Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Page 59: Some Non-Fiction

Here are three examples of great non-fiction writing, one published in 1962 and two more recently.

The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman

This was originally published in 1962 and won the Pulitzer.  Since World War I started in 1914 we are currently one-hundred years beyond the horrors of this war, but not war itself.  The great leaders and generals of World War I, on both sides of the conflict, suffered from a similar hubris that infects our leaders today.   This is a classic.

Here is what you will find on Amazon when you search for The Guns of August.

"In this landmark, Pulitzer Prize–winning account, renowned historian Barbara W. Tuchman re-creates the first month of World War I: thirty days in the summer of 1914 that determined the course of the conflict, the century, and ultimately our present world. Beginning with the funeral of Edward VII, Tuchman traces each step that led to the inevitable clash. And inevitable it was, with all sides plotting their war for a generation. Dizzyingly comprehensive and spectacularly portrayed with her famous talent for evoking the characters of the war’s key players, Tuchman’s magnum opus is a classic for the ages."

Praise for The Guns of August

“A brilliant piece of military history which proves up to the hilt the force of Winston Churchill’s statement that the first month of World War I was ‘a drama never surpassed.’”Newsweek

“More dramatic than fiction . . . a magnificent narrative—beautifully organized, elegantly phrased, skillfully paced and sustained.”Chicago Tribune

“A fine demonstration that with sufficient art rather specialized history can be raised to the level of literature.”The New York Times

“[The Guns of August] has a vitality that transcends its narrative virtues, which are considerable, and its feel for characterizations, which is excellent.”The Wall Street Journal

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

We all learned in school about the Wright Brothers, and their first successful flights at Kitty Hawk in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  What we never learned was the full story of their grit and determination to succeed and the amazing mechanical ability they used to build the first successful piloted airplane.  This is an amazing story that fills in the gaps and reveals information that most of us never knew.  Here is what you will find on Amazon when you check on this book.

"Two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize David McCullough tells the dramatic story-behind-the-story about the courageous brothers who taught the world how to fly: Wilbur and Orville Wright.

On December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Wilbur and Orville Wright’s Wright Flyer became the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard. The Age of Flight had begun. How did they do it? And why? David McCullough tells the extraordinary and truly American story of the two brothers who changed the world.

Sons of an itinerant preacher and a mother who died young, Wilbur and Orville Wright grew up in a small side street in Dayton, Ohio, in a house that lacked indoor plumbing and electricity but was filled with books and a love of learning. The brothers ran a bicycle shop that allowed them to earn enough money to pursue their mission in life: flight. In the 1890s flying was beginning to advance beyond the glider stage, but there were major technical challenges that the Wrights were determined to solve. They traveled to North Carolina’s remote Outer Banks to test their plane because there they found three indispensable conditions: constant winds, soft surfaces for landings, and privacy.

Flying was exceedingly dangerous; the Wrights risked their lives every time they flew in the years that followed. Orville nearly died in a crash in 1908, before he was nursed back to health by his sister, Katharine, an unsung and important part of the brothers’ success and of McCullough’s book. Despite their achievement, the Wrights could not convince the US government to take an interest in their plane until after they demonstrated its success in France, where the government instantly understood the importance of their achievement. Now, in this revelatory book, master historian David McCullough draws on nearly 1,000 letters of family correspondence—plus diaries, notebooks, and family scrapbooks in the Library of Congress—to tell the full story of the Wright brothers and their heroic

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

Much like the story of the Wright Brothers, the sinking of the Lusitania as an historical event is known by most of us, but not the full story.  Erik Larson has written a fascinating account of what happened.  Here is what the Amazon page contains when you check on Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.

"From the bestselling author and master of narrative nonfiction comes the enthralling story of the sinking of the Lusitania

On May 1, 1915, with WWI entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. The passengers were surprisingly at ease, even though Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “Greyhounds”—the fastest liner then in service—and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack. 

Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger’s U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small—hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more—all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.

It is a story that many of us think we know but don’t, and Erik Larson tells it thrillingly, switching between hunter and hunted while painting a larger portrait of America at the height of the Progressive Era. Full of glamour and suspense, Dead Wake brings to life a cast of evocative characters, from famed Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat to pioneering female architect Theodate Pope to President Woodrow Wilson, a man lost to grief, dreading the widening war but also captivated by the prospect of new love. 

Gripping and important, Dead Wake captures the sheer drama and emotional power of a disaster whose intimate details and true meaning have long been obscured by history."

If you haven't read these books, get busy.  They will add to your knowledge of real history.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Page 58: Some Recommndations

It has been awhile since my last post so I thought it might be helpful to list some of the books I have read since then.  Instead of the usual one book at a time with my comments, I plan to write some posts each with three to five books worth reading.  Check them out and let me know if you read any of them.

Here is the first list, in no special order, with a few comments:

  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins starts out slowly, but pulls you in as you go deeper into the story.  The amazing twists and surprises are well worth the ride with this novel.
  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell has been made into a movie, but I am not sure if any movie could do justice to the book.  This book is a series of stories or tales that begin with Adam Ewing, an American lawyer, crossing the Pacific in 1850.  Then a subsequent series of stories are told, each reaching a certain point, but not concluded.  The author then goes back and finishes each of the stories.  His unique method of telling a story is well worth it. 
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is a fine work of literature that begins with a mother and her son, Theo Decker, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the way to an appointment.  A terrorist explosion kills his mother and changes the course of Theo's life.  His future becomes linked to a famous Dutch painting, an antiques dealer, a friend's wealthy family, and his father who abandoned Theo and his mother several years before.  This novel won the Pulitzer and is being made into a movie.  I believe it is one of the best novels in recent years.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Page 57: The Yellow Birds

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers is a powerful novel about the Iraq War written by a soldier who has been there.  Tom Wolfe considers this book "The All Quiet on the Western Front of Ameria's Arab wars."  This is a story about friendship and loss involving Privates Bartle and Murphy.  Private Bartle promises Murphy's mother he will protect her son and bring him home alive, a promise their hardened Sergeant Sterling never ceases berating Bartle for making.

As their war unfolds in Al Tafar, Iraq we are witnesses to their story as narrated by Private Bartle.  Even though the story is primarily about the relationship between Bartle and Murphy the other themes of this war become part of the narrative.  These include the proponents of going to war, the neocons and their supporters, sending young soldiers into battle when they themselves managed to avoid military service during the Vietnam War.  There is the colonel who visits their unit accompanied by the media so he has a record of his war.  He leaves with an apology that although he will not be able to lead them into action the next morning, he will be monitoring the battle from his position in the rear.

The war is not glorious, heroic, or even being fought for a good reason.  The professional military personnel fighting the war are there to survive and protect each other while doing the job they have been trained to perform.  They do it well, but many of them pay the ultimate price.  The opening sentence of the book sets the tone.  "The war tried to kill us in the spring."  The next paragraph opens with "Then, in summer, the war tried to kill us as the heat blanched all color from the plains."  In a prophetic note this paragraph began with "We hardly noticed a change when September came.  But I know now that everything that will ever matter in my life began then."

This is one of the finest first novels you will read.  Not only is the writing top notch, it should be award winning.  Whatever our feeling about war and especially about our Arab wars in Iraq and Afganistan, this book must be read.  It captures not only the horror of war and its effect on those who fight it, but also on families and loved ones back home.

Here are some comments from other writers:

"The Yellow Birds is harrowing, inexplicably beautiful, and utterly, urgently necessary."  (Ann Patchett)

"The minute I read Kevin Powers's marvelous first sentence, I knew I was in the hands of an exceptional writer.  That line is right up there with 'Call me Ishmael.'  The best books transcend their time and circumstances to say something enduring and truthful about war itself.  The Yellow Birds belongs in that category." (Philip Caputo)

"Reading The Yellow Birds I became certain that I was in the presence of a text that will win plaudits, become a classic, and hold future narratives of the war to a higher standard . . . a superb literary achievement." (Chris Cleave)

I can't imagine any thoughtful person reading this book and finding it lacking.  This is a classic!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Page 56: Winter of the World

Winter of the World by Ken Follett is the second  book in his new Century Trilogy.  The first was Fall of Giants that followed several families in various countries from the pre-World War I era to the aftermath of the war.  Follett continues his genius of incorporating a large number of characters in an epic narrative that brings history down to the human level.  His characters include upper class  British, Welsh coal miners, German diplomats, Russian revolutionaries, American politicians and numerous other characters that populate both novels.

Winter of the World continues the narrative of the characters introduced in Fall of Giants including the next generation.  Follett writes about the rise of the Nazis in Germany and how it affected those that opposed Hitler as well as those who welcomed the violence, anti-semitism, and paganism with open arms.  The heady success of Hitler and his gang as portrayed in this book should  make any normal reader angry and disgusted with the Nazis and their excesses.  The brutality toward their fellow Germans and the banality of the evil embodied by Hitler and the Nazis is revealed through the experiences of the characters in this novel.

In addition to the Germans, events from the American, British, and Russian viewpoints are presented as well. Ken Follett has painted a broad and detailed landscape of this era.  The characters are real, they bring the era to life, and make history more real on the human level than most textbooks or academic papers could ever manage to accomplish.  So much happens in this second book, as did in the first, that you must pay attention as the plot speeds along from the 1930's to World War II and then into the post-war era.  This is more than just a novel, it is a learning experience.

Here is  a review from Amazon:

"Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants, the first novel in his extraordinary new historical epic, The Century Trilogy, was an international sensation, acclaimed as “sweeping and fascinating, a book that will consume you for days or weeks” (USA Today) and “grippingly told and readable to the end” (The New York Times Book Review). “If the next two volumes are as lively and entertaining as Fall of Giants,” said The Washington Post, “they should be well worth waiting for.”

Winter of the World picks up right where the first book left off, as its five interrelated families—American, German, Russian, English, Welsh—enter a time of enormous social, political, and economic turmoil, beginning with the rise of the Third Reich, through the Spanish Civil War and the great dramas of World War II, up to the explosions of the American and Soviet atomic bombs.
Carla von Ulrich, born of German and English parents, finds her life engulfed by the Nazi tide until she commits a deed of great courage and heartbreak. . . . American brothers Woody and Chuck Dewar, each with a secret, take separate paths to momentous events, one in Washington, the other in the bloody jungles of the Pacific. . . . English student Lloyd Williams discovers in the crucible of the Spanish Civil War that he must fight Communism just as hard as Fascism. . . . Daisy Peshkov, a driven American social climber, cares only for popularity and the fast set, until the war transforms her life, not just once but twice, while her cousin Volodya carves out a position in Soviet intelligence that will affect not only this war—but the war to come.
These characters and many others find their lives inextricably entangled as their experiences illuminate the cataclysms that marked the century. From the drawing rooms of the rich to the blood and smoke of battle, their lives intertwine, propelling the reader into dramas of ever-increasing complexity.As always with Ken Follett, the historical background is brilliantly researched and rendered, the action fast-moving, the characters rich in nuance and emotion. With passion and the hand of a master, he brings us into a world we thought we knew, but now will never seem the same again."

If you have never read a novel by Ken Follett you are in for a great reading experience with the first two books of the Century Trilogy.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Page 55: The Panther

Nelson DeMille brings back the husband and wife team of John Corey and Kate Mayfield in another terrorist related plot.  This time they are sent to Yemen to find a terrorist called the Panther.  The Panther is an American Jihadist whose family originated in Yemen, emigrated to America, and settled in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.  The Panther has returned to Yemen as a member of Al Qaeda to raise havoc with the Yemeni government and infidels who dare to visit the country.

This is no simple plot.  John and Kate find Yemen to be quite complicated and very dangerous.  Nearly every male carries an AK-47 and the women adhere to the strict Muslim tradition of not being heard or seen..  This provides some complications for Kate, but they are dealt with the best she is able.  Many of the embassy staff who venture outside the protection of the embassy compound wear Kevlar vests and carry weapons.  Yemen is no ordinary country.  John continues to wise crack his way through the course of the book and provides much needed comic relief.  If you have read any of the previous books John and Kate have appeared in such as The Lion you get the idea.  I read/listened to the book on the Audible version narrated by Scott Brick.  He does a great John Corey as well as the other characters.  I think they are portrayed more realistically than may be accomplished in the printed version.  Of course, this is a matter of preference for the reader and all of us have our own preferences

There is plenty of action from the arrival of John and Kate at the airport in Sana'a to the finale.  One of the characters is Buck who works in intelligence for the State Department.  Buck has done his research on Yemen, been there before, and provides a running travelogue that results in many unspoken thoughts and spoken words from the irreverent John Corey.  John is a wise guy, but one you want on your team when going after the bad guys.

Here is a summary of the plot from Amazon Books:

"Anti-Terrorist Task Force agent John Corey and his wife, FBI agent Kate Mayfield, have been posted overseas to Sana'a, Yemen-one of the most dangerous places in the Middle East. While there, they will be working with a small team to track down one of the masterminds behind the USS Cole bombing: a high-ranking Al Qaeda operative known as The Panther. Ruthless and elusive, he's wanted for multiple terrorist acts and murders-and the U.S. government is determined to bring him down, no matter the cost. As latecomers to a deadly game, John and Kate don't know the rules, the players, or the score. What they do know is that there is more to their assignment than meets the eye-and that the hunters are about to become the hunted.

Filled with breathtaking plot turns and told in John Corey's inimitable voice, THE PANTHER is a brilliant depiction of one of the most treacherous countries in the world and raises disturbing questions about whether we can ever know who our enemies - or our allies - really are."

I think this is one of the best John Corey and Kate Mayfield books by DeMille.  Read it and let me know if you agree or not.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Page 54: The House of Silk

Sherlock Holmes is back and as good as ever.  The Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd. has authorized Anthony Horowitz to write a new Sherlock Holmes novel.  The House of Silk returns the reader to Victorian London with all of its wealth, poverty, and crime.  Sherlock and Dr. Watson are back, and as brilliant as ever.

Watson is writing this as his last Sherlock Holmes story while living in an assisted care facility after World War I.  Holmes has died and Watson misses him terribly.  The story he writes is of such a sensitive nature that he has given orders that it not be published until long after his death.  He wants it published in a future age that will be able to deal with the depraved nature of the events that reached into the highest levels of English society and government.  I guess the second decade of the twenty-first century may be seen as a most fitting time for the publication.

The setting is London in the winter of 1890.  The weather is cold, foggy, and filled with the smells of Victorian London--smoke, soot, horse manure, garbage, unwashed bodies, and good old dirt.  I dare say if you picked up this book and the author was listed as Conan Doyle you would not be able to tell the difference unless you were a die hard Sherlock Holmes fan.  The story is that good. Holmes is in his intellectual prime as a detective and amazes everyone with his deductive ability based on clues he easily sees, but others do not.

Watson refers to both the adventures of The Man in the Flat Cap and The House of Silk in this story.  In the Preface to the book he writes: "They (sic) were, in some respects, the most sensational of Sherlock Holmes's career but at the time it was impossible for me to tell them, for reasons that will become abundantly clear."  After you read this you will know what he means.

The book has all the hallmarks of a Sherlock Holmes story as well as the characters.  There is, of course, Holmes and Watson, 221 B Baker Street, Inspector Lestrade, and Mrs. Hudson.  Watson even recounts how he met Sherlock Holmes by chance through a mutual acquaintance.

This book is very good!  If you like the Sherlock Holmes novels of Conan Doyle you must read this one.  Once again "The game's afoot."

Monday, April 2, 2012

Page 53: A Song of Ice and Fire Continued

On Page 51 I reviewed the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones, and promised more.  I must confess I have been reading a lot since my last post, but have not written about them.  I hope to catch up a bit in this one.

I have now read the first five books in the series: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons.  This is not the end.  Two more books are scheduled to complete this seven book series.  The last two are: The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring to be published at some future date.  Those of you who have read any or all of these know they are long books, but well worth the journey.  In fact, they are so long that it requires two credits to purchase them from Audible.  I have not used Audible for any of the books and some of my friends tell me this is a mistake.

The mythical world of Westeros and all the other lands in this series are set in a medieval-like world that is thousands of years old.  It is as if the characters are trapped in a version of the Middle Ages, but a unique one that includes magic, dragons, giants, mammoths, skin changers, and an Ice Age version of the walking dead.  The plots and sub-plots continue to play out chapter by chapter and book by book using the perspective of one character for each chapter.  I think this is a good technique, but sometimes it gets confusing since the author, George R. R. Martin, does not write in a linear time frame.  There are so many characters and houses (families) that two books will occur within the same time period, but deal with different characters in each book.

These books are subtle in their plotting yet contain a great deal of brutality and bloodshed.  Some of the best characters are multidimensional.  For example, some I considered more evil than good early in the series reveal themselves to have a good side later in the series.  I don't want to be a spoiler, but be prepared for some of your favorites to be killed off by the author.  This is my one criticism of this series.  I don't like the author's penchant for killing off characters I have come to like reading about.  In spite of this, A Song of Ice and Fire is a great series.  It is very broad in scope, ambitious in the number and crafting of characters, has outstanding plots and sub-plots, and is a great read.  I still think it is one of the few series in this genre that compares with Tolkien.  I'm still liking this series and can't wait for the next two books to come out.  If you have not read any of these books, what are you waiting for? If you have started the series, keep going.  George R. R. Martin is a genius and he never fails to surprise and entertain the reader in the first five books of the series.