Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Flood of Fire

Friday, June 2nd, 2017

Unknown-1By Amitav Ghosh

The Short Take:

As the third  book in Ghosh’s fascinating historical novels built around the East India Company’s opium trade, this book brings closure to many of the ongoing storylines involving the fictional characters (there are plenty of real ones, too). It’s an intriguing read, but not for anyone who is bamboozled by words in other languages — there’s lots of pidgin phrases and words, but you can almost always tell the meaning by context.

Why?

Most of us are vaguely aware of the Opium Wars between China and England. This book (and the others in the Ibis Trilogy: Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke) not only fully opens your eyes but drops your jaw. The audacity and power of the East India Company are simply mind-blowing. They argued they had a God-given right to sell opium to the Chinese and no Chinese Emperor had any business stopping them. And, the British government and military backed them up.

Ghosh’s story is presented through the adventures of a number of characters — Indian, British, even an American. There’s romance, scheming, endless greed, shocking revelations, and some highly intriguing minor characters, along with actual battles. Ghosh’s research is extensive and the most shocking statements by those insisting on the opium trade are drawn word-for-word from actual documents.

I readily admit this outing is not nearly as page-turning as his first book in the series, but it’s still a rewarding read.

A Little Plot:

There are several main plot lines involving an Indian sepoy in the East India Company’s army, the grieving widow of an Indian opium trader, and an ambitious American sailor. All three wind up sailing to China, involved, one way or another, in the outcome of the pending Opium Wars.

For more about Amitav Ghosh and his work, click here.

 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Monday, April 24th, 2017

sapiens_enBy Yuval Noah Harari

The Short Take:

Harari’s non-fiction book isn’t as much a history as an exploration of the human characteristic that enabled us to dominate the world — and it has little to do with opposable thumbs or big brains. While it’s sometimes a tedious read, the ideas he presents are truly eye-opening and worth exploring.

Why?

For countless millennia humanity consisted solely of small bands of hunter-gatherers. Then, in a very short period of time, we became the dominant force on planet earth. What changed? Humans developed the ability to believe in things that exist only in our imaginations — things like government, religion, and corporations.

That’s a pretty big concept to wrap your head around. Your first response is, naturally, “Of course they exist!” Harari thoughtfully lays out his case claiming otherwise. Then he demonstrates how each “advancement” in human society is the result of that ability.

It’s all fairly mind blowing.

A Little Plot:

Harari mainly uses the path of human history, from hunter-gatherer through the agricultural, industrial, scientific, and information revolutions, to support his claims. He’s pretty convincing.

For more about Harari and this book, click here.

Norse Mythology

Thursday, March 30th, 2017

Unknown-1By Neil Gaiman

The Short Take:

If you were ever interested in knowing more about Norse mythology but felt intimidated by famous yet dense translations like The Poetic Edda, this treat of a book is perfect for you. And, isn’t everyone into Vikings and Norse culture these days? Especially Thor?

Why?

Norse mythology is very different from that of the Greeks or Romans — there’s much more violence, meanness, gluttony, and general carousing. But best of all, it features one of the most entertaining gods ever — Loki. Loki is handsome, personable, witty, tricky, and a first-class troublemaker. He also features in most of the Norse stories Gaiman retells in this volume.

Gaiman’s goal was not to put a twist on the stories he loves very much, but to make them more accessible to modern readers. Much of ancient Norse culture has been lost, but what remains is exciting to explore. You’ll find interesting, even complex, characters, and a fair amount of humor (though often of the black variety). Keep in mind these gods and their exploits were affiliated with a harsh climate and that hostile environment influences the direction of these tales and the gods involved.

A Little Plot:

The books starts with the creation of the world. Then there are various Norse tales about the gods (the ones Gaiman includes feature Loki in particular). Finally, there’s the destruction of that world. Sort of.

For more about Neil Gaiman and his works (and I highly recommend reading some of Gaiman’s original work), click here.

Moonglow

Friday, March 3rd, 2017

UnknownBy Michael Chabon

The Short Take:

This wonderful non-memoire is tightly woven, elegantly written, and infinitely diverting. Written as if it were his own family’s story (particularly the story of his grandfather), Chabon explores what could have been, what might have been, and what difference would it make(anyway).

Why?

At first I fell for the conceit it really was his grandfather’s life Chabon recounted — despite the warning he clearly states before his narrative begins. He does a good job of seducing you into this faux family, where the patriarch is a space-loving, quiet man who devotes himself to saving his wife, a Holocaust survivor with recurring mental illness. It’s a love song, a morality play, war story, and science fact — a captivating mixture of human frailty, love, and hubris; wrapped in and warped by the greater powers of war and governments.

Of course, Chabon is already recognized as one of the exceptional authors of our times. This novel lives up to his reputation. And strengthens it.

A Little Plot:

Michael’s taciturn grandfather is dying. The pain drugs he takes make him unusually voluble so he tells his grandson the story of his life, his passion for space, his hatred of Von Went, and his commitment to his wife and daughter.

For more about the author and his works, click here.

The Underground Railroad

Saturday, February 11th, 2017

UnknownBy Colson Whitehead

The Short Take:

This book is fantastic. But don’t take my word for it, take the word of every publication that included it in their top ten list for 2016, or the judges who made it a National Book Award winner. It documents the all-to-real horrors of slavery in America, using the imaginative conceit of a slave runaway traveling on a literal railroad that runs under the ground.

Why?

This masterful novel follows the harrowing journey of Cora, a slave on the run from a Georgia cotton plantation. Chapters are named for the different states in which she finds herself, each of which showcases a different aspect of this country’s disregard for the humanity of its black citizens, from the brutality of slavery to purposely infecting individuals with syphilis.

While the subterranean trains themselves are fantasy, the reality of the situations Cora finds herself in is anything but. Whitehead takes genuine aspects of American racism– slavery, paternalism, white separatist movements, racial hysteria, etc. — and looks at them unflinchingly. Think of Gulliver’s Travels and you’ve got the basic idea.

It’s tough and Whitehead breaks your heart repeatedly, but Cora has such an indomitable spirit that you will her through each new disaster.

There are many phrases and observations that will stay with you, reminding you of the steep price some paid to provide homes and prosperity for others. “Stolen bodies working stolen lands,” said it most succinctly, but other passages — and Cora — tell it much more eloquently.

A Little Plot:

Another slave asks Cora to run away with him He says she will bring him luck as her mother was the only one to ever successfully escape, abandoning a young Cora. She agrees and they begin their journey to an underground railroad station. And, hopefully, to freedom. However, in addition to the usual deadly dangers, a notorious slave catcher, Ridgeway, is determined to find her.

 

American Revolutions

Tuesday, February 7th, 2017

28757817By Alan Taylor

The Short Take:

This splendid history gives you the full picture surrounding the formation of the United States of America; and brings an eye-opening surprise on almost every page. Taylor, recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes, backs up his massive work with nearly 200 pages of footnotes. Informative, comprehensive, and mind blowing, I’m recommending this one to everyone.

Why?

Forget pretty much everything you learned in history class. The years before, during, and after the American revolution were messy, nasty, mob-driven, and fractious. Consider this: a substantial majority people in the North American colonies were either against the revolution or neutral. Wealthy planters, land speculators, and merchants were behind the Patriot cause, using Thomas Paine’s Common Sense to persuade the common folk that a revolution was in their favor when it actually benefited the rich.

Patriot mobs would tar-and-feather loyalists then trash and burn their homes and businesses. They also destroyed virtually every loyalist printing press around, leaving only one published point of view. Native nations alternately aligned with France, Britain, or Spain but only as it suited their defense against the land-grabbing Americans. Slaves often turned to the English during these times, looking for freedom but seldom finding anything but death.

Taylor doesn’t merely focus on the people, politics and battles; he goes deep into the economic forces that shaped every player’s self-interests and motivations. He also shows how the empire-driven countries of that time — Spain, France, and England — used the Patriot cause as leverage against each other when not salivating over how either American loss or victory could ultimately benefit them. It’s not a pretty picture, but it is certainly a more comprehensive one. And, it’s far more realistic than the rosy view we tend to take today.

There’s a mountain of information in this book; so much I could only read a few pages at a time. It’s not a “can’t put it down” book on American history, but it is certainly the most enlightening.

A Little Plot:

North American colonies revolted against England and fought against each other. Despite themselves, native populations, slavery, France, Spain, and England, a republic was finally forged.

The Lost City of the Monkey God

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

61nGciqjbKL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_By Douglas Preston

The Short Take:

Preston’s non-fiction account of the finding and first excavations of a “lost” major Pre-Columbian city in Honduras is gripping and enlightening beyond it’s archeological content. New uses for modern technology, the fallout from professional infighting, dangerous diseases and how climate change aids their spread are all part of this engrossing book.

Why?

Douglas Preston didn’t just write about this adventure — he lived it. He was in the air with the team using top-secret lidar technology to locate the cities that might be (probably are) the inspiration of countless legends. He was part of the first group of feet-on-the-ground explorers — helicoptered into a dense, untouched jungle rife with poisonous snakes and hungry insects.

His first-person involvement adds even more grit to a tale that already has plenty of drama. Since Preston is a best-selling thriller writer, he knows how to keep you turning those pages. He brings that expertise to his non-fiction writing as well (try The Monster of Florence, where simple book research turns him into a murder suspect!). It’s all true and well documented, but it’s written with adventure-novel energy and excitement.

A Little Plot:

For centuries there have been legends about a spectacular city hidden deep in the Honduran jungles. Many have tried — and even claimed — to find it. The latest man to make finding this city his goal , Steve Elkins, went to extraordinary lengths to achieve success –and Douglas Preston was with him all along the way.

Douglas Preston shares his website with his frequent fiction co-author, Lincoln Child; but you can also learn about this book and other solo efforts by clicking here.

Kingdom of Speech

Monday, December 12th, 2016

unknown By Tom Wolfe

The Short Take:

Wolfe has fun, in this slim nonfiction book, looking at speech as a result of evolution and then debunking the idea. He’s no scientist, but I rather enjoyed his irreverent portrayals of Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky.

Why?

Let me make it clear: I do not buy Wolfe’s position that Homo sapiens is not a product of evolution. However, while he boldly makes that claim in this book, his true subject is whether language evolved. That is an interesting subject, indeed.

Darwin, Chomsky, and others have tried to determine just what language/speech is. These two — and many others — believed it was the result of evolution. Others think it is an artifact — something humans made, like stone tools.

Learning about Alfred Russel Wallace (the unsung co-creator of the theory of natural selection) and Daniel Everett (whose 30 years with an isolated Amazon tribe turned linguistic theories upside-down) was worth the 167-page read. Gaining insight into the world of linguistic studies was also interesting. But, Wolfe’s lack of knowledge (disinterest?) in the vast science supporting evolution was dismaying.

A Little Plot:

Wolfe starts his story with those men who first proposed a process of evolution (which included Darwin’s grandfather and even earlier proponents). He ends in the present day. In between he traces theories and studies about what language is/isn’t and how it came about.

PS. I couldn’t help but wonder if Wolfe has been hanging out with John Irving — he made that same obnoxious use of italics and exclamation points. Maybe he was making fun of his own position? I hope so.

Heroes of the Frontier

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

unknownBy Dave Eggers

The Short Take:

A wandering tale of a ruined professional woman and her two children as they range across Alaska in a decrepit RV. At turns funny and heart-breaking, this novel is not about the plot so much as it is about the heroine’s hopes, fears, shortcomings, and strengths.

Why?

There are several reasons to love this book:

Eggers observations on America (as voiced by Josie, the central character) are excellent and thought provoking — people’s constant disappointment, the rise of selfishness, even fancy groceries get their share of critique.

There’s also the artfully nuanced portrayal of Josie — one of the most thorough and honest representations I’ve encountered. Much of the book takes place in her head, and her reflections and concerns consistently have the stamp of reality, even when they seem a touch crazed.

It’s particularly interesting to have her thoughtful son and rambunctious daughter presented solely through her eyes; and see how her perceptions change as  their journey progresses.

However, the reader can be forgiven for wondering, “Where is this going?” In this book, as in Josie’s life, it’s not the destination, its the journey that matters.

A Little Plot:

Josie’s absent and unsupportive ex is getting married and wants their two kids to meet his fiancé. Instead she spirits them away to Alaska, where they rent an RV and strike out, despite fires raging in the area. She intends to visit a childhood friend but has no other real plans. Random encounters ensue, while Josie wonders if she is doing the right thing — now or ever.

Barkskins

Monday, September 26th, 2016

Unknown-1By Annie Proulx

The Short Take:

This epic novel, built around the logging industry in North America, traces how these vast, virgin forests shaped the lives of the descendants of two French immigrants and a Mi’kmaw family. It’s informative, heart wrenching, and a cautionary tale for today. Best of all, it’s crafted by one superbly gifted writer.

Why?

I admit a fondness for books that trace generations of families. This one has a much stronger and more important message than most of them. It illustrates how the greed and wastefulness of the very few can cause suffering — sometimes quite intense — for all.

Our flawed relationship with nature is a recurring theme for Proulx. She showcased that perfectly in this novel by following the descendants of two French immigrants, both of whom are amazed by the endless forests on this continent. However, that awe leads them down two completely different paths.

The endless destruction of forests, rivers, and the way of life (not to mention their actual lives) of North America’s First Nations beats a steady drum throughout the book. It can wear you down, but maybe we need to have our eyes opened to what once was and how little of that we have left.

However, my only real complaint was about the last 100 or so pages. Up to that point Proulx gave her characters time to breathe and her readers time to engage in the story. For some reason in those last pages she elected to speed through generations at a breakneck pace. It’s hard to care much about a character who is barely mentioned before the plot moves on.

In other words, I wanted a much longer book.

A Little Plot:

Rene Sel and Charles Duquet arrive in what is now Canada. They are both barkskins — tree cutters — and must labor for another for three years in exchange for their own land. Duquet runs away and embarks on a life of greed and double-dealing, eventually clear-cutting whole forests. Sel marries a Mi’kmaw woman. He continues to cut trees, but only to sustain his own family.

Their descendants follow in the paths set by these men — one side logging; the other side trying to balance Mi’kmaw ways while cutting trees for the white property owners.

Proulx is a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, among other honors. You can find out a lot about her online, but not at a dedicated website.

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