The last ten years have mutated my views on religion. I went from a vague agnostic live-and-let-live attitude to a full blown distrust and dislike ofThe last ten years have mutated my views on religion. I went from a vague agnostic live-and-let-live attitude to a full blown distrust and dislike of mass worshipping of mysterious deities. When it wasn’t being used as an excuse to murder people who believed different things, then it was being used to deny basic scientific concepts or prevent consenting adults from marriage based on gender. Overall, I’d become convinced that humanity was far too stupid to use religion as anything but yet another system to justify telling someone else how to live.
So naturally, one of my favorite novels of the last ten years is a funny and touching book about the life of Jesus.
Yeah, it was that kind of decade.
The story is told by Jesus’s best friend, Biff. Actually, Biff quickly explains that Jesus was known as Josh back in the days when they were kids in Nazareth. Biff knows there is something special about Josh from the moment they meet, and he adopts a life-long role of dealing with the practical matters that the naive Josh tends to overlook. When teen-aged Josh decides to track down the wise men who attended his birth to see what they can teach him about how he should become the Messiah, Biff knows he has to go along to protect Josh from an evil world.
Together, they travel across Asia, invent sarcasm, learn alchemy, discover coffee and become kung fu experts as Josh prepares himself to one day return home and fulfill his ultimate destiny.
It’s no surprise that Christopher Moore could write a very funny book about the life of Jesus. What is surprising that he’s able to make it so touching that even a cynical non-believer such as myself could be moved by it. By focusing in on the basic love-thy-neighbor concepts that Josh fiercely preaches, Moore wrote a warm reminder of what Christianity is supposed to be about. ...more
American Tabloid was about criminals making history and culminated with the plot to kill Jack Kennedy. In The Cold Six Thousand, the characters aren'tAmerican Tabloid was about criminals making history and culminated with the plot to kill Jack Kennedy. In The Cold Six Thousand, the characters aren't trying to make history, they're just trying to survive it.
American Tabloid is one of my all-time favorite books. The second part of this trilogy has always been a bit of a disappointment to me. I read both again to prep for the release of the final book, Blood's A Rover. With that one sitting here, just waiting for me to start reading, I'm feeling a bit more charitable to this one now.
I judged it harshly because after the mind blowing brilliance of American Tabloid's fictional re-telling of the JFK years from the perspective of a cop/criminal trio of Ellroy patented Bad White Men, anything was going to seem like a let down. Ellroy's crazy fragmented writing style works brilliantly when he keeps it on a leash like he did in L.A. Confidential or American Tabloid, but when it gets away from him, it slips into near self-parody, as I think it did in White Jazz. He comes dangerously close to that in this one, too.
And while American Tabloid felt like an epic re-telling of American history during the JFK era, The Cold Six Thousand has always had a slightly grungier and grimmer tone. That's understandable since American Tabloid mirrored the JFK administration. Even the guys trying to scam and steal their way to greatness felt like they were making history as they did it.
Here, with the fallout of the JFK assassination plot hanging over everything and coloring all the characters with varying degrees of paranoia and guilt, the schemes feel small-time and cheap, no matter how much money is involved or how grand the plot.
Howard Hughes wants to buy every casino in Vegas, and the Mob is selling, provided they keep their own people in place to run their skim operations and steal crazy Howard blind. Vietnam is ramping up and everyone in the book sees it as a business opportunity to start large scale heroin smuggling operations to fund their own pet causes.
An aging J. Edgar Hoover is obsessed with bringing down Martin Luther King Jr. for having the nerve to demand equal rights. All the players are worried about what Bobby Kennedy actually thinks about his brother's death and what he plans to do about it. Loose threads to the JFK plot are getting ruthlessly snipped and the only way to stay alive is to stay useful to the men in power which means that even the worst of them are being told to do things that push them to their limits and beyond.
Adding to the grimmer tone of this one is the new guy, Wayne Tedrow Jr. He starts out as a relatively clean Vegas cop being pushed towards contract murder by his rich asshole father, who wants him to join the family business of peddling hate against anyone but white Americans. When Wayne is given cause to start hating too, it makes him one of Ellroy's most uncomfortable characters to read about.
Wayne isn't an ignorant racist just hating for hate's own sake. He knows it's evil and wrong, but he's so committed to it that he practically creates his own purer form of racism that's scarier than the worst redneck rants. And he's one of the main characters so spending several hundred pages in his head isn't exactly a joy ride.
But reading this one now, after some time has gone by after my initial disappointment, I think I've gotten a better idea of what Ellroy was going for. Here's hoping that he can finish off the '60s and wrap this up in style....more
This well-written book reminded me of Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko series, and a movie based on the true story of a Soviet era serial killer calleThis well-written book reminded me of Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko series, and a movie based on the true story of a Soviet era serial killer called Citizen X.
The detail about living in the 1950's Soviet Union is very convincing, and characters nicely developed. The book's sole flaw is the reveal of the killer's motives and the ending, which come across as something you'd see in a bad Hollywood thriller, but overall this was a fascinating story.
This is not my favorite Don Winslow novel. I’d put it at #3 after Savages and The Winter of Frankie Machine. However, considering that Winslow has wriThis is not my favorite Don Winslow novel. I’d put it at #3 after Savages and The Winter of Frankie Machine. However, considering that Winslow has written over a dozen books and for my money is one of the best and most underrated guys working in crime fiction today, getting a bronze medal is pretty damn good.
Running from the mid-1970s until the turn of the century, Winslow’s historical fiction illustrates the difference between the stated public policy of America’s drug war against the covert backing of the drug trade to keep communism out of Central and South America.
Art Keller is a former CIA agent who got disgusted with running assassination missions in Vietnam and jumped to the newly formed Drug Enforcement Agency where he thought he might be able to do some good. Art gets assigned to Mexico where he meets the Barrera family who feeds him the intel to destroy most of the existing heroin trade and poppy fields. Art later learns that the Barreras used him to eliminate the competition and give them the opportunity to set up an organization that will get rich running cocaine from South America into the United States.
Blood gets spilled and Art’s feud with the Barreras gets personal, but Art’s attempt to legally break up the Mexican pipeline are thwarted by his own government’s secret programs to fund anti-communist efforts in South America by allowing or enabling the trade to flourish as the crack epidemic hits inner cites while Nancy Reagan tells kids to Just Say No!
Art’s obsession and the war with the Barreras takes a heavy toll on everyone involved like a respected priest, a smart and tough call girl and a Mafia hit man from New York.
This reminds me a bit of Elroy’s American Tabloid with Winslow using a group of fictional characters tearing themselves to bits on the sharp hidden edges of history, and the style is even a bit similar. Winslow also does a great job of using the story to create a broader theme about the ultimate futility and hypocrisy of the drug war.
My only complaint is that the end of the book seems a bit less ambitious and kind of a let down compared to the build up. It’s like something you’d see in a Hollywood movie, but this is still an epic crime story written in a unique style by one of my favorites....more
(The following is an excerpt from the journal of Neal Stephenson.)
After the success of Cryptonomicon, I’m having some problems narrowing down my next (The following is an excerpt from the journal of Neal Stephenson.)
After the success of Cryptonomicon, I’m having some problems narrowing down my next project. The issue is that I have far too many ideas, and I can’t decide which plot to use for my next book.
I know that I want do something set during the late 17th century in Europe. It was an amazing time with huge changes in politics, culture, commerce and science, but there was just so much going on that I can’t seem to make up my mind and pick one or two concepts for the book.
Here are some of the top ideas I’m mulling over:
• The soldier and scientist dynamic between Waterhouse and Shaftoe worked so well in Cryptonomicon that I’d like to do something similar here. Perhaps have characters who are the ancestors of Lawrence Waterhouse and Bobby Shaftoe?
• This would be during the early period of the Royal Society when men like Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, Gottfried Leibniz, and many others were essentially creating modern science and battling among themselves. Putting an ancestor of Waterhouse in among them seems like a natural fit.
• I’m also fascinated by all the religious upheaval in England following Cromwell’s death through The Glorious Revolution. Having a character with a Puritan upbringing caught up in these events would be interesting. Maybe that’s the place to bring a Waterhouse into it?
• But I’m equally interested by all that was happening in commerce during this time. Our modern economic systems were being developed, and even the very nature of money itself was being redefined. I’d very much like to do a plot that involved that.
• However, I’m also intrigued by all the political machinations and palace intrigue that took place across all of Europe.
• If I do something with the political side, then I’ll almost certainly need to set something among all the wars and conflicts that took place. That might be a natural place to use a Shaftoe character.
• I’d really like to dig into the details of how dirty, smelly, nasty and short life was to most people back then.
• It might be more original to get away from the known events and famous people of the time and show a viewpoint from someone common like a vagabond. (Maybe this should be a Shaftoe character.)
• Thinking about vagabonds, it’d be interesting to do a modern take of a picaresque novel with a rogue-ish hero getting into adventures and insulting the people of quality. This would definitely be a great Shaftoe character.
• I’d also like to explore the role of women in this society. Maybe have some kind of very smart female character who has to use her charm and brains to navigate a variety of social and political challenges? Could I tie that in with the money thing?
• Doing some kind of story about spies would be really cool. If I write about spies, I could use some of the cryptography stuff I brought into the last book again.
• Pirates. I definitely need to do something with pirates.
• Slavery. I should also work in some stuff about slavery.
• I’d also like to use the Enoch Root character again. That’d really establish him as an ageless stranger who is kind of pushing events in certain directions, just like he did in Cryptonomicon. Plus, that gives it a bit of a sci-fi element so I’ll be eligible for all the Locus and Hugo-type awards.
• On top of everything else, I’m dying to play with the format a little. Maybe do some chapters like a stage play from the era? Or tell a section via a series of letters? If I use letters to tell the story, it’d be another chance to work in the code stuff.
There are too many possibilities. I don’t know how I’ll ever …. Wait. I just had a crazy thought. I shouldn’t be trying to NARROW the focus. I should EXPAND the focus. Throw all of these ideas and even more into one giant stew pot.
No, that’s insane. It’d be too complex and convoluted. How could readers keep everything straight? Just trying to keep track of the various royal families alone would drive most people mad.
I guess if I used just two or three main characters, but then had them shift into a variety of roles??? Waterhouse as a Puritan, a scientist, and a political player in England? Shaftoe as a soldier, a vagabond and a syphilis sufferer? (Maybe add another Shaftoe if one is going to have syphilis.) Make the woman a spy, an anti-slavery advocate, and a natural genius with money?
Could it work? Have them all bounce against all the people and events of the time? How could I make that coherent? And it’d have to be huge. Probably at least three books with 800 to 900 pages a book.
Yes. Yes! I can make it work! I am just that damn good. Those who go along with it will marvel at my genius. Those who can’t follow along will be too exhausted to complain. It’s brilliant. Those fools won’t know what hit them!
And I will call it…. The Baroque Cycle.
BWAH-HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!!! (Yes, I, Neal Stephenson, like to write evil laughter into my journal while I’m plotting my books.)
Kemper’s Random Comments on Quicksilver
• Wikipedia is your friend while reading this book.
• Jack Shaftoe is not called ‘Half-Cocked Jack’ just due to his tendency to act without thinking. *shudder*
• Isaac Newton should not have been allowed to handle needles.
• Considering the way that various dogs, cats, horses, rats, frogs and ostriches are treated, this story is obviously set long before the ASPCA or PETA existed.
• Stephenson has a lot of fun allowing his characters to make history. Daniel Waterhouse casually comes up with the name New York when others are debating what to call New Amsterdam after it changes hands. Eliza invents the word ‘sabotage’. Young Jack and his brother Bob create modern advertising and an early form of infomercial while making up small plays to advertise for their service helping condemned men hang faster and suffer less by dangling from their legs.
•Venice gondoliers suffered from ‘canal rage’ caused by the hectic fast paced modern lifestyle they lived in.
• After reading of the various ‘medical treatments’ used in here, you will hug your doctor the next time you go in for a check-up, and you will also feel the urge to call your dentist for a cleaning.
• Jack considers it quite an accomplishment to have lived to the ripe old age of 20, and tells 19 year-old Eliza that she’s got a good ten or twenty years left to her.
• European royal families were kind of gross.
• I loved that Stephenson brings back his fictional country of Qwghlm, a godforsaken island under British rule where ice storms in June are common, and the English cut down all the trees.
• Who knew that you could outwit pirates with math?
• The scenes of trying to buy something are always hilarious because of all the haggling, not over the prices, but over what type of coins will be accepted because most are worthless due to the lack of reliable currency.
• Why did I find it so funny that the English characters call syphilis the ‘French Pox’ and the French characters call it the ‘English Pox’? ...more
What have I done? I must have been out of my mind to think that I could write a trilogy set in the late 17Excerpt from the journal of Neal Stephenson.
What have I done? I must have been out of my mind to think that I could write a trilogy set in the late 17th and early 18th century that used three main fictional characters to explore the political and religious intrigue of the time as well as the development of the first stages of modern science and economics. If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, I had to incorporate a bit of science fiction by including my ageless character Enoch Root and hints that the alchemy of the day may have been on to something.
Oh, and just to complicate it even more, I made the brilliant decision to have one of my main characters from Quicksilver be in the midst of the late stages of syphilis as well as being captured by pirates. What was I thinking?? I’m going to need Jack to get me out of this mess, and I effectively killed him in the last book.
OK, let’s think this through. Where did I leave it? Eliza had seemingly managed to outwit King Louie and help William of Orange with her spying efforts, but she now had a child out of wedlock that she has to hide.
In 1713, Daniel Waterhouse had been recruited from his home in Massachusetts by Enoch Root to go back to England and mediate the dispute between Isaac Newtown and Leibniz, but his ship was being pursued by a pirate fleet. Back in the late 1600s, the younger Daniel Waterhouse had helped to bring about the Glorious Revolution, but was dying from a stone in his bladder.
And of course, Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds, had let his pride come between him and Eliza. Which shouldn’t matter because he would soon be dead from syphilis as well as being captured by pirates.
Now, here’s what I need to get to in the second book:
(*) Eliza needs to be essentially held hostage by the French nobility who know she spied for William, but they’ll still need her financial talents to help fund their war efforts.
(*) I want to use that set-up to have Eliza run a complicated financial scheme to get revenge for what’s been done to her.
(*) Since I flashed forward to an older Daniel Waterhouse at the beginning of Quicksilver, the readers will know that he ultimately survived having the stone. But I really don’t have a lot for him to do here. This is mainly Eliza and Jack’s story, and I won’t need him until the next book.
(*) Since the last book focused more on the Royal Society and science, this one is going to be more about economics. I can use Eliza and her on-going palace intrigues for that. Also, I can circle back to Isaac Newton and him taking over the Royal Mint. Wait a second! I can bring Daniel into that story. That’ll give him something to do.
(*) I also need to tie up the loose ends with Jack’s brother, Bob, who had gotten involved with Eliza and Daniel to free the woman he loved from slavery. Oh, hell. I forgot about Jack’s two sons. At this point, they’d be grown men. I gotta bring them into the story at some point.
(*) It’s time to bring the alchemical stuff to a boil. I’ve got an idea about legendary gold that King Solomon created that had unique properties. The acquisition of this gold should be a driving force to the plot, but I can’t figure out how to work it in.
(*) And here’s where I’m really stuck. I was going to have Jack roam the world and get involved in various wild schemes with a crew of misfits. They could have had a series of adventures. That would have been a great place to tie the gold into it as well as do a plot where the nobles are still hunting him for his actions in France that would put Eliza in a dangerous position. Plus, I could have done a lot of great action stuff with Jack as a globe trotting adventurer. But no. I had to get cute and give him syphilis.
(*) So I’m completely screwed unless I come up with some bullshit way for them to cure syphilis in the late 1600s. How am I going to….. Hold on. Just had a thought. Could I get away with that? Why not? I’m Neal Stephenson, goddamnit! I can do anything!
(*) One thing is for sure, I’ve got a pretty accurate title: The Confusion. ...more
So here I am, trying to wrap up the last book of the The Baroque Cycle. This thing has gotten completely(Excerpt from the journal of Neal Stephenson.)
So here I am, trying to wrap up the last book of the The Baroque Cycle. This thing has gotten completely out of control. I knew it’d be huge when I planned it, but this story has sprawled everywhere. What the hell was I thinking? Any one of the story threads I’ve had going could be a fair sized novel in itself. Now I gotta gather them all up and try to come up with some kind of coherent ending. I’m not going to have a fan left if I don’t wrap this up well.
Deep breath. OK, where are we at and what do I need to do to finish this damn thing?
* The main story has finally reached 1714 so at least I don’t have to keep flash forwarding to an older Daniel Waterhouse going back to England after leaving Massachusetts.
* Daniel is returning to England to try and settle the dispute between Isaac Newton and Leibniz over who invented the calculus, but I want him to get wrapped up in political intrigue about who would succeed Queen Anne.
* I also want Daniel to lay some of the groundwork for the upcoming Industrial Revolution by getting involved with the invention of an early mining pump. (Side note: The Engine for Raising Water by Fire sounds cool!)
* Time to ramp up all this business about the legendary gold of King Solomon. I also need to tie that back to the ageless Enoch Root. That’s my sci-fi element that’ll keep the geeks turning pages in a European historical fiction.
* When I left off, Jack Shaftoe was being blackmailed by the king of France to go to England and destroy confidence in the currency being overseen by the new master of the mint, Isaac Newton. But Jack doesn’t know that Isaac is obsessed with King Solomon’s gold and only took the job so that he can get gold from around the world brought to him to find it. And Isaac doesn’t know that his counterfeiting nemesis Jack already has the Solonomic gold.
* Eliza is going to have less to do in this one, but I’ll have her increasing her anti-slavery efforts.
* I’m going to let Daniel and Isaac Newton play detective when trying to track down Jack by giving some fun history of how people used to have to do their own prosecutions and hire ‘thief-takers’ to track down criminals.
* It’ll be a cool twist late in the book when Daniel goes from hunting criminals to plotting some major criminal projects.
* Shit. I’ve also got to work in the stuff about Leibniz and Daniel trying to build a ‘logic mill’ for Peter the Great in Russia. Can I work the gold into that? Make it so that everyone is trying to get their hands on it?
* Some random things I want to include also include a duel between two men fought with cannons instead of pistols, clockwork phosphorus bombs, an assault on the Tower of London and a coach chase through the streets.
* I also got to give the readers some idea of the fate of the approximately 1137 supporting characters I’ve introduced in this.
Damn, I’ve got my work cut out for me. Fortunately, I’m a genius so it shouldn’t be a problem. But I’ll give my fans a break after this. No big giant books with multiple plot lines. Something short and simple. Although I do have this idea for a new language……...more
One of the problems when reviewing Cryptonomicon is that you could easily end up writing a short novel just trying to summarize it. Here’s my attemptOne of the problems when reviewing Cryptonomicon is that you could easily end up writing a short novel just trying to summarize it. Here’s my attempt to boil the story down to its essence.
During World War II, Lawrence Waterhouse is a genius mathematician who is part of the effort to break Japanese and German codes, and his job is to keep them from realizing how successful the Allies have been by faking events that give the enemies reasons other than compromised codes to pin any losses on. Marine Sergeant Bobby Shaftoe had to leave behind the woman he loves in the Philippines when the war broke out in the Pacific and after surviving some brutal island combat, he finds himself assigned to a unit carrying out dangerous and weird missions that seem to have no logical goals.
In the late ‘90s, Waterhouse’s grandson Randy is an amiable computer geek who has just co-founded a small company called Epiphyte that has big plans revolving around the booming Internet in the island nations of southeast Asia. As powerful people with hidden agendas begin showing an interest in Epiphyte’s business plan, Randy hires a company in Manila owned by former Navy SEAL Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe to lay an underwater cable. That’s just a sideline for Doug and his daughter Amy who primarily work as treasure hunters. When they make a startling discovery, it links the personal history of the Waterhouses and the Shaftoes to a lost fortune in Axis gold.
That makes it sound like a beach thriller or airplane read by someone like Clive Cussler, right?
But I didn’t mention all the math. And code breaking. And the development of computers. And economic theories. And geo-politics circa 1999. And how it was ahead of the curve about personal privacy. And it’s about a thousand pages long. And there's some other stuff, too.
Plus, Neal Stephenson doesn’t feel the need to conform to anything close to a traditional three act narrative structure. He’s also often the writing equivalent of Clark W. Griswald in the movie Vacation since he’ll cheerfully divert his readers four short hours to see the second largest ball of twine on the face of the earth.
Sprinkled among all this are appearances by real historical figures like Alan Turing and Douglas MacArthur. So what you get is a book that should be a mess of infodumps and long tangets that ultimately don’t have anything to do with the story. And quite frankly, the ending is kind of a mess, too.
So whenever I read criticism of Neal Stephenson, I shrug and concede that there are many things about the guy that should make me crazy as a reader. However, the really odd thing is that he doesn’t. I’ve pretty much loved every book of his I’ve read despite the fact that I could list his literary sins at length.
What’s great to me about Stephenson is that it’s so obvious that he loves this stuff. When he takes up a whole chapter laying out the mathematics behind code breaking, it’s his enthusiasm for the subject that helps carry my math-challenged ass through. He’s not giving us elaborate histories or explanations because he did the research and wants to show off, he’s doing it because he’s a smart guy who is excited about something so he can’t help but go on at length about it.
The other factor that redeems him for me is his sense of humor. No matter how enthused Stephenson is, it’d still break down in the delivery if he didn’t pepper his books with some hilarious lines. Sometimes even his long digressions are done solely in the interest of delivering the funny like a parody of a business plan that includes gems like this:
“Unless you are as smart as Johann Karl Friedrich Gauss, savvy as a half-blind Calcutta bootblack, tough as General William Tecumseh Sherman, rich as the Queen of England, emotionally resilient as a Red Sox fan, and as generally able to take care of yourself as the average nuclear missile submarine commander, you should never have been allowed near this document. Please dispose of it as you would any piece of high-level radioactive waste and then arrange with a qualified surgeon to amputate your arms at the elbows and gouge your eyes from their sockets. This warning is necessary because once, a hundred years ago, a little old lady in Kentucky put a hundred dollars into a dry goods company which went belly-up and only returned her ninety-nine dollars. Ever since then the government has been on our asses. If you ignore this warning, read on at your peril--you are dead certain to lose everything you've got and live out your final decades beating back waves of termites in a Mississippi Delta leper colony.”
It’s also easy to overlook how these seeming digressions help build the entire story. When Randy is trying to retrieve some of his grandfather’s papers from an old trunk, he gets embroiled in his family’s attempts to divvy up his grandparent’s belongings. Since the family is made up of academics a whole chapter becomes a description of a mathematical formula based on an x-y grid laid out in a parking lot that allows family members to place items according to both sentimental and economic value while Randy has to try to find a way to diplomatically claim the papers. There’s no real reason for this scene, and it could have been cut entirely or boiled down a few lines about a family squabble. But the whole chapter is funny and tells us a great deal about Randy and his background by putting him in this context. It doesn't accomplish anything else plot wise, but it’s the kind of scene that makes this book what it is.
Even as a fan of the way he works, I still wish Stephenson could tighten some things up. The goals of Epiphyte and Randy shift three or four times over the course of the novel, and the drifting into and out of plots gets very problematic late in the game. It also seems like Stephenson had a hard time determining exactly who the bad guys in the 1999 story should be. (view spoiler)[ The stuff with Andrew Loeb, a litigious asshole who once drove Randy into bankruptcy, showing up as an arrow shooting/knife wielding attacker wearing a business suit in the jungle at the end seems to come out of the blue since he’s really only appeared in flashback form before that. Even though he's the lawyer suing Epiphyt there aren't any scenes directly showing him in action except for Randy viewing him from a distance during the raid on their server. And while most of the book seems to operate under the idea that the rich dentist is the main threat to Epiphyte, he suddenly tags out and a Chinese guy that we’ve only seen as a slave during WWII is revealed as the hidden hand behind it all very late in the book, yet we have no present day scenes with him. (hide spoiler)]
I should also note that although this is billed as a sci-fi novel as well as being nominated for and winning some prizes like the Hugo and the Locus, it really isn’t. There’s one small supernaturalish element that gets it that reputation, but I’d call it historical-fiction if I had to put a genre on it.
Even though this is a book that really shouldn’t work, the great thing about it is that it mostly does, and it’s just so damn clever at times that I can’t help but admire Stephenson.
Related material: The Baroque Cyle is the follow-up/prequel to this that delves even further into the history of the Waterhouse and Shaftoe familes. These are my reviews to the three hardback editions, but those were such kitten squishers that it was also broken up into a longer series of paperbacks.
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I read an interview with Robert B. Parker in which he said that he thought All Our Yesterdays was probably his best book, but that it was also one ofI read an interview with Robert B. Parker in which he said that he thought All Our Yesterdays was probably his best book, but that it was also one of his worst selling ones. It was certainly among his most ambitious and came just before his Spenser books started a serious decline in quality.
Would RBP have taken on some bigger challenges and not allowed Spenser to grow repetitive and stale if this would have been more successful? He created three new series as well as doing some other stand-alone novels after this was published so it’s not like he just quit trying new things, but it does seem like the last time he’d do something really outside his normal comfort zone.
Conn Sheridan is a soldier in the Irish Republican Army in 1920 when he meets Hadley Winslow, the beautiful wife of a rich American visiting Dublin. The two have a passionate affair, and Conn eventually asks Hadley to leave her husband. She refuses, things get ugly, and Conn has to flee to Boston.
In America, Conn joins the police, but the heartbreak of losing Hadley has left him not giving much of a shit about anything. Years pass, and he marries a woman he doesn’t love after getting her pregnant. While he feels some attachment to his son Gus, he’s still unable to get emotionally involved in anything until he discovers something that allows him to blackmail Hadley into resuming their affair.
More time passes. Gus eventually joins the police, too, and he also learns the Winslow secret. Gus gets trapped in another loveless marriage but is completely devoted to his own son, Chris. Chris eventually falls in love with the granddaughter of Hadley, but they’re unaware that their families have a long history of obsessive love and blackmail. A mid-90s Boston gang war starts a chain of events that threatens to expose the past.
RBP used a lot of his favorite themes here. There’s the ‘good’ man who is completely in love with a ‘bad’ woman, and there’s also a woman who has to cheat on her lover to ultimately prove to herself that their love is real. Father and son relationships play a big part of it, too. There’s also a couple of completely useless and overbearing mother figures in the story which is another RBP favorite. (Between his repeated character of the stupid, drunken, overbearing mother in several books and Spenser’s origin story of being raised by his father and two uncles after his mother died in childbirth, I’ve got a hunch that RBP may have had more than a few mommy issues.)
What sets this one apart is that RBP didn’t just forgive his characters for their behavior and allow them to be heroic anyhow. Conn’s inability to let Hadley go cuts him off from anyone else he should care about, including his son, and also causes him to do some fairly unsavory shit. Gus’s refusal to leave a wife he doesn’t love because of his devotion to young Chris leaves him coasting unhappily through life and leads him to follow Conn‘s example of cutting corners. Adult Chris’s love of Grace is obsessive to the point of suffocating her and is killing their relationship. Usually, RBP portrayed the men who refuse to give up on their love for someone no matter what happens as romantic and admirable. Here, he more accurately portrays it as unhealthy and something that will seriously screw up your life.
In a perfect world, this would have been the culmination of the theme of obsessive love for RBP, and he would have moved on to other things after getting it all out of his system in this book. Unfortunately, like one of his own characters, RBP could never let it go and would continue to make it one of the main characteristics of most of his work for the rest of his life. Still, this book about three generations of men suffering because of their hang-ups was some of his best writing on the subject....more
Talk about a concept that sells itself: Ernest Hemingway battles Nazis spies in Cuba during World War II. Who wouldn’t pay money to see that fight?
InTalk about a concept that sells itself: Ernest Hemingway battles Nazis spies in Cuba during World War II. Who wouldn’t pay money to see that fight?
In this historical fiction based on Hemingway’s activities in the Caribbean during the war, Joe Lucas is an FBI agent who has been busting up Nazi intelligence networks all over North America since Pearl Harbor, but he is given a special assignment by J. Edgar Hoover himself. Ernest Hemingway has talked the US ambassador to Cuba into getting him authorization and funding to set up his own network of spies he calls the Crook Factory to root out Nazi infiltrators on the island. Hoover sends the reluctant Lucas to spy on Hemingway under the guise of being his government liaison.
Lucas is less than thrilled to be pulled off his high profile assignments stopping real Nazi spies to babysit the famous writer and can’t understand why Hoover even cares. As a writer, Hemingway doesn’t impress Lucas because he doesn’t even read fiction, and the FBI agent doesn’t think much of Hemingway as an spy ringleader either. Lucas finds Hemingway’s loose network of Cuban workers and drinking buddies to be laughable, and Hemingway himself to be a boastful overgrown child playing spy games. Lucas is even more horrified when Hemingway comes up with a harebrained scheme to have his own fishing boat outfitted with small arms and other equipment to try to lure a Nazi sub to the surface to be captured and convinces the government to go along with it.
Yet Lucas soon realizes that there’s a swarm of serious spies hovering around Hemingway’s Crook Factory (including British agent Ian Fleming), and he starts to think that both he and Hemingway are being set up somehow in someone else’s operation. As Lucas has to start depending on the writer, he learns that there’s more to Hemingway than just the larger than life image he works so hard to maintain.
Dan Simmons simply astounds me with the way he can shift from crime novels to sci fi to horror, but this was the start of several historical fictions he’d do including Drood, The Terror and Black Hills. He must do an enormous amount of research on these novels, but his flaw is that he tries to cram every tidbit of knowledge he picks up into them. Which is weird because he could create an entire universe in his Hyperion series and give you just enough detail to make it believable, but not lapse into so much that it become overwhelming. Yet in a book like this, Simmons describes things like the motors on the boats or the codes being used in exhausting detail. It helps build the atmosphere, but he lets it get the better of the story at times.
Still, I enjoyed this novel with it’s depiction of Hemingway that seems to confirm the things his critics say and yet manages to transcend them to give a portrait of an artist who both uses and is trapped by his image. There’s an interesting afterward where Simmons writes that most biographers write off this period in Hemingway’s life as a wacky novelty, yet the government files on the Crook Factory are still classified, and that Hoover’s FBI maintained active surveillance on the writer until he took his own life.
It’s an interesting premise with a fascinating portrayal of Hemingway and lots of spy intrigue, but the pace could have been increased with a bit less detail. ...more