This author doesn't really manage to bridge the gap between academic writing and writing for the general public. The topic and the last chapters work...moreThis author doesn't really manage to bridge the gap between academic writing and writing for the general public. The topic and the last chapters work very well for a general audience but in the middle she gets bogged down in "academic talk" that's not very appealing.(less)
I've read three others by Fromkin but this one is a really lightweight. Interesting but it's full of places were you expect more detail. For example h...moreI've read three others by Fromkin but this one is a really lightweight. Interesting but it's full of places were you expect more detail. For example he notes that in the post-Civil War period the US government was completely corrupt. No examples. No details. Perhaps it's that Fromkin was trying to write a lighter-weight book but didn't do so consistently. The relationship between the Edward VII and Theodore Roosevelt (who never actually met!) does not come off as all that significant.(less)
I just finished this one and continue to think that Larson hasn't ever come up to his first book (Isaac's Storm). I enjoyed the one about Chicago and...moreI just finished this one and continue to think that Larson hasn't ever come up to his first book (Isaac's Storm). I enjoyed the one about Chicago and the Columbian Exhibition but didn't think the big subject (Columbian Exhibition) and the little one (murder) were well integrated. In Isaac's Storm, the larger issue (1900 Galveston hurricane) and the smaller issue (the weatherman who didn't predict the storm) were inextricable since Isaac himself had harrowing experiences in the storm. But in all of his other books (I'm not sure I read the one before this one) he struggles with the two stories he's trying to tell, this big historical one and the small one about individuals.
On this one I thought initially that Martha Dodd was the major focus. I looked her up on Wiki and found she was supposed to have been a Soviet spy and indeed spent her last years outside the US. So I expected a spy story and perhaps an embarrassed father. But it turns out that really Dodd is the "hero" of the the book, recognizing early that Hitler's regime is dangerous and also rebelling against aristocratic tendencies in the US State Department. There's an epilogue on what happened to Martha, which give less credence to her spying than did the Wiki article. But I found her relatively unlikable and certainly not credible as an effective spy or even as thinker about political realities.
Larson's documentation of the growing threat of the Hitler regime, though, is well drawn as Larson follows Dodd's willingness to give the Germans the benefit of the doubt at first (he's gone to school in Germany and was initially predisposed to like the people and support its government) to his gradual realization of the brutality and inhumanity of the Nazi regime. One question I had was what happened to the Jewish owner of the house on Tiergarten Strasse which the Dodd's rented. The owner lived on the 4th floor of the house, evidently thinking he'd be safer living upstairs from the US Ambassador, but the last we hear of him is when he brings more of his family to live with him and it gets noisy. Dodd has second thoughts. That's still relatively early, 1934 or so, but Larson never mentions him again. I would have assumed he'd follow that through and at least say so if no information was available.
I listened to this book on Audible. The reader is a good one but impossible at foreign pronunciation. He got the German right in short common phrases, but over and over again he blasted through passages in German he couldn't handle at all. He was no better with the Russian.
Aside: One of the things I really hate about recorded books is readers who get the pronunciation wrong. There's a reader of Dickens novels who's great at dialects and really performs the novels superbly, but he can't pronounce English place names. On the other hand it adds a great deal when a reader knows the language of the original or of the place that's the focus of the book. I listened to Bolaño's 2666 and also The Savage Detectives and loved that the reader (readers? not sure if they were the same) was clearly also a Spanish speaker.(less)
I found this book fascinating though I'd probably label it as a book intended for teens or young adults. I read it and immediately sent it to my teen-...moreI found this book fascinating though I'd probably label it as a book intended for teens or young adults. I read it and immediately sent it to my teen-aged granddaughter. I suppose you'd call it a coming of age story. Not that those can't be great novels.
What's good about this novel is first of all its point of view. Sections focus on different characters and the reader pieces together the plot by accretion. Early on Rachel talks about herself as a "new girl". She's the daughter of a black GI serving in Europe and a Danish woman she calls Mor (Danish for "mother") whom she loved and who is now gone, evidently due to some tragedy, one that left Rachel injured and in the hospital. Recovering at the beginning of the book, she is going to live with her grandmother--her father's mother--in Portland and is determined to put the past behind her and be a "new girl".
The grandmother is pretty traditional: living in a black neighborhood and going to a black church which is a huge part of her life and philosophy. She clearly hates the very idea of Rachel's mother and wants her to forget. What happened to her and to her parents only becomes clear in bits and pieces as the reader gets more into Rachel's experience as well as the experiences of others around her in the past and in the present. She's never been asked to choose which heritage she'll follow, but conventional ideas of race and class demand that she do so now.
But even though Rachel determines to embrace a new life, it's not that clear what direction she should take and how to get there. And so much is beyond her control. She has trouble at school. Her experience doesn't fit her for a US school. The white girls consider her black and the black girls think she behaves like a white girl. Rachel herself is dark skinned with startlingly blue eyes, advertising not only the fact that she's biracial but that her experience and world view don't fit her for either group.
This book won the Bellweather prize in 2010, a prize started by Barbara Kingsolver and which rewards writers who handle issues of social justice. I suppose I don't quite approve of this kind of a prize, disliking the ideal of fiction (any are really) subordinated to or used primarily as a tool for ideas. Kingsolver is a talented novelist, and if I look at her oeuvre I can see the theme of social justice, but she always made her way in the amazingly competitive world of fiction as a "serious novelist" not as an advocate for social causes.(less)
My budding interest in the Habsburgs comes from two friends, one I went to grad school with and writes me about her investigations--also suggesting th...moreMy budding interest in the Habsburgs comes from two friends, one I went to grad school with and writes me about her investigations--also suggesting that we go to Vienna which I'd love to do--and one whose mother was Austrian and is trying to capture that side of her heritage.
Two things really struck me while reading this book: (1) How little I know of European history outside of the UK and Russia (which I know pretty well) and Germany and France (about which I know something) and Sweden and Norway (about which I learned some doing genealogical research). I have Norman Davies 1135-page Europe: A History and maybe it's time to start reading it. (2) How little I knew about Archduke Franz Ferdinand whose assassination is commonly believed to have started WWI. I didn't even realize he was the heir to the Habsburg emperor. I think I thought he was an obscure Archduke of no real significance and that fact made the role usually assigned to his assassination particularly pathetic.
I must say here that I grew up a monarchist. Not only did I have all the princess fantasies that my granddaughters now enjoy, but my interests focused pretty squarely on the British royal family way beyond princess fantasies--and later on the Russians. There's no doubt that Queen Elizabeth (the first one, of course) was my hero and role model--vain and sexy but also a scholar and most importantly, a woman who thrived in a man's world. These days my politics are liberal and egalitarian, but that's the real world of today. I'm still fascinated by the royals of the past. I just don't know why I never paid much attention to the Habsburgs before. I even speak German--or did years ago and I don't think it would take much practice to get back to it. I have read some about the Prussian monarchs, but never had much interest.
Morton's book is fascinating because (1) he accepts the judgment that in the late 19th and early 20th century Vienna was splendid, aristocratic, artificial, decadent--the very essence of fin de siècle--and narrates the events leading up the the assassination and to the World War in that context and (2) because he doesn't focus exclusively on the major players, but builds a wider picture of the Vienna where Freud, Trotsky, and Hitler lived at the time and he sets the scene with the artists and musicians of the day (among whom were Koskoska and Schöneberg). He also puts the reader in touch with the "people" who had they had our sensibilities would have been establishing Occupy Vienna and Occupy Budapest movements.
Morton's focus on the major characters is grand. Franz Ferdinand who always scowled and wasn't at all popular but who cared about the people in a modern sense and, ironically, wanted to give the Serbs a greater role in the Empire. Emperor Franz Joseph, the longest reigning monarch in Europe, who was in his 80ies and somehow controlled some of the more off-the-wall of his advisors. (It was an age after all when monarchs were beginning to reign but did not rule, but that transition was not complete.) General Conrad, the army chief of staff, whose main goal was to punish Serbia (even though personally he was glad to see Franz Ferdinand gone since he knew the Archduke would dismiss him when he succeeded the Emperor). The Kaiser (Wilhelm II), characterized beautifully as vain and self-centered and foolish if still powerful and to be appeased since Germany was Austria's main ally. Ditto, the minor characters from Freud and Hitler to the ministers of Britain and France and Russia whose fate hung in the balance as well. There are a lot of minor characters, many of whom are quite memorable in this book.
Morton sets up the assassination that almost fizzled dramatically, with bathos as he describes Franz Ferdinand (with is interest in the "people" and his championship of Serbs which the assassins did not know of) and his wife (a whole other story is connected with his marriage to an "inappropriate" countess with no royal blood who always had to walk behind him), with the sense of how nearly the plotters failed and how successful they were, at least in the short run, at disguising the involvement of The Black Hand, which financed them from within the Serb government.
This is a popular history but is very well researched and well documented, with notes on each chapter and an extensive biography. Morton is always reaching for rhetorical highs, which I both love and hate. There's no doubt that he's over-dramatic, but it's a dramatic story he's telling and I'm not after all one who insists that history be dry or boring or unappealing to anyone not an academic historian. I suppose what I don't like is how heavily he depends on rhetorical flourishes and how predictable they become. I searched for an example, but some go on for pages, as when he sets up a set of parallels which end in an ironic "Hurrah!" and go one for pages and pages.
For me it was a great introduction to an era, a family and a place I want to read more about.(less)
The is a relatively early Kurt Wallander novel, follows The Spies of Riga which I just read (but I read several later ones first). This one is long wi...moreThe is a relatively early Kurt Wallander novel, follows The Spies of Riga which I just read (but I read several later ones first). This one is long with a multi-faceted plot and it drags in places but is nevertheless worth reading. A woman is missing after going to out to visit a potential client (she's a realtor) and when the police find a old farm house (possible the one she was going to) it suddenly bursts into flame. They don't take particular notice of a Mercedes that came out of that road as they came in. They find evidence of electronics and explosives in the ruin--and a human finger, from a black man. They do not find the woman's body, nor does the woman show up. A complicated plot ensues, with Wallander at one point judged crazy (or at least temporarily impaired mentally) by his boss and an APB is put out on him.
The story moves back and forth from Sweden to South Africa where a radical group of Afrikaaners is cooking up a plot to through the country into chaos (this is in the early 90ies, just as Mandela was first released from prison and was working with the PM to find a way to transition peacefully to majority rule). We follow but the plotters and those who are trying to foil them--and of course there's a connection with the black finger in the Swedish farm fire.(less)
1Q84 s a book about parallel universes. Not in the SCIFI sense so much as in the moral and a human sense (though there are SCIFI elements). A book abo...more1Q84 s a book about parallel universes. Not in the SCIFI sense so much as in the moral and a human sense (though there are SCIFI elements). A book about what happens to people (in this case, Aomame and also Tengo) who get off the track in their lives and have to go through some scary stuff in order to get back. It starts with Aomame in a taxi on a freeway in a traffic jam (listening to Janacek's Sinfonetta--which becomes a theme) choosing to get out of the cab and climb down an emergency access stairs to the surface. When she leaves, the cab driver tells her to remember that appearances to the contrary there is just one reality.
But soon it appears that's not true and the world she climbs down into seems different. Her first clue is that the police have different uniforms and are carrying heavier fire power than she remembers. Eventually the icon of the "alternative world" dubbed 1Q84 instead of 1984 (references to Orwell intended) is the second moon in the sky, smaller than the "real" moon, slightly lopsided and green.
Aomame is a serial killer of sorts. She happened into that line of work though an elderly rich woman who becomes a client (Aomame is a physical therapist and trainer). Together they target men whose crimes (often but not always crimes against women) seem not likely to be addressed by the legal system. Aomame's work with the body has put her on to a spot on the back of the neck where she can kill someone instantly leaving no marks. Her job often calls her out to use her skills to help busy people relax which gives her opportunity. She's devised a weapon--a thin needle she keeps in a pouch in her purse. The Dowager identifies the targets and arranges access. Aomame is convinced once the Dowager coaxes her that the men they target deserve to die.
Tengo was a math prodigy in school but has lost interest in math and is playing around with being a writer. He's not published anything yet, but he writes on his days off from the cram school where he teaches math, though on one day a week he frolics with his married lover. He as no friends and few others he sees or talks. He lives in a old, slightly run down apartment building, cooks for himself and writes in his spare time. When the novel opens, he has been working with Komatsu, the literary editor of a periodical that awards a prize for young and new writers. Tengo has contributed in the past and impressed Komatsu but has never won a prize. This time Komatsu shows Tengo an unusual manuscript which has caught his attention and which he thinks might with not only this prize but a bigger, more prestigious award if it;s edited some (actually re-written). The author is a 17-year old girl. Komatsu wants to make into a "star" out of her which will bring money to his publishing house--and to himself and Tengo. Tengo is more that a little skeptical--after all it will be fraud--but he's a relatively passive young man and Komatsu is compelling. Besides Tengo is fascinated by the manuscript of Air Chrysalis.
So we have two basically decent 30-year-olds who have been drifting and two determined and manipulative adults who influence them. It's important that neither Komatsu nor the Dowager is particularly evil. Each has a strong sense of morality and a determination to take matters into their own hands. Both demand (and in most ways deserve) loyalty. Both are loyal in return.
Finally, there's a religious cult called Sakigaki that professes just to be a farming community in the countryside. No one knows much about them, but we learn from Professor Ebbesuno, who's informal guardian to the girl who wrote the manuscript, that she evidently ran away from Sakigaki at age 10 and came to live with the professor who was a friend to her parents. She will not take about Sakigaki or her parents who have never tried to contact her.
The major portion of the novel consists of sections devoted to Aomame and Tengo alternately. Not exactly first person narratives, mostly third person with the first person (thoughts mainly) printed in italics. We assume after the early chapters that there's some connection between the two but it's a long way into the novel before we learn that Tengo once held her hand when Aomame was a 10-year old girl ostracized in school because her family was associated with a strict religious group. Neither has ever forgotten that. Both somehow assume that the other (if they can find the person after 20 years) is the only person they can be close too, can love. And we learn that Aomame left her parents and their strict Seven-Day-Adventist-type religion at age 10.
Both eventually discover that they are living in an alternative world, one with two moons and a few others things askew. What happens in this alternative world (in 1Q84) can be impossible in the reality that we know and that they have known. Aomame first and then Tengo seem to recognize that they must meet in the present before either can escape back to the "real world".
It's a multi-layered story which is at once a page turner and a story to contemplate. -- (less)
Norwegian police series about Harry Hole, detective. (Whenever he was called Hole, I squirmed.)
Read a review which classed him with the other Scandina...moreNorwegian police series about Harry Hole, detective. (Whenever he was called Hole, I squirmed.)
Read a review which classed him with the other Scandinavian mystery. The advice was to read the books in order. The first in English was Redbreast, which I just downloaded. (I'd forgotten that advice and just bought the cheapest Kindle edition.)
Nemesis was good. REALLY complicated plot, focusing on a series of bank robberies, one in which a woman is killed point blank in what seems an unmotivated shooting. In addition to the current case there;s the case of Hole's partner's murder that he's been told to stop working on. (Evidently the subject of Redbreast.) And then there's the case of the bad cop who is not caught and clearly that will come up again in subsequent novels. Reviewer was right that they should be read in order.
Hole is the typical cop we get these days, at least one of them. He's alcoholic, messy, not a team player, intuitive, doesn't follow procedures, has trouble with relationships, works best with female cops, underneath more idealistic than a cop should be. Reminds me particularly of Rankin's John Rebus.(less)