Saturday, December 31, 2011

THE LOST CITY OF Z by David Grann ✰✰✰✰

Percy Fawcett is often considered the last of the great Victorian explorers.  In an age when the news was dominated by the races to the North and South Poles, he burned some journalistic ink of his own with his exploration of the Amazon region.  David Grann brings this eccentric man to life in this nonfiction look at not only Fawcett’s life, but also his obsession: to find the lost city that would prove once and for all that a great civilization, perhaps even the legendary City of Gold, had once dominated life in the Amazon River region of Brazil.
The book started off strong, but was uneven and dragging in parts.  About half-way through it really lost momentum for me, but I am very glad that I hung in there, as it picked up considerably in the last one hundred pages.  Despite the unevenness, the book has many strong points, which bumped it from three to four stars.  Author Grann paints a vivid picture of trekking through the Amazon (the perfect place to armchair travel, in my wimpy opinion) and of the implacable character of Percy Fawcett.  He also gives a brief nod to Percy’s years serving on the Western Front during World War I; this might be primarily the story of Fawcett and the Amazon region, but it does give a brief outline of other events in his life, making it a complete biography.  In addition, the ending was excellent; many threads which I thought were going to remain unanswered were pulled together, and even items for which there is no absolutely definitive solution were filled in with the latest thoughts and research.
So, is there truly evidence to support the existence of a Lost City in the Amazon basin?  If the subject fascinates you, you will get an answer in this book.  Grann provides a very thorough bibliography, making it very easy to choose further reading if you would like to learn more; one work he used as a frequent source is Thomas Mann’s excellent 1491.  He also used many, many journals and letters of explorers and their families, skillfully weaving them into a smoothly flowing narrative.
This is a wonderful read if, like me, you are fascinated by the region and one of its greatest explorers, but have zero desire to endure the multitude of privations implicit with actually going there.  I also highly recommend it for students of ancient American anthropology and archaeology.  If you have read and enjoyed Mark Adams’ marvelous Turn Right at Machu Picchu, about Hiram Bingham’s explorations, you might enjoy this book as well, although I do not think this one was quite as well done.  Grann’s book on Fawcett is a three and a half star book rounded up to four; Adams’ book on Bingham is a four and a half star book rounded down to four.  If the subject of South American explorers is of great interest to you, I think you would very much enjoy both of these.  If you would like to pick one, I would go with Adams’ Turn Right at Machu Picchu.

THE GREATEST KNIGHT by Elizabeth Chadwick ✰✰✰✰

Eleanor of Aquitaine is without a doubt one of my favorite women from history, so this story, in which she plays a supporting role, was made for my enjoyment.  The story centers around the life of William Marshall, who was in turns a knight in the service of Eleanor’s husband, King Henry II of England, her son Young King Henry, and her son Richard.
From an historical standpoint, I could find no fault with this tale.  The lengthy author’s note at the end of the book lays out exactly where she took liberties and where she stayed in line with known fact; I love a good author’s note in a work of historical fiction.  I found her portrayal of Richard the Lionheart very intriguing; where he is usually portrayed as a jovial, well-loved man, Chadwick’s Richard is a much more arrogant, harsh individual.  A bit unsettling, it took me a while to accept her portrait and move forward-I am not sure I buy into her portrayal of him, and I look forward to reading more books in the series and seeing how his character develops.
The writing, on the other hand, was not as good as I had hoped for.  I felt that the dialog was a bit stilted at times, but my biggest complaint was the repetitive use of certain descriptive phases: William frequently felt “prickles” down his spine and “heavy” boots due to fatigue, for a couple of examples.  On the positive side, the story moved at a brisk pace, was easy to follow despite shifting alliances of its many characters, and was pure enjoyment to read.
While the writing does not even approach that of say, Sharon Kay Penman, this is good story telling, and I highly recommend it for any historical fiction readers interested in the time and place.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand ✰✰✰✰✰

For those of you who have not yet read this new work from the author of the marvelous Seabiscuit, perhaps because you think, as I did, that over-hyped books never live up to their expectation, believe me when I say that you do not want to miss this one.  
Unlike the horse, Seabiscuit, Louis Zamperini, the hero of this tale, did not begin as an underdog.  He was an Olympic runner favored to come back four years later and win gold.  Instead, the world went to war and he went right along with it.  In her copiously researched work author Laura Hillenbrand gives a brief sketch of Louis’ early years, but the bulk of the book centers around Louis’ life as part of a bomber crew during the Pacific campaign of World War II.
Just in case there are still readers out there who do not know any of the details, let me just say that Louis Zamperini’s war experience was nothing short of extraordinary.  Even after the events of the war Hillenbrand still keeps her reader guessing: would Louis run in the next Olympic games? Would he adjust to life back home?  Would he marry a sweetheart and live, as he dreamed, happily ever after?
In addition to Louis’ story, the reader comes to feel as if they know and care about many of the people who shared his life and experiences.  One pilot in particular, Russell Alan Phillips, know as “Phil” to his buddies and Alan to his family, is covered very thoroughly, and by the end of the tale, never mind Louis’ love life, I wanted Phil to get to go home to his girl, Cecy.
Hillenbrand has a wonderful ability to take a ghastly subject, such as the war in the Pacific, and in particular the treatment of Allied prisoners of war in Japanese internment camps, and portray all of its horror without resorting to gore.  It renders this book one which you can make it to the end of without walking away from the story, and yet you still grasp the outrageous depth of possibility in man’s inhumanity.  Because of this excellent crafting of the tale this is a book which I feel most teens and adults can read for information and growth.  This would make an excellent book club book, as issues such as grief and revenge play a prominent role and would provide great discussion points.

Monday, December 19, 2011


There is surprisingly little out there in English on the life of the legendary leftist guerilla Che Guevara, aside from his own writings and a couple of very poorly written biographies.  To say that Jon Lee Anderson’s work is the definitive tale would be an accurate statement.  Anderson went so far as to move his entire family to Cuba for five years while writing this hefty tome.  Che’s family also gave the author tremendous support and access to many of his unpublished written materials.
For those unfamiliar with who he was, Che Guevara was an Argentinian from an upstanding family and a credentialed doctor.  Initially, he had ideas to use his training to help those less fortune, but as he began to read the works of Karl Marx and others (Che, we learn, was a voracious reader), his ideas became gradually more leftist until he eventually became an avowed Communist.  Anderson very clearly defines Che’s ideological journey, making it a definite strength of the book.  Che gained lasting fame as one of Fidel Castro’s right hand men, second only, and sometimes even surpassing, Fidel’s brother Raoul.  One of the big surprises for me was that Fidel was not initially a Communist, and Che can certainly be credited with indoctrinating him and instilling Communism as the dominant force in Cuba.  Therein lies his renown.
My biggest complaint was actually the painstaking detail in this account.  A voluminous 814 pages, this one could easily have had 200 pages edited out.  Truly, does anyone care to know exactly what was packed in Che’s jeep for a inconsequential ride through the jungle?  Or need a virtually hour by hour play-by-play of guerilla movements?  Che’s lifelong battle with asthma is also reiterated to excess, although that health issue does at least have relevance to the tale.  In my opinion, these elements slowed down what is, in essence, a very engaging story.
There were also many things I loved about this book.  Excellent coverage is given to Che’s family, not only his two wives and children, but also his parents and siblings.  Che Guevara was a lifelong diarist and a talented, published writer in his own right, and Anderson makes extensive use of Che’s own writings through frequent use of direct quotes.  This added a tremendous character to the book, as Che’s caustic humor shines through his diary entries.  By the end of the book I felt as if I knew the man, not just the ideologue.  Once past the Cuban Revolution, events in Che’s life were covered in a fast paced accounting.  Ironically, I enjoyed the back quarter of the book much more than the preceding pages about the most pivotal era of his life, largely because the narrative was tightened up, less in need of a good editor.  I also appreciated the wrap-up in which the author lets the reader know what became of many of the key players in Che’s life.
Whatever your personal political leanings and feelings regarding armed insurgency, this is a fairly unbiased, well-researched work which takes a very straight course in documenting not only the life of this complex man, but also the political temperament of many South and Central American countries during the 1950s and 1960s.  Many events which exploded in the region during the late 1970s through the 1990s have their genesis in events depicted in this accounting, making it good background for further reading on the area.  It is, however, regrettably bogged down in places, so I recommend it only to those with a large enough measure of interest in the topic to press through those sections.  For someone with a particular interest in the subject matter this would no doubt be a five star book.  For one with a casual interest, I would give it three and a half stars, which I rounded down to three, chiefly for lack of better editing.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

THE SILMARILLION by J.R.R. Tolkien ✰✰✰✰

One of my favorite aspects of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings books is the completeness of the world that he created.  I never cease to be amazed by the history and lore that infuse those books, such that the reader feels that they must surely be a true history of some people, somewhere.  Thus, The Silmarillion came as no surprise to me.  For most of his life, Tolkien kept hundreds of notebooks full of his imagined backstory about the inhabitants of Middle Earth, for his own fun and reference while writing, and on the assumption that someday he would pull them into publishable form.  After his death, his son, Christopher took on the task.

Parts of the beginning of the book read like the “begats” from the Old Testament of the Bible, listing a mind-blowing profusion of characters and their roles.  I would likely have tossed the book aside had it not been the monthly read for the high school club I supervise.  Then it would settle into a marvelous tale reminiscent of Nordic myth.  Only to stop again with a geographical study of such yawn-inducing detail that you could follow step by step on the kindly included map.  Only for my students did I persevere.  
After throwing so many names and places at you, and you should be so lucky as to only have to learn one name for each character and local-they all have at least two or three (Elves, Dwarves, and humans all give a single entity their own monikers in their own languages-for that matter, even those three races are given numerous names), Tolkien does bring it round to useful purpose in the end.  Keep in mind that there are maps, genealogical charts, and a complete list of characters in the back of the book, and press forward without worrying if you can not keep it all straight, because once past those sections, you are in for an adventure through the depths of Tolkien’s imagination.
The narrative hits its stride about a hundred pages in and carries the reader willingly along through the trials and triumphs of the various races and individuals. Christopher Tolkien did a masterful job of organizing his father’s writings; superb editing is apparent because the motivations and shifting allegiances are clearly delineated-despite the massive cast and histories of various peoples, I never felt lost in the shuffle.  
As you read The Silmarillion another side of Tolkien also takes shape in your mind.  In addition to the creator of fantastical worlds and tense plot lines, the theological and philosophical sides of the man become readily apparent within the souls of his characters.  I loved seeing the moral and ethical dilemmas into which he plunged his characters and watching how he resolved them, as it spoke volumes about the author’s personal thought processes.
As difficult as the first third of the book was to get through, I would definitely call it worth it for fans of The Lord of the Rings.  I look forward to revisiting those books with a new found knowledge of the “history” of the characters, as many things which are alluded to in The Ring are explained in The Silmarillion.  Fans of the trilogy will begin to recognize many familiar names and places as they near the end of The Silmarillion.  And the last two thirds of the book was sheer, epic adventure as only Tolkien can deliver.  The writing style was very interesting as well, very much in the style of Scandinavian myth and lore, and quite different from the style in which his other books were written.  
This is really not a book for those who disliked The Lord of the Rings, but a fun read for fans, or a great starting point for those who have yet to read the other books and would like to begin with a little back story.