Reviews

Review: Balkan Ghosts by Robert D. Kaplan

I picked up Balkan Ghosts because I was interested in the subject matter, and I hadn't read anything by Robert D. Kaplan before this. It's interesting that this book was published in the "Vintage Departures" series because it might not have occurred to me that this book is a travelogue, even though Kaplan does spend much of the book on rickety trains and in decrepit hotels throughout the Balkans. So unmethodical are his travels that "travelogue" seems a misnomer. Nonetheless, Kaplan's descriptions of the Balkans just months after the fall of Communism are illuminating. At every turn, he is digging up hidden details unseen by Western eyes during the decades of communism. Through the shattered republics of Yugoslavia he travels, then on to Romania, Bulgaria and Greece. Kaplan imbues the book with an impressive amount of historical context, going to great lengths to avoid the generalizations that are more typically employed to explain the seemingly perpetual strife of the Balkans. The book was published in 1995, the mid-point of a bloody decade in the Balkans, and it contains a good deal of forewarning of what was to come to pass in the region in the coming years. In this sense the book is impressive in a third way. Beyond a travelogue, beyond a regional history, Balkan Ghosts is the rare "current events" book that will not soon become obsolete.
Reviews

A Review of Brotherly Love by Pete Dexter

I bought Brotherly Love, a discounted, yet signed, copy from the remaindered section of the bookstore where I used to work. At the time I was enamored by Pete Dexter, whose books Train and Paris Trout I had recently read. Both of those books are spare and menacing, at times brutally violent, but done in a masterful way. Brotherly Love is like those books, but to call the book spare is an understatement. Dexter takes his time - most of the book, really - fleshing out the main characters, cousins Peter and Michael Flood from a Philadelphia gangster family. As the plot slowly develops - or comes to a boil, one might say - it becomes clear that Peter wants out. But of course, Michael and his band of hoods keep dragging him back in. In Brotherly Love, Dexter doesn't quite plumb the emotional depths of his characters as he does so effectively in Paris Trout and Train, and the reader is left with a book that feels empty and characters that feel doomed from page one.
Reviews

Generations of Winter by Vassily Aksyonov

Generations of Winter was originally conceived as a mini-series for PBS, but when the project was shelved, Vassily Aksynov's publisher convinced him to make a novel out of the project. The novel was published in the US in 1994, and 10 years later, in late 2004, a mini-series based on the novel made it to Russian television where it was a resounding success. Considering the subject matter, the success of Generations of Winter in Russia must represent a difficult acknowledgement of the horrors of Soviet history which remain unmarked by monuments and for which the government has never officially apologized. Aksyonov is writing from firsthand knowledge when his characters are hauled off in the middle of the night by NKVD agents. Aksyonov's mother, Evgenia Ginzburg, was sent to the camps when he was five, and he joined her in exile in Siberia when he was 16. He followed in his mother's footsteps as a writer as well. Ginzburg is well-known for her memoirs of the gulag and exile, Journey into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind. Many reviewers have described Generations of Winter as a War and Peace for the 20th century. Aksyonov's book is a sprawling, multi-generational tale set between the years 1925 and 1945. It centers on the Gradov family, lively members of the Moscow elite whose lives are shattered by purges, torture and war. Generations of Winter is a historical novel at heart. It's pages are populated by real historical figures, most notably Stalin, who mingle with the fictional Gradovs. Though the book's subject matter is difficult, the Gradov's shine, and the narrative is breathtaking in its scope.
Reviews

Naked in Baghdad by Anne Garrels and In the Company of Soldiers by Rick Atkinson

As the war in Iraq commenced what seems like ages ago with the frenetic coverage of embedded reporters and the televised firefights, I remember looking forward to reading some of the books that would inevitably come out of this media frenzy. In the nearly two years since there have been many of these books, some good and some bad. I recently read a couple of them. Actually I listened to Naked in Baghdad by NPR correspondent Anne Garrels on the long drive from Chicago to New York. The audiobook is read by Garrels and her husband Vint Lawrence. Garrels' strong, familiar voice added a lot to the experience. Though Garrels was one of just a handful of American journalists to stay in Baghdad during the run-up to war, the political and military machinations going on around her are just one element of the book. The meat of the book is devoted to her personal relationships with her fellow journalists, minders, drivers, and the myraid Iraqi officials who spent the regime's final days collecting bribe money. As an inside look into the harrowing life of a war correspondant, the book is brilliant, filled with menacing bad guys and explosions that are way too close for comfort. But Garrels is at her absolute best as she delves into the backroom politics of the world of the macho foreign correspondant. She revels in the fact that American television left Baghdad before the war, leaving only an old school contingent of print reporters to cover the invasion from the capital. She pulls no puches as she berates CNN's arrogance and Geraldo Rivera's foolishness. Her demand is for professionalism over sensationalism.Most journalists were forced by uncertainties in Baghdad to cover the war by embedding with American units as they invaded Iraq. Rick Atkinson was one of these embedded journalists, and his book, In the Company of Soldiers tells the story of his time with the Army's 101st Airborne Division. Aside from his duties with the Washington Post, Atkinson is also a military historian of some repute (his World War II book An Army at Dawn won a Pulitzer in 2003) and it shows. He is interested most in the tactics employed during the invasion and in the commanders who implemented them. Where Garrels delivers portraits of shady Iraqi bureaucrats and flamboyant European journalists, Atikinson's narrative is tied to Major General David Petraeus, a no-nonesense military man. The 101st, and Atkinson along with them, saw their share of action during those early days, but much of what transpired during those first weeks feels like a footnote -- or ancient history -- compared to all that has happened since. The most interesting parts of the book are the most personal. Atkinson's daily struggles against the harshness of the desert and the austerity of military life shine far more brightly than the methodical movements of the troops he travelled with. Both books take the US to task for fouling up the aftermath of the invasion, but where Garrels' concerns seem to arise from her daily interactions with Iraqis, Atkinson's epilogue seems hastily tacked on, an attempt to save the book from being made irrelevant by the nasty turn that this war has taken.RELATED: In October I met Anne Garrels, and I met Rick Atkinson in October 2003.
Reviews

My review of The Founding Fish by John McPhee

Have you ever wondered why someone doesn't write a really interesting book about shoemakers or Idaho or health inspectors? When I worked at the bookstore I used to get questions like this all the time. Usually, I was forced to stare blankly for a moment before performing a futile search on the computer. But every once in while, someone would ask, "Are there any really good books about the geology of North America?" And my eyes would light up and I would say, "Yes!" The same was true if they asked for books about merchant marines, Alaska, or canoes. John McPhee has the ability - which I prize as a reader - to write engagingly about any subject, and Founding Fish is no exception. In this case, the subject is the American Shad. The fish is prized by anglers and gourmands and pops in and out of American history. But this is not "the cultural history of American Shad" (are we tired of these "cultural history of..." books yet?") Instead he weaves history with science as well as plenty of personal observation. The myriad digressions are like seams of precious metal. McPhee's world is populated with fascinating characters - ichthyologists, shad dart makers, and a seine fisherman from the Bay of Fundy. If you have a taste for non-fiction and would like a book that is diverting and pleasurable (rather than "hard-hitting" and topical) try reading John McPhee.Spotted on the el: The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin ThomasonNew list: The Economist best of the year.
Reviews

My review of The Devil in the White City by Erik Larsen

I'm a big fan of narrative-style history books, and it's always fun to see a heavily researched piece of history that floats along like a novel. The problem with Erik Larsen's The Devil in the White City is that it fails, at times, to feel like a strong account of historical events. The book follows two and a half storylines that intertwine, if only geographically, but never intersect. The backdrop is the World's Fair held in Chicago in 1893, a now forgotten event that transfixed the world at the time. Daniel Burnham is the renowned architect of the Fair, beset by meddlers and bureaucrats; H. H. Holmes, whose torturous schemes are at times hard to fathom in their cruelty, is a serial killer who haunts Chicago during the Fair; and Patrick Prendergast, to whom the book only gives over two dozen or so pages, is an increasingly delusional man whose obsession with Chicago's showy political scene leads to tragedy. The plotlines in the book are fascinating, both because Larson lends them a cinematic flair and because there is a continual sense of wonder that history has managed to forget such vibrant characters. Despite, or perhaps because of, Larsen's ability to craft such a readable story, the book does inspire some raised eyebrows at times. A scan through the notes at the end of the book reveals the times when Larsen speculates about his characters in the absence of hard facts. While I don't necessarily disagree with this practice, these moments in the book tend to feel transparent. Likewise, the structure of the book is a bit flimsy as the three characters within share little but being in the same city during the same period of time, and the strenuous effort put forth by Larsen to connect these three characters tends to detract from the stories themselves, as each character is certainly worthy of his own book (even the poor, bewildered Prendergast). Despite these flaws, the book was still a delight to read, especially on my daily rides on Chicago's elevated trains which still snake through the city as they did when the World's Fair was held here in 1893.
Reviews

East of Eden: An Appreciation

I've crossed another classic off of my "to read" list, and boy am I happy I read this one. This was pure satisfaction from start to finish. John Steinbeck's East of Eden is an amazing book that embodies the intersection of literary weightiness and readability. There are plenty of epics out there that span generations: Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds or Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits, for example. Those books are a joy to read and you can luxuriate in the authors' virtuosity as characters are added to weaving storylines, but East of Eden seemed to have more weight to it. Unlike many epics, which seem to thrive on love, unrequited or forbidden, Steinbeck's book focuses on the struggles of brothers seeking their father's admirmation. From the title alone, it is obvious that this notion is Biblical, and the book's Biblical quality becomes its center. For the first time in a very long time, I did not rush through the book's last chapters, eager to get to my next conquest. I felt that pang that you sometimes get when you finish a truly magnificent book, the pang that is part sadness at the experience of reading the book being over and part a feeling of that book permanently lodging itself in your memory to be drawn from and remembered with reverence. There are, I think, very few books that can produce this sublime reading experience, but East of Eden is on that short list.
Reviews

My Thoughts on The Singing by C.K. Williams

When I was in college, I became excited about some poets, Frank O'Hara, Tennyson, C.K. Williams, and some others. This interest stemmed from a poetry class and from hanging around too much in the local used book store. But I've never been grasped by poetry, there's something too arbitrary about it for me. Still, Some poems by Williams in the New Yorker piqued my interest and I picked up his collection, The Singing, which went on to win the National Book Award. There are handful of very moving poems in this collection. Williams' best poems are grounded by concrete imagery, and they are engagingly anecdotal. But there are too many poems in this book that aren't tethered to earthly things at all, and it is difficult for the reader to reach them. He writes engagingly about growing old and about war. The best in the collection is called "The Hearth." It can be found here.
Reviews

A Review of The Outlaw Sea by William Langewiesche

Thanks to our friend Edan, who is well-connected in the world of audio books, Mrs. Millions and I had a 6 cd, seven and half hour, unabridged work of literature to keep us company on our recent trip from Chicago to New York, where we're picking up the dog, and various of our far flung possessions. The Outlaw Sea was a riveting work of non-fiction by an accomplished reporter. Langewiesche is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and has written several books that combine hard reportage with the more ephemeral qualities of a travel writer. In this case, Langewiesche's goal is to illustrate with bold examples the ungovernability of the sea. For him, this is a law of nature, but it is also a consequence of the inability of the laws of men to deal with sea's expanses. His case studies, if you will, are many, but he spends the most time on a few memorable stories: the modern day pirate attack on the Alondra Rainbow in 1999; the post-apocalyptic landscape of the world's most heavily trafficked ship graveyard, the beaches of Alang, India; and the wreck of the ferry Estonia on which at least 852 people died when it went down in a storm in the Baltic Sea in 1994. The subtext in all of these stories is that the tragedies contained within are, at least partly, a result of the inability of modern societies to govern the seas. The greater implication, as Langewiesche makes clear, is that such lawlessness and statelessness make the sea fertile for the operations of lawless, stateless terrorists. The sea is everywhere, but it is nowhere in the eyes of the law. These timely concerns, and Langewiesche's sturdy prose elevate a book of riveting tales of disasters at sea to a book of more weighty importance.
Reviews

A Review of Last Train to Memphis by Peter Guralnick

I'm not particularly drawn to biographies, and certainly not music biographies, but I make exceptions for Elvis. I was also swayed because I have heard Peter Guralnick's books praised many times. Most satisfying about Last Train to Memphis, volume one of Guralnick's two volume biography of Elvis Presley, was Guralnick's ability to humanize his subject. The persona of Elvis, years after his death, is such a caricature, even a joke, that it can be hard to remember that there was a real, living, breathing person named Elvis Presley. The book contained what were, for me, some fantastic revelations. For one, Elvis was nearly done in when he was a youngster, not by the difficulties of his quest for fame, but by the swiftness with which it arrived. In a year's time, he went from being a nobody to being one of the most recognizable faces in the country, a man whose presence literally caused riots whenever he appeared in public. For Elvis, it was a major struggle simply to adjust to this new life. Television documentaries and magazine articles often mention in passing that Elvis' music and persona caused quite a stir, moral outrage even, when he appeared on the scene in the 1950s. Such stories sound quaint and exaggerated in this day and age, but with the context provided by Guralnick, I was able to see how groundbreaking Elvis really was, both musically and socially. Finally, I was enthralled by Guralnick's portraits of Elvis' supporting cast, quirky characters like Elvis' mother Gladys, his manager Colonel Tom Parker, and the guy who gave him his first big break, Sam Phillips. The book rekindled my love, as it surely will rekindle yours, for the early days of rock and roll, and it left me with a serious hankering to read volume two of the biography, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley sometime real soon.