Thursday, July 31, 2014

1356 by Bernard Cornwell (✰✰✰✰)

I haven’t read many of Cornwell’s novels, but every time I do I wonder why I don’t read more.  His books are fantastic.  Vivid characters that bring history to life, gripping plots, and writing that has you visualizing every epic moment.
This book has several plot lines that eventually converge at the Battle of Poitiers (in the year 1356, of course).  Edward III is King of England and Jean II is King of France; Gascony is English and the Scots are allied with the French in hopes of defeating the English with their help and and orchestrating the capture of the English king in order to exchange him for the Scottish King David, who is being held prisoner by the English. 

According to Shelfari, this novel has a whopping 187 characters, and managing that many people through more than one plot does get a bit confusing at times.  What keeps it in hand is the fact that you are dealing with a number of nationalities and church members and so have a way of sorting characters into more easily tracked groups.

Given the huge cast and intertwining plots, I might recommend doing this one in print.  However, the audio, narrated by Jack Hawkins, was outstanding.  This is the first audio in a very long time that I have not sped up; everything about this one was just perfect as is.  His voices and accents were a huge aid in separating characters from each other. 

The reason I docked this one a star was that I found it a bit difficult to keep track not only of all of the cast but also the number of plot threads running.  That said, I did manage a decent job of keeping up, despite knowing nothing about the characters (come to find out, this is a series--some of the characters, but not the plot lines, carry over from earlier books) and the historical events depicted.  I do not think that you need to read the earlier books to read this one, but I intend to go back and read the Grail Trilogy, as Thomas of Hookton was my favorite character (think Legolas in a different time and place) in this novel, and he is apparently the hero of those books.

I think this book will be enjoyed by most readers looking for a fast paced summer read with good historical fiction underpinnings.  

OF HUMAN BONDAGE by W. Somerset Maugham (✰✰✰)

I absolutely loved the first and only previous book by Maugham that I read, The Painted Veil, which was recommended to me by two friends who know my tastes quite well.  It had been my intention to make Razor’s Edge my next Maugham, but this one fit a monthly tag of books pertaining to orphans that an online reading group was doing for July, so I went with it.
Of Human Bondage follows the life of Philip Carey, who after being orphaned at a very young age is sent to live with an aunt and uncle, the latter of whom is a vicar in a small English village.  The novel is a Bildungsroman, following Philip as he grows and progresses through young adulthood, moving from vocation to vocation and through the foibles of passionate first loves.

Unfortunately, this one just didn’t have the same kind of emotional punch that The Painted Veil delivered for me.  I am willing to admit that some of my problem might have been that I did this one on audio and the other I actually read; the difference in format might have caused me to miss some of the lovely nuances of prose that I so loved in my first Maugham experience.  It really did seem to me that the beautiful phrasing that was such a hallmark of The Painted Veil was missing here.  Toward the end of the novel there were a couple of quotes that I thought I might have marked had the book been in print, but nothing like the stack of Post-Its that littered my copy of the other work.

Another issue that I had with this novel is that I didn’t care for any of the main characters.  Philip has an almost obsessive love affair with one young woman who I found nothing short of repugnant.  Maugham describes her as a brainless shrew, and Philip himself calls her a woman with no imagination or sense of humor.  I simply couldn’t buy that he would continue to be pulled into consorting with a woman whom even he uses more negative adjectives to describe than positive.  Given that the relationship was a pivotal one in the book, it made the whole arc of the plot a bit of an unrealistic stretch for me.

Overall the book was an interesting study between the sexes.  My reading friend, Mary, one of those who recommended a number of Maugham novels for me, told me to pay attention to how he treats his women.  While I didn’t notice much in The Painted Veil, I did notice in this one that there is either something weak or unpleasant about all of the female characters.  Not a single one was wholly likable.  I admit that flaws are what make characters real, breathe life into them, but some of these women seemed rather unredeemed by anything positive.

This is definitely not a plot driven novel.  It is above all a study of personal evolution, a rumination on how the company a young person keeps and environment in which they choose to abide affect the views they acquire and the path their life takes.

I am unsure as to whether or not reading the book in print would have overcome the issues that caused me not to rate this novel higher.  It was a marvelous, introspective look into the workings of one young life.  Unfortunately, I simply didn’t love the novel.  That ambiguous something that can take a deeply thoughtful novel and tip the scales over into enjoyable was just somehow missing for me.  The narration by Steven Crossley was more than adeptly managed.  I did listen to it at 1.25 speed, because it seemed a little on the slow side, but other than that, I think the audio kept me going through a book I might have really struggled to read on my own.

At twenty-seven hours of audio or roughly 650 pages in print, this book is not for someone looking for a quick read.  Neither its heft nor its content will appeal to most readers.  However, those who love very introspective character studies and a large and varied cast of supporting personalities will find in this novel, if not a five star new love, at least a thought provoking and enjoyable read.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

JOURNEY WITHOUT MAPS by Graham Greene (✰✰)

Off the top of my head I can only think of one other book that garnered a measly two stars from me, so you know I sincerely disliked this book.  Despite being a person who nearly always finishes a book once I start it, I was sorely tempted to drop this one many, many times.  The only reason I persevered with it was because the next book on my Africa list is Tim Butcher’s Chasing the Devil, which retraces Graham Greene’s journey through Liberia.  Butcher’s book has come highly recommended to me, so I didn’t want to drop both books, but the friend who recommended Chasing the Devil remarked that she wished she had read Greene’s book first.
The most irritating thing about Journey Without Maps was how negative Greene was about everything that he experienced.  I realize that travel through Africa is taxing both physically and mentally, but I felt that Greene exhibited a rather obnoxious inability to accept that when you choose to travel to certain corners of the globe life is not going to be as you knew it to be back home.  His journey was made during the waning days of British colonialism, and I often got the feeling that his views were perhaps colored by the attitudes of the time in which he lived.

Another major issue that I had with the book was the constant shifting from one topic to another.  Numerous times I would reread the preceding paragraphs, thinking that my mind must have wandered and caused me to miss a transition, only to discover that it was Greene’s mind doing the wandering, not mine.

To the author’s credit, there were stretches where the lovely, descriptive prose of Greene the novelist shone through.  Those were the places that saved me as I took months to slog through this relatively short travel narrative.  A couple of my favorite quotes:

“Their laughter and their happiness seemed the most courageous things in nature.  Love, it has been said, was invented in Europe by the troubadours, but it existed here without the trappings of civilization.”

“Once a beautiful little green snake moved across the path, upright, without hurry, bearing her bust proudly forward into the grasses like a hostess painted by Sargent, poisonous with gentility, a FabergĂ© jewel.”

Quite a bit of African culture is conveyed, but between the wandering style and the disdainful tone, it is a serious challenge to enjoy those tidbits of trivia and knowledge that would normally make such a travel log enjoyable.

There are very few people for whom I would recommend this book.  If you have an amazingly unsquelchable interest in colonialist attitudes or an unshakeable love of the minutia of African daily life and politics, then it might be worth a go.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

SALT: A WORLD HISTORY by Mark Kurlansky (✰✰✰✰)

This was one of those books that ended up on my To-Be-Read list (known as a TBR list in reader parlance) on a complete whim.  More than likely I read an intriguing review of it when my online reading group, Play Book Tag on Shelfari, had “Food” as the monthly tag from which members were to choose a read that month.  I then noticed it available on Overdrive, and it seemed fated.

Ill-fated according to my children, who could not understand why anyone would write a whole dang book about salt in the first place, and moreover, why they had to be subjected to it every time they came into the kitchen, their sister’s room, or a vehicle I happened to be driving.  One night my husband came home from work and the first thing out of our youngest’s mouth was, “Mom is stiiiilll listening to that salt book!”  More than once, however, I did catch my middle son actually paying attention.  I swear I heard him utter a “Huh!” at one point.  The book is a trivia lover’s dream; you will learn something new every time you read or listen, I guarantee it.  Sneaky how I educate my children, no?

In tracing this one element in its many forms, Kurlansky paints a cultural, economic, and political history, seamlessly flowing through chronology and geography from ancient times through the modern era.  One of the things that I loved is that the book is not just Euro-centric; the history is truly global.  Even those events with which the reader is likely quite familiar, such as the American Revolution, will unfold in a totally new fashion when seen from the perspective of these tiny little grains.

Food history is also explored, with the author sharing countless recipes from cookbooks contemporary to the time and place being discussed.  Honestly, food history does not exactly get my intellectual juices jazzed, but the tidbits shared were relevant, entertaining, and brief.

Kurlansky is not the most narrative of nonfiction writers, but he has a gift for story telling, and that takes what could be dry recitation of what is clearly an awesome feat of research and brings it to life.  Narrator Scott Brick’s natural tone and cadence were boring and slow, and I almost abandoned the endeavor but decided to try it at 1.25 speed.  Speeding up the pace of an audio not only picks up the pace (sometimes there is a downside and parts seem to be channelling the Chipmunks--not so with this audio, though), it also imbues a subtle change in the timbre of the reader’s voice.  Both elements worked advantageously in this case, creating a near perfect listening experience.  Although audio is not my favorite format for nonfiction, I absolutely recommend this one.

Surprisingly, I think this book will appeal to a fairly wide audience, whether you choose to read or listen.  Due to excellent editing, fascinating content, and linear structure the book rarely lags.  Lovers of science and history nonfiction will find the tome particularly appealing.

Saturday, July 5, 2014


Steven Johnson’s Ghost Map centers around a city (London, England), a doctor (John Snow), and a minister (Henry Whitehead) during the cholera epidemic that struck with particular virulence in a contained area of the city in 1854.  At that time, it was unknown how the disease was transmitted and why certain areas and people seemed to remain immune.  Dr. John Snow and minister Henry Whitehead performed groundbreaking, feet-on-the-ground research in the area in which they both lived and worked, on and around Broad Street, which forever changed the way cholera epidemics were managed in cities.  Dr. Snow was one of the first to chart victims on a map, leading to a clearer picture of where the inception of the epidemic might lie, and thus the title of the book.
The story of these two men and the people of Broad Street and its environs, which comprises about two-thirds of the book, was definitely the high point for me, although I felt that the book could have used tighter editing, as segments of information were repeated far too many times and stated statistics were refuted, often on same page.  For instance:
”There were four hundred people per acre in Soho in 1854, in London’s most densely populated neighborhood.  The Twin Towers sat on approximately one acre of real estate, and yet they harbored a population of 50,000 on a work day.”  And in the next paragraph: “Even if you could have hijacked an airplane back in John Snow’s day, you’d have been hard-pressed to find an area crowded enough to kill a hundred civilians on the ground.”
Not to mention within the book itself: ”In 1851, the subdistrict of Berwick Street..., with 432 people per acre. (Even with its skyscrapers, Manhattan today only houses around 100 per acre.)” 
Are we the reader supposed to catch the finely split hair of “workday” vs. “houses”?  Neither set of statistics is backed up by source information.
Despite the editing issues, the book remained a solid four star read for me until the final segment dealing with epidemic disease in the modern age.  While the 1854 segments were written with absolute objectivity, the latter half contained the pronoun “I” far too often for what is purported to be a serious work of science and history writing.  To say that Johnson turns the book into a platform to declare his personal views is not at all hyperbolic; I even used the word “rant” in my notes.

Without his annoying insertion of self into the sections on modern day cities and their infrastructure relative to bio-weapons and nuclear threat, they would have been far more thought provoking and relevant.  Not only did he interject his own views into the topic at hand, but some information often stretched the lines of connectivity to his subject to a snapping point.  For example, he spent considerable ink on environmental issues and global warming, defending cities as more sustainable than a similar population spread across a greater land area.  While his arguments were solid, this section strayed too far from the topic of the book and felt as if these are causes that the author cares deeply about and so wanted to somehow angle into his book.

In defense of the good things, the final third of the book wasn’t a total disaster.  There was a section on the modern challenges with cholera, which are exacerbated by the rising number of squatters: a billion today, with the possibility that by 2030, a quarter of world’s population will live in unplanned squatter settlements.  I was saddened to learn that primarily due to these settlements, 1.1 billion people lack access to clean drinking water and almost three billion (almost half the world’s population) are without basic sanitation elements such as toilets and sewers.

I cautiously recommend this one.  Johnson is a fairly vivid narrative writer, and that makes the story a gripping one.  Due to the editing issues, the book takes an interest in the subject sufficient to overcome the pacing and foibles that result.  Readers will need to realize too, that the last third of the book takes a dramatic swing in tone and regrettably often in topic.

Some favorite quotes:

“The history of knowledge conventionally focuses on breakthrough ideas and conceptual leaps.  But the blind spots on the map, the dark continents of error and prejudice, carry their own mystery as well.  How could so many intelligent people be so grievously wrong for such an extended period of time?  How could they ignore so much overwhelming evidence evidence that contradicted their most basic theories?”

“Families continue to perish together in the developed world, of course, but such catastrophes usually unfold over the space of seconds or minutes, in car accidents, and plane crashes or natural disasters.  But a family dying together, slowly, agonizingly, with full awareness of their fate--that is a supremely dark chapter in the book of death.”