It's that time of year again, when I scan the groaning shelves and select my Halloween reading. So what did I end up doing? Downloading an e-book inst...moreIt's that time of year again, when I scan the groaning shelves and select my Halloween reading. So what did I end up doing? Downloading an e-book instead!(less)
Three cheers for underdogs! This straightforward but remarkable tale affected me deeply. One need not be a rower or sports fan to become completely im...moreThree cheers for underdogs! This straightforward but remarkable tale affected me deeply. One need not be a rower or sports fan to become completely immersed in this book, which dives effortlessly into the soul of one man, one team, one sport, and one era, forging them into an unforgettable story. Along the way, Brown reveals emotional truths that are strongly appealing and timeless. I can't think of a thing I'd change about this book. Bravo!(less)
Decent guides to Iceland are thin on the ground, and this looked to be my best bet for a three-day stopover in the country. I drove around using a map...moreDecent guides to Iceland are thin on the ground, and this looked to be my best bet for a three-day stopover in the country. I drove around using a map and this guidebook, mostly. While there were aspects of the guide that I enjoyed, such as the synopses of Icelandic sagas, it could use some updating and fact checking as there seemed to be more than the usual quota of inaccurate information. I worried needlessly over taking a road described as rough, for example, that was in fact paved. The wrong street was listed as the ideal place to view the city and some admission prices had risen, which didn't particularly surprise me. However, what I found most annoying in working with this e-book was that the maps had very poor resolution when expanded on my iPad. As they were essentially unreadable without expansion, this rendered them useless. (less)
What is it with series? I just don't like them, that's what. This third Richard Hannay book was a bit of a letdown, but I couldn't bring myself to rat...moreWhat is it with series? I just don't like them, that's what. This third Richard Hannay book was a bit of a letdown, but I couldn't bring myself to rate it two stars. Really, I'd say 2-1/2.
There were some exciting passages in this book, but overall I found that the faults exhibited in the two earlier Hannay tales, namely a tendency to pontificate on character, fate, and philosophy plus a heavy reliance on coincidence to advance the plot were more pronounced here. Buchan also makes frequent references to events from the previous two books, so this is far from a stand-alone tale.
I also found the love interest subplot fairly cringeworthy. The girl is half Hannay's age, for starters, and so wonderfully clean, wholesome, bright, and fearless that I wanted to strangle her.
The central plot of the book sets Hannay up against his Moriarty, an evil arch-enemy he's crossed swords with in the past. Hannay is sent "undercover" among pacifists and conscientious objectors, which gives Buchan endless opportunity to natter on and on about the National Character. When Hannay waxes philosophical, I just skim. That sort of earnest sermonizing seems to have been as de rigeur as fatuous irony is today.
What is even more predictable are the countless references to "the Bosch" as the evil spies and perpetrators behind all that's wrong with the war effort. After a spell among the pacifists, one of Buchan's trademark chase scenes moves things along at a gratifying pace (though there are, alas, so many fortuitous encounters that the plot is marred considerably). The last part of the book, which takes place in Switzerland and then on the front in France can be a little hard to follow without brushing up on WW1 tactics and battles. At the time this was written (1919), of course, all these events would have been common knowledge.
I have to say, however, that I actually enjoyed the opportunity to immerse myself in 1918. These books are very much of their time, and there are many baffling references, some minor and some major, which invariably set me googling. In this novel, for example, I learned that an "Aquascutum" is a type of coat (Hannay mentions the word repeatedly), that there were travel restrictions in place for parts of Scotland during the war (a fact which is central in an extended "chase" scene), that there were about 50 air raids in Britain during the war, and that "Mr. Standfast" is a character in Pilgrim's Progress. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. (It helped that I was reading this e-text on my iPad and could quickly switch over to a browser to consult Google)
Speaking of e-books, a word of warning: I first started reading this from a free e-book I'd downloaded from Barnes and Noble. The text was so badly scanned that virtually every sentence had misspelled words and mangled passages. After about ten pages, I gave up and downloaded a free edition which was almost error-free from Amazon. (less)
As others have commented, the first half of the book, focussing on German pilot Franz Stigler, plods a bit. Things pick up considerably once the focus...moreAs others have commented, the first half of the book, focussing on German pilot Franz Stigler, plods a bit. Things pick up considerably once the focus is on Charlie Brown and his crew.
What struck me most, though, was that this is aimed at a very general (as in junior high and up) audience. Do I need to be told who Rommel and Goering were, for example? World War II buffs will probably be impatient with this elementary background. The style is likewise very basic - short declarative sentences marching one after another. The first half of the book, in particular, seems to be aimed at idiots.
Having said that, I admire how much research went into the book and how thoroughly the author delved into the two pilots' lives. There is, of course, the usual "title inflation" that makes the 10-minute encounter in the skies seem to be the primary focus... but it really isn't. This is a story about how war changed two men and how they came to reconcile their consciences and cope with their feelings. (less)
Painstakingly argued, authoritative, original, and engrossing, this is the sort of book that I could read again soon and still profit from. (Which mea...morePainstakingly argued, authoritative, original, and engrossing, this is the sort of book that I could read again soon and still profit from. (Which means, of course, that I couldn't digest everything on the first reading -- but that's my failing, not the author's.)
As many others have commented, the focus here is less on engineers than on how Allied and Axis strategies changed (or didn't) in response to problems and failures. The five central problems Kennedy examines are interlocking pieces of a puzzle: how to get convoys safely across the Atlantic, how to win command of the air, how to stop a blitzkreig, how to seize an enemy-held shore, and how to defeat "the tyranny of distance."
As Kennedy points out repeatedly, the solving of each of these problems increased the ability to solve the others. In the final analysis, the Allies' "war-making systems that contained impressive feedback loops, flexibility, a capacity to learn from mistakes, and a 'culture of encouragement'" assured their victory.
At times Kennedy seemed to downplay the importance of WWII intelligence, which was a disappointment for me as I've long been fascinated by the topic. However, he made a good case that "victory went to the side with the smartest and most powerful weaponry, not the one with the better decrypts."
The chapter I enjoyed the most was the one I knew the least about -- the aerial war. In fact, this chapter so inspired me that I took a trip to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum shortly after I finished the book to look at the WWII-era planes. I'd been there before -- several times -- but after Kennedy's account I viewed the B-29 Superfortress, P-38 Lightning, Focke-Wulf 190 and other aircraft with new interest. But it was the Rolls Royce Merlin 61 engine sitting unobtrusively in a display case of engines that I viewed with most respect.
Kennedy's book bristles with statistics, many impressive and some surprising. I learned, for example, that "in late 1943, new airfields were opening up every six days across the topographically convenient flatlands of East Anglia," a fact which explains something that puzzled me years ago when we lived in Cambridge: there seemed to be disused airfields scattered everywhere in the surrounding countryside.
Books I admire invariably send me on a quest to find out more about the subject. This one, I have to say, has more than succeeded as I now have dozens of new books in my "to read" wishlist concerning WWII. (By the way, if anyone out there can recommend a good book on the convoy battles in the Atlantic, I'd appreciate it.) (less)
Having gone wild downloading free e-texts for my Nook, I've found that these texts vary considerably in their quality. This one reads reasonably well...moreHaving gone wild downloading free e-texts for my Nook, I've found that these texts vary considerably in their quality. This one reads reasonably well -- what scanning errors there are don't render it unintelligible. It had been a long while since I'd read any H. Rider Haggard, and this collection took up our acquaintance nicely.
As an enthusiast of mummy tales and fantasies, I found the title story of this collection moderately appealing, though it really is more a romance than a mystery or horror story. I sensed that H. Rider Haggard, much like his protagonist in the story, had developed an appetite for ancient Egypt, and this tale's plot is as good an excuse as any to trot out his learning.
Four of the tales (the most engaging, to my mind) are set in Africa. I particularly liked ""Magepa the Buck" and "Little Flower," the first of which concerns an act of uncommon bravery and the second a wry tale of an epic cultural clash.
The last tale in the set, "Barbara Who Came Back," seemed overwrought to me and indulged (at great length and sentiment) in the theme of love that endures beyond the grave.
I have enjoyed the HBO series True Blood, so it came as little surprise that the novels are equally entertaining. Normally I don't like to read a book...moreI have enjoyed the HBO series True Blood, so it came as little surprise that the novels are equally entertaining. Normally I don't like to read a book after seeing a movie or TV version, but this is an exception. Even when I knew what would happen, I got a big kick out of Sookie Stackhouse's internal musings and her spunky sense of humor. As a bonus, the erotic sections of the novel seemed even racier than the TV rendition. Great beach or hammock reading for a lazy day. (less)
By turns sentimental and scholarly, this exhaustively researched account of the cat is written in essayist Barbara Holland's trademark lucid prose, wi...moreBy turns sentimental and scholarly, this exhaustively researched account of the cat is written in essayist Barbara Holland's trademark lucid prose, with unapologetic candor. The historical chapter on how and when cats came on the domestic scene outlasted my interest, while the chapter on cats' persecution in the Middle Ages was hard for this cat lover to read, but other than that Secrets of the Cat was enjoyable light reading. (less)
This Unworthy Reviewer Begs Your Inestimable and Refined Indulgence
Of all the writers who have fallen from fashion – and their numbers are legion – fe...moreThis Unworthy Reviewer Begs Your Inestimable and Refined Indulgence
Of all the writers who have fallen from fashion – and their numbers are legion – few afford such delight upon acquaintance as Ernest Bramah. Bramah is, admittedly, an acquired taste. Many will no doubt be irritated at his highly ornamental and antiquated language and despair at his insubstantial plots and glacial pace. But they are missing the point, for it is not what Bramah has to say but how he says it that defines his genius.
Bramah is unique among practitioners of early 20th century belles letters, for in his Kai Lung tales he feigns the circumlocutious and exceedingly mannered style of a Chinese scholar. Kai Lung, an itinerant storyteller, is in fact an oriental Scheherazade. The impoverished but wily Kai Lung falls in among robbers and cut-throats but always manages, by dint of his superlative storytelling skills, to save his skin.
This description doesn’t begin to do justice, however, to the drollery and wit that Bramah displays. Consider, for example, the initial episode as the wandering Kai Lung is suddenly waylaid at gunpoint by a blood-thirsty brigand, one Lin Yi:
"O illustrious person," said Kai Lung very earnestly, "this is evidently an unfortunate mistake. Doubtless you were expecting some exalted Mandarin to come and render you homage, and were preparing to overwhelm him with gratified confusion by escorting him yourself to your well-appointed abode. Indeed, I passed such a one on the road, very richly apparelled, who inquired of me the way to the mansion of the dignified and upright Lin Yi. By this time he is perhaps two or three li towards the east."
"However distinguished a Mandarin he may be, it is fitting that I should first attend to one whose manners and accomplishments betray him to be of the Royal House," replied Lin Yi, with extreme affability. "Precede me, therefore, to my mean and uninviting hovel, while I gain more honour than I can reasonably bear by following closely in your elegant footsteps, and guarding your Imperial person with this inadequate but heavily-loaded weapon."
With such heavily brocaded chinoiserie, Bramah manages to turn Western ideas of the exaggerated courtesy of the Chinese on its head. Here, for example, the subtext is that Kai Lung is using flattery and misdirection to get out of a tight situation but that, indeed, two can play at the same game as the brigand offers to “guard” Kai Lung with his “heavily-loaded weapon.” Edwardian concepts of the oblique and inscrutable nature of the “oriental” prop up this conceit, of course, but Bramah neatly undercuts it by often using Kai Lung as a mouthpiece to poke fun at contemporary matters.
Divining the modern parallels, of course, is half the fun of reading Bramah. At the center of this particular fantasy, the hero undergoes a peculiar “transmutation” when he mistakenly drinks an alchemist’s potion. Without giving away too much of the rather convoluted plot, I’ll just say that anyone who’s ever read the fine print of a life insurance policy will feel a certain wry affinity for the hero of the story.
Bramah’s tales are best enjoyed incrementally, sipped like fine sherry. His work has gained a small but loyal following, and indeed the work of one modern fantasy master, Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds, owes a clear debt to Bramah. Having said that, Bramah’s tales are perfect in maintenance of high-flown rhetoric, whereas Hughart’s are of a decidedly more accessible cast.
Little is known about Bramah personally, as he was a recluse, but it’s tempting to imagine him dressed in a Chinese silk robe, scribbling away in some dark-panelled and fusty Edwardian study, surrounded by his books and bric-a-brac, pausing only briefly when his oriental man-servant brings him an afternoon cup of green tea. When the servant departs, he reads aloud in a reedy, quavering voice:
”Do not distress your incomparable mind by searching for honorable names to apply to so inferior a person as myself,” he said agreeably. “The mistake is, nevertheless, very natural; for, however miraculous it may appear, this unseemly individual, who is in reality merely a writer of spoken words, is admitted to be exceedingly like the dignified Mandarin himself…” (less)
I downloaded the title story as well as two others in this Dover edition from Project Gutenberg -- the first things I read on my new Barnes & Nobl...moreI downloaded the title story as well as two others in this Dover edition from Project Gutenberg -- the first things I read on my new Barnes & Noble Nook e-Reader. Thought I'd try some short stories while getting the hang of using my new device.
It had been years since I had seen the Michael Caine/Sean Connery movie, but I still found that I remembered quite a bit of it. Part of the challenge in reading "The Man Who Would Be King" was to not let my memories of the movie overshadow the tale although I found that letting Michael Caine's voice stand in for Peachey enhanced the reading).
As I read the title story, I reflected on how much a British audience of Kipling's era was familiar with that a modern audience isn't. Luckily, I have a fair amount of background in the history of the British raj, the geography of the region, and the political climate of the time, particularly as pertains to "the Great Game." Still, I suspect I missed some of the humor, particularly in the long build-up to the main events, when the narrator is experiencing a "Deficit of the Budget" and traveling "Intermediate Class" by train. These terms demonstrate part of the charm of the tale -- the use of high-flown language by the down-and-out classes, who may not have the ready money but certainly have ready wits. These are true Kipling "types" and always a treat to encounter.
There's a paternalistic attitude underpinning the tale, however, that I tried not to be judgmental about. The two adventurers, secure in their British know-how, set out to sort out the warring native tribes of fictional Kafiristan. All that's needed, it seems, are some twenty good rifles and the sort of knowledge a seasoned British campaigner would have -- how to drill an army, administer frontier justice, and deal with the natives. Kipling doesn't let this "white man's burden" aspect of the tale overwhelm the brisk narrative, to his credit, and indeed it's the violation of the terms of the adventurers' "Contrack" that proves to be their downfall.
Among the other four tales in this anthology, I liked "The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes" the best, a macabre tale recounted with considerable relish. "The Phantom Rickshaw" was a lamentably predictable ghost story, while "Wee Willie Winkle," to my mind, suffered from the Victorian tendency to be overly sentimental about children. The final story, "Without Benefit of Clergy" at first glance seemed overly sentimental, concerning as it did the ill-fated affair of a British man with a local Indian woman, but its ultimate effect was one of pathos. It reminded me of a book I read last year by William Dahlrymple, White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India, which also concerned a doomed relationship. (less)
Stevenson's earliest published short stories are included in this anthology. His eye for tragi-comic situations is evident. Having just finished a num...moreStevenson's earliest published short stories are included in this anthology. His eye for tragi-comic situations is evident. Having just finished a number of recently published books, it was a treat to step back into the opulence of Victorian language. Unfortunately, I found myself getting a little impatient with his plot devices. "The Suicide Club" seemed to end in a peculiarly short way, for example.
I couldn't help but reflect, though, that this sort of entertainment was the equivalent of our weekly TV shows. The Victorian readers waited for each installment (sans plot summary) much the way a modern viewer waits to see who's going to be the sole "Survivor"!(less)
I realized while reading this book that I really enjoy tales of hucksters, hoaxers, and flim-flam men, so much so that I've decided to dedicate a shel...moreI realized while reading this book that I really enjoy tales of hucksters, hoaxers, and flim-flam men, so much so that I've decided to dedicate a shelf to this odd genre entitled "credulity."(less)