Saturday, November 15, 2008

For the love of language (and politics), plus comments on a few of the latest books I've read

I find myself compelled to point out that Sarah Palin is suffering from "Aleutians of grandeur."


I just finished a few books sent to me by my brother, lent by friends, and some that I even purchased (that should make the authors happy, though if they only knew how many books I have, they might forgive my current quasi-moratorium on buying more). These recently-read books include Hitler's Peace by Philip Kerr, which was not as engaging as his most engaging books, and at times seemed awkward or forced, but was compelling, nonetheless, and ultimately both illuminating and intriguing. OK, that doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement, but remember that this is a favorite author of mine who reaches the highest standards in most of his books, if not quite in every case. However, I encourage you to read Hitler's Peace, both for the excitement and for the window on a fascinating time in history.

Prior to that, a selection of what I read includes Vicious Circle by Robert Littell, The Mayor of Lexington Avenue by James Shehan, much of Collapse by Jared Diamond (still reading it), and the single volume containing the novels Fatherland and Enigma by Robert Harris.

Here are a few additional recent reads: Water Touching Stone by Eliot Pattison (excellent), Spook Country by William Gibson (judged by the highest standards, very good), and The Painter of Battles: A Novel by Arturo Perez-Reverte (see below).

Collapse is a fascinating book that can be read in bits and pieces, or straight through. I'm still filling in the parts I skipped over, aided in my journey by never using a bookmark and continually starting up in random places (a Dadaist approach, perhaps, but don't you feel the Dadaists need a little more attention now and then?). Collapse offers a lot of hope while also documenting many monumental failures of societies throughout history; it comes from the author of the highly touted Guns, Germs and Steel, also touted (and toted) by my high school age son. I haven't read Guns, Germs ... yet.

The other books I listed are all very good or better, though The Mayor of Lexington Avenue is excellent for 95% of the book, and just OK for the other 5% (don't hold me to the numbers, these are impressionistic statistics, if there are such a thing). Still, The Mayor of... is quite an amazing first novel, with outstanding characters, plot and setting that stretch over two generations, from the poor to the rich and powerful, and from New York to a Florida backwater. I think that if the author had grappled with one less issue or subplot, the book would have remained uniformly outstanding. Nevertheless, it is highly recommended.

Although I've read all of Littell's other books except one, I had made a conscious decision not to read Vicious Circle. I felt the same way when The Little Drummer Girl by le Carre' came out- at the time that I just couldn't handle the subject matter (the Middle East conflict) as "entertainment," though, of course, the book is far deeper than that comment implies. I know this because, after about ten years, I broke down and read John le Carre's take on a part of the Middle East conflict, and was glad I did, and, after my brother sent me Vicious Circle I broke down again and read it as well.

Littell writes so well that I found myself laughing out loud in the middle of very tense scenes. As always, his wonderful language and characters are brilliantly crafted. Still, Israeli and Palestinian people and their many issues are not an easy thing to read about, especially when they are kidnapping, murdering, torturing and negotiating for peace (simultaneously, if not all by the same individuals). I felt that Littell was extremely balanced in his treatment of all sides, and the book is gripping from start to end. Unfortunately, I cried a lot more than I laughed, but that comes with the territory in this case.

The novels by Robert Harris left me a bit flat, Enigma more so than Fatherland. I have to say that the premise of Fatherland is very clever and brilliantly executed, and was used to build up a remarkable, alternative universe, though one where the truth will out. The premise is that Germany won WW2 and, among many other consequences, no GI's liberated any concentration camps. The storyline itself isn't quite as strong as other aspects of the book, though it serves as a good thriller with chilling revelations. Enigma perhaps simply wasn't the book I was expecting- I kept looking for that book on each page and coming up empty. It is definitely worth reading, however, and is another WW2 thriller, with an associated murder mystery.

The Painter of Battles by Perez-Reverte is an unusual book. It is by far the shortest book by the author, as far as I know, but it took me an unusually long time to read. There are a lot of pithy sentences and analyses of paintings and warfare, from ancient to modern. Not that this is a textbook by any means; it is a psychological thriller, and the tension can reach high levels, but it's also a no-holds-barred examination of modern morality, warfare and societies. The language demands an attention to detail that I could not always provide (say at the end of a long day) and I wasn't always alert enough to grasp the point, though I rarely have this problem with books (or with the books I choose to read, in any event). I'm not sure I'm erudite enough to grasp all of this novel, either. My knowledge of art history is fairly spotty- I've seen a lot but haven't studied it, so I tend to forget the details. Nevertheless, the stories within the novel are well worth reading since they are based on real events, more or less, events that were highly significant to the participants and some of their observers, but were probably given little thought by most other people. As with quantum physics, we see here that the observer changes the "experiment" or experience, and here the consequences can be tragic. I'd label this short novel a "must read"!

That's it for my capsule summaries and other comments of the day.

© 2008 James K. Bashkin

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