Silas Marner

Silas MarnerA first for me — an audiobook review inspired by a blog comment.

George Eliot’s 1861 novel reminded me a great deal of Dickens, but without the cloying sentimentality or excessive length that characterize much of the latter’s work. Set in early nineteenth century rural England, the tale’s title character is a working-class weaver forced by an unjust accusation into a life of miserly solitude. His fate intersects with the life of an upper-middle-class family desperate to hold on to its privilege. When a baby literally walks into his life (a Dickensian moment, the only part of the novel that seemed contrived), Marner experiences what his life could have been had he not been falsely accused and convicted as a young man.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable work (and thanks again to Dave Z’art for the recommendation).  Marner is not a hero by any definition, yet his simplicity and humility make him engaging. Eliot also conveys his condition without delving into pathos. The interaction between Marner and the family of Squire Cass seemed genuine; their attempts to communicate with each other are blocked by the awareness of their class difference. What I probably enjoyed most was the ending. Marner attempts to right the false accusation which had begun his time in solitude, and a more sentimental novelist would probably have given him this satisfaction. Eliot, however, uses this moment to make an ironic comment about the rise of the English middle class, and chooses to underscore the message Marner has learned in his journey: the wealth he has found in his unlikely family is far greater than the gold he’s lost along the way.

Andrew Sachs doesn’t interject a lot of personality in his audiobook performance, as his character voices don’t have a great deal of variety. Yet for a work as strong as this, it’s better for the narrator to stay out of the way.

Zorba the Greek

At the start of my book and audiobook reviews, I typically explain what motivated my choice. For Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1946 novel, inspiration came from a boyhood enjoyment of instrumental music. I liked all kinds of popular music back in the day, but songs with a lively beat and no singing were a particular joy. Without the interpretation implied by lyrics, I was free to relate to the music however I pleased. This lead to a fondness for Sousa marches, and for contemporary artists like Herb Alpert. I loved Alpert’s trumpet, and his version of the theme song from the 1964 film based on Kazantzakis’ novel was a particular pleasure, so much so that I knew I’d have to read the book someday. Nearly half a century later, I finally purchsed the audiobook. I prefer to be more impressed by the enduring power of youthful passions than dismayed at the amount of time I spent watching ball games or bad movies instead. Fortunately, lengthy anticipation did not this time lead to disappointment. The relationship between the novel’s first-person narrator and titular character could easily have descended into any number of binary cliches — man of mind/man of body, curiosity/appetite, urban/rural — both characters come alive as distinctive personalities, and their bond takes them to some genuinely unexpected places and inspires philosophical insights from both of them. George Guidall’s performance on the audiobook was solid enough to make two weeks of car trips enjoyable. Unfortunately, the experience wasn’t entirely satisfying. It didn’t take long for me to realize this was a work that needed to be studied, yet by their nature audiobooks don’t lend themselves well to analysis, unless you hit rewind frequently and use a voice recorder for taking notes. There was little opportunity to investigate some of the historical and cultural references, or analyze challenging passages. One scene in which a female character perishes in a horrific fashion left me very uneasy, but there was no opportunity to investigate that moment. As much as I enjoyed the audiobook, I know I didn’t catch all the novel’s complexities; the kid who enjoyed Herb Alpert’s rapid-fire notes feels a little cheated, so maybe next time I’m on vacation I’ll get the full experience of reading the darn thing.

Fatherland

I’ve been fascinated lately with novels that explore alternative histories of the 1930s and 40s. I’ve read about America being overtaken by populist tyrant , electing a Nazi sympathizer, and losing the Second World War and being occupied by the German Reich. Robert Harris’ 1992 novel is the first I’ve read where America hasn’t been the focus, and it provides the most realistic vision of what could have happened in this turbulent era of world history.

For reasons that aren’t altogether clear, Germany is able to capture both Moscow and London in this world. This gives the Nazis control of most of Europe, which is where they stop their expansion. There is no change in the Pacific war, as America defeats Japan with atomic weapons. By 1964, the year in which the novel takes place, Germany and the United States have been in an extended Cold War, similar to what actually occurred between the USA and USSR in our reality.

While the scenario leaves a lot of obvious questions unanswered (how did the Nazis discover the British had deciphered their encoded messages? why did the Russian forces collapse?), this parallel world does seem authentic. Hitler’s ambitions were Euro-centric, and launching an attack across the Atlantic would have left him vulnerable at home. Had Britain fallen, America would have no base to launch an invasion of Europe, and would have focused attention to the war in the Pacific. An extended Nazi regime makes Europe a much different world in this era, while America remains relatively unchanged; not an ideal situation by any standard, but one that seems altogether plausible.

But Fatherland isn’t an alternative history text. It’s a detective story focused on two principal characters, a German police officer with no great love for National Socialism and an American diplomat. They team up to investigate the murder of a Nazi official, and as they dig deeper they discover that the unconfirmed rumors about the fate of Germany’s Jews turn out to be very much true. The pace is steady, the characters engaging, and its conclusion leaves you satisfied yet curious to know what happens next — a rare and pleasing feat.

Of all the alternative histories I’ve read so far, this has been the most satisfying. The audiobook performance by Michael Jayston wasn’t memorable, but didn’t detract from the writing, which is really all you want from a reading.

It Can’t Happen Here

I’m fascinated by 1930s America, and have a lot of interest in alternative histories that imagine the United States being conquered by the Axis powers or electing an overt ally of fascists governments. Yet it’s one thing to ask what woulda happened decades after the fact; it’s quite another to imagine what could happen in the near future.

Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel regained its popularity in 2016, with many critics comparing its central character, Buzz Windrip (modeled closely after Huey Long), to Donald Trump. To me, those analyses — here’s one, and here’s another — seem almost self-evident. Windrip becomes president by promising voters economic prosperity with the aw shucks persona of a political outsider, which is all you need to know about what happened on the first Tuesday in November 2016. Like Windrip, The Fraud has no problem telling his followers want they to believe, regardless of its truth.

Despite the novel’s relevance to today’s politics, I’m more interested in the world created by its author. In that regard, I don’t find the first part of Lewis’ novel particularly convincing; Windrip’s victorious campaign in the 1936 Presidential election seems improbable, and even less so are parts of his subsequent dismantling of American government, such as eliminating state boundaries and replacing them with administrative districts. What seems far more believable is the resistance movement started by rural newspaper publisher Doremus Jessup. Much as “The Plot Against America” focuses on one family’s struggle to survive Charles Lindbergh’s authoritarian reign, “It Can’t Happen Here” is at its best when it shows small-town Americans fighting to retain their freedom and dignity after their world falls into political chaos.

Grover Gardner’s audiobook performance is steady but unspectacular. His voice for Windrip is appealingly folksy, but none of the other characters stand out, even Jessup. Perhaps because of my interest in the era, I’m discovering that I’m far more interested in reading and analyzing these works about 1930s America than I am in listening to someone recite them to me as I drive. But listening is still preferable to not being exposed to it at all, so I would still recommend the audiobook to anyone interested in the novel.

The Plot Against America

Plot against usa.jpgA national celebrity with no political experience wins the Republican nomination for President of the United States. Running against a Democrat with strong connections throughout Washington, the celebrity Republican’s candidacy is considered a long-shot at first. However, the Republication runs a populist “America First” campaign that taps into America’s distrust of career politicians, and eventually wins a decisive Electoral College victory. After taking office, the new president meets with tyrannical leaders of nations once hostile to the United States. Years later, information showing the president received assistance from one of those foreign dictatorships comes to light.

Perhaps the only time fiction is stranger than truth, is when a work of the imagination predicts the actual future.

In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth’s 2004 alternate history of America in the World War II era, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, and then signs agreements with Germany and Japan that keep the United States out of of the global conflict. I downloaded the audiobook (which features an outstanding performance by the late Ron Silver) because I have a fascination with this period of history, and enjoy fictive tales of how history could have turned out differently. I had no idea the book’s plot so eerily paralleled the rise to power of The Fraud, but the similarities cannot be ignored. (I should note that after the 2016 election and shortly before his death, the author denied making any attempt to comment on modern American politics.)

While Lindbergh’s election and subsequent actions are the primary events in the novel, most of the action centers around a fictionalized version of Roth’s family and other Jewish households in Newark, New Jersey. After taking office, Lindbergh establishes the Office of American Absorption, which temporarily relocates Jewish youth into Christian communities. It’s a thinly-veiled attempt to eliminate Judaism through cultural assimilation, and by showing how the campaign affects a single family, the devastating impact of the alternative history becomes very real.

The novel is riveting until it reaches its epilogue, which provides an implausible explanation which excuses Lindbergh’s behavior. This ending is a major disappointment, and its portrayal of Lindbergh is so inconsistent with the earlier part of the novel that I wonder if the author was pressured to write the epilogue. It’s hard to imagine a writer of Roth’s reputation would succumb to that pressure, but the epilogue definitely reads like a capitulation.

But in spite of this disappointment, the novel is a major success, and especially insightful for anyone seeking to understand how authoritarianism could come to power in the United States.

1931: Debt, Crisis, and the Rise of Hitler

The two-decade period between the world wars fascinates me. A devastating conflict and worldwide pandemic (the misnamed Spanish Flu accounted for far more fatalities than the war) was followed by an explosion of wealth in developed countries, and then an implosion of financial markets across the globe. Technological advances were balanced with a growing interest in eugenics; life expectancy increased, but working conditions deteriorated.

Tobias Straumann’s 2019 book focuses on the economic instability of Germany. Straumann is not the first historian to blame the Treaty of Versailles for Germany’s inter-war financial crisis, but his in-depth investigation of the numerous attempts to alleviate the Germany’s war-time debt obligations is insightful. Hitler of necessity has to play a prominent role in the narrative, but Straumann’s use of him is adept, almost literary; as he does in the cover illustration shown on this post, the Nazi leader lurks in the margins, only occasionally stepping forth to be quoted, but when the Germany economy collapses at the end of the book, his rise to the chancellorship seems inevitable.

In his introduction, Straumann states he was inspired to write this book by the European debt crises in the early years of the current decade. While it would be interesting to compare the economics of the 1930s and 2010s, no comparison is actually made. It’s an unfortunate omission, as seeing how the two decades responded could have made studying the 1930s seem more relevant.

The prose style is scholarly, and aside from Hitler no memorable characters emerge from the text. Fortunately, the audiobook reading by Nigel Patterson moves at a clear and brisk pace, giving life to the often dry text. Overall, if you share my interest in this era, or are intrigued by international finances, this book is definitely worth your time.

The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1)I’m generally not a fan of mysteries, as they tend to overemphasize plot at the expense of characterization. Stieg Larsson’s 2005 thriller, however, showcases complex relationships among the cast of characters, in particular the two leads, the brilliant yet awkward Lisbeth Salander, who is also the novel’s title character, and unlucky but determined journalist Mikael Blomkvist.

Mikael and Lisbeth are hired to investigate a decades-old mystery involving a wealthy Swedish family. The more they find out, the deeper in trouble they find themselves in. The pace is perfect, a steady stream of action that never bogs down or goes too fast. The mystery is intricate, but not overly byzantine, and the resolution is satisfying.

The subplots involving the two characters are just as compelling, and complement the main action well. Mikael seeks redemption for a libel case he has lost, while Lisbeth struggles with sexually exploitation and assault. The experience is like having two good side dishes along with a very good entree; instead of overpowering the meal, the sides make you appreciate the entree more.

After completing the audiobook, I realized that I probably would have enjoyed more as a reader than a listener. The performance by Simon Vance is good, although there was one section that drove me absolutely bonkers: during a long email exchange, Vance reads the full header of each message, with the To and From (including the full email address of each, including the domain name) as well as the Subject, complete with the RE:. “Enough already!” I screamed at my car’s speaker after the third or fourth message. It was an unnecessary and distracting part in an otherwise solid reading.

Overall, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is an outstanding novel, and is a perfect companion on a long road trip, even with the excessive reading of the emails.

 

Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings

June 6 may no longer resonate with Americans in the way that July 4 always has, or September 11 will for some time, but among events taking place outside our borders, the 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy is arguably the most significant event in our nation’s history. D-Day has justifiably become a well-documented event, and the challenge of a book like Craig L. Symonds’ Neptune is to shed light on an overlooked aspect of the operation, or recount the well-known tale in a captivating manner.

Symonds is an unassuming writer, never indulging in overwrought prose while also never taking any chances. His writing gets the job done, but is hardly memorable; the reader will never have to consult a thesaurus. Yet he makes up for his plainclothes rhetoric in his choice of subject matter. The book focuses on the years-long naval operations (code named Neptune) required to prepare the Allies for D-Day, and the author does an admirable job of demonstrating the daunting tasks faced in 1942, the impressive buildup of resources in 1943, and the triumph of logistical planning required to make the invasion successful.

A secondary focus of the book is just as fascinating: the tension between Britons and Americans, both militarily and politically, throughout the operation. Eisenhower and Roosevelt wanted to charge into Europe as early as 1942 while Montgomery and Churchill urged the patient buildup of resources, and if that sounds like a clash between impetuous Americans and British reserve, the cultural stereotypes seem to have rung true on this occasion.

While most of the book is more impressive when viewed as a whole, it does have some individual moments. One particular tale relates of a proposal to construct large landing strips made of pykrete, a frozen composite of water and wood pulp. To demonstrate the substance’s durability, a slab of pykrete was brought into a war planning meeting, and one British admiral decided to see how it would hold up under a gunshot. Quite well, in fact; the bullet bounced off the pykrete slab and ricocheted across the room, sending military leaders of two nations scrambling for cover.

The audiobook is also distinctive for being performed by the author, who actually does quite well — precise diction, clear voice, tone varying when appropriate. Overall, this book provided an interesting study of an event that should never lose its place in the history books.

Neuromancer

My plan to write a review each week hasn’t worked out, but now’s as good as time as any to recommit myself to the goal.

Ever since it was published in 1984, Neuromancer has been on my must-read list. (There’s a lot of books on that list, some having gathered as much dust as William Gibson’s novel; finally pulling one off the shelf, and enjoying the experience, is like eating a perfectly preserved cake.) It’s a book that can be appreciated on many different levels — it has the futuristic detail of classic science fiction, the suspense of a page-turning thriller, the grit of a dystopian fantasy, and the spirit of a countercultural manifesto.

And for all of its noir appeal and rough language (really, if the f-word’s not your thing, stay away), it does have its aesthetic qualities. The prose can be lyrical at times — metaphors such as my personal favorite, words emerging like discreet balloons of sound, are plentiful and never overdone — and it accomplishes the difficult task of making compelling characters of its antiheroes. “Neuromancer” has endured because Gibson succeeded in his attempt to create a unique work of fiction, far superior to the majority of works in the totally forgettable genre of cyberpunk it helped to inspire.

The Penguin audiobooks performance by Robertson Dean was steady but unspectacular. The narrator never overdramatizes, but while his voice was never dull it never was quite appealing either. Listening to this audiobook was like eating a warm bowl of plain oatmeal — you feel good about your food choice, but even better for being done with the experience.

Hawaii

Prior to downloading this audiobook, I had never read any James Michener novels. After looking at the audiobook’s length, I understood why — 52 flippin’ hours, my friends. If reading a good book is like eating a delicious meal, then reading Michener at times feels like being in an eating contest against a food disposal. Can this story end, so I can do something else with my life? Fortunately I still have a lengthy commute to work, and Hawaii kept me company for a good three months.

The novel consists of six enormous chapters, each focusing on a different historical era. The novel is most famous for its third chapter, a quasi-biographical history of Hawaii’s first missionary families. The missionary legacy in these islands is an embarrassing disgrace; they attempted to eradicate native Hawaiian language and culture, with an arrogant zeal that can only be described as genocidal. And when their toxic ideology and diseases nearly wiped out the native people, the missionaries’ descendants then plundered the wealth of the islands. In Michener’s novel, the missionary families are appropriately monstrous, yet still have qualities of intelligence and compassion (for individual Hawaiians, not the general native population) that make them fully human characters. Historians should pull no punches with the missionaries, but novelists need to make even their worst characters interesting to the reader, and in this regard, Michener’s novel succeeds greatly.

However, that third chapter wasn’t the most interesting for me. I actually preferred the second chapter, a mythological tale of Hawaii’s discovery by explorers from Bora Bora. I’ve read several explanations of how Polynesians were able to find the islands, and I still find it incomprehensible. Yes, they navigated by stars, and followed bird flights — but the distance (2600 nautical miles) is enormous even by today’s standards. How the Polynesians from a millennium and a half ago were able to cover this distance, with their technology, has to be one of the great accomplishments in human history. Michener’s narrative captures the difficulty of this task, and the author also pulls off the difficult task of showing the Bora Borans as primitive yet complex and intriguing characters.

The chapters that followed the third weren’t as interesting to me, but that might say more about my waning attention than it does about the strength of the narrative — the fact that I didn’t abandon the novel is testament to its continued strength. Overall, I though Michener’s “Hawaii” was too ambitious in its scope (was it really necessary to start the novel at the dawn of time?), but the storytelling is strong enough to carry the reader along for the lengthy ride. I’m not sure when I’d pick up another Michener novel again… if I begin a cross-country tour, perhaps.