Jason's Reviews > A Train to Potevka

A Train to Potevka by Mike Ramsdell
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's review
Aug 31, 2009

it was ok
Read in June, 2009

This was an unusually tough book to rate. After reading it, I was vacillating between either 2 or 4 stars, but not 3. That's too much of a spread for my comfort, and it happens only rarely. Consequently I waited two months before posting a review. As expected, after time and distance from Train to Potevka, my thoughts kluged into 3 stars, closer to 2.5.

Potevka is an autobiographical book about Ramsdell's life as a Russian expert in the CIA during the Cold War, especially highlighting the single operation which became the inspiration for this book. This book includes most elements you'd expect from an espionage drama--secret agent training, clandestine missions, mafia thuggery, escape, gunplay, hideouts, and undercover contacts--but it's drawn with such a lack of verve and building climax, that you're left with a strange, flat feeling of 'who cares?' It's written with an overwhelming past tense narration and retrospective commentary that the reader is not sucked into the action with Ramsdell. There's almost no character narration, and no other characters are explored. He also slows down the tempo with unrelenting flashes to his childhood, describing hometown scenes as far removed from the climax of a mafia chase as memories of boyhood fishing and driving with his dad and the smell of home. Flashbacks have a place in action stories, but it's usually to accentuate the desperation and desolation of the protagonist, not to undercut the action itself. Ramsdell, a very proud Mormon, reaffirms his faith throughout, and could be the reason why some of the vice that is natural to his occupation has been sanitized.

However, this is ultimately a book about Ramsdell, not about the Train to Potevka. Based on some scattered evidence within the book, I believe it was written for his family and later marketed and sold as an afterthought. I do appreciate the attempt to eschew the violence and speedy pacing with which espionage stories are characteristically written. It must have been difficult not only to live this kind of secret life as a Christian, but also to write it with an intractable backdrop of religion. I applaud his service, and his attempt to translate a mortal, dangerous, classified operation to folks in his hometown who knew him as a boy.

2 stars for keeping it real, but no more than 2 because it just didn't overlap my tastes enough.

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