What I have been reading…and reading…

I have been a fan of Science Fiction and Fantasy for most of my adult life (not a trivial span BTW) but had, so far, managed to avoid the mega book series that fantasy writers, especially, seem to regularly churn out.  Don’t get me wrong, some of these marathon reads have been very popular and supposedly well crafted.  It is just that I am basically lazy and I couldn’t bring myself to commit to them for the long haul.  Besides, there were plenty of wonderful stories that somehow found a way to end in the space of one volume.

Recently, however, I noticed that HBO was running a series based on the latest of these unending sagas, George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones .  Then one of my book club members mentioned that she had made it through the first four books ( a new one has just been released) and liked them a lot.  My curiosity was hopelessly peaked.  I picked up a really cheap used copy of the first book (just curious mind you) and started to read.  You can probably imagine the rest.  I am now midway through the third volume and feel that I have been reading this story for most of the year.  I usually wait until I have finished a book to post a review but I felt like I had better make this review an installment effort or I wouldn’t ever get it out.  If Mr. Martin can take 8 volumes to write his book, I should be able to write the review in several installments, don’t you think.

I must admit that Martin has structured his story in such a way as to maximize the level of interest.  It is a big story with a huge cast of characters scattered over a vast imaginary map.  The reader is soon made aware of the principals and of their relationship to one another but then their separate adventures scatter them to the four corners of their world so that each is basically grappling with their own  set of circumstances.  Each chapter jumps from one of these stories to the next with only occasional interaction between the main characters.  It feels like you are reading several, only slightly, related novels at once.  I am sure that the stories will all eventually lead to an integrated whole but that is many volumes away so, for now, the characters are all on their own.

I will update this review as I progress.  The novel is supposed to cover eight very fat volumes.  That doesn’t even count the HBO series that I probably have to view now.   It is quite the project and I am not sure I am up to the task to be honest.  I’ll keep you posted.

What I’m Reading

Given my love of history and for the game of baseball, it is not difficult to imagine what a sucker I am for a new Baseball History book.  John Thorn (of Total Baseball fame) has written a good one. “Baseball in the Garden of Eden:  The Secret History of the Early Game” is the title and the story, it turns out, is nearly as complicated as the book’s title.

Mr Thorn is clearly a Baseball scholar.  His references are deep and dense.  The notes at the end of the book take up nearly fifty pages.  He has, however, a confusing way of organizing his information that is not quite chronological and not quite categorical.   In the process he seems to do a lot of overlapping and repetition as he goes along.  The story might not be easy to stick with if you are not interested in the subject.

If you are interested in the subject, however, there is much to like.  He makes a good case for the New York game being a true beginning for the institution of American Baseball while at the same time poking holes in most of the existing mythology that surrounds it.  He very nearly labels the Abner Doubleday/Cooperstown myth a conspiracy.   I was quite taken by the Theosophist connection, never having before seen the story laid out in such detailed and damning terms.  I was fascinated by the early history of the professional leagues, teams and players.  I have heard some of these stories before but never in such a complete context.  I would easily recommend this book to a committed Baseball fan but I would hesitate to offer it in hopes of producing a new one.

What I’m Reading

The author of “Sea Biscuit,” Laura Hillenbrand, has a new book out and it is an amazing story.  The book is “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.”   The first part of the book follows the life of Louis Zamperini from a rocky childhood through to his unlikely participation, right out of high school,  in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  Then World War II came along and swept his country into war, and him into service to his country.  What followed was an unbelievable story of survival, first in the Pacific Ocean and then, in Japanese POW camps for the duration of the war.  Finally, the book recounted his difficult and frustrating adjustment to life after the war.  The book was one of those rare books that are both difficult to read and to put down.  I was enthralled with the story and took a new appreciation of the US war with Japan from it.  I would recommend this book to anyone but I would urge anyone to read it that is interested in understanding where our GI generation got its stuff.

What I’m Reading

The Zimmerman Telegram by Barbara Tuchman is one of those books that I wish I would have read a long time ago.  It was written in the ’50s and so I don’t have much of an excuse for not having read it before now.  The book takes place during World War I and it takes place among the most highly placed movers and shakers in the world at the time – Kings, Presidents, Chancellors and a stream of powerful diplomats, spies and politicos.  The incident that is described probably brought the United States into the war and therefore probably assured victory for the allies.  All in all a very critical moment in History.  The reason I wished I had read it earlier is that when I finished this book I had a completely different notion of what World War I was all about.

I had encountered many of the story’s characters in my prior reading and I had, of course, read about many of the ongoing WWI events surrounding the story but I had not ever read how all of the characters fit into the big picture and, in particular, how the United States was drawn in to the conflict.  The author did a beautiful job of laying out all of the details and building the story towards its astounding climax.  I am always amazed at how complicated international politics can be and the politics in time of war are probably the most frantic of all.  When it is all laid out  in front of you, as it is in this book, it is sometimes almost hard to believe. If you are wondering how Germany, Mexico, Japan and the United States are related in the context of World War I then you need to read this book.

What I’m Reading

I just finished reading The Whistling Season, by Ivan Doig, and I have to say I loved it.  In this book Mr. Doig manages to squeeze a maximum amount of reading pleasure out of a pretty simple story.  I must admit to a bit of a conflict of interest since the story centers on the trials of a family trying to scrape a living out of the Montana homesteading promise in the early 2oth century.  My fathers family made that same attempt and I was of course enthralled by the details that the book revealed in this regard.  Although it was a fictional setting, there was just enough history to keep me satisfied.  The goings-on in the one room school house that formed the backdrop for much of the story is a peek into a wonderful bit of lost Americana. But those details weren’t the only reason I liked it.  Mr. Doig honestly has a way with words.   The story was from the point of view of a 13 year old boy, as remembered by his adult self many years later and his voice was spot on.  I was never bored and  I think that I will be reading his more recent book soon, Work Song.

What I’m Reading

I probably wouldn’t have read “Three Cups of Tea,” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, if it weren’t a bookclub selection.  It is one of those books that I had classified (from the reviews and promotions) primarily as a puff piece and a hack job for Greg Mortenson and his projects.  I was right about its purpose and it was certainly not a masterpiece of literature, but I was wrong about it worthiness.

The book was truly inspiring.  Greg Mortenson has accomplished so much in his lifetime that it makes the rest of us, no matter how hectic our life seems, seem like real slackers in comparison.   He is one of those people who let a dream get out of hand and has devoted his whole life to a worthy but seemingly impossible goal.   His timing didn’t help.  Talk about being in the right place at the wrong time, he might be the model for that one.  Building schools in Afganistan and Pakistan in the midst of the “war on terrorism” pretty much takes the medal.

I would recommend this book to anyone.  In addition to the inspirational value, it also provides a gentle perspective into the war, we in the United States, find ourselves fighting.  I believe his approach is the right one and I wish him all the luck in the world but I can’t even imagine taking his place.

 

What I’m Reading

Bad Land, by Jonathon Raban, was one of those books that really hit a sensitive spot in my psyche.  The author was writing a story about a group of people, at a particular time and in a specific place.  I was reading it for my book club and, although I knew vaguely what it was about, it wasn’t until I was a ways into the book that I realized that the people he was talking about might as well have been my immediate ancestors.  The time was the early 20th Century and the people were the mass of hopeful immigrants (both American and foreign) who took advantage of the Homestead Law to settle Montana.  My father’s parents were among those immigrants, in their case American farmers from the mid-west, who came in search of a place of their own.  Needless to say, after I made the connection, I couldn’t put this book down. 

The book is ultimately about, not only the ones who arrived, but also about those that were disappointed and eventually left again.   My grandparent’s story ended up that way.   Eventually they ended up on the west coast where my parents met and most of the story of our family took place.  In all of the years I had been listening to the tales my family told, somehow, it had not sunken in that my grandparents were brought to Montana by the Homesteading fever like so many others at that time.  I have a very different view of my family’s history now and I am having to re-read a lot of the things I have collected for my genealogy work in that new light.

The book is well written and very personal in its style.  The author spent a lot of time in Montana recently and talked to the descendants of those Homesteaders.  It was touching to hear how much he found that had been abandoned and still sits where it was left, those many years ago.  It is a sad story but, unfortunately, a common one.  People can be easily persuaded to go almost anywhere if the reward is something for nothing.  Unfortunately, this time the payoff was closer to nothing than something. 

What I’m Reading

The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo, by Stieg Larrson, is a mystery novel set in Sweden.  Mystery novels are not my usual reading fare but occasionally I pick one up when I hear enough praise.  In this case I am glad I did.  I enjoyed the book very much and in spite of its gloomy settings and, lets face it, gruesome themes, I didn’t have any trouble staying with it.  The characters were interesting and the Swedish place names and cultural references gave it, for me anyway, a curious authenticity that it wouldn’t have had if it had been set in the States.  At times the plot shifts seemed a bit clumsy but, in most cases, the overall story managed to stay on track.The story manages to cram in high-tech cyberpunk hijinks, high-rolling big business maneuverings and the seamy side of 20th Century Swedish history into a modern story involving some of the odder, and in some cases down right creepy, characters of Swedish society.  Many of the best character relationships and plot twists take awhile to develop but it is definitely worth the wait.I liked the young, female, computer hacking character Salander. Apparently she will continue to play a big part in two follow-up novels (all three published posthumously by the way, which is an dramatic tale of it’s own) and I am looking forward to watching her character develop.  A movie of the book, in Swedish with subtitles, is now running in the art houses around town.  I think I am going to try to see it.

UPDATE (4/17):  I saw the movie today and it was a winner.  It stayed close to the storyline and the result was a knockout thriller with just enough gritty detail to lend a sense of authenticity to it all.  I loved the scenery and the mood perfectly matched my feeling from the book.  "The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo" was in Swedish w/subtitles but it didn’t detract much, if at all, from the storytelling.  Go see it and read the book first if you can. 

UPDATE 2 (4/20): In a fit of Stieg Larrson fever, I have now read the second book in the series, “The Girl Who Played with Fire.”  If anything it was better than the first book although it was a bit more chaotic and sometimes a little difficult to follow early on.  The character of Lizbeth Salander was more completely fleshed out and her heroic nature was solidified.  I can’t wait for the final book or, for that matter, the second movie. 

 

What I’m Reading

The Lost City of Z: An amazing book.  A true story of Loyal British subject Percy Fawcett, an explorer’s explorer in the early 20th Century, pursuing his vision of finding the remains of an advanced society in the heart of the Amazon jungle.  To no avail.   Late in life, scoffed at by his peers and with his eldest son in tow, he makes one last thrust into the interior of the Amazon forest, alas, never to be seen again.  But the story does not end.   Eighty five years later author David Grann follows in Fawcett’s footsteps and learns that Fawcett may have been right all along.  Good stuff, this.

I read that this book is being developed into a movie starring Brad Pitt.  I can’t wait.  As a true life Indiana Jones film I doubt if it will be used to enlighten the world on the latest findings in ancient South American archeology but you can never tell.  Either way it should be a fabulous romp in the forest. It would be nice to see Fawcett’s name restored to a higher level of respectability.

What I’m Reading

Half Moon:  Henry Hudson and the Voyage That Redrew the Map of the New World,”  by Douglas Hunter.   This was one of those books that expanded what had been, for me, a tiny footnote in Early American History into a full blown tale of intrigue and adventure.   It is really difficult to  ignore Henry Hudson’s contributions towards the  Discovery of the New World.   His name, after all, is featured as one of North America’s most famous rivers (The Hudson River) and as one of its biggest nautical features (Canada’s Hudson Bay).  But, other than those names and a faint memory of his crew’s mutiny, with him being set adrift and lost, I didn’t really have a very good notion of what he actually did as an explorer.  Thanks to Mr. Hunter, I now know more than I probably ever wanted to about his voyages of discovery and their political setting. The author made great use of his nautical knowledge to supplement an amazing amount of research in original documents and maps. If there was a problem it was the author’s, maybe excessive, enthusiasm regarding the supporting data to the extent that I found myself occasionally struggling to keep all of the events/references straight.