Netherland is my first read of the New Year and I zipped through it quickly. The book is written in the first person perspective of Hans, a banker who...moreNetherland is my first read of the New Year and I zipped through it quickly. The book is written in the first person perspective of Hans, a banker who has immigrated to New York with his wife and young son. Hans and his wife are displaced by 9/11 and the event makes Hans’ wife realize that she wants to separate. After she leaves and heads back to London with the couple’s son, Hans is left looking for something to grasp onto, and he becomes friends with an interesting character named Chuck Ramkissoon who reconnects Hans with the sport of cricket. Both cricket and Chuck become the focal points of Hans’ life, though other strange characters wander in and out occasionally, including a man who walks around the city wearing angel wings. The strange characters and experiences in the book make Hans’ life feel surreal to the reader at times, but I also found myself rooting for him as he stumbles around rudderless until the end of the story.
As a former resident of New York, I was curious to read this book because of the cricket, which I often saw immigrant men playing in the large fields of Queens’ parks. I wondered about the sport while riding past matches on my way to play softball in the other large fields of Queens. O’Neill clearly understands the cricket subculture and city itself. Though I know nothing about cricket, I found myself nodding in agreement when he explains how all New Yorkers feel obliged to comment about each other’s living spaces and even ask, “How much are you paying?” when in other parts of America this would be considered rude. He describes small layers and nuances of the city and its people in a way that only someone who has lived in the city can, and this made the book very enjoyable for me. O’Neill is also a wonderful writer, and narrates in long, well-crafted, descriptive sentences without coming across as condescending and only occasionally slowing down the pace of the text. I could certainly have dealt with fewer reminiscences about Hans’ childhood in the Netherlands, for example.
Ultimately, I did feel that I got to know Hans’ character well, and this is what kept me turning the pages. This book was a great way to start another year of reading. Not screen reading, but good old-fashioned page turning.(less)
Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" is perhaps the most grim story I have ever ready. A father and son are some of the only humans alive in a post-apocalypti...moreCormac McCarthy's "The Road" is perhaps the most grim story I have ever ready. A father and son are some of the only humans alive in a post-apocalyptic America. The constantly falling dust leads the reader to assume that there has been some sort of nuclear catastrophe but other details are sparse. This leaves the reader focused on the relationship between the father and son as the former tries to keep the young boy alive. All the animals are dead and the couple try to stay away from the few other people that they encounter as they walk on a road towards the ocean scavenging what little food they can find.
The only thing that keeps them alive is each other and the hope that they'll meet up with "the good guys" at some point. But even this is a simplification because there is much more to the novel than this and it's well worth reading even though it is depressing. In fact, I've never read a book that conveys such desolation and horror in so few words but at the same time is so hard to put down. (less)
I was very late to the Erik Larson bandwagon, having just read his Devil In the White City last year. Though I enjoyed that book, I found Larson's la...moreI was very late to the Erik Larson bandwagon, having just read his Devil In the White City last year. Though I enjoyed that book, I found Larson's latest to be far inferior. In the Garden of Beasts uses the same approach which is to find an interesting subject (or, in this case, subjects) in an interesting time and location (Germany in the mid-1930s) and combine them into an engaging read. This book, unfortunately, is missing the interesting subject and it is not engaging.
The "American family" of the book's subtitle are the Dodds who live in Berlin. William is the American ambassador to Germany, Mattie is his wife and Martha is his daughter. When relating the rise of Hitler and the other Nazi characters that surrounded him, Larson somehow makes the story boring by always attempting to bring the tale back to Dodd, even though Dodd was a mere bystander. The major flaw in telling the story of Hitler's Berlin through the eyes of Dodd is that his experiences don't add much of anything to the historical narrative of Hitler's rise to power. The narrative is further obscured by Larson's constant tales of Martha's many lovers.
Despite not enjoying this book, I did finish it, and I realized two things. First, it made me feel embarrassed by America's laissez-faire attitude towards Hitler and disgusted that more was not done to pressure him into stopping the alarming abuses of power and horrible treatment of the Jews. Secondly, it caused me to realize that I need to learn more about this period in German history because In the Garden of Beasts was a boring tale about an interesting time.(less)
A wonderfully readable account of the early American Revolution which highlights the fragility of the patriot cause and the brilliance of George Washi...moreA wonderfully readable account of the early American Revolution which highlights the fragility of the patriot cause and the brilliance of George Washington.(less)
Noted historian James McPherson's "For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War" is a fairly academic study of... why men fought in the civ...moreNoted historian James McPherson's "For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War" is a fairly academic study of... why men fought in the civil war, obviously. It reads a bit like a college thesis with the main points split up amongst the dozen chapters. This is not meant to be a criticism, however, because McPherson has certainly done his homework. He writes in the preface that he took a one year sabbatical from his teaching position at Princeton and read primary documents from over 1,000 soldiers. He also goes into great detail in the preface about why those documents are a fairly representative sample of the three million soldiers who fought in the war, making the book interesting from a historiographical standpoint as well.
Of course the meat of the book lies in the quotes from the soldiers themselves. McPherson uses them to explain the soldiers' motivation on three different levels: intial motivation (why they enlisted), sustaining motivation (why they stayed in the army) and combat motivation (what gave them courage under fire). He also at times makes appropriate use of scientific studies of soldiers which were done in later American wars to explain highs and lows in morale and courage under fire. Basically, this book is well worth reading for those who want a deeper look into the psyche of the typical Civil War soldier but don't mind that it can be a bit dry and academic at times.
As a sidenote, this book was published in 1997 and, in light of the current war against terror, I found one soldier's words (quoted on page 145) very interesting because of their similarity to President Bush's rhetoric after 9/11: "Every cursed mother's son of them that does not support the war by word and deed ought to be hung or sent to the south where they belong. There is no middle ground. Every man who is not for us is against us."(less)
Sarah Vowell, the mousey-voiced contributor to NPR's "This American Life" and voice of Violet in "The Incredibles" is a nerd when it comes to presiden...moreSarah Vowell, the mousey-voiced contributor to NPR's "This American Life" and voice of Violet in "The Incredibles" is a nerd when it comes to presidential assassinations. "Assassination Vacation" is a collection of historical tidbits about the murders of presidents Lincoln, McKinley and Garfield. It's a fascinating read for history buffs and even for those who only have a casual interest in presidential history and forensics.
Vowell visits all sorts of crazy sites related to the assassinations including the National Museum of Health and Medicine which contains fragments of Lincoln's skull and the Museum of Funeral Customs which is just a short walk from Lincoln's tomb in Springfield, IL. Along the way, she tells the story of the assassinations and the characters that are involved in them. Lincoln's son Robert, for example, was in the vicinity of all three presidents when they were killed. It's such a weird coincidence that Vowell refers to him as Jinxy McDeath. Stranger still is the fact that John Wilkes Booth's brother Edwin saved Robert's life during the war when Robert fell off a train platform next to a slowly-moving train and was pulled out of the gap by Booth. The book is full of interesting stories like these and Vowell comes across as an expert in the telling.
Along the way, Vowell isn't afraid to criticize the current administration and make some connections between the present war in Iraq and McKinley's preemptive Spanish-American war. Later in the book she likens the squalid conditions that a Booth co-conspirator faced at a prison in Dry Tortugas, FL to the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib (which isn't as far-fetched as it probably sounds).
Although Vowell wanders off-topic often, this humorous and entertaining book is a quick and enjoyable read for anyone who has even a slight interest in history. I just hope that she someday writes a sequel about the fourth (and still taboo?) presidential assassination of John F. Kennedy.(less)