Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

The Sleepwalkers : How Europe Went To War In 1914 / Christopher Clark

Most books that discuss the origins of the First World War begin with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.  Christopher Clark opens The Sleepwalkers with an account of the murder of Alexander I of Serbia and his wife in their palace ten years earlier.  In both cases, the killings were carried out by the Black Hand, a Serbian terrorist group.  As Clark goes on to show, the fuse that ignited the European war was lit long before the first bullet was fired.

In tracing the path that led to war, the book focuses on the monarchies and government agencies in Austria-Hungry, Germany, Russia, France, Britain, and Serbia.  For each country involved, Clark steps back to give an in-depth description of the social and political issues of the time, as well as providing full character sketches of the officials involved in policy making.  It is not until page 367 that Ferdinand’s fateful day in Sarajevo is addressed.  From there on out, he examines the unfolding crisis in what has the feel of a minute-by-minute narrative of the political events taking place during the thirty-seven days between the assassination and the outbreak of war.

For me, the most interesting part of The Sleepwalkers was the early sections dealing with the social and political history of Serbia.  And while the debate about which country was most responsible for igniting the conflict will never be answered, Clark highlights Russia as a suspect that I had not considered before.  Even so, poor leadership all around shares the blame; this book’s title aptly describes their actions.  Right up to the last minute, almost none of the government officials in charge actually believed that a major war would break out.  

Thoroughly researched and comprehensive in scope, The Sleepwalkers ranks as one of the best written books on the origins of the First World War.  That said, reading it often felt like a slog to me as I waded through its jungle of entangling details.  I would have appreciated a glossary of names to help sort out the numerous people mentioned.  This book seems to leave no stone unturned in describing how Europe went to war in 1914.  For the persistent and determined reader interested in the topic, it will be appreciated.  By those less so, the CliffsNotes will suffice.


Less / Andrew Sean Greer

Arthur Less is about to turn fifty.  He fears that he has become old and boring.  For the last nine years has been involved in a relationship with Freddy, a much younger man.  And while, throughout this time, Less has warned Freddy not to get too attached, he is crushed when his lover announces that he has met someone else.  When he receives an invitation to Freddy’s upcoming wedding, Less decides the only way to escape the pain of heartbreak is to run away from it.

In his younger days, Less was involved with an older man, a world class poet.  During their loving relationship, Less remained in the poet’s shadow.  Even though a writer himself, Less has always considered himself a mid-list novelist of little importance.  Even so, he does have on his desk a pile of professional invitations requesting his attendance at various book events and readings around the globe.  And so he decides to accept all of them, just to be elsewhere when the wedding takes place.

His round-the-world trip takes him to New York City, Paris, Italy, Berlin, Morocco, and finally Japan.  Each chapter of the book is set in a new country, featuring a fresh cast of characters.  While seemingly a hapless soul, Less proves to be one of the nicest travel companions this reader has encountered.  He proves to be a delightful person to spend time with as he muddles his way through a journey plagued by mishaps that prove to be both comedic and enlightening.      While always selling himself short, he manages to live up to the description of a former lover who once called him the strongest man he knows.

The story’s narrator is only hinted at now and again, only to be finally revealed in the concluding pages.  Less is both a romantic comedy and a travelogue that catalogs the protagonist’s humiliations as well as unexpected moments of joy encountered as he bravely dares to step outside his comfort zone.  It is also a heartfelt and engaging tale of discovery.  Arthur Less is a character to whom most will reluctantly bid adieu when the story’s final page is turned.

The Museum Of Innocence / Orhan Pamuk

At the opening of The Museum of Innocence, Kemal Basmaci is a man who seems to have it all.  In his early thirties, he is a wealthy businessman, about to become engaged to Sibel, the daughter of another prominent Istanbul family.  The year is 1975, and his nights are spent partying with other members of high society, childhood friends he grew up with.  Then by chance he encounters a distant cousin (from the poor side of the family).  Fusun is a beautiful eighteen year old, working as a shopgirl.  They are immediately attracted to each other, and in a short time begin a torrid love affair.

Believing he can have his cake and eat it too, Kemal continues to plan his engagement party with Sibel in the evenings, while secretly meeting Fusun every afternoon.  His world is turned upside down when after his engagement party, Fusun disappears.  It is then that he plunges into a deep depression, realizing too late that he has lost the true love of his life.  Heedless of the consequences, he becomes obsessed with finding Fusun and winning her back.  In the months ahead, drinking himself into stupor nightly, his relationship with Sibel crumbles and he begins to cut ties with his friends.  Alone now, Kemal consoles himself by cherishing objects that his beloved left behind in his apartment, when not prowling the streets of Istanbul in search for a clue to her whereabouts.

In time, Kemal does find Fusun, but seemingly too late; she is now married to someone else.  Rather than giving in to despair, he spends the next nine years insinuating himself into her home life, getting to know her parents and helping to fund her husband to become a successful film director.  Throughout this period, he continues to collect various objects that Fusun has touched, removing them to the privacy of his apartment where he slowly begins to build his “museum of innocence” in honor of his love for her.

The novel is over 500 pages long, and the section describing his nine year quest to win back Fusun suffers from a repetition of days that feels like a sad retelling of the movie “Groundhog Day”.  Thankfully, Pamuk keeps the reader’s interest by including the events taking place in Istanbul during this time period.  The city in the 1970s and 1980s is racked by turmoil as the Army and the Communists battle each other for dominance, while at the same time modernists and traditionalists wrestle over social mores.  Adding color to the story is an account of the Turkish film industry and the actors/actresses struggling to become popular icons.

In less capable hands, Kemal’s obsessive love would seem creepy and depressing.  But Pamuk manages to turn it into a happy love story, even if the ending is not at all what one might normally expect.  The success of the novel is due to the author’s attention to detail.  For the patient reader, the story’s slow unfolding allows Pamuk to present fully developed characters and depictions of a time and place that soon becomes familiar.  By the book’s end, one comes away with an understanding of Kemal’s desires, and a sense of having walked the streets of Istanbul.

Transit / Rachel Cusk

Transit is the second novel in Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy.  Faye, the story’s narrator, is a writer, a mother of two, and recently divorced.  As in Outline, the first book in the series, she reveals little about herself or her thoughts, instead describing in great detail interactions with people who cross her path in daily life.  In Transit, Faye has just moved back to London and purchased a flat in need of serious repair.  While the renovation takes place, her children are sent to live with their father.  Just as in Outline, where she is alone in Greece teaching a writing course, the presence of her children is only glimpsed in the forms of texts they send her when they are facing typical adolescent emergencies.  

The cast of characters she interacts with include contractors, a cranky couple on the floor below who hate any kind of noise and quickly take a strong dislike to her, as well as friends and family members.  As in Outline, she remains mostly a passive observer, her prose providing vivid portraits of the people she engages with in long conversations, rather than of herself.  Although mostly silent about her own life or feelings, in each interaction, bit by bit, pieces of Faye’s life and opinions are exposed.  While her divorce and the swirling emotions surrounding it remain murky, by the book’s end, slips of the tongue do provide revelations.

For those needing a plot driven narrative, the Outline trilogy is best avoided.  In these first two books, Cusk delights in meandering with no clear destination in mind.  Clearly, the focal point is on the journey and not a specific finish line.  What makes both books so special is Cusk’s mastery of creating fascinating character sketches that ring so true to life.  I suspect that readers will either be enchanted by the Outline trilogy or will dismiss it as pointless.  I put myself in the camp of those held captive by Cusk’s prose.  Not only am I eager to pick up the concluding book in this trilogy, I intend to seek out her other works as well.  In 2003, Granta magazine listed Rachel Cusk among the best of young British novelists.  Her later work has lived up to their expectations.

The Nix / Nathan Hill

Nathan Hill’s novel tells the story of Samuel Andresen-Anderson, a disillusioned college English professor and failed writer.  In fact, he seems to have failed at almost everything he has tried to do in his life.  He traces his losing streak back to his boyhood and the day his mother Faye abandoned the family.  As the book opens in 2011, Samuel’s mother comes back into his life after becoming headline news.  She is charged with terrorism after throwing a handful of gravel at a conservative presidential candidate.  The media quickly paints Faye as a 1960s radical with a sordid past.  However, this description does not fit with Samuel’s memories of her, an ordinary wife spending a quiet life in a small midwestern town.  The news jars him from the rut he’s in, as he decides to reconnect with his mother, prove the charges against her are nonsense, and most importantly, find out why she abandoned his father and him.

In the story’s telling, the reader travels back and forth in time, from the mid-1960s to 2011.  There are two milestones bracketing this time period: the 1968 riot at the Chicago Democratic National Convention and New York City’s Occupy Wall Street movement.  While Samuel and his mother remain the foci throughout, numerous other characters cycle through with their own interesting stories.  Even Walter Cronkite, Mayor Richard Daley, Hubert H. Humphrey, and Allen Ginsberg make guest appearances.  Additional themes addressed include Internet games, student entitlement, and a host of other political and social issues.  But these asides, while expertly woven into the story, are merely window dressing.  This novel is essentially a story about a son and mother trying to figure out where their lives went wrong, and how to make things right.

In Norwegian mythology, a Nix is a spirit who appears as a white horse and lures children to their deaths.  This is a novel haunted by that spirit, as well as other ghosts passed down from parent to child.  It is a sprawling tale that, while humorous, is also thought provoking and touches the heartstrings.  Best of all, it is an intelligent, multilayered novel that engages the reader from beginning to end.  Before publishing this debut novel in 2016, Hill’s short stories had appeared in numerous literary journals.  The Nix proves that he can also write in a longer format.  Nathan Hill is an author I will be keeping my eye on in the future.

The China mission : George Marshall’s Unfinished War, 1945-1947 / Daniel Kurtz-Phelan

General George Marshall spent four decades in the military, and he played a key role in the Allied victory in World War II.  As Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, he coordinated Allied operations in Europe and the Pacific.  The day after he retired from the military at the end of the war, President Truman tapped him to broker a peace agreement between the Nationalist and Communist parties in China.

The China Mission tells the story of Marshall’s thirteen-month attempt to prevent a civil war in that country.  He did so by working to find common ground between both parties in an attempt to bring the Communists into a democratic form of government.  On the Communist side, he negotiated with Mao Zadong’s spokesman, Zhou Enlai, and the two grew to have a strong respect for each other.  He also worked closely with the Nationalist leader, Generalisimo Chiang Kai-shek.  While favoring the Nationalists, Marshall was not blinded to their faults.  Far from democratic, the party was riddled with corruption and authoritarianism.

All of this took place at a time when the relationship between Russia and America had soured following the war, and the “red scare” was becoming a political issue in the United States.  The fear was that Josef Stalin was manipulating Mao Zadong to gain control over China.  Despite pressure on Marshall from conservatives in the United States, he refused to give Chiang Kai-shek all the arms and funds he demanded to wage all-out war against the Communists.  This decision later became a flashpoint after the Communist victory during the McCarthy Era when many on the Right accused Marshall of having “lost China.”

While this book is a detailed account of Marshall’s failure to achieve a lasting peace in China, it presents a portrait of an American statesman who knew how to use American power judiciously.  He recognized from the start that a corrupt Nationalist party, if not changed for the better, would never be able to defeat the Communists.  Marshall resisted calls from American politicians to send U.S. troops to support Chiang Kai-shek, knowing it was a quagmire that America could not easily escape from. That was an insight that Kennedy and Johnson failed to consider when involving the U.S. in the Vietnam conflict.

After returning to the States in 1947, Marshall served first as Secretary of State and later Secretary of Defense in the Truman administration.  He is now best remembered for the Marshall Plan, which is credited with preventing Communism’s spread into Europe.  For those not familiar with George Marshall, this book provides an intimate portrait of a man who was a true leader, a person of integrity, standing heads and shoulders above today’s politicians in Washington D. C.  Accepting the limits of American power, even in failure, he represented an example of democracy at its best.

Catcher In The Wry / Bob Uecker and Mickey Herskowitz

Bob Uecker has served as a play-by-play announcer for the Milwaukee Brewers radio broadcasts since 1971.  As a fan of that particular baseball team, I’ve been entertained by him every summer since 1980.  Uecker is “Mr. Baseball” to the Wisconsinites who tune into his broadcasts each season.  But before he became a broadcaster, he was a major league baseball player, serving as a catcher for a number of teams from 1962 through 1967.

As a player, even though considered a good backup catcher, Uecker was only a lifetime .200 hitter.  For those not acquainted with the game, that is a statistic that reflects poorly on a batter’s skills.  During and following his career, he developed a comedy act of sorts, poking fun at himself as a player.  Over the years, he became well-know for boasting about his mediocrity in the sport.  This side act led him not only into broadcasting but also to becoming a frequent guest on The Tonight Show, as well supporting roles in movies and TV.

Catcher In The Wry (published in 1986), features the deadpan humor that Uecker has honed throughout his long career.  In this book he writes about the wide variety of misfits that he interacted with during his player days.  He paints a picture of a time period long gone in the sport.  When he was in the league, bad behavior and drinking to excess were the norm.  And sexism and racism were still widely accepted as appropriate behavior.  Although never racist, a number of the passages in this book could be perceived as sexist by today’s standards.  For readers interested in the past greats of baseball, Uecker provides a treasure trove of nuggets about famous teammates such as Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson, Richie Allen, and Warren Spahn.

While this book is clearly dated, Uecker’s autobiography of his life in baseball still charms.  Fans of the sport’s history will delight in his irreverent take on “America’s pastime.”  Brewers supporters have been blessed to have such a sports icon on their radio broadcasts for the last forty-seven years.  My hope is that the team finally delivers to him a much deserved World Series championship before he decides to retire.