pre-GoodReads) over a span of a couple of years, and haven’t been back to the well lately. I remember grabbing the first book because I was looking for something a little out of my wheel-house, and a tale of a lady detective in Botswana seemed to fit the bill. I loved that first book, No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and quickly became a fan of Smith’s writing.
These books have all been quick reads. I grabbed this one for a trip because I had forgotten the book I’m in the middle of at home, and wound up finishing this between the airports and on the short plane rides there and back.
The series also doesn’t lend itself to being pigeon-holed. There are mysteries and cases to be solved, to some extent, but the stories so far are much more concerned with the lives of the principal characters and life in Botswana in general. There’s some intrigue, and some action, but not tons, so I’d hardly classify them as thrillers. They’re a little bit "chick-litty", but not to the extent that I’d put them in that bucket, either. They’re just great stories.
The action mostly revolves around Mma Precious Ramotswe, founder of the Agency, her mechanic-turned-fiancée Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and their assistant Mma Grace Makutsi. This time around, our #1 lady detective is hired to help a man atone for old sins, investigates a possible philanderer, and tries to deal with the anti-social behavior of her foster son, all while worrying about a slick but well-credentialed new competitor. J.L.B. doesn’t have a lot to do this time (I remember the last book being very J.L.B.-centric), but Mma Makutsi decides to improve her fortunes by opening the titular typing school as a side business, and also finally meets a seemingly-suitable man in the process.
This book pre-dates the excellent 2009 BBC/HBO TV series. The main storyline was not adapted for the series (or, “has not yet been adapted,” if you hope, like I do, that there might be more episodes someday), and the slick competitor I mentioned, who was such a minor part of this story, had a much bigger role in the last few episodes of the TV series. I’ll be interested to see if the TV people decided to make more of this character on their own, or if author Smith perhaps has him making a return in any of the later books.
Someone asked me what this novel was about as I was reading the last few pages, and I hesitated before I could formulate an answer. It’s not ambiguousSomeone asked me what this novel was about as I was reading the last few pages, and I hesitated before I could formulate an answer. It’s not ambiguous or dense, but it took me a moment to realize that I’d be hard-pressed to summarize An Instance of the Fingerpost in just a couple of sentences.
It’s written in four sections, each from the first person perspective of four different characters. All of the stories are set in roughly the same time and place: Oxford, England in the early 1660s, shortly after Oliver Cromwell has died and the British monarchy restored. All four parts touch on the same set of events, but only the first and last sections have the same focus. It is significant that the narrators of the last three sections have all read Part One before setting quill to parchment, as they all refer to it in some fashion.The book is littered with real historical figures, including: both of the last two narrators (John Wallis and Anthony Wood), philosopher John Locke, Oliver Cromwell’s right-hand-man John Thurloe, and scientists Richard Lower and Robert Boyle.
Part One is the memoir of one Marco Da Cola, an Italian immigrant making his way to London. He is a student of medicine, but has been sent to England to settle some of his father’s business and property dealings. He gives us a bystander’s account of the main action: a death that is quickly discovered to be a murder, the subsequent investigation, followed by the arrest and trial of the accused. While in Oxford, Da Cola purports to be instrumental in a pioneering medical procedure, and he seems far more interested is trumpeting his actions in that regard, than he is with the murder.
In Part Two, Jack Prescott is an imprisoned young lawyer who is engineering his escape when the aforementioned murder takes place. He contradicts Da Cola’s account in several instances, being privy to things that Da Cola was not. But the thrust of this section is Prescott’s quest to restore the good name, and hopefully the estate, of his disgraced father Sir James Prescott. Here the narrative veers into the area of Cromwell and England’s civil war, as the elder Prescott, after Charles I’s death, was accused of plotting with Oliver Cromwell to prevent Charles’ heirs from returning to England and reclaiming to the throne.
Part Three is where author Iain Pears really ratchets up the intrigue, as our narrator is now cryptologist and mathematician John Wallis, who doesn’t just contradict Part One, Da Cola’s account, on a few points of fact, but attacks the entire thing as an outright fabrication, and accuses Da Cola of being no less than a foreign agitator sent to England to sow dissent among the various factions of the British. Wallis adds his version of the events surrounding the murder, but also additional layers to Prescott Sr.’s affair, and Prescott Jr.’s attempts to clear his father’s name.
A fingerpost is the type of road-sign that points in a certain direction, i,e; “13 miles to Oxford”, and Part Four is the fingerpost that neatly (and brilliantly, in my opinion) points to the conclusion, and ties the rest of the book together. The narrator here is historian Anthony Wood, a bit-player in each of the earlier sections. We return to the murder and its aftermath from Part One. Could Wood be yet another unreliable narrator? Possibly; the real life Wood would have been a very young man at the time the events in this book take place. But he makes a convincing argument that addresses all of the contradictions that have come before, and provides his own startling endgame.
Aside from an engaging plot, I love a work of historical fiction that uses exquisite attention to detail to flesh out an era that would be completely alien to us, if we were somehow able to visit it. Author Iain Pears’ novel does just that. It’s also amusing to get these character’s different points-of-view on life in the 17th century, especially when they are entirely oblivious to the flagrant prejudices they display; prejudices of class, of religion, of science and of philosophy. It makes a modern reader wonder how our beliefs will be viewed in three hundred years. ...more
Asleep is the engaging non-fiction account of the outbreak of an unusual type of encephalitis known as encephalitis lethargica, a variety of "sleepingAsleep is the engaging non-fiction account of the outbreak of an unusual type of encephalitis known as encephalitis lethargica, a variety of "sleeping sickness." It's often characterized as a 'forgotten' illness, because as devastating as it was from about 1918 to 1927, cases now are infrequent and isolated, and there have been no further epidemics. The disease got some recent attention as the result of the memoir Awakenings, by Oliver Sacks, which was made into a movie starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro. But aside from that, encephalitis lethargica by and large doesn’t get a lot of press.
There are theories, but it is not known for certain what causes it, nor is it known why it all but disappeared. Among the earliest known victims were soldiers returning from WW1, and some of their symptoms, especially headaches and lethargy, were often attributed to shell shock. It was only gradually that doctors realized they had something quite different on their hands, and it took children being stricken to conclusively affirm that this was not the result of battle. Other symptoms run the gamut from unending sleep to chronic insomnia, body or facial tics to catatonia, and violent insanity, even to the point of self-mutilation.
Author Molly Caldwell Crosby is making a name for herself with studies of sickness. She received much acclaim for her first book, The American Plague, in which she tackles yellow fever, focusing especially on the 1878 outbreak which killed more than half the population of her hometown, Memphis, TN. With Asleep, she uses seven specific cases as a framework to illustrate how encephalitis lethargica struck; how its inconsistent presentation of symptoms made it difficult to diagnose, and how an entirely new branch of medicine – neurology – arose at least in part to study and treat it.
This framework is effective, as it provides a natural backdrop for both the progression of the disease, and the various efforts of the doctors and public health officials who devoted themselves to fighting it. Because the victims of this disease came from all walks of life, it can’t be helped that some of the accounts end ambiguously. If a sufferer didn’t happen to be famous, or the spouse or child of a tycoon or captain of industry, the surviving records may end when a patient was institutionalized or simply fell off the grid, what little grid there was to fall off of in that era. Despite this, the cases and bulk of the treatment (or lack thereof) are all thoroughly described, and all disturbing in their own ways.
Crosby makes a good argument for the luckiest victims being the ones that simply died at onset. She has assembled a crackling, lively analysis that reads like a thriller, but would be a great place for researchers to start should encephalitis lethargica one day reemerge as mysteriously as it disappeared. ...more
I’ve had this book, or this series rather, on my list of things to read for so long, I don’t even remember who recommended it to me. It’s been on my lI’ve had this book, or this series rather, on my list of things to read for so long, I don’t even remember who recommended it to me. It’s been on my list since before I even kept an actual list. My wife used to tease me about my Spreadsheet of Suggested Reading (no, it wasn’t really called that. I’m not that OCD), back in the days before GoodReads.
I was in the mood for a mystery/thriller, and wanted to check out something new. This book is the first in a series featuring author Randy Wayne White’s best known creation, Doc Ford. These recurring characters always have to have a gimmick, and Doc Ford’s gimmick is that he’s…wait for it… a marine biologist who also happens to be ex-NSA! I guess the action/adventure angle wouldn’t be as well-served if he were a marine biologist who also happened to be…a director of corporate development for General Motors! Not quite as intimidating, even though I’m sure there are directors of corporate development out there who are completely badass.
The plot in this one isn’t overly original. Ford gets a call from his old friend Rafe, who is in trouble. He’s mixed up with some bad people, he has something they want, and they’ve kidnapped his son to get it back. Before Ford can even meet with him, Rafe turns up dead. Rafe’s death appears to be a suicide, but Ford believes he was murdered (I seem to be running into the staged-suicide trope in a lot of books lately). There are a couple of twists at the end, but White doesn’t stray too far from the thriller playbook.
He does, however, manage a nice turn of the phrase or two. Here, Doc wonders why just seeing a photo of Rafe’s son triggers his protective streak:
What was in the faces of children, he wondered, that created the impression of innocence and keyed in some adults the urge to shield them from all harm? It was more than bone structure and the absence of facial lines. Perhaps the source of the emotion was some deep coding in the DNA, evolved during speciation to protect the young from marauding adults; a built-in check for the preservation of the species. Whatever it was, the boy’s photograph communicated that innocence: the slight, shy smile, and wide brown eyes staring out as if waiting for something; eyes that trusted and expected only good things. (p. 48)
And later, he makes this observation about human behavior:
Ford sat on the dock reading the newspaper. He rarely looked at a newspaper. He didn’t understand the nation’s habit of clubbing itself each morning with a list of tragedy and doom before trying to go cheerfully into the day. (p. 99)
Overall, I wasn’t blown away, but I also didn’t feel like I completely wasted my time. The writing was strong, and the character was endearing enough for a first time through, that I’d definitely come back for the follow-up. Yet another book that I'd give another half star to if I could. ...more
It's an ordinary October day in Chester’s Mill, Maine, when, without warning or explanation, a transparent-but-mostly-impermeable dome envelopes the sIt's an ordinary October day in Chester’s Mill, Maine, when, without warning or explanation, a transparent-but-mostly-impermeable dome envelopes the small town, sealing it off quite completely from the rest of the world. I'll give Stephen King the benefit of the doubt: of course he came up with this idea some thirty-some years ago, as he attests, and did not crib the concept directly from 2007's The Simpsons Movie.
The exposition is straight-forward, as King lays out the premise and introduces most of the major players fairly quickly. Light - somehwat diffused - can pass through the dome, but little air, and not very much water. Nothing else gets in or out, which means Chester's Mill has become a giant, sealed terrarium. The authorities, those outside the dome, try to help, but are ineffectual. Because the source is a mystery, no one has any idea how long it might last. Everyone can only speculate as to what caused it: aliens? Russians? Our own Government?
The story becomes how the Domies deal with their plight. Some react badly, while others rise to the occasion. Head villain "Big Jim" Rennie falls into the former camp, transparently channeling Dick Cheney, and using his influence over the town's First Selectman to take over Chester's Mill, and to reshape it to fit his paranoid worldview. One of the things about UTD that disappointed me, was that it seemed that Big Jim was the only well-developed character of the lot. Despite having 1,000-plus pages to work with, many of the characters, and there are dozens, come right from Stephen King's Character-o-Matic. For instance, Phil "Chef" Bushey is The Stand's insane Trashcan Man reborn, while kids Joe, Norrie and Bennie could stand in for any of SK's preternaturally-capable entourage of twelve-to-thirteen year olds, like the quartet from It. Maybe this is just my problem, a by-product of having read too many SK books?
Our primary hero, Dale Barbara, while not a SK archetype, is familiar nonetheless: he's the loner/drifter working as a fry cook who seems unremarkable, but secretly a decorated Gulf War veteran. Where characters and situations appear to be maybe a little too familiar, King is adept enough to play with us a bit. Right about the time I was getting flashes of Lord of the Flies, William Golding's tale of stranded children run amok on a desert island, one the characters says (paraphrasing), "hey, this is like Lord of the Flies." And as it occurs to me that Dale Barbara's background belies his unassuming drifter status, SK name-checks the very embodiment of literary ex-military drifters, Lee Child's Jack Reacher.
UTD is a quick read, especially considering the page count, and the plot, for the most part, is engrossing. The area under the dome is several square miles (at least), but King does a great job of making it feel claustrophobic. He doesn’t lose track of the science of the situation, so there are believable by-products of dome-life, as it relates to the atmosphere and the ecology. And he shines a light on the horrific behavior that people are capable when they're cut loose from the rules of society.
My gripes: I thought it was a misstep to take Dale Barbara out of the action for a prolonged stretch in the middle of the book. He was shut down, and I really needed him to be doing something. I also hated the ultimate resolution of the Big Jim Rennie vs. Dale Barbara conflict; it seemed anticlimactic, for as much as it was built up.
Still, all in all, I liked Under the Dome, and it's worth reading if you're an SK fan, or if you're just intrigued by the premise, but I wouldn’t put it on my list of Top Five Stephen King books. ...more
Ralph Truitt is the type of wealthy but lonely industrialist who brings to mind Simon & Garfunkel’s Richard Cory. Or, for you English scholars, EdRalph Truitt is the type of wealthy but lonely industrialist who brings to mind Simon & Garfunkel’s Richard Cory. Or, for you English scholars, Edwin Arlington Robinson's Richard Cory: the rich man who you’d expect to be completely fulfilled and content, but who instead is desperately unhappy.
His story is set in a small town in rural Wisconsin in the early 1900s. The town is called Truitt, which is no coincidence: it's named after Ralph’s late father, which is part of the problem. Ralph grew up in the spotlight as the heir apparent, despite his best efforts to rebel. Now that the business is his, there's no blending in. He’s in Truitt, WI, and not Chicago or St. Louis, which means he has no peers. Everyone in the area is dependent on Ralph directly or indirectly for his or her livelihood, so he is regarded with either awe or fear. This makes it tough to have friends, and especially tough to have romantic interests.
The plot turns on a personal ad. I always assumed that personal ads were a relatively recent phenomenon, a product of the baby boomer generation. But they’ve apparently been around for a few hundred years, and so it happens that Ralph places a discreet ad, not daring to hope for love or even happiness, but simply seeking a “reliable wife”. But he is so taken by the humble response from one Catherine Land, “a simple, honest woman,” that he quickly arranges for her passage to Truitt. He is profoundly disappointed when they meet, however, as she is not what he expected. “This begins in a lie,” he declares, because Catherine Land is not the ordinary, “neither pretty nor homely” woman in the photo, but instead is a total knockout.
Catherine arrives with a lethal, hidden agenda. Ralph is wary, but a freak accident gives Catherine the opportunity she needs to overcome the bad first impression and get close to Ralph. The characters come to life as their back-stories and motivations are fleshed out snippet-by-snippet; while we learn much about each via flashback and/or reminiscence, author Robert Goolrick keeps the action moving in real time with several terrific twists.
The setting is almost as integral to the proceedings as the characters. Goolrick does a fantastic job of describing the bleakness of winter in a mostly-pre-industrial Wisconsin.
"Some (people) were cruel to their wives and children, or unfaithful to their dull and steady husbands. The winters were too long, too hard, and nobody would be expected to last it out. For some, normal lives turned to nightmare. They starved to death in horrible winters. They removed themselves from society and lived alone in ramshackle huts in the woods. They were found drooling and naked and were committed to the insane asylum...where they were wrapped in icy sheets and lashed with electrical currents until they could be restored to sanity and quietude.” (Pg. 9)
Listen up, Wisconsin tourism bureau! You can cut and paste that sucker right into your new ad campaign! In the afterword, Goolrick acknowledges his debt to the creepy non-fiction book Wisconsin Death Trip for some of the more vivid depictions of what life was like in the day.
I’d highly recommend A Reliable Wife. It’s a gripping, gothic yarn that reminded me of nothing less than one of my all-time faves, Wuthering Heights. ...more
I was more than halfway through David Grann's The Lost City of Z (and loving it), when I saw that the author had this new book coming out. I don’t usuI was more than halfway through David Grann's The Lost City of Z (and loving it), when I saw that the author had this new book coming out. I don’t usually read two works by the same person back-to-back, but I made an exception for this since it was non-fiction, and also not one of a series. Grann is a staff writer for New Yorker magazine, and this book is a collection of essays and articles that were previously published there, as well as a few from the New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and The New Republic.
I was sucked in by the premise of the lead story, Mysterious Circumstances, which provides the collection part of its title: in 2004, Richard Lancelyn Green was found dead. At the time of his death, Green was the world's foremost authority on Sherlock Holmes and on Holme's creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He was trying to gain access to a large archive of Doyle's personal papers from Doyle's heirs- papers that had never been seen outside the family. A definitive biography of Doyle had never been written, so there were several parties interested in this archive. Before his death, Green told a reporter that he was afraid "something" might happen to him, and told a friend that "an American was trying to bring him down." In true Sherlockian fashion, Green was found garroted, alone in a locked room with a cord around his neck.
Most of the other narratives were equally compelling: an inmate is on death row in Texas for a horrific crime that may not have been a crime at all. A peek behind the scenes of the men who have been tunneling under New York City since 1969 to build a new aqueduct. The mob takes over Youngstown, Ohio, and buys themselves a Congressman. A French man in his thirties makes a "career" out of passing himself off as various teenagers. A modern-day Captain Ahab pursues a mythical giant squid on the high seas.
Grann tells all of these stories with equal aplomb. I couldn’t help but flashback to The Lost City of Z, because man’s obsessions are front and center throughout the book (why is Rickey Henderson still playing baseball in the sub-minors years after hanging up his cleats?). Perhaps that subject matter happens to be Grann’s obsession? For whatever reason, he documents it well. Although some of the stories are a bit dated, many have brief epilogues with new material on what's happened since the original dates of publication. Not all of them have happy endings, or even complete resolution. But them's the breaks with non-fiction; such is life.
Author Sean Doolittle sets his hook with the very first sentence: "my wife, Sara, and I are hosting a faculty party at our home when the Clark Falls PAuthor Sean Doolittle sets his hook with the very first sentence: "my wife, Sara, and I are hosting a faculty party at our home when the Clark Falls Police Department arrives to take me into custody." In very quick fashion, we learn the following: Paul Callaway has no idea that he’s about to be arrested, even after he greets the police on his front stoop. He's a college English professor. He and his wife only recently moved to this small Midwestern town. He's being charged with the sexual exploitation of a minor. And his accuser is not one of his students, but instead is his next-door neighbor's 13-year old daughter.
We then learn who the Callaways are, how Paul came to find himself in jail, and who he thinks is really responsible for him being there (hint: it’s not the 13-year old girl). He has apparently gotten himself on the bad side of one Roger Mallory. Mallory is an ex-cop with a tragic past, and he comes across as someone beyond reproach. He is a civic leader, a pillar of the community, and, most importantly, the head of Clark Falls' volunteer citizens-on-patrol brigade.
There’s a significant back-story, beginning with the Callaways very first day as residents of Clark Falls. Doolittle effectively uses a first person narrative to parse out just a few of the relevant facts at a time, revealing hidden connections and dirty secrets worthy of Wisteria Lane. There are some nice twists here, yet I was still able to suspend disbelief. Then things go a little off the rails at the very end, as characters start doing things that make no sense at all, and the story almost stumbles to a finish. But Doolittle manages to rescue the whole affair with a pretty convincing sort-of-epilogue, in which two of the central characters hash out what just happened.
Safer is a smart little thriller, but take my review and rating with a grain of salt. I always have a soft spot for a thriller that doesn't rely on any of the old stand-bys for its protagonist. Namely, cop, ex-cop, detective, lawyer, or my personal favorite: ex-Special Forces drifter. ...more
Merriam-Webster’s defines 'hubris' as exaggerated pride or self-confidence. And while you could argue that hubris doesn’t always goeth before a fall,Merriam-Webster’s defines 'hubris' as exaggerated pride or self-confidence. And while you could argue that hubris doesn’t always goeth before a fall, it has been my experience that it's at least much more evident in the aftermath of one. The Lost City of Z is a tale of obsession, as the full title says. But it’s also surely a tale of hubris.
Much of the action in this non-fiction tale takes place in the early 1900s, when there are still great swaths of the globe that are completely uncharted. Percy Harrison Fawcett was the consummate turn-of-the-last-century man's man. After a stint in the Royal Artillery, Fawcett got the exploring bug while working as a land surveyor – and a spy perhaps? – in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) for the British Secret Service. He had a knack for it, so he was commissioned by the Royal Geographic Society to help establish a border between Brazil and Bolivia. That wound up being only the first of Fawcett’s multiple excursions to South America.
His focus became exploring the Amazon. Besides it being one of the few remaining "blank spots on the map", Fawcett had heard the legends of the fabled lost city of gold, which he dubbed 'Z'. He was not only convinced that it was real, but that he was the only one who could find it.
It does seem as though Fawcett was extraordinarily well-suited for this work. Instead of seeking to conquer this environment, he adapted to it. He learned the languages, and approached indigenous peoples with open hands instead of pointed guns. Where other expeditions met with sickness, disaster and death, Fawcett always seemed to emerge from the jungle relatively unscathed, even if that wasn't always the case for his crew-at-large. He was disdainful of some of the more high-tech methods that were beginning to come into play, and insisted that his methods, exploring by boat, by pack-animal, or on foot, were the only sure way to chart the geography, know the locals, and, hopefully, discover Z. From the passages that are excerpted from his letters and journals, Fawcett clearly believed his own press.
So in 1925, when some experts were beginning to suspect that the Amazon region might be too unforgiving an environment to support anything bigger than a village, much less a city of gold, Fawcett sets out once again. He’s now almost 60, and his expedition consists of just three people: himself, his oldest son and his son’s best friend, the latter two of which were barely in their 20s, and had never been on an Amazonian expedition before. What could go wrong? That they’re never heard from again shouldn't be much of a spoiler; it’s revealed in the first chapter, as well as on the back cover of the book.
The Lost City of Z is meticulously compiled by David Grann from a variety of sources, not the least of which are contemporaneous accounts, including the writings of Fawcett and members of his party. He includes accounts of subsequent explorations, some of which were looking for Fawcett, or even just trying to learn what happened to his party, while others were still seeking Fawcett’s grail: the elusive Z.
The Lost City of Z is a non-fiction narrative that reads like an adventure novel. I could have read another 100 pages. Let's call this one four-and-a-half stars....more
Chapter 2 I liked those books well enough, quite a bit actually, in addition to a couple of JP's older non-series books. As a matter of personal preference I usually put some space between installments of a series, and before there was a Goodreads, years might pass before I get back to a particular author.
Chapter 3 I, Alex Cross was a gift, so I decided to jump in and read it immediately rather than put it at the bottom of my queue until I got around to the other thirteen Alex Cross novels that I've missed.
Chapter 4 This is not the taut, suspenseful writing I remember. This seems like JP phoning it in. Or maybe just cashing in? I've noticed a lot of JP collaborations lately, and I couldn't help but think that this book might be another, but just without co-author credit: the literary equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting. Sure, JP's name is on the cover, but he might have only been supervising the warehouse full of monkeys with typewriters churning out turgid thrillers; making sure they hit everything on the checklist.
Chapter 5 By necessity, this becomes a criticism of the product, as well as of the craft. I was reminded of some of my junior high school term papers, in that the book is formatted with a giant font and with extra-generous spacing between the lines, to take up maximum space with as few words as possible. The hardcover is 374 pages, but could have easily been 225 pages or less. And the chapters are all short.
Chapter 6 I mean really short.
Chapter 7 Many were only two or three pages. Several could have actually fit on one page, even with the giant font and Suez Canal-sized spacing. These 374 pages contain a whopping 117 chapters, including an eight-page, three-chapter epilogue! Don't like the chapter you’re on right now? No worries! You’ll be on to the next one tout de suite.
Chapter 8 The front cover trumpets that "A beloved Cross family member has been murdered." If you're a regular Patterson reader, you might expect that some pivotal character buys it here. But I'm pretty sure if you had read all of the previous titles, you would have never heard of this 'beloved family member' - Alex's niece- before. This book provides her brief back story, and Cross apparently hasn't spoken to her since she was a small child. She's fleshed out so minimally, she could have been no relation to Cross whatsoever, and would have had the same impact on the story.
Chapter 9 So that's my beef with this shrewd and very calculated package. I like Alex Cross as a character, so I read through to the end. The story was your standard "Seedy Sex Crime and Cover-Up That Could Be Traced Back to Highest Levels of Government." Of course critical characters are killed off just before they can corroborate/contribute/whatever. Of course some unknown higher-up is trying to hinder the investigation. Of course Alex Cross is bucking his boss, the FBI, the State Department, the BMV and anyone else you can think of in pursuit of answers. There's very little that's even vaguely original in here. I rarely give up on a book, but if I didn't know ahead of time that I was going to be done in two nanoseconds, I would have bailed on this one. And even so, I want my two nanoseconds back.
Epilogue I almost want to go back and re-read some of the early Alex Cross stuff that I liked so much. I know I've become a little more discerning as a reader, but I'm curious to see if Patterson has changed that much, or if I have? Or maybe I, Alex Cross was just an anomaly? ...more
Actually, author Chad Orzelis a physics professor, at Union College in NY. He also writes a science-y blog called Uncertain Principles, http://scienceblogs.com/principles/ (science-y, yes. But today a photo of his young daughter is featured prominently on the home page. So it’s not a complete geek-fest).
My theory is that the title 'Quantum Physics for Dummies' was already taken, so Orzell opts for a similar approach, and instead invites us to listen in on elaborate conversations about quantum physics that he carries on with his dog, Emmy (who can also be found online on both Twitter and Facebook). Emmy listens intently – she is a GOOD GIRL!! Yes she is!! - but also asks good questions. Especially if she suspects that quantum physics may help her get more treats, or catch the squirrels or bunnies that turn up in the back yard. It sounds like a corny premise, but by the end, talking-Emmy seemed completely natural.
I’ll spare you a total rehash, since I’d have to re-read the book a couple more times to be able to debate The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, or fully explain Schrödinger’s Cat. But Orzell takes these concepts, and other quantum physics concepts like them, and basically explains them slowly and clearly enough that even a higher-math nitwit like myself was able to follow along without any problems. Would I know if this were a bad physics book? Probably not. But it's short (225 pgs. + glossary and such), succinct and entertaining.
This book was given to me as a Christmas present, and I'm thankful for that. I might have never stumbled across it on my own, but it was a total hoot, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. ...more
This is a terrific sequel (of sorts) to the earlier book The Zombie Survival Guide from the same author. That book was a straight-up parody of the "hoThis is a terrific sequel (of sorts) to the earlier book The Zombie Survival Guide from the same author. That book was a straight-up parody of the "how to survive ___" books, of which there was a glut of a few years back. TZSG dealt with the precautions one should take to prepare themselves for a zombie onslaught.
Here, author Max Brooks (comedian Mel’s son) tells us that such an onslaught has come to pass. WWZ is presented as a journalistic account of a zombie war ten years past, through the stories of people all around the globe who were fortunate enough to survive said war.
It reads a bit like a collection of short stories, in that it jumps from one account to the other, without significant overlap between the characters. The interviews are chronological, but the narratives are not, as the author's various subjects/interviewees tell of their first-hand experiences, some of which were recent, and some of which were closer to the beginning of the 'zombie plague'. But the survivors are all describing the aftermath of the same cataclysm, which ties the narratives together to some extent. In addition to that crossover, Brooks returns to each storyline, sometimes from a different perspective, so that for the most part you’re never left hanging as to what happened to any given thread.
There are some clever touches. I love that the military has a nickname for the zombies. They can’t just be "zombies", or "the enemy": they’re Zack. And zombies stroll ashore after having been swept overboard miles at sea, because, of course, zombies can’t drown.
WWZ provides sharp and insightful social and political commentary, much like the Night of the Living Dead movies that got the whole genre rolling. It has much to say about isolationism, the U.S. government’s crisis management (Hurricane Katrina, anyone?), military overconfidence (not confined to any one country in general), religion, and which countries are better equipped than others to deal with the zombie problem that impacts virtually every person on earth.
If the character development were as good as the commentary, this would have been a classic. As it stands, it’s a very, very good achievement of imagination, and probably the best zombie book that I have read. ...more
After a brief prelude to set the table, the story proper opens with Patsy MacLemoore awakening in jail. Or, more precisely, she comes to in jail. She’After a brief prelude to set the table, the story proper opens with Patsy MacLemoore awakening in jail. Or, more precisely, she comes to in jail. She’s a raging alcoholic, and has no idea how she wound up there, or what she’s 'in for', until she is led to an interrogation room with two cops, and her lawyer, Benny.
Was I driving again? Moi? Sans license? The men gazed at the nicked and thinning oak veneer as if they were poring over a war map, as if she were not in the room. Okay, what’d I do? Or do I have to beg? Benny? What, are we going to play twenty questions? Or can we behave like adults here? She was almost shouting, then caught herself. But really, they were so grim-lipped and obtuse. What is it? I really don’t remember. Did I kill someone?
Peterson did something – a wince, or a smile suppressed.
Understanding flooded her.
In fact, Patsy had killed someone, a mother and daughter on foot in Patsy’s driveway, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Only extenuating circumstances keep Patsy from facing really hard time. As it is, she’s sentenced to four years in prison, and the story takes us through her prison term, her release and her attempt to overcome her guilt and put her life back together.
I liked this book a lot, maybe because I didn’t read the flap on the dust jacket first, or some of the more prominent reviews here on GoodReads which give too much away. It’s not an overly long book, so it may have been better for not having any idea where it was headed. ...more
The man in black fled into the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
So begins the first book in Stephen King’s self-proclaimed magnum opus, the seven-b
The man in black fled into the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
So begins the first book in Stephen King’s self-proclaimed magnum opus, the seven-book Dark Tower series. The gunslinger is Roland of Gilead, and we join him in the midst of his pursuit of the man in black. Roland’s world has "moved on", and nothing is like it once was. We learn through flashback that Roland grew up in better times, and was witness and perhaps party to the upheaval that brought about the change. Roland is after the man in black for answers, and possibly for retribution. But the man in black is also Roland’s stepping-stone to The Dark Tower. Each section of this story tells of Roland’s different encounters, prior to his ultimate confrontation with his enemy.
As you'd expect from any good sci-fi or fantasy work, SK does a good job giving Roland’s world its own unique feel and language, even though it’s not entirely unfamiliar. I couldn’t help but flashback to the old 70's Michael Crichton movie Westworld throughout, as the world of Roland’s youth is reminiscent of courtly medieval times, while the world of Roland’s present is more like a very desolate Old West.
I used to pull this first book out and re-read it whenever a later title in the series came out, but I haven’t done that since this revised edition was published in 2003, just in advance of the final three installments. Here, SK goes all George Lucas on his original Dark Tower book, tweaking some of the language and characters from this 1982 work to bring it a little more in line with the rest of the series. In a new foreword, SK says his intention was to improve the work he’d started some thirty years earlier, and to make it a clearer and easier entry to the world of The Dark Tower both for new readers, and for those re-reading the original books. I believe he achieves both of those goals here.
The original version of The Dark tower: The Gunslinger seemed a little disjointed. Maybe it’s because the five chapters were originally published as separate, self-contained installments in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction over a period of four years? This revised book has a cohesiveness that the original work lacked. SK also makes a simple but major change to the man in the black, the villain of the piece, that gives that character a much stronger arc for this as a stand-alone story, but that will also resonate into the later books. Before the revisions, the original The Dark tower: The Gunslinger was a curiosity, being very different from the SK work to that point in time, and also necessary reading to appreciate the later, better works; on its own merits, I didn’t think it was that great. The revisions have made this a much better read. All in all, very well played. ...more
I picked up this book after reading a strong review in the WSJ. I had a minor head-smack after starting, since the subject matter is four noteworthy aI picked up this book after reading a strong review in the WSJ. I had a minor head-smack after starting, since the subject matter is four noteworthy anti-Communist books, none of which I had ever read (oops). But it grabbed me nonetheless, and this is a topic and an era that fascinates me.
Author John V. Fleming points out that the war of propaganda was one of the major fronts in the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West, and highlights here four books that are deemed to have had a major influence in that regard. Fleming has further singled out authors who share a significant characteristic: they were all Communist activists at some point in their lives, prior to having written the works in question.
Fleming’s study is not just reviews of the books in question, but explorations of the back-stories behind each of the books; how the authors came to be Communists in the first place, and what transpired that allowed them to ‘see the light’, and not just simply renounce Communism, but to create works that were highly critical of it.
Koestler’s Darkness at Noon is the only work of fiction of the lot, yet it is just as true-to-life than the rest. The country and its totalitarian dictator aren’t named, but the plot closely parallels the Moscow ‘show trials’, which were used to purge Joseph Stalin’s political opponents. Koestler’s protagonist, Rubashov, is an old-guard Communist who happily follows the party line until the organ of state is turned on him, and he finds himself imprisoned, falsely accused, and subject to a public trial where he knows that a guilty verdict is pre-ordained. Koestler himself was imprisoned during the Spanish Civil War, and was friends with several of Stalin’s opponents who were put to death during The Purge.
Valtin’s Out of the Night was the least compelling of the four narratives to me. Valtin was an operative of the GPU, the precursor to Russia’s KGB, and was imprisoned by the Russians and then the Nazis in turn, before fleeing to the US. There were just enough discrepancies in his autobiographical account to lend a tinge of credence to his critic’s cries of fraud. Regardless, it did exude ‘truthiness’, and ultimately led to tragic consequences for the author.
While Out of the Night may have smacked lightly of anti-Soviet propaganda, Kravchenko’s I Chose Freedom was a full-scale public outing of Soviet atrocities that in 1946 were still well-kept secrets. Critics publicly ridiculed the author as a liar and a fantasist. Soviet sympathizers, and even those on the fence as to their feelings regarding Communist Russia, could scarcely believe Kravchenko’s revelations of the dark underbelly of Soviet collectivism, including GULAGs and other forced labor camps, and the complete lack of due process or even basic human rights in the administration of these punishments. The French Communists then inadvertently gave Kravchenko an even bigger platform for his claims: they published a rebuke of I Chose Freedom that was so libelous, it allowed Kravchenko to take them to court. The resulting ‘Trial of the Century” featured hundreds of witnesses, and was a huge PR disaster for the Communists.
Lastly comes Whittaker Chambers’s Witness. This was the most intriguing, as its subject matter was the most hotly disputed. Chambers blows the whistle on several Communist operatives, including Alger Hiss, a senior State Department official and key figure in the U.N. Charter conference. Chambers had gone from denying Hiss’s involvement in espionage to exposing it, and there are factions that even today that challenge the validity of Chambers’s accusations. It’s weird to hear of any series of historical events where Richard M. Nixon is actually one of the heroes.
The ‘stories behind the stories’ were all compelling. And while it might be easy to distill Communism’s impact on America down to the Cuban missile crisis, McCarthyism, and “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall,” The Anti-Communist Manifestos makes it clear that there was a very real intent by the Soviet Union to undermine American democracy from WWII through much of the early part of the Cold War. ...more
I’m a big Stephen King fan, but I somehow missed reading this one until now, even though I’ve owned it since it was first published in hardcover. HereI’m a big Stephen King fan, but I somehow missed reading this one until now, even though I’ve owned it since it was first published in hardcover. Here, SK goes all literary with an ode to the 60s, the baby boomers, and to lost innocence.
Hearts In Atlantis is not a novel exactly, in that it’s a collection of five separate stories with only some characters in common. Tertiary people from the first story become primary figures in the later stories. There’s a central theme throughout, plus some recurring imagery; the narrative thread never loses sight of what’s gone before. It’s almost as though the era and the mood were the main characters.
The unusual structure of this book is critical to appreciating it. It leads off with the engaging "Low Men in Yellow Coats," the most Stephen-Kingy of all the tales, and also the longest herein- it accounts for almost half of the 500 or so pages. It’s the story of an eleven year-old boy, Bobby Garfield, living with his widowed, working mother. It’s 1960, so the term "latchkey kid" may not have yet been in the vernacular, but it fits Bobby. He hangs out with his BFFs Carol and Sully-John enjoying a mostly routine summer, until he gets a new neighbor: the elderly Ted, who moves into an apartment upstairs. Ted recognizes that Liz Garfield has her hands full between Bobby and work, and gradually begins to take Bobby under his wing. He treats and talks to Bobby like a grown-up, and encourages Bobby to migrate from The Hardy Boys to more 'grown-up' literature. He also unwittingly exposes Bobby to danger.
There are some supernatural elements, borrowed from SK’s Dark Tower saga, but much of the action and dialogue is grounded in reality. The relationship between Bobby and his mother throughout LMiYC is complicated and heart-rending. Interestingly, this story alone was the basis for the 2001 movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Hope Davis. LMiYC had nothing to do with hearts (the card game) or Atlantis (the 60s song about the lost continent), but since LMiYC would not have made the best title for a coming-of-age movie, they cribbed the title from the book's second story instead, and made up a throwaway line of dialogue for Sir Anthony so that it all made sense.
We leave Bobby and Ted and 1960 behind for Part 2, "Hearts in Atlantis", and meet our new protagonist and narrator Pete Riley. Pete is a student at the University of Maine in 1966, a campus that is just about ready to, to quote Timothy Leary, "turn on, tune in and drop out". The war in Vietnam and the social unrest that it fostered have just begun to percolate. Pete and his fellow students, mostly men, get caught up in a seemingly-interminable hearts tournament in the common area of one of the dorms. Hearts is initially just a diversion, a means of escape from the real world. But it transforms over the course of the school year into something with a dark pull of its own, as students are so addicted to playing that they are ditching class, failing tests and worse - even though they all know that flunking out would mean the loss of student deferment. Hearts escalates out of control for Pete and the rest of the students, much like the Vietnam War for the rest of the country. Pete’s love for Carol Gerber, Bobby’s friend from the first story now all growed up, is also integral to HiA. Carol doesn’t get caught up in the insanity of the hearts tournament, but is swept away instead by something far more dangerous.
Like the first story, HiA was really more of a novella, clocking in at 150 pages. This doesn’t leave much space for the last three entries, which really are just short stories. Number three, "Blind Willie," jumps ahead to 1983, as we follow Bill 'Blind Willie' Shearman, another secondary character from LMiYC, who still carries guilt from 1960 (he was involved in an attack on Carol Gerber that he could have stopped), and was likely further unhinged by something that happened to him in 'Nam. The fourth story, "Why We’re in Vietnam," takes us to 1999, where we learn just what happened to Blind Willie, and we learn it from Bobby Garfield’s other childhood friend, John Sullivan, a k a Sully-John. And for the finale, "Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling," we're in 1999 one more time to get a short but powerful denouement from Bobby himself.
Both of the first two stories contain some of SKs most elegant writing, as in this passage from the beginning of HiA, where an adult Pete Riley looks back:
"When I try to talk about the sixties - when I even try to think about them - I am overcome by horror and hilarity. I see bellbottom pants and Earth Shoes. I smell pot and patchouli, incense and peppermints. And I hear Donovan Leitch singing his sweet and stupid song about the continent of Atlantis, lyrics that still seem profound to me in the watches of the night, when I can't sleep. The older I get, the harder it is to let go of that song's stupidity and hold onto its sweetness. I have to remind myself that we were smaller then, small enough to live our brightly hued lives under the mushrooms, all the time believing them to be trees, shelter from the sheltering sky. I know that doesn't make any real sense, but it's the best I can do: hail Atlantis." (p. 257)
I’ve always felt that SK created relatable characters and wrote terrific dialogue, and he’s been near-genius at plot and pacing. But he seems to have found a new fluidity of language that has elevated his craft. SK is at the top of his game here; no longer just the King of Horror, now the King of American Fiction. ...more