Archive for July, 2012

The Road / Cormac McCarthy

In this post-apocalyptic novel, a father and his son flee south as winter approaches.  All of their possessions are contained in a grocery cart.  The countryside is desolate, its ruins a testimony to what has been lost in the catastrophe.  The landscape they travel through is lifeless, devoid of wildlife or greenery, and the few people left alive are either armed and dangerous or wary of chance encounters with strangers.  What I most enjoyed about this story is its simplicity.  McCarthy does not attempt to explain what has happened to bring the world to this state.  There are almost no other characters introduced but the father and son.  The dialogue between them is monosyllabic.  It is a love story that speaks volumes without declaration.  How does one continue to survive in a world bereft of hope?  As McCarthy shows here, hope is sustained by devotion and continuing on because of the other.  While it is a dark topic, the violence that has wracked the world is mostly implied rather than shown first hand.  The story McCarthy presents has a raw emotional pull, an intensity that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.  But it is the extraordinary tenderness between father and son that makes the book so special.  The vocabulary used by the author is often biblical and hauntingly eloquent.  While others writers have tackled the theme of a post-apocalyptic world, few have done so as successfully as this.  McCarthy takes the reader down “the road” without a single misstep.

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The Routes of Man : How Roads Are Changing The World And The Way We Live Today / Ted Conover

Conover is a journalist who often becomes an active participant in the subcultures he is writing about.  Here, he explores six areas around the world to show how roads bind our globe and transform landscapes and the lives of people who use them.  It is an ambitious undertaking.  The author travels to Peru, East Africa, the West Bank, India, China, and ends with a visit to Lagos, Nigeria.  In each country, he embeds himself among the locals and presents a captivating picture of the culture and its inhabitants.  While he touches upon the positives and negatives new roadways have brought the country he visits, the book is  mostly a travelogue that focuses on people met along the way.  That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does not come close to living up to the promise of its subtitle.  What Conover writes about makes for an entertaining read.  His stories contain empathetically drawn characters and he has a marvelous eye for detail.  Unfortunately, the promise of its title falls far short in the delivery.  Readers beware.

Scrapers

In comparison,
smaller than the next generation,
this one seems squat.
It merely “approaches” the heavens.

Well-endowed and
preserved with care in middle age,
that one is elegant.
It has always worn a tiara of clouds.

Sleekly ethereal,
towering imperiously over others,
another is mostly glass.
All surface, it dazzles in sunlight.

But majestic forests,
history proves, are vulnerable to
bolts out of the blue.
Any tree tempts a capricious sky.

The Man Who Killed Rasputin : Prince Felix Youssoupov And The Murder That Helped Bring Down The Russian Empire / Greg King

December 1917 found Russia in desperate straits.  An advancing German military offensive was overwhelming the country’s ill equipped army.  The tsar was at the front and out-of-touch with the chaotic political situation throughout Russia.  In St. Petersburg, seat of the government, officials were caught up in a game of “musical chairs.”  Tsarina Alexandra, the empress and the person most thought to  be running the country, refused to acknowledge the impending threat of social unrest.  Worse still, she had fallen under the spell of Grigori Rasputin, a simple peasant with supposed spiritual gifts.  He had won the devotion of the tsarina because of is seeming ability to stop the hemophilic attacks suffered by her son, the young tsarevich.  Rasputin also had a dark side, associated with drunken debauchery, corruption, and sexual licentiousness.  Many in the country’s ruling elite feared his power and felt he needed to be forcibly removed from the scene.  Among them was the twenty-seven year old Prince Felix Youssoupov.  His family was the second wealthiest family in all of Russia.  On December 16, 1917, he lured Rasputin to his palace in St. Petersburg for a midnight meeting.  There, along with a small band of conspirators, he clumsily murdered the peasant.  The prince was a known bisexual and some have speculated that he had led Rasputin on with the suggestion of a possible romantic tryst.  King does an excellent job in retelling this historical event and brings to light new revelations of what happened that night at the palace.  As a result, the first half of this biography captured my full attention.  Unfortunately, after the murder and the Revolution that took place shortly after, Youssoupov’s life was not nearly as interesting; this makes for some rather dull reading in the second half.  For the rest of his years, the prince would be known for just one thing, being the man who killed Rasputin.  I also have a small quibble with the book’s subtitle.  As King himself points out, whether Rasputin had lived or not, the Russian Empire was well on its way to collapse before that fateful December evening.  The murder of Rasputin makes for a fascinating story, but it was hardly a game changer.

2666 / Roberto Bolano

Bolano was born in Chile but lived much of his adult life in Mexico and Spain.  He spent the last years of his life trying to complete this opus.  Unfinished, 2666 was published posthumously, its five separate parts issued in a single volume.  Clocking in at 900 dense pages, this is not a “light” book, figuratively or literally.  Each of its five parts can be considered a separate book, but there is a uniting theme.  All of the major characters in these stories are drawn to the same location: Ciudad Juarez (renamed Santa Teresa by the author), at the edge of the Sonora Desert in northern Mexico.  This town has been the real life scene of  the unsolved murders of hundreds of women since the early 1990s.  Its opening chapter, The Part About The Critics, focuses on four European professors joined by their admiration for the fiction of  Benno von Archimboldi, a reclusive German author.  Their search for a clue to his whereabouts  leads them to Santa Teresa.  Their guide in Mexico is another professor, Amalfitano, a man who has translated Archimboldi’s work into Spanish.  The Part About Amalfitano explains what drew this sad man and his daughter to the Sonora Desert region.  The Part About Fate deals with a black journalist, Quincy Williams, known as Oscar Fate professionally.  He comes to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match but instead begins to investigate the murders taking place there.  The Parts About The Crimes is by far the longest chapter of the book, and its most chilling.  As its title indicates, the focus is on the women murdered in and around Santa Teresa and the inept police investigations of the cases.  The Part About Benno von Archimboldi brings the book full circle as the mysterious German writer himself is finally introduced.  As his chapter concludes, he too is about to set off for Santa Teresa.  One can’t help but wonder what the sixth part of the story would have revealed if the author had lived to write it.  But this does not detract from the countless delights its parts provide along the way.  Call it what you will: a tour de force, a cosmic whirlwind of a ride, this book’s inventiveness dazzled me.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo / Stieg Larsoon

I might be the last person on the planet who has not read this novel or seen one of its movie adaptations.  Arriving this late in the game with raised expectations, I braced myself to be disappointed when I dived into the book.  To my pleasant surprise, I found myself captivated by the story.  That said,  Larsson’s prose  is nothing exceptional, his writing-style  is simply workman-like.  The intent is to  entertain and he does bother to not to bog down the plot with any kind of literary embellishment..  The story is guaranteed to entertain anyone who picks up the book.  Larsson delivers in spades, writing a novel about the dark secrets of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families.  Without a doubt, it is finely crafted story; first of all, there is the unique setting of Sweden itself.  To add to the reader’s interest, the author provides a subplot of an investigation to uncover the evil lurking beneath the corporate empire of businessman Hans-Eric Wenerstrom.  Wisely, to enhance its appeal, there are two different prognosists to drive the plot forward, Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist, and a pierced and tattooed social misfit, Lisbeth Salander, who share the spotlight in this moody psychodrama of a serial killer and corporate misdeeds in the financial sector.  It is a novel where the pages fly by effortlessly, drawing the reader deeper into the unfolding mystery.  It makes for the perfect summer read, not demanding much effort  to comprehend.  Whether or not future generations will find it of interest is irrelevant.  Even if is a by-the-numbers detective story, Larsson has found a unique twist to make this genre seem interesting again.